Number 5: Family Secrets | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Number 5: Family Secrets 

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"You are frighteningly predictable, do you know that about yourself? I read about you in the chapter 'Inverted Sadists.'"

"Thank you. Really? I read about you in the chapter 'Repressed Hostility.'"

"Repressed? Oh, please." Lucy stands at the kitchen sink looking at a coffee stain that won't come out by itself. "Where's the Ajax I sent you out for? I gave you a dollar...do you remember?"

Fritz tells his sister he forgot. An empty lot had caught his fancy on the way to the store, and Fritz was struck by an undeniable urge to explore. He forgot the Ajax, but look what he found. A cardboard box falling away at the bottom, filled with the remnants of someone's life bit. Fritz carries it in, balancing it on his thigh.

"There are many shortcuts in the city, Fritz. We must be careful not to lose our way." Lucy circles her temples as she talks.

She liked having her little brother stay with her. It gave her someone to talk to. Someone to run for milk.

As children they'd barely known each other, Lucy having been sent to a girls' school in another state. Not because she showed particular talent or academic ambition, but because she aggravated her parents and the other children. Her incessant whining won no one over. No one could please her. No one wanted to. One night during Family Home Evening the family took a silent vote. Fritz was just a baby, but his draining mouth was counted as a yea. A vote for expulsion. Four-zero, Lucy was out. Now, 30 years later, for one reason or another--Lucy didn't want to hear the details--the family had blackballed Fritz. He found his sister's number in the phone book.

Fritz shows Lucy the box, which has the smell of something used as a dog bed. Inside is a collection of dusty, water-stained stationery--letters and postcards postmarked Polska, 1949, all the way up to the mid-60s. Banded together with a disintegrating tie, all are addressed to A. Waitr on Paulina and are mixed with a stack of photographs. A family. A group of five, minus one. The mother's face has been removed from all of them, carved away with a blade. Lucy and Fritz are both intrigued by this. "Hmm," Fritz says. "She must have been a bitch."

In the box also, balled up at the bottom, are about a dozen cocktail aprons, once worn for the pleasure of home entertaining, now sooty and wrinkled. Lucy pokes the wad with the handle of her broom. "That's quite a trove you've found there for yourself, Fritz," she says. She lifts an apron. "What are these? Hand-job mitts?"

Fritz hands her one of them, black and sheer with embroidered phlox, all chained together by a continuous loop of thread. Lucy imagines how it would look on her. Stunning. She sees herself serving guests gin and lemonade. A bridge game has just begun. On the terrace a group of six play Machiavelli chess. Lucy plays hostess and is fantastic at it. "Get that away from me, Fritz. It's stiff."

Lucy Runs an Errand

"I'm leaving now," Lucy says out loud. "I'll be back in just a minute. Going to the Dollar Mart for Ajax." The house is apathetic.

In his room with the door closed, Fritz spares no grief over the contents of the box. He torments himself with what must be written in the letters, penned by the hand of a Pole. What sad and heaving heart, you, A. Waitr? Fritz holds a page up to the light. What love can you not be with?

The family portraits show a sullen group. The bulging eyes are brooding, with dark circles and blond unruly brows. Fritz wonders where the mother is, and which member of the family could no longer tolerate her face among an already loathsome bunch. He studies their faces. In one picture the mother should be sitting in a chair with a boy on her lap and another boy and a girl at her side. Behind them stands the father, a man with the features of a ferret.

Under the ball of aprons, Fritz finds a pair of tall boy's baseball pants and a single-volume medical text. The book is written in German, but Fritz can understand the pictures well enough. The pictures in a certain chapter remind him of a word, and he says that word out loud. "Grotto." He mats a "grotto" under a family photo, positioning it carefully so that it fills the mother's empty face. He puts this into a frame and sets it on a shelf. When Lucy comes home, Fritz washes the baseball pants in the bathtub with Ajax.

After Lucy has finished in the kitchen, after the sink has been scoured and the range has been wiped, after the baseboards have enjoyed a once-over and the webs in the corners of the ceiling have been swept out, after the overhead light fixture has witnessed temporary absolution, Lucy retires to the drawing room for some reading. Something outside distracts her, and she puts down her book and goes to the open window.

"I didn't hear any brakes squeal," she says out loud. "Whose dog is yelping like that?" She twists her neck, searching for clues. "Whose dog is out of control?" Lucy's view isn't as clear as she'd like it, so she moves outside to the terrace. "Well, it's that odd little howdy-do man I saw on the street. What's he doing to that mangy stray?"

Lucy pins her eyes to the little man who'd said howdy-do to her outside the Dollar Mart just an hour ago. Now he sits on a plastic milk crate in the alley pouring quarts of Pennzoil--three, from what Lucy can see--onto the dog's hide. He smears it with a wooden paint-mixing stick over the dog's coat and under its tail. Lucy'd thought the man was odd, yes, but cheery and cute the way he'd said howdy-do. She'd thanked him in her heart for sparking it. If he'd asked she would have given him a dime. Now she was glad she hadn't if he was going to be buying car oil with it. She watches the howdy-do man leave the dog, a sad, heaving beast who'd finally surrendered to the treatment with short, gasping whimpers. The man walks away. For what? A match? Why else would anyone cover a dog with car oil unless they were going to-- Lucy imagines how her scream will sound to the neighbors. "Fritz!" she whispers loudly, but quietly enough not to interrupt the natural history of things. "Fritz! Come out here!" The howdy-do man returns with another quart of Pennzoil.

"Fritz, look! Watch what that odd little troll is doing to that dog." Fritz watches silently. He sees everything as clearly as Lucy, but why is the man using a stick and not a brush? "Prepare yourself for the worst here, Fritz."

"But...why?"

"You can answer that when the fire chief comes. I only hope the flames don't spread."

Fritz takes the back stairs down to the yard and opens the gate with a key on a string around his neck. Lucy watches him approach the howdy-do man and hopes Fritz doesn't get doused with oil himself. She wonders if he will ever learn to stay out of other people's projects.

"Is he sick?" Fritz asks the man. He points to the dog with his elbow. Fritz sees that the man's eyes are milky and gray where once they had been brown.

"No...he won't be when we get through."

"But why are you...?"

"It make him want to shed. In these boiling weather days, the old dog like to shed. We do it every summer."

Fritz Leaves to Catch a Bus

That night, even though the baseball pants are still wet in the pockets, Fritz wears them. He slips the house key from around his neck and replaces it with a duplicate key on a chain he wears when going out. He also sprays eucalyptus oil on a handkerchief, something he'll do again when he gets back, and breathes it in deeply before leaving the house, on his way to Foxy's for a nightcap.

Lucy remains in the drawing room next to the open window. A little table fan blows her face as she sits, writing out a sympathy card to someone in the news who has recently lost a loved one to violent crime. Lucy thinks she smells something burning. She gets up to check but finds nothing. In the bathroom, though, she finds dirty Ajax soot in the tub where Fritz had washed out the baseball pants. "Oh, why does he provoke me? He knows what he'll get for this!" She returns to her table. "At times like these, it seems," she writes, "all we can do is make the best of hell."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Dan Grzeca.

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