Sunday, September 8, 2013

Excerpt: Primal by DA Serra

Chapter Four

“Yeah, well you’re so ugly when you walk past ‘em, flowers die,” Jimmy teases his best friend.

Alan counters, “Yeah, well you’re so ugly you make my cat throw up.”

“Yeah, well, you’re so ugly your mom has to tie a pork chop around your neck so the dog will play with you.”

The two-story Kraft home pulses with relatives celebrating Jimmy’s birthday. Nine-year-old Jimmy is stringy: his legs are spurting out of his body with so much speed his weight cannot keep up. He looks like an egret, all limbs and long neck. At the rate he is growing, his own arm length is constantly changing, and so, he knocks over nearly everything he reaches for; one day last week, a frustrated mother volunteer, at school, called him clumsy and Alison got mad. She explained to Jimmy (within the woman’s hearing) that if her arms were longer every single week she’d misjudge things, too. “Jimmy, your dad is six-foot three-inches tall, so you are definitely on your way up, kiddo.”

Classic rock pours out of speakers all through the home. Every room is wired for sound; it was the only thing that was important to Hank. The two-story bungalow is brightly lit and the rooms are alive with arguments, tall tales, and laughter. Uncles tell the stories they have told for decades, and laugh in all the same places; some teens pay attention to the stories for the first time, and without meaning to, become tomorrow’s carriers of the family’s oral tradition. The littler cousins, in a never-ending loop of catch-me-if-you-can, and looking like chipmunks, dart from the warmly upholstered family room of rich gold and red hues into the petite dining room, barely clearing the legs of Alison’s antique French reproduction table. And while Aunt Ruth constantly yells at them to slow down, sit down, calm down, Alison never does. She notices this evening that they look exactly like the DVD she played for her class today of the lion cubs socializing in the Maasai Mara. This is the Kraft pride - the tribe she married into and it has been tricky. She can decide the course of her own friendships, she can even turn away from her own family, if she chooses - but her in-laws have a permanence in her life that she cannot influence or control; the spouse decides. Alison is an only child, so it is easy for Hank. He did not need to integrate with her brothers or sisters. He was not subjected to the treacherous dynamics of an unfamiliar family with its long-held grudges, inside jokes, and uneven affections. He did not need to understand why different allowances were made for different family members, why for instance, Cousin Keith was forgiven everything while Cousin Carl was forgiven nothing. For Alison, none of it was easy. She married into a sizeable and voluble tribe. She has found that with Hank’s extended family there is a lot to adjust for, to compromise with, and to forgive. The forgiveness requires the most plasticity. Alison learned that it is compulsory to forgive in-laws for flaws and situations that would not generally merit forgiveness in any other association. Alison finds ways to balance herself around the harried, sometimes jagged edges of Hank’s family, with its outbursts and its treaties, while always feeling a little unnerved by the pitch in the room.

Alison was raised by her father. It was just the two of them in a hushed world. She was eight years old when they buried her mother on a dazzling sunny day. Allie believed people should only be buried on rainy days and she never quite forgave the sun for its disrespectful behavior that morning. Losing her mother so young, and then learning she could not trust the sun, made her a cautious little girl most at ease inside her own home. And since little Allie had anticipated rain on that terrible morning, she had dressed wrongly. She had worn her heavy black wrap skirt and teal wool sweater, and even though she was not dressed for the weather, that was not the origin of her physical discomfort. She had woken up the day before with a rash covering both of her legs. Doctor Hartman called it idiopathic - but she told her dad (privately) that Doctor Hartman was the idiot because it was obvious she was allergic to burying her mother. Allie stood graveside, as still as stone, even though her need to scratch her legs was more pressing than her need to breathe. She stood still in her wool outfit, and did not scratch, because she was holding her dad’s hand, and she would rather have endured the awful itch than let go. She bore the itch, along with the choking sensation in her throat, and an unreal floating feeling in her head.

Afterward, Allie and her dad clung to each other with ferocity. They were indoorsy people he used to say, fond of Scrabble, books, and an elaborate electric train set they’d worked on together all the time she was growing up. That train set with its little stations, plastic trees, and wooden fences now circles Jimmy’s bedroom upstairs. On Saturday mornings, when the other kids were out playing, Allie would make scrambled eggs while her dad read aloud the local newspaper. Then, they’d set up the Scrabble board. For months after her mom died, neighborhood women would show up like the gustatory Red Cross primed to assist. They gave advice on how to raise Allie and they left hot casseroles. He ignored their advice, but always accepted the casseroles. They devoured them while rolling their eyes and feeling secretly naughty. The doorbell would ring. Her dad would race to answer and whisper “Allie, look hungry.” Little Allie would put on her most pathetic expression and they would accept the offering, close the door, and giggle all the way to the kitchen where they’d enjoy the lasagna from Mrs. Betty or the baked shepherd’s pie from Mrs. Eckhart. Having lost his wife, having lost her mother, they were so grateful to have each other. Their bond grew strong and it was fulfilling. Her dad lived healthfully until the end, and when the day came last year for Alison to say good-bye to him, she did so with a grateful heart, and with the hope she could be a quarter of the parent he had been. Alison carries a singular irreplaceable affection for her gentle father, and every time that train whistles upstairs in her son’s room, she feels it all the way through to her bones. It makes her sad and it makes her smile - it is a paradox she can live with.

After ten years, Alison navigates with deft skill around Hank’s extended animated family. What is interesting to her is the emotional continuity; grudges and arguments resurface year after year, are pulled out, addressed all over again, and in the end, everyone hugs and kisses and goes home until the next time. Alison is intimidated by conflict, but she likes watching them all - it’s like her own personal reality show. Tonight Hank’s entire tribe is in her home: laughing, arguing, eating, joking, complaining.

In her cozy yellow and white flowered kitchen, there is a butcher’s block with a cabinet and drawers for a center island. Over the sink, four little ceramic spice pots line up along the windowsill, which looks out on the backyard. Rosemary and basil scent the air. Along the far wall, past the wooden country kitchen table, is the door that leads down to the basement. She read once in a women’s magazine that a kitchen tells the tale of the woman who likes it; Alison’s kitchen is understated, elegant, and meticulously clean.

Alison kicks open the back kitchen door, which leads in from the barbeque, and steps inside the room. She is wearing a two-piece sage green linen pants outfit, which highlights her green eyes. She looks radiant, relaxed, and in her element. She carries a platter of perfectly grilled chicken. Stepping inside, she bumps the back door closed with her hip and hurries over to the center island where she places the heavy platter on top of the butcher’s block top. She rinses and wipes off the long sharp two-pronged BBQ fork and replaces it in the drawer under the butcher’s block. As she passes the microwave, she hits one button without even looking and the timer automatically sets to fifteen seconds. It counts down as she grabs the tomato and oregano salad out of the refrigerator. She looks at the salad disapprovingly. It’s not tomato season and so she wouldn’t normally make this dish. Tomatoes have no taste unless purchased from local growers in season; however, it is Jimmy’s favorite so she made it even though she knows it will be disappointing. When the microwave has counted down fifteen seconds, it beeps loudly and she removes the cup of tea she was warming. She stops for a moment and takes a sip as a loud burst of family laughter from the other room makes her smile. She looks around at her home, her family, and decides that no matter how unpleasant the coming few days might be, she will be positive. Really, she asks herself, how bad could it be? A few days in the woods, big deal.

Using her butt to swing open the door into the dining room, Alison carries the platter to the table, which has been set up as a buffet. The relatives have congregated around the table and are grabbing plates and napkins. The oval dining room table has a white eyelet lace tablecloth that sets a bright backdrop to the blue and yellow Italian ceramic platters and bowls Alison has carefully set around for the buffet. The room smells like warm cheddar biscuits and freshly cut oranges. Alison savors the scents and she does wish that Aunt Beth would not smoke inside the house, but she is too gracious to say so. Jimmy and Alan dip their fingers in the potatoes au gratin.

“Boys,” Alison stops them, “fingers out of the food. Jimmy, please run into the kitchen and bring in the lemonade.”

“Aw, Mom, I want soda.”


“It’s my birthday!”

“So you think you can just have anything you want?”

“No, just soda.”

“You think because it’s your birthday you can just gulp down a big ole glass of soda?”


“You’re right. Go.”

Jimmy flies merrily into the kitchen. Alan follows.

“Not you, Alan.” Alan freezes at the sound of his mother’s voice. Jill looks at Alison, “We don’t ever approve of soda.”

Alison smiles, letting the derision in Jill’s tone slide off her, “Your prerogative as Alan’s mother.”

“We don’t even have soda in the house,” she adds with just a hint of judgment in her tone.

“I’m glad that works for you.” Alison turns away but Jill continues.

“Well, you know, Jimmy is my nephew and I surely wish he didn’t drink soda either.”

Alison drops her head forward just a bit to give herself a brief second to get the ire out of her eyes. She finds her sister-in-law trivial, and self-righteous, and Alison does believe that Jill goes out of her way to bait her. Aunt Lydie looks over with her eyebrows raised hoping for a messy takedown.

Alison responds, “And I suppose that is my prerogative as Jimmy’s mother.”

“I suppose. I just don’t understand why you’d continue to buy that poison when you know how bad it is.”

“Well, Jill, I’m an enigma.”

Jill hates it when Alison uses uncommon words. She knows she does that to test her. And truthfully, Jill doesn’t have an exact fix on what enigma means and so rather than make an error she shrugs and walks away.

“Suit yourself,” Jill says.

Alison makes eye contact with Aunt Lydie who grins exposing some missing teeth.

Uncle Wes, who is a pudgy red-faced man nearing retirement age, passes a plate to his twenty-year-old niece Eleanor. Aunt Beth reaches across the table for her spoon as she attempts to stir up conflict.

“Fry-‘em,” Aunt Beth says, “the death penalty is the only answer.”

Uncle Wes agrees, “Two chairs - no waiting.”

“Isn’t that a little barbaric?” Alison can’t help herself even though she has learned staying out of political discussions with Hank’s family is the prudent course.

“Naw,” Uncle Wes says, “it’s nature. Bloody real nature.”

“I think, we, as humans, should be above that.”

“Read a paper, Alison,” Aunt Beth responds, and blows a smoke ring. Eleanor can’t keep quiet another second.

“You know, Aunt Beth, passive smoke is harmful to us all.”

“So, hold your breath.”

Uncle Wes laughs loudly. Alison shakes her head as she proceeds down the hall looking for her husband. She finds him in the den with his sister Emily, who is breast-feeding, and their mother, Carolyn, who is disgusted.

Hank insists, “Emily, a nipple’s a nipple.”

“Not true. It’s a fact that breastfed babies are smarter.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Hank replies.

Carolyn adds, “Neither of you were breastfed”

“Oh, so, that explains it,” Alison says from the doorway.

“My wife knows us too well.”

“Dinner.” Alison smiles. Hank walks over to her in the doorway, but Carolyn has not quite finished her thought.

“Emily, I love you but you look like a cow.”

“Mother, it’s a normal part of nature.”

“So is peeing and I don’t want to share that with you either.”

As Hank kisses Alison, “My family drives me crazy.”

“They have a special gift.”

“Did I ever thank you for putting up with them?”

“Not often enough.”

He leans close and whispers into her ear, “Later I’m going to thank every inch of your body with my tongue.” His moist warm breath is welcome on the side of her neck. It gives her a little thrill. He still makes her crunch her toes. Hank runs his hands through his bangs. His caramel hair is long for a man in his thirties, but it is nicely trimmed and has a natural cowlick in the front, which is really attractive. He has a broad grin, which he employs constantly to keep those around him smiling, too. He can be lazy about shaving and so the five o’clock shadow that the macho movie stars try so diligently to achieve, comes naturally to Hank. Women always notice him. He only sees Alison. Sometimes, he wonders why this refined lovely woman puts up with him: his constant need for music, his quirky sense of humor, and his relatives. He doesn’t appreciate how entertaining a large vivacious family could be to a girl from Alison’s quiet world.

He kisses her on the neck, turns and walks toward the dining room singing “Beautiful” in falsetto. Alison looks back at her mother-in-law and they smile. Wife and mother - yes, they both love that man. That is their bond.

After dinner, all of the relatives gather around Jimmy’s birthday cake to sing. His parents flank him. He blows out the red and white swirl candles, which relight over and over. He’s too old for that trick. She knows that, of course, but the sentimental strain in her refuses to stop buying them. She joked with him last year that when he’s forty years old she will be lighting those same candles so he should get used to it. She leans in and kisses him on the top of his head. She knows he will allow a small public kiss since it is his birthday, and his cool friends are not at the family party. She lingers for a second, smelling his freshly washed hair and wants to submerge herself in the disheveled mess of it. She remembers the afternoon he marched off the grammar school playground and announced with gritty six-year-old determination she could no longer hug or kiss him in public: it was too embarrassing. And she knew there would quickly come a time when he would be too tall to kiss on the top of his head. What a series of wrenching trade-offs: each year he becomes more interesting as a person, but less hers alone.

Jimmy beams since he knows the gifts are next. He grabs for a box and rips into the wrapping paper. Alison and Emily return together to the kitchen to divide the cake.

Emily asks, “What did you get Jimmy? Hank said it was really special.”

“We told Jimmy for his birthday he could pick where we would go on our family vacation.”

“Great idea.”

“I figured, you know, Disneyland, Universal Studios.”


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Genre – Thriller

Rating – R

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