Stories from the Life of the Perfect Family

  • The sport of football is very important to them. The son is a quarterback, probably. The daughter is a cheerleader. She is popular, but never so popular that boys won’t back down when she’s stuck in the back seat at Lookout Point, hands up her inevitably pleated skirt. She is the respectable kind of popular, not the fast kind. Just enough to make life easy for her.

 

  • If you’re trying to picture the mother, picture brown calico, like her skirts. Always skirts – jeans only when she’s painting the house, or something – and always an apron on top, modest for day-to-day, lacy for dinnertime. She had long hair when she got married but cut it when she had the son, and now it waves out charmingly in nutty-brown curls. Or you can picture a happy elf. Her eyes crinkle at the edges. She has a gentle laugh. She is permanently in the process of baking cookies.

 

  • The family owns a golden retriever with lush glossy fur and a cute name, Binky or Rusty or something. He loves to play ball, he waits for the children by the mailbox, he rolls over on command. Even the holes he digs are fetching, and none too difficult to clean up. When he ages and the time has come for the brother and sister to learn their first lessons about death, Binky passes in a manner that is quick and non-traumatic, relatively. A car accident – nobody’s fault except Binky’s, of course. He just runs out into the road. It is his time. The driver cries and apologizes but the father says, “Nothing you could have done.” Despite the accident, Binky’s fur is glossy and un-marred, and even his open eyes have a look of patient resignation to them. The family swaddles him in one of the mother’s second-best tablecloths, then buries him in the back yard under an apple tree.  The daughter thinks how weird it is that Binky will remain forever directly underneath the grass on which he used to lie. She stifles this feeling in order to mourn properly.  They make him a little headstone, permanent marker on a rock. His grave never really grows over.

 

  • The children’s beds are decked in tidy hand-made quilts with little ornate triangles. Grandmothers have made these. Maybe not even their grandmothers. Maybe their friends’ grandmothers – surely these children are so beloved that all grandmothers wish to contribute in some small way to their lives. Above the quilt in the son’s room hang football posters, not glossy images of barely-clad women – he has seen these in his friends’ rooms, but he dislikes the way their mascaraed eyes would watch a person sleep. In the daughter’s room, a photo of Binky. Of course they both own plenty of high school pennants too. They are very big on school spirit.

 

  • Their father is an architect. He works from home some days, squinting over a drafting table on the sun-porch as the mother makes him tea and rubs his shoulders. He wears hand-knitted sweater-vests, green and wooly, over crisp white shirts. When he’s not working, he can be found reading the paper in his modest easy-chair, an unlit pipe clenched between his strong teeth, floppy worn carpet-slippers dangling off the end of his toes. (Before he died, Binky used to fetch them for the father, and now the slippers’ presence is vaguely disquieting – they are around, but Binky is not.)When the mother brings him a cup of coffee, she kisses the top of his head. His hair is even charming when it’s thinning.

 

  • More often than not, in their neighborhood, it is fall. Frequently it is sunset. A pep band is usually playing at a comfortable distance; often the family sits on their porch in rocking chairs and simply listens.

 

  • The father genuinely enjoys building fires. The son watches and learns. He fetches the glossy magazine ads out of the newspaper and stuffs them into the center of the tent: lingerie, lipstick, perfume are all subsumed into purplish smoke. His father ruffles his hair, and soon the fire smells only of pure crackling cedar.

 

  • Sure, the son has gone all the way. After junior prom he and Lucy Fitzgerald parked up on Lookout Point and she let him reach up under her stiff lavender skirt, past the organza ruffle, past the netting, into her modest underpants. But it’s expected of him, and he’s certain to let his sister know that the same is not true for her.

 

  • When the son tried grass at a party, it made him nervous. He’s not too vocal about his opposition to it, though – he just tries not to associate with the type of people who do anything to excess, particularly that which could harm either one’s strong mind or healthy body.

 

  • The mother has the strangest, most beautiful mole on her pert right breast, about two inches from the areola. When she calls it to the father’s attention one night, he kisses it gently. Together they keep watch on it, fascinated by the changing outlines of its lacy contours.

 

  • Parties, for the family, usually involve popcorn strings, hats and streamers. Sometimes, on Saturday night, they go all out. Aunt Betsy’s house is across town. They cut loose. Dad has two whiskeys and begins telling lovely funny stories. After dinner the uncles all stand in the garage and smoke cigars under the rafters. The father doesn’t like them too much. The uncles razz him, but he just smiles. Then he waits for everyone else to head inside first and hides the rest of his on a shelf.

 

  • When it is seasonally appropriate, the entire family wears flannel.

 

  • The mother is a more-than-competent knitter. She’s very into pies, because they take up a lot of time. Around noon a good soap comes on, which she has started to indulge herself by watching now that the children are getting home later and later. They are very active in after-school clubs. Inspired by one of the characters on the show, she once tried to really settle down by fixing herself a martini and settling back in the armchair, but about three-quarters of the way through, the light in the room began to take on an unsettling quality. The objects around her became too fixed in their places and hyper-real. She tossed the rest of the martini out in the garbage disposal and baked four blackberry pies instead. It didn’t taste much like a martini should, anyway.

 

  • She and her daughter might be the only two people who still wear hats to church. They manage to make it look natural, though.

 

  • They live in the hollow at the end of a snowy world. Golden light glows from their house’s shuttered windows. It smells of woodsmoke, then – cookies.

 

  • Happiness, to them, is about deciding to be happy and nothing else. And look at how well it’s worked out.

 

  • Midway through the son’s senior year of high school, Lucy Fitzgerald and two of her friends are killed in a head-on car crash. There are whispers that she was very high on dope at the time, and the son takes this as yet another sign that Lucy Fitzgerald was not meant for him. The daughter is more disquieted by this – while Lucy Fitzgerald and her brother were dating, she was certain that one day Lucy Fitzgerald would become her future sister-in-law. She had begun to make subtle suggestions about bridesmaid’s dresses – violet, lace. They were high school sweethearts, after all. She couldn’t possibly see how her brother could bring himself to take Lucy Fitzgerald out for ice cream and break up with her. While her brother did his best to explain to her that Lucy Fitzgerald had begun to run with a bad crowd, she cannot help but imagine the accident, over and over again, Lucy’s black curls smeared with blood, her head curled against the steering wheel. Her mother, of course, picks up on this and explains to her that everything happens for a reason. The daughter decides to be mollified. There is nothing to be done about Lucy Fitzgerald now.

 

  • The family continues to go on walks in the woods. As the autumn light streams through the trees, they fill their buckets with blackberries and strawberries. “The circle of life,” the mother says merrily when they are forced to sidestep a rotting and bloated raccoon. The daughter wants to look closer, but the father pulls her away.

 

  • Grandkids come straight after college. First the daughter, once she’s done with her three years in nursing, then the son, once he’s well into law school. Though both son and daughter have moved out of the sticks, closer to a city, they’re always able to pack their two blonde children into separate cars and drive no more than an hour to Grandma and Grandpa’s place. Grandma and Grandpa clutch each other on the porch as the car rolls up the drive. Certainly they have aged, they’re a little jowlier, but they smile and smile.

 

  • Slowly the lacy mole does its job, and the mother dies. The father follows her half a year later. He has some disease that progresses rapidly, is painless, and enables the sufferer to remain cheerful and lucid until the end. The mother was not so lucky, but she was always a hardier sort.

 

  • Left alone in the family bungalow, forced to tear their pennants off the walls, fold up the quilts, and toss most of the contents of the mother’s hope chest (moths have invaded the lace), the children begin to hate the way their empty house mocks them. “Everything happens for a reason,” the daughter says, her lips moving silently. “What?” says her brother, and she says, never mind.

 

————————

Jessie Hennen recently received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Prior to that, she worked in Munich, Germany, first as a semi-competent nanny and then as a mildly soulless marketing project manager. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Millions, rk.v.ry quarterly, Fiction365 and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She is currently at work on Flight, her first novel.