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Short Story

The Tunguska Event

Back in O’Malleys, Rami stirred sugar into his second iced tea and listened to the mothers complain. This weekly rant circle, which followed their Parenting Challenges class, possessed the enjoyable tang of conscious backsliding. They hadn’t told the therapist about these meetups—another enjoyable omission. Rami licked his spoon and put it aside. The mothers from group nursed small beers that made the new guy’s beer, Jer’s pint, seem enormous. On the booth’s table sat half-empty plates and whorls of greasy napkins. Jer was finishing off an order of spicy sausages, cooling each bite with an amber slurp. Jer’s snub nose sat over a long philtrum that made his face seem in want of a mustache. Rami didn’t like looking at him.

“Let me tell you about my mother’s advice,” Billie said, taking the beer coaster handed to her by the last complainer.

Rami imagined that Billie’s husband called her honey or sweetie or another saccharine derivation that masked the fact that his wife’s name was basically Bill.

“My mom insisted I live with my now-husband before we got married,” Billie said. “She said I should discover his worst stink, what he looks like with a bad cold, what his whining sounds like, what tics he has, how I feel when he rolls his eyes at me, and whether the sex is something I look forward to. If I still liked him after a year, then I should go for it.”

“I should have taken that advice,” Reece said, offering her open tin of mints to anyone else who thought they shouldn’t arrive home from Parenting Challenges with beer on the breath.

“My mom isn’t taking her own advice,” Billie said. “She’s getting married for the fourth time this summer. It’s post-sexual she says, which…whatever. I said what about the tics and body odor and all that? She denied she’d ever given me that speech. She said in old age that’s all there is to cling to anyway. So now we all have to fly to Florida for the wedding. It’s expensive.” She held out the beer coaster. “That’s my rant.”

Heather took up the flimsy talisman and wore it on her head like a yarmulke until it fell. She went under the table for it and came back up to view with that broad, open face that Rami had been thinking about all week. In her LinkedIn profile photo she wore a business jacket. You’d never guess that she—like everyone at the table—needed therapy just to cope with raising kids.

“So…I’m shaving my legs and I get these terrible cramps,” Heather said. “Not that—it was from crunches at the gym. Anyway. Worst pain since childbirth.”

“You did natural?”

“Young and stupid.”

“I’ll go nex—”

“Wait. Cramping’s just the beginning,” Heather said. “I’m crawling from the shower on my hands and knees and I just make it to the bed. And I lie there, all wet, staring at the ceiling. I’ve got my arms out and I’m pulling the sheets off the mattress because the cramp is just insanely painful. I get like a fifteen-second break and I’m whispering: Oh God oh God oh God. Here comes another one. So my husband hears this and walks in. He thinks I’m having some kind of super-orgasm. Then he tells me I’m having a female heart attack. I’ve got a crazy cramp and I’m trying to stop him from calling for a thousand-dollar ambulance ride. And then I get another cramp. The worst one yet. And he gets a tentpole right there. Because of my groaning, he said. And, what was it? My writhing. Men are freaks. You guys, too, I bet. Did that story turn you on?”

“I take the fifth,” Rami said, trying to catch Heather’s eye but hers had already gone to the remaining garlic fries in the basket.

“Speaking of 9–1–1, I was in the emergency room last Friday,” Reece said, taking up the rant coaster from the table. “It was my son, actually. He was shaving an opossum and—”

“Wait, what?”

“He tried to shave an opossum and got bit and so I had to leave work and take him to the hospital. He needed twenty-two stitches.”

“I don’t underst—”

“It was a dare—the opossum. I guess they caught one. He had friends over after school that he isn’t supposed to. Complete weirdos. This one kid built an alarm for his bike. I had to move it out of the driveway and it started playing a recording of some of the foulest language you ever heard. Mothereffing this and Mothereffing that. I about died. My son’s other friend goes by the name Ziplock. He has a motto: to ‘collect the uncollected.’ A motto. My son says the kid collects farts in Ziplock bags to see how they age—and not just his own. I’m serious. He was stuffing opossum hair into a bag when I got there. Why couldn’t I have a son who plays baseball and looks at soft-core porn?”

“He looks at the hard stuff?”

“He doesn’t look at any. He hangs around with a fart collector.” Reece took the coaster and held it out to Jer.

Rami liked the way Reece’s eyes sparkled. Her eyes sparkled. He’d heard that expression but never seen it in real life. Maybe it was the lighting or the caffeine in his iced tea. Maybe she was near tears of frustration. That expression he was familiar with.

Jer cleared his throat. He had big hands and spun the coaster, pinching the center with the nails of his thumb and index finger. “I just rant?”

“Tell us the worst thing about the past week,” Reece said.

“Let me think about it,” Jer said, passing the paperboard on to Rami.

“Can you beat last week’s, Rami?” Billie said.

“You missed that one, Jer,” Reece said. “Rami shows his kids pictures of meth addict’s teeth and tells them that’s from not brushing.”

“Works,” Rami said.

“What photos did you show them this week?”

“They’re on vacation with their mom,” Rami said. “I’ve been spending my time on Wikipedia looking up the fate of actors.”

“Living on the edge,” Reece said.

“It’s pretty horrible. Suicides and cancer and murders and car accidents. Some were really young.”

“From what movies?” Reece asked.

“One was It’s A Wonderful Life. I saw it for the first time a few nights ago. Lots of talking.”

Billie shook her head. “You watched that in April?”

“Don’t you dare tell us what happened to the actors.”

“That’s all I got then,” Rami said, holding out the coaster until Jer took it. There were other things Rami could say, but he preferred not to be judged by the banality of his personal disappointments.

“But what’s the point?” Jer said, making the coaster flap its wings a bit between his fingers.

“To get it out,” Heather said.

“Without copays.”

“No one’s taking notes. Or making you role play.”

Jer nodded. “Okay.” He poured his stare into his glass. “My wife and I have two kids who drive me crazy. They still won’t use a fork and knife properly. They don’t have a disability or anything, they just don’t care. They slam every door, like that’s the only way to close one even after I’ve literally gone down on my knees and pleaded with them. They slam them so hard they’ve broken the locks. You talk about brushing teeth—my kids are confused by toothpaste, forget getting them to floss.” Jer drank the coin of beer at the bottom of his glass. “They hardly ever flush the toilet, that’s another thing. And from what’s in the bowl, it’s like they either don’t believe in toilet paper or they think a roll is a single serving. It’s not funny when I have to snake the pipes every other month. They never wash their hands or dry them or reuse the same towel. Or fold their clothes and put them away. They can’t keep their dirty feet off the walls and furniture. We had this burly tattoo-covered guy come to clean our couch last year and he wouldn’t even do it unless I paid him for ‘extreme soiling.’ Took him an hour and it still looked filthy. I saw the bilge and it was like chocolate milk.” Jer folded the coaster. “They can’t spell for beans, either. My son spells okay oke. They can barely write and they’re nearly in middle school. And their stuff is taking over the house. Plastic bits are always coming up out of the carpet. Their pencils and pens are scattered everywhere. Our house looks like the Tunguska event in Siberia, you know? A catastrophe.”

“You talking about my house now?” Billie said, trying to add a laugh.

Reece packed her tin of mints into her purse and put her sweater over her shoulders.

Rami remembered going through this phase: of being unable to let go of your expectations, unable to accept your kids’ default savagery. In Rami’s case, he’d never thought it possible that those Legos imprinting his foot, or his own home’s strewn forest of markers, could suddenly become weekend-only clutter. He’d longed for quiet then and now had it five days a week. Silence was the cruelest form of quiet.

“They can’t keep their shoes tied, that’s another thing,” Jer said, not finished with his rant.

“Save some for next—”

“They’re always screaming and fighting, too,” Jer continued. “God, the noise. And they never let us sleep in.”

The mothers’ faces were a tableau of commiseration, horror, and sorrow. They reminded Rami of the attending figures in a Renaissance painting depicting some dying saint or savior.

“My wife and I haven’t had morning sex in over a decade,” Jer said. “A decade. How’d that happen? When does it get better? Ever?” In Jer’s fingers, the coaster was folded in half again.

“Rumor is they move out one day,” Heather said.

Rami kept quiet, not sharing the others’ laughter.

“My wife’s asked me if it’s possible she and I are related. Like maybe we’ve accidentally inbred and that’s why our kids are animals.”

Heather snorted.

Jer buried the pieces of the coaster under a napkin, then barked an awkward one-chuckle laugh before looking up. “You guys wanted a rant.”

Rami excused himself to use the bathroom. He combed his hair and turned”it was time to shave his neck again. He should have done it this morning. He popped a hard plump pillow of gum into his mouth, then went back and sat down. Heather was consoling Jer, who was now quietly blubbering.

“I did all of it,” Jer said. “Diapers, feeding, playing, reading to them—I did everything right. But now it’s like they hate me. Why do they have to be such little shits?”

The mothers were offering up their it’ll be all rights, their remember the program, even a count your blessings. Heather was looking into Jer’s face and nodding and Rami knew exactly how that felt: to have someone understand, to have her understand.

Thanks to Jer’s rant, the mood stayed flat and they headed out of O’Malleys earlier than in past weeks, the group breaking apart once inside the parking structure. Rami disarmed his car before he saw it. He watched Heather gave Billie a hug and then walk toward her own car, parked nearby. The previous week, after O’Malleys, Rami and Heather had talked for awhile, then kissed for a good ten minutes in his car with the heater running. Nothing else. Not even a grope. He’d forgotten the joy of first kisses. Amid the warmth and wetness, he’d felt tremendously young, a delicious feeling for which he had, now, intense appreciation.

Now he watched Heather climb into her car, but not start it. They would wait for the others to leave, first. Good. Rami reached his own car and opened the door. He’d spent his lunch break tidying it up, detailing the dashboard with a vinyl treatment that had had a jizz-like quality straight out of the nozzle, but which left a dark luster.

“Rami.”

He turned and there was Jer, his hands punched into the pockets of an old college hoodie. The man had a little gray in his sideburns; he was too old for hoodies. Rami saw Heather adjust her rearview mirror to watch them.

“I’m sorry about…in there,” Jer said. “I didn’t mean to get so emotional. I’m just overworked, you know?”

“No need to apologize,” Rami said. “That’s what the ranting circle’s for. Get it out of your system where it can break down.” He heard himself spouting the therapist’s advice without knowing whether it was truly good advice. Did the therapist even have faith in what she said? If everyone vented, wouldn’t the world be one long wail? “But you don’t want to call your kids little shits in front of the therapist, maybe,” Rami said. “They put you in another class for that.”

“I know. I’m also in that class.”

Billie drove past them then, her honk startling Rami. Jer turned and waved, then leaned against Rami’s car like it was a pole or a wall, not the car Rami had washed last night so that it would gleam on this one.

“I’m glad there’s another dad in the group,” Jer said. “I felt outnumbered in class. But I want you to know that my kids really mean everything to me, despite what I said. They’re bright. They can read like three years above their grade level. Teachers love them. Look, here’s them last weekend,” he said, showing Rami the lock screen picture on his cracked phone.

The dome light in Rami’s car snuffed out. Heather’s car started up, the red brake lights bathing a concrete pillar that came within inches of her side mirror. Rami felt his hopes for the evening fade fast, his week ahead suddenly real and burdensome. He waved at her and tried to look confident, but he knew that Heather now had an additional week in which to decide—if she hadn’t already—that he wasn’t such a good idea.

What was Jer showing him now, and what was he saying about all his toenails turning black and falling off after running a marathon? The man didn’t look like he could walk a marathon.

“I gotta go,” Rami said. “Early day tomorrow.”

“Sure. Sure.” They shook hands, like a decision had been made.

In his car, Rami folded a receipt around his tasteless gum. He found his validated parking ticket, rolled down his window and headed for the exit. By the time he’d reached his apartment, the night had turned bitterly cold. He turned on the dining room light, then the space heater. The heater looked like the crushed vertebrae of some huge creature. It ticked and gurgled as the oil’s heat made its way into the fins.

A few months ago, after the divorce was finalized, Rami had dumped his kids’ weekend Legos all over the carpet, like it had always been in the house, before. But the mess couldn’t console him; it only foregrounded his loss. Looking at photos didn’t help, either. He had thousands of carefully edited photographs of his kids from vacations, parties, and around the house. He couldn’t bear to look at them now. They belonged to an unrecoverable time and only showed him the foolishness of having labored at the computer to perfect them. He’d thought of his life as one solid thing back then, like a locomotive, only to discover there were other cars behind it. And that these could be uncoupled from the life he’d thought was his to engineer.

It ended quietly. He and his wife had had no explosive fight, no laying waste to all they had built together. Their relationship had simply aged and grown brittle. Raising kids had sucked them dry of resources they thought they possessed in good supply. She said theirs had been a bark beetle-stricken union. How much better, perhaps, to have gone out with a bang, an explosion in the heavens from which he couldn’t have taken or offered protection, a scenario where nothing could have saved them and kept them whole, where there was nothing he could have done differently.

His phone woke him from a nap on the couch.

Lillie would like FaceTime…

His daughter calling, perhaps to wish him goodnight, forgetting the time zone difference. Last week she’d asked for help with some volumetric math problems. Rami quickly moved to the kitchen, where the lighting wasn’t so murky. He leaned his phone against the empty fruit bowl, smoothed his eyebrows, then cleared his throat. Adjusted the phone a bit more and accepted the call.

“Hey! Having fun?” he asked.

“The Tunguska Event” first appeared in Ligeia.

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