Family Tradition by Gordon Brown

Clap Hands by Dave Mutnjakovic

Clap Hands by Dejv Mutnjakovic

I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t weird, ok? But show me one that isn’t.
Some people leave a whole plate out during Christmas meals. Part of waiting for some stranger who’s never gonna show up. Or people open their presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day. Or they try to huck tennis balls into the birdbath at the end of the yard or do shots of turpentine because that’s what saved great-great grandpa on the trip over the ocean.

So everyone has their thing.

Ours is just hellfire and damnation.

And speaking of – that ungodly reek? Not sulfur. Not brimstone. Just the fragrant aroma that cousin Gary likes to cultivate. Cigarette ash and burger grease, smothered under some knockoff cologne. Angst by Kelvin Kline.

Maybe that’s a little unfair. All McFargises (McFargi?) go through a stinky phase around twenty. Part of our larval development into beautiful butterflies. Except instead of gossamer wings we get slinky, shifty slouches and suspicious, heavy-lidded eyes and oily skin. But most of us learn to dress better.

Gary, for whatever reason, insists on wearing this dark high-school-massacre trench coat that’s three sizes too big for him. It’s even baggier than usual today because he’s got something under there. He winds up pulling out something about the size of a bowling ball – roughly the same shape. It’s been carelessly wrapped in a cocoon of brown paper, haphazardly stapled and taped together, because who the hell bothers with wrapping paper?

“The head,” He mutters.

“I thought Uncle Isaac was bringing the head.”

“No.” Gary says, as if that’s gonna be the end of it. He shuffles off towards the kitchen to sullenly raid the table for snacks and soda.

I’d go after him, but yeah, there’s that pounding on the door – enough to rattle it in its frame. Pop it open and there’s Aunt Bessie, barreling past me. She doesn’t really look like us, but that’s only because she dyes her hair. Dishwater blonde, and always coming out of some high-up cheerleader ponytail in big, frizzy clumps. She’s shoving something into my hands and then saying “careful, it’s super hot.” I’m trying to get it to the kitchen without tripping over her kids who’ve followed her in. Dennis and Daniel. Don’t ask me which is which. Aunt Bessie is shrieking at them about getting something out of the bed of the truck.

They both look just like their dad but that piteous, woebegone howl of protest is one hundred percent gen-u-ine McFargis.

So’s Aunt Bessie’s prison-camp-komandante roar of “NOW!

She tells me that they’ve brought the torso. Like she hasn’t been e-mailing us updates for the past month.

Doug – Aunt Bessie’s husband – has got this nervous grin on his face as he steps through the door. Giant sonuvabitch. Essentially a human version of a Great Dane. Slobbery. Stupid. More scared of you than you are of it.

Not that I have anything against the guy, it’s just that if you’re gonna to marry a McFargis, you gotta be ready for it.

But he’s learning.

Uncle Isaac’s not far behind.

“Brought the head!” he declares. He’s clutching something over his bald-spot like a damn trophy.

I tell him that Gary brought the head.

“He did what?

“Yeah.”

I bring the head.”

“Well, so did Gary.”

“The hell he did.”

And then he’s off stomping towards the kitchen. Cue the whippish bickering that’ll last long, long into the night.

My sister’s Prius has just pulled in. She’s brought one of the arms. Didn’t bother to wrap it because she wants mom and dad to get a chance to see it before it goes up. It looks like she got it off of a mannequin. She’s painted it neon green and drawn dicks aaaaaall over it. But mom and dad will still act like it’s some Warhol-esque critique of our phallocentric bumpkin-ass society or some such bullshit.

They’re bringing the other arm. Something stitched together with all the scraps of mom’s botched quilts. Which is apparently how it’s supposed to be done. How it’s always been done. Using garbage and junk and crap. They’re the ones who keep this whole thing going. When dad gets in he flips his shit about there being two heads. He calls for Uncle Isaac and Gary to shut the hell up for a minute to see if he can get Victor to bring another leg.

“Yeah, another

Because we’ve got two heads-

Because Gary-

Because he’s an idiot-

Because Isaac just assumed-

Because he’s also an idiot-

OK-

OK?

OK.”

Click.

Dad says Victor’s only got but the one leg.

This shit always happens.

But it’s getting to be about time to get dinner started. The smell of baked potatoes and pecan pies covering up that muddy McFargis smell. Dennis and Daniel keep tumbling up and down the stairs like wildebeests but they’re starting to get tired. Between Gary and Uncle Isaac’s snarls you can hear the sprinklers turning on down the street. And the fall wind through the dry leaves. And even the beautiful sound of nothing at all.

We’re technically supposed to wait until Victor gets here, but who knows when that’s gonna be. We sit at the table. Pass out the rolls and the butter. Uncle Isaac and Gary have signed the mashed-potato armistice that’ll last for as long as the gravy tureen is full. Dennis and Daniel have been securely duct-taped to their chairs. Mom and Dad are at either end of the table, eyeing the knives in case things get violent. In case someone talks about how certain people aren’t disciplining their damn kids. In case someone talks about how certain liberal arts students are feeding this country to the dogs. In case someone talks about how someone’s living in sin. Or how they’re selfish for not wanting to have kids. Or how they’re a bitter, ignorant trailer trash shitheel who never amounted to nothing.

But it looks like for once – just for once – we’re going to get through this with minimal bloodshed.

That’s about when there’s the crunch of gravel and lights in the driveway. Then an almighty crash as the screen slams open and Victor bursts in.

“GODDAMMIT, VICTOR, BE gentle WITH THAT THING, WOULD YOU?”

Victor doesn’t say anything, but there’s the deafening thump as he kicks his shoes off and they slap hard against the wall.

Jee-sus.” Dad mutters. “Jee-sus.”

He’s contemplating the rivers of grease on his plate left behind by the green beans. As if he’s going to find Zen enlightenment or peace-that-passes-beyond-understanding down there.

Victor sits down, shaking out his shaggy hair. Aunt Bessie makes an effort at a smile.

“You hungry Vic?”

“Ate before I came.”

Aunt Bessie turns red, and starts to clear her place. Victor doesn’t care. Nobody does.

After the dishes are gone, we sit quietly. Outside, the wind’s stripped the dead, dry leaves off of the black branches. It’s always today that the last ones finally fall.

It’s dark now. The light from the kitchen is filtering out onto the lawn, almost to where we’ve got the hole dug. Uncle Isaac turns a lecherous gaze at the coffee pot and cousin Gary says that if we’re gonna do this, we better do it sooner than later.

“I guess it is about that time…” Dad says. He turns to look down the table.

“You coming for this, Doug?”

Doug smiles nervously again, looking like a clown, squatted down on that little chair. He shakes his head.

“Well, suit yourself.”

Mom and Aunt Bessie have moved most of the stuff out onto the porch already. Sarah’s out there, stitching them together. I know how much I can piss her off with some Little House on the Prairie joke. But for some reason I decide to keep my mouth shut. Not very McFargis of me. She asks me where the other leg is.

“Just have the one.”

“Well shit.”

I shrug.

We unwrap the thing Gary brought. It’s a big globe of meat. No seriously, it’s a globe with beef strips nailed into it. Swear to God.

“Won’t burn anywhere near decent.” Uncle Isaac sneers.

Which is why I marinated it in gasoline.” Gary hisses.

Phew – did he ever.

The torso Aunt Bessie brought is just an old denim jacket stuffed with socks and scrap paper. It’s a hassle but we manage to stitch Gary’s soggy meat-mess onto one shoulder and Uncle Isaac’s raggedy Halloween mask onto the other. Mom and dad’s quilt arm on one side. Sarah’s transgressivist masterpiece on the other. And a single leg – ripped right off some poor neighbor’s scarecrow – right down the middle like a fuck-ugly mermaid. We lash it to a curtain rod and plant one end in the hole in the lawn, heaving it upright like it’s the flag at Iwo Jima. It’s silhouetted in the darkness like a demented crucifix. Like a bronze snake on a pole.

And then it’s time.

Uncle Isaac steps forward, striking a match and letting the sulfur-smell stain the dry autumn air.

“Fuck you, bad Isaac.” He says.

The match sails through the darkness, catching the kerosene-soaked fabric.

Aunt Bessie’s turn. Another match, sputtering in the darkness.

“Fuck you, bad Beatrice.”

And then it’s-

“Fuck you, bad Victor.”

“Fuck you, bad Dennis.”

“Fuck you, bad Danny.”

“Fuck you, bad Henry.”

“Fuck you, bad Gary.”

“Fuck you, bad Kelly.”

Fuck you, bad me – but by then, it’s already ablaze. Already casting a warm, bright ring of light across the grass, throwing our shadows – black and gigantic – against the side of the house. Doug is peeking out at us from the window.

He’ll get it someday.

We stand there, watching the thing splinter and sizzle and distort. And smolder. And fade. Until it’s just an empty, melted husk, clinging to the side of the pole. Until the light goes out entirely and our big, ugly black shadows melt away into the night.

Aunt Bessie takes a deep breath and lets it out from between her nicotine stained teeth.

She asks us who’s ready for pie.

Gordon Brown grew up in the deserts of Syria and now lives in the deserts of Nevada. Since his arrival in the New World, his work has appeared in Danse Macabre, Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry, The Fable Online, the Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, The Golden Key, and Tales to Terrify. He spends his free time looking after his cats, of which he has none.

Dejv M. Mutnjakovic was born April 1st, 1981 in Windsor Ontario. His father is from Croatia, a little town called Stara Gradiska, and his dearest mother is of Irish decent. His life is chronicled through his storytelling & by his intense attention to detail illustrated in his visual work. He received his BFA in Animation, and is currently involved in an all out war with the educational system through his studies in Art Education at Concordia University in the city where he is based, Montreal.