Fiction · 02/23/2011

It's A Family Thing

The day after Isa’s middle school has a bomb threat, her parents contract the installation of a yellow steel tube slide twisting down from her second-floor bedroom along the staircase to the garden on the side of the house. The same company is installing a fire pole in the center of the house leading to an underground bomb shelter.

“Ask Sally if you can stay with her next week,” says her mom. “The house is going to be a 24-hour construction zone.”

“Why can’t I ask Beth?” Isa asks.

“Beth’s parents are snoopy,” she says. “They’ll ask too many questions.”

“But Sally’s parents make her ride the school bus.”

“And?” her father asks.

“And kids sneeze without covering their mouths and wipe snot everywhere.”

“It’s only going to be for a week,” he replies.

“A week is all it takes to catch an incurable disease. You haven’t seen the underside of those bus seats.”

“Neither have you,” Isa’s father says while watching his wife slip into her coat.

“Now go call Sally,” her mother says, before heading out the front door.

“Fine,” Isa mumbles at the door. “I’ll remember this.”

“While you’re at it,” her dad says with a smirk, “remember to tell your mom to cancel dance next Tuesday night. We invited the fire chief over for dinner.”

“I’m not your secretary.”

“Well then — I’m not your chauffer.”

“Why do you have to be so difficult,” Isa says.

“Why do you have to be so difficult?”

“Stop repeating me.”

“You stop repeating me.”

“You’re not funny.”

“I’m a bit funny,” he says. “Don’t forget to tell your mom. Tell her the chief’s coming over to give us the ‘How To’ tutorial on the slide. Now go call Sally like your mother said.”

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After the bomb threat, the school system brought in a psychologist to evaluate all the maladjusted kids. At her mother’s request, the guidance counselor’s secretary copied the voice recording of Isa’s session with the psychologist onto a cassette.

The Monday Isa returns from Sally’s, her mother waits for her husband to fall asleep before sneaking down to the kitchen and listening to the recording. On the tape, Isa tells the doc she isn’t “maladjusted,” she simply didn’t believe someone would really blow up a middle school and that is why she refused to evacuate her desk. She asks the psychologist: “Do you think I’m maladjusted?”

“No,” he says. “But I do think there’s something you’re not saying. Something you’re afraid to tell me?”

Isa tells him how she drags the family’s Dyson DC25 vacuum cleaner into her room when her parents fight, plugging the cord into the wall and flicking the power switch on to drone out their voices. Then she dresses up in the cowgirl outfit her father bought her and twirls around the room with the vacuum cleaner, sometimes stumbling over the cord. But the school psychologist doesn’t seem at all surprised by that. What he does ask is: “How does that make you feel?”

“How do you think that makes me feel?” she asks.

“That’s what I’d like for you to tell me.”

After a moment, she says, “It makes me feel better.”

“What does?’

“The noise from the vacuum cleaner… dancing, what do you think?”

“I see,” the doc says. “But how does it make you feel when your parents fight?”

“The opposite of dancing with the vacuum cleaner?”

“What would you call that?”

“Mad?”

“Okay. That’s good.”

“Being mad or dancing with a vacuum cleaner?”

“Either one; quite normal.”

“Well which one? Normal or quite normal?”

“Does it matter?”

“It must, otherwise you wouldn’t have clarified normal with quite. Am I right?”

Again Sylvia plays the tape. Sitting at the kitchen counter with her hand slipped under her shirt, pressed to the beat of her heart, listening to the words of the psychologist and her daughter pulse through her as if her heart is sputtering and flying and drowning at once. When her husband listened to the recording, he thought Isa dancing with a vacuum cleaner was the strangest thing and that they should take her to a psychiatrist, not a psychologist. So Sylvia didn’t mention to him that while Isa gets her smile from him, the vacuum thing she inherits from her.

Before going back to bed, Sylvia walks up the stairs to Isa’s room. Leaning against her daughter’s doorframe, she can’t help but smile as she watches Isa sleep. The cowgirl thing, that’s all Isa.

The following evening — after dinner with the fire chief — they all huddle in Isa’s room around the chief demonstrating how to type in the code to the yellow steel slide door in case their house ever gets bombed. “When entered correctly,” the chief says, punching in the numbers, “you’ll hear the door unlatch like a steel vault opening.”

“What’s a steel vault sound like?” Isa asks.

“Like this,” the chief responds. “Did you hear that?” he asks, pulling open the slide’s door.

Isa nods.

“I’ll go down first,” the chief says. “When you hear me yell up, Isa, just grab the upper lip of the slide like this and climb in. If you want you can use your hands to push yourself off. Okay?”

“Okay.”

Isa watches the fire chief disappear down the slide. At the sound of her name echoing up the steel tube, she pushes herself down after the chief. Her parents follow shortly after. Outside, by the garden, they start up the only-for-an-emergency Go-Carts using their thumbprint, and the chief leads them away from the house to the underground bomb shelter’s secret outdoor entrance. There the chief goes over the plan designed in the event of a bombing. “If you have time,” he says, “the fire pole gets you here quicker. But the slide is bomb proof. It’ll get you safely out of the house so you can make it here in one piece.” Then he hands them each a manual and goes through it step-by-step.

Once they return the Go-Carts and see the fire chief off, Sylvia clears the dinner table, stacking the dishes next to the kitchen sink. Isa’s dad rinses the food into the garbage disposal and places the dishes in the left side of the sink for Isa to load into the dishwasher. While Isa pours the detergent into the soap dispenser and starts the cycle, her mom retrieves a wrapped box from the mudroom. Inside, Isa finds an emergency padded case for the family vacuum cleaner she has yet to notice was moved into her closet while she was staying at Sally’s this past week.

Isa looks at her mother in her confused way.

“If we ever get bombed,” her mother says, “all you have to do is zip your vacuum cleaner in this protective case and send it down the slide.”

“My vacuum cleaner?” Isa asks.

“Your vacuum cleaner,” her mom says, and they run up the stairs to Isa’s room to test it out.

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Hailey Heikkinen lives in Michigan, and loves reading Etgar Keret’s short-short stories.