Fiction · 02/22/2012

Battle In The Suburbs

The husband is shapeless, like looking at something through gasoline fumes. He lacks the sharp definitions associated with those who take action. The husband and wife eat tuna salad sandwiches for lunch. Part of the husband’s incisor breaks off on a crisp piece of celery — that is how fragile he is. His wife is disgusted that she has to look at the tattered pieces of tooth, but he won’t go to the dentist because he is afraid. Instead, he keeps biting into things, piercing the surface of the material, to prove how sharp the broken piece in his mouth really is. The husband bites the upholstery, the curtains, one of the children’s shoes. The husband and wife have many children together — four boys and five girls — so it becomes impossible to express romance. They used to shower together, but now the kids bang incessantly on the bathroom door. The mother worries that there isn’t enough room for all of the children in the house and they will have to build additions just for all the kids and their hormones. The children will likely find ways to sneak out in the middle of the night to be with other people’s children which makes more kids until it all becomes an impossible math equation with kids piled on top of kids.

Just for the summer the husband and wife hang hammocks in the yard because there isn’t enough room in the house for all of the bodies. The children sleep in piles in the hammocks and try to sway to rock themselves to sleep, but they never agree on the pace to rock. Despite disagreements, they’re always petting each other and rubbing faces and playing rough, so everyone knows they’re good kids. The rough play certainly results in many things being broken. It looks like the family lives in a patchwork house. The husband can barely keep up on disaster control, and sometimes the wife has to fill in. She mixes plaster and smoothes it out, but new holes come just as fast as she can repair. The husband puts his broken tooth in the plaster to show her how sharp it is. She starts to bring up the dentist again, but he interrupts, asking her how her day was. She says she had chocolate milk with her lunch, and it was the best part of her day. The husband goes outside to avoid the wife, but the kids attack him, and he seems tired of it all. The wife loves nothing more than when the children attack their father. Sometimes they bite and scratch him. She laughs when he takes his shirt off before bed. It’s easy to tell when the older kids play with him; they leave the biggest holes. Sometimes the holes get infected and the wife has to bandage him. She doesn’t mind, but she laughs while she’s helping.

This large family lives in a suburban neighborhood. The homes are close and lined up perfectly. All of the siding is a soft shade of blue, tan, white, or gray. While standing in her kitchen, the wife can wave to other wives in their kitchens. Lately, though, there is another husband who keeps entering the yard of the husband, the wife, and their nine children. He is the neighbor, a man with three sons. Sometimes he just stands in the hedges. His eldest son, who is the biggest and strongest, scares the wife. The oldest son scares the children, too. He makes absurd noises, loud noises, and chases the children on their own lawn. The nine children scatter on foot, on bicycles with baskets and streamers, on skateboards that were gifts on birthdays. The wife stands on her porch for hours, yelling, “My kids! Hey, MY kids! Come home! The eldest son is not hiding there in the shrubs waiting to attack you! Not other mothers’ children, just mine: please come home!” Eventually, some of the children return, but the little ones are lost forever. There isn’t a bike or shoe or scrap of fabric to lead the husband and wife to them.

The mother defends the children she has left and throws rocks at the neighbor’s windows. The neighbor grows tomatoes in his yard, though, and he and his three sons throw those in response. The wife asks her husband to power wash the siding to clean the sticky juice, but he won’t go outside. He is too afraid the neighbor will start something and defeat him in his own yard. The wife knows this type of humiliation would destroy him and their family, but what else is there that they can do? More children do not return home, especially the boys.

There are only three children left: one boy and two girls. The wife tucks them into bed and sings soft songs to soothe them. She growls a little and pretends to bite their ears. The three children like when she does that, and they laugh. The wife reads them bedtime stories about the jungle, the sea, the desert. Castles, the woods. Good people, bad people. Anything that will help their eyelids shut. The children don’t ask for much before bed anymore. It used to be an endless request to pee, to have a glass of water, to ask a question, to play with stuffed animals and dolls, to shoot foam darts at one another. The three remaining children fall asleep without protest, and it scares the wife. The house is too quiet, and she tells her husband that something must be done. She tells him that the neighbor and his sons can’t continue to pull the family apart or there will be nothing left. The wife says that she is the mother and he is the father, and the father is supposed to protect the mother and children. They go to sleep without making a plan.

The wife gets used to the idea of death. While she lies in bed that night she can see the neighbor’s face in the bedroom window. She wakes the husband and tells him, saying she was not dreaming because she had not fallen asleep, and besides, the moon is quite bright. The wife the neighbor tapped his nails on the windowpane.

Early morning the wife pulls boxes of cereal off the shelf and puts them on the dining room table. None of the children like the same flavors, so there is a pile of boxes: oat hoops, marshmallow shapes, chocolate pieces, wheat squares, and fruity flakes. The three children enter the kitchen in their pajamas with bright eyes. The silently agree to eat oat hoops and put the rest of the boxes away. The family spoons the cereal into their mouths dutifully and smile at each other. They lap up the milk. The husband asks questions of his children because he feels he is supposed to. “Did you do your homework?” “Yes.” “Have you been brushing your teeth?” “No.” “You, did you practice the piano yesterday because we pay for those lessons!” “Sorta.” “What’s on the school lunch menu today?” “Tacos.”

The walls seem to shake a little just before all of the windows in the living room shatter by the force of the neighbor and his three sons smashing through them. The family races into the living room. The husband puts up his fists as if to do battle, but realizes he’s never fought with four men at once and runs out the front door. One of the three sons makes to chase the husband, but it is a fake-out. No one ever seems the husband again; there’s no trace of him, not a trinket or bit of fabric to lead his family to him.

The neighbor approaches the wife, her one son and two daughters and turns to the boy, who leaps out of a broken window. He is too small to defend his mother and sisters. The wife tries, slapping the neighbor across the face and biting his sons. She rips their skin, leaves marks. She is pinned to the floor and tied up with the curtains her husband used to bite through. The two daughters run to their room and hide under their beds. The wife yanks on her bonds while the neighbor plays “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on the piano. Two of his sons leave to return to their home now that they have helped conquer a new territory. The eldest stays; he eats two bowls of fruity flakes and one of wheat squares, leaving the mess on the table when he is finished. He gulps milk from the jug and belches.

The sun sets, but the neighbor and his son don’t leave. The wife can hear loud music coming from a stereo next door and wonders why someone doesn’t call the police for a noise violation. She yawns, and the neighbor picks her up and puts her in bed. He feeds her spaghetti from a fork that is bent from so many people playing with it at the dinner table. Sometimes she spits the noodles on him, but she’s really hungry, so mostly she eats. Every night for a week this happens, but the meals get better: Grilled chicken and asparagus with mashed potatoes, velvet corn soup and focaccia bread, pancakes. He watches late night TV while he feeds the wife, and she starts to enjoy the neighbor’s laugh. It is very real and strong and present. The wife starts to forget about her old husband and the daughters hiding under the bed.

On the seventh day the neighbor unties the wife, but she stays in her bed for fear it is a trick. On the eighth day, the neighbor gently pulls the wife out of the bed, taking her hand in his. The neighbor’s fingers are slender, his thumb mean muscular.

The entire living room has been rearranged. The eldest son has hooked up a game system to the wife’s flat-screen TV. He plays games that shoot guns. He plays a god. He plays a monkey. He plays a man. He plays a zombie that terrorizes a neighborhood. Now, whenever the wife passes the living room, the eldest son hits “pause” on the controller and gets up to give her a hug. She is like his new mother. Together, they are a new family. The wife forgets and forgets her old life until she sees little heads poking their way around a bedroom door. The daughters are alive, so she sneaks them sandwiches on a ceramic plate. The new husband doesn’t like it, but because the house is so quiet, he gets used to the idea of more children. The new husband and the wife experience all kinds of exciting positions. They have a son first, and the new husband wants to kill the infant, but he forgets his anger when they have more children, six girls and another boy. The estranged daughters are welcomed into the family and loved by their new father. The house is alive. The children fill the additions built in the spring, but many of them prefer sleeping in hammocks in the yard during the warm summers. Some of the girls wander next door and meet the neighbor boys. The family soon runs out of space, and the children argue over how fast they want the hammock to rock.

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Melanie Page is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Notre Dame who grew up on a Native American reservation in Central Michigan. Her fiction has been published in over a dozen magazines, and she enjoys writing book reviews solicited from magazines such as The American Book Review and The Notre Dame Review. She has presented a literary scholarship paper at the &NOW Festival of Innovative Writing. Also, she has edited two books, a mystery novel entitled New America, and the book-in-progress, The Buddha Pill. Page currently teaches literature at Saint Mary’s College in Indiana.