Sid’s filthy hand pushed
the key’s jagged teeth into the lock. He paused. Can
I do this? I mean, maybe she is sick? From behind the
door, bells rang on TV as people screamed “Jackpot!” He
grimaced and twisted the key, opening the basement apartment
He walked inside.
At the opposite end of the apartment, against the far kitchen
wall, stood the black doorframe to the living room. The flicker-light
of the TV upset its darkness, like a bug-light zapping an
army of mosquitoes at night.
He walked in the kitchen
and took a deep breath, savoring the smell. As lemony fresh
as he’d left it this morning. The dishes now dry in the
rack, the counter still free of crud. He stepped toward
the table in the centre, hit the light, and a roach bolted
toward the living room.
“Did you pick up groceries
for us?” she hollered. He could hear her huffing as if
she’d just run a mile.
He closed his eyes. “Tomorrow.” He
put the card he’d bought on the table. “Mom” scrawled on
the envelope’s cover. Inside was everything a trash-picking
teen could earn at the city’s worst amusement park. Exactly
two months rent, minus the cost of a one way ticket to
fair, he told himself. But it didn’t feel fair, standing
in the fresh and clean kitchen. He prayed the guilt would
pass when he headed out west to find Dad, somewhere in
Calgary, the address on the last postcard he sent.
“I guess that means leftovers,” she
He shook his head. “Ok.”
He’d tried to
write a note, too, something to soften the blow. All he could
manage was “Sorry, Mom.”
He headed to his room, near
the black entrance to the living room, to grab his bag.
The ticket said to be there an hour before the train and
he was already running late. He hadn’t even washed off
the stink of Wonderville Park, or the stink of Hooch Conners
breath when he harassed him from the games booth: “Hey,
Stinky. Try your luck at my spinning wheel and leave with
some custom Conners’ Family Tonic.” He’d told Hooch to
shove this dart and his stupid tonics up his rear. He still
heard Hooch’s nicotine laugh. “Fine, Stinky. But you’re
missing out…this is the last of my original family batch,
made with only the best Belladonna and Iroquois blood!” That
laugh trailed him out on to the midway and all the way
Sid listened to the TV’s
“Big money, no Whammies!”
He would not miss the Game
Show Network. He entered his room.
“You’ll be proud of your
mother, Sidney,” she said. “I got some new medicine today.”
His jaw clenched. He hated
when she called it that. You’re not sick.
“It’s in the fridge.”
“This one’s full proof, doctor
guaranteed. Not like that thing where I couldn’t eat cheese
or fruit. This one is fast acting. Only a week and you’ll
see results, baby. Then your Mom can get back out and start
living again. Can you grab me the bottle and a spoon? They’re
a time-release formula, and there’s no time like the present
to get well.”
He closed his eyes. She sounded
just like those stupid ads.
“Sidney?” She huffed. “Did
you hear me?”
“Sure. Coming.” One last
time. That would make things even. Fair.
“Yes sir,” she said, still
huffing. “Kinda…put a dent in my Visa this month. Those
overnight postal charges are murder. Might have to help
your mother out a bit, baby. Disability wouldn’t cover
it. I begged them, but you know how cheap the government
He bit his lip,
but the words escaped. “How much?”
“Can’t put a price on getting
His eyes hurt. “I meant for
making the next deposit. How much do you want me to put
on the Visa?”
“Oh, well, let’s do it in
parts, ok? Make it easy on you. Cut it in half. Takes twice
as long but it’s half as tough. You work too hard at that
fun-park as it is, making it so clean for everyone and
they mess it all up again.”
He rubbed his eyes. “Mom?
After a thunder of TV applause,
she said, “About what we had in reserve. A month’s rent.
Maybe more.” His empty gut chewed itself. “But that means
it’s top of the line, and full proof. A little hurt now
means a big payoff later. We’ll make it through, though.
That’s what family’s all about. Sticking together, thick
Numb, Sid went to the fridge.
Inside was the land of frozen leftovers: four large pizza
boxes packed on the bottom rack, six two-liter bottles
of diet cola at different levels of consumption on top,
and a hodge-podge of Asian take-out dishes in varying states
of mutation scattered throughout.
In the middle, between some
condiment jars and two half-eaten tray-cakes, sat a single,
little brown bottle that made his stomach squirm. “The
Shornhucks Free Radical Fat-Burn Program: As Seen on TV!”
One goddamn bottle? he thought
to himself, then shook his sore head. Like it matters how
many she bought. What am I, retarded? He grimaced at the
bottle. Frost trailed his words.
“Goddamn snake oil in my
The TV blared. “Big money,
“…big money, no Whammies!”
He looked at the envelope
with all his summer money, head crackling with rage.
“Please hurry, baby. These
are time-release sensitive.”
Sid removed the cold bottle
carefully, and then slammed the fridge door with his elbow.
The fridge-magnets snapped off and a legion of take-out
menus drifted to the floor.
He launched the bottle against
the sparkling oven. Its whiteness shattered in a spray
of jagged shards and purple liquid.
The TV went
mute. There was a rumble. The couch in the living room squeaked
and groaned. Her grunting and huffing got louder until he
heard the thump of her oak cane planting itself in the ground.
A mild tremor snapped across the concrete foundation of the
house. She was up.
Sid’s whole body froze as
she emerged in the doorway, his hands at his sides like
an unarmed gunfighter.
She stood before him, wheezing.
She still wore her massive, wretched, and stretched housecoat,
the colour of dry roses. Flesh pulsed out between her sandal’s
straps. He couldn’t remember when she’d even had ankles
instead of the solid stumps of pastry sludge that had become
her log-like legs. Her torso and chest stuck out like medicine
balls stacked on each other. Every inch of her body was
stained with the sour and moldy remains of a thousand shitty
meals. The inflamed sausage-fingers of her right hand gripped
her father’s old oak cane, and even that sturdy support
bent slightly with her steps. Her presence reeked of rancid
cheese, old sweat, and urine.
But Sid had to will himself
to view her face. Her thin hair was turd brown with flecks
of white, and dusted with stale crumbs. Her jowls hung
off her face on opposite sides of her neck rolls. Her eyes
tiny blue dots, her nose two small black holes, her mouth
a brown, smudged “O”. There was a chocolate turtle stuck
to her forearm and a few roaches at her feet.
“What did you do?” she said,
Sid said nothing. Somewhere
beneath this creature was his real mom; the one who always
made fried bacon sandwiches for his birthday breakfast;
the one who patiently sat with him as he struggled to learn
the multiplication table; the one who held him hard no
matter how much he cried for Dad to come back. She was
never thin, Sid knew, but by the time he started working,
this thing from the living room had consumed the
old Mom. She twisted sideways to squeeze through the door
and stared at the splatter.
“It’s junk,” Sid said, coolly,
his hands locked fists. “Stupid, fucking, junk. You wasted
our savings on bullshit in a bottle. What the hell is wrong
“I’ve got to…” she muttered.
“What?” Sid snapped at her. “Get
“You’re not sick, Mom, you’re
fat and that’s it. Admit it!” She watched the liquid drip
to the floor. “You ate until you got disability, but that
doesn’t mean you’re crippled.”
She leaned against the doorframe,
“Even,” she muttered, jowls
He looked at the bag in his
room. “Even what, Mom? Spit it out.”
“Even my son,” Her eyes closed
and her face shook side to side as the tears ran down her
in thick drops. “You hate me.”
Sid’s fists opened.
“You’ll leave, too. I know
you will. I’m.” She covered her mouth with her meaty hand
until she could draw breath. “You don’t need a mother now,
I know that.” She covered her eyes. “You need a father,
and lord knows yours ain’t coming back. Not with me here
like this.” Sid bit his lip.
She snorted. “I can find
you a father, Sidney, but I’ve got to get well. I’m trying,
God knows I’m trying so hard for you!” She was snorting
and wheezing and every ounce of Sid’s blood was turning
to sand. “I keep looking, I keep trying, and all I do is
Blood ran in his mouth from
his lip. He looked at the bag in his bedroom, then her. She’ll
never snap out, he knew. She’s lost. “Mom?”
She kept her hand on her
“Mom, you got conned. I’ve
got an eye for that kinda stuff.”
She shook her head.
“But I can find something
that works. I can help you. For real.” He bit his raw lip,
grabbed the card from the table, and shoved it in his pocket. “Trust
In the glow of Wonderville’s
evening lights, Hooch’s grin looked malicious. He pulled
the pipe from his scruffy face. “Pardon?”
Sid took the bandana from
his mouth and let it sit around his neck. “I want a crate
of real snake oil.”
Hooch laughed. “Maybe you
need some brain tonic, Stinky, because you’ve gone apeshit.
Why should I help the only member of the Wonderville family
who never even so much as smiled in my direction?”
Sid tossed a
role of cash. Hooch’s right hand snatched it like a viper. “That’s
a hundred bucks.” Hooch flicked off the rubber band and counted.
His grin stretched high and wide. “There’s more than that,
if you’re interested.”
Hooch put the cash in his
flannel shirt’s front pocket. “Keep talking.”
“I want a crate of weight
loss snake oil, two months worth. But it has to look professional,
like it came out of a lab and not your booth. Two hundred
bucks for one crate. I need it by the end of the summer.”
Hooch shook his head, smiling. “Nah.
One grand. No less.”
Sid’s guts twisted. “Huh?
That’s not fair.”
Hooch cackled. “Stinky, if
they hung me for being fair they’d be killing an innocent
man.” Blood ran out of Sid’s face. “Before you pass out,
listen up. You ran, not walked, to see the one jape in
the park on your shit list. I also heard you put in your
papers, and then dashed back and said you wanted to work
the rest of the summer. That tells me all I need to know.
You’re desperate.” He crossed his arms. “I just made a
hundred bucks in two minutes because you’re so anxious
for my services. Which lets me set the price. One grand.
Take it or split.”
Sid chewed his bloody bandana,
stripped off a handful of bills, and handed it to Hooch. I’ll
barely make up the nest egg now, Sid thought, even
if I work double shifts.
Hooch raised an eyebrow. “That’s
only five hundred.”
“You get the rest when I
get the crates. Five of them.”
Hooch clapped. “Now you’re
learning, Stinky. Good on ya!” Sid gave Hooch the address. “I’ll
make it special, being that we’re colleagues. First thing
my great grandpappy ever made was fat killing sucker-sauce.
Hasn’t been made in two hundred years! Maybe have a bit
of the real stuff kicking around. Even that sacred ingredient—”
“Whatever,” Sid said. “As
long as it’s true snake oil.”
His grin turned rictus sharp,
his eyes dancing with carnival lights. “Trust me, Stinky.”
Sid sweated out the month,
saved every penny, and recouped Mom’s losses after buying
another train ticket. In all that time, Mom had said nothing.
Sitting on the curb in late
August, Sid’s jaw dropped when a cherry red convertible
pulled up to his house at midnight. Hooch, in a dress shirt
and with his hair neatly combed, dropped off the crates
with a smile.
Sid demanded to see a bottle
before Hooch got his cash. They were the size of beer bottles
with a stubby neck and a brownish-clear liquid inside.
The white label had black letters typed and official. “Conners
Official Weight Loss Punch and Appetite Tonic™. Original
Patton Number: 1801. Directions: Drink a bottle before
every meal. Weight loss will be imminent. Satisfaction
Guaranteed or Your Money Back.”
They looked at least as legit
as the bottle that had stained the oven. Sid handed over
the cash and Hooch winked. “Any interest in a Conner’s
aromatic cologne, Stinky?”
“Fuck off,” Sid whispered.
Hooch laughed, jogged to his corvette, and sped off. Sid
took one of the bottles, turned the cap, and took a swig.
It tasted like flat root beer and dust. He drank the whole
bottle, just to make sure it was ok. The only side effect
was a brown tongue and a near-violent fart. He tossed the
bottle into the neighbours’ knee-high lawn and carried
the crates inside, one by one. He tossed out the tray-cakes
and shoved the bottles in the fridge. Mom’s thick, sad
breathing and the theme to The Price is Right reverberated
from the dark living room.
Rod the announcer screamed
about a trip to Puerto Rico!
“Mom?” he said, louder. “The
medicine I ordered arrived.”
Bob Barker asked for the
contestants’ bid for each fabulous showcase.
“It’s in the
fridge. It’s.” He chewed on his bandana and then pulled it
from his mouth. “It’s a sure thing. Very strict regiment,
though. Gotta drink three bottles a day, like the label says,
one after every meal. Real expensive, too, more than the
last one, so you know it’s legit. Results are almost instant.
Might wanna start tonight. No time like the present to get
Bob Barker congratulated
the winner and wished them the best for their vacation
to the sunny Cayman Islands!
She said nothing.
“I’ll see you
in the morning. Night.” He closed the door and rechecked
his bag. The ticket was for the first train out. Sid felt
bad, but this was it. Two months rent and enough snake oil
to keep her happy for a long time. He hit the light and fell
into a thick, syrupy sleep.
Thunder destroyed his enticing
dream of girls with asscrack tattoos. He gulped air and
sat up in his bed, listening.
The night was silent. A
gunshot? His heart shook. There was a clicking of
bottles behind his door, in the kitchen. She was up.
Silence, then her voice. “I’m
fine, Sidney. Just fine. Go back to bed, baby.” Listening
hard, he heard her rustling in the kitchen, followed by
wet slaps on the floor. Is she cleaning? he wondered. I
left the kitchen spotless. He lay back down, trying
to conjure back the hip-hugger gals, but something tugged
at his mind, just as sleep grabbed him. She hadn’t been
Sizzling bacon woke him.
He shot out of his bed and yanked open his door. The smell
deepened into a greasy stink.
A bald, rail-thin woman,
dressed in ruby red robe, stood with her back to him at
the fridge. A frying pan sizzled away on the stove. The
room was covered in a speckled pink sheen.
“Who?” he said, and she spun
on wet heels. His heart caught in his throat.
Dark muscles flexed beneath
the thin robe. She kept blinking away the slime from her
blue eyes. Sid’s bowels tensed.
Sizzling in the frying pan
was a pasty mask with two tiny eye slits and a little ‘o’ mouth.
He put the bandana over his mouth and clenched his teeth.
“I hope you don’t mind, baby” she
said, then sucked on her finger until it was just flexing
muscle and white bone. “I started without you. I just keep
eating and eating but I don’t gain it back. It’s wonderful.” The
fridge door hung open. It was empty. Not even boxes remained.
He held his breath. Every
bottle of Hooch’s snake oil was empty and scattered across
the entire floor like a sea of glass. She patted her pink
skull. “What do you think, Sidney? Maybe your Mom should
get one of those classy wigs the stars wear! Turn a few
His jaw locked.
She clapped her wet hands
together. “God, you were right, Sidney. My boy is so smart!
This stuff was a bottled miracle. Look at me, baby!” She
spun on wet heels.
She was all glistening meat
and bone and bright red drippings. Her eyes were huge,
and gristle and skin hung from her teeth.
She went to the pan and flipped
over the face with a spatula. “Don’t want this to burn,
I know how you loved fried sandwiches! Gotta get back in
the swing of things, get back in the game. I hope you’re
not mad, Sidney, I just couldn’t wait a whole day to see
the effects, not after all you did for me. I’m so sorry
I gave you the silent treatment, baby. I never should have
“Ok,” he whispered, pushing
a bottle away with his bare foot.
“I knew I had to make it
up to you and quick. So I said, Claire, you got to get
well and soon so you can get your son a father. So I just
kept chugging and chugging and then I popped out, healthy
as a newborn. I’m so sorry I woke you. Did you get back
to sleep ok?”
“Sure.” He swallowed the
puke taste in his mouth.
“Now wash up and I’ll have
this good and ready. I saved you the best part.” The face
began to burn. “Oh, rats!”
He ran, tripped, and felt
glass cracking under his weight.
He got up and ran as the
shards tore into his feet, legs and arms like barbed wire.
“Sidney! You’re…dripping.” The
door was a thousand slippery miles away. He slid on his
blood and shards.
“Let your Mom help you up,
Talons of bone gripped through
him. “God, Sidney, you’re all flabby! Can’t have that for
as she helped him lose five pounds in one bite.
# # #
published January 27, 2010