by Kim Henderson
It was pressure-cooked chicken night, and in my nine years that meal had never ended well. Dad was particularly grumpy, as he had spent the whole day in the hundred-twenty degree plenum chamber, dripping like an infested redwood. I peeled the waterlogged, goose-pimpled skin back from my chicken thigh and poked at the pinkish meat. It felt like Dad's stomach when he flexed for me to punch: soft for a layer, but firm as a heavy bag underneath.Dad was staring at Lionel, who was chewing and twitching his nose. Lionel's glasses slipped and he pushed them into place with a greasy finger, scabbed and swollen at the cuticle. He lifted his upper lip. Dad threw his fork at the wall. It bounced back and he picked it up and wiped it clean. "Lionel, tonight is not the night."
Lionel agreed to break the habit that evening. Dad gnawed on a drumstick and said in addition to Lionel working on his habits, maybe my mother could try listening for once and roasting the damn chicken. Mom apologized. At one time, she would've said, "Aren't we in a taffy mood?" When I was small, taffy was her word for all things sweet, including me, but that was light years back. I popped a bite of rubbery flesh into my mouth and made a big show of enjoying it, mmm, mmm-ing all the way down. Dad raised his chin at me, his eyes sparking. Then his attention fell back on Lionel and his colossal cheeks quaked.
Lionel bit his bottom lip, gripped the edge of the table. Dad mirrored Lionel, but with fists. Lionel blinked fast, wrinkled his forehead. His lip turned white where his teeth gripped it. Dad's eyes narrowed, Lionel's eyes widened. Lionel let out a gust of air, and so did Mom, and so did I. Then he lifted his lip, twisted his nose, and rolled his eyes.
Dad touched his thumb to his chin. To someone peering in the window, someone who couldn't see black pupil swallowing pale blue iris, he might've looked calm. "Can you not control yourself?"
Lionel shrugged a shoulder.
"Momma," Dad said, "should a boy Lionel's age have some self-control?"
Mom pushed peas around on her plate. "He's in the seventh grade."
Dad turned to me. "Do you think your brother's smart?"
"But you don't have habits. You don't lose control over your body. And you're just a fourth grader."
"True," I said, but the bars on his ITBS test were all in the ninety-ninth percentile, and mine weren't. His teachers raved he was in for great things; mine complained that my head was stuffed with cotton. During enrichment hour, he'd studied locomotion, learned the Pythagorean Theorem, read Moby Dick; I drew and labeled eyes, daydreamed about boxing, carved Nike Swishes into my desk. "Doesn't seem so smart to me," Dad said. "Maybe I'm missing something." He pressed on his brow bone. "Since you can't seem to break the habit yourself, you must need help. Am I right?"
Lionel bowed his head. Under the table, I crossed my fingers. Dad's bottom teeth showed a shrewd smile, a row of corn kernels.
He rose and went to the kitchen, dug around in a drawer. I sat on my knees so I could see what he was doing. Mom whispered, "Sit properly," reaching across the table and slapping her hand on top of mine. Her fingernails dug into my skin. I plopped onto my boodle. She lifted her hand and balled it under her chin, staring out the window. I sucked each freckle of blood from the troughs her nails had left behind.
Dad returned with duct tape and scissors and stood next to Lionel, cutting strips and sticking them to the edge of the table. I thought it might turn out to be an elaborate joke, sort of like when he'd take me to the bedroom for punishment and only pretend to spank me, slapping the paddle against his open palm for the sound effect. His hand was always red afterward, but his cheeks shone, like the time he invented "Kid's Day" and bought us a bunch of presents and a cake from Safeway.
He selected a strip of tape and attached one end to Lionel's nose, the other to his forehead, mutating it into a fuzzy-holed snout. Next he stuck a strip to each eyebrow, tucking the opposite ends under Lionel's jaw. The fourth piece folded Lionel's top lip over the bottom one.
At first, I was enraptured by Dad's creativity. I watched, smiling, waiting for some sort of punch line. Then Lionel rolled his eyes toward me. Maybe it was the pug nose, but with his eyes showing so much white, he reminded me of our dog Hobie One Kanobi when she slunk around the house after scattering trash, knowing she was in for it. Sometimes it made me want to hold her. Other times I wanted to kick her, for getting herself into the mess.
Dad seemed to have lost heart. The tape wasn't keeping Lionel from twitching, and his skin was turning red around it. Dad pressed the last strip to Lionel's cheek. The bottom tangled and didn't stick. Dad left it dangling from Lionel's face and sat down and instructed us to eat. Mom gazed at her plate. I swallowed cold peas whole.
Lionel spooned mashed potatoes into his mouth from the side, smearing on the tape and dribbling down his chin. I laughed. It was what my body had been waiting for, like loosening the knob on top of the pressure cooker. My upper half shook. Everything came out in heaves and snorts. I couldn't stop, even when Mom dug her boot into my shin, and Dad mumbled that I'd better shut it. My forehead flushed. It didn't matter that my blood sputtered right beneath my skin, that I pressed on the point of my steak knife and thought of what it would be like to kill my father in Lionel's name. I laughed so hard the table wobbled.
After a second set, Dad let Lionel remove the tape. He didn't look at him, didn't look at any of us. Mom and I cleared the table while Lionel ripped the silver ribbons from his young flesh, now red-raw. He made a ball out of the tape, then lay knotted on the floor with Hobie One. My big brother by three years, but somehow I felt older. He petted Hobie One's beard and kissed her ears, buried his face in her fur and, I knew, twitched his heart out.
Dad pulled me into his lap when I came for his plate. "I hate having to punish you kids," he whispered. His pupils were still big as pencil erasers. All the pupil was, I'd learned, was absence of iris, and that had scared me, that at the center of the most expressive part of the body was, of all things, nothing.
Kim Henderson received her MFA from the University of Montana. She teaches Creative Writing at Idyllwild Arts Academy in California, and is originally from northern New Mexico.