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 by Miracle Jones

“We don’t have to do this,” Rudy Zandt said to his boy Andre for the third time that day. 

At this point, Andre just sighed and didn’t argue.  They clearly did have to do this and there was no getting out of it.

They were on the Greyhound to Aachen, Texas…headed south from where they were both going to school at the University of Texas, both history grad students. They’d been dating for almost three years now but Andre had never met Rudy’s family.  For every holiday so far, they had gone back up to New Jersey to spend it with Andre’s father and stepmother, Mr. and Mrs. Meeks, both professors at Rutgers, both kind and welcoming to the high-strung and often brittle Rudy (who was especially on edge during the holidays). The Meeks were capable of flawlessly sustaining a fictitious bubble of Family Love damn near indefinitely. Rudy always found the bubble “so wonderful, so nurturing.”

“But it’s all fuckin’ fake,” Andre would insist.  “It’s like being in a holiday catalog.”

“At least they TRY,” Rudy would say.  “They TRY to be civil and decent and not insane.  You don’t understand how much it means that they TRY to create the illusion that everything is nice and not made of shit.  It’s something, you know?”

“You just don’t have root access to all the seething invisible subtext,” Andre would explain.  “All the little passive aggressions and barbed pleasantries.  Every word is poison.”

“It’s nice.”

But this year, Andre’s parents were in the Netherlands, visiting his sister who was doing a “gap year” in Amsterdam.  Andre was actually looking forward to a Thanksgiving without family obligations of any kind, but Rudy had grown moody at the thought of just the two of them eating a turkey dinner at Luby’s. Andre had suggested they get in touch with the Zandts.  At first, Rudy had refused to call his family.  Then Andre had teased that Rudy was embarrassed, that it was class resentment, and finally Rudy had gotten pissed enough that he had messaged his mom and accepted her standing invitation to the annual Zandt condor feast.

Andre had been delighted at first.  He wanted to meet the Zandt family very badly, he explained.  This made Rudy terrified that Andre’s expectations would be dashed to hell / that Andre wasn’t capable of understanding just what exactly they were getting into.  There had been a bit of an argument, and now the whole thing was totally A Thing.

“What will I eat?” Andre had asked the week before, trying to plan.  “Will there be food for me?”

“I can ask them to make special food for you,” said Rudy.  “They won’t mind.”

“NO,” said Andre.  “Absolutely not.  We’ll just bring some cuts of regular turkey with us and some mashed potatoes. I’ll pick at that.  I don’t even like turkey.”

“You can’t win with them,” said Rudy.  “If that is what you are trying to do. The best thing you can do is look out for yourself as much as possible.  They expect that, anyway.  It will earn their weird white trash respect.”

“If everybody is going to be eating putrid expired garbage food, I doubt I will have much of an appetite anyway.  Do all of them eat exclusively from the condor section?  Every single person in your family?”

“Every single person in Aachen, Texas does, just about,” said Rudy. “The government does the procedure for free down there. It’s an outpatient thing: they don’t even put you under.  You don’t know how people think outside of Austin.  Apocalypse mentality sets in.  People hoard guns; water; seeds.  Getting a “total interior efflorescence” for free is an obvious way to save cash.  There are some Christians who won’t get it done obviously…big believers in Old Testament cleanliness and so on…but my family isn’t Christians.  No, they are so much worse. Getting the procedure done means you can spend your food budget on more deranged pursuits.”

“You are definitely from way out there in cult country,” said Andre.  

“I miss when they were just radical atheists,” said Rudy.  “I mean, it was annoying and embarrassing, all those TED talks and YouTube videos around the dinner table, all those ‘debunking’ books when all I wanted to do was read about Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary.  But now…it’s so much worse.  I miss those radical atheist days. They go through phases, like teenagers.”

Rudy’s little sister Helga was waiting for them at the Greyhound station.  They moved from the driverless bus to Helga’s driverless sedan.  They didn’t have any bags since they were just there for the afternoon, but Andre had warm Tupperware containers full of Thanksgiving food stacked in a Nieman Marcus bag and so he sat in the backseat with the bag on his lap.

“Helga, you are a terrifying Hitler Youth specimen of physical excellence,” said Rudy as they drove the few short miles to the Zandt family home in one of Aachen’s few actual neighborhoods.  It was almost idyllic here, if you ignored all the anti-Zionist, anti-UN bumper stickers and the fact that the yards in front of the ranch-style shanties were just packed dirt.

“I may look like a Nazi,” said Helga.  “But you are getting fat.”

“I do more reading than I do running,” said Rudy. “My mind is chiseled sex meat.”

“No excuse,” said Helga.  “Andre looks good.  You look fat and Andre is in perfect shape.”

Helga had always been able to stoically ignore their parents and their parents’ obsessions, focusing instead on track, on volleyball, on basketball, on getting perfect grades.  Not that there was much else to do here in Aachen.  There was a Trader Joes…a paintball range. A bunch of churches. 

The first thing Rudy noticed was the new curtains in the windows.  They were plaid…the same stupid plaid as the cover of that stupid book.

“Jesus Christ,” said Rudy.  “How long have they had those curtains?”

“A few months now,” said Helga.  “They bought them on a ‘Life’s Little Cruise.’  For their anniversary.  They loved it, just hanging out on a cruise with a bunch of other boring people, talking about the book, going to seminars, playing bingo.  Salsa dancing.  The curtains are not all they bought.”

“You’ve got to get out of here,” said Rudy.  “I hope you are applying for every scholarship possible.  Jesus fucking Christ.”

Dinner was ready and waiting for them, all spread out on the kitchen table. Gunnar and Maria Zandt were all dressed up, in high contrast to Helga’s black tank-top and sweats. The elder Zandts were big tall blondes just like Helga and Rudy. For Andre, it was a vision of Rudy’s possible future.  He decided he could deal with it.

Gunnar’s tie was the same plaid as the curtains.

“Look at the two of you,” said Marie, hugging Andre.  “Scholars and gentleman.”

Andre was friends with Rudy’s parents on the feed, but this was the first time he had actually seen them in person.  They definitely had a Santa Claus vibe…a jolly old elf and his merry companion.

“Well boys,” said Gunnar.  “Shall we dig in? ‘Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon.’ That’s from THE BOOK.”

“Do you have the whole thing memorized now?” Rudy asked.

“Just about,” said Gunnar, chuckling.

They sat down around the table and Andre’s stomach flipped over now that he could no longer ignore the warm piles of sweet rot.

“So then you don’t eat ‘whatever you want’ like Rudy does, do you Andre?” asked Gunnar, noticing Andre’s disgust. “You haven’t had the efflorescence done?”

“No sir,” said Andre.  “Although, at home, I tend to do most of the cooking so Rudy is really just along for the ride.”

“Rudy does most of the eating,” teased Helga.

“I see you brought your own food,” said Marie.  “I was so worried, but Rudy said you would.  I bought some regular food from the store…but I am out of practice.  There is a peach pie…”

“Your mother made a peach pie everyone can eat!” said Gunnar.  “One of her famous peach pies.”

The turkey was raw and a few days old.  It had been basted in some kind of herb-infused grain alcohol to keep the flies away.  Here was a florid, fragrant green bean casserole made from rotting green beans and expired French fried onions.  The cream of mushroom soup was nearly bubbling with the curdled milk that formed clots on top.  The bread was stale…pocked with green and blue mold: knots of spoiled bruise.  Only the cranberry sauce seemed edible, still the same chemical bright pink…but Andre was sure it was years past the expiration date.  Government surplus, perhaps.  Cranberry sauce that Syrian refugees had turned down decades ago.

Even the garnishes and sauces were expired and rotten.  Ancient ketchup from an ancient fast food franchise that had long since gone out of business.  Packets of gravy from the nineteen eighties.  Some of the choicest “condor” brands specialized in antique foods from grocery warehouses that went out of business in the early twenties, liquidating their mortgaged warehouses.  

“We were one of the first families round here to get the procedure done,” said Gunnar.  “I know this is a big old house and everything, but we actually aren’t all that fancy around here and times have always been tight.  Marie was doing seasonal work down at the fulfillment center and I was writing blog content when Helga was born. Marie got a second job at the mall…but…well, babies are expensive, gentlemen. I hope you know that.  Getting the procedure done for the whole family back then just made sense.  It’s funny how things go in waves.  Now it is fashionable NOT to eat condor, but back then it was a real craze even before it became government-subsidized. A foodie thing.”

“It is certainly rational,” said Andre diplomatically.  “Good for the environment.”

“You really ought to consider getting the efflorescence done if you are going to stay in Texas,” said Gunnar.  “Some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had was at one of these new carcass joints.  They just kill a whole animal and put it in the center of the restaurant on a slab of bricks and you can pick at it at your leisure. All you can eat.  Come and go all day if you like.”

Andre imagined burying his face into the backside of a dead cow.  The vision was compelling, but also utterly alien.  Meat was meant to be seasoned and cooked until it practically crunched.

“You know how the PROCEDURE works, don’t you Andre?  In order to cultivate whole new civilizations of gut bacteria, you have to get what is known as a ‘fecal transplant’ done. But it’s really nothing.”

“He knows how it works, Dad,” said Rudy.  “We all know how it works."

“Carrion birds have about five hundred different kinds of bacteria in their bellies, whereas your typical human only has about twenty,” said Gunnar.  “That’s why they can eat whatever they want and not puke it up or get sick.  Also, their bile is acidic and full of enzymes that people just simply aren’t born with.  The fecal transplant sounds a lot more disgusting than it actually is.  It takes about ten minutes, Andre.  There’s one ‘in-clinic’ insertion done with a speculum, and then the rest is done with a month’s worth of suppositories.  And then you are good for the rest of your life. A whole new ecosystem for your guts. Everything changes.  Imagine never getting sick to your stomach ever again, no matter what.  The world becomes a giant banquet table.”

“This is not appropriate dinner conversation,” said Marie, trying to sound light and reasonable.  

“It is perfect dinner conversation,” insisted Gunnar.

“We never see Rudy,” said Marie.  “Let’s not scare his guest away.”

“That reminds me!” said Gunnar.  “I have a present for you, Rudy.  Presents for both you and Andre!”

“We are right in the middle of dinner,” said Marie.  

“You’ll have to pardon me everyone.  ‘Good manners sometimes means simply putting up with other people’s bad manners.’  That’s from the book!”

“Of course it is,” said Rudy under his breath.

Gunnar leapt up from the table and ran to the back bedroom.  The rest of them ate in silence. Andre had to keep shutting his eyes and turning his head away to keep from feeling sick.  As long as his nose was not parallel with the table, he could stand it.

“Here you go, Andre!” said Gunnar, approaching him from behind and dropping a small book in his lap.  It was THE book, of course:  “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” by H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

“Everything you need to know about everything is in there,” said Gunnar.  “It’s a book of pure wisdom from beginning to end.”

“Thanks,” said Andre.  “Can’t wait.”

“Andre, you are SO polite and pleasant,” said Gunnar.  “When you really like someone, tell them. Sometimes you only get one chance.  That’s from the book.  Well, I LIKE you, Andre!”

“I like you as well?” said Andre, a bit confused.

“And this is for you, Rudy,” said Gunnar.

He put a flash drive in Rudy’s hands before retaking his seat.  Rudy frowned at it.  

“Oh boy,” he said.  “Neat.”

“No, you have to load it up,” said Gunnar.  “You’ll see.”

Rudy dutifully took out his deck and plugged in the flash drive while everyone watched.  There was just a single audio file waiting.  He turned the volume on his deck all the way up and loaded it.

It was the noise of laughter.  Just two people laughing.  He strained to listen, confused…and then he got it.  It was his parents, Gunnar and Marie.  Laughing for him.

“Tape record your parent’s laughter,” he said, trying to smile.

“From the book!” said Gunnar.

“One of the ‘instructions,’” said Rudy to Andre.

“It’s real laughter,” said Marie.  “We weren’t faking it or anything.”

“We taped it over a week, watching The Simpsons,” said Gunnar.  “It’s our own laugh track.”

“Great,” said Rudy.  “Thanks.  I’ll listen to it while I run.”

Andre squeezed Rudy’s leg under the table.  Rudy turned off the sound of his parents deliriously laughing while Gunnar and Marie beamed at one another.

“You guys sure are into this book,” said Rudy.  “I mean: you are way into it, aren’t you?”

“People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness,” said Gunnar.  “Just because they’re not on your road doesn’t mean they’ve gotten lost.”

“Words to live by,” said Andre, trying to throttle the conversation before it got heated.

“You wouldn’t believe how much time I used to spend arguing with people in this town,” said Gunnar.  “Challenging their beliefs, trying to set them straight.  Not anymore, though.  Now I just try to work on myself.”

“So are you guys thinking about getting married?” asked Marie.  Andre nearly choked on the water he was drinking.

“We are not,” said Rudy.  Andre looked at him, conflicted by how matter-of-factly he was able to lay this down.  

“All our friends are married now,” said Andre generously.  “It’s nice to be the single couple.  Puts everyone on edge.  We are the fun ones.”

“Choose your life’s mate carefully,” said Gunnar.  “From this one decision will come 90 percent of all your happiness or misery.”

He leaned across the table and patted the book that was next to Andre’s empty bread plate.

“Right,” said Andre.  “From the book.”

“A lot of good stuff about life and love in there,” said Gunnar.  “I don’t need to tell you.”

“Those mashed potatoes smell EXCELLENT,” Andre said, cutting Rudy off, who was beginning to fume.  “I’m so jealous I can’t eat them.”

“You’ve really outdone yourself, Mom,” said Helga.

“I look for the dented cans,” said Marie.  “I wasn’t keen on the botulism at first, but now I just love it.  A bit of an acquired taste...the spiciness of it.  But the botch definitely makes the potatoes into something special, doesn’t it?  The other secret is just a dab of really, really, really old truffle oil.”

“Well they are just wonderful,” said Gunnar.

“Yeah mom,” said Helga.  “The turkey is great, too.”

“It’s the same recipe as last year,” said Gunnar.  “I love it.”

“It’s from the Food Channel,” said Marie. “From Hyena Kitchen.” 

After awhile, the noise of knives and forks clashing against plates subsided and everyone leaned back in their seats, satisfied.

“Why THIS book?” said Rudy after a few minutes, unwilling to let it go. “What is it about THIS book that appeals to you so goddamn much?”

“Ha ha,” said Gunnar.  “If it’s not one thing, it’s another with us, right?”

“Atheism, then cooking, then stand-up comedy,” said Rudy.  “Now this stupid little book.”

“There’s a lot of wisdom if you read it cover to cover,” said Gunnar while Marie looked at the table in silence. “It tells a story actually…maybe you can’t see it, but…”

“I’ve read the goddamn book,” said Rudy.  “Do you think I haven’t read the goddamn book?  I’ve read it.  Several times.  It is a dumb fucking book.  Stupid little sentences that sound wise but don’t have any justifying context.  Aphorisms.  It’s not even like there is some superior ‘ur instruction book’ that these aphorisms come from either…they are just yanked out of this dude’s ass.”

“Hey, babe,” said Andre.  “Calm down.”

“You don’t like it that we have INTERESTS,” said Gunnar.  “I remember how upset you were when your mother and I were so enamored with stand-up comedy.  It really rubbed you the wrong way that we were so happy.”

“I just don’t understand why it has to BE something,” said Rudy.  “Why can’t you just be sad and desperate and fucked-up and alone like everybody else?  Why does it have to BE something?”

Marie and Gunnar looked at each other.  Helga continued to eat and Andre put his hand on Rudy’s shoulder.  He could tell that Rudy was upset that everything had actually been going so smoothly. Rudy wanted him to see how difficult his upbringing was, how unstable and non-nutritive, how devoid of the civil comforts and the pretend decorum of those Meeks in New Jersey, for instance.  

“I’m sorry,” said Rudy, eventually, sighing.  “I’m sorry.  I just…I don’t care about the book.  It was nice of you to tape your laughter for me.  I am being an asshole.  It’s my fault.”

“Overtip breakfast waitresses,” muttered Gunnar.

“Sure,” said Rudy. “Let’s all overtip breakfast waitresses.”

“How about some peach pie?” said Marie.  “Time for peach pie?  Peach pie for everyone?”

She did the rounds, dishing out dessert plates.  The peach pie was brought out of the kitchen and everyone cheered, substituting too much enthusiasm for the momentary flash of discord.  Here’s something everyone can enjoy.  Here’s something special for the whole table.

Andre cut off a huge bite with his fork and stuffed it into his mouth, grinning, trying to swallow down all the pain festering in the history of this family. Andre was a student of history: he knew it could be understood / could be swallowed and digested.

He started cutting another bite.  Even as he chewed he knew something was wrong.  There was nothing delicious about this pie.  Quite to the contrary.  It was terrible.  Terrible in a very specific way.
Something churned inside him.  He looked around the table at the expressions of the other Zandts; their dawning horror.

“Oh no,” said Marie.

“It’s condor,” said Helga.

“Must have been the crust…the milk maybe.  It’s been so long.  I don’t cook for other people. EVER.  Oh no.  How could this have happened?  I tried to be so careful.”

Andre clutched his stomach and stood up, panicking.  Gunnar pointed in the direction of the bathroom. Helga texted 911 as doom drifted over the table, freezing the others in place.

Gunnar picked up the book and began furiously thumbing through it, trying to find the page that said: “make the best of bad situations.” Rudy knocked the book out of his hands.

Gunnar stood up, his face going red as everybody in the Zandt family started yelling at each other at maximum volume.

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(c) Miracle Jones 2015