Rick scowled at them as they filed back in. Everyone else was already seated at the table, pretending there was nothing unusual about five people tromping in from outdoors, smelling like pot and booze.
Rick noticed Cindy missing a shoe and scored one for himself. He wouldn’t say anything to her because he liked seeing her unhinged. Alice was alarmed because it showed Cindy at not her rational best. Mom wanted to say something about her daughter being barefoot, but she kept getting distracted.
Rick was talking about his company. He was branching out. Intelligent processing. Shared data. Nanotechnology. The monitor-all-the-rooms-in-your-house thing was just the domestic application. Corporate offices. Industry. Schools, hospitals, prisons, anywhere people get into trouble. The military. Street corners. Stores. Bathrooms. The applications were endless. He was planning on going public. It might technically be insider trading, but he would advise them to get in early.
Gordon sat down and started snickering at Rick. Cindy flipped her plate over to check the pattern. Judy grabbed a roll and nudged Frank for the butter. He was looking a little pale. Bill and Laurie exchanged longing glances.
Mom raised the happy subject of grandchildren. Mom was always ready to hint at how much she’d like to see her grandchildren. Gordon looked like he wanted to raise his hand and volunteer. Alice looked close to tears, and Rick looked furious.
“I had promised I would tell you later,” Rick said gravely. “I want to assure you that no lasting harm has been done to the children.” Mom gasped. He looked around at all eyes, except Alice’s. “Yes, there’s been some concern about the children. A question of negligence mixed with, shall we say, overzealousness. But we have a nanny with the children now, and we’re getting Alice some help.” He raised his hand, the head of the family. “No questions.” He pointed at Alice, who shrank further. “I can’t have you bothering her. You can see she’s in a delicate state.”
He turned to Mom – a man doing his valiant best. “Mom, I’d like to know if I could bring the kids by sometime. They need to see you more often. It’s one of the symptoms of abuse, keeping people from their loved ones. I should have known, but never mind that now.” He put on his earnest cub scout face. “We’ve neglected your part in our family, and I want to make up for it.” He giggled inside. Free childcare.
Allen began bringing in platters and bowls full of food. Judy got up to help. They whispered in the kitchen. “Child abuse?”
“It’s got to be Rick. Alice isn’t capable of it.”
Cindy could see that Alice was heavily tranked. She grabbed her hand under the table. “What are you on?” she whispered.
“What do they say you’ve done?”
Rick was talking to Mom, negotiating weekends with the grandkids. Mom decided that she never liked Alice, and would gladly have the kids to herself. Rick found himself promising to let her pick them up and drop them off, forgetting that he’d just gone out and sabotaged her car. It could go at any moment. But Rick, aware of the trade value of grandchildren, wanted to make sure she got as deeply involved as possible. To punish Alice.
Mom was eating it up. Volunteering to watch the kids any time day or night. Alice was pale.
While he was on a roll, Rick decided to reinforce his claim to the throne. He had the heir, after all, he might as well use the bastard. “Speaking of wills,” he said, “I’ve started a foundation for the children, so that if I die,” he bowed his head, “they will be taken care of for life. And they can’t spend it on drugs or alcohol,” he looked at his brothers and sisters. “Only education.” They gave him dirty looks. “That means I have experience with complex insurance and inheritance products,” he said. Scams, really. But they qualified him to take everything his mother owned. Rip off your own family first.
He turned to Mom. “Let me help you with the technical parts of your will. I can explain it all.” Mom smiled at him, and Gordon started making noises. In fact, they all objected to his kind offer to help their poor old mother, who struggled to understand cereal boxes. He explained that he was only interested in what was best for Mom. Mom understood, but the rest of them questioned his intentions. Boardwalk and Park Place were mentioned. They brought up the hurricane fund in tenth grade. They accused him of treating Mom like a child.
Rick was tired of their disrespect. “I know best. As acting head of the family,” he began. Everybody stared for a minute. And then they laughed. “Nobody else is qualified to lead this family,” he said, standing up to prove his point.
He pointed at Judy. “You’re a drug addict and an alcoholic.” She looked at him. Duh. “So you’re not fit to handle the family’s assets.
“And you,” he pointed at Cindy, “are obviously addicted to pain killers.” Cindy stuck her tongue at him. He stuck his back. “You’re not fit to run things, either.”
“Gordon here,” Rick shrugged elaborately, “has never held a job for more than six months, plus there was that time in jail.” Gordon scratched his nose with his middle finger. “So he’s not qualified to handle that kind of responsibility. That leaves me.”
He would have been okay if he’d stopped at demolishing his brothers and sisters. Mom knew all that, anyway. But she got really upset when Rick accused Allen of selling drugs to Judy and stolen goods to Gordon. Really upset at great length. They all hung their heads until the storm passed.
Allen came in with the macaroni and cheese, looking angelic, and said they were ready to eat. He’d cooked all that food and never broke a sweat. Mom smiled fondly, and asked Allen to say grace.
It was mercifully short and to the point, from his days in prison. Mom, Alice, and Frank bowed their heads. Everybody else glared at Allen.
An enormous amount of turkey meat got piled onto everyone’s plates. They were all set to eat just as much stuffing, creamed onions, green bean casserole, candied sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes and gravy as they could. The cranberry sauce bowl was already empty. They were all just tearing into their luscious, steaming piles of food when Mom spoke the fatal words.
“I’m writing a new will,” she said calmly, slicing her turkey.
Judy nodded and kept shoveling it in. Maybe she should write a will, too.
Rick paused, then speared a sweet potato. “I’m so gad to see you’re moving forward after Dad’s death,” he said tentatively.
Cindy looked around at all the expensive antiques and silver in the room. She wasn’t hungry anymore. Where was the nearest Valium?
“I made Mom the beneficiary of my will,” Gordon announced, dribbling white sauce.
Laurie watched the siblings’ reactions with interest, then caught Allen’s eyes. He winked. What was he trying to say?
“Nobody’s asked me why I’m writing a new will,” Mom remarked.
“Nobody knew you’d written an old one,” Gordon pointed out.
“Well, I have.” Well, she would have.
“Did Dad have a will?” Rick asked.
“He left everything to me.” Mom took a sip of water.
They’d heard rumors even when they were kids about a trust set up for them, to be paid out years ago, when they turned thirty-five. Family rumors: more entertaining than urban legends.
“Why are you writing a new will, Mom?” Judy finally asked. Nobody wanted to hear the answer.
“Well,” Mom said, her voice burning with disappointment, “let’s just say I’ve been coming to certain realizations about what I mean to some people. But none of you wants to hear about that.”
They all protested that she was their favorite Mom, and each one deserved her love the most.
She shook them off. “Anyway, I was trying to decide who gets what, you know, going around the house tagging things in my head.” That’s where Cindy got her household ritual. “And I thought I should just ask you all what you wanted.” She smiled. None of them liked that smile. “So that’s why I asked you all over here for dinner.”
The kids all praised Allen’s food, thinking Mom did the cooking. Rick and Cindy said it tasted just like when they were kids. Gordon thought it tasted better. Mom glowered in silence, and Allen neglected to correct their error.
“Well,” Cindy ventured, picking at her food, “if you’re writing a will, I guess it would be appropriate to go thru the house and look at things. Would you like to go with us, or should we each make a list and bring it back?”
“Like a treasure hunt,” Judy said, going for creamed onions. They’d all loved playing that game. It would make them feel less awkward about picking over Mom’s stuff in front of her. Mom waved: whatever.
Gordon said, “I’d like my bed, and my dresser, if you don’t mind.” He smiled fondly and popped a roll into his mouth. “For, you know, kids. Maybe I could get a couple of beds, in case I have lots of kids.” He thought a moment. “Matter of fact, I could use all the children’s furniture. That stuff is real furniture, not like the cardboard things we sleep on now. We couldn’t break our beds when we were kids, even when we tried.” Mom arched an eyebrow. “Just kidding, Mom.”
“Maybe we need the beds and things for our children,” Rick objected.
“I don’t want anything,” Judy said around a mouthful of sweet potatoes.
“Why don’t you do an inventory, and put it all in a hat, and draw it four ways,” Rick suggested. “Then we can trade for what we want.”
“No I am not sitting down to a board game with you,” Gordon said.
“Nor I you,” Rick retorted. “You cheat.” He paused. “All right, I think this is a horrible subject to be talking about over dinner,” he said, using his CEO voice. “Mom is going to live forever, and we won’t have to deal with splitting up this wonderful home between bickering sons and daughters.” Because he was going to get it all anyway.
Laurie looked around. Nice stuff, old fashioned as shit, but worth loads on ebay. An estate sale would bring in a pretty penny. The best solution would be to burn it down around Mom’s dead body. But she would be just as happy living there herself. She and Gordon. They could have a kid. She could quit the business and raise kids, and he could make tons of money selling drugs and guns in this tony suburban neighborhood. “Let’s live here,” she whispered to Gordon.
“There’s another reason I called you together,” Mom said when they resumed stuffing their faces. “It’s a festive reason this time.” They all looked up. “Gordon and Laurie are getting married, and they’re going to have a baby.”
They all stopped chewing. They all turned to look at Gordon and Laurie. This was the first Laurie had heard of either notion, and she did some quick thinking. A quarter of the inheritance. Maybe she could wring Mom for more, considering the heir she had to produce, and her beguiling ways with people she sucked dry. On the other hand, she was already sucking Rick and Bill dry of their share without lifting a finger. A quarter directly, and three fourths blood money. Either way, she thought she could get used to living there.
What did it for her was when Gordon pulled out a nice big diamond engagement ring and got down on one knee. Laurie knew without trying it on that it was too big, but that was no problem. She was going straight to the dealer with it anyway, to see how much she could get for it. Gordon beamed with pride. Mom had a condescending smirk on her face. “Wow,” Laurie gushed. “It’s beautiful.” There was soap in the crannies. Maybe it hurt coming off her pudgy fingers.
“Of course I’ll marry you,” she said, sweeping him into her arms in a rush, grinning triumphantly at Bill and Rick, smiling her best Roxy smile at Mom – her newest regular.
“Laurie Fuchs,” Bill said, and suppressed a nervous giggle. It should have been Laurie Kiepon.
Rick was stricken. It should have been Roxy Fuchs.
Cindy had eyes only for the ring. Mom’s engagement ring. That ring was Cindy’s. Mom had promised it to her. How could it be on Laurie’s hand? Fucking Gordon. He conned it out of her. That bitch isn’t pregnant. That’s my ring.
Judy spent time looking at Laurie’s middle, and at Gordon’s middle, and imagining the combination of two such unique energies.
Mom spent time looking at Laurie’s middle and calculating how long it would be until she had a new pet grandbaby.
Gordon went and knelt by Mom’s side. “I owe it all to you,” he began. “Everything.” She patted his head. “Mom?” he said in a little boy voice, full of hope and promise. “I was thinking. Laurie was just talking about living here someday. It would be a great place to raise kids, you know.” He nudged her. “Of course you know.” He gave her a squeeze. “Mom? Do you think you could leave me the house? And most of the furniture?” He looked to see how she was taking it. She looked interested.
“I don’t care about the investments,” he insisted. “Except that Rick shouldn’t get his hands on everything, because he’s like a drunk with a bottle. Did you know he has gambling debts? I think he’s got an addiction problem.” He laughed and did a clown head-wobble. “I should know, right? Because the family came to my rescue when I needed it.” He turned serious and put his hand on her knee. “I think Rick needs rescuing now. From himself.” They both looked at Rick, who was scowling at Alice. “He’ll lead the family into ruin. I just thought I’d warn you. You don’t know him like I do.”
He put his head in her lap. She stroked his hair. “Hey, Mom?” She hummed. “I’d really like to look good for the wedding pictures. Could I have a small loan so I can get that tooth capped?” He peeled up his lip so she could see the rot. That’s what meth does to teeth.
“I’m sorry, son,” Mom said, looking pained. “I don’t think I should advance you any more money until you pay me back some of what you owe me.”
“But Mom,” he pleaded. “I’m in pain.”
Mom looked to Allen for strength. They’d discussed it at length recently. Allen had insisted that her concerns for Gordon’s financial situation were completely unfounded. According to Allen, Gordon made more than Saint Peter.
Gordon saw the look. “You’re taking his advice? You’re letting him tell you what to do with your own money?”
“Well, actually, I am. He’s got very conservative ideas about money, and I think he makes a very good advisor.” Gordon sputtered.
Rick screamed, “But he never once paid the rent on time. What are you talking about, good advisor?”
They whirled around, furious. Allen had something to tell them. He stood in the door holding his homemade peach pie and looked like he was going to say he put antifreeze in the dogfood.
“This is my very own mama’s peach pie that she used to make for weddings and funerals and such,” he began. Everybody looked at him. “She would have made it for engagements, too. But I didn’t know about Gordon and Laurie when I made it.” He got a concerned look on his face. “Now, I don’t want you thinking I made it for a funeral or nothing. That wouldn’t be very nice, and I’ve turned a corner in my life and just don’t want to play that kind of joke no more.” He spun the pie slowly. “Well, what I’m trying to say, it’s special, with you here and all. I wanted to tell you, your mother, well, she’s a good person, and I’m trying my best to take real good care of her.”
Rick looked like he was listening to a homeless guy offering to wash his car. Cindy had a fixed half-smile of disapproval. Gordon and Judy weren’t listening. The non-blood relatives got it first. They’d all been there.
The siblings themselves didn’t realize what he was saying for quite some time. Then there was dawning horror on their faces. And all hell broke loose when Mom waved a ten carat diamond ring and he said, “Aren’t you going to congratulate me? I’m going to be your stepdad.”
Nobody touched Allen’s peach pie.
* * *
Sam and Dave ran back to the car to get the parabolic microphone, but by the time they got the kinks out of it and set it up, all they could get was screaming.
The Feds got back in the car and sat there, dejected and out of marching powder, watching as the family streamed out of the front door and dispersed, some quite dramatically. Gordon stopped by with a new supply, thank God, and they paid him with money Allen had given them, that he’d taken from Rick’s coat.
“All this stuff going on,” Dave said, using his little fingernail to scoop up powder and snort it. “How am I supposed to correlate reports on all of these people? Where do I start?”
Sam looked at him. “Just the facts, man.”
They laughed so hard the car shook. “I’ve always wanted to say that.”
Dave passed him the ziplock. “Well you had to wait a long time because there’s not a single true fact in these reports. And my job just got a lot harder, with this whole network being revealed. You can’t make shit up when everything connects like this.”
They watched and took notes as various suspects vandalized the resident’s minivan. Rick made random cuts under the car. He got an air hose instead of the fluid line he was going for. Whatever. Gordon snapped the aerial. Cindy slashed the tires and made off with a locked tackle box from the back porch. Bill broke the wing mirror. Laurie poured gasoline on the lawn, spelling out a biblical sentiment.
* * *
Judy wrote things down on the way home. Ideas. Conversations. Suspicions. Frank was a little wobbly on the road. He went very slowly. They talked a little. Judy was happy for Gordon and Laurie, and even for Mom and Allen. It blew her mind, but sure, why not? Frank was relieved. Never again. He felt his whole life opening up before him. They held hands until they pulled into the driveway.
* * *
Rick drove home in a black mood. He was outraged. He knew Mom’s marrying Allen would mean no estate to inherit. That idiot ex-con would squander it all. So, she was writing a will. She was leaving it all to Allen. He felt nothing but contempt for Allen – how dishonest that he was going to marry Mom instead of killing her, like he’d been told.
Alice sat as quiet as a mouse. She looked forward to the kids knowing Grandma better. Rick had been so reluctant, for so long. And now this complete about-face. If they were going to keep the kids from their own mother, at least there was someone they could turn to. She stifled a sob. It wouldn’t do to break down in front of Rick now, not when he was in that kind of mood.
Alice was foolish enough to say something about Laurie when they got home, and that did it for Rick. He was very rough getting her clothes off, and made her do all sorts of things where he couldn’t see her face. With her heels on.
* * *
Cindy had her gun out when Bill reached the car. She was aiming over the roof of the car, steadying her gun hand, trying to draw a bead on Mom. Mom was nicely silhouetted in the open front door. She wasn’t even moving. But Cindy couldn’t center on her. The gun kept bending.
Bill drove home. Cindy was outraged. What would the neighbors think? Mom, prancing around, acting half her age. Allen, what a fucking gold digger. And the inheritance. How could Mom be thinking of keeping any of Cindy’s rightful property from her? And her engagement ring!
Bill wasn’t listening. He was jealous of Allen. He’d always fancied old people sex and wished he could have some. Maybe not Mom, tho. Maybe Allen’s mother. Later, Bill stared at his wife’s comatose body and thought very hard for a very long time. Yes, he should leave Cindy, and the sooner the better. What a wreck. Look at all those pill bottles on her bedside table. But running after more pussy wasn’t the answer, and he knew it. He needed to disentangle himself, and be alone for awhile. Maybe go on a retreat. Become a hermit until he had himself straightened out and could function in a way that wouldn’t attract another Cindy, from another family like that. One Fuched up family or another. His chuckling stirred Cindy’s sleep.
* * *
Gordon drove home hardening in his new resolve to kill Mom. Normally Gordon would never think of harming his dear mother. But there was Allen fixing to take his place as man of the house. There was Allen twisting her around to where she wouldn’t help him out even when he really needed it. He should be mad at Allen, but Allen was just a pawn.
No, it was Mom at the root of his misery. She’d been holding the strings for thirty years. Gordon do this, Gordon fetch that. Gordon entertain me. Gordon listen to my incessant bitching. And for what? To have a petty criminal spending his inheritance on drugs? It was the ultimate betrayal. If anyone should spend Mom’s money on drugs, it should be him. Replace Gordon as her favorite, eh? Nobody replaced Gordon.
Laurie shuddered at the memory of Mom’s upper arms. They were wrinkled and wobbly. Mom was a spiteful, wrinkled old lady, who didn’t deserve to live. And what could Allen be thinking, in bed with that whale? She’d taken him for gay since he didn’t fancy her. But into old people? Gross.
* * *
Mom and Allen went about the dining room straightening up the table. “Bill asked me to put in a good word for him,” Allen said, taking up the salt and pepper shakers. Mom snorted a dismissal. “I know Bill,” he persisted. “He used to be my boss. He’s a really nice guy. I like him.”
Mom swept the crumbs off the tablecloth. Wonder who to give the good linen to. “He’s a spineless husband and a useless son-in-law.”
“He owns a big trucking firm,” Allen protested. “He’s a multi-millionaire.”
Mom pinched her lips. “I can’t see him running a real business, tho. A few trucks and some illiterate drivers, maybe.” She moved the candelabra over to the sideboard.
Allen got mad. “You have no idea how hard it is and how complex it is,” and sputtered to a stop.
Mom leveled a stare at him. “My husband’s family ran empires and armies.”
Allen rolled his eyes and said, “Yes, dear.” He didn’t suppose being engaged entitled him to a goodnight kiss, and he was right.
Later, Allen walked thru the hall on his way downstairs to his nest. He noticed Cindy’s flowers and threw them into the garbage, sticking his tongue at Rick’s picture as he passed.
Ben saved the clip for the blooper reel.
Even later, Frank’s bed warmer went off. It was on a timer. Frank set it to self destruct at 2:30 a.m. Frank had intended it to be at Mom’s feet, keeping them toasty warm. But Allen decided to use it for a different purpose. At 2:46 a.m. a special gel inside the heating pad began to ooze thru the plastic liner. The warm liquid spread rapidly thru the cloth cover. The wet pad contacted the electric source and became electrified. The cat died loudly. The smell lingered for days.
* * *