The Smallest Bones Break

Christine Fadden

Grandmother's summerhouse is where Uncle lets Cousin fall from a highchair. Niece hears the ensuing chaos from where she is watching TV, on the front porch. The Bionic Woman is trying to convince her Indian student, Paco, that she is not a spirit. Now, thirty years later, Niece is living with Aunt and Uncle while getting her PhD in acoustical engineering at the university they both have retired from, Cousin has just had a baby, and Aunt tells Uncle he will not be trusted alone with new Granddaughter—ever—because of Fall From Highchair ca. 1973. Also, the plastic water bottles he buys because of his need to drink lots of water (because of his organ transplant), and to most conveniently monitor the amount of water he drinks, are polluting the planet "for Granddaughter."The year MTV is born, which Cousin will never watch because if the fall at Grandmother's did not cause brain damage, MTV surely will, Aunt and Uncle make some best couple friends—which everyone knows is hard to do since normally one person out of one couple drives at least one person in the other couple totally batshit crazy. Now, during Niece's winter break, crucial after a particularly intense session of dissertation revisions, it is revealed at a slightly tipsy holiday gathering that to this day, Aunt's BFF believes Aunt is "so perfect she never even burps." Post-celebration, Aunt metes out the number of empty bottles to be put out for recycling, as she does every week so Church-Lady Neighbor won't ponder the Saturday morning clanging cascade of brown and green glass the way Niece ponders how anybody could have friends if flaws were not admitted and sometimes encouraged à la "Where my Ho's at?" Also, Uncle must not be seen by the neighbors in the driveway donning the goggles and facemask he must use to protect his high-maintenance non-existent immune system when he disinfects the kitty litter boxes, which he shouldn't be messing with in the first place.

Aunt says, "Don't break the lid on my sugar container. That's a special piece of pottery." Every single day, Niece makes coffee and needs sugar in her coffee and every single day as water diffuses through grains, percolating, she is sure she will drop the lid of the sugar container, shatter it. Also, one of the cats is bulimic. He wants just a cat's share of control. Aunt refills his empty food bowl after, at will, he has vomited. And never mind that Uncle is in the middle of his morning coffee, because the cats need their claws clipped now.

Niece wants to make angel food cake because another carton of eggs is close to beyond its due date and Niece doesn't want Aunt serving omelettes for the next seven days and nights. "No Angel Food cake," Aunt says. "It's a waste of yolks." Seven days later when Aunt and Uncle head to Los Angeles to visit Cousin and Granddaughter, Niece dumps all the eggs in the brambles down the hill behind the house. Some of the shells crack very softly like a fluffy bright chick would come out, or a slick angel.

Young-Man Neighbor barbeques. Steaks sizzle fat spats green peppers hiss and Aunt says, "It smells. I don't want my house smelling like that. Does he have a cover over his grill?" Also, "Do you smell burning wax?" hours after Niece has received a de-stress candles and bath salts care package means "Do not light those candles in this house or you'll burn it to the ground" just like "Do not pee while there is lightning" or "Do not chew gum while you are running" and "Let's have a fire today, it's chilly" and "Oh god, that log is too big! It's going to break the fireplace."

Uncle has to fly to a convention in Missouri. Uncle has retired but is on many, many committees that help people cope with death. Experts seek his expertise, but Aunt says, "You do all this work just to make yourself look good, for the same reasons you coached soccer." The day before he has to leave for the airport, which is 2 hours away, Uncle says, "I have a 4:20 flight." Aunt says, "You better be there 2 hours ahead." Uncle says, "I'll leave at 12:00." Aunt says, "12:30." If Uncle had said "12:30" Aunt would have said, "12:00." Tick. Tock.

Aunt reads the Paul Newman biography Niece's mom gifted. Aunt can't love him anymore. Not because he is dead, but because despite his perfect popping microwave popcorn and philanthropic bent, he cheated on his wife. If Niece's mom can still love Paul Newman despite him doing what Niece's father did, what's the problem? Also, why did Niece tell the landscapers Aunt would be back to pay them after her massage? "Why did you tell them I was getting a massage?" "What's the problem?" "It's extravagant!" Also, Niece must not tell Church-Lady Neighbor that Aunt goes to the city to get her haircut.

Niece's mom never introduced her to the boyfriends she had after the divorce. Aunt says, "She was just trying to protect you." Niece says, "From what? It's not like I wasn't having sex in high school." "You were too young!" Niece wonders how Cousin ever masturbated in this home.

Niece, after many miles over many months running without gum in her mouth, registers for a 10-miler at her favorite childhood beach where she can't wait to walk barefoot in the sand after running in shoes some foot experts now believe do more harm than good. Aunt says she'll come with, and Niece concedes because it is Aunt's birthday and it will be nice to have someone else do the driving before running ten miles—the simple act of having the foot on the accelerator for six hours tightens the hips, Achilles, and spine. But of course since they are going to the beach they have to visit the other Aunt and Uncle on the west bay because the other Uncle "could die any time!" and "When was the last time you saw him?" so "How was your run? After your shower, let's catch the earlier ferry." Niece does not fight for her walk on the beach. She can imagine Aunt joining her there too and complaining about the seashells. Or the salty taste in the wind. Or the dying-baby seagull-cry. Or the hours they are wasting knowing the other Uncle—who doctors marvel over for living all these extra years past heart attacks and strokes and diabetes and dialysis—could die any time! Time waves the earlier ferry west across rough waters to the other Hang in There Come Hell or High Water Uncle, sorting his 1001 miracle pills before dinner. Nausea is just one of the many possible side effects.

(The Usual Suspect) Uncle brings home a funky large antique pioneer desk for Niece to spread out all her papers and books and almonds on. "It might have woodworms!" Aunt says. "Take it back." Also, the cats might fall through the screens and when there is an earthquake in Southern Mexico call Cousin in Southern California and tell her not to go outside and to nail all the furniture to the walls and to make sure Granddaughter's crib is placed far from shelving. When a thunderstorm sets off a car alarm in the neighborhood, say, "I hope that isn't our car alarm," even though this one is clearly traveling, winding like a banshee through trunks of thick trees and up from the valley below bending blades of grass.

Aunt yells something to Niece upstairs in Spanish, because Aunt is reading an email from an Argentinian aloud to Niece, and Uncle, on his way out the front door to take one of the dogs to the groomers, says, "I can't hear you shouting!" Aunt says, "I'm not shouting at you!" (as she has told Niece: "He can't even pronounce vivir.") Uncle says, "What?" Both dogs are jumping, one with her leash on, one without. Their claws are doing a tap dance on crack. "I'm not talking to you!" Aunt shouts. "I'm talking to Niece. You aren't the only person in this house!" "Sometimes I can't tell!" Uncle shouts. The bulimic cat darts out the front door and Uncle yells, "Jesus Christ, will somebody help me?" and the leashless dog gets out too and Niece runs downstairs and says, "I'll help!" and Aunt coming into the room says, "He's a walking disaster." Niece spins and shouts: "I'll help you!" "Just leave him," Aunt says, then shouts to Uncle, "You're a walking disaster and an idiot a no common sense idiot senseless disaster hurry up have the dog pee before you put her in the car!" Do not have the "Need Home!" flyers he needs, advertising the stray kitten Niece found while running at the dog park with the currently leashless (in the Church-Lady Neighbor's yard) dog who doesn't need a groomer, printed out for him before he drives all around town to post them. Also, "Do not," Aunt tells Niece, "deliver his cheesesteak to him" (at the university from which he has retired, but where he still has a place). Make him come home between errands or just, make him come home, and every time he leaves mutter, "He's going to his damn office again. I don't know why he's always going there. All he does is play solitaire."

Niece cooks spaghetti. "You're boiling over!" and "How much longer?" "Just test a noodle," Niece suggests. Like when making tea, who sets the timer for steeping? Also, no need to talk twice about the trash bag: "If it isn't heavy enough, wedge it between two heavier bags. We don't know if it will be windy tonight. If it isn't heavy enough, wedge it between two heavier bags. We don't know if—" Niece drags that trash bag out, so heavy, so stuffed. Late, very, Niece sneaks to sidewalk's edge, rips a hole in the bag, and digs deep until in all the black she feels facets. Carrying the last crystal clock from Uncle's once grand clock awards collection, the moon lights up the inscription Happy Retirement! Well [sic] Miss You. Saving the clock feels like a crime, but Niece glows replacing it, frozen at 4:45, on the high shelf in the den.

The next day, which is a day like three days before, when Uncle returns from shopping because Aunt never does the shopping—but just gives Uncle her lists—Aunt shouts, "I told you to get the light pink Kleenex. This is not light pink this is dark pink. This is dark pink. Dark pink. Not light pink. Where's the purple? I'll take purple." Aunt does repeat many things because Uncle does wear hearing aids. Sometimes his hearing aids buzz and Aunt shouts, "You're buzzing! You're buzzing!" and Uncle screams, boxing himself in the head over and over again until they stop.