A Difficult Child

Young Rader | Flash Fiction

They say I was a handful. I’m still coming to terms with this fact. Very often it lays into me, sudden and terrifying, enkindling laughter or tears, and sometimes a startling mixture of both.

As a child, and to my mother’s longsuffering chagrin, I claimed that a squid had borne me. Everywhere we went, I said to someone, a complete stranger with a round head, because round heads denoted kindness and more angular heads malice, “Hello, did you know that a squid gave birth to me?” I actually said that. And once, a stranger had even replied, “But squids, they lay eggs, dear.” Who would have thought?

My mother played along, until one day she’d finally had enough, yanking me into the Boyd’s dressing room, and pulling up her raglan sweater. It was pilled at the cuffs, and across its chest was printed: Tomorrow Will Be Better. She pointed to a scar running across her belly, her skin the blistering white of radish hearts, and said she’d been carved open so that I could be taken out because I didn’t want to come out, and to quit it with the squid story, okay?


One Saturday, my older brothers, Bran and Elvis, started chucking handfuls of cooked pasta onto the trailer’s gypsum ceiling. They thought it was hilarious. My mother came into the kitchen just as I was giving it a go. She looked mercilessly up at the spaghetti, dangling like neglected flypaper. “Tsk, tsk,” said Bran. Her ears flushed red. “Goose,” she hollered. “Take this child out of my sight.”

My father hated museums, so I don’t know why he took me to the Museum of Fine Arts in Toupee. Maybe he thought milling about amid a medley of things as old as the hills would beget an air of tranquility. But a bevy of new feelings and thoughts charged through me, and in my euphoria, I reached out and knocked over a green vase sculpted out of thin ropes of clay. The sound it made!

My father hustled me outside. In one of the towering plane trees flanking the museum, a fledgling was nudged from the open cup of its nest. I pointed and watched it flail soundlessly into my father’s head. It drove its beak into his cheek, and somehow got stuck in there. He pulled the bird out roughly and lobbed it onto the pebble footpath, where a passing bicycle with an orange milk crate, nearly crushed it. The bird stood up, blinked three times, and flew away. The resulting scar on my father’s cheek served as an ugly reminder of that day, and was the true beginning, I believe, of our ever-mounting differences. When he died exactly three decades later by disease of the throat—blind, reproachful, and frightened—letting only his wicked toy terrier, Ham Sandwich, touch him, we were all but complete strangers.

Though I was difficult, I was smart. Right about the time I was getting into wave optics, Bran and Elvis started masking up and spraying cars. They moved out to a duplex next to the mall in St. Vincent and bought their own cars, a red and a yellow Cortina. One afternoon, Bran picked me up and pulled into a gas station so that I could vacuum his car’s interior, proudly feeding quarters into the machine until he was satisfied with the work I’d done. We must have been there for forty-five minutes.

I was the first person in my family to go to college, and though this was a source of pride, it also became a wellspring of unspoken, and then loudly voiced, mockery. I graduated, moved into a shared apartment, and ended up working in an organic supermarket, boiling beets and making great drums of cold orzo salads. I was in debt. I didn’t own a car. What did I have to show for my education? I wondered why my happiness didn’t count for something. I was book smart, big whoop. What mattered was what my family said I utterly lacked: street smarts. Things only got worse when Bran unexpectedly died.  

Elvis couldn’t keep it together and moved back in with my parents. Bloated and perpetually dehydrated because of the lithium, he was convinced I’d somehow caused Bran’s death. The tortuous way his tongue floundered about whenever he spoke scared me. It was only a matter of time before his idea, however illogical, took root in my parents’ mind. My mother clutched onto my arm, the tufted brutality in her fingertips conveying she’d had enough of me in this lifetime, and told me not to drop by anymore, okay?


Many years later, I mustered up the courage to visit. My father jerked open the out-of-plumb door. There was a powdery bloom in his eyes, and the scar on his cheek was the same color as the sun through his ears. He told his dog, trembling with neurotic vigilance at his feet, to quit yapping, and let me in to the double-wide with some hesitation. My mother and Elvis had been dead for years, he explained, flopping down into the same old recliner, venting its brown, feral odor. I was relieved when he didn’t provide any further details. The news of their deaths cast a sudden gloom on my visit, but I wasn’t surprised. “Married?” he asked.




“Good.” He sighed. “You were a difficult child.”

“How come?”

“There’s always one in every family.” He cracked his toes. “You wanna stay for dinner?”

I shook my head. “I gotta go.”

“Here. Give Ham one of these.” He handed me a hard, round treat. I leaned down and offered it to the terrier, who nipped at my wrist with pure, unbridled hatred. I yelped. “Attaboy,” my father guffawed.

But a moment later, standing outside with the wind scooting underneath my shirt, my father’s cries reached me.

Oh! Such bright, miserable sounds.