Saturday night no one could watch Get Smart if the living room wasn’t cleaned. James nudged Mark, so he spoke up. “We don’t want to watch Get Smart, Dad.” They’d talked about it. They’d seen this episode a couple of months before. They wanted to watch Star Trek, which was on at night, but they couldn’t because it was on on Thursdays, when they had to be in bed before 10.
“Clean The Living Room Anyway!”
It wasn’t that much work. Vacuuming mostly. They had to clean it every day to watch TV and again if they left their shoes in the living room. Sometimes they had to clean it four times in one day, sometimes five. It was Mark’s turn to vacuum. You could never exactly tell when you were finished. It just had to be worked out for a time, like taking a shower. He concentrated on the strings in the carpet, in the bare patches where the orange had worn through to the light brown underneath. They seemed to rattle when you vacuumed them; it sounded like dirt being sucked up. He was allowed to finish up during the commercials.
Mark sat on the couch, next to James. The couch was a new one that they’d got at a garage sale two years before, when Mark was eight. It had red hairs on it, and if you rubbed them one way it was smooth and if you rubbed it the other way it left a track for a little while. You could even draw on it with your finger and then smooth away the drawing. The old couch had had strings on it, like the carpet, and you could pull at them sometimes, but if you got caught you had To Be Hit. The old one had smelled like milk, because James had spilled a whole gallon on it when he was five and Mark was seven. The new one didn’t smell like anything, because if you poured milk over it you had To Be Hit.
It was a good episode. Max told The Chief, “Chief, if something should go wrong, I don’t want a big funeral. I just want a few of my closest friends to get together and...”
“Well, and bring me back to life.”
All five of them laughed at that, which Mark liked. That Max. Sometimes Dad and Peter would laugh, and sometimes Mark and James would laugh. Anne laughed when anyone else did. She was only five. Sometimes Mark and James would laugh whenever Dad did, but not if it had been their day to vacuum.
There was a commercial for Star Trek. It was “Devil in the Dark” on Thursday. Mark and James hadn’t seen it. Peter said it was the best episode. On Friday, it was a boring one. But they could only watch it on Fridays.
They couldn’t watch Hogan’s Heroes, Dad wanted to watch something else. He had bought some options to buy some stock. There was a show about them. It showed all the stock prices across the bottom of the screen. They could become rich. If they were rich everyone could have their own fly swatter. The options were good until the end of the day. They were watching for B something. The prices didn’t have names, they just had letters, and the letters flashed by quickly. Mark and James watched for it. If it went over 17 it was good. If it went higher it was better. A hundred would be Very Good. A million, Well, Very Very Good. The first time it came it was at 15. There was a lady talking, and letters on the bottom of the screen with numbers beside them. It came again, and it was at 14 7/8. James thought that was good because of fractions.
“That Doesn’t Help, I’m Afraid.”
James was sure it was more than 17.
“I Told You It Doesn’t Work That Way!”
When the show was over they had to go To Arms, To Arms. They pretended not to understand. “What does that mean?” James asked.
“It Means Swat Flies Before I Swat You!”
James got the fly swatter. The rest of them had to roll up newspapers. The newspapers worked better, but everyone preferred the fly swatter, which they swapped around like they swapped around the real lunch box.
There were tricks for killing flies. James asked how many flies they had to kill, and it turned out they had to kill All Of Them! In the living room Peter was whacking away on the front window. Mark knew he was killing Mark’s fly. It was a great fly because it had no mark on it. Sometimes you would smear them, and then it was harder to use the corpse again. But last week Mark had got one with the swatter, and killed it without marking the body. The same fly would probably be killed three or four times today. (You had to have a body in case there was an inspection.)
Mark killed a couple of imaginary flies, where there was no body in sight. It scared him. He pretended to chase one across the window into the corner. Then he didn’t whack it, he pressed the paper up against the corner of the window, like he’d trapped it and killed it carefully. If you broke a window he would Break You. “I’ve got three, Dad. Can I stop now?”
“Not Yet. Not Until You’ve Killed All Of Them.”
Mark saw James kill the smeared fly in their bedroom. It was spread out on the window from the top left of the second pane to the bottom, but it still got killed again sometimes. Dad came to inspect the body, but he didn’t do anything even though the blood was dried and was the wrong color.
Anne didn’t have to kill flies anymore. She’d only had to a couple times. She was only in kindergarten. The first time she tried, she couldn’t kill any, and you couldn’t stop until you’d killed one, so they’d all had to keep walking around looking for flies until James showed her how to do it. The second time she just kept hitting chairs and window ledges and counting, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. She still had trouble with eights. One through seven had been almost immediate. Whack on the table. One. Then she’d turned around and whacked the refrigerator. Two. Then the window in the living room. Three. But she’d been stuck after seven. James had whispered eight to her and pointed to the windowsill, which she’d bashed. She’d got stuck after 17 too, and Mark had whispered eighteen. She’d gotten up to 25 before That’s Enough For You. She was good at counting except for eights.
James killed one in the living room, a real one. Then Mark killed it again. Peter got one in Anne’s bedroom. He hit it too hard though, and it smeared to the newspaper, so no one else could kill it. Usually no one else could kill a fly once Peter was done with it.
James added up the total. “Dad, we’ve killed sixteen flies. Can we stop now?” They could if that was All Of Them. It might have been, so they stopped.
On Thursday, when their mom came home she was sad because she’d had to buy gas.
“James And Mark, Go To The Store With Her To Help Carry Things.”
“Carry what?” she said. “I have four dollars and 11 cents in my purse.” Mom borrowed Mark's 38 cents and 60 cents from Peter. They went and got their IOUs. Mark couldn't find his, so he used James'. He had $2.15 on his and now 38 cents on James'. James and Mark went along to help carry.
Mom had paper and a pencil with her, and was adding up the prices of everything in the cart. The pencil had toothmarks on it. Anne used to chew on them, but now that she was in kindergarten she’d stopped. In the cart there was some hamburger, a can of green beans, a loaf of bread. They needed milk too. Mark and James went to get it. Mark stayed behind to rearrange the milk cartons. They all had to be sold by a certain date. Mark was putting the ones that had to be sold first in front. James came back and said that Mom said to stop it. She’d sent him back to get milk with a different date. She said you should always get the freshest one. But if everybody did that, how would the store ever sell the oldest milk? They didn’t ask her.
At dinner there was no dessert. There was Always Supposed To Be Dessert. Mom didn’t say anything. There was no dessert though.
After dinner Mark listened to baseball. John Grubb doubled in Al Oliver with two outs in the ninth inning, so it was only 4-1. Then Richie Zisk struck out.
Mark and James and Peter were in their room. Peter was reading Devil in the Dark. He had all the Star Trek books, but he wouldn’t let Mark and James read them. Sometimes he would punch the pillow. He had his own bed. James and Mark had bunk beds. It was 9:55. Peter was mad. James was crying. Mark wanted to cry too.
It wasn’t a real devil. It was called a horta, and it looked like a short four-legged dinosaur with a pizza on its back. It could burn you. It might burn Dr. McCoy. In the commercials it looked like it might. Peter wouldn’t tell.
They were all surprised when Dad came in. The clock said 9:58. “Boys, Come On. Star Trek Is On.”
“But Dad, it’s Thursday night,” James told him. “School’s tomorrow.”
“That’s Okay. Come On And Watch It.”
James whispered to Mark. “Don’t go. I think it’s a trick.” Mark started to go.
“Stay with me. We’ll get in trouble if we go.” James’ eyes were wide open.
Mark went, though. He let Peter go out first, however, to see what happened. Nothing really happened. Their dad watched it with them, sitting in his chair. He kept yawning. Peter sat in the middle of the couch. Mark sat with his back to Dad’s recliner. James was still in their room. Mark went to get him during the music about the Final Frontier, but he wouldn’t come; he just stayed in his bed, crying. Two commercial breaks later he was asleep when Mark went in.
It turned out that Doctor McCoy saved the horta. By the end of the show, Dad had fallen asleep in his chair. Mark and Peter stayed in the living room to watch more, but it was The Rockford Files, so Peter went back to their room. Mark, however, stayed, and thought he should wake Dad. He didn’t know what would happen if he did, though, if he was Supposed To or Not. Mark stood over him for a long time, listening to his breathing and snoring. Dad had taken his socks off earlier. Mark had never noticed his toenails before, how long and thick they were. There were long dark hairs growing out of his big toe, and on the back of his hands and arms. Mark stood over his father, listening to his breaths and counting as many of them as he could.
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