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The Tribe

That scenario with Burr at the computer, and SHE bristling about, pushing the young ‘uns into the act. “Burr,” she yells as she bulldozes the hallway. “BURR!!!! I need you NOW. Take care of your kids! NOW!” Burr politely excuses himself and hurries along.

Stomp, chomp. It’s not my fault that her legs are thick like mushroom tumors or that she married the first guy who’d have her.

I have christened Burr’s wife ‘Mahatma.’ ‘Ma’ as in mother ‘cause that’s all she’s got going for her – spoiling her little brats; ‘hat’ as in shit-filled; and ‘ma’ again. Let’s reiterate ad nauseum. “Burr and I met when we were 17. We lived together for five years. I knew I was a shoe-in to be his wife. I lost 60 lbs. for the wedding.” Everyone hangs on to her words.

And the other sister-in-law. Eee is what I‘ll call her. Always watching. Seeing where my eyes go, linger. On her daughter’s beloved? That‘s what she thinks, hopes: that I eat my heart out. Jealous! Implying that her busty daughter is so happy with the new beau and that I’m so unhappy with my good-hearted husband.

My husband’s brothers are all handsome, and mild like watery beer. The wives are loud. Dumpy frumps living in those flimsy oversized suburban tract houses filled with kitsch. Minds like landfills. Worker hands and sorry eyes. Cold backs. You walk into a family gathering and they’ll throw an uncaring glance your way, maybe, and then keep talking as if you don’t exist. Who’s supposed to say hello first?

I wear my heels and tight clothes and the brothers quickly look me over while the wives simmer. When it comes to putting on make-up, only the most comical patches and dollops of blush and lipstick will do for them. How about some decent lighting in your bathrooms, ladies? Or do you do Everything in the dark?

There’s a terrible empty desperation, a hatred in my gullet. One day I was walking down the thin warped street with the wind blowing and I was looking so sour thinking nobody would notice. Everyone silently screams at the hard lights. Then a clown passed me by and stopped me: “Miss, I think you dropped something,” he said. With a round flourish he bent over and picked up a cup of air and handed it to me. ‘Your smile,’ he said. ‘Here you go,’ and he presented it to me and I cried as I watched him leave, leave me there waiting for the bus ride home to my psychotic town, the bus ride that always picked up the nest-haired old man and his granddaughter wife. Whispers, they only whispered to one another. What about

We’re spending summer vacation with the family. The lot of them has rented a house and the lot sticks me and my husband in the attic. The days are all about cleaning, playing scrabble, obsessive chores and laughing as though they care.

This morning my husband was dummied up in bed. He looked so vulnerable, partially hidden under the covers. Like a pre-corpse. He turned to me finally, stirring they say, he stirred and softly said, “You don’t love me anymore, do you?” I could have stabbed myself a thousand times.

My husband is the youngest of them all. He’s the kindest. He has a sterling character.
While my husband is showering I go downstairs for breakfast. I’m wearing my shorts with sandals. Burr gives my legs a rapid once-over which only I see. I think.

Burr and I rarely speak. Once he and I and my husband happened to be in a ski lodge at a table drinking our hot chocolate – without the others – and I started complaining about the obesity epidemic. Burr is very lean. He runs. But he’s got a logical mind.

“It’s not such a crime to be overweight,” Burr said. I knew he was defending the girth of his wife. As I mentioned, she has thick legs and arms and she reminds me of a taller than usual troll.

“Some people just have a different type of metabolism,” he continued. “It’s not their fault if they can’t control their weight.”

I didn’t respond. I didn’t want to conjure up Mahatma. My husband was ignoring the whole thing. He changed the subject.

Mahatma’s daughter is 5 years old, with blond curls, but not very pretty. Mahatma plays up the hair, and lets the kid run wild. Undressing at dinner, screaming and running in circles around other restaurant eaters. Isn’t that darling? The kid sticks her stinky unclean fingers into our food and screams when admonished. The temper tantrum lasts until Mahatma finally says time out and carries the bundle of flesh outside.

Burr stays out of it. When Mahatma speaks, everyone listens. Like the old commercial.

My husband doesn’t particularly love children. We certainly will never give birth to any. But he never complains about his brothers’ brats. He’s a family man in his own way.

I’m older than my husband by ten years. That’s one reason they all shun me. The crone who robbed the cradle. And I’m still better looking than all of them.

Last night my husband and I made love and I started fantasizing. It was awful, this intrusion of images. I did everything to push back the thoughts.

I would never betray my husband. I was fantasizing about Burr. Burr was in my husband’s body. I was kissing Burr, I was stroking him. Afterwards I attempted sleep but Burr was still beside me, in the breathing.

Now here in the Summer Mountains the precious wind blows. The families are strewn about: one brother and his wife stroll around town buying clothes at the resort shops; the other brother and kin have gone down to the river and are diving off the rocks. My husband has tagged along with them. I’ve stayed behind.

I decide to get some exercise and grab a jump rope that’s lying on the porch. I begin jumping next to the house, one, two, three, I jump for a few minutes and I’m working up a sweat. All of a sudden my right foot turns in and I land on my ankle. Boom! I’m down on the grass, hollering with pain, yelling Damn Goddamned Shit!

I’m not there doubled over in agony for more than ten seconds when I hear the screen door slam open and shut; then Mahatma’s standing on the porch looking down at me, laughing. “What, did you hurt yourself with my kid’s jump rope?” she needles. The pain is unbearable, I yell, “Bitch!” She turns serious, like she’s swallowed a bone. She sucks in her blowfish face.

Then the door slams again and Burr quickly steps down to my side. He helps me up with his strong arms. They feel different from my husband’s. Yes both men are rather hairless; but Burr’s arms are longer, or more pumped. Mahatma now sticks close and yammers about an ambulance as we head into the house. Burr lays me down on the rented-house couch, lumpy, soft, garden pillows under my head. Mahatma’s giving me an evil eye. And she’s wiping her face. She’s sweating.

Burr has gotten out the ice pack and we’ve decided not to call the EMTs. So Mahatma yaps out orders: “Kids, keep playing scrabble! Burr, get the laundry out of the dryer!”

I say, go ahead Burr, I’ll live. I move my foot in a circle. Eventually I can put some weight on it. I hobble up the stairs and into our attic bedroom. For two hours I hear Mahatma downstairs barking.

Soon everyone’s back from their jaunts. The story gets told in whispers round and round. Some laughter. My husband comes upstairs and consoles me and we spend the evening lying on top of the quilted double bed, holding hands.

“What is it? What’s missing?” No, that’s not my husband asking me those questions.

Every family member is Happy. Happier than Happy. Whitewashed Houses. Dust-less Interiors.

But Eee’s husband farts in supermarkets, big loud disgusting farts. And Mahatma stopped communicating with her parents over an inheritance years ago.

Knock knock. Repeat. Respect: they’re laughing on the inside. Lots of footfalls up and down the corridor. Some voices.

“You guys okay in there?” It’s Eee on the other side of our bedroom door.

My husband looks over at me. “We’re fine thanks,” he calls back. He knows that Eee and I had a blow-out during a sushi lunch several months ago. We were talking about land development. I said, “That’s right, everyone’s razing all the wildernesses that still exist.” She didn’t like that. She and her hubby had just cleared a lot on the side of this mountain for their wonderful log home with proposed heated floors and that contemporary yet aren’t-we-rustic-and-environmentally-astute feel.

She turned ugly. “You’re a disaster!” she yelled. “I don’t know how he stays with you!!” She then banged her fists on the table and rose from the table, glowering.

“Eee, don’t leave,” I said calmly. She huffed off. A few days later she telephoned to apologize. I told her to forget the whole incident. Of course she hasn’t and neither will I. Ever.

My husband didn’t say much about the fight. We have a silent understanding. He just wants me to be his wife forever.

The next few days my ankle is wrapped in gauze and still swollen. I putter around the house.

Why is my husband my brother? Every morning I wake up and say those first words of the day: I don’t belong here. I say them in my mind and I am an alien feeding off my own body.

That was terribly nauseating, that first morning years ago, when I initially realized I had this sickness. I went for a long walk, past fortresses of rocks. Stopped to examine the trash blown into the crook of sidewalk curbs. Stopped to sit on a cold spine bench and rock myself slowly and rattle in the wind.

I’ve been out of control since then. “Why are you always watching me”? I demand when my husband is in front of the TV or going through his papers.

Never any rancor from him. Nope. He’s the one who saved someone’s life when he was five years old for God’s sake.

I have to learn to shut my big trap. I was bitching at my husband again one day as we were leaving our apartment and the next door neighbor was poised at his threshold, deep in inhale mode, listening in on my tirade.


Our vacation is almost over. One weekend to go. Eee’s daughter is arriving today, driving up from her internship as a bio-engineer at some lab. She’s on the fast track to scientific distinction.

Everybody’s at home now waiting for the daughter. Eee and her husband love this girl. Their other daughter is younger, about to enter college, I remember her as a young teen when she was lithe and rebellious, now I realize she will probably look just like Eee in about five years. But the older one is adored and therefore untouchable by time or fate.

I can hear cicadas even through the banging of pots, the twiddling of plates being set on the large table, kids jumping, adults making nicey-nice. The women are busy preparing lunch in honor of the homecoming.

The tank pulls up to the house and the young lovers make their entrance. Ms. Scientist and boyfriend/fiance.

Ms. Scientist looks skinny but happy. “We’re preparing for the Marathon,” she says. Her large breasts are much appreciated by fianc. She’s wearing preppy shorts and slip-on sandals and her feet are cute even though they sink inwards. No arches. This suits her personality, modest, but with a passive-aggressive va-fan-gu.

We’re all sitting at the table with patriotic fare on our plates: potato salad, burgers, chips, soda — except Mahatma, she’s a vegetarian, she gets to eat lettuce and tabouleh and drink cranberry juice.

The conversation is all about how Ms. Scientist’s summer is going. Fianc (not tall but Ms. Scientist is into him with his tousled hair and washed brain) gets to chime in occasionally. They first met when he moved in as her roommate. He fell into a sweet deal and he knows it. He’s gotten cozy with his potential father-in-law who‘s a CEO somewhere. It’s all about the finances.

The conversation hones in on Ms. Scientist’s work. I ask if they use animals over there, at the lab.

Mahatma quickly answers: “Testing on animals is so important for us all.” Ms. Scientist drinks from her bubbly blue tumbler, smart princess, all eyes loving her up.

I’m feeling a shooting burn start at my feet; it fans out into every inch and stings all my pores until it finally arrives at my mouth.

“But Mahatma, aren’t you a member of PETA?” I ask.

I usually never speak to these people as a group. It’s a mob mentality.

“Yes I am,” Mahatma answers. “Proud to be one but I don’t agree with everything they espouse.”

“So vivisection is acceptable?” I ask.

Mahatma swallows the last of her leafy meal. “When it furthers the human race, when it helps us to live longer and healthier lives, yes I wholeheartedly endorse it.” She’s looking at me with hard brown eyes and her unplucked eyebrows spread out over half her forehead. “I’m not the one wearing leather shoes,” she says pointedly.

“Well,” I say. “What a crock. I think that every vivisectionist should first offer his children up for experimentation and only then can he have an opinion on the matter.”

The family takes a panicky breath. The children cover their mouths. Someone sputters and chokes on her glass of 100-teaspoon sugar-filled soda.

“Oh no you don’t!” Mahatma huffs. Eee chimes in, the men grumble. Before they can go on and on I leave the room.

My husband follows me. We head to our bedroom. He locks the door behind us.

“Are we holing up?” I ask.

My husband sits on the bed carefully, so as not to disturb the pattern of the universe. “You feel the same way I do,” I say to him. “You know you do!”

He looks at me. “Big dog,” he says. It’s one of his endearments for me. It describes my eating style. Sometimes I even lick my plate clean.

We both laugh.

“Can’t we just leave these mountains?” I ask.

His hair is so straight, Indian hair. He’s got a cleft in his chin. My mother always admired cleft chins. She thought they were special, for special people. My husband looks like an actor, a real actor whom I glimpse occasionally in a movie. Seeing this actor always saddens me. Well, I used to feel lust. And I did marry my husband during that first flush. We eloped.

He smiles. “Just this one last weekend, we can do it, please?” He knows everything about me, even my blind spots.

We venture back out into the house and the atmosphere has turned subdued. Children are playing cards, Mahatma and Eee and the young lovebirds, Ms. Scientist and fianc, have left for green market shopping.

Burr doesn’t look up from his newspaper.

Tomorrow we’re all supposed to caravan down to the carnival for our last stab at togetherness.

The rest of the day I spend sulking behind a poker face.

In the morning comes the crazy tumult.

But the carnival is boring. We all splinter off into small groups.

Now it’s just my husband and me walking past food counters, cotton candy makers. We find a row of game stalls and my husband has his try at target hitting. He used to play baseball, they called him Babe in college but he went on to found his own business at a tender age. He comes from entrepreneurial stock.

He wins me a prize, a giant stuffed giraffe. I used to cherish my toy giraffe when I was a child, it was my favorite, along with the donkey.

But my husband doesn’t know about that, or about how my mother drove by herself into the city during her last weeks alive, and bought me a giraffe. My mother was so shy about showing affection and she offered me the gift, wrapped in expensive paper, with such tenderness, like an angel’s kiss. I snorted when I saw it and told her to take it back.

I wish I could explain myself to her. Just recently I dreamt I was sitting at her feet telling her how much I loved her. Aw shucks, she seemed to convey, smiling in her self-deprecating manner.

My husband has to use one of the porta-potties. I wait in the midst of the sea of trodden grass, passed over by teenagers in love. I’m alone in a shaft of sunlight.

Suddenly I behold Ms. Scientist, or rather a woman who resembles her mighty closely. The woman is holding a child by the hand. She is older than the adored one, more sophisticated, and so very happy. I realize I’m seeing Ms. Scientist in ten years.

Mrs. Scientist, settled with a family of her own, getting everything she ever desired.

Not my future.

Then they all appear at once. The family converges on me from different directions. Burr carrying his banana-curls daughter in his arms. She’s screaming about going to see the ‘Real Cows.’ Mahatma at their side takes over. “This way”! She orders. All the siblings with their spouses and kids charge Burr and Mahatma and I am caught up in the mass of bodies. The family herds me along to another kind of prison, the animal pens.

My husband pushes through the batch and grabs my hand. He holds it so very tightly. ‘Shhhhh.’ He’s keeping me safe, he’s keeping me quiet.

And they all press me down ever so permanently into the bottomless pit of the tribe.


Amy LaBonte is an artist and writer, researcher and facilitator, live and work in South Florida.


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