Saturday, October 16

Tim Dowling – The Back of America’s Middle Kid Duty. Act. Normal | Family

I’m in my office shed, rushing to get some work done to clear my morning. I think an hour will do. A lot of time.

I send my wife a message that says, “Text me when you have it.” A few seconds later, she responds with the words: “Almost home.”

From across the garden I can see the dog running excitedly in circles around the kitchen. By the time I walk in, I find the middle one standing in the hallway, the light blocked by his tall frame, possibly even taller than when he left for the United States a year ago. A little knot of worry that has been lurking in my chest all this time suddenly loosens. I had forgotten it was there.

“Hey,” I say. “How was the flight?”

“Empty,” he says. “They gave me like seven beers. My pockets are full of them. “

“He was early,” says my wife, from somewhere behind him. We go into the kitchen.

“And did you get a negative test?” I say.

“Yes,” he says. “And two more from the airport I have to take.”

“Are you tired?” says my wife.

“So tired,” he says.

“You must have noticed the new extractor,” I tell him.

“You want to eat?” says my wife.

“Maybe later,” he says.

“And yes, we have mice,” I say. They both look at me.

“You have to work?” says my wife.

“I do, actually,” I say. “But only for an hour. At most.”

“Okay,” she says. “I will question him.”

The hour I spend in my office is difficult: like being confined to your room to write thank you letters on Christmas morning, when all you want to do is play with your new toy before the cheap batteries run out. wine. Through the window I see the middle one and his brothers at the kitchen table, laughing and using all the milk.

Over the course of the next week, the one in the middle begins his slow reintegration into quarantine: adjusting for the time difference, swapping his phone’s SIM card, shoving swabs up his nose, and leaving them out to post. In the meantime, I am concerned about how we can present ourselves as a family that has not gone crazy in their absence. We should act normal, I think, because we can’t do anything with our hair.

For that reason, I am sorry that it had to come so close to the day of stripping.

“Is there some kind of pickle shortage?” he says, watching me divide the spices among half a dozen sterilized jars.

“You can’t buy pickles like these,” I tell him. The older one walks in while reading on his open laptop.

“Is it pickle day already?” he says, wrinkling his nose at the smell of boiling vinegar.

“It is,” I say. “And I have numbered the lids of the jars so that we eat them in order.”

“What’s happening?” says the middle one.

“It helps me,” I tell him. “It assumes a future in which these pickles will be ready.” The youngest enters.

“I thought it smelled like pickling the day,” he says.

A televised soccer weekend eases the assimilation of the middleweight, but on Sunday night he eats chocolate from the wrong category.

“That’s mine!” yells my wife.

“It was in the closet,” he says.

“I’m afraid that kind of chocolate is not available to you,” he says. “You’ll have to get your own.”

“I am not allowed to go out!” he says.

“I don’t make the rules,” he says.

“You made all these rules,” I tell him.

“I want chocolate!” says the middle one.

Finally, after 10 days and three negative tests, the one in the middle puts on his shoes and goes out into the rainy afternoon. He does not return until after 8 pm.

“We ate without you,” I tell him.

“That’s fine,” he says. “I’ll do something.” He leaves the room and returns a minute later.

“There are bugs in the spaghetti!” he says, spreading the package. My wife stares at him.

“Weevils,” she says. “They won’t hurt you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not going to eat this,” he says. For a moment I see us as he should see us: people with crazy hair and pickled fingers, living in cozy symbiosis with parasites.

“I thought we got rid of them last time,” says my wife.

“Last time?” he says.

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