You’re eight or nine and you can barely fit in the pantry because it’s mostly taken up by a broken washer and dryer that have been broken since they’ve been here. The kind of detritus that people pick up thinking they’ll fix it one day but things never really ever get fixed, and so you’re climbing on them to grab a can of Beefaroni and maybe a Devil Dog for after, and this seems good even though your mom is mad that you drink too much soda and eat too much “crap” when you’re here, but your father wasn’t allowed to have treats when he was a kid, even when he wasn’t being beaten, and so he has snacks everywhere, and you have asthma and you’re breathing in cigarette smoke and the sliding wooden doors to the front room are shut and sealed because heat is too expensive in the winter, but there’s something comforting here for moments at a time.

Years later you might realize that there’s something about eating trash, or something that somebody might consider trash, or something somebody might consider the kind of thing that somebody who is trash would eat, and there’s especially something about it if you’re doing it under threat of ridicule (“Aren’t you going to fucking eat?”) or self-recrimination (You piece of shit. This is disgusting.), but some people grow up eating a lot of food out of cans and maybe some were picky eaters, but also maybe it was just how it was and there was a warmth to the simplicity and it doesn’t really mean you’re bad and shouldn’t be here even if right now you’re in a house with a carved wooden bannister and a fainting couch that you would’ve called a mansion when you were a kid and these people around you now somehow consider something like a middle class home even though the poorest of them makes six figures and you used to think middle class was like 30k a year because at least you weren’t on welfare.

You only should have had the two drinks you said you’d have before eating, but you knew you wouldn’t, so you wonder why you even say things like that so you can be disappointed in yourself later. And now everybody knows that you apparently missed the Boeuf en Croûte step from trash to respectable enough to be here, and since you’re the type of person to have a master’s degree in linguistics but never not laugh at the French word for beef, now they also all know that you didn’t know you could even put steak in a pastry, and they all know that you don’t know French (and aren’t even the type of person who can put on a French accent to say food the right way), and also you tried to be funny and make a Beefaroni joke that turned into an anecdote when nobody laughed, and so they all know that you lived on a steady diet of canned pasta when you were a kid, and also “Oh my god, how could they smoke with you inside?”

So, you slip away and stop and look at the stairs because you don’t know what else to do and you wonder why the recesses on old wood bannisters are always the darkest part. Does it dry that way or do people go through the trouble of using different types of stain on different parts of the railing, or is it just a trick of light? Maybe the darkest coating just flows into the deepest recesses and then if people’s fingers can’t reach in there, or just don’t, it settles that way like silt, but you’d think that people like this would really try to get in there and keep things nice even if only for appearance’s sake in that appearance is still a consideration and not something just drawn on and then drawn from so that everybody knows who you should be really nice to and who you can be just a little rude to and who you’re allowed to forget the second you turn away from them.

You’re at the part of the night where somebody will notice your arm when you reach for something or adjust your shirt for at least the tenth time too many and they’ll want to talk about their tattoos and ask about yours and you’ll demur or find an excuse to leave the room because you’ve established that this isn’t a place for even joking earnestness and we’re not doing this, but if you can’t get away, you can drink faster and maybe by the time they finish the story about their family crest or the flower they used to pick with their grandmother or whatever, you’ll be drunk enough to say that your mother cried when you came home with your first tattoo and it’s covered up now because sometimes 17-year-olds do things they don’t agree with later, and there’s a joke in there about making your mother cry for no reason and it’s not funny, but you can’t mention most of what you were up to from the ages of like 16 to 28 in your current company anyways, and we’re not doing this, but now the thing that made your mother cry is covered by what the person you’re talking to caught a glimpse of, which is the head of a Laotian demon that you saw a monument of when you were on day whatever of an opium binge in Vientiane, and entered the demon’s mouth into the darkness of hell and climbed and climbed up these pitch-black stairs inside the monument and the tree of life was at the top as you came out into the light and you climbed toward it and there were tears in your eyes and it sounds stupid but you were real fucked in the head and it meant a lot at the time and, no. I said we weren’t doing this.

© Brenden Layte
[This piece was the winner of the 2021 Forge Flash Fiction Competition]