ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"The Many Uses of Soap", a story by Salvatore Difalco

            Rain fell steadily all morning and into the afternoon, tapping the roof and the eaves and spattering the windows such that the outside world looked like a greasy, gray sludge. Plans for Saturday golf, soccer, and a charming farmer’s market just outside the city were scotched. By one o’clock everyone started feeling a little stir crazy. A late lunch of chicken fingers, fries, and peas proved to be at once tasteless and chaotic. The youngest child sobbed because she wanted to go outside and play in the yard. “I don’t care about the mud, Mommy! I don’t care!”

            “Not till you finish your peas,” said the father, manning the head of the table in a soiled undershirt. He needed a haircut and hadn’t shaved in days. “You have to —”

            “Mommy I want to go out!”

            “Sweetie, you have to finish your peas,” the father said without raising his voice, indeed speaking just above a whisper.

            Peas flew off the child’s plate and rolled across the pink Formica tabletop. The father vainly tried to catch them before they hit the floor, his thick hands grasping air.

            “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”

            The other girls argued with passion and vehemence.

            “She is not your friend,” the oldest said. “She’s a total snake and if I were you I’d stay away from her.”

            “Oh right, and now I’m going to do what you tell me to do.”

            “I’m telling you for your own good.”

            “You just don’t want me to be friends with her,” seethed the middle child. “You’re jealous because she’s cool and you’re a dork.”

            “Mom! She called me a dork again!”

            A taboo word invited the intervention of the mother of this mess. All three daughters shared their mother’s corn silk hair, cornflower blue eyes, and short tempers. How not one of them had succeeded in inheriting the father’s lugubrious brown eyes and horse-brown hair, both puzzled and depressed him. They looked like the children of an Aryan warlord, not of a stoop-shouldered, swarthy Mediterranean type. Moreover nothing in their comportment or behaviour remotely echoed his. 

            “Simmer down girls,” the mother said with absolute confidence, her shoulders square, her head erect, her eyes penetrating. “What did I say about calling your sister a dork? If I hear you say that again I will wash your mouth out with soap.”

            “Ha,” said the middle child, shaking a stern finger, “that’s child abuse. I will report you in two seconds if you come at me with a soap bar, Mom. I swear to God. Do not even think of it, I’m warning you.”

            “Ew,” said the smallest child, still hiccupping from her sobbing fit. “I don’t wanna eat soap. It tastes yucky. I don’t wanna eat it, Mommy. I hate soap. I hate it!”

            “It’s just an expression,” the mother said. “I’m not going to make anyone eat soap. I just mean there will be repercussions if you call your sister a dork again.”

            “Huh,” said the middle child, “you just threatened to poison me and you want me to play it off like nothing, like you just said some kind of old timey expression that doesn’t really mean anything? What is wrong with you?”

            “You know,” the father intoned, “back in the old days, kids would get their mouths washed out with soap when they acted up. In fact, my mother once —”

            “Okay, so she’s not a dork,” said the middle child. “But she is a loser.”

            “Don’t call her a loser either,” the mother said.

            “Why can’t we be truthful in this house!” cried the middle child. “We live in a house of lies! It’s so unfair! I live in a house of lies!”   

            “Now girls,” the father said, “I know these are —”

            “The only loser in this house,” said the oldest child, “is that moron right there who hangs out with snakes.”

            The youngest started weeping again. “I wanna go outside!” she cried, banging her fists on the table. “I wanna go outside!”

            “Keep your voice down,” the father said.

            “I wanna go outside!”

            The father leaned forward. “Now I told you —”

            “Well, maybe you girls should just go to your rooms,” the mother said. “A little quiet time will do everyone some good.”

            “Fine by me,” said the oldest.

            “Fine,” said the middle child crossing her arms and stomping her feet.

            They vacated the table. The youngest child hoisted herself off her chair and headed for the mudroom.

            “You are not going out there,” the mother said.

            “Ah, let the kid go,” the father said. “When we were —”

            “I repeat you are not going out there, little lady. You are not going out in that filthy mud. Not on my watch.”

            “You’re not the boss of me!” cried the child, tears and spit flying off her face.

            “Now now,” the father said. “You better —”

            “Come with me!” The mother grabbed the child by the arm and violently dragged her off to her bedroom.

            “Don’t hurt her,” the father said after them. “She’s not that strong. She’s just...”

            He sat at the kitchen table alone. He rapped his knuckles on the pink Formica. It was a cool table. He could not remember buying it. Indeed, he’d had no part whatsoever in its selection. He glanced around the kitchen. Same went for most of it.

            He heard mother and daughter arguing upstairs. One time when he was a kid his mother washed his mouth out with soap after he lipped off to her. A half-hearted effort, in retrospect. But he could still taste the soap and still feel his mother’s hot wrath. His wife and middle daughter continued shouting. It was pretty much like that every day, even when it didn’t rain. He spotted a pea resting under a plate and teased it out with his finger. He rolled it to and fro and then flicked it off the table. Yeah, even when it didn’t rain it was like that.


Salvatore's short prose has recently appeared in Cafe Irreal, Brilliant Flash Fiction and Gone Lawn.

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