Short Story of the Month: ‘One Big Happy Family’ by Joel Mak

This piece is part of our ongoing series ‘Short Story of the Month’. Every month, the Writer’s Edit team selects their favourite work from submissions and works with the author to refine and publish their writing.

‘One Big Happy Family’

So you wake up and it’s a Tuesday. One of those Tuesdays where you’re glad it isn’t Monday anymore because last night’s meeting with the directors went down like cheap Chinese takeout. It’s all bright and sunny outside and that’s good, a nice slice of reward, because like every other day of this long March month you’ve been woken up at four by fornicating neighbours, left to toss and turn till seven when you do actually have to get out of bed, lifting the blanket off you like a magician unveiling the rabbit, not so much energised as bored of being tired and tired of being bored.

It’s during the morning piss that you forget the contents of your dreams, that strong thrust into the bowl discharging all characters and plots, leaving nothing but one word summaries: surreal, recurring, wet. Tuesday’s a no-shave day. The bristles haven’t come to avenge the brothers they lost the morning before, and the black’s always added colour to your pale corporate intern face anyway.

The toothpaste tube is rolled up to its cap and you remember that scene in which Jackie Chan places a tube under his big toe and squeezes the last drop out, an early morning reminder about your personal economy. Of course when you do it the tube slips, slides, and skittles away to the corner of the bathroom, those unreachable grimy corners, sick and uncared for, and none of you will even agree to draw straws as to who’s going to clean that shit up. Now the tube’s in that corner’s ecosystem, white polyethylene casing rubbing against the mildew’s unnamed, scientifically undocumented offspring. You resist the urge to scream and ask who was supposed to buy the toothpaste and shatter the illusion of peace at two past seven in the morning.

It’s okay to brush without paste sometimes – you learned that from an article titled ‘Ten Things Dental Care Manufacturers Are Hiding From You’. The bristles of your toothbrush are not unlike something you’d find in a Vietnam War veteran’s bootlocker, something buried all those years ago. You disguise the act with Listerine, knowing that you’ll be the last one to give in and get the paste, oral hygiene be damned.

Some men eat in boxers. Some men eat fully dressed like the show’s about to start at the dining table. Joe’s somewhere in between those extremes: singlet on jeans, socks collecting dust off the floorboards. His belt’s never tightened at this point of day, allowing his buttered raisin toast to navigate the tracks of his intestinal system unencumbered.

Everybody has a morning ritual. Yours involves coffee, cereal, and complete silence. Joe has other ideas, including a tablet leaning on a stand, no headphones. Laughter, canned or possibly forced at gunpoint, blares from one of Jimmy Fallon’s clips. He’s playing charades with Ewan McGregor, a retired basketball player, and a singer he doesn’t recognise. Fallon, miming the movie title ‘Trainspotting’, is the only one who doesn’t need a shave.

The faint light streaming in through the kitchen window sketches parallelograms on the wooden dining table. You can see sesame seeds, cracker crumbs, and bits of cheese scattered and lodged between the splits in the wood, reachable only with a toothpick, but nobody has time for that. You don’t even know where the Lysol wipes are. McGregor, who’s on Fallon’s team, thinks he’s skiing.

Grunts and nods are exchanged. This is the language you communicate in at this time of day. You’ve read the back of this Family-Sized cereal box a million times and every day you learn something new. Collect all hockey cards. Win four seats and round-trip flights to the Memorial Cup. Go to this site for full contest rules. 24% of your daily fibre content. What the fuck is thaumatin, you ask yourself. Half your mind on the lack of toothpaste, the other half on Obi-Wan Kenobi yelling at Anakin that he was the chosen one. Capitalise that shit, send the Chosen One to get the toothpaste.


Half past seven Mich’s alarm rings. One of those old-school clocks with bells for ears, jumping around her bedside table like a hot potato in a hand. An alarmed clock. The din the thing makes, a modern day air raid siren. Fifth day after she moved in, you overheard the other housemates, Tony and Matt, talking about the contraption. Matt simply shrugged and said, ‘No clue man, I’m not here in the morning to hear it, and I’ve never heard it any other time.’

Nothing gets through Matt. Worker of the red-eye shift, simpleton of the highest order. Mr Average, a guy who actually wanted – and got to – play an extra in some TVA soap.

‘Like loud, man. Some high school somewhere’s missing a recess bell.’
Another shrug. ‘Why would she do a thing like that?’
‘Like what?’
‘Steal a recess bell.’
In this house, you’ve learned to breathe like a guru.


There’s a sailor’s uniform draped over the couch, a Captain’s sparkling white except for beer stains and very noticeable thick red stripes forming the contours of a woman’s lips. Tony snores like he’s in a competition, as though he’s the wolf in a dream trying to blow down the Three Little Pigs’ house. You heard him come home last night, or rather this morning, missing the keyhole repeatedly, belching like a toad before the storm.

Like most in the service industry, Tony parties on a Monday evening. You realised this much the first week you moved in, unsure of whether to make yourself at home in your own home and do the whole boxers-at-the-breakfast-table thing, or to ‘home’ yourself gradually, show up in pyjamas first, then take off the layers as the days go by, use the weather as an excuse and small talk fodder, before finally shedding everything save the Simpsons boxers. Boxers at the table is one of your last few existing comforts in life. Come eight o’clock you’re out the door in corporate attire, hung around the neck with a tie, strapped around the waist with a belt, and squeezed around the cranium with a headache; but at the breakfast table you want to be free, goddammit, feel the room’s draught navigating the forest that is your body hair, no fabric sticking to your balls.

But back then, you remember clear as daylight, you were in your sweater, shorts over boxers, cereal soaking up the milk, coffee rings in your mug; Tony, whose room sits off the kitchen, yanked his door open, scratching his upper thigh through his jeans and wearing a wrinkled shirt that he must’ve slept in. He walked like one does in an earthquake with a hand waving in the air for balance and support. One hand landed on your shoulder. He croaked a ‘Hey man’ before throwing up in your bowl of Honeycombs.


After way too many snoozes, Mich stomps out. She’s the type of woman who has a body to die for and knows it, shows it off when she walks into the kitchen wearing no bra under a loose white tee, briefs so tight against her ass you couldn’t fit a love note in there, her untouched hair with a life of its own on weekday mornings. You’ve long stopped getting erections from the sight of the long-legged lady coming into your life on mornings like this; grudges do that to you, and maybe those episodes of doors being busted open causing leaping hearts, a smooth-skinned figure jumping into your bed and on you, starting that tantalising slow grind, followed by sudden sobriety and mistaken identities – maybe they don’t need to be elaborated upon here.

On the way to the bathroom, she lifts a hand up as if to say hi, though it looks more like a Valley girl saying ‘talk to the hand’ or ‘whatever’. Joe grunts his grunt. Your eyes narrow as you amp up the concentration, reading the amount of folate and pantothenate in your Shreddies (you no longer have Honeycombs for breakfast), ignoring her presence. In the bathroom, the tap is wrestled clockwise and water gushes out before the stream is adjusted to environmentally friendly rates. The drone in Tony’s room continues at a steady rhythm, like he’s a professional musician keeping time in his sleep instead of a bumbling busboy.

Silence in the kitchen in between Joe’s buffering clips. Joe never laughs out loud. He does this thing where he breaks into a smile and his nostrils flare to release a burst of air. If your face hadn’t been so unemotive when he invited you to watch this great clip he just found – opening up his arms to housemate conviviality – as though you were staring into the coffin of someone you didn’t know, you two might be more talkative now. Shit wasn’t funny, guy took offence, that’s all.

When the shower spurts to life, the snoring stops and half a minute later Tony is out. You immediately check for signs on his face indicating that food might come back up the wrong way. His posture is askew, a slight stoop around the hips, a trail of saliva around his lower left lip, but nothing to be alarmed of this morning. He staggers over to the space in between your chair and the sink, cups his hand underneath the tap and drinks like a bird at a water fountain. Alcohol reeks in his sweat and you like smelling it as much as you’d like bathing in a concrete mixer.

Hydrated, Tony collapses in the chair at the boss’ end of the table, hands supporting the weight of his head. You just know from the way he smiles that he’s about to regale tales of last night: ‘Bros. Last night. Whew, man.’ Joe entertains Tony the way he doesn’t entertain you. Once in a while you see the two of them curled up on opposite ends of the couch, dangerously little space in between their asses, watching Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down back-to-back for the seventh time, machine guns ringing through the entire block.

Nautical-themed party. Bought this Captain’s costume in a thrift shop.’

Joe asks if it’s the one on the couch and Tony’s eyes are illuminated by last night’s glorious memories, which will no doubt be expanded upon. He gets back to his feet, goes over to admire the imprint of the lady protagonist’s lips along the collar, chest, and shoulder sleeves. When the shower stops you can hear the ventilation fan whirring away. Back to the cereal box. For some reason Tony’s decided to put on the uniform again. His socks and briefs don’t match and if you tell him you think he might have cancer in his nether regions, he’d think it was a compliment and thank you for looking at his balls. With a smile you’re surprised hasn’t been introduced to a boxer’s left uppercut, Tony winks.

She’s got my hat. I got a picture somewhere. Nothing but the hat, dudes.’

Mich swings the door open again. Venom levels are high. If your eyes dart to the hem of her tee it isn’t to snatch a look at her legs, it’s just where you look to avoid her green eyes. She casts her gaze from your bare torso, cereal box obscuring the view of your chest, to Joe’s bird’s nest of a head, then to Tony who’s halfway through drunkenly buttoning his sailor’s coat, bottom to top, pantsless. Breath held, you’re all giving her the attention one gives to the Dalai Lama about to start a speech, the object of which is in her left hand. She looks like she’s about to sing ‘I’m A Little Teapot’.

Somebody really needs to go get toothpaste, guys. It’s like a dollar at Dollarama.’
‘Nothing’s a dollar at Dollarama anymore.’ It’s not a retort; Joe’s just real fond of facts.
‘Yeah! More like Twodollarama!’ cackles Tony. Mich lasers him a look that stops him and anyone else from suggesting Toonie Town.
‘Whose turn is it?’ Mich fumes, turning her head back to you, which makes you quit staring. The question fails to camouflage a statement that it is, in fact, your turn.

You sigh and slide your chair back, scratching the surface of the scarred floorboard. You pick up your bowl, the inside of which hosts outlines of milky clouds and soggy Shreddies. It’s left stacked on top of all the other bowls and plates and pots caked with rice, spinach leaves in between fork tines, knives coated in peanut butter, surrounded by a moat of decomposing chicken bones and pizza crusts in the sink. You slide past the half-dressed Captain Tony, the hotel slippers you stole from the Holiday Inn slapping away as you march towards your room which is thankfully the furthest from the kitchen. The tone of Mich’s voice echoing across the hallway, asking if you’re going to do your dishes, sounds like nails on a blackboard. Just as you close your door, you hear the front door latch click and you know Matt is back home from the postal depot. Like a motherfucking Yoda guru, your breath is. Nobody has time for this shit. You tell yourself the dishes will be done when someone buys the toothpaste. Family-Sized.


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Joel Mak

Born in Melbourne, raised in Hong Kong and Malaysia, and an alumni of the University of Sydney, Joel Mak currently lives in Montreal. An ESL teacher for adults by trade, he also writes about music for Aphramag and Montreal Rampage. His work can be found at .

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