This is a repost of one of my earlier stories, my mother’s recounting of a trip with eccentric relatives. My mother, Kathleen Swain did the illustration.
People came and went. The waitress cleared the other tables and pointedly checked on Mother a few times, staring at the uneaten breakfasts and serving her enough coffee refills to float a battleship. She dawdled as long as she dared, hoping her nemeses would come back to retrieve her before the arrest. She occupied her time well, alternating between enumerating Cookie’s and Uncle Riley’s craziness, beating herself up for being idiotic enough to go on a trip with them, and trying to come up with sanitary products for a dog using stolen restaurant napkins. All that coffee finally paid off. Concerned the waitress would think she was trying to skip out on the check, Mother asked if she could leave her things at the table while she freshened up. “Of course,” answered the waitress snidely, not quite daring her to try climbing out the bathroom window.
When Cookie and Uncle Riley eventually returned from the Emergency Room, they paid the tab and were on the road again. Determined not to spend the day with Prissy dripping on her shoulder and Barbie’s hair slapping her in the face, Mother wedged herself tightly against her suitcase hoping to keep them off her. Barbie was deterred, but Prissy was athletic and totally unconcerned that Mother hated dogs in heat.
No longer grateful for Cookie’s and Uncle Riley’s generous invitation, Mother’s good nature was wearing thin. She hated Barbie and Prissy. The oppressing heat (both kinds), the smell (ditto), and the company were making her critical. The best was yet to come when they got stuck in road construction in a crowded residential area of Omaha, Nebraska that afternoon. Traffic was at a standstill. At 104 degrees, the odor of decomposition mixed with exhaust had peeked . Prissy’s news had spread. They were virtually trapped in construction, dogs circling the car, trying to jump in. Uncle Riley was cursing and driving as fast as a person can in a one-lane construction zone. Everyone else in the car was able to roll up their windows to keep the dogs out, but one valiant fellow jumped in through Mother’s stuck window, over her suitcase to claim his prize. Down to one lane of slow-moving traffic, all the loser dogs running alongside the stinking car, barking and trying to get in to join the party. When they finally got clear of construction, Cookie and Uncle Riley (animal lovers) made a detour to get the winning dog somewhere back near his old neighborhood to expel him, though he felt the honeymoon was far from over. He had enjoyed his romantic limousine ride. It looked like they might actually be on their way again when Uncle Riley spotted a veterinary office and whipped through three lanes of traffic to get Prissy some special care. Even though that killed a couple of more hours and their travel budget, the hormone changes, anesthesia, and post-surgical soreness did make Prissy a better travel companion.
The financial set-back was concerning. They ate Beanie-Weenies for dinner, put everyone on the lookout for cheap gas prices, and drove through the night to get to Cousin Nellie’s house. As they approached around two in the morning, Cookie hesitantly mentioned, “Now, I need to warn you. Nellie is not a very good housekeeper.” This was pretty jarring news since Cookie’s own house looked worse than the city dump last time Mother was invited in.
“Not a very good housekeeper,” was an extreme compliment. Nellie was a hoarder. There was a path leading from the front door to the kitchen. The stove was buried under debris. The door hung crazily open, revealing a pan of prehistoric barbecue. Every surface in the kitchen was totally covered with empty food containers, dirty dishes, and assorted trash. Maggots lounged in cereal bowls. Only one chair was available. Greasy curtains of cobwebs hung in the corners, ancient insect traps. Even Cookie and Uncle Riley seemed amazed at how the mess had grown since their last visit several years earlier. Nellie showed Cookie and Uncle Riley to a room where a cot had been cleared off and clean sheets provided. She thought Mother and Barbie could sleep on the sofa in the living room, the only piece of visible furniture in that room. Nellie was optimistic thinking Cookie and Uncle Riley could share the cot. Uncle Riley took one look and dragged Barbie’s inflatable pool lounger from the car, saying it would do just fine. Apparently, it didn’t because he woke Mother repeatedly, blowing it up again, and cursing that he’d rather sleep on a &^%$)! mortician’s slab.
Even though Mother had been longing to see Nellie, the overwhelming mess cured that. Thankfully, it was summer, and they were able to spend all their waking hours outdoors. Nellie and her husband Wayne devoted their time and energy to their manicured lawn with lush landscaping. They had cookouts at home and picnics at the nearby lake instead of visiting indoors and cooking at home. The tidy façade of the charming cottage and lovely yard belied the catastrophe indoors. All went well till the morning of the third day when Wayne took them all on a tractor ride and Mother got bumped off. A trip to the Emergency Room confirmed it was a broken tail-bone. The doctor sent her out with an inflatable donut and a perfect excuse to go home. Cookie, Uncle Riley, and even Barbie were thrilled to cut the visit short. They contrived sad faces to wave goodbye to Nellie and Wayne as they escaped southward.
Well, the broken tail-bone wasn’t a total joy. Mother reclined her seat till she found a position where she could ride without screaming at every bump and curve in the road. Prissy was still sore from her recent surgery, so she wasn’t jumping around a lot either. Unable to sit upright due the pain in her rear, Mother couldn’t even enjoy the scenery, but was still able to take full advantage of the nauseating scent of cadaveric soup. They were all still on the lookout for cheap gas due to the Prissy’s unexpected surgery and Barbie’s visit to the Emergency Room. Uncle Riley was very concerned about “making good time,” so he drove as late as possible, dragged Barbie out of bed early over Cookie’s objections, made them get breakfast out of a service station vending machine, and pushed on South. The second night they slept in the hot, stinking car because Uncle Riley drove way too late to get a motel. The mosquitoes feasted, but everyone else was in misery. Barbie didn’t even have to get up the next morning. They were on the road long before daylight. Cookie was getting testy as Uncle Riley wrenched parental control. She was the mother and the educator. This just wasn’t right.
As they drove on, Uncle Riley dropped a little bomb. He’d starting having chest pain, again. Again!!!! Mother didn’t like to ask nosy questions, but how long had he been having chest pain? Well….not long, just a few months. Cookie broke the news matter of factly…..”Well, Riley had been having chest pain for a few months and was scheduled for open heart surgery as soon as they got back, but he’d quit smoking and felt so much better, they’d decided to take this trip first.” Even though Uncle Riley wanted to make good time, he pulled over a couple of times to get out take NTG and lie down and rest in the grass on the side of the road. Cookie was so complacently sure Riley would get them home okay that Mother wanted to slap her. She hoisted herself gingerly off her inflatable donut and hobbled over to see if Uncle Riley wanted her to drive.
“You might ought’a try it. I was worried if I’d kill us all. If I live long enough to get home, I’m driving straight to the hospital. You know Cookie can’t drive, since her diabetes got bad. ” She tried to sit in the driver’s seat, but couldn’t bear any weight on her damaged rear end, devastated there was no way she could recline and drive. After riding two-thousand miles in a stinking dead man’s car with a dog in heat and the most repulsive kid in history, the visits to the Emergency Room, the miserable condition of Katie’s house, the broken tail bone, and now Riley’s chest pain, she was whipped. Hobbling away to the back of the car where she could bawl in private, she gave it her all: big, fat, stupid-looking tears jumped out of her eyes, splashing onto her dusty shoes. Her nose stopped up and her eyes got red. Wishing she’d never been born, she wept great, gasping snotty sobs, not caring who saw. Her life wasn’t worth living! She wallowed lower and lower, wishing she’d never been born. Her family was all crazy and if Bill ever found out about all this, her life wouldn’t be worth living. After this mess what else could happen?
God must have been listening. Hearing blast of a rifle at short range, she dropped to the ground and felt agonizing pain in her lower back. Knowing she had to have been hit at close range, and was surely done for, she waited for death silently where she lay. I’d be glad my misery was over, if I weren’t worried about my kids. What kind of a life will they have without me? Bill will probably marry a young floozy and their lives will be awful. Oh, Lord! Don’t let him dump them on his mama to raise.
Amidst her heavy thoughts, she was interrupted by Riley, who been rallied by the explosion and arisen from his grassy bower to amble over to check his back tires. Well, #$&@#$ ——-@#$, I was hoping that back right would hold till we got to your house and Bill could change it for me. The left rear is slick, and I only have one spare.
The irony of the situation hit her. The gunshot that felled her had only been a blowout ! It got funnier and funnier. Laughing was killing her back, so she pulled herself to her feet as she laughed, crossing her legs to keep from wetting her pants. A truck with a couple of teenage boys pulled over when they saw the bizarre group with the blowout. They had it fixed in less than five minutes.
She just struggled into the back seat collapsing on her cushion, leaving Uncle Riley to figure it out. She considered calling Daddy to come get them but decided she preferred a quick death by angina-induced car crash to a slow death by humiliation. Somehow they made it the last two hundred miles, slick tire and all. True to his word, when they got to our house Uncle Riley gave Cookie and Barbie ten minutes to use the bathroom before he headed back to Texas and straight to open-heart surgery.