Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Strange Plots 7


The next day Grandpa called me, and this time I answered.

“I just had a message from Kay Titus,” he said, his voice awash in happiness. “She’s going to come and see me. And her son and grandson are coming with her. The one you showed me the picture of. Do you know what she said? She told me that her grandson told her that you were a devoted granddaughter, and that he couldn’t let you show him up.”

“Is that so?” I said. “If it’s a competition, I’m all in. Never let it be said that the Moores were shown up by the Tituses.”

We may be Tituses, so don’t get too uppity, my girl.”

“We may be Tituses, but we’re Tituses and Moores, and they’re just Tituses, so we can take ‘em.”

I always think I can take ‘em, but at this moment I was feeling my oats. My love language is attention. Maybe most people don’t consider getting under someone’s skin to be an accomplishment, but I was pretty tickled to find that I’d become a grain of sand in Vin’s shoe. It’s better to be feared than to be ignored.

I was curious to meet Vin’s family, too. What if they were all clones of him, and I had to be extra outrageous to break the ice and keep the conversation going? They’d all hate me by the end of the night. Grandpa wasn’t going to be any help, I could see that now. The day of the visit, he was at the front window every few moments twitching the curtain aside.

“Are they late?” he murmured. “Maybe the roads are getting icy. Maybe they decided not to come after all.”

“There’s still time, Grandpa,” I said, for the third time.

“But what if they don’t like me?” he fretted. “What if we don’t have anything to talk about? What if the test was wrong, and I’m not really related to these people?”

“It’s science, Grandpa!” I snapped. He accepted this humbly, allowing me to tuck him in his recliner as penance for my bad temper. You’d think that the elderly, having seen it all and done it all, would be blasé about new experiences, but Grandpa was all jitters. It was a shock to me to realize that he was even capable of being as anxious as he’d been over the past few weeks.

I’d finally settled him with one of his shows when the car pulled up out front. Instead of alerting Grandpa right away, I spied shamelessly. Vin got out, and Dan, and Kay, the gradations of red hair marking them all as family. Dan was all wiry energy, bouncing slightly as he kept turning to Vin to point out some feature of the neighborhood, the house, the universe around him. Kay didn’t bounce. She pulled out a cigarette and lit it, cupping her hands over the slight warmth of the frame. She smoked with purpose, then tossed the butt on the road and stamped it out with authority. My respect for her soared.

I opened the door to them and found myself engulfed in an embrace of shawls and beads and the competing scents of cigarette and hairspray.

“Oh baby, I’m so glad to finally meet you!” cried Kay in mountain twang, taking my face in her hands with the freedom of a cousin of umpteen removes. “Look at your gorgeous dark eyes. Vin, why didn’t you tell me how pretty she was? He never tells me any exciting details and it just makes me crazy.”

I fell in love. “Grandpa, I can tell this is going to be my favorite cousin. The Ramirezs better watch out.”

Grandpa headed straight for Kay, holding out his hands. She went right in for the hug, and the two of them embraced and shook together for a long moment. I shook right along with them. Look, there’s a time to be tough, and there’s a time to rejoice, and I think that your Grandfather finding his long lost family qualifies for any amount of sympathetic vibrations. Stop judging me.

“This is great, this is great!” Dan enthused, pumping my hand, appealing for a spark of affirmation in a smile, a head tilt, a murmur. “So good to meet you. I can’t believe this is finally happening. Who would have thought, you know?”

Vin stood a step or two removed, but he was smiling.

I’d thought we were going to delve right into the dark annals of family history, but it turns out that other people in the world like to warm up to each other first before they dig out all the skeletons and put them on display. I’d also expected to have to shake conversation along, but it turned out that other people had conversation-shaking talents as well. Dan laughed at his own stories with a manic Jimmy Fallon charm. Kay told it like it was and didn't take anything from anybody. I loved her, and she loved me, and we sassed each other with abandon.

Dan and I came back from being hilarious in the kitchen while refilling our drinks, to find Grandpa telling Vin boot-strapping stories of his young working days. Kay sat listening, but her focus was on Vin rather than Grandpa. 

“Honey, I’ve got to have a cigarette,” she said to me as I set my drink down on the table. “Do y’all mind if I step outside for a moment?”

“Let me get my coat and I’ll go with you,” I said. We sheltered outside on the porch while she took deep fervent pulls of smoke.

“It does my heart good to see Vin in there talking to your grandfather,” she said. “I’m a little intimidated by him, and I don’t intimidate easily, but they seemed to connect right away.”

“Who intimidates you, Vin or Grandpa?”

“Both of them,” she said. “I don’t know what to do with these self-possessed men. They don’t need me to fawn over them or mother them or yell at them, and they’re not swayed by sex appeal.” She puffed. “That last one is about the type in general, not those two in particular.”

“From what I’ve seen, Vin doesn’t take much after you or his dad.”

Kay laughed without mirth. “Oh, Dan needs me all right. Dan needs everybody. He tries so hard to do the right thing, but he wants so desperately to be loved. He wanted a father to take him in hand and show him the ropes, and I did him wrong there. When I was young I thought I could it all by myself. I didn’t need to tie myself down with a man. I wanted to leave first, you know? I never had a father, and Mama never had a father, and we survived. Maybe it’s different for a boy, or maybe Mama and I were just broken in different ways.”

“Vin told me that his dad was always bouncing from one extreme to the other, trying to raise him to be a real man.”

Kay eyed me speculatively. “Did he now? That’s a lot of opening up from our boy. What else did you two talk about on your day out?”

“None of your beeswax, ma’am,” I declared. Vin had stayed mercifully silent about the cornfield, and if he’d given me that advantage I was not about to blow it yet. “If it becomes your business later, I’ll tell you myself.”

Kay’s laugh was merry this time. “You got a kick alright. Who’d you get from? Not Grandpa, I’d say. What’s your mama like?”

“You wouldn’t like her,” I said with conviction. “She’s no mama, for a start. She’s got tenure. But who’s to say Grandpa wouldn’t have had more bite if he hadn’t been brought up so strictly by the nuns? And if he hadn’t had to earn his living by being respectful?”

Kay harrumphed. “I’ve always had to earn my living, and I’ve never been respectful. But then,” she assessed the comfortable porch, the handsome lawn, the tree-lined street, “I’ve never gotten off the mountain. I didn’t get married. I didn’t send my boy to college. It might have done us Tituses good to have one generation raised by nuns.”

“But what about your mama?” I abandoned myself to her idiom, though I’d never called my own mother anything but Mom. “What was she like?”

“Dan takes a lot after her. She looked for love in the wrong places, and she found the wrong thing. My father was some soldier or salesman passing through up at the Lodge, looking for R and R in the mountains, and she was a sweet little 15 year old waitress who didn’t have anyone to tell her better. She was 16 by the time I was born.”

“But what about her mother?” I insisted. “Where was she?”

“Dead, by that time,” said Kay shortly. “Let’s go in. I’m freezing my ass off.”

I put my hand on the knob, but paused, suddenly shy. “You asked where I got it from. I’d say the only contender in the lineup seems to be you.”

“If so, I’m sorry.” She roared and slapped my shoulder, not actually a bit sorry. “I wish I could trace back where I got it from. Maybe that’s where the family lines join up.”

Inside, she broke up Vin and Grandpa’s powwow. “I want to talk to my cousin now. Y’all kids go get us some food. I want tacos — I can’t ever get good tacos unless I come into the big city. Dan, you sit here with mama.”

“Blacksburg as the big city, huh,” I mused to Vin as I drove.

“Compared to Titusville, everywhere is the big city.”

“And how are you enjoying your jaunt down into civilization?”

“I’ve been to Blacksburg before,” he said. “Saw Tech beat U.Va day after Thanksgiving. I didn’t have tacos then, though, so this time may be even better.”

“I should hope long lost family is better even than the Hokies whupping the Wahoos.”

He grinned. “It’s close, though.”

“And just how are you finding the long lost family? You better tell me you like my grandpa, or I’ll boot you out of the car.”

“I like him much more than I thought I would,” he said, with a melting sincerity. “I thought I’d be hanging on the outskirts, letting all the loud people get it out of their system…”

“You mean me?”

He ignored me. “…but your grandfather is fascinating. The things he’s seen and the places he’s been, and his determination to get up and get out. I kept looking around his house and thinking, ‘I wish I had a solid foundation like this.’ Do you know how lucky you are?”

"Because my grandpa has a nice house? That’s not materialistic at all."

Vin would not be teased. “Because you’ve got two generations of fathers and stability and growth behind you. Your grandpa is dependable and unswerving. I wasn't brought up with that, and I admire it. He’s the one who got out and broke the cycle.”

“He was thrown out, you mean,” I objected. “How can he break the cycle when he didn’t even know what the cycle was?”

“The cycle of dysfunction, and he must have known there was something dysfunctional about his family if they put him in an orphanage. At least he didn’t start it again in his own family.”

I drove silently for a moment, pondering Mom’s upbringing. “He was hard sometimes. He had high ideals, and you had to live up to them because he’d worked hard for you. I had it easier than my mom, I think. I’ve got my dad, and he’s really laid back unless you ask him a question about Constitutional law, and then you’ll never hear the end of it. But Mom had to excel at everything, and she liked excelling, and she tells me all about how she’s disappointed that I can’t be bothered to excel at the same things she does.”

“I think I disappoint my dad,” said Vin, “but that’s because he’d like me to be everything that he’s not.”

“Your dad seems like he likes everyone.”

“Oh, he does,” Vin agreed. “He’s like a puppy — he’ll sit up and beg if you call him a good boy. And I could keep him in line, if you want to call it that, by turning cold and holding back affection. He can’t bear that. I love him, so I’m not going to freeze him out. But I wish I didn’t have to feel sometimes like I’m raising my father. I wish he’d built a more stable foundation like your grandfather did. My dad even had a mother around to raise him. Your grandpa had nothing.”

“Well, you’ve got a mother and a father,” I pointed out. “Shouldn’t your own foundation be stronger than Grandpa’s then?”

Vin deflated. “I know, I complain a lot about it, and I’m not even in the trenches raising a family foundation of my own.”

Vin fighting was a lot more interesting than Vin apologizing, so I kept pushing for a reaction. “Yeah, but foundation comes before family. You have to have some kind of foundation even as a kid.”

“Sounds like a chicken-and-egg situation to me,” he said calmly, probably to annoy me. “How do you build a foundation without already having a foundation to build on? And the answer seems to be: be Aaron Moore.”

But now I couldn’t take the teasing.

“It’s not like wanted it that way. He knows he was abandoned. The sisters laid part of his foundation, but he had weaknesses that he overcompensated for too, and that led to weaknesses in my mom’s foundation, and as a result I have my own weak spots. They’re just in different places from Mom’s and Grandpa's.”

“Judging from your lack of patience with me,” Vin said, “you must be strong in the places that I’m weak.”

“Do you always feel like you’re worse than everyone?” I demanded. “Or is it just me who brings out your profound lack of self-esteem?”

“Oh, my grandma knows how to push my buttons. And I know how to push hers. Which turns out to be why I know exactly how to get under your skin too."

There were a lot of snappy comebacks to that, but I couldn’t see his eyes in the gathering dusk, and I didn’t want to get it wrong. So the remark hung between us through the ordering of the tacos and on the silent and deliciously savory ride home.


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