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

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Strange Plots 10

My mother came into the kitchen to get ready for work and stopped in consternation at the sight of me at the table, breakfast and coffee to hand, diligently making notes.

“Is something wrong? Why are you up?” she asked, and I swear she felt my forehead, as if eating a healthy breakfast was a sign of illness.

“I’m job hunting,” I said, too absorbed in my task to pay her any mind.

Job hunting was on the same list of symptoms as breakfast, if Mom’s expression was any indicator.

“I’m very glad to hear it,” she said dubiously, “but…”

“But?” I demanded.

“But nothing. I just didn’t expect that this morning.” She rooted in the fridge for lunch fixings.

“Did you think I was going to hang around here forever and become the family shame?” I said, getting testy at this vote of no confidence.

“I was starting to wonder, yes,” said Mom, packing up her lunch in that trendy beeswax fabric that cost more than ten boxes of Saran wrap. “I hope you won’t take the same tone with the interviewer when you’re asked to account for your gap between jobs.”

“If you must know,” I said, getting up from the table and stretching after my labors, “I’m beginning to feel ashamed of myself. I’ve led a pampered existence. By the time he was my age, Grandpa had been working half his life, and was getting ready to get married. On the other side of the family, Vin’s grandma and his great-grandma were single moms who worked and raised a kid by themselves. I’ve got a college degree, which none of them had, and they all could hold a service job better than I can.”

I had been thinking about this lately, how stupid I must have sounded telling Vin that I was between jobs as if I thought it was cute. And I’d had time to chew on my own words, since Vin’s silence had allowed me the space to grapple with them on my own. I needed to start acting like an adult, an adult who one day might have her own family…

“By other side of the family, you mean the Ramirezes, right?” Mom broke into my thoughts with that ultra-reasonable tone she uses to cut me down to size. “Because you already have a family. You don’t have manufacture one out of mountain air.”

I was smug. “The DNA doesn’t lie. They’re your family too, Mom.”

“They’re Grandpa’s family,” Mom snapped. “Good for him, he’s always wanted some back story. We’re above that.”

“What do you mean, above?” I pulled myself back from the edge of being strident. Mom had a sixth sense for when she was rattling me. “If they’re family, they’re family. It’s not like I invented them. The connection is there.”

“Where? Who? So far it sounds like it’s just a big game you’re playing with that guy. I hope he’s hot at least.”

“By ‘that guy’, do you mean Vin Titus? The one you couldn’t be bothered to meet at Grandpa’s house? Yes, he is hot.” She’d used Vin as a pawn to needle me, so I pulled out my trump. “As a matter of fact, I’m considering having Thanksgiving dinner with the Tituses. And it’s not just a game. It’s history. It matters.”

“The present matters!” Mom snarled. “You want to skip Thanksgiving with your parents and your grandparents and your cousins, all the people who care for you?”

“Vin cares for me!” I shouted, and froze, torn between shock at having spoken this aloud, and delight at hearing it put into words. Mom stopped pouring her coffee and stared at me. But if she had a moment of genuine curiosity about the state of my love life, it was subsumed to her need to catch me out in a moment of weakness.

“Does he now?” she said coolly. “That’s a plot twist. Your new family indeed. Well, that’s certainly what the world needs, another inbred mountain dynasty.”

“Oh, now we are related?” Fire flared in my cheeks and burned my breath away, but it was the furious pounding in my ears that made me almost light-headed.

“The DNA doesn’t lie,” said Mom, leaving the house in triumph. I didn’t yell, “I hate you!” after her because Vin wouldn’t have done it. Nor would he have smashed her coffee cup, set her bed on fire, or left the fridge door open all day, so I didn’t do any of those things either. Because of Vin.

What a rookie mistake, to give Mom an opening for her petty bigotry. I could just imagine her making that inbred crack to Vin himself, who would be patient and take it all in good stride while I fumed and fought. Sure, she could rail against strip mining and depletion of resources in the Appalachians when she wanted to rack up political points against filthy capitalism, but it was fine to treat the actual humans who lived up there with contempt. God forbid her daughter should even consider…

Consider what? What was Vin to me? What was I to him? I shut my eyes and luxuriated in the memory of his moment of choice before he touched my hand. He’d been weighing some option against me, and his decision was for me. I wouldn’t let his hesitation stand a chance next time. He had to choose me.

And it wasn’t just a game. Whatever our shared family history was, it was worth learning, because it affected all of us. What was it that had caused the Tituses and the Moores to branch out from each other? I wanted to learn the answer, and I wanted Vin there with me learning too. Besides our distant common ancestor, we shared this desire to learn more about our families, so that we could understand more about ourselves. Wasn’t that a good basis for a relationship?

I wanted to see him again. And I wanted to get out of my mother’s house, permanently, the sooner the better.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Quick Takes on a Wednesday

It's the middle of November. We're more than halfway through NaNoWriMo, my house is disintegrating, I'm gaining weight, and I'm more than 10,000 words behind target. Excelsior!

1. What we're watching tonight, because I need a break:



2. What we're watching Friday night on PBS, and you join in too:



More info here.

3. What I'm looking forward to watching:



4. What people keep sending me:



5. What we're eating tonight: Simcha Fisher's Chicken Shawarma. This recipe makes a metric ton of food, so reduce at need.

6. What I'm reading: as always at this time of year, Marney's Thanksgiving Letter. Get out yer regulation size casseroles.

7. Added because I remembered it just now: I bought my Advent candles today. Now you remember it too so you're not caught off guard December 1.


Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Strange Plots 9

Previous.

1932. A stranger came to town and became the queen.

Tamar, the Widow McGrath, was a woman wronged and a mother bereaved, and a redhead denied justice. The Tituses, the only witnesses of the murder of her son, were prepared to swear that Allan had been trespassing and aggressive. In vain did she plead for the case to be investigated, that Allan was belied. Andrew Titus was known to be a man of the strictest Christian principle, and the locals were weary of the feud, and Allan’s errand had been a secret known only to himself and God.

The death of Allan McGrath was the death of the clan, completing a spiral of destruction begun with the loss of the still. There was nothing for Tamar McGrath anymore on the other side of the mountain. And so she came to Titusville, a woman with nothing to lose.

She came humbly, a widow and her son making ends meet by running a bakeshop. Her specialty was pies, mincemeat pies for the men who worked at the mill or the mines. And the men came to get a glimpse of beautiful Widow McGrath, once the fierce matriarch of a mountain family, now with her red hair slipping out from under a kerchief as she winked and bantered behind the counter. Her son Demetrius, a boy not yet fully at home in his hulking physique, mixed the dough and fed the ovens and made deliveries.

She did not seek out Andrew Titus, her old adversary, nor did she hide from him. She worked and she welcomed, and she began to win. She began to move in what society Titusville provided. It was there she was introduced to the mayor, a man of progressive politics. There was a new deal in the country, and Mayor Sanders was prepared to be its dealer in Titusville.  He stopped by her shop to court the vote of the working man, a constituency often crowded in there to get a warm smile and a warm pie.

“What about you, Mrs. McGrath?” the mayor asked, having claimed the coveted spot right across the counter from her. “Are you waiting for our General Assembly to ratify the 20th Amendment so that women can vote?”

“No, sir,” said Mrs. McGrath. “A woman votes through her husband. A clever woman shapes his vote to her will.”

“And if she has no husband?” asked Sanders, a bachelor.

Mrs. McGrath raised her dangerous eyes to him. “Then she must count on you to help her.”

The mission priest, Father Walsh, was also a visitor to her shop when he was in town.

“When will I see you at Mass, Mrs. McGrath?” he would ask, packing his pies in his basket.

“I’m no longer one of your sheep, Father,” she’d say, but she did not flash him her smile because it had no power over him.

“Our Lord left the ninety-nine sheep in search of the one,” said Father Walsh. “Draw near to him and he will be near to you.”

One day while Father was in the shop, Andrew Titus passed by the window, his daughter Lavinia stepping lightly beside him. Titus was older now, his back less rigid, but his character no less so. He walked blamelessly before the Lord in the land of the wicked, and if at night he heard the clear voice of Allan McGrath asking for peace, by day he gave no sign.

“There is one who has drawn near to the Lord,” said Tamar, bereft for the moment of the smooth voice her customers knew. “He’s a wise man to keep his one lovely lamb close to his heart.”

“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,” Father Walsh remarked mildly.

The Widow McGrath remained still for a moment, watching Titus and his lamb move away. Then she turned her sweetest smile on the priest.

“Of course it is, Father,” she agreed. “And the Lord’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Tamar McGrath did not marry the mayor at the mission church of the Sacred Hearts, but at the mayor’s place of worship, whichever it was — she cared not. All were invited to the wedding luncheon. Tamar swept through the room in her white lace, the Queen of Hearts gathering her subjects to herself, working ever and ever nearer to Andrew Titus and his daughter.

“Welcome, Titus,” she cried, favoring him with a smile that was all sunshine. “Today of all days, shall we bury the axe?”

Titus stared at the hand outstretched to him. It seemed to shock him to discover that the hand belonged to a woman, her silky red hair pinned in coils at the nape of her neck.

“We will have peace,” he muttered. His hand burned as he placed it in hers.

“And this must be Lavinia,” she said, kissing Titus’s daughter on the cheek. “My, aren’t you an angel?”

“No, ma’am, I can’t be. Angels are spirits,” Lavinia answered meekly. “Human beings have both body and soul.”

“Body and soul indeed,” murmured Tamar. “You are so sweet I could just eat you up.”

She flitted off to chat with other guests, but she followed Titus and Lavinia with hungry eyes. She was not the only one. Demetrius McGrath, standing aside from his mother’s brilliance, watched his quiet angel who left the room with Andrew Titus, and he yearned to have Titus’s good fortune and feel Lavinia’s slender fingers resting on his arm.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Background vs Headline Representation in Fiction

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day, and she said that she'd always pictured Captain America as being Jewish. She is Jewish, and she went to a high school that was heavily Jewish, and she said that Steve Rogers pre-serum personality and build seemed like he could easily have been from her high school: determined and eager, but with a physically small frame that people over-looked. "We didn't have a football team," she said. "We just didn't have any big guys."


I'll admit, I don't tend to think at a character level about Marvel movies, treating them more as spectacle, so my initial reaction was to picture something along the lines of Captain America meets The Hebrew Hammer (a comedy in which a Blacksploitation style Jewish hero defends Hanukkah from the depredations of Santa's evil son who seeks to force Christmas on everyone while wiping out other holidays -- it sounded like an amusing premise, but the execution was extremely lackluster IMHO) with Captain America still a red-white-and-blue American hero punching Nazis, but now with a Star of David on his shield. Bring on the food and mother one-liners.

As I was turning this over in my mind later, however, it struck me that this image underlined the two different approaches that story creators take to representing people who aren't the default ethnicity, religion, or culture. It's hard to discuss things without names, so I'll call this the headline approach to representation and the background approach. Allow me to explain.

When an author uses the headline representation technique for showing a member of some minority group, that character's minority identity becomes the single most obvious and defining element of that character. I'll turn from superheroes for a moment and talk about another very self-consciously American set of characters, the characters in the American Girl Doll books. My mom and sister were very much into the American Girl books and catalogs when I was young, and being a voracious reader I ended up reading all the books that my sister brought home from the library. The creators of the dolls were eager to depict a wide variety of girls through American history, and yet there was a pattern to how they depicted ethnicity and religion which stands out. Either a character was a standard white Protestant (though religion was barely mentioned) and her books explored the period, or her books centered on The Ethnic Experience and religion (now an acceptable topic since it was ethnic) took a more prominent role.

I might have otherwise thought of the character Molly (a little girl with two brown braids who wears glasses and was often hiding with a book somewhere) as like my mom as a girl. But of course, Molly was a WASP, not a Mexican-American Catholic like my mom. When the series decided to check the Mexican-American box, they did so with Josefina who lived in 1824 New Mexico. If the book was about an ordinary suburban girl who gave you a general feeling for the time, she was an anglo and a Protestant. Or put differently, if the main character wasn't an anglo and a Protestant, it had to be a major point of the book that the character was Ethnic. Thus, headline representation.

Background representation is when the character's background is just that: in the background. Going back to superheroes, in the animated Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse movie, the main character Miles Morales has an African-American father and Hispanic mother, a fact which is never actually referred to in any dialog so far as I recall. One could argue that Miles's penchant for street art and his musical interests tie with his ethnic background, but otherwise it's entirely a story about a boy who suddenly acquires superpower and is thrust into a situation in which he needs to develop the confidence to use them, as well as about his relationship with his affectionate but tough father. It would have required no changes to the plot of the movie to have Miles be a white kid. But every person has some background, and one of the things about background representation is allowing a character's background to be something other than the perceived cultural default without that background being the main point of the story.

So yes, one could imagine a Captain America where the whole Captain America persona was different because he was Jewish, but one could also simply imagine that Steve Rogers, the small kid from Brooklyn who desperately wanted to go fight America's enemies despite everyone telling him he wasn't big and strong enough, is from a Jewish family. Since we see nothing of Steve Rogers' family in the existing movies, this would require precisely zero changes versus the movies we currently have. I suppose in a case of Schroedinger's Ethnicity, one could argue that Steve Rogers is currently both Jewish and Christian simultaneously until this aspect is defined.

Strange Plots 8

Previous.

As the evening wrapped up and the final stories were finished and Kay was giving me a farewell squeeze, she said, “Dan, shouldn’t Erin come up and help us with the pie making?”

Dan’s face glowed in hospitable ecstasy. “Oh, you’ve gotta come!” he begged. “Every year we do this thing where make a bunch of pies for the homeless vets’ Thanksgiving dinner at the VFW hall. We always make a big party of it, have a bonfire and moonshine and everything.”

“It’s an old family recipe, but you’re one of the family now,” Kay told me.

I was all for joining in the family activity, but honesty forced me to confess that I was no great shakes as a baker and that they might not want me anywhere near their family heirloom pies. But I wasn’t really about to turn down another chance to go up to Titusville, and a glimpse of Vin’s face as I said yes confirmed me in my decision.

“If you get tired of mangling pies, we could always go through Grandma’s box of old family photographs,” he said. “Maybe we’d be able to figure out where we should look next for clues.”

“I’m sold,” I declared. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do on a Fall weekend than bake and look at the mountain scenery and go sleuthing through all the family dysfunctions.”

“Sounds like standard holiday fare, to be honest,” Vin said.

Kay had instructed me to bring nothing but myself, but I thought I should have an apron for heavy kitchen duty. My mother’s pair had political slogans which even I wasn’t brazen enough to bring to holiday festivities, even if they’d expressed my own views, which they didn’t. So I stopped by the parish craft bazaar after the vigil mass, hoping to find something which projected both “sexy chef” and “past master of all the kitchen arts”. At one cinnamon-scented booth, I browsed through a rack of aprons, testing each one for Vin compatibility.

The lady at the booth, seeing I came prepared with cash money, got into the spirit.

“This is my favorite for complete functionality,” she said, holding up a large bib apron in a hideous blue tartan. “It will protect everything you’re wearing, and it never shows any stains. Just toss it in the wash — nothing can hurt it. And look at these pockets!”

But I was captivated by a sheer muslin creation that nipped in my waist beautifully. Who cared about functionality when I could get an hourglass figure by tying a bow? The lady was disappointed that I didn’t love her favorite, but the booth was packed with shoppers. She was probably going to sell enough craftage that day to pay off her grandkids’ Christmas presents. I didn’t feel too bad as I extricated myself from the crowd with my apron wrapped up in kraft paper and tied with twine. I am never one to turn down free gift wrapping.

So, once again I found myself going up into the woods, and this time the weather cooperated beautifully. The day was clear and gusty. What was left of the fall color glowed through the welter of bare branches. As I piloted Steed through the passes, leaves drifted down through shafts of sunlight in a slow crunchy shower. I hoped Kay’s pie recipe was absolutely foolproof, because I was determined to have a perfect day.

The festivities were at the house of Vin’s parents. I’d met Dan, but I was curious about Vin’s mom. He hadn't talked much about her, yet I knew his parents were the first generation of marital stability in nearly a century of Titus history. Vin, for all his constant need to put himself in the wrong, seemed a healthy employable American boy, so something must have gone right at home. Maybe his mom was another Kay, keeping the family in line with the sheer force of her personality.

I drove through Titusville again, passing the diner, nodding to the Sacred Hearts. Vin’s parents lived just out of town, on some acreage. As I rumbled down the gravel drive, I was looking for a rustic lodge buried in the trees, or an ancient farmhouse set amid amber waves of grain, but what came into view was a tidy 60s-era ranch already strung with white holiday lights. Smoke behind the house announced a handsome bonfire in progress. I grabbed my apron package and rang the doorbell.

You know how you read in books about “perfectly coiffed hair”, and you wonder, “what on earth is a coif?” I had a revelation about coifs and their perfectibility when Vin’s mother opened the door. Each strand of her messy bun was carefully disheveled just so to project the impression of someone letting her hair down, if you will. Her jeans and flannel shirt announced, “We are relaxing here, and we are having a good time.”

“Erin, hi!” she cooed. “I’m Heather, Vin’s mom. Come on in. Vin is out back with his dad building up the fire. I’m so glad Kay invited you to our house. We love having people join in our traditions. The more the merrier, I always say!”

I followed her in through the front door hung with the traditional harvest wreath, and hung my coat in the closet with the traditional doorknob ornament, and had the powder room with the traditional towel pointed out to me.

“We’re still just getting settled in — did Vin tell you that we only just moved in? — so everything is a mess, but you can just relax and make yourself at home. We’re pretty informal here.”

The aggressive homeyness of the living room seemed never to have been disturbed by actual human activity.

“Come on in the kitchen and we’ll get those guys in and get started. We’re remodeling, so it’s kind of a mess, but we’re just going to bake around it.”

One strip of painters tape, the only hint of any work in progress, ran artfully along the baseboards.  Otherwise, there was nothing wrong with the room that a jolt of genuine culinary energy wouldn’t have solved, and I would have said so if I could have gotten in a word edgewise. Until that moment I would have rated myself pretty highly at commandeering any conversation I pleased, but Heather’s patter was armor plated. Finally I slipped in through a pause for breath.

“I brought an apron,” I said, indicating my package. Heather’s eyes showed a flicker of genuine emotion.

“Oh, you shouldn’t have!” she said, tearing open the wrapping, and before I could explain, she’d lifted out my apron.

“I love it!” she cried, holding up to herself. “It’s so perfect. It has pockets! How did you know just my style?”

“I don’t know,” I said honestly, staring at the blue tartan apron with the pockets, wondering which lucky shopper had picked up an identical kraft-paper package containing a muslin apron and was even now enjoying the benefits of a nipped waist.

The kitchen door opened and Vin stood in the doorway, his expression suddenly rigid as his glance moved from me to his mother. I felt so acutely for him that I almost started apologizing for the situation. But I was saved from wretchedness by Heather turning her patter full force on Vin. She rhapsodized over the apron until he suggested that she go out and show it to Dan. 

“Did you really buy my mom that ugly apron?” he asked, watching her hold it out to Dan as she crossed the yard. “I didn’t think you'd dislike her until after you’d met her.”

I sat down to decompress. “Good thing the shop didn’t wrap up the sexy apron I actually bought. Who knows what your mom would have said about that.”

“You bought her a sexy apron?”

“I bought you a sexy apron. I’m a selfish jerk with no manners; I’d forgotten that some people expect a hostess gift.”

“Well, I wish you could have seen me wearing it,” said Vin, and I was ready with a reply for that, but at that moment Kay, smelling of woodsmoke this time, burst in.

“Honey, what the hell is that plaid thing?” she demanded of me. “Don’t tell me your family has some damn tradition of giving aprons at Thanksgiving. I thought at least one branch of the family might have the sense God gave a turkey.”

“If I were a better son, I’d resent that,” said Vin wearily.

“You are the better son,” said Kay. “God knows I love my boy, but he sure knows how to pick ‘em. Come on, let’s make the traditional pies before we’re stuck here all night.”

Kay pulled some wrapped dough from the refrigerator while Vin set out on the island canning jars containing a dark mixture.

“You’re going to be so disappointed, but this is all you’ll see of the old family recipe,” he said. “Do you like mincemeat?”

“It sounds disgusting,” I said, “but I bet it's traditionally delicious.”

“Somebody must have liked it at one time, because it’s been handed down from mother to mother in the Titus line.”

“And you find it so amazing that you’ll pass it down to your children too?”

“I hope I’ll spare my future children from a lot of bad traditions,” he said, sprinkling flour on the counter and my shirt. “Oops, look at that. Too bad you’re not wearing a sexy apron.”

“Oh no, I’ve repented of my worldly ways,” I said, smacking a big flour handprint on his chest. “From now on I wear only plaid aprons when I make mincemeat pies.”

Only plaid aprons,” he murmured to his rolling pin. “Well, I suppose there are bad traditions, and there are good traditions.”

Heather entered with Dan, and took in the sight of us rolling out dough. For a moment the kitchen smothered under a blanket of industrious silence.

“Well, well, you guys don’t let the grass grow under your feet!” Dan exclaimed with unforced good cheer. “Erin, did they put you to work already?”

“You’ve already started,” Heather said. Beside me, Vin’s entire attention seemed to be focused on the crust he was shaping so assiduously.

“The pies aren’t going to bake themselves,” said Kay briskly. “We thought we’d better get a move on.”

“Well, of course, you’re right!” Heather, having passed some crisis point, decided to throw herself into action, and the room breathed again. “Let’s get going! Dan, you fill the crusts. I’m going to get some cider going. Anyone want hot cider?”

“Sure, I’ll have some,” Vin said too heartily.

“Me too!” I exclaimed. “I love hot cider. Do you have an old recipe?”

Heather chatted of the custom of mulling spices as she bustled around the stove. I uncurled Vin’s fingers from his rolling pin.

“You are going to pull a muscle if you don’t relax,” I whispered.

“Sorry,” he whispered back, automatically, but he didn’t shake off my hand.

By the time the cider was boiling, our assembly line had a row of completed pies ready to bake. Vin and I took our mugs to the back porch and sat on a swing, watching the bonfire. The afternoon was turning chill, but somehow it was more appealing to shelter under a heavy throw blanket than stay in the toasty kitchen. The bonfire, just beyond warming distance, crackled peacefully.

“I’ve probably been rude to you every time we’ve met,” I remarked. “I hope you’re not going to start freezing up when I come into the room.”

Vin rocked the swing moodily, the flames flickering in his eyes. This time I’d pushed the banter too far. After all, a man is allowed to be sensitive about his own mother. As the pause began to drag under its own weight, the shadow of thoughts passing over his face, I felt the pang of his remoteness. He was waiting for me to apologize. I wished I wasn’t too proud to talk first. I imagined being better at saying that I was rude to insinuate anything about your mother. That I’m sorry if I offended you. That I wish you wouldn’t sit so still and inaccessible beside me. All these lines jostled together in my head, refusing to form something coherent and not too humiliating, and still Vin paid no attention to me. My breath caught as I braced myself to blurt out everything and be damned. At the sound, Vin gave a heavy sigh of decision, and slid his hand under the blanket over mine.

“I’m not freezing up,” he said.

We swung in silence, his hand perfectly still on mine and mine perfectly still under his. From the kitchen drifted the sounds of discussion.

“…my turn to host, and she always does this. She always takes over and acts like she runs my house. Inviting people over and making everything into a big party. I took my turn to host even though everything is torn up…”

“Babe, she offered to have it at her place so you wouldn’t get stressed out.”

“Yes, I know I’m a bad housekeeper and no one can stand coming over here. Even when it’s my turn.”

“No, babe, you’re fantastic. No one wants to take your turn away from you. Everyone is having a great time…”

The voices faded out of the kitchen. I felt the muscles in Vin’s leg contract and relax each time he rocked the swing.

“This isn’t the house you grew up in?” I asked, just to ask.

“I never lived here, but I know it well,” said Vin. “This was my grandparents’ house. They moved to Florida three years ago, and since Mom grew up here, she felt strongly about buying their place and keeping it in the family.” As he moved the swing, his warming fingers moved gently along my own.

“What did your dad say about it?” My knee brushed his as I rocked too.

“He was fine with it. He likes to make everyone happy, so he’s a good fit with Mom because she likes people to make her happy. Yes, I can see you’re holding in something sarcastic. Please, not on my account.”

“Do you come visit much?” I asked with perverse non-sarcasm.

“No. I hate the idea of losing my good memories of when my grandparents lived here.”

His fingers might been starting to lace with mine, but Kay came out of the house and settled heavily on the steps to light a cigarette.

“I was stuck in the bathroom until they went offstage,” she complained. “Now we’re all stuck out here until it’s safe to go back inside.”

Dan came out a moment later.

“Mom's worn out,” he told Vin. “She’s gone to lay down.”

“I’m worn out,” Kay growled. “If you all want to keep going, you can come back to my place and have a beer.”

“Sounds good,” said Vin. “What do you say, Erin?”

“I like it,” I said of his fingers between mine. “I’m not ready to quit.”

“Maybe I should come too,” Dan said wistfully. “I haven’t been to the old apartment in forever. Does Jed still live on the first floor?”

“Yeah, and Larry and Crystal are still across the hall, and we could get a fire going in a grill in the parking lot.”

“Maybe I could call some of the guys. Do you still have that card table.”

“I’ll never get rid of the card table.”

Dan’s hopeful nature warmed to the idea. “If Mike and Johnny A. and Alex are home, we could get a good thing going. Let me just check in with them, see what’s cooking…”

His phone buzzed. He read the text and stood up.

“You all go on ahead,” he said. “Mom needs me to take care a few things here while she’s down. And I’ve got to get those pies out of the oven. Maybe I can stop by later.”

“Maybe,” Kay said. She kissed her son on the cheek and brushed past him into the house.

“Goodbye, and thanks for having me over,” I said to Dan as Vin and I headed out. “I had a wonderful time,” and I meant it with every beat of my pulse in my fingertips.

“Did you?” he said, brightening. “Heather will be so glad to hear it. She loves having people over.”

At Kay’s ratty downtown apartment, a shindig was brewing in the parking lot as Vin and I squeezed next to each other on the couch and sorted photographs.

“This pile is Dad,” he said, placing on the coffee table a photo of a small cowboy on pony. “Here’s Grandma,” drawing gently from my grasp a picture of a pigtailed toddler. “This pile,” a tinted high-school portrait of a pink-cheeked girl whose hair swooped in Titian waves, “is Helen.”

“This isn’t Helen,” I said, looking at a card with an oval frame. Perhaps the delicate girl had been out of fashion in her time, the fair braids coiled neatly over each ear. Perhaps her coat was cut for modesty, not for display. Her clear sweet gaze was focused beyond the bounds of the photograph, pulling the viewer into her eyes to seek what held them.

Vin nestled his chin on my shoulder for a better look, and reached over to flip the card open.

“Lavinia Titus, 1932,” was inscribed under the photo.

“Helen was born in 1934,” Vin said.

“She didn't get her hair from her mother,” I observed. “Aaron Moore was also born in 1934, but the age gap between him and Helen doesn’t work for Lavinia to be his mother as well.”

“Wouldn't the DNA show a closer relationship then, anyway?”

“But Aaron shares a maternal connection with your family.”

“He must be connected somehow through Helen’s father,” Vin said. “Through his sister? His mother?

“How can we know if we don’t know who the father was?”

Vin looked at the photos of Lavinia and Helen. “He’s the one with the red hair.”

Next.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Strange Plots 7

Previous.

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.

Next.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Strange Plots 6

Got a better working title. This installment needs more editing than I have time to give it, but I'm so behind on my word count that I know you'll forgive me for nodding like Homer.

***
Previous.

And so, a stranger came to town.

Me, of course. It was me. I came back to town, and I acted like a stranger with Grandpa, and it turned out I’d been a stranger to myself. My whole encounter with Vin kept replaying in my head. My prickliness  — no, my prejudice — at our first meeting.  My spectacular performance in the corn maze. My immature bluster, compared to his self-effacement. I told myself that Vin had low self-esteem, that he was cold, that it was no loss to never see him again, and I discarded each as false.

I didn’t call Grandpa when I got home, and I didn’t go see him the next day, and I didn’t answer his messages. How could I? What could I say? That I’d mortally insulted his blood kin? That his father was lynched by an ancestor of his cousin once removed?  There was no way I could bear the responsibility for breaking Grandpa’s heart. We had been so excited, he and I, by the prospect of a new family out there. Now I was out of sync with his happiness, and I didn’t know if I could fake it well enough to fool him.

But by the third day, I had to face the fact that my hesitations were all about me, not about Grandpa. Was I going to mess everything up. How was it going to make me look?I was disgusted with myself for being cowardly and for being the center of my own universe — and I realized that those are basically the same thing. So I asked myself, “What would someone who wasn’t the center of her own universe do?” This turned out to be way too broad a question, so I narrowed it down to “What would Vin do?” He would probably apologize about something that wasn’t his fault, and then go see his grandmother. I could do at least one of those things.

So I went to visit my grandfather, and I told him the truth, as far as it went. That I was sorry I hadn’t come to see him the minute I got back. That I hadn’t wanted to disappoint him. That Kay also didn’t come because she was too overwhelmed by the prospect of meeting him that she couldn’t leave her house. That she too was sorry and that she wanted to meet him so much.

“Did you think it was going to surprise me that someone else did the same thing I did?” he asked, as I wrapped myself in an afghan and curled up next to him on the couch.

“I don’t know, Grandpa. I just froze up,” I said. “I didn’t know what to say.”

“Now that would have been worth seeing — you not knowing what to say.”

“I guess I’d had some big idea about how the trip would go, and then I felt like I’d mess things up for you if I didn’t have some great family news for you.”

Grandpa gave my hand a scolding squeeze. “I’ve done without extra family for a long time, and it won’t kill me to go a little longer. But I was lonely here without you, and I started to worry. It’s not good for me at my age to play too many what-if mind games.”

“Grandpa, do you think I lash out at people?” I asked abruptly.

He gave me a know-thyself glance. “What brought that on?”

“Just something someone said to me. Do I lash out?”

“Do you think you lash out at people?”

“Way to turn it back on me, Grandpa,” I said in exasperation. “I’m trying to figure something out here.”

“If you’re that worried about it, sounds to me like you already figured it out.”

“So you’re saying that I do.”

“‘You have said so,’” quoth Grandpa.

“But what am I supposed to do, Grandpa?” I asked, carefully not lashing out at him. “I’ve always tried to be true to myself. That’s what you and mom have always taught me. My dad has always told me he loves me just as I am. Everything I read, or I hear, or I watch, talks about not letting anyone change who you are or turn you into something you’re not. So what if I’m just stuck being the kind of person who lashes out and says whatever stupid thing comes into her head?”

“It doesn’t sound to me like we’re talking general life choices,” said Grandpa. “Maybe I’d be able to answer your question better if I knew what it is you regret saying.”

I opened my mouth to protest, then shut it against the wild urge to tell him everything about the weekend. And in that second of consideration, I felt the sharp sting of selfishness. I didn’t want to tell him about Titusville so that he could have the pleasure of learning about his ancestral home. I wanted him to feel shocked with me and so vindicate my reactions. Me, me, me.

Meanwhile, the silence was growing fraught as I wrestled with myself, and Grandpa was looking more and more concerned. How could I gracefully close out the situation without snapping at him or blurting out the whole story?

If my own personality didn’t hold a clue, maybe someone else’s did. I covered my head in the blanket and once again took a page from Vin’s playbook. “Let’s talk about something else for a while. Please?”

And to my surprise, Grandpa didn’t press for more information, but placidly prognosticated about sportsball while I wallowed in my cocoon.


A stranger came to town. All week long I pondered. If I were a stranger to myself, if I could learn things that I’d never realized about the way that other people understood me, then perhaps that meant that I didn’t fully understand myself. I’d thought that in doing and saying whatever presented itself to my mind, I was being true to myself. But if I couldn’t see myself through both my eyes and the eyes of others, I couldn’t fully see myself. And if I couldn’t fully see myself, was I really being true to who I am?

All this time I’d been true to myself, but what was I doing with myself? I’d scraped through college on the easiest classes and the lowest grades because I saw myself as proudly plebeian. I’d gotten fired because I saw myself as a rebel. I’d yelled at Vin because I saw myself as the protector of my family’s legacy.  But since I wasn’t truly doing any of these things for the sake of someone else, I’d never tried to see them through someone else’s eyes. The taste of that I’d had from Vin made me suspect that I wouldn’t be charmed by the experiment.

Why hadn’t I told Grandpa yet about my visit to Titusville? Of course I wanted to protect and and spare him from pain, but if I took an exterior look at my interior motivations, what it seemed I really wanted was to spare myself the humiliation of coming off as a spoiled brat. The more I thought about it, the more I bumped up against the nasty realization that my universe revolved around me. And not “me” in the fullest sense of everything about me, but “me” reduced down to my idea of myself, my self-image. I had always been essentially secure in my personality, and if you didn’t like me, that was your problem. But was it? If someone found me unpalatable, did it say more about that person, or about me?

I had always been proud, secretly or not so secretly, of my temper and my willingness to go off on people. I wanted everyone to define me on my own terms and not put me in their little boxes. But what if I’d put myself in a box? What if, in my constant battle to define myself on my own terms, I’d ended up getting trapped in my own personality? Could I turn it off? Who would I be then?

I needed to see myself from the outside again, and I needed someone trustworthy to give me honest answers. And, if I was being honest, the person I wanted to talk to was Vin. I studied the photo of him and his grandmother, then put it away, then pulled it up again. He seemed self-possessed; how did he do it? And why did the phone not ring when I was willing him to call me?

And why was I willing him to call me? There was no law against my calling him. I had his number. I wasn’t shy. The jumpiness in my stomach was not at all related to the idea of putting myself on the line. The worst that could happen was that he might listen politely, thank me politely for calling, and politely sever all bonds of communication so that he never had to talk to me again. Easier, safer by far to look at him smiling at his grandmother and hope against hope that he would reach out to me…

My true self erupted, yelled,“Quit yer bitching, you big baby!”, and dialed. Before I’d fully braced myself, I was being told to leave a message for his voice mail.

“Hi, Vin, this is Erin from last weekend,” my true self said while the rest of me was suspended in self-doubt. “I wanted to apologize, first of all, for being so rude to you and to your grandma, even though she wasn’t there. I haven’t told my grandfather anything about what happened on Saturday, because I don’t know where to start. I wanted to see if we could get our grandparents back on track to meet, so they could start fresh. And I wondered if we could find out any more of the family history before they did meet, so some of the questions would be less mysterious. And I’ve thought about what you said about my lashing out at you, and you were right, so, again, I’m really sorry about that. Give me a call back if you want. Bye.”

There. Time to let it go. It wasn’t my business why he didn’t answer. If he didn’t want to talk to me, there was plenty of reason for that. And I’d proved something to myself, that I could stay calm when I was nervous. I was learning valuable life lessons right and left this week…

The phone rang and rang while I swiped frantically to answer it. “Hello?” I said as if in this day and age I didn’t know perfectly well who was on the other end.

“Hi, Erin, this is Vin. Sorry I missed you. I got your message, and I did want to call you back.”

“That’s good of you,” I said. “That sounded a lot more sarcastic than I meant it to be. I mean, it’s good-natured of you to even want to call me back despite everything.”

“And I wanted to say that I’d thought all week about calling you to apologize, and I didn’t have the guts to do it, so you’ve beaten me at my own game.”

“There you go again,” I said. “What on earth did you do that you need to apologize for? It’s not like you were destroying other people’s scarecrows.”

“Funny story about that. The guy who runs the maze was going to be really mad about having his scarecrow torn up, but then another group who went through that day were freaked out to find it all messed up, and they posted about it on Instagram, and now attendance has skyrocketed and this guy is raking in cash, so it’s no harm, no foul.”

“You saw it on Instagram?”

“No, I called the owner to see if I needed to pay for the damage. I went to high school with his brother.”

“Listen,” I said. “I do want to talk about the family, and ancestors, but first I want to ask you a question, because you seem like someone who knows a lot of stuff.”

“That’s debatable.”

“Why can’t you just take a compliment? I wasn’t trying to be snide.”

“Sorry. Was that your question? I’ve always felt awkward when someone compliments me because I usually feel like like I haven’t earned it…”

“No, of course that’s not what I wanted to ask. Are you done being silly? And don’t you dare ask me if that’s the question.”

“I’m listening.”

And so I laid out for him everything I’d been wrestling with since I drove away from Titusville. He listened without interrupting, and took a moment to consider the problem.

“You are being true to yourself after a fashion,” said Vin. “Everything you do is part of yourself. It just may not be your best self.”

“How can I be true to my best self when I keep blurting out whatever pops up in my head?”

“What if you don’t?”

I goggled. “Don’t what?”

“Don’t say the first thing that came to mind.”

“Is that what you do?”

“All the time. Every day.”

“But then you’re holding stuff in. That’s not healthy.”

“I probably am, and it’s probably not,” he conceded. “But I don’t know if it’s worse than letting it all hang out, and it is sure is easier on the people around you.”

“And why should the people around me have it easier?” I demanded. “It’s not like they care anything for me.”

“They should care,” he said. “And you should care for them. Don’t you think it would be a better world if that were the case?”

“Yes, of course, I guess, but how would it even happen?”

“Maybe if you started caring for others first, you’d convince some other people to try it.”

“Is that what you do?”

“I try.”

“But wait a minute. You said you try to hold things in. You said that you were used to people talking trash about your family, and letting it roll off your back. But when I stepped out of line, you went off on me, according to your mild definition of  ‘going off’. What was that all about?”

I couldn't tell whether his snort was amused or annoyed. “You got under my skin.”

Next.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Untitled 5

Previous.

1932. Andrew Titus was a man anointed by God. His election was a severe calling, beyond the ken of the worldly or mere sinners. He was set apart, bound to keep pure of the corruptions of this life in hopes of glory.

He wore out a succession of wives in raising up children of strict godliness. Each woman had provided him with strapping boys, but the last, quiet Mary, had borne a single daughter. If pride were not forbidden by the word of God, Titus would have burst his heart over his delicate little Lavinia. She was too good for this world, but the Almighty had spared her and taken her mother instead. Titus educated her himself, using ancient books to teach her the Latin and Greek he’d studied at the university before the spirit had drawn him forth out of a life of vanity.

The Titus boys were their father’s lieutenants, guarding the perimeters of the compound he’d established in Andronicus Gulch. Within the bounds of this earthly Paradise, Lavinia was a new Eve, untainted by the follies and wantonness of the flesh. Titus had once been inside the new Papist mission chapel built in town, and seen there a statue of a woman robed in blue, peacefully indicating her heart aflame and wreathed in flowers. Although God’s curse was on such idolators, Titus was beset by a vision of Lavinia as that woman, holding his heart in her innocent waxen hands.

Although Titus could maintain order within his own lands, he could not prevent the encroachment of evil right up against his borders. Even the town that bore his ancestral name was no haven from those sons of Satan, the McGraths. Lawless, carousing, licentious, and likely the reason that the Papists had the temerity to establish their temple to the Whore of Babylon on God’s holy mountain, the McGraths had set themselves against the rule of God and man. They were worshippers of the demon Drink, the demon that was consuming his own son Quintin.

They were also poachers and trespassers. Titus was a man of rectitude — he would no sooner trespass on another man’s land than shoot him in the back, no matter the provocation. But when a Titus dog, on Titus land, caught his foot in a McGrath trap, Titus had his men move any traps they found back to McGrath land. To show there was no ill will, the men carefully covered the traps with leaves, just as they’d found them on Titus land. An elderly McGrath retainer had to have his leg amputated.

And so the feud grew in small tits and tats, here an insult, there a blow. Nothing was so overt, so directed, as to draw down the wrath of the law, though the mayor of Titusville made personal pleas to both sides to bury the hatchet. Andrew Titus, man of honor, was Olympian in his reply. God’s justice would not be mocked. Let the McGraths look to the day of judgment, which he, Andrew Titus, would neither hasten nor impede.

Until the night the McGraths burned his barn.

They did not dare touch the main barn near the house, or the storage barns nearby. But out in a distant field, a blaze consumed the structure where the new calves and the mothers were sheltering. The anguished lowing of the cattle could be heard as far as the house, where Lavinia wept with them.

“How could anyone do such a thing, Father?” she cried. “The poor beasts, so innocent!”

Andrew Titus stroked his daughter’s head, his gnarled hand catching softly on the fine strands of her plaited hair.

“Livestock is an offering acceptable to the Lord,” he murmured to himself. “The blood of bulls, of lambs and goats, of cattle, atoned for the sin of the chosen people. The fires burned daily in the temple, making a smoke sweet in the nostrils of the Almighty. ‘And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering. But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.'”

He still stroked Lavinia’s hair, but he looked to the mountain, where the night horizon glowed above the distant field.

“Cain did not raise livestock,” he pronounced in a voice of banked fire. “He offered the the fruits of the field, the grain that is distilled down into accursed liquor. And the Lord rejected his offering.”

And Titus, with the fire in his eyes, vowed to make an acceptable offering to the Lord, to wreak his vengeance without delay on the impious, to strike a blow of justice that would end the feud for good.

Quintin was drunk when Titus went to the mayor and demanded that the McGraths be held accountable for their crime. Quintin was drunk when the mayor told Titus to look to his own sot of a son if he wanted a likely suspect. And Quintin was drunk on the night the Tituses dismantled the McGrath still. As Titus and his other sons carefully stacked piece after piece, so that no one could say that they had stolen anything, Quintin sang loudly and stumbled though the piles of metal just warped enough to be impossible to reassemble. Titus took him home and thrashed him sober in the barn.

And there things lay. The McGraths could not complain to the authorities about the destruction of their illegal still, and as public sentiment was with the Tituses, they could take no open action.  Titus’s justice was achieved. He was content.

One man’s final justice is another man’s desperation. The livelihood of the McGraths had been bound up with their still. Now that it was destroyed, they turned from grain to stolen industrial denatured alcohol. Using a crudely built pot still, they filtered out, as much as possible, the government-mandated poisons that were meant to deter . Then they bottled it, and in a rare act of conscience, drove it down into the city, away from the mountain and its people, to distribute.

And Quintin Titus, unable to face the agony of sobriety, obtained through God knew what back channels a flask of denatured alcohol, and staggered home to die in his own vomit and filth.

The funeral was held, the body interred, a luncheon prepared. As the mournful family picked their way through the pies and cakes and hams, a message came to Andrew Titus that someone wanted to speak to him at the gates of his property.

Old Titus rode out, flanked by his sons. At the gate he found Widow McGrath’s oldest son Allan, a boy of 18, standing open-handed at the road. His red hair flamed in the setting sun.

“Andrew Titus, I grieve for the loss of your son,” he said.

“Get off my land, Allan McGrath,” said Titus.

“I come for myself, not for my mother or my kin,” said Allan. “I come in peace to make peace, and I will bear to the McGraths any message you choose. When I am head of the family, I want no feuds, and I want no liquor, and I want no death.”

"You will never be head of your family if you don’t get off my land,” said Titus.

“Titus, hear me!” said Allan. “Our children were starving because you destroyed our still. It takes time to learn a new trade or make the land pay. The McGraths must change, but we must have time, and we must have peace.”

“My son did not die in peace,” said Titus. “He died degraded, like an animal. Your family did this, you and pagan idols you serve, Alcohol and Mammon.”

“My family did not make your son drink,” said Allan fiercely, but he immediately held himself under control again. “Sons of Titus, will you make peace with the son of McGrath?”

Luke and Mark Titus looked uneasily at their father, rigid on his horse.

Allan McGrath went back to the beginning. “I grieve for the loss of your son and your brother.” He extended his hand across the gate to Titus. “Andrew Titus, will you make peace with me, for the sake of your family and mine?”

Andrew Titus drew his revolver from under his coat and shot Allan McGrath between the eyes. As he looked down at the crumpled body, at the surprised eyes and the hair like a halo of fire, Andrew’s hand holding the gun gave one spasm, maybe of grief, maybe of remorse, maybe of nerves.

“Get off my land,” he said, and turned his horse back toward the house.

Next.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Untitled 4

I can't bear the title any more, so until a better one comes to me, the story will stay unnamed.

***
Previous.

We stood at the entrance to the corn maze, looking down to the point where the path dead-ended at the first split. As Vin had predicted, we had the place to ourselves. He tucked the maps inside his jacket.

“The way you solve a maze,” he said, “is that at every point you follow the right hand wall. You may have to traverse the entire field, but at least you’re sure of getting out.”

“But that could take forever,” I objected. “I think we should flip a coin, or play rock paper scissors, or just charge around. Wouldn’t you be more likely to get lucky that way?”

“You’re more likely to get lost.”

We took the right turn. The papery sigh of the field had a mesmeric strain to my town-bred ears.

“This is gonna be so Zen,” I said, twirling to brush the stalks on each side.

“Keep your right on your right,” Vin warned.

“How can I lose my right? It’s always in the same place.”

“Not if if you spin so that you’re facing the other direction.”

“Oh.” I tramped beside him as he brushed the wall of stalks. “You’re right.”

“I’m correct in my direction, and I’m on the right, yes.”

“Pedant.”

He chuckled, and I swear the corn stalks laughed a bit too.

“So,” I said, “why is secrecy of the essence? Are you expecting big awkward family revelations? Is your history of crime finally catching up?”

“I don’t expect any closure, to be honest,” he said. “I just can’t stand everyone in town being the first to know everything. Grandma Kay was so excited about having her DNA tested. She told everyone that she was going to find her father. There are still people around who remember her mother getting knocked up at 15, who said that was all you could expect from a girl like that. You and me talking, we can figure out family history that no one else knows. For this moment, it’s ours and nobody else’s. No one gossiping, no one raising eyebrows. Yet.”

“Haters gonna hate,” I said. “You’re letting people live rent free in your head. Someone trash talks your grandma, knock their tooth out.” I punched a cornstalk. It bobbed back at me, unharmed. “Maybe next time they’ll think twice about disrespecting you.”

He stopped, assumed a stance, and took a sweeping kick that demolished part of the corn wall. I goggled.

“You know how to fight?”

“Two years of taekwondo classes. My dad thought every man should know the gentle art of self defense. Then he went on a budgeting tear and cut them out.”

“And still you’re worried about what people say about you?”

“I like the discipline of the forms. I hate the sparring.”

Another right turning.

“Where do you get your fightiness from?” Vin asked. “Sounds like your mom wants to make love, not war, and your grandpa is a man of discipline. Is it from your dad’s family?”

“Not really,” I said. “The Ramirezes can fight amongst themselves, but mostly they defeat you by feeding you. But you know, it’s just me. Not every quirk of personality has to be secondhand. I just don’t like to take any shit from anyone, and I don’t see why I should have to.”

“How do you find a job that accommodates that quirk of personality?”

I tried my karate chop on the corn again. “I am currently on the job market.”

“Trying to get settled after college?”

“Um, not exactly. I had a job. But one day this lady went off on me, and…”

“And you didn’t smile and say, ‘Of course, madam.’”

“I might have called her madam. So to speak.”

Vin smiled but didn’t respond, and I was left with my bon mot hanging in the air, rapidly desiccating. Banter, pushback, active argument I could take, but having to digest my own words without conflict sauce was a new and rather bitter dish. How could I defend myself without having any resistance? Instead, here was Vin, studiously staying on the right, thinking who knew what behind that neutral facade.

“I suppose you never lose it with anyone,” I said. “Criticism doesn’t bother you.”

“I often find that I’m rightly criticized,” he said. “When I first started my training to be an EMT, my instructors were always telling me exactly how wrong I was at everything I did. The thing was, they were right. I had a lot to learn, and if I wanted to work in life or death situations, I couldn’t be guessing or second-guessing myself all the time. So I listened and I learned and I worked and I got better, eventually.”

“I guess your work ethic makes you pretty popular.”

“Not really. I might have made a better impression on the veterans if I’d stood up for myself more. Real men fight back, apparently. There’s not a lot of space for humility.”

“Yeah, but does humility really mean letting people tear you down? Maybe you’re just enabling someone else’s power trip.”

He shrugged. “Could be. It’s no skin off my nose. All I want is to get better at what I do, and if the cost of that is hearing some home truths, I’m okay with that. Most of the time.”

“Well, okay, wait a minute. You’re peaceful, and that’s well and good, but your family has a violent heritage. What about the Hatfields and McCoys?”

“Tituses and McGraths,” said Vin automatically. “I’m not sure that there’s anything there worth preserving. It was one of those mountain feuds where honor was at stake and people got killed and revenge got more and more elaborate..”

“There’s a romance to it,” I said. “Honor. Revenge. It sounds like a story.”

“Maybe in epic poetry,” said Vin. “Not when it’s your child or your father or your brother and you live in grief.”

“So what did the Tituses do?”

“I don’t know really know. Everyone up here had a small farm, so they were probably subsistence farmers. I don’t know how the feud started, but I think that most of Andrew Titus’s family were killed in it one way or another.”

“What about Lavinia? She survived long enough to become your ancestor, at least.”

“It’s the men who died, mostly.”

This grim history seemed incongruous with the increasing beauty of the day. A healing breeze passed through the maze, and a few hardy November insects sang in reply. Vin paused and checked his watch. 

“Should we pull out the map? I feel like we’re close to the center, but we could trace our path and see where we are.”

“Never,” I declared. “The real treasure is the friends we made along the way.  Why would anyone call this a haunted maze? There’s nothing wrong with this field.”

“It’s just a local legend,” Vin said. “But I don’t know — maybe I shouldn’t harsh your mellow by telling the story. It’s not pretty.”

“I’m not scared of the corn.”

“It’s your funeral.” Vin took a deep narrative breath. “Once upon a time, there was a crazy mountain cult. They lived in a gulch outside of town. The leader was a man of strict honor. He demanded total loyalty from his family and his followers, and if they didn’t do what he said, he shunned them or killed them. Even his own sons weren’t immune. But he took care of his own.”

I scoffed. “Oh, come on, the guy is Andrew Titus. You’re telling me that the scary legend is just the family feud?”

Vin forged on, building his story. “Across the mountain, there was another family. They were the opposite of the cultists. Their men were libertines and their women loose. They ran stills, and if you wandered into their territory you didn’t come out again. And they had the local government in their pocket. The fighting escalated until there was no way out. It was eye for an eye. Everyone had lost someone, and everyone wanted revenge, and it seemed like only the innocent were dying. So the leader of the cult and the local mayor, who was married to someone from the other side, made a private pact to end the feud by making a sacrifice.”

He paused meaningfully, but I was underwhelmed. “Isn’t sacrificing a good thing?”

“A human sacrifice.”

“Oh.”

“They had a mutual enemy, a stranger in town who had done both of them wrong. So secretly, in the middle of the night, they gagged him and bound him and buried him alive, up to his chest, in the middle of a cornfield when the corn was high. The legend says that each man planned to come back later and release the stranger and get him out of town. But both the mayor and the cult leader both died suddenly the next day, and no one was left to come back to rescue the stranger. And that fall, when the corn was harvested, the body was discovered. Legend says that he haunts this field after dark, looking for gruesome revenge so that he can start the feud all over again. And if you disturb his resting place, he comes for you. Right here.”

With a flourish, he led me into a round clearing. In the center of the circle was a pole. Bound to the bottom of a pole was half of a blackened scarecrow, a bag over its head.

“Ooh, that’s freaky,” I admired. “Very effective. I bet this makes the kiddies squeal.”

“I guess.” Vin seemed reluctant to get much closer to the shape. “I don’t like it much myself.”

“Is it a true story?” I had dismissed it as one step away from a fairytale while he was telling it, but somehow seeing the field and the pole and the form made it more concrete.

“There’s a grain of truth. The feud you already know about. I don’t know much about the history of Titusville politics, but there probably was a corrupt mayor. Isn’t government always corrupt? But the main kernel of the story, that a man was lynched and found later, did really happen.”

“He was lynched?” A shock of real horror jolted me.  I started to approach the pole for a closer look, but somehow, the figure looked so extremely dead it seemed almost alive.

“Yeah, that’s probably the ugliest part,” said Vin apologetically.

“Lynched.” With whiplash speed, the fairytale snapped into a hellish focus. I knelt before the scarecrow and touched it with a clammy hand. “This isn’t burnt. It’s black.” I tried to calm my breathing. No point in jumping to conclusions without more evidence. “When did this happen?”

“Around the time the feud ended, actually,” he said. “Early 1930s?”

I pictured an orphanage, an abandoned infant with a genetic connection to a feuding mountain family. “1934?”

“Maybe? I mean, a human sacrifice pact is pretty far-fetched, but it’s all too believable that a black man in jail could have been dragged out and lynched in those days. This has never been an area with any kind of black community. Who knows where the man came from? Who knows what he did?”

“Maybe he fathered a child with a white woman,” I whispered, searching the shrouded features in vain, as I did with the photo of Kay Titus, for any resemblance to my grandfather.

“That’s a possibility,” he said doubtfully, “but I don’t think we can really know.”

“I know,” I choked.

Vin turned sharply to look at me. “Oh my god,” he said after a moment. “You never mentioned that part of your family story.”

“I didn’t see how it could possibly have any bearing on your family.”

“Erin, I’m really sorry.” He knelt beside me. “I had no idea. This just seemed like a way to show you some of the local color and to find a private place to talk. I didn’t mean anything by it. It never entered my head that the legend could be have any connection at all to your grandfather being an orphan.”

“You didn’t think maybe a story about a lynching was offensive by itself? The local color in the mountains must be white.” My hands shook as I tried the knots on the splintered rope holding the scarecrow to the pole. “You didn’t think that maybe someone not from here wouldn’t find a casual little lynching a charming story?”

“Most of the people going through this maze on the weekend are thrill seekers from Roanoke,” said Vin.

“Then they’re wrong too,” I yelled. “How can you stand here and let people laugh and shriek at a black man dying?”

“Maybe we should go,” he said, standing and offering me his hand like I wanted his help up. “I’m sorry, really I am."

My hands were in the straw, tearing handfuls off of the pole. “Why do you care? It’s not your great-grandfather. In fact, your family was the one who killed him. Good thing my grandpa got out alive. What would they have done to him? Lynched him too?”

“Erin,” Vin said cautiously, “you can’t be absolutely sure that it is your great-grandfather.” I hurled straw at him. It fluttered ineffectively to the ground.

“You son of a bitch,” I said. “I don’t want to be related to you or your whore grandma. You don’t get to have my grandpa in your family.”

“You need to stop and think about what you’re saying.”

“What, are you going to make me?” With one final tug, the scarecrow came off the pole and collapsed on the ground.

“You are upset,” said Vin. “I can understand if you don’t want to be around me. You’ll also understand if I don’t want to hear my grandmother insulted. In my own small way, I don’t care to hear myself abused.” He reached in his jacket and took out one of the maps. “I’ll leave this with you, and when you’re done vandalizing someone else’s property, you can find your way back to the car and I’ll drive you to town, and then you can leave.”

He walked off into the maze. I looked around at my handiwork: the bare pole, and the mutilated shape on the ground. The flat alien sky gave me no sense of direction. I was alone in a cornfield with the body of my great-grandfather.

No: with a straw effigy. The legend was a ghost story. Last Halloween I would have come here and laughed my way through the maze and enjoyed the frisson of horror at the makeshift corpse. I wouldn’t have considered the human history. It would have been just a story to me, just like it was to Vin and anyone else in Titusville.

And I’d driven Vin away. What had I called his grandmother? I would have drawn blood from anyone who talked about my family like that. He’d just walked away. And it was my own fault that I was alone now, alone in a haunted field, where my great-grandfather had died alone, unable to make a sound, vowing to take vengeance on anyone who desecrated the site where he’d breathed his last…

Something touched my shoulder, and I screamed and whirled around. Vin jumped back at my shriek, but he held out the map to me.

“I got angry. I didn’t think about how you might be in shock,” he said. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

I fell in beside him as he navigated through the maze.

“You call that angry?” I tried to laugh, but it came out all shuddery. “I could eat you for breakfast any day.”

“I’d like to see you try,” he said. “Don’t forget the two years of taekwondo.”

I picked up the pieces of my shattered emotions. “I don’t have a good track record of apologies,” I said, “so I don’t really know how to say this best. But I’m sorry about… back there, and the stuff that came out of my mouth. I didn’t mean it, I think.”

“You think?”

“Well, I mean, it was my great-grandfather there.”

“Maybe it was,” he said. “And it doesn’t really matter what you say about me, or about Titusville. But you should not have talked about my grandmother that way.”

I was unquestionably in the wrong, and it made me defensive. “I just get like that when I’m angry.”

“And?” said Vin after a moment.

“And what?”

“You say that like it excuses you.”

“Yes, I know it’s an excuse.”

“It’s an explanation. To my mind, it’s no excuse.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Being angry explains why you lashed out. It makes sense of your behavior. But it’s not a good excuse for it. It’s not so compelling that I think to myself, ‘Yes, she was right to behave that way.’”

“What other reason would I have?” I said. “Of course I shouldn’t have said it, but it’s not like I have anything personal against your grandma. It’s not like I was personally calling her a…” He tensed expectantly, and I thought better of completing the sentence. “All I know about her is that…”

“Is that she was a single mother by choice,” he said. “And you don’t know anything about her life circumstances, or her family background, or why that might have seemed like a good decision to her, and you pulled out the fact against her because you wanted to lash out at me. Seconds before, you were furious because I accidentally took you to a place where something horrible happened to your family almost a century ago, and then you insult my grandma, who is, in fact, alive at this moment and has never done a thing to you. And she was so excited and nervous about meeting you and your grandpa that she’s home having a panic attack today.”

We made it out of the maze alive, if not unscathed. It would have been a fine moment to part company, but we still had to share a ride back into town. My stomach was churning, but whether it was with hunger or with anger or with a creeping remorse, I couldn’t tell. My temper flares up and simmers back down all day long, but perhaps Vin was one of those slow burn people who rarely get angry, and then rarely forgive. Behind the wheel, eyes on the road, he seemed untouchable. I felt 18 inches tall.

“I was wrong,” I said, “but you are too.”

“How so?”

“You said it didn’t matter what I said about you. I think it matters, if it wasn’t true.”

“Forget about it,” he said, trying to sound light and unembarrassed.

A mile passed in silence.

“Maybe you could tell me about your grandma?” I asked in a small voice.

He considered, then sighed. “You know,” he said, “let’s talk about something else for a while.” And so for the rest of the ride we chatted of news and nothings. When we got to my car he texted me the photo of his grandma and I sent him one of grandpa, and then I cried in my car all the way back to Blacksburg.

Next.

Male and Female

With the currency in our culture of the idea that a person can somehow have a body of the wrong sex, and thus be a male trapped in a female body or a female trapped in a male body, there's a new relevance to discussions of what gender means. A typical news story which implicitly asks this question might tell about a little boy who likes pink and enjoys playing "princess" and whose parents thus concluded that he may actually be a girl and are helping him to "socially transition".

But is liking pink or playing with dolls and princess costumes what it means to be female? Clearly not. One may talk about certain tendencies: more girls seem to like to play nurturing games with dolls and more boys seem to like to play with trucks or toy soldiers, but these are only very broad tendencies. Just because a girl hates pink and likes to play with trucks does not mean that she is not a girl, and just because a boy likes to snuggle a baby doll or host a tea party for stuffed animals does not mean that he's a girl. People and their interests do not all come from the same mold, and there is no necessity at all that a girl be interested in the things that other girls are interested in just because she also is a girl.

What then is male-ness or female-ness if it isn't adhering to the stereotypical interests and behaviors of each sex?

It seems to me that it is the experience which comes from being a person who has a male or female body. This leads to certain elements of commonality. Male bodies and female bodies tend to act a bit differently and have different hormones pumping through them. The two sexes experience sexual intercourse differently because we have different sexual organs that behave differently. This means that while there may be a wide range of feelings and attitudes towards sex among men, they all share the experience of addressing sex with male genitals, not female ones, and vise versa for women. In familial life, men can experience being fathers, but cannot experience being mothers. Women can experience being mothers but cannot experience being fathers. Setting aside family life, a man who is trying to live according to a vow of celibacy will experience what it is like to try to live celibately with a male set of genitals and hormones, while a woman who has made a similar vow will have the experience of living it out with a female body.

But within these commonalities, there is great room for variation. And within the wide set of experiences which men have, all of them are male, because they are the experiences of a person who is male. Even if some men have feelings or experiences that bear strong similarities to those that women describe, he still has those feelings and experiences as a man. And even if a woman hears much familiar in the feelings and experiences of men, she is still a woman.

Perhaps there's more that can be said about male-ness and female-ness than this, but it seems to me that if one starts anywhere in trying to explain these concepts than that they are based in having a body of that sex, one opens up to all sorts of nonsense.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Kissing Kin 3

Previous.

The waitress slid a mug of coffee across the counter. “Friend of yours, Vin?” she asked.

“My cousin, actually,” he said.

The waitress cast an eye over Vin’s pale arms, sprinkled with fine red hairs, and my olive hands and lacquered nails. “Kissing kin, huh. Your grandma found her daddy, then?”

“None of your business, Maureen,” said Vin evenly.

The cook was listening now. “Maybe she found your granddaddy.”

“I’ll take that coffee to go, actually,” said Vin. “And one for my cousin too.”

Two styrofoam cups were slapped down in front of us. “Don’t go forgetting the little people because you got a new grand-dad and a great-granddad, Vin,” said the waitress. “Nobody ever died of being a Titus.”

The cook snorted. “How you can live here all your life and never hear anything, Maureen, I’ll never know.” She dropped a cheese on a patty with easy contempt. “Y’all be real sure about being kissing kin. Last thing we need in the world are more inbred Tituses.”

On the sidewalk, Vin and I cradled our steaming cups against the damp afternoon.

“Don’t you have a coat?” I asked.

“It’s in my car,” he said.

The hubbub of the festival blared across the street. I settled my scarf and tucked my free hand in my jacket. Vin shuffled and kicked moodily at an empty popcorn bag blowing along the sidewalk.

“All right, maybe I was wrong to make a scene and stalk out,” he said. “At least inside we were warm and dry.”

“You call that making a scene?” I said.

“Sure,” he said. “I should have ignored them. It just seemed intolerable today of all days to deal with the same old slurs.”

“Screw that,” I said. “Let’s go back in there and tear it up. I can handle Maureen if you take the old bird.”

Vin gave me the side-eye. “Are you sure we’re related?”

“That’s what the DNA says.”

I considered taking a sip of my rapidly cooling coffee. Vin glanced back through the diner windows, where Maureen and the cook were not making any pretense of not staring.

“Grandma Kay gets so stressed. I’d hoped we could work out a bit of the family tree before she got involved, but this place is a fishbowl,” he said. “Are you superstitious?”

“What? No.” I considered honestly. “Okay, maybe. I can be superstitious if it involves La Llorona or the Scottish play. Why?”

“There’s a corn maze a few miles away. It’s supposed to be haunted. But most people in town are going to be here at the festival today, so at least we wouldn’t have an audience hanging on every word.”

“Or any witnesses,” I said. “You could be a serial killer luring me to my death. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that you don’t go into a corn maze with a total stranger.”

“Well, fortunately I’m not a stranger, just your mild-mannered cousin — three or four times removed, whatever that means.”

“I’m sure no girl was ever killed in a corn maze after a pick-up line like that.”

“Sorry. I must come off as a mustache-twirling villain. Snidely Whiplash has got nothing on me. It’s just this way I have, always trying to smooth things over in the most awkward way possible.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, you’re so earnest.  Doesn’t our family have any sense of humor?”

“Oh sure. No joke is safe around me. I’ll trip over it no matter how far off the path it is.”

If he killed me, it would only be with overly sensitive apologies. “All right. Let’s go lose ourselves in a corn maze.  Your car or mine?”  He hesitated, and I read his meaning in that.  “You said your coat’s in your car.  How about we take yours.  I don’t think it’s sinister.  Honest.”

His car was more presentable than Steed, so I felt I’d made the right call.

“One thing I’m not understanding,” I said, as we drove out of town.

“Just one?”

“If Kay is a Titus, how can you be looking for your grandfather on her side?”

“You might well ask,” said Vin. “My dad is the first Mr. Titus in our line in… we’d have to count back, but maybe to old Andrew Titus himself. It’s generation after generation of mothers passing the Titus name to daughters, and daughters screwing up like their mothers before them.”

I fished paper and pen out of my purse. “You tell me the names and birthdays, and I’ll make a chart. Maybe we can figure out where the family lines intersect. Do you want to start with old Andrew Titus?”

“No, I can’t get it straight unless I go backwards from now. So, start with me. Vincent Titus, 1994. I’m the only son — only child — of Dan and Mandy Titus. Dan Titus, 1972, is the only son — only child of Kay Titus.”

“And who?” I asked, pen hovering over the diagram.

“Grandma is too strong to need a man,” Vin said, “except for the one thing she couldn’t do without a man. She didn’t want to get married or be tied down. All she wanted was a baby of her own.”

“Wouldn’t that tie you down?”

“You don’t reason with Grandma Kay. This fellow didn’t even stick around to try it.”

“So it’s your dad looking for his father, then,” I said.

“Yes, but it’s also Kay. Kay Titus, 1950, daughter of a homeward bound soldier or a traveling salesman. Her mother was only 16.”

I drew circles with initials and dates in them. “What about teen mom?”

“Helen Titus. I’m a little sketchy on details about her, but I do know that she was born in 1934 to Lavinia Titus, and the only reason I know is because…”

“Because the name Vincent comes from Lavinia, doesn’t it.”

“How’d you know?”

“It just makes sense.”

“And Lavinia, I think, is the daughter of Old Titus, but we’d have to check that with someone who’s into the family history.”

“What about this Old Titus?” I asked. “Is he important?”

“He used to be,” said Vin. “He was the patriarch of the Titus clan, who had a big feud going with a family named McGrath on the other side of the mountain, on the level of the Hatfields and McCoys. They mostly wiped each other out in one final blaze of glory some time during Prohibition.”

“But there are still Tituses around,” I said.

“They’re some other branch of the family. We’re kind of the red-headed stepchildren of the bunch.” He ran a hand over his head. “Literally. I don’t know the red hair fits into it, but the other Tituses don’t have it.”

I studied my chart. “Here’s something odd. Helen Titus was born in 1934. So was my grandpa, Aaron Moore.”

“Really?” Vin tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, counting. “Helen is my great-grandmother.”

“Your generations are closer than ours.” I drew up another chart. “Start with me. Erin Moore Ramirez, 1997, daughter of Linda Moore and John Ramirez.”

“What’s your dad’s family like?” Vin asked.

“Oh, they’re lots of fun. Big family, tons of cousins, summers with Abuela and Abuelo…”

“Do they speak Spanish?”

I snorted. “Not much. My mom thought it would be a nice ethnic way to distinguish between the sets of grandparents. The Moores were just Grandma and Grandpa. Fortunately for the Ramirezs, the family is spacious enough to absorb another weird daughter-in-law. Everyone nodded and smiled and taught her how to make tamales.”

“My dad is a great guy,” Vin said. “But he tries too hard. He never had a father, and his mother never had a father, and so he’s all over the place, trying to be the perfect father and husband without any personal experience of either relationship. And he has a hair-trigger temper, so he would blow up first and then get upset that he’d scarred me for life, and my mom would have to pat his hand for a while. When I was a kid, sometimes he’d be the most supportive, doting dad — lessons, sports equipment, band trips, video games — you name it, he found the highest-quality version on the market. Nothing less for his son. Then my mom would tell him that he was going to spoil me, and he’d swing in the other direction. He’d put me on strict regimens of instant obedience and morning chores and after school jobs and lectures on my shortcomings, trying to build character. Then he’d worry that I might not get into a good college, so I’d have to study with him every morning, and take Latin and Greek in high school, and read the classics he never read. Then he’d hear that kids need freedom and agency, so he’d let me off my homework and tell me to ride my bike or wander the trails or learn how to take apart my car engine.”

“Your dad bought you a car?”

“Sure, he thought it was the safe and responsible thing to do. It’s probably the only reason I survived high school — it made me just popular enough to be left mostly alone."

I blinked. “That is…. intense.”

Vin tensed. “I’m sorry. I tend to work my way around the edges of conversations, and then when I open up I launch on warning, and people start checking their watches.”

“Geez, you’re getting tender again. I didn’t mean the life story. I meant your dad. Mine is so easy-going unless you ask him a question about a point of law, and then he starts in on one of his classroom lectures. It’s my mom who’s the wild card at our house. I say wild card, but she’s predictable in annoying ways. Every cause, she stands for it. Every wrong, she’s out to right it. She’s the savior of the oppressed, whether they like it or not.”

“Do the oppressed like it?”

“The oppressed generally consider my mom’s work on their behalf to be of far less relevance than she does. But what do they know? They’re only ignorant oppressed people. We have to listen to their voices and disregard them when they know less about what’s good for them than we do.”

“Are you oppressed?”

“I try my damnedest not to be.” I made a few fierce circles around Mom’s initials. “Linda Moore, born 1957. She charged through college, was determined to become a professor, so she did. She found a fellow faculty member to marry her. She got tenure and had me.”

“Sounds like someone who always knows what she wants.”

“Stick around, and she’ll tell you what you want too.”

“Do you get along with her?”

“I wouldn’t say ‘get along’,” I said. “You have to clap back at her when she’s getting in your space, and then she’s offended and drops you, and it’s peaceful for a while until she gets going again.”

“And now we’re back to Aaron Moore,” said Vin. “What’s his story?”

“Orphan, 1934, raised at the Sisters of Charity Orphanage in Roanoke.”

“That’s not so far away from here.”

“The sisters taught him to work, and that’s what he did. He married a poor hard-working girl, and they had my mom and that was hard work, and he built up a company from scratch and that was hard work.”

“And where do you fall on the hard work family scale?” he asked.

“Look at you with the personal questions.”

“I mean, we are here to discuss DNA.”

I gestured expansively. “I think the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

“A very acceptable position,” he said. “Plus, your quotation game is on point.”

“And that is the end of the line.” I drew a question above Aaron Moore’s circle. “His parents were a blank until we discovered that he’s connected to you Tituses through his mother.”

“And I know the mothers in the Titus line going back to the generation before him,” said Vin. “And age-wise, I don’t know how he can match with anyone’s generation but Helen’s.”

“Maybe he’s connected to her father’s mother?”

We were now parked before a field of dried stalks, rustling and whispering in the breeze. A lurid sign proclaimed this to be Titusville’s only Haunted Corn Maze! The sun had finally broken through the clouds, giving a kiss of warmth to the air. Vin paid our admission fee and came back with the emergency maps.

“This is going to be a-maze-ing,” he said.

“It looks fun. I’ve never been in a…” My jaw slowly dropped. “Was that a pun?”

“And you don’t have to worry,” he said earnestly, “because I’m no stalker.”

“No.”

He was grieved. “I can see that you’re no connoisseur of corny jokes."

“I can see that I’ll be begging you to kill me at some point,” I said. “Come on, let’s go unpack the family baggage in the corn field.”

“You mean the corn maize?”

“Yes, that’s what I… You’re despicable.”

Next.