Shirley laid her underpants on the floor of her bedroom and placed a foot in each leg hole. As she reached to pull them up, the land line rang out in the kitchen. “Christ on a cracker!” she said through heaving breaths. Whoever it was, they were going to have to leave a message. The phone continued to ring as she pulled the waist elastic into position and arranged her thigh areas.
Out in the kitchen, the caller ID said it was her sister. Lanie was probably calling about something to do with the family reunion on Sunday. Why had Shirley agreed to host that darn thing? The whole idea of it made her tired.
Fortunately Fredrik and Greger would be here with their families. She could get Wendy to position herself in the east hallway throughout the event to prevent anyone from going there, and also get Aimee and Ursula to take turns standing guard on the stairs to make sure no one went down there either.
She called Elaine back.
“Hi Lanie. Sorry I missed your call. I was outside speaking with the gardener.”
“You have a gardener?”
“Not for long, not this one anyway,” said Shirley. “I need to find a replacement. For the amount of money we’re paying, he’s just not cutting the mustard. Anyway, I see you called?”
“Yes. Um, Vincent is here and he can’t wait to see you. He really wants you to meet his kids. Um, he asked me to ask you if it would be okay if he and his kids spent the night at your house after the reunion. He said he wants to avoid the Sunday ferry traffic, and he also wants to visit a friend on the island on Monday.”
“He says she’s a waitress he used to work with who lives in Langley now. Anyway, um, do you think it would be okay?”
“I guess so.”
“Okay!” said Lanie. “I’ll tell him. Are you sure it’s all right?”
Shirley’s mind went into an unpleasant whirl. “It’s all right, except I need to be at the animal hospital first thing in the morning.”
“So they’ll have to get up early and leave when I leave.”
“Okay,” said Lanie. “I’ll tell him.”
“Is he going to have a car? Or will he be borrowing one of yours?”
“He rented a car.”
Shirley’s mind spun in more discomfort. “I can put them downstairs. Except…”
“Fred and Greger will be leaving that afternoon. It will be difficult for me to get down there and change the sheets. Can you have them bring sleeping bags to put down on top of my beds?”
“I don’t see why not! I have some sleeping bags he can borrow,” said Lanie.
Shirley cringed. Why hadn’t she just said no? The line had gone silent, and it was Lanie who spoke next.
“Okay then! See you Sunday.”
“Okay Lanie. Golly, I’ll probably be all worn out by Sunday night, after having had the kids and their families all weekend, and then hosting the reunion.”
“Fred is making General Tso’s Chicken?”
“Yes indeedy. He’s bringing the ingredients and doing it all himself. And Knute of course will put some smoked salmon out.”
“Great! See you on Sunday. One o’clock, right?”
“Yes, the reunion is from one o’clock to three forty-five.”
Vincent rinsed his lunch plate in Lanie’s kitchen sink. Same old sink, same old kitchen. He sighed in relief. So far the visit had gone okay. Kwame was watching TV in the living room, and Adwoa was ensconced in a book somewhere, and there were only five days left to go. It looked like he was going to make it through this.
Too bad Dolores had gone out of town for these same exact two weeks! Then he and the kids could have spent a few nights with her, and given Lanie a break. But Dolores and her brood had gone to Pennsylvania for the annual Moffat family pig roast.
Vincent listened to Lanie’s voice behind him as she began to speak on the phone with Aunt Shirley. As he listened, his eyes widened. He swallowed hard and gripped the edges of the sink. Sleeping bags? When Lanie hung up, he manufactured a grin onto his face and turned to face her.
“Shirley said it was okay,” said Lanie.
“Great!” he said. “It will be so nice to get to spend some time with her again.”
“She wants you to bring sleeping bags.”
Vincent kept his mouth shut and nodded.
“Fred and Greger will have just left with their families, and Shirley said it would be difficult for her to get down the stairs and change the sheets.”
“No problem. We’ll bring sleeping bags,” said Vincent. “Hey, this is going to be fun! I’ve really missed Aunt Shirley. I’ve hardly ever seen her since I was a kid.” He reached into the fridge for a Coke, cracked it open, and turned to face his mom again. “She took good care of me when I was little. She was always so warm and funny. I really appreciated her.”
“She says you’ll need to leave first thing in the morning,” said Lanie. “She has to go somewhere.”
Vincent kept his grin going. His cheeks ached. “No problem,” he said. “We’ll be off first thing. I just wanted to avoid the Sunday night ferry traffic was all. More than that, I wanted to spend some time with Aunt Shirley.”
He took a sip of Coke and swallowed hard.
“So tell her we’re on!”
Vincent awoke in the late afternoon coolness of his parents’ basement. “Four days left,” he breathed. “I can do this.”
Things had continued to go okay, but Lanie’s nerves were clearly beginning to fray. She was speaking louder and saying more and more cutting and abrasive things. Fortunately they’d exhausted the topic of the fact that Vincent didn’t work and, as Lanie concluded, “ Liz had to bring in the income!” At least he and the kids were spending the next night at Aunt Shirley’s. This would give Lanie a break.
Lanie had acted extremely disturbed after Kwame peed in his sleeping bag the other night, announcing it to the whole world and ordering him to carry the bag outside and hang it on the line. “Okay Kwame, now go and get it!” she’d commanded later in the day, as if this was a punishment she wanted to put on display. And Kwame had dutifully gone out to the line, pulled the sleeping bag over his shoulders, and brought it back in.
Vincent sighed and stared at the white speckled squares of basement drop ceiling.
Wait, he thought. What was this? Something didn’t seem right. Was that clinking he heard, of silverware upstairs? And voices? Why would they be eating dinner without him?
When he came upstairs he found Kwame and Adwoa seated at the kitchen table, along with their cousin Rex and Grandpa. Each had a plate with a piece of lettuce topped with a scoop of cottage cheese and some peach slices. Lanie stood at the counter and cut into a tray of lasagna she'd pulled from the oven.
“Why didn’t you call me?” Vincent asked as he came in and sat down.
“I thought I’d let you rest,” said Lanie. “Do you want some lasagna?”
“Okay.” He didn’t like the sound of her voice.
“Then come and serve yourself. I don’t know how much you want.” Lanie continued to dole out portions to the kids, but took care to serve her husband first.
“More butter,” Grandpa said, staring into his plate and waving a piece of bread in the air. Lanie went to the fridge for butter.
Vincent put some lasagna on a plate, squirted hot sauce over it, and rejoined the table. He grinned and winked at his children. “Guess what we’ll be eating tomorrow night?” he asked them.
“I need to tell you,” said Lanie as she unwrapped the new stick of butter. “Aunt Shirley called to say you can’t sleep on her beds since Kwame wet his bed the other night. Her beds are new. So if you still want to stay at her house, you’ll have to sleep in the yard.”
Vincent closed his eyes.
When he reopened them, it was to Kwame spooning cottage cheese into his mouth with a blank expression. Adwoa sat with her hands in her lap and looked out the entryway windows. Vincent shifted his eyes to his nephew, Rex, who had covered his mouth with one hand and was grinning.
“Sleep in the yard,” was all Vincent could get to come out of his mouth.
“And she says the dew is pretty heavy,” said Lanie. “So you should probably bring a tent.”
“Because her beds are new.”
“Yes, and I told her that I completely understood. I’d say the same thing if my beds were new.”
Vincent closed his eyes again. Oh Lanie, please tell me you are not doing this.
With his eyes closed, the years flew away. He was back in Mrs. Van Cleef’s first grade class at Maple Leaf Elementary School, in 1971. There he sat at his desk, in a puddle of warm pee as it noisily dripped to the floor. Panic stricken, he looked over at Leslie Schroeder, who stared at him and raised her hand to cover her grinning mouth. And then came the roar of laughter from the classroom.
“Lanie!” Grandpa was yelling now. “Jesus! Will you cut it out with that? Any child psychiatrist will tell you that this matter should be discussed only in private, and only between the adult and the child!”
Vincent gathered his breath and opened his eyes. “Okay. So. How is it that Aunt Shirley knows about this?”
“I told her!” said Lanie. “Shirley called today to ask if you were still planning to stay at her house. When I said ‘yes’ she said, ‘You sound tired.’ And I told her yes I was! On top of everything I’ve had to deal with, Kwame wet his bed! And then Shirley told me you’ll have to sleep outside. After all, her beds are new. She cannot have pee on them!”
“Lanie! For crying out loud!” shouted Grandpa.
Kwame stared at his plate and chewed slowly. Adwoa kept her hands in her lap and sat still. Rex pivoted in his chair, with his hand over his smiling mouth, and looked out the doorway.
“And her husband backed her up!” Lanie continued. “I could hear Knute yelling in the background, ‘No way! No way can they stay here!’ And I told her I fully understood. After all, I would feel the same way if my beds were new.”
“Oh Jesus,” said Grandpa.
Vincent looked at Lanie. “So you are going to defend this woman while she denigrates your son and your grandchildren.”
“Defend her?” Lanie shrugged. “My sister can do what she wants.”
“Yes! And so can you, can't you? You can even volunteer to be her public mouthpiece! In front of your own grandchildren, and—” Vincent felt the lasagna up in his throat and couldn’t finish his sentence. He swallowed, and eyed Adwoa, who glanced at him and then back out the window. “Well,” he added, “We can all hear you loud and clear, Mom. Thanks for delivering their messages.”
“I’m not defending them!” said Lanie. “I’m just saying that I agree with Shirley and Knute that—”
“Come off it. You know what this is about. My children may not sleep in her house. Others may, but not mine.”
“You mean her grandchildren?” said Lanie. “Of course they can. And as far as I know they don’t pee in her new beds!”
“Lanie!” shouted Grandpa.
“And Rex, perhaps,” said Vincent, motioning to his nephew. “Rex would probably be allowed to sleep in Aunt Shirley’s house. Perhaps even on sheets.”
“Are you saying Shirley is a racist?” asked Lanie, her voice rising in pitch. “She is not a racist! She had a black person over to her house once for dinner and you know it!”
“Lanie, drop it,” said Grandpa.
“I will,” said Lanie, her voice shrill and quaking. “But first I have one more thing to say. The reason I told Shirley that Kwame wet his bed was that she called to ask if you were still planning to sleep at her house. And when I answered yes she said, ‘You sound tired,’ and I said, ‘Yes. I am STRESSED OUT.’”
Silence fell over the table.
Vincent drew a breath. “Sorry we are stressing you out.”
He looked at his children. Their faces stared back.
“Let’s go, guys,” he said. He rose from the table. As he walked away, he heard his children put down their forks follow.
Downstairs, while stuffing belongings into suitcases, Vincent tried to process what had just happened.
And what the fuck? What had Lanie and Shirley just called us?
“Ruff ruff!” he barked, testing out their newfound identities.
As he grabbed his shirts and stuffed them in a bag, Adwoa wrapped her arms around him in a sideways hug. Kwame got very busy putting his shorts and tee shirts into his little rolling carry-on. Thank goodness they’d come to Seattle with a plan ‘b’. They could go and stay with buddy Frank.
Out in the driveway, as Vincent prepared to pull away, Lanie approached the window. Reluctantly, he rolled it down.
“These are Kwame’s socks,” she said, handing them through.
“Thanks,” he replied. “Hope you get less stressed out.”
“Are you still going to Aunt Shirley’s? Are you going to rent a tent?”
Vincent coughed and looked straight ahead.
Then he laughed.
“Oh yes,” he said. “We are going. They will see us. They will definitely see us.”