The Summer of Adventure!
by Frederick Key
Horrid Cousin Tor’s wedding was worse than they could have imagined.
Now really into summer, the beach wedding would have been a hot, sticky, and thus uncomfortable affair even if it hadn’t been for the mounds of seaweed and the clouds of gnats and mosquitoes and gawkers hanging around. Henry, who believed that tattoos were only legal because it was unconstitutional to force people to wear signs that said Stupid, was impressed that Tor had found a woman with more ink than he had. Some nice work on her face, in fact. Her family and friends were equally charming.
“Well, this is pleasant,” said Henry later, under the tent at the reception, to Jane and his sister Kerry. “I had no idea that trailer parks had communal areas.”
“It is a modular home community, not a trailer park,” said Kerry through clenched teeth. Kerry was Henry’s older sister, the only other person in his immediate family to show, even though it meant leaving her dog, Screwball, home by himself for the day.
“This is your family, so be nice,” muttered Jane.
“Oh, I’ll be nothing but nice,” said Henry. “Her family looks like they wouldn’t be put off from violence by mere threats of arrest and prosecution.”
There was a cash bar, which could not have been more thoroughly raided if it were free, and various card tables set up as food stations labeled meat, yardbird, spuds, and other. There was no calamine station, sadly. Henry had that feeling he’d had many times in the last decade, that he’d be a lot more relaxed if he hadn’t been accompanied by Jane, a normal human being. After all, he’d had to deal with these people all his life. It was his family.
But not his immediate family, thank God. His parents had moved to North Carolina, and for this occasion they had sent presents and excuses. North Carolina, Henry had heard, was quite a nice place to be, and sounded even nicer right now.
“Do you get the feeling there might be a little tension between your aunt Pauline and her new daughter-in-law?” asked Jane.
“Why would you say that?”
“Nothing, no reason… except Aunt Pauline just tipped the DJ and now he’s playing ‘Highly Strung’ by Spandau Ballet. And Hazel keeps looking over at her.”
Nervous smiles filled the tent.
In response, as best as they could follow, the bride requested Huey Lewis and the News’s cover of “Mother-in-Law.” The groom’s mother countered with Matchbox Twenty’s “She’s so Mean,” and the bride responded with Less Than Jake’s “Escape from the A-Bomb House.” Pauline, with no smile at all, asked for Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come,” prompting the bride to strike back with Three Days Grace’s “Just Like You.” By now Tor was cringing behind the bar, pounding down drinks. His mother could not be dissuaded from going nuclear with Black Sabbath’s cover of “Evil Woman (Don’t Play Your Games with Me).” Kerry vanished. The bride hit back with “Mother” by the Police, which Henry thought showed a little weakening on her side, but it must have struck Pauline hard because she went straight to Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass Bitch.” The bride then started going through the envelopes on the gift table, gathering enough cash out of the presents to bribe the DJ, and Henry turned to his wife and said, “Call your mom in the car and tell her we’re coming to get the kids early.”
The week that followed had a perverse effect—somehow Henry’s ducking out early from the wedding got his family mad at him.
“How bad could it have been?” asked his father on the phone. “It didn’t make the papers.”
“You come up and meet the bride’s family and tell me,” said Henry. “They had gotten up and were scowling and clenching their fists like they needed to grab some broken bottles. I got the feeling they didn’t mind spending time in the House of Many Doors and would be willing to go back to make a point.”
“So you left Kerry with these people?”
“She had gone to the bathroom and never came back, so I assumed she’d run for it.”
“She said she came out and you’d run away with Jane and she was scared to death. And your aunt Pauline is furious.”
“Don’t drag me into this, Dad.”
Henry’s mother, Pauline’s sister, thought Henry should have exercised a calming influence at the reception, acting as a soothing balm on the scratched-up souls as the “representative of the sane side.” Henry's mother had been doing that for Pauline since they were little girls. And now Kerry was mad at Henry for running away, saying she would never speak to Henry again. Ever! Not even a little!
“Maybe we should have tried to defuse the situation,” said Jane, looking guilty. “Blessed are the peacemakers, right?”
Considering that Jane hated his mother’s family Henry found that kind of thick, although she was tight with his mom and Kerry. “All right, fine, we’ll be goodness and light from now on.”
The Kingslips’ foray into being goodness and light lasted until Wednesday, when Jane told Henry over chicken nuggets, “I can never go to the park again!” and started to cry.
Hal had eaten all his nuggets, and Nug was passed out with his bottle (not unlike Tor’s father, Uncle Pinky). Phoebe was building a fairy castle out of nuggets and mashed potatoes.
“I had fight with another mother today,” Jane said.
“Okay, kids, scram,” said Henry. “Well, not you, Nug, you should stay for this.”
Nug continued to sleep while his siblings cheerfully scrammed. Jane continued. “Her son punched Hal and I—I just went off.”
“It was clobberin’ time.”
“No, stupid! But I yelled. Why don’t you listen?”
“Can’t say. Why did Hal get punched?”
“They were fighting over the springy horse.”
“So the kid just reared back and wham?!”
“After Hal pushed him, yeah.”
“Hal pushed him? Then he started it!”
“He did not! A push is nothing like a punch! Everyone knows that!”
“Well, there’s not a mark on our little bruiser. That other kid must have been a weakling.”
“That doesn’t matter! I yelled, then she yelled—I just snapped.”
"And you punched her."
"No I didn't!"
Henry went over to her side of the table and hugged her. “You were defending your young, like a good mother.”
“I was acting like an idiot who winds up on YouTube. ‘Jerk Blond Mom Goes Nuts.’”
“Uh, no one was recording, I hope.”
“Sweetie, I know you’ve been stressed out with the dental surgery, the wedding from Hell, the lecture on bad territory canvassing from the five angry lesbians…”
“Only three are lesbians.”
“…and your wiseass blockhead of a husband. I’m surprised you didn’t slug her.”
“I can never take the kids to the park again!”
“Sure you can! We’ll go at two a.m., and—”
It was Henry who wound up getting slugged.
Henry’s fillings, which hurt his mouth and his wallet, came at a bad time. It was the Saturday of the church carnival, and he and Jane were volunteering in shifts at the bake sale booth.
The catch was, they had been trying for weeks to keep their own children from finding out about the carnival. Bad enough they were going to Hershey Park; they didn’t need local empty calories too. Plus, the kids would be too small for any of the rides and the games, which would leave them doing nothing but “eating cotton candy until they pastel-barf in the backseat,” Jane said, and Henry concurred.
It hadn’t been easy keeping them in the dark. Posters all over town. “Fortunately, only Hal can read, but not worth a damn,” said Henry to Jane. Still, for a month they had to become Communion Sprinters, hustling out of church immediately after Communion so the kids wouldn’t hear the carnival announcements.
It seemed to have worked. Then that Saturday morning Henry came home with half his face numb, drooling, the pain starting to seep in, to find all three kids whining like bad brakes.
“Whuh habben?” asked Henry, who had been expecting to find the children shuffled off to Jane’s parents.
“I don’t know!” said Jane. “They just knew today was the day. Osmosis or something. Then they got it out of me, that Mommy and Daddy got to go to the carnival and they didn’t.”
“Whad dey do, wahberboard you?”
“I tried to say it was a big-people’s carnival…”
It turned out not to be a disaster. Jane and Henry had been planning to take turns at the booth anyway, so while one took a shift at the booth the other minded the kids at the parish center, with minor excursions into the fair. The kids did manage to eat poorly -- funnel cake was the most nutritious thing they got -- but no one got sick.
Henry almost did, actually. Jane had gotten him a frozen lemonade that hit the two brand-new fillings and his head nearly exploded.
The pastor popped over by the booth just as Henry was clutching his mouth in agony.
“Hi, Henry,” said the pastor. And quietly, “Mrs. Carlucci’s pecan squares do the same thing to me.”
At last, the big family weekend away arrived, and with it a gastrointestinal virus that blew through the family like a cyclone. Hal brought it home from a playdate at Jane’s sister’s; Hal generously donated it to Phoebe, who kindly shared it with Little Nug. That was Friday. Henry and Jane were only mildly affected, if you call having to deal with three small children with liquid bowels mild. The poor kids were so miserable that Henry couldn’t spare any pity for himself, even though his brilliant idea of paying for the motel in advance to get a discount meant no refund for the canceled trip. “At least we kept the trip a surprise from the kids,” said Henry. “They’d have been inconsolable if they knew they were missing the Sweetest Place on Earth over this. It could have been worse.”
“It can always be worse,” said Jane as she collapsed in bed that Saturday night. “That doesn’t make it good.”
“What, projectile diarrhea not your idea of a great weekend?”
“I am having my tubes tied,” said Jane slowly, “by a crew of sailors, knitters, Boy Scouts, and gift wrappers so that nothing will ever go into or come out of them again.”
Henry collapsed next to her. “I’ll put a want ad up on the Sailor, Knitter, Boy Scout, and Gift Wrapper news site.”
Jane, who had apparently become a plague to other mothers and a rascally varmint at large, next got into a flame war on Facebook with her own sister.
“Julia knew Tommy was sick and let Hal come over anyway!” Jane told Henry on Monday night.
“And you called her out on it?”
“I wouldn’t have made a peep if she hadn’t sarked me over us blowing money on a trip we couldn’t take. ‘Who pays in advance when you have small children LOL,’ she wrote. Jerk. Now she’s not speaking to me. And it was all her fault!”
“None of the sisters are speaking to us. Sweep!”
He held up his hand for a high five, but Jane left him hanging.
[Can Henry and Jane have any luck this summer? Return for the penultimate chapter tomorrow!]