Family Tree (short story; pt 1)

There was this guy named Emerson who wanted to go out with me, but I wasn’t sure.

Emerson was a prince of a guy. We were supposed to be going to a museum to see an exhibit about the life of Abraham Lincoln, but while we were standing outside the building, we got bogged down in an argument about whether we should be more than friends.

I said, "Forget it. I am no good for you."

"Listen to you," he replied indulgently. "What exactly do you think makes you such a poisonous influence?"

"I don’t think I’m a poisonous – Emerson, the Clearys are no good at romance." The Clearys were my mother’s family. "My entire family tree is littered with people who don’t know how to act right."

"Such as?" he demanded. Perverse. "I’d say your parents are excellent at being in a relationship. Your sister’s marriage seems happy."

"Yes, but my mother and my sister are a brave new breed, a new chapter in family history, a more highly evolved species," I explained. "I’m more like my uncle Frank."

"What, pray tell," asked Emerson, who was clearly in a facetious mood, "is wrong with your uncle Frank?"

"Uncle Frank," I said, "slept with not one, but both of his sisters’ boyfriends in high school, and got unofficially kicked out of the family. That’s the kind of blood that runs in my veins."

A couple of precious, preppy little college girls had come out of the museum and were standing around nearby during this conversation. One of them turned to me and snapped, "Don’t disrespect your uncle for trying to be true to himself."

"Seriously," her friend chimed in. "If Lincoln was alive, he’d jack you up good, lady. Your own mother wouldn’t recognize you when Honest Abe got through with you."

"What does Abraham Lincoln have to do with anything?" I shrilled.

"Sandburg may have hinted that Lincoln cherished a homosexual attachment in his youth," Emerson pointed out helpfully.

I said, "I am not homophobic, okay?" I pointed at Emerson. "I used to go out with this man’s sister."

"Oh, like I’m totally going to believe that," the girl who had spoken first said scornfully.

I couldn’t decide whether to cry, or go directly into the bar across the street and drink myself into a stupor. In any event, I was spared the decision by the ringing of my cell phone.

It was my sister, Bess. She said, "Oh, no, Marjorie. You’ll never believe it."

"What?" I demanded. "Are your kids okay? What?"

She said, "Aunt Ella’s getting married again."

"Speak of the devil," I muttered unhappily.

My aunt Ella got married a lot. This would be the fourth time that I knew of. Her first husband had disappeared off to Texas with his second wife. Her second husband had divorced her under unremarkable circumstances. Her third husband had slowly and methodically drunk himself to death. I had called him Uncle Jim, and I’d liked him a lot. Sometimes, even now, I forgot that Uncle Jim and I were not actually related, and that therefore there could not be a genetic link involved in our shared melancholy, or in our mutual love of tippling, for that matter.

Like most of the women in my mother’s family, Aunt Ella was gorgeous and looked about ten years younger than she actually was, so I wasn’t greatly surprised to hear that she was tying the knot again. I was, however, disgruntled to find out at the last minute that I would probably have to go to Grant County with Mom to witness this event.

"Come on, Marjorie," my sister cajoled. "My husband’s out of town, and I can’t just leave the kids this weekend on such short notice, and Mom can’t go alone."

"Let Dad go with her," I said, uncomfortably conscious that I was beginning to whine.

"I don’t think that would be a good idea," Bess said tersely.

Aunt Ella thought our dad was kind of hot. We didn’t discuss this.

It transpired that Mom and I would have to leave in the morning, so Emerson took me home and helped me throw things into a suitcase. He didn’t make any cracks about helping me sort my underwear, and he volunteered to feed my dog while I was away. These were the kinds of things that made me not want to lose his friendship by breaking his heart.

When I got to my parents’ house, my beautiful and brilliant mother was pacing up and down the living room, saying, "If this isn’t just like Ella, calling me forty-eight! Hours! Before! Her wedding!"

Dad kept saying, "Try to calm down, honey."

I was not looking forward to going to Rockville, where Aunt Ella lived, with my mom. My family had lived there for a while when I was little, and I had hated it. There was one grocery store in town, and teenagers drove around its parking lot for entertainment at night. My elementary-school teachers had looked at my homemade clothes funny. I had not set foot in Rockville since I was seven years old, and it was only for my mom’s sake that I was going back now.

When we got in the car the next day, I said, "I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this. I’m allergic to Rockville. I hope I don’t break out in big hives when we cross the Grant County line or anything."

My mom looked over at me. She looked effortlessly elegant and youthful. I, having slept badly, was puffy-faced and bleary-eyed, and so looked so old and tired that I could have passed for the mom.

"Come on, Marjorie," she said. "Just try, okay? I’m not looking forward to dealing with my sister, and I’ll need all the help I can get."

I promised myself that I would try to be supportive, but I thought hives were a real possibility.

When we stopped on the Kentucky border to use the bathroom and fill up the gas tank, I also went in the convenience store and bought a forty of Budweiser.

"What?" I said, catching my mother looking at me sideways as we got back in the car. "You said you didn’t want me driving your car after dark, anyway. Well, the sun’s going down right now."

My mom gave me her best "well, you’re a grown woman and there’s nothing I can do about it" look, and started the engine.

We had discussed clothes to wear to the wedding earlier in the day, and agreed that neither the wispy eyelet creations my photographer mom wore to her gallery openings, nor the tweedy suits I favored for my office job, would do for a Rockville church wedding. We’d planned on getting into Louisville early in the afternoon and doing some shopping there, but we’d gotten lost once during the morning, and stuck behind a weigh-in station line later on, and by the time we passed through Louisville, it was one in the morning, and the stores were all sad and locked-up and abandoned for the night.

"All right," my mom said. "I don’t want you to panic, but it looks as if we may have to find something to wear at one of these Wal-Marts."

Now, I was well aware of the stereotype of the goody-two-shoes liberal who is too moral to shop at Wal-Mart; and yes, I was vaguely, uncomfortably aware of the big box store’s negative impact on society and the environment, but that wasn’t why I hated shopping there. I hated shopping there because it was so terrifyingly, imposingly big, and because my fellow shoppers generally seemed to be in bad moods. I had been known to have small meltdowns in large grocery stores, for the same reasons.

On this occasion, however, I was determined to be a rock for my mom, so I said carelessly, "No big deal. I can handle Wal-Mart. Piece of cake."

After all, I figured it was going on two a.m., so at least they wouldn’t be crowded.

It’s surprising how crowded a Wal-Mart can be at two in the morning. People kept shoving me out of the way with their carts and glaring at me for standing still in one place too long. My eye began to twitch. The being-a-rock-for-Mom routine wasn’t working so well.

After a while, we managed to put together a couple of nondescript and prissy little Rockville-church-wedding-appropriate outfits. I anticipated being miserable in mine.

The sun was coming up as we drove into Rockville, and I said, "I don’t want to go over to Ella’s house and wake up all the assorted Clearys."

Mom drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. "I’m inclined to agree with you there. Let’s go to Tom Pig’s and have breakfast. Give them all time to wake up."

Jasmine Rizer is a writer and illustrator.

An archive of Jasmine's articles is located here.

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