The family

Previously, on Mostly Words: 

I was vacationing in Seattle, visiting the family I'd kept my distance from for a long, long time. I'd come a day earlier than they knew, to have some quality time with myself, but that day was over, and I owed the family a week and a half of me.


After checking out of the hostel, I schlepped my bags back to the station, where my brother was supposed to believe my train had just arrived.

He believed it, and it was good seeing him and his wife, Karen. We all hugged, I plopped my bag into the trunk of his car, and we made amiable conversation as we drove to their house … for the next 2½ hours. 

I’d been told that Clay & Karen lived “out of town a ways,” but this was further out of town than I'd expected. We kept driving, in stop-and-go-but-mostly-stopped traffic on a freeway that stretched to infinity. We talked, and Clay drove. We stopped in traffic, and Clay drove. Clay complained about the traffic, and drove ...

Clay & Karen don’t live in the suburbs. They live miles beyond the suburbs — in the adjacent county, actually, on what had been farmland a year earlier. They'd bought a freshly-built house, in a new development called Prairie Dog City, surrounded by Montana-style empty space. This was where I’d be staying for the next week and a half.

For them I masked it, but for you I won't — being so far from everything was not what I'd expected, and it was frustrating. In Seattle, or in the suburbs, I could've taken a bus to anywhere I wanted, but no buses came within miles of Clay's house.

I was stranded there.

I'm rarely in a taxi, but from Yellow Cab's rates online, I calculated what it would cost: $2.60 p/mile x 30 miles to get to the nearest light-rail station. Plus 50¢ p/minute "wait time," which would apply in stopped traffic — and traffic on Seattle's freeways reliably stopped, always. Plus tip. Even one taxi ride would’ve been pushing $100, each way.

I looked into renting a car, but all the major companies share one unyielding rule: you're required to use a credit card. I'm poor, with crappy credit, and my debit cards were irrelevant to Hertz and Avis and Enterprise. A tiny 'rent-a-dent' place took mercy on me — they said they'd rent me a beater, if I left a $5,000 cash deposit.

Beggars can't be choosers. Punch my gift horse in the mouth. All the clichés are true, and I'm an ungrateful ass for whining about this.

But while visiting Seattle, I couldn't get to Seattle. To go anywhere from Prairie Dog City, I had to call someone I hadn't seen in years and ask for a lift, please. Usually I was able to get a ride, but the distance to everything left me unable to do about half the things I'd wanted to do while I was there.

♦ ♦ ♦

Clay and Karen were perfect hosts, though. They’re very, very Christian, thanked God before every meal, prayed to God before turning the car’s ignition, and talked about God as if he’s a member of their family. But they didn't mention the doomed state of my immortal soul even once, and for that I'll be eternally grateful as I burn in Hell, where I have reservations.

Their house was an episode of Black Mirror. They never touched a light switch or preheated the oven; they simply spoke to the house, and the house obeyed. The fountain in their back yard rebelled like a replicant, but Clay said it was under warranty. He told the house to open a repair ticket, and by the time I left, the fountain was obedient again.

Prairie Dog City tried to be a neighborhood, but every house was new, and nothing was nearby. While I was there, Clay and Karen and I took several long walks, through new cul-de-sacs and blocks under construction, and unpaved blocks platted and flagged for future mini-McMansions, and across miles of absolute fucking wilderness that surrounded the development. I looked toward Seattle's skyline, but it was so far away, I couldn't see it.

We went to a couple of ball games — major league in Seattle, and minor league in Tacoma. The Kingdome, where I saw so many baseball games way back when, has been dust for decades. Seattle’s new stadium — originally named for a shitty insurance company, now named for a shitty cell-phone company — pretends to be old-timey, but I’m immune to its over-designed charm. That said, it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out at the old ball game, and it was impossible not to have a good time.

Tacoma’s rickety old wooden stadium is more my style, but for that game, Clay had invited about a dozen people I’d known long ago. They hadn't seen me in years, and every one of them wanted to talk to me, so instead of a ball game it became a social event. I hate social events, and I was all talked-out by the second inning.

Most awkwardly, there was a pretty woman in the row behind me, and I discreetly glanced at her several times, before she introduced herself as a my 4-year-old cousin from 30 years ago.

♦ ♦ ♦

An afternoon and evening were spent with my brother Dick, and his wife. He's a musician, mostly, and also drives for Uber. He's very outgoing, and he's a Christian but not so much that he’s averse to a dirty joke well told. I tried to enjoy my time with Dick, and would've, if his wife hadn’t been there. 

She's a Korean immigrant named Young-sook, who speaks about a dozen words of English — unless she wants something, in which case her vocabulary increases substantially. She is, I think, mentally ill. It’s not a ‘cultural’ thing that she interrupts any conversation when she has nothing to say, that she puts her hands into other people’s food, or that she wanders away without a word, if anything catches her eye when we're out in public.

Dick is the music director at his church, and who knew churches had music directors? He's in charge of the choir, oversees the organist and pianist, and directs the church's small chamber orchestra. He also writes music, which he sometimes performs in trombone or singing solos during morning or evening church services. Everything I know about music is, I like ABBA, but I'm proud of my brother.

The three of us had two meals together, so Young-sook's hands were in my food twice. Between the meals we went to a museum, and played putt-putt golf. Young-sook won the putt-putt, and she danced and taunted us with “Better than you!” through her Korean accent. After that we went for a beer, but Young-sook decided she wanted to go to the casino, and she wouldn't stop interrupting Dick and I to say, “Casino! Go casino! Win big!”

♦ ♦ ♦

An afternoon and evening were spent with my sister Katrina and my mom, at their home. It's actually Katrina's home, but Mom had recently moved in. Their house is a colossal collection of clothes and bags and books and newspapers, dirty dishes, empty boxes, full boxes, open sacks of dog food, and everything else, but both of them are relaxed about the clutter they live in, and it was no worse than my mess back home.

There are half a dozen people in the world I’m simply happy to see when I see them, with no worries, hesitation, or dread, and Katrina is one of those marvelous people. She's the only certifiably sane person in our family — intelligent, easygoing, and funny. My time with her passed too quickly. Mom was there too, but Katrina deftly drove the conversation away from our mother's favorite subject, Jesus.

Katrina and Mom sharing a house seems like a set-up for a sit-com. Mom is mega-Christian; Katrina is mega-not. Coffee is Mom’s strongest drug; Katrina smokes pot and probably passed through the gateway to harder stuff long ago. Mom blushes at 'darn'; Katrina drops f-bombs. And Katrina leaves every Friday afternoon and comes back Sunday night, after spending the weekend with her boyfriend. She says Mom never complains about any of this, which flabbergasts me. “Are we talking about the same Mom?,” I said.

Then Katrina had to run an errand, and I suspect Mom had asked her to fade away for a while. It was just Mom and me in the house, and immediately the questions began. 

Do you go to a church? Why don’t you go to a church? Do you believe in God? Why don’t you believe in God? How can your life have any meaning without God? They’re the same questions Mom’s been poking me with like a stick for as long as she’s hated the answers, and I gave her the same answers again, and she hated 'em, and started looping back, asking the same questions with slightly different words.

I suggested we go for a walk, and strolling the neighborhood mellowed Mom, though her maximum mellow is still quite up-tight. I’d thought we were just wandering, but we mysteriously ended up at the church Mom attends, where we stood on the sidewalk while she told me about their worship services, and the pastor, and the pastor's wife, and the stained glass, and the people who go there, some of whom I was informed are not good Christians despite attending every Sunday.

When we came back to their house, Katrina had returned. Thank you, Jesus. I was car-less, staying with Clay a long ways away, and Katrina volunteered to drive me all that distance. Thank you, sis. We detoured to a cannabis store, where I bought legal weed for the first time in my life. Thank you very much, sis, and thank you to the great state of Washington. Freedom — what a concept. 

On the ride, Katrina told me about her work, which is office work, same as me. She can't retire, because she doesn't have the money, same as me. She's proud of her daughter, Kimberly, and exasperated at her son, George. "You raise two kids pretty much the same," she said, "and I don't know what I did right with Kimberly, but I also don't know what I did wrong with George."

♦ ♦ ♦

I spent an afternoon with Kimberly, and her wife. It started with drinks at their favorite bar, and we all laughed as they remembered my mother's refusal to attend their wedding. To this day, Mom isn't allowed to babysit their daughter, which seems wise.

Someone mentioned Dick’s (no relation to my brother), a local hamburger chain that serves greasy but oh-so-good fast-food burgers. I must've gotten a puppy-Doug look on my face, so that's where we ate a late lunch. It was as delicious and deadly as I'd remembered, but the traffic was clogged in every direction, so our one-mile trip for hamburgers, plus a two-mile detour to pick up their daughter from daycare, took more than three hours.

Their daughter (my, what, grand-niece?) is adorable, smart, and well-behaved for a little kid. She's six or seven, and I'm a little worried about her. When you're that dang cute, and everyone all around you is constantly telling you you're cute, and the living room walls are covered with pictures of your cuteness, how can she not grow up and become an awful person who expects compliments on her cuteness everywhere she goes? Or am I just a grumpy old grand-uncle?

Their house looks like a cover photo from Architectural Digest. Kimberly and her wife are both mid-level executives for Amazon, so by my standards they're wealthy, but they're good people in spite of it. They probably thought it was silly that I paid for Dick’s, though. 

♦ ♦ ♦

I spent some time with Kimberly’s brother, George, and wish I hadn’t. He's a notorious pothead, and everyone had warned me what to expect. George used to be funny, though, and smart, and I told myself everyone was exaggerating.

Nobody was exaggerating. I was at his apartment for three hours, and he was stoned when I got there, stoned when I left, and torched up constantly in between. He’s unemployed, and has been for years. He often loses his way after starting a sentence, and there was no escaping his incoherence. He mostly talked about sports, but also politics (he's very Republican), sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, Jesus (he's very Christian), and sports again. I had little to say because what could I say?

The topic he kept coming back to, over and over, was the SuperSonics — the local pro basketball team that left town in 2008, becoming the Oklahoma Thunder. That was eleven years before my afternoon with George, but he brought it up several times, and he seriously, emphatically believes that the Sonics will apologize and return. Soon. It's like the rest of my family, believing Jesus will come again.

I needed air, desperately, so I suggested a walk, and George led us across the high school field, toward the river. I still couldn't make much sense from anything he was saying, but I somewhat knew the neighborhood — I'd dropped out of that high school.

Dick was coming to pick me up at 5:00, but George kept walking us farther and farther away, under the bridge, to the pathways along the river's edge, and toward the lake. Twice I reminded him, “I gotta be in front of your apartment at 5,” and George said, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll be OK.”

At about 4:40, it felt like we were twenty minutes from George’s apartment, so I said goodbye to him, and turned around. He got furious and started yelling at me, and followed after me, yelling, all the way back to his apartment. I kept walking and occasionally yelled at him, too. We got back just before 5:00, and George was still yelling at me as I got into Dick’s car. I yelled at George, Dick yelled at George, George yelled at both of us, and it was a really nice afternoon with my stoner nephew.

♦ ♦ ♦

Because she’s my mother and I never learn, I wanted to take Mom to breakfast. Dad never let anyone take him to breakfast, so for me it’s a compulsion. Anyway, I like breakfast, and I like taking people to breakfast, and Mom’s 90+ years old, so who knows how many more chances I’ll have?

Since I was in Prairie Dog City without a car, bus, or roller skates, Mom drove, which scared me but not her. We ate at a restaurant near Katrina & Mom's house, and it was Mom's choice, not mine. She didn’t know the place had memories for me, but the history hit as soon as she pulled the car into the lot. It has a different name now, but this was the steakhouse where I’d had fifty Cokes and a few meals with my high school girlfriend, Molly, a million years ago. We'd boinked in her car once, in that very parking lot, so, yeah — memories.

In the restaurant in 2019, Mom was talking about God, even before the waitress offered us coffee, but I was determined to get her talking about things that matter instead — and I succeeded!  We talked about Dad, and about Ralph, my brother who died a few years back.

When she again started talking about Christ, I asked about her childhood on the farm, a subject she doesn't often speak of — and it worked!  She talked about her parents, their crops, her childhood chores, and her sisters. One of her sisters, my aunt Celia, died a few years ago — but Mom hadn't mentioned it to me until that morning at breakfast. She told me more about her sister than I'd ever known, and she didn't mention Jesus again, and it was honestly interesting.

A good time with my mother is something rare and remarkable, and it was the best part of my visit with the family. Mom laughed, like I don't remember hearing her laugh since I was a kid. Her eyes twinkled, and she was happy. I was happy. I don't know when's the last time I'd been happy in the same room with my mother.

♦ ♦ ♦

Had an afternoon with Leon, one of my friends from forever ago. It was awkward at first, because we hadn't seen each other for so long. I'd gotten fatter. He'd gotten skinnier. I'd left Seattle, and he never understood why. Really, nobody's ever understood why. Even I barely understand it.

But soon it was like old times. He showed me his latest woodworking projects, mentioned that he’s getting dentures soon, and we laughed about being old. Like George, Leon is still sore about Seattle losing the Sonics, but he's let it go, and only mentioned it once. When I told him George says the team is coming back, Leon roared with laughter. He also told a funny but offensive joke about the Pope and a male hooker, which I brought home and told my boss.

I asked about our mutual but missing friend Stu, and Leon told me there's still no word. He also said that Stu’s sister — in my memory, she's a cute young blonde — had drowned while kayaking with her grandchildren. Once upon a time I had wanted to ask her out, but Stu told me he'd punch me if I did. And there goes Stu's sister.

♦ ♦ ♦

Spent half a day with Brian, my best buddy from the 1970s, '80s, and early '90s. He's one of the smartest people I've ever known, and he works with advanced electronics and robotics. We play chess on the internet. And bizarrely, he’s a Republican. O brave new world, that has such people in it. 

We ate at Spud, one of our long-ago favorite restaurants, where they serve a great plate of fish'n'chips. Spud has been in Seattle for so long, it was where my Dad took my Mom on their first date. And it might be the best fish'n'chips in town. It's definitely the most expensive.

Then we went to Archie McPhee to stock up on rubber chickens and silly decks of cards, and then, unplanned, we stumbled into a science-fiction store that had eight clocks on the wall, showing the time on every planet in the solar system.

Mostly, though, Brian and I talked. Same as with Leon, it was strange for the first half hour or so, but once we got going, all the years evaporated and we were friends again. We talked about his wife, his kids, his high-tech work, and his teaching, and of everyone I saw in Seattle, Brian was the only person who asked more than a perfunctory few questions about me, my life, and my late wife.

Next: 4th of July picnic



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  1. Man, that's a long one! I'm only halfway through, and came to make an inane comment - It's FAR more likely that Seattle gets a new team, than OKC coming BACK. That's never happening. Like, never.

  2. I've been reading you since the old Pathetic Life and I'm so glad you had a good breakfast with your mother.

    1. Just sausage & eggs, though. The restaurant didn't have omelets. Who ever heard of a restaurant open for breakfast but not selling omelets?

    2. Hitler, probably.

  3. What's the joke about the Pope and a male hooker?

    1. It's probably true, not even a joke, but also I've forgotten.

  4. I enjoyed this, so I sorry to be an ass with a dumb question, but you're in your 60s and you NEVER had credit cards?

    1. I had credit cards briefly, in the early 1980s. It just didn't work out between us, and we broke up.


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