“Another hot dog?” I hoped the answer would be no.
"Sure," answered the distant cousin from Georgia, his attire inexplicably safari-like. We left middle age behind a while ago, yet he has a couple of pre-teen children. I understand they were planned. Every time his situation crosses my mind, I have to remember to close my mouth. A low-energy pet is quite enough for me at this stage, thank you.
"I´m starved," announced his ten-year-old son shortly after they turned up on my doorstep. It struck me that the cashews I offered from the bowl on the coffee table were nothing to them and a meal was expected—never mind that it wasn’t mealtime. Hence, the hot dogs.
The two were at the tail-end of a North Carolina train-spotting vacation—a transparent excuse to leave shopaholic wife and allergic-to-dogs daughter at home to stock up on tiaras and tutus and practice for the Little Miss Peachtree City beauty pageant. Their absence meant my blue tick hound, Charles, wasn’t relegated to the backyard. He immediately lost interest in the visitors, choosing to nap on the quilt at the end of my bed--free of weird distant family, misplaced responsibility, and guilt. Wishing I could join him, I experienced a desperate and almost irresistible urge to bark, but it wouldn’t have had the desired effect. Instead of fleeing south in their SUV, cousin and son wouldn’t give human barking a second thought. This was the scary part.
"Here’s a photo album with everything I collected on my last trip to the family plot in Gumbranch," third cousin once removed said, heaving an object the size of a phone book onto the dining room table.
"Wow," I said, as the table top vibrated. "More Coke?"
“I’m dying of thirst,” said the boy. His dad chuckled.
Sugar and caffeine. The last combination this pair needed, but it was too late now. I passed the plastic bottle and the chips yet again.
"Well," I said, glancing at my watch. "What´s the schedule? Are you heading home this afternoon? I mean, soon?"
"Don´t worry, we have plenty of time," safari man said. "We´re completely flexible." More time meant the possibility of touching on another of his enthusiasms that also involved cemeteries: The War of Northern Aggression, as he called it. Please, not that.
"There aren’t enough railroad museums in this country," said the ten-year-old. “Say, I don’t see any pickle relish.”
A howl came from the bedroom.
“Charles is probably dreaming,” I sighed.
"Our guy here made a movie of the trains that came in and out of Hamlet yesterday,” said distant cousin. “It seems we have a Stephen Spielberg in the making." I still couldn’t believe he had two children under the age of thirteen. What was he thinking?
"Deviled egg?" Both guests helped themselves. "I´d sure hate for you to get caught in rush hour traffic."
“Pickle relish,” demanded the boy in a flat tone, like the children in "Village of the Damned." I admit to forgetting things now, but I still remember the meaning of the word “please.” While I fetched relish from the kitchen, I wondered if the balding cousin ever forgot to pick up his adorable children at their various lessons or left them in stores--by mistake or not. Locked himself out of his car? If only I had a dollar for every time that happened to me and my boomer friends in the past several years.
"Have I told you about my investigation of the family name?” This from the dining room. “Do you know why it was changed?"
"Hard to spell, I guess." I placed the pickle relish jar in front of the boy and raised my eyebrows. “What do you say?” I asked him.
"If you wanted to go to St. Louis on the train from here, you couldn´t. You´d have to go to Washington D.C. first. Do you know why? Mountains. Hey, I can’t get the lid off."
"There must be a story behind the name change," his father said as I dropped into my chair. I waited for him to twist the lid, but nothing happened. I wanted the story on why he put things off. Was he a born procrastinator, like others in the family I could name, or was it another example of short-term memory loss?
"Cookie?" I noticed my voice sounded a tad shrill. Charles heard his favorite word and let out a yelp.
"Yuck, raisins,” said the boy, wiping a hand on his Southern Railways t-shirt. “There´s an Amtrak station here, at least.”
I perked up at this. "I can give you directions. It´s a cinch to get out of town from there."
"You haven´t opened the photo album," distant cousin said. “It’s yours—to keep.”
I flipped through several pages with plastic-sleeved pictures of solemn, unknown individuals. "Who are these people?"
"Not sure. There are some nice shots of graves in the cemetery lot. I went to the town clerk´s office and we talked about the family. She was too young to know any of them. I have her e-mail address if you want it."
"That´s okay." The poor, trapped clerk.
"This country needs more trains. It´s the best form of transportation," young Stephen Spielberg said. "Want to see my movie? I filmed for six hours."
"Remember Thelma and Florine chain smoking?" asked the cousin.
"I´d wiped that out." And their hubcap-size costume jewelry and unnatural hairdos, but at least neither one reproduced. At the normal age or later. Their house smelled of dirty ashtrays, but it was quiet.
"See, there they are." Sure enough--three pages of Thelma and Florine, joined at the hip and exhaling. Only the backdrops changed: red Formica kitchen counter; a barbecue pit; a Chevrolet Impala. Orange lipstick not quite eclipsed by clouds of smoke. "When Thelma died and Edsel remarried, he sold all of Thelma and Florine’s stuff. Even the oil painting Florine did of the fruit arrangement." Edsel was a smart man. No children late in life with Wife #2. "Did you notice the photos of Aunt Effy? Now, there was a real Southern woman. Homemade biscuits every morning.” He poked a piece of hot dog roll with a finger. “All about the family."
"Never met her," I said. "Not even sure I´m related to her." But my mother had shared the chilling story of Effy raising some grandchild or other in her dotage. Just when she thought she was in the clear.
"We could go back and trace the whole thing. Get me a pen and paper and I´ll make a chart."
"Oh, that´s not necessary. You must be exhausted. You´ll be happy to sleep in your own beds tonight, I´ll bet." A lie. They wanted to extend their escape from the little princess’ non-stop chatter, I could tell. She didn’t have a bedtime, apparently. The mother must be on some sort of medication. That was my distinct impression when I met her.
"No, not at all. I´m enjoying our visit so much I don´t want it to end." He grinned, bearing no resemblance to anyone in my immediate family. Clearly he’d gotten tooth veneers since his last surprise visit.
“Have you considered the teenage years?” I heard myself saying. The question just popped out, but maybe brutal honesty was what was called for here. He’d be seventy when this kid got a learner’s permit.
"Let´s watch my train movie," interrupted the boy.
"Good idea," said his proud father.
“Now?” I whispered, but no one heard me.
“Where’s your widescreen TV?” The son wandered in the direction of the den and my normal-sized television. I heard a loud groan. Was it the boy or Charles?
"You can look at the rest of the album while we wait for the trains to pull in. There are some long breaks when nothing happens," said the distant cousin, standing up and stretching. “Maybe we’ll stay over and have a look at your Amtrak station tomorrow.”
"It’s starting!" yelled the boy.
Rudely awakened, Charles barked from the bedroom, and I barked back. Several times.