Donnie sat on the edge of the bed in nothing but his underwear and bright, white t-shirt. He held a pair of socks, his shoes on the floor between his feet. The pants his mother had picked out lay on the bed beside him, while a shirt hung on the door of his closet. Normally, his mother didn’t pick out his clothes; he was a grown man who had served in Iraq, after all. But, today? Today was special. Donnie knew she considered it his reintroduction to the “normal” world and would do whatever she felt was necessary to make sure things went “right”. The idea of this filled him with dread because he also knew what this meant for his day.
He sat there, holding his socks, trying to find the motivation to get dressed. “Family
fuckin’ reunion,” he muttered. “I’d rather take a beatin’ than do this.” Like all good southern
boys, Donnie loved his family. But, he felt calling his mother’s clan “batshit crazy” wasn’t
very nice to batshit. He wasn’t sure he was up to dealing with them after all he’d been
As he sat there, his anxiety slowly building, his mother stuck her head in the door. “Good lord, Donnie, why aren’t you dressed yet? We got to leave in fifteen minutes!”
Her admonition broke the trance he’d slipped into and he pulled his socks on. “I know, Mama. I’m gettin’ there.” He sighed. “Don’t worry, I’ll be ready in plenty of time.”
“You better be. I am not about to get there late and listen to your Aunt Dottie run her mouth about my lack of punctuality.” Without another word, she went off to check on some other task that demanded her attention, lest the precious family honor be impugned. She left the door standing open.
Donnie slid on his pants and threaded the belt through the loops. He walked over to the closet and put on his shirt. As he buttoned it, his father appeared in the door. “You doin’ okay?”
“Not really. I’m nervous as hell. This is the first time I’ve been around Mama’s family since…well, you know.”
His dad stepped on into the room. “Yeah, I know it’s a lot. If it gets to be too much, just say the word and we’ll get you out of there.” His dad reached out and squeezed his uninjured shoulder, “Hell, for that matter, you don’t even have to go.”
“No,” Donnie said. “I’ll be alright. Hell, I made it through two tours in Iraq. How hard can this be?”
His dad said, “You know, I told myself something similar after I got back from Vietnam. Looked in the mirror and said, ‘Okay, you survived the jungle and the VC. You can survive an afternoon with your wife’s family.’”
Donnie looked at him. “And?”
His dad chuckled, “About halfway through, I was thinkin’ Vietnam wadn’t that bad.”
As they shared a laugh, Mary returned. “Thomas, why are you in here, distractin’ him? Didn’t I ask you get my tomato box down to put all the food in?” Before he could answer, she noticed Donnie’s shirt. “What is that you’re wearin’?”
“Um, I think it’s a shirt.” His dad stifled a laugh.
“Don’t get smart with me, mister. That is not the one I laid out, so why are you wearin’ it?”
“Because I don’t like the one you laid out.”
“You don’t like the one I laid out?” she repeated. “What’s wrong with it?”
“Well, for one thing, the sleeves come down over my hands. It makes me look like a kid wearin’ his big brother’s hand-me-downs.”
She huffed, ruffling her bangs as she did whenever she was unhappy. “I bought that shirt specifically for this occasion. You are going to wear it.”
“Excuse me?” Her disbelief at his rebellion was palpable.
“I. Am. Not. Wearin’. That. Shirt. End of story.”
Before the situation spiraled further out of control, Thomas stepped between them. “Mary, he’s an adult. He can decide for himself what to wear.” She opened her mouth as if to say something but didn’t. He turned to Donnie. “And, you. Is that anyway to talk to your mother?”
Donnie shook his head, sheepishly. “No sir, it’s not. I’m sorry, Mama.” Concealing his distaste at giving in, he said, “Give me a minute and I’ll change.”
She waved dismissively. “No, your daddy’s right, you’re a grown man. You can dress yourself.”
Crisis averted, Thomas gently guided his wife through the bedroom door. He looked back over his shoulder at Donnie and said, “Come on, boy. Help me load up all this food.” With a twinkle in his eye, he added, “We wouldn’t want to be late and give your Aunt Dottie a chance to lecture your mother about bein’ on time.”
Though he wouldn’t have believed it thirty minutes earlier, Donnie was relieved to have arrived at the church after stopping to pick up his grandmother. While Donnie thought the world of his Granny, she was extremely hard of hearing and often didn’t wear her hearing aids. And, because his mother was physically incapable of not carrying on a conversation when anyone was in her presence, he had spent the last half hour listening to his mother and grandmother make inane small talk at ridiculous volumes.
He wasn’t sure the car had completely stopped when he unbuckled his seat belt and clambered out. Not the first time since the day began, he thought, Why did this thing have to be at a damn church. My god, I need a drink. He had thought about bringing some liquor with him, but that had proved impossible with his mom hovering over him nervously. He had almost reached the door when his mother spoke.
“Stop right there, mister. We’re goin’ in together. As a family.”
He looked back and realized he’d left the rest of them behind. Granny must have trouble getting out of the car, he thought. In addition to her hearing issues, his grandmother was in dire need of a hip replacement; something she refused to address. He remembered a conversation they’d had about the matter. They’d been sitting in her living room not long after he’d gotten out the medical center at Camp Lejuene. He had noticed her favoring her left leg earlier and asked, “Why are you limpin’, Granny?
She was working on a quilt for the latest grandchild and said without looking up, “The doctors say I need a new hip.”
He nodded. “You gonna do it?”
That surprised him. “No? Why not?”
Still working, she said, “Because I’m not going back in that hospital again.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Son, that’s major surgery and the recovery ain’t easy if you’re young. I think we both know I’m way past “young”. Besides, every time I’ve ever been in that place, the nurses won’t let me alone, always poking and prodding and wakin’ me up for all sorts of nonsense when the best thing I could be doin’ is restin’.” She looked up from her sewing and said, “You know as well as I do that the hospital is no place for sick people.”
While he remembered all this, his family caught up to him. His mother stopped in front of him and began fussing with his clothes. “There. You look very nice. Even if you’re not wearing the clothes I picked out specifically for this occasion.”
Donnie had a feeling it wouldn’t be the last time he heard about that. “Mama–”, he started, but his dad caught his eye and mouthed, “Let it go.” Donnie got the message.
“What?” his mother asked.
“Nothin’. It’s not important.”
She looked at him for a moment, puzzled. Then, she shook her head. “Okay, is everybody ready?” When they all nodded, she said, “Let’s go.”
Donnie sat at a table accompanied only by his mother and grandmother’s pocketbooks. In the forty-five minutes since they’d walked in the door, there had been maybe five or ten words spoken to him. After he’d brought three conversations to a screeching halt solely by his presence, he gave up and started back to the family’s table. As he walked, he noticed a strange phenomenon: whenever he approached a group, people moved away from him like magnets repelling each other. It irritated him, but he wasn’t sure what to do about it. For a few minutes, he toyed with the idea of pretending to have a psychotic break. While falling on the floor, spouting gibberish and foaming at the mouth — not the way it would’ve happened for him, but no one here would know that — might have been fun, his mother would be mortified. Even though he would’ve gotten a perverse satisfaction out of that, the last thing he wanted was to hurt her.
Right about then, he noticed his cousin walking across the room. Steve had been his closest companion growing up, but these days they hardly spoke. That was partly because his cousin thought Fox News was run by communists, preferring instead to get his news from Alex Jones InfoWars. The other part was that the only thing Steve wanted to talk about was his membership in a Civil War reenactment group, the 70th North Carolina Regiment. Not long after Donnie had gotten back from Iraq, Steve had cornered him at the family Christmas gathering and said that he kind of understood what Donnie had been through because he’d done the battle reenactment at Bentonville the previous March. Yeah, Donnie thought, playing soldier thirty minutes down the road is exactly like being 6000 miles from home with a thousand screaming Hajis out for your blood. He was afraid another dose of stupidity might be more than he could stand and prayed his cousin would pass him by. After a second or two, Donnie realized that wasn’t going to happen. Shit, he thought as his chin dropped to his chest.
Steve pulled up a chair. “Hey, bud. Ain’t seen you in a while. Where you been hidin’ at?”
That caught Donnie off guard. Could it be that he didn’t know what happened? Donnie’s mom had worked hard to keep his condition a secret and, while it didn’t seem to take with anybody else, Steve could be a different story. He knew his cousin would fall for almost anything if the speaker was convincing enough. He decided to stick with the story his mother had put together and feel out the situation.
“I had to go back to Camp Lejeune for a little while to tie up some loose ends, out process, that sort of thing.” He decided to push the envelope a little. “And, I had to go to the VA Hospital over in Durham because I was having some problems from the explosion. That took a while.” He shook his head, “Man, that VA paperwork is a bitch.”
Steve nodded. “Yeah, that whole situation is fucked up. God damn government, man.”
Holy shit, Donnie thought, Am I really pulling this off? Just be cool and stick with your story. Steve has the attention span of a gnat. Any second now, he’ll yell, “SQUIRREL!” and take off. You can do this, man. Just. Be. Cool.
He was beginning to settle down when he saw his aunt Vicki heading their way. Oh god, he thought, what’s it going to be today, her standard anti-vaxx bullshit or something truly weird like, ‘chemicals in our water are turning our kids gay’? He braced himself accordingly, but was hit from an unexpected direction when Steve blurted out, “So, did you go crazy or what?”
Vicki heard him and slapped the back of his head, knocking his cap off. “Damn it, Steve! We told you not to ask that.”
Steve picked up his hat. “Fuck, Aunt Vicki! That hurt.” He snapped it right side out and shoved it back on his head. “I don’t know what you’re so mad about. It ain’t my fault I’m the only one with the balls to ask the thing we’re all wonderin’ about.”
She hit him again. “Watch your damn language, boy. This is the Lord’s house. Even if we are in the basement.”
Donnie, realizing he had not pulled it off, said, “It’s okay, Aunt Vicki. It was bound to come out sooner or later.” He sighed. “No, Steve, I didn’t ‘go crazy’. I’ve got PTSD because of what happened during my last tour Iraq. A couple of months ago, I had a really bad flashback and had to go the hospital for a while.” As he spoke, Donnie saw Steve’s mom walking over. He knew his Aunt Nina harbored no illusions about her son’s intelligence. But, let someone else bad mouth her boy and she turned into a mother bear protecting her cub. Oh, this’ll be good, he thought.
“Vicki, what the hell do you mean, smacking my son around like that?” When Nina was angry, she had an unconscious habit of cocking her left hip and resting her hand on it. When she was really mad, she waved the other hand around and her finger usually wound up an inch or so from the face whoever had incurred her wrath. And, whenever she did it, it was all Donnie could do not to laugh. This time was no different and he had to turn away to hide the smile he knew would only make things worse.
His Aunt Vicki, veteran of a thousand clashes with her older sister, was no shrinking violet and didn’t back down. “Because your idiot son point-blank asked Donnie if he went crazy, that’s why! Even after we all told him keep his damn mouth shut.” Vicki crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back, satisfied.
Nina gave Steve a look that Donnie thought could curdle milk and his cousin visibly wilted. Donnie knew her disapproval it didn’t have anything to do with an injury to his feelings: Nina was angry because her son had screwed up in front of her sister and made her look bad. There were a number of sins in his mother’s family and one of the worst was losing face in front of a sibling. You never wanted to be in that situation, because whoever saw it would make sure everyone else knew. Also, your mistake would be the topic of conversation at every family gathering until someone else screwed up.
Nina squared up with her taller sister. “Him bein’ dumb as a stump ain’t a reason for you to beat the shit out of him. If you got a problem with my son, you talk to me and I’ll handle it.”
Just then, Donnie noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head to see his mother storming out of the kitchen, trailed by his Aunt Dottie and realized things were about to go from bad to worse. Dottie was the oldest of the sisters and was, Donnie thought, the foremost practitioner of the family creed. She constantly criticized her sisters: everything from their choice of mate, the way they kept house, the way they raised their children or how they appeared in public was fair game in her eyes. He was sure that she was never happier than when she was pointing out a fault in one of her siblings. Look at that smug expression, he thought. Three for the price of one? She must be loving this.
His mother approached the table where he sat. “What in the world is goin’ on out here?” She blew her bangs. “We could hear your racket all the way in the kitchen.”
Nina waved a hand and said, “Oh, Steve said somethin’ a little ignorant to Donnie and Vicki thought that gave her permission to beat him up.”
Donnie watched the color drain out of his mother’s face as she realized all her carefully laid plans to conceal his illness were sunk. Dottie saw her opening and seized it. “What did he say?” she asked sweetly.
Now, it was Nina’s turn to blanch. She hemmed and hawed a bit, before Vicki spoke for her. “I’ll tell you what he said. He asked Donnie if he went crazy.”
Dottie gasped — unconvincingly Donnie thought — and shook her head. “Oh, Stevie”, she said. “Why would you do that?”
Everyone turned to look at Dottie, as if to say, “What the hell?” Except for his mother. Donnie saw her staring at Steve and he could feel her ire growing exponentially. She stood there, not saying a word, her indignation taking on a life of its own. As he watched, things telescoped down to just him, his mother and his cousin. He could hear his aunts arguing, but it was muffled, like he was underwater. His mother, however, gave no indication that anyone else in that room existed except for Steve. Everything was in slow motion, like they were moving through molasses. He could tell when she snapped. He thought he should try and stop her. But, before thought could become action, she reached out and slapped Steve hard across the face, saying “You little son-of-a-bitch!”. Things went downhill from there.
The ride home passed in silence until Donnie’ grandmother said, “Well, that was interestin’.”
“Interestin’!?” Mary snapped. “Mama, we can’t ever show our faces in that church again. I don’t think ‘interestin’’ is the word I’d use to describe what just happened.” She turned back to face the windshield. “A fiasco is what it was.”
His grandmother sighed. “Mary, you worry too much about what people think. Nothin’ got broken and it didn’t actually come to blows, so how bad can it be?”
Thomas spoke up. “Didn’t come to blows, huh? Well, I guess not. Unless you want to count poor old Steve getting the snot slapped out of him by his aunts.”
A laugh burst out of Donnie’s mouth. His mother jerked around and glared at him and he thought, What the hell, might as well go for it. “That was fun, but everythin’ came to a screeching halt when Mama snatched Aunt Dottie’s wig off.”
“That was an accident and you know it, Donnie!”
Even though he saw the red in his mother’s face deepen, he couldn’t help himself, “Maybe so, but it was funny as hell.” His father and grandmother must have agreed, because they laughed, too.
“It was not funny, it was embarrassin’!” She shook her head, “Poor Dottie, she must be mortified.”
“Oh, come on, honey,” Thomas said. “It’s not like nobody knew Dottie wore a wig. When the style and color changes from day to day the way hers does, a wig is the only explanation.”
Mary began to soften a little. “Well, yes. But, that doesn’t mean she wanted the truth of things to come out that way.”
Donnie’s grandmother again. “Mary, I don’t know why you’re so worried about her, after all the times she’s made you look foolish. Personally, I thought it was kind of nice to see the snooty little shit get a taste of her own medicine.”
“Granny!” Donnie was shocked. He’d never heard his grandmother say anything like that before.
She put a hand on his knee. “Son, Dottie is my oldest child and I love her to death, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be realistic about her.” She gave his knee a pat. “And, like your daddy said, it’s not like Dottie wearin’ a wig was a big surprise. Some of ‘em are oh-so obvious.”
“And hilarious,” his father said. “There’s somethin’ about a 65-year-old woman with purple hair that makes people laugh.”
“I love the one she was wearin’ today,” Donnie said. “It makes her look like a stalk of broccoli.” Dottie was a painfully thin woman and the wig in question was sort of a flattened out bouffant. If you looked at that combination in silhouette, the resemblance was unmistakable.
That was more than Mary could take and she burst out laughing. “Oh, my god,” she said. “I didn’t see it until just now, but you’re right. She looked just like a sprig of broccoli.” She wiped her eyes. “I’m gonna have to apologize, though.” Everyone nodded in agreement.
“Well, of course,” Granny said. “We’ll never be able to get together again if you don’t.”
Donnie sat back, considering the idea of no more family gatherings. The exclusion and ostracism he’d felt most of the day had been awful and he never wanted to experience that again. At the same time, these people were his family and not seeing them again just didn’t feel…right. And of course, the entertainment value of a shindig with his mom’s family was about as good as you were going to find. Anywhere. He realized that, for all his dreading of the occasion, it hadn’t been that bad. And, surprisingly, that he wanted to do it again. Not any time soon, that was for sure. Maybe next year. Yeah, he thought, a year sounded just about right. Silence settled over the car again. Only this time, it was comfortable, satisfied. Donnie leaned his head back closed his eyes and, for the first time that day, relaxed.