Welcome to the Roe Family Reunion, an event where one individual stands out like “an old sock”…
by: Mary Gayle Newton
He put his fiddle in the back seat of his pickup. Hewitt, the cousin emceeing the reunion, had said there would be a sing-along after dark, but the annual Roe family reunion always made him nervous because of the way people gave him The Look. He slid behind the wheel, glancing at himself in the rearview mirror, and decided he was presentable. He had on his best jeans, a bluegrass boot camp T-shirt, and brand new sneakers. His long, dark hair was tied back neatly.
The Look — his own private word for it — was a slightly puzzled, even startled expression that came over people’s faces when he was introduced as a cousin. Occasionally the corners of the mouth even sagged in disapproval. To his distress he saw The Look on his own face just now on appraising his reflection in the mirror. But it was too complicated to explain to people, when he first met them, why he looked different from other kinfolk. The silver lining was that his outsider status gave him carte blanche to flirt with his own girl cousins. And as he drove into the parking lot at the edge of the fairgrounds, he saw one he might want to know, stepping out of a battered Ford Fusion.
She was pretty in a no-makeup, non threatening way, had an unassuming, pleasant smile, and didn’t look at all stuck up. She also appeared to be about his age. College age, although Adam hadn’t been to college. The girl looked like someone who might be going, though. She had on some kind of environmental T-shirt and interesting earrings. She was in the act of instructing a chubby kid with a snake tat to stay close to her and her dad and little sister. Which meant she was a family-oriented, nice girl. Hell, maybe she wasn’t even a cousin.
It was a luminous Fourth of July, and Roes of all ages mingled in a green field. An aromatic haze of barbecue smoke hung in the air, and a cousin he knew as Sarah painted kids’ faces under maple trees. Familiar aunts unloaded watermelon onto tables decorated with stars-and-stripes crepe-paper bunting.
Adam helped his cousin Eli put more lawn chairs out so gnarled great-uncles in sport shirts could sit in them, swilling Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. He tried to keep one eye on the tall, cute girl so he’d know where to find her when they were all placed. But as soon as he was through with the task, Hewitt’s wife, Diamond, collared him to help put up a sun canopy, and when he finally had time to introduce himself, the girl had disappeared.
He spotted her later, near the watermelon table. Too shy to approach just yet, he moseyed near and stood behind her in line.
Gray-haired aunts cut pink slices with green, rindy edges and laid them on paper plates while Hewitt, in his role as emcee (and already a sheet or two to the wind), yelled tipsy quips at family members as they walked by.
“And here comes another Buckley Roe!” Hewitt called out upon seeing a forty-year-old man in a Springsteen T-shirt. “This is the California Buckley, folks. A real Beverly Hillbilly. He’s got orange peels in his pockets, palm fronds in his hair, and movie stars under his fingernails.” An ancient lady in a pink, flowered shirt rose from her chair and screamed, “Oh my Lord. It’s little Buckley. And look how big he is now.”
“Roes are big,” Hewitt agreed, his microphone squeaking. “And Roes are little. Roes are thick and Roes are thin. There are male Roes, female Roes, and in some cases you can’t tell which they are and don’t want to know. They might have big Adam’s apples, ears of corn, club sodas, or webbed feet. But all of us are descendants of old Silas, that first Roe that come over from County Cork, Ireland, back durin’ the potato famine. Or else married to one. But you know what it says in the good book. A man shall cleave unto his wife — I think it says cleave — and they shall be as one flush. I mean flesh. So it’s pretty much the same blood in the end.”
Adam fumbled for an excuse to talk to the girl. She was probably a cousin of some sort, technically, and while he was thinking what to say, she asked Jake, a Germanic-looking cousin in a Cornell University T-shirt, if he’d seen her brother.
“What’s he look like?” Jake was obviously trying not to gawk.
“About thirteen. And chunky.”
“That describes at least a fourth of the thirteen-year-old boys here.”
“He has a tat of a snake,” the girl said. “On his arm.”
“I seen him smoking by the porta-johns,” Adam offered, but he didn’t say it loud enough. His voice was drowned out by Hewitt, who was yelling. “We have Roes here today from all corners of the earth. From Baltimore, Ireland, and Germany. Hawaii and Milwaukee. All on account of old Elias from County Cork.”
“You said his name was Silas!” yelled an aunt in cat-eye glasses.
But Hewitt plunged on. “There were three of ’em then. Elias and his two sons. Pat and Mike or whatever the hell their names were. Since then that ball of dough’s been rollin’ downhill. Gettin’ bigger and bigger.”
“Who are your folks?” Jake asked the girl.
“That’s my dad.” She pointed to the dude in the Springsteen T-shirt, the guy who had movie stars under his fingernails, according to Hewitt. He was drinking a Dos Equis and watching people throw horseshoes.
“The California Buckley?” Jake said. “As you must have figured out, half the men over forty here are named Buckley, like your dad. And some of the ones under thirty. And the rest are named Guthrie, Joseph, Adam, or Elias. Named after previous generations. I can’t keep track so I don’t try. I’m Jake, by the way.”
Okay, so Adam knew her name now.
“Joe Roe, over there by the flagpole,” Hewitt was now shouting. “He took his brother’s whole family in when their house got washed away in that flood. And hired his nephews to rebuild it. He’d give the shirt off his back, Hell, he’d give his right arm to a hungry family member. I’m telling you, boy, we Roes have family values. Nepotism. Cannibalism. It’s all good.”
“Hewitt’s getting plastered,” Jake observed and Tara laughed.
“What did you say your brother looked like?” One of the familiar aunts waved flies away from the magenta slices with a paddle-shaped fan, and Tara took a piece, repeating that her brother was a pudgy kid of thirteen with a tattoo of a snake on his upper arm.
“A tattoo of one. Eating its own tail.”
The aunt shook her head.
“I know I’d remember that if I’d seen it. What did he do?”
It was now or never.
“I seen your brother half an hour ago,” Adam said, stepping forward. “Smoking by the porta-johns.”
There was silence as Tara’s pretty eyes focused in on his face. But she didn’t look surprised to see him here like people often did.
“He’s not there anymore. I checked that whole area.”
“Don’t worry, Tara. He’s around somewheres.”
She did looked startled now, obviously wondering how Adam knew her name.
“Everyone knows who y’are.” Adam laughed but he only knew because of Jake asking who her folks were. “You’re Buckley’s daughter, right? The California Buckley? I’m Adam. You and me are, hell, I don’t know. Some type of cousins.”
Now The Look really did come into her pretty eyes. A friendly version of it, though. Like Adam had said he was an extraterrestrial, but she’d always wanted to meet one. At least she smiled.
He was determined to steal her attention from Jake, who was accepting a watermelon slice.
“You’ll find your brother,” Adam said. “What do you need him for?”
“I don’t need him.” Tara laughed. “No one does, at this point in his life. It’s just that I caught him smoking, where you said.” She waved toward the plastic booths. “And I don’t want him to catch hell from my dad. He ran away when he saw me coming.”
The Look faded somewhat but she’d taken to gazing through Adam’s forehead, as though extraterrestrials were less interesting than she’d thought. Still, he’d made progress. He was talking to her. And better yet, Jake was wandering away.
Adam was first in line now, and the aunt proffered a melon slice. He took it with a “thank you, ma’am,” keeping his eyes on Tara, which caused pink, watery juice to spill onto his brand-new sneakers. Black seeds too.
“Jesus,” Adam said, looking down at them in dismay.
“I know, right? He found a stale pack of Lucky Strikes in the attic of the house we’re renting. Left by previous tenants. Totally disgusting. My dad can’t control him at all.”
“No. I mean all these seeds.” Adam grabbed a napkin from the table and bent down to wipe his shoes. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to take the Lord’s name in vain.” He said that, about the Lord’s name, with his tongue at least partly in his cheek, but Tara laughed a nervous laugh, not sure if Adam was kidding or deeply pious.
“Don’t you think he’ll probably forgive you?” she said. “If he really is up there? I’ve heard he’s supposed to be forgiving.”
“He will not forgive me. These shoes are brand new.”
She laughed again, this time at his wit. Also she quit looking through his forehead and made eye contact.
“Well, I reckon getting watermelon seeds on things is a tradition this time of year,” Adam said.
“Absolutely,” Tara said. “It’s one of the main things the Fourth of July is for.”
“No way,” Adam said. “It’s for George Washington and fireworks. But hey — isn’t that him over there? Making ice cream?”
“No. Your brother.”
A pudgy kid was now turning the crank on an ice cream machine by the tables of watermelon. But it wasn’t her brother after all. No snake tat.
Tara began to wander the grounds looking for the kid with the snake tat, and Adam followed, walking by her side. She was new to her extended Roe family, and Adam pointed out cousins that he knew were probably related to her father, the California Buckley. But Tara’s brother was nowhere, and eventually Diamond took over the mic and announced that a dance would start soon. She began trying to recruit Roe males to be auctioned as dancing partners. It was some kind of fundraising event for the family whose house had washed away in the flood.
“Auctioning people off?” Tara said. “Like some kind of slave auction? Isn’t that in bad taste?” She giggled nervously. “No wonder they don’t volunteer.”
“I think they’re just afraid no one’ll bid for them,” Adam cracked.
Men in lawn chairs yelled out that they never danced and weren’t going to start now. One old guy said, “It’s way too hot.”
“Bull!” Hewitt shouted. “It’s cool over here in the shade. I need three able-bodied Roe males to volunteer. It don’t matter if you can dance. The ladies will teach you! Come on, where are your family values?”
Finally Burl, an oldish third cousin, rose from his lawn chair, saying, “Oh, all right. I’ll try anything once.” Burl was tall and very skinny, with gray hair and a kind of red face. He seemed to have had quite a few beers and stood on the platform doing bumps and grinds with his pelvis while Diamond tried to recruit two more men.
Aunt Ginny, Auntie Carol, and a cousin called Mavis, all in their seventies, watched the proceedings from the sun canopy, laughing at Burl’s antics. Adam and Tara laughed too until Hewitt grabbed Adam by his elbow and dragged him to the platform.
“At least they found someone young!” Aunt Ginny yelled. She was Burl’s wife, which caused more hilarity.
“I saw him getting watermelon seeds on his shoes, though,” Aunt Carol said.
“I haven’t danced since I was in middle school,” Adam protested.
Diamond, who had disappeared, came back pulling Tara’s father, the California Buckley, by his arm.
“What am I supposed to do?” Tara’s dad looked terrified.
“Just stand there, Buckley. These ladies are going to bid to dance with you.”
“You’d better get me while the getting’s good,” Burl said, addressing the lawn chairs. He put his hands behind his head and did more bumps and grinds.
“What happens if they get me?” Tara’s dad was a good-looking man in his forties with bloodshot eyes, like he was hung over.
“All you have to do is dance,” Diamond said. She got a comb out of her pocket and combed his hair.
Hewitt began trying to sell a dance with Adam. Which would mean he’d have to somehow dance, and with one of his aunts, unless Tara bid for him, and it would be embarrassing whether she did or not. All he’d wanted was to talk to her.
“I know he’s not your traditional Roe,” Hewitt said, putting an avuncular hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Appearance-wise. But he talks like a Roe. And most important, he works as hard as any Roe here.”
“But can he do American dances? Like the Twist?”
“He can dance his head off,” Hewitt said. “Watermelon seeds or no.”
“Okay. I bid a dime.” Aunt Ginny got her wallet out. “I like Chinese food.”
“Uh—pardon, ma’am,” Adam said. “My birth parents were Vietnamese. Yeah, I’m adopted, but I like biscuits and gravy. And I can do-si-do as good as anyone here.”
“His middle name is ‘Twinkletoes’!” Hewitt shouted. “If Adam here can’t trip the light fantastic, then the light fantastic is, hell, pretty damn sure on its feet.”
“I want to dance with the one in the middle!” Aunt Carol yelled. “The tall, good-looking one.”
“Buckley?! A dance with Buckley isn’t for sale yet,” Hewitt said a little nervously. “We’re still working on a dance with Adam Twinkletoes.”
“You’re not getting Buckley,” Mavis said. “I’m getting him.”
“Oh yeah? We’ll see about that.” Aunt Carol started looking through her purse to see how much cash she had.
“I’ll bid fifty cents for a dance with Adam,” Tara said. But he was afraid she only did it out of pity.
“I have fifty cents on a dance with Adam Twinkletoes,” Hewitt called. “Do I hear seventy-five?”
There were no other bids.
“Sold!” Hewitt yelled. “A dance with Adam Roe! To the best-looking girl here!”
Adam thanked Tara and they sat together on the grass.
“I guess I stand out like an odd sock,” Adam said. “But hell’s bells, I’m not the only new chemical in the Roe gene pool.”
“Well, thank goodness for new chemicals in gene pools,” Tara said. “Every family needs them. Otherwise they get all full of algae.”
“But with some other nontraditional Roes, you can’t tell what their chemicals are,” Adam said. “Like Jake. That Roe you were talking to at the watermelon stand. He’s been bar mitzvah’d and I don’t know what all else. Mom’s from one of those twelve tribes. Straight out of the Old Testament. But you’d never know it to look at him.”
“It’s called white privilege,” Tara said. “It makes you invisible when you need to be. So you don’t get harassed.”
“That’s it?” Adam said. “Invisibility? I always thought it meant when people look like Jake, they get hired easier. Whether they can do anything or not.”
“Naw,” Tara said. “It’s nothing to do with that. The term isn’t about money or anything. It’s—”
“Sold!” Hewitt yelled. “A dance with Buckley Roe! To my Aunt Carol! For twenty smackeroos!”
Adam fingered the two quarters in his pocket.
The California Buckley kind of teetered a little. Then he kind of staggered. Then he slithered to the ground and passed out.
Mary Gayle Newton has been published in Atherton Review, Borrowed Solace, Delmarva Review, Evening Street Review, isacoustic, The MacGuffin, October Hill Magazine, Potato Soup Journal, Spy Community Media, and Whistling Shade. A retired special education teacher, Mary has a BA in English with an emphasis in creative writing from UCLA and an MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University.