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Smith Family Robinson

Many were the men whose cities he saw and whose minds he learned...

      Michelle's brother was in town from New York City. "In town" here means "in McKinney," which really means "up near Dallas," shudder shudder. She was going to go up to spend the weekend with him and the rest of the extended family, and she invited me up for a day or two.
      Being game, as I always am, I said, "Sure, I'd love to come up and hang out with your family."

      I had committed to this trip earlier in December, and as the date drew inexorably nearer, like some sort of dreaded final exam, I started to get some cold feet. Not enough to not go, but enough to start stressing about it a little. Michelle at one point asked me why would I not want to come up and spend a few days with the Smiths. I cleared my throat a few times to try to avoid to question, but finally I said, "Look, Michelle, it's going to be something like your Grandpa talking to your Dad about farming, and then your aunt's are going to be sitting around talking about somebody's health problems, and I'm going to be sitting there with nothing to do and nothing to add and can you imagine a more awkward bit? Maybe the kids'll be running around and you know I have no idea what to do with kids in the best of times, let alone when they're someone else's and they have no clue as to who I am," etc. etc. for several minutes of incoherent and panicky ramblings. Michelle looked at me with a bit of glazed confusion but finally said, "uh, okay."
      We decided that I would drive up on Saturday and come back on Sunday.
      So she tripped out of here on a Wednesday night and I was left to my own amusements for a few days. I read through old journals, horked around with the house, and ticked off the days until Saturday morning. On Thursday night I had a classic stress dream. Michelle and I were sitting on the floor of her parents' living room while her parents were sitting on the couch. In the dream, her dad looked like a mustached Harry Dean Stanton. We were playing some board game while random children trotted through the room. The TV was on and playing Springer or some game show or something. While we played, I tried to make small talk, but her parents would just glance at each other and say nothing. Eventually Michelle and her mom got up and left the room. I tried to turn the charm on to old Harry Dean. He stared at the TV and chewed on his moustache while I prattled on and on. It was obvious that the old boy was ignoring me; I kept waiting for him to say to me, like one of my unfortunate friend's father-in-law said to him, "You are a sarcastic son of a bitch, and I do not like you."
      I told my buddy Jennifer about the dream the next day and she started laughing. She said, "And then, were you back in high school, wandering around the halls realizing that you had forgotten a test?"
      "Yeah," I said, "and I was naked!"
      Laughing even harder she said, "and then your teeth starting falling out?!"
      Good old JR. She can even turn a stress dream into a fun time.

      I talked with Michelle on Friday night about coming up the next day. She said, "It would be cool if you made it for lunch," which roughly translates as, "if you don't make it for lunch on Saturday I'm going to be really pissed off." I took the hint, hung up, and went to be early so I could get out of Austin at 8:00 the next morning.
      I rolled out of bed at 7:00, filled up the Padre with gas, poured in about three quarts of anti-freeze (the radiator has a leak somewhere), and swung by the Starbuck's to get a belly full of caffeine via a venti cappuccino. Yes, yes, I know that I'm supporting some giant mega-corporation with my coffee dollars here, but you go to hell. I'm going to Starbuck's.
      This is the same place I went to earlier in the week to get a late-in-the-day cup of coffee. As I walked in the cell phone rang. I had just placed my order so I pulled it out. As I started talking, the woman behind the counter leaned over and said, "We don't allow cell phones in here, they mess up our cappuccino machine." I looked at her incredulously, walked out to the sidewalk, and babbled on the cell phone in the 40 degree weather. I was chapped. I nearly got into the truck and drove off. But I survived, hung up the phone, and went back inside to get my coffee. As I came in, the barrista was waving me down.
      "Dude, it was just a joke! You can talk on your cell phone in here."
      I was instantly more annoyed. I told him, "Well, you fooled me. I was pretty pissed off. I nearly drove away."
      "Oh, really? I'm sorry, man, here's your coffee."
      The woman who played the trick on me also told me that it was just a joke, and I started to relax a little. Actually, it was a reasonably funny joke. So I told her the same thing: "You had me going there. But, hey, it actually is kind of funny." So I took my coffee with aplomb, and accepted being the butt of the joke with good grace, and made my exit.
      Same place, same coffee, different people and a different time of day. No practical jokes this time going through the drive through, so I just put the giant cup down in the cup holder and headed off for the highway. I pulled out the ever present cell phone (how did I ever live without this thing?) and dialed up McKinney. Someone who I assumed was Michelle's mom answered.
      "Hey, this is Alan," I said brightly. "Is this Michelle's mom?"
      "Oh yes, why it is, how are you?"
      "Great. I assume that Michelle isn't up yet, but she wanted me up there for lunch. So I was calling to let you know that I'm leaving Austin right now and should be up there in about four hours."
      "Oh, good. All righty then. I'll tell her."
      "Thanks! I'll see y'all soon. Goodbye."
      I hung up and right away felt guilty because I hadn't asked her how she was doing. Some parents are notoriously touchy about that. So I weighed the freakishness of calling back immediately to inquire about her health as compared to the rudeness of not having inquired about it at all. Freakishness outweighed rudeness and I figured that I would just have to make it up when I got there.

      Dallas, Dallas. Haven't been there in a while. The Padre's recent trip to Atlanta didn't necessarily make him a stronger truck so the drive up is a bit shaky at times. I've got the CD player, though, and after I get past Georgetown and into the more rural bits of the drive I start thinking about all those trips the Leper made up to Dallas when I didn't even have a radio. In remembrance for my dead homey, I turn off the stereo and sing my way up through Belton and on into Waco.
      Stashed in the truck is my gym bag and bottle of Riesling that I had picked up the night before as a propitiatory offering to the Smith household gods. Michelle had told me that her folks are white zinfandel drinkers. I personally don't know a white zin from a pinot grigio, but I figure that when in McKinney do as the McKinnians do. I popped over to Central Market and thought I'd get some help from the sommeliers there to help out.
      Ugh, turns out that the person who helps me is this crazy woman who used to date the Cantone. She didn't remember me from when she dated Carl, and I'm pretty sure that she doesn't remember me now. I swallow my pride, come up to her sheepishly and tell her "white zin." She steers me over to the Texas section and pulls out some syrah-something-something blush. I look at it and say, once again, "white zin," thinking maybe she misunderstood me. She sits down on the beer cooler and starts babbling about some god damn thing that I can't even remember. All I want is a fucking white zin, okay? She pushes a few more blushes on me as I maintain an astonishing amount of patience and keep saying things like, "I'd really like a WHITE wine." She finally points me at a bottle of Riesling that's in a blue bottle. I'm assume that the wine is white inside of the blue bottle so I snap it up, give her a quick "thanks," and nip out of the Market.
      So I look down at the blue bottle rolling around the floor and think about meeting Michelle's family. I want to make a good impression so I'm talking my game face up (I really do do these things) and limbering up the charm facilities so that I'll be able to hit the ground running. As I get past Waco, I remember that we're going to be staying not at Michelle's parents but at her (non-New-York-City-living) brother's house. Shoot, not only do I have to pay homage to the paterfamilias but I need to get something else to ensure a little good karma with the Smith clan.
      So I pull off in West, Texas (not to be confused with West Texas, a completely different animal) to get some gas and get some kolaches: beautiful little Czech creations that are a kind of a cross between a Danish, a biscuit, and a doughnut. Right as I park the car at the pump, the cell phone rings going bling, bling, bling. I don't recognize the number so I pick it up and answer, "This is Alan." (and, yeah, I really do answer the phone this way, too). It's JR, but I don't know it immediately so I manage to offend her by saying, "Who is th... oh, hey JR, what's up?"
      It's a gorgeous day outside and Jennifer wants to go canoeing. She asks me where I am so I, with that delight that only mobile phone users can have, tell her, "I'm in West at the Czech stop!" She's all hip to the kolache tip and knows what I'm doing there. I tell her that I'd love to go canoeing but that I won't be back until later on Sunday. I say, "I'm sure that you can get one of your other friends to go with you."
      "Yeah, well," she says laughing, "all of my other friends are like me: lazy."
      I laugh as well and assure her that we'll get together in the next week or so. We commiserate a bit more about the whole going-up-to-see the parents bit, then I hang up and take care of business.
      I head inside the bakery to get the goods. There's already someone in front of me and she's one of these people who gets two or three of every different thing. But instead of saying, "I'd like two of everything you have," she has to pick over the bakery case like it's that freaking Wheel of Fortune bit where they spend all their ill gotten gains on the fabulous prizes.
      "Well, you know Pat, I think I'd like two of those peach kolaches."
      "Excellent choice, Vanna will box those right up. What else?"
      "Hmmm, do those sausage and cheese ones have ground sausage?"
      "Why, yes they do."
      "Oh, then I'd like three of those, too... and give me four of those apple ones."
      "Yes, great, anything else."
      "Mmmm, how about a couple of cherry, and four of those apricot..."
      Ugh. I settle in and stare at the menu while she peruses the selection, bent over at the hips with one finger pressed up against her lips, tapping her teeth while the poor girl behind the counter stares at her in sullen resignation.
      Finally, the woman has her goods selected, and I move up to the counter. The girl behind the counter turns her resigned look on to me and asks, rather hopelessly, what I'd like. Of course I've had plenty of time to decide, so I tell her, "A dozen kolaches." I can see her deflate a bit at the thought of another repeat of the indecisive woman so I quickly add, "four apple, four peach, four cherry." It's amazing to watch her visibly brighten and say, "Okay!" She fills up my box and passes me on to the check out line.
      I see that I'm buying $6.80 in kolaches and $6.91 in gas. I laugh and tell the woman that I'm buying as much in kolaches and I am in gas. She laughs, too, and says, "Well, people need fuel just like cars do."
      Boom! Out the door of the bakery. Boom! Back into the truck. Boom! I toss the box down into the seat with the wine and I point the truck back onto the highway and blaze my slow steady way up to Dallas.

      A little bit of Smithstory: from what I remember of Michelle's stories, she was born up in either Iowa or South Dakota and shortly afterwards moved from one to the other. She moved down to Dallas when she was in fourth or fifth grade, and from there she came on down to school in Austin and never left (ah, a familiar story). Two older brothers, one of which lives in Plano and the other of which lives in NYC, and both parents currently up in McKinney.
      The Smiths and the Reeses (Mom's side) must have been founded by Old Testament prophets, for verily, their seed is as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore. There is a bewildering (to me) tangle of cousins, aunts, uncles, grand parents, and great-grand parents up yonder. The Reese and Smith clans are apparently centered about fifteen minutes away from each other in Iowa and intercommunication is a constant. Watching Michelle fill out Christmas cards is a triumph of organization; all the Smith, Smith, Smith, Reese, Smith, Reese makes my head turn.
      It's particularly amazing to me given that I have the genetic defect inherent in all we Arvesen males: we just don't keep track of our families. My dad's folks died when he was sixteen, so growing up I only knew one set of grandparents (I still remember when my best friend of first grade, Eric Ledbetter, told me that he had two sets of grandparents and I didn't believe him). But even if my dad's folks were alive, I'm sure that we'd still have only seen the Boyds. The only aunts I knew were my mom's sisters; I didn't (and frankly, still don't) think of my dad's brother and sister being related to us: I've met my paternal aunt and uncle each twice in my life. My dad's sister actually lives in Austin but I still haven't seen her since I graduated back in 1993. One of my (male) cousins worked in the same building as I did for two years and we never bothered to look each other up.
      Listen: One time my dad was on a plane and met a guy from Kansas. My dad told this guy, "Ah, my brother lives in Kansas. Next time I'm out there, I'll look you up." This guy asked when was the last time he saw his brother. My dad stopped, thought, and said, "Uh, it's been twelve years." The guy looked at my dad and said, "Hmmm, real close family you got there."
      So, for me, who looks at familial obligations as mostly, well, obligations and as things to be endured rather than enjoyed, it's puzzling to see a family that really seems to like each other and just wants to sit around with each other for days at a time. I realize that not everyone is as emotionally deficient as I am in this area. At some point in the weekend, I will tell Michelle that I think it's great what she has with her family. I caution her, "But I'll never have the same thing with your family. Hell, I don't have the same thing with my family." But then I'll pause, look at her, smile, and say, "But you might have the same thing with my family."

      Michelle's given me directions to the homestead, and they are as clear as a day out of deeply summer. I give her a call as I pass Dallas and tell her I'll be up there in 30 or forty minutes. I get off at the proper exit and see the road she told me to look for, called "Community," and I turn on to it. McKinney is a growing suburb and one side of the road is crowded in with nice suburban mansions while the other side of the road is crowded with vast fields that have a lonesome "Land For Sale" sign every half mile or so.
      Michelle's directions say to look for houses on the right hand side, but this is the side of the road with the fields. So I drive along until I get to a detour; they're building a huge middle school and the construction has the road blocked off. I follow the detour and end up back on the highway.
      "Hmmm," I think, "Michelle would have mentioned the highway."
      So I drive back to Community, turn on it again, and drive around the middle school some more. I keep following the road and after another few miles I see that I am next to some juvenile correctional facility. Shortly after that, the road shrinks rapidly from its four lane cement glory to a lane and a half of crumbling asphalt.
      "Hmmm," I think, "Michelle would have mentioned a freaking jail."
      So I turn around again and drive around until the cell phone picks up a decent signal. I call her up and say, "So, you didn't tell me you guys you lived by the jail."
      She laughs and tells me that I've dorked it. I was supposed to go past Community and then turn right. She says, "I must have given you the wrong directions last night."
      I look down at what I've written it says, as clear as can be, "go right past light @ Community."
      Outstanding. I tell her, "Nope, you told me the right thing, and I wrote it down right, but I'm such a retard that I apparently can't even follow my own directions. I'll be there in just a minute."
      Basking in the glow of this illustration of Arvesen brilliance, I turn the truck around, renavigate past Community, and indeed, I'm at the Smith house just a minute later.

      Unlike their namesake, the Smith Family Robinson doesn't live in a treehouse but rather in a very normal single story ranch, nestled amongst several dozen other single and double story houses. Later in the weekend Michelle will take me on a tour of downtown McKinney and show me the historic core of the town; it is in the uncomfortable process of suburbanization that seems to be the inevitable fate of the Dallas hinterland. Just south of McKinney is Plano, the apotheosis of white suburbia, home of rich kid heroin addicts and boasting one of the highest suicide rates in the country. McKinney is fighting hard to avoid losing its soul and becoming Planoized. The battle seems to be sliding first one way, then the other. By the old town square there are streets and streets of stately old homes in various stages of renovation, but a few blocks away you can find Chili's and Applebee's and all the other harbingers of suburban sprawl. Michelle's house was designed by her father to sturdy, angular Iowa standards, but down by the monster middle school they're stamping out the upwardly mobile mansions with cookie cutter precision.
      As I pull up in front of the house, Michelle comes out to meet me with her three year old niece, Miranda, in tow. I say hi to Michelle and give a shot at talking with the hija, but you know how three year olds are: just like dogs and true love, they have to come to you on their own terms, and she hides shyly behind "Aunt Dishell's" jean clad leg and stares at me uncertainly. Michelle picks up the rugrat and we head inside.
      Into the kitchen, and I'm shaking hands all around. There's Michelle's mom, Glenda, glad to see me and apologizing to me for not wishing me a safe trip on the phone this morning (I breathe a sigh of relief that I'm off the hook for my self-perceived rudeness). There's Michelle's dad, Ernie, who looks kind of like a slightly thicker Lee Marvin, shaking my hand in his big ole' farmer's paw. Grandma and Grandpa Reese are there, Michelle's brother Brian is there, and his two little ones, Miranda and Evan, are scurrying around under foot. It's nearly one o'clock and the kitchen is humming along as the Smith women are working on lunch.
      I stick out my peace offerings to Glenda. I'm trying to grease the skids of my charm enough to make a good first impression, so I hand her the wine and tell her, "Michelle told me that y'all drink white wine, so I bought this bottle for you. I was assured that it really is white inside the bottle and not blue." The lame joke has a reasonably good impact, so I whip out the kolaches and say, "And I figured that we could always use a few kolaches." At the time they're received with a bit of indifference, but as the weekend progresses the kolaches are going to turn out to be a slam dunk. Ah, sweet Czechs. The ghosts of Hus and Ziskai must be looking out for me today.
      The men wander off to watch the football games for awhile so I pitch in with the kitchen duties. Michelle sets me to chopping up some garlic as Glenda and I chat up a bit.
      "So, Alan, you do a lot of cooking?" she asks.
      "Yes, ma'am, I do. And it's a good thing, since Michelle doesn't do a stick. If I didn't cook for us we'd never get fed."
      This gets an appreciative laugh from Glenda, and a good natured scowl from Michelle, and I chop away happily at whatever gets put in front of me.
      I'm not a believer in astrology, like not at all, but one time I read this idiotic book called something like, "Entertaining Guests per Sign." They said one thing about Virgos, which I happen to be, which is that they would always be in the kitchen trying to influence what was being cooked at the dinner party. I did have to laugh out loud at that, because I love to cook and I'm pretty freaking nosey and bossy when it comes to dinner. I usually do end up in the kitchen trying to tell people what to do. I realize that it's an annoying habit, and I have to bite my tongue to keep from suggesting all sorts of way to "improve" the meal. I hovered over Michelle's shoulder for a few minutes staring at what she was cooking. I kept saying things like, "Hmm, you could..." and "you know that..." before I would catch myself and shut up. After a while Michelle started looking at me wondering why I couldn't finish a sentence, so I packed up my bags and headed off to the living room for a little male bonding.
      Ah yes, male bonding. The NFL divisional playoff games were on. Brian sat in one chair and stared at the TV. Grandpa Reese sat in the other chair and stared at the TV. I sat on the couch and stared at the TV. Beautiful. On one of those "Why it's Great to be a Man" emails, it says

      You can sit silently watching TV for hours with a buddy and not wonder if he's mad at you.

      We break the silence with an occasional, "Hmmm, he lost some yards" or "Hmmm, that was a lousy pass." Grandpa Reese and I occasionally make some other random aside but in general we watch the game and nap. I feel right at home.
      Lunch time comes around and we all hop up from the game and bustle back into the kitchen. Everything is laid out buffet style and we pile on the food and sit down to eat. Pasta, salad, fresh bread from the bread machine, and something called "goulash." As I was raised by ravenous wolves, I tend to devour my food with an alarming alacrity. Added to the fact that I had skipped breakfast in order to have a decent appetite for lunch, I'm ready to chow down. I try to not gulp down everything at once but I still manage to clean my plate before everyone else. I sit there a bit self-consciously as the conversation shifts slowly around me. Glenda looks over and notices that I'm done and encourages me to get some more. I make an excuse of not wanting to appear more of a hog than I really am, saying something like "I'm always self conscious when I end up eating three plate fulls of food." Grandpa Reese looks over and says, "Well, if you eat a lot, isn't that how you show you like it?" Ah, good old Grandpa. We're going to get along just fine.
      So I shovel up another plate and plop back down. Michelle's warned me that sometimes the Smiths aren't the biggest on conversation. She's said something like, "Uh, you'll be the most talkative of the lot, Alan." There's quite a bit of silence around the table, but it's a warm friendly silence of people who just don't have a whole lot to say. Once again, I remember Grandpa (I really like this guy) who contributes gems like this one to the conversation:
      Grandpa: "My brother got 27 inches of snow last week."
      Michelle: "You didn't get that much snow where you live."
      Grandpa: "Yep."
      Michelle: "But he lives right next door to you. Why didn't you get as much snow?"
      Grandpa: "Well, that's the way the weather works."
      (General laughter)
      Once I've filled my greedy gullet to bursting, I get slowly inaugurated into another Smith family tradition: sitting around the table for an hour after you eat. I fit right into this one, because we Arvesens have a similar tradition. However, we sit around and slowly eat everything that's left on the table while we shoot the breeze. The Smiths are more restrained in this respect.
      We do break out the kolaches and appreciative murmurs are heard all around. As we're eating, though, we're hitting one of those conversational danger points where the flow has eddied back on itself and the conversation is in danger of stagnating. I dart my eyes back and forth and hope that I can push things a push in the right direction.
      I turn to Glenda and say, a little desperately, "So, uh, you guys play a lot of cards?"
      "Oh yah..." Glenda starts and, amazingly, this one sentence gives enough momentum for a fifteen minute discussion of cards, and games, and Sunday afternoons, and quality time with the family, and what you do when it's snowing hard outside. I file this little nugget away: conversation in the Smith house is like a super saturated solution. Just throw in one tiny seed to cause the liquid to crystallize.

      After lunch, Michelle and I skip out for a walk and she tells me some more of the local history. Sounds like McKinney and Marietta have had similar life cycles. Just like Marietta, when the Smiths moved out here there were no houses but plenty of cows. Both Michelle and her brother Curt (NYC brother) will recount that they had to herd up cows one day after school when they broke out of the corral. Just like me lamenting the loss of the huge tree-filled acres behind the Arvesen house, Michelle points out all the things that weren't here when she was growing up. We walk by a huge, open pit next to huge, plowed up field where one assumes the cookie cutters are going to start cranking out more houses.
      But McKinney is a lot friendlier than Marietta ever was, and all of the neighbors wave at us as we walk around. The kids don't starte at you, people are out trimming their yards or watching their kids play, and no one's afraid to leave his brand new Christmas Razor scooter laying on the side walk as he runs off to shoot baskets with the other kids. Marietta had too much bourgeois "what's mine is mine" attitude to really spark much community; half of the conversations I remember having with the neighbors when I was a kid centered around property values (someone called the mentality "Little Castles" in one of those left wing papers I read back in college: you built your little castle and defended it like a king, cut off from all the other kingdoms in the vicinity due to both tradition and policy). For whatever reason, McKinney seems to be free of the disease.
      We trot around the neighborhood for a while more, engaging in my new pasttime of looking at other people's houses and deciding what I do and don't like about what they've done. Michelle and I play a game where we covet the ugliest and tackiest pieces of each house we see: "Michelle, would you like to have moving Santa and Mrs. Claus statues out front for Christmas?" or "Alan, do you like the mailbox that's painted to look a cat?" We amuse ourselves with this activity as we take a few more turns around the neighborhood and end up back at the house.
      Back inside, and Miranda's fit to burst she's so pleased to see Aunt Dishell back. As soon as we're in the door she's climbing up and down Michelle's leg and dragging her off to the TV room for some play time. I dutifully follow and there's Evan on the floor playing with a Brio set of trains. Just like my nephew, the little booger is nuts about trains; unlike my nephew, Evan's dad and grandpa are both handy with a router and have manufactured almost all of the Brio track themselves. I plop down on my couch in the accustomed place, Michelle sits next to me, and Miranda's swarming all over Michelle with her doll and some baby bottles that look suspiciously like ketchup and mustard squeeze jars. After a bit, Evan comes over for some Aunt Dishell attention and asks her to come ride on his train. The "train" of course, is a combination of an easy chair and a treadmill; he wants Michelle to sit in the treadmill/passenger car while he pilots the easy chair/locomotive. Michelle scoops up Miranda and goes to sit in the train while Evan weaves a complicated kid story about trains one, two and three, and the various stations that they are going through and which ones they need to get to, and what they pick up and drop off at each one of the stations. While Michelle travels on, I switch back to Male Bonding Mode and watch some more football and chat with Grandpa Reese.
      I have to admit here that I am not all that comfortable around kids. I'm sure I've mentioned this before. But I've never been around kids very much in my life, and I don't know what to do with them, and I'm afraid that I'm going to infect them with my libertine lifestyle if I'm not careful. Every now and then someone tries to get me to sign up for Big Brothers and I have to tell them, "Lord, you don't want your children hanging out with me. What the heck am I supposed to do with a kid?" And they'll say something like, "do what you normally do." To which I'll reply, "My life consists of drinking, working out, and chasing women. None of those are really kid friendly activities. Really, it's a very bad idea." And I'm always thinking of that Beastie Boy's song

      If your life needs correction
      Don't follow my direction

      I'm very satisfied with the way I live my life, but I understand that it wouldn't be satisfying for everyone, and that it's downright reprehensible to a certain (large) segment of the population. The obverse, of course, is that I look pretty freaking conservative and square to another segment (no tattoos or piercings, no wide ranging drug use other than drinking, I pay my taxes and have probably even voted for a republican once or twice in my life). That's the way things are, though, isn't it? Barbara Kingsolver said, "If you've never stepped on any toes you ain't never been on a walk." You have a hard enough time making yourself happy let alone everyone else, so to hell with the rest of them.
      Anyway. These attitudes, though I personally find them admirable, don't make me the best of all possible role models for little kids. "Look at Uncle Alan: I do believe he's drunk again." Or "I think Uncle Alan just rode his bike until his whole butt went numb." So the point of all this self pity and defensiveness is that I'm a bit unsure of myself around the five year old Evan and the three year old Miranda. But these little kids are a joy to live with: while they require quite a bit of attention, the time I spend with these little guys will change my entire view of children.

      That night we go down to Plano to spend the night with Brian. Michelle and I get there to find that everyone has beat us home: her brothers Brian and Curt, Brian's wife Katherine, and Curt's girlfriend Amy. And of course, the two kids. Miranda's gone on to bed, but Evan's sitting in the middle of the room in a pint size Lazy Boy chair and trying to hog up as much attention as he can.
      Katherine isn't cut from the same laconic stamp as the Smiths, so she ends up chatting away merrily while the rest of us contribute occasionally. She's a nurse by profession and the conversation wanders congenially from nursing to kindergarten to Southern accents. Michelle makes fun of me because I'll talk like a Southerner until the day I die. Even when I don't turn on the thick ole' accent, I will always think that saying things like "yonder" and "fixing to" and "y'all" are prefectly acceptable English phrases. And, something else I had never considered, I have a fondness for idiotic nicknames. I grew up being called "pumpkin," and "sugar," and "honey bunch," and "squash blossom," and "sweet pea," and there's something very comforting to it (I've personally adopted "sugar foot" in recent memory).
      So Katherine, who is a barbarous Yankee like the rest of this lot, is laughing in the corner about how all of the Southern girls she knows come up with silly nicknames for their loved ones, and that they usually revolve around food. She tried to come up with the most ridiculous name she could and wound up with "Pumpkin Face."
      Hey, that's not half bad.
      It's getting late and I'm falling asleep. Curt wants to go on to see a movie that starts at 10:45 but I can't bear the thought of getting home at 1:00 or 2:00 when all I want to do is crawl into bed. I beg off from the movie and ask Kathy where I'll be racking out. The Smiths have reshuffled the house so that I'll be sleeping in Evan's room tonight while he sleeps with his folks. So I say good night and tuck myself in, surrounded by trains, Brett Favre, Winnie the Pooh and other talismans of gentle, childhood joy.

      When the morning comes, I listen for a pause in the bathroom traffic and I nip in for a shower. When I come out, cleaned up and ready for the day, I see that the family is pushed up around the table eating breakfast. I decide to continue my breakfast skipping from the day before which gets Katherine worried. As a compromise I instead gladly accept a cup of coffee. I sit in the kitchen and chat with Katherine while the kids, Brian, and Aunt Dishell munch down some waffles in the breakfast room. Katherine is entertaining me with some story about the local school board and how she wants Evan to go to a school that's only a few blocks away, rather than the one that they are officially zoned in and that's two miles from their house.
      "I want to be able to walk him to school," she tells me. Then she smiles sadly and looks a little distant and says, "but part of me doesn't want to deal with it at all. By dealing with the school issue, I'll have to admit that he's really growing up and that I won't be able to spend all of my time with him any longer." I like Katherine; I feel like she has a good mixture of insight and compassion. We talk a bit about the fleeting days of childhood, a conversation which I am very unprepared to add anything useful to, and then we move on to happier subjects.
      Katherine's out the door so I go and sit down in the breakfast room with the family. Miranda's gotten the crayons out and wants Aunt Dishell to help her out with coloring. Michelle wants to take a shower, so I manfully distract the wee one by asking if I can help her color. I get some grudging assent so Michelle takes off and I ask Miranda what we're coloring. She tells me, "We're making a letter to Santa Claus." Hmmm, okay. What do you want the note to Santa to say? She tells me that Santa would like a glass of milk. So I draw a glass of milk for the old son. Miranda's fascinated by the game. So I ask her, "Uh, what else would Santa like?" I end up drawing a cookie, a chair that makes Miranda squeal "That looks like a POTTY!" so it becomes such, a train with several cars, a mother cow and a baby cow, and a mess of carrots for the reindeer. We've moved on to the second sheet of paper where I draw a mother sun, a father sun, and some baby suns when Michelle comes back from her shower. She's surprised to find us hard at work drawing away, or maybe more appropriately she's surprised to find me hard at work drawing away.
      I'm having an great time with the little booger. Maybe there's something to this little kid thing after all.

      We pack up our stuff and trip out the door back to the main Smith compound. Michelle and I detour a bit s she shows me her old high school, the main down town, and the (few) other sights in McKinney. I try to picture Michelle here as a teenager, going through the gristmill of adolescence and living through all of the traumas and trials of high school. One part of me twinges with jealousy because I have a feeling that Michelle has always been better adjusted than I am: there's none of the Woody Allen angst about parents and past that I am so used to in both myself and my friends. I listen to her and wonder, "I wonder what it feels like, to not shoulder this burden of self-guilt and insecurity?" I look at her with a quiet amazement since she, without any of the flame and violence that I've done to my past and myself, has been successful at integrating everything that lead up to her, right here, right now.
      We trickle back to the Smith house. I was going to stay to eat but the Smiths have suffered a power outage and lunch has been delayed. It's already past noon and I want to make the four hour drive back to Austin before it gets dark. Her folks say all sorts of nice things to get me to stay and I think I've successfully impressed everyone (when Michelle comes back to town in a few days she'll bring a pan of peanut brittle, close as a ventricle to this southern boy's heart, that Katherine has cooked up for me). I beg off and once again shake hands all around -- as it was in the beginning so it shall be in the end. Miranda's in the kitchen so I scoop her up and give her a hug, which she kinds of try to squeeze out of, so I put her back down and shake hands one more time. I stand in the kitchen door and already I can feel the Road taking a hold of my heart, glossing me over and pulling me out the door, my mind flying across the greater spaces through Dallas and Waco and back home to sweet Austin and my own little house. I've got plenty to think about from this trip and I'm already starting to glaze over with thought. I stand in the kitchen door and wave to the Smith family and say "Bye!" They all wave back and say goodbye at the same time. I turn for the front door and I feel my mind and focus narrowing down to the drive ahead, and I hear one last small, "Goodbye" behind me.
      I look over my shoulder and I see Miranda shyly waving at me.


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