Travis, that’s my kid, comes home from school saying there’s no such thing as a “family,” not really. My wife – her name’s Julie – exploded, sent the boy to his room and called the school, made a hell of a fuss. Then she called her mother, some friends, and the PTA. That gave me time to sneak back and talk to Travis about his interesting idea.
If it’s true, I figured, it’d be the best news in years.
Turns out it wasn’t even his teacher said that about families being a myth but some other kids, giving a report. They were saying, according to Travis, that what we call the family hasn’t always existed, that it’s just an “evolutionary convenience.” (I’m sure he didn’t invent that phrase on his own, but he remembered it, which is something.)
I should have said Travis is in the 8th grade, I believe. I don’t pretend he’s “gifted,” like every other kid in the country, but he does OK. I was going to say, “He’s no dummy,” which is what my own father always said about me. I hated that, as if the best lie he could tell was that somewhere, in some remote corner of the globe, maybe some island with no books or television, there existed somebody dumber. Anyhow, I’ll just say that Travis can find his way to the toilet, dress himself, and keep from taking a hatchet to his mother. That’s what I can honestly report his intelligence. I suppose I could find out more if I gave a shit; but I don’t, which is healthy.
But we get along, cohabit OK. That made it easy for me to ask him what he meant and get him to explain, like I was talking to some guy at work whose name you’re not sure you got right.
“Hey, Travis. Mind if I come in?”
“Won’t keep you. Tell me about the “evolutionary convenience” and I’ll take your Mother our shopping, make her forget all about how pissed she is at you.”
“You’ll go shopping yourself?”
“To a bar. Drop her off and pick her up hours later, you know how it is.”
“How the fuck should I know.”
“You don’t go to bars? How come?”
“Jesus, Herman!” (My name’s Herman.)
“So, we have a deal?”
“OK. So Mary Kate and Todd gave this report on a book by Engels—you know him?”
“I do. Good guy. A Commie.”
“Whatever. He wrote this book on where private property and the family came from, all tied together.”
“All tied together?”
“You gonna fucking let me finish?”
“At one time, everybody lived in tribes, like, no families and no separations, no small groups that were permanent, just all together. And women weren’t inferior or anything. Everybody shared, you know. Babies and stuff were taken care of by whoever wanted to or was best at it. Then private property came along, excess goods you see, and the fucking men forced women into staying in the house and boring their asses off cleaning baby shit and dusting. But all this is falling apart now, really fast. First off, we have the Jews, you know about that. Then we have almost everybody getting divorced and moving into communes and stuff. It just doesn’t make sense in evolution to try and think families are what we need to have or are in any way natural, Mary Kate and Todd said.”
“Yeah, living in kibbuns or something, all together and no families. You don’t even know about that? God you’re dumb!”
“Kibbutzim, not that it matters. Thanks, Travis. Now clean up your room!”
“That’ll work too.”
People often offer the following remark about Travis, at parties and work and, God help us, family reunions (which we’ll get to shortly): “It’s such a difficult age.” At first that seemed to me a stunner, enigmatic, positively Platonic in its sweep and stupe-fying obviousness. Yessirree, like every other era, our early twenty-first century is full of difficulties; now, can you think of something to say that would actually lubricate a con-versation? After a while, though, I realized—that is, Julie told me—they were speaking not about the world situation or something cosmic but about something local and trivial, Travis. Turns out he was 13—Julie told me—when these comments began back then. I admit I was puzzled as to what to say, fumbled about, trying, “Is it?” or “I wouldn’t know” or “It’s no concern of mine.” It wasn’t all that long until I realized I could escape most easily by agreeing: “It is indeed!” or “Oh my, yes!” or “What a job being a parent in this modern world of today!” These came to me only after I learned that more enthu-siastic forms of agreement—“I hate the little asshole!” or “Too bad I can’t drown him like I did our cat!”—were not the thing, not the thing at all. I discovered that. I’m no dummy.
Which brings me to family reunions, actually just one. I don’t pretend they were all this dramatic but I’ll go to my grave shouting that the essence of these gatherings and of “family” is herein revealed. But you’ll judge for yourself on that.
This one I want to tell you about took place last August, which here in Georgia is always a nice time for a sixteen-hour picnic, not that the weather’s much of an issue in this case. You might think the wet heat would shorten people’s tempers and lead to what happened, but my so-called family doesn’t need any assistance from nature----fire, tornados, plagues of locust: it’d have made no difference.
The first ruffle in our perfect day came when it turned out Susan 1 and Susan 2 had forgotten to reserve the shelter at the state park where we were all gathering. What made it worse was that a couple of other cousins, Clarence and Lawrence or some such, got to this shelter first. It was about ten in the a.m., and they’d managed a good start on their day’s drunk. (I hope you’re not quick to condemn such early drinking: it was their way, and not a bad one, of greasing the slide through the interminable reunion, a hope for insensibility) Anyhow, they didn’t know that the group there at the shelter they’d arrived at were the ones who belonged there; they thought they were trespassing. What followed, then, was not the fault of anybody exactly, more like a misunderstanding; but you couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for the legitimate shelter-occupiers, especially when they got their asses kicked real good, especially the kids.
Just as things were turning homicidal, the Susans showed up and all was smoothed over. I guess it wasn’t very well smoothed over, considering the cops came, but only the ass-kicking cousins were arrested and nobody missed them anyhow, there being about sixty others in attendance who were indistinguishable both physically and mentally. I’m not including Julie and me in that indictment, of course, at least not me. Travis, I’m not sure about, though he does figure in the day’s events.
One problem with these reunions is that nobody ever planned anything---like a volleyball game or a hike or strippers. People just got there, hauled out the potato salad, and sat. Julie said, after about fifteen minutes of this, that she now knew what hell was like. For once, that woman made some sense.
So, a little while into this sitting, Travis gets the bright idea of getting some of his wild teen cousins and, as he put it, “just get the fuck away from you assholes.” No way anybody could object to that and it sure wasn’t anybody’s fault that the kids weren’t checked for assault weapons. Just kidding.
So the younguns took off, the rest of us staring into space and trying not to count by seconds—one-thousand-one, one-thousand two—since there’d be about 57.600 (57, 599, 57, 598) of those little peckers.
We needn’t have worried about boredom, as it turns out. I didn’t see how it started, but before you could say “Let me outa here!” there were two big fat guys taking their shirts off. They’d decided to liven things up with some wrestling. Trouble was they started right in without clearing a space, much less erecting a ring. At about the same time, a group of others, mainly women but not all, were forming a circle to sing hymns, one of them sporting an accordion. And, as if that were not enough, the volleyball game I said nobody planned began, sort of on its own.
All that sounds normal enough, I suppose, just what families figure they ought to do to hold up the myth that they are something together, not just victims of an illusion. They got nothing in common, don’t much like one another, and have no interest in their mates; but they imagine they have bonds, bonds of love. In a sane world, they’d be put out of their misery---which is almost what happened.
I’m happy to say I backed up a little hill, just to avoid becoming a wrestler, a singer, or a spiker. That gave me a good view of what followed, which seems to me to illustrate what families truly are---at their best.
Basically, you see, there wasn’t near enough space for all these activities, which had started up independent of one another. Soon, the wrestlers were colliding with the volleyball players and both were bashing the psalm-singers. Wasn’t like there wasn’t room in the surrounding territories, but do you suppose anyone would give up their little piece of land, insufficient as it was? You’d think they were each miners in Alaska in 49, protecting their claims.
Before two minutes passed, laughter had turned to angry shouts and then to blows---men striking men, women striking women, both going after children. Just as this
Fun was reaching what may have been its height, I noticed people falling to the ground, screaming, clutching legs or shoulders or eyes.
You’re way ahead of me: the youth contingent had gone off to shoot birds and, finding few of them, had returned to shoot their elders. Made sense to me.
So, there you have it. I gotta admit that this reunion was not altogether typical in being short. It broke up after about an hour, as people needed to whomp on their gun-toting kids, keep slugging dear relations, or get themselves to the hospital. I tried to talk to Travis about his part in the massacre, just out of general interest, but he still doesn’t trust me—more like doesn’t like me, which makes sense. Families are like that.
James Kincaid has published many non-fiction and academic books, several short stories, and two novels, one of them co-authored with Percival Everett. He taught for years at University of Southern Cal and is now at The University of Pittsburgh.