“All right then, troops,” the Old Man allowed over his shoulder, Matilda spastically idling in the bird crap spattered parking lot of the depressingly nondescript brick sprawl nursing home our Great Aunt Ginny had been stowed in since time before remembering. “There are a few things I would request you all keep in mind before we assimilate your aged Great Aunt into this trip, the first of which being that she is exceedingly old. The second is that she is not precisely my Great Aunt.”
“Well she sure as hell isn’t mine!” our Mother shrieked, “Don’t you dare try to pin that venomous old bag of recriminations on me!”
“WHAT?” Mallory exploded, a wad of gum shooting out of her mouth and flattening against Matilda’s dome light, “Why does she have to go with us then? Who the hell does she belong to?”
“She’s almost certainly a blood relative,” our Father opined, “Being as she has lurked around the corners of our extended family since well before I was born. It was rumored for several years that she was my Father’s half sister by way of Armenian tramp that boarded with them against their will during the depression, but my own Grandmother vigorously denied any such claim. The point is she is family in that she appears in most of our group photographs and has rarely forgotten to send me a five-dollar bill on my birthday for longer than I care to admit. More than twice a year these last few decades.”
“Does she have to come with us?” Mallory pleaded, “She has no idea who I am!”
“She has very little idea who any of us are, dear. She comes with us on the last family vacation ever because she is our link to the past, a fraying hemp hawser in human form binding us to the old ways and old countries from which we sprung and without whom it could well be that none of us now here in this car would exist today! In whatever cargo hold she made passage to the New World those many years ago were nestled a secondary cargo of human eggs that would one day become some unknown number of the men and women who may well have born me and through me, us. Gallaghers, without those eggs, if indeed they had anything to do with any of our actual kin, we are quite possibly less than ideas. So we honor the mostly still living vessel that once clutched those long ago hatched human eggs within her internal, metaphorical briny depths over the actual, much physically larger and more dangerous external briny depths. We honor her by taking her with us on our last journey, just as we would her mortal remains had she died prior to right now, which it must be admitted would have made her easier to transport. And that segways very nicely into the third and final point I mean to make before I extract her from the bosom of this… place we are parked in front of. Our Great Aunt Ginny hovers on the verge of death and has done so since I was a tot. What keeps her from expiring is a mystery of science, though more than one medical professional has suggested that ‘cussedness’ might have something to do with it. She may pass away at any moment on this trip, and when she lets loose her trembling old ankle and kicks her personal bucket, it could go down any number of ways. Her shape may suddenly collapse inward, as if her skin and bones had turned to sand, dusting by awkward stages like a Vampire in a Hammer Film. She may continue to emit twitters and grunts for hours after her demise so that you never know the point at which she actually died. She could explode for all I know, killing each and every one of us; it’s not unheard of in women of her years. What I am trying to say troops, is that I, her sort of Grand Nephew or whatever, would consider it a great personal favor if when she at last rings down that final curtain, the ringing of that curtain has not been hastened or caused in any way by any one of you. Do not bump her, surprise her, castigate her in any way, either fairly or unfairly. Do not fold, spindle or mutilate this old woman, purposefully or by accident, don’t contradict, sass, or look cross eyed upon her. In short, I want you to treat our Great Aunt Ginny with the same degree of respect you would show a priceless Egyptian papyrus scroll duct taped to a nuclear time bomb. Capice?”
I would have said fitting Great Aunt Ginny into the backseat when Alex, Mallory and I could barely expand our lungs for fear of crushing one another was a physical impossibility, but I was wrong. Perhaps it was because her paper thin, surprisingly flexible person weighed almost nothing at all, or perhaps because our Father used his near wizardly powers of packing to fold spacetime in unheard of ways, or maybe it was the terrible silent throbbing of the anger vein upon the Old Man’s head when a few spools of Great Aunt Ginny’s medical tubing became ensnarled in Mallory’s head gear. In the end there she undeniably was, right next to me, smelling like cinnamon, antique text books and old blankets a beloved cat had enjoyed to sleep upon before it passed away during the Carter administration. Her glazed left eye settled upon me, indicating, probably, consciousness.
“It warn’t Santy Claus what done it” She hissed like a deflating bicycle tire, and I let it go at that.
“All I am saying,” our Old Man said some time later in his most reasonable voice, the one he used when desiring to infuriate us the most, “is that ‘White Plains’ sounds like an Upstate New York name. And Upstate is north, compass wise. And the Tapanzee Bridge is south.”
“I don’t give a tepid Christ what White Plains ‘sounds’ like” Our Mother returned. “I am the navigator. I am reading the map. I am looking at the signs. White Plains is O.K.”
“White… Plains. ‘White’. Suggesting plains covered in a blanket of whiteness, which to me says snow. Snow more commonly found in the northern climes. Which is why when we pass a sign saying “White Plains” I begin to suspect that we may be heading north, which would be the WRONG DIRECTION!”
“Are you questioning my map reading skills? Or is it the map itself you are questioning?”
“I am not QUESTIONING either, I am merely saying that WHITE plains puts one in mind of-“
“Perhaps it’s my veracity you are questioning. Perhaps you mean to insinuate that for reasons unknown, I, your bride of umpteen years out of whom shot forth your offspring, am deliberately and inscrutably LIEING!”
“Now you see, you see,” The Old Man rumbled, foreshadowing thundering, “THIS is EXACTLY the twisting of words you inevitably engage in. I didn’t ‘QUESTION’ ANYTHING! I suggested the etymology of the name “White-
“SAW MILL PARKWAY! SAW MILL PARKWAY! ARE YOU BLIND? LOOK AT THE SIGN!” Our Mother howled.
“Saw Mill PARKWAY? A moment ago you told me to keep my eyes peeled for the Saw Mill ROAD!”
“There is no such THING as the SAME DIFFERENCE, you terrible harpy! Those words mean nothing at all!”
“Oh, I will grab the wheel and KILL US ALL!”
“YOU DO NOT HAVE THE SPINE!”
“STOP IT!” Mallory pealed, “STOP IT, STOP IT, I HATE YOU ALL!”
I looked to Alex for some sort of guidance, but he was miles away, and then I saw it the sign. Tapanzee Bridge. Far right lane.
“Tapanzee!” I shouted, but Mallory was barking like a Howler Money with a grease burn and the Old Man had turtled his head down almost into his chest cavity in indignation and our Mother was manufacturing a sort of air raid siren squeal by forcing a thin column of oxygen through the spaces between her tightly clenched teeth.
“Tapanzee, Tapanzee, TA… PAN… ZEEEEEEEEEEEE!” I cried, launching my upper body up over the front seat, grabbing the steering wheel between my Old Man’s meaty hands and turning us into the exit even as we very nearly raced past it. The wheels squealed like a choir of mortally offended virgin weasels, Matilda lurched up on two wheels for a moment, then thumped down, her contents likewise thumping, the near comatose shell of our Great Aunt Ginny thumping and cracking and shooting out jets of dust and snowflakes of dead skin, poor hidden Frodo moaning as her carrier thumped down somewhere under all our crap, but we made it.
“Well…” Our Mother said, lighting a fresh Marlboro off the crumpled stump in the corner of her mouth, “While I will willingly concede that White Plains is a stupid ass thing to name a town in southernmost New York-
“I will admit” said Our Father, “that seeing a sign that says ‘White Plains’ when looking for the Tapanzee Bridge turns out to be O-KAAAY!”
And we all laughed. Alex and Mallory and me, and Great Aunt Ginny, laughing in her sleep, and Frodo burbling a doggy chuckle of her own from wherever she was, all us Gallaghers laughed together. Because laughter releases tension. Because laughter is the best medicine. Because with laughter comes Catharsis. Because in the face of terror and mortality and the deep soul loathing known only in snowed in Yukon cabins and tightly packed family cars, what else can you do that isn’t lethal?