The first time I cussed around grown-ups was at my Uncle’s house in Virginia on Thanksgiving and they all needed to hear it. Here’s what Thanksgiving was all about back then: piling into the cramped sedan for an eleven-hour drive with a cranky Dad — who was cranky exactly once per year, a high-strung Mom, an aloof big sister, and me, the restless, annoying little brother. When Dad gets cranky, he farts a lot and crunches ice cubes non-stop and listens to the weird Neil Young albums of the 80s. I’m talking Life and Landing on Water. Mom would dig her nails into the armrest, living and dying with each passing car, and refusing to either read or take a pill to zonk out.
Three things happened every time our family gathered for this totally made-up holiday that I abhor perpetuating a wonky myth. First, Aunt Melinda would sit uncomfortably close to me on the couch, her bony knees jammed into my thighs, in order to speak over my head to Mom, who couldn’t care less about the unending chronicle of wise coupon-usage on Aunt Melinda and Uncle Dick’s last vacation with cousins Johnny and Molly, which this time was to a destination plantation that Aunt M was highly disappointed in because they focused far too much on the slaves and their apparent mistreatment (“Give me room and board on such a property, I tell ya,” she mentioned as an aside) and not enough on the exquisite furniture and the daily comings and goings of the lady of the manor which is really why she had wanted to visit in the first place, not to be made to feel guilty for her heritage. I can still hear that lacy-soft voice of hers revving up for one of these run-on sentence stories: “Weeeeeeelllll, I have a story for you.” She made ignorant privilege so soothingly boring.
The second constant always directly led to the third, which was my Dad rising from the sunken couch and recruiting my sister for a ‘short’ walk, which always lasted several hours and only ended right before dinner. I was always dicking around with my boy cousins, so he figured I didn’t need rescuing quite as bad as my sister. But back to number two. This was when Uncle Dick, resplendent with porn-stache and alcohol-induced hick accent, and his twin Uncle Don, he of the more patrician alcohol-induced Savannah accent acquired most decidedly not in Savannah, got rolling on The Water Tower Story. This story, told every Thanksgiving with the occasional new twist thrown in for variety, always caused a groan from Dad, who typically crop dusted the room on his way out the door. “Where’s he goin?” Uncle Dick would drawl, slumped lushly in his high-backed chair. “Donchu want hear tell about that time on the Water Tower?”
Their mother, my Mom’s Mom and the unquestioned tyrant of these gatherings, sat with her legs crossed, left ankle bouncing, ready to play her part. “Yea, why you gotta go walkin’ now?” But my Dad and sister always slipped out. Mom played her part by sitting quietly.
“You shoulda seen Mom’s face,” Dick chuffed and chuckled, chugging his beer.
“That cop didn’t know what kind-ah woman he was dealin with,” said Uncle Don.
“I told that fresh little baby-face cop he knows boys will be boys and don’t come botherin’ me late at night for just some honest fun that don’t hurt nobody no way,” the old lady, my Grandma, crowed on cue.
“We wasn’t gonna hurt that boy,” Dick said.
“Nosir, we weren’t,” said Don. “He just needed to know it weren’t right of him, sniffin’ around our baby sis like that.”
“Family is family,” said Dick.
“That boy didn’t come round no more after that. Yous did him a favor. He should been thankin’ you, not runnin’ to no cop. ’Nother group mighta hurt him bad or kilt him, specially in these parts back then.”
And so it was, the fifth or sixth time I heard this damn story, when I stood up, thirteen years old and knowing a thing or two, and said what I said. “How bout retiring this sorry-ass story, you racist pieces of shit?”
Uncle Dick grinned at me dangerously. “If I was your father, boy would I smack that look off your face.”
Grandma jumped in, acting shocked and dismayed: “Where’d you learn to talk to your superiors that way?”
I looked at that old nag, shook my head, and said, “Boys will be boys, Gram,” and joined Dad and my sister for a refreshing stroll around the neighborhood.
Bill Wilkinson is a fiction writer from his home in northwestern Pennsylvania.