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Pressure and Smoke [part 1/2]
“Really? We're going to EJ's house this year?!” I shrieked happily.
“Yes, now would you quit screaming in my ear?” My mom requested, covering her ears. I turned around to face my brother, and started jumping around in circles around him. Michael just looked at me funny, and strolled away.
I always went from really normal to really ecstatic if paying a visit to my Uncle’s house. Every year, my whole family enjoyed outselves a great deal there. Each time, we all did something fun and different than before. This particular trip was planned on being an over-nighter, but anything is possible, and sometimes plans can change in a matter of minutes.
The night started out fine. My mom was driving on the two-hour trip over the pass to Uncle EJ's house in Spanaway, a suburb of Tacoma. My whole family had woken up at o' Dark Hundred. All but the driver were trying to get some shut-eye. I was cocooned in blankets and pillows, and Michael's head rested on my lap.
All I could think about when we had started to get close was how my two little cousins, Eric Jr. and Scott, always sprinted out of the house screaming our names without exception. When we opened the door, they were there, smiling their faces off, ready to hug us to death. Just seeing them put a smile on my face. Even if I had endured the worst day of my life. This morning was no different.
Just as we had arrived at their big circular driveway in the dodge minivan, I scrambled to get one shoe back on. Almost immediately, I heard the squeal that could only come from a 5 -year-old erupting from the house. A few seconds later, my door was thrust open, with as much force as a boy in kindergarten can. There stood Eric. I longed to reach out and hug every inch of his 3-foot tall, blond hair, tan skin, blue eyes and big toothy smile. I hurried to get my shoe on while Eric jumped around in circles. He looked like he had ants in his pants. When I had finally got it to fit, he practically jumped into my lap and clung to my neck. I was filled with warm fuzzies. Standing outside of the car, I let my monkey of a cousin hang off me like a jungle gym. After swinging him around in a circle a couple times and making airplane noises, I set him back onto firm ground.
By now, Eric's 3-year-old brother, who everyone called Scottie, was jumping up and down behind him screaming “Jackine! Jackine!” He has such a high-pitched voice, and that’s all he could pronounce of my name at the time. Big red Popsicle stain around his mouth and all, he planted one me a big kiss. It made my cheek felt sticky. After performing the same routine as I had on Eric with Scottiebecause they both loved it so much, I put the screaming-with-delight Scottie down. They rushed over to my brother and Michael said hello in his own way.
I went to the back of our van to help my mom and dad with unpacking all the fun toys we had brought them from when Michael and I were little. I was given the task of carrying in suitcases and duffel bags. I also carried inside some of the snacks that we had brought to eat after present-unwrapping was over, for we had come over in the first place to celebrate Christmas, even though today was only the Eve.
I stepped through the doorway that my uncle was holding open, smiled and said hi to him, and strolled past the television showing Sponge Bob. Just after putting the munchies my mom had made on their kitchen island, I hurried back to where Eric still stood to let the rest of my family in. I gave my uncle a great big bear hug around his belly. He returned it, and kissed the top of my head.
“Hey, sweetie. Haven’t seen you in a long time! I missed you, and you’ve gotten so much taller!” he exclaimed. I laughed because he said that every time we drove over to their house almost every year.
“I missed you too. Where’s Sharon?” I asked, looking around curiously. Sharon is his second wife. She was always nice and friendly to my family when we came over. I really thought she was a cool person, and an okay role model for my cousins, not counting that she smokes and drinks regularly.
“Um... TV room. She’s trying to find a channel that has something good to watch for a while,” EJ said as my mom walked through the door holding a big white bowl with a red lid. It smelled like a special kind of trail that she makes and brings to parties, called Nuts 'n' Bolts.
I jogged through their lounge room in the very front of the house, complete with two chairs, a couch, a coffee table, a small television, and a treadmill. A great big Christmas tree stood tall in the far corner. Decked out with lights, garland, ornaments, and tons of popcorn strings, it lit up the room beautifully. Crowded all around, under and in it were presents of all looks and sizes. Halfway through the kitchen, my mom told me to walk, so I went into the official TV room slower.
Sharon was leaning forward on the couch against the far wall to my right, staring intently back and forth between their relatively new plasma screen, and the remote that went with it. In her other hand was a cigarette, and on the coffee table in front of her sat a beer. She looked up and smiled pleasantly, then stood and came to give me a hug.
“This thing is so confusing; I don’t think I’ll ever understand it.” She shook the remote in her hand as if she wanted to strangle it. At that very moment, Eric and Scottie burst into the room, full of laughs. They were practically dragging Michael by each of his hands in different directions.
“Come see my new toys, Michael!” yelled Eric, pulling him toward the left room.
“No! No! Look at my cars, Mikel!” With a tight hold on Michael's right hand, the two brothers could have torn him in half. For a little while, I stood and watched, laughing silently with Sharon about the dilemma my brother was in. I should have expected it; this happened every year.
Somehow, Michael managed to turn his head toward me, and mouth the words, “help me”. Going over to Scottie, I dislodged him from my brother’s arm, and gave into playing with Scottie.
“I’ll look at your cars, Scottie,” I offered. That seemed to satisfy him just fine. I knew what I was getting into but I let him lead me into his room anyway.
Michael went in Eric’s room to look at some Bob the Builder trucks, and I went into Scottie's room, cluttered with toys and clothes with him to play with Hot Wheels cars. Fortunately for Michael and I, Eric and Scottie had the attention span of, well, 3 and 5 year-olds, so as soon as their bird, Abby, who was sitting in her big, square, metal cage just outside of their rooms squawked loudly, they both dropped everything they were doing to show us each to her.
It didn’t matter, or didn't occur to them that we had known Abby had lived there for a few years by then.
While Scottie ran to the kitchen and grabbed a handful of Nuts 'n' Bolts, brought it over to Abby and gave her a fat and salty cashew through the cage, Eric played with her through the metal wiring. Using only his fingers.
Like all siblings, the two suddenly broke into a small quarrel over who would get to feed Abby. I managed to make a compromise for each of them; they would both feed the bird. They had continued with their business when EJ showed up.
“Hey! What did I tell you two about playing with Abby like that?” yelled EJ as he came into the room with a stern face and angry tone. They both quickly withdrew and acted as if they were innocent. Eric was suddenly extremely interested in his feet, specifically his toes.
“It’s not allowed cause she’ll get angry…” Eric practically whispered, as if he were telling it to a dust speck sitting on his sock foot.
“That’s right. Abby will get angry, because she thinks you’re teasing her, and she’ll bite your finger.” EJ told him. His tone of voice lost a smidgen of it's sharpness. Scottie nodded, making his white blond hair bounce up and down.
After lots of stressing and scrolling, my slightly drunk Aunt Sharon had found a show she liked. It was some cooking show hosted by a big lady with blond hair. Those who were interested gathered around the couches or the kitchen island to watch. I was one of the ones who kept going back and forth between the island, which was stocked with food and drinks to munch on, and the couch, which was beside my comfortable dad.
Over the next half hour, Eric and Scottie routinely got a surge of young-person energy and begged my brother and I to play with them in their rooms or outside. I didn’t mind, but Michael was starting to get annoyed from migrating back and forth between inside and outside so often. One time when Eric was pulling on his arm to go and play on Eric's new red bike for the fifth time, Michael somehow got Eric to quit jumping and sit down to watch cartoons on their other TV across the house.
“I would rather watch Sponge Bob in this room with food close by,” Michael told me later, “than be outside where there's nowhere else to go.”
To this day I don't know why I kept watching that cooking show. I was glad when it was over.
After the weird cooking show had finished, both families congregated around the island in the kitchen and ate pistachios for a long while. I entertained myself by shelling the pistachios and dropping them into a bowl but not eating any.
“Do you not like pistachios?” asked my uncle, eying my little station awkwardly. I told him I was saving my appetite – and trust me, I had a big one – for dinner, which was going to be a big turkey dinner. It reminded me of Thanksgiving, and when I asked about it, my uncle EJ said that sometimes on important events it’s okay to eat a traditional dinner like this one. His exact words were, “It’s just so good, that you don’t want to only be able to taste it once a year.” I agreed with that.
Finally came the time when Eric and Scottie had bugged EJ so much that he announced it was present-opening time. If you have ever spent Christmas with small children, you must have a sense of how adorable, chaotic, and fun the experience is. Eric and Scottie just love the occasion of opening presents and getting gifts. Scottie was still too young to know why we did all this but he went along with it and he loved it all anyway. If this was all we did at EJ's house and my family had left afterward, it would have been a blast as usual.
We started off with the two little ones running around, plucking gifts out from under the tree and giving them to everyone. I remember having a few packages on the couch beside me and in my lap. Everyone else had similar clusters of gifts.
Finally there were no gifts left under EJ's awesome Christmas tree. That was when the real craziness happened. The brothers were set on opening their gifts without waiting for each other, and with each present, they tried to outdo each other in the loudness and length of their “WHOA!”
The whole process zipped by. Whenever EJ could convince Eric and Scottie to stop running around screaming, throwing wrapping paper at each other, a few people would open their gifts and thank the giver[s]. For some reason, I remember what Eric used my wrapping paper for better than what I got. One present was turned into a grenade, another was a cannon ball, and the last one became a magic shield. They were all used on Scottie.
For the next couple hours or so, my cousins played with their new toys and had tons of fun, while the rest of everyone there had a good time eating and drinking [coke for Michael and I] around the island. Sharon would check the oven and I would get glimpses of the wonderful food cooking inside. There was a turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and rolls all piled in there and cooking with each other. Once it was close to being done, all the kids were given the chore of setting the table. I contributed by bringing my glass of ice water to where I wanted to sit, and setting up plates, glasses, and silverware.
“Auntie Lynn! Brandon!” squealed Eric and I heard him open the door as I was just finishing up on the table. Scottie jumped up from his kitchen stool and practically flew to the front of the house.
“Eric! Scottie!” responded my aunt Lynn. I heard her pick up Eric and twirl him around.
“Hey guys!” came the much-deeper voice of my cousin Brandon. He was a junior in high school at the time. A fun fact about Brandon is that he's a really cool guy, but I never know what to expect. Every time I see him, he's completely changed his looks and style. This year, I saw that he had the surfer-dude look but his hair was the natural brunette I haven't seen in years. There were traces of stubble on his chin and he was just barely taller than me.
When they had come into the kitchen, greetings and hugs were exchanged. Aunt Lynn was the sister of my dad and uncle, so they hugged hello.
“Hey Lynn! How's life?” asked my dad, smiling widely.
“Pretty darn good right now, Chuck,” Lynn said, and then turned and embraced EJ as well.
At that point, Sharon spoke up. “You guys arrived just in time for dinner!” She smiled.
Lynn beamed. “Great! I've never had better timing. Of course, I'm usually late for everything....” she laughed good-naturedly.
After most of the initial hello's were finished, Lynn sought me out and started a conversation. We talked about the usual – how's life, how's school, How's Michael, how are you? After it had seemed like the discussion was over, Lynn spoke up one more time.
“Well, it's great seeing you again, and I'm glad to hear you're doing better in school than Brandon.” Lynn said bluntly. Then she reached into her jeans pocket and fished out two $10 bills. “Merry Christmas! Don't spend it all in one place.” I smiled. I loved my aunt's way of giving gifts.
Ding! The timer on the turkey went off, and Eric and Scottie were standing by the oven in seconds, mouths watering. After a long time of playing, they were anxious to sit down and eat great, home-cooked food.
After everyone sat down at the dining table, out of sight of the television but just across a doorway from the kitchen island, a quick grace that my aunt made up was said.
“We should be thankful,” said Michael. He was always the first to offer up the quickie grace.
“And we are,” chorused my parents and I. The aunt that created that blessing was on the other side of my family, so EJ and Sharon didn’t know what to say. They just sat in their chairs quietly, letting us finish. EJ was amused at the simplicity of it, and told my mom so.
On the table was a grand feast, and my appetite was growing just by looking at it. The turkey, straight from the oven, was sitting in the center of the table. It's golden-brown skin shined, like it was taunting me. To the left of the delicious-looking turkey, was stuffing, red jell' o with fruit and marshmallows, and fluffy dinner rolls. On the side of the table farthest from me were all sorts of dressings, a salad, a little pot of gravy, and mashed potatoes.
Sitting directly in front of me was the basket of rolls, just begging me to eat them. I grabbed one and passed the basket to my left, like everyone else was doing with their dishes. Passed to me first was the gravy, but I didn’t have any turkey or mashed potatoes to pour it over, so I kept it circulating. I would wait until the gravy came around the second time. On my right was my mom, and she forked over some salad onto her plate while I waited patiently. It was full of lettuce, tomatoes and other veggies. I put a little on my plate to satisfy my mom’s evil eye.
Dinner was lovely, with little talking and a lot of good food. I just couldn't keep myself from eating all those dinner rolls. About halfway through my meal, Scottie, who was sitting beside Aunt Sharon at the head of the table, started pitching a fit about the food.
“I not hungee!” he screamed. Sharon was in the middle of her umpteenth glass of wine, and she had to stop stop drinking in order to try coaxing him into eating one more bite of turkey, because she knew that he was eying the pie in the oven.
She didn't look to happy about that. That should have been my first sign.
“Here, Scottie. Eat this and you can be done. Just one more bite.” She tried to gently push a small bite of turkey-mashed potatoes into Scotties mouth, but he insisted again and again that he was full and he wanted to be done with the meal. After five minutes of this back and forth, Scottie tried to wriggle himself out of his high wooden chair, and he was almost free when Sharon tightened the seatbelt-type strap around his waist and put his legs back into the chair.
“I not hungee!!” Scottie was wailing at the top of his voice now, and there was nothing Sharon could do to get him to be quiet. Finally, she gave in.
“Are you sure you’re full, Scott?” she asked. Scottie's real name was only used when the person talking was real serious. He nodded his head vigorously, trying again to climb out of his seat. Sharon said once more, “Scottie, are you absolutely sure you don’t want any more food?”
He was shaking his head up and down so fast I thought he could have broken his neck.
“If you get out of your chair and leave, you won’t get any dessert. Do you know what that means? No pie, or ice cream for you, Scott.” That got his attention. Looking and her with big eyes, Scottie slowly slumped back down in this chair until the top of his head poked up above the table, and he let Sharon tighten his seatbelt again.