A Thurber Brigade Short Story
Eating ice cream. Drinking beer. Shooting hoops. Watching baseball. All of these things would be a lot more fun than going to MiddleTown to visit his brother and sister-in-law.
Sam Unis assured himself that he would be doing all of them this weekend if he hadn’t been talked into making this trip. But nooooo, he was too softhearted to tell Ronald and Hillary he couldn’t make it and so now he sat on this train heading to sure misery.
Oh, make no mistake, he loved both of them as well as their kids, Libby and Justin. In fact, having all of them at his place enjoying the aforementioned activities would please him to no end. However, going to MiddleTown, which he preferred to call “Plainville,” did not please him. Especially now.
Ronnie and Hill were one fight away from filing for divorce.
Inevitably, he’d have to pick a side. Most people assumed he’d side with Ronnie because, after all, he was a blood relation. The majority of the time though Sam preferred hanging with Hill. She always seemed pleasant. She liked the outdoors, liked helping people whether they were dirt poor or standard middle-class, liked loud rock music and hitting dive bars. Ronnie preferred going to military museums, always told the homeless guy on the corner to “get a job,” and usually insisted on going to some high-class formal dinner where he knew half the crowd when Sam just wanted to go grab a beer at a diner. Ronnie also seemed to always be angry or upset.
How they had managed to stay together this long really puzzled Sam. They argued all the time. They would argue about what TV show to watch. They would argue about which TV to buy. They’d disagree about the meaning of a movie. They’d disagree about how much to tip a waitress. One time Sam even caught them arguing about how to pronounce “potato.” They didn’t ever argue in front of the children, and Sam guessed that maybe their love of those kids kept them together. Or maybe they just had great sex together. Sam never asked them about the latter.
The train slowly rolled into MiddleTown. What a funny place, Sam thought. The city capitalized the “T” because they wanted to set themselves apart from other towns with the same name. Sam hadn’t been to any other “Middletowns,” but he imagined they were no different. They all probably had the same boring suburban neighborhoods, the same small, unglamorous downtowns, same small parks with pre-measured dimensions and set number of trees and playground equipment, same national chain restaurants, same cookie cutout shopping malls, same bowling alleys, theaters and bakeries. They all had the same. They were an actual “Middle” town.
Sam groaned softly to himself. “Same.”
“Sam, Sam!” Ronnie yelled, waving from the back of the train platform.
Sam stepped down from the train and headed toward his brother and the smiling Hill. “Hey, great to see you guys.”
“We are so glad to see you,” Hill said as she gave Sam a friendly hug.
“You do not know how glad,” Ronnie added.
“Well, it’s good to be here,” Sam lied.
“We have so much to catch up on,” Hill said.
Ronnie slapped his younger brother on the back. “So, I see you still haven’t got your driver’s license back.”
Sam looked askance at his brother. Was this a start of the usual goading routine they engaged in each time they met? “Yeah, still not driving.”
A judge took Sam’s license away several years ago because he had accumulated too many tickets. In passing the sentence, the judge stated that he didn’t want the city to waste any more resources. Apparently, having a cop write a ticket every now and then was a resource. Sam didn’t protest the illogic. After all, the city wasted resources in so many other ways. However, he knew no one could win against the law. People in power could interpret the law anyway they chose and those interpretations always seemed to change depending on who held power. The “little guy” didn’t get to express an opinion. At least, not and have it affect anything.
The three made small talk as they walked to the car. It included the usual updates of their various jobs; music concerts or movies they may have hit; the vacations that they forgot to send pictures of; and Sam even managed to get in a dig or two about MiddleTown. At the car, Sam found the button that began the real conversation.
“So where are the kids? he asked.
Hill and Ronnie glanced at each other then both gave Sam a half smile.
“Oh, you know kids," Hill said. "They thought picking up an uncle would be similar to having several teeth removed."
“Even a favorite uncle," Ronnie chimed in.
This last response seemed a little odd to Sam. Admittedly, in most families this would be an off-hand compliment to a relative. However, that wasn’t Ronnie's style.
“Okay, what's the real reason?” Sam asked. "Did you finally go psycho and turn them into barbecue or something?"
“Oh, funny," Ronnie said, shoving Sam in the shoulder. "No, they really did say it would be boring..."
"However, um, we wanted to ask a big favor," Hill broke in. "And it concerns them."
Sam didn't like the sound of this, but ventured forward. "Big favor?"
“Oh, nothing bad," Ronnie assured.
“Yeah, we would just like you to take them out for the afternoon, early evening. Maybe take them to the zoo and then for burgers afterwards," Hill added.
Sam looked askance at them as he climbed into the back of their car. "You want me to babysit them?"
“Um, well..." the two possible combatants said in unison.
“So you asked me to come all the way here to be a babysitter?” Sam reiterated.
“No. We DO want your help in our situation. Maybe act as a sounding board for ideas. Right now though we also need your help in a different way. Which means getting the kids away while we talk this out a bit,” Hill explained.
Sam frowned as the two stared hopefully from the front seat. "Wouldn't it be better for you to get a real babysitter and the three of us go somewhere to talk?"
“For this united family to go forward, we have to reach some consensus. We have to work together to make it work. So a little alone time would help us,” Ronnie said.
Sam sighed, but knew his fate was cast. He agreed he'd take the kids out for a while and let his brother and sister-in-law meet in conference to hash out their differences. Of course, this may not have been the difficult part. Getting two preteens to leave the comfort zone of their panic rooms—also known as private, messy bedrooms—would be a challenge.
He decided to use the old tried-and-true method used for generations: bribery.
The children really did like the company of their favorite uncle (only one, but one prone to showering them with gifts). However, the offer to secretly feed them the food and drinks their folks would never agree to added to the incentive. So after the usual greetings, banter and friendly teasing on his arrival to the house, Sam, Justin and Libby headed out for the wild. In this case, the MiddleTown Zoo and local pizzeria.
Of course, since Sam couldn't drive them it meant taking public transportation. They hiked three blocks to one of MiddleTown's light rail stations. This was the Congress Avenue Station, one of the larger stations in the city. It had a few little kiosks selling everything from road maps to toy cars, had clean waiting areas and even piped-in music over the loud speakers. Sam didn't really notice the music, but almost subconsciously began to hum along with what played.
“What’s that you’re humming?” Libby asked.
“Oh, I’m just humming along with the Muzak coming from the speaker. It’s an old Styx song.”
“Who is Styx?” they asked, simultaneously wrinkling their noses at the music.
Sam rolled his eyes. “Never mind.”
He knew that this was just the usual generational differences, but didn't realize that a much bigger problem loomed ahead: MiddleTown had only two rail lines, The Red and the Blue.
Sam studied the transit map that hung on the wall separating the two lines. It looked like a painting of red and blue spaghetti. Where most cities had maps that showed rail lines going in straight lines to distant destinations, the Red and Blue lines seemed to crisscross repeatedly with a few sections going in far different directions, only to cross once again. Such as at this station. The names of each station didn’t indicate city destinations, so he decided the best bet would be to ask for directions.
As he bought three tickets, he asked the seller how to get to the zoo. The man didn’t look up at all. “Take the Blue line to Willow,” he said, continuing to count the coins in front of him.
“And that will get me to the zoo?” Sam asked.
“Sure,” the ticket agent said unemotionally.
“Oh, boy, we’re going to the zoo!” the kids yelled excitedly as they all clamored aboard the Blue line.
When they got to the Willow station, they left the station only to discover they had wound up at a demonstration in support of stronger environmental laws. Sam asked one of the protestors on the edge of the mob which way to go for the zoo.
“Oh, you’re nowhere near the zoo,” he said helpfully. “You shouldn’t go there with children anyway. Caging wild animals is no way to treat our fellow creatures.”
Sam frowned and herded Libby and Justin back down to the Willow station. Once there, he saw a policeman who he was sure would know the directions needed.
“Yes, you need to take the Red Line to Lincoln Station. You can get to the zoo easily from there.”
So the three hopped on the Red Line train, which not surprisingly intersected here with the Blue Line, and headed out once more. At Lincoln Station, they climbed the stairs out only to discover they had stumbled upon another demonstration. This one apparently demanding the city government stop excessive spending and reduce property taxes. Again, they were told they were nowhere near the zoo.
The trio retreated back to Lincoln Station dejected that they had yet to encounter any wildlife other then angry citizens of MiddleTown. As usual, both the Red and Blue lines met at Lincoln. Sam felt irritated at the situation, but also perplexed. Why did he keep getting misguided directions? He was hesitant, but walked up to two transit officials who stood on the platform separating the two lines.
“Um, do you guys know which train to take to get to the zoo,” Sam asked apprehensively.
The man on the left smiled and nodded. “Sure, you hop on the Blue Line there,” he said pointing. “And take it to Dedicated Station. There you change to the Red Line and head to Livermore Station. The zoo’s right there.”
“No, no, not that way,” the other man broke in. “You take the Red line over there to Giddings Station, then take the Blue Line to Musgrove Station. The zoo’s just blocks away.”
The two officials walked away from Sam and the kids, arguing directions as they went.
Almost in tears, Libby and Justin looked up at Sam. “Uncle Sam, which way do we go?”
Sam let out a deep sigh, frowned and shrugged at his doting niece and nephew who relied on him for guidance. “I am completely and utterly lost.”
Ahhh, James Thurber
The Thurber Brigade decided that instead of a sidestep, to try a different tack and present a short satirical story (On politics. Did you get that?). Of course, it also stems from that this story wasn’t accepted at several contests and publications and we got too lazy to keep trying. However, we hope you enjoy this interlude and we promise to get back to the War between Men and women next time. Maybe.