Steven and Heather wake up to find that their airing cupboard is regularly reviving dead ancestors, in Peter Dabbene's masterful comedy with heart.
Steven didn't believe in ghosts. Thus, it was safe to say that his grandfather - clad in bathrobe and slippers and holding wide the morning Courier-Times - was the last person he might have expected to greet him. And yet, there was Grandpa Benny, looking as curmudgeonly as Steven remembered him.
"What is this, a joke?" Grandpa Benny demanded, crunching the broadsheet into one hand and wagging it as if Steven were responsible for its production.
"Grandpa? Who the hell are you calling 'Grandpa'? And what's with the date on this newspaper? November 12, 2015? Where's today's paper? And where the hell am I?"
"Grandpa, it's me, Steven - I mean... Stevie. And that is today's paper." Steven grabbed one end of the crumpled mass of newsprint, freeing it slowly and deliberately from the old man's grip, like a police negotiator extracting a gun from a jittery third-strike offender. Up close the old man seemed tangible enough, but Grandpa Benny had died almost thirty years ago. Faced with such an irreconcilable contradiction, Steven did what he did in most confusing situations - he called for his wife.
"Heather?" He yelled up louder. "Heather!"
This last call was answered with a sudden thud and the sound of fumbling footsteps. "Steve? What is it? Where are you?"
"Can you come down here a minute?"
A loud sigh wafted down the stairs, a not-so-subtle hint as to the current mood of the woman who'd expelled it. Steven interpreted the sigh negatively; seven years of marriage attuned one to such things.
"This better be important. Saturday's the only day I get to sleep late anym -" Heather stopped at the landing halfway down the staircase. "Steven... who is that?" False calm couldn't hide the fear in her voice. She and Steven tended to closet themselves on weekends, venturing forth only after much preparation and planning. Visitors were uncommon in their home, especially at such an early hour - the clock on the microwave read just after 6 a.m.
"It's okay, honey - I think. This..." the words formed tentatively on Steven's lips. "This is my Grandpa Benny."
Heather was unable to hide her surprise. "But... I thought he was dead."
"Yeah," Steven replied. "So did I."
Coffee was made. Heather Loughlin (née Trammell) didn't do anything before her first cup of coffee, certainly not anything involving dead people. With their guest comfortably ensconced on the loveseat, she and Steven took positions in the chairs on either end and, after some indecorous poking and prodding of the old man's flesh, proceeded to interrogate.
"What's the last thing you remember?" Steven asked.
Grandpa Benny thought a moment before responding firmly. "4th of July weekend at the Statue of Liberty. The big centennial show, when they re-opened it."
Steven sucked his lower lip, absorbing this. "That was in 1986," he said.
Grandpa Benny did not respond to this, but instead stared at the man he'd known only as a boy. "Little Stevie," he whispered over and over, shaking his head at the impossibility of it. He looked over at Heather, appraised her rather salaciously, then grinned and gave Steven the OK sign with his right hand. "Not bad," he commented. Heather flushed, smiled slightly and pulled her robe a little tighter to her neck.
They asked Grandpa Benny questions until they couldn't think of any more. Then they retired privately to the kitchen and admitted that the man in their living room - now eagerly catching up on thirty years of TV sitcoms and noting the erosion of societal moral standards - was who he said he was.
After some time, backed by bribes of mass-produced baked goods, Steven and Heather convinced Grandpa Benny to temporarily abandon the television. He did so uneasily, only slightly reassured by their guarantees that here in the 21st century, there would be no shortage of available entertainment.
They spent the rest of the morning listening to stories from Benny's childhood, and his memories of Steven's mother's childhood. There were also plenty of recollections of good times he'd shared with his wife, Frieda. "Yes sir, Grandma Frieda was quite a gal," he said, absently stirring his now-cold coffee.
"What do you mean, 'was'?"
Grandma Frieda stepped through the archway into the kitchen and embraced her husband.
"It... it's been so long," Grandpa Benny choked, overcome by emotion.
"It has?" Grandma Frieda asked, surprised. Grandma Frieda had predeceased Grandpa Benny by two years and did not remember a time without him. This lessened the emotional impact of their reunion for her, whereas Grandpa Benny - who had spent those two years trying to move on, finding only moderate success - saw their reunion as nothing short of a miracle.
Grandpa Benny explained where and when they were, and the identity of the young couple standing next to him. It took some work to convince Grandma Frieda that it was all true, but her grandson's eyes, even cast into an unfamiliar face, provided undeniable proof.
"My, you've gotten big," she said, in the same calm, familiar tone he remembered from when he was a boy. "But those cheeks don't change!" she suddenly squealed, grabbing them and pinching till they glowed red against his pale skin.
Both of Steven's grandparents appeared to be the approximate age they'd been when they died, but there were no signs of any infirmities - even Grandpa Benny's characteristic limp had disappeared completely. Neither Grandpa Benny nor Grandma Frieda seemed to have any recollection of their last few months of life, those marked for each by a rapid decline of health. Steven was grateful for this gap in their memories, as were Grandpa Benny and Grandma Frieda, who declined to hear the specifics of their deaths. Neither did they have any concept of the passage of the last thirty years except as an intellectual imperative, a truth demanded by the obvious changes in the environment around them.
"None of your phones have cords?" Grandpa Benny asked repeatedly, astonished.
After an early dinner, Heather prepared the guest bedroom. Despite it being late afternoon, Grandpa Benny and Grandma Frieda retired for the evening, locking the door behind them and making no real effort to disguise their amorous intentions. Heather slunk away, still not sure exactly what was happening in her home.
Later, when she had settled into bed herself, Heather took the remote control from Steven and turned off the TV. She shifted toward him and braced her head on one curled hand, ready for conversation. They recounted the day's incredible events, and considered how lucky they were to have this opportunity to visit with long-dead relatives. Then Heather asked - cautiously, not to ruin the magic of the day or appear insensitive - "How long do you think they'll stay?"
Steven was stunned by the question. He wasn't angry; it simply hadn't occurred to him that his grandparents' old home had been sold years ago and that this might not be a brief weekend visit. For their part, Grandpa Benny and Grandma Frieda had not mentioned their old house, either. Whether they had given up any feelings of attachment to the split-level on Roosevelt Avenue, or had quietly come to terms with the fact that another family, probably more than one, had come and gone in their old home by now, Steven didn't know.
"I guess for now, this is their home," he said.
There was silence, then Heather said, "We should call your parents tomorrow."
"Yeah. I wanted to wait... make sure this was real, but..."
"Seems real enough to me." There was a slight trace of bitterness in Heather's voice now, the betraying tone of one who knows she will be sharing her home for the foreseeable future. She recovered, and her usual bedtime voice - caring, intimate - emerged again. "I'm happy for you. And your parents." She fluffed her pillow, and settled her head deep into it.
"Are we going to bed? It's kind of early." Steven's alarm clock read 7:03 p.m.
"Trust me, go to sleep. It's going to be a long day tomorrow, and it's probably going to start early."
She reached over to the lamp above her side of the bed, turned it off, and lay in dark silence for a while. Finally, whining just a little, she said, "I wish my grandparents would come back from the dead."
Around 4 a.m., Heather discovered she'd gotten her wish. She was awakened by the muffled sounds of people talking downstairs - at least four distinct voices. Steven was out cold, so she let him sleep and went to investigate alone. Her skin was all gooseflesh as she descended the stairs to see who else had joined their little family reunion.
She recognized the man's profile, even at a distance and in dim light - Grandpa Nestor. She ran to greet him.
Heather's maternal grandfather had shown up around 6 p.m. the night before, but was quickly intercepted during his first confused wanderings around the house by Grandpa Benny, who was making a bathroom visit at the time.
"We talked a while, and then I went back to bed," Grandpa Benny explained, "but I told him to stay up till midnight, and he might get a nice surprise." As expected, shortly after midnight, a woman had appeared. Disoriented at first, as the others had been, she was quickly put at ease when she saw her lost spouse.
Grandpa Benny and Grandma Frieda, awake and refreshed at 3 a.m., had played host to the newly reunited Grandpa Nestor and Grandma Felice until now, when Heather found them and woke up a torpid Steven with the happy news.
Theories of Relativity
Steven pulled out the extra chairs from the basement and they all enjoyed a nice breakfast of eggs and toast around the small dining room table. As it neared 6 a.m., they wondered aloud if more visitors would be arriving. Steven and Heather took turns calling their parents and siblings, despite the hour, passing the phone around for several rounds of questioning until all parties on the other end were satisfied that this was not just an elaborate, tasteless joke.
Steven and Heather's parents agreed to fly out and visit in person. So did Steven's sister, and Heather's brother and sister.
That day, Steven's paternal grandparents showed up, back from the dead, same as the others, each to the clatter of displaced items. The downstairs linen closet had been determined to be the point of entrance for each arrival, and though a close inspection showed nothing unusual, Steven cleared out the remaining linens, toiletries, and miscellaneous items to avoid any future accidents.
The day passed quickly, sped by excitement and emotion. In the evening, Heather's paternal grandparents showed up, her grandfather at 6 p.m. and her grandmother at midnight. Informed of the previous two days' events, the new arrivals were excitedly anticipating seeing their children, now en route. Steven and Heather sneaked back to their bedroom, exhausted, and quietly shut the door.
"What the hell is going on, Steven?" she said, trying unsuccessfully to keep herself to a loud whisper.
"I don't know. What should we do?"
Unable to answer, Heather instead responded with an observation. Still whispering, she said, "We're almost out of food."
"I'll run to the store tomorrow morning."
"What about work? I can work from home, but what about you?"
"I guess I'll have to take the day off. You can't watch them alone - who knows what they'll do? Besides, my parents and sister will be arriving early tomorrow."
Heather took a deep breath and held it, yoga-style.
After a minute of still silence, Steven tapped her impatiently on the back. "Okay, that's enough of that."
"I was clearing my thoughts," she said. "This is all like a dream."
"Some would say a nightmare. How are they even getting here?"
Heather pouted a moment in thought. "Are you familiar with the theory of relativity?"
"Kind of. I mean, vaguely. That's like, all the good stuff in science fiction - time warps and wormholes and stuff like that. Twin astronauts travel in space at different speeds and age at different rates, and then come back to Earth and find they're younger than their kids. But, like, it's all linked, because they're all still related. Or something. Right?"
"Relativity doesn't have anything to do with relatives. It's about - it starts with - first you have to understand - " She stopped. "Maybe you're right. I don't know - it's complicated."
"That's relativity for you, I suppose," Steven said, trying to sound as if he had a better grasp on things than he did. In such situations, a summary-sounding sentence not only put Heather at ease, it made him feel more confident, too.
"Complicated," Heather repeated.
"Difficult," Steven added. He paused, then moved closer. He kissed her ear, and began to massage her neck. "Stressful," he whispered.
"Headache-inducing," Heather complained, rubbing her temples and turning away from him to sleep.
Steven sighed and did the same, settling his head on the pillow. "Relativity!" he growled, sotto voce, into his fist.
Steven's parents arrived in the morning by taxi, as did Heather's parents, soon after. Another relative, a great-grandparent, emerged from the linen closet. Steven and Heather greeted them all, witnessed more tearful reunions, got everyone settled, and then hid out in their bedroom to take a breath.
"Have you told anyone else about this, other than your parents?" Heather asked. His was the bigger extended family, the sheer number of aunts, uncles, and cousins overwhelming to even think about. And yet Steven had thought about it - how it was unfair of him not to spread the happy news to everyone in the family. He thought about hosting a big family reunion, living and previously dead alike. But not in a house this size. Maybe they'd rent a place. But who would organize it all? Contact everyone? Make the arrangements? Then he imagined the stress of actually having all of his living, present-day relatives in one place together. Plus the once-dead ones.
Maybe one day, he thought. But probably not.
Steven and Heather, their siblings, parents, and grandparents all gathered for dinner at the dining room table, which was now the center of a patchwork of uneven add-ons and extensions, matched in their incongruity by the assortment of formal, folding, and lawn chairs spread around them. Eventually the conversation swung to a subject that was uncomfortable enough when it was just one set of parents, let alone two sets, and their progenitors besides.
"So when you two gonna have kids yourself?" Grandpa Benny asked.
Heather glanced over at Steven, who made no indication of answering. They were each the oldest child in their respective families, and with Steven's sister unattached and Heather's brother and sister each coming off bad breakups, Heather and Steven were their parents' best hope for grandkids.
"Right now we're enjoying life, just the two of us," Heather finally said. It was the truth. She and Steven had discussed the idea of children before, but as just that, a concept, a notion to be revisited at some undetermined point in the future. With no sense of urgency, the topic had lain dormant as years passed in a happy blur of late nights, vacations, and sleeping till noon on weekends.
Innocently voiced, Heather's words hung in the air as helplessly as a clay pigeon. "Enjoyment?" Grandpa Benny sputtered. "Who says you're supposed to enjoy life?"
Heather lowered her head. As a philosophy, enjoying life suddenly seemed so... decadent. Luckily, the grandparents had bigger concerns.
"Don't wait too long to have kids."
"You're missing out."
"Gotta keep the next generation coming, y'know."
"By your age, I was done having kids!"
"By your age, I was a grandmother already!"
That last one had to be an exaggeration, Steven thought. Didn't it?
"So," Heather interrupted, clearing her throat, "who wants coffee?"
After a lengthy dessert and coffee, Steven's father retrieved his jacket from the closet. "We're going to a hotel," he said.
"Yes, it's just too crowded here, Steven," added his mother, kissing him on the cheek. "We'll see you in the morning."
"Okay," said Steven. "Thanks."
Heather's mother overheard the conversation. "You know, a hotel sounds like a good idea," she commented. Indicating her husband, she said to Steven, "I think we'll do the same."
"Can't we go to a hotel?" Heather whispered to Steven. He laughed it off, though he knew she wasn't entirely joking.
As her mother prepared to depart, Heather pulled her aside, speaking softly but urgently. "Mom, what should we do? They're eating us out of house and home, and more keep coming!"
"And they're really starting to get on my nerves," Steven added, eavesdropping.
"Now, now," said Mrs. Trammell. "Calm down. This is a genuine miracle, certainly worth the cost of a little inconvenience. We'll talk about it tomorrow."
"Yes," Steven's father said loudly, also eavesdropping. "In the meantime," he chastised with a wagging finger and a mischievous grin, "respect your elders."
Steven absorbed this like a punch to the gut as he and Heather stood on their front steps, watching their parents head off for a quiet, restful evening. "Respect my elders," Steven grumbled under his breath. Then, as the car doors were slamming shut, he yelled into the night air:
"All of them?"
The influx didn't stop. Ancestors kept coming every six hours, some with names and faces Steven and Heather didn't recognize at all. Steven and Heather's grandparents, however, identified the newcomers as their own parents, and with each new arrival there were sighs and cries, cheers and beers. Heather bought two big pieces of poster board and drew a chart of the family tree, updating it with each new arrival. She took a photo of each member of the family and pasted a small headshot next to the appropriate label, to help keep track of names and faces.
Things were getting out of hand.
"How many great-grandparents will there be?" Steven asked his wife as she worked on the chart. He'd never been much inclined to genealogy.
"Well, 8 grandparents, so 16 great-grandparents."
"I wish. The next generation will be 32."
"I'll get the camping equipment out of the basement," Steven decided. "We're going to have to set some of them up outside."
A cold weather pattern cut down Steven's "tent city" idea in its tracks, and soon he was regularly stepping over sleeping bodies at all hours: on the landing of the staircase, in the bathtub, on the floor, everywhere. He hadn't seen so many unconscious people since his final frat party in college.
By the time the great-great-grandparents arrived, Steven and Heather had determined a few guiding rules to the appearances. The arrivals seemed to trace straight back in direct lineage from Steven and Heather - biological parents, and parents of parents only. No aunts or great-aunts had shown up; no uncles or great-uncles; no cousins, 2nd cousins, or 3rd cousins; no "cousins" who weren't really cousins; no "aunts and uncles" who weren't really aunts and uncles. Steven and Heather tried to be thankful for this.
While explaining the concept of exponential growth to Steven, Heather had developed a kind of shorthand code for referring to their many guests. Grandparents were easy, but great-grandparents' names were prefaced with GG, instead of using the full designation every time. Great-grandma Phyllis, for example, became GG Phyllis. This system was accepted by all, except GG Gigi, who thought it was in poor taste and undignified. Great-great-grandparents would go with the prefix GG2, or "GG Two," indicating the number of "greats." Great-great-great-grandparents would be GG3, and the pattern would continue from there.
The ancestors all seemed to be in perfect health for their respective ages - wounds healed, ailments cured, their minds lucid and sharp. Each person who arrived appeared to be the age he or she was at death; this led to strange situations in which a parent who died young looked twenty or thirty years younger than his child. "Fast living wins again!" said GG Otto, who, as it turned out, had drunk himself to an early death, and was now reaping the reward in the form of a youthful and revitalized body.
Ethnicities varied. On Steven's side there were Irish, Hungarian, Polish, and Italian, among others. Heather's side represented Irish, Italian, Scottish, and Swedish. And that was just the first two generations back. Steven and Heather had always considered themselves standard, boring, "white" Americans - Caucasians, as academic nomenclature preferred. They were now reminded that diversity was more than just a 21st century plea for political correctness - it was a reflection of reality, and all they had to do was look at the people appearing every six hours to see it. The number of languages spoken in the Loghlin residence was increasing rapidly, along with the number of residents. While there was usually someone around to translate, the language and cultural barriers led to a number of offenses, intentional and unintentional, among the relatives.
The home, which had once seemed so spacious, came to resemble a crowded boarding house, with meals as raucous gatherings and relatives raising their voices, one louder than the next, competing to see who would be heard. They all learned to sweetly exaggerate their stories to better command the attention of their companions. At first the embellishments were mostly one-upmanship, variations on the classic "Two mile walk to school in the snow, barefoot", but the relatives soon grew more creative. No one challenged or corrected or contradicted them, not even the spouses who could presumably do so most effectively. All were complicit in a conspiracy of exaggeration: You let me tell my story - without interruption - and I'll let you tell yours. Steven and Heather found it fascinating for a while, listening to the ancestors' tales of ye olden times, and sifting nuggets of truth from heavy shovelfuls of... bravado. But as the ancestors accumulated, and centuries of experience were distilled into a handful of tiresome, endlessly repeated recollections, the novelty soon wore thin.
Relative Merits (I) - Men Without Hats
Even when Steven and Heather had tired of their relatives' stories, there were still fringe benefits to having them around. For one thing, there was now a legion of carpenters, masons, and other skilled workers in the house, anxious to ply their trades. Soon Steven noticed that the door on the bathroom didn't stick anymore, and GG2 Alfonse had built the secret passage Steven had always wanted, plus a pull-up door in the floor, with a fire pole that led from the master bedroom to the kitchen. Heather yelled at Steven about resale value, but what good was having fifty-plus relatives living with you, he complained, if you couldn't even snag some free labor out of the deal?
The relatives couldn't understand how Steven owned and lived in this house and yet didn't know how to fix anything himself. "It's unbelievable," said GG Alfonse, Jr., not mean-spirited or condescending, just genuinely amazed. "How can a man live in a house if he can't fix a hole in the roof?"
"What do you do for a living?" asked GG2 Alfonse, genuinely curious.
"I'm a quality control specialist," Steven replied.
"But what do you do for a living?" Alfonse repeated, patiently and effectively adjusting the emphasis.
"I specialize... in quality control."
"Quality control..." Alfonse, Jr. pondered this a moment before brightening. "So, like an inspector."
"Well... not like you're thinking. I don't physically inspect the products." They stared at him, thoroughly confused. "Mostly, I look at reports."
Except for Steven and his father, the men all wore hats. Now, every one of them removed those hats. Most scratched their heads in thought, befuddled, with the exaggerated behavior of cartoon characters. They held the headgear loosely at their sides - painter's caps, derbies, pork pies, berets, straw hats, and others - as they absorbed Steven's words. Steven wondered if, back in the day, thinking had actually made people's heads itchy, or if maybe they just didn't clean their hats often enough.
Steven tried to explain about the service economy, and intangibles, and globalization, and specialization, and the "Invisible Hand" theory of economics, but only succeeded in depressing himself and garnering some suspicious glares. They eventually took pity on him and showed him how to do some basic repairs around the house, and despite his initial lack of interest, Steven soon found himself absorbed in the work. He relished the physical weariness that now accrued in his entire musculature instead of solely in his screen-strained eyes and repetitively-stressed fingers; he rejoiced in the ability to see and touch the fruits of his labor.
His father had promised as much when, as a child, Steven "assisted" in minor repairs and renovations around the house. But at the time, the house was an abstract, and real life was playing baseball, watching TV, and going to school. Now, aside from having the advantage of maturity, and experience as a homeowner and bill-payer, he also had many advisors around him, not just one. Their numbers, and the weight of their experience, smoothed any lingering traces of rebellion in Steven and made membership in such a group something to be coveted. Once he gave himself over to the idea of learning at the hands of his elders, he quite liked it. Later, his father joined him and they worked alongside each other, feeling like father and son, peers and colleagues, all at once.
After a long day's work building a sliding wall panel that opened to the garbage bin outside (no more dragging the garbage outside when it got full), the group honored Steven and his father by topping them with a couple of sweaty, dirty hats stolen from unwary relatives. When these had been firmly pressed and re-pressed upon their heads by each relative in turn, one of the men turned to Steven, indicated the finished project, and asked, "Hey, quality control! How's the quality?"
Steven gave them a thumbs-up, and the room erupted in cheers.
Relative Merits (II) - Gals Gone Wild
For her part, Heather now found that the activity in the house - the constant sounds of conversation, the continuous hustle and bustle - made her feel more engaged than she had in years. Having new people around forced her to be more open, cracking the shell she had unwittingly built around herself by spending all of her time with Steven and the few colleagues at work with whom she socialized. She was less introspective and less self-absorbed. Maybe this strange time travel phenomenon was just what she needed? Not such a large dose of it, she thought - on the family visit scale, having this many guests at once was roughly equivalent to shock treatment. But she had to admit, the relatives had suddenly and definitively altered her mood for the better. Which was, actually, just what shock treatment was supposed to do.
Unfortunately, as with shock treatment, these positive effects were fleeting. A few days later, that same chaotic din was once making Heather wish she were dead - not dead and revived, like her ancestors, but really, permanently dead, as associated with those wonderful words "rest in peace." She sat and looked at some of the old photographs her parents had brought with them. Deep in thought, she was admiring the grace of an artfully posed sepia tone, when reality intruded in the form of a pointing finger.
"Hey, that's me! I'm right here in front'a you!" It was GG Gigi. She moved to hover over Heather's shoulder, leaning in to get a good look at herself in younger days. "Pretty good, huh?" She smiled a wide, open-mouthed, semi-toothed grin - a great, grand maw indeed. Heather smiled back.
"Enough pictures," Gigi said. "You come 'ere, we cook."
Before she could protest, Heather was led by the arm into the kitchen, prisoner of a five foot tall white-haired spitfire.
The relatives had commandeered the kitchen, and had someone cooking nearly 24 hours a day. Most of what was made tasted good, with the exception of Grandma Frieda's cookies, which had both the consistency and flavor of limestone. Steven and Heather acquired any needed ingredients on a daily basis, but mostly sat back and watched as the "Kitcheneers," as Steven dubbed them (citing their engineer-like precision) went about their business.
"How come you not like to cook?" asked GG Gigi, in her halting but steadily improving English.
"I don't mind cooking," Heather said, "but there's never enough time during the week. We eat out a lot."
Gigi conferred briefly with the others to confirm her understanding of Heather's words. She turned back to Heather, her thick brow furrowed. "What you do all day?" she asked abruptly.
"Ah... I'm a supply chain coordinator."
"What this means?"
"It means... well, it means that I coordinate supply chains. Eliminate wasted time and steps."
"Oh," said Gigi. This seemed to make some sense to her. "How you do this?"
"Mostly, I look at reports."
"Oh," said Gigi. She turned and looked back at the semi-controlled chaos in the kitchen, the battles for oven space, the fights for counter space, and raised an eyebrow. "You do this for us?"
Heather was taken aback, but she had to admit it was a natural suggestion. She cheered a little at the idea of becoming more involved. She pulled a pen and pad from a cabinet and sat and watched, making notes. Gigi put a hand to the paper, covering the pen. "You tell us," she said. It was more a plea than a command, and Heather acquiesced, rising from her chair.
Soon the kitchen was running smoothly, courtesy of a few key adjustments and suggestions by Heather. A spirit of cooperation overtook the petty competitiveness that had been dominant before, and Heather glowed with pride. While there were still occasional problems stemming from "too many cooks," mostly the Kitcheneers acted like comrades, like professionals, like kids in a candy store, learning to use cooking and baking technology that first seemed like magic, as they incorporated generations of nearly-lost tricks and techniques into their collective food preparation. Despite her previous contributions, Heather again became an observer, a simple bystander, and couldn't help feeling left out. This went largely unnoticed amid all the activity, except by Grandma Felice, who took Heather aside and said, "I could use some help rolling dough, dear."
Heather knew it was charity but accepted it anyway, along with her role as the newest and lowest-ranking member of the Kitcheneer team.
And a formidable team it was. A few days later at Thanksgiving, Steven and Heather's parents and siblings joined the other relatives for an all-day eating extravaganza, highlighted by the first-ever multi-generational Loughlins vs. Trammells two-hand touch football game.
Everything seemed to be going well, all things considered. The neighbors kept their questions to themselves, perhaps out of an unspoken understanding that reciprocal privacy depended on mutual willful ignorance.
Aside from the minor impositions of money, food and shelter, the relatives had become almost self-sufficient. Steven and Heather paid each relative a small allowance each week, which inspired unfavorable comparisons with Depression-era bread lines among those who had sampled both. Lack of funds was not about to spoil the relatives' new lease on life, however. There were trips to the second-hand shop, the only place they could find clothes that were the height of their respective eras' fashions. There were walks, card games, sewing circles, and, for the able-bodied, stickball and soccer at the local park.
On Sunday mornings, the dearly departed departed en masse for services at churches of several different denominations. On Saturday mornings, they overwhelmed the local Bingo Halls. When one of their flock won, they rained down upon a carefully selected restaurant that offered both early bird specials and a senior citizen discount, though there was inevitably much arguing with the management over who qualified for such discounts:
"I know I look forty. But I'm really one hundred and three!"
The relatives were all very impressed with modern technology, especially as it related to entertainment. Steven proudly explained the perks and intricacies of 21st century life as it pertained to cable and on-demand television.
Their initial response was disbelief. "Any Jack Benny show I want to see? At any time?"
"Well, maybe not Jack Benny," Steven admitted.
Though the world considered them dead, the relatives claimed to feel more alive than ever. They were in good health, free of petty worries, and determined to live their new lives to the fullest. Meanwhile, the arrivals kept coming: great-great grandparents (32 of them), great-great-great-grandparents (64 of them), and more.
"I'm pretty sure we're in violation of the fire code at this point." Steven pointed out. The petty worries the relatives happily ignored seemed to fall squarely on his and Heather's shoulders. "How's the bank account holding up?"
Heather worried about bigger issues than money. "How long can this go on? And how far back will it go? Is the missing link eventually going to walk through our bedroom door? And then what? Our ancestors as apes? Rodents? Fish? One celled creatures?"
"I'll buy some rat traps," Steven offered.
It was difficult to determine the exact moment it had all gone awry. In some ways, it had been all wrong from the beginning, but that was oversimplifying - the true tipping point might have been when the birthdates had passed over the 20th century threshold and into the 19th; here, the multiplications of grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents became oppressively unwieldy, and, although Steven and Heather felt guilty admitting it, thoroughly undesirable. Or it may have been when Steven and Heather's parents and siblings decided that they didn't need to be around their recently returned relatives quite so much - visits on major holidays were plenty, thank you. Or it may have been when Grandpa Benny, who had become something of an ambassador for the group as a whole and a liaison among the various generations of relatives, came to Heather and asked if they might start up a "worship room." Grandpa Benny's request was overheard by GG Harold, a World War II U.S. Navy veteran.
"Warships? I can tell you about warships. What do you want to know?"
"No, this is for the worship of relatives," Grandpa Benny clarified. "Strictly voluntary," he added, eyeing Heather and trying awkwardly to sell it. Steven emerged from the bathroom behind Heather and poked his head forward. He wore a quizzical expression, eyebrows furrowed and mouth agape. His eyes darted from Heather to Grandpa Benny to GG Harold and back a few times, until finally he asked, "What's all this?"
"The worship of relatives," Heather repeated, partly for Steven's benefit, but also to confirm that she'd heard Grandpa Benny correctly. She emphasized each word individually as it dropped out of her mouth: "Strictly voluntary." She stared at Grandpa Benny not in anger, but in disbelief.
"A warship of relatives... Say! That's not a bad idea!" GG Harold crowed. "Who would be the captain, though? Of course, I would be happy to take that responsibility if necessary. I do have naval experience... I was a petty officer," he said proudly.
"In charge of all things petty?" Heather asked, acidly. GG Harold was undeterred.
"Why wouldn't I be the captain?" Steven asked, indignant. "You're living in my house, and a man is the king of his castle. Kingship should transfer to a position of authority on the sea, shouldn't it?"
"Fine," said Harold, frowning. "We'll be co-captains."
"Ahem," Heather cleared her throat delicately, a subtle but well-delivered message as to her status in the proposed ranks, and the status of women in the 21st century.
"Fine," Harold grumbled, rolling his eyes. "You'll be co-captains. And I'll be..."
"The petty officer?" Heather asked helpfully.
"Fine," Harold said, sulking a little. Sixty years and he still hadn't merited a promotion. He gazed wistfully at some imagined distant horizon, then recovered his enthusiasm. "We'll take to the high seas, and -"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Steven interrupted, shaking his head and holding up his hands. Heather brightened, seeing that her husband had finally realized the absurdity of the discussion. Placing political savvy before pride, she would defer to him. With Steven's support, the matter would soon be dropped.
When they had all given Steven their full attention, he continued. "Do we have to be a World War II Navy warship, or can we be swashbuckling pirates? 'Cause I'm thinking pirates." Grandpa Benny had waited patiently through all of this, but enough was enough. He gritted his teeth and growled, "I said 'a worship room.'"
Harold sighed, shaking his head in disappointment. "Fine." He turned to Steven and whispered, "We'll give him one room on the ship. It'll boost morale."
"No ship," Grandpa Benny said flatly. "No U.S. Navy ship, no pirate ship." He kept his eyes tight on Heather's as Harold slunk away to the kitchen in defeat. "A worship room. Like a church, or a... a shrine."
"Can't you just go to church?" Heather asked.
"It wouldn't be the same. This room would be for the worship of relatives exclusively. The Chinese worship their ancestors, you see. Pictures, candles, incense - the whole bit. You might try it."
"I'm not Chinese."
"I wouldn't be so sure," said Grandpa Benny, winking mischievously. "Quongli!" he called. A small Asian man trotted over, his head bowed. Quongli bowed to Grandpa Benny, then turned to Heather and bowed to her. "I think this is one of your great-great-great - aw hell, he's a relative of yours. It was his idea." He looked past Quongli's shoulder and waved over an ancestor of Heather's who better fit her expectations, a hardy-looking woman with pale skin and reddish-brown hair. Grandpa Benny introduced her. "This is Eileen. Eileen, will you ask your husband to explain his request?"
She did so, and Quongli began speaking, deliberately, slowly, watching Eileen's mouth as she translated his words.
"He says that his people worship their ancestors, and often ask for their blessings. You must build a room to do this, to appease their spirits. If they are kept satisfied, one's ancestors can bestow many blessings. If they are not kept satisfied, one's ancestors can easily become a curse."
As if on cue, GG Harold reappeared waving a red and orange box, and said, "You're out of milk, grape jelly, and these delightful morsels called Cheez-Its."
Theories of Relativity (II)
The next day, Steven sat silently across from Heather and Grandpa Benny, studying the morning newspaper, his eyes glued to the tiny type so he would not be forced to acknowledge the havoc that had become the normal state of affairs around him. His efforts were to no avail - out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a confused-looking gentleman (who appeared very, very 19th century) exploring the house. Steven covered his eyes with the newspaper and sighed. "He's new, isn't he?"
"Yes," answered Grandpa Benny, who stood up to greet the newcomer. "Perfect timing, too! The big Sadie Hawkins dance is tomorrow!"
"Sadie Hawkins dance? Everyone here is married!"
"Well..." Grandpa Benny wavered before spilling his guts. It seemed there were a few unsavory patches of fungus on the family tree, where the biological parents who'd appeared had not necessarily been married to each other at death. Some were simple divorces, but in other cases, Steven and Heather's true ancestors turned out to be mistresses, or men of loose morals and raging promiscuity, rather than the expected spouses. Apparently some of the reunions had been quite uncomfortable, while others had been pleasant surprises. After first delivering their full censure upon the sordid couples, the other relatives had discussed ways to distinguish the happy horndogs from the more noble and miserably monogamous majority. Methods considered included, among other things, the unoriginal but still-classic scarlet letter 'A'. In the end, the ancestors had decided to live and let live, and, like other great families, simply ignored the issue as if nothing untoward had ever happened in their great family's history.
"Why didn't you tell us any of this?" Steven cried.
"The others voted to keep up appearances. You know - for the kids."
"The kids? Their kids are older - well, they look older than the parents do," Steven said, glancing at Heather for her take on all of this. She shook her head, declining the invitation to another debate. "Oh, forget it," he finally sighed, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling.
"It's just a dance, Stevie. And hey, ya gotta have a little fun in life. Or whatever this is."
Whatever this is, thought Steven. Life. Heaven. Hell. Whatever.
"Besides, morality is all relative." He looked expectantly at Steven, then at Heather, examining their faces for any sign of mirth. "Get it?" he asked, confounded by their silence. "Relative?"
That night, hiding out in their bedroom, Steven and Heather discussed the situation.
"This Sadie Hawkins thing is freaking me out," Steven said flatly. He was exhausted both mentally and physically, his body drained of the energy to vary his pitch or tone.
"I know. I just assumed that all these couples were happily paired. But given such a large group, I guess having a few divorces and one night stands in the mix is inevitable."
"It's not just them," Steven said. "Haven't you noticed? GG Harold has been winking at every woman he's seen since he got here."
"I thought the winking was just a problem with his eye. He's not exactly subtle about it."
A cheer came from downstairs - a new arrival was being welcomed. Steven and Heather ignored it.
"Anyway," Heather continued, "it is close quarters, and I guess human nature being what it is... I mean, some of these people were married off before they were sixteen! They're just flirting. It's understandable. You're overreacting, Steven."
"I'm overreacting? You're underreacting! Our ancestors are on the path to becoming... swingers! Listen, if these geezers start hooking up with each other, it could mean alternate timelines and... well, other stuff. We could be unborn, or something equally bad."
"We can't really be made to not exist, can we?" Heather paused, cowed by the considerable repercussions of nonexistence. "Hmm... maybe you should be sort of a chaperone at the dance tomorrow and keep an eye on things. I mean, if you see one of the women getting too close with someone other than her spouse, you could go and cut in, just to make sure."
"But I hate dancing!"
"Would you rather dance, or not exist?"
"OK," Steven sighed. "I guess I'll dance."
The following morning, Steven woke early to do some research before heading off to work, hoping to find an explanation for why the relatives kept coming, or what he could do to stop it. He was performing an internet search on his desktop computer when GG3 Herman entered the room and began hovering over his shoulder. "Whatcha doin'?" Herman asked.
Annoyed at the lack of privacy and feeling frustrated in general, Steven replied, "Well you see, there's a very tiny man who lives inside this box, and if I ask him very nicely, he tells me the answers to things."
Herman moved to touch the monitor, then pulled back, frightened. He looked to Steven for approval, got it, and laid his hands reverently upon the computer's casing. "His box is very warm."
"He likes it that way. He's originally from Ecuador."
Herman's eyebrows arched high. "First Viagra, and now this. Truly, this is an age of wonders."
GG3 Herman shuffled off, his mind sufficiently boggled, and Steven was left to conduct his research in peace. The most relevant information he could find was on a science website that provided the basics of General and Special Relativity, with many confusing examples throughout. Steven waded through the explanations, but was disappointed when he found they all involved trains and the speed of light, rather than dead relatives showing up in one's home.
That night, he told Heather of his failure, looking forlorn. She tried to console him, but not knowing exactly what to say, she tapped into stream-of-consciousness and paired some nice, squishy bromides with the hard science Steven had tried to comprehend. "Well, they say everything is relative," she said, "and relativity as a theory is pretty much a universal truth. So it seems like everything comes back to relatives - to family. And since it's all happening in the same universe, you can't get away from it... so you might as well embrace it." She wasn't sure if she was finished, or if she'd made any sense, but it seemed to soothe Steven nonetheless. She snuggled next to him and they took a deep breath together, wondering what the next day would bring.
It was someone's birthday - it always seemed to be someone's birthday lately. Half-eaten cakes lined the kitchen counter, with piles of washed and reused candles stacked alongside them. The cake du jour was topped by (if GG Phyllis had gotten the count right) one hundred and forty-five tiny, burning candles, which combined to raise the ambient temperature of the room by three degrees.
"They make number candles, too, you know," Heather pointed out, moving the plastic forks and spoons away from the candles' heat.
"Oh, maybe you can pick some up the next time you go out," said GG Phyllis.
Mercifully, the relatives agreed to Heather's proposal that in the future, all of the month's birthdays would be celebrated at one time, the way it was done in elementary school when she was a kid. Some of the relatives felt cheated by this, and said as much, pouting in the corner or sulking on the sofa. The similarities in emotional maturity between Heather's old elementary school classmates and her adult ancestors were more pronounced than she cared to admit.
The surfeit of birthday cakes was just one of several indications that the relatives had outgrown their new home. The amount of living space per person shrank with each new arrival, which increasingly led the cramped inhabitants of the townhouse to explore the world outside its four walls. Though, like aged Cinderellas, they all returned before midnight, each morning a mini-diaspora delivered the relatives out into town. They walked in every direction, took buses, rode bicycles. Steven's truck was taken without permission twice before he started keeping the keys with him at all times.
At first, the relatives asked Steven and Heather for ideas on how to occupy themselves. But after being told to "just stay out of trouble" one too many times, they took to searching the newspaper for ideas. Visits to local museums, volunteer work, even nature hikes - these were all undertaken, with gusto. They were, after all, living a second chance at life, and the idea of sitting around idly wasting time was anathema.
Some of them found employment, which by necessity was conducted on a cash basis, as many of them pre-dated such modern contrivances as social security numbers. The employment never lasted more than a few days, as the new trainees would hear the ticking of borrowed time, and rush off to spend their earnings.
The weather turned colder, and outdoor pursuits were abandoned. Even the prospect of a brief recreational excursion was met with disdain, in favor of central heating and television.
"It's cold out there," GG Harold complained.
"Have you considered Florida?" Steven inquired helpfully.
For Steven and Heather, the sense of wonder was gone. Practical day to day considerations had worn the sheen from the shiny, existential, metaphysical, transgenerational, transhistorical gift they'd received. Keeping enough food in the house, working out a mutually acceptable bathroom schedule, and all the other niggling details of life among a large group of relatives had hardened them like a batch of Grandma Frieda's cookies.
Steven and Heather's parents' visits to the house grew less frequent. Having now said all the things to their resurrected relatives that had been left unsaid the first time around, they'd achieved a satisfying sense of closure, followed by a record number of uncomfortable silences.
The spark to the tightly packed tinderbox came when Heather caught GG3 Herman using her eyelash brush and mascara to darken his eyebrows and mustache. This, after his previous raids into her makeup kit had left her nail clippers dulled on thick, ancient, yellowed toenails, and her tweezers caked with residue from insertions into orifices best left untended. Heather exploded into a rage, sending GG3 Herman scurrying, his eyebrows and moustache darkened on one side and not the other. "I wish they'd all just go away!" she screamed at the ceiling. Steven heard her and came running, but said nothing, cowed by the violence of her long-repressed exasperation. Quietly, he wished the same.
One too many fights over the remote control led to the forming of a provisional government among the relatives. Steven was so fascinated by the process that he allowed it to progress without interruption, except on Tuesday nights at 8 when he invoked dictatorial privilege to watch Cheaters.
Steven and Heather sat on the stairs, chins nestled in hand and shoulders identically slumped. They watched and waited as the debate grew heated, but it became apparent that the 20th century relatives were, when pressed, deferring to their 19th century predecessors.
Heather leaned over to Steven and whispered into his ear. "Do you think it's because of that thing Quongli talked about - ancestor worship? Are they afraid that their elders will curse them if they're not given their way?"
"I think they're afraid of them, all right," Steven answered. He spoke dispassionately and at normal volume, even with the relatives a few feet away, as if he were narrating a documentary about a group of chimps he'd been studying for years. He was tired and indifferent to social niceties. "They're afraid, but not because of any cursing. The people who've been dead longer mostly died younger, since they had shorter lifespans then - so their bodies are in better shape. I think that's what's intimidating the 20th century folks - they don't want to get knocked to the floor by their younger-bodied elders. Also, I think the 20th century people think the 19th century people are crazy. Like, they'll beat you up for an apple or something. I mean, did they even have laws back then?"
"I think we've been sitting here too long."
"Want to go out?"
"And do what? No... I feel responsible for them."
"Responsible?" Steven cried, standing suddenly. "They're adults! And they're... moochers!"
"Just stay a few more minutes, then we'll go up to bed. In a few minutes it'll be six hours since the last person arrived. Might as well see who's coming next."
A few minutes passed, but no one else appeared.
A few more minutes came and went with no additions to the household head count. They searched the house, sure they'd find someone hiding in a closet or curled in a corner. But there was no new arrival to be found.
"They're never late. Have they been late before?" Heather whispered as they checked the last few possible hiding places. She attempted to contain her excitement, unsuccessfully. "Maybe this is it? Maybe it's over?"
"I guess it had to stop at some point," Steven replied. "But why now?"
They were seated at breakfast the following morning when a woman ran up to them, her face a mask of worry. It was impossible to remember just who she was - the names and faces blurred together irretrievably after a while - but with some prodding, she managed to explain what had scared her so: people had started disappearing in their tracks.
Steven and Heather, eyes heavy from exhaustion, looked at each other blankly. Slowly their eyebrows and cheeks rose, pulling smiles.
The days passed, and one by one the relatives disappeared, departing in the opposite order from which they'd arrived. The most recent arrival went first, and then every six hours, another, like clockwork, as if time were a rubber band that had been stretched to its limit and was snapping back into shape. Or maybe, thought Steven, he and Heather had tapped into some heretofore unknown talent for wishing.
It all seemed so random, like the quantum fluctuations he'd read about, or what family you're born into and who your relatives are. Where exactly the relatives were departing to - Oblivion, Heaven, or The Other Place, Steven and Heather did not know. Nor, truth be told, did they care.
"No more cluttering up the living space for the current generation," Steven said to Heather, matter-of-factly.
"Back where they belong," Heather agreed.
For a few days, it was wonderful. The most distant relatives, for whom Steven and Heather had never bothered to learn names, were gone, and it seemed there was once again room to breathe, and even the luxury of occasional silence.
For the first time since the earliest days of the phenomenon, the ancestors were united. In the midst of such crisis, they forgot their former squabbles and closed ranks to say goodbye to each other properly. The sight of tearful farewells every six hours began to have its expected effect on Steven and Heather - after first responding with patented 21st century detachment, their emotions soon got the best of them. Within a few days, empty tissue boxes lay piled high in every room.
Steven and Heather tried to stay philosophical about it all, chalking the whole experience up as a fluke, a series of temporary visitations to be enjoyed while it lasted but not necessarily mourned upon its end. As the relatives disappeared, however, relief at the departing of so many burdensome houseguests was overtaken by regret for an opportunity which, in spite of what it had given them, seemed like it could have been much more. Looking around the room, the young couple, current terminus of the newly-charted family tree, found a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves, and a feeling of appreciation for the everyday trials met by their ancestors, the cumulative effect of which had resulted in the two of them standing in this room, at this moment.
The sense of loss was palpable as the relatives disappeared. Sounds carried farther inside the house; there was the occasional echo. On the shopping list, Heather adjusted the quantities of the various strange foods that had quickly become household staples. Sleeping bags and blankets were quietly folded and stacked; linens were returned to the closet.
Things were progressively getting back to "normal" - that is, the way they were before - but for Heather, there was a gnawing, nagging, vacant feeling that only worsened with each day.
It bothered Heather that she felt bothered, because she could not pinpoint what it was about the situation that upset her. She just knew it was more than saying goodbye to these people - something had fundamentally changed.
She looked at the house, which now seemed cavernous with its high ceilings and huge windows. She had been happy living here before, but that was before. Now the house didn't seem spacious - it just felt empty.
She and Steven knew the names of all the people who were disappearing now, as the vast tree of their ancestry grew more and more streamlined, being whittled down toward the present-day. Flanked by their parents and siblings, who had returned for goodbyes, Steven and Heather watched as the most recent ancestors departed. "Ancestors" seemed too distant a word now - they were family. Steven and Heather went from simply waving goodbye to sharing long embraces as the earliest arrivals returned to whence they had come. Heather's parents expressed regret at not having told their extended family about the miracle at Steven and Heather's house, but Steven's parents pointed out that, in a sense, it was easier this way. Those cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews had not known the second coming of their relatives, but they would also never know the second loss.
A lingering melancholy hung around the home. The remaining relatives recalculated the hours they had left, and wrote on a sheet of paper the order in which they would be whisked away, crossing off one name at a time as their predictions came true. Steven and Heather sat on the steps and watched as their own living histories vanished, slipping away before their eyes.
"What's done is done. We can't bring them back," Steven said, doing his best to simplify or completely bypass the complicated emotions he and Heather were feeling. It was a hollow attempt, and he knew it.
They watched couples spending their last few hours together, and talked about what they would do if the situation were reversed, and they were the ones facing apparent extinction. They closed the chapters on one generation after another, thinking it all seemed unfair, somehow. They said goodbye to Steven's Grandma Frieda, who disappeared so suddenly she left Steven hugging air.
And then, finally, there was only Steven, Heather, and Grandpa Benny.
"Some ride, huh?' Grandpa Benny said when his time came, with the world-weariness of a man who had acquiesced to his fate.
"Yeah," Steven said, crying openly.
"Take care of yourselves," Grandpa Benny said, and disappeared.
Steven and Heather sat on the stairs, staring deeply into the empty rooms that held so many people just a short time ago.
"Makes you think," Steven said finally, just to say something.
Heather squinted, trying to trick her eyes into seeing the room full again. "Yes, it does."
Steven was quiet a moment, then said, "Makes you think about a lot of things."
She sighed and nodded without breaking her thousand-yard stare. "Yep."
"Relativity," Steven said, chuckling at that simple word, so perfectly appropriate, so ridiculously inadequate.
"Continuity," Heather countered, her voice distant. It was an unusual word to use in conversation, but she felt strangely at peace as the syllables rolled off her lips. She thought a while, and when an image of Grandpa Benny's last moments formed, she added, "Endings."
Steven's mouth showed a series of slight tremors as he debated how best to respond. Finally, in a firm, higher tone, perhaps intended to dispel Heather's gloom, he said, "Beginnings."
They turned and stared at each other, and their eyes fixed in the way a couple's sometimes do, when, after many digressions, their two minds meet at the same destination.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Steven asked, pulling back a little to assess his wife's expression.
"I think so," Heather answered, smiling.
Silently, Steven slid his hand into hers. They turned from each other and again stared straight ahead into the room, as if peering into the future. After a few minutes, Steven stood up, still holding her hand. Heather allowed herself to be led, and their footsteps echoed, seeming to follow up the staircase.