“I’ve started making lists of places I want to go,” says Katie, her tow-headed 4 year-old son, Mason – named after her grandfather, a former train conductor – running in circles in her yard.
“I remember when you were his age,” I say pointing to Mason and thinking about a little tomboy girl raised by my sister after her husband left her years ago. “You were mean as a snake.”
“Well, Uncle Mike,” she says, “everybody says I take after you.”
“What’s on your list?” I ask, ignoring her comeback. “Where are you going?”
“Canada, Mexico, Paris, Ireland and Australia,” she says without hesitation. From her expression I can tell she’s put some thought into this list.
“When was the last time you were in Gulf Shores?” I ask. “I’m headed there now. Wanna pack up Mason and a suitcase and you guys can ride down with me. Got room in the truck.”
“It ain’t exactly Paris,” she says.
“It is if you can’t afford to go to Paris,” I say.
By the time we’re on the road it’s raining sideways in big horse tears pounding the windshield in gray sheets. The road is a muddled blur through the windshield. The wipers can’t keep up with what’s coming down. I-65 is a reflective ribbon of liquid asphalt pouring towards the south, pines leaning away from the storm.
“Can you even see the highway,” says Katie nervously. “Mason, you got your seatbelt on back there, baby?”
“Yeah, mama,” says Mason rocking back and forth, giggling at the possibility of my truck turning into a boat, a proposition he has asked me about at least ten times since it started raining.
“You ever take a nap?” I ask Mason.
“There’s enough MoonPies back there to feed his entire preschool,” says Katie. “He couldn’t lay down if he wanted.”
“Glad to see y’all are having a good time,” I say sarcastically.
“This probably explains why you don’t have a steady woman,” says Katie in a tone that tells me she and my sister have talked about this more than once.
“Okay,” I say. “Lay it out there. What you and sis been talking about? My love life?”
“Your love life?” she says. “There’d have to be a love life for us to talk about it.”
“Y’all don’t know everything about me,” I say, knowing they probably do. “I know a lot of women.” I lied.
“Mama says you pretty much live in this truck and all you do is ride around, talking to people all day and night, telling stories and pretending to have job,” she says. “No woman is gonna put with that.”
“I got the perfect job,” I say. “I know a whole lot of men who’d love to have my job.”
“That’s not the point,” Uncle Mike. “You won’t find a woman who will buy into that as a job.”
“I liked this conversation better when we were talking about your trip list,” I say.
“I bet your dogs don’t even like it,” she says.
“Why is it when women get a whiff of a line of questioning, they don’t derivate from it,” I say.
“Because you haven’t answered the question,” says Katie.
“What was the question?” I say.
“You called it a question, not me,” she says.
I am so confused. Maybe this is why I don’t have a steady woman.
The rain is slowing down, but we’re a long way from Gulf Shores, and this could go on the whole trip. As Katie grills me about my lack of a love life, I begin to wonder about the whole concept of a love life. And then I do the dumbest thing in the world.
“When you gonna find a man that’ll put up with you?” I blurt out, trying to reel the words back in as they jump out of my stupid mouth.
I refuse to look over at Katie. I don’t have to. Her stare is burning a hole in the side of my head. I broke the sacred rule: Never accuse a woman of doing what she’s accusing you of doing.
The cab of that F-150 hasn’t been that quiet since it was new sitting in the dealer’s lot. She clicks her teeth and takes a deep breath, turns away from me and watches a whole lot of wet south Alabama go by out the window.
After about twenty mile markers inch by Mason chirps up from the back seat, “Why ain’t y’all fighting no more?” he says in a high pitch.
Here it comes. Here it comes.
“Cause Uncle Mike is an idiot,” says Katie, sounding exactly like my sister when we were kids. “Your moma should have known better than to argue with an idiot, honey.”
“Hey, Mason,” I say, “You may wanna learn that lesson sooner than later, little man.”
She gave me the low-down-snarly-lipped-stink-eyed headshake.
Seems I broke the second rule too: Shut up when you’re behind.
I stopped at the next exit and got out to give her a chance to cool down. That’s when I realized I had on my best Chuck Taylors and one of them got sucked clean off in the mud, leaving a soaked, brown sock. Katie smiled broadly.
“Maybe Gulf Shores will be just like Paris after all,” she says.