A Game For Horrible People

My family played a card game two hours after we put grandma in the cold Oregon ground. To be specific, we played Cards Against Humanity—a party game for horrible people, as it says on the little black box. I think that’s a fair description, of my family, that is. We don’t have any criminals or abusers or perverts. Well, I take that back. Uncle Tommy got into a fight with two Jehovah’s Witnesses and spent the night in a jail cell once. I guess what I’m trying to say is that my family isn’t the type of horrible made for television like the Kardashians or the Addams Family. It’s one of those indescribable things like how certain people just make the skin between your knuckles itchy and clammy. It’s the kind of feeling words can only diminish. They’re horrible, and I’m one of them.

We had departed the cemetery in a caravan, heading up to the family Mount Hood cabin. I want to say we went there to escape from the world or because we wished to mourn in private, but the real reason was grandma’s cabin was fully stocked with booze. Rum, Vodka, Gin, Brandy, Tequila—every spirit except my grandma’s. Uncle Terrance was the first to the door, loosening his black tie with one hand as he unlocked the door code with the other. Tapping off the damp dirt we had just buried grandma with from his shoes on the doormat, Terrance turned towards the cars, waving his tie in the air, and yelled, “Let’s get this party started!”

To be fair—Terrance is awful in any circumstance, so this wasn’t a surprise. When my older brother and I were young, my parents left us with Uncle Terrance to enjoy a nice anniversary dinner minus two rowdy mistakes. As soon as my mom, dressed in elegant silver and pearls, and dad, wearing a slimming suit, left for dinner, Terrance blurted out, “Your daddy’s gonna crack that oyster tonight.” We were seven and eleven.

While I’m sure many families have big cookouts after a funeral, I doubt they do stand-up routines and karaoke while setting up a ‘pour-your-own’ mini-bar. That’s how my family deals with life—with a somewhat apathetic irreverence. Few of us are religious, and maybe that’s why funerals are usually like this. Closer to a college frat party than a family mourning a loss.

If my family has a redeeming quality, it’s found in the kitchen. Whenever I opened the door to grandma’s house, an array of spices swirled around me, welcoming me in. Warm coriander took my coat, earthy cumin asked if I wanted anything to drink, and hearty curry powder guided me to grandma who embraced me in a hug.

No one ever went hungry or unloved at a family reunion, grandma made sure of that. Perhaps that’s why I agreed to play the game. Everyone piled their plates with grandma’s no-longer secret recipes and sat outside on the patio in a drunken parabola, taking in the cool mountain breeze while reminiscing about old memories of the women who held our family of misfits together.

When I sat down, the little black box was already out and the game had begun. For those with families that don’t play Cards Against Humanity after a funeral, it is a question and response game. The judge picks a question card and everyone else selects one of their answers cards and hands it in. The judge picks his favorite and then it just repeats until someone is offended by an answer card and makes a big fuss.

Everyone was engaged in that awkward balancing act of holding a drink in one hand and your playing cards in the other. Even Aunt Trisha, who rarely left her Persian cat filled penthouse in New York City for any family reunion, was playing while sipping sparkling water with a twist of lime. The distinct cackles and snorts of my family members echoed through the forest, probably scaring a family of tiny animals.

It was Uncle Tommy’s turn. Grunting as he leaned forward towards the deck of cards, he plucked a black question card with sausage fingers that often massaged grandma’s shoulders. She was the only one who would let him. He leaned back in his chair, which squeaked under the strain of what Uncle Tommy referred to as a “real man,” what suit stores labeled “husky,” and doctors called “at-risk.”

“Travis,” Uncle Tommy said, leaning towards me and staring through me. “What’s that smell?”

“I don’t smell anything,” I said.

After a few seconds of silence, Uncle Tommy asked other family members. We all looked at each other, a collective what the hell is he talking about spreading across everyone’s faces. 

Searching our faces, Uncle Tommy addressed the group.“Guys, it’s the damn question card,” Uncle Tommy said, flipping the card in his hand so we could all see the text.

“Well, you could have stated that to begin with, Tom,” Aunt Esther said. She is the closest thing to an Amish midwife outside of Pennsylvania. Alternating between tomato juice and unsweet tea, she slanted her eyes down her hooked nose at everyone with an alcoholic drink.

Grunts of comprehension sounded around the drunken parabola as people took a swig of their poison and looked down at their hand of answers.

An Oedipus complex.

Daddy Issues.

Silence.

Alcoholism.

Crippling Debt.

Poorly timed Holocaust jokes.

Ebola.

I had nothing. Alcoholism was the only answer that made sense, so I put it on the arm of Uncle Tommy’s chair. I took a sip of my rum and coke. Flat, but still cool. The white cards made their journey to Uncle Tommy, all except Uncle Terrance’s.

“It’s just a damn smell, T,” Uncle Tommy said, shuffling the other cards while waiting for Terrance’s card. Tommy had been a dealer at a casino before the Jehovah witnesses incident.

“You can’t rush art, Tommy,” Uncle Terrance said as he passed his white card in.

“Ok guys, what’s that smell?” He said, his puckered mouth hanging open and dark. Something brown stained the corners of his lips.

“Dick Cheney,” Uncle Tommy said, reading the first card. “Well isn’t that nice.”

“Oh, that was very clever!” Cousin Todd said, nodding his head with a yellow smile at us, his veiny eyes bulging, trying to convince the group Cheney was a winner. The local high school didn’t want Todd, something to do with his aptitudes. He wasn’t an idiot, he wasn’t dangerous, yet, and his parents couldn’t afford to send him to an institution. So Todd worked at a diner as a busboy and after thirty-four years he remained at the diner.

“My neighbor’s outrageously obese cat,” Uncle Tommy said.

Aunt Trisha stifled a cackle but ended up coughing. She threw her hand in the air—the white flag—and returned to her sparkling water.

“Ok, what’s that smell ,guys?” Uncle Tommy said, picking a new card and reading it. “Oh Jesus,” he whispered.

People leaned forward a bit. Was it a super dark card? One of those overtly vulgar or weird ones like foreskin?

“Spit it out Tommy,” Cousin Elsa said, sipping her second “sex on the beach” out of a pink cup with KAPPA KAPPA GAMMA printed in white letters.

There’s a stillness—like when you wait for a firework to explode, watching the flashing flame tumble down the fuse like a bumblebee drunk on nectar, and see the debris fall everywhere.

Uncle Tommy swallowed hard, his thick jowls quivering a bit, “Grandma.”

One word sucked the air out of the mountains and left us all gasping. Cousin Elsa spit sex on the beach all over the serving table in disgust, speckling the white and black cards with globs of tropical red and orange. Aunt Trisha swallowed the lime in her drink, her eyes rolling back, probably wishing she had never left her prized Persians. Cousin Todd’s eyes retreated into their sockets for once, like a scared turtle retracting in its shell. Our eyes darted around the floor. Eventually, we began stealing glances at each other, sharing a collective shame. Uncle Terrance’s mouth curled a little at the edges, stifling a smile.

I laughed.

I didn’t mean to. It just came out. Then I did it again.

No, I snorted.

As I breathed in through my nose, the smells of curry powder, coriander, and cumin filled my nostrils. I gagged as the warm spices morphed into the damp, moldy ground grandma was buried in.

Everyone stared at me, even Uncle Terrance, who couldn’t contain himself anymore and pointed at me with his gaping mouth, cackling.

“Dammit, T!” Uncle Tommy yelled, his chins shaking, while the rest of the cards fell out of his hands.

“What the actual hell, Terrance,” Cousin Elsa said, wiping off her mouth.

Aunt Trisha still choked on the lime, but her eyes gave Terrance a terrible look of disapproval, much like she would give her Persians after making a mess.

“Never, in all my years, in all my blessed years, have I heard something so atrocious, so abominable! You should be ashamed of yourself, Terrance,” Aunt Terri spat out.

“I’m not the one who laughed,” Uncle Terrance giggled, still pointing at me.

Everyone’s eyes turned to me. The skin between my knuckles became fiery and itchy as I slanted my eyes down. I could feel their eyes upon me, searching for any exposed cracks from which they could infiltrate and excavate an answer.

Grandma looked down upon me, shaking her head. I rubbed my hands together like I was trying to start a fire and if I rubbed hard enough, I could spontaneously combust and all of this would be over. Everyone could move on and not remember that this was the funeral where Travis laughed. Rather the one where he spontaneously burst into flames and the wind swept his ashes into the woods. Jesus, why did I laugh? Why laugh at all?

“What the hell, Travis?” Uncle Terrance asked, still giggling.

I didn’t know, it came out. The itch between my knuckles spread like a wildfire across my body, beads of icy sweat began to race down my side from my armpits, and no matter how much I expanded my lungs, they wouldn’t take in any air. I had to ease the pressure building up inside me. The fire consumed me.

I stood up and pointed at Uncle Terrance, shouting, “I’m not the one who played that card after we just buried her!”

Terrance looked at me with a blank face. Silence. All eyes remained on me, now scanning up and down with a weird fascination like I had walked onto the deck naked. I would never live this down. God, why did I have to laugh? The end of Terrance’s lips curled a tad before they exploded as he fell to the ground, hysterical with laughter.

Everyone exchanged glances again, unsure of how to proceed. First Cousin Elsa giggled, then one escaped from Uncle Tommy, and soon we were all laughing. Even Aunt Terri let loose a chuckle, after covering her mouth with her hand and Cousin Todd performed the Heimlich on Aunt Trisha, who spit out the lime into the puddle of Elsa’s sex on the beach on the serving table.

Red in the face, partially from the alcohol and partially from the laughter, Cousin Elsa swiped a hand past the black question card deck. “Ok, what will always get you laid?” Cousin Elsa asked as I sat back down.

The laughter got louder. Then it stopped. People began combing through their cards. Uncle Tommy made a joke about grandma’s dirty sense of humor. Soon everyone refilled their glasses, and the game continued.