Discover more from Exploding Unicorn by James Breakwell
Return of the Prodigal Son
How far would you drive for cake? For my brother Harry, the answer is eleven hours. He’s going to be at my daughters’ triple birthday party next Saturday and is bringing his entire family. That was big news in my world. The Air Force has him stationed out West on the off chance that what’s left of ISIS decides to attack us in the absolute middle of nowhere. You can never be too careful with America’s strategic cactus supply. I haven’t seen Harry in two years and have yet to meet his youngest child. His surprise announcement turned what we expected to be an unremarkable iteration of our annual group birthday party into our biggest social event ever. Siblings who had otherwise been too busy to gift wrap Squishmallows and Lego sets times three suddenly found openings in their schedules. Five of my six brothers and sisters will be under my roof along with their various significant others, children, and dogs. When combined with Lola’s side of the family (She has a mere three siblings, which, by Catholic standards, means she was practically an only child.), we’ll have a high enough population to get our own post office. We already felt an immense pressure to clean when we only expected the family members we see regularly. It’s too late to impress any of them. They’ve been relentlessly underwhelmed by repeated contact. But now we have geographically distant siblings to impress. Unless we don’t want them to ever come back. Then we should show them how we really live.
Harry didn’t know it was the weekend of the triple birthday party when he announced his leave schedule. To be entirely honest, I’m not sure he remembered that I have kids. His life is pretty stressful with a toddler and a baby at home. Also, there’s that whole flying military aircraft thing. Say what you will about being a writer, but when I screw up, nothing explodes, although I do get a bunch of snarky emails about how I can’t tell the difference between homophones. It’s perfectly reasonable that Harry hasn’t been able to make it back to the Midwest in a while. I don’t have a correspondingly valid excuse for why I haven’t gone to see him. My kids are older, and I have more control over my schedule than Harry does. That’s the biggest upside to not mattering in any professional capacity. The only thing I want from a day job is for people to be genuinely unsure if I still work there or not. Yet, instead of driving out West, I used my recent time off to take my kids to a giant hole in the ground. Our tour of Mammoth Caves was okay, but my kids were far more impressed by our trip through an automatic car wash. It was a fraction of the price and involved zero walking. I know where we’re going for all family vacations from now on.
Exploding Unicorn by James Breakwell is a reader-supported publication. It’s like PBS, but completely unhelpful and slightly evil. Join today!
In my defense, it’s not like I’ve had no contact with Harry over the last few years. We talk for two hours nearly every Friday night while playing Halo Infinite together over Xbox Live. We probably chat more over the internet than we ever did while in person. Like most guys, we have no idea how to communicate unless we’re shooting aliens while we do it. In the age of remote work, remote family time should be just as good as the in-person kind. In fact, it should be better because it saves me the commute. Unfortunately, something is still missing. Family dynamics depend on annoying each other face-to-face at least occasionally. That was the basis of our relationship growing up. Harry might fly multi-million dollar aircraft today, but I still remember how I could smell his feet from the next room. To me, he’ll always be my gross neighbor from across the hall. Hopefully he’s learned to put baby powder in his boots.
In Catholic families, there’s one way to guarantee a visit from anyone: Name them as a godparent. Then they’re obliged by social pressure and the will of God to travel any distance to be at the baptism. If Harry really wanted me to come out West, he could have picked me as the godfather for his new baby. I’m currently the godfather to one brother, one nephew, and one niece. Just don’t ask me to name which ones. I hate actually being a godparent, but I love the honor of being picked as one. It’s mostly a symbolic position that merely requires you to buy gifts for a few occasions you otherwise could have safely ignored. I can’t even remember those. I was such a bad godparent to my brother Arthur that, when he turned eighteen, I cut him a not-insubstantial check for all the birthdays and religious occasions I skipped. He was okay with that. You can absolutely buy your way out of feeling bad if the price is right. It was like an indulgence, but for family guilt.
Once upon a time, being a godparent also meant you were expected to adopt someone’s kids if both parents died. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case. I’ve used the internet to create a very public record of how I’m raising my own children. No one would ever trust me with extra. Besides the aforementioned gift giving that I definitely didn’t do, the biggest duty for modern godparents is to keep a kid in the religion if the parents slack off. Harry snubbed me because of my existing track record. If any of the kids I’m already the godparent for make it into heaven, it will be in spite of me, not because of my help. I’m the wrong guy to talk to if you need spiritual guidance but the right guy if you want a list of new and interesting vices to choose from. I specialize in sins the Bible never even thought of. Remember, kids, nothing in the New Testament explicitly forbids emu tipping. It’s like cow tipping, but with more beak wounds.
It’s too late to convince my family that I’m a good person, but I can at least trick them into believing I’m a clean one. The war on filth is in full swing. We already felt immense pressure to get the house clean before we found out our guest list had doubled overnight. My goal is to leave everyone who comes here with the lasting illusion that I’m an adult. That deception is too much to maintain for a lifetime, but I can probably keep it up for a single Saturday afternoon. Getting to that point, however, might kill me.
This weekend, Lola and I divided and conquered. She led the children inside while I tackled the yard alone. Our challenges were equal but different kinds of gross. The house gets dirty quicker because we’re an inside family. We do, however, clean it from time to time, even if it never looks like it because of our swarm of children. The yard, on the other hand, has gone untended for months. As soon as we hit December, I abandon it to reindeer and wandering yetis. I’m always greeted by unpleasant surprises when I survey the damage for the first time each spring. Maybe there will be weeds the size of a horse. Maybe the pigs dug up a dead body. The only way to know for sure is to grab a machete and local guide and set off into the undergrowth.
This year, my initial yard work was delayed by my own personal frailties. My triple hernias and the associated surgery set me back just a tad. By the time I actually got out to the yard, it was practically summer. Our lawn had returned to its feral state. Nature is healing, and it’s destroying my property value. My first job was to add new mulch to the flower beds out front. It took twenty-two bags, which I picked up over two trips to the hardware store and crammed in the back of Lola’s minivan. I would have used my minivan, but it’s nicer and newer than hers. Her vehicle will now smell like soggy wood shavings until the end of time. Happy Mother’s Day.
Next, I tackled our enclosed back porch. While not technically part of the yard, it is the transitional space between the house and the great outdoors. It’s also my dog’s preferred bathroom. I’ve never expected much from him. It’s not like I asked him to herd sheep or defend the house. All he had to do was be cute while not making my life actively worse. Now that he’s fifteen, he’s decided he’s too old to do both. Instead of walking all the way out to the yard to do his business, he stops on the back porch and lets loose. His pee has so completely saturated the wood planks back there that the odor is seeping into the rest of the house. I’d rather not have my residence smell like animal urine when I’m visited by every living blood relative in a nine-state radius. That was easier said than done. Before I could clean anything, I had to remove four hundred pounds of river rocks. I put them on the back porch in two plastic kiddie pools to make it more challenging for the pigs to hunt for their food. The experiment didn’t work for reasons I can’t fully explain. Apparently I’m not much better at understanding pigs than I am at understanding children. One pig refused to enter either kiddie pool at all, and the other pig just shoved all the rocks to the side to eat the pellets off the flat plastic bottom. The main function of the rocks turned out to be to create rapids as the dog pee rushed across the back porch. It’s exactly as gross as it sounds. I spent hours cleaning the porch Saturday. After I carried everything out, I swept extensively. Then I got serious and pulled out a jug of vinegar and a pressure washer. For the record, a pressure washer is absolutely not an indoor tool, but this was no time for half measures. If Lola hadn’t been home, I would have used fire. By the end of the afternoon, the space had gone from smelling intensely like dog pee to smelling faintly like dog pee. I should have just filled the enclosed back porch with wet mulch. It had a slightly better kind of stink.
That wasn’t the end of my outdoor work. I spent hours tearing up weeds, trimming hedges, picking up trash, and scooping pig poop. There’s a ninety-nine percent chance no one at the party will even go in the backyard, and if they do, it will just be for a second to throw something in the garbage cans. In that unlikely event, however, I expect them to be wowed by how hard I worked to get my property back up to bare minimum acceptable standards. The bigger point of my outdoor work was just to keep me and Lola out of each other’s ways. The key to getting along in high pressure situations is to not even be in the same building together. Follow me for more marriage-saving advice.
Despite how much work we got done over the weekend, there’s still even more to do. We could spend every waking hour between now and next Saturday cleaning and still not quite be ready. As an added challenge, the kids will spend that same time span making new and exciting messes and then looking at us with shock and dismay when we make them clean them up. It’s a completely predictable series of events that still manages to catch them by surprise every time. The worst part is the only ones judging us are us. Harry couldn’t care less what our house looks like. It’s too bad he’s not more observant. If he knew how much work I put into preparing for him plus all the siblings he attracted in his wake, he might make me the godfather for his next child. I promise to teach them all about emu tipping. The key is to put your back into it.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Catch you next time.