By the third or fourth day we fell into our vacation routine. Breakfast in the camper consisted of fried potatoes with fried onions or fried spam or fried eggs or fried bacon. Our mother would announce "Everyone eat now since you don't know when we'll get to eat again". After we ate she would say "I cooked so I'm not doing the dishes". This never seemed fair. She never let anyone else cook. I would have gladly risked burning down the camper to avoid having to wash frying pans for a day.
Then it was either the task of cleaning up the campsite and shrinking our camper back down to travel size for another day of travel or getting in the car to go see whatever sight was planned for the day. Either option involved herding us back into the car. This became more and more difficult as the days progressed.
I didn't care for my parents choice in music. The twangy country music of the time annoyed me and offended my ears. Hearing my siblings cry, however, was not as offensive and would drowned out anything on the radio. If I was in a cooperative mood I would conspire with my brother to arrange a kidnapping of our sister Becky’s favorite toy. A stuffed dog with a name patch spelling out ‘Bernie’ sewn directly to his chest like he worked in an auto parts store.
If I didn’t feel particularly cooperative or Bubba was still mad at me from the last time I made him cry I would wait until Becky drifted off to sleep. Once her breathing became regular and her mouth would open just slightly I would lean over her face, take a deep breath, purse my lips together and then blow really hard into her mouth. This would make her cheeks puff out and her eyes pop out. Not unlike a goldfish.
Becky was the youngest, she was also the only girl and my stepfather’s real child so targetting her was always a tricky issue. It was a paradox though. Because she was hands down the spoiled favorite child she was also the favorite target. The best part about “cheek puffing” is it happened while the victim was asleep. When she recovered from it she and started screaming and hitting I would say “I guess Becky is having another one of her nightmares. She really needs psychological help before she gets big enough to hurt someone”.
I couldn’t cheek puff Bubba though. I know because I tried. He slept too soundly and even though I would huff and puff he would never wake up. His cheeks would just blow around like a basset hound with his head sticking out of of a car window.
It may have been all of that time away from regular entertainments that started my habit of pondering my surroundings. For example the chain of campgrounds we stayed in all had a mascot that was a cartoon rendering of a smiling man welcoming us in for the night. Whether it was on purpose or not his smile tended to make him look slightly brain damaged. I asked my mother if the picture was of a real guy. The owner maybe or a retarded cousin everyone in the family thought fondly of. She didn’t know.
I found out the cartoon face had a name and it was Max. Once he had a name the backstory was easy. I decided to believe there really was a Max and that he was the retarded boss of hundreds of people spread out all over the country. He wasn't always retarded though. Before his likeness was drawn he was kicked in the head by some rednecks who then made him drink the blue stuff that goes in the washer fluid tank under the hood. If the employees wanted to keep their jobs they couldn't let on they knew he was retarded and had to do anything they told him to and just resent it.
I imagined the one-sided phone conversations that were probably going on in the campground offices. “You want us to put Jell-O in all of the pools Max? Ok, sure thing boss” or “We have to hug everyone who checks in now, Max? Ok whatever you say”. I tried to tease Bubba by calling hm “Max” after that but since the entire brain damaged boss story was my own fantasy it didn’t quite have the sting I really wanted it to. I did get some good ammunition later though.
While stopped at one of the gas stations or lunch breaks or bathroom breaks I came across the comic book Little Orphan Annie. I wasn’t really interested in the comic since the cover didn't show any violence or male super heroes groin gripping costumes. This time though I did notice her weird eyes and now I was curious. Was she some kind of little girl alien that could kill people with laser beams from those creepy looking all white eyes?
After quickly skimming the pages and not willing to buy the comic book to find out for sure I waited until we were back in the car and asked "What is Little Orphan Annie?". I directed the question in the general direction of the front seat.
My stepdad answered. "She's from an old radio show". My parents then excitedly described her to me. She had adventures, solved crimes, had a dog named Sandy and was somehow rich and poor at the same time. I was glad I saved my seventy-five cents. She sounded boring to me and the fact that my parents were crazy about her meant I couldn’t possibly like her. Or even look like I did.
I was drifting back into my own thoughts when my sister Becky asked what should have been an obvious question. "What is an orphan?"
"That's someone who doesn't have any parents so they have to live in an orphanage. Then other people who don't have kids can adopt them" My mother explained.
Of course, I thought and then I half yelled and half asked "Am I adopted!?"
"What do you think?" Our mother responded in an exasperated voice. She turned to face me and had an expression on her face I instinctively knew was supposed to assure me but instead just deflated my hope.
"No" I said shrinking back and feeling a little silly at my outburst. I wanted the answer to be yes so bad I could taste it. It made sense to me that these people weren’t related to me. Surely there was a real family out there missing me and wanting to take me home with them.
I was a prime child and I doubted I would have to wait long for a better family. I was smart, all my teacher said so. I was cute, all the girls at school said so. I even had my pictures in magazines so part of the marketing would take care of itself. And besides how bad could an orphanage be if there’s a comic book about it?
“How do kids get to be adopted? I asked maybe a little too expectantly.
“Well,” my mom started “people who can’t have kids come by” then my stepfather cut her off laughing.
“He wants to be put up for adoption, he doesn’t give a shit how other kids get adopted” He told her.
“I want to be adopted too!” my sister said pushing her face next to mine up by the front seat. She always did this. I never got to do anything fun without her trying to butt in.
And if she butt in...”I want to get adopted too!” Bubba jumped in. I don’t think he even heard the conversation but it didn’t matter to him if we were volunteering to have all of our teeth yanked out , he wasn’t about to let us do something without him.
“Sit back in the seat. Nobody is being put up for adoption” Our mother said ending it. I could tell by her voice we hurt her feelings somehow so I tried to fix it.
“Mom if I got adopted I would still come visit you sometimes” I offered.
“I would still live with you” Becky said trying to one up me.
“Nobody would adopt you anyway. You’re too ugly and skinny” I told her.
She started crying “Mom, he said I’m too ugly to get adopted”
“It doesn’t matter since nobody is being put up for adoption. Now sit back and shut up before I come back there”. she said.
We sat back and Becky whispered too low for the front seat to hear “Ha Ha she said you’re not getting adopted”
I whispered back “ha ha she thinks you’re skinny and ugly”
We knew we had pushed it too far to fight loud anymore. Our moms face was red and she was obviously mad. My stepfather though was smiling. He either thought it was funny or was thinking that maybe they shouldn’t be so hasty about this whole adoption thing. I took note thinking that, in this at least, he may be my ally.