Travels with Cookie and Uncle Riley by Linda Bethea


Even though I highly admired Cookie and Uncle Riley’s novel philosophy that even children and animals had rights, their eccentric behavior made them pretty weak champions. The circus started as they came creaking up in an overloaded, disposable vehicle, always at least thirty years old, held together with twisted clothes hangers and chewing gum, dust fogging, engine backfiring,.  My cousin, Barbie and a few dogs always came flying out before it rocked to a stop. My personal favorite was a red and white Ford station wagon with holes in the floorboard that allowed dust to fog up and settle in the cargo area. After a while, it collected sufficient dirt to support a nice weed crop, watered by the rain pouring in the broken back window. Uncle Riley to care to pull in where he could count on coasting into a tree with his dented left front fender if the brakes failed again. He was proud of his unwrinkled right front fender and had a matching one for the left he planned to put on whenever he got the brake problem worked out.  They hauled enough luggage for three families, even though there were only three of them.

Whenever his mechanical abilities failed, Uncle Riley just retired the latest exhausted wreck to his back yard to languish with the rest of the automobile carcasses he scavenged to keep his current wreck running. He was always on the look-out for a “totaled-out”  good wreck he could keep running for a few days, months, or years, using parts from his retired, but not neglected, backyard collection. Though Cookie and Uncle Riley looked like a travelling asylum, they were both well-educated and held responsible jobs. They felt travel was very important to Cousin Barbie’s education, so they went all over the country in their crazy, junked up vehicle, patching it up on street corners from New York City to San Francisco.  Uncle Riley was a mathematician for the federal government and Cookie was director of a large public school district. They were left-wing in their philosophy but politically lazy. Had they been born a generation later and had a little more energy, they would have made excellent hippies.

One hot July day, Cookie and Uncle Riley rolled up in an almost new vehicle. It couldn’t have been more than eight years old, only ninety thousand miles on the odometer. Uncle Riley proudly gave us the tour including functional brakes, tail lights, turn signals, and horn, a novelty for him. Three windows were perfect, and the fourth could be dragged up by hand. They wouldn’t need windows in summer, anyway, and he had a good replacement waiting at home. All the seats had fresh upholstery. This was the car’s maiden voyage and it was still amazingly clean, with only a few scattered candy wrappers, apple cores, and empty bottles.

They spent the night, revealing their grand plan. Cookie wanted Mother to go with them to visit a cousin in Nebraska. They would cover all the expenses. It wouldn’t cost Mother (or Daddy) a dime. Of course, Mother couldn’t consider going, “I can’t leave the house and the kids.”

Phyllis and I chimed in, “Go, go!! We’ll take care of everything!!!” Surprisingly, Daddy agreed, hooked by, “it wouldn’t cost a dime.” She had been after him to take her to visit Cousin Nellie in Nebraska, so this would get him off the hook. Finally, all Cookies’ insistence and our pushing got to Mother. She had wanted to visit Cousin Nelly for years and knew this would probably be her only chance. Uncle Riley’s new car was the final seduction. It did look like it could make the trip. She didn’t feel comfortable going off with no money at all, so she furtively dug out the twenty-one dollars and seventy-four cents she had managed to squirrel back for Christmas, reasoning she wouldn’t be too much of a burden if she ate a pack of peanut butter crackers for lunch every day

Mother was ready to go before daylight. Long after eight o’clock, Cookie was still dawdling over her third cup of coffee while Uncle Riley cursed in frustration, trying to get Barbie out of bed. Barbie was accustomed to staying up as late as she wanted and languishing late into the day. Uncle Riley’s cursing was imaginative, employing phrases I hadn’t heard before or since. There were lots of references to dogs, defecation, fertilizer, miscegenation, intercourse, and relationships between species peppered in with the usual profanity. He kept it low enough that my parents couldn’t be sure what he’d said, but the kids all listened and enjoyed. When Cookie had had her fill of coffee and biscuits, she went to rouse Barbie from her slumber as gently as possible, then, tried to coax the tubby ten-year-old to eat. That Barbie had it made.  Mother was always delighted if one of us were off our feed, hoping there might be a bit left for the next meal.

At ten-thirty, it looked like they might be leaving soon. By eleven, a full six hours after they planned, they pulled out, every inch of the car packed. Mother looked small and worried stuffed in the back seat with Barbie, Barbie’s huge, hypoallergenic pillow, and Prissy, their pesky little Chihuahua mix. As they pulled out the end of our long drive, Mother found out Cookie had coaxed Barbie out of bed with the promise that she could put her pillow in Mother’s lap and finish her nap. Terrified Barbie would starve, Cookie had packed a breakfast. She must have promised Prissy, she could hop on Mother’s shoulder, hang her head out the window and bark at everything they passed, because that’s how it went for the next two-thousand miles.

The next couple of hours were fairly pleasant with Barbie awakening only long enough to whine and rearrange her massive pillow in Mother’s lap. Barbie’s long hair had never been cut and hung to her waist in fat braids. Cookie was always terrified the frail child would catch cold so she rarely shampooed Barbie. It was too much trouble to do Barbie’s braids daily, so Cookie just smoothed the top and brushed the tips below the bands. When it got too oily, she just worked in a little alcohol to cut the oil. Fine theory, but it didn’t work. The breeze from the window whipped Mother’s face with strands of oily, alcohol-scented hair. All this was mighty cozy for Mother’s taste in the heat of July, but Cookie told her not to worry, Barbie was comfortable. After a couple of hours Barbie woke and fell upon the breakfast Cookie had packed, biscuits full of syrup and sausage. Syrup and biscuits don’t travel well. Before long, the backseat was full of sticky crumbs and smeared syrup. The upside was, Prissy abandoned her post on Mother’s shoulder long enough to scurry around and scarf down those crumbs not crushed into the nice upholstery. Mother spent a good bit of the morning of the first day ruminating over which she despised more, Barbie or Prissy.

Uncle Riley was obsessed over not over-paying for gasoline, scanning both sides of the road for cheap gasoline prices. Not willing to settle for “not too bad,” he snubbed station after station looking for the cheapest gas since 1950. He would finally coast into a last resort station, just as the car coughed, sputtered, and coasted to a stop. Fuming, he’d pay the “%TT#@(*” price they demanded and get just a dollar’s worth, because he wasn’t about to be robbed. Meanwhile, Cookie and Barbie made leisurely use of the facilities. After a half-hour or so, they’d be on their way, having loaded up on vending machine snacks, and free paper towels. They put lots of things in the car, but didn’t take much out. When Mother tried to gather up stray napkins, wrappers, and crumbs, they didn’t seem to notice. Invariably, they’d also tanked up on drinks, ensuring the need for another stop an hour down the road, about the time the dollars’ worth of gas was gone, repeating the stop as often as necessary. Whenever Uncle Riley spotted cheap gasoline, his adrenaline kicked in. He’d tear madly across lanes of traffic; make insane U-turns, whatever it took to get to his heart’s desire. Safety, be damned!!

By the evening of the first day, Mother knew she’d made a ghastly mistake, but there was no way out. She was on her way to Nebraska with maniacs. Relieved when they started looking for motels, she could at least look forward to a peaceful night’s sleep. Uncle Riley wanted cheap motels as much as he wanted cheap gas. Barbie wanted a motel with a pool. He’d slow down and survey motels as they approached towns. Even though she was only ten, Barbie ruled the roost and vetoed each one they checked out. Cookie backed her up and they drove long after dark until Uncle Riley finally got enough and furiously pulled into the next one they came to. It was a real dump, just a little tourist cabin, with one double bed, a tiny bathroom, and a roll-away bed. Roaches had made themselves at home. With just two beds for the four of them, there were just inches between them in the tiny room. All through the long night, Mother shoved Barbie off her as they sweltered together in their tiny bed rolled up like two hotdogs in a bun, counting the minutes till they could be on the road again.

Barbie was forcibly dragged from slumber around seven-thirty the next morning for breakfast. Uncle Riley pulled into a Mom and Pop Diner and everybody ordered breakfast except Barbie who was punishing them for getting her up so early. After everyone else’s meal arrived, she relented and ordered biscuits, syrup, and sausage, amid Cookie’s “Hallelujah’s” and Mother’s silent deprecations. Uncle Riley fumed, cursed, finally going out to check out the car while Barbie ate. After nine-o’clock, they hit the road for day two; Barbie with another bag leftover biscuits wallowing her pillow in Mother’s lap.  The effervescent Prissy sat on her shoulder, yapping madly.

Mid-morning the skies blackened, thunder boomed, and it was obvious rain was on the way. Mother tentatively mentioned her non-functional back window, but Uncle Riley was nonchalant. If it started to rain, he’d pull over and work the window up. When the first spatters fell, Mother mentioned the window again. “This is just a light shower.” he assured her. When the down pour started, everyone else rolled their windows up and Mother scooted as far to the center as she could, furious at being drenched. Eventually, Uncle Riley pulled under the awning of a station with cheap gasoline, got out and worked the window up, cursing the whole time. Mother dried her seat the best she could with some paper towels from the station bathroom, pulled a towel from her luggage to sit on, and made herself as comfortable as she could on the squishy seat, furious. There was no need for that type of stubborn, inconsiderate behavior!

The monsoon continued. It was humid and hot with the windows up, so Cookie and Uncle Riley adjusted the vents to maximize airflow. The vented air reaching the back-seat passengers was redolent with the nauseating odor of rotten meat. Barbie complained first. “Something stinks in here. I’m getting sick.”

Uncle Riley and Cookie didn’t smell a thing, but Barbie continued to complain about the horrible smell until she retched into a bag of leftover biscuits, then collapsed back on Mother, reeking of vomit. The rain slowed, and Cookie and Uncle Riley adjusted their windows so they could get a breeze. Mother tried to lower her window but it was stuck. The odor from the front seat was putrid as it mixed with the stench of vomit and sausage-biscuits. Never one to confront a problem head-on, Mother held her complaint as long as she could, finally venturing a possibility. “I smell something, too. Do you think someone could have left some food under the front seat and it went bad?” Uncle Riley looked straight ahead.

Finally, Cookie offered, “…….Well, Riley got a good deal on this car because our neighbor died in it, and they didn’t find his body for several days. Riley cleaned it up real good, and put in new upholstery. I’m sure the smell will wear off in a few days.”

Things went downhill from there. The quest for rock bottom gasoline prices and furious motel hunt of the night before was repeated. In Uncle Riley’s desperation at Barbie’s repeated thumbs down on all motels they passed, they finally coasted into a combination motel/all night tattoo parlor just as they ran out of gas. They all ran from the car, hoping not to be shot or caught up in the sex trade. This time there was only one bed. Of course, Cookie and Uncle Riley got the bed. Barbie got the sofa while Mother insisted on sleeping on the floor, figuring she was less likely to be killed by stray gunfire. Mother was exhaustified(exhausted and terrified) but got a brief nap toward daylight once she figured the criminals had finished their work.

When Barbie was finally pried from bed the next morning, she barricaded herself in the motel bathroom while Uncle Riley took a gas can and hiked off looking for a gas station. When he got back an hour or so later and announced he was ready to go, Cookie starting trying to convince Barbie to get out of the tub and get dressed. Through Uncle Riley’s cursing, they all heard a big “Kawhump….whump….whump” resonate through the room. Both Cookie and Uncle Riley rushed to the bathroom calling, “Barbie, Barbie, Are you okay?” No answer. Of course, Barbie was lying against the locked door as they pounded and yelled, “Are you okay? Are you okay?”

After an eon, Barbie weakly answered, “Nooooooo…..” in a pitiably frail voice, but eventually rallied enough to unlock the door allow her wet, naked heftiness to be dragged to the bed where Cookie frantically examined her for signs of life. Abruptly, Barbie realized she was hungry, and they decided to go to breakfast, shelving her health concerns for a while. Amidst all the ruckus of piling into the car, it became obvious Prissy was in an interesting situation. Never much of a dog-lover, the idea of riding hundreds of miles with Prissy in this condition was appalling. Mother was furious!

At the café, Barbie ordered the “Lumberjack Special,” six pancakes with extra syrup, sausages, and eggs with a side of fries. Because she was starving, she loaded up on donuts while the rest drank coffee and waited for their orders. Barbara drank milk, inhaled donuts and cranked up her whiner. Eventually taking a break from whining to examine her sore head, she found a goose egg. Cookie panicked, demanding Uncle Riley find an emergency room instantaneously, directed Mother finish her breakfast. They’d be back to get her. Between the slamming of the restaurant door and sound of their engine cranking, it occurred to Mother she was going to get stuck with the price of three enormous breakfasts in addition to her own miserly one. She rushed out to catch them only to be left in a cloud of dust and the rotten odor of decay. She slunk in back in to find their enormous breakfasts waiting. While she had ordered a subsistence breakfast ($1.21) coffee, two eggs, over-easy and two pieces of dry toast, Cookie and Uncle Riley had prepared to fortify themselves with gravy, biscuits, grits, ham and eggs and extra takeout for Barbie.

As Mother lingered over breakfast, sipped innumerable cups of coffee and waited miserably, the sullen waitress kept a watchful eye on her to make sure she didn’t try to skip out on the ticket. Unobtrusively as possible, she peeked at the ticket, almost $19.00, half as much as she spent on a week’s supply of groceries at home! She pulled out her purse to count her money, praying she had enough, wanting to kick herself for buying that tube of toothpaste and pack of Juicy Fruit yesterday. There were a couple of wrinkled fives, several ones, and a great deal of it was in change. It was tricky trying to count it without drawing unwelcome attention. S&H Green Stamps sifted to the floor. What a shame she couldn’t work up a barter. Just in case she hadn’t attracted enough attention already, Mother dropped her purse and change rolled all over the restaurant. As she scurried to gather it, a bratty three-year-old tried to pick up a nickel. While she didn’t actually step on his hand, it was close. She had nowhere near enough to pay the tab.

People came and went. The waitress cleared the other tables and pointedly checked on Mother a few times, staring at the uneaten breakfasts and serving her enough coffee refills to float a battleship. Mother dawdled as long as she dared, hoping her nemeses would come back to retrieve her before the arrest. She occupied her time well, alternating between enumerating Cookie’s and Uncle Riley’s craziness, beating herself up for being idiotic enough to go on a trip with them, and trying to come up with sanitary products for a dog using stolen restaurant napkins. All that coffee finally paid off. Concerned the waitress would think she was trying to skip out on the check, Mother asked if she could leave her things at the table while she freshened up. “Of course,” answered the waitress snidely, not quite daring her to try climbing out the bathroom window.

When Cookie and Uncle Riley eventually returned from the Emergency Room, they paid the tab and were on the road again. Determined not to spend the day with Prissy dripping on her shoulder and Barbie’s hair slapping her in the face, Mother wedged herself tightly against her suitcase hoping to keep them off her. Barbie was deterred, but Prissy was athletic and totally unconcerned at Mother’s opinion of dogs in heat.

No longer grateful for Cookie’s and Uncle Riley’s generous invitation, Mother’s good nature was wearing thin. She hated Barbie and Prissy. The oppressing heat (both kinds), the smell (ditto), and the company were making her critical. The best was yet to come when they got stuck in road construction in a crowded residential area of Omaha, Nebraska that afternoon. Traffic was at a standstill. At 104 degrees, the odor of decomposition mixed with exhaust had peeked.  Prissy’s news had spread. Trapped in construction, dogs were circling the car, trying to jump in. Uncle Riley was cursing and driving as fast as a person can in a one-lane construction zone. Everyone else in the car was able to roll up their windows to keep the dogs out, but one valiant fellow jumped in through Mother’s stuck window, over her suitcase to claim his prize. Down to one lane of slow-moving traffic, all the loser dogs running alongside the stinking car, barking and trying to get in to join the party. When they finally got clear of construction, Cookie and Uncle Riley (animal lovers) made a detour to get the winning dog somewhere back near his old neighborhood to expel him, though he felt the honeymoon was far from over. He had enjoyed his romantic limousine ride. It looked like they might actually be on their way again when Uncle Riley spotted a veterinary office and whipped through three lanes of traffic to get Prissy some special care. Even though that killed a couple of more hours and their travel budget, the hormone changes, anesthesia, and post-surgical soreness did make Prissy a better travel companion.

The financial set-back was concerning. They ate Beanie-Weenies for dinner, put everyone on the lookout for cheap gas prices, and drove through the night to get to Cousin Nellie’s house. As they approached around two in the morning, Cookie hesitantly mentioned, “Now, I need to warn you. Nellie is not a very good housekeeper.” This was pretty jarring news since Cookie’s own house looked like she got regular deliveries from the garbage dump last time Mother was invited in.

“Not a very good housekeeper,” was an extreme compliment. Nellie was a hoarder. There was a path leading from the front door to the kitchen. The stove was buried under debris. The door hung crazily open, revealing a pan of prehistoric barbecue. Every surface in the kitchen was totally covered with empty food containers, dirty dishes, and assorted trash. Maggots lounged in cereal bowls. Only one chair was available. Greasy curtains of cobwebs hung in the corners, ancient insect traps. Even Cookie and Uncle Riley seemed amazed at how the mess had grown since their last visit several years earlier. Nellie showed Cookie and Uncle Riley to a room where a cot had been cleared off and clean sheets provided. She thought Mother and Barbie could sleep on the sofa in the living room, the only piece of visible furniture in that room. Nellie was optimistic thinking Cookie and Uncle Riley could share the cot. Uncle Riley took one look and dragged Barbie’s inflatable pool lounger from the car, saying it would do just fine. Apparently, it didn’t because his cursing woke Mother repeatedly.  He inflated the mattress several times during the night, swearing  he’d have slept better on a &^%$)! mortician’s slab.

Even though Mother had been longing to see Nellie, the overwhelming mess cured that. Thankfully, it was summer, and they were able to spend all their waking hours outdoors. Nellie and her husband Wayne devoted their time and energy to their manicured lawn with lush landscaping. They had cookouts at home and picnics at the nearby lake instead of visiting indoors and cooking at home. The tidy façade of the charming cottage and lovely yard belied the catastrophe indoors. All went well till the morning of the third day when Wayne took them all on a tractor ride and Mother got bumped off. A trip to the Emergency Room confirmed a broken tail-bone. The doctor sent her out with an inflatable donut and a perfect excuse to go home. Cookie, Uncle Riley, and even Barbie were thrilled to cut the visit short. They contrived sad faces to wave goodbye to Nellie and Wayne as they escaped southward.

Well, the broken tail-bone wasn’t a total joy. Mother reclined her seat till she found a position where she could ride without screaming at every bump and curve in the road. Prissy was still sore from her recent surgery, so she wasn’t jumping around a lot either. Unable to sit upright due the pain in her rear, Mother couldn’t even enjoy the scenery, but was still able to take full advantage of the nauseating scent of cadaveric soup. They were all still on the lookout for cheap gas due to the Prissy’s unexpected surgery and Barbie’s visit to the Emergency Room. Uncle Riley was very concerned about “making good time,” so he drove as late as possible, dragged Barbie out of bed early over Cookie’s objections, made them get breakfast out of a service station vending machine, and pushed on South. The second night they slept in the hot, stinking car because Uncle Riley drove way too late to get a motel. The mosquitoes feasted, but everyone else was in misery. Barbie didn’t even have to get up the next morning. They were on the road long before daylight. Cookie was getting testy as Uncle Riley wrenched parental control. She was the mother and the educator. This just wasn’t right.

As they drove on, Uncle Riley dropped a little bomb. He’d been having chest pain, again. Again!!!! Mother didn’t like to ask nosy questions, but “How long had he been having chest pain?”

 “Well….not long, occasionally for just a few months, but it had been really bad since last night.”

Cookie broke the news matter of factly…..”Well, Riley had been having chest pain for a few months and was scheduled for open heart surgery a month or so ago, but he’d quit smoking and felt so much better, they’d decided to take this trip first.”

Even though Uncle Riley wanted to make good time, he pulled over a couple of times to get out take NTG and lie down and rest in the grass on the side of the road. Cookie was so complacently sure Riley would get them home okay that Mother wanted to slap her. She hoisted herself gingerly off her inflatable donut and hobbled over to see if Uncle Riley wanted her to drive.

“You might ought’a try it. I was worried if I’d kill us all. If I live long enough to get home, I’m driving straight to the hospital. You know Cookie can’t drive, since her diabetes got bad. ” She tried to sit in the driver’s seat, but couldn’t bear any weight on her damaged rear end, devastated there was no way she could recline and drive. After riding two-thousand miles in a stinking dead man’s car with a dog in heat and the most repulsive kid in history, the visits to the Emergency Room, the miserable condition of Katie’s house, the broken tail bone, and now Riley’s chest pain, she was whipped. Hobbling away to the back of the car where she could bawl in private, she gave it her all: big, fat, stupid-looking tears jumped out of her eyes, splashing onto her dusty shoes. Her nose stopped up and her eyes got red. Wishing she’d never been born, she wept great, gasping snotty sobs, not caring who saw. Her life wasn’t worth living! She wallowed lower and lower, wishing she’d never been born. Her family was all crazy and if Bill ever found out about all this, her life wouldn’t be worth living. After this mess what else could happen?

God must have been listening. Hearing blast of a rifle at short range, she dropped to the ground and felt agonizing pain in her lower back. Knowing she had to have been hit at close range, and was surely done for, she waited for death silently where she lay. I’d be glad my misery was over, if I weren’t worried about my kids. What kind of a life will they have without me? Bill will probably marry a young floozy and their lives will be awful. Oh, Lord! Don’t let him dump them on his mama to raise.

Amidst her heavy thoughts, she was interrupted by Riley, who been rallied by the explosion and arisen from his grassy bower to amble over to check his back tires. Well, #$&@#$ ——-@#$, I was hoping that back right would hold till we got to your house and Bill could change it for me. The left rear is slick, and I only have one spare.

The irony of the situation hit her. The “gunshot” that felled her had only been a blowout! In her misery, the bizarre situation got funnier and funnier. Laughing was killing her back, so she tried to pull herself to her feet as she laughed, crossing her legs to keep from wetting her pants. A truck with a couple of teenage boys pulled over as she struggled to regain her feet.  Uncle Riley rubbed his left arm, telling her he was sorry he couldn’t help her.  A passing pickup truck with a couple of good ol’ boys and a hound in back whipped around and came back to rescue them, getting them all fixed in less than five minutes. They seemed to enjoy the opportunity to help out.  Uncle Riley felt bad he couldn’t pay them, so he pressed a couple of cans of Beanie Weenies and all but one can of Prissy’s dog food on them.  The Good Samaritans seemed well-pleased with the offering.

Kathleen struggled into the back seat collapsing on her cushion, leaving Uncle Riley to figure it out. She considered calling Daddy to come get them but decided she preferred a quick death by angina-induced car crash to a slow death by humiliation. Somehow, Uncle Riley pulled himself together and made the last two hundred miles, slick tire and all. True to his word, when they got to our house Uncle Riley gave Cookie and Barbie ten minutes to use the bathroom before he headed back to Texas and straight to the hands of the cardiac surgeon.


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