Life with Theenie
A Sam Beale Story
by KJ Cartmell
June 2012 Edition
for all my cousins
Several years ago, a friend of mine asked me about what kind of limits I set for my kids in terms of television watching. I took a moderate line. "There are plenty of funny, interesting kid shows on TV right now. Let them watch a little, but set time limits. Make sure they are reading and playing outside." Then, I told her, "I covered this topic in one of my books," and I found her a copy of Life With Theenie.
Life With Theenie had gone unloved by a publishing world looking for the next Harry Potter. (Instead, I had written a version of Bridge to Terebithia in which nobody dies.) I wrote it in 2005, when my children were still quite young. I wanted to share my writing with them, but most everything I had written up to that point had been for adults. This book was for them. It remains a favorite of my daughter Summer, who drew the cover art.
Life With Theenie features the debut of one of my favorite characters, Sam Beale. Sam's story continues in my little novel The Trouble With Girls, available now at Amazon, and in the Kindle lending library. His cousin, Theenie, falls away from the later stories, but she emerges again under her proper name, as Liam Wren's girlfriend, Sadie Thompson. This edition, from 2012, contains one additional scene that was not in earlier drafts.
This was the book that I gave to my friend. She took it home, set it on the kitchen counter and started cooking dinner. Her daughter found it, took it back to her room and began reading it. My friend never saw the manuscript again. She told me later, apologetically, "My daughter read it, and now she's sharing it with her friends. She hasn't even let me look at it yet!"
I was, of course, thrilled. I hadn't written this book for moms, after all, but for little girls to enjoy. I loved how my young reader was pushing this book on her friends. Also, I sensed that she was making a determined effort to keep this book from her mother. She had tapped into Life With Theenie's quietly subversive elements. "If Mom only knew what was in this . . . ."
So, for other readers out there, young and old, looking for something a little different, a sweet story about cousins that gently mocks suburban life here in the United States, I offer you this book. I hope you enjoy it.
I was really not looking forward to summer vacation. All anyone could talk about that whole May was my brother Dustin’s baseball tournaments. Dusty was the shortstop of the Peace Valley All Star baseball team, under 14. They were gonna tour the whole summer, playing tournaments with all star teams from other cities around the state. They were even going to Southern California, to Disneyland. But mostly they were gonna play baseball. And I was expected to tag along and be the cheering section.
Well, I hated baseball.
I know, you can’t be an American and hate baseball, but I did. It can be the most boring game in the world to watch, and I was gonna have to watch, like, a hundred games all in one summer. And cheer on my stupid big brother Dusty who doesn’t even like me.
Now, I’m the kind of guy who keeps things to himself. No need saying any more than I need to. But when my mom, all bubbly about Dusty’s future baseball glory, said to me, “Are you excited about summer vacation, Sammy?” I said, “No.”
Then she had to look at me with her ‘concerned mom’ face and say, “What’s the matter, honey?”
“I don’t wanna be dragged around from town to town just to watch Dusty play baseball!”
She gave me a hug and a kiss on the top of my head. She probably would have kept hugging me and kissing me except I squirmed out of her arms and glared at her. Mom forgets that I’m ten now, and I don’t like to be kissed. “Why didn’t you say anything sooner, honey? We can make other plans for you. Maybe Grandma can take you.”
Great, I thought. Instead of watching a hundred baseball games, I can watch four old ladies play bridge all summer. “Can’t I stay with one of my friends?”
“Sammy, we wouldn’t want to impose on a family like that.” She smiled kindly at me. “I’ll talk to your father. I’m sure we’ll think of something.”
That weekend, we went to visit Grandma. She lives in a little house an hour or so away by car. She’s my mom’s mother. All my other grandparents are dead except her. Grandma’s pretty with-it for an old person. She drives herself around when she wants to go places, and she has a part time job at the local library. When we visit, she always makes us sandwiches and jello salad. I hate jello salad, but I always eat a little so I don’t hurt Grandma’s feelings.
That day it was just Mom and me visiting, because, wonder of wonders, Dusty had baseball practice, and Dad had to stick around to pick him up. So there was just three of us for lunch. I ate my sandwich, picked at my jello, and waited for them to get around to the subject of what I might be doing once school got out.
Finally, Grandma looked at me and said, “So, Samuel, you don’t want to go along with Dustin on his grand tour.” I shook my head. She looked at my mom and said, “What alternatives have you and David discussed.”
“I was hoping you would take him.”
Grandma gave me a thin smile, then turned back to Mom. “Janet, Samuel needs to be with children his own age.” I grinned. No bridge games for me!
Mom said, “I guess one of us could go with Dusty and the other stay home with Sammy.”
Grandma leaned back in her chair and brought her fingers together, like she was praying. “Why don’t you take him to Tonya’s?” Mom didn’t say anything to this, but she looked like she was gonna throw up. Tonya was her sister, someone we hardly ever saw. “I know,” Grandma continued, “you haven’t kept in touch. As adults, you’ve made different choices. And as children, you fought like cats. Lord, how I remember,” she added, looking up as if God was just passing by and eavesdropping on us or something. “Athena is Samuel’s age. She is bright and inquisitive, but she has been in the company of adults for far too long.” She emphasized those last three words. “It would be good for her to have a playmate for the summer. Tonya and George have a large property in the valley. It’s a ranch of sorts. Does that sound like fun?” Grandma asked me. I shrugged. She turned to Mom and said, “If you like, I will call Tonya and see if she is interested.”
“I don’t know,” said Mom nervously. “I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“She’s your sister, Janet. Samuel is a well-behaved boy. I’m sure it will be no imposition.”
“I need to talk to David about this,” Mom said firmly.
When we got home, Mom told Dad about Grandma’s plan. Dad called me into the kitchen where they were talking and asked me, “What would you like to do? Would you like to go visit your cousin, assuming they invite you?”
I shrugged, and then said, “Yes.”
“All right, then,” said Dad. “I think it’ll be a good experience for him.”
“Why don’t you run along,” said Mom. “I need to discuss this further with your father.” I slunk away. Mom still did not think this was a good idea.
I went back to my room. On the way, I poked my head in Dusty’s room. His room is always messy. I never let my room get that way. His baseball cleats, fielding glove and his little batting gloves were spread all over his room in random places. He was lying on his unmade bed, staring up at the ceiling.
Over his bed is a gigantic picture of Derek Jeter, the Yankee shortstop. My brother doesn’t have an original thought in his entire brain. The Yankees don’t even play in our state. He only roots for them ‘cause they always win.
Dusty was looking at me now in that ‘Why are you here? Why do you even exist?’ way that big brothers have. So I said, “I might be going to Aunt Tonya’s for the summer.”
“I just thought you’d wanna know.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
I ignored the fact that he was being mean while I was being nice, and asked, “Have we met cousin Athena?”
“Yes, you dork. She’s been to our house.”
“Really? When did we have them over?”
Dusty was looking up at the ceiling again. “Not last Thanksgiving, but the one before that.”
“Oh.” There were a lot of people over that day, aunts and uncles from Dad’s side, as well as Grandma. When I thought about it, Aunt Tonya was there too. I spent most of the day playing with cousin’s Danny and Freddy. There were girl cousins there too, but I didn’t play with any of them. “Which one was she?”
“The one with long black hair. I’m sure Mom has a picture of her if you really need to see it.” He cracked a grin. “I heard she’s an annoying little know-it-all. You’re gonna have fun this summer.”
Great, I thought. “Grandma says they have a ranch. Maybe I can play with the pigs or something.”
That night, Aunt Tonya called. First, Mom talked to her. Then, after a few minutes, she handed the phone to me. “Hullo?” I said.
A cheerful voice said, “Hi. This is your Aunt Tonya. Do you remember me?”
“Well, I wanted to tell you myself that we would love to have you over at the ranch this summer. Would you like to come?”
So in the end, it was up to me. In the background, I could hear a girl’s voice, excited and high pitched, asking over and over, “Is he coming? Is he coming?” I tried to picture the girl with long black hair that had been to my house a year and a half ago, but I couldn’t. Her excitement, though, gave me a warm feeling inside. She wants to see me, I thought. Not Dusty. Me. “Yeah,” I said. “I wanna come.”
“Great! We’ll see you then, a week or so after school gets out. Now give me back to your mom, and let me work out the details with her.”
Later that night, I talked again with my parents, this time, in their bedroom. Mom still looked nervous about this whole thing. “Now, Aunt Tonya and Uncle George, well, they’ve made different choices than we have,” she told me. “They’re going to do things differently than what you’re used to.”
Dad chimed in with, “So, son, as the saying goes, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do!’” That’s my dad, always quick with a useless cliché. Mom gave him a look that let me know this wasn’t the advice she was trying to give me.
I shoved my hands in my sweats and gave her my ‘bored, tough’ look. “They’re family,” I said. “I’ll be fine.” Then I walked out of the room.