The album held hundreds of pictures. Polaroids and photo lab developed. Candid amateur shots and old sepia hued professional portraits. Every one of them, the subject is someone I’m related to. Somehow.
A great great great uncle in Union Army uniform. My Mother’s cousin with long greasy hair and a bright poncho. Some guy with some woman and some child standing in front of some house, all of us sharing some DNA. Dad, with a crew cut and a football.
And on every page a half dozen relatives, though few of us have the same last name. How I’m a Stevenson even though I’m just as much a Goldman. How my Mother’s a Goldman even though she’s just as much whatever Grandma’s maiden name was. How I’m that too, even though I’ve got no idea what that is. But connected only to my Dad’s Dad’s Dad’s Dad. Even though dozens, hundreds of people are kin just as close.
A family tree, more like a family forest. Genetics losing out to tradition. Somewhere, a common ancestor.
Over a cup of pink grapefruit tea, one afternoon my neighbor told me he had engineered a half-chimpanzee half-human. A himp, he said, that’s what they called it. Same idea behind mules. And just the same, the himp ended up sterile.
But a mule serves a purpose, I said. The temperament of a donkey and the strength of a horse, a perfect pack animal. Whatever purpose could a himp serve? Why would you create such a thing? And my neighbor—a long retired government scientist, old and approaching senility—he said, because we could.
The creature made in a lab with beakers and microscopes. By people who wore baggy white scrubs with baggy white caps and thick plastic goggles and thought how not why. Implanted into the womb of a female chimp. Probably, he told me, it would have worked better with a human mother. The way a female horse carries the seed of a male donkey, the superior species allowing the fetus to develop within. Probably, he told me, that would have worked better. But a woman giving birth to such an abomination, it would have been cruel.
A freak of nature, I said. A freak of science, He said, if you need to be accurate. Nature gave us a common ancestor. Science, a common descendent.
Once a friend of mine—and maybe he was just an acquaintance—drunk he told me a secret. This was three in the morning, in the lounge of our college dormitory. Nursing the final third of a bottle of Southern Comfort. Mixed with Dr. Pepper it tasted just like bubble gum.
What he told me was, he had fallen in love with his cousin. And at this point maybe I should have up and left. Or said, bro you’ve had too much. Or just laughed real hearty and allowed him to play it like a joke. But instead I didn’t. I didn’t and instead I asked him, bro is she hot?
My acquaintance, he mostly ignored that. Instead he answered whatever question he wished I had asked. He said, we didn’t grow up together so it ain’t weird or nothing. He said, we met for the first time last summer, at a family reunion. He said, she’s like a stranger. Like a total stranger. Her being my cousin, it’s just a messed up coincidence.
So I told him, sure bro. And when he made me, I promised not to tell anyone. What he said was, it’s just a messed up conscience. What I think now, there’s something to be said for a common history.