Topher Payne’s Domestically Disturbed

Playwright and writer Topher PaynePreppy offered our guest room to a coworker in town from Miami, meaning there’s even more conversations than usual around our house involving phrases like “loss prevention” and “opportunities.”

“Opportunities” in particular is a major buzz word at his company. It’s a euphemism for “total fail,” but they’re savvy enough not to say that. But I’ve been with my husband long enough to translate what he means when he says there’s “opportunities” in our kitchen sink.

I’ve been spending my evenings playing Auntie Mame, which also sounds like a euphemism, but is in this case literally what I’m up to. As proud as I am of my career, I do hate it when I’m dressed like a lady the first time I meet one of his coworkers. But some things just cannot be helped.

When I finally joined Preppy and his coworker for dinner on my night off, she asked how we met, and we told that story — we’re both from Mississippi, met in Atlanta, a flat tire was a major plot point. When our guest expressed surprise that we didn’t meet back home, we got to tell the story of how we didn’t meet, which frankly is so much better.

It all went down the first time our extended families got together for one of my plays, and I was at the Best Western trying to prep my mother-in-law for what we lovingly call “The Mississippi Hootenanny,” a mix of about 30 relatives who caravan whenever I have an opening night and take over a moderately priced hotel. Preppy and I grew up about two hours away from each other in Mississippi, so we were naming everybody off to see if his Mama knew any of ‘em.

“My Aunt Ellen is the only other actor in the family. She did plays in high school, always played the maid,” I told her. “One of my cousins told me she was in blackface, but she denies it. And my Aunt Grace, she’s married to my Uncle Big Bub.”

“Father of Little Bub,” Preppy clarified. “Big Bub’s real name is Roger. They used to live in Vicksburg, you and Dad might have known them. Roger and Grace Patterson?”

My mother-in-law’s face turned gray. She stood, turned toward the door, then turned back.

“Mom,” said Preppy. “What’s wrong?”

“Roger and Grace Patterson are your aunt and uncle?”

“Oh God,” I said. “Did Uncle Big Bub sue you? He likes to sue people. I’m so sorry. My family has weird hobbies.”

“No, no…  They were divorced at one time, yes?”

I nodded. It was back in the early ‘90s. Aunt Grace got a little house, which I was allowed to visit once. She made Frito Pie, which I think proves she was keeping herself together pretty well. People in total crisis don’t make Frito Pie. They go to Sonic or something. About two years later, she and Uncle Big Bub remarried, and now we refer to this entire episode as “Aunt Grace’s Vacation.” 

“Son, you remember when your Daddy and I were separated for a bit. I dated that nice man who had the pool and the catfish pond? That was … Topher’s uncle.”

I was sworn to secrecy, so I only told my mother and sister, who then proceeded to tell the rest of the family, but that’s totally not my fault. It has become one of our favorite stories. Preppy and his mother are mortified by this, but I can’t help it if my family has opportunities when it comes to discretion.

It just serves to prove that our happiness is so ridiculously dependent upon timing. Little things like a flat tire, or arriving at a party at just the right moment. And sometimes bigger stuff: Had that brief courtship not ended with Preppy’s parents reconciling and my aunt and uncle remarrying, things could have been quite different. My husband would instead be my cousin.

And if that ain’t the most perfect damn love story for two Mississippi sissies, I simply cannot imagine what is.

Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at