Scenes from Thanksgiving

So as usual, I headed to my hometown of Porter’s Bay for Thanksgiving. My parents hosted, as always. It was a quick couple of days, producing a handful of memorable moments…

***

Thursday 9:00 am

I can already smell my mom’s baked beans (cooked in a crock in the oven overnight) which has signaled the arrival of Thanksgiving for as long as I can remember. After finishing my morning ablutions, I head downstairs to find everything following its usual pattern: Mom is working in the kitchen, Dad’s parked in front of the TV, watching the Macy’s parade, my brother Owen and his family are still crashing around upstairs. Even though Owen’s family only lives a few miles away, they sometimes spend the night before Thanksgiving at my parents’ place. It means I get to spend more time around my niece and nephew, or as I like to think of them “The Greatest Argument in Favor of Vasectomy Yet Invented by Man.” I join my father on the couch.

“When did this stop being a parade?” he asks, “58 Broadway songs and they’re all lip-synched.”

“You’d rather look at the Woody Woodpecker balloon?”

“I’d rather look at ANYTHING other than this. They advertise this thing as a parade. It feels like a fraud.”

“Kevin’s a lawyer,” I say, speaking of my older brother, “Maybe he can sue them.”

“Wouldn’t that be a waste of time?”

“A bigger waste than sitting in front of the TV complaining?”

Dad grabs his newspaper. “I’m going for a walk.”

I’ve known for years that “walk” in my dad’s parlance means heading to the vacant room over the garage (the one Kevin moved into during his senior year) and getting away from the family. The way he tucks the newspaper under his arm tells me what he’s going to be doing up there.

***

Thursday 9:10 am

My nephew, Ty, sits in one corner of the living room, his face buried in his laptop. He’s 10 years old and so into computers, tablets and cell phones that he’d view the eyeball-torture in scene in A Clockwork Orange as less dystopian nightmare and more wish fulfillment. From somewhere upstairs, the voice of my sister-in-law, Mary, cuts through the air.

“TY! GET UP HERE AND GET DRESSED!”

“IN A MINUTE!”

“NOW!”

Through what I imagine is a hideous act of will, Ty backs away from the computer, though his eyes don’t leave it.

“Uncle Joe?” he asks, “I’m uploading a video to You Tube. Could you keep an eye on my laptop? If a pop up screen comes up, let me know.”

“Got it.”

***

Thursday 9:12 am

My niece, Natalie, comes into the living room and announces: “I can’t find any underwear.”

“Uh-huh,” I say, “So you decided to come downstairs naked?”

“I can’t find any underwear.”

I can see where this discussion is going.

***

Thursday 9:15 am

Ty comes back downstairs and looks at his laptop. “You didn’t see a pop up, right, uncle Joe?”

“Didn’t see one.”

He levels a look at me. “You didn’t look, did you?”

“Not even once.”

***

Thursday 9:25 am

Natalie plops next to me on the couch, plunks her chin into her hands and scrutinizes me. She does this from time to time and I’ve never been comfortable with it. I can’t tell if her thoughts are closer to Punky Brewster or the kid from The Bad Seed. Seriously, it could go either way.

Finally, she speaks. “Uncle Joe, why aren’t you married?”

I take a look around for her parents, but they’re nowhere to be found. Treacherous bastards.

“Well, that’s not an easy question,” I say, “I mean, to get married, you have to find someone you love and it has to be the right situation for both of you. And you have to agree on things that you want. And I, uh, I just haven’t found that person yet.”

I think that’s a pretty good answer. Not sure if it’s going to resonate with a five year old, but I’m hoping it’s enough to make this conversation go away. Instead, Natalie continues to stare at me (and I’m not sure she’s blinked yet.)

“Is it because you’re gay?” she asks.

“Wha…are…wha…”

“Because Mommy thinks you might be gay.”

“I, I don’t…”

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

***

Thursday 9:45 am

I follow my usual tradition of helping out Mom in the kitchen. This “help” takes the form of aimlessly stirring a few things and picking at the contents of the relish tray until Mom finally kicks me out of the kitchen. I’m not sure if she’s just never caught on to my scam or if this is HER tradition as well.

“Is somebody looking in on your kitties?” Mom asks.

It’s been three years since I adopted Lenny and Squiggy and my mother asks EVERY year if I’ve got someone to take care of them. I don’t know if she likes them that much or if she thinks they’re the closest thing to grandchildren she’s going to get from my branch of the family tree.

“Mike and Carol are going over to Lars’ place for an orphan’s Thanksgiving,” I say, “They’ll look in on Lenny and Squiggy.”

Mom nods, satisfied. I take the relish tray into the dining room. Owen, who’s apparently been eavesdropping, sidles up to me and smirks.

“Be honest,” he says, lowering his voice, “If you had a choice, you’d rather be with your friends today.”

“No way. This is my family. There’s no comparison.”

“You’re full of s**t. C’mon, be honest. It won’t hurt my feelings.”

“Yeah. NOW who’s full of s**t?”

***

Thursday 12:01 pm

I grab a beer from the fridge and stroll into the dining room. My father is at the liquor cabinet in the corner. I stroll up and discover him pouring a shot of whiskey. Rather than looking busted, he grabs another shot glass and holds the bottle toward me.

“A little bump?” he asks.

“Nah. It’s too early. I’m going to pace myself.”

At this point, we hear Mary and Ty screaming from the next room.

“TY, GET OFF THAT COMPUTER! NOW!”

“I SAID, IN A MINUTE!”

“THAT WAS TEN MINUTES AGO!”

Then Natalie starts crying, disturbed by the sheer volume of the conversation. Mary and Ty continue to negotiate via threats and stalling tactics, the volume turned up to 11 the whole time. I look back at my father.

“Set ’em up, barkeep.”

***

Thursday 12:15 pm

Mary’s and Ty’s argument has continued unabated and made as much headway as the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Owen is watching from the dining room while Dad and I set the table. He and his wife, Mary, have been together since they were in high school. It’s generally accepted that he couldn’t find his socks without her. However, if Mary has one tremendous drawback, it’s that she does not have a sense of humor that she’s aware of. (I once jokingly referred to her as Owen’s “Baby Mama” and the look she gave me caused me to sleep with one eye open for the rest of my visit.) Thus, she’s missing a crucial survival element for getting through these kinds of stressful situations.

“That’s it!” Mary shouts, “Next year, there will be NO technology! No laptop. No tablet. No cell phone. Nothing! You are going to socialize with your family!”

Now, that’s a noble goal, of course. The problem is that while Ty is highly functional, he’s still on the spectrum. Meaning his conversations involve only things that interest him (trains, cars, planes, the space program, video games, Star Trek, etc) and he talks about them in the kind of detail ONLY an expert in the field could possibly find interesting. To his credit, Owen is not clueless about this.

“Well, let’s not be hasty,” he says.

Mary starts to look his direction. Owen blunders on.

“I mean, we’ve got to let the kid be a kid.”

Mary’s now looking at him like he’s on the wrong end of the Nuremburg trials. Owen turns away and looks at my father.

“Dad, you still got that bottle of whiskey?”

“In the liquor cabinet. Don’t let your mother see you.”

“You’re the best.”

***

Thursday 12:20 pm

My phone buzzes in my pocket. It’s a text message from Andy, one of best friends in high school.

You want to get together later? If you don’t have plans with your family.

I watch Owen trying to reason with Mary, who’s ready to kill Ty, who’s annoyed with Natalie for no discernible reason. Meantime, my parents are hiding out in the kitchen. I punch in a return text.

Dear God, yes.

***

Thursday 12:45 pm

My dad’s just gotten off back-to-back phone calls with my brother Kevin (checking in from California) and my uncle Mel (calling in from rural Minnesota). As Dad pours us another belt, he laments not having either of them under his roof. He’s glad, however, that my uncle Gordie wasn’t able to make it.

“Where is the mayor-elect?” I ask, referring to Gordie’s unfortunate victory at the polls.

“He’s down at the bowling alley, celebrating with his advisors.”

“Formerly known as his drinking buddies?”

“Exactly.”

It’s nearly enough to put me off my booze. Nearly. “Why’s he at the bowling alley? I thought he liked Nick’s Corner Bar.”

“Nick’s closed on Thanksgiving now. Says his wife is tired of having to rush dinner so he can open at 4. Gordie says his first act as mayor is going to be requiring Nick to stay open on all holidays.”

“I thought Nick voted for Gordie. Won’t that kind of chap his ass?”

Dad shrugs. “Nick knew Gordie as mayor would be a bad idea. He just REALLY didn’t want the other candidate to win.”

“Why?”

“She’s a woman.”

***

Thursday 1:02 pm

My dad finishes carving the turkey. (Should I be at all disturbed that he now wears his reading glasses while doing this?) He carries the platter of meat into the dining room while Mom, Owen and I bring in the sides and situate them on the table. Mary has the significantly harder task of corralling the kids and getting them to their places. When a modicum of order has been achieved, Dad goes ahead and says Grace. He used to put a little more pomp-and-circumstance into it, but since the year Ty interrupted him to ask why girls don’t have penises, Dad gets to the point in a big, big hurry.

After that, my mom, slave to tradition that she is, asks us to go around the table and say what we’re thankful for. Natalie says flowers. Ty rattles off a group of things that sounds suspiciously like a Christmas list. Owen is grateful for how much he’s learned about the hardware store (he couldn’t make it more obvious that he’s greasing the skids for Dad’s retirement.) Dad is grateful for his continuing good health and vitality (meaning retirement is not on the horizon.) Mom is grateful for her family and her home (the same boring crap she’s grateful for every year.) Mary is grateful the Christmas season is here (though I can’t imagine why.) And I manage to excuse myself to grab a beer just before it’s my turn.

Sometimes, tradition can go eat a d**k.

***

Thursday 4:15 pm

I pull up in front of Andy’s house and before I even alert him, he’s out the front door like he’s been shot out of a cannon. He’s holding a plastic bag from Terzich’s Grocery and he quickly deposits it on my backseat.

“Julie says hi,” he says, as I pull away from the curb, “I grabbed some leftovers for you.”

“Well, thanks,” I say, wondering when Andy started acting like my mother.

“It’s no big deal. Just a few pieces of turkey, some stuffing, mashed potatoes and a bottle of Jim Beam I snuck out for later.”

“It really is the most wonderful time of the year.”

***

Thursday 4:42 pm

Village Bowl is one of the few places open on Thanksgiving. It’s your standard rundown lounge with a bowling alley attached. Fred, the owner, is stringing Christmas lights along the paneling when we arrive.

Andy and I grab drinks at the bar. My uncle Gordie and his buddies are at a table in the corner. I’m hoping like hell Gordie doesn’t recognize me. Judging by the volume of conversation at the table and the general weaving of anyone who gets up to use the restroom, I figure Gordie’s probably drunk enough to fail at recognizing his reflection in the mirror, let alone his seldom-seen nephew.

As always, I don’t have the kind of luck.

Gordie’s just staggered out of the restroom when he stops and looks at me. He puts a hand over his eyes as he tries to focus. There’s a moment where I’m trying to avoid eye contact and then my peripheral vision tells me he’s coming over.

“Joe?” he says, volume a little high for someone who’s two feet away from me, “That you?”

“It’s me, Gordie,” I say, “How are you doing?”

“Did you hear I was elected mayor?”

“Dad mentioned it.”

I don’t offer congratulations or any further details on what my dad mentioned. That doesn’t seem to phase Gordie. He’s too full of drunken self-satisfaction. He plunks down on the stool next to me, ignoring Andy (who doesn’t seem to mind.)

“I’m going to make some real changes around here,” Gordie says, “Put Porter’s Bay back on the map. Make people proud of this town again.”

“You really believe that?” I ask.

Gordie throws a bleary-eyed glance toward his buddies in the corner. He slumps toward me and lowers his voice.

“Jesus, no,” he whispers, “I didn’t think there was a snowman’s chance in hell I’d win. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m crapping my jeans over here. I asked your dad if he’d be on my staff. He just gave me the finger. In his store. Right in front of his customers. I called my brother, Mel, asked if he’d help me out. He just laughed and hung up. I’m thinking of asking your dad again. What do you think he’ll say?”

“I’m gonna refer you back to his first answer.”

Gordie looks like he’s about to cry. He suddenly puts his hand on my shoulder and gets as close as he can to looking into my eyes. “What about you? You know stuff, don’t you? Your dad’s always talking about how smart you are.”

“Is he?”

“Yeah, he’s a real pain in the ass about it. Blah, blah, blah. Like he’s the only one who’s ever had a smart kid.” Then he seems to remember who he’s talking to. “But, but maybe we could make it work. What do you think?”

The only answer I can come up with is, “I’ll have my people look into it.”

Gordie slaps me on the back. “Would you do that? That would be great. Don’t, uh, don’t tell anyone I asked, though. I think, uh, I think people need to have faith in their mayor. Don’t you think so?”

“I used to.”

“Good. Well, good seeing you again. Let me know.”

“I will. Happy Thanksgiving.”

Gordie weaves back over to his buddies, his bonhomie restored. Andy pours me a refill from the pitcher.

“You really going to help him?” Andy asks.

“Not a chance. On the bright side, he’s probably not going to remember this conversation.”

“You think?”

“I’m trying hard to forget it myself.”

***

Thursday 7:50 pm

Andy and I are sitting on a bench, staring at the statue of Frank Porter, the town’s founder. We’ve been passing the bottle back and forth.

“You think you’d ever move back here?” he asks.

Now, there’s no way I can answer that question honestly. First, there’s something about Andy’s manner that tells me he’d really like me to come back to Porter’s Bay; that it would be fun to hang out like this all the time. Second, he actually lives here. There’s no way he WOULDN’T take offense to me saying, “Ah jeez, are you sh**tin’ me? I’d rather stick nails in my eyes.”

“Hard to say,” I tell him, even though it isn’t, “I’m doing pretty well in the Cities right now. But you never know.”

I credit myself with being magnificently vague. Unfortunately, I tried it on somebody who’s known me since I spilled milk on him in kindergarten.

“You’re never coming back here, are you?” Andy says.

I shrug and take a pull off the bottle. “Can’t see it happening, no. But hey, maybe I’ll feel different in ten years.”

“You’re trying not to hurt my feelings.”

“Pretty much. How am I doing?”

He takes the bottle back from me. “Just the fact you’re trying means you haven’t. I appreciate it.”

***

Thursday 9:25 pm

I drop Andy off in front of his house. We put a decent dent in the bottle of Jim Beam, which is now hiding in my trunk. Andy, more responsible for the dent than I am, tells me I can have it. He’s probably not going to be interested in Jim Beam for a while. He looks at me, bleary-eyed.

“When are you leaving?” he asks.

“Tomorrow morning. Gotta get back.”

“Cool.” He reaches for the door and rests his hand on the knob. “Wish I could see you more often.”

“I’ll be back at Christmas. I’ll probably stay a couple days this time.”

“That’s good.” I get the feeling Andy wants to get something off his chest, some grand pronouncement he can leave me with. “I’m sorry we elected your uncle Gordie.”

“It’s not your fault. Is it?”

“No, no. I didn’t vote for him.” Andy pushes open the door and gets out. He leans back into the car. “It’s still a nice town. Nothing’s gonna change that.”

“I hope not.” And I’m kind of surprised that I’m sincere about that.

***

Thursday 9:45 pm

Anyone who knows me knows my favorite part of Thanksgiving is second Thanksgiving dinner. That’s the time around 8, 9 or 10 at night when I get a bit peckish and dig into the leftovers. Yes, I will hate myself the next day, but that’s pretty much the story of my adult life.

I’ve just re-heated a plate when my mom steps into the kitchen, wearing her customary pink bathrobe. She doesn’t look remotely surprised to see me, even though my being in her kitchen hasn’t been a regular occurrence in 15 years.

“Your favorite part of Thanksgiving,” she says.

I’ll admit to being surprised. “How did you know that?”

“I lived with you for 18 years. Did you think I didn’t notice anything?”

She never loses that sweet, understanding tone of voice, even when she’s giving me a little box on the ears. I grab a fork and start to eat while standing over the counter. Mom waves a hand toward the kitchen table. She doesn’t even need to say it. I immediately grab a seat at the table. She locks the backdoor then gets herself a glass of milk. We chit-chat about the day. I tell her about running into Gordie and hanging out with Andy. When she finishes her milk, she says good night and starts to leave. She stops in the doorway.

“Are you alright?” she asks, “You seem kind of down.”

I put my plate in the sink, keeping the kitchen table between us. “I’m fine. It was a good day.”

“Are you sure? You didn’t say anything at dinner, when we were talking about what we were thankful for.”

When I was 15, this would have been the part where I got impatient and repeated myself at a volume and a pace that left the definite impression we wouldn’t be discussing this. Thankfully, I’ve outgrown it. Or maybe (God forbid) I actually miss my mom meddling in my affairs.

“I guess with everything going on in the world,” I say, “There just doesn’t seem to be a lot to be thankful for.”

“That’s when you MOST need to remember what you’re thankful for.”

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I always tend to think of my dad as the smart one among my parents. Mom provides the love; Dad, the common sense. And then my mom will say something that reminds me she basically raised my dad before she raised three sons. I step around the kitchen table and give her a kiss on the cheek.

“What was that for?” Mom asks.

“Just ’cause.”

***

Friday 11:15 am

I’ve tossed the last of my stuff in the car. My parents are standing in the driveway, ready to see me off and then go for their morning walk. I’m determinedly cheerful, both because I know they hate to see me go and because I’ll get a lecture if I tell them about the wicked headache I got from yesterday’s booze.

“You’re sure you need to go now?” Mom asks.

“Yeah. Mike and Carol are working today and I can’t trust Lars to keep an eye on the cats.”

My dad shakes his head. “He’s the superintendent of your building. They’ll leave him in charge of a whole building and he can’t be trusted with your cats?”

“Welcome to my world.”

Mom gives me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. As she does, she whispers, “Call your father a little more often. He worries about you.”

She steps back and I shake hands with Dad. He leans in close and whispers. “Call your mother when you get home. She worries about you.”

They’re standing in the driveway, holding hands, when I pull out.

Friday 11:32 am

I’ve reached the city limits of Porter’s Bay. The route out of town took me past all the old haunts: the high school, Vidmar Arena, city hall, the old library, the State Theater, Irongate Park and the parking lot where Arthur’s, our high school hangout, used to be. It never fails to amaze me, as the years pass, how this place can seem so familiar and so alien at the same time. But I’m always going to feel connected to it.

Andy’s right. It’s still a nice town. I hope it always will be.

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