Monday, December 1, 2008
Thanksgiving: A Play in Four Acts
Act I: The Arrival
We open on my uncle's kitchen. My uncle is carving a turkey. A smoked ham is already sliced and waiting on the stove. There is Southern gravy--floating thick with giblets and hard-boiled egg, his wife's favorite--in a large pot. A sweet potato casserole that would make you see God is steaming on one of three tables.
Enter the Cousins. There are six of us. We are a little misbehaving gang. Five minutes after our arrival, my brother has already cussed fifteen times, none of those times discreetly. "Adam!" my mother has to keep saying. "Adam! ADAM!"
My cousin Aaron, who talks sass like no one else, interrupts one of my stories to ask if I ever, ever, ever shut up.
"I will kill you," I say, but I am kidding. I am in a good mood. After all, I have already pulled kittens off the back porch and cuddled them under my chin. The kittens are Abbey's half-siblings. Her mother, it appears, gets around.
Now that I'm in the kitchen, I wonder why there are three tables crammed into the currently-being-renovated-room. I am not entirely certain we know enough people to sit in that many chairs. "Who's coming to dinner?" I ask.
My uncle explains that he and his wife--a slow-talkin' Tennessee lady he met while working in the South--have somehow signed on to cater the wedding of someone they know from work, and--surprise!--those people are coming to dinner to test their food out before agreeing to the catering.
I have questions--who tests out a caterer's food on Thanksgiving; since when has my uncle been a caterer; don't these people have family dinners of their own to deal with; who comes over to a co-worker's house on a major holiday--but that will have to wait. There's another surprise!
My uncle looks over his shoulder, not stopping his turkey carving, and mouths the words THEY. ARE. BLACK.
For a moment I think I have hallucinated. For a moment I think I am getting my leg pulled. Everyone knows what an awful sort of racist my grandfather is. If pain and embarrassment were amusing, it would be sort of funny if someone other than the white people he was related to sat down for a holiday dinner with my grandfather--especially if that dinner involved giving thanks and expressing love and tolerance. Ha! Ha! The thought of that is mildly amusing and not bad fodder for a story, a novel, a play.
Then I realize my uncle is not laughing and that he is instead flaring his eyes in a terrified sort of way.
"Oh Jesus," I say.
My mother's boyfriend calmly gets up and takes his glass--not a wine one, but a giant plastic pop cup--over to the counter and pours himself a tall drink of White Zinfandel. When I get up to follow suit, he says, "Yup. Keep pouring."
Act II: The Dinner
My grandfather arrives at the exact same time as my uncle's co-workers. I can't imagine worse timing. I am in the living room when it happens, and I see my aunt trying to lead my grandfather--who is tapping his cane over ice--to the house. I see the co-workers headed to the house, too, and they are carrying a small child bundled in winter finery. This makes me even more nervous because if there's anything my grandfather hates more than black people it is black people who have procreated and thus contributed to another generation of black people who will go on ruining his country long after he is unable to complain about it.
I skitter away from the living room, back into the kitchen. "Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus," I say.
When my grandfather finally makes it into the room, everyone starts talking all at once about everything. His pills! The weather! The pie! His dead wife! Anything that cannot even remotely be brought back to any race, cultural group, or religious sect that my grandfather despises. If we can just bamboozle him! If we can just keep him dazzled for an hour! Maybe we'll all make it out alive!
It is the child that makes me the most worried. He is the cutest thing I have ever seen, what with his little sneakers and little jeans and little holiday sweater. He is three and just learning to talk, and whatever he does say comes out loud, shrieky, and sort of wrong. I want to pick him up and tickle him and listen to him giggle. I sense, however, that my grandfather wants to talk about his hair--I can sense the words nappy and afro on his tongue--and I start guzzling wine and praying that our small corner of the world will suddenly crack open and suck the whole family into a fiery abyss so at least our deaths are quick.
This does not happen. But the Cousins act up and say foul things and cavort in a manner that makes it hard to hear anything that is going on over at the adult table. When pie is served, everyone is still in one piece, no one is crying, and I take this as a good sign.
Act III: Moaning
The Cousins have eaten so much and so quickly that we have all made ourselves sick. Sick as dogs. We cannot get comfortable. We arrange ourselves in different locations, trying to find a place that allows us to be the least nauseous that's possible. We try sitting next to the Christmas tree, in the parlor, on couches, in high-backed chairs. We finally settle on the floor directly in front of the bathroom, just in case anyone needs to go shoot turkey and stuffing from their mouths, which, considering the way my brother is moaning and writhing, might just happen. No, really:
Act IV: The Departure
We are sitting in the back living room. The adults are sitting in the front living room, down by the tree, and they are watching TV. They are talking adult things. No one is screaming, shouting, or cursing, so we assume my grandfather is being made--somehow--to be quiet.
The Cousins are playing Uno. My brother is discussing all the bathroom trips he's made this evening. He is cataloguing the results of those bathroom trips. He's talking about poop and smelly farts. He is making my girl cousins squeal Gross! Gross! Gross!
He occasionally drops a sentence or two about how much sex he and his girlfriend are having.
"Just kill me," I say.
I say that for several reasons. First, eww. Second, this is the most nervous I've felt in a long time--and I've recently gone out to lunch with The Boy From Work, and the moment before I opened the door and saw him for the first time since we broke up was a pretty sweaty moment--and I feel like we're all sitting around waiting for something to go wrong.
During a lull in the game, my brother needles me in the ribs. "Just look at him," he says. "He's dying to say something. You can tell." Then my brother slaps a Draw Four Wild onto the pile and turns to my cousin Aaron. "Take that, Fuck Head," he says.
After an hour or two of digestion--during which the sweet little three year old has torn around the living room, chasing after the cat, climbing under the Christmas tree, plucking off parts of my aunt's massive Christmas village--my uncle's co-workers are ready to go. They plop their son into his snow boots and winter coat. They pull a hat over his head. They say goodbye, wave, thank everyone for everything, say how full they are, and then they shut the door behind them.
All the Cousins' heads whip around to see our grandfather, who is sitting like some shrunken king in a chair angled directly at the television, but most of us are too far away to hear him. Still, his lips are moving, and they are moving fast and quick.
My brother, who is sitting closer to him than any of us, widens his eyes. He rolls those eyes to the ceiling. He shakes his head. "You don't want to know," he says. "You just don't."
But in that moment I am thankful for that small mercy, for the fact that he at least kept his mouth shut while guests were there, for the fact that he didn't ruin their holiday and send them away from our family thinking, What the hell is wrong with them? Just who do they think they are inviting us over and letting that happen?
And already we are moving on, blocking him out, sliding more red-yellow-green-blue Uno cards across a towering pile, saying take that! and ha! and suck it! and, really, it's not a bad way to spend a night. In the back living room, we are all getting our assess whooped at a game we used to play four hours with our grandmother--a woman we loved more than anything ever--and in the front living room, my grandfather is spilling hate from his lips, but for once we don't hear it.