V. J. Hamilton
Abigail’s fingernails dig into the armrests as the van pulls into her parents’ driveway, and she turns to the driver, her brother Ethan, and says, ‘You did bring the turkey, right?’
His man-child face fills with soft bewilderment. The air in the van is thick with the aromas of candied yams, bacon drippings, broccoli au gratin, and kabocha squash casserole. ‘Let’s see,’ he says, pulling on the parking brake. ‘The roasting pan was so hot I took it out to cool… I went to pack… you came over…’ His face grows blanker and blanker.
Her voice rises. ‘Do you mean to say we drove all this way and you never once thought: “Did I actually put that giant pan with the forty-pound turkey in the van?”’
He shrinks against the driver’s seat and turns off the ignition.
‘All this way—blocked for an hour by the G-D Thanksgiving marathon,’ she emphasizes. She says ‘G-D’ rather than ‘goddamned’ because they are in their parents’ driveway, and their parents are deacons in the church. Might as well get right back in the habit that served her throughout her teens.
The Grand Plan threatens to crumble. This year, with Mama’s recent heart trouble, the three young adult siblings had insisted: ‘We’ll divvy up the feast and cook things separately and bring everything to you.’ The siblings live on the east side of the city; their parents live on the west. Ethan had insisted that he would roast the starring dish—the turkey—and Abigail and Ruth co-ordinated the side dishes.
His thumbs are already dancing madly over his phone. ‘I’ll text Ruth. She can swing by and pick it up.’ Ruth is the eldest child of the family, ten years older than Abigail, who is the youngest.
‘Ruth has three kids and four pies and you think she’s got room for that giant turkey in her hatchback?’ Abigail pulls at her hair, staring at her parents’ neatly kept bungalow with the long wooden wheelchair ramp, now unused. ‘Besides, I bet she left ages ago.’
Abigail and Ethan are already two hours later than planned, which means they are missing the Thanksgiving church service the parents usually drag them out to attend—but she refuses to share this silver lining with Ethan. She wants him to twist in the wind over yet another stupidity.
She exits the van, his lovingly refurbished two-tone vintage VW camper van, slamming the door harder than necessary, and tries to unlock the bungalow door. The 4-digit number code does not work. She tries several codes, punching harder and harder at the keypad. She returns to the van, muttering, ‘They changed the G-D code!’
Ethan looks up from this phone and grins. ‘Good news: the baby is projectile vomiting, so Ruth hasn’t left yet.’
Abigail puts her hand over her mouth. Her nieces are darling, but whatever germs they carry, she usually falls ill from them, too. Just the thought of a crowded noisy table makes her woozy.
He checks the phone. ‘She’ll pick up the T-bird.’ He grins. ‘Problem solved, Miss Fussbudget.’
‘But can she get into your place?’
‘Don’t worry,’ he says, ‘There’s likely someone there.’ He shares a house with four other undergrads a couple blocks away from Abigail’s funky little apartment. He pats her arm and clucks. ‘I see your stress-o-meter is ratcheting higher, Sis. Tell you what, I’ve got some edibles to help you chill out.’ He smiles his goofy gap-toothed smile.
‘What! Why’d you bring those? With Papa’s radar? And the kids around? Oh Ethan, you know how worried Ruth gets!’
‘I’ll keep the candies out of sight.’
‘Yeah, that’s what you said about the tabs last time.’ Abigail pulls harder at her hair, remembering the frenzied call to the Poison Control line.
Ethan rummages vigorously in his duffel bag. ‘Oh crap, these are my floor hockey things. Guess I brought the wrong bag.’
Of course, she thinks bitterly. Now she wishes she could gnash her teeth on defenceless little gummi bears, and absorb some of the calming CBD, THC, or whatever it is, to cope with another day of Ethan.
* * *
A day earlier, Abigail had dropped by her brother’s house and discovered he was ‘short on funds’ so had not done a speck of shopping. ‘But you said you’d do the meat,’ she scolded him. ‘We can’t show up empty-handed!’
Looking stunned, as if a pet dog had bit him, Ethan said, ‘I thought Thanksgiving was, like, next week.’
Too disgusted to speak, she stomped off to her local butcher and begged for his very last bird, a forty-pound behemoth. Meanwhile, Ethan played a round of Blade & Soul with his posse, then searched the cupboards for pans, tested the oven, and inadvertently tested the smoke detector. He was just turning off the screeching alarm as she returned, breathless from hauling the bird. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘I bet there’s tons of roasting pans at the thrift store.’
They trekked to the thrift store to buy their largest pan, and to the bakery to buy day-old bread. Ethan tried to win back her good graces and even charmed her into buying a flat of day-old sprinkled doughnuts.
Back at the shared house, she silenced her inner nag and helped him cut up a mound of bread and mushrooms. Together, they wrestled the raw carcass open to rinse it and rub it with garlic. She couldn’t help but laugh as the turkey slipped and slid around the sink. The truce continued while they crammed the bird’s cavern with Ethan’s bread mixture. The loaded tinfoil-covered pan was so big it took over most of the shared-house refrigerator, displacing his housemates’ food. But their grumbles were soothed by the flat of doughnuts. Karma seems to go in Ethan’s favour, she thought.
She left at sundown, after extracting a promise from him to start roasting the turkey at 8 AM so it would be done by the time they had to drive across the city, dodging the path of the city-wide marathon.
But this morning, she made repeated unanswered calls to him. Finally she’d gone to his house, banged on the door until he opened, sheepishly saying, ‘Incredible as it sounds, I overslept.’
* * *
Now Abigail sits in the van, glaring at the family bungalow, as squat and imperturbable as a toad statue. There’s peeling paint on the highest trim, where Papa can’t reach any more; there’s a warp to the plastic siding where the family once had the barbecue set up too close; and every time she visits, the front steps look more rickety. How did her parents raise all their children in this tiny place? Routinely they’d have twenty people enjoying turkey and fixins every Thanksgiving.
A joke about a turkey, the flightless bird being unable to travel, occurs to her but she refuses to share it with Ethan. That goofball needs to learn a lesson.
A triple-rap on her window startles her. Mrs Persimmon, the next-door neighbour, steadies herself with a rake. Abigail lowers her window. The woman leans in. Her dentures are too big and a nimbus of white hair surrounds her face. ‘Oh, it is you! How are you doing, Abigail and Ethan? How lovely. The family for Thanksgiving. Your parents are the luckiest.’ She crackles with good cheer. ‘Mm, smells delicious.’
‘Hello Mrs P, how’ve you been?’ Ethan says. Their family occupies a unique and unwanted prominence in the neighbourhood: a decade ago, one child, Susannah, was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer. Mrs Persimmon’s late husband had built the wheelchair ramp and for a time it was Abigail’s favourite thing because they could wheel Susannah in and out of the house so she could still be part of the games, a faint-voiced cheerleader. ‘That ramp is still holding strong,’ Ethan says.
‘It is, isn’t it?’ Mrs Persimmon says wistfully.
‘I loved racing my skateboard on it.’ He smiles. ‘Hey, maybe my board’s still in the—’
‘Don’t even think of it,’ Abigail says irritably. ‘You’ll break your arm and then I’ll have to drive this G-D van.’
The old woman laughs uncomfortably, like someone seeing static disrupt a favourite TV show. She excuses herself to continue raking.
‘We’re sitting ducks now,’ Abigail says, half-dreading the coming barrage of well-wishers. They’re like the Royal Family, she supposes. Minus the jewels.
‘I have an idea,’ Ethan says. ‘Why don’t I run and get some cola? Ruth never lets the kids have it. I gotta be the uncle who spoils them.’ He leaves the VW, giving a jaunty wave.
Go ahead, rot their teeth, she thinks. Another stone upon Ruth’s load.
Thuds rain upon her window. It’s their neighbour Frank, former chairman of the fundraising committee for Susannah’s experimental treatments.
‘ ‘Well, hello, Abigail! You are looking beautiful, as usual. How wonderful, you kids coming home to see your ma and pa.’ Frank, a retired barber, is carrying leaf bags and a copy of Community Courier under his arm. She admires his fedora and mustard-yellow tailored jacket. His dapper moustache is trimmed so sharp you could cut your thumb on it.
‘Yes, it’ll be fantastic to see them,’ she says with bombast. They chat briefly about her parents being at church and how they (the kids) concocted a Grand Plan of bringing the Thanksgiving feast. ‘What with Mama’s heart, you know.’ No mention of the turkey fuck-up.
‘What treasures you are.’ He pulls out his phone and shares a picture of his newest grandchild, born last month.
Frank leaves, and Abigail frowns as the memory of Ethan’s stupidity washes back on her like acid reflux. The turkey, the heart of the meal. Missing. Honestly, what a sieve-brain. What a chucklehead. She adjusts the mirror, checking her scarecrow hair, then checking in the rear-view to see if Ethan is on the way back. But no. He’s a dawdler, too.
She rummages in her bag for a comb and spies the Bible, today’s passage still book-marked. She’s secretly glad she didn’t have to go make nice with dozens of church folk. The reading was about Abel and Cain. What were they fighting over, anyway? Was it some screw-up by an idiot brother? She reads:
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’
‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
She feels a frisson of recognition as she reads the words ‘my brother’s keeper.’ That sly old Cain, ducking the question by answering with another question.
‘Boo!’ Ethan leans in the window and Abigail jumps. He drops a box of Nerds Candy on the page. ‘Reading the Good Book, are you?’
‘Cause I feel like murdering you,’ she says.
He gets in the van and puts the two-litre bottle of cola between them. ‘Everything will be okay.’
‘How can you say that?’ She scowls. ‘Again, Ruth has to rescue us.’
‘Hey, I should be the angry one—I roasted the damn beast.’
‘Which makes you all the stupider for forgetting it!’
‘You could’ve asked me, “Hey, did you pack the T-bird?”’
‘You could’ve asked yourself: Duh, what’s the one thing I’m s’posed to remember?’ She mimics a beefcake voice.
‘I had so much going on, Abby! Laundry, phone calls, grocery shopping…’
‘That is normal, everyday life! Can’t you handle it?’ She pulls at her hair; the scalp is quite tender. ‘It’s the damn gaming. Taking over your life. Tell me, when’s the last time you went to class?’
‘Aw, Sis.’ He smiles winningly. ‘You have the checklist. You have the menu. Why didn’t you say 1-2-3 like you always do?’
‘Because I’m sick of always being your memory device!’ She thumps the armrests. She digs in her nails until white crescents show. ‘How are you ever going to manage? And find a girlfriend and settle down and—and—’ She waves at the family bungalow, its aura of homey comfort, and drops her voice to a whisper. ‘Haven’t you ever wondered why no girl sticks around past the second date?’
Ethan’s face crumples. ‘Is this what she said to you?’ he asks quietly.
Abigail is briefly immobilized: Melissa and Ethan? Beautiful, talented, intelligent Melissa? She is stratospherically out of her brother’s league. Melissa had sung at Susannah’s funeral. Abigail recalls the crystalline moment: Melissa’s voice soaring ever higher in the nave. Abigail had ached with grief over losing the sister she was closest to, but somehow, that perfectly sung note of the requiem acted as a lighthouse: shining, guiding, showing that the land of hope was within reach. As the notes swelled, Abigail’s heart had stopped hurting. Yes, Susannah was gone, but there were still the others. The three musketeers. She had sworn she would never, ever let her siblings down.
‘I was just so happy thinking of driving over here with you,’ Ethan says, lit with innocence, his longish side-hair looking like floppy dog-ears.
She blinks rapidly.
‘Oh hey, Abby. I wanted to share my new song with you…’ He fishes in his pocket and pulls out a turtle-shaped flash-drive. ‘Oops, I forgot. My van player is busted.’
‘This is … cool. Your song-writing.’ She does not ask what the song is about. All his songs are, in one way or another, about Susannah. Good times with Susannah. Losing Susannah. Wishing Susannah was here. Of course, he disguises them as ordinary romantic ballads or (on occasion, for Mama) Christian hymns. Abigail accepts his flash-drive and tucks it in her bag. Her eye lights on her notepad. She pulls it out, chuckling. ‘Look at this. How did you know I had a checklist with me? You really should try making lists, too, Ethan. Lists keep you focused.’
‘Thanks! I’ll try that,’ he says. He takes the notepad from her and peruses it, then pulls a stubby pencil from the junk tray of the van. He makes a mark and jots a note, item 17.5, in between items 17 and 18. It says, Review checklist with Ethan.‘There,’ he says, handing it back. ‘It’s more efficient to add one little thing to your list, isn’t it? Instead of starting a whole new list for me.’
Abigail’s face falls. ‘You’re mocking me.’ Her eyes sting.
Honk honk! As if to emphasize the cruel joke, a horn toots. Ruth pulls up in her hatchback with enclosed roof carrier attached. As the car doors fly open she yells, ‘Everybody, take your knapsacks and pillows.’ Three children pour out, doing as told, and Ruth bustles around, unloading cooler, boxes, and bags—and the giant roaster. The children are locked out from the bungalow and Ruth says, ‘I guess Papa forgot to tell us the new code.’
‘Forgetfulness runs in the family,’ Abigail says icily.
‘Thank God for that,’ Ruth says. ‘With all the suffering in the world, forgetting is a mercy.’
‘Not if you’re responsible for a flightless bird.’
Soon the six of them are surrounding the pan Ruth has placed on the cooler. ‘Well, Ethan, I picked up your giant pan here but I didn’t look inside… are you sure there’s a roast turkey?’ Ruth teases, ignoring the evident tension. She pulls off the lid and six heads incline. ‘Ahhhh.’
‘So beautiful, so brown!’
‘Mommy, can I try a lil piece?’
Abigail’s mouth is already watering, longing to taste Ethan’s new stuffing.
‘The centrepiece,’ Ruth proclaims. ‘Good job, kiddo.’
Ethan shuffles. ‘I was starting to wonder if I’d remembered to roast anything at all,’ he says defensively. ‘The stupid incompetent ass that I am.’ His eyes dart to Abigail.
Ruth pats him and says, ‘You’re a turkey genius, lil bro.’
‘Oh, I thought I heard voices,’ chortles Mrs Daguerre, the west-side neighbour. In her house-dress and wispy chignon, she totters toward them. ‘Let me take your picture—you are the perfect ensemble—say cheese.’ The neighbourhood shutterbug, she snaps three photos before they can object. She was the self-appointed photographer for the fundraising efforts to bankroll Susannah’s treatments. Her photos often ran alongside articles in the community newspaper. But her best photos, to Abigail, were the ones shown at Susannah’s memorial service. ‘How splendid… you are home to celebrate with your parents. Were you held up by the marathon?’
‘It’s open,’ calls the oldest niece, running to the adults. ‘I tried 4321 and it worked!’
Ruth continues chatting with Mrs Daguerre and Ethan, who is making them laugh. Abigail picks up her kabocha casserole and heads inside. Soon her parents will arrive, and a new kind of madness will descend. AQ