By Karen Hunt
Claire stuck a fork in the potatoes boiling on the stove. A drop of sweat rolled off the end of her nose into the pot. She went to the refrigerator, where she was standing with her head in the freezer when her brother Denny walked in through the back door.
“What the hell are you doing?” he said.
“I’m having a hot flash. And you’re late.” She could smell beer on his breath when he leaned in to kiss her cheek. “I told you to be here at noon. It’s nearly one.”
“Hey, I know your tricks,” Denny said. “I’m not sitting around with Mom and Dad and Stan’s folks for a couple hours before we eat.”
Claire closed the freezer door and watched him lift towels and foil off dishes sitting on the counter: Three pies — two pumpkin, one pecan — a casserole of green beans and another of corn, a dish of whipped sweet potatoes, a platter of onion tarts and stuffed mushrooms, a pan of macaroni and cheese, a basket of homemade cloverleaf rolls, and a bowl of radishes and carrots shaped like roses.
“Jeez, I’m glad you didn’t get carried away this year like you usually do,” he said.
“Wait ‘til you see this,” she said as she ushered him to the screened side porch. “What do you think of that?” Claire pointed to a flawless cranberry Jell-O mold shimmering on a table. “Took me three tries to get it right.”
“Wow, look at that mother fucker,” Denny said. “Jesus, it’s almost as big as my homebrew keg. Maybe next year you can make one in the shape of Elvis’s head.”
Claire gave him the finger.
“Hard to believe we sprung from the same loins, isn’t it? Little Miss Perfect Homemaker and her screw-up bachelor brother,” he said.
Claire drained the potatoes and returned them to the stove to mash. She felt annoyed with Denny’s teasing, but that wasn’t anything new. Mostly she was glad for someone to complain to.
“You better go upstairs and check on Mom,” she said. “She’s lying down in our room. Dad brought Miss Vanderheyden with him so Mom suddenly developed one of her migraines. She’s mad at me because I didn’t warn her.”
Denny opened the refrigerator and surveyed the contents as she took her frustration out on the potatoes and continued her diatribe. “Stan’s folks got here at 10, for Christsake. I was running around in my nightgown when they walked in. They started on the Bloody Mary’s right away. Jeff has the hives. We don’t know what he’s allergic to. He’s covered in calamine lotion, so don’t tease him. If you’re looking for a beer, they’re in the garage frig.”
Denny exited and returned with two bottles of Schlitz and a hunk of cheese. “I hear Stephanie’s got a new hairdo,” he said.
“I was saving that as a surprise,” Claire said.
“It was the main topic of conversation at the tavern this morning,” Denny said, his mouth full of cheddar. “What’s this about her being in some punk band at college? I thought she went out East to study the cello.” Denny took a bottle opener from his pocket and opened the beer. It foamed over his hand and on to the floor.
“Damn it, Denny,” Claire said. “Clean up your mess.” She threw a roll of paper towels at him and grabbed her coffee mug to finish off the vodka she’d camouflaged in it. She’d lost count of how many times she’d filled the cup, starting right after her mother-in-law, Ethel, had taken her aside, tears in her eyes, and demanded to know what she planned to do about Stephanie.
“You aren’t going to let her go around looking like that, are you?” she hissed. Ethel’s guilt trip only intensified the one Claire was already on.
Denny lifted the foil from the turkey. “Whoa. How big is this sucker?”
“Twenty-two pounds,” Claire said. “I about broke my back hauling it in and out of the oven.”
“It’s the size of a two-year-old,” Denny said. Out of the corner of her eye Claire saw him stick his fingers into the stuffing and lift the warm sage dressing to his mouth.
“Jesus, Denny,” she shouted. “I don’t want to know where those fingers have been. Go check on Mom.” She shoved him into the hallway and up the stairs. She could hear the rest of her family in the living room, talking above the sound of Nintendo and a football game on TV. Her mother-in-law’s cackle rang out above the din.
Claire glanced at herself as she passed the hall mirror. She paused and took a closer look. Her hair was damp and falling out of the scrunchie. Her face was flushed and shiny. She was getting a pimple on the end of her nose. The cranberry sauce on her left breast looked a little like blood against the white of her blouse. She wiped her face with her apron and readjusted the scrunchie.
At the dining-room door she paused to admire her table. She’d set it days ago with the china and silver and crystal she’d been collecting most of her life. She’d been inspired by Miss Vanderheyden, who’d rented a small apartment above her family’s garage all the years she taught home ec at the high school. Every payday, Miss Vanderheyden had purchased another piece for her “trousseau.” On weekends Claire and Miss Vanderheyden would polish her silver and iron the linen tablecloths and napkins just for the fun of it. Miss Vanderheyden had kept her treasures in cardboard boxes in the corner of her bedroom, awaiting the day when someone would come along and marry her.
Even back then there had been no love loss between Claire’s mother, Myra, and Miss Vanderheyden. Myra thought Miss Vanderheyden was pathetic and delusional, expecting someone to come and sweep her off her feet. “There she is with a solid career and she’s pining for a man. That’s just pitiful,” Myra would say.
For her part, Miss Vanderheyden could never understand why Myra preferred running the family’s newspaper business to keeping house. She called Myra a feminist, making the word sound like a type of perversion.
Claire strolled around the mahogany table. She realized it was shallow of her, but the elegance and order made her happy. People could be so disappointing, but her china never let her down. By each plate was a little silver place card holder, with names done in burnt orange calligraphy. She’d arranged the seating so her parents wouldn’t have to look at each other and would be buffered by their grandson. She’d surrounded Stan with his mother and Stephanie, payback for all the support he’d been lately.
Last night she’d crawled into bed, exhausted, her back aching from hours on her feet peeling and chopping and mixing. Stan was lying on his back with his arms behind his head, watching television. “Why does Stephanie want to make herself look so ugly?” Claire said. “Is it something I did to her?” She wanted him to put his arms around her and tell her she was a wonderful mother and wife, that he appreciated all the work she did to make Thanksgiving so special for everyone. But he just lay there, watching some stupid car chase, not even looking at her.
“It’s a phase. You can’t take this personally,” he said, picking his nose. “Everything isn’t about you.” His voice had an edge to it, a tone of condescension he’d been using a lot lately.
With Stephanie, Stan was playing the Ward Cleaver card. Mr. Understanding. Mr. It’s Only Hair. He called it “interesting” when he saw the hard yellow spikes that marched across her shaved scalp. Perfect little triangles.
Shortly after she arrived home Wednesday evening, Stephanie had left the house to meet her old friends at the Thanksgiving community concert, which meant damned near everybody in town had either seen her or heard about her by now.
At breakfast Claire said through gritted teeth, “Could you maybe put a scarf over that, whatever it is on your head? And find a dress in your closet. Just for today?”
“No, Mother, I could not,” Stephanie said, grabbing her coffee and flouncing up the stairs to her room. Claire watched coffee slosh out of the cup on to her newly cleaned carpet.
Claire put dishes that needed a warm-up into the oven then went up the stairs to check on her mother and Denny. Along the way she stopped to straighten pictures that lined the wall. Posed family portraits. Stephanie’s long tangle of auburn hair was the first thing you noticed in every photo.
She was feeling more than a little resentful that Stephanie seemed to be throwing away all the effort Claire had put into supporting her obsession with the cello. When Stephanie was 12, Claire’s mother had taken her to the symphony in Chicago and from then on all she wanted to do was play in an orchestra. Every Saturday for years, Claire had driven her 30 miles each way to Dubuque for cello lessons and recitals. They’d given up family vacations to pay for Stephanie’s summers at Interlochen. For her part, Stephanie never wavered from her goal. That was until she got to college and fell in with people who played loud, atonal noise, and mutilated their bodies.
Upstairs Claire found Denny and her mother stretched out on the bed, sobbing. “Travis just shot Old Yeller,” Denny sniffed, pointing to the TV. Claire took off her shoes and crawled up beside her mother. Myra had on one of her no-nonsense black pantsuits. It matched her hair, which she’d been dying for as long as Claire could remember.
“So how are you feeling?” Claire asked.
Her mother dabbed at her eyes with a raggedy tissue. “I don’t want to miss out on your lovely dinner,” she said. “I know how hard you worked. But I just don’t think I can face your father and that woman.”
“Jeez, Mom,” Denny said, “You and Dad have been divorced for eleven, going on twelve years. You’ve got to move on.” This from a man who’s never gotten over the girl who dumped him in high school, Claire thought.
“I know,” Myra said. “It’s just that it makes me wonder if he had something going with her all the time she rented from us.”
Denny looked at Claire and rolled his eyes. She noticed that he’d put his beer bottle on her cherrywood nightstand without a coaster.
“Mom, I genuinely doubt that Miss Vanderheyden and Dad had anything going back then,” Claire said. What she didn’t say were the names of other women she suspected her father was fooling around with while Myra tended to the tenuous business of a small-town newspaper.
“Well, I don’t understand how he can get involved with someone who is so, well, so dull,” Myra said.
“It’s simple,” Claire said. “He wants somebody to take care of him.”
“I took care of him,” her mother said, a tone of indignation in her voice.
“No, Mom,” Denny said. “You took care of the business. We all pretty much took care of ourselves.”
Myra shrugged and blew her nose.
Claire felt tired, bone-tired, and more than a bit light-headed. On the television Fess Parker was telling Tommy Kirk about life and death and why he should take the new puppy. Denny and her mother started a new round of sniffling.
“Fifteen minutes,” Claire said. She got off the bed to place a coaster under Denny’s beer bottle. “Whatever you’re going to do, Mom, you have fifteen minutes to decide.”
In the bathroom, Claire changed into a dress she’d been saving for the occasion. She didn’t remember the shoulder pads being so big. She looked like a linebacker. No time to scrounge around for something else. She put on a clean apron and steeled herself to go downstairs to the living room.
Her mother-in-law was feeling no pain. Ethel had wedged her ample frame at an angle between the couch and the coffee table, all the better to reach the platter of onion tarts and the pitcher of Bloody Marys.
Diminutive Miss Vanderheyden sat next to Ethel, wearing a stiffly starched ruffled blouse and a distressed expression. Claire knew Miss Vanderheyden had been expecting some fantasy family holiday out of Good Housekeeping. It’s what Claire had wanted, too.
Her father was reading a newspaper, his usual M.O. at family gatherings. A ribbon of gray smoke drifted from behind the paper. How many times had she asked him not to smoke in her house?
Jeff and Stephanie were huddled around the computer. They’d been playing the stupid video game all morning.
From the doorway Claire said in her sweetest voice, “Stephanie, would you please come help me?”
“Let me know when you need the turkey carved,” Stan said, not looking up from the TV. Claire hadn’t let Stan near a turkey since he nearly sliced his hand off with an electric knife five years ago. Still he persisted in thinking it was his job.
Stephanie squeezed past Claire and clomped to the kitchen in her combat boots. Claire had overheard her tell Jeff that she used Elmer’s Glue to hold the hair in place. How does she sleep without stabbing herself? Several inches of flesh bulged between the waist of her skin tight plaid pants and her sleeveless t-shirt advertising the band Torturous Interference. Claire took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Who is this person and what has she done with my lovely daughter?
In the kitchen Claire set about decorating the turkey platter and instructing Stephanie on what food went into which bowls. “I know, Mother,” Stephanie said. “I’ve done this like a hundred times. I’m not a moron.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” Claire said. She wanted to stop herself, to hold back the argument at least until after dinner and they were alone. But the vodka had loosened her tongue. “You’re sure as hell acting like a moron.”
“What do you want from me,” Stephanie said. “I’m not flunking out. I’m not shooting heroin.”
“Well, help me understand what this band thing is about,” Claire said. She was finding it hard to articulate her words. Christ, I’m turning into a lush like my mother-in-law, she thought. “What happened to your dream of being in an orchestra?” Claire said.
“I’m really good on the guitar, Mom. I mean, like, who knew? Our band is really taking off. People know us on campus.”
“Well, yah,” Claire said. “How many people look that goofy.”
“All my friends, for starters,” Stephanie said, hands on her hips. “I should have just stayed at school. I didn’t want to come home for your stupid Thanksgiving. You make everybody miserable with all your fussing. You make us feel guilty if we don’t help. But we can’t do anything right so why bother. Nobody will tell you, but we all hate this holiday. Hate, hate, hate it. In fact it ranks right up there with Christmas and Easter. And every other day of the year with you. Who could possibly live up to your expectations?”
Claire searched the counter for her vodka cup. Her back ached and the end of her nose was numb. She wished she could go back in time, farther back than Wednesday when Stephanie arrived home. Back to when Stephanie was a baby and she hadn’t yet made any mistakes as a mother. Hadn’t loved her too much or not enough. Maybe even farther back, to the days when she and Miss Vanderheyden fantasized about their perfect homes and their perfect families.
Claire heard something splat. She turned to see her beautiful cranberry mold skittering across the floor in a dozen pieces. “Oh, fuck me,” Stephanie said, holding the empty platter. “It just slid off, Mom. I couldn’t catch it. It was so heavy. Christ. I’m really sorry.” Stephanie burst into tears.
Claire felt herself leave her body. It was as if she were floating near the ceiling looking down at the yellow spikes on top of her daughter’s head and the red slush on the floor. She watched herself shove the turkey off the platter. It made a thud and broke apart, spewing juices and remnants of dressing on her feet and legs. She stepped around the mess, past her sobbing daughter, and out the back door. The cold air felt like a slap in the face. It cleared her head. As she walked through the yard, she took off her apron and threw it to the ground.
Claire thought of an important life lesson she’d learned on a hot, humid day in Florida a decade ago. When Stephanie was 8 and Jeff 5 they’d gone to Disney World and taken along Stephanie’s friend Shelly, who unlike Claire’s own children, had been polite and undemanding the entire trip. Stan and her kids were on Claire’s last nerve. Just as they were boarding the Splash Mountain ride, Jeff freaked out and refused to go. Stan took him aside and left Claire to accompany the girls. As the car crept to the top, Claire became more and more paralyzed with acrophobia. She gripped the safety bar to keep the girls from seeing her hands shaking. Shelly looked up at her with her big sad, brown eyes. “It helps if you scream,” she said. When they got to the top and started the descent Claire threw back her head and bellowed. She gasped and shrieked again. All her fear and the stress and aggravation of the trip rolled out her. She’d always meant to needlepoint a pillow that said, “It helps if you scream.”Claire was at the end of the yard now, where it bordered a cornfield. The dry stalks shook and rattled in the wind. She noticed the sun was struggling to break through the clouds and that the next-door neighbors had stopped their touch football game to stare at her. She stepped into the field and made her way down a row, the stalks snagging her dress. She was unsteady on her feet and clods of dirt made her stumble, but she kept walking. And screaming.
Karen Hunt grew up in a small town in the Midwest and returns there in her imagination when writing short stories. A retired journalist, she lives in Oakland, CA, with her husband Phillip and cat Benny.