Thanksgiving failed to be more than a bunch of people uncomfortable being around each other while sober. Instead of Mom making dinner like every year before, we went to Grandma and Grandpa Schiller’s, who were her mom and dad, and most of the family was there. It was Aunt and Uncle Ky and Trent and Mom’s brother Gerry and his new wife Lauren. Aunt Lauren had a daughter a few years older than me, but she wanted to have Thanksgiving with her real dad, which made me the only kid in the house. Mom arranged to have Dad come by, but either we were really early or he was really late.
Grandma didn’t know how not to overwork herself. She made a whole ham around lunchtime, which was sliced up and fanned out over a couple of paper plates on the counter for anyone who wanted sandwiches while they waited for turkey. The bottom drawer was where she kept the bread; five varieties of sliced and buns, all white. She sweated and slaved over a host of pots and pans, opening and closing the oven door and clanking wood and metal with such frequency it developed its own cadence. When she had a spare moment to rest, she asked everyone if there was anything she could get them or if they were hungry because love was nothing if not a tightrope act of multiple household jobs; among them cook, hostess and server. After a while, I picked up on how Mom’s dad and siblings got their own form of entertainment from seeing how much they could add to Grandma’s already staggering workload.
I never was very close to them; Mom kept me at arm's length, which was all the closer she wanted herself. I suppose it wasn't unreasonable what with the things she endured growing up, but to a kid it made things-- awkward. Seeing Grandma and Grandpa Schiller wasn't unlike Christmas or Independence Day: a thing that came once a year to be observed with perfunctory attitude and choreographed ritual. Everyone played their part, but mine was one as yet unwritten.
I didn't really give it much thought and that's what I told myself when I did. The things crawling and scratching at the back of my mind were ignored in favor of my uncle Gerry-- who bought me a model train set the Christmas before-- and his new bride, who was by all accounts, quite attractive, and reminded me in voice and mien of Mrs Greer. Always at her arm, Uncle Gerry wore a lopsided grin like a toupée; one better suited for a mischievous child than a man in his thirties. It occurred to me I couldn't tell if he was in love with Aunt Lauren or the idea of having a beautiful wife to parade around. It was in that moment I knew it wouldn't last. She was a candy bar; something that once consumed, left an empty wrapper to be discarded.
Grandpa was on his fourth can of Schlitz which he poured what would fit into a highball and slurped down the rest in one go. It got so I began to associate the sharp metallic crack of opening aluminum cans with his presence; every sizzle of carbonation a preamble to his bobbing, inebriated gaze washing over Mom or me. Mostly, though, his eyes were on the teevee, where older men did older men things, like hitting a little white ball all over a park that was just grass and no trees. I preferred they were there instead of on me. Grandpa was a man who felt and expressed love not through kind words, hugs or other forms of affectation, but prolonged proximity. Maybe he thought the things in his heart could be transferred through emphysema labored exhales or processes better suited to single celled organisms. Whatever the case, I was made to hug him goodbye whenever we left-- the representation of Mom's affection-- and being so close to a man I barely knew felt somehow wrong.
I excused myself to use the bathroom and skulked past the dining table to the weird little area that connected every first floor room except the one where everyone gathered. There was Grandma and Grandpa's room straight ahead and a spare bedroom where I'd play video games and sleep when Mom had the occasion to leave me there overnight, access to the kitchen and dining area behind me and the bathroom to my left. Which left the door to my right that was always kept closed. It led to the basement by way of high, rickety stairs I hated to go down as they were open and it was always dark down there. I suspected for quite some time it wasn't Grandpa who was inherently the creep, but the influence of something wicked that lurked in the places you couldn't see. I'd often practice in the mirror trying to see in front as well as behind me, but it only worked when I faced it. Once the mirror was at my back, I was vulnerable like everyone else. The thought of the basement gave me shivers so bad it made my shoulders spasm and I hurried into the bathroom and shut the door so I would feel safe again.
It wasn't a huge bathroom, but neither was the house. It had ugly yellow wallpaper and frosted blue tiles with gold accoutrements, towels and coverings. I perched over the toilet, hoping it would be quick and I could get back to where everyone else was. Even through the door I could hear them laughing, their grins a steady hum over grandma's measured percussion and the drone of the teevee. I sat there, concentrating, but with futility, and blamed all the cheese I ate to the tune of Mom's voice in my head:
"You better stop eating all that or you'll have to take a laxative and those things are dangerous."
I muttered along with her, rolling my eyes.
"You'll permanently damage your digestive tract."
Mom saw the world in absolutes, and like the Girl Scout leader she was for my young sister, always prepared for the worst case scenario. It got so every situation was an exercise in holocaust survival, from a home soil invasion to the length of my colon, and after years of exposure to manufactured fear, I was hypersensitive to changes in mood and body language, but my panic buttons were nothing if not dulled. My fight or flight got so it was more akin to watch a cartoon and eat a bowl of chips; the world wouldn't end before Thundarr the Barbarian got to clobber the vampire mutants and lizard men of the distant future.
I tuned out the sounds on the other side of the door and concentrated on the ones in the bathroom. I could hear the faint woosh of the toilet bowl, the water constantly running, and the steady drip from the faucet. The only piece of plumbing that didn't leak was the bathtub, which had treads that scratched my bottom when I took a bath. Mom said I wasn't old enough to shower and warned that I'd slip and split my head open. I'd sometimes practice standing up when I bathed places other than home for the day I could finally shower like adults or responsible people in general. I was lectured on the importance of responsibility, often on the heels of a childish act, but more specifically on how I knew nothing of it nor expressed myself in ways befitting. When opportunity arose, I was quickly dismissed, denied the opportunity to prove I was capable of anything beyond my own naïveté.
The self pity wasn't helping and I considered cutting my losses and coming back to do my business later when I heard it echo in the drips from the faucet. At first I thought it was coming from the running toilet, but when I listened closer, I could make out words. I put my hand flat against the wall and stooped my head, concentrating. They were faint, but distinct, and had the tinny quality of a car radio with the treble up and bass all the way down. I strained, trying to make them make sense, feeling the first inklings of what I'd come there to do. My palm ground against the wall when I felt something that wasn't wallpaper.
It was more like boogers.
I pulled my hand back like the time I used a leaf to touch the electric fence and was relieved to see it was no different than before. Then I saw what was on the wall where my hand was and the other things became less important.
There was a spot, darker than the wallpaper surrounding it, that looked like the stains on the bottom of a pizza box. It was roughly the size of my hand, but with no definite shape, and shimmered with the iridescence of blackbird wings. My fingers tingled with the memory of the spot and the fence.
"What are you doing in here?"
She walked right in, shutting the door behind her, and the length of the narrow bathroom stretched out like taffy. I was aware of how the sound was sucked out; the carpeted area underneath pressed up such that it formed a seal when the door closed and everything outside sounded like it was through a fish bowl.
"C'mon, you're done. I gotta pee."
"You've been in here half an hour and I can't wait any longer. Stand up."
I did as I was told, trying to pull my underwear up as I stood, but Ky was on me by the time my bottom left the seat, kneeling, grabbing my underwear from me and pulling it up too far. I tried to fix it, but she smacked my hands away and pulled my pants up with a single jerk. She sighed.
"Did you wipe?"
"I uhh-- didn't need to."
"I dunno what you're doing in here, but other people use this bathroom too."
"I wasn't doing anything."
"Sounds like you were goofing around."
She snapped my jeans and zipped me up, looking me in the eye.
"I won't tell, bud."
My eyes wandered to the spot, hoping Ky wouldn't notice and blame me for that too. It was barely visible, unlike before. I held my breath and nodded quickly.
"Good. Now go out there and sit with your mom."
Aunt Ky dropped her pants and sat leaning forward, watching me. I had to yank hard to open the door.
Supper was near ready because there were glass dishes with hot vegetables and a basket full of store bought rolls on the table. If it came in a can or out of the freezer, Grandma used it. Only the turkey and stuffing were made from a recipe and just so happened to be my favorite parts. I hadn't had turkey since this time last year; I was the only one who liked dark meat and I got to eat a whole leg by myself. Mom kept warning me to watch for little bones and to chew each bite carefully. I found them all and put them in a pile on the edge of my plate so she could see I did a good job.
Not only were things different this year since we were at Grandma and Grandpa Schiller's for Thanksgiving, but I wasn't alone in my desire for dark meat. Uncle Gerry and Aunt Ky picked and poked and joked and argued and bet each other for legs and wings and even the neck which was gross and made my stomachs churn. Uncle Gerry would dig his elbow in Aunt Lauren's side and wink and she'd always smile, but I could tell she didn't want to be a part of his and Aunt Ky's games. Not only were they like kids my age, but the kind of kids I didn't like to be around; the ones who picked on and made fun of kids like me. Every once in a while I got the wink instead of Aunt Lauren, but it didn't make me feel any better. Theirs was a game that would only ever have two players and I could hear the disapproval in Mom's exhales.
"Is it about ready, Ma?"
"You need any help with the potatoes?"
"Sweet potatoes are ready. Still need to mash the other'ns."
"Don't see any butter on the table."
"Butter's on the counter."
"What about plates."
"Your legs still work."
"You need another beer, Dad?"
"Want me to carve up the bird?"
"Nah, I got it."
"Should be about ready."
"Another fifteen minutes, at least."
"Thought you said it was about done."
"Now I'm saying it'll be fifteen more minutes."
"C'mon, Ma. Whisker's dyin' over here, aren'tcha bud?"
All eyes were on me.
"Can I have a wing?"
I ended up with both wings, and a little bit of each leg from Ky and Gerry, along with a mountain of two kinds of potatoes, corn, beans, stuffing, cranberry salad, rolls and pan gravy. Grandpa was diabetic and only drank Tab, but my glass of Pepsi was bottomless, always someone cracking open a new bottle when the old one was empty. Mom was quiet and mostly just smiled a lot. Ky and Gerry did most of the talking with Grandma and Grandpa just grunted inbetween forkfuls or slurps on his beer. Trent and Lauren sat in the living room to eat with teevee trays since there wasn't room enough for everyone at the table. Dad still wasn't there and even though my stomachs were sated, it was my heart that gnawed away at me. I asked Mom when he was coming and it got so her only response was to glare at me. I knew that meant I was close to a spanking and I slid off my chair to hide in the spare bedroom and play with the molded plastic cowboys and Indians Grandma kept in the closet for me. They were as old as the hills and from before I was born, but the poses were interesting and graphic-- my favorite being the Indian crouched and holding an arrow in his chest-- and only added to the stories of blood and glory I conjured in my mind. My favorite was for the cowboys to kill all the Indians and then the Indians would come back as ghosts and get their revenge. I made no distinction between good and evil, only alive or dead.
I went through the story in my head, but my thoughts kept wandering to Dad not being there and wondering why. At first I thought maybe it was something I did. I was pretty sure he wasn't mad at me, but that didn't mean there wasn't some other thing that made him not want to come. He never seemed the most comfortable at Grandma and Grandpa Schiller's, but neither was Mom. I always assumed it was for the same reasons, but that didn't make sense to me now. Mom came to the doorway and watched me for a few moments before she opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. I waited.
"Still kinda full."
"Pumpkin and apple pie. And vanilla ice cream."
"What kind do you want?"
"Thought you were full."
"You're not eating it in here. Go sit at the table."
Grandpa was already back in his easy chair in the living room. He had to quit smoking on account of the emphysema so he left the table when everyone lit up their after dinner cigarettes. Mom used to smoke, but stopped when Dad did, which left Aunt Ky, Uncle Gerry and Grandma, who was trying to quit herself. Mom dropped the plate with a thin slice of each kind of pie and a fat scoop of ice cream in the middle. Everyone else had a fork, but she handed me a spoon.
"Don't make a mess."
My stomachs were drawn tight like basketballs, so I packed what was on my plate into my hollow leg. While I would have preferred a fork, the spoon helped me get the ice cream that melted, and when I finished I slid off the chair and rolled myself back into the spare bedroom to finish off the last of the ghost cursed cowboys. As I passed the open bathroom door, I heard it echoing in the drips and I stopped, listening.
"-- too sweet. I wanna piece of meat."
The room was dark except for the night light plugged into the socket next to the vanity, but I could still see where the spot shimmered like a parking lot oil stain. It pulsated with each word and made me think of a cartoon heartbeat. I closed my eyes and covered my ears and tried to ignore it, walking toward the open door to the spare bedroom and trying to visualize where it was.
I walked into the molding with my shoulder and the pain made me open my eyes.
The girl sat on the floor with my cowboys and Indians, wearing a dress like the ones Mom did in pictures from when she was a girl. It hung below the knees, but with the way she was sitting, I could see halfway up her thighs. She was older than me; a teenager. Like Mom's used to be, her hair was light blonde and her face round and she had tight sausage curls that hung down past her nose as she leaned forward, surveying my orchestrated massacre.
She looked up at me, lips pouted.
"What happened here?"
It was like I'd been saving up the answer.
The girl's face fell, head tilting.
"That's what Daddy used to say."
The red and purple marks on her neck quivered.
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