Holidays were just days that Stan, our father, didn’t go to work. Ever since mom ran off with Uncle Rob, we didn’t do much celebrating. Fourth of July was dad drinking beer all day until my brother Corky and I took off his shoes, removed the lit cigarette dangling from his lower lip, extracted the Budweiser from his clenched fist and let him down easy on the sofa. He’d sleep the entire night, tossing and muttering a little, out of this world. Labor Day, Christmas, New Years, and well every holiday was pretty much the same. If Corky or I wanted a special dinner, we’d arrange to get invited somewhere.
This Thanksgiving was different and not because of the warm front bringing in Louisiana humidity and unseasonable warmth: baseball, not football weather. First of all, dad gave orders about cleaning the house, and it needed to be spotless, which took some doing. “Set the table for four places, a friend will be here,” he said. Squaring his shoulders, he squinted his tired red eyes at us, index finger tapping our chests with authority, first mine and then Corky’s: “And behave yourselves. No spitting or swearing and put your head down when we say grace.”
He wouldn’t tell us who was coming. We didn’t have a large family, and those we had weren’t talking to us anyway. The fire he started at Aunt Joyce’s house after he passed out on Memorial Day dampened that relationship.
Stan said he’d take care of the food. That usually meant carry-out, but the night before, he cleaned the oven, spraying and scraping the inside before sealing the oven door and turning up the heat real high; and he washed the dishes, really washed the dishes, not just letting the spray knock off the larger pieces.
“Dad, what about football on TV and our video games?” we whined in practiced unison.
“Mind your manners,” was all we got in return.
She burst in with a shopping bag full of food, a smile on her homely face, calling us by our names, as if she knew us from before, and taking over the kitchen.
Stuart, she told me, “Add a salad plate and it goes on the left, next to the bread plate, and wine glasses for everybody.” She nodded to the carton of red wine she pulled out from the shopping bag.
“That’s a soup bowl, not a salad plate,” the lady said, and showed me where to place the forks and spoons. “The napkins go there, to the left of the dinner plate. Stuart dear, the dinner plate is the big round one.”
“Do you two boys know what I brought for dinner?” the alien asked. “I made it at home. It’s one of your dad’s favorites, and I just need to place it in the oven.”
“Turkey with bread stuffing, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes with gravy,” we said, and Corky and I, eyes lifted skyward and index fingers inserted deep in our mouths, pretended to gag.
“I knew you boys wouldn’t guess,” she said, poking Stan in his rib cage with a heavy arm and a knowing grin. “I made my famous Thanksgiving dish, just for you. Brisket! A famous recipe, handed down in my family, pot roast made with a lot of onions, and peeling them gave me a good cry. Four hours baking at 350 degrees. I let it rest a little, maybe 20 minutes, before serving and it tastes great with horseradish and potato pancakes. Your dad loves it and so will you.” She prodded dad again, who was nursing the discomfort from the first jab.
Corky and I started laughing, a fun laugh, and we gave dad a discrete thumbs-up. Everything was going to be OK. In the old days, mom also did everything. This lady was our kind of woman. She had a great laugh, and there was no dead fowl lying on its back with extra drumsticks pointing skyward.
“Say something nice to the lady, boys,” dad said.
Corky spoke, clearing his throat first: “Do you think if we call you mum, we could pour Bud in the wine glasses?”
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