I’m only a few minutes late, but when I pull into the driveway Mama is already out on the steps, standing under the aluminum awning. She comes stumping down the walkway in her clear plastic rain boots. She’s clutching the slow-cooked Butterball turkey she brings to Aunt Ena’s every year.
“Make room for your Grandma,” I tell my kids. “She doesn’t look too pleased.”
My two boys, Petey and Mac, slither over the seat and into the back. Hope, my youngest, snuggles her small body in next to mine. I reach across the seat, pop the door, and shove it open. Mama pinches in. “I told you 11:00,” she says. “Me and my bird was catching cold.”
Mama overheats even in a hard freeze. She’s got the turkey bundled up in a thermal blanket of tin foil wrap.
“What’s your problem?” I say, putting the heater on full blast. I point the vents directly at her and wait for her to sweat.
“The day’s ruined,” she says, “With Ena going off and inviting that person.” She tugs at her collar as if trying to open an air duct, but when she first sat her coat tightened like a noose around her neck. “Thanksgiving is time for family. Not to be entertaining strangers.”
I check the rear-view mirror before pulling away from the curb. “I think it’s great she’s found herself a boyfriend. She has a right to be happy.”
“What man ever brought a woman happiness?”
I can tell she’s thinking about Daddy. He worked for a moving van company that serviced the east coast. He’d send postcards from places like Okeechobee, Opryland, Busch Gardens. Every few weeks he’d stop in at the house. Mama would sit on his lap. They’d laugh and drink beer. But after awhile, he didn’t come back. “Where’d he go?” I’d ask, and she’d say he waltzed off to greener pastures. At the time, I didn’t know what that meant, but I liked to think of him down there in the hazy green panhandle of Florida, maybe wrestling alligators at McGregor’s Reptile Farm or selling beer at a Disney World concession stand.
“Not every man’s like him,” I say.
She looks around the car at my three kids. “So then where are these ones’ daddies?”
That’s not fair. I never married Petey and Mac’s dad. And I stuck to my story at Social Services that the identity of the father was a complete unknown. He was off the hook. Still, he occasionally graces the front door. Takes the boys out to the carnival or a Big Mac combo meal. And Hope’s dad, well, there was only that one night, and he was gone before I was out of the shower.
“We’re doing just fine,” I say. I put my arm around Hope and give her small shoulders a squeeze. I love my babies. I had a good time with their dads. I never asked for more. Hope’s wearing the light blue sailor coat I bought with this month’s cash assistance. She’s got gold flecks in her eyes, and they shine up at me like the polished buttons on her coat.
I look at Mama. She’s staring out the side window at the slush that’s building up on the sidewalks. Her hair is the color of granite. She must have slept in hair rollers last night because it lifts off her head like a stiff wig. Her gray wool coat is worn, and the thread is broken where her arms bulge against the seams. If I hadn’t seen her in the kitchen drinking beer with my father, I’d never have known a man could sweep Mama off her feet.
I turn onto Canal Street, take a right after Doogie’s Tavern, and climb Ridge Street. It’s a steep grade and even in my old Buick tank, the front wheels slip sideways.
Mama reaches for the dash. “Arlene, it’s too icy.” The car lurches to the left. “Pull over,” she says, her voice high-pitched and squeaky. “We’ll be killed.”
Hope kneads the hem of her sailor coat. Her eyeballs strain sideways from Mama to me.
I shift into low and pat Hope’s knee. “Nothing to worry about,” I say. “Just close your eyes and pretend we’re on a scary carnival ride.” Petey and Mac bob up and down. “All right!” They each clutch a GI Joe figurine, and they dive-bomb them like kamikazes.
I push against the gas. “Arlene, no!” Mama yells. The wheels spin. We slide. The boys hoot and holler. Hope pulls up her legs and hugs her knees. “We’re not gonna make it,” Mama screams as the car’s rear-end whirligigs. “WE’RE GONNA HIT THAT CAR!”
I steer into the skid, and the tires catch traction. I straighten the wheel. The car rolls to a stop. Hope’s eyes flutter open.
“Don’t move,” Mama says, her neck flat against the seat’s back. “The slightest jolt, and we’ll be shooting down the hill like a loose bobsled.”
I look in the rear-view. “How far we from that car?” I ask the boys.
Mac measures an inch of air between two fingers.
I touch the gas. The car inches forward. Mama exhales two minutes of stored air.
“Do it again,” demands Petey.
“We’re taking it easy,” I say as the car creeps uphill.
“Ah, shit,” he says. “This ain’t no fun.”
“Yeah,” says Mac.
Mama says, “Life ain’t fun, and it’s time you all got that through your thick skulls.”
Petey crashes a GI Joe figurine into Mama’s hair. “Oops.”
Mama’s hand swings backwards and cuffs him in the ear.
I pull into Ena’s drive. She never married and still lives in the house where she and Mama grew up. The wooden garage doors are open. Parked inside next to Ena’s car is a brand new soft-top Sebring.
“Whose car’s that?” asks Petey.
I can tell Mama had hoped Ena’s boyfriend drove an old clunker, maybe a rusting pick-up truck, or even a carpet cleaning van he had on loaner from a boss.
“Let’s go sit in it,” Petey says to Mac.
You two hold on,” Mama says. “You need to carry in some of this food.”
But the boys don’t hear. They’re already in the garage, peering into the Sebring.
Mama shoves the car door open with her shoulder. “Everyone’s looking for a newer and better model.”
I hand Hope the brown paper bag with our bakery-bought apple pie inside. Last night we changed the aluminum plate to the glass kind and crinkled foil over it and around the edges. “That’s going to be the best tasting pie,” I tell her. “No one’s even going to know we didn’t bake it ourselves. Not even your grandma!” She smiles proudly. She has blonde hair like her father. I don’t remember if he had blue or brown eyes.
Mama manages to punch herself out of the car with the 25-pound turkey still in a barrel-hold. She teeters before settling upright over her clear plastic rain boots.
Petey and Mac come running up.
“Open the door, Petey,” Mama says as she stomps up the back steps, but it opens from the inside.
“Welcome,” says the man who’s smiling out at us. He holds the door open. “I’m Charlie. Please come in.” He reaches to take the turkey, but Mama says, “I’ve been up since 3:00 a.m. cooking this bird. I’ll see it safely onto the platter.” She brushes past him into the kitchen.
He smiles and holds out a hand to the boys.
I shove Petey. “Shake it.”
Petey asks me, “Who’s the old dude?”
“I’m Charlie Brightrobe.” He does a full squat to get down to the boys’ height. “I’m a friend of your great aunt Ena’s.”
Petey sizes him up, taking in the long, gray hair, the Scotch tape holding the lens on his wire-rim glasses. Petey is into solid colors. Blacks. Browns. On a particularly adventuresome day he may wear blue. So I know he doesn’t approve of Charlie’s red flannel shirt with the herd of buffalo stampeding across the front. He takes one look at Charlie’s turquoise bracelet, and he and Mac are out of there.
“Sorry about my boys,” I say. “They have no manners.” I nudge Hope forward. “This is my little Hope.”
He extends his hand.
She snatches her arm behind her back.
“He won’t bite,” I say. I take her wrist and try to force it, but for a tiny thing, she can hold her ground.
Charlie says, “You have a beautiful name, Hope. Do you know what it means?”
She shakes her head.
“Hope keeps our spirits alive.” He smiles. He takes the brown paper bag from her and peeks inside. “Apple pie. My very favorite.”
Hope smiles shyly. The blue vein along her forehead bulges.
Charlie stands. “You must be Arlene. You have beautiful children. You’re very lucky.”
I peer in the kitchen to make sure Mama heard that. She’s still clutching her Butterball, staring down at another turkey, cooling in a roasting rack.
Charlie notices. “Oh, let me find you something to place that on.” He opens a cupboard.
“I spent most of my life in this kitchen,” Mama says. “I don’t need you telling me where to find things.”
“It was really nice of you to bring an extra turkey,” he says.
She doesn’t answer, just rattles through the pots and pans under the sink. We watch her settle the turkey onto her dead mother’s Blue Willow holiday platter. She carefully peels back its wrap as if she were changing a baby.
Charlie pinches the scotch tape on his eyeglasses. “Ena’s taking a shower. She should be right down.”
Mama is repositioning a turkey wing, and I can see her pause on the thought that Ena is naked somewhere in the house.
“We got a little behind this morning,” he says. “Went out for bagels and coffee.”
A few minutes later, Ena comes downstairs. She’s taller than Mama, and thinner. She was a schoolteacher before she retired and still wears the white blouses and plaid wool skirts she wore for all those years. “I told you not to cook a turkey,” she says. Her hair is wet, and she’s carrying her shoes and black stockings.
Mama double knots the strings on her apron. “You can’t tell me what not to cook.”
“Didn’t I call last week to make sure you clearly understood that I would be taking care of the turkey this year.”
“You? Cooking the Thanksgiving turkey?” Mama laughs, but it comes out sounding like she’s whooping up a rock. She puts on her reading glasses hanging from the chain around her neck. She inspects the bubbly, black skin of the other bird. “Well, you sure don’t know the first thing about cooking,” she says. “For starters, you can’t go for bagels and coffee and leave your bird unattended.” She takes off her glasses. “If I wasn’t wearing these, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between your turkey and a burnt log.”
Ena sits, crosses a leg, and rolls on a knee-high stocking. “For starters, I didn’t cook the turkey.”
Mama glances at Charlie.
He smiles apologetically. “I had no idea I was interfering with a tradition.”
“And secondly,” says Ena. “That turkey is an old family recipe of Charlie’s. It’s Cajun cooking. It’s that color because of the spices.”
“Paprika,” says Charlie. “Cayenne powder, some thyme.”
“Thyme is an herb,” says Ena.
“I know,” snaps Mama. “I don’t need a cooking lesson from you.”
I grab a beer from the fridge and take Hope’s hand. We escape into the dining room.
“How come Grandma hates Aunty Ena?” Hope asks.
“She doesn’t really hate her,” I say. “Your Grandma’s just out of sorts.”
I shrug. “We all get out of sorts. You do. I do. Petey and Mac. Sometimes the whole world just pisses us off.”
“Well, for you or me, it may be something bad we ate or something new we wanted but couldn’t buy at the store. But for your Grandma . . .” I have to think a minute on this one. Everything pisses that woman off. “Your Grandma just doesn’t like change,” I say. “Charlie coming to supper is a big change.”
Hope seems to understand this. She’s quiet, but watchful. She licks her finger and traces a lace flower on the tablecloth.
When it’s time to eat, Mama places her turkey platter between the two candlesticks. The Cajun turkey is set on the sideboard with the extra casserole dishes of potatoes and stuffing. “Everyone better sit,” Mama says. “There’s nothing worse than chewing on cold meat.”
Petey and Mac materialize. I tuck a cloth napkin into the front neckline of Hope’s dress.
“I’m cutting the turkey,” Petey says. He grabs the big knife and slashes air. While I’m telling him he better sit and Mama’s screaming that he’s a dangerous little fool, Charlie takes the knife from him and asks, “Would you like to learn how to do it properly?” Surprised, Petey nods.
Charlie cuts through the joints on the legs and slices the breast meat. Petey watches as intently as if he was staring at the TV. Charlie places Petey’s hand in the correct position on the knife. He guides Petey’s stubby hand. A perfect, thin slice of turkey falls from the breast.
Charlie says, “You have a talent. Wouldn’t be surprised if you grew up to be a surgeon some day.” Petey lost his front teeth in a fight and usually keeps his uppers hooded, but he forgets and flashes shiny pink gums.
“You better load up on turkey, then,” says Mama, “If you want to grow the brains to become anything.” She forks a slice of her turkey and drops it onto Petey’s plate.
Petey says, “I don’t want that kind.”
Mama gives him another slice. “Nothing better than protein. Jesus Christ himself would tell you that.”
“I want Cajun turkey.”
“Me, too,” says Mac.
Mama drops her fork on Petey’s plate. “I’ve been cooking this turkey for over 40 years, and all of a sudden you decide it’s not good enough?”
Petey shrugs and looks at me.
“Maureen, knock it off,” Ena says. “He’s just a little boy. Let him eat what he wants.”
“As always,” says Mama, “You’re the expert. Never married. Never had any children. Yet you can tell me what this boy needs.”
“You know, boys,” says Charlie as he pours red wine into four crystal goblets. “My philosophy is to sample everything. Even if I think I don’t want to. That way I never miss out on something that could be truly wonderful.” Charlie distributes the wine glasses around the table to Mama, Ena, and me. “As a matter of fact, after my wife died, I never thought I’d want to marry again.” He smiles at Ena.
Mama leans back in her seat.
Ena lightly touches Charlie on the sleeve. I notice the tiny diamond ring. “I haven’t told them yet.” She looks at Mama. “Charlie and I are in love.”
Petey and Mac giggle. Mama grabs onto the edge of the table as if she was afraid of tumbling off into space.
“That’s wonderful,” I say. Ena smiles, reaches across the table and pats my hand. Her skin is crinkly, but warm and smooth, and it occurs to me that I don’t remember ever touching Mama’s hands.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Ena asks Mama.
Mama takes a gulp of wine and swishes it around in her mouth. “Like what?”
“Like, that’s wonderful, Ena. I’m so happy for you.”
“And why should I?” asks Mama. “You never said it to me.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” says Ena. “That was over 30 years ago.” She watches Mama load her plate with turkey, pour gravy over it, and then slash through it with her knife and fork. “Anyways, Jack was a dumb cluck.”
“Who’s Jack?” asks Petey.
“Your granddaddy,” I tell him. “I cut Hope’s meat into tiny bite-size pieces.
“Why’d you marry a dumb cluck?” Petey asks Mama.
Mama swabs the gravy on her plate with turkey. “No one could ever live up to Ena’s standards. Boys in town were too fat or too stupid. Or they worked at the Arco Station and smelled like gas.” She looks at Charlie. “You think you’re gonna be good enough for her? You think she won’t all of a sudden decide you look like a damn fool with that long, girlie hair of yours and that gummy tape on your eyeglasses?”
Charlie puts a hand on Ena’s shoulder as if for assurance and smiles. “I surely hope not.”
Ena pats his hand. “Don’t listen to her. She’s always blamed me for her own mistakes.”
“I’m not the one making a mistake,” Mama says.
“And what mistake is that?” asks Ena, her voice low and formal like a school principal.
Mama doesn’t answer. She stands and grabs Petey’s plate. “Hey,” he says. “I’m not done yet.” She plunks it back in front of him. “You can stuff yourself till it blows out your ears for all I care.”
“Gross,” yells Petey. “Did you hear that?” he asks me.
“Grandma didn’t mean it.” I tuck in a loose tuft of his red hair and tickle a freckled ear.
“I did too mean it,” says Mama, her eyes, burning coals. Even Petey and Mac turn from her blazing stare. “I spent my whole life taking care of my family. Working. Coming home. Cooking dinner. Washing dishes. Falling asleep every night too exhausted to even brush my teeth.” She takes a gasp of air, and it sounds like wind wheezing through an abandoned mine shaft. “And for what?” she asks.
Right about now, I’m wishing I was any place but here.
“You had other choices,” Ena says.
Ena puts her napkin down on her plate. She thinks. “Well, what about Manny O’Boyle? He was always fond of you.”
Mama stares in disbelief. “He didn’t have a left ear.”
“He was handsome.”
“What happened to his ear?” asks Petey.
Mama plants both hands on the table. “It takes you 68 years to find someone you think is good enough, but it’s okay for me to marry a man without an ear?”
Charlie clears his throat. “Maybe the children and I should check on the dessert.”
“Good idea!” I say and stand.
Charlie helps Hope climb down from her chair. “It seems I remember a young lady arriving with the most wonderful apple pie.” I follow, too, but Hope tugs at my sleeve. “I don’t want you to come.”
I figure I’ve heard wrong. I reach for her hand. She pulls it away. “I just want Charlie.”
I sense Mama turning her attention on me.
“Charlie is quite wonderful with children,” says Ena. “Children, dogs, everyone loves him.”
“They’re all Prince Charming in the beginning,” Mama says.
Because Hope is so particular about who she likes, I hold out my hand again.
She presses against Charlie’s leg.
I laugh, light-hearted. I playfully tousle Mac’s hair. “I bet the boys want me to come.”
Mac slaps at my hand. “Hey, you’re messing up my hair.”
I feel like I’m falling. My mouth goes dry. I watch Hope walk off with Charlie, her tiny hips swaying, her chin tilted just so as she smiles shyly up at him.
“Just goes to show,” Mama says, “the only thing in life you can ever count on is that everyone eventually goes their own merry way.”
Outside the window, it’s growing dark. Snow blankets everything. I feel the full weight of Mama’s gaze. Starting at the top of Ridge Street, the streetlamps begin to flicker on, lighting the way.