George Morgan Scott
Unnoticed by the prattling guests, little Toby, twitching with the terrible twos, climbs up on the stuffed chair, totters, catches his balance, reaches for the security system control panel. He giggles as he presses several keys with his chubby little fingers. An earsplitting whooping blasts the room.
“Toby!” his mother Cyndi screams, hands clamped over her ears.
Toby’s great-grandfather, Ralph, ninety years his senior, swings back and forth in his wheelchair cackling with laughter until the piece of hard candy he’s been sucking on catches in his throat. He gags and gasps and his face turns red and his eyes bug out.
As Toby jumps off the chair and runs from the clutches of his mother, Ralph’s grandson and Toby’s father, Mark, moves behind the old man, picks him up, wraps his arms around his frail chest, squeezes. Mark doesn’t say anything; he fancies himself a man of action, not words.
Mark’s aunt and Ralph’s daughter, Emily, stands in front of him, yelling, “Dad, Dad, Dad.”
On the third squeeze Ralph oomphs, and the piece of candy shoots from his mouth, bounces off Emily’s forehead. She pitches backward into her niece, Melissa (Mark’s sister), who’s been providing backup and who now plops down on a platter of chips and guacamole dip on the side table, with her aunt landing in her lap. Fortunately, Emily is a small woman and Melissa’s lap is more than an ample cushion and the table is solid oak.
Regaining his voice—and his life—old Ralph starts up again, like a radio interrupted momentarily by a power outage, and adds his cackle to the whooping alarm, the shrieking Toby, now struggling in the firm grasp of his mother, and the general din of people whose ears are being assaulted by the cacophony.
Mark moves around to help up his big (in more ways than one) sister, aided in his effort by Emily, who has already extracted herself. Tom, Melissa’s husband, hovers behind her as if he wants to push while Mark and Emily pull, but before he can make his move, they have her up. Emily rubs the red spot on her forehead and glares at no one in particular.
Cyndi, who now has the miscreant Toby firmly in her grasp, picks up her wine glass to reward herself, and Toby knocks it from her hand. It falls and bounces, streaking the white rug with Pinot Noir. Cyndi increases her grip on Toby, gives him a little shake, says, “Fuck.”
Having failed to help rescue his wife from her momentary setback (sit-down, actually), Tom turns his attention to the blaring alarm. Looks at the keypad, shrugs, then looks toward the kitchen, where the owners of the house have been holding fort, his sister-in-law, Mary, who’s been tethered to the turkey, and her husband, Jorge, who’s been vacationing in Margaritaville, and who are now arguing about the alarm password while they thrash through various kitchen drawers. “Shit, guys, hurry up,” is Tom’s contribution to the problem.
Emily wrinkles her wrinkled face at her new niece’s and her old nephew’s language.
Finally Jorge whoops, loud enough to rise above the tumult, and holds up a piece of paper, grinning like it’s the winning lottery ticket, then runs over to the pad, punches in numbers, and the blaring stops and is replaced by the rare commodity of silence, which holds sway for a few moments before it’s again exiled, now by a raucous chorus of voices. Tom opens the front door and peeks outside, sees neighbors walking back to their houses and looking over their shoulders at the source of the recent aural displeasure that drew them out in anger, which the local Type-A was trying to whip into attack mode until the offense ended. While the others were relieved, she was disappointed.
Heather, Cyndi’s seventeen-year-old sister, coughs out smoke from the joint she’s been smoking in the bathroom, flushes it down the toilet, fans the air with her hand.
Uncle Billy and his partner Dwayne hold hands on the sofa, totally zoned in to the Cowboys pounding the Lions on TV. The candy-extraction excitement next to them barely caused a ripple in their private universe. Bill was married to Emily before he found himself and became Billy. That was twenty years ago. Tom joins them, smiling uncertainly and huddling at the opposite end of the sofa.
“Turkey sure smells good,” Tom says to his sofa mates, hoping his smile looks natural.
“Sure does,” Billy replies.
“Just scrumptious,” Dwayne adds.
“How about those Cowboys?” Tom asks.
He’s ignored. Tries again, “Wow, those guys are in pretty good shape.”
Dwayne looks at him and replies, “Maybe, but we’re watching the game.” Matter of fact, with just a touch of droll.
“Trying to watch it,” Billy adds.
Tom gets the hint and shuts up. His lingering smile feels awkward, like an ill-fitting mask, so he turns to his right to hide it until it goes away.
As Melissa bends over to clean up the chip and dip mess on the side table, Ralph swipes some guacamole from her backside with his finger and inserts it into his grinning, toothless mouth.
Melissa straightens up like a spring and says, “Ooh, Grandpa.”
“Now, Daddy, behave yourself,” Emily adds, shaking her bony, 73-year-old finger at him.
“Yum,” he cackles back.
Billy thinks it’s scandalous that his 73-year-old ex-wife still calls her father “Daddy.”
Emily looks at Billy and Dwayne, purses her lips, shakes her head.
Billy sees her out of the corner of his eye and gives her the finger. She inhales sharply and puts her hand over her mouth. She can’t decide what she hates the most—that her ex-husband is gay or that his partner is black. Melissa’s tried to talk to her about it, saying that the world she grew up in no longer exists, that she shouldn’t judge people just by their sexual preference or the color of their skin. Instead, she should either like or not like people because of who they are or what they’ve done. Emily promised her favorite niece that she would try. At least Melissa practiced what she preached, marrying Tom Chang and giving birth to his son. Emily was shocked when Melissa came home from college with Tom. She pulled her aside and asked her if she was serious about “that Chinaman.” She replied that not only was she serious, she was planning on marrying him. Then she held her aunt’s hand and said, “Don’t worry, he’s more American than you or me. He was born here. So were his parents.” Emily then asked where they planned to live after they were married, and she said she wanted to move to Taiwan, but Tom insisted on living here. Tom has turned out to be a great fellow. Good husband, good father. Most of all, he fits right into this crazy family (or at least tries). Okay, Emily has decided to hate Billy not because he’s gay, but because he left her, and to hate Dwayne not because he’s black, but because he’s her replacement. But one thing she’ll never accept is while Bill never wanted to adopt a child after they found out she was infertile, that was the first thing he and Dwayne did after they got together. Two, in fact. Maci’s doing her residency in Boston and couldn’t get away and B. J. is in San Francisco spending the holiday with his girlfriend’s family. Both are great kids, but she wishes she could see them without going off by herself to cry.
Muffin, tabby, who retreated behind the TV when the commotion started, makes a break for it, streaking up the stairs to the safety of dustbunnydom under a bed.
Observing the chaos in the living room from the relative calm of the dining room, Blanche, Emily’s baby sister and mother to Melissa and Mark and Mary (her husband, dead some ten years, was Michael Murphy Morrison) arches her eyebrow and says, “Oh, Lord, here we go again.” She shudders and takes a sip of her Jack Daniel’s. Her toy Chihuahua, Taco, yaps bravely from the crook of her arm. Marmaking, Great Dane, provides bass from his exile on the back patio.
Behind Blanche, the light from the crystal chandelier dances on the china and cut glass and polished silver arranged perfectly on the twenty-place table beneath it.
Back in the chattering chaos, Mark is yelling at Cyndi, “Why don’t you stop that kid from crying?”
“Why don’t you?” Cyndi yells back. “And he’s not ‘that’ kid, he’s our kid.”
Mark’s eyes narrow at his wife while the kid wails.
Jorge picks up his cell phone, checks his recent calls, looks up and yells out above the noise from the living room and from his ear buds, “Fuck, I got a call from the cops. I didn’t hear it to answer, so they’ll be here any minute.”
Just then the front doorbell chimes.
“Cool it, guys,” Heather says, having removed herself from the bathroom crime scene when she heard her uncle’s announcement. “It’s the cops.” She thinks her innocence will best be served by joining the welcoming committee. She puts her palm in front of her face and breathes on it, then pops a couple of Altoids. She tries her boyfriend’s number again and still finds it busy. Prick is talking to Loren for sure. Checks her Facebook page and sees nothing new from him. Tries to open his page but finds he’s changed the password. “Asshole,” she hisses. Goes to her page, deletes him, stuffs her phone in the left front pocket of her super-skinny pink jeans.
Tom says, “Honey, they’re just here about the alarm.” He puts his arm around his sister-in-law’s thin shoulders but removes it when he sees the expression on her face. Glances around to see if anyone noticed his gaffe, but all eyes are glued to the front door.
The decibels practically vanish among the now law-abiding citizens in the impending presence of the police duo. Even Toby’s shrieks are subdued to whimpers, and Ralph shakes with silent cackles. But from upstairs new sounds waft into the downstairs’ aural vacuum: “Yes, yes, yes” and “uhgn, uhgn, uhgn.”
Heather rolls her eyes; Emily squints upward, as if she’s trying to figure out what she just heard (it’s been a long time for her); Cyndi bites her lip and glares at Mark, who has that stupid smirk on his face; Blanche snickers in her bourbon; and Melissa blushes and yells, “Hey up there, cool it. The cops are here.” Once again she wonders where she went wrong with her son Tim, who is the source of the uhgns. She can’t remember the name of the current source of the yeses. At least she waited until…nope, she was the same age. She hopes no one saw her face turn red. This bit of self-awareness causes Melissa’s blush to return, which dominoes into her looking away from everyone with a little smile crinkling her eyes
As the cries of passion segue into low moans and groans, Mark thinks, Way to go, little bro. “Bro” is in recognition of Tim’s sexual talents rather than an accurate expression of kinship, because Mark is actually Tim’s uncle. Identifying with his hip nephew is also tonic to his nascent mid-life crisis. Cyndi, his recent trophy bride twenty-five years his junior, is yet another strategy in his effort to hold on to his vanishing youth. She didn’t bother to tell him she was pregnant with his baby when she married him, so Toby was a surprise wrinkle in the plan. Surprise, indeed.
Tom opens the door, explains the alarm problem to the officers, and Melissa presses cookies into their hands as they step inside.
The older of the two says, with a smile, “Nope, not even your complete idiot intruder would try to break in today. Uh, I’m Officer Smith and this is Officer Lowell.”
Answered by a chorus of “Nice to meet you”s.
Then Smith walks up to Cyndi holding a whimpering, star-struck Toby. “So this is our perp.” He takes out his handcuffs, gently presses one against his wrist. “Aw, too big. If the cuffs don’t fit, we can’t convict.” He puts them away, ruffles the little boy’s hair, beaming a big smile at him. Surprisingly Toby both giggles and smiles. But as soon as the officer turns away, he shrieks and holds his hand out.
Both Cyndi and Melissa fight back tears.
Jorge steps up, looking at Smith’s sidearm. “Is that a Glock 31?” Speaks louder than he should because of Buffet pumping through his ear buds. “Three fifty-seven, right?”
“I have a G-30. Forty-five. Wanna see?”
“Uh, no thank you.”
“I have a permit.”
“That’s all right.”
Jorge, chastised, looks down. Then back up. “What about the Sigs?”
“Well, the 250 is…”
As the gun conversation continues, Officer Lowell is sniffing around the room.
“Has anyone here been smoking marijuana?” Looking directly at Heather, who starts to open her mouth, but before she can speak Dwayne bounces up from the sofa. “I have.”
“Me too.” Billy.
“So have I.” Tom.
“I have the munchies.” Melissa, giggling, nibbling on a cookie.
Blanche raises her hand. “Count me in.”
“Gets me through the day,” Mary adds from the kitchen as she bastes the turkey.
“I would be if I didn’t have him” is Cyndi’s contribution as she rubs the back of her crying son.
“Nothin’ but Acapulco Gold.” Jorge.
Old Ralph brings up the rear with the joint-between-the-thumb-and-forefinger-and-against- the-lips-gesture.
Emily looks confused and Mark purses his lips.
“Got a paddy wagon, or whatever they’re called, that’ll fit all us criminals?” Dwayne asks.
Officer Smith smiles, shakes his head. “We’re fresh out of those. Come on, Officer Lowell, let’s go.”
“Shouldn’t we, uh…?”
“No.” He turns to leave. The younger officer hesitates, sighs, follows. Just before they’re out the door, Smith stops, turns around, says, “Thanks for the cookies.” Then looks at Heather. “Be careful with that stuff.”
Officer Lowell looks with opprobrium at Billy and Dwayne holding hands as they stand on the other side of the sofa, then glares at Heather. As they leave, Officer Smith munches a cookie and smiles to himself.
As soon as the door closes, the eye of the hurricane passes, and the winds whip up again, blowing with Heather’s awkward expressions of gratitude followed by mild adult scolding, some about smoking weed and others about not bringing enough to share; blowing with Ralph’s cackles and Toby’s shrieks; blowing with Mark and Cynthia yelling at each other; blowing with Emily yelling at them to stop fighting, to think of their son; blowing with Billy and Dwayne and Tom cheering a Cowboy’s touchdown; blowing with Melissa yelling at everyone to please be quiet because she has a terrible headache; and blowing with Heather groaning, holding her hands over her ears, heading back to the sweet oblivion of the bathroom.
A car pulls up and parks in the driveway of the house, into the space especially reserved for it. The driver is Mark’s first wife Nancy, and sitting next to her is their son, Gary, twenty-two, who is a Lance Corporal in the Army on leave from his first tour of duty in Afghanistan. In the backseat are Gary’s wife of eight months, Tina, and his little sister, Meghan, a tortured fourteen-year-old. At his mother’s behest, Gary wears his dress green uniform, complete with decorations. He’d rather be wearing jeans and a T-shirt. But what the hell, these days his mom needs all the help she can get. The three adults are sharing a bottle of vodka and war stories: Gary from Helmand Province, his mom from her marriage to Mark, and Tina from her battles with her relatives back in the Philippines. The vodka is building their courage to face the rollicking tumult inside. Meghan rolls her eyes, sighs, nurses her angst as she texts her woes to a friend. Her mother hopes the black eyeliner and lipstick and nail polish and the black clothes and the spiked black hair and the silver-studded black dog collar are symptoms of a temporary middle-school malady. Gary and Tina are more concerned about Nancy than they are about Meghan.
In the kitchen, fortified with cooking sherry, Mary, Melissa’s and Mark’s older sister, whips the mashed potatoes while keeping one eye on the turkey and the other on Jorge, who is standing in the doorway and keeping both eyes on Blanche’s ass. Not bad, he thinks, for an old bird. He toasts it with his margarita; he sure could do worse for a mother-in-law. He turns to check the steaming tamales, bopping to the music of Jimmy Buffett on his iPod. He suddenly feels selfish for not sharing his music and puts his iPod in the speaker dock on the breakfast counter facing the living room and pumps up the volume. Judging from the hoots and jeers not everyone shares his taste in music. He shoots them a big grin, turns it up louder.
No one notices Mark and Cyndi take Toby into the bedroom and close the door, which distances the little boy’s shrieking. No one hears the angry words buzzing between the parents. And no one laments the unheard sounds of an escalation into violence. But they can’t miss seeing Mark as he runs out of the bedroom, face red and eyes blank, runs down the hall, out the front door, slamming it behind him, where, much to his chagrin, he falls under the scrutiny of his first family of procreation, whose car he runs past without waving or saying hello or anything, and whose ex-wife and adult son think so what else is new, and to whom his peeling out in his red ’Vette also seems quite in character.
Back inside the crowd of erstwhile revelers has fallen silent except for the sounds of football (Buffet has ceased to assault), now joined by audible sobs and moans coming from the bedroom. Then the bedroom door opens and anguished crying and moaning blast outward.
Mary, carrying the blender that contains Ralph’s Thanksgiving dinner, and Jorge, carrying his iPod, its ear buds trailing on the floor like afterthoughts, come, grim-faced, out of the kitchen; and Billy and Dwayne and Tom turn around from the sofa; and Tim and his girlfriend, Ginger, descend the stairs a few steps and stop; and Ralph works his gums and blinks his moist eyes; and Heather walks out of the bathroom with her hands over her mouth and her eyes red from the marijuana and now with tears; and Blanche nurses her bourbon with trembling lips; and the doorbell rings again and Tom opens it; and Nancy, bearing pies; and Gary, bearing wine; and Tina, bearing flowers; and Meghan, bearing only her cell phone and her Goth identity rush in, gushing (all except Meghan) “Happy,” followed by “Thanksgiving” (a party balloon floating away into the sky) when they see the somber faces; and Taco quivers; and Marmaking presses his big, wet nose against the patio door; and Muffin creeps out from under the bed; and the turkey sizzles and pops in the oven; and the tamales hiss in the steamer; and the TV sports announcers yammer on; and the sunlight streaming through the partially closed vertical blinds casts shadow bars across the room, making it look like a prison; and all eyes are fixed on the open door down the hallway.
Cyndi steps out, holding a whimpering Toby. A collective gasp arises from the living room folks and propels them toward her, some looking at her red, swollen, bloody face, her cut lips and black eyes, with horror and compassion and others looking away, only with compassion because they can’t take the horror, and Cyndi hopes to become small, to shrink into a speck of dust on the carpet and to just…to just…disappear, and as the loving hands reach for her and the loving words wrap around her, all she can think about is how she has ruined Thanksgiving for everyone.
George Morgan Scott was born and raised in south Texas and left to attend graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, where he received his Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. He now teaches this subject at California State University, Long Beach and lives in nearby Lakewood with his wife. In 1996 he started writing fiction, valuing Tim O’Brien’s “story-truth” over “happening-truth.” He took courses in the UCLA writing program and worked in the genres of mystery, suspense, and science fiction. After publishing 15 short stories in these genres, he has turned to literary writing. In 2006, he started a novel, Searching Padre, the title serving both as setting and metaphor. Excerpts from this manuscript have appeared as short stories in Lullwater Review and RiverSedge. A third literary story, not a novel excerpt yet set on Padre Island, has appeared in G.W. Review. A forthcoming story, which departs from the island, will appear in Broken Plate. He has recently returned to an earlier novel manuscript, a suspense thriller titled A Fearful Symmetry, rewriting it in more of a literary mode.