Holidays for us were always a Steven King book. An overly long and sickening affair. My sisters, upon hearing of our brother John’s plan to leave the country for Thanksgiving, called him a traitor and used him as target practice for their eye-daggers. He left in mid-November for four weeks. There was only one problem with his plan — it failed.
When he returned home, John walked in the front door, suitcase in hand, smelled the bird cooking, and walked right back out. My sister Laura rocketed out after him. “Get back in here and take it like a man, you coward. We need you!” She dragged him back in and he collapsed on the sofa, face in hands, whispering like Marlon Brando about the horror.
“Sorry, John,” I said.
I once read a fable about a wealthy Russian who went to Egypt for the winter and came back to find winter had shown up late and wasn’t finished yet. I say that to say this: John looked at me like a wealthy Russian.
“Is it bad?” he asked.
No one had seen Father all day. He had locked himself in the parlor to shoot pool.
John said nothing, just moaned into his hands.“John, I’ve been keeping a log,” I said, pulling it out from under my shirt. “It’s all in here — the missing strawberry incident, the time he turned off the movie because your shirt was untucked, the phone call fragment –”
“Phone call fragment?”
“While you were gone, there was a phone call. Liz was having car trouble, so Father went out to pick her up. Then there was another call. Liz made other arrangements and was calling to say nevermind.”
“Father went out to get her and she wasn’t there.”
I nodded. “When he got home, she was here.”
“Oh my god.”
“It was horrible. Listen, John, please tuck in your shirt.”
The door to the parlor burst open and Father shot out. His first word was bullet-like. He cocked. He fired hello. Violently. He was aiming mostly at John, but if he hit me with the ricochet, so much the better.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Father,” said John.
It was a valiant effort. Father answered with a shotgun thanks.
“What’s wrong, Father?” asked John.
I looked around for horses or a barrel to hide behind.
“I am in a Bad Mood. Is that all right with you? Is it all right with you if I am in a Bad Mood?” The words Bad Mood were cannon balls. “I hope you had a wonderful time at your mother’s.” Mother’s was two cannon balls. I looked at John, and John looked at me, and our looks said cannon balls already? John looked at Father. Father was locked on target, that target being John. I held my breath. I wanted to cover my ears but was afraid to move. “You were over there for at least an hour,” continued Father.
Mother lived down the street. Or rather, Father now lived down the street from where Mother had always lived. Father always knew exactly who was at Mother’s and for how long. He made up his own reasons why. Once, when she had a party, Father lay on the front lawn with a telescope. When it began to rain, he pitched a tent.
“Not an hour,” said John. “Forty-five minutes.”
“You said you would be here between five and six! It is now six o’clock. What were you doing over — ”
“I thought I should at least say hello before I came–. . . It’s only five forty-five, Father!”
“What were you doing over there?”
“I was saying hello! I’ve been gone for–”
“I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner at your mother’s.”
“We didn’t have Thanks–”
“You said you would be here between five and six!”
“It’s quarter till! I didn’t know we–”
“Is it Thanksgiving at your mother’s?”
“Well, it’s Thanksgiving here!”
“I didn’t know–”
“What were you doing over there?”
This was bad. It hadn’t been this bad since … since the last time. I try not to think about that one.
“We still haven’t accounted for the missing strawberry, John. I want to know what happened to the missing strawberry. Did it just walk away?”
Things had grown quiet in the kitchen. Usually when things grew quiet in the kitchen it was because Liz and Laura were in there hashing out police action strategies. Liz poked her head out of the kitchen and announced in her sing-song voice that dinner was ready. Father was still trained on John. John was trained on the floor. “Mmm, smell that bird,” I said, and sneaked off to the kitchen.
Liz and Laura sat on their side of the table. I sat on mine. Father at the head, John opposite him. No one moved. We breathed, but quietly.
“Father,” said Liz, “are you going to carve the turkey?”
Father’s head turned slowly, like a battleship gun. It rotated to Liz. Liz unfolded her white napkin, and the gun rotated to John. John showed no napkin, and the gun fired.
“I don’t know! I don’t know if I want to carve the god–” Father struggled. He wanted to fire the big one and couldn’t. We all knew that when the big guns opened up, the best thing was to let them pound away. We also knew the worst thing was to fire back. Needless to say, John fired back.
“The goddamn turkey?”
Everything stopped. Time stopped. Then, it exploded forward.
“Is that what you wanted to say?”
“Why don’t you just say it?”
“Jonathan, don’t say that!”
“What are you so pissed off about?”
“JONATHAN, DON’T SAY THAT!”
“You say it all the time.”
“Not anymore I don’t! Can’t I reform? Am I not allowed to reform?”
“I’ve heard you say it. I hear you say worse all the–”
“I know, I know! Through the ducts, the vents! Voices carry through the vents!”
“So you are allowed and we’re not? Is that it?”
“It’s against the rules! Against the rules!”
It was weeks later before I understood what John did next. John was like a bottle of champagne shaken too long. His cork blew, champagne flew out, and then it was quiet, and there was champagne everywhere. “Well what if I just said–,” pop!, “Fuck the Rules!” He screamed the last part.
Father’s guns fell silent.
Then he said, “Well, I guess you just did.” Then again, “I guess you just did.” He picked up the knife and carved the turkey. “Don’t say that. Not in this house.”
Quietly, John said, “It’s just a word.”
Father stabbed the knife into the turkey up to the hilt. “Stop saying that!” he yelled.
“Stop using words?”
“Stop with your pseudo-intellectual, college-educated, pseudo-intellectual–,” he wanted to say bullshit, “hogwash!” He mumbled something about college-educated, pseudo-intellectual, untucked shirt hogwash, yanked out the knife, set it down, and locked on John again. “Why did you quit your job?”
“Not this again,” said John.
“Father, please,” said Liz.
“You threw it away,” said Father. “You threw away a perfectly good career. And now what are you doing? What are you doing? What?”
John stood, pushed his chair back, and turned to leave. “I’m sorry you’re upset,” he said. “But I’ve had enough.”
“Well, go then! Go to your mother’s! Don’t come back.”
John said he wasn’t coming back, and he meant it. We all knew it. Father knew it.
“John,” said Liz, “he doesn’t mean it.”
“Where are you going?” said Father.
John didn’t answer.
“The vents!” Father cried, “The vents!” He got up from the table and kicked one of the vents. It broke and fell on the floor. Father pulled his foot out of the wall and stomped on the broken vent. He stomped and he stomped, and then he just stood there, shaking. “John,” said Father, face in hands, “You’re smarter than me.”
John stopped, his back to the table.
“I love you, John.” Father was crying. “I love you, John.”
John came back to the table.
“I love you, John … I love you, John.”
John took Father’s arm, guided him to his own former place at the table, opposite the head.
“I love all of you,” said Father.
“We know,” said John. “But you are unfit.”
“All of you,” Father repeated.
“Walt has been keeping a log, Father.” John told me to take out the log, as evidence. “We love you too, Father. But you are unfit to father this house.”
Father looked at each of us, then finally at John. “A mutiny?” he asked.
John looked around the table. We all agreed.
“Yes,” said John. “And there are some new rules.”
John sat down at the head of the table and began to carve the turkey. We listened to the new rules. They were pretty good.