In this excerpt from my first novel, Happily after Ever, Harry is remembering a Thanksgiving from his youth.
He used to play with the younger brother, Tommy, and he spent countless hours spying on and speculating the mysteries of teen-age sister Patricia, but Harry was in love with Mandy Eastman. Mandy lived next door and was in his seventh grade class, and he would go to unheard of lengths to breathe her air.
Of course, being a major lame-ass nerd, Harry could not be seen with or even look at Mandy in school. There were mysterious unwritten rules and penalties in middle school. It was a wonder that anyone learned them at all, let alone survived the breaking of one of them. Harry knew his place was at the nerd table in the cafeteria, in the corner near the poison ivy end of the dirt play yard at recess, and on Stevie Dobin’s side of a dodge-ball game in gym. (Harry was always on the side with the losers.) It didn’t matter who else was Stevie’s side. The supreme rule, however, was that Harry was never allowed anywhere near girls like Mandy Eastman. One afternoon he saw Dave Hendrickson between sixth and seventh period standing face to face with Mandy, fingering her left breast, and it nearly broke his heart. His twelve-year-old mind couldn’t articulate a feeling of that immensity, but the image stuck with him all of his life. He felt a yearning for Mandy to this day, some eighteen years later, though he had completely lost track of her.
During the summer, Harry’s little street was far away from schoolyard politics and the cliques that governed them. At home on Briar Glen Lane, he and Mandy were just neighbors. Harry would rake leaves for Mr. Eastman, go with the family to ballet recitals for Mandy’s younger sister and generally suck up to all the Eastmans in order to be near Mandy. She usually treated him with the respect reserved for lesser life forms, but during those summers Mandy and Harry were simply kids and shared a love of the trees and woods and creeks. Though not best friends, they were the next-door neighbor sort of “friends by default.”
Patricia was instructing Mandy, unbeknownst to Harry, in the subtle art of tease flirting. Mandy knew Harry had a crush on her. It was obvious to everyone but Harry. That is how Harry found himself at Thanksgiving dinner with ten of the Eastman clan. The main problem was Harry’s allergy to turkey, an allergy of which he was ignorant because he had never even tasted turkey. Harry had a deep visceral aversion to any food that was unusual in texture or possessing a strong smell. His favorite foods, what he actually lived on, were Velveeta cheese, Skippy crunchy peanut butter, and Krispy brand saltine crackers. Harry could not tolerate vinegars in either smell or acidity, and thus would not eat salad. He was suspicious of baked potatoes because his father had once used some sour cream preparing one when he was young. Sour anything caused Harry to retch involuntarily. His mom stopped coercing him to try new foods when he was five. He had ruined her dinners by vomiting in his plate too many times. She simply gave up.
To say the afternoon was a disaster is a gross understatement; like calling a rattlesnake a problematic babysitter. Afterwards Harry didn’t show his face around the Eastmans for months. He avoided using the front door of his own house because he was too embarrassed be seen by Mandy’s mom.
It began well enough, if not a little uncomfortable. Harry had not eaten any breakfast in nervous anticipation of this dinner date. In fact, he was so unnerved by the prospect of eating with so many strangers that he couldn’t tell if he was hungry. The Eastmans were not fundamentalists, but they believed in observing various Sabbaths and thanking the almighty whenever they ate. Because Harry was a guest from outside the family, he held a position of honor at the table. Marjorie Eastman, Mandy’s mom, asked Harry, “Dear, would you like to say grace?” Mandy knew Harry had never attended any church service and would have no idea how to begin, even if he could get over the terror at having all eyes upon him. Mandy and Patricia marveled at his discomfort. The older sister stifled a laugh; it sounded like a snort. The rest of the family ignored the sound, except Mandy’s Uncle Jack, a Merchant Marine cook who had already had three J & B’s.
“Straight up no ice, Marjorie. Thank you.”
He was Mrs. Eastman’s older brother, thus facilitating Family Etiquette Rule #1: The embarrassing drunk brother is always invited to family holiday meals, and no matter how obnoxious, he is never expelled. Mr. Eastman would have the right, if he were stupid enough to exercise it before bed on the eve of a day off, to whine and growl to his wife later after Jack had passed out or stumbled to his car. Paul Eastman, like most men, wanted to get laid, so he would keep his opinion of Jack to himself.
This was years before Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. At this pivotal point in American history, friends didn’t screw with their friends’ right to drive shit-faced, if friends didn’t want to get the living puke beat out of them. Cops normally let drunk drivers sleep it off and released them in the morning. Intervention in white middle class lives was regarded as a civil rights violation. Nobody talked about the many homicides committed by belligerent morons like Jack Monroe.
This Thanksgiving, however, Jack was Harry’s champion. Jack had noticed the way Patricia and Mandy treated the boy. Jack was intimately familiar with being the lame-ass nerd-boy, and he had scars to prove it.
“Christ, Marge,” he slurred. “Why not have Miss Prissy Panties invoke the blessing? And when the hell can we get to the wine, I’m thirsty!” He leered at Patricia through his thick lenses, a possible foreshadowing of abuses yet undiscovered. Harry never knew.
Mrs. Eastman covered her anger like the survivor that she was. Her father had drunk himself to death just in time to spare Marjorie’s mother the trouble of murdering him in his sleep. It would have been self-defense, though, as the old man beat her mom most nights, only beating Marge occasionally as a diversion.
After a moment’s pause to collect her wits, Marge said, “Well then, Patricia, would you?”
The teen tipped her head piously and placed her pale white hands together, fingertips pointing upward toward God. She spoke clearly in her girlish soprano, “Thank you, oh Lord, for these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive and Lord, may this food nourish our souls as our bodies, and make us truly grateful. Amen.”
She crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue at Jack. He regarded her from beneath sleepy eyelids like an over-fed tiger slouching across the table from her.
“Amen,” he grumbled.
“Make us grateful,” Harry mumbled aloud. He momentarily rose out of the throes of his memory to the dimly lit room in his Nashville duplex.
Out in the backyard, the crows had given way to two grey squirrels, one possessing a woeful stump stuck full of mangy pin-feather-like hair, the other with a proud bush of a tail. They looked remarkably like two bantamweight boxers as they argued over a black rubber super ball. Stumpy was chattering and running around in circles. Bushy, holding the ball between his front hands, was hopping around in order to continue facing his maniacal opponent. Harry could see a small chunk missing from the inky looking globe.
Both squirrels were due to be sadly surprised when they tried to eat that nut.
Harry hardly noticed. A painful memory had his mind in a hellish tape loop. He drifted back.
Anyone who has attended a big-family Thanksgiving dinner knows the chaos that followed. In short, the promise of a civilized meal turned into a pig fest. Several conversations sprang up at once with loud drunken punctuations injected by Uncle Jack. Mrs. Eastman insisted that Harry sample everything on the table. Steaming plates paraded past: ham, turkey (white and dark meat), chestnut stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, candied yams, cream corn, green beans baked with Durkee fried onion curls, sautéed pearl onions, pickled cucumbers with sour cream, boiled summer sausage with sauerkraut, and several plates and bowls containing unidentified sauces in colors ranging from bright red to slimy grey.
Harry politely tried to eat a little bit of everything. He didn’t talk. He sat next to his sweetheart, though he could hardly look at her. He glanced once at her bare knee. She had her hand resting in her lap on top of a white linen napkin. Harry glimpsed her cream-colored thigh below her hiked up skirt. His heart raced, his stomach gurgled.
He tried the turkey and the stuffing. Though the consistency bothered him some, the taste was pleasant enough; nutty and warm, the meat not gamey or dry. He relaxed a little. When the pickled pig’s feet came around, Harry’s stomach groaned again. He mistakenly thought it was hunger. In response, he ate all of the potatoes and gravy on his plate. Up to this time, Harry liked potatoes. Mrs. Eastman, who assumed that the blank place on his plate meant he loved her cooking, responded by plopping down a half pound more, splashing brown, gelatinous gravy over the whole runny mountain. The smell of the sauerkraut assaulted him, preceding an unmistakable wave of nausea. Harry had a gas pain. He would soon learn that intestinal distress was his body’s standard reaction to turkey. He only tried to eat it once again later in his life with similar, involuntary results. He felt ill, but he did not want to excuse himself. He had an unnatural fear of stranger’s bathrooms, and the thought of being sick in one repulsed him.
He thought, I only need to fart, and his stomach lurched again. The noise in the room was deafening. The adults had consumed a considerable amount of alcohol. He could tell that Mrs. Eastman, for one, was less inhibited. She was pouring gravy on her mother-in-law’s plate with abandon. The brown goo had already created a lake on the lavender tablecloth and a river was flowing toward Mandy at Harry’s end of the table. Harry could not hold back. He tried to let it slip out unnoticed, but a cramp gripped his lower intestines at that moment and forced him to push involuntarily. What came out of him was not gas. At least, that is not all that came out of him.
The clatter and bustle of the table ceased. This was no pause, no lull. It was instant silence. Diners sat staring at Harry with forks and glasses suspended in midair. Harry sat miserably in what he imagined to be a puddle of diarrhea much like the river of gravy that was pooling around Gramma Eastman’s plate. His gut wrenched again. That was when the smell reached his nose.
It apparently reached Uncle Jack’s nose, as well. He bellowed: “Christ’s balls kid, what the fuck crawled up your ass and died?”
Harry hardly heard Jack. Everyone at the table was looking at him, aghast. His stomach lurched again and he looked helplessly at Mandy. He wanted to say he was sorry, but when he opened his mouth to speak, he vomited his entire undigested turkey dinner into his beloved’s lap.