Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Mean Estate: Thanksgiving Short Fiction

By the last week of November, the hills of western Virginia have gone a mossy brown. From twenty-five thousand feet, they resemble nothing so much as the rough, irregular hide of an alligator mottled with the bright white crescents or ovals or s-shapes of ski resorts awaiting the early-season crowds.

The plane is a turboprop Dornier 328, the workhorse of US Airways commuter fleet, and standard equipment from Pittsburgh to Greensboro. It is cramped and noisy, a plane he knows well. The FASTEN SEAT BELT sign blinks twice, and before the flight attendant begins her “tray tables and seat backs” announcement, he begins stowing his laptop for the initial descent into the Piedmont Triad airport. He knows to do this because he makes this flight nearly every week, and has for nearly as long as he cares to remember.

On the ground in Greensboro, he rolls his single carry-on bag out of the terminal, past the cascading fountain and out into the crowded parking lot. It’s a sunny day, seasonable, twenty degrees warmer than the wintry morning he left behind in Cleveland. His Ford Crown Victoria, (“company car,” he would add, apologizing) waits for him in the space where he parked it forty-five hours before. If it were capable of speaking, it might question why he is back so early this trip. But it is just twenty-three hundred pounds of steel, glass, rubber and plastic. It does not know today is the day before Thanksgiving and that all good business travelers are either home already, or well on their way. For him it’s the latter, as there’s still the matter of the hour drive from the airport to his suburban home.

Leaving the airport and merging onto the highway, he checks his voicemail, and finds, as expected, only one message, from his wife, Claire, reminding him to pick up a bottle of wine for the Scanlon’s. A glance at his watch confirms that it is after four o’clock, and that the business world is winding down for the long holiday weekend. A quick call to the office reassures him that there are no last minute fires to be doused or feathers to be smoothed. He turns the radio up and cruises west, eventually taking the Hargersville exit and turning south onto the wide tree-lined boulevard.

The Wine Shop is located in a cluster of gray clapboard buildings designed, to the folly of the Boston-based developers, to resemble a New England whaling village; or at least a New England tourist destination designed to look like a whaling village. They retail space is called The Shoppes at Pequod Landing; Pequod Landing being the subdivision where his house, 4BD/3BT 3500 SQFT, sits on its pie-shaped wedge of cul-de-sac; Lanyard Court. The Shoppes consist of a dozen small retail establishments, a Blockbuster, a Domino’s pizza, a candy store, a pharmacy, a card shop... all bobbing in the sea of asphalt that washes upon the shores of the Harris Teeter grocery store. It’s cheerfully upscale and painstakingly inauthentic. On this day, at this hour, the lot is packed with minivans and sport-utes, and he is silently grateful that he does not have to fight the rush of last-minute turkey-and-yam-seekers descending on the Teeter. For the first time since Claire suggested -- insisted actually -- on having Thanksgiving dinner with the Scanlon’s, he sees the value in letting someone else do the leg-work.

A circuit of the lot reveals an open spot a few spaces down from The Wine Shop’s door, directly in front of The Ribbonry. Apparently there are few last minute lace and bow shoppers today, and he quickly tucks the “Vic” in between a monstrous Suburban and a Mercedes sedan. Inside, Fred, the shop owner, finishes up with a couple who are clearly planning one heck of an boozy extravaganza for turkey day, but gives a courteous nod of acknowledgement as he ushers them and their case of clanking bottles toward the Suburban.

“Dan,” the shopkeeper says warmly, “let, me guess; looking for something that goes with turkey and cranberries?” He says this with a cheerful, off-the-cuff, nonchalance that Dan is certain has been the go-to greeting for the past week.

“That sounds about right.” Dan says, actually quite impressed that Fred remembers his name; he is hardly a regular. “We’re having Thanksgiving dinner with some business associates of Claire’s; some folks new in town from Chicago.”

“Ah,” the short, balding man says knowingly, as he heads off toward a stack of crates near the front of the store. “This Kongsgaard Syrah is a good choice. It has strong spice and black pepper qualities with some smokiness, a smooth finish, and just enough “sticker” to impress,” he continued, holding the bottle out boldly so that the three-figure price was clearly visible. It was an expensive bottle, at least by Dan’s standards, but he knew that Claire would want something nice.

“That sounds like just the ticket.”

“Great. If it’s a hostess gift, I have some nice wrap and ribbon, I could pretty it up a bit.”

“Sure. That would be great,” Dan offers while absently wondering if the ribbon came from The Ribbonry next door.

- -

Thanksgiving Day dawns clear and warm, with the temperature pushing 70 by the time Dan and Claire leave for the Scanlon’s, just after noon. Bill and Veronica Scanlon live near uptown in a fashionable older neighborhood called Berwick, where modest two bedroom bungalows on postage-stamp plots of land easily fetch three-quarters of a million dollars. Claire navigates from hand-written instructions Veronica scrawled the day before. New in town and working from memory, Veronica mislabeled a critical turn, and the result was an increasingly frustrating tour of the side streets and back roads of Berwick, heightened by Claire’s refusal to call for directions because that would require her to admit that Veronica’s directions were wrong to start with.

After thirty minutes of trial and error, Dan coaxes the “Vic” to a stop in the driveway. The skies have clouded over, but it is still warm, “more like Labor Day than Thanksgiving,” Dan thinks, as they make their way up the quaint cobblestone path toward the front door. Clearly, the Scanlon’s have been waiting impatiently for them, as Claire’s knock is greeted almost simultaneously by the opening of the door. Alarm bells ring in Dan’s head as he gets his first look at his hosts. Bill Scanlon is tall and handsome, five or six years older, but trim and fit in a casually athletic way that Dan has never been and will never be. His tanned face contrasting pleasantly with his close-cut silver hair. He is dressed in a short-sleeved black silk polo shirt and silver-gray silk and wool slacks that make Dan think of cool stone lining the walls of some hidden canyon. He wears no socks under black Gucci loafers. Veronica is outfitted in a little black dress that Dan suspects cost more than the Vic. For his part, Dan wore a blue and green plaid Lands End shirt and khaki Dockers. He supposed he should have inquired about dress code, but had never heard of anyone dressing up for Thanksgiving dinner this side of the freaking White House.

Greetings and introductions are exchanged as the couples make their way through the small foyer into the living room. The house, a contemporary design from the 1960’s is painted sparkling white throughout and decorated in a style which could charitably called minimalist. Dan is almost seated before he remembers the bottle of wine in his hand and thrusts it awkwardly toward his hosts.

“Oh, thank you,” Bill says with a forced sincerity that is both practiced and unconvincing. “This is a great little winery. Have you tried their Merlot? ‘Roni and I stopped by there on our annual Napa wine buying trip; what was it dear, two years ago?”

“No,” Dan answers quite truthfully, and unable to think of anything else meaningful to add babbles a short and disjointed series of comments about The Wine Shop and the half dozen random bottles he has purchased there, mostly as gifts, over the past few months.

“Hmmm,” Bill responds, feigning interest, or at least acknowledgement. “Well, let’s get this bottle open, shall we. I normally like to let a bottle breathe for at least half an hour. Can I get you something to drink in the meantime?”

“Uhm, sure. Scotch?”

“Glenmorangie Port Wood Finish okay?” It is more a statement than a question.

“Uhm, sure.”

Bill walks over to the small bar and pours the drinks. Claire had deserted them, heading into the kitchen with Veronica, and he is left in the living room with Bill and his expensive scotch.

“This…” Dan scans the room, which to him resembles a museum of modern art he once visited in New York, “is very nice.”

“Oh, thanks.” Bill says with the mock humility understood to mean, IT IS IMPRESSIVE, ISN’T IT. “We brought a lot of our decor down from Chicago. It was a real trick to get it all to work in this space, but I think Roni’s done a super job. So, I understand you’re involved in plumbing somehow?”

“Well, actually, my company makes industrial valves and fittings.” He considers adding, “I’m a regional sales manager,” but doesn’t want to sound pretentious.

“Oh!”

Silence.

“And I understand that you’re in banking?”

“I’m the Southeast Regional Vice-President for Midwest Savings Trust.”

So much for pretentious.

“Oh!”

Silence.

And more silence.

A voice from the other room announces that dinner is served. The dining room is equally white, the furniture equally severe, the art equally funky. In one corner stands an abstract sculpture that, at first glance, appears to be a horse being devoured by huge tentacled creatures. Dan doesn’t hazard a second glance.

The two couples sit in bright chrome and black leather chairs surrounding a glass and chrome table. Bill closes his eyes and extends his arms, prompting everyone to join hands. The room is eerily silent for what Dan thinks is an absurdly long time, then Bill begins an incantation of grace the like of which Dan had never heard before. He doesn’t catch it all, but manages to pluck out references to Mother Earth, the Gods of a Million Stars, and something he thinks might have to do with reruns of Bonanza. Then they sit in complete silence for another minute, maybe two, before Bill finally breaks the trance like mood.

If Dan had been uncomfortable earlier, he is in shock now. Closer inspection of the food spread out on the table reveals nothing he recognizes. In the center of the table is a large brownish clot. Beside it is a bowl of what appears to be purple rice, and a bowl of what appears to be red broccoli.

Where the hell do these people shop, Whoville, Dan wonders?

Another bowl, already being passed from Veronica to Claire contains a mixture of red and white beans. Bill stands and begins “carving” long gelatinous hunks from the congealed brown mass. “White or dark, Dan?” he asks with a wry grin, and motions for Dan’s plate. It was coming to Dan now. He knows what this is. He read about it somewhere, maybe one of those fitness magazines at the club.

“Is that Tofurky?” he asks, hoping not to belie his revulsion.

“Nothing but; fat-free 100% vegetable protein,” Bill responds with a smile, still holding out his hand for Dan’s plate.

He shoots Claire a quick glance and her return stare communicates the new theme for the day. Eat it! Eat it all! Don’t say a damn word! Eat the goddamn Tofurkey!

Dan dutifully hands his plate over and is rewarded with an extra large portion. The remainder of the bowls are passed and soon Dan’s plate is covered with small piles of the purported food. Dan is relieved, quite relieved actually, to find that the mystery meal is merely bland and gummy, not wholly inedible.

Conversation is a bit smoother now that there are four people to carry the load. Things are beginning to wind down and Dan thinks he might be able to stick it out, possibly even get home for the end of the Cowboys game, when the other shoe drops in the form of Bill’s leading question, “so, have either of you ever heard of The Power of the Cosmos?”

Neither Dan nor Claire have. Fortunately, Bill and Veronica have some brochures, and a nicely produced three hour video which covers the basics; the essence of which is that one can achieve total enlightenment by becoming one with Mother Earth, Sister Moon and, yes, the Gods of the Stars. And best of all, this “oneness” can be arranged on the installment plan.

By the time Dan and Claire engineer a departure, complete with much hugging and a promise to call after they had thought over “their place in the cosmos,” the sky is dark and a chill wind has swirled up.

The first ten minutes of the ride pass in silence. Claire is the first to speak.

“Well, that was interesting.”

“Interesting, INTERESTING? That was a freaking carnival sideshow! I’m still trying to figure out what half that stuff we ate was supposed to be. Mother Earth, Sister Moon, Star Gods? Throw in a witch and a gypsy and we could have had Thanksgiving dinner with Stevie Nicks!!!”

“Oh, they’re just a little quirky. Anyway, you seemed like you were having a good time.”

“I’m a salesman for heaven's sake. I sell industrial valves and fittings. Pretending to be interested in stupid shit is what I do. Do you really think I find pressure nozzles fascinating? A Tofurkey, Claire? A Tofurkey? I spend four nights a week in bad hotel rooms and nod off to the local news of some city whose name I’ve forgotten. I eat more meals in Applebees and Ruby Tuesdays than I do in my own home. All I want is to have a nice traditional Thanksgiving meal. It’s really very simple; turkey, dressing, cranberry relish, yams, pumpkin pie. You say grace, you stuff yourself. Afterward you waddle over to the living room sofa and alternate between napping and football -- always the Lions, always the Cowboys -- next to a roaring fire. Maybe later you have a second piece of pie. If you want to be adventurous, you add a little horseradish to the cranberries or maybe, just maybe, pecan pie instead of pumpkin. But tofu and genetically altered broccoli, Claire, I DON’T THINK SO!!!”

The rest of the drive passes in silence.

Once home, Dan pours himself an oversize tumbler of Johnny Walker, lights the gas logs in the fireplace and settles back in his leather recliner. He surfs distractedly up and down the cable, pausing for a few minutes to watch sharks on the Discovery Channel and something about Japanese submarines on THC. On his way back up toward E!, something catches his eye. In a black and white New York, a jolly old man in a tailored suit walks briskly down the street. Dan knows this man, this film; MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. Back in Ohio, where he grew up, the local television station broadcast MIRACLE every Thanksgiving. He has seen it maybe half a dozen times, but not since he was a teen. He takes a sip of scotch and places the remote on the side table; watching, fascinated, as the images burned deep into his childhood psyche refreshed themselves from the screen. By the time a pre-pubescent Natalie Wood is doing her monkey impression, an idea is germinating in his mind, and by the time Maureen O’Hara and John Payne find Kriss’s cane in the corner of the country house, he is filled with a warm glow that was part scotch and part nostalgia. He flicks the television off and shuffles unsteadily off to bed, whispering to Claire as he slides in beside her, “this year Claire, we’re going to have a real Christmas, traditional, just like when we were kids.”

“Sure, honey, good night,” she says as she sleepily kisses his cheek and rolls onto her side. Little does she know those will be the last rational words spoken in that house for a month.

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