Katherine makes salmon for Thanksgiving.
She doesn’t make a show of it – just a baking pan of salmon plunked down on the table with a duck-patterned potholder, a steamed bag of spinach and a bowl of seasoned rice. I take out mismatched forks and chipped plates just like every other evening, and we sit – a heavyset woman with a long, gray braid; and her nephew. I have twenty-three pennies and seventeen loose buttons in my pocket, and Katherine’s stopped asking me to wear a different hoodie.
I eat the maple salmon. I shrug when Katherine asks if I have homework, weekend plans, friends at school. She doesn’t mention Christmas shopping – I’ll probably buy her a book, and she’ll buy me the usual, but who else is there, now?
This is not Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is dry turkey that takes three hours to chew. Thanksgiving is a football game that’s blaring all day long while the womenfolk (and Tommy, ‘cause I never did like football) stay as far away from the living room as they can get away with. Thanksgiving is Cassandra staring stonily at her own father and saying she’s thankful for Al-Anon; Evy and I playing Risk until she hates me; Abby still believing that a wishbone really works.
They weren’t even Katherine’s relatives. She’s had custody since I was four – car crashes run in the family – and she didn’t want me to lose touch with Mom’s side of the family. So she made stilted small talk with Aunt Tiffany while Uncle Ron smashed yet another coffee table, and I spent so much time with my three cousins that sometimes they forgot and said I was their brother.
We only missed one year there, when Cass’s black eye led Katherine to call social services. Tiffany and Ron cold-shouldered us for that; the girls thought we were heroes even if it didn’t work. Cass told us they were questioned with their mother in the room; she said that Cassie tripped (true, but not half the whole story) and everything was fine. Evy and Abby murmured ‘mm-hmm’ and ‘sure, Mom’ while Cass got cut off (“Oh, good. Just a false alarm then.”) And that was all there was.
Katherine called the social worker again just after the funeral. “You still have that case file, Janet? I guess you can mark it ‘resolved.’” Then she broke down crying, sobbing like I’ve never seen. I think she wished she’d kidnapped them and swept them off to Canada; tried harder to get somebody to help.
I was on the staircase, listening to this. I didn’t cry or move or break down screaming. I didn’t cry when Abby should’ve graduated kindergarten. I didn’t cry when Katherine insisted on charting my height again on my last birthday, remembering Evelyn’s “Ha!” when we were both thirteen and she was still taller than me. I didn’t cry when Cassie should’ve turned sixteen and gotten her license, seven months too late to stop her sisters getting in the car with their vodka-swilling father.
I go for a walk after dinner, looking for more buttons on the ground. The streets are all deserted and there’s steam coming out of most chimneys. The laundromat is lighted but the restaurant beside it is dark, which seems backward in a way. I shrug and keep on walking, head down and hands shoved in my pockets, condensation pouring from my mouth.
They aren’t there, they aren’t there, they aren’t there.
I can’t go home and play Risk, can’t ask a hypothetical of Evy and watch her storm around as if it matters whether Charizard or Toothless would win in an aerial dogfight. I can’t buy the next Fullmetal Alchemist or watch the latest Marvel movie, ‘cause Evy’s not caught up so I can’t ask her what she thinks. What’s the point, if you can’t talk to your best friend about the plot?
Cass’s best friend was some girl in Puerto Rico that she met writing Doctor Who fanfiction. It was almost three weeks later that she messaged me on Facebook – Is Cassie okay?
I sent a link to the obituary and haven’t signed in since. Everybody knows each other on those fanfic sites; Puerto Rico girl will spread the word.
Abby’s best friend was a stuffed pink koala named Mouse, who probably was with her in the car and got ejected like she did. You’re supposed to keep children in booster seats until they’re four feet tall.
I close my eyes, then open them again to look both ways across the highway. It’s snowing now, a little. I see flakes floating down in the streetlights, bursting into nothingness as they hit the pavement. I see a blow-up snowman in the lot across the way, and I see a massive truck coming down the highway by his lonesome. He’s probably headed to Wal-Mart or to Best Buy for Black Friday; I don’t see any logo on the side, but you wouldn’t want to advertise thousands of dollars in TV’s.
I could zip across right now and hit the other curb before he’s close enough to see me. I could wait until he gets here and step out, and then it’s over.
Step out, and then it’s over.
I swallow and I stare at him, prepped to make my move. Back home I have a notebook – 3 by 5 with unmarked pages – filled with my rough drafts. I’m sorry; don’t open the door. That one is my favorite, but I feel that it’s lacking. Of course she would open the door; what could I say beforehand so she won’t?
I clench my fists, mouth dry. I’ve heard that alcoholics have this hum of anticipation – soon, soon, it will all be better. Tommy Garr, 14, preceded in death by three cousins....
I step off of the curb – I’m sorry; don’t open the door. – and swallow, stepping back, pulling back my head so that he won’t see my face and know what I was going to do. The guy already has to work Thanksgiving; do I really want to add a 911 call? “I don’t know; he just stepped out. I’m sure he must have seen me but he tried to cross the street.”
I haven’t got a notebook here to tell him that I’m sorry.
Katherine is watching Little Women when I get back. She switches the channel when she sees me, so fast she must have planned it; now Indiana Jones is in the catacombs of Venice. Katherine looks hopeful, or relieved, and nudges a plate of strawberry shortcake on the coffee table. The strawberries are sliding as the whipped cream’s looking droopy. I blow on my hands and toe my shoes off.
I don’t remember the last time I spoke, but she’s not real talkative either. I don’t think she knows what to say, and I can’t say what I’m thinking.
I had to; there’s no point. I’m sorry, but you’re fifty-three and you won’t be around forever. I had to, everything’s numb. We got a history project and I went into the library and stared; I didn’t cry or sleep I just stared and got a D. I look up at the Radisson and all I want to do is go fall off. I’m sorry; I’m sorry; I’m sorry.
I sit down, and eat the cake. It’s Evy’s favorite, too, and she’s not here and I can’t seem to swallow. But I don’t have the guts to follow through and finish a draft. I’m not afraid of Hell and I’m not afraid of failure, but I am afraid of making Katherine cry.
Katherine makes salmon for Thanksgiving.