Highway 61 is flat for the most part and a pretty straight shot. You’re only on it for about 45 minutes, but this time of year when the weather is unpredictable, and everything green is dead, and the road shrinks from four lanes to two, it can feel like hours. Drop your speed to 55 and add in the hangover that’s creeping in behind your eyes and then who knows how long you’ve been in the back seat. Two hours? Three days? Eternity?
“It’s Thanksgiving,” your mom reminds you. “You didn’t have to drink so much.”
“But Mom,” you say, “last night is the biggest drinking night of the year for everyone, everywhere. You’ve always said we should be a part of something bigger and better and more important than we are.”
She is not amused.
You stop at the Casey’s for gas and grab a slice of pizza in spite of the stern warning that “you’ll ruin your dinner” from mom who points to the casserole dish she’s holding in her lap and stares at you with eyes that say, I worked all day on this.
And two blocks later, you’re here: in Southern Iowa, in an auction hall with chewing tobacco spittoons at each table, and twenty-five second cousins running around in their cowboy boots, swearing at each other.
Forget about the dining room table and the football and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades of your childhood. All that changed when Grandma and her sisters decided that holidays need to be about the family. “We gotta stick together in times like these” they said. “We’re all we’ve got!” Now, in times like these, you enjoy dry pieces of dark meat from the buffet line, scrape translucent skin off green beans, and pull the remaining macaroni from the side of the pan, being ever-so-careful not to remove any aluminum attached to the burnt crust.
The line is long, yes, but the floor is concrete so when you finish your cigarette, like your Uncle Mike and his on-again-off-again girlfriend Tammy do, you can just drop the butt and step on it instead of losing your place in line to find an ashtray.
There was a special request for the usually unpopular sweet potatoes this year, and, as usual, there are two scoops missing from an otherwise full pan. This, of course, makes you feel guilty as it reminds you of parish potlucks when you were growing up. You ate leftovers while mom slaved over a hot oven to make a pan of Corn Flake chicken for the congregation. As you approached the pan you found it sitting cold and pale, untouched and placed adjacent to an empty, greasy paper bucket from KFC brought by some other church mom who wanted to let everyone know that she could afford the nicer things in life. You take the sweet potatoes and have no room on your plate for three-bean casserole. Next trip.
Sitting at the table closest to the buffet line, as they always did, are Aunt Kitty and her family. Kitty shops at Lord and Taylor and tells you so. You’ve seen the store in the mall but you’ve never been in. She can and will offer up the cost of everything she buys. “What a nice jacket,” you might say, and in return receive, “Oh this old thing? It was only a hundred and ten dollars, and I bought it the last time I was in Des Moines on one of those tax free weekends.” This response lets everyone know that she’s not only a savvy shopper, but also a seasoned traveler. “Have you been to Des Moines? What a great city vibe! You must go, but be careful driving at night. All types up there.”
But Kitty has a short fuse too. Come near her with a lit cigarette and it’s, “Watch it! This jacket was a hundred and ten bucks and I don’t need you burnin’ any holes in it with that goddamn cancer stick!” Her husband purchased a Ford Expedition. “The big one,” she says, and if you ask her, it’s the next best thing to a limousine. She collects baskets and creates the festive seasonal centerpieces that adorn each table in the hall. “It was worth the sixty dollars for the gourds,” she tells you. “I think they really add something.”
Kitty married a man named Ken Cassidy and the idea of being called Mrs. Kitty Cassidy was just too cute. Oh the possibilities! Her children, Kip, Kyle, Kelly, Colin and Karen, eat silently next to her. Coco, the family’s beloved Bichon Frise was not allowed to attend this year on account of the trouble with Aunt Beth’s Pit Bull last year, but was nonetheless featured wearing a festive holiday sweater in the annual Ken and Kitty Cassidy Christmas Card and newsletter.
Cousin Krissy—Kristine in college, Krissy on the holidays and probably a fat, lonely, chain smoking Kris when she’s forty—has a new boyfriend in tow. He wears khaki pants and a collared shirt. He steps over to the dessert table where Aunt Mickey, the whore, adjusts her bra beneath her cheetah print blouse. Mickey flirts with the fresh meat, bending over slightly as he lights her Misty 120. Her bleached blonde hair has the texture of a Brillo Pad, and she brushes it off of her shoulder to expose her leathery hide. When Krissy comes to fend off Mickey’s advances and takes her boyfriend back to the buffet line, Mickey insists he’s gay. “Not with those shoes,” you think as you give the man a once over and wonder if you’ll ever see him again. “A spade’s a spade’s a spade!” Mickey adds between hearty swallows of whiskey. “I just call ‘em as I see ‘em.”
John Michael mans the keg and his glass is always full. He swaggers a bit and you compensate by moving your cup in a similar motion. John Michael has never been good at conversation, and the farthest he’s been from his hometown, population 320, was Des Moines, for a livestock competition with the FFA at the State Fair in 1983. He still talks about how hot the Jasper County Angus Queen was that year and insists she’s why he’s never been married. “Never seen nobody like it,” he says. John Michael also recently discovered the internet. Two years ago he accused you of dressing like a brotha, whatever that means, and last year he warned, “Keep an eye out on them Mexicans. All of em, just waitin’ to steal your job.”
This year, in times like these, you try to keep it to the basics. Questions are invitations to conversation, so it’s, “Happy Thanksgiving, John Michael,” “It’s great that everyone can still get together,” and “I hope that there are still baked beans when I’m ready for a second trip.” No sooner does a 15-year-old throw up in the parking lot than does Aunt Donna, hands on her hips and eyes scowling behind her glasses, bee line towards the keg.
“Dammit John!” she screams, and a hush falls over the auction hall in anticipation. “He’s fifteen! What’s he doin’ pukin’ in the parkin’ lot? You want the cops to come in here and bust you for servin’ minors? Hmm? That what you want? ‘Cause they will! They see that and they’ll walk right in here and take you to jail! And we’ll never be able to do this here again! You know how much this place costs?”
“Three hundred and ten dollars,” Aunt Kitty offers. “Plus tax!”
“Plus tax!” Donna says and pokes her finger into her adult son’s chest, “It’s Thanksgiving goddammit, don’t piss me off!”
You look for Mom and Dad to take your seat, but see that Dad is still outside with the other cousins whose names you never bothered to learn. Mom, meanwhile, is in the kitchen with Auth Beth and her “friend” Kathy, who’s been around longer than any of the Tammys that Uncle Mike has brought around or knocked-up, but is still introduced as “Beth’s roommate” at all the family gatherings. “We’re just in here doing dishes,” Mom yells from behind the swinging door, which is code for “drinking wine.” You take a seat across from Great Aunt Marjorie and her second husband. “Happy Turkey Day, Marge. Vernon,” you say. “And how are you?”
“I think I’m allergic to my sheets.” Marge offers. “I toss and I turn. I wake up and my ankles are swollen to the size of grapefruits and I sweat and I itch all over. Here. Look…”
Aunt Dee Dee sneaks up behind you and taps you on the shoulder. You’ve been looking for her all night, and you jump to your feet. She always gave the best hugs. She still does. “Look at you,” she says. “All grown up and just as cute as ever.” She leans in for one more hug just as Aunt Kitty announces that karaoke will start in 45 minutes. “I love ya, kid,” she says and takes her seat next to Uncle Joe. “Happy Thanksgiving.”
You get into the backseat, being careful not to spill any more beer on your jeans. You probably don’t need a roadie, but why not. Mom insists she hasn’t been drinking, but still refuses to drive even though it’s very clear that Dad’s been drunk all day. “My night vision just isn’t what it used to be,” she says. “Also. You know. I really like. Lesbians. Always have. Smart women,” she adds out of, well, nowhere.
Highway 61 stretches out in front of the car and into the night and you wonder, where was Barney this year? And, was Mary Pat pregnant or did I see her with a beer, but really would it matter either way? Family. We’ve got to stick together in these times, because we’re all we’ve got. You chuckle. And tonight you will sleep in your childhood bed. And tomorrow you will go home to the new life you created for yourself. The big, adult you, who does things because you want to, because you can, and who has opinions and friends and a job. You’ll think about where you are and where you want to go. And just in case you ever forget where you came from, don’t worry, Christmas is just around the corner.