by Ann Leckie
It's the first
Thanksgiving since Grandpa died.
This morning Gretchen put the extra leaf in the table, pushed and wiggled chairs so that it would seat a crowded-on-one-side seven. The new tablecloth--Gretchen bought it last week without consulting anyone or anything beyond her own pleasure--is spread, and on it sit silver and the best china. Trivets wait for mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and corn. The turkey is dismembered, keeping warm in the oven. Gretchen is ready.
Her younger son Peter has arrived, and Gretchen's new daughter-in-law, Jill. And Jill's daughter, six-year-old Sydney, a small, quiet creature in a white sailor dress. Sydney had gained Gretchen's immediate sympathy when she'd come in, looked at the table, and said, I like your pink tablecloth, even before she'd taken off her coat.
"Have you tried Bill's cell?" asks Jill. They're all hungry, but they can't start without Gretchen's other son.
"I left a message," Gretchen says. "Would you like a soda, Sydney?" Sydney has been very good so far, but Gretchen knows that the patience of even the best six-year-old has limits.
Sydney looks at her mother, who fails to give a forbidding frown. "Yes, please."
"It's strange to sit down without Grandpa," says Peter--Gretchen's son, Jill's husband, Sydney's stepfather. "It seems like everything's changed so much in the past year." He smiles at Jill--they were married six months ago.
As Gretchen turns towards the kitchen, the front door opens, and her other daughter-in-law, Diane, comes in. "Hello, running behind, sorry!" Halfway into the living room, looking through the archway into the dining room, she stops to shrug off her coat.
"Where's Kimberly?" asks Gretchen.
"She's coming. Hello, Peter. We stopped to pick up Grandpa. You won't believe the trouble Bill had." The front door opens again, and Bill comes into the living room, and behind him, shuffling and swaying, comes Grandpa.
He's been dead ten months. He didn't have much hair when he died, and what was left has fallen out. His eyesockets are muddy pits and the skin of his face, neck, and hands is leathery and desiccated, shrunk down to his bones. His lips are pulled back, revealing clamped, grimy dentures. His navy blue suit hangs around him in muddy folds.
"I guess they don't call them vaults for nothing!" Bill says cheerily. "Hey, Peter, Jill." He comes straight through to the dining room and kisses Gretchen on the cheek. "Happy Thanksgiving, Mom."
Diane goes to the door and takes Grandpa by the elbow, pushes and pulls the staggering, swaying corpse towards the head of the table. Kimberly, sixteen, tall like Gretchen, slouches in the door and comes as far as the archway, where she stands, sullen, coat still on. "You got a pink tablecloth, Grandma," says Kimberly. "Grandpa hates pink."
"I like pink," Gretchen says. Kimberly has always been sharp, even since she was a baby. She's probably also noticed that the silver is Gretchen's own, and not the set Grandpa preferred. Gretchen wishes Kimberly wouldn't slouch, or let her hair hang down in front of her face all the time. But she also remembers being sixteen, and so she doesn't say it.
Diane's hand is on the head chair now, her other hand still on Grandpa's elbow. Now is the time for Gretchen to speak up. She takes a deep breath, knowing that from here on out there will be no turning back. "There are only seven places, Diane."
Diane casts a critical eye on the arrangement of chairs. "We could squeeze another one in."
"That chair's broken," Gretchen says, quite truthfully. It had been surprisingly easy to snap one of the legs off, once she'd thought to use a hammer.
Diane frowns slightly--sensing trouble, Gretchen thinks, but not as perceptive as her daughter. "We could set a children's table," Diane says.
"Nonsense. Kimberly is too old for that, and we can't possibly put Sydney all by herself."
Diane looks at Sydney for the first time, as though it's only just now occurred to her who would sit at her proposed children's table, and frowns.
"We could have a dead person table," suggests Kimberly. She is, she believes, ugly and awkward, and has recently realized that she will never be anyone but herself. The thought fills her with despair.
"We could pull his armchair out of the living room," says Bill. "And let him sit over here. He doesn't need to be right up at the table, it's not like he's going to eat much."
"He can't eat at all," Kimberly says. "He's dead. And besides, his mouth is wired shut."
"Kimberly!" says her mother.
"It's true. They take these needles, with wires on the ends, and shoot them into your jaw, and then they twist them shut. Like a trash bag."
"That's disgusting," says Sydney, with the appreciation of a connoisseur. At the wedding, Kimberly had worn long, sparkly earrings and red nail polish, and Sydney had thought her the most glamorous person she'd ever seen. Now her first impression is confirmed.
Bill laughs, nervously. "He can't carve the turkey, either, so I guess that's up to me."
"The turkey's mostly cut up already," Gretchen says. "They did it at the store." Bill blinks, uncomprehending. "I got the whole dinner from the deli at the store. All I had to do was put it in the oven to keep it warm."
Diane speaks up, still by the head chair, still holding on to Grandpa. "Oh, Gretchen, you know I offered to...."
"You have better things to do," says Gretchen. "And so does Jill. And so do I."
"On Thanksgiving?" Bill is incredulous.
"I just didn't feel like doing all that work this year," Gretchen says. She's angry now, though from long habit her voice and expression give no sign of it. No one has moved to fetch Grandpa's chair.
"Well," says Bill, and then takes a breath. "I suppose it's too late to do anything about it now. Next year..."
"Next year I'll do whatever I please," says Gretchen. "Take your grandfather back out to the car. I ordered that vault for a reason."
"We can't just leave him in the cemetery. He's been awfully restless there."
"You dug him up!" Peter accuses.
"He dug himself out the first time," says Diane. Kimberly snorts.
Bill's face reddens. "When Dad left, Grandpa took us in and took care of us." His voice is tight. "This is his family, his house."
And he never let me forget it for a moment, Gretchen wants to say, but her anger is bleeding away. Bill is, after all, her son. She knows he's near tears, knows that he genuinely misses his Grandpa. Knows that all his life he's expected that one day he would wield that carving knife, and be Head of the Family. And now nothing is the way he expected it to be.
But she won't relent. "It's my house," Gretchen says. "And it's our family." Bill says nothing.
Sydney speaks into the silence. "The salad has oranges in it," she says to Kimberly, though that's not what she wants to say, not what she means. But she's hungry. "And there's chocolate pie for dessert."
"Cool," says Kimberly. "Hey, you don't want to eat with Grandpa, do you?"
"Dead people live in the graveyard," says Sydney. And then, with a thoughtful frown, "Except on Halloween, and Halloween's over."
Kimberly holds her hand out. "Give me five." Sydney goes around the table and gives her a resounding slap. "Good one!"
"Sydney is a very sensible little girl," says Gretchen. "Peter and Jill, please get the food out of the oven. It just goes straight onto the table. Diane, I'd appreciate it if you'd get the salad out of the fridge. I forgot your soda, Sydney. Do you want cola or rootbeer?"
"Rootbeer, please," says Sydney.
"Can I have rootbeer, Grandma?" asks Kimberly.
"I never got to have soda with dinner," says Bill, trying to sound light-hearted, and failing.
"You can have some tonight if you like," says Gretchen, unfazed. "Do you want rootbeer too?"
Bill doesn't answer. Gretchen sends Kimberly and Sydney into the kitchen for the relish plate, and serving spoons. Sydney, eyeing the olives, wonders if Kimberly will laugh when she puts some on the ends of her fingers. Kimberly's approval would be worth a reprimand from her mother. (Kimberly will laugh, and then, to her own mother's disgust, she'll put two olives up her nose. At bedtime Sydney will pray devoutly to be just like Kimberly when she grows up.)
By the time dinner is on the table Bill has led Grandpa out. He's not far--in the car, likely--because Bill isn't gone long. But he's not in the house anymore.
"Who's going to say grace?" asks Diane when they're all seated, trying to salve Bill's pride, likely.
Gretchen opens her mouth to answer, but "Grace!" say Kimberly and Sydney together, and Sydney giggles.
Gretchen says amen.