The handover at his ex-wife’s house took about five minutes, Jack standing in the living room, his ex-wife, Amy, standing in the living room, Jack’s two sons, Danny and Mat, entering from a hallway and uttering a despondent, “Hi.”
At his sister’s house Jack found himself seated before a television with a can of beer, a football game on, his sons, sixteen and seventeen years old, nearby with cans of Pepsi, their eyes on electronic gadgets that occupied their hands, each boy playing a game.
Jack’s sister, Meg, had children as well, Carl, nineteen, and Sunshine, seventeen. Everyone called her Shine. Thus far, Carl and Shine were absent, but according to Meg their presence was promised. In addition, there would be Carl’s girlfriend, Raisl, who had been spoken of but never viewed. As Meg noted: “A surprise package.” Meg’s husband, Phil, was collecting his parents from a retirement community out in the desert. So, at the beginning, it was Jack and his sister and Jack’s two sons, the house smelling like turkey-in-the-oven, Meg going in and out of the living room on errands of preparation. On the living room walls abstract art hung like misplaced trophies.
Jack turned to his eldest boy, Danny, during a commercial break, and said, “Any plans for after high school, son?”
Danny looked up and said, “Graduation’s not until June.”
“Yeah, I know. I just thought you might be thinking of something.”
Jack took a sip of beer. Danny went back to his game. Soon after this Phil and the old folks arrived. Connie, Phil’s mother, moved with the aid of a walker, while her sprightly husband, Hank, used a cane that looked like a claw.
Connie started across the living room behind her walker, while Phil went to Jack and shook Jack’s hand and traded pleasantries, Grandma Connie steadily progressing across the room, direction the couch, where Danny and Mat sat with gizmos balanced on their palms. By the time Connie squared herself up in front of Danny and Mat the others had quieted. Connie looked at Danny and said, “Carl, it looks like you’ve gained weight. Why don’t you stand up and give your Granny a kiss?”
Danny smiled dimly. Meg came over and said, “Mom, this is Jack’s son, Danny. This isn’t Carl. Carl’s going to be coming soon, but he’s not here yet.”
Connie said, “Carl, stand up and give me a kiss.”
Meg got in front of Connie’s soft white face and explained the situation again. Connie responded, “Oh? Where’s Carl?”
After everyone was seated Meg went to the kitchen and then returned with beverages. The football game ended. Phil picked up the remote and started going through channels. Meg said, “Why don’t you just turn it off?” Phil turned the TV off and smiled. He was a heavyset man with a genial face.
Danny and Mat were hard at it with what occupied their hands and brains. Everyone looked at them as if expecting a report, but no reports were issued. Hank lifted his pronged cane and poked it in Mat’s direction and said, “What do you got there?” Mat’s fingers kept moving, eyes downward, his older brother with the same posture. Hank leaned and poked Mat on the leg with the cane, which brought Mat’s head up. Hank said, “What in the hell do you got there?”
“Oh, this?” said Mat. “It’s a game.”
White hair sprung from Hank’s scalp, bifocals on his face, eyes blue. He wore a white shirt and a dark tie. It was a warm day. He had taken his jacket off.
“A game?” Hank questioned, promise of conversation almost tangible, but then Carl and his girlfriend, Raisl, came through the front door as if there were a tornado outside.
“Hi, ya-all!” Carl said. “Happy Thanksgiving!” Carl stood before the group bobbing and weaving like a middleweight boxer, Raisl at his side, a slim hand perched on her hip as if striking a pose. They had the room’s attention. Even Danny and Mat’s.
“Why don’t you introduce us to your friend, Carl,” Meg said.
“Well,” said Carl, “this is Raisl. And, ah, Raisl, this is everyone!” Carl smiled. Along his lower lip four silver studs winked like stitches on a robot. Raisl had a similar composition framing the edge of her left ear.
Meg began going around the room, gesturing at people and stating names. When she got to Hank, he lifted his cane. Raisl said, “Hi,” to the gathering. Between where her pink T-shirt ended and where her plaid pants began there was a swath of white skin. A safety pin, threaded through her bellybutton, flashed like a knife. Alongside this a large tattoo of stork lurked with a caption that read: I’m waiting.
Raisl blinked her eyes. Carl said to her, “You want a beer?” She said, “Yes. Is there any vodka?”
“Beer is fine,” said Meg, “but I don’t think we should start in on hard liquor.”
“It’s okay, Mom,” said Carl. “She drinks it all the time.”
Meg said, “No,” and departed for the kitchen.
Carl sat down in a plump armchair, Raisl as his side balanced on the arm of the chair. Rhinestone mules were on Raisl’s feet. Meg returned and handed Carl and then Raisl a can of Bud Light, which they promptly hoisted and drank from.
“Uncle Jack,” said Carl, “I haven’t seen you in a long time. I’m painting houses. Are you still doing that?”
“No. I’m working at an auto parts warehouse in Reno.”
“Reno! I thought you were down in Laughlin.”
“That was some time ago, Carl. I’m in Reno now. I got a trailer about ten miles outside of town. It looks like you’ve made some changes yourself.”
“Yeah, I guess you could say that.” Carl smiled.
Hank, who was sitting to Carl and Raisl’s right, lifted his cane and jabbed it in the direction of Raisl’s midriff. Raisl looked at the cane. Hank said, “That’s one heck of a picture you have on your tummy.” Raisl grinned.
“You like that, Granddad?” Carl said.
Hank, his blue eyes have followed Raisl since her entrance, glanced at his grandson but then looked back at Raisl.
“When she gets pregnant,” Carl said, “that stork is really going to grow. Can you imagine, Granddad! What a wild thing!” Carl laughed. Raisl raised her can of beer. Hank looked at them.
There was a sound from the kitchen, a door opening and closing. Meg said, “That must be Shine.”
From out of the kitchen and through the dining room and into the living room came a young woman in a beige blouse and a pleated skirt, a pair of black pumps on her feet. She was dressed like her mother, but unlike her mother she wasn’t obese. She stopped before the group and smiled, teeth well cared for. She said, “I’m sorry, I’m late.” She glanced around. Her eyes stopped at Raisl. She said, “Hi, I’m Shine.” Raisl looked at her.
Meg said, “Shine, this is Raisl.”
“I’m glad to meet you,” said Shine. Raisl nodded and brought her can of beer up and took a drink. Shine went over and kissed her grandparents on the cheek, and then she said, “Hello, Uncle Jack, and Danny and Mat.” Danny and Mat smiled. Jack said, “Shine, you look great.” “Thank you, Uncle Jack.”
“Help me put the food on the table, would you, Shine?” Meg said.
“Sure, Mom.” The two of them left the room.
“It looks like you’ve been to the tattoo parlor, Carl,” Jack said.
“Yeah, you might say I have.”
Mat said, “Which place do you go to?”
“Ink In Your Eye,” answered Carl.
“Really? Up on Ventura Boulevard?” responded Mat.
“Yeah. That’s the place. That’s where me and Raisl met. She works next door at Peach Fuzz.”
Phil, Carl’s father, said, “What line of work are you in, Raisl?”
“Yeah,” said Carl. “She’s going to beauticians’ school in Northridge and working part-time at Peach Fuzz. She does people’s hair.”
Raisl, whose hair was strawberry and in a closely cropped crew cut that dusted her skull, said, “Perhaps another beer?” She shook her can in front of Carl’s face.
“Oh, yeah,” said Carl, and stood up and started for the kitchen but before he got too far his father stopped him with: “Maybe your uncle would like another beer, Carl?”
“Oh, yeah. Uncle Jack?”
Carl left the room. Raisl looked around. Hank stared at her.
Phil said, “I think I detect a slight accent in you voice, Raisl.” Raisl looked at him, puzzlement on her slim face. Phil said, “Where are you from?” Raisl looked un-puzzled and said, “Russia.”
“Russia?” chimed Danny.
“Yes,” replied Raisl, and looked at Danny. Danny shied under her gaze. He mumbled, “Gee.” Raisl’s eyes were hazel, eyebrows transparent.
Carl returned with three cans of beer and gave one to Raisl and one to Jack. Carl sat down and took a swig of beer. Raisl was a thin woman. Hank, Danny, and Mat were looking at her.
“I think they got the hots for you,” Carl said, and gave Raisl a nudge with his elbow and nodded toward his grandfather and cousins.
“Well,” said Raisl, accent spreading like butter, “maybe something for the two young ones. Some friends. A double date. A room at the motel on Ventura. Nice movies. Is cheap. But granddaddy is special attention.” She smiled. Short teeth ran along her gums like chipped ivory.
Carl laughed. Danny turned red. Mat smiled. Phil and Jack sipped their beer. Hank raised a hand and adjusted his bifocals. Grandma Connie continued to examine the carpet. Meg came to the living room and said: “It’s ready.”
The table was big and it filled the dining room. Phil sawed at a large turkey with a seriated knife while plates moved counterclockwise around the table. “White or dark? White or dark?” chanted Phil.
Jack had brought two bottles of wine. They were uncorked and poured.
“Would you lead us in the prayer?” Meg said to Jack.
Jack said, “Well, ah … Maybe Phil would be better at that than me.”
Phil nodded and put his large hands together and bowed his head. Everyone, with the exception of Grandma Connie, bowed their heads. Grandma Connie was looking across the table at her grandson.
Phil said, “We give thanks for this food, Oh Lord. Thank you. Amen.” He untangled his fingers and raised his head. “Okay, dig in.”
Everyone went at it except for Grandma Connie. She had brought her walker to the side of her chair and was now struggling to her feet. Meg said, “Do you have to go to the bathroom, Connie?” Connie said, “Shh.” Everyone looked at her but then shrugged and returned to their food. Connie had her cloth napkin with her as she inched her way around the table. When she was in back of Carl she stopped. Carl, sensing her presence, twisted his head and said, “What?” Connie raised the napkin and swung it at Carl, the cloth slapping the side of Carl’s neck where the collar of his shirt touched. Carl jumped up and said, “What the hell!”
“Connie!” Meg said.
Connie was looking at Carl’s neck. She said, “Hold still. I’ll get it.” She brought the napkin up for another slap. Carl grabbed her hand.
“What is it?” Hank said. “What is it, Connie?”
“He’s got a spider on his neck.”
“A spider? It’s only a tattoo, Grandma,” Carl said.
“Let go,” Connie said. “I’ll get it for you.”
“It’s a tattoo! It’s a tattoo, Grandma!”
Carl was wearing a dress shirt, albeit with the sleeves cut off and the tails out. The tattoo was crawling up his neck from out of the collar. Shine started laughing. Meg came around and steered Connie away from Carl. Carl sat down. Meg helped her mother-in-law back to her seat.
“A goddamn tattoo of a spider on his neck!” Hank bellowed.
“He favors arachnids,” Shine said.
“Arachnids?” questioned Mat.
“Yes,” said Shine. “Spiders, scorpions, that class of creature. Like what he has on his arms.” She gestured.
“A goddamn tattoo of a spider!” Hank repeated.
“Shine knows a lot of words, Mat,” Meg said. “She reads a lot of books. She’s going to go to college next year. If you read a lot of books, you can learn a lot of words too, and go to college.”
Mat smiled at his aunt while sticking a forkful of mashed potatoes in his mouth.
“A goddamn tattoo of a spider!” Hank recited, while looking across the table at his grandson.
“I gotta go to the bathroom,” Carl said, and stood up and left the room.
“Raisl, did you come to America with your family?” Phil asked, a pleasant smile on his clean-shaven face.
“With my mother. My uncle was here. He has a fast-food chicken place, El Pollo.”
“El Pollo?” Danny said. “That’s a Mexican fast-food chicken place.”
Raisl looked at Danny and said, “They do not discriminate. Is simple. You have directions. You cook chicken. My mother works there. Is only food.”
“Do you have food like this in Russia?” asked Mat, and gestured at the table, and then added, “You know, do you have food in Russia?”
Raisl looked at Mat and said, “We have food in Russia. What do you think, we eat air?”
“Where exactly is Russia?” asked Mat.
“Mat,” said Danny. “Stop asking stupid questions. Russia is over there by Europe.”
Carl, returning from the bathroom, gave Raisl a tap on the shoulder and then sat down. Raisl stood up and said, “The bathroom. Which way?” Carl pointed. Raisl left the room.
Hank, taking advantage of Raisl’s absence, leaned across the table and whispered to his grandson, “Are you a pimp?”
“Grandpa! What are you talking about?”
Hank, still leaning over the table, his tie on his plate of food soaking up gravy, winked at his grandson and then sat down, tie falling in place on Hank’s white shirt.
“There’s plenty of food,” Meg said. “Don’t be shy.”
“So you’re painting houses?” Jack said to his nephew.
Carl smiled and said, “That’s right. And I’m saving money. I want to buy a Harley. Raisl and me are going to take off next summer and see America from the back of a Harley.”
Raisl entered the room and said, “Yes! Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone!” She sat down.
“Maybe we’ll cruise up your way, Uncle Jack,” Carl said.
Jack looked at Carl and said, “Sure. Stop on by. Your mother has my number.”
Raisl, looking at Jack, said, “Why, thank you, Uncle Jack.” A hint of the American West in her enunciation.
The room went silent, cutlery abandoned, everyone looking at Raisl. She smiled.
“Pie. Who wants pie?” Meg declared. “Apple or pumpkin. Who wants coffee?”