I tried to read the sweet potato recipe in front of me. I closed one eye to attempt to bring the page into focus to see the temperature at which the casserole needed to be cooked. I took another sip of my wine as though that would help the situation. I went to preheat the oven to the required 350 degrees.
“Shit,” I said, blinking hard, hoping to clear some of the Chardonnay from the neuro-muscular pathways between my brain and my body that were needed to orchestrate Thanksgiving dinner for eight. The turkey was in the oven and would be until at least 6 pm. It was huge, 24 pounds, so there was no extra room for my casserole. I had made a gigantic miscalculation with my menu and was not clever enough of a cook when sober to figure out how to turn a casserole into a stovetop delicacy. “Shit,” I repeated, hands on my hips, staring at the stove and praying for a solution to reveal itself.
I wished I had made friends with my neighbors, any of them. In a TV show, a half-drunk gal like me would laugh at her mistake, call or text a girlfriend (lol!), then tell her husband to go cart the casserole across the street to her friend’s house (they would be going somewhere for Thanksgiving), and cook it there. Crisis solved. But I was intimidated by all of my neighbors, so I didn’t like them and didn’t really speak to them beyond a pleasant, non-committal “Hey there!” every so often, which also was a clue to the fact that I didn’t know their names either.
“Mom, don’t swear,” Jenna scolded. She was sitting at the breakfast bar in the aptly named, ill-conceived great room in which the kitchen was open to practically the entire house, including the family room in which Johnny sat slack-jawed in front of the television playing Super Mario Brothers for the 7th consecutive hour so there was no privacy whatsoever for a bad cook like me.
Jenna was working on an extra credit poster for first grade and had been sketching all morning to perfect the challenging image of Alexander with gum in his hair to visually summarize the bad day-ness factor of the book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” Jim had left the house early in the morning to go to “work.” I figured he had gone into work for a half hour so technically he wasn’t entirely lying and now he was at a bar staring at their TV hoping that no one would bother to talk to him. His job was to pick up my equally drunk father and bring him to our Thanksgiving dinner. I tried to get my brother to fetch our father but he refused. John was bringing a new girlfriend named Elaine and he didn’t want to give her a bad impression of things before he even got to our house.
“I know everyone is going to be wasted by the time I have to carve the turkey but I am hoping for at least an hour of civility so Elaine doesn’t dump me yet. Please don’t make me pick up Dad,” he begged.
John hadn’t been too lucky with the ladies. I had only met two of his “girlfriends” ever and one of them I’m pretty sure was a bona-fide lesbian. Her name was Estelle and he brought her home with him during Christmas break from his senior year at OSU. He was aglow with dopey admiration for her. She spent the entire vacation on the phone whispering to her roommate on the phone.
“Uh, what’s up with the dyke?” was the assessment I whispered to him when she trudged to the bathroom after they arrived.
“Uh, fuck you,” he replied. “Is he drunk yet?” he had added, the usual query as it related to the status of our father.
John was good-looking enough but was all thumbs when it came to get-to-know-you banter. He was also so desperate not to follow in our father’s drunken footsteps that he was practically a teetotaler so he never got to take advantage of the lubricating effects alcohol had on the clunky machine that is flirtation.
I was still pondering the casserole problem when Millicent came through the front door. “Ding dong!” she yelled. She tottered into the kitchen like the floozy that she was, blowing air kisses and smelling up the place with too much perfume on top of too many cigarettes. “You hoo!” she said to Jenna, knocking on the top of her head. “You hoo!” she repeated to Johnny.
“Ouch,” Jenna said. “Don’t mess up my drawing, Aunt Millicent.”
Johnny didn’t say anything. He was busy trying to flatten a Goomba or to get Mario’s outfit to change colors.
“Shit, it’s cold out there,” Millicent greeted me. She took off her fake fur coat to reveal a way-too revealing sleeveless dress and nude, spray-tanned legs. “Likey?” she asked, pushing her surgically enhanced breasts together for me.
I shook my head at her. She was the original hot mess.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” I confessed to her. “I should never have offered to do Thanksgiving. I don’t have anyplace to cook all this,” I said.
“Well then let’s drink,” Millicent offered, her solution to everything.
“Seriously,” I said. “I really am in trouble here. I should be able to do this, right?”
Millicent lit a cigarette and pulled one of the breakfast bar stools away from Jenna and closer to me.
“Seriously?” she asked me. “Seriously, how would you know how to do it? Who taught you?”
“No one,” I said.
“You’ve got a dead mom and a drunk dad so ease up on yourself, sister,” she offered. “What are you making there, baby?” she asked Jenna.
“Extra credit,” Jenna said into the crook of her elbow. She hated cigarette smoke and had spent the last year berating all of us endlessly about this terrible habit.
“I try to smoke outside now,” I told Millicent.
“Good for you,” Millicent told me, blowing smoke toward Jenna.
“Stop it!” Jenna yelled, tears in her eyes. “Mom?” she asked, imploring me to act like an actual mom.
“What is your friend’s name across the street?” I asked her.
“Why?” she asked me. She was already suspicious of my motives and she was only in the first grade.
“I was thinking maybe her mom would let me bake this casserole at their house,” I said, as though I was describing a puppy or a new bike.
“Why?” she asked again.
“Because I need an extra oven and we don’t have one.”
“You can use mine,” Millicent offered.
“You live 20 minutes from here and you store liquor in your oven,” I told her.
“Oh,” Millicent replied, thumbing through the mangled celebrity magazine she had fished from her purse. “Well I tried.”
“What in the world do you have on your ... ?” I whispered, pointing to my own breasts to clarify the noun I didn’t want to say in front of the kids.
“Sparkles!” she said, examining herself. “Tis the holiday season, after all,” she offered.
Millicent’s family had moved to Texas after she graduated from college. And while she complained every year about what a cow town Cincinnati was for smart and sexy people like her, she continued to sell wine to restaurants and pick up guys who didn’t want to talk to her after she slept with them. She never even went on vacation. Instead she tanned, complained and drank my wine. She was my only friend.
The doorbell rang.
“Can you get it?” I asked Millicent. I looked at her sparkly, tan breasts falling out of her inappropriate dress and changed my mind. Maybe this was really the girl for John. We didn’t want to blow it this early in the evening. “Jenna, can you get the door? It’s Uncle John.”
“UNCLE JOHN!” she shrieked, practically falling off her bar stool. We had such a small family that any remaining member of it had celebrity status when they visited. “Uncle John, Uncle John, Uncle John, Uncle John,” she repeated as she shuffled her way toward the door across the slippery wooden floors.
“Johnny, you’re going to have to turn that off,” I told him.
“Now?” he asked, as though it was a ludicrous and cruel request.
I didn’t want a fight. “Soon,” I threatened. “Very soon.” I would make his dad do it. I looked at my watch. It was 5 pm. Time for my husband and father to be here and time for me to figure out how to not fuck up the entire Thanksgiving meal. I poured myself another glass of wine.
“Good plan,” Millicent observed. “Wine me,” she said, as though she were still living in a dorm.
“Be nice to this girl,” I instructed. “Don’t flirt with my brother.”
She pulled her top down even further and made a disgusting gesture with her finger down her own cleavage.
“Hey sis,” my brother said, entering the room with Jenna attached to his side. “Hey Millicent,” he added. “Nice dress.”
I gave him a hug while I checked out Elaine over his shoulder. I winked at her. It was not the sort of person I am naturally: one who is filled with breezy hugs and winks for a newcomer, but I was just the right amount of drunk to come off as an easy-going hostess. I saw her clench her teeth together. Her jaw tightening into a fake smile, the kind where the outside of the mouth goes down instead of up and the eyes don’t move at all.
I hated her.
“Lovely home,” she offered. It was obvious she didn’t think this was so at all.
“Sorry for the mess in the kitchen,” I apologized. “That’s the problem with these ‘great rooms,’” I explained, using the air quotes to highlight the irony.
“Do you need any help?” she asked. It looked to me like she would rather poke her own eye out than touch anything in my kitchen.
“That looks delicious,” she observed about my sweet potato casserole. It sounded like an earnest statement.
“Thanks!” I said. “The problem is I don’t have any place to cook it,” I confessed. “Dumb.”
My brother rolled his eyes, signaling, “this is boring, I’m out,” and plopped himself next to Johnny. He tickled my son until he gave over the Super Mario controller and within minutes, they were doing battle together on the couch against all things Bowser while Elaine was combing my cabinets for ramekins in which to portion and bake the casserole.
“I don’t have ramekins,” I told her. “I promise you I don’t.”
She found that to be a ridiculous notion and kept up her search. I shrugged at Millicent who stared at Elaine’s ass and asked, “What in God’s name do you have to do to stay that thin?”
Elaine answered her earnestly, outlining her impressive exercise regime and diet while spooning my casserole into various and sundry small bowls and generally, taking over my kitchen. I went to check on the turkey and burnt my hand trying to turn the poultry thermometer so I could see it.
“Fuck!” I said.
“Mom!” Jenna screamed. “We have company!”
“Here,” Elaine said, grabbing my arm and pulling me toward the sink. “Put it in cold water, quickly.” She put my hand under the faucet and held my arm so I would stay there. “Stay put,” she commanded. “Let me get things organized here, okay?
I looked over at Millicent who raised her eyebrows, indicating an emotion somewhere between impressed and afraid. “I know,” I mouthed to her. My brother turned around on the couch to see how Elaine was doing. When I saw the way he smiled at her, I knew he would marry her.
“I have read 14 books so far this year,” Jenna told Elaine, one over-achiever to another.
“That is fantastic,” Elaine told Jenna. “Can you read to me what it says in your mom’s cookbook there?”
I heard the garage door open and went to dry my hands to prepare for the wreck that was likely to be my father. “Nope,” Elaine scolded me. “Put your hand back in the water. I promise you, you will thank me later.” And with that, she dried her own hands and went to greet my husband and my father.
“I’m Elaine,” she explained, shaking Jim and Dad’s hands like she was a presidential candidate. My father pointed to the recliner and made a weaving path to it. “Hello, son,” he greeted John. “Hello grandson and granddaughter. Well, hello, Millicent,” he concluded, sounding like the lascivious old drunk that he was.
Jim came in the kitchen and kissed me on the cheek. “Did you burn yourself again?” he asked. “Uh huh,” I said. “She seems okay,” he whispered.
“Bossy,” I whispered back. “Is it warm in here?” I asked. I felt like my head might explode. “I need some air.”
I stepped outside on the porch off the great room into the cold night air. It was a clear, crisp night and the stars were already in evidence. I held a bag of frozen peas against my burnt hand and drank in the frigid air; I tried to sober up to face the motley crew that was my family.
As much as I liked the quiet, I was freezing. I turned to come back in and slipped on a patch of ice and hit the deck hard, flat on my back. I was stunned. I had no idea if I was broken or paralyzed or both. I waited: both for someone to come see how I was doing and to assess the level of my injuries. I finally lifted my head and propped myself up on my elbows. I could see them all: Dad in the recliner, snoring, John and Johnny playing Super Mario Bros, Jenna trying to protect her poster from Millicent’s ashtray and drink, Millicent, rubbing up against my husband like a cat in heat, and Elaine, putting dishes in my dishwasher.
I lay there; cold, burnt, and down for the count on the back porch and not a single one of them noticed a thing, not the fact of my absence or the crashing sound when I fell. I slowly picked myself back up and hobbled in. I took a painkiller, poured another drink and listened to my soon-to-be-sister-in-law tell me how to make the rest of my Thanksgiving dinner while the rest of us disassembled, holiday style.