Nineteen eighty-seven's a doozie. A Nor'Easter bang on Christmas Day and the in-laws are comin for dinner. First time in 30 years they're gonna sit at my table. They figure at 45 I'm mature enough to handle the responsibility. And I'm a grandmother for Christ's sake.
There's Crowley's Uncle Frank and Frank's sisters Lizzie and Sadie, plus Minnie, Sadie's best friend. The Aunts live with Lizzie's husband Pat in a big old house in Portsmouth. I tease Pat about his har-eem. Three pint-sized women who went into the factories at 13 and came out at 65, which explains their take on life. That and the Catholic Church. Minnie's a little cutie but deaf as a post. She and Sadie shared an apartment then moved into Lizzie's house to save money.
Lizzie's a lot nicer since she went crazy. Like a giggly little girl; loves everyone and laughs at everything... Don't care if she don't know what day it is. Sadie's a spinster, real religious and a pain in the butt. She's kep her sanity all right. Remembers everything you want like hell to forget.
Well that's the Aunts and there's poor Pat tryin to stay out the way of their dust mops. He's a sweetheart, always been my pal. Never held my little Ricky against me like them other prudes.
Pat's no beauty, bless his heart, with that big bald head and four missing teeth and one leg shorter'n the other so's he has to wear a black boot with a humungus four inch heel. Had to leave the police force because of it, but he got what he called a "position" as attendant at the public conveniences on Washington Street.
He's always settin in his arm chair, the orthopedic boot crossed over the good foot, chilling out with a fat cigar and blowin smoke the length of the parlour. He keeps real clear of the "Mutterin Zone" where the women say their rosaries while they watch the news and soaps and quizshows. They all sing along with the commercials which is kinda sweet, but that mutterin drives Pat bananas. And no more cigars since the cancer. Crowley hardly talks to him cept about ball games. No generosity of spirit. But it ain't all his fault.
ANYWAYS, HERE I am. It's 11:30 Christmas morning and the dinner's steamin and bubblin in the dream kitchen I waited 13 years for. Crowley's in a grump shovelin out the driveway. Snow's blowin sideways, nearly horizontal, and that's a real bad sign.
Brrrrng. The telephone goes.
"That you, Gerry?"
"Well hi there Sadie. Merry Christmas."
"We ain't comin."
"Have you looked outside?"
"Course I looked."
"You seen that snow?"
"I seen it."
"Well Pat ain't drivin in that stuff. His stomach's not too good this mornin anyways."
Pat's got a apparatus, which is what you're supposed to call a colostomy bag these days.
"But what'll you guys eat?"
"We got a loaf of bread and some cream of mushroom soup. You watch the mass from the Vatican this mornin?" "Yes," I lied.
"Wasn't it grand? Just beautiful."
"Sadie, I got all this food here."
"Well we ain't riskin our lives."
"Yeah, but -" "Merry Christmas."
I try real hard to love Sadie, but sometimes I'd like to wring her chicken neck.
Enter my husband, covered in white and stompin his big ugly boots all over the carpet.
"Hey Crowley!" I yells.
"What's matter now?"
"I just vacuumed that."
"Christ, it's only water."
"It is not. There's all mud in it. Look." "Can it Geraldine."
I tell him Portsmouth ain't comin. It don't improve his mood none, and he locks himself in the bedroom and listens to old Dylan records. Michael Emmet Crowley cannot handle rejection. Well, he's a poor orphan boy who don't know who his real Daddy was and that's a tough one. Never shows much gratitude to Lizzie and Pat, though they raised him like he was their own instead of the fatherless babe of their distant cousin who died of TB. They doted on their Mikey. Suckers for them blue eyes and brown curls, sayin he looked like the Christ Child. "The Light of the World", ho, ho, ho. Well there ain't many curls now and he's weighin in at 230.
I CALL Frank case he ain't comin neither.
"Don't you worry, Ger, we'll give you a hand with that turkey."
He's pretty cheerful considerin Nora died last June, poor little bird, and Frank ain't cut out to be a widower. Won't eat. Won't socialise. And Moira's in New York most the time.
So I'm admiring my 20 pound turkey and feelin kinda proud. Thought I'd try something different this year, maybe along Tex-Mex lines. I like to experiment. Keeps me young. I found this recipe for hamburger stuffin in Family Circle and sorta improvised. (Crowley'll moan about the chillies, but that's too bad.) I used Worcestershire sauce, I mean a lot. Then on an impulse I added sugar, only the bowl slipped outa my hand, so I balanced out the sweetness with some vinegar and that was better. I poured in a can of tomato soup, but the mixture looked awful loose, not like Nora's or Lizzie's.
Well, I won't tell you what it reminded me of. But I says to myself no regrets, Geraldine, and went on merrily rammin it into the cavity.
In the end it looked pretty good. Only wish Nora could see it. She never thought I had the equipment. She looked down on me a little cause I come from a measley old farm upstate and talk like a hick and got pregnant at 15. Oh yeah, they all blamed me not Crowley. But Nora was a lady. Always good to me and the kids. She was a tad jealous cause I had five and she only produced Moira, which is why Moira's spoiled like Crowley, but she's a good kid really. Likes me. Thinks I'm a riot and a half, and that burned her mother up as well. I was a little too down to earth for Nora.
WELL, IT'S two o'clock and we're all settin round the table, Frank and Moira, Kevin, my second, Kathy, my third, and Kelly my ten-year-old baby. Then comes my big moment and I bring on the turkey. (It was all red around the bones, so I covered it up with some mashed turnips, only the red's showin through now, but that don't matter much.) Conversation ain't exactly lively cept for Moira and me, but it improves with Crowley's red wine. Can't stand the stuff myself. Tastes like wet ashes.
I notice people ain't exactly tuckin into the food like they normally do. Frank's hardly touched his, but I put it down to a bad Nora day. I keep askin if they want seconds and no one does, so I help myself. Tastes pretty good to me. What's the matter with everybody?
Brrrng. Telephone. Crowley answers. Sadie wants to speak to her brother. "Are you sure about this Sadie?" Frank don't sound too pleased.
Everyone's listenin, tense like we're waitin for an H Bomb to hit.
"Well check again. Yuh, I'll wait... Hi there Lizzie. And a Happy Christmas to you too. Yuh... yuh. Mikey's eaten all his dinner. Oookay. Merry Christmas, Sweetheart... Sadie? Well? Okay we'll be right down. Course I got snow treads. Get em every year, first of November. You know that."
He hangs up. I can hear him breathing. He looks at us all.
Frank collapses into Crowley's chair. "Can you beat that?"
Nobody says anything. The lump in my stomach's risin up to behind my eyes when Crowley starts blubberin and sobbin like I never seen him. Grand Coulee Dam, I swear. Me and the kids all hug him and blubber along and I feel real bad for him. Then something mean in me says I betcha Crowley thought Pat would tell him one day, about his real father's grave an all those two buttoned-up bitches won't never spill the beans. Ashamed of the scandal. Forgive me God.
Portsmouth's only twelve miles from us, but in a blizzard that's a ways away. We're followin Frank's Galaxy at about 25 miles an hour. I've got my legs crossed tight, my fists bunched and my teeth grit. Crowley keeps cryin till he slews off the road and I grab the wheel and he pulls hisself together.
"Crowley, this is gettin hairy."
"I'll drive Dad," says my Kevin in the back seat with Kelly and the turkey. "The hell you will."
When we get to Lizzie's house I'm shakin like a leaf, part from the cold, part from the drive and part cause I'm spooked out by corpses.
Inside the heatin's at 82 degrees and the TV's blastin out carols.
The girls are at the kitchen table sayin their rosaries.
"Merry Christmas!" Lizzie jumps up and starts waving her arms in the air and kissing everyone. Then she goes and gets a big box of chocolates and starts handin them round. She sure is havin a flamboyant senility.
"What you come all this way for?" Sadie barks at Frank. "You coulda had an accident then what'd we do?"
Frank sighs. "Where is he?"
"Upstairs. On the bed."
"How'd you get him up there?"
"I told you. He went by hisself. He wouldn't eat no lunch. Said he was gonna lie down. At two Min went to check on him and he was gone."
"Where's Pat? Pat, you want a chocolate?"
"Lizzie don't know?" I says.
"She's knows all right, only she can't keep nothin straight in her brain." Sadie pretty wound up. Her mouth's a tight white line and her hands a tremblin. "Lizzie, for the last time, Pat's dead."
"He is?" "You seen him Lizzie."
"Well why didn't nobody tell me? Pat! Pat!" She's off up the stairs two at a time with the box of chocolates. Frank's right behind her, then Moira.
My Kelly's eyes are like saucers. "Jeeze, Ma. Old People."
Crowley's real morose. Probably wants a beer, but Sadie keeps a dry house. Course he's not liftin a finger to help poor Frank who's in charge whether he wants to be or not. Just sits there like a big helpless kid. And the rest of us ain't much better. Shock, I guess. Sadie's makin coffee as usual. No wonder them three are so damned wired.
I ask does anyone want some turkey, but no one's innerested.
"Pat liked turkey sandwiches on white bread," Minnie pipes up.
"With lots of mayonnaise," Sadie corrects her like she done for 50 years.
"He liked cranberry relish too." I puts in my two cents.
"Not on turkey sandwiches!" Sadie acts like I called him a child molester.
"He liked his turkey," says Min in a little sing-song voice. "And he liked his relish."
"Yes, but not on sandwiches, Minnie." "What, dear?"
Think I'm better off upstairs with the deceased than down here in Wonderland. I pull myself together and climb the creepy stairs. I can hear Moira soundin pretty stressed-out.
"Please, Aunt Lizzie, don't do that. No, no, stop it, please."
I'm standin in the bedroom doorway and oh boy there's poor Pat gone to the last roundup, wearing his orthopedic boot and a white undershirt with purple suspenders. Lizzie's bendin over holdin his eyelids open and Moira's behind tryin to drag her off. Frank's on the phone to the undertaker who's passed out in front of Indiana Jones. Lizzie's yellin into Pat's face, "Speak to me, Pat," over and over. Then she starts mutterin into her Missal. Moira closes Pat's eyes.
Outside the snow's swirlin around the streetlights and cars look like hibernatin polar bears. There's that weird quiet you only get in snow storms. Meanwhile Lizzie's at Pat's eyes again. "Wake up, Pat. It's time to go home."
"Please, Aunt Lizzie. He's dead."
Then Lizzie's fiddlin with the curtains, sayin she's gonna shorten em two inches. Moira closes her uncle's eyes, cept Lizzie only opens em again and Moira starts crying. The situation's pretty hopeless, then suddenly Frank gets hold of the undertaker. My heart's pounding so's it hurts when I kiss Pat goodbye.
WELL WE'RE all back at the kitchen table waitin for the undertaker and starin at that miserable lookin turkey carcass. Nobody's talking cept Lizzie who keeps askin do we want sandwiches, coffee, a Coke, a chocolate, a warm sweater, then goes off the parlour and comes back.
"Pat, come watch the ice skating."
"Pat's dead, Lizzie," Sadie hollers. "You seen him upstairs lyin on the bed."
"I did? Was he takin a nap?"
"No he wasn't, he was dead. God took him."
"Where'd he take him?"
"To heaven, Elizabeth." She just ain't gonna lay off. She thinks if she just keeps on badgerin Lizzie the poor little bird'll remember. Which makes me wonder who's the crazy around here.
"Hey Sadie," says Crowley, "cool it." "Yeah, give her a break, "Frank agrees.
Sadie's lookin pretty desperate. "But she's gotta understand."
"She won't never understand."
"Then God help us."
Everything's real quiet cept for the snowplough goin past, and I thinks what the hell and starts pickin at the turkey and next thing I know Frank's at it too then Minnie and my kids and Crowley and even Sadie. Lizzie yanks off a leg and takes it up to Pat cause he ain't eaten nothin since breakfast. Sadie puts her face in her hands.
The snow's still blowin. It's level with the window ledge now. Face it, guys, we're stuck here for the night with a turkey, a corpse and a loony tune. But hey, there's a knock at the door and it's Tom the undertaker. Sadie jumps up. "Come on in, Tom. Merry Christmas. You gonna have some turkey with us?"
"I won't say no, Sadie. I'm awful sorry about Pat."
Sadie gets out the Wonderbread and the large economy size Hellman's, and what do you know, we're all makin sandwiches. Tom says he'll have some coffee, so everyone has coffee and pretty soon we're tellin stories about deaths and wakes and funerals, and some of them are pretty funny and even Sadie laughs a couple times. "You know, Gerry," she says, "this is real good turkey."
IT'S THE day of the funeral and the sun's shinin bright and cold. Father Roach is mutterin over the grave and Lizzie's starin at the casket and I think maybe just for a minute she knows she's a widow. Crowley's starin at it too, thinkin maybe about the other grave, the one he was so gung- ho to find, only now he understands Pat was more his father all along, so he'll be stewin in his own juice over that for a while.
They're only pretending to bury Pat cause the ground's too frozen hard to dig, so he'll have to stay in the mausoleum til April. Don't like the thought of him stacked up with all the other unburieds. I'll sure rest easier when he's six feet under. He had a good death spite of the rumpus he caused, God love him. An easy death for a good man. There's some justice anyways.
Mary Flanagan's latest novel is `Adele' (Bloomsbury, pounds 6.99)Reuse content