My boy was running down the road without a look back at me as I crept up in my car. That impressed me. Fourteen years old, confused as hell. The wind picked up his hair. Thanksgiving day was bending into the afternoon, threatening to break.
I opened the passenger door as I dragged up next to him.
—Hop in, I said.
He looked at me, his eyebrows hunched.
When he climbed in, I knew I ought to bring him home to his mother. But I wanted him. I wanted to spend the holiday with my oldest boy. Conflicted, I tossed him the option.
—You want tofu or turkey?
—Turkey, he said.
We made a right off Eagle Road, headed to town.
—We’ll go to the Ponderosa, I said.
Landsing Pike dipped down through farmlands in silence. I was glad to be out of Lower Plymouth, a poor neighborhood, the place Ellen and I had decided to settle down in fifteen years ago. The prices were right and the realtor convinced us that Lower Plymouth would be Plymouth proper in three years, five on the outside. He was wrong, or lying. But it was a good lie, and we wanted to believe it. In Lower Plymouth, cookie-cutter houses stacked close together and only the liquor store stayed open late. High school hoodlums claimed the town’s only shopping center, where a 7-11, a Wendy’s, a hardware store, a Payless Shoes, a Dollar Store, and a closed-down Chinese food joint orbited the liquor store. Families in Lower Plymouth lived on government food stamps, handouts from relatives, and hard work. Despite Reaganomics, nothing had trickled down. Everyone in Lower Plymouth worked in the service industry. I had done short order at The Shrimp’s Tail before quitting a year ago. Ellen was still at the supermarket, across the railroad tracks in Gwenydd. But only about a mile east of Lower Plymouth sat Red Apple Farms. When El started eating only vegetables and going to church, she used to drive to the Red Apple on Saturday mornings and buy a barrel of tomatoes, corn, squash, green beans, and broccoli. God and greens went to her head. On Saturday nights, she concocted vegetables into patties or loaves for the dinner table. I couldn’t eat the stuff. El said abstaining from meat was healthier, holier. But I never felt better eating zucchini instead of chicken. I just felt hungrier. So I drank an extra drink, the whiskey filling my stomach.
Pete was staring at a fly that had landed on his arm. An odd kid, touched, up in his head.
The Farm was open. Happy, veggie-carrying customers, giddy with Thanksgiving, paddled back to their mini-vans. As we passed the Farm, I drove fast over the bump in the road that made the car jump, giving you that funny, leap-and-drop feeling in your gut. Pete held his stomach and chuckled.
—I’m sure the Ponderosa’ll have a nice spread, I said.
—I’m hungry, said Pete.
—It’ll have meat. That’s for sure.
The farmland dead-ended into Groving Road. I made a left. Into the nicer part of town, Plymouth proper. The country club was full of doctors and lawyers staving off family dinner with a drink and a round. We drove another couple of miles in silence until we hit the downtown area, right on the edge of the City of Brotherly Love. Cobblestone streets and brick-laid sidewalks. Fine shopping: Banana Republic, Nine West, the Gap. Stores for eyeglasses, picture framing, flowers. Antiques, wedding dresses, kitchen wares, everything. The Shrimp’s Tail was down on Wycle Street. The sun spangled off the storefronts, off the sidewalks, off a woman’s blond hair. The day had a chance yet. My spirits lifted as we crept along the cobblestone, looking for a parking spot.
That morning I had awoken to a fight with my girlfriend, Lucinda, who I’d been with for six months. Lucinda walked out on me, left me in hotel room 7B in the Pleasantville Lodge at the Jersey shore, snagged a few twenties from my wallet on her way. I laid in bed a while listening to the bay waves lapping, and slowly mustered up the determination not to see my Thanksgiving become a complete disaster. I showered and shaved and drove over the Delaware River to surprise my family, see the kids. My wife kicked me off the property with a sanctimoniousness that repulsed me. But fortune had delivered me and now my oldest and I were together. On our way to a feast. Things were looking up. I felt the day and its possibilities opening up before me, like a set of automatic doors.
—There’s a spot, Pete said, pointing to a spot on the corner beneath a waving American flag.
—Good eye, I said, cozying the tire up to the curb.
I was happy. I wanted to smoke a joint, to get my appetite up, but I figured I’d wait a bit. Didn’t seem quite right, what with Pete there. But as Pete got out of the car I transferred a jay from the center console to my wallet, stepped out of the car. I could see Pete fingering the penknife in his pocket.
—I see you carry the knife I gave you, huh, kiddo?
—What are you talking about?
—The knife in your pocket, I said.
He shoved his hands deeper in his pocket and said:
—I don’t have a knife in my pocket.
My stomach growled. The excitement of the morning dropped into my gut, riled up my hunger. A nervous energy took hold. I pulled a toothpick out of my pocket and stuck it in my mouth, grabbed a free local paper off a rack by the door, out of habit, just to have something to read on hand. But once we were inside — the smell of good cooking wafting about, the sounds of other families bouncing from the corners — I was ready to celebrate good and proper. This was Thanksgiving after all. My favorite holiday. We took a booth in the far corner. A king’s spot, I told Pete. No response.
—Thanksgiving’s my favorite holiday, I filled in the silence.
—Yeah, Pete asked, why’s that?
—Because it hasn’t been co-opted by the corporations. It’s still pure. A concise, clear message: be thankful. Be thankful for all you’ve got. Look at us. We’ve got a nice booth at a nice restaurant. We’ve got a salad bar full of home-cooking just waiting for us. And we’ve got each other, we’ve got family.
—It’s not home-cooking, Pete said.
—Sure it it, I countered.
—It’s a restaurant, Pop, by definition, it’s not home-cooking.
—But it tastes like home-cooking, right? That’s what counts.
Pete picked up the menu and looked at the drink options. I was ready for a beer. My watch said 2:45. Almost happy hour. Hell, it was a holiday, a festive meal with my boy. My day had already seen two fights. I decided on beer.
—You going to get the salad bar? I asked.
—Yeah, I guess, he said. They got turkey up there?
—Sure, they got turkey, I said.
—Yeah, okay, he said glumly.
A family across the restaurant erupted in laughter. We both looked over. The place was decked in gobble gear. Orange and brown streamers, plastic turkeys, paper pilgrims and feathered Indians hanging from the ceiling. The customers looked Lower Plymouth — noisy families in old jeans and ratty t-shirts —doing it up in downtown Plymouth for the holiday. I watched the hips of the waitress saunter towards us in rhythm with the music playing on the jukebox. Young gal, not much older than Hannah, nametag said Linda. Along with her uniform black slacks and apron, she wore a tiny t-shirt, untucked so as to reveal her belly button with the slightest lift of the arms. Voice was full of attitude, her tone telling us she didn’t belong at the Ponderosa.
—Can I get you two fellows something to drink?
—What kind of beers do you have? I asked.
She bent toward me, turned the menu in my hand over to the back page.
—There’s the list.
—I’ll have a Coke, said Pete.
—How about a Yuengling? I said.
—Okay, she wrote down our orders. And to eat? We have a Thanksgiving Day Turkey Special.
—Isn’t there turkey on the salad bar? I asked.
—Sure, there is. But the special comes with stuffing, cranberries and our special gravy.
—Mmm. How much is it?
—And the salad bar?
—$7.99. All you can eat.
—That’s a pretty good deal.
Pete looked at me:
—I kinda want the Thanksgiving Day Special.
A few slabs of turkey and their so-called special gravy sounded like a rip-off at $10.99. And I was short on cash. But what was I going to do? Break my boy’s cranberry-loving heart?
—I’ll just take the salad bar, I told the waitress. So long as there’s turkey, I’m happy. But you get what you want, Pete.
Pete frowned at my order.
—No, check that, I said. I’ll take the Turkey Special. It’s good, yeah?
—Oh it’s good, she said and she winked at me. You two’ll love it.
What a darling this girl was, to wink like that, to catch and uplift the mood just like that. A wink and a promise.
—Yeah, two Turkey Specials for me and my boy, I said.
The waitress placed her hand on my shoulder. What a flirt this one was, with her big, boisterous bangs, her long, dangly earrings. With a little squeeze, she said she’d be right back with our drinks and that we could help ourselves to the salad-only portion of the salad bar. Using the small plates, she clarified. Sticking her pen behind her ear, she folded her black notebook back into her apron’s pouch, spun around and danced toward the kitchen. Pete and I made our way to the salad bar.
—All right, I said, let’s eat some greens.
I piled up a plateful of iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, peppers, beets and croutons. Linda brought my beer and lingered while Pete fixed his plate. She stuck her pen in the corner of her mouth and watched me as I took my first slug.
—Just father and son today? she asked.
—That’s right, I said.
Linda pulled her right leg up and scratched her ankle, as to draw my attention to her slender, runner’s legs. I changed my mind about her age: she was a community college girl. Probably taking courses in modern psychology or the role of women in literature. A smart girl. Curse my man’s mind all you will, but in that moment, I thought of having pretty Linds right there bent over that Ponderosa booth. Her two hands splayed out across the squeaking, green vinyl. The taste of salt, the smell of turkey, on her neck. She chewed on her pen a moment and I looked at her and then she moved aside to let Pete slide back into his seat.
—I’ll be back in a minute with your dinners.
Pete took a bite of his salad: mixed greens, mandarin oranges, walnuts, cottage cheese. He chewed methodically, contemplatively. I searched for an agreeable subject of conversation. I wanted to get into it with my boy. But all I could think of to talk about were the salad dressings: I had chosen the creamy Italian. Or the Eagles, who were adrift in a dismal season, having mustered up only 11 points in their most recent contest against the Lions. Or the revisionist history of Thanksgiving, a subject I knew Pete and I could riff on. But can you really talk about the unconscionable slaughter of the Indians without ruining your appetite? Who wants to think about smallpox blankets on a holiday?
—I read that book you told me about, he said.
—Oh, really? I said. Which one?
—Rabbit, Run, he said.
I felt the fool for having recommended a book about an unfaithful husband. When I had read the novel, I had related deeply. To the running, to the feeling of foot on pavement, to the exhilaration of freedom and the burden of responsibility. I gave it to Pete so that we might talk about these things, but now I couldn’t fathom where to begin.
—Did you like it? I asked.
—I liked it all right, he said.
—I really liked that first scene, I said, when Rabbit plays basketball with those young kids.
Pete drew Coke through the straw.
—You know, I said, Rabbit’s trying to recapture the glory of his youth. You can feel it in that first scene. And maybe that’s what the whole book is about.
—I just thought Rabbit was a bastard, Pete said.
He looked at me, his final judgement hanging in the air, transferring to me.
—Maybe that’s the point, I offered.
Pete coughed and then delivered a little speech that I imagine he’d been working on:
—The problem with the novel is its portrayal of women. We have Janice, the sloppy, dumb, alcoholic wife, who can’t hold onto Rabbit and then accidentally drowns her newborn baby. And he have Ruth, the fat crosstown whore and mistress who allows herself to be impregnated by an irresponsible adulterer.
Hell, I was no literature professor. I had just enjoyed the book. My boy, on the other hand, was bright and insightful. A bookish fellow. The trick with Pete was he made you feel like he had figured out things on a deeper level, but of course he hadn’t. He didn’t understand that book any better than I did. He was working with the model of such a life; I was living it.
—What about Eccle’s wife? I said.
—She’s only in the book to have her ass slapped.
Naive boy, thinking he’s so smart. His problem is he lives in his head. When he discovers his body, that’ll be his awakening. His reckoning. Everything’s clear in theory, impossible in practice. He’ll learn. Until then, he’ll come off as a know-it-all punk. My boy, angry, intelligent, but deadly. Bringing his self to bear at the dinner table, taking on his old Dad. I liked that.
Linda sashayed over with our turkey dinners. My mouth salivated. The Yuegling made me feel limber, giddy. The clean break of the morning, the invigorating fight with El, the flirtation with the waitress. I took a slug of beer and it warmed my innards, bubbled up to my brain. Our deluxe meals sat before us. Despite everything, I was with my boy and I felt frisky. Life is in the friskiness.
After a few bites of turkey, I realized that I hadn’t called El to tell her that Pete was with me. That seemed only right. She would worry. I excused myself and walked to the back of the restaurant where the bathrooms and the phone booth and the kitchen were. Put a quarter in the slot and dialed Eagle Road. Linda walked through the swinging saloon doors from the kitchen laden with two more Turkey Day Specials.
—Who are you calling? she asked coyly.
—The boy’s mother, I said, over the ringing on the other end of the line.
—Hmm-mm, Linda strutted on.
These young ones are the friskiest. Once they get older they carry too much past. History saturating every pore of their bodies. The young ones will still walk into unknown worlds with you without looking back.
—Hi Ellen, I said, it’s me.
—Is Pete with you? she asked right off.
—Yes, he is. He’s right here. We’re having dinner together.
—Why didn’t you call sooner? she asked.
—I didn’t get a chance until now.
—You bring him right back here after you two are done eating.
—I thought we might go to the park.
—You bring him right back, Michael, she threatened. Or I’ll call the police.
She hung up. And the click of the line brought back all the reasons I had left her. El had changed. God and greens had gone to her head. I wasn’t any fool for a pie in the sky. Too much magic in that kind of thinking. God’s a metaphor for the father. There’s a slice of heaven for all of us right here on earth if only we’re courageous enough to look for it. That was my way of thinking. El and I used to get high and listen to The Animals in her parents’ basement. Isn’t that heaven enough? How much better can a soul feel? When the record ended, her father yelled down the stairs that it was bedtime. Heaven came and went with the tides like that. Nothing’s always the same. The river flows and we swim along. But at some point, El got religion and started eating only vegetables, feeding a holiness she needed inside. And I just couldn’t get with it. The more I resisted, the more she hardened up. She stopped partying on Saturday nights and started going to church on Sunday mornings. “For the kids.” Said they’d need religion and order in life and if I wasn’t going to give it to them, then she would. Now look at her. She just said she’d call the police, a word she’d pronounce only with distain in the seventies. Back when we didn’t believe in authority, when we believed in ourselves.
I pulled a joint out of my wallet and pushed the exit door open to the outside. The day was brilliant. I sparked the joint, leaning halfway out the door. That first drag was dynamite. Quick stuff, it coursed through my limbs and lit up my head. Linda sauntered back toward the kitchen and stopped in front of the swinging doors. She was holding a tray full of dirty dishes.
—You going to leave your kid there to eat his dinner alone? she asked.
—Bring him a milkshake, I said.
She set the tray down, shook her head at me and asked:
—You gonna bogart that thing?
I beckoned her with a sideways head nod. She raised her hands above her head and clapped three times. Her shirt hiked up, her navel peeked out. As she walked toward me at the end of the little hallway, she smoothed down her apron. I imagined those thin, runner’s legs wrapped around my head. She and I could’ve walked out that door right then. There was nothing stopping us.
I handed her the joint and she sucked down a hit and then giggled and said something about how naughty she was to get stoned on a busy day at the restaurant.
—It’s a holiday, I reassured her, enjoy yourself.
She handed the wet joint back and teased:
—You’re naughty, and then she scurried back into the kitchen where a bell was ringing.
Dinner was delicious. I ordered a second beer when I got back, thinking Linda might comp me one. I felt lucky, which is the same as happy. My boy had chosen me to have Thanksgiving with. Linda was in the pocket. The stuffing was hot and moist and full of raisins and brown sugar. The morning had punished me, but now the good karma was flowing.
—So, I asked Pete, how have things been at home?
Pete leered at me, his eyebrows scrunched into his cheeks.
—Fine, he said. The stingy bastard.
—How’s school? I fished.
—What are you reading in class?
—Do you like him?
—Yeah, he measured. I like him very much.
—What is it you like about him?
—I like how he writes about self-reliance. Personal conscience and communing with nature. I like his attention to detail: the list of the vegetables he plants in his garden, the meticulous financial records, the reflections. The whole idea of spending time alone in nature appeals to me.
—Yeah, I dig Thoreau’s view, too. I like his philosophy of taking care of yourself. Because that’s really the most important thing in life: to just take care of yourself. From that, the rest follows.
Pete put down his fork and took a swig of Coke. Then he wiped his mouth with his napkin. I changed the subject.
—I called your mother, I said, let her know you were with me. I told her that maybe after dinner, we’d go to the park. Or check into a hotel and watch some football. What’d you say?
He shrugged his shoulders.
We finished our meals in silence. Linda dropped the check. She wrote, I’m off in ten minutes, on the back. I looked at my watch: 3:50. Pete slurped the last of his soda through the straw. He stood up.
—I gotta go to the bathroom, he said.
As he stared at me, I caught a glimpse of Linda’s ass over his shoulder.
He turned and made his way to the back of the restaurant. While I wanted to hang out with him, I figured I ought to get him home. Yes, I could dump him home quick, then come right back for Linda. That seemed fair enough. Linda, seeing Pete was gone, ambled over.
—Fifteen minutes? I said. That’s just enough time for me to run my boy back to his mother. You can wait an extra minute?
—Ten minutes, she said, sticking her pen in her hair, Tops.
I smiled and looked at my watch again.
—Ten minutes, I said. I handed her the cash for the bill, tipped her as well as I could, having to save money now for what might come.
—I gotta go close out my register, she said.
With that giddy, nervous energy that had been with me throughout the meal, I rapped my fingers on the table. I listened to the music. They were playing a new Madonna song. I lost myself a moment in the melody.
I looked toward the back of restaurant and wondered what was taking Pete so long. I looked at my watch: 3:57. I’d never make it back by 4:05. Was I going to miss my chance here because my kid was dropping base in a public restaurant? No. She was probably kidding. She’d wait. I stood and crossed the restaurant. In the bathroom, I called Pete’s name. No response. I checked the stalls: he wasn’t there. Fuck, I thought, where’d the little bastard go? Back in the hallway with the phone, I noticed the back door was open. I stepped outside and shouted Pete’s name. No response. What the fuck? I walked through the restaurant, checking back at our table, empty and cleared, and went out the front door. A scan of the horizon in all directions revealed nothing. I hustled to the car: empty. My heart beat on, hoofs in the dirt. The little bastard must be on foot towards home, I figured, I’ll catch up with him on Landsing Pike. So I got in behind the wheel of the car, started the engine, and backed out of the spot. The car plunked awkwardly backward, sunk into the driver’s side. What the fuck? I got out. Sticking out of the back tire was the penknife. The front tire, too, slashed.
I lost my breath and gripped my chest. I collapsed against the side of the car, caught myself, staggered through the door, and slumped into the seat. I turned the car off. I put my head on the wheel. I wept. Everything pushed through me. Everything rotten. Up in the sky, above the car, the flag wrested with the wind.
A moment later, Linda tapped on my window. I looked up, gathered myself, and motioned for her to come around to the passenger side door.