The scent of roasting turkey filled the small, kitchen. Streams of condensed steam from the simmering vegetables ran down the front window, dripping and pooling along the discolored caulking of the cracked, porcelain sink.
She pulled a dishcloth from a bin under the sink and wiped the moisture away from the glass as a battered, blue Volkswagen Squareback pulled up in front of the house. She watched the occupants talking amongst themselves, making no move to exit the car.
“Are they here?” Her husband had come up behind her and was resting his hands on her shoulders.
“Yes, but they’re just sitting in the car.”
He turned his attention to the vegetables, lowing the flame that licked the copper bottom of the pan.
“This is going to be hard for them,” he said.
“Hard for all of us,”
A door opened and the eldest daughter helped the old man out, gripping him under his arm, using the running board for balance. Still in her grip and with an effort the old man moved slowly up the walkway using two canes.
“He’s gotten worse since last year,” the man said looking out the window. “Jesus, I hope he doesn’t trip.”
As if hearing his comment, the old man’s daughter gently negotiated him around a large crack in the pavement, stooping his head to avoid an errant vine of Morning Glory. An old woman and a younger woman struggled with a toddler who held fast to his car seat with chubby fists. A diaper bag fell from the car, landing among the damp leaves in the gutter. Mother and daughter exchanged terse words, soundless to the man and woman behind the kitchen window.
The man opened the front door as they approached. “Happy Thanksgiving all. Come on in.”
The woman collected coats and purses to deposit on the rumpled bed in the far bedroom. The old man was led into the kitchen and put in a sturdy oak chair in a corner that would afford him a view while keeping him out of the way. A television in the empty den emitted sounds of a football game. Feeling it was not Thanksgiving without one, the man had turned it on early that morning, but he lacked the interest to pay much attention beyond checking the score now and then.
“How’s he doing?” the man asked.
“Good and bad,” the old woman said. “ This morning he seemed fine and excited about coming over. Now I’m not sure he knows where he is.”
“Can he have a glass of wine?” the man asked.
“Why not? What harm can it do?”
“Giuseppe, how about a glass of vino?” the man asked. He handed a jam jar half full of red wine to the eldest daughter who brought it to her father.
“Careful Pop,” she said, guiding his hand. “Don’t spill it.” The old man took a sip and then allowed his daughter to place the glass on the oak buffet within reach.
“Good,” he said.
The younger daughter came into the kitchen, child on hip, lugging a large padded bag, which she dropped in the hallway.
“Hey. Good to see you,” she said as the man embraced her and the child. The child squirmed to be put down and then lurched off toward the den.
“That wine looks good. How about a glass?” she said.
“Sure. Honey, could you pour some wine?” the man said as he picked up the bag from the hallway and followed after the child who was already trying to scale the back of the couch. The man plucked him off and though he screamed his mother failed to appear. The man directed him toward the kitchen, and then delayed a moment in order to check the score and gather himself.
The young daughter was standing at the kitchen table with her glass of wine.
“These olives are delicious,” she said, plucking another from the bowl on the heavy oak table. “And are these deviled eggs?”
“Yes they are,” said the woman. “Help yourself.”
Her permission wasn’t needed. The young woman had already moved from the deviled eggs to the cheese and crackers and a bowl of salty, mixed nuts.
“How about a little more wine?” the man asked, noticing her glass was nearly empty.
“Where’s your son?” her older sister asked.
The young girl glanced around the room.
“Ma, I thought you had him?”
“He’s my grandson, not my son,” the old woman said. “And I have my own child to watch these days.” She helped her husband locate his jar of wine.
The younger daughter begrudgingly put down a half eaten deviled egg, picked up her wine glass and went in search of the boy.
“Sorry about that.” the eldest daughter said.
“For what?” the wife replied. “Kids are kids. He can’t get into much trouble here.”
“You’d be surprised,” the old woman said. “I sleep very well after his visits.”
The woman glanced at her husband who she knew was tabulating the damage he expected would amass by days end. Pouring a glass of wine, she delivered it with a kiss on his ear. The man gratefully accepted both and allowed himself to relax.
“So how are things back east?” he asked.
The daughter took a sip from her as yet untouched glass of wine.
“Good. Busy. The company’s grown a lot this year. I’m lucky I was able to get away.”
“Keep an eye on your father,” the old woman said. “Your sister probably needs some help.” The daughter said nothing as her mother stood up and handed her the old man’s wine jar on her way to den. The sounds of an unknown, heavy object hitting a hardwood floor, greeted her exit.
“She’s still coming to terms with it,” the eldest daughter said in a low voice, taking up a place next to her father. “It took his latest illness to convince her that she just can’t manage alone anymore. And even then I still had to do a lot of convincing of my own.”
“What are you talking about?” the old man barked. “Where’s my wine?”
His daughter handed him the jar, making sure he had a good grip. “Right here Pop. Small sips please.”
The old man took a large swig and his eyes shone briefly. “I’m going to miss warm Thanksgivings,” he said
The elder daughter caressed the back of his head. “Me too Pop. Me too.” But he had already retreated into his thoughts again and did not answer.
“I’m sure she realizes,” the man said with a nod toward the den, “that it’s for the best.”
“Not for everyone.” the daughter answered. Lowering her voice again she added, “It’s the other one that’s going to have the hardest time with it. I can’t imagine her managing on her own.”
“And she has no interest in moving?”
“She says she doesn’t like east coast people. Besides Neil is out here.”
“Doesn’t he help?”
“Aside from helping her get into this situation, not really. Oh he shows up every month or so to see the baby. Maybe take him to the park or something but that’s about it. He’ll offer a few dollars now and again when he feels he can spare it but that’s not often. God knows why she feels any loyalty toward him.”
“Loyalty toward who?” the younger girl asked returning to the kitchen, empty wine glass in hand. She picked up the carafe of red wine from the kitchen table and poured herself a refill.
“No one,” said her sister. “Someone at work. How’s the baby?”
“Fine. He and mom are playing with his blocks.” She took a sip of wine and a handful of cashews. She chewed thoughtfully. “I’m not stupid you know.”
“Who said you were stupid?”
“I know you were talking about me. Who else do you ever talk about?”
“OK so I was talking about you.”
“Well stop, OK? I don’t need you to talk about me. There’s no reason to talk about me.”
“We were just asking what your plans were,” the man said. “That’s all.”
“You don’t have to defend her. I know what she thinks. But she’s wrong see? I’m not as helpless as she thinks. I’m working three days a week and I’ll have more hours come January. Neil’s almost done with his book and plans to go back to work full time as soon as it’s done.”
“Oh right,” her older sister sighed, “the book. I almost forgot, ‘ Winter’s Darkness’”.
“It’s “Dusk of Winter” and yes there is a book and he will finish it.”
“How come he’s never shown you this book? You don’t even know anything about it.”
“Neil says it’s bad luck for a writer to discuss or show anybody his work until it’s done,” the girl said. “He’s superstitious that way.”
“Understandable,” the man said, though he had no idea what he meant by this.
“Or maybe he just doesn’t want you to know that there is no book while he continues to sponge off of you.”
“Jesus,” the young woman said. “How many times are we going to have this same conversation? See that’s the difference between you and me. I have faith.”
“And look at how far it’s got you; a fatherless child and no prospects.”
“And what’s it to you anyway? I’m not asking you for anything.”
“No you’re not asking but you’ve certainly been taking. Mom spends as much time raising your son as you do. She’s already got more than she can handle.”
“She loves her grandson. What’s wrong with that? Don’t take it out on me just because I have a child and you don’t.”
“That’s not fair. And it’s not true. I’m thinking about mom. You’re just thinking about yourself.
“Enough!” The old woman had reappeared in the kitchen, grandson in her arms. “Enough, both of you. I don’t want to hear anymore. Everyone has their lives to live and their choices to make. We make them and we live with them. Stop blaming each other for yours” “Your son,” she said handing the boy to the younger woman “needs to be changed.”
The oven timer drew everyone’s attention to the smells of dinner. No one spoke. Then the old man bellowed for more wine and the spell was broken. They helped him up and set him down again at the table, then settled around the table themselves. More wine wa poured and all talk of prospects and choices were put aside. For the next two hours they ate, drank and even laughed, enjoyed the food and emptied more bottles of wine.
Pie, fruit, and coffee arrived and the turkey was remaindered to the kitchen for early evening sandwiches and zip-locked portions suitable for travel. Everyone was silent again. Digestive tracts made use of the spare energy. The afternoon sun shone through the window above the sink sharing its warmth.
“I’m happy everyone was able to make it this year,” the wife said. “I’m going to miss this.”
“I am too,” said the husband. “Maybe one of these years we’ll make a trip east.”
“That would be nice,” the old woman said. She looked in the direction of her younger daughter who was helping her son peel an orange. If the young woman heard she made no sign.
“No more warm Thanksgivings,” the old man said. They thought he had nodded off and when they looked at him his eyes were closed. He said nothing more.
The young woman looked at her watch. “We’d better think about heading out,” she said. “Some of us have to work in the morning and we’re going to hit traffic.”
The elder daughter rose and began clearing dishes from the table.
“Leave them,” the wife said, “We’ll do that later.”
The man rose and went in search of the coats while his wife bagged up leftovers for the journey. After belongings were gathered, there were hugs all around and reminders to take care and drive safely. The man and woman waved from the front porch and the old man waved in recognition from the rear seat as the old car sputtered out of sight.
The old man died three days before Christmas. After the business of death was put to rest the old woman moved east for good. Last they’d heard, the younger daughter had married, a junior professor of English, and had moved to a college town far up in the Pacific Northwest. They kept in touch for a few years, mostly through Christmas cards before one or the other stopped sending them. After, that the man and woman heard no more from her, but they never stopped searching local bookstores for Dusk of Winter or any book by a man named Neil Parker.
Joseph A. Romano