It’s the fourth Thursday of November, a day to come together as a family and eat a dead bird, a holiday because America says so.
Diane’s seventy and dyes her thinning hair gold. She swims three times a week in a lap pool at a gym she pays eighty dollars a month to attend and is in better health than many other septuagenarians that she knows. When her hair is wet, it looks like lacquer on stained pine wood. When it’s dry, it’s the same color as her golden retriever’s fur. She lives alone with a dog named Chomper. When people ask Diane what kind of dog she has, she tells them that her dog has the soul of a poet. Nobody knows what this means. Eventually, she tells them the breed, and they nod.
Diane’s in the kitchen near her five-burner stovetop. She’s simmering gravy, boiling potatoes, and steaming green beans. Regardless of who or how many people she’s serving, she cooks the same meal every Thanksgiving because it’s tradition; she has to do it. Today’s the fifty-second time she’s prepared the feast. Chomper’s lying on the kitchen floor, and his tongue, which has a black spot in the middle, is splayed out on the cool tile. He’s blocking the refrigerator door from opening all the way, and Diane has to step over him to get from the counter to the sink, but she’s not bothered by it. Diane can work around her dog; it’s her son, Craig, that’s the problem. He’s using the other two burners on her stovetop, and she finds his presence in her kitchen agitating.
Craig’s cooking because he doesn’t eat animal products, and his mom refuses to alter her traditional menu. They’ve had quarrels about food every holiday since Craig and his wife, Michelle, decided to go vegan, and today is no different. Before Craig unloaded his groceries onto the counter, his mother pleaded with him, “Can’t you just let me cook for you for one day? Just this one day? It’s tradition. It’s not going to kill you.”
He gave her a fake, upbeat, “No.” Followed by, “Which burners am I using?’ It was a contentious way to kick off their shared time in the kitchen.
Although no one other than Michelle and him will eat his food, Craig’s dead set on making everyone wish that they were. Holiday cooking has become a competition with his mother, and he’s motivated to show his family that vegetables are sexy. Diane feels that her son’s trying to outshine her, so she doesn’t like when they cook together. He doesn’t like that his stomach churns every time he catches a whiff of the dead bird. Still, they’re family, and they do what they have to; moving around the kitchen, stepping over Chomper, preparing their food with their teeth clenched.
Diane's two-story house is open concept. The kitchen flows into the dining room, where the eight-seat solid-wood table shines underneath an orb chandelier. Past the dining room is the living room, then the backyard. The staircase aligns with the center of the first floor, parallel to the dining room table so that everyone can hear whatever noise is happening upstairs or downstairs.
Diane’s had the same furniture and decorations (paintings, pictures) for two decades. The house is just how her children remembered it when they were growing up. The only objects that ever seem to change are the candles she puts on the side tables at both ends of the leather sectional sofa. She’s currently burning a Yankee Candle called “Turkey & Stuffing.” It’s overkill, but isn’t that what the holidays are for?
Diane’s daughter, Janet, is sitting at the end of the sectional that’s closest to the sliding glass door, which opens up to the backyard. She’s cradling her Pomeranian named Lupita and talking to Michelle about it.
She says, “My fur baby is still learning, so I’m thinking about getting her a shock collar. They actually have some really cute ones. You’d be surprised. They almost look like normal collars.”
Michelle thinks about how cruel this is and how delusional pet owners are. She stops herself from saying anything, nods, smiles, then takes a sip of wine. She doesn’t drink, except for when it's the holidays.
Janet’s wearing a red flannel that she got from Target. Her hair is bleached blonde and styled in a pixie cut. Her shoes are black Chuck Taylor’s, and on the inside sole of the left shoe, written in black sharpie, are the words, “No one knows I’m a lesbian.”
Michelle has on suede Collette heels and fashionable denim jeans. On top, she wears a $150 blouse from Anthropologie.
“She’s a trigger barker.” Janet says, “But she’s my fur baby.” She rubs the dog's belly like she’s tickling a baby's stomach, “Isn’t she the cutest?”
The dog growls at her.
“She’s just joking.” Janet laughs, “She wouldn’t hurt anyone.”
Michelle thinks of how nice it will be later that evening when she’s home and in bed watching the Amazing Race, “mmhmm.” She responds before taking another sip of wine.
Diane’s eldest son, Mark, descends the stairs with his newborn baby in one arm and his hand firmly gripping the handrail with the other. He’s never taken the stairs as slowly as he does just then and looks awkward doing so. His wife, Emily, is behind him with a burp cloth over her shoulder and a full bottle in her hand.
Diane loves all her children, as mothers say they do, but Mark was her first, and she loves him the best right now because he’s provided her with her first grandchild.
When Mark gets to the landing, Diane asks, “Did he take it?” Referring to the bottle.
Mark’s hair is thinning, and he has bags under his eyes. He’s only five years older than Janet, seven years older than Craig, but he looks double that and very disappointed. He shakes his head at his mother’s question.
“It’s probably just he’s not used to his new surroundings. It’s a lot of noise.” Emily says.
Diane could tell Emily all the things that are wrong with the way she's trying to feed her baby, but she doesn’t. It's not her place. She just wishes someone would ask her for advice. After all, she never had any problems feeding her three babies. Still, even though her grandson hasn’t doubled his birth weight as expected, she doesn’t want to be that type of grandmother and bites her tongue.
“How much longer before dinner's ready?” Mark asks as he shuffles down the remaining steps.
Diane glances at the oven, “Ten minutes.” Then she looks at Craig, who's already cleaning his workstation: wiping down his cutting board, cleaning his knife, organizing glass food storage containers, all of which he brought so he wouldn’t contaminate his food by using items that may have touched meat at one point.
When Mark gets to the bottom of the stairs, he hands the infant back to Emily, who rests the baby against her collarbone. He starts to cry.
Lupita jumps out of Janet’s hands and barks at Emily and the baby, who cries even louder. Emily tries to calm her son by placing his head onto the burp cloth, but its shrill cry still blares.
Mark hobbles away.
“What’s wrong with you?” Janet asks.
“It’s my foot.”
“What’s wrong with your foot?” She asks.
Mark looks even more disappointed than he had when his mom asked him about their attempt at feeding, “I think it’s gout.”
“King’s disease.” Craig shouts from the kitchen, “It’s caused by diet.”
“Really?” Janet asks.
“No, it’s from the beers I had last night. That usually triggers it. Too much uric acid. I’m still eating my turkey.”
Mark’s son’s cry is at a constant ear-piercing squeal this whole time, and a look of helplessness takes over Matt’s face as he lowers himself to the sofa. He sticks his foot out and winces in pain.
The dog is still barking too.
“Don’t worry, he won’t hurt anyone,” Janet promises Emily, who’s bobbing the infant. It’s not helping.
“Want me to take him?” Mark asks Emily.
Emily says, “No, you need to rest your foot. I can keep him. It’s fine.” Everyone listening can sense that she would prefer someone to take the screaming baby away.
Chomper exits the kitchen to look at the object creating the hellish noise that’s jolted it awake.
“I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t say anything,” Diane says from the sink, “But I can’t help it. I think you should try feeding him. That’s a hungry cry, in my opinion.”
Emily lets out an eye roll of a breath before answering, “We’ve been trying. He won’t take the bottle. I think he’s just tired.” She pulls a dirty pacifier from her jean pocket to calm the child, but the screams continue.
Lupita’s barks continue.
It’s sonic chaos.
Diane looks at the timer on the oven and then checks her food on the stovetop. She says to Craig, “Can you keep an eye on my gravy? Just stir it every so often.”
Craig refuses; he’s already finished cleaning up his station and wants nothing to do with it, “No, mom,” he says, “I’m not partaking in anything that has to do with consuming an animal.”
With the barking, the screaming of her grandchild, and Craig’s inconsiderate response, Diane could snap, but wisdom doesn’t allow it. She looks to Emily, “Emily, why don’t you let me try, and you can watch the gravy. I’ll just take him into my room for a little bit.”
The baby’s loud crying is festering in Emily’s ear, making her angry, making her question if she has what it takes to be a mother.
“Sure,” Emily says, and they do the handoff.
Diane takes the squealing baby and its bottle into her room and closes the door, but not before Chomper weasels his way in behind her. The rest of the group is relieved that the screaming is slightly muted, but words aren’t exchanged. They all feel like there’s a need to acknowledge how shitty it is to have a newborn, but no one says anything because sometimes words are inadequate.
Thirty seconds pass. Everyone fidgets and looks around the room, waiting for someone else to say something. Only the squeaking from a plush mallard dog toy Lupita’s found breaks up the stillness. Michelle takes another sip of wine; Emily walks to the kitchen; Craig plates his food; Janet thumbs her phone; Mark shifts his foot to get more comfortable. They’re in a state of waiting.
Finally, Emily speaks from the stove, “Janet, did Mark tell you we’re thinking of getting a dog?”
“No,” Janet says, “What kind?” She gets up from the sofa, which causes the seat cushion to move and Mark’s hips to shift. He flinches in pain.
“Man up,” Janet says to him, “What kind of dog are you guys thinking, Emily?”
“Actually, we’re considering adopting from this organization called No Dogs Left Behind.”
From the kitchen, Craig glances at Michelle. She’s already looking right at him. He wishes he could say what’s on his mind just then, but he can tell as she takes yet another sip of wine that they’re on the same page: they’re surrounded by hypocrites and want the night to be over. Such is life for a vegan during a holiday with meat-eaters.
“What’s No Dogs Left Behind? Is that like a shelter?” Asks Janet.
“It’s this organization; they’re like heroes.” Emily says as she puts her hands to her heart, “Mark, you have to tell them.”
Mark clears his throat, a habit of his, and then explains the organization, “So there’s this horrible festival in China called the Yulin dog meat festival. And every year, they kill and eat thousands of dogs. This organization saves the dogs that were going to be killed in that festival and puts them up for adoption in America.”
“It’s amazing,” Emily adds.
“That’s incredible,” Janet says, reaching down to pet Lupita, who growls at her. She quickly keeps talking to try to hide Lupita’s snarl, “I can’t believe they eat dogs over there. Poor fur babies.”
“I know,” Emily says, “And it’s like a whole festival, and it's just so that they can eat dogs. It’s so sad.”
Craig and Michelle stare at each other with a look of shared disdain for the conversation.
“But aren’t you worried about adopting? What if the dogs have some type of problem?” Janet asks.
“They have papers.” Mark assures her, “It’s all vetted, so you sort of know what you’re going to get.”
“That’s good,” Janet says.
“Will you guys ever get a pet or adopt one?” Emily asks Michelle.
“Oh, I don’t think we would.” Michelle answers.
“You want one of them purebreds, huh?” Mark asks.
Michelle lets out a fake laugh and puts the wine glass to her lips, but it's empty. There’s nothing to save her from speaking her mind.
“It’s not that.” Michelle says, “I don’t think we’re going to be pet owners.”
“Why?” Janet asks.
There’s a pause.
Craig wonders if his wife’s going to tell the truth or make something up. It would be so easy to say to them that they don’t want to clean up after a dog or that their apartment’s too small, but for some reason - maybe because of the mockery of it all - he decides to answer for her.
“We don’t think people should really own pets,” Craig reveals.
“Right on cue, here comes the vegans ruining everyone’s fun,” Janet says.
“Having a pet is fucked up if you think about it,” Craig says,” They’re just property to you. You buy them; you put collars and leashes on them. People cut off their tails and ears. You completely control their sex life. But you consider them family.”
“We grew up with dogs,” Marks jumps in,” How could you say that?”
“I don’t know, man. I just don’t think it’s that cool. Right, babe?”
Michelle nods in agreement. She looks buzzed.
“You don’t think Lupita has a good life?” Janet asks, “Look at her.”
All of them look at Lupita, who’s trying to tear the mallard's stuffed stomach. The dog's tail curls upward revealing its puckered anus: the toy squeaks and squeaks.
“Think about the environmental impact of owning a pet,” Michelle says, ”Did you know that dogs and cats account for more than a quarter of the environmental impact of meat consumption in this country?”
“That’s true. That’s from a UCLA study.” Craig adds.
The others remain silent.
The stove starts to beep. Emily opens it, and the smells of cooked Turkey drift through the kitchen. Craig picks up his plates and moves away from the aroma, “My food’s ready.” He says.
“This turkey looks delicious,” Emily says, taking the bird out of the oven and putting it on the counter to rest.
“What do I do with it now?” She asks Mark, who shrugs his shoulders.
“Mom,” Janet screams, “The turkey’s ready!”
Diane struts out of the bedroom with her grandchild tucked into her side like a football. She has the empty bottle in her other hand and a look of satisfaction on her face. Behind her, Chomper runs out of the bedroom.
“Did you get him to take it?” Emily asks in amazement, leaving the kitchen.
“Yup, he took the whole thing, no problem.” Diane brags.
“Grandma power,” Mark says.
“Oh! Diane, thank you.” Emily says, patting her mother-in-law on the back and looking at her son.
“How’s everything going out here?” Diane asks.
“Oh, you know, just listening to the vegans tell us that we shouldn’t have pets,” Janet says.
Craig’s standing next to Michelle, who’s still on the couch.
“What do you mean?” Diane asks.
“Craig thinks that we shouldn’t have pets,” Janet says.
“I didn’t say that.” Craig fires back.
“You sort of did,” Janet says.
Michelle comes to her husband’s side, “You guys realize that Thanksgiving is the exact same thing as the Yulin Dog Festival, right?”
“It’s completely different,” Mark says.
“Dude, it’s not,” Craig says, “Every year in China, on one day, they kill thousands of dogs to eat, right? Forty-six million turkeys are killed every year in this country for Thanksgiving. There’s no difference. Wake up.”
“Ok, let’s stop this,” Diane says, “This is a tradition, and we’re together, and we’re going to enjoy this meal.”
In the kitchen, they hear something fall and splatter onto the tile floor. Lupita leaves her mallard and sprints to see what it is, as do Diane, Emily, Janet, and Craig.
“No, no, no!” Diane shouts.
Chomper’s eating the Turkey. Lupita starts taking bites too.
“No! Chomper, no!” Diane yells, trying to pull her poet away from the food.
“I’m sorry, Diane," Emily says, "I didn’t think he’d get up on the counter. It didn’t even cross my mind.”
“The dog’s eating the turkey?” Mark shouts from the sofa.
“Looks like it,” Craig says, peering at the mangled carcass on the floor.
“Lupita, stop eating that,” Janet screams.
The baby starts to cry again.
Craig leaves the kitchen and points to his food on the table, “Babe,” he says to Michelle, “You want to eat?”
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What's a holiday function without a little dysfunction sprinkled on top? As I read this, I kept hearing Ron Howard's voiceover like he does in Arrested Development telling us all about Diane and her family and quirky dogs. I love how you told us that Chomper has the soul of a poet and he went and demolished that turkey leg without a thought. There were so many dichotomies in this story, and in essence that's ultimately what a family is to me! You write families well, I've said it before- But I will keep saying it, because you really do wr...
Loved Arrested Development! This was a challenging one for me to write bc of all the characters, so I really appreciate your feedback. Thanks as always for reading & congrats on your recent Shortlist!!
Such an epically great show. It didn't appear challenging when I read it at all, it felt like you mastered it quite nicely. Thank you so much!
I’m a simple woman . . . I read a Scott Skinner story, and I like it. As usual some really strong prose here. I love the second paragraph - the prose is gorgeous, and it does such a good job of introducing the character. I love the way you write family dynamics and this story in particular is very funny and bitingly real. I wonder if you need to retain the sentences “they’re dressed differently and are entirely different” and “they’re in a state of waiting” at the ends of those two paragraphs - you did a great job showing how the two women...
lol thank you for checking this one out! I dig your feedback about the 'dressed differently and are entirely different' line and took that out. Still considering the other one but I see where you're coming from.