While the rest of the nation chose to fly, Ted Fielding took to his trusty Subaru and drove the 1,500 miles from Long Island to aptly named Hometown, Nebraska. Traffic was light for the most part, aside from some road construction north of Pittsburgh—what monster ordains road construction the week of Thanksgiving?—and the scenery on Ted’s left and right shifted from skyscrapers to shorn cornfields to shadowy, lamented steel plants and back to cornfields again.
For two nights he slept with his torso on the Subaru’s back seat, legs thrust at ever-shifting angles over the console between the driver’s and passenger’s seats. He was too old for games like these, but Grandma might be home when he got there, and he didn’t want to take any chances with germs in a hotel along the way.
The car came to a halt around noon with a crunch of gravel and the ghostly moan of wind. It was in the mid-fifties, overcast, unlike the frigid Thanksgivings, some snowbound, of Ted’s youth. Mom and Dad’s house hadn’t changed much since his last visit, it had been Christmas last year because of everything going on right now. New gutters, he saw. Dad had painted around the windows.
He stood next to the car, listening to the ticking under the hood, breathing. He pulled out his phone and texted Emily. Going in. Feels weird without you after all these years. Mom’s going to miss you.
For a moment he hesitated. Then he added, Dad, too, and tapped the arrow to send the message.
Inside, the air was hot and thick with the mingled aromas of turkey and pie and things boiling in stainless steel pots. The hum of the microwave, which would run non-stop till the eating commenced, mixed with bubbling suitable for any cauldron and voices from another room. It was holiday alchemy, which promised to yield bliss.
Mom toiled alone. She came to him as he crossed the threshold and hugged him. She smiled, perhaps a little tentatively.
Ted laughed. “It’s all right, Mom. Unless I got something with a Whopper through the window, I’ve basically quarantined.”
“You don’t have to pretend here, dear,” she said, still wearing that pensive expression.
She shrugged, half-smiling, took his hand and walked him to the living room.
Ted thought, No questions about Emily.
Family filled the living room. The twins were almost teenagers now, and almost was a near thing. Their parents, Ted’s sister Maria and her husband Isaiah, sat nearby, Maria on the floor at Isaiah’s feet. Isaiah nodded a silent greeting. Maria waved dutifully, wearing a smile that did not touch her eyes.
Grandma sat in the armchair by the widescreen TV, smiling at the twins and a third person on the couch. Seeing Grandma filled Ted’s heart with literal warmth. He hadn’t admitted it to himself, but the odd look on Mom’s face had filled him with worry for Grandma.
“Theodore!” Dad shouted, leaping to his feet and blocking Ted’s view of the couch with his broad farmer’s body. He engulfed Ted in a hug, and Ted hugged back, releasing some of his growing concern.
“Good to be home, Dad,” he said. “Emily wishes she could be here, but the hospital couldn’t spare time off.”
Dad let go as if startled away. As if amused, he asked, “What happened? An actual flu outbreak after spending all summer playing pretend on the news?”
“Reap what you sow,” said the man on the couch.
Dad shook his head and resumed his place on the recliner. Ted took a moment to recognize the fellow sitting next to the twins. Blonde hair so short he could be mistaken for bald. Dad’s shoulders. But it was the scar on the jaw that clinched it. Dad had given him that scar that night after the police left.
“Hey, big brother.”
Ted glanced to Dad and found his father smiling up at him, hands raised in Whattaya do? fashion.
Thank God Emily couldn’t make it, Ted thought, unbidden.
“You’re back?” Ted asked.
“Thought I’d give it a try,” Johnny said. “It seemed like, with everything that’s changed in the last year, Dad might be willing to see things differently.”
Ted opened his mouth to speak again but deferred to their father.
“Things have changed,” Dad agreed. There was an open bottle in the cupholder of the recliner, but he had barely touched it. This one, at least.
“Mom says you married that darky in your Facebook picture,” Johnny said.
“Johnathan!” Mom said from the kitchen doorway. The twins giggled.
Johnny shrugged. He wore the same faint smile, the one that had carried him through childhood up till Dad threw him out. His smile said, I’m right, and you’re only pissed because you don’t want to be wrong. The more wrong Johnny was, the more likely he was smiling.
Ted forced himself to swallow. The thought of Johnny seeing Emily’s picture, the certainty of the vile things he had thought at the sight of her, made Ted’s head pound.
“The world has changed,” Dad said.
Mom returned to the kitchen, massaging her temples with the fingers of her right hand.
The twins watched Ted and Johnny. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade had been canceled this year, but they had a better show playing out live in their grandfather’s living room. Ted realized that his adult sister and her husband were watching just as avidly.
Ted scanned for a place to sit, where he could make himself small and gather his thoughts. Why didn't anyone warn me? What if Emily had found someone to cover for her? Every cushion was filled; the only available spaces were the kitchen doorway and the middle of the living room floor.
One twin coughed. He turned his head politely, so the cough directed towards Grandma.
Maria noticed Ted’s grimace. “It’s just allergies,” she said, as if to an overanxious puppy.
Ted closed his eyes. He stepped back to lean against the kitchen doorway and stood there, looking in on his family.
You can do this, Ted thought. It won’t take Johnny long to make Dad regret letting him through the door again. He hasn’t changed. Be polite. Do what Emily would do. Be civil.
Ted asked, “What are you up to these days, Johnny?”
Johnny’s immediate reply was, “Still painting garage doors, you mean?”
Ted’s eyes widened. He glanced towards Dad, who now stared at the muted television screen and the Bonanaza marathon airing on TVLand. Ted opened his mouth to clarify that he had been asking about Johnny’s job, but he never got a chance.
“It’s all right, Teddie,” Johnny said. He smiled, and now there was nothing faint about it. It was a hungry, lopsided grin. “It’s not like we don’t know what you’re thinking. Rolling in from the big city to the small town you forgot about in flyover country, pretending to care about us twice a year like the people who go to church on Christmas and Easter.”
“Amen,” Isaiah muttered.
Ted’s mouth fell open. “I never—"
“You don’t have to pretend anymore,” Johnny said raising his hands as if to reassure him. “And wifey couldn’t make it this year. Convenient. Too busy laughing at us stupid hicks in the country, where all we do is make the food you eat every day.”
All the old rage returned, heat rose to Ted’s temples. “Johnny, would you just listen for a second?”
Dad stood. He didn’t rise. He had been sitting, and now he stood. Even at his age he towered over anyone who entered his home. His blue eyes were thunderheads. His hands remained unclenched but had straightened into blades that could cut as sure as any knife. Johnny’s scar was proof of that.
“You will not bring that tone into my home,” Dad said. “Your grandmother has joined us today, and you will not disrespect her or the rest of your family in that way.”
“Now apologize to your brother.”
Ted’s eyes flashed, but Dad remained firm. “Sorry, Dad. I apologize, Johnny.”
Johnny shrugged. “City changes people. They lose their values. You get around all those illegals, and you start to believe the lies.”
Outraged, Ted glanced back to their father, but Dad was settling back into the recliner. The recliner that Ted and Emily had gotten him two years ago when his back was keeping him awake nights, after Emily spent hours online after late shifts, poring over the best chairs for lumbar support and consulting ergonomic metrics Ted hadn’t known existed.
Peripherally, Ted saw Isaiah nod. Without looking up, Maria’s hand rose to slip inside her husband’s. The twins continued to watch, eyes alight, eager for the next round.
Walk away, Ted told himself. This is your family. The only one you get.
He found Mom standing in the kitchen, bent over the table and slicing sticks of cold butter for mashed potatoes.
“Can I help?” he asked.
Instead of answering she turned and hugged him.
“What’s going on?” he asked, softly enough that no one in the living room would hear.
“He showed up about a week ago,” Mom said. “At first it was tense, but Dad let Johnny talk. He actually listened this time. Eventually they got on the subject of the Garcias—”
“He should’ve gone to jail for what he did to them,” Ted muttered.
Mom hesitated, considered, went on. “Your father realized that a lot of what Johnny said all these years has started to make sense. With all the crime and disease the illegals are bringing north—”
“Mom, didn’t you go to school with Antonio’s mother?”
She shrugged hopelessly, “You can never tell with these people. And even if the Garcias were allowed to be here, they act like an anchor for others who shouldn’t.”
Ted gawked. He couldn’t help it. Her lined face tilted up towards his own, her haggard expression made his heart ache. Had she brushed her hair this morning? She looked more than tired. She looked terrified. Terrorized, Ted thought, by Johnny’s propaganda.
“Mom, what can I do?”
“Be my little boy again,” she said. “Come back to us.”
“But I haven’t gone anywhere.”
Sorrow filled her eyes. She said, “I have to get the green bean casserole into the oven.”
Ted let himself drift towards the living room. Johnny said something, the only words Ted heard were “Puerto Rican hotels,” and everyone laughed, the twins adding their shrill laughter. He hovered in the door, watching as the smiles faded. Dad swigged from his bottle. Grandma opened her eyes to smile sweetly upon her long truant grandson.
Johnny looked up. For a moment he held Ted’s eyes. His smile became sardonic.
Leaning against the doorway, Ted nodded to the television. He forced a smile. “I remember sitting here watching these shows after church on Sunday.”
“Old Ben Cartwright,” Johnny said. “He ran a tight ship. No one ever got in his face without regretting it. Back in those days, TV censors didn’t worry about kids seeing the right way to deal with colored folk who forgot their place.”
Oh, Emily, Ted thought. Thank God you couldn’t come to this horror show.
The twins continued to fawn over Johnny. He rewarded them each with a white-toothed smile, and they laughed as if he’d one-upped his previous joke about Puerto Rican hotels.
“An eye for an eye,” Isaiah said, and Maria nodded appreciatively.
Ted spoke without thinking. “You realize there’s a whole other testament that puts that law to bed?”
Isaiah’s eyes glazed over with the unfeeling, unreasoning emotion known among the anointed as righteous anger.
“Watch it, Teddie,” Johnny said. “You’re not in the big city anymore.”
While the rational part of his mind railed against every word he spoke, Ted heard himself respond to his brother in the rage of their youth. “In the city we understand that painting swastikas on the sides of people’s homes is wrong.”
“Son,” Dad said.
“Dad!” Ted cried. “You can’t seriously accept this nonsense? You taught us that God is love. You helped repaint the Garcias' home!”
“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself,” Dad said without looking up.
Ted stared. His brain scrambled for meaning within those words like a mountain climber about to fall and desperately scraping his fingertips across the surface of smooth rock. Did he just call me a fool?
“I was ahead of my time, Teddie,” Johnny said, leaning back against the couch with arms extended wide. “Dad and I talked through it. All these people who want what we’ve got. They want our land, our prosperity, our women…”
“Our men,” Maria said grimly, and Ted felt her eyes upon him.
Emily, he thought, as if her stare had forced his wife’s name to mind.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” Ted said in little more than a whisper.
“It’s not the battles you win that teach you,” Dad said. He pushed himself to his feet again, moving slower now, a man strong enough to work but feeling his prime fade. “We’ve learned a lot this year.”
He gazed down at Ted, his former good son, the way he had looked for all those years upon Johnny. He stood, broad-shouldered, determined, a warning written in every line of his body.
“Dad,” Ted said. “Dad, it’s me. You know me.”
A momentary pause broke Ted’s heart an eternity before Dad bludgeoned him with two words. “Do I?”
“You left this all behind the first chance you got, Teddie,” Johnny said. “You forgot your family.”
Ted had to sidestep to see around their father. “You ran away!” he shouted. “You broke all our hearts! You terrorized that family, and when the law came after you, you—”
The room swam. Ted’s cheek flared with heat. The wall shoved into his back, and he realized it was supporting his weight. He touched his face and sparked pain. He had been struck. His eyes had remained open, and now refocused. He wasn’t standing against the wall. He was lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling.
Dad wore a smile now, one Ted recognized because he had seen it his whole life. The more Dad pissed you off, the more likely he was to put on the smile that said, The peace that passes all understanding is a gift from God. It was a thin veil; the longer he wore it, the more likely he was to start throwing hands.
“Dad?” Ted asked.
Johnny spoke. “Ran away from home to marry the Black Whore of Babylon and genuflect over false prophets.”
“And spread her lies,” said Isaiah.
Ted did not push himself to his feet. Some small voice—the same that had warned him against arguing against Johnny, that had sensed all along that this wasn’t Thanksgiving but an ambush—told him that Dad would knock him right back down if he stood. He crawled on his back into the kitchen. Dad did not watch him go. He just stood there, smiling, gazing upon a vision of such rapturous beauty that even his deceitful son could not tarnish it.
For the first time, Ted was the deceitful son.
“Every family has that one crazy uncle,” said one of the twins, watching Ted wriggle away. They both laughed.
Maria shook her head, as if to say, Kids will be kids.
Safely in the kitchen, Ted pushed himself up along the counter without looking away. He feared showing his back in that moment might be a terrible miscalculation. So he watched as his father turned away, raptured smile faltering at last into the old expression of longsuffering. He opened his arms to embrace Johnny, who rose obediently from the couch.
Tears sprang to Ted’s eyes. He had to look away, only to find his mother staring up at him. She held a bread pan between two oven mitts shaped like turkeys. Swiping at his cheeks, Ted said, “Mom? Is this real?”
“Oh, Ted,” Mom said, eyes filled with sorrow. But it was the sorrow shown for a slow child who couldn’t understand the lesson at hand, no matter how plainly it was delivered. “We’ve all seen so much this year, honey. Things that were hidden from us have been made plain. We spent years as sheep while wolves prowled among us. Your father is just upset now that he sees it.”
“Mom,” Ted said. His eyes danced from her face around the childhood home where he had learned integrity, honesty, work ethic—how to be a good man in a world that will test you. The table where he sat doing homework. The stove where he made meals after late night shifts in school. The refrigerator where his report cards and class pictures hung by magnets.
In the living room, Isaiah said something that ended with, “shotgun says otherwise.” His children laughed merrily, relishing the sound of tough talk. Johnny laughed loudest of all, delighting in his restored family.
“You know me, Mom. You know Emily.”
Mom looked away. “You shall make no covenant with them or show them mercy, and you shall not intermarry with them.”
“What did you say?”
“It’s the Bible, Theodore,” Mom said. “Have you fallen so far astray that you don’t recognize it anymore?”
“Mom, I love you. I’ve been a good son.”
She smiled, sadly. “Maybe that was where we went wrong. We had to be stern with Johnathan. Maybe we didn’t see your transgressions because they happened quietly.”
Like a thief in the night, Ted thought. He felt an urge to run.
Johnny called from the living room. “Teddie, come back. It’s the holiday. We should be together. We should be a family again.”
Ted stared into his mother’s eyes. She quirked an eyebrow.
“Come into the living room, son,” Dad called.
I’ve been a good son, he thought.
“You should go,” Mom said.