“There he is! Come in here, big guy!” My father throws me into a headlock hug, causing me to drop a duffle bag full of filthy laundry. It's too cold out to snow and we quickly retreat inside.
“Hey Mom!” I call out. “Mom?” The smells emanating from the kitchen trigger every one of my salivary glands.
“Mark—?” My mother walks out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a festive Thanksgiving dish towel. She gives me a hug that may have cracked a few ribs. “Oh Mark—you’ve lost weight. In just four months? What are they feeding you at that college of yours? We are just about ready to eat. Did you hit traffic? Go and wash up. Since Chloe took over your room, we’ve made up a bed for you in the basement.”
“So, how’s the college life, son? You know when I—”
“Honey, go tell the twins to come down and help set the table. Mark, bring up some ginger ale from the downstairs fridge, will you?” My mother pulls an about-face and returns back into the kitchen.
Leaving the warmth of the main floor, I plod down the wooden stairs to the basement. Still gray. Still damp. Still cold. I drop the laundry, bag and all, in front of the washing machine. Knowing my mother, it will be washed, dried, folded, and neatly stacked by morning. At the far end of the basement lay my father’s Man Cave, replete with half-started projects including an abandoned beer brewing kit and home repair projects in various states of disrepair.
Almost immediately behind me comes the passive-aggressive barefoot stomps of an adolescent coming down the stairs.
“What’s up,” Chloe mumbles, words muffled by a new mouth full of braces.
“How’s my room?” I ask.
“It’s my room now,” she bleats in the tone of a perpetually pissed off 8th grader. She grabs the ginger ale out of the fridge.
“I was going to get that for Mom—” I say.
“You were going to do a lot of things,” she replies.
“Did you move my stuff from the bedroom closet?” I ask.
“Did you move my stuff from the bedroom closet?” She actually imitates me. “Of course I did. It’s my room. All your crap is down here somewhere.”
“What do you mean, where? Those garbage bags in the corner,” Chloe rolls her eyes and pounds back up the stairs.
“Mark—?” I hear my mother holler from the main floor. “We are almost ready to eat!”
“Okay!” I yell back. I quickly move the third cinder block by the bathroom door to check on the rest of my summer stash—anticipating the need for altering my state of consciousness after a day or two back home. The grinder, rolling paper, lighter, and eighth all await me for when I need it.
I skip up the basement stairs—two at a time—and walk into the dining room. My father is already tucked in at the head of the table, poised to operate on a golden brown turkey with oversized carving knives.
“Plenty enough to share!” he says. “This looks marvelous, dear. I was thinking—”
“Don’t mangle the poor bird like you did last year, for God’s sake,” my mother barks. “Chloe, where is your sister? Claire? Claire?!” My mother calls up the stairs to the even warmer second floor. “We. Are. Ready. To. Eat. Claire?!”
“I don’t answer to the name Claire!”
“Well, whoever you are up there, it’s time to eat!” my mother yells even louder.
Another pair of angry, purposeful footsteps descend the stairs. I am surprised to see my other sister transformed by a severe asymmetrical haircut, unusual choice of hair color, and makeup plastered on only one side of her face.
My father has busied himself with dismembering poultry. “Who wants a wing? I could—”
“Mark—? Would you please pour ice water for everyone?” my mother interrupts. “I do have ginger ale somewhere. Chloe? Where did you put the ginger ale?” She scrambles back into the kitchen.
“What name should I call you?” I ask Claire, diplomatically.
“I am a-gender,” she states flatly, mouth pooched out with her own set of new braces.
“Your name is Agender?” I clarify, holding my hands up in a gesture of peace and goodwill.
“Onyx. My name is Onyx.”
“Fine, Onyx. Pass the potatoes.”
“I think we need to—” my father attempts to speak again.
“Here we are!” My mother calls out cheerily and reenters the dining room, holding the ginger ale and a bowl of roasted Brussels sprouts that no one will eat. “Don’t start until we say grace.”
“I don’t believe in God,” Chloe says casually, lobbing a verbal hand grenade.
“Well, God believes in you,” my mother replies, swatting her snark away. “Bless us Lord for these thy gifts that we're about to receive from thy bounty through Christ our Lord, Amen.”
“Amen!” joins my father, smiling as he passes the platter of turkey.
“I don’t eat meat, Dad,” Onyx says. “Meat is murder.”
“I don’t eat anything with a face,” Chloe says, while slathering butter on her roll.
“So, no turkey for you?” I ask.
“It’s a holiday, so it’s okay,” Chloe says, taking one of the oversized drumsticks.
“Well, another year to be grateful for,” my father says. “You know what we should—”
“Let’s hope,” my mother interjects, “that next year will be just as bountiful.” She gives my father a pointed look.
“What do you mean—?” he asks warily.
“I ran into Joyce this morning,” she says, noisily spooning stuffing onto her plate. “Joyce told me about the probable merger. Not possible merger. Probable.”
“Nothing is set in stone, in fact—”
“I know what that means. I had a career before all of these children,” she motions to the three of us, flooding us with a small tide of both guilt and resentment. “If you are downsized, how are we going to pay the mortgage, the orthodontist? For Mark’s college? For the girls’ college?”
“Girls’ college? I am a-gender!” Onyx flings her fork down and abruptly leaves the table. There are heavy stomps up the stairs to the second floor. A door slams.
“Pass the rolls, Chloe,” I ask.
“Pass the rolls, Chloe. Where’s my stuff, Chloe. How’s my room, Chloe.” She mimics me again. “You can’t just come home and start ordering people around, Mark.” She is now punctuating her sentences with my name, Mark. “So typical of you, Mark. Part of the patriarchy and I am sick of it, Mark. I’m sick of you all!” Chloe flounces out of the dining room. Another set of heavy stomps up the stairs to the second floor. Another door slams.
My father looks up from his plate. “Well, it’s obvious that—”
“What’s obvious, dear? That financial insecurity is destabilizing this home?”
“Have you considered all that we can lose?” My mother’s voice is shrill.
Without a word, my father gets up and leaves the table. He takes the basement stairs down to his lair, a place where he is wholly uninterrupted.
My mother and I sit in our places at the dining room table. She pushes a cold Thanksgiving’s Day dinner around with her fork. I’m starving, so I reload my plate again in her heavy silence.
“The potatoes are great, Mom.”
“Thanks, Mark,” she whispers. She buries her face in her festive Thanksgiving Day napkin, gets up, and slowly heads into the kitchen.
I finish the entire bowl of potatoes.
Afterwards, I head down to the basement as a winter sun sets, bringing in even colder air. I go directly to the third cinder block by the bathroom door.
My stash is gone.
As I look around, I notice the light is on in my father’s Man Cave. I walk over and lightly knock on the door.
“Come in here, big guy.” I open the door to see my father artfully packing a joint. With great delight, he lights it and inhales deeply. I sit on an unused beer keg and watch him exhale after a bit.
“Looks like you’ve found something for dessert, Dad.”
“Plenty enough to share,” he smiles.