Mr. Doodles’ Thanksgiving ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(This short story has appeared on my website before.)
The four-day Thanksgiving weekend was upon us. Everybody had to leave school; nobody could stay, no matter how much they wanted to. The cafeteria would be closed and the heat shut off. It was time for the university to take a little snooze. Get out and don’t come back until Sunday night at the earliest.
On Wednesday afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving, I walked downtown to the bus station in a light rain to catch my bus. After a bumpy, smelly, two-hour ride, during which I tried unsuccessfully to take a nap, I arrived in my hometown. It was raining there, too.
I called my mother and asked her if she could come and pick me up because I had a sore throat and didn’t feel like walking home in the rain and didn’t have the money for cab fare. She sighed and banged the phone down in my ear. Ten minutes later she pulled into the parking lot of the bus station in her old beat-up Oldsmobile the color of an army tank.
“Thanks for making me come out in the rain,” she said by way of greeting.
“I didn’t make it rain,” I said.
“I thought you said you weren’t coming home for Thanksgiving.”
“Had to. No choice.”
“Well, I’m kind of glad you’re here because I need your help tomorrow.”
“Why do you need my help?”
“Everybody’s coming and I have to fix a lot of food. You can help entertain.”
“Who is ‘everybody’?”
“Grandma will be there with her friend Bunny. Lindley is coming and she’s going to bring her new beau. Your father said he’ll be there if he doesn’t get a better offer. I think he has somebody he wants us to meet.”
“How about if I just catch the next bus back to school?” I said. “I’ll spend the weekend in a homeless shelter.”
Mother and father were divorced. Mother still lived in the house I grew up in. Father lived not far away. They prided themselves on still being “friends,” though no longer married. They had a peaceable arrangement whereby mother still called father over to the house to fix things that were broken, while she sent him an occasional cake or plate of food, or mended his clothes when needed. They were very adult about the whole thing.
While I sat at the table and ate my dinner of leftover stew and hot chocolate, mother sat across from me and blew cigarette smoke above my head.
“How is school?” she said.
“Are you making lots of nice friends?”
“You were always so shy. I used to worry about you being such a loner.”
“I have thousands of friends.”
“Do you remember that boy in high school who had blond hair and spoke with a lisp?”
“No, I never knew anybody like that.”
“I can’t think of his name, but I heard he works as a cake decorator now. I guess he just wasn’t smart enough to go to college.”
“You don’t have to be especially smart to go to college.”
“One of Lindley’s friends from school was caught embezzling money from the bank where she worked. She’s in lots of trouble now. She’s probably going to jail. It was in the newspaper. I’ll have to be sure and tell Lindley about it when I see her tomorrow. Can you imagine how terrible her parents must feel?”
“Maybe they were lucky and died before their daughter became a criminal,” I said.
“Her first name was Paula or Patsy or something like that, but I can’t remember her last name.”
And so went our conversation, a mother and son who hadn’t seen each other for three months.
The next morning she was up before daylight banging around in the kitchen. She had been thawing the turkey in the refrigerator for two days and wanted to get it baked so she could have the oven free to bake the pies. She made me set the dining room table as soon as I finished with breakfast.
The first to arrive were grandma and her friend, Bunny. They had identical silvery hairdos, fresh from the beauty parlor. Grandma was carrying an orange peel cake and Bunny the little wicker basket that contained her tiny chihuahua dog, Mr. Doodles.
Grandma kissed me, leaving the imprint of her lips on my cheek. “How’s the big college man?” she asked. “Keeping all those pretty coeds in line?”
“Oh, you know it grandma!” I said.
Bunny shook my hand and let Mr. Doodles out of his basket. He ran into the living room and crawled under the couch.
Bunny was a seventy-five-year-old retired nurse. She still smoked Kool cigarettes and drank gin right out of the bottle. She and grandma were the best of friends. They had recently moved into grandma’s house together and had purchased side-by-side cemetery plots. They were in it together for the long haul.
Grandma and Bunny went into the kitchen to help mother with the dinner, while I tried to coax Mr. Doodles out from under the couch. When I set his basket down where he could see it, he ran to it and jumped in. He laid down and licked himself like a cat and went to sleep.
When my sister, Lindley, arrived, she had a man with her I had never seen before. He was no more than five feet tall with a pear-shaped body (Mr. Five-by-Five). His head was covered in blond corkscrew curls that hung down around his ears to his shoulders.
“This is my friend, Stubby Miller,” Lindley said.
“I’m so happy to make your acquaintance,” Stubby said, taking my hand in both of his and pumping it vigorously.
“Stubby has an interesting job,” Lindley said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“He’s a professional clown.”
“I prefer to think of myself as an entertainer,” he said.
“I know lots of non-professional clowns,” I said, “but I never met a professional one before.”
Of all of Lindley’s boyfriends, I had to admit that Stubby Miller was one of the better ones.
Lindley went into the kitchen and left me alone with Stubby Miller and Mr. Doodles. Stubby crossed his squat legs on the couch while Mr. Doodles raised his head and looked at us and went back to sleep.
“Is that your pup?” Stubby asked.
“No, it’s Bunny’s.”
“You’ll meet her later,” I said. “She’s my grandma’s friend.”
After an uncomfortable silence, Stubby said, “I hear you’re up at state university.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I never had a chance to go to college myself.”
“It’s vastly overrated,” I said.
“Don’t you like it?”
“Of course I like it,” I said. “It gives me time to decide how I want to ruin the rest of my life.”
I offered him a glass of wine, which he was glad to accept to keep from having to talk to me any further.
Father arrived with a bottle of champagne and a henna-haired woman on his arm, one Shugie Sherwood, dressed all in red. Red, in fact, seemed to be Shugie’s color. Besides her red dress, her lips were the color of a Valentine heart and her cheeks as rosy as mother’s were pale.
Father called us all into the living room. He opened his bottle of champagne and when he made sure everybody had a full glass, he held up his arms like a minister about to bless a crowd of sinners.
“To our little family gathered here today,” he said, “I have an important announcement to make.”
“Well, for heaven’s sake!” grandma said. “Why all the ceremony?”
Father was obviously relishing the moment. “Shugie and I are going to be married next week at the court house,” he said. “Since we’ve both been married before, we decided to dispense with all the formalities.”
On the collective intake of breath, he held his arms up again for silence.
“And that’s not all,” he said. “After we’re married we’re moving to Phoenix, Arizona. That’s where Shugie is from. She owns two apartment buildings there and I’m going to manage them for her!”
Shugie giggled and her face turned even redder.
“Well, congratulations!” Stubby Miller said, holding up his glass of champagne and drinking it all in one gulp. He seemed to be the only one truly moved by the news, and he didn’t even know father and Shugie.
Grandma moved forward and kissed Shugie on the cheek and Bunny shook her hand. Mother set her glass of champagne down and left the room.
Before we ate, I went into the kitchen to get some glasses. Mother was in there alone, putting the turkey on the platter.
“What did you think of father’s news?” I asked. I couldn’t resist.
“It’s his life,” she said, shrugging.
“What do you think of Shugie?”
“Won’t you miss father, being so far away?”
She looked at me as if realizing for the first time how truly stupid I was. “If I hadn’t wanted him out of my life,” she said, “I never would have divorced him.”
When we were all seated at the table, including Mr. Doodles, mother made us sit with our hands in our laps while she said grace. She had never said grace before in her life, as far as I knew.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” she said with her head bowed, “the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
When she was finished and gave us the cue to begin eating, Lindley laughed. “Are you trying to tell us you’ve joined Alcoholics Anonymous, mother?” she said.
“I thought it was lovely,” grandma said.
Bunny held Mr. Doodles in the crook of her arm and fed him small bites of turkey and potatoes from her plate. As he chewed, he looked at all of us sitting around the table with his enormous eyes like brown marbles. I wondered what he was thinking.
“He’s just the most precious little boy in the whole wide world!” Bunny cooed.
During the meal, Lindley and Stubby Miller sat very close. Sometimes he put his arm around her but he had to reach up because she was taller than he was. He said little things to her that only she could hear, causing her to blush. I began to think they were serious about each other. I could easily see my odd sister married to a fat little clown.
Father and Shugie talked excitedly about the things they were going to do when they got to Phoenix. The trips they were going to take. The sights they were going to see. At least once every minute he reached over and took her hand in his own and squeezed it. Her eye makeup ran in rivulets down her cheeks. It seemed she was melting before our eyes.
Mother ate quietly, speaking only when spoken to. I knew she wasn’t happy about father and Shugie but would never reveal what she really thought. It was our way to keep things bottled up inside until they burst out on their own.
After everybody left, I helped her stow the leftovers in the refrigerator and wash the dishes. When we were done, she went to bed without a word while I stayed up and watched TV until I could no longer stay awake.
The next day she wanted me to put up her enormous artificial Christmas tree, string it with lights and decorate it, which I did without complaint. It was a ritual with her to put it up on that day. She wouldn’t take it down until after New Year’s.
The rest of the weekend passed in a blur. I ate lots of leftovers and slept at ten-hour intervals. Mother wanted me to go to church with her on Sunday but I said I had a sore throat and cough and didn’t want to pass it on to anybody there. She accepted that excuse and went without me.
On Sunday evening she drove me to the bus station to catch the bus back to school. As I was getting out of the car, she asked, “Will we be seeing you at Christmas?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I said.
The bus was on time and the rain had stopped. I took these things as a good sign. I couldn’t wait to get back to school and tell my thousands of imaginary friends about my Thanksgiving weekend at home.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp