Thanksgiving for Poor People ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(This short story has appeared on my website before.)
Veradean showed Vicki-Vicki a picture in a magazine of a family at Thanksgiving. An older woman with gray hair, obviously a grandmother, was holding up a huge turkey on a platter before a table full of smiling family members, including a small boy and girl. On the table were bountiful bowls of all kinds of food: dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, pickles, green beans, cranberry relish, carrots, peas, corn, rolls, pumpkin pie, chocolate cake. What you know but what you don’t see is grandma setting the turkey in the middle of the table and all her family beginning to eat.
“This makes me hungry,” Veradean said.
Vicki-Vicki took the picture from her and studied it. “You can’t eat a picture,” she said.
“Why can’t we be like that?”
“Because we’re not,” Vicki-Vicki said. “We’re poor and poor people don’t set a table like that.”
“Why are we poor?”
“Because we live in Scraptown and we don’t have any money. We’re trash and our mother is trash and her mother before her.”
“I’m not trash!” Baby Eddie said.
“You’re trash just as much as I am,” Veradean said.
“Yes, you’re trash,” Vicki-Vicki said, “and the sooner you realize it the better.”
“Once trash, always trash,” Veradean said. “You can take the person out of the trash, but you can’t take the trash out of the person.”
“I don’t want to be trash!” Baby Eddie trilled. “I don’t like trash!”
“The pilgrims were trash, too,” Veradean said. “They didn’t have any money, either. Miss Edmonds read us a story about them. They wore black and prayed all the time. The king got mad at them and kicked them out of the country. They didn’t have anyplace to go so they came over here in a little wooden boat. They landed on a big rock. When they climbed down off the rock and looked around them, they saw that the land was nothing but woods and wild animals. There were no supermarkets or schools or cars or buses or anything like that. The Indians that already lived here were afraid of the pilgrims. They hid from them and threw rocks at them.
“The pilgrims didn’t know how to take care of themselves and a lot of them died right away in the snow. They couldn’t figure out how to make corn and stuff grow in the ground just right. Finally the Indians weren’t so afraid of the pilgrims anymore and came out from where they were hiding and started helping the pilgrims. They showed them how to grow stuff so they would always have something to eat.
“When the pilgrims finally started to get the hang of living here and learned what they needed to know to get by, they had a big feast after the harvest to show everybody how well they had done. Since the Indians had helped them get started and had kept them from starving, the pilgrims asked the Indians to join them in the feast. The Indians brought along some of their stuff, too, that the pilgrims hadn’t yet learned how to make on their own. This feast was the first Thanksgiving and it’s been held every year at the same time ever since.”
“Very interesting, I’m sure,” Vicki-Vicki said.
“So, are we going to have a turkey for Thanksgiving?”
“I want a turkey!” Baby Eddie squealed.
“We don’t have money for turkey.”
“We can’t have anything like in that picture?”
Vicki-Vicki had a little money for food that her mother had left before she went away with her latest boyfriend, but not enough for anything special. They would probably have Campbell’s vegetable soup and open a can of tuna if they were lucky. Maybe some Twinkies for dessert.
“We’ll try to have something special but I don’t know what it’ll be.”
“Will it be a surprise?” Baby Eddie asked.
“Yes, it will be a surprise.”
The next day she saw an ad in the newspaper that attracted her attention. The Everlasting Light Mission would be serving Thanksgiving dinner from noon until six. Good food and Christian fellowship, the ad said. Come One, Come All.
On Thanksgiving morning she made Baby Eddie and Verdean each take a bath and then she found some special clothes in a trunk for them to wear: a 1940s schoolgirl dress with puff sleeves and a sash in the back for Veradean and a 1930s sailor suit for Baby Eddie. For herself she chose an old gray suit that smelled of moth balls, exactly like the one Kim Novak wore in Vertigo.
If she was going as Kim Novak, she had to look the part. She fixed her hair in a sophisticated upsweep and put on lots of makeup and drew her eyebrows on with an eyebrow pencil. She was poor and would be surrounded by other poor people, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t be stylish. People might take her for a movie star, but she didn’t care if they did.
When they got to the Everlasting Light Mission, they took their place in a long line that snaked down the block. She was a little disappointed at having to wait so long just to get in, but Veradean and Baby Eddie were excited. They were doing something they had never done before. It was their special thing that she had promised them for Thanksgiving.
The Everlasting Light Mission was an enormous old building that used to be a warehouse. Long rows of tables bearing white tablecloths and paper pumpkins were set up in rows to accommodate the hundreds of people who needed a meal and had no place else to get it.
When finally they came to the place where the food was being served, Vicki-Vicki took two plates onto a tray, one for herself and one for Baby Eddie, while Veradean managed a tray all on her own. When they passed on to the dessert table, they all three chose pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Baby Eddie had never tasted pumpkin pie before, but Veradean remembered having it once before when she was little.
They went to the far end of one of the long tables and sat down, Vicki-Vicki on the end, Baby Eddie to her left and Veradean to her right. They began eating, just like the family in the picture would have done.
“This is some good shit,” Veradean said after she had taken a few bites.
Soon Vicki-Vicki saw a man moving slowly down the table toward her. He smiled as he spoke to everybody, patting them on the backs or shaking their hands. She knew he was a minister because he was dressed all in black like a pilgrim. He gave her a slightly uneasy feeling. When he came to her end of the table, he paused beside her and looked down his nose at her.
“So happy to see you here today, sister,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve met you before. What is your name?”
“Vicki-Vicki Novak,” she said.
“And are these your children?” he asked, gesturing toward Baby Eddie and Veradean.
“Brother and sister,” she said. She could hardly keep from laughing.
“I hope you will honor us with your presence at a church service immediately following,” he said.
She figured it was the price she had to pay for the food.
“May the Lord bless you and keep you,” he said as he moved on to the next table.
“I don’t like him,” Veradean said. “He looks like Dracula.”
“I like Dracula,” Baby Eddie said.
They ate everything on their plates and when they had finished they went into the part of the warehouse that had been made into a church. They took a seat on the back row, just as a wheezing organ began playing solemnly.
There were fifty or so other people waiting for the service to begin. They were mostly men, Skid Row types and bums. Some of them dozed, while others folded their arms and trained their empty gazes on the ceiling.
In a little while the organ music stopped and the minister in black stood up at the pulpit and raised his arms.
“Brothers and sisters,” he said, “rejoice, for this is a day that the Lord hath made.”
“Amen!” somebody shouted.
“We are so happy that you have made your way into our little fold on this blessed day. I’m here to tell you that the Lord loves you, no matter what you’ve done and no matter how low you might have sunk in this life. That is our message of hope at the Eternal Light Mission: You are loved, in spite of all your transgressions, as only He can love!”
Baby Eddie went to sleep, leaning his head against Vicki-Vicki’s side, while Veradean played with a piece of string. Vicki-Vicki listened as attentively as she could for about ten minutes and then she began to wish she was someplace else. When the minister had his eyes closed, she stood up and pulled Baby Eddie and Veradean toward the exit as quietly as she could.
Outside the Eternal Light Mission were half-a-dozen bums standing in a circle. They were talking and laughing but when Vicki-Vicki came out the door they stopped and looked at her. She was barely aware of them because she wasn’t interested in them. When she paused and opened her Kim Novak shoulder bag and took out a cigarette, one of the bums stepped forward and lit it for her. He was fairly clean-looking for a bum and he had on a nice hat, probably stolen. She smiled at him and started to walk away.
“Live around here?” he asked.
“No, I live in the South of France,” she said.
“I saw you inside with them kids. They yours?”
“Well, they’re with me, aren’t they?”
“Could I give you a lift someplace?”
“Don’t trouble yourself.”
“I’ve got a car. Parked right around the corner.”
She looked at the sky, took Baby Eddie by the hand, and the three of them walked away.
“I think he was going to ask you for a date,” Veradean said.
“You don’t know anything about men,” Vicki-Vicki said.
When they had walked no more than a quarter-mile from the Eternal Light Mission, a white car pulled up alongside them. It was the bum in the nice hat. He rolled along beside them, keeping pace with their walking.
“It looks like it’s going to rain,” he said. “I sure would like to give you a ride to wherever you’re going.”
“I think I’ve already declined your invitation,” she said, trying not to smile at him.
“I don’t believe them kids are yours. You’re too young to have kids that old.”
“If you must know, they’re my brother and sister.”
“I knew it! I bet you don’t even have a husband, do you?”
“Yes, I do. He’s likely to be along any minute and he won’t like it if you’re bothering me.”
“Just tell me where you live and I’ll come and pay you a visit tonight, after you get them kids put to bed.”
“Let’s get him to take us home,” Veradean said. “I’m tired of walking and it’s going to start raining. We’re not going to get a better offer.”
Vicki-Vicki signaled to him to stop. She opened the back door for Veradean and Baby Eddie and then she went around and got into the front seat. The bum looked at her and smiled. Since she was accepting a ride from him, the least she could do was smile back.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp