Thanksgiving for Poor People ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
In the picture, a grandmother holds up a huge turkey on a platter before a table of smiling family members, including several children. On the table are 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 don’t see is the grandmother setting the turkey down in the middle of the table and all of them beginning to eat, but we know this is what is going to happen.
“This picture makes me hungry,” Veradean said.
Vicki-Vicki snatched the picture out of her hand to get a closer look. “Well, you can’t eat a picture,” she said.
“Why can’t we be like that family?”
“Because we’re not, that’s why. We’re poor people and poor people don’t set a table like that.”
“Why are we poor when other people are not?”
“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, going all the way back to the beginning of time.”
“I’m not trash!” Baby Eddie screamed. “You’re trash!”
“You’re trash just as much as I am,” Veradean said, tears forming in her eyes, “and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“Yes,” Vicki-Vicki said, “the sooner you realize what you are in life, the better off you are.”
“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. They hid from the pilgrims and threw rocks at them.”
“What’s a pilgrim?” Baby Eddie asked.
“You’ll find that out when you go to school,” Vicki-Vicki said.
Veradean continued: “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.”
“That’s stupid!” Baby Eddie said.
“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.”
“We’ve all heard that story a million times,” Vicki-Vicki said.
“So, are we going to have a turkey for Thanksgiving?”
“I want a turkey!” Baby Eddie said.
“You’re old enough to know it takes money to get a turkey and we don’t have any money,” Vicki-Vicki said.
“Everything is always about money, isn’t it?” Veradean said.
“We’ll be lucky to have a can of Campbell’s vegetable soup and a grilled cheese sandwich and some Twinkies for dessert.”
“That’s what we have all the time. I want more than that.”
“Well, if you tell me where it’s to be had, I’ll go and get it,” Vicki-Vicki said.
And then, on the day before Thanksgiving, somebody stuck a flyer on the front door: Turkey dinner served at the Heavenly Light Mission from noon to six on Thanksgiving Thursday! Bring the whole family! You’ll be glad you did!
When Veradean came home from school Wednesday afternoon, Vicki-Vicki said, “We’re going to have turkey on Thanksgiving after all and it’s not going to cost us anything.”
“How we gonna do that?” Veradean asked.
“It’s a surprise.”
On Thursday morning Vicki-Vicki awoke early with a feeling of excitement, something she hadn’t felt in a long time. She made Veradean and Baby Eddie take baths and wash their hair, despite much grumbling. She dressed Veradean in a schoolgirl dress of plaid material with puff sleeves and a sash in the back and Baby Eddie in a sailor suit from grandma’s trunk that was nobody knows how old. The sailor suit was a little big for Baby Eddie, but Vicki-Vicki solved this problem by rolling up the sleeves and taking a few stitches in the hem of the pants.
For herself she chose a vintage, tailored suit of gray wool, exactly like the one Kim Novak wore in Vertigo. She always thought Kim Novak was pretty and she wished she might look like her, at least a little bit. She experimented with her hair until she got it arranged into an approximation of Kim Novak’s French roll in Vertigo. Her hair wasn’t blond like Kim Novak’s, but when she was finished she thought anybody would see the resemblance.
“How do I look?” she asked Veradean.
“Just like a movie star!”
It was a little over a mile into town and Baby Eddie would have to be carried part of the way, so the three of them set out for the Heavenly Light Mission at about eleven in the morning. It was a gray, wind-swept day.
“Hope it doesn’t rain before we get there,” Veradean said.
Vicki-Vicki tied a headscarf around her head and managed the best she could with her high heels. Baby Eddie whined and wanted to be carried, but Vicki-Vicki told him he was just lazy and he would have to walk some because she was too tired to carry him the whole way.
When they got to the Heavenly Light Mission, there was already a line, even though the place hadn’t started serving dinner yet.
“Lots of poor people like us,” Veradean said as they took their place at the back of the line.
After a few minutes, Vicki-Vicki was aware of a group of three or four boys—young men really—standing off to the side. They kept stealing glances at her and talking in low voices. She ignored them but couldn’t help being pleased they had noticed her. A couple of them were quite good-looking.
One of the young men detached himself from the others and approached her. He stood to her right; she was aware that he was waiting for her to acknowledge him, but her strategy was to ignore him as long as she could. Finally he reached out and touched her on the arm to get her attention.
“I think I know you,” he said.
“I don’t think so.”
“Rollo Ruff?” he said. “High school? People used to call me RR?”
She was disappointed to discover he was somebody from that place. “Oh, yeah,” she said, “but that was a long time ago.”
“Not that long.”
“You can’t break into the line that way. You’re supposed to take your place at the end.”
“These your kids?” Rollo Ruff asked.
Veradean and Baby Eddie both looked at Vicki-Vicki to see what she would say.
“No, they’re foundling children,” she said.
“I’m her sister and he’s her brother,” Veradean volunteered.
“I figured that!” he said.
“Our mother’s in jail,” Veradean said.
“So nice to see you again!” Vicki-Vicki said. “Remember me to your friends.”
“Thought I might call you up some time,” he said.
“No phone,” Vicki-Vicki said. “No pay bill, no phone.”
“Hah-hah!” he said. “You always were so funny!”
“You don’t like him?” Veradean asked after he had gone away. “I think he’s cute.”
“Just somebody from high school,” Vicki-Vicki said.
“Maybe he’s a millionaire and you could marry him.”
“If he’s a millionaire, why would he be here?”
“I don’t know. You tell me.”
Finally they came to the place where the food was being served. Vicki-Vicki managed two plates on one tray, one for her and one for Baby Eddie, and Veradean managed her own tray. When they passed on to the dessert table, they all three chose pumpkin pie with whipped cream.
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 across from her. They began eating, just like any family on Thanksgiving.
“This is some good shit,” Veradean said after a few bites. “Just like in the picture.”
Soon Vicki-Vicki noticed a man moving up the table toward them, shaking people’s hands and patting them on the backs. He was dressed all in black like a pilgrim. She knew she wouldn’t be able to avoid talking to him.
“So happy to see you here today, sister,” he said, touching Vicki-Vicki on the shoulder and moving around to the end of the table where he could stand beside her and get a better look. “I’m Brother Galvin. I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. What is your name?”
“I’m Vicki-Vicki,” she said, almost choking. “Vicki-Vicki Novak.”
“Are you the mother of these two children?”
“Brother and sister.”
He patted Baby Eddie on the head and chucked Veradean under the chin and flashed his teeth at them. “Well, all are welcome in the house of the Lord,” he said. “All are welcome. And I hope you will honor us with your presence at the service that begins in half an hour.”
Vicki-Vicki gave a noncommittal shrug as Brother Galvin moved on to the next group of people, an old man with a gang of children of all ages.
“Do you mean we have to go to church afterward?” Veradean asked.
“It’s the price you pay,” Vicki-Vicki said.
“He likes you,” Veradean whispered. “Maybe you could marry him. I’ll bet he’s rich.”
“He’s at least forty years old.”
“That doesn’t matter as long as he’s got money.”
After they ate everything on their plates, they got up from the table to give newcomers their places. Vicki-Vicki took Baby Eddie by the hand and, aware that people were watching her, took Veradean’s hand in her other hand, even though Veradean tried to pull away. With great poise, Vicki-Vicki steered Baby Eddie and Veradean past all the tables, all the people and all the food, and went out the door.
“Can we go home now?” Baby Eddie asked.
“Church first,” Vicki-Vicki said.
The church was part of the same building but reached by going out one door and through another.
There were places for fifty, but there were only a dozen or so people inside. Vicki-Vicki pulled Baby Eddie to a chair on the back row and Veradean followed dutifully. They sat down and waited for the service to begin.
Up front, off to the side, an old woman sat at an organ and played Abide with Me softly. The people were lulled by the music and by the lavish dinner they had just eaten.
In a few minutes, Brother Galvin came to the front and looked out at the small crowd. He held up his hands and smiled and the organ music stopped.
“Brothers and sisters!” he said. “Is there anybody here who doesn’t believe that this is a day that the Lord hath made.”
“No!” somebody shouted and the others laughed.
“We are so happy that you have made your way into our little fold on this blessed Thanksgiving 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 Heavenly Light Mission: You are loved, in spite of all your transgressions, as only He can love, and you will be redeemed!”
Several shouts of “Amen!”
Now,” Brother Galvin said, “I’m going to ask each of you to come forward, one by one, on this glorious Thanksgiving Day, and be washed of your sins in the house of the Lord! What better thing could you do on this Thanksgiving Day than be washed in the blood of our blessed savior?”
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 until the people started going forward one by one to be cleansed of their sins and she saw that she was going to have to do the same. Even Veradean and Baby Eddie would have to do it. What sins did Baby Eddie have? He was only four years old.
When Brother Galvin’s eyes were closed, Vicki-Vicki stood up and, pulling Veradean and Baby Eddie by the sleeves of their coats, made for the door.
As soon as they started for home, the rain began to fall, lightly at first and then harder.
“We’re going to have to walk all the way home in the rain,” Veradean said.
“Oh, it’s not going to kill you!” Vicki-Vicki said.
“Carry me!” Baby Eddie whined.
“Maybe somebody will come along and give us a ride,” Veradean said.
“And who would that be?” Vicki-Vicki asked.
They hadn’t gone very far when a red-and-white Chevrolet veered around in front of them and stopped on the shoulder of the road.
The door opened and a head popped up. “Care for a lift?” a voice asked.
“Who is that?” Veradean said.
“Oh, it’s that silly boy, Rollo Ruff,” Vicki-Vicki said.
“What kind of a name is that?”
“Come on!” he said. “Get in before you cause an accident!”
Vicki-Vicki got into the passenger seat beside Rollo Ruff and Veradean and Baby Eddie got into the back seat.
“The only reason I’m accepting a ride from you is because I’ve got two little ones with me,” Vicki-Vicki said.
“Hey!” Veradean said.
“So you do remember me from high school, then?” Rollo Ruff asked.
“I said I did, didn’t I?”
“Where is it you live, now?” he asked.
“We live in Poor Town,” Veradean said.
“You’re going to have to tell me where to turn,” Rollo Ruff said.
When Rollo Ruff pulled up in front of the house, Vicki-Vicki was glad it was raining so hard that Rollo Ruff wouldn’t be able to see how shabby the house was.
Vicki-Vicki made Veradean and Baby Eddie both thank Rollo Ruff for the ride and then she started to get out of the car.
“Can I see you a little later?” Rollo Ruff asked.
“What for?” Vicki-Vicki asked.
“I can swing by about seven o’clock and we can have a little fun.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I’m not alone,” she said, pointing to the back seat.
“Put them to bed and then we can go out.”
“I can’t go off and leave them. They’re too little.”
“Well, then,” he said, “put them to bed and you and I can watch TV.”
“We don’t have a TV. We have one, but it hasn’t worked in a long time.”
“I want to watch TV!” Baby Eddie said.
“I’m not giving up,” Rollo Ruff said. “When I saw you again today, I wondered why I let you get away in high school.”
“Put that with ten cents and you can buy yourself a Coke,” Vicki-Vicki said, reaching for the door handle.
“Wait a minute!” he said. “I can’t call you because you don’t have a phone.”
“If I give you my phone number, will you call me?”
“I suppose I might consider it.”
“Do you have a piece of paper?”
He took a pen out of the glove compartment and wrote the number on the back of Vicki-Vicki’s hand.
“Write it down before you wash it off,” he said.
“Don’t count on it,” she said as she got out of the car and opened the door for Veradean and Baby Eddie.
Darkness came early on Thanksgiving night. Baby Eddie was in bed asleep. The house was quiet as a tomb. Veradean and Vicki-Vicki sat at the kitchen table drinking cocoa.
“When’s mama coming home?” Veradean asked.
“As soon as you find out, you let me know,” Vicki-Vicki said.
“Are you going to marry that boy?”
“That boy that brought us home. Rollo what’s-his-name.”
“Of course not.”
“He likes you.”
“I don’t care.”
“Are you going to call him up?”
“I don’t know. If I feel like it.”
“If you go off with somebody like him and leave me and Baby Eddie alone here, they’ll come along and put is in an orphanage. I don’t want that to happen.”
“I’m not going off with anybody,” Vicki-Vicki said.
“Nothing is certain in this stupid world.”
“If you marry Rollo, can we come and live with you until mama comes home?”
“I guess you’ll have to, won’t you? You won’t have any place else to go.”
“I just said so, didn’t I?”
Veradean sighed and, with a candy cigarette in her mouth, pretended to smoke it exactly the way her mother would smoke a real one. “I sure hope we can have a Christmas tree this year,” she said, blowing out a stream of imaginary smoke.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp