Thanksgiving With Mr. Doodles and the Others
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
(This short story is a repost. It has been published in The Literary Hatchet.)
It was Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, that great American holiday. The residence halls had to be vacated. The heat would be shut off and the cafeteria closed. Get the hell out and don’t come back until after seven o’clock Sunday night. This means you.
I took my suitcase to my last class Wednesday afternoon so I could leave from there and not have to go back to my room again. When the class was over, I walked the two miles downtown to the bus station in the rain. I had a sore throat that was bound to turn into a chest cold if I didn’t take care of myself. I used my umbrella; I had been called unkind names for carrying an umbrella, but I didn’t care. If there were any names in the dictionary that I hadn’t been called at some time in my life, I don’t know what they were.
The bus was about one-third full of the usual derelicts and undesirables. I sat in the back, next to the window, hoping that nobody came and sat too close. I tried to doze to pass the time but every time I went to sleep the bus gave a lurch or the brakes squealed or somebody coughed or talked in a loud voice and I got woke up. The world is full of people who don’t want you to sleep.
After two-and-a-half fairly uncomfortable hours the bus pulled into my hometown. It was raining there, too, making it only slightly more bleak than usual. I didn’t think much of my hometown and wouldn’t care if I never saw it again. I comforted myself with the thought that someday I would be free of my hometown and everybody who lived in it, my family included. One day I would be the lucky fellow who got away.
My mother wasn’t happy that I called her and asked her to come and pick me at the bus station.
“I thought you weren’t coming home for Thanksgiving,” she said. I could see the menthol cigarette and the scarf tied around her just-washed hair.
“Everybody had to get out,” I said. “The residence halls are being shut down until Sunday.”
“Well, I never heard of such a thing!”
She slammed down the phone and in ten minutes her tank-like Chevrolet rolled onto the bus station lot. She glared at me while I stowed my suitcase in the back seat and got into the front.
“You don’t seem very happy to see me,” I said.
“I don’t appreciate having to come out in this rain,” she said.
“I didn’t make it rain.”
“Have you suddenly become too lazy to walk a couple of miles?”
“I have a sore throat and, besides, I’m tired.”
“Oh, listen to you! You sound just like your father every time somebody asks him to do something. He’s tired or he has this alarming pain right around the kidneys.”
My parents were divorced and my mother never passed up the chance to denigrate my father. She almost always found him horribly lacking in some way.
As for me, I’m sure my mother cared for me in her own peculiar way, but the truth is she and I were, and always had been, tuned to entirely different frequencies. I concluded in seventh grade that she and my father were both temperamentally unsuited for parenthood. Most people enter into it (parenthood) blindly, without giving much thought to what’s in store for them. I would advise them to get a kitten or a puppy. They’re a lot more fun and their poop is a lot easier to clean up.
“In a way, it’s good you decided to come home,” she said.
“I didn’t decide. It was decided for me.”
“Your father called and asked if he could come for Thanksgiving dinner. He wants to bring someone.”
“It seems he has a new girlfriend. Her name is Kitty Fox.”
“Is she a stripper?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“Is she going to pop out of a cake?”
“I guess we’ll find out.”
“Look,” I said. “I don’t feel very well and I’ve been really, really tired lately. I was just planning on staying in bed all day tomorrow. I was hoping you’d bring me my dinner on a tray.”
“I don’t think so, mister. You can help entertain your father and Kitty Fox.”
“I think I’ll just go to a hotel until it’s time to go back to school.”
“You have money for a hotel?”
“Not exactly. I was hoping you’d pay for it.”
“What do you think I am? A genie popping out of a bottle to grant your every wish?”
“I might have something catching.”
“It’s no use. You’re tagged for service tomorrow.”
“Just drop me off downtown. I’ll spend Thanksgiving at the homeless shelter until it’s time to catch the bus back to school.”
Grandma and her best friend Bunny arrived on Thursday morning to help with dinner before I was even out of bed. When I went into the kitchen in my bathrobe, grandma grabbed me and gave me a big kiss.
“Gilbert!” she screeched in my ear. “You’ve changed since the last time I saw you!”
“It’s only been three months,” I said.
As an extension of grandma, Bunny also gave me a kiss and a bear hug. “You’re just so good-looking!” Bunny said. “I don’t know where you get your looks from.”
“Not from his father’s side,” mother said.
Grandma and Bunny both had on their church dresses and their finest costume jewelry. Their shellacked beauty-parlor hairdos glistened in the light. They had known each other all their lives and now, in old age widowhood, were always together. Bunny sold her house after her husband died and moved in with grandma. When they died, they would be in side-by-side graves.
“How are things going up at that school of yours?” grandma asked.
“All right,” I said.
“Are you learning how not to be a loser like your father so you can make a good living?”
“Sure. That’s what I’m majoring in: how not to be a loser like my father.”
“And lots of girls, I’ll bet.”
“Well, you have girlfriends, don’t you?”
“Oh, sure! Lots!”
“Be sure and marry the right one. We don’t want another failed marriage in the family.”
“I have several lined up right now,” I said. “I’ll let you know when I make my final decision.”
I fixed myself some eggs and toast and after I was finished eating mother told me she needed me go to the store to get ten or twelve last-minute items she needed for dinner.
Bunny’s Mexican Chihuahua dog Mr. Doodles was asleep on the floor beside the couch in the living room. When I passed through on my way upstairs to get dressed, he raised his head and growled at me, yawned, and then put his head back down. Bunny had had Mr. Doodles for a long time. Wherever Bunny went, Mr. Doodles went. She wasn’t about to leave him at home by himself on Thanksgiving while she went out and had a good dinner.
I had to drive to three different places to find a store that was open. I got all the stuff on the list and drove back as quick as I could. There were no other cars on the road. Anybody with any sense got themselves inside out of the icy rain.
While I was out, my sister Lindsey and her new boyfriend had arrived. Lindsey and I greeted each other tepidly as I carried the grocery bags into the kitchen and set them down on the table. There was still lots of childhood animosity between Lindsey and me, I suppose. She always pictured a rivalry between the two of us that, to me, never existed. She was jealous that I was going to college while she was stuck working in a bank with a high school diploma.
The boyfriend’s name was Chick Olmstead. He was thirty or so, a little on the short side, with thinning blond hair and stubbly cheeks. He was wearing a suit with a loud bow tie and suspenders. As I shook his hand, I could smell that he had been smoking.
“Chick’s a professional clown,” Lindsey told me.
“Well, that’s a new one!” I said. “Lindsey’s last boyfriend was an accountant.”
Mother gave me a warning looking as I steered Chick Olmstead into the living room. I wanted to hear more about being a professional clown. I knew lots of non-professional clowns and I was fascinated by the idea of one who made a living at it.
“Do you skydive?” Chick Olmstead asked me as we sat on the couch.
“Me? No, I don’t even like flying. I don’t think I’d ever be able to jump out of an airplane. I’d rather die in a crash.”
“It’s the thrill of a lifetime,” he said.
“Not for everybody, though.”
“I’ve been doing it now for about a year. I’m trying to get Lesley to try it, but I think she’s scared.”
“She’s scared of just about everything,” I said.
He laughed loudly and fidgeted with his hands. “Lesley tells me you go to state university.”
“That must be fun.”
“It’s a real blast.”
“I see you as the ironic sort,” he said.
“I don’t know. I guess irony can be a useful tool sometime.”
Chick Olmstead looked at me as if he didn’t know what I was talking about. He straightened his tie nervously and cleared his throat.
“Look,” I said, “you don’t have to be nervous around us. We’re just very casual around here. You can take off your jacket and tie. There’s no reason to put on the dog around us.”
“I think I’ll leave them on for now.”
“Would you like a beer?” I asked.
“Not just yet. Thanks.”
“How well do you know Lindsey?”
“Not very well. We’ve seen each other a few times.”
“Keep your right flank covered. She’s not what she appears to be.”
He laughed as if I was making a joke. “What do you mean?”
“She’s more trouble than you know, but you may not realize it until it’s too late.”
“Too late for what?”
“If you stick around long enough, you’ll find out.”
At looked at me with curiosity but didn’t pursue it any farther.
Mr. Doodles stood up, yawned effusively, and began washing his nether parts.
“Is that your dog?” Chick Olmstead asked.
“No, he’s Bunny’s dog. He’s her son. His name is Mr. Doodles.”
“You met her in the kitchen. She’s the old lady in the red church dress. She’s grandma’s best friend. They live together and will die together when the time comes.”
“Oh, yes. The one with orange hair.”
“Fresh from the parlor of beauty,” I said.
Bunny came in from the kitchen carrying Mr. Doodles’ leash. “I want him to have a little walk before dinner,” she said. “Would you be a dear and take him out for me? As soon as he wee-wees and drops a little turd or two, you can bring him back in. He really doesn’t like being outside after he’s finished his business.”
“It would be more than an honor and a privilege,” I said.
I slipped on my jacket and as I was on my way out the door with Mr. Doodles on his leash, Chick Olmstead was right behind me. Lindsey was ignoring him; he felt awkward and wanted to get out of the house. I can’t say I blamed him.
We walked Mr. Doodles down to the corner. He scratched in the wet leaves and relieved himself by the stop sign. Chick Olmstead lit up a cigarette and offered me one, which I declined.
“So, what’s it like being a clown?” I asked.
“It’s just more rewarding than I could ever say.”
“Do you travel with a circus?”
He laughed. “Nothing like that. I do children’s parties and events at the hospital for crippled children. Occasionally I get a gig at a church or a school.”
“Is that year-round work?” I asked.
“It’s seasonal,” he said. “I don’t work all the time.”
“What do you do the rest of the time?” I asked.
“I’m writing a novel,” he said.
When we got back to the house with Mr. Doodles, Bunny was waiting at the door with a towel to dry off his feet. Then I watched in amazement as she slipped little knitted booties on all four of his feet. She ran her fingertips along his nose and head to make sure he hadn’t caught a chill.
“Mr. Doodles is lucky,” I said, “to have someone to care about him so much.”
Mr. Doodles ran through the house and began yipping and begging to be let up on the dining room table, which mother had just laid out with her best china and cutlery. He jumped up on a chair but couldn’t quite make it all the way to the table.
Bunny gave him a little boost and he spent the next few minutes walking on the table among the plates, glasses, bowls, napkins and silverware, without ever touching anything.
“He likes shiny objects,” Bunny explained. “He just wants to take a good look so he doesn’t feel left out.”
While we all admiring how well-behaved Mr. Doodles was on the table in his little booties, the doorbell rang.
“That’ll be Frank,” mother said, meaning my long-lost father.
Mother went to the door and opened it with a put-upon smile. “You’re late,” she said. “We were just about to start eating without you.”
“You said two o’clock,” he said.
“Have you forgotten how to tell time? It’s after two-thirty.”
“Tell it to the marines.”
He stepped inside with his guest. It was Kitty Fox, whose name we already knew and, no, she didn’t look like a stripper; she looked more like a librarian or a schoolteacher. The thing about her that would surprise my mother, grandma and Bunny the most was that she wasn’t the same race as my father.
“I brought a cake,” Kitty Fox said. “I knew there’d be plenty of food, but I wanted to contribute something.”
“Thank you!” mother gushed, taking the cake and handing it to Bunny. “That’s just lovely of you!”
Kitty Fox shook mother’s hand. “You must be Frank’s wife,” she said.
“Used-to-be wife,” mother said.
Kitty Fox shook hands with me, Lindsey, Chick Olmstead, grandma and Bunny.
“Your house is lovely!” Kitty Fox said, as she took off her coat and handed it to grandma.
Father had brought a bottle of champagne. He handed it to me awkwardly and told me to open it and get some glasses. I took the bottle into the kitchen, opened it with a corkscrew, and scouted around in the upper cabinets for some glasses. We didn’t have any champagne glasses, so I settled for wine glasses. I arranged eight of them on a tray with the bottle of champagne in the middle and, with the tray balanced precariously in one hand like a waiter at the Trocadero, I went back into the front room.
Father picked the bottle of champagne off the tray, along with one of the glasses, filled it to the brim and handed it to Kitty Fox.
“Before we sit down for Thanksgiving dinner,” he said, “I have an announcement I want to make.”
“Why all the formality?” grandma asked.
After we all had a glass of the bubbly stuff in our hands, father held his glass high and put his other arm around Kitty Fox.
“This is a happy day for me!” he announced like a sideshow barker. “Maybe the happiest day of my life!”
“What is it, daddy?” Lindsey asked.
He beamed at all of us and I knew from his eyes that he had already had a few, even though he was supposed to have stopped drinking. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.
“Kitty and I have just become man and wife!” he said with tears in his eyes. “And that’s not all!”
We waited breathlessly to hear the rest.
“And sometime next year! Sometime in the summer! Yes, it’s true! Believe it or not, ladies and gentlemen! Sometime next summer we will welcome a new addition to our little family!”
“What?” grandma asked. “You mean she’s going to have a baby?”
He grabbed hold of Kitty and held her against this chest. She squealed like a schoolgirl and tried to push away from him.
“Congratulations,” mother said, but I knew she was anything but pleased. She set down her glass of champagne and went into the kitchen.
“Daddy!” Lindsey said. “Who would have ever thought? At your age?”
“It looks like you’re going to have a little brother,” Chick Olmstead said, shaking my hand as if I should also be congratulated.
Grandma and Bunny went into the kitchen to help mother get the dinner on the table and, finally, we were ready to sit down and eat.
Mother was quiet during dinner. She kept drinking glass after glass of wine and soon she was glassy-eyed. She passed dishes automatically but ate little herself.
Lindsey launched into an involved story about a female co-worker at her bank who embezzled money for years and was finally caught. Nobody paid much attention. Everybody seemed lost in his or her own thoughts.
Mr. Doodles ran around the table yipping, until Bunny picked him up and set him on her lap. She fed him little bites of turkey and mashed potato with the fork she had been eating with. When he was finished eating, he wanted to climb from lap to lap all the way around the table.
“Isn’t he just the most precious little angel you’ve ever seen?” Bunny cooed.
My father and Kitty Fox sat side by side, nuzzling each other and giggling. It was pretty sickening, but I was all for letting them enjoy their moment of happiness. Soon reality and drunkenness would set in.
Grandma and Bunny shot curious glances at Kitty Fox as if they had never expected to see anybody so exotic sitting at the table with them. I hoped they would at least be civil to her, if that’s all they could manage. She seemed too good for my father.
Lindsey glared across the table at me as if she wanted to plunge the carving knife into my heart. She mostly ignored Chick Olmstead during dinner. I felt sorry for him for having Lindsey as his girlfriend. I hardly knew him, but he seemed like a decent fellow and I was certain he deserved better.
Finally the ritual of Thanksgiving dinner, including five different kinds of dessert, was at an end. Mother, grandma and Bunny washed the dishes and cleaned up in the kitchen, stowing all the leftovers in the refrigerator or in the trash can.
My father and Kitty Fox put on their coats to leave. My father surprised me by giving me a bear hug and kissing me on the cheek. He asked me if everything was all right at school and I told him everything was wonderful. He said he hoped to see me at Christmastime, and then they were gone.
Grandma and Bunny didn’t like to drive after dark, so they put Mr. Doodles in his carrier and left right after my father and Kitty Fox. Lindsey wanted to go to a movie and Chick Olmstead was obliged to take her to complete his Thanksgiving obligation, so the two of them also left.
After all the guests were gone, mother sat down on the couch and had a good cry. Crying spells were common with her.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, not really wanting or expecting to hear any kind of an answer. “Feeling a little blue about father’s getting married again?”
“I don’t care what he does. I hope he rots in hell.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“That poor woman doesn’t know what she’s in for, but she’ll soon find out.”
“I was thinking the same thing.”
“And a baby? Can you believe the old bastard is about to become a father again? He’s forty-seven years old!”
“It doesn’t seem real. I’ll have to see it to believe it.”
“Mother and child both have my sympathy.”
The next day mother wanted me to help her put up the artificial Christmas tree, string it with lights and decorate it, which I did without complaint. It was a ritual with her to put the tree up on the day after Thanksgiving and not take it down again until the day after New Year’s.
The Thanksgiving weekend passed in a blur. I ate leftovers and slept at ten-hour intervals. Mother wanted me to go to church with her on Sunday morning but I had a pretty good cough by then and I said I thought I was probably contagious. She accepted that as an excuse and went without me.
On Sunday evening she drove me to the bus station to catch the bus back to school.
“Will you be home for Christmas?” she asked as I was getting out of the car.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Hang up my stocking and make sure Santa fills it with lots of good stuff.”
She smiled and waved and I slammed the door and boarded my bus. As soon as the bus pulled off the lot and picked up speed on the highway, I was feeling lonely. I was glad it was dark because I felt like I was going to cry.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp