May We Be Forgiven | Penguin Books, 2012
It’s spectacularly easy, in the days and weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, to get lost in what size turkey will suffice and whether or not to brine it and should there be a second stuffing and can you use lard in the piecrust and not say anything about it to the vegetarians and so on and so forth. Actually, it’s so easy to fall into such obsessive overthinking about what’s on the table, some of us tend to lapse into underthinking in terms of who’s seated at the table. At least, until the pies are cooling and the turkey is resting and there’s not a lot left to distract you from the fact that in a few moments you’ll be expected to say grace—and you’re expected to be grateful for those annoying humans whose quirks have been haunting you the last, oh, four or five or six decades. In that moment of reckoning, when it’s tempting to wallow in self-pity, we find it helps to keep handy the marvelously unflinching and New York Times best-selling novel May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes. That’s when we immerse ourselves in its introductory pages, which depict a Thanksgiving scene the likes of which you just have to read (and which we’ve excerpted below). Suffice it to say, if you’re convinced Thanksgiving with your family is traumatic, after reading this you may find a little clarity. Heck, you may find yourself thanking your lucky stars for your own familiar familial craziness. If, by chance, you’re still convinced that your family drama trumps all, get it off your chest and let us know your story in a comment below.—Renee Schettler Rossi
Do you want my recipe for disaster?
The warning sign: last year, Thanksgiving at their house. Twenty or thirty people were at tables spreading from the dining room into the living room and stopping abruptly at the piano bench. He was at the head of the big table, picking turkey out of his teeth, talking about himself. I kept watching him as I went back and forth carrying plates into the kitchen—the edges of my fingers dipping into unnameable goo—cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, a cold pearl onion, gristle. With every trip back and forth from the dining room to the kitchen, I hated him more. Every sin of our childhood, beginning with his birth, came back. He entered the world eleven months after me, sickly at first, not enough oxygen along the way, and was given far too much attention. And then, despite what I repeatedly tried to tell him about how horrible he was, he acted as though he believed he was a gift of the gods. They named him George. Geo, he liked to be called, like that was something cool, something scientific, mathematical, analytical. Geode, I called him—like a sedimentary rock. His preternatural confidence, his divinely arrogant head dappled with blond threads of hair lifted high drew the attention of others, gave the impression that he knew something. People solicited his opinions, his participation, while I never saw the charm. By the time we were ten and eleven, he was taller than me, broader, stronger. “You sure he’s not the butcher’s boy?” my father would ask jokingly. And no one laughed.
I was bringing in heavy plates and platters, casseroles caked with the debris of dinner, and no one noticed that help was needed—not George, not his two children, not his ridiculous friends, who were in fact in his employ, among them a weather girl and assorted spare anchormen and -women who sat stiff-backed and hair-sprayed like Ken and Barbie, not my Chinese-American wife, Claire, who hated turkey and never failed to remind us that her family used to celebrate with roast duck and sticky rice. George’s wife, Jane, had been at it all day, cooking and cleaning, serving, and now scraping bones and slop into a giant trash bin.
Jane scoured the plates, piling dirty dishes one atop another and dropping the slimy silver into a sink of steamy soapy water. Glancing at me, she brushed her hair away with the back of her hand and smiled. I went back for more. I looked at their children and imagined them dressed as Pilgrims, in black buckle-shoes, doing Pilgrim children chores, carrying buckets of milk like human oxen. Nathaniel, twelve, and Ashley, eleven, sat like lumps at the table, hunched, or more like curled, as if poured into their chairs, truly spineless, eyes focused on their small screens, the only thing in motion their thumbs—one texting friends no one has ever seen and the other killing digitized terrorists. They were absent children, absent of personality, absent of presence, and, except for holidays, largely absent from the house.
In the background, two televisions loudly competed among themselves for no one’s attention—one featuring football and the other the film Mighty Joe Young.
There is a television in every room; fact is, George can’t bear to be alone, not even in the bathroom. He also apparently can’t bear to be without constant confirmation of his success. His dozen-plus Emmys have seeped out of his office and are now scattered around the house, along with various other awards and citations rendered in cut crystal, each one celebrating George’s ability to parse popular culture, to deliver us back to ourselves — ever so slightly mockingly, in the format best known as the half-hour sitcom or the news hour.
The turkey platter was in the center of the table. I reached over my wife’s shoulder and lifted—the tray was heavy and wobbled. I willed myself to stay strong and was able to carry out the mission while balancing a casserole of Brussels sprouts and bacon in the crook of my other arm.
The turkey, an “heirloom bird,” whatever that means, had been rubbed, relaxed, herbed into submission, into thinking it wasn’t so bad to be decapitated, to be stuffed up the ass with breadcrumbs and cranberries in some annual rite. The bird had been raised with a goal in mind, an actual date when his number would come up.
I stood in their kitchen picking at the carcass while Jane did the dishes, bright-blue gloves on, up to her elbows in suds. My fingers were deep in the bird, the hollow body still warm, the best bits of stuffing packed in. I dug with my fingers and brought stuffing to my lips. She looked at me, lifted her hands out of the water and came towards me, to plant one on me. Not friendly. The kiss was serious, wet, and full of desire. It was terrifying and unexpected. She did it, then snapped off her gloves and walked out of the room. I was holding the counter, gripping it with greasy fingers. Hard.
Dessert was served. Jane asked if anyone wanted coffee and went back into the kitchen. I followed her like a dog, wanting more.
She ignored me.
“Are you ignoring me?” I asked.
She said nothing and then handed me the coffee. “Could you let me have a little pleasure, a little something that’s just for myself?” She paused. “Cream and sugar?”