Thanksgiving Day, 2008, arrived with Jonce Nash still behind bars awaiting trial on a laundry list of charges, most of which included theft or burglary. Ellie managed to overcome her condition long enough to drive thirty miles to spend the day with her parents, Gaither and Marge Stark, who lived in a mobile home park just over the county line.
As she turned the pickup off the highway and into the gray-rocked driveway that split in three directions before they had rolled the length of the truck, Jayrod tried to look ahead and pick his grandparents’ trailer from the long row. They were parked like RVs in a campground, except most had a porch of some kind and the compact yards were cluttered with everyday life. Each one looked like the other, except for variations in color, but even those began to repeat as the truck sank farther in. Ellie turned three times, left, then right, then left again, before coming to a stop behind a silver Buick with a large dent in the back bumper.
The mobile home was green and brown and had a front porch just big enough for a swing and half a dozen potted plants in various stages of death.
“Are we staying long?”
“Don’t you start with me, Jay Rodney. Turkey dinners don’t just fall out of the sky you know.”
Up the steps and past the porch swing Ellie marched, son in tow, and knocked on the white aluminum door. Jayrod’s grandmother, a small woman with reddish brown hair and oversized ears, opened the door and invited them in with a smile. Jayrod remembered being scared of her as a little kid because his grandfather constantly told him she was the Big Bad Wolf. Grandmother, what big ears you have.
Gaither Stark was a tall lean man with a wisp of silver hair dangling down the center of his forehead and a dime-sized black mole above his left eyebrow. When he spoke he licked his bottom lip - like putting a period at the end of his sentence.
“There’s my boy,” his grandfather said, lounging in his brown vinyl recliner with his dirty white socks stuck up in the air. At least he wasn’t barefoot this time.
“Go give your papaw a hug,” Ellie said with a thumb to the ribs. Papaw smelled like snuff, sour mash and sweat. “Watch out for the big bad wolf,” he whispered into Jay’s ear.
“I heard that, Gaither,” grandma said.
“No doubt you did,” he cackled. Jayrod slipped away from his grandfather only to get squeezed up by his grandmother, who smelled like arthritis salve and cigarettes. He wondered how they stood each other, with their curious smells and grabby habits.
“You know full well where he is, daddy.”
“Now don’t you two start poking at each other,” Marge said. “Ellie, you can set the table while I finish cooking.”
“Can I go out and play until dinner?”
“Don’t stray too far away from the trailer,” Ellie said.
“Mobile home,” her father corrected her. “Trailers are for horses.”
“Good grief, daddy, what’s the difference?”
“The difference is …”
“Oh, daddy, I know what the difference is.”
“Don’t sass your deddy, Ellie.”
Jay ducked outside.
The Starks didn’t have much of a yard to play in, but it was exactly like dozens of other yards around dozens of other metal homes and, to Jay, it looked like a grand adventure if his mother hadn’t warned him not to wander off. So he hung around his grandparents’ mobile home and kicked rocks in the driveway until Ellie called him in for dinner.
Gaither made a show of carving the turkey, like he was the only one in the room who could do it properly, though it looked to Jay as if he could use some practice. The bird swayed and slid under the oversized knife. Twice it almost slipped off the big white platter and onto the table.
“Looks like you cooked it dry again,” he said. “Can’t help tearing it to hell when you cook it dry.”
“Daddy please don’t cuss around Jayrod.”
“Hell ain’t cussing. Hell’s in the Bible. So is ass. You know what an ass is, son?”
“An ass is a donkey, and vice versa. You remember that when you get old enough to vote.”
Ellie looked helplessly at her mother. “Can’t you make him stop?”
“Well it is in the Bible, Ellie.”
Jay wondered about the other words he wasn’t supposed to say. Maybe they were in the Bible, too. The few times he’d gone to church he’d never heard any cussing. Even his father didn’t cuss in church. On the way to and from, though, didn’t count.
Gaither finished carving the bird and forked two big slices onto his plate then slid the platter toward the center of the table. “Gobble, gobble,” he said. “Reckon Jonce is eating turkey today?”
“He’s just teasing you, Ellie. Pay him no mind and he’ll hush.”
“You’d like Jonce if you went to the trouble to get to know him.”
“He don’t stay out of jail long enough to get to know.”
“That’s a lie and you know it.”
“Don’t call your deddy a liar, Ellie. That ain’t the kind of thing to be teaching a boy.”
“I didn’t call him a liar, momma. I just told him to stop lying.”
“Same thing, Ellie, and it ain’t something Jayrod needs to learn.”
Gaither chuckled, and pointed his fork at Ellie’s mother. “Tell Ellie what you said about Jonce last Thanksgiving after they left.”
Marge spooned a candied yam into her mouth and took a bite of roll. “Overlook him, Ellie. He’s in high feather cause Jay’s here.”
Jayrod wondered what high feather meant and what it had to do with him but he kept his curiosity to himself.
“What did you say, momma?”
“Nothing,” Marge said. “He’s just funning.”
“Well I wish he’d stop,” Ellie said, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “I know neither one of you like him and I don’t care. He’s my husband and he’s good to me and Jayrod.” Jayrod’s opinion wasn’t sought and he didn’t offer it, but he did raise his eyebrows a bit. His grandfather grunted, or scowled, or made some such indistinguishable noise, then belched loud enough for the neighbors to hear.
“Good grief, daddy!”
“My compliments to the chef. Pass me a chunk of that ham.”
Eating outstripped conversation and Jayrod could hear the clickety-clack of his grandfather’s false teeth as he chewed. He wished they would start talking again to cover the noise, and because he liked knowing he wasn’t the only one who didn’t think his father hung the moon. Funny how he never knew his grandfather didn’t like his father, but he supposed he wouldn’t be saying those things if his father had been sitting at the table like he usually was.
“Turkey’s good, momma. I never can cook turkey.”
“It orta be good,” Gaither said. “It cost me fifteen dollars.”
“Don’t listen to him, Ellie. They gave him a coupon for it at the factory.”
“Well me and Jayrod appreciate it. Don’t we?” She looked at Jayrod as if to say he’d better pipe up and agree.
“Yes, ma’am. And the ham, too.” It wasn’t a lie, either, because he thought it was just about the best meal he’d had in a long time. Maybe since Christmas.
“No wonder the boy’s fat,” Gaither said. “That’s his third slice of ham and he ain’t showed no signs of slowing down.”
Jayrod slowed his chewing and counted in his head, sure he’d only had one piece of turkey and two slices of ham.
“He eats that way all the time.”
“Well I don’t see how you cook fast enough to keep up with him,” her mother said. “You should put him on a diet.”
“If I didn’t know better I’d wonder if Jonce was his real daddy,” Gaither said.
“Well, the boy don’t look anything like him.”
“Tell him to stop, momma!”
“Well, you have to admit they don’t favor,” she said.
“Maybe the mailman was fat,” Gaither said with a wink to his wife.
“Why do you always do this, daddy? Jonce is Jayrod’s daddy and there ain’t never been no question about it.”
Jayrod ate while they bickered. His mother was upset now, and told them Jonce was in big trouble this time and might have to go to Parchman for a few years if he didn’t get a better lawyer. A few years without his father around suited Jay just fine, he supposed, but the idea didn’t seem to set well with his mother.
“Bout time you started looking for work, sounds like,” Gaither said. “You can’t depend on welfare forever.”
“There ain’t no shame in expecting the rich bankers to give a little something back to the working people, daddy. Besides, when would I have time to work? I stay so busy now with cooking and cleaning that I’ve worked myself down to the bone.”
“You should help your momma, Jayrod.”
Ellie sighed: “He’s lazy as they come, momma.”
“Shame on you,” his grandmother scolded, shaking a sliver of turkey at him. A small chunk of white meat shot from her mouth and fell in an arc toward his plate, maybe in it, he couldn’t tell, so he laid his fork down and pretended to be full.
“You won’t catch me washing dishes and sweeping floors,” Gaither said, then belched hard enough to send a toxic cloud across the table and into Jayrod’s face. He screwed up his nose and his grandfather laughed, then hiked back his chair and rubbed his gut. “Let’s me and you go watch some football.”
Jayrod didn’t care for football but he welcomed the chance to get away from the table, especially now that his plate was polluted with granny bites.
“Let the boy finish his dinner,” grandma said.
“Nonsense. They’s little boys in orphan homes who’d love to have what you’re leaving on your plate.”
Not if they knew what you did to it, he thought, and pushed his chair back. “I’m so full I’m about to pop.”
“Daddy hurt his feelings, momma.”
“How’d I hurt his feelings?”
“By calling him fat.”
“Well the boy is heavy,” grandma said.
“I didn’t hurt your feelings, did I son?”
“See, he said no sir, Ellie. He didn’t learn that from Jonce.”
Jayrod followed his grandfather into the living room and pretended to be excited to watch some football. Anything to escape the kitchen. Gaither settled himself into his recliner and found the remote under a pile of newspapers on the end table and turned up the volume. Jayrod stretched out on the green shag carpet and fished a newspaper out from under the couch in search of the comics. In a few minutes his mother joined them, leaving grandma to clean up alone. She plopped down on the couch and fell asleep before the football changed hands.
By halftime his grandfather was snoring and his mother had drool on her cheek. Grandma didn’t come out of the kitchen until the third quarter and then only to check the living room for dirty dishes. Jay eased the remote from his grandfather’s lap, gradually lowered the volume and surfed the channels until he found an old Clint Eastwood western.
“You’d better turn that back,” his grandmother said from the kitchen. “He’ll tan your hide when he wakes up.” Jayrod kept the remote in his hand ready to switch back to the ball game if his grandfather stirred, but Eastwood soon lulled him into a world where men said little and did as they pleased. An hour passed and he forgot all about football.
“What the hell?” The old man shot straight up in his recliner like he had been kicked in the head.
Ellie raised her head, looked around, and wiped the drool from her cheek with the back of her hand just as her father came up out of his chair and jerked the belt from his waist. Jayrod had heard the sing of leather jerked through belt loops too many times not to know what was coming up behind him. He scrambled to his knees, lost traction on the newspaper, and fell back onto his chest just as the belt struck him between the shoulder blades.
“Give me that clicker!” He managed to land two more buckle-ended blows across Jayrod’s back before he got to his feet and escaped out the front door. “You’d better run you little bastard!”
Jayrod ran down the front steps and hid behind the Buick. Voices rose and fell inside the trailer but he couldn’t make out what was being said until his mother swung the door open and huffed out onto the porch.
“I don’t even know why we bothered coming here today,” she bellowed
“Because that no-good bum you married got himself throwed in jail and you couldn’t afford to buy your own damned turkey!”
“Well you don’t have to worry about us coming back for Christmas!”
Jayrod darted toward the truck and climbed into the passenger side just as his mother slid behind the wheel. Gravel peppered the green tin as she swung the Ford away from her parents’ single-wide and pushed her foot halfway to the floor.
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