(I wrote this a couple of nights ago, with no idea where it’s going, but it feels like it might be the start of something – who knows?)
Even after Aunt Nancy and Uncle Leon moved into town, they still hosted Thanksgiving, just like they did every year after grandma died. Instead of their old farmhouse out on Highway C, they had it in the finished basement of their new house, which meant someone, usually Uncle Leon unless he’d already had too much to drink, had to maneuver Clifford and his wheelchair down the steps. Uncle Leon was round everywhere, in his stomach and in his face, and he was always smiling, a genuine, real smile, even when he was sober, although the smile grew bigger and Leon grew happier with each Korbel and water he drank.
Aunt Nancy would prepare all the tables, covering them with tasteful and festive holiday tablecloths, with little bowls of dry roasted peanuts or M & Ms in their center, long before anyone arrived. She always had a table set up next to the northwest wall with extension cords all ready for my mom and Aunt Lynn to plug their crock pots and roasters into. Every year, just as we were arriving, Aunt Nancy would get in her van and leave to go to the nursing home and pick up Clifford and bring him over. She’d wheel him out of the van into the garage, where Leon would greet him with his big grin and say, “Clifford, how the Hell are you?”
Clifford never responded to Leon. It’d been almost forty years since the last time Clifford responded to anybody. But that didn’t bother Leon, who’d slap Clifford on the shoulder and then get behind his wheelchair, pushing him up the step in the garage and thru the doorway into the house, and then round the corner to the carpeted stairs that lead down to the basement. Leon was a big man, but he always navigated the stairs with gentleness and grace, pushing Clifford one step at a time until he was at the bottom.
Once they’d made it to the bottom, Leon would bend over Clifford and unzip his jacket. Then he’d gently and patiently take the jacket off, pulling it off one arm at a time, revealing a nice holiday sweater that Clifford had been given the previous Christmas, the sweater that one of the nurses at the nursing home dressed him in earlier in the day. Clifford was fifty years old, with short bushy brown hair that had already turned mostly grey. His face was lined with wrinkles, especially around his eyes, and he had a soft and plump belly.
Aunt Nancy, my mom, and Aunt Lynn were sisters, in that order, from oldest to youngest. Their dad, Grandpa Ray, was always the first to get there, around noon, driving over early in his Dodge Ram from his place on the lake so he and Uncle Leon would have time to have a drink or two together before everybody got there. Grandpa Ray was a retired farmer, a small guy, about five foot seven, and by the time he hit his mid seventies, was even thinner than he’d always been. He had a full head of white hair and there was nothing to him, he looked frail but there was something about him that was still physically imposing, something in the way he carried his slight frame that still said “don’t fuck with me.”
Aunt Lynn and her husband, Uncle Dale, had two boys that were three years apart, just like me and my sister, with Eddie a year younger than me and Jimmy a year younger than Eileen. They lived in Kennan, over in Price County, about an hour east from Aunt Nancy’s house in the town of Neil. Aunt Nancy and Uncle Leon didn’t have any kids. Uncle Dale and Aunt Lynn usually had to leave early, in time for Dale and Eddie to set up deer camp in their cabin east of Phillips, so they could be out in the woods bright and early Friday morning.
Last April, at my dad’s funeral, Uncle Dale invited me to deer hunt with him and Eddie. Jimmy was still too little to go. “You don’t have to give me an answer now,” he said, “Whenever you’re ready, it’s up to you. I just want you to know you’re always welcome with us.”
I appreciated the offer. Uncle Dale was a good guy, and I liked Eddie and Jimmy, even though sometimes Jimmy could be a pain the ass. It was just that deer hunting was something I always did with my dad, and without him, it just didn’t make sense. I think Uncle Dale understood this when I told him up at the lake last summer that I didn’t think I wanted to go deer hunting this year. We were out on his pontoon boat, him and Aunt Lynn and Grandpa Ray and my mom and Eileen and me. Uncle Dale was sitting next to me, at the steering wheel, and he just nodded his head and took another drink from his beer and tousled my hair and said, “That’s okay.” I was fifteen years old, too old to have my hair tousled, but for some reason it felt right, for some reason I liked it. I looked up and from across the boat my mom was staring at me, her eyes watery.
My mom and her siters Nancy and Lynn had a brother, Conrad, who lived out west somewhere, I think in California. He never got back to Wisconsin, not even for dad’s funeral, and whenever my aunts got together, if his name was mentioned, they’d all roll their eyes and sigh. I had only vague and distant memories of Connie, as my mom and her sisters called him. I seem to remember him at my grandma’s funeral, I remember him as tall and thin and nervous, but I can’t be sure. I was only six years old, so that was nine years ago.
We hung around for a while, killing time before the meal was served, the adults drinking beer or mixed drinks, us kids drinking the discount soda Aunt Nancy always stocked up on for the occasion. Football was on the old console television set, the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles. All of the guys were sitting on the sofa and love seats in front of the television, watching the game, while my sister, Eileen, was upstairs in the kitchen with my mom and my aunts. Uncle Leon had already pushed Clifford up to his spot at the main table. He sat there, alone, next to the head of the table, between where Uncle Leon and Aunt Nancy were going to sit, the same place he sat every year. His expression never changed, he never moved, he just stared into space, like he was a statue that had been sculpted out of flesh and blood.
It didn’t take long before Aunt Nancy came back downstairs and told Uncle Leon to get everybody to the table. I should say tables, because there were still two eating tables, an adults table and a kids table. Even though I was the oldest, even though I was fifteen and almost six foot tall, I still had to sit at the kids table. I felt like saying they should move Clifford to the kids table, it wouldn’t make no difference to him, he doesn’t eat anything anyhow, but I knew better.
I’d thought of asking if I could take my dad’s place at the big table, but for some reason I didn’t. It didn’t feel right. I didn’t know how to ask without it feeling wrong, but now, as I sat with my sister and my cousins at the kids’ table and looked at the chair at the adults’ table next to my mom, it was so empty that I almost wanted to cry.
“I wonder if old Clifford’s going to pee his pants again,” Jimmy snickered in hushed tones. He’d just turned ten years old and his hair was still the same reddish brown that his brother Eddie’s used to be until he outgrew the red and it was just brown. Eddie also grew out of his freckles, but he never had as many as Jimmy does. I think Jimmy will always have freckles.
“Grow up, Jimmy,” Eddie said
Jimmy wasn’t done. “My mom says he wears a big diaper under his pants.”
“What’s wrong with Clifford?” Eileen asked. “Mom told us, but I can’t remember.”
“My dad says he’s a gin and tonic,” Jimmy said. Eddie and I both laughed out loud.
“Not a gin and tonic,” Eddie corrected his little brother. “He’s a cat and tonic.”
“Well, he don’t look like no kitty to me,” Jimmy said. We all laughed. Jimmy was smiling that goofy freckled red-haired smile of his that made everything he said even funnier.
I was sitting at the left side of the kids’ table, across from Jimmy. Looking past Jimmy I could see the adults’ table, and I could see Clifford, sitting as still and motionless as always, with the plate Aunt Nancy had fixed for him, with turkey, stuffing, cranberries, mashed potatoes, and a biscuit sitting untouched in front of him. Every year Aunt Nancy would heap a plate full of food and place it in front of Clifford, and every year Clifford just sat there, staring out into space, his big blue eyes moist and expressionless. I looked at my mom and the empty place beside her. No one fixed a plate up for my dad. It didn’t seem fair, Clifford being too far gone to appreciate Thanksgiving yet getting a plate filled with food while my dad, who always loved Thanksgiving and leftover turkey sandwiches so much, not even getting a whiff of Aunt Nancy’s turkey or any of the other casserole or vegetable dishes steaming in the empty air above the table. It’d been only seven months since he jackknifed his semi and tipped it over on a rural highway in Ohio. It was night, he came around a curve and there was a cow, a calf, really, standing in the middle of the road. He hit the brakes and swerved, and then he was dead. They said he died of “massive brain trauma,” which was a fancy way of saying his brains were smashed and crushed against the black pavement.
After we were done eating dinner, Uncle Leon wheeled Clifford upstairs, and Aunt Nancy put him in her van and took him back to the nursing home. Uncle Leon came back downstairs. He was standing behind the bar he’d built. Uncle Dale, Grandpa Ray, and Aunt Lynn were sitting across from him on stools, drinking and talking grown up stuff and laughing grown up laughs. Uncle Dale and Grandpa Ray were smoking; the smoke from their cigarettes hung like clouds in the air above their heads and beneath the basement’s dropped ceiling. Eddie and Jimmy and Eileen had gotten into Aunt Nancy’s collection of board games and were playing the game of Life. Being fifteen and too old for board games, I sat out and watched, until I lost interest.
Bored, I wandered upstairs, to the kitchen, where I expected to see Aunt Nancy and mom washing dishes, but instead the kitchen was empty. Dirty dishes were piled high on the counter. I walked through the living room and Uncle Leon’s office, but they were both empty, too. I started down the hallway when I heard them, the sounds coming from Aunt Nancy’s bedroom. One of them was crying, and the other one was talking soft and soothing. I’d heard this before, when my dad died, only then it was my mom who was crying. This time I recognized my mom’s voice, and I could tell it was Aunt Nancy crying. I heard the words “cancer” and “pancreatic,” and I decided I’d heard too much and went back downstairs. Eddie and Jimmy and Eileen had finished their game of Life, and were setting up for a game of Clue, when Eddie asked me if I wanted to play.
“Sure,” I said, and sat down with them at the kids’ table, where words like cancer and pancreatic had no power or meaning.