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#173

Guest List



                 Two and a half weeks before Thanksgiving, Marlene stood up during the announcement portion of the Sunday morning service at First Bible Bible Church to invite anyone who didn’t have somewhere to spend Thanksgiving over to her and her husband Merrick’s house for a nice, big, traditional Thanksgiving Day meal. As Marlene spoke, Merrick smiled and nodded in all directions, even turning around in the pew to smile and nod at the people seated behind him, so that the congregation would see that he was in full agreement with everything that Marlene was saying.

“We have plenty of space,” said Marlene. “We’ll set up more tables if we need to. And we’ll supply all the food unless you really want to bring something. Many of you know that we have four children, but one son has been missing for three years, one son is in prison, one son is a missionary in a country with a name that I can’t pronounce, and our daughter is married to a man who, from what we’ve gathered, has threatened to divorce our daughter if she ever speaks to us again, and sure, we would see that as a win-win, but our daughter doesn’t feel the same, apparently.” Marlene played with her silver necklace as she spoke. The effortless fullness and clarity of her voice was one of the reasons that she was making the announcement instead of Merrick. The other reason was that Merrick was worried he might accidentally swear, which didn’t seem like a logical fear to Marlene, but she was happy to make the announcement anyway. She wore a tan dress with a black belt. Her gray hair was long and straight. “I don’t mention our absent children to make you feel sorry for us,” said Marlene. “I mention them so that if you want to join us for Thanksgiving dinner, you won’t feel like you’re imposing. We’d be thrilled to have you! If no one comes to our Thanksgiving dinner, it’ll just be Merrick and I in our big house, missing our children. So please come! The one thing that we would ask is that you let us know ahead of time if you’re coming so we know how many people to plan for. And let us know if you’re planning on bringing other people with you. You’re welcome to do so even if the people you invite don’t attend church here, we just want to make sure we know how many to expect! We’ve posted both of our cell phone numbers on the bulletin board in the foyer here at church, so if you’d like to come, please just call or text either one of us. Our email is on there too, so you can also email us if that works better for you. Don’t spend Thanksgiving all alone! Join us, we really, really want you to. It’ll be a great time of…uh…”

“Fun and fellowship,” whispered Merrick, squeezing Marlene’s hand.

                “It’ll be a great time of fun and fellowship,” said Marlene. She smiled at Pastor Nickult. From the pulpit, pastor Nickult smiled back. Marlene sat down.

                “Thank you, Marlene,” said pastor Nickult. “That’s very generous of you and Merrick and I hope people here in our congregation who are far away from their families, or maybe just estranged from them, will take you up on your offer.”

                The congregation murmured appreciatively.

                As pastor Nickult began his sermon, Merrick put his arm around Marlene. “Good job,” he whispered. “You didn’t swear.”

                “You really thought I might?” Marlene whispered back. She was a little offended.

                “Yes,” whispered Merrick. “Feel my back. I was so nervous you were gonna swear, I sweat through my shirt.” He leaned forward in the pew and Marlene felt his broad back between his shoulder blades with the palm of her hand. It was indeed damp.

                Pastor Nickult’s sermon ended up being about God’s sovereignty again. The man was obsessed with God’s sovereignty. Marlene would have preferred a sermon about hospitality to accompany her announcement, but she wasn’t going to complain except maybe to Merrick.

 

                The first call to accept Marlene and Merrick’s Thanksgiving dinner invitation came that very afternoon. The call came to Merrick’s cell phone. Marlene listened to Merrick’s side of the conversation and then had him fill her in on the details she’d missed after he hung up.

                “He said he visited our church for the first time this morning,” said Merrick. He and Marlene sat next to each other on one of the couches in the living room. They’d been reading their respective books when Merrick’s phone rang. Now those books were closed on their laps, Merrick’s place marked with a bookmark, Marlene’s place marked with her finger.

                “What’s his name?” asked Marlene.

                “Claude,” said Merrick. “He sounded nervous at first, but then very happy.” Merrick felt for his mustache which had been gone for almost six years now.

                “That’s so nice,” said Marlene. “Did he say why he doesn’t have anywhere else to go for Thanksgiving dinner?”

                “Yes,” said Merrick. “It’s because he isn’t welcome at his family’s Thanksgiving dinners anymore. Because his family says he ruined the last three in a row.”

                “That’s so sad,” said Marlene. “Did he say how his family says he ruined those dinners?”

                “No,” said Merrick. “He didn’t volunteer that information so I didn’t ask.”

                “Well, I’m happy he’s joining us,” said Marlene. “Even if he’s the only one who comes. Even making just one guy’s Thanksgiving better than it would have been without us will make the plan worthwhile.”

                “Unless his family is right,” said Merrick. “And he really does ruin Thanksgiving dinners.”

                “We’re not his family,” said Marlene. “We’re less uptight than they are. We knew when we came up with this idea that we might have some people participate who aren’t the easiest people to get along with. I’m sure Claude’s family is exaggerating. They probably just don’t like his political opinions or something.”

                “Or maybe he swears during the dinner,” said Merrick. “On accident. But still, you know, there are kids at the table, so…”

                “I’m sure it’s not that,” said Marlene. She returned to her book and Merrick returned to his.

                Ten minutes later, Marlene’s cell phone rang. She did not recognize the number. “Hello?”

                “Hello, is this Marlene from First Bible Bible Church?” The man’s voice was soft and shaky.

                “Yes, this is her,” said Marlene. “This is Marlene speaking.”

                “Hello, Marlene,” said the man. “My name is Claude. I just spoke to your husband a few minutes ago about accepting your invitation to Thanksgiving dinner.”

                “Oh yes,” said Marlene. “Merrick told me.”

                “Yes, well, I just wanted to call you to confirm my acceptance of your invitation,” said Claude. “I thought it would be best if I called both of you, then emailed you.”

                “That’s not necessary,” said Marlene. “It’s fine that you called again, but you really didn’t need to. Talking to either me or Merrick is fine, you don’t have to check in with both of us. We’re already expecting you on Thanksgiving. So you don’t need to send that email.”

                “Well, I’ve already written most of it,” said Claude. “I’m writing it right now. Can you hear me typing?”

                Marlene could hear the clicking of fingers on a keyboard. “OK, well, you can send it then, that’s fine.”

                “So I’m confirmed for Thanksgiving dinner at your house?” asked Claude.

                “Yes,” said Marlene.

                “Thanks again,” said Claude. “Goodbye. And don’t forget to check your email. I’m clicking ‘send’ right now as we speak. Goodbye.”

                “That was Claude again,” said Marlene as she set her phone down on the arm of the couch.

                “The same one I talked to?” asked Merrick.

                “Yes,” said Marlene. “And he’s sending an email too.”

                “Why?” asked Merrick.

                “I guess he just wants to make sure we know to expect him,” said Marlene. “He’s just being thorough.”

                “Kind of strange,” said Merrick. He went back to his book.

                Marlene crossed the room and sat down at the computer desk by the kitchen doorway. She wiggled the mouse to wake up the monitor and double-clicked on the email icon. There was one new email from “Claude Werthy.” Marlene opened the email and read it.

 

                Dear Merrick and Marlene,

                This email is to confirm that I have accepted your invitation to Thanksgiving dinner this year. I have also invited my friend Tamara to join me, which I did not mention on the phone out of timidity. So please add Tamara to your list of anticipated guests. However, if you have a column on your list for “maybe,” then it may be wise to put Tamara in that column because she has a tendency to be a bit flakey.

                Thank you,

                Claude

 

                Marlene read the email aloud to Merrick.

                “So we have one ‘definitely’ and one ‘maybe’ so far,” said Merrick. “That makes it a little tricky to know how much food to get.”

                “Thanksgiving is still a few weeks away,” said Marlene. “We’ll have a clearer idea of how many to expect when we get closer. We’ll just err on the side of too much food and eat leftovers for a month if we have to.”

                Merrick’s phone rang. “Is it Claude again?” asked Marlene.

                “No,” said Merrick. “Different number.” He answered and had a short, mysterious conversation. “That was Tamara,” said Merrick after he hung up. “She said Claude told her to call and confirm herself as a ‘maybe.’ She wanted to know if she could send her sister in her place in case she couldn’t make it. I said that was fine.”

                “Um, OK,” said Marlene. “So we definitely have two coming now, we just don’t know if the second one will be Tamara or her sister?”

                “I guess so,” said Merrick. “Although then it sounded like there was a chance both Tamara and her sister might come.”

                “Wow,” said Marlene. “Maybe we should make a list?”

                “Maybe we should,” said Merrick.

                Marlene took a piece blank, white paper out of the printer next to the computer and found a black pen in the top drawer of the desk. She wrote “Thanksgiving Dinner Guest List” across the top and then divided the paper into two columns: “definite” and “maybe.” Under “definite” she wrote “Claude” and under “maybe” she wrote “Tamara” and “Tamara’s sister.” Then she carried the list into the kitchen and affixed it to the front of the refrigerator with a decades-old magnet for a realtor named “Rory Permintis.” The magnet had been left on the fridge by the house’s previous owners.

               

At 2:34 in the morning, Marlene heard her phone buzz on the nightstand next to the bed. With bleary eyes, she picked up and her phone and looked at the text she had just received. It said, “Neither Tamara nor her sister can come, but I’m bringing Tamara’s other sister. Thanks, Claude.” The text was not from the same number from which Claude had called Marlene. She put the phone back on her nightstand. She would adjust the guest list in the morning when she got up. As she fell asleep, Marlene reminded herself that these people, in some cases, needed a place to spend Thanksgiving precisely because they were difficult.

                When she woke up a little after 7 a.m., Marlene found that she had received another text message during the night. This one said, “Hello Merrick, this is Tamara’s sister, I’m just texting to confirm that Tamara is coming to Thanksgiving dinner and Erin is not.”

                Marlene sighed. She was confused. She texted back, “This is Marlene’s phone. Who is Erin?” Then Marlene wrapped herself in her most comforting, if not most comfortable, robe and went to the kitchen where she found Merrick standing in front of the fridge and looking at the guest list, black pen in hand. He wore horizontally-striped pajama pants and an undershirt too big and baggy to be worn as an undershirt. Merrick stepped forward and wrote “Erin” on the list under “definitely.”

                “What are you doing?” asked Marlene.

                Merrick jumped in alarm. “Wow, did not know you were up, Marlene.” He held his pen-holding hand against his chest, getting pen marks on his shirt.

                “Did you write ‘Erin’ on the list just now?” asked Marlene.

                “Yes, I woke up this morning and had a text from Claude saying to add someone named Erin to the guest list under ‘definite.’”

                “But I woke up to a text from Tamara’s sister saying that Erin, whoever that is, is not coming to our Thanksgiving dinner.”

                “That’s odd,” said Merrick, pondering the guest list. “Should we see when the texts arrived?”

                Marlene and Merrick fetched their phones and compared their text messages regarding Erin. Marlene had not yet received a response to her text inquiring as to the identity of Erin.

                “Look,” said Merrick. “The one I got came two minutes after the one you got.”

                “But why would Tamara’s sister text me that Erin wasn’t coming before either of us had heard that she was coming?” asked Marlene.

                “I don’t know,” said Merrick. “But the message saying she’s coming is the most recent information we have.”

                “Call Claude,” said Marlene. “We need to straighten this out. We need to nip this constant trickle of contradictory information in the bud. He needs to understand how this creates problems for us.”

                Merrick called Claude back at the number from which he had texted. “It says this number is unavailable,” said Merrick. He frowned down at his phone and slowly navigated some menus. “Huh. He texted me from a different number than he called from last night. Let me try the one he called from.” Merrick leaned against the fridge as he held the phone to his ear. “Hello?” He paused. “Is Claude there? Claude, uh…” Merrick looked at Marlene and said, “What’s Claude’s last name?”

                “Werthy,” said Marlene. “That’s what it said on the email.”

                “Claude Werthy,” said Merrick. “We think that’s how you pronounce it.” He paused again, frowning. “Well, then why did you ask for his last name?” He sighed. “Miss, he called from this number. I don’t know what to tell you. He called me last night from this number.” He turned back to Marlene. “She hung up on me. She said she doesn’t know anyone named Claude and no one made any calls from her house last night. Apparently that number is the landline at her house. So I don’t know what’s going on. What number do you have for Claude?”

                Merrick and Marlene compared the numbers from which they’d received calls and texts from Claude. They were all different.

                “Is Claude ruining our Thanksgiving?” asked Merrick.

                “No,” said Marlene. “He’s just being difficult. But we’ll be fine. Right now, we know that we’re going to have three extra people at most, right? So we’ll make food for five. If we have leftovers, then we have leftovers. That’s better than not having enough for everyone.”

                “Yes,” said Merrick. “You’re right, you’re right.” He looked back at the list. “So should I move Erin to the ‘maybe’ column?”

                “Yes,” said Marlene. “Definitely move her to the ‘maybe’ column.” That seemed like the wisest course of action. Marlene’s phone buzzed in her hand. It was a text from the number from which she’d received the text from Tamara’s sister. It read, “I’m Erin. Please don’t text me at this number again.”

                Marlene took the black pen from Merrick, crossed out the name “Erin” under the “maybe” column on the guest list, and wrote “Erin” in parentheses and with a question mark after “Tamara’s sister” under the “maybe” column.

                “Are you sure that’s right?” asked Merrick.

                “No,” said Marlene. She walked through the kitchen to the living room to check email on the computer. There she found three new emails, two from Claude and one from someone named “Mills,” each of them more confounding than the one that preceded it. “Merrick,” called Marlene. “Bring me the guest list and the pen, please.”

 

                The rest of the week went similarly. Sometimes hours would pass without any word related to Thanksgiving dinner attendance. Wednesday, for some reason, was entirely, blissfully free of both confirmations and cancelations. But other times were full of confirmations, cancelations, and, most maddening of all, vague updates on the likelihood of attendance of people already in the “maybe” column on the guest list.  By Saturday evening, the guest list was actually the third guest list, the first two having become disorganized messes of names, crossed-out names, lines, arrows, circles, punctuation marks, additional notes both legible and illegible, and so on. The dreadful condition of these prior guest lists also cast doubt on how well Marlene and Merrick had transferred the information contained upon them onto the next guest list in the chain. But considering their lack of confidence in that information given how rapidly it changed, did Marlene and Merrick really believe that accurate transferal of the information along the chain of guest lists would result in a document on which they could rely for accurate information? No, not really.

                At one point, Merrick had suggested they turn off their phones and stop checking the email. But Marlene had insisted that they could not do that. “I stood up in church,” she said. “I made that announcement in front of everyone. We can’t just not do it.”

                “We need to talk to Claude on Sunday,” said Merrick. “Face to face.”

                “I’ll make another announcement,” said Marlene. “I’ll straighten some things out.”

                But was Claude entirely to blame for the chaotic state of the guest list? Well, it was hard to say. He certainly seemed to have been the one who toppled the first domino, but by the time Saturday night rolled around, his name was rarely mentioned by those confirming, canceling, or adjusting their likelihood of attendance. But it was hard not to blame him. He had set the tone. And none of the other people contacting Merrick or Marlene had ever set foot in First Bible Bible Church as far as they could tell, so they figured Claude was the original source for word of their open Thanksgiving dinner invitation reaching these people, whoever they were. In fact, Claude himself was not even on the third, most recent update of the guest list. The last Merrick or Marlene had known, Claude had definitively canceled. But neither of them doubted that he would be back at some point, calling or texting or emailing or all of the above to re-re-re-confirm a spot somewhere on the list, maybe accompanied by additional guests, maybe not.

                And it wasn’t just that a lot of people were confirming, canceling, etc. The overall number of people confirmed for the dinner had never gotten higher than twelve, a number which Marlene and Merrick could have happily accommodated. It was just the constant fluctuation, the unhelpful nature of the received information, the lack of clarity in the communication. One woman had texted to say that she would be bringing all nine of her nieces and nephews assuming they could all get the day off of work, but if even one of them could not get the day off of work, then none of them would be attending the dinner, including her. She texted the following day to say that, as the sole employer of all nine of her nieces and nephews, she had decided against giving any of them the day off of work on Thanksgiving, so none of them would be attending Marlene and Merrick’s Thanksgiving dinner, not even her. Another man confirmed, canceled, confirmed, and finally canceled during the course of one 35-second phone conversation with Merrick. There also seemed to be somewhere between two and five Erins, all with their names spelled exactly the same, cycling on and off of the guest list, not to mention all the back-and-forth migration between the “definitely” and “maybe” columns. It was unclear how many of them – if any – were Tamara’s sisters. Tamara herself had actually shown up on Marlene and Merrick’s doorstep on Friday afternoon to confirm her attendance in person. However, after being allowed a look at Marlene and Merrick’s spacious dining room, she had decided that she wouldn’t attend for the entire dinner, but would just show up for dessert. “My sister will text me when dessert is about to be served,” Tamara had said.

“Who’s your sister?” Marlene had asked.

“Oh, I don’t think she’s confirmed yet,” Tamara had said, and then she’d left.

 

                On Sunday morning, Marlene stood up to make another announcement at church. “It’s me again,” she said with a little wave. “I just wanted to follow up on our announcement last week about inviting people over to our house for Thanksgiving dinner if they don’t have somewhere else to go. Well, that’s still on, so if you don’t have somewhere to go for Thanksgiving dinner, please still join us. And our contact information is still posted on the bulletin board in the foyer. The one thing I would add is just that it would be nice if you would not call to confirm that you’re coming unless you’re absolutely sure that you’ll be there. That will just make things much easier for us as we figure out how much food we need, if we need to set up extra tables, and things like that.”

                “Thank you, Marlene,” said Pastor Nickult from the pulpit. “So you’re saying that if people aren’t sure if they’ll be able to make it, then they should just not call at all.”

                “Well, yes, more or less,” said Marlene. She glanced down at Merrick, who was nodding at Pastor Nickult.

                “And you’re saying that if people do call to confirm that they’re coming, then they should make absolutely certain that they do actually come,” said Pastor Nickult.

                “Well, I mean, if people need to cancel, then they need to cancel,” said Marlene. “I know unexpected, uh, issues can arise, and we want to be sympathetic to that, but it’s just, you know, we would just like our guests to exercise a little discernment before they call or text or email, like, OK, it shouldn’t be that difficult for someone to know whether or not they’re going to be available a week and a half from now, that’s all.” She was aware that her flickering confidence was making her voice sound more effortful and less full and clear.

                “So you’re saying that if people think there’s even a slight chance that they won’t be able to attend, that they should just not call,” said Pastor Nickult.

                “No,” said Marlene. “If there’s a slight chance, well, because, there’s always a slight chance…” She sighed, then turned around to scan the rest of the congregation. “Is Claude here? Claude? Are you here? Does anyone know Claude? He visited for the first time last week.”

                The other members of the congregation looked around, but no one spoke up.

                “All right, well, never mind then,” said Marlene. She sat down.

                “So is your Thanksgiving dinner for people who don’t have anywhere to go still on?” asked Pastor Nickult.

                Marlene stood up again. “Yes.” She sat back down.

                Merrick squeezed her hand.

                “I almost swore,” whispered Marlene.

                Merrick nodded and squeezed her hand harder. Marlene’s confession had clearly made him happy.

 

                The following week was not better. It was worse. On Tuesday evening, there was a beautiful thirteen minute period in which everyone had canceled, even the people in the “maybe” column, and Marlene and Merrick had thought they might be off the hook, but then Merrick had gotten a text from someone named “Drew” confirming his attendance and asking if the Thanksgiving dinner could be held at 7 p.m. because he found himself more capable of eating big meals without the intrusion of natural light through windows and so forth.

                Marlene and Merrick lost track of what number of guest list they were on. It didn’t matter. Knowing would only make it more depressing.

                “We should just forget the guest list,” said Merrick. “Look at this thing.” He held up the most recent version of the guest list and waved it back and forth. “It’s hideous, Marlene. It’s hideous and it doesn’t mean anything. It has no connection to reality. It has no connection to whoever actually ends up walking through that door on Thanksgiving.” He and Marlene were standing in the dining room, surveying the dining room table, imagining an ever-varying number of strangers eating turkey off of it.

                Marlene felt at least as discouraged as Merrick sounded. But they couldn’t both be the discouraged one. She felt like one of them should be on the positive side, just for the sake of discussion, at least. “But we’re trying,” said Marlene. She pointed at the guest list in her husband’s hand. “That list represents our willingness to try.”

                “I don’t know how I feel about that,” said Merrick. “I mean, is this how you want something that represents your willingness to try to look? It makes it look like we’re some of those people whose hearts are in the right place, but who are totally incompetent.”

                “No one’s going to judge us on our process,” said Marlene. “They’ll only judge us on the end result. If the dinner goes well, no one will care what the guest list looked like yesterday or today or ever.”

                “But this guest list has no bearing on that end result,” said Merrick. “No connection. No relation. No matter if the dinner succeeds or fails, it will have nothing to do with this guest list.”

                “There is a connection,” said Marlene. “Give it to me.” She was worried that Merrick might tear the guest list to shreds in front of her. Instead, he handed it to her. Marlene’s phone rang. She answered, said no more than four words, and hung up. Then she pulled her black pen from her pocket – both she and Merrick carried one at all times now – and slowly crossed out the name “Nina” written under the “definite” column on the guest list.

 

                As the week went on, Marlene began to suspect that Merrick was not doing his part to maintain the guest list. She rarely saw him write on it. Finally, she just told Merrick she would handle the guest list by herself if he would give her his phone and he agreed without argument. Marlene took this as an opportunity to start an all new guest list. This one would be the most organized yet. She would write very small so there would be ample room for alterations. The handwriting would be neat and uniform. She tried not to think about the many, many flaws in the document due to its troublesome heritage, flaws that would not even come close to being solved by neatness. Marlene handled all the calls, all the texts, all the emails.

Abdicating his share of the responsibility did not appear to make Merrick happy – perhaps he felt some measure of guilt – but he did not offer to take his phone back. One night in bed, he said, “Once you decide on a number, I’ll do all the cooking. I’ll set the table. I’ll do all the dishes. I’ll do everything. Once you decide on a number.”

“OK,” said Marlene, but she didn’t actually intend to hold him to it. She just knew it would make him feel better in the moment if she agreed to his offer.

“We’ll need to buy turkey soon,” said Merrick. “So the stores don’t run out.”

                “OK,” said Marlene. “I’ll figure it out. I’ll announce a deadline.”

                “What do you mean?” asked Merrick.

                “I’ll say no new people can confirm after this Monday,” said Marlene. “I’ll announce it at church.”

                “But-” Merrick started protest.

                “I know, I know,” said Marlene. She did know. He was going to point out how everyone who was, or had ever been, on the list, other than Claude, had never been to their church, so an announcement at church wouldn’t accomplish anything with the group of people with which they’d been dealing. But announcing it at church just made it feel more official. Marlene would inform all new callers, texters, and emailers of the new deadline as well. How they chose to handle that deadline was up to them, but Marlene felt like if she announced it at church, that would help her be stronger about enforcing it.

 

                On Sunday, Marlene took her guest list with her to use as a visual aid for her announcement. She couldn’t help but get a little heated as she explained the purpose of the deadline, and that was without going into extensive detail about the nightmare that was attempting to keep the guest list up to date. She also asked for Claude by name again, but he was again not present. Not that Marlene was aware of, anyway. She didn’t know what Claude looked like. She imagined him as some kind of cape-wearing villain, sneering and darting from shadow to shadow with a creepy, high-stepping gait. She didn’t say any of this out loud during her announcement, of course.

                “And you’re sure the dinner is still on?” asked Pastor Nickult from the pulpit after Marlene had sat down.

                Marlene stood back up. “Yes,” she said. “Why would I be announcing a deadline for getting on the guest list if the dinner wasn’t happening?”

                Pastor Nickult was taken aback.

                “Swear at him,” whispered Merrick, squeezing Marlene’s hand. “Do it on purpose.”

                Marlene ignored him and sat down.

                “Well, be sure to let Marlene or Merrick-”

                “Just me,” said Marlene. “Only use my number please. By tomorrow.”

                “Uh, well,” said Pastor Nickult. “OK, then, so I was going to, uh…” He flipped through his notes.

                “God’s sovereignty,” Marlene said to him.

                “Ah, yes,” said Pastor Nickult. “Thank you, Marlene.”

                She hadn’t actually been trying to be helpful.

 

                Sunday afternoon was weirdly quiet, as was Sunday evening. When Marlene woke up on Monday morning, the only text message was from her sister. It said, “Happy Thanksgiving.” Several days early, but OK. Marlene got out of bed and perused the guest list. There were four names under “definite” and there was one name under “maybe.” None of the Erins were on the list, Claude wasn’t on the list, and Tamara was the “maybe.” Monday passed with no calls, no texts, and only one email from a guy in the “definite” column asking how long the prayer before the meal would probably be because he had a hard time not laughing during long prayers and he was afraid he might offend someone. Marlene wrote him back to tell him he was welcome to laugh during the prayer, but that it probably wouldn’t be very long. She also informed him of the deadline, telling him that if he canceled after today, then he wouldn’t be able to re-confirm.

                At 12:01 on Tuesday morning, Claude called. “Great news,” he said in his nervous voice that Marlene now suspected was an act. “My schedule conflicts have all come undone, so I’m going to be able to attend your Thanksgiving dinner after all. Mark me down for ‘definite’ but with a chance of slipping to ‘maybe.’”

                “Sorry,” said Marlene. “You missed the deadline. And I think you know that. I think you’re testing me.”

                “You’re saying I can’t come?” asked Claude. “When are you buying the turkey?”

                “Tomorrow,” said Marlene.

                “So there’s no reason not to put me on the list.”

                “The list is closed,” said Marlene. “No one else can be added. If people cancel, they cancel, but no one else can be added.”

                Claude was quiet for a long time. Marlene looked at the screen of her phone to see if the call had been dropped, but she and Claude were still connected. Sitting alone in the living room – Merrick had gone to bed over an hour ago – Marlene imagined the ticking of a clock, although every clock in the house was digital. There was not a clock capable of ticking anywhere on the property.

                “I knew you’d be petty,” Claude finally said. “I knew you’d be small.”

                “I’m being practical,” said Marlene.

                “Happy Thanksgiving,” said Claude. Marlene imagined him shrinking into his cape as he said it. He hung up.

                Within half an hour, every name had been struck from the guest list. They canceled via two phone calls, one email, and two text messages – one to Merrick’s phone and one to Marlene’s. Marlene was not blind to the fact that Claude must have had something to do with the mass cancelation. His hand was in it. His hand had been in all of it. Since the beginning. Even getting Tamara to visit in person, to ask to see the dining room. Who was that woman really? Was her name even “Tamara?”

                Marlene took out a fresh piece of printer paper. She wrote “Thanksgiving Dinner Guest List” across the top in neat, uniform letters. Then she made a column labeled “definite.” She did not make a “maybe” column. Then she wrote four names under the “definite” column and went to bed.

               

The next day, Marlene and Merrick went to Forton’s Foods and bought one 12-pound turkey, stuffing mix, potatoes, pie ingredients, and so on and so on and so on. Marlene did not show the guest list to Merrick. He didn’t think the guest list had any connection to the actual dinner anyway. He didn’t think it had any connection to reality. He’d said so himself. He certainly didn’t think the guest list could affect reality. If he turned out to be right, then he could at least take some satisfaction in being right. But if he turned out to be wrong, oh, the look on his face when the guests began to arrive. Their missing son found, their imprisoned son released, their missionary son on furlough, their freshly-divorced daughter. Then and only then would Marlene show Merrick the guest list. She’d show it to all of them.

                And assuming the guest list worked, if Claude then showed up, Marlene would invite him to join them for dinner, because not even Claude would be capable of ruining that dinner. And if the guest list didn’t work and Claude then showed up? Well, Marlene would probably invite him to join her and Merrick for dinner in that case as well. Because how much could he really ruin that dinner? And where else would such a terrible guy be able to get a Thanksgiving dinner anyway?

                When Marlene got home, she added Claude’s name to the guest list. She wasn’t going to try to tell him his name was on there. She didn’t even know if it was possible to get a hold of him. But his name was on there.




Discussion Questions

  • What are some tactics that you use to keep a guest list from becoming unmanageable and taking over your life?



  • To what extent do you believe that guest lists are representative of reality? To what extent do you believe that guest lists can shape reality?



  • Can the feeling of attending any event ever hope to match the feeling of successfully getting out of attending that same event?



  • At what future point are you most afraid that you will accidentally swear? Use a percentage to express your estimate of the likelihood of you accidentally swearing at that future point.



  • In what manner would you be most likely to ruin three consecutive Thanksgiving dinners with your family?



  • To show how thankful I am for you, the listener, you may answer one of the previous questions with a question without losing any points.