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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer
#161

Turkey Bowl Diversion



                 Cal’s apartment was not great, nor was it good, nor was it fair. It was actually a bad, basement apartment with a cracked cement floor, no windows, and no tub or shower in the bathroom. Cal had trash-picked a battered, queen-sized mattress and put it on the floor in his apartment’s single bedroom. The mattress almost filled the room. But it beat being homeless, Cal knew that from personal experience. Cal was a couple of months behind on paying rent, but he didn’t think he was in much danger of being evicted. The landlord had told Cal that no one had lived in the apartment for two years before he moved in. The landlord hadn’t even come around to ask for the late rent money. He hadn’t even called or mailed anything. This was good because Cal didn’t have any money and he didn’t really have a means of getting money, certainly not enough to pay two months of overdue rent.

Cal’s grandma had made a deal with him that if he stopped using crystal meth, then she’d give him enough money to get into an apartment. Cal had suspected that she’d been lying and, if he was being honest, his real plan had been to quit using meth just long enough to prove to the rest of his family that his grandma was a liar when she didn’t pay up. Then he would have gone back to using meth and if anyone in his family ever bothered to give him grief about it, he would point out that he had quit but that his grandma hadn’t held up her end of the deal, so if they had a problem with him using meth then they should take it up with her. But this plan had failed when Cal’s grandma had actually given him enough money to pay for the deposit and the first month’s rent for this lousy little apartment. But he wasn’t homeless and he hadn’t gone back to using meth, so he supposed it had worked out for the best.

Food wasn’t a problem. Cal lived a short walk from the Multioak Colossal Hearts Food Bank, which was one of the few nice things about living in such an otherwise bad location. Since he had little else to occupy his time, Cal walked to the food bank every day. Also, a lot of the food had been donated because it was past the sell-by date so it made sense to try to get it as soon as possible. Cal figured that donated food wouldn’t have much of a shelf life in his cupboard. And that was another thing about his apartment: only one cupboard, and not a very big one. And his refrigerator was a mini-fridge: a brown mini-fridge with a tiny freezer so encrusted with ice that Cal could only fit one box of fudgesicles in it.

                Cal enjoyed his walks to the food bank, even in bad weather. For one thing, it was usually the only event of his day, the only thing to break up the monotony of lying on his mattress and reading library books or watching movies on the TV/DVD-player combo unit he’d trash-picked from a house a block away from the one where he’d gotten the mattress. That had been a productive day, certainly more productive than any day since then. Cal also got the movies from the library.

                Another reason he liked walking to the food bank was that the volunteers who worked there were nice. They all looked so healthy, even the old ones. Tammy was Cal’s favorite. She was a mother in her 40s and was always pulling a little yellow notebook out of her jeans pocket to jot something down. When Cal, after being curious for weeks, finally asked her what she was writing, she said she was working on an original musical and that she always wrote down good rhymes whenever they came into her head. That particular time, the rhyme she had written down was, “mustard/flustered.” Cal suspected that this rhyme had occurred to her because the food bank had gotten an enormous mustard donation and they’d been forced to set up an extra table to accommodate the dozens of yellow bottles. Personally, he found it difficult to imagine that a song could be good with a mustard/flustered rhyme in it, but maybe the bar to get into Tammy’s notebook was a lot lower than the bar a rhyme would have to clear in order to get into one of the final songs.

One Saturday, Tammy brought her teenage daughter with her to the food bank to help out and learn about people less fortunate than herself and the joy of serving the community. Tammy also wanted Cal to tell her daughter a cautionary tale about how drugs had ruined his life.

                “Why?” asked Cal, feeling uncomfortable with the daughter right there looking at him. “Is she, uh, doing some drugs?”

                “I don’t know,” said Tammy. “She says she isn’t.” The daughter was right there.

                “Are you doing some drugs?” Cal asked her.

                “No,” said the daughter.

                “Well, they ruined my life,” said Cal. “Look at me now.” He gestured at himself with both hands, indicating his gaunt body, pale complexion, and unnaturally aged face, then looked at Tammy to see if he was doing it right.

                She mouthed the words, “Thank you!”

                Another reason Cal liked the food bank was because the food was always different. You never knew what was going to get donated. And since it was free, Cal felt like the pressure to get stuff he already knew he liked was removed, so he branched out tried stuff he was less sure about, like eggplant, salsa that boasted of its fiery hotness, and bread made with so many types of grain that it made his head spin. Sometimes he tried to memorize the grains and recite them but he never could, although he was aware that, in a way, failing to memorize them gave him more pleasure than succeeding would have.

                Cal didn’t hate his life. He liked reading, he liked movies. He knew his apartment was bad, but he had low standards and he was comfortable other than having to wash himself in the sink. He liked not thinking about money. He wondered how long it could last though. Would he get bored? Would he get restless? Would he get discontent? Would he feel unfulfilled? Would he start wanting meth so badly that he felt like he needed it again? Would the landlord remember Cal existed and realize he hadn’t paid rent in months and start demanding the money? How many types of grain could possibly fit in a single loaf of bread? All but one of these questions could only be answered by the passage of time and that would happen whether Cal wanted it to or not. It irritated him to think that if he lived the rest of his life out exactly like he was currently living it and then died in his apartment at age, like, 85, someone would eventually find him and probably look around at his place and his possessions and say, “Well, this is depressing.” He wished there were a way for him to tell that person to shut up from beyond the grave.

 

                Cal didn’t realize it was Thanksgiving until he got to the food bank and Tammy said, “Happy Thanksgiving, Cal!” She was wearing a fake turkey beak that made her voice sound strange.

                “Oh yeah,” said Cal. “Happy Thanksgiving, Tammy.”

                “Do you want one of our Thanksgiving dinner boxes for one?” asked Tammy. “It’s got some turkey you can heat up, some potatoes, some pumpkin pie.”

                “Um, no, that’s OK,” said Cal. He selected some sliced rosemary ham, some egg-free mayonnaise, and a bag of something called “Devourables.” The Devourables bag said they were chili-onion flavored.

                “Happy Thanksgiving,” called Tammy as Cal headed for the door with his food. She waved and smiled which made her fake turkey beak go crooked on her face which made it look even faker.

                “Happy Thanksgiving,” said Cal.

                It was a nice day for late November. It was cold, but the sun was out and there was no wind. The trees were half-bare, although the leaves that remained on the branches were all brown or browning. Cal spent very little time outside, but when he did go outside, it felt cleansing. He thought it was because he couldn’t smell himself while he was outside, like the wind was blowing the stale, inert smell of his body away. He did wish his apartment had a shower. That would be nice.

                Cal decided to take a longer way home, diverting a few blocks from his regular route to walk past Officer David K. Wolst Memorial Park. Cal didn’t know who Officer David K. Wolst was or how he had died, but he liked the park for its run-down desertedness. The park was a large, rectangular field of patchy grass with enormous, slowly dying trees all around its perimeter. A rusty cluster of playground equipment – slide, monkey bars, merry-go-round, swings – was tucked into the sparsely pea-graveled, southeast corner of the park. Cal had never, ever seen children on the playground equipment unless you counted the teenagers he’d occasionally seen smoking cigarettes on the swings. He wanted to walk past the park because the feeling that seeing the park and being near the park usually gave him was a good match for how he was already feeling today. But as he approached the park, Cal saw that something was off: there were people in it. There were seven of them on the northern end of the park, appropriately dressed for the weather except for one guy in shorts. Two of the people, a teenage boy and a teenage girl, played catch with a football while a group of five more people stood talking. A tall man with graying hair and a beige hoodie held a small stack of orange cones, his right hand up inside of the cones like they were a prosthetic attachment.

                “Hey,” called a woman from the group, waving at Cal. She had black, braided hair and wore an ear warmer.

                Cal stopped walking as the woman jogged over to him.

                “Hey,” she said again. “Hi.” Her smile was persuasive and Cal wasn’t even sure what she was going to try to persuade him to do yet.

                “Hi,” said Cal.

                “Happy Thanksgiving,” said the woman. “My name is Mary Anne.”

                “Happy Thanksgiving,” said Cal. “I’m Cal.”

                “I hope you don’t think this is rude,” said Mary Anne. “But do you have any holiday plans right now? Getting together with family or friends?”

                “No,” said Cal. “I don’t have any plans.”

                “Well, would you like to join us?” asked Mary Anne. “We were going to play, like, a family touch football turkey bowl game, but we don’t have even teams. My cousin had some personal problems come up and wasn’t able to make the trip this year, so we’re a man short.”

                “You want me to play football?” asked Cal. “With your family?”

                “Yeah,” said Mary Anne. “It’s just touch football. No tackling. And you look fast. It’ll be fun, I promise.”

                Cal knew that he used to be fast, but he hadn’t sprinted in years. He wondered if he was still fast. “It sounds fun,” said Cal. “But I’ve got some groceries in the bag here.”

                “Is any of it frozen?” asked Mary Anne. “It’s cold enough out here that anything else will probably be fine.”

                Cal looked over at the group of people and saw that they were all watching him. The man with the cones on his hand waved the cones. Mary Anne laughed. “That’s my uncle. We call him Uncle Dweeb for obvious reasons.”

                Cal chuckled. “I haven’t heard the term ‘dweeb’ in a long time,” he said. There was still a part of him that wished these people weren’t here, that wished the park had been as empty as he’d expected. But he already knew he was going to agree to play touch football with these people. He was powerless to resist people who were aggressively friendly. He spent so much time wafting around by himself feeling borderline immaterial, that when someone approached him and interacted with him as if he were fully present, he was unprepared to do anything but be towed along by them, agreeable and suggestible.

                “Well, he’s the one who always called us dweebs when we were little,” said Mary Anne. “‘Dweeb’ is the kind of thing that only dweebs say. So that’s why it suits him so well. So are you gonna join us? We’re not going to be able to play properly if you don’t.”

                “Yeah, sure,” said Cal. “I can play.”

                “Great!” said Mary Anne. She turned and shouted to the rest of her family. “He’s gonna play!”

                Her family cheered and applauded. “Whooo!” whooped some of them.

 

                Cal was pleased to find out that he was still fast. On the second play of the game, he caught a slant from Uncle Dweeb, juked Mason — the teenage boy he’d seen playing catch earlier — and took it to the house. As Cal passed between the orange cones Uncle Dweeb had set up at the far end of the field to represent an end zone, he looked over his shoulder and was shocked to see the gap he’d opened between himself and his pursuers. Maybe he wasn’t the hollowed-out husk he’d assumed he was for the last six years?

                “Thattaway, Cal!” shouted Uncle Dweeb, his fist-pump nothing if not dweeby.

                “Great job, Mary Anne,” said Guy, a tubby man in his mid-twenties and the only person wearing shorts. “Way to invite someone who’s gonna make us lose.

                “If I had known he wasn’t gonna be on my team, I would have waited for an old lady to come by,” said Mary Anne.

                Cal was pleased by this complimentary ribbing. Everyone was smiling. He started to trot back toward the group, but Marissa, the teenage girl he’d seen playing catch with Mason earlier, said, “No, no, stay on this end. We’re kicking off from this end. Losers walk! Right losers?” She turned and walked backward toward Cal, waving at the opposing team — Mary Anne, Guy, Mason, and a pre-teen kid with braces and a gray ski-mask concealing his face named Philip — as they headed for the other end of the field to await the kick-off. “Walk, losers!” shouted Marissa. “Walk!”

                “Be nice, Marissa,” said a woman whose name Cal had forgotten. It was hard to keep track of all the new names, but this woman had excellent, healthy skin and a long scarf. Brandi! That was her name.

                “I’m just kidding, mom,” said Marissa. So Marissa was Brandi’s daughter. Cal found that mildly interesting. They didn’t look alike. Marissa had a much lighter complexion than Brandy. Their faces looked different too. Maybe Brandi was Marissa’s step mom.

                “You scored, Cal,” said Uncle Dweeb. “You want the honor of kicking off?”

                Cal felt confident and comfortable enough to say yes. “Yes,” he said.

 

                The game went on. Both defenses were suspect and there was a lot of scoring, which was fun. The end zone celebrations got more elaborate with each touchdown. There were dances, which were mostly bad in a funny way, and there were aggressive spikes and flexes, which were all at least half-ironic. Philip, the kid in the ski-mask, scored on a kickoff return where he completely reversed his field three times and celebrated by reciting some poem that Cal couldn’t hear from where he’d slipped on the grass and wiped out, but which got a big laugh from Uncle Dweeb, Mary Anne, and Guy and earned him a smirking scolding from Brandi. So maybe Brandi was Philip’s mom too? Making Philip and Marissa siblings? Cal was putting the pieces together.

                Cal was tiring, but he wasn’t wheezing as much as he had at first. He’d gotten a second wind. The cold air made his lungs burn and his nose run and his ears ache and his throat feel raw, but none of these sensations were severe enough to override how invigorated Cal felt to be outside exerting himself, competing, getting to know new people, making good-natured wisecracks that elicited sincere laughs from other human beings. It was better than interacting with Tammy at the food bank because with Tammy, Cal was always aware that someone had probably told all of the volunteers that they should do their best to make the people visiting the food bank feel unashamed to be getting food at the food bank. Tammy was good at making her kindness not seem obligatory, but Cal still wondered, sometimes, in unguarded moments.

                An hour into the touch football game, Mason floated a wobbly pass toward Mary Anne on a slow crossing route and Cal darted in for the interception, taking it all the way back for a clean pick-six. He spun the ball on the grass in the end zone and did a little jig around it like he’d once seen a pro football player do. It was the most consciously silly thing he’d done in years. “Anticipation!” he shouted. “I’m reading your mind, Mason! I know where you’re going with the ball before you do!”

                Everyone was smiling. Everyone laughed.

                “Do your dance, Cal!” shouted Philip, who wasn’t even on Cal’s team. Everyone laughed harder, even Mason, who was a good sport. They were all good sports. At that precise time, and for a short while after that precise time, Cal did not want the touch football game to ever end. Although he was getting a little hungry.

                And the game went on. The temperature dipped, every face was flushed, the exhalation portion of every heavy breath was visible. Everyone looked a little gassed. Happy, but gassed. The shaky defense was getting shakier. The celebrations lacked the verve of the earlier celebrations, except for Uncle Dweeb’s whose celebrations maintained a very high level of verve. Various people kept saying, “whew!” and Brandi and Mary Anne kept making jokey comments about feeling old, although Uncle Dweeb, who was clearly the oldest, continued to scamper around like a bright-eyed man half his age, albeit one with prematurely stiff knees. Cal rested his hands on his hips between every play, even after Guy said, “We’ve got ‘em where we want ‘em, they’re wearing out, Cal’s got his hands on his hips!”

                Cal wondered how the family would know when the game was over. Everyone had lost track of the exact score, although it seemed clear to Cal that his team was up by quite a few touchdowns. He was now officially hungry, and he was now wondering when it would be socially acceptable for him to just thank the family for asking him to play with them and then go home to eat his chili-onion Devourables and a rosemary-ham-and-egg-free-mayonnaise sandwich on two slices of the many-grained bread still in his cupboard. The family members had piled their phones, wallets, and keys next to a tree, and Brandi had started jogging over to check her phone during the lulls in the action that followed every touchdown. Cal thought that one of these phone-checks might end the game, but so far, none of them had.

                Mary Anne scored a touchdown on a reckless heave from Mason that actually bounced off of Marissa’s hands first.

                “Ha ha!” shouted Mary Anne. “Losers walk!”

                “Ohhh!” shouted Mason. “What a play!”

                “I don’t know why you’re celebrating,” said Marissa, a faux-pout fixed on her face. “That was a terrible throw, it should have been an interception.”

                 Cal, a member of the team that had just been scored on, walked toward the other end of the field to await the kickoff with his teammates. He decided now would be an OK time to broach the topic of the game coming to an end. “So,” he said to Brandi. “How long do you guys usually play?”

                “Oh, there’s no set time,” said Brandi.

                “Heck, I’d play all day if I could!” said Uncle Dweeb.

                “Yeah, it’s fun,” said Cal. “But don’t you have Thanksgiving dinner waiting for you?”

                “You’re invited too!” said Uncle Dweeb. “Didn’t Mary Anne tell you?”

                “Uh, no,” said Cal. “But that’s OK, I have food of my own, I don’t-”

                “No, no,” said Uncle Dweeb. “You’re gonna have Thanksgiving dinner with us. My wife is at home getting it ready right now. Turkey, rolls, tater-tot casserole.” He turned and shouted to the other end of the field. “Mary Anne! You forgot to invite Cal to dinner! He’s been playing with us this whole time thinking we were just gonna go our separate ways when the game ends!”

                Even from the distance of 50 yards, or whatever it was, Cal could see the weird expression that passed over Mary Anne’s face. “Oh!” she called back. “I did? Sorry, Cal! But are you sure it’ll be OK with Aunt Grace, Uncle Dweeb? We didn’t tell her to prepare for an extra!”

                “It’s totally fine,” called Cal, to everyone. “Just playing with you guys has been fun, I don’t want to impose on your family dinner.”

                “Actually,” called Brandi from right next to Cal. “It might actually work out great if you joined us.” Brandi’s words were addressed to Cal but she was looking across the field at Mary Anne.

                “Well,” called Mary Anne. “Do you think so?”

                Cal didn’t say anything. He had realized that this conversation was more about him than it was for him.

                “Yes,” called Brandi. “I do. I think dinner will go even smoother with you there, Cal.”

                “Yes,” called Mary Anne. “Yeah, I can see that.”

                “Well, I don’t know what all that was about,” said Uncle Dweeb, clapping Cal on the shoulder. “But it sounds like you’ve got no choice now. You’re joining us for Thanksgiving Dinner. You’re part of the family today.”

 

                The game went on. Cal was starving. There were obvious cracks in everyone’s enthusiasm except for Uncle Dweeb’s. Sprinting occurred in short bursts, if at all. The wind picked up and everyone rubbed their dry, red hands together for warmth. Cal scored a touchdown during which attempts to prevent him from doing so maxed out at half-hearted. He did not dance, shout, nor otherwise exult. The losers began walking to the other end of the field and no one shouted “losers walk” at them.

                “Do you guys always play this long?” Cal asked Marissa, trying again.

                “No,” said Marissa, her eyes filled with guarded hope as she watched Brandi check her phone for the thirteenth time. She glanced at Uncle Dweeb, who wasn’t paying attention, and kept her voice low. “This is actually the first time we’ve played in years. I was younger than Philip last time we played.”

                “Seriously?” said Cal. “I thought this was an annual thing for you guys.”

                “No,” said Marissa. “This year is special.”

                “What’s special about this year?” asked Cal.

                Marissa didn’t answer him. Brandi was still on her phone. It looked like she might be texting.

                “Hurry up, Brandi!” shouted Uncle Dweeb. “The losers are waiting for us to kick off!”

                The way it looked to Cal, the other team was fine with waiting. Actually, except for Philip who was lying on his back in the grass, they were all watching Brandi too, expectant and nervous like Marissa, not impatient like Uncle Dweeb. “Does your aunt need an empty house while she makes dinner?” asked Cal. “Is that why we have to keep playing?”

                Uncle Dweeb laughed. “No, no, my wife isn’t like that, she didn’t chase us out. We just love to play!”

                Cal hadn’t realized Uncle Dweeb was listening.

                “Yeah,” said Marissa with a medium smile. “We just thought it’d be a better way to kill some time than sitting around and watching football.”

                “And we were right,” said Uncle Dweeb. “Man, I’ve missed this.”

                “Dinner’s ready!” called Brandi, looking up from her phone.

                “Already?” asked Uncle Dweeb. Philip leaped up from the grass and ran toward the family van, the only vehicle parked on the street near the park. Marissa picked up the orange cones at their end of the field while Guy picked up the cones at the other end. The family members walked over to the belongings-pile and began slipping their phones, keys, and wallets into their pockets. The mood was odd. It seemed determined, as if they were mustering their collective resolve, except for Uncle Dweeb, who clapped Cal on the shoulder again and said, “You ready for some real food yet?” just as Cal was about to slip away with his food bank bag.

                “I mean, I guess,” said Cal. He caught Mary Anne’s eye and her look was a clear attempt to communicate something unclear.

                “Great!” said Uncle Dweeb. “Let’s eat.”

 

                The van had enough room for 12 passengers. Cal sat in the middle of the middle bench seat, flanked by Guy and Mason. The family was quiet other than Uncle Dweeb, who was driving, and Mary Anne, who was in the front passenger’s seat engaging with, and occasionally trying to goad others into engaging with, Uncle Dweeb’s delighted recap of the touch football game they’d all just finished playing.

                “I seriously thought that Mason was gonna hold onto that one,” said Uncle Dweeb.

                “I know!” said Mary Anne. “It looked like he was going to. Did you think you were going to hold on, Mason?”

                “What?” said Mason. “Oh, no. Well, I don’t know.”

                There had been a time during the football game where Cal had felt truly comfortable with this family, far more comfortable than he ever felt with his own family. But something had changed and now he found himself wishing for the open hostility of his family. But it wasn’t like this family was suppressing hostility. He couldn’t tell what it was. There was just an air of suspense that put Cal on edge as Uncle Dweeb steered the van full of his relatives and Cal through one of the well-kept, older neighborhoods in one of Multioak’s well-kept, older parts of town. And then, as Uncle Dweeb turned down Antler Street, the tension in the car spiked. Even Uncle Dweeb fell silent. Philip, who had fallen asleep, woke up and asked what was wrong. No one answered.

                Uncle Dweeb pulled the van into the driveway of a two-story, coral-green house with a big front yard. Cal could not see Uncle Dweeb’s face from where he sat, but he could see how tightly Uncle Dweeb’s hands were gripping the steering wheel, how it looked like Uncle Dweeb might squeeze all the way through the steering wheel thereby ruining the steering wheel.

                “Where is it?” asked Uncle Dweeb, his voice quavering with rage.

                “OK, just calm down,” said Mary Anne.

Brandi, who was in the seat directly behind Uncle Dweeb, reached forward and placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s gone, Uncle Dweeb. Let’s just go inside and have a nice-”

                Uncle Dweeb exploded. “Where is it? Where did it go?”

                “You have to stay calm,” said Mary Anne as she shot Brandi a worried look.

                “You all knew about this?” shouted Uncle Dweeb. “You were all in on this? You all went to the park with me and pretended to want to have a turkey bowl to distract me? To get me out of the house long enough for Grace to get rid of it?”

                “I didn’t know!” said Philip from the back seat. He still had his ski-mask pulled down over his face and it soaked up his tears as fast as he could cry them.

                “And you roped Cal into this too?” shouted Uncle Dweeb. “You used him! And you thought having him here would keep me calmer, right? Keep me from making a scene? Oh, now it’s all falling into place!”

                Cal did not like the shouting, but he did agree with some of Uncle Dweeb’s points, specifically the ones relating to himself. Cal wanted to excuse himself, but he was a long way from his house with no means of getting home other than walking.

                “You have to calm down,” said Mary Anne. “Please, Uncle Dweeb-”

                “My name is ‘Bob!’” screamed Uncle Dweeb.

                The whole van fell silent again other than Philip’s sniffling.

                “All right,” Brandi said. “I understand that you’re upset, but we do love you, Uncle…Bob. But you didn’t give Aunt Grace any choice and we love her too. This will-”

                “What did she do with it?” asked Uncle Dweeb. “Throw it out? Sell it? Who’d she sell it to?”

                “We don’t even know,” said Brandi. “She just said she’d text me when it was gone. That’s all I know. She’s the only one who knows what she did with it, but you have to-”

                “Just get out,” said Uncle Dweeb. “Get out of the van. Everyone get out.”

                No one moved.

                “Get out!

                “All right,” said Mary Anne. “Let’s get out, everyone.”

                She opened her door and got out of the van. Guy, on Cal’s right side, opened the side door, letting the people in the back seat get out first. Cal was about to follow Guy out of the van when Uncle Dweeb said, “Cal, no, you stay.” Cal sat back down and Mason was forced to squeeze past him to exit. Once everyone was out of the van, Uncle Dweeb said, “Close that side door, Cal,” and Cal, after a brief hesitation, complied. The family was still standing there, grouped on the lawn beside the driveway, looking sad. “Uncle Bob,” called Mary Anne. “Please come inside. Have Thanksgiving Dinner with us, talk to Aunt Grace. Just talk to her.”

                Uncle Dweeb shifted the van into reverse and backed it out of the driveway. “Where do you live, Cal?”

                “Oh,” said Cal. “Uh, close to the park. You can just drop me there, it’s a short walk.”

                “No, I’m taking you home,” said Uncle Dweeb.

                “OK,” said Cal. “Well, I forget the exact address. I’ll give you directions.”

                Uncle Dweeb drove Cal to his apartment in a silence disturbed only by Cal’s occasional directives to turn right, slight right, left, slight left, etc. When Uncle Dweeb stopped the van at the curb in front of the shabby building that contained Cal’s apartment, Cal said, “Well, thanks for the ride. And thanks for letting me join your family for the game. It was fun.”

                “Yeah,” said Uncle Dweeb. All of the rage had disappeared from his voice. Cal still couldn’t see his face from the middle bench seat, but he could tell from Uncle Dweeb’s posture that his outrage was collapsing.

                “Uh, what are you gonna do now?” asked Cal. “I mean, are you gonna go have Thanksgiving dinner with your family, or…?”

                Uncle Dweeb sighed. “I don’t know. Why do you ask?”

 

                Tammy was still at Multioak Colossal Hearts Foodbank when Cal walked through the door for the second time that day. Her fake turkey beak was gone, probably because it was very, very uncomfortable, Cal guessed.

                “Wow,” said Cal. “You’re still here?”

                Tammy laughed. “It’s only been 4 hours since you were last here, Cal.”

                That didn’t seem possible to Cal. Could it be true?

                “Who’s your friend?” asked Tammy.

                “Oh, yeah,” said Cal. “This is, uh, Bob. He’s having some family issues right now too, so he’s gonna have Thanksgiving dinner with me today.”

                “Oh!” said Tammy. “Well, welcome, Bob! So are you back for one of the Thanksgiving dinner boxes, Cal? We also have Thanksgiving dinner boxes for two. Or you guys could have two of our Thanksgiving dinner boxes for one. Whatever you prefer.”

                “We’ll take the Thanksgiving dinner box for two,” said Uncle Dweeb. He looked and sounded morose.

                “All right,” said Tammy, her voice as cheerful as always. She handed the Thanksgiving dinner box for two to Cal. “Happy Thanksgiving, guys! And…I hope things get better for you, Bob.” Her concern, as always, seemed genuine. Bob must have sensed it too.

                “I appreciate that,” said Bob, pausing as he peered at Tammy’s nametag. “I appreciate that, Tommy, and I know you mean well. But things just seem really dark right now. I found out today that my whole family has been conspiring against me. They all worked together to do something that they knew would crush me, but they didn’t care, they just went ahead with it anyway. And then they have the gall to pretend like it’s for my own good.”

                “Oh, that’s terrible,” said Tammy.

                “Well, I might as well just tell you what they did,” said Bob. “Not the whole plan, just what their end goal was. See, I have this Thanksgiving yard decoration that I put up every year and my wife hates it and so does the rest of my family, but I like it. I inherited it from my grandfather. The newspaper did a story on it, you might have seen it. So my family must have-”

                “Oh,” said Tammy. “That’s you? From the newspaper?” Her voice was cold like dirty slush. Cal had never seen her close off like this before, not even from men who smelled terrible and said obscene things right to her face instead of thanking her for helping them. “Well, I think they need some help cleaning in the kitchen. Happy Thanksgiving, Cal. Again.” Her smile was perfunctory in a way Cal would not have thought her capable.

 

                Cal and Uncle Dweeb sat on the floor and ate their respective shares of the turkey, mashed potatoes, and pie from the Thanksgiving dinner box for two off of Cal’s trash-picked coffee table.

                “It’s that they used something I love against me to take away something that I love,” said Uncle Dweeb, eating his pie with a spoon because Cal only had two utensils – a fork and a spoon – and Uncle Dweeb had chosen the spoon because he wanted to use it on his mashed potatoes, a shortsighted decision because forks work much better on mashed potatoes than spoons work on pie. “So they ruined two things that I love. On my favorite holiday.”

                “Yeah,” said Cal. “I’ve got a lot of family problems too.”

                “I could tell that,” said Uncle Dweeb. “That’s why I was so happy to have you join ours for the day. And look how that turned out.” He made a circular motion in the air that Cal took to indicate the bad apartment, the donated food, the lack of chairs, and the current states of their relationships with their respective families.

                And then Cal saw Uncle Dweeb for what he was: an interloper from an easier life dipping his toe into the trashy end of the pool, a witless observer who was not well-meaning no matter how much he meant to mean well, a soul with surface-level sensitivity standing with one hand on his hip and one hand holding his nose while he looking down at Cal’s dead, old, empty body lying on his mattress and saying, “Well, this is depressing.”

                Cal finished his last bite of pie, wiped his mouth on the collar of his shirt, and spoke in a voice traveling back in time from beyond the grave. “Shut up, Uncle Dweeb.”




Discussion Questions

  • What percentage of families who play big, public “turkey bowl” touch football games on Thanksgiving are covering up serious malfunction and possibly even heinous crimes?



  • What percentage of the “accidental” tackles made during family “turkey bowl” touch football games are actually accidental?



  • List the people, other than yourself, who have the right to be depressed by the details of your life.



  • Has anyone ever been fooled into thinking one of those fake turkey beaks is real? If so, were those people taken advantage of? If so, that’s disappointing



  • Who are some people you know who aren’t thankful enough? This answer should be long.



  • Do food banks have Dr. Pepper? Asking for a friend lol.