What is the worst Thanksgiving dinner you’ve ever had?

“Emergency!” I hollered , thundering down the stairs and nearly punting our overfed family cat in my desperation. Bounding away from a graceless landing, I tore through the kitchen, the foyer, and the living room in quick succession. “Code red! Grade A catastrophe!”

I found my mother setting up a snack platter for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving dinner, presumably fine tuning everything’s place for maximum aesthetic value.  The tray juttered out of her hands as I crashed into the room, upending little biscuits and cheeses all across the shag carpet. The cat eyed this forbidden buffet from the corner of the room, held at bay by the baleful force of my mother’s warning glare.

“Yes?” sighed my mother, trying not to glance at the spilled snacks for fear of losing focus on her anti-cat stare. “Are the British coming? Has Timmy gotten himself stuck in the well again? Because it had better be as important as self-buttering toast for you to come running-”

“Dad can’t cook the turkey!”

My mother looked at me as a deer stares into oncoming headlights. No longer held back by her glare, the cat darted into the mess of snacks to set about licking everything twice.

“What do you mean ‘dad can’t cook the turkey?’ Dad always cooks the turkey! Why can’t your father cook the turkey!”

“The doctor says he needs to stay in a little while longer,” I explained, “He’ll be here for the dinner but not in time to make the turkey!”

“But… but if your father can’t cook the turkey, then that means…” Mother’s eyes and mine both slowly turned to the mantelpiece. We slowly scanned the frames of frozen memories and faraway family that would be gathering here tomorrow night. One by one we took in the sincere grins until our gaze came to rest on the wrinkled, matronly smile of the world’s most misguided gourmand. We both shivered.

“No,” I muttered, “No no no. Grandma can’t cook. We all learned this on that one Christmas.” Mom and I repressed a shudder. “Can’t you do it? Just this once?”

“No,” she whispered.

“Just this once! If you-”

“Do you even remember Easter?” asked Mom in a threatening tone.

“No, Mom, nobody remembers Easter because I thought we all agreed that none of that ever happened.

“Well unless you want the same thing to happen to Thanksgiving, I guess it’s either your father or Grandma. And since your father can’t make it—hey! No! Bad kitty!” Mom shooed the cat away from his cheesy plunder. “Not kitty treats!”

I helped her clear away the debris, gathering the snacks into a slightly hairy pile in my hand. I did so partly to prevent further cat temptation but mostly to keep the wheels in my head turning. We didn’t have a long line of bakers in the family, but with everyone coming to town for Thanksgiving there had to be someone with the know-how to properly baste a bird.

“Of course!” I shouted, dropping my load of crackers and deli meats onto the floor. The cat shot back like a rotund homing missile to resume licking.

“What? What do you have?” asked my mother, heaving the cat off the floor.

“Belle! Belle can cook!”

The cat, lower limbs dangling from my mother’s arms, licked his chops skeptically. My mother gave me only a blank stare, followed shortly by a smirk, followed soon after by hearty laughter that had the cat jiggling nervously in her grip.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“Belle can’t cook real food!” my mother managed between fitful gasps for breath. “Just veggies!”

“It’s—the principle’s the same! I just have to convince her to cook a turkey instead of an asparagus salad or whatever it is vegans eat.”

“My mother wiped a tear from her eye and loosened her grip, allowing the cat to ooze back down to the ground. “Heh… good luck with that.”

-

                “B-but I never cook the dinner!” whispered Belle as she ducked behind my parent’s gaudy purple lamp.

“And Dad never gets sick.,” I countered, trying to circle around to her side. We ended up in a fruitless loop around the lamp. “But he has, and you have to!”

“But why me?” she muttered, disengaging from our circling to hide behind the coat rack. It worked better for her than it would on someone with a normal diet.

“Because Dad can’t do it, Mom won’t do it, Ter and I don’t know how, and Grandma…”

We both shuddered. I threw back the jackets that sheltered my sister and carefully made my demand sound like a question. “So you’re going to do it?”

“But you know I don’t cook turkey,” she protested, backing up slowly. I matched her every step like a stalking cat.

“But you know how…”

“I know how…”

“You know what to do…”

“I know what to do…”

“So you can do it!”

“But I can’t—EEP!” Belle’s torso vanished from sight as her legs backed into the arm of a comfortable Lethargic Lad chair, flailing awkwardly.

“What do you mean you can’t do it? You just said you could!”

I crossed my arms while Belle painstakingly dragged her upper body back into view. After a few stumbling attempts to speak she focused her efforts on getting her feet under her before trying anything so complicated. Steadied, she said, “I said I know how to cook a turkey. But I can’t actually do it! It’s not vegan!”

I gave her the special sigh I kept reserved for only my dear sister. “So?” I asked, pulling my hand off of my face. “Just don’t eat it! Problem solved!”

“It’s not that simple, okay?” Even fully upright, her capacity to appear righteously indignant was at best underwhelming. “I can’t eat meat and I can’t cook it. I’m not even a hundred percent comfortable being in the same room as that thing. Everyone keeps touching it, and I just know they don’t even wash their hands! It’s disgusting. Just thinking about it makes me want to…” Belle put a hand to her mouth and made a queasy face. Most people choose a vegan diet because of moral principle. Most people don’t sanitize their sanitation wipes. “Disgusting. No. No way. Sorry.”

“But if you don’t do it, then Grandma will have to cook! And we’ll have to eat what she cooks afterwards! And that’s not even the worst of it!” I ran my fingers through my hair and shoved my other hand into my pocket so I wouldn’t start biting the nails. “I might be able to put up with just the food if she didn’t always insist that the ingredients were off, or the bird was too old, or the oven wasn’t heating properly, or–”

I stopped and pulled myself together as my sister got a grip on both my shoulders.  As my breathing calmed down, I slowly realised I was hyperventilating. “Wow,” said Belle, “This is really bugging you, huh?”

“She always blames the food and it’s just so aggravating!” I took a deep breath and counted to five. I exhaled. “I guess maybe it does bug me a little. It’s just a little pet peeve.”

Belle almost bit her lip. Almost, because of the various microbes and bacteria that can settle on the outer surface of one’s face when one isn’t looking could enter the body through a careless lip-bite. So she didn’t quite express the sign of concern, but it’s the thought that counts. “If this is really getting to you so bad, maybe we could make some kind of compromise.

I let go of a breath I didn’t know I was holding. “Oh, thank you, Belle. Now listen, if you could–”

“No, you listen!” Belle harrumphed with a very uncertain conviction, raising her finger with authority. “Rule #1:  you don’t negotiate anything! Whenever you do, you talk fast and I get confused and end up having to get my hands dirty anyways! So no talking!”

“That’s not a compro–”

“Ah-bup-bup!” My sister bulged her eyes threateningly  and I grudgingly kept my mouth shut. “Now I know this guy, he can get things and get them fast. He can bring us a nice, clean tofurkey–”

“Tofurkey?!”

“Ah-bup-bup! And he can get it in time for me to prepare it. Now that is my final offer. If you say anything other than yes or no, I’m leaving. It’s either some nice, healthy tofu or Grandma’s specialty carbon surprise.”

-

                “You should have tried harder,” whispered my brother.

“I did try harder! I tried everything I could think of!” I hissed back, shuffling in my seat beside him. We were both equally dismayed with the arrangements I had been forced to make and had sat side by side to better mutter under our breaths. “There were no other options—hold on.”

We both faked our best smiles and sat locked in rictus gruns as our beaming chef stole into the room to arrange six plates along each end of the table. We cheerfully held our breaths until she had waddled back into the kitchen.

“I can’t believe this,” muttered my brother as soon as she was out of earshot.

“Well maybe you could have helped out if you ever answered your damn phone!” I retorted with as much subtlety as I could whisper.

“Will you two cut it out?” interrupted our father from across the table. “I don’t see either of you stepping up to the plate. I mean really, it’s Thanksgiving for crying out loud! We should all just be thankful that anyone was able to get this done while I was—”

We all froze and straightened like startled groundhogs as our chef stopped by to drop a menagerie of food-analogues quivering atop plates and pans. I fought to keep my positive expression seeming genuine as I noticed that the stuffing was a radioactive green. Undeterred by the concentrated effort of our synchronized grins, the proud gourmand shuffled back to the kitchen to finalize her piece de resistance.

Sitting beside Dad, Mum wore a smug grin as she watched him stare into the ‘food’ that he was so staunchly defending just moments prior. “You were saying?”

My father levelled his eyes with mine and said, “Why didn’t you try harder?”

“I told you, I didn’t have a choice! The only alternative was some weird foreign tofreaky!”

“Tofurkey,” corrected my sister, sitting on the other side of my brother. “And it’s not foreign! It is functionally identical to turkey in every way, except it is much more sanitary. And made of tofu.”

Everybody but my sister made simultaneous retching motions. My sister speared a floppy lump of what might have been a potato and waved it at us threateningly. “Are you seriously suggesting that this is better than tofu?”

“Oh, Annabelle.” Everyone jumped when Grandma spoke up, carrying a smoking mass out of the kitchen. “We already know about your weird pagan thing.”

“Vegan,” Belle corrected quietly.

“And we all respect it. But the fact is…” She dropped the tray onto the table with her oversized baking mitts. A thick, acrid smoke billowed out and choked us before anyone could get too good a look. From what I could see, the mound of charred meat was unlike anything that had ever flown under the name of ‘bird.’ It bore a passing resemblance to the frozen prime turkey we had picked up prior, perhaps after a few million years of hypothetical evolution. “This time of year, everyone just wants a properly cooked turkey.”

So we ate. Belle gorged herself on soggy string beans and our brother tried everything with courage that would shame a lion. Grandma criticized the supposed dryness of the expensive turkey, the expiry date of our fresh vegetables, and nearly every aspect that could explain this mysterious drop in quality. I hid my rampant frothing with excessive stuffing while Mom and Dad laughed inwardly at my silent frustration. All in all, not really any worse than every year.

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