Thanksgiving Day (from The Holy Family)

My novel The Holy Family opens on a Thanksgiving morning in Manhattan: “A hint of early morning light peeks through the long thin opening between the window shade and the sill…”

Novelist Larry Baker, author of The Flamingo Rising and other novels, says, “From the first page I knew I had stumbled into a jewel of a book…this novel deserves a wide audience.”

Get your copy today. Here’s an extract to get you started.

1   Thanksgiving Day

A hint of early morning light peeks through the long thin opening between the window shade and the sill as I roll to the right and slightly open my eyes. Not bright enough to wake me fully, it still whets my curiosity about the day I am about to face. I slip out of bed softly so as not to wake Justine. It’s just past six o’clock, and though she used to be the earlier riser, these last few months she has been sleeping later, especially when it is not a work day. I close the bedroom door behind me and go downstairs to the living room.

The south-facing window seems to await the sunrise, when the early light will leap the treetops of Central Park, run down our street, and angle through the glass and sheer curtains. I hope that the air will be cool and crisp today, and that later, when we drive our Camry across the Hudson River to New Jersey, the air in my hometown, Manasawga, will smell good, even taste good, and when I breathe it deep into my lungs it will invigorate and renew me.

It has had that effect in the past, especially on days that I have felt worn down by work, or by Manhattan, or by life.

I go into the kitchen and drink a small glass of orange juice, then return to the bedroom and slip back into the bed, careful not to jostle and wake Justine. She is sleeping on her left side, I am on my back, and I allow my left thigh to brush up gently against her. She has not been much for touching lately, but this slight sensation sends ripples through me just as it has for twenty-five years. As I begin to doze again Justine turns, then turns some more, and I feel her breath on my neck, then her lips, then I am wide awake as she kisses me and swings her leg over to straddle me.

“Marty,” she says, “oh honey it’s been such a time” and we make love, a gentle, rocking lovemaking as if we are floating in water, and then just remain in a wordless embrace until we fall asleep again. It is eight o’clock when we wake to the smell of coffee brewing downstairs in the kitchen, the automatic coffeepot unfailing in its only task.

 

A little later I am eating a light breakfast and sipping coffee in the kitchen and Justine comes in and pours a cup. “I think just coffee for me,” she says, whether to me, or to the coffee, or to the kitchen sink, I am not sure. She sips a little off the top and then walks out of the kitchen.

I finish my cereal and then pick up my mug to go into the living room and join her. She has not gone to the living room, but is standing at the top of the stairs, outside the closed door of the bedroom our daughters shared from the ages of eight and ten until they went off to college—Janet first, to Rochester and later to Minnesota to pursue a doctorate in geophysics, and Celia to Vassar a couple of years later with her paints and brushes.

I take a breath, thinking I am going to say something, but instead I continue into the living room. I stare out the window again toward Central Park and it occurs to me, not for the first time, that this is our first holiday with neither of our girls home with us.

I told my parents we would get out to Manasawga as early as we could to help prepare Thanksgiving dinner. They are in their mid-seventies now, Mom and Dad, and still like to put out the spread. I made two pies, pumpkin and apple, yesterday, and we stow them in paper bags behind the driver’s seat of the old Toyota. Justine typically likes to drive, but she ignores the keys when I hold them out and gets into the passenger side.

Traffic is light going down Ninth Avenue and into the Lincoln Tunnel. We quickly cross the Hudson River, the tile walls a blur as I maintain a steady seven miles an hour over the speed limit. Traffic is sporadic on Routes 3 and 46, and on Route 80 I just stay in the center lane and cruise. Justine stares out the passenger window. There is not a cloud in the sky but she stares intently at something up there. As we approach the exit that will take us into Manasawga she shifts her weight and leans, placing her hand on my right thigh and then her head on my shoulder. It is awkward to drive this way, but as a single tear drops from her eye and rolls down the sleeve of my jacket I hold steady and make the final turns with one hand on the wheel, the other holding Justine’s.

It is almost noon and the aroma of turkey greets us as we open the door and walk in. After hugs and hellos we hang up coats and unpack pies and look for ways to help in the kitchen. My mother tells us that my brother Dan, divorced, and his sixteen-year-old son will be here, and my sister Marie and her husband and the youngest of her boys. My sister Jeanette is having dinner at her mother-in-law’s, but her oldest son Tom is having dinner here. “He’s got a new girlfriend he wants us to meet,” my mother explains. “Then they’re going to granny-number-two’s house for dessert, I guess.” Tom lives in Philadelphia where he works as an accountant, and this is his first trip home with his new girl. He met her just after the last time we saw him, in late August.

Dinner is just about ready when Tom and his girlfriend walk through the door. He puts on a big show of introductions. Her name is Rachel and she is a knockout—too hot for an accountant is my first thought, but I bury that quickly and shake her hand when Tom gets around to saying “My Uncle Marty Halsey and my Aunt Justine.” Rachel may be overcompensating, or just nervous, but she speaks a tad louder than she needs to—I want to say to her, Use your Inside Voice, but I don’t—and saying again and again what a delight it is to meet everyone and how blessed she feels to be with us for Thanksgiving dinner.

The minor tsunami of Tom and Rachel’s entrance subsides as quickly as it had swept in, and there is a moment of awkward silence before my mother directs everyone to the take a place at the table. I save a seat for Justine to my right while she helps bring dishes of steaming food to the table. “I’ll get that, Ruth,” Justine says, hefting the large platter of carved turkey before my mother can get to it. When we’re all seated, Tom and Rachel are directly across from Justine and me and I can see that my mother is about to tell my father to start passing the turkey, but Rachel speaks first.

“I’m just so thankful to be here,” she says, “I’m just so grateful to the Lord for bringing me to this table of fellowship with all of you. Maybe we could all—you know, share a moment to say what we’re thankful for this year?”

I can see my mother’s demeanor stiffen—we’re not grace-sayers, or thanks-expounders, and are especially not interested in faith that is worn on the sleeve. And Mom wants the food to be served while it’s hot, which is just plain common sense. There’s another awkward silence, and when I take a breath to speak Justine pinches my knee and gives me her “uh-uh, don’t go there” look, but I go anyway.

“I’m terribly thankful that we can eat and talk about thanks at the same time, so let’s get this food moving around the table while it’s hot. Get that turkey going, Dad!” Everyone starts talking and reaching at once. Rachel seems a little crestfallen, but Mom is clearly relieved and smiles as she scoops some pearl onions onto her plate. Tom senses Rachel’s discomfort and says, as he serves food onto both his and her plates, “Well, I’m thankful that Thanksgiving doesn’t happen during tax season, so I can be here with my family.” Marie raises her glass of pinot noir and says “To family,” and we all respond in kind with the glasses of whatever we are drinking.

 

Dinner continues with small talk, bad jokes, and gentle ribbing among the siblings and relations around the table. Rachel, the odd-girl-out, tries to keep up, her blue eyes flashing from person to person as she tries to follow the family dynamics and inside jokes. She occasionally looks at Tom in hopes of an explanation, but the look on his face says, Later, I’ll explain that later. Every now and again she chimes in with a “Thank the Lord for that” or “That’s such a blessing from the Lord.” When my sister tells us that a drunk driver sideswiped her parked car on the street in front of her house, Rachel exclaims, “Thank the Lord there was no one in the car!” Hearing that the drunk was caught and arrested, she gives us a big “Praise Jesus!” Marie, through gritted teeth, asks whether Jesus has anything to do with the goddamn insurance agents who have been making her life a living hell ever since the accident. Rachel is taken aback and after a moment excuses herself and asks for directions to the bathroom.

When she is out of earshot, Tom says, “I’m trying to break her of that, guys. It’s how she was raised. She’s not really like that—fundamentalist. Not like you’re thinking, anyway.”

I give him a look and say, “So she’s okay with sex before marriage, you mean?”

I can see I’ve embarrassed him, and I’m not sorry. He glances over at his grandparents, who are both chuckling, and says, “Hey, she’s not even against gay marriage.” Marie just rolls her eyes and says, “Yeah, praise the Lord. Whatever.”

Justine has been quiet throughout dinner, making only brief remarks here and there. No one mentions Janet or Celia, or asks how things are going for us in Justine’s graphic design business and my talent agency. As dinner ends we take a break before dessert, breaking into smaller groupings having separate conversations. I hear bits and pieces. Rachel has come down from the bathroom and stands beside Tom, a strained smile on her face. She participates less, and when she does her voice is softer than before. She and Marie avoid eye contact and move as if they have the same magnetic charge. I ask Justine to come outside to the front yard with me for some fresh air, and she takes my hand as we go down the front steps. I lean against one of the cars in the driveway and she leans against me, her back to my front, and I wrap my arms around her and kiss her on the temple.

“Warm enough?” I ask.

“As long as you hold me like this.”

“I’m holding.”

She says, “Well, thank the Lord for that,” a perfect replication of the timbre of Rachel’s voice, and we both burst out laughing. The familiar scent of her becomes suddenly strong and sweet, as if laughing has released some essence of her that had been held back. She turns and faces me, kisses me full on the lips and then burrows into my shoulder.

“That felt good. Laughing,” she says.

“You smell so good,” I say.

We stay like that until we hear the front door open. Tom and Rachel are leaving to go to his other grandmother’s house. Tom approaches with his hand extended and gives me a firm handshake that turns into a hug, then goes straight for the hug with Justine.

“It’s good to see you, Uncle Marty. Aunt Justine. Nice and cool out here.”

“Glad you could come for dinner,” I say. “I hope the job is going well.” Tom nods as Rachel reaches out to shake our hands.

Taking one of our hands in each of hers, Rachel looks from me to Justine and says, “I didn’t know. Till just now. I—I’m so sorry for your loss.” Justine offers a sympathetic smile, knowing how hard it is for people sometimes to say these things, but her eyes darken when Rachel looks straight into them and says, “God is with you. He really is. Have faith. And he has his reasons—”

But before Rachel can finish her thought Justine turns roughly away and starts walking toward the backyard, pulling me by the hand as she goes. I follow her without a second thought or a look back, gathering her against me as she steers us along the brick path that goes around the house. Our moment of laughter is long gone, replaced by Justine’s retreat into a much darker place where tears fall from her eyes and her lips tremble and she is here but not here, with me but not with me, and I feel utterly lost.

 

[Excerpted from The Holy Family by Alan Michael Wilt]

Copyright © 2012 by Alan Michael Wilt. All Rights Reserved.

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