A Splendid Holiday Dinner

This is a work of short fiction I recently wrote. Probably…..

Uncle Frank dragged a roll through the gravy lake in the middle of his mountain of mashed potatoes and brought it up to his mouth in one fluid motion, spill-free, an expert move that reflected seasoning and experience. He shoved half the roll inside, chewed, swallowed. He looked at Danielle.

“See, you take that rapper, the Fifty Cents,” he said. “Now here’s a black kid, he knows the score. He knows what side his bread is buttered on. He says, ‘I don’t give a shit what the president says, how he acts, whether he likes me or not. He’s saving me money.’ You heard that, right? Was on the news.”

Aunt Mira gave Uncle Frank a disapproving look. “Watch the mouth, maybe? The holidays? Kids around?”

“Kids? We’re all adults here,” Uncle Frank said.

“Dylan’s not,” Aunt Carole said.

“And not just the Fifty Cents, either,” Uncle Frank continued. “That other kid, what’s his name? Kanyee. He loves our president. And that’s my point: The blacks love our president! And he loves them. You can’t tell me he lost Philly, Detroit, Atlanta, all those cities by that many votes. No no. Something fishy there. Something not right about that.”

Danielle poked at her green bean casserole, eyed its gooey cream of mushroom sauce, its fried onion rings, its limp beans. Boomers loved green bean casserole.

She took a deep breath and pressed forward.

“I didn’t realize you were such an expert on what the blacks love, Uncle Frank,” she said.

“Not saying I’m an expert,” Uncle Frank said. “But I do keep up with the news – the real news.”

“People just want to keep their money, Danielle,” Uncle Don chimed in. “It doesn’t matter who they are, what color, what ethnic group. You can understand that, right? You must make a good living, working for that big law firm. You want more of that money coming home with you, right? Just wait ‘til the socialists get ahold of it.”

Simon snickered.

“Something funny?” Uncle Don said.

“Socialists,” Simon said. “A tried and true bogeyman for people who don’t understand socialism.”

“We understand that they want to take our money away and destroy the economy,” Uncle Don said.

“They also want to take away our rights and freedoms,” Uncle Frank added.

“Jesus,” Simon said.

“Wow,” Danielle said.

“I fought the socialists in Korea,” Grandpa said.

“Those were communists,” Simon said.

“What’s the difference?” Uncle Don said.

“Communists be like all communal livin’, whereas socialists, they all about the socialism,” Dylan offered.

“Very astute, Dylan,” Simon said.

“Respect,” Dylan answered.

“Denise, aren’t you hungry?” Aunt Mira said.

“Let’s not talk politics,” Aunt Carole said.

“Let’s not talk at all,” Laura said.

Danielle scanned them, the whole table, the whole lot, the various branches of the family tree. She went through the usual compartmentalization, just like she did every time they convened over turkey and stuffing, ham and yams, green bean casserole, jellied cranberry sauce, buttered rolls, potatoes mashed to fluffy perfection.

She reviewed the lineup, one by one.

Simon, Laura and Dylan: Cousins. Simon was an associate professor at a liberal arts school in Vermont, cynical and acerbic, too old for his years. Laura was some kind of junior-level bank veep down in Florida. Dylan was 17, pale, skinny, acne-scarred, carrot-haired, an aspiring hip-hop artist, trying to master the language and cadence of the ‘90s gangstas, with the usual hilarious results.

Their mother: Aunt Carole. Pretty, but not as pretty as Danielle’s mother, Jeanine. May she RIP.

Their father: Uncle Gil. He owned self-storage franchises and only wanted to talk about self-storage.

Denise: Another cousin. Twenty-six. Still at home.

Denise’s parents: Uncle Don and Aunt Mira.

Denise had nervous issues, is what Dylan had said. He got his tip from Laura, who either dreamed it up or had inside information. Dylan had told Danielle: Don’t be talkin’ ‘bout no nervous shiznit to Denise.

Grandpa: The patriarch. Worked at the Ford factory until that job went away, then chased jobs across two-and-a-half decades and four different states. Ended his career as a Walmart greeter.

Uncle Frank: Uncle Frank. Large, massive-headed, hands like catcher’s mitts. Flying solo today. Thrice-divorced, semi-retired, tends bar every now and then. Maybe drinking more than usual, which was usually a lot. One son in jail on a meth rap; another living way up in Alberta, maybe trying to beat a rap. Or was it British Columbia? Danielle couldn’t remember.

Marcus: Danielle’s Dad. He didn’t necessarily want to be here, but family is family.

Faces, names, family ties, blood relations. All vanilla-hued – except for Marcus, who was dark amber, and Danielle, who was coffee with cream. She shoved some green bean casserole onto her fork and brought it north, to the mouth region. Her boyfriend, Goran, sat quiet as a mouse and tried not to make eye contact with anyone. Danielle wasn’t sure how much longer they’d be together. Goran had begun to bore her.

“Sure is good ham,” said Marcus, trying to change the subject.

He was plowing through his third helping of ham. He shouldn’t be eating so much ham, Danielle thought, not with his blood pressure and weight. He should be eating turkey, white meat, no gravy. He should be eating the tossed salad nobody touched. But Marcus didn’t like turkey. He said white folks cooked it too dry. Give him a chicken any time.

Marcus never bothered engaging in these holiday dinner discussions, not anymore. He stopped trying a long time ago. He didn’t even get annoyed these days. He just sat and ate. The rest of the family took his silence as a nod of agreement, so they rambled on, oblivious to him, oblivious to Danielle, oblivious to her brother Andre, who was a no-show today. Marcus told Danielle: They’re just in-laws, and I’m just the black guy who married their sister.

That sister – Jeanine, Danielle’s mom – was taken away by breast cancer on Feb. 29, of all days. It was nearly five years ago, and Danielle still missed her daily, sometimes hourly. Marcus & Co. still got invited to the holiday dinners, and every other year they showed up. It was usually Marcus, Danielle and Andre. But Andre refused to go this year, having recently come out as gay. He told Danielle: It’s hard enough being a mixed breed at these holiday affairs. Being queer might tip them over the bloody edge. Andre had a British boyfriend and now used terms like “bloody” and “luv.” He and the boyfriend were thinking about moving to London. Or Bangkok. Or Santiago. Or Melbourne. Or Lisbon.

“Well, everyone knows the election was rigged,” Uncle Frank opined. “More votes than voters. I hear they changed hundreds of thousands of ballots. The socialists are determined to grab power any way they can, even if it means cheating.”

“And the Jews,” Simon chimed in. “Don’t forget the Jews, Uncle Frank.”

“Simon,” Aunt Carole said.

Uncle Frank took a couple swallows from a can of Bud and leaned in toward Simon.

“I got plenty of respect for the Jews – the good ones,” he said. “There’s good Jews.”

“That must bring them comfort, knowing you feel that way,” Simon said.

“Listen,” Uncle Frank growled, “just because you’re at that hippie college teaching kids about Karl Marx and whatnot….”

“Frank,” Aunt Carole said.

Simon laughed. “Hippie college?”

“I never went to college,” Grandpa said. “Didn’t need or want to. Got a job, worked hard for 47 years. Never asked….”

“…..for no charity, never asked the government to help out, never took a dime I didn’t earn,” Danielle whispered to herself.

Marcus shot her a look, then went back to his ham.

“Took the Ford job after Korea,” Grandpa said. “Twenty-three years old. Never asked for a dime of help from the government. Now everybody has their hand out. Gimme gimme gimme.”

Uncle Gil, sensing an opening, cleared his throat.

“We give special discount rates to military veterans at all of my self-storage facilities,” he said. “Anything up to 5 by 10, upper level. Climate-controlled units, indoor access. I’m proud to do it for the men and women who served. Simple process. You just note that you’re a veteran when you sign up, then list your service details. It’s all digital now. You go to the rental platform and complete the transaction online. Only takes a few minutes. Self-storage is constantly evolving. You wouldn’t believe what’s coming down the pike. Intelligent warehousing, smart locks, mobile apps that let you lock and unlock units remotely – even access video surveillance.”

The table looked at him, then looked away.

“So the election was rigged?” Danielle said to Uncle Frank. “That’s your theory?”

“You bet it was rigged,” Uncle Frank said.

“And your proof?” Danielle said.

“There’s plenty of proof, just you wait. Thousands of documents.”

“And yet none have been made public,” Danielle said. “All those documents, but none for public view. Imagine that.”

“It’s a legal process,” Uncle Don said.

“It’s a legal process,” Uncle Frank repeated. “His lawyers know what they’re doing.”

“Which lawyer?” Simon said. “The bug-eyed one with the melting hair? Or the android who blamed it all on evil voting machines and a dead Venezuelan president?”

Denise laughed, cut herself off immediately, then looked back at her plate of barely nibbled food.

“Denise, you really should eat something,” Aunt Mira said.

“They need to recount the ballots,” Uncle Frank said.

“Which ballots?” Danielle said.

“The ones where there’s reason for suspicion.”

“And which are those?”

“You know which ones. Where the ballots came in late. Where everything was mishandled.”

“You mean the ones your guy lost,” Simon said.

“The ones where there’s reason for suspicion,” Uncle Don said. “Let’s just make sure everything is on the up and up.”

“The ones where there’s fraud!” Uncle Frank declared.

“The ones your guy lost,” Danielle said. “That’s what you mean. And it’s odd, isn’t it? That in such a big country, with more than 150 million votes cast, only a handful of states seem to be targeted for fraud – and they happen to be the ones where your guy lost.”

“An amazing coincidence,” Simon said.

“What’s your point?” either Uncle Don or Uncle Frank said.

“You’d think they’d want a recount everywhere, these protectors of integrity,” Danielle responded. “Make a clean sweep. I mean, let’s look at Texas, Florida, Ohio, every county and precinct. Let’s recount all those votes. Something very funny going on there.”

“What we’re saying…..” Uncle Don said.

“What you’re saying is that if there is cheating, then only the other side cheats,” Danielle interrupted. “Not your side. Only the other side. Which means only your side has the moral fortitude to be honest and forthright, right? And the rest of the country – more than half, according to voter registrations – are complicit in fraud and corruption. All of us, every single one. Your family, your neighbors, the people you go to church with, your co-workers. All of us.”

“I’m not saying you’re corrupt,” Uncle Don said. “Don’t be dramatic.”

“It’s the Deep State conspiracy,” Uncle Frank said. “It runs through every damn thing.”

“Deep state, check mate, the power never hesitate to orchestrate conspiracies a theory of brutality,” Dylan rapped, weaving from side to side.

“Dylan, speak in your regular voice,” Aunt Carole said.

“Better yet, don’t speak at all,” Laura said.

“And don’t trip, hater,” Dylan replied.

“Anyway, I don’t remember your side being so gung-ho about the election process four years ago,” Uncle Don said. “Back then it was, No way she lost! She was robbed! It was stolen by the Russians, with the winner’s cooperation and approval!”

“The difference is, there was ample evidence of Russian involvement,” Danielle said. “Not even your side bothers denying it anymore. But never mind all that. The point is, she conceded immediately, and we accepted it. Maybe not happily, but we accepted it. And do you know why? Because no reasonable adult can possibly believe that mass voter fraud could be pulled off without someone making a mistake, someone leaking the information, someone punching a wrong button somewhere. You don’t think the government is smart enough to run a post office, yet you think it’s brilliant enough to pull off massive voter fraud?”

“They’re not pulling it off!” Uncle Frank said. “They’ve been caught!”

“Caught doing what, and by who?” Simon said. “They haven’t produced a shred of evidence of fraud. It’s over. He lost. Get used to the idea.”

“We’ll just see about that,” Uncle Frank said.

“That’s right, we’ll see about it,” Simon said. “And when the election finally does get called, and the electors confirm the results, and not even the Justice Department can keep up the lie anymore, your guy will pack up and leave the White House a month later. Then what? What will your complaint be then?”

If that happens, it will only be because the conspiracy goes deeper than we all thought,” Uncle Frank said.

“And I’ll be figuring out a way to hold onto my money before the socialists come after it,” Uncle Don said. “Maybe put it in one those offshore tax shelters you hear about.”

Simon shook his head. Danielle jabbed another forkful of green bean casserole and shoved it in her mouth. Dylan practiced some beats on the table. Aunt Carole told him he was shaking the table, please stop. Aunt Mira took her 1,000th shot at convincing Denise to eat. Denise crawled into herself, just a little more. Grandpa took off his glasses and blew on them. Uncle Gil showed Grandpa a new brochure from his self-storage facility in Norfolk. Grandpa looked at it and ate some rice, because he just felt like rice today, and his daughter was damn well expected to make it. Goran sat with a look of sheer terror, Danielle thinking, sure, Goran is nice, and nice to look at, but God, couldn’t he at least take a goddamn stab at saying something?

Marcus leaned back and wheezed. He followed it up with a belch which he tried, unsuccessfully, to hide behind his hand.

Danielle looked at him.

“Dad, you’re eating too fast,” she said. “Slow down, drink some water.”

“I know how to eat, Danny,” Marcus said.

“He just needs a beer,” Uncle Frank said. “I’ll grab us both one.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not what I need, Frank,” Marcus said.

“I’m pretty sure, too,” Danielle said.

“Then I’ll grab two for me,” Uncle Frank said.

He headed for the kitchen while everyone else caught their breath, looked at the food, looked at each other, looked away, looked down, looked outside, looked at the TV with the football game on and the sound down.

“Marcus, you haven’t pitched in to this little discussion yet,” Uncle Don finally said.

“No, guess not,” Marcus said.

“So, care to join in?”

“I don’t know.”

Uncle Don leaned in. “Maybe you could talk some sense into these millennials. I mean, regardless of who you voted for, or why, you’re a businessman. A success. A veteran. You can’t like what’s happening to the country. All the protests, all the anti-flag stuff. I’m guessing you don’t like it when your taxes are raised, either.”

Marcus leaned back and stifled another belch. He gave Ron a weary look that might have been a glare, if you watched closely. He opened his mouth, closed it. He opened his mouth, closed it again. He opened his mouth.

“That’s right, I don’t like it when my taxes are raised,” Marcus said. “Bad for business, bad for my own personal bottom line. I believe in a strong economy and a strong defense. I stand for the national anthem. I believe in God and country.”

“Damn right,” Uncle Frank said, rejoining the table, two Buds in hand.

“So do you like what’s happening?” Uncle Don asked. “I mean, you fought for this country.”

“That’s right, I did,” Marcus said. “Joined the marines fresh out of high school, 1972. You all know the story. Went to Vietnam, fought in some of the last battles there, took a bullet in the ass, earned a Purple Heart. Still hurts to sit down sometimes.”

Denise chuckled, quietly, then clammed up.

“What you don’t know,” Marcus continued, “is that two days after my discharge I got stopped by a highway patrolman in Georgia who told me I was going three miles over the speed limit. He said, ‘Now why you in such a hurry, boy? They got a special down at the Kentucky Fried Chicken today?’ The patrolman laughed, wrote me a ticket. He waited for me to pop off so maybe he’d have reason to club me in the head. But I kept my mouth buttoned up nice and tight.”

Marcus pulled one of Uncle Frank’s Buds over and took a sip.

“Dad,” Danielle said.

“One beer isn’t gonna kill me, though I’d rather have a Sam Adams than a Bud,” Marcus said. “Anyway, after the marines I went to Bethune-Cookman on the GI bill, the first in my family to attend college. Graduated cum laude with a degree in accounting. The first accounting job I applied for, they offered me a job sweeping up the warehouse. The second said they weren’t hiring, but I later found out they hired two new accountants, neither of whom looked like me. I passed the CPA exam and it still took me four years to latch on with a real accounting firm. I eventually made junior partner, but it took me longer than some of the fellas I came up with. Now I’m a full partner, got a 3,000-square-foot house I don’t need, a swimming pool I never use, a golf membership even though I can’t break 90 anymore. Two kids I had a little late in life, because Jeanine and I wanted to make damn sure we had enough money to protect them from all the things only money can protect them from.”

“The American dream,” Uncle Don said.

Marcus took another swig of Bud.

“Here’s something else ya’ll don’t know,” he said. “Every year, without fail, I sit Andre down and give him a talking to, whether he wants it or not. Most times he doesn’t because he’s heard it so many times before, but I make him sit and listen anyway. I just feel compelled to remind him of who he is, where he lives, what that means, and how he needs to conduct himself if he ever wants to see old age. When a cop pulls you over, keep your hands in plain view at all times. Don’t reach for your ID unless you’re specifically asked to do so, and even then, do it slowly. Don’t make any sudden movements. Don’t get an attitude, even if you didn’t do anything wrong. Be calm and respectful. Don’t walk through white neighborhoods alone if you can avoid it – and by all means, never run through one. Don’t drive down the street with your music thumping, even if you see white boys doing it. Don’t get upset when you’re followed around in stores by employees or security personnel. Don’t get upset when they ask to check your bag on the way out, even though they never check anyone else’s. Don’t let the slights add up and become an anvil on your back. Don’t get a chip on your shoulder. Don’t let the bitterness consume you, because then you’ll become the very thing you hate.”

He looked at Uncle Don.

“It’s not always about the taxes, or the flag,” Marcus said. “It’s also about the bitterness. A lot of that going around, isn’t there? Rigged elections. Fake ballots. All the grievances some people think they have. I guess I’m tired of hearing about it, Don. I guess I just want to eat. Now, how about sliding me some more of those yams, Dylan? I do love the yams.”

The table was quiet, except for Dylan. He handed the yams to Marcus, then began weaving his skinny carrot-colored head back and forth, thumping the table.

“Well I’ll be damned, Sam I Am, Uncle M straight outta ‘Nam feelin’ the hams and the yams wit da Caucasian fam,” Dylan rapped. “Bitterness is litterness, togetherness foreverness don’t obsess over the mess been made, don’t throw shade, ummm ummmm….”

“Dylan, that’s enough,” Aunt Carole said.

Danielle nodded to the beat. That rap wasn’t half bad, for an improv. She had to give Dylan credit, the dork.

And Marcus laughed, long and loud, the way he sometimes did. The way Danielle would always remember.

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