Grease splattering, water boiling, pots and pans clanking, bodies moving and shuffling, and layered above it all were the voices of the too many chefs against a backdrop of old school blues moaning its heart out.
Crissy got annoyed. She always got annoyed.
“Can’t we play something more upbeat than this? When I’m cooking I need something to help me moooove through the kitchen!”
No one responded, including Ted who sat hunched over a table in the far corner, chopping things up. His large kitchen never seemed smaller than when the whole damn bunch of them came over. But his sister begged him, and he relented.
Crissy walked to him.
“Can I put something else on?”
“Yeah, put on whatever you like,” Ted said, not looking up.
She pranced to the stereo, wiggling past the two bodies at the stovetop and the three around the island and switched off the CD. She hunted the radio dial until she found what she was looking for.
“That’s more like it.”
“You ready for your burner yet?” Jessie asked with a thud in her voice, hoping the drama was over, at least for now.
“I’m always ready. I just needed something more upbeat in here. Felt like a funeral parlor or something.”
Bodies stopped moving. Pans stopped clanking. Even the splattering grease and boiling water stilled for a moment. Jessie glanced at Ted, who remained hunched over his chopping. That’s Crissy, never knowing when to shut the hell up. She felt the pause and avoided eye contact by staring at the food she was preparing.
LB stood in the doorway, a witness to the whole scene. She wanted to smack Cousin Crissy. Jessie noticed her daughter standing there.
“Lillibeth, where have you been? No, don’t tell me, I know.” Sweat running against tanned skin marked her defiance to the Thanksgiving gender roles, but it also marked her Guilty as Charged. She meant to come in sooner to see about her uncle, but got carried away as usual. Her face dragged along with her feet. “Why were you out there playing basketball when you know I need you in here? Wash up, please. Then go over there and help your Uncle Ted with the chopping.”
LB went to the small restroom off the kitchen to splash water on his face. Just as she opened the door to leave, little Saffron came up to her. She showed LB her elbow.
“How’d you do that?” LB asked.
She closed the door again and put the water back on, then took off Saffron’s dress and lifted her to the sink to clean the wound.
“You know you shouldn’t be playing like that in your nice clothes. Your mother will get mad.” She lowered Saffron and toweled her off. “What were you playing, anyway?”
“Tag. How come Uncle Ted gets to stay here?”
“Why wouldn’t he? This is his house.”
“It is? I thought it was the white man’s house?”
“You mean Carl? That’s his name, you know. Anyway, it’s both their houses. Here, sit down.” She sat her on the lowered toilet set cover to put a bandage on the scrape.
“So Uncle Ted doesn’t have to move?”
“No. If you daddy died, would your momma have to move?”
Saffron didn’t say anything. LB helped her put her dress back on. She skipped out of the little restroom. LB washed her hands again and re-entered the kitchen. She saw Saffron over at the table with Uncle Ted.
“Where’s Mr. Cuddles?”
Ted looked up at her small, round, young face and thought how unblemished it was. He could feel the newness of her skin without touching it.
“Oh, honey, Mr. Cuddles is gone. He disappeared. He just went away one day and didn’t come home.” He paused and tried to smile. “Sometimes cats do that.”
“Oh,” she said all wide-eyed. Then she scampered away, out the patio door where the little kids had a field day in the backyard.
As LB took the chair opposite her uncle’s, their faces met for a brief moment. His eyes were wet and beet red. Ted quickly looked down at his chopping again.
“Damned onions,” he muttered.
“You want me to chop that?” LB said.
“No, honey. You do the carrots, OK?”
After several sleeve wipes, the wetness vanished as did the lump in the throat, which he cleared it with a couple of small ah-hems.
“So, who did you beat outside?” he asked.
“Everybody,” LB said, shit-grinning.
“You know it ain’t fair. Against you, they need to play two against one.”
“Their egos won’t let them. Anyway, I’d still beat them.”
“You think you’ll get the scholarship?”
“I don’t know, we’ll see.”
“Don’t be like that, LB. It’s yours. Just attack it and take it.”
“Lillibeth, where have you been?” her mother called.
Jessie walked over to the table.
“That’s not what I asked. I know what you should be doing. Where were you?”
“Saffron fell and scraped her elbow,” she said. “I washed it off and put a Band-Aid on it.”
“She fell?” Aunt Ursula called out. “Fell where? Where is she? Is she outside playing?” She went straight for the patio door, her voice trailing behind her. “Saffron! Saffron, don’t mess up that dress, now!”
Jessie’s face lightened. “Alright. Let me know when you’re done, OK? I need all that for the stuffing.”
With a knife she felt awkward. And the carrots, slipping and sliding on the cutting board, seemed to have minds of their own. Finally LB’s brother Jerome popped in, still sweaty from his hoops game out front. He snatched a soda from the ice chest in the breakfast nook and noticed his sister struggling.
“That ain’t how you chop it. Here, you cut down the middle first, then a cross cut like that. Then you start slicing it up, see? That way it comes out in little pieces.”
“Why don’t you finish that up,” Ted said, “and let LB do the celery. It’s easier.”
Jerome didn’t like being called into duty, a fact he tried to communicate with his angular body language. LB passed the cutting board to him.
“Here,” she said. “You ain’t doing nothing but losing outside, anyway.”
He sucked his teeth, but relented and cut the carrots while standing. He made short work of it.
“You want me to do that last onion, Uncle Ted?” he asked.
“What happened to the food processor?” Jerome said.
“Cousin Crissy broke it,” LB said.
“Again? Ain’t that like the third one?”
“That’s why I keep mine hidden,” Ted said. “That one was Ursula’s.”
LB snickered, which caused Ted to do the same. Jerome let go of his macho enough to sweeten his smirk into the soft smile he tried hard to conceal. But he didn’t stay long. He finished with the onion then swaggered into the living room where the men watched the games on the big screen.
The cowbell rang several times, in the front, the back, and the middle, until bodies finally moved into the dining room. The little kids had a table to themselves, as did the jaded teens. This year, LB joined the adults around the big table. She sat next to Uncle Ted.
Folks wondered if they would hold the family Thanksgiving at Ted’s again, as they had for so many years, largely because of this moment. Before the prayers were spoken and the food divvied up and passed around, everyone was invited to share a brief remembrance of a loved one who passed on during the year.
JB and Jerome’s parents fought over how to deal with it.
“Look, Jay, it’s his house!” Jessie said. “If he wants to remember Carl, then that’s his right.”
“In front of the kids? Are you crazy? What is he going to say, I lost my sex partner?”
“That’s cruel, Jay. And you know he and Carl never flaunted themselves in front of the family!”
“Well, I don’t want him to start now!” he said, folding his arms.
“And I don’t want him to be alone, Jay! He is my brother! He needs his family around him. And anyway, he’s opened his home to us every Thanksgiving for over seven years, ever since the folks passed. This is not the time to abandon him!”
“I’m still not comfortable with it, Jessie. Not at all.”
“Would it help, Jay, if we skip the remembrance? If we just don’t do it, would that help, Jay? Would it?”
He kept his arms fold and his face drawn tight.
JB and Jerome heard the whole loud discussion downstairs in the kitchen. She nearly snapped a plate she was drying in half, while Jerome’s movements slowed. A part of him faded away, like a ghost.
“That’s just wrong,” she spat.
Jerome nodded while putting away the pot roast he cooked to perfection.
Eventually, cancelation of the annual ritual became the accepted compromise among the adults. No one had to say why. No one had to explain. No one had to go there, and no one did.
From her place at the table, JB stared at her brother as he sat at the teen table. He pretended not to notice, making only furtive eye contact.
Deacon Tyler, her father’s older brother, rose his great girth to his feet, the usual signal that the prayer was imminent. Folks stilled, ready to bow their heads. Then from the little kids’ table up popped Saffron. She clutched a sheet of paper containing words written in her own hand.
“I have someone to remember!” she cried.
Everyone turned their heads. Deacon Tyler smiled at her.
“Who do you want to remember, Saffron?”
“I want to remember Mr. Cuddles!”
Some folks snickered. The teens grew restless. They thought the end of the ritual meant that the food would come sooner.
“And who is Mr. Cuddles, honey?”
“The cat,” LB muttered.
“He’s the cat that used to be here, but now he’s gone away.”
Awwws filled the room. A few even came from the jaded teen table. LB took her uncle’s hand.
“Well now, you go right ahead, Miss Saffron, and remember Mr. Cuddles.”
She cleared her little throat as officiously as she knew how, and read.
“Mr. Cuddles had brown fur and white fur. Mr. Cuddles used to sit on my lap and I would pet him and he would purr because he liked to be pet. When he purred it was like a big smile on his face, because cats can’t smile. We always played hide and seek and when I found him, he would start rolling over and over until I started rubbing his belly. Mr. Cuddles was a pretty cat and a fun cat. I will miss Mr. Cuddles because he made me smile and he never scratched me or hurt me. God bless Mr. Cuddles.”
Everyone clapped for her. Saffron walked over to give her little speech to Uncle Ted.
“Thank you, honey, that was beautiful,” he said.
He stared at her young face, then took the paper from her. She went back to the kiddie table. Deacon Tyler stood once again.
“Family and friends, let us bow our heads now and give thanks. Thanks for this beautiful, bountiful feast set before us. Thanks that our Savior graced us with another year together.”
Ted couldn’t sit any longer. He abruptly rose during Deacon Tyler’s prayer and hurried from the room. Folks hear him go up the stairs in heavy steps. Then a door slammed. LB moved as if to follow him, but her father’s eyes sat her back down. Deacon Tyler continued.
Carl used to rally the guys into the kitchen to do the clean up, leaving the living room to the ladies. His voice rose above all the loud post game analyses and told them what went where. They were an obedient troop. Thanks, Carl. Thanks, man. Alright, then.
LB took his place. That goes in the top cupboard. That goes in the drawer. No, the dishwasher is full, don’t force anything else in it. The men obeyed her, but without the usual rowdiness. Voices normally at a Spinal Tap 11 lingered at a 4 or a 5.
When it looked like the kitchen was nearly ready, Jay went to her daughter. His hands fidgeted with a dish towel and he spoke in hushed tones.
“Look, LB, do you think you can hang out with your uncle tonight? Make sure he’s OK?”
“If he wants me to,” she said.
“I think he does. Your mother thinks so, too. She went up to see him. I think it would be good for him, alright?”
“Call me if you want a ride home, alright?”
She started to sweep the floor, when Jerome came up to her.
“Tell Uncle Ted I’m sorry about Carl, alright? Can you tell him that?”
He almost looked like he had been chopping onions, though he kept it real for the sake of keeping it real.
“I’ll tell him.”
“You gonna stay the night?”
“I don’t know. I’ll see what he says.”
“OK,” Jerome said, walking away.
Ted did not come down until all the cars had long since driven off. He used the back stairs that went directly into the kitchen and saw LB sitting at the breakfast table, reading.
“You don’t have to stay, baby,” he said. “But thank you.”
“Are you alright?”
“No.” He went to the counter to make some coffee. “I shouldn’t have left the family like that and not see everyone off. That wasn’t right.”
“And it wasn’t right that they all tiptoed around here and pretended like nothing happened all day!”
He walked towards LB, who stood and gave him a hug. He still clutched little Saffron’s eulogy.
“You know how the cat got its name, don’t you?” he said.