Jake admired Marla’s grace in the kitchen. She moved like a dancer, while he in his ratty bathrobe and slippers felt clumsy and inarticulate. He poured a mug of her strong coffee, took it with a splash of milk and exchanged mumbled morning greetings with her.
Wide awake from three hours of making Thanksgiving preparations the way her mother had taught her, Marla carried on a monologue that Jake acknowledged with his grunts. She was excited to be hosting her first Thanksgiving, even though it was just with friends and Dick, Jake’s older brother by nine years. The grey in Jake’s hair testified to his age, although Marla’s long tresses, now braided into an auburn cable that swung with her movements, showed not a hint of grey.
“I hope you and Dick get along this year,” Marla said, the first thing that Jake really heard.
“No promises,” he said while getting a second mug of coffee. It smelled rich and sweet, complementing the scents of roasting bird and curing yams. The kitchen felt warm and moist like a protecting womb from the frozen November morning, dusted with snow.
“You should practice the Three D’s,” Marla said a bit too cheerfully for Jake’s awakening mind. “Don’t drink too much. Don’t talk about politics. And for Christ’s sake, don’t talk about religions or philosophies!”
“For Christ’s sake, huh? I’ll try for everyone’s sake, but you know how Dick is. It won’t matter what I do or say. He’ll start something.”
“Takes two to tangle, right? Just don’t let it get to you. I know how you can be sometimes, especially when drinking.” Marla gave him the knowing look. “I can’t believe it’s always all Dick’s fault. You sometimes have a chip on that broad shoulder of yours, sweetie.”
“Isn’t that two to tango? Whatever, I can’t control my brother. That’s just the way it is. He seems to be getting worse too. That man needs to get a job doing something.”
“That’s better. A little compassion for your brother could go a long way. As your manager, I suggest having him do some band work. There must be something.”
“Dick isn’t the type. He’s working class hero all the way.” As Jake said it, he heard a Springsteen song playing in his head. Why couldn’t a working class hero type work in the music industry? The only trouble was how could Dick’s skills fit into music? Jake decided to mention it at the next rehearsal.
He took a long shower, after which he dressed in slacks, dress shirt and sports jacket to go with what Marla planned to wear. The dinner was Marla’s first on her own, although he knew her mother had insisted that she do everything at least once. He remembered how pleasant those dinners were when they were dating and later as a married couple. Then her mother died shortly after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Thanksgiving became a sad part of the season because Marla’s mother had passed on during that time of year. But now, three years after the Reaper had killed Thanksgiving, Marla’s period of mourning was lifting. She was back to her old cheerful self, if still on occasion melancholy and tearful.
Dick had never been to those Thanksgivings. He preferred watching football with his friends from the construction company, where he once worked as a welder. Now, after having been laid off during the work slowdowns in the first decade of the Twenty-first Century, he had drifted away from his old pals. The experience had left him lonely and bitter, and a drunkard.
The few times that Jake had visited his older brother, they fell into heated arguments that ended with hurt feelings. The wounds festered, and so bad sibling blood developed, fueled by old childhood rivalries and attitudes. Dick had been the conservative, Jake the liberal. Dick was for the war, Jake against. Dick wanted women to stay in the home, Jake didn’t care. Jake had no idea what to do about the situation. On this Dick would agree if asked.
Jake had wished that they could have Thanksgiving without Dick, but Marla insisted that he at least be invited. That was like Marla. She always thought about the feelings of other people, even if they did not respect hers. She also didn’t understand Jake’s dread over having his brother over, mainly because she had not witnessed firsthand what could happen. Still, she knew how impatient her husband could get with what he referred to as morons within imbeciles wrapped in a stupid tortilla, or for short, a redneck wrap. Jake liked to preface and pepper the language with F bombs.
By ten o’clock Marla had changed from her working clothes into a nice dress and pumps, a gold necklace setting off her olive complexion. Corky and Joshua had shown up and were helping her in the kitchen. Corky, a wisp of a woman with short blonde hair, also wore a dress, and Joshua had actually found an old herringbone jacket with elbow patches somewhere in his closet. He generally wore jeans and T-shirts all the time, even when tending bar at The Royal Lounge, but for this Thanksgiving he dressed it up a bit.
“Well there he is,” said Corky as Jake entered the kitchen. “Aren’t we looking dapper today! Nice duds there Jake-ster. Jake-er-oni, putting on the ritz.”
“Looking good too, Corky-ino. And Josh, what, you going to a wedding or something?”
Joshua shook Jake’s hand. “Naw, just spiffed up for Marla’s big day, you know? Look here, I even got cuff links.”
“Spencer and Sammy’s coming in about fifteen,” Corky said. “They’re out snatching up the wine. The good chitchat too, no twist-offs. Most of it’s yellow from somewhere at some time. The guy at the liquor store wasn’t too specific.”
Marla took a break from cooking and sat down at the dinette with everyone. “It’s nice to get together like this,” she said, “instead of rehearsing or figuring out business.”
All except Joshua were in a blues/rock/jazz cover band called The Gypsy Troupers. Marla was their manager. Joshua kept his eye out for live gigs. Jake played guitar, Corky sang and played harmonica Chicago style, Spencer sang and played bass guitar. Sammy was their drummer.
“Whup, there’s Sammy and Spence. I’ll get it!” Corky shuffled to the front door in her pink high heels and white chiffon, a Fifties look she sometimes wore on stage. The others followed and congregated into the spacious living room.
“So when’s that brother of yours showing up?” Sammy asked in his blunt but friendly way.
“Should be here any minute,” answered Jake. “Kickoff time’s eleven thirty.”
“Yeah, Pats and Lions. Cool. You a Pats man?”
“Don’t really care. Dick likes Detroit, Motor City and all that. I’ll root for the Lions to keep things easy.”
Sammy slowly nodded. “You two still not getting along? Too bad. Not right.”
Marla answered the door. “Come in you two, join the party!” A tall, majestic woman strode into the room accompanied by a young boy. “Everyone, this is Rubes and Harold, her son.”
While everyone introduced themselves, Corky stooped down to Harold’s level. “What a handsome young man you are! How old are you?”
Harold shrugged. “You are quite pretty yourself,” he said with a slight British accent. “This is a lovely house. Are you the matron?”
“Oh no, that’s Marla over there. She and Jake, that tall good looking hunk next to her, own this joint.”
“I see. My mother is a good friend of Marla’s. She does accounting for the band and your other enterprises on occasion. I understand they met by chance at a conference, small businesses and health care I do believe.”
“Aren’t we the charmer! What grade are you in?” Harold shrugged and smiled. “Don’t know? That’s all right. You don’t have to tell. What’s your favorite subject?”
Harold looked down for a moment. “I play music,” his tone somewhere between shame and fact.
Corky clapped her hands. “Hey Rubes, we’ve got another band member here! What’s he play, keyboards? We need keyboards. Just got us a monster Moog!”
Rubes excused herself from Marla and Spencer, who seemed to have taken a shining to the slim and majestic woman, her hair neatly done and wearing a tailored blue skirt suit. She took Corky by the arm and walked a few steps away. “I don’t want you to feel badly, but Harold doesn’t understand your questions about age and grade. You see, he has a problem. It’s called Williams Syndrome.”
“Really? I had no idea. I am so sorry.”
“No no, don’t be sorry. Harold does just fine with supervision.”
“You mean he’s retarded? Seemed pretty smart to me.”
Rubes laughed. “You are such a sweet girl, Corky. I am so glad to have met you. But you must understand about Harold. He does not comprehend written numbers. He cannot read or write, and never will. His brain is wired entirely different from ours. He cannot connect symbols with reality. An apple is one apple, but the numeral one is just a line. The word ‘apple’ is merely a series of curved lines with a straight one to my little Harold.”
“Weird. But he’s so charming and friendly.”
“That is one of the things he can do well, and that is the problem. Harold trusts everybody indiscriminately. He would gladly get in a car with a pedophile, no matter what the risk. He does not understand risk, or that people can be evil.”
“Holy moley, that’s not good.”
“Indeed. But he did speak truthfully. Little Harold can play any musical instrument like a master almost right away. He can even improvise once he understands the musical ideas.”
“Idiot savant? I’m sorry, whatever’s the right way to say that. I mean, no offense.”
“None taken. It’s savantism, I do believe. Harold is quite lucky, and I mean that literally. Williams Syndrome is a condition in which the child did not receive all the genes due to him.”
“That sucks. So he’s missing genes?”
“Right. It’s a random thing that isn’t exactly genetic. The syndrome can be passed down from Harold, but no history of this hardly ever exists in families. Harold can talk, walk, has fine facial features . . . “
“Oh, he’s a cutie! If I were only twen, ah, ten years younger.”
“You are quite the card, Miss Corky. Just so you understand. Marla is informing the rest of our gathering that Harold may seem a bit odd, but he isn’t retarded. He is quite intelligent, as a matter of fact, but he simply cannot grasp numbers or word symbols. Reading and writing.”
“And he trusts everyone.”
“Yes, quite. He would trust the devil himself to save his immortal soul.”
“Yeah, I know some people like that, but they’re just a pack of fools without excuses. This must have been tough for you!”
Rubes patted Corky’s shoulder. “Somewhat. Harold at first had a hard time with eating, but he mastered that well enough. I will have to feed him at the table, make sure he doesn’t take too big of bites and so forth. Please don’t make any comment. Harold thinks of this as being perfectly normal and acceptable.”
“Yeah? You mean it’s not in some circles? You got my word on it, Rubes baby. We’ll have a smashing good time of it. You’re British, right?”
“Whatever gave you that idea? No, just a little joke. Yes, I’m a naturalized citizen here and a proud subject over there. I had Harold here, so he’s all American.”
Right then Dick stumbled into the house, without knocking, through the back door. Corky hurried away to warn Jake, and he went to his brother who was standing with a dazed look. Dick wore his usual jeans and flannel shirt, steel-toed boots and a Detroit Lions cap.
Jake tried his best festive voice. “Hey Dick, how you doing? Happy Thanksgiving!”
“I’m about one sheet to it and expect to get the others right soon.”
“No, you been drinking already? It’s not even noon.”
“Just a couple of bumps and a beer. Nothing serious. You got any PBR and Jack?”
“Yeah, sure, but it’s still early. Don’t you want coffee instead? Game will be on in just a few minutes. We can go watch it downstairs while the womenfolk make Thanksgiving.”
“Listen to you, little bro. Sounding like me there. Better watch it.”
Jake wasn’t sure if Dick was kidding or not. He gathered up the men and showed Dick the way down to the basement studio where an old television, not the flat kind, was hooked into cable. Dick asked for his beer and bump, Jake offered them and the other men decided that it wasn’t too early at all to have a few drinks before dinner.
At two in the afternoon, dinner was served. Marla sat everyone down and, not by any design of her own, put Dick directly across from Jake. Rubes was at one end of the table, and Sammy was given the other end. Marla thought that their long reaches would help move the bowls and platters around efficiently.
On one side of the table sat, in order, Harold by his mother, Corky, Jake and Marla. Directly across were Spencer, Dick and Joshua. Since Harold needed only a tiny space, Marla had arranged the place settings accordingly to balance the table. Set between Jake and Dick was the turkey, a big one, with dressing spilling onto the platter.
After Rubes said grace in her Anglican fashion, plates and food coursed their methodical ways around the table, orchestrated by Marla. Dick immediately noticed that Rubes was cutting the meat into small pieces for Harold.
“What’s with that,” he whispered to Joshua.
“Kid’s got problems,” Joshua whispered back. “Don’t make no nevermind.”
“Oh, I get it. Retard,” Dick whispered too loudly, the drink in his voice.
“Shush. It’s a Willy something syndrome. I’ll fill you in later. Eat.”
Harold complimented the cook in his slightly British way, which caused Dick to whisper drunkenly to Joshua again. “Kid sure sounds okay, whot?”
“Not funny. Shaddup and eat.”
On his second glass of California Chablis, Dick asked, “So Jake, you guys must be doing all right with the band and all. Nice place. What did something like this go for, three, four hundred?”
“No, it was a fixer-upper when we got it. Put a lot of work into it.”
“Pretty fancy studio you got down there. What did all that equipment put you out?”
Marla could sense the tension building in Jake. She tried to steer the conversation to Rubes and her adventures while becoming a dual citizen. Sammy wanted to know about the exam and how hard it was, speculating that he would never pass it.
“Yeah, see?” Dick’s opening stopped the conversation. “See what it is? You get born here and you get to be a moron. You come in as a foreigner, you gotta know something. It’s disgusting how stupid people are here, born here, you know. Like you, Sammy. What Rez were you hatched on? Net Lake or somewhere?”
Sammy put down his fork and stared darkly at Dick. “Don’t talk about the Rez. I worked hard to get out, okay?”
“Yeah, sure you did. I can see how hard you been working. Get that blister on your finger, blister on yer thumb yet? Get yer chicks for free, or I should say, your squaws.”
“Cut it out, Dick.” Jake spit the words. “You don’t know anything about Sammy. He’s a damn hard worker, pretty near did the roof all on his own, and for free.”
Harold watched the holiday sibling explosion with calm eyes and a cheerful smile. “What’s a Rez?” Rubes tried to quiet him, but he kept on. “I don’t know what a Rez is. Can you tell me, Sammy? Is it a sad place? I’m happy that you don’t have to live there any longer.”
The child’s natural charm defrosted Sammy’s glare. “Yep little buddy, the Rez is a sad place. You wouldn’t like it. It’s a place you leave behind and never go back.”
Beer, whiskey and wine had turned Dick’s mouth into an unstoppable force. “But you Injuns could dynamite all the walleyes you wanted, right? You could bag your deer any time of year. Got all the good wild rice too. Sounds right cushy to me.”
Corky tittered and put on a prim drawl. “Oh Dickey, you are such an enigma wrapped in mysterious flat Mexican bread.” Spencer passed a little wine through his nose, catching it in his cloth napkin. “It’s not Injuns any more. Sammy’s a Native American silly, or haven’t you been conscious for the past three or four decades, my little corn pone? He’s also from White Earth, not Net Lake, as anyone with half an eye can see. Would you mind please to have the good graces of getting your freaking tribes straight, chitchat for brains?” The last part she did in her Jersey accent.
“Politically correct nonsense,” Dick plowed on, energized by negative attention. “I’m as native as anyone, born and raised here.”
“Come on Dick, drop it. You’ve been drinking too much,” Jake said, his voice thin and weak.
“You know Dick, I grew up with you,” Joshua said in his low growl developed while serving his country in the Navy. “You’ve never been this way before, and I think I know why. Life has not been kind to you these past years, but that’s no reason to become a, well I can’t say it here at the table. You’re being a jerk.”
“What’s being a jerk? Telling the truth? Come on, you’re a native, you’re a native, we’re all natives here.” Dick waved his arms and knocked over a glass of water. Marla assured everyone it was just water.
“I am naturalized,” corrected Rubes.
“I’m undetermined,” added Corky. “Some of us don’t know who their real parents were, so just call me Corky Littledrop.” This lightened the mood around the table, except for Dick. He silently ate a few more forkfuls and excused himself to the basement studio. There he hit the whiskey and beer again while watching more football, grimly alone.
“Is he going to be all right?” asked Spencer with sincere concern.
“Don’t know, better check on him,” answered Jake.
“No you don’t.” Marla insisted. “We are here to enjoy Thanksgiving together, and we will. Stay here and finish eating. We’ve got fresh rhubarb and pumpkin pies for desert.”
By the time they finished desert, a fully soused Dick tripped through the back door and headed for his car.
Joshua noticed. “Your fool brother is going to get himself killed. I’ll go stop him,” he said.
“Stay here, Josh. I’ll handle this,” Jake asserted with as much assertion as he could muster. He went out to stop his fool brother from getting himself killed.
“I’ll watch them from the kitchen,” Joshua said. “Don’t think Dick’s packing heat.” Everyone else followed.
Harold asked, “Is there something wrong, mother?”
Rubes took his hand. “Everything’s fine.”
Corky offered, “Want to see the studio, little handsome man?” The women went into the basement, leaving the men behind to make sure things didn’t get out of hand.
“Seem to be just talking,” Sammy said. “Good sign.”
“Looks a little heated,” Spencer added. “Think I see neck veins. Oh God, Jake’s hollering that ‘redneck wrap’ thing with all the trimmings.”
“Bunched fists, leaning in,” Joshua observed. “Fight!”
In the basement, Harold discovered the electric keyboard. Marla helped him get it turned on and set to a pleasant sound. The women watched as the protégé plinked through a few chords and scales, then began playing a Mozart concerto, faultlessly and with flair.
“He can play whatever he hears,” Rubes said. This prompted Corky to sift through the CD cabinet. She pulled out every blues or jazz pianist she could find.
Out back the two brothers were trying to take swings at one another. They kept missing wildly and ended up wrestling on the cold ground. Joshua pulled one, then the other up by their collars.
“What a mess you guys are making,” he scolded. “Just look at you, all dirty and drunk.”
“He started it,” objected Dick.
“Did not,” Jake pleaded.
They tried to hit each other again, which turned into a slapping fest, but Sammy clamped his thick arms around Dick from behind. Joshua held Jake out at arm’s length.
“Stop acting like little children,” Spencer admonished. “You’re both too drunk. Come back inside where it’s warm. You guys need really black coffee.”
While in the kitchen with mugs of coffee pushed at them, Jake and Dick admitted that they were bad brothers. They never did get along all that well, and now that Dick was having issues, things were getting worse. The door to the studio opened, and out came soft interesting sounds from within the acoustic insulation.
“What’s that, Jelly Roll Morton?” Jake wondered.
“Must be playing a CD down there,” Sammy speculated.
“Too complex, the sound,” observed Spencer. “That’s live. Listen. That’s Corky blowing harp!”
Marla came bounding up the basement stairs. “Go down there, guys. You won’t believe it!”
The men rushed into the studio. They saw Harold playing the Moog keyboard, Corky wailing away with her harmonica and Rubes on tambourine.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Dick muttered.
“What?” shouted Jake over the music.
“Never saw anything like it,” Dick shouted back. “They’re good! That kid is good! Look at the little guy go!”
At that moment something happened between two brothers. Neither of them could describe exactly what it was, but it had to do with remembering that, even though they were different and even directly opposed human beings, they were brothers, a bond that could never be denied or destroyed.
Jake’s eyes locked with Dick’s. All the tension and sibling hatred evaporated. They shook hands, embraced and patted each other’s back. Joshua saw this and slapped their shoulders in a friendly way. Dick pulled out of the embrace, linked his arm with Jake’s, and started kicking to the music like a chorus line dancer. He was still feeling the alcohol but had become a fun-loving drunk. Jake understood the joke and danced along. Joshua linked up too, and soon they were bellowing at the top of their lungs an impromptu lyric.
We are terrible brothers! Terrible brothers are we! Horrible in all ways, terrible, terrible, horrible, rotten brothers!
Rubes hunted up a live microphone and held it in front of the three clowns. They went on and on with their dancing and making up words. Some of them rhymed, to everyone’s surprise.
Sammy sat at his drums, and Spencer took up his bass guitar. The room was suddenly filled to the brim with stride piano blues. Corky belted out the actual lyrics. Little Harold playfully made side comments about testifying the truth, Littledrop.
Exhausted, the three men broke their rough chorus line and stepped back from each another. Dick hollered at Jake, “Where’s the guitar? Need your ax, man!”
Jake led Dick to the sound board, handed him the headphones and through hand gestures, gave him the basic idea on how to record and adjust the sound. From that moment on, Dick became the sound man for The Gypsy Troupers. Harold became their keyboardist, Rubes their exclusive accountant and Marla kept on as the band’s manager.
“Richard, remember when we didn’t get along?” Jacob asked Richard, as they had decided to address each other, while sharing their next Thanksgiving dinner. It had been a conscious effort to reprogram their inner voices from saying, “Dick-wad,” and “Jake-off,” their old habits from childhood.
“Barely, Jacob. Seems like a long time ago.”
Harold, now famous worldwide as the band’s highly talented eight-year-old keyboardist, said, “Uncle Richard, would you be so kind as to cut my turkey?”
While Richard did so and gently admonished the boy to eat slowly, Corky applauded. “See Dickey? You are good for something.” She had retained her inner monologue habits because, she would say if asked, Richard would forever be a big Dick in her mind, no matter how nicely he cleaned up the act.
“Quite capable,” added Rubes.
“Masterfully executed, five stars,” opined Marla.
“Better than downtown,” Spencer piped. Rubes touched his shoulder and gave him a warm smile. Spencer’s face flushed.
“Outstanding,” Joshua praised.
“And God bless each and every one,” chortled Sammy, holding out his plate. “Injun Joe want heap big drumstick, Richard.”