I set the table while Ma faffs about the kitchen, mashing potatoes, carving turkey, and stirring the gravy, licking it off of the wooden spoon and muttering to herself, “more pepper.” I join Dad in the living room. He’s watching Family Feud reruns, casting his gaze occasionally out the window toward the end of the farm where the sun set behind the old barn where I had had my first kiss.
Ma had explained on the phone that Dad was much worse than the last time I’d seen him.
“What are you doing home?”
“It’s Thanksgiving, Dad.”
He huffs and turns his scrutiny to the window. He sits in a brown leather lounger that’s cracked and sunk in the middle like the crease in an old shoe. I sit opposite on the sofa, observing the trees. The last of the leaves are on the ends of branches, fluttering in the wind.
“Dinner,” Ma calls. She’s at the table pouring wine, laying a cluster of pills next to Dad’s place at the head of the table. “Help your dad up.”
I hook my arms under his armpits, cup his shoulder blades. His hands curl around the back of my neck. He feels light in my arms, I can feel the thinness of his torso against mine. Once to his feet, Dad shuffles toward the dining room, swishing his slippers along the wood floor.
Ma serves out plates of carved turkey, sweet potato casserole, balsamic-roasted brussels sprouts, sausage and herb stuffing, green bean and lemon casserole, and a bowl of cranberry sauce. The works. Baking in the oven, still, is her four-flavor sheet pan pie.
She plates a shy helping of turkey, cranberry sauce, and half a spoonful of stuffing for Dad. She spreads a napkin over his lap. I pile a heap of food on my plate and sauce it in gravy. I have a mouthful of green beans in before I notice Ma praying, chin lowered to her chest. The three of us had always prayed before meals and I can’t remember when that ceased to be a tradition. I figure Ma does a lot of things alone now.
I cut the pie after dinner and serve it in bowls with blobs of half-melted vanilla ice-cream. I play backgammon with Ma on the couch—she’s always been sharp at strategy games—while Dad falls asleep in his chair.
The sun has burned through the window all day, giving the room a warmth that reminds me of the hot summers I’d spent in that house.
The sun hums into a neat orange stain above the barn. The temperature in the room begins to chill, so I spark some candles on the fireplace and place a blanket over Dad’s lap.
He wakes up a while later, opening his eyes slowly. He looks around the room as though he’s been transported somewhere in his slumber.
“I need to go home.”
“Honey, you are home.”
“Yeah, dad. You’re in your chair.”
“Where’s my wife? I’ll be in trouble if I’m not home.”
Ma uses my knee as a crutch to get up off the couch. I notice a frailty in her now that I hadn’t noticed before. Purple blotches bubble over the bones on the back of her hands and her arm wobble as she presses against my leg.
“Come on, Lou. I’ll drive you.”
Dad rises in his chair, clasps his cardigan over the dome of his stomach and stuffs a pen in his chest pocket.
She helps him up, fixing herself to him, squeezing her face against his. She heaves him to his feet and buttons his cardigan.
“We’ll be back,” she says.
Dad holds out a hand.
He’s always been a hugger. I hated it growing up but had begun to appreciate it more recently.
“Nice to meet you, young man.”
I look to Ma, but her face has no answers. She just looks tired.
I shake it, feel the sharp ends of Dad’s nails poke into my palm. I want to cry.
“Nice to meet you too.”
I watch through the window as Ma leads him down to the car, opening the passenger door, holding his hand while he hunched into the seat. She drags his seatbelt across his lap and backs the car out of the driveway, disturbing the gravel into a low-hanging fog of dust. Then the taillights shrink as the car slips into the black of the road.
When they come back a few minutes later, Ma leads him up the drive, her arm hooked around his. I stand up, step closer to the window to see past my reflection, through the darkness into the garden. I knock on it, timidly with a single knuckle at first, then with my whole hand, drumming against the glass.
Dad pauses and picks up his eyes, which he fastens to the ground as he walks now. He’s hunched in the shape of an old tree branch.
I wave. I feel a little silly doing it.
Ma points to the window and says something in his ear.
Dad looks puzzled for a moment, looking at Ma, before steering a finger to the window, spreading his lips into a smile, and saying (I was sure of it) “Look who it is!”
Originally from Ireland, Gavin Colton is an MFA student at the University of Kentucky.