Some turn to Jesus
And some turn to heroin
Some turn to rambling round
Looking for a clean sky
And a drinking stream
Some watch the paint peel off
Some watch their kids grow up
Some watch their stocks and bonds
Waiting for that big deal American Dream.
–Joni Mitchell, “Banquet,” 1972.
Tom Kaplan stared at the wreath hanging from the red front door, unsure whether to knock or enter. The faint clatter of life inside was muted by the heavy door: an electric mixer, tinny voices emanating from the family room television. She probably already has the nativity all set up on top of the TV: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, God’s perfect family, teetering perilously on their fluffy sheet of cotton snow. Tiny beads of condensation clung to the door’s three little windows. The time was 9:00 a.m., but the Kaplan home was already warmed almost to unbearable by all of the activity inside: the pies, rolls, casseroles, and side dishes, the bird.
Tom plopped his shoulder bag onto the patio swing and sat down beside it. He shook a Raleigh from the half empty pack in his coat pocket, swiped his lighter across his thigh, and lit his cigarette. He is watching the parade. I wonder if Joe Garagiola still makes those dumb jokes. She is crying because her pie crust is falling apart or her rolls aren’t rising, and he keeps turning the TV up louder and louder to drown her out. When the parade is over he will switch to the Lions game. Then they will eat and he will go back to his chair and fall asleep in front of the television while she cleans up.
A car drove past, its rusted front fender flapping. The driver waved so Tom waved back, silver lighter still in hand. Just one smoke to calm his nerves. Just one cigarette and then he would knock, or not knock. Just one smoke and then he would be home.
One cigarette turned to two, then three, and then a police cruiser pulled up to the curb. The patrolman walked stiffly toward the house, hand resting loosely on his sidearm. “How are we doing this morning?”
“We are doing fine,” Tom said.
“What you got in your hand there?”
“Just my lighter.”
“How about you put that down and show me some ID?”
“Trespassing, for starters. Vagrancy. Disturbing the peace. How about flashing a weapon at traffic?”
“A lighter’s a weapon? Be cool, man, I live here.”
“Kind of funny that you live here but I’ve been on this beat four years and never seen you, don’t you think?”
The red door creaked open. “A policeman. Fred, there’s a policeman. A policeman! Well turn it down if you can’t hear me.”
“Stay inside, ma’am, please,” the officer said. “You, put your hands on the railing where I can see them.”
“Who are you talking to?” Mrs. Kaplan asked. She stepped onto the front porch. “Tommy!”
“We got a complaint, ma’am.”
“Oh, stuff your complaints in a sack.”
Tom stood and hugged his mother. “How you doing, Ma?”
“My pie crust didn’t turn out.”
“I’m sure it’s fine.”
“Everything okay here, ma’am?”
The door swung open again. “What the hell is going on out here?” Mr. Kaplan demanded.
Mr. Kaplan looked from the officer to his son. “They finally caught up with you, huh?”
“Oh, Fred, don’t be mean.”
“Is everything okay here, folks?”
“Everything is fine, officer,” Mrs. Kaplan said. “This is our son. Come on, Tommy. Come in and I’ll make you some coffee.”
“The hell you will. He’s not coming into my house.”
“It’s okay, Ma.”
“You can sit out here on the porch until the cows come home for all I care, but you’re not setting foot in this house.”
“Ma, it’s okay. Whatever you say, Pop,” Tom said, and Fred grabbed his wife by the elbow and guided her back into the warm house. Tom reached into his coat pocket and removed his lighter, making a show of holding it up for the policeman to see before lighting another Raleigh and settling back onto the porch swing. When the patrol car reached the end of the block, Tom gave it the finger.
They built this porch swing together, nights and weekends in the little one car garage turned workshop, Tommy sitting on the bench stool and watching his father cut, plane, join, the smell of the lumber thick in the dusty air. That store bought crap screws together quick. Know what that means, Tommy? It falls apart quick, too. Proper joinery takes more time and effort, but that’s what makes things last. Take the time to put something together right and it will last a lifetime. Fred coated every piece of the wooden swing with spar varnish and locked them all together like a precision jigsaw puzzle while Tommy watched his father from his perch on the metal stool, all the while listening to his strange mixture of woodcraft and life lessons. Measure twice, cut once. Anything worth doing is worth doing right. A good project is ruined by a bad finish. That’s why Patton wanted to finish off the Reds while we had the chance. There’s no shortcuts, Tommy, you remember that.
The first time that the boy touched the swing was the day they hung it from the patio rafters. Tommy strained to hold one end aloft while his father affixed the metal chains. Quality craftsmanship was heavy. “Look what Tommy and I built for you, Mother,” Fred beamed when the swing was in place. “Go on, take her for a spin.” Now the bench showed 15 years of patina and the brass hardware was green with verdigris, but the swing remained solid. Good joinery.
The red door creaked open. “I brought you a coffee.”
She handed her son the steaming cup and lowered herself into the Adirondack chair facing the swing. “Where have you been? Tell me everything.”
“My life’s a drag. You tell me what’s happening with you, Ma.”
“Oh, just taking care of the house and your father. He’s been a mess since they laid him off.”
“Pop lost his job? When did that happen?”
“It’s been…four months? He just sits around staring at television.” She leaned forward and whispered, ” A negro family moved into the Mitchell place.”
“What happened to Mrs. Mitchell?”
“She passed away…oh, I guess it wasn’t too long after you left. They are very nice people, so clean and well spoken. I’d love to have them over but your dad says–”
“So what about you, Ma? How are you doing?”
“I don’t want to talk about me. Tell me all about your adventures.”
“Well, let’s see. I went to Chicago for the convention after that night, and then I spent six months in the can after the fuzz bashed my head in–”
“Your father was so worried about you.”
“–so when I got out I wanted to get as far away from this fascist police state as I could, so I hitched to California.”
“Oh, Tommy, that’s so dangerous. That’s how those Manson people find their victims.”
“That’s what the man wants you to believe, but it’s really beautiful. People out there know we’re all in it together. They aren’t scared, they help each other. Anyway, I ended up in a little commune just north of San Fran.”
Mrs. Kaplan’s brow wrinkled and she covered her mouth with her fingertips. “We saw one of those in Life, with the drugs and the free love.”
Tom laughed. “That’s what I was hoping for, but it was more like a farm. We raised our own food, sold goat milk to a cheese maker in Novato. It was really beautiful for a while, but just like any other scene eventually a fascist on a power trip ruined it. Since then I’ve just been knocking around–picking in the Central Valley, working the canneries on the coast. I even roadied for Hot Tuna for a while. That’s a band, Ma.”
It was the mother’s turn to laugh. “I couldn’t figure out why there was tuna in the road and why it was hot. So where are you living now?”
“Nowhere, everywhere. I’m just living.”
“That sounds awful.”
“No, Ma, it’s beautiful. I’m making a life that works for me.”
“How long are you going to live like this?”
“As long as it takes.”
Mrs. Kaplan patted her son’s knee. “I better go check on the turkey. Don’t worry about your dad, I’ll talk to him.”
Tom lit another cigarette and leaned back. He remembered sitting in this exact same spot many Thanksgivings past while the pots clanged and the television squawked and the moist air beaded on the insides of the door’s three tiny windows. His feet didn’t touch the ground then, the cigarette pinched between the vee of his fingers an imaginary one dependent upon his hot chocolate breath and the cold autumn air for its telltale smoke.
His first real cigarette came just a couple of years after that, stolen from Mrs. Mitchell’s purse by her visiting granddaughter and passed between the two giggling adolescents in the old lady’s upstairs bathroom. What was that girl’s name–was it Shirley? All he remembered for certain was that she introduced him to Dylan, gave him his first smoke, and let him feel her up. She talked about the March on Washington while he fumbled his way through her foundation garments. Shirley-Or-Whatever-Her-Name-Was was an old soul. He wondered where she was now.
The door opened again, and Tom’s father stepped onto the porch. He lit a Chesterfield and leaned against the railing, staring at his frost covered lawn. “Feels like snow weather,” he said.
“Yeah, I almost forgot what that feels like. Been out West. California.”
“You’d like it there, Pop. It has everything: beaches, mountains, desert, cities, country–”
“Hippies, fairies, cults, killers. Let me tell you something, if Reagan can’t clean that cesspool up it’s beyond hope.”
The two men smoked quietly, watching the occasional car drive past. “Your mother has been worried sick about you. She was sure you’d been murdered or overdosed on the pot or something.”
“I’m okay, Pop. I’m doing good.”
“You should’ve called or wrote.”
“You said you’d rather not have a son than one who voted for Humphrey–”
“Don’t tell me what I said.”
“–that I would never set foot in your house again, that my name would not so much as be spoken.”
“Humphrey. That would’ve been the end of the country.”
“Better to elect a criminal?”
“The Democrats haven’t proven a goddamned thing! Nixon’s been a good president.”
“I guess you voted McGovern this time around.”
More silence. Tom flicked his lighter open and closed against his thigh. “This old swing still looks good as new.”
“Most people would just slop a little varnish on it and call it a day, but if you want something to last you have to think about the parts you can’t see. You take a cabinet. It might look fine, but get a little water inside it and the wood swells and blows the whole thing apart from the inside. That’s why I always finish all of the wood, not just the parts you can see.”
“Do it right or don’t do it at all.”
“Goddamned right.” The old man flicked his cigarette butt into the frozen yard and disappeared back into the house.
Hours passed. Savory aromas and the trebly roar of televised football lingered in the frosty air. Tom read his worn copy of The Bhagavad Gita. Occasionally the murmur of raised voices punctured the cold November air, and then the red door opened and Tom’s mother emerged with damp eyes and hot coffee.
Afternoon arrived, and the argument inside boiled over into screaming and banging pots, the television volume swelling louder and louder. It was all so familiar and yet so unexpected. He thought that time would weather the finish and soften the edges, but these things were built to last–these patterns, hierarchies, personalities, people. There were those like Shirley-Or-Whatever-Her-Name-Was who got it before she was old enough to drive and those who could live a thousand lifetimes and never change.
Tom stuffed his book back into his bag and rose to leave. The front door opened, and there his mother stood with two plates heavy with warm food: a banquet of turkey and gravy, potatoes, yams, cranberry relish, oyster stuffing, green beans, ambrosia salad, and butter rolls. “Sit down, Tommy, and have dinner with me,” she said, her voice trembling.
“Sure, Ma. Yeah, I’d love that.” They sat side by side on the old swing, plates on their laps. He tried to soothe his mother’s sniffles with the guttural noises of a son enjoying a home cooked meal, but the gravity of the situation was more than an occasional “mmm” could erase.
Inside, the blaring television fell quiet, and then the red door opened one more time and there stood Fred Kaplan, dinner in hand. He sat in the Adirondack chair facing his wife and only child and balanced his plate upon his knee. “Your mother tells me you’re farming. That’s hard work. I grew up on a farm, you know.”
“I remember, Pop.”
“Hard goddamned work, but it keeps you honest. You plant in the spring or you don’t eat in the fall.”
Tom put down his fork and placed his hand upon his mother’s knee. “Happy Thanksgiving, Ma.”
“Welcome home, Tommy,” she said.
A station wagon drove slowly past. The driver waved so all three Kaplans waved back. “Let’s go inside and get some of that pie,” Fred said.
You have flattened me again with this one, Himes. You know, (just my opinion) I think that the reason that sometimes you do not get accepted in magazines or wherever is because you have this magical, terrible ability to write about everyone and no one in one short story.
This story, the surroundings, the characters – it does not mirror my family at all, and yet somehow the scene is exactly the same as something that happened in my family, so at some point it has happened in some way to everyone’s family, and it hurts to remember, it cuts to the bone.
I don’t know. I think your writing is so honest, it can frighten even the most jaded editor. You find the cracks in the armor and slip in with such ease, the reader does not stand a chance. They remember that One. Horrible Fight. That. Year., or they remember every horrible fight that happened every week and just quadrupled around the holidays.
In your observations, imaginations, and life, you have found and hold all of our shameful secrets, and you weave them into your writing with such care, there is no good guy, there is no bad guy, there is just us, either curled up on the ground sobbing, or just staring into space, wondering what just happened.
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I think that might be the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me, and you’ve said some awfully nice things to me.
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Please promise me you will never stop writing.
Even though I have only now settled down with the waterworks, I am still marveling at what you have done with this piece – if there were ever a time for people to see, really see each other, past the superficialities and the politics and the race/religion/gender – we need it now, and this story would go a long way in helping whoever might be lucky enough to read it. Even just one person outside of your fan base.
I hope you submit it, because I do believe that if you do something that changes even one life, then yours has not been in vain. I cannot remember who originally said that, and I think I am paraphrasing anyway. Blame old age.
I think it is *whomever* – not sure, and I kind of care, enough to write a separate post, but not enough to stray too from this piece of fiction and Why It Matters. 🙂