Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Thanksgiving of 1953

Maude sits in front of the glass and looks into her own eyes. They are grey. But not a flat kind of grey. No. They are the kind of grey that changes color depending on the light in the room and the time of day and whether it is raining or sunny outside. Her eyes move away from her eyes and move across her head. Her face. Her hair. Her lips. She takes it all in. And she wonders if she is doing the right thing. Her eyes trace down her lips, across her chin, to her neck. And the ugly purple and green bruise that is forming there.

There was a time when she would have defended Richard. She would have said that he didn’t mean to be so rough. That he didn’t know his own strength. That he would never want to hurt any of them. But it has been a long time since she has felt like defending him to others. Or to herself. Instead, she reaches for the make up and applies the cover like a mask across her neck that says everything is okay. Everything is fine.

Today is Thanksgiving. And her family will be as perfect as a Betty Crocker cut out. When the bruise is disguised she glances at her reflection again. Places the pearls around her neck. She is transformed. No more the victim. She is the perfect housewife again. It is the Thanksgiving of 1953. And she is ready and has made peace with herself.

“Momma!” The call comes from beyond the closed bedroom door, “Momma! Mrs. Stevenson and Tom and Eric are here!”

She turns. She feels her heartbeat pick up and her pulse spike, “I’ll be right down, dear.”

She straightens her dress. Fixes her hair one last time. Her eyes glancing to check and make sure the marks are hidded. When she descends the stairs she is the perfect housewife and the perfect hostess. Her dark maroon lips part to reveal a perfect white smile as her lithe form comes to rest at the foot of the stairs.

“Cheryl, dear, I’m so glad you could make it!” And her hands find the other woman’s with familiarity.  

And they touch each other cheek to cheek in a chaste greeting.

“Ah, Maude, darling, you look absolutely divine today.” As her eyes pass over the smaller woman before her, her pale white hand moves up and fixes a stray curl of Maude’s auburn hair, “Come now, what’s left for us to fix before the men arrive?”

And Maude’s lips part again to reveal that white, toothy smile, “Well...”

“Oh darling, don’t tell me you’ve prepared all the food ahead of time again,” She frowns reprovingly before a smile bursts across her cherry red lips, “Oh, darling you are too much!”

And they both laugh as they walk arm and arm into the kitchen.

“Well, you know how Richard is.” And even though she is still smiling she hopes that her smile does not betray what lies beneath the makeup, “We must eat precisely at noon if we’re going to be done in time for the game.”

“Oh yes, of course.” Cheryl laughs and throws back her black curls as she pats one of the towheaded children running through the kitchen, past the flour scattered surface of the tabletop, “Darling, it’s so wonderful that we can have our two families together like this for Thanksgiving. Today is going to be unforgetable.”

And her smile creeps to the corner of her mouth.

The turkey has just finished. The potatoes have been mashed and buttered and creamed. The green bean casserole is steaming. The gravy has formed a crust which has been broken and stirred back into it and is forming again. The cornbread has just come out, cooling on the wire rack. The cranberry sauce is already out of the can and has melted down into a sweet, syrup concoction to crown the Thanksgiving feast.

“I guess, all that’s left is the pie.” Cheryl says, her smile widening.

As Cheryl places the dough into the pie tin and cuts the excess off of the edges Maude begins to open a can of preserved cherries and asks, “How’s Frederick?”

“Oh, he’s wonderfull though busy busy busy with work and all, you know how it is with them, darling.” Cheryl shakes her head slightly as she begins to scoop the bright red cherries into the waiting crust. “Though he has been taking an interest in things more lately. He’s even begun to ask questions about my classes and wants to meet the school principal. I think secretly he’s jealous that I work around another man. I think he’d prefer I stay home all the time.”

“Oh, I see.” Maude says and a silent message has passed between the two of them. “Well, at least it must be nice having him show interest in what you do.”

“And that reminds me!” Cheryl says, stepping next to Maude until their arms are almost touching, the warm of their skin playing in the small space between them, “I heard that Esme up the road is remarrying!”

“No!” Maude giggles as she pushes Cheryl, “Esme wouldn’t remarry again. Not after last time!”

“I know.” Cheryl says dropping an octave and winking, “Isn’t it wonderfully scandalous. Though she’s very insistent. Says it’s true love this time.”

And Maude laughs a hearty stomach based laugh, “Of course she does! She always thinks it’s true love.”

“What are you two laughing about in here!” Richard slumps through the door, eyes already bleary before noon.

“Just gossip, dear.” Maude says trying to compose herself. “Esme up the street is marrying aga--”

“Yeah, yeah. Well, just make sure the food is done on time. I don’t wanna miss the game.” And then he stumbles back away.

“I’m so sorry.” Maude says blushing.

“Oh, please darling it’s Thanksgiving. All the men are like that today.” Cheryl says laughing.

“But Esme? Really?” Maude says looking back towards Richard as she supresses a giggle with a flour covered hand.

“I know.” Cheryl says winking again, reaching across the small space their bodies share, “But really darling, what can you expect from someone like that.”

“I’m sorry for her in a way.” Maude says as Cheryl draws her purse closer, her warm skin sliding across Maude’s, “She’s so dependent.”

And Cheryl laughs before glancing back towards where Richard is and dropping her voice a bit, “Darling, I know. But what can we do? Us pour woman-folk.”

And Maude tries to supress a giggle as Cheryl bats her eyelashes dramatically and throws her pale hand across her forehead, “We are the weaker sex, dear. We must depend on our men to be there for us. They must protect as and keep us safe.”

And the two of them burst into fits of giggles, their silk encased bodies sliding ever so gently as they ride the waves of soft laughter in each other’s arms. They need to laugh today. It makes things easier.

“Oh, darling, pardon me.” Cheryl says reaching up to Maude’s neck, “It seems I smudged your makeup...”

And before Maude can even register the hankerchief comes up, touches the tip of Cheryl’s pink tongue before sliding along the side of Maude’s neck, collecting enough make up. Not all, just enough. Cheryl gives a small gasp. And stifles it.

“Oh darling.” And her cool hand slides up against Maude’s burning cheek, “I’m so sorry.”

And Cheryl guides her hand behind Maude’s back and forces her to face her, even as Maude looks away. And Cheryl brings her closer. Their silk dresses crumple as their bodies touch in embrace. And Cheryl’s hand snakes up Maude’s back and gently brushes Maude’s auburn curls where they dangle at the side of her pale neck.

“It’s okay darling. It’s alright. I understand.”

“I’m so sorry.” Maude raises a small white hand to her burning red cheek, “I feel so embarrassed. I thought I could cover it up with make up but obviously it’s starting to turn too purple for that.”

“There, there darling.” And she pulls out a thin, silk hankerchief from her purse and hands it to her, “Here. Tie this around your neck. Like an ascot. It will cover up your bruise and that way no one has to see.”

And Cheryl has tears in her eyes as she says it, drawing Maude closer to her again and kissing her on her forehead, making sure not to leave a lipstick mark, “Come now, we really must finish this pie and get it into the oven. I think Frederick will be here any second.”

And they work, cutting the thin strips of buttery dough for the lattice top of the pie.

“Oh and I almost forgot.” Cheryl turns to her purse again and pulls out a small brown, glass vial, “Here’s that new artificial sweetener I was telling you about. No calories at all. Simply marvelous darling.”

And as Maude takes the vial, Cheryl’s fingers wrap round Maude’s and squeezed for just a moment in a small embrace. And Maude feels the intensity of that small action. It’s a low tremble at the core of her stomach that goes up her spine and gives her goosebumps.


“Oh, that must be Frederick!” Cheryl says beaming, “I’ll go let him in, darling if you don’t mind finishing up here.”

Her heels clack across the linoleum of the kitchen floor as she heads for the front door. She unlocks it and pulls it back. The man standing there is red faced, his moustache bristling from beneath his nose.

“Frederick, darling, come in! Come in, please! We’ve almost got the food ready and I think Richard will be down any minute now. And then we’ll be ready to eat and then there will be the game.” And she smiles and he scowls deeper.

“Yeah, I’m sure you know all about finishing games!” And he spits. “Don’t think that just cause we’re having Thanksgiving together that it fixes anything.”

And as he walks past her he shoves her against the wall. And as he keeps walking past her she reaches for his arm begging, “Frederick, please!”

“Just today, please. Please don’t ruin Thanksgiving today, darling.” She meets his eyes, looking for even the smallest bit of warmth.

“After what I caught you two doing!? You don’t deserve anything!” And he wrenches his arm away so hard her eyes water with pain.

“Of course not, Frederick, darling. Not for my sake then.” And she looks down as she holds her arm and slowly sinks down the wall to the floor, “But, for the children's. “

And he turns, his eyes narrowing as he scowls more, “Fine! For the children’s sake! They don’t deserve to be punished for your stupid choices! They don’t deserve it and you don’t deserve them!”

He begins to walk but turns to add, “And I’ll make sure of that. And I'll make sure no other kids will be in danger from your influence. Just because we’re having Thanksgiving doesn’t change anything.”

She stands back up and checks her makeup in the hall mirror before turning to him and saying, “If you insist, darling. But lets discuss this all after dinner. We’re here already and you’ll only embarrass yourself if you make a scene. Darling.”

“Fine.” He says levely. “After the game.”

“Fine.” And there’s a sharpness in her tone he’s not use to, “After dinner and the game. And then you can go tell the committee. You can go tell them what kind of woman I am.”

“And what you’re doing with other women.” And  as he says it they both turn on the spot and smile as Maude comes around the corner.

“Oh, Maude darling.” Cheryl calls in her normal bell like voice, “How’s the pie coming along?”

“I just slid it into the oven.” And Maude blushes under Frederick’s knowing eyes. “Ah, Frederick. So nice to see you, dear. Well, it should be ready by the time dinner is finished.”

“That sounds wonderful, darling.” Cheryl calls, “Everyone! I think we’re ready to eat now!”

And eat they do. And as they eat the turkey, the buttery mashed potatoes, the roast vegetables, the stuffing, the cranberry sauce, the cornbread, and the greenbean cassarole everything is fine. And everything is perfect. And everything is joyful and everything is just right. Two perfect families enjoying a perfect Thanksgiving with perfect children and perfect marriages. The perfect Thanksgiving meal. And as the last morsel smothered in gravy is scraped off of a plate into a waiting mouth, everyone sits back in their chairs.

Frederick and Richard both yawn, stomachs protruding over their loosened belts. And seeing Richard’s belt makes Maude shiver, memories coming back. She stands, shivering and trying not to show it when she speaks shakily, “I-I think the pie should be ready now. I’ll j-just go get it.”

And as she disappears into the kitchen Cheryl wipes her cherry red lips and slides out of chair gracefully, “I’ll go see if she needs any help.”

Nobody hears the small discussion that happens in the kitchen. The small argument. The small persuasive statements. The wiping away of tears. Frederick and Richard both sit there, one casting a weary eye at the other. But with both a few beers down, Frederick decides that he ought to let Richard know about what he saw. It involved his wife too after all.

“You know, Richard.” Frederick slurs, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you, one neighbor to another.”

Richard scowls towards the general direction he assumes Frederick is in, “What are you babbling on about?”

“Well, it’s about our wives.” But before he can continue, said-wives appear, one carrying a steaming pie in her floral oven mitts, the other plates and small forks.

“What about us?” Maude laughs and places the heavy cherry pie on the table, steaming in the center, cherry filling bubbling between the bars of pastry dough, “Dessert is served!”

Cheryl begins to lay out small white plates and small silver forks.

“What took you so long?” Frederick snaps, “It’s just a fricken pie! It’s not that special!”

And Maude and Cheryl both smile at each other serenely. The perfect housewives and the perfect hostesses.

“Whatever you say, darling.” Cheryl takes out the long silver knife and begins to cut into the heart of the sticky red mass, while Maude places the steaming wedges on plates and passes them around to their husbands and children.

And then as Maude begins to scoop pie for herself, Richard’s hand shoots out and grabs her thin wrist, causing her to drop the piece back in the platter, “You’re not eating any. You’re already fat enough.”

And as he laughs at his joke and Frederick joins in, Maude sits down red cheeked, “Of course not, dear. I’ll just have another glass of wine instead.”

And as she pours herself another glass of Chardonnay her hand is shaking.

“And don’t you think about having any pie either!” Frederick scowls, not to be outdone. “I don’t want you looking as fat as her.”

Richard grumbles at him. He can call his wife fat but no one else can. If he weren’t so drunk he’d show Frederick whose house he was in. But instead he just slumps back. She’s not really worth it anyway.

“I wasn’t planning on it.” Cheryl says as she pours herself a glass of the light golden liquid, “Got to keep my girlish figure.”

And as the clacking and scraping sound of silverware on china fills the air, the pieces of pie begin to disappear. Maude raises her glass in toast and Cheryl raises hers. And as they both sip the wine across the room the sound of gagging and coughing begins. Like rain. First here. Then there. Then all around them. Their husbands. Their children. All of them coughing. All of them gagging. All of them dying.

The arsenic is working faster than they even would have thought.

Frederick slumps to the side in his chair and falls to the floor. Richard crashes face first into his plate. The children sag one after the other back into their chairs. One of them, his pale face gagging backward, stairs eyes fixed in terror towards the ceiling, his blond hair falling back, revealing a thin white neck with bulging blue veins. Just like his father’s. Maude looks at Cheryl and smiles. Cheryl pushes her chair back and stands up.

She walks around the table and comes up behind Maude’s chair. She places her wine down and brings her cool, white hand with bright red nails onto Maude’s shoulder. And Maude’s own hand snakes up to grasp hers. With her other hand, Cheryl is gently petting the blond hair of the gaping boy. And Cheryl reached her thin, pale neck down and locks her lips onto Maude’s. And the two share a passionate kiss. And as Maude breaks the kiss, Cheryl smiles and says in a hushed, warm tone.

“Happy Thanksgiving, my love.”

And Maude breathes back. “Yes. It has been a Happy Thanksgiving. The perfect Thanksgiving.”

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