U is for… [U]ndercooked #AtoZChallenge

The turkey was undercooked. Ma planned to roast it overnight, have the whole house smelling like a Thanksgiving feast by morning. But we woke up freezing, a surprise dusting of snow on the lawn, enough to slick the roads, but not enough to delay the holiday traffic.

Tony and Kerry arrived at noon, arguing again, though I’ve stopped caring what for. Something about Kerry wanting to move back to Raleigh after Tony just got a promotion. Let her go. She’s not the one for him, but Tony married her anyway. He doesn’t listen—he never listens.

Dinner was scheduled for 1:00, but at 2:30, I sat alone by the window, watching for Gregory’s car to pull to the curb. I hadn’t seen him since his birthday on October 24, a week before Halloween, and it was terrifying to see him then. He looked as if he had grown six inches. His face was fuller, half covered in a thick, coarse beard, but the rest of him was so thin and frail, he almost looked like Tony, a physical characteristic the two brothers never shared. While Tony was the spitting image of his father, both in name and appearance, Gregory favored me—the short, stubby fingers, the flat nose, the extra weight around the stomach and arms. But his arms were toned, muscular, the outline of them seen through the thin, sweat resistant short-sleeve shirt he wore, too cool even for mid-fall.

It was Tammi who texted me they’d be over for dinner. Gregory’s phone was off—he hadn’t paid the bill. Gregory had been missing a lot of bills lately—puzzling because his father and I taught him how to be a good steward over his finances. It was as if all of his upbringing left him the moment he met her. Over and over he asked me for money, a car note here, rent there, Tammi’s parking tickets, which I flat out refused. But I didn’t want to completely abandon him, so I slipped him change when I could. The more I gave, the less I saw of him, and when I realized he only came home for money, I stopped giving all together, and his visits became more infrequent.

Before his birthday, June was the last time I’d seen him. He’d even missed our Fourth of July family cookout in Ma’s backyard. After it got dark, we would climb up Ma’s roof and watch the fireworks shot off from the high school football field while enjoying burnt hotdogs and Carolina burgers with chili and slaw. It had been a family tradition since Antonio was alive. No one ever skipped it, rain or shine.

I could hear Ma scrambling in the kitchen. Not much to cook with a twenty pound bird taking up most of the oven, but we had to eat something—it was Thanksgiving after all. With a shrunken menu, the sweet potato casserole, became plain yams, the mac and cheese stovetop, the dressing stuffed inside the turkey to cook them both at the same time, while on the back burners, the greens boiled.

Ma kicked me out of the kitchen shortly after she realized she never turned the oven on last night. “You know you’ve never been a cook,” she said. “You’ll only slow me down.” I was given the assignment to make Tony and Kerry chicken salad sandwiches—the salad already prepared, all I had to do was spread it over the bread—to hold them over to dinner and hopefully to quell their arguing.

And it worked. We had silence for a while . . . until Tammi and her mother showed up, and without Gregory.

I had never met Jacquelyn. She’d tried to introduce herself several times before, calling to explain why she had allowed my son to live with her and her daughter in their overcrowded trailer, knocking on my door in the middle of the night to tell me she’d kicked them out. The vibrations in her voice told me she was nothing but drama then, and now she was standing right before me expecting a free, and she didn’t even bother to bring Gregory with her. And the striking resemblance between her and Tammi—how old was she when she had her? Any stranger would think they were sisters.

“Where’s my son?” I had no interest in shaking hands, fake smiles, or “how do you do’s.” These people overstayed their welcome the second they stepped foot on Ma’s front porch.

“He at work.” Tammi smacked her lips. Her nonchalant attitude quickly got under my skin.

“I was expecting to spend Thanksgiving dinner with my family. I don’t know you.”

Tammi’s mother reached out her hand. “Hi I’m Jacqui—”

“And I don’t care to!” I snapped.

Ma entered, putting the oven mitts she was wearing under her arm. “We may need another hour. That turkey just won’t cook.” When she noticed the tense atmosphere at her front door, she said, “Who’s this?”

“Tammi, and Jacqui,” I cut my eyes at the mother, “decided to invite themselves without Gregory.”

“Where’s Gregory?” Ma asked.

“He had to work,” Jacqui answered.

“On Thanksgiving?”

Jacqui started to say something, but quickly closed her mouth. By the way they shrugged their shoulders, avoided eye contact, it was obvious they were lying. My worried mind went straight to the marathon episodes of Snapped I often watched to fill my Sunday afternoons when I came home from church. It was the worst thing to watch on a Sunday, a holy day of rest. All it did was disrupt my peace. Women taking vengeance into their own hands, taking a life. When Gregory went weeks without calling, I feared the worst. What had they done to him?

I heard Tony barge down the hall, and I knew things would quickly escalate with him in the room.

“You know they’re getting married, right?”

“Who?”

Tony pointed to Tammi.

“Yea, we engaged.” Tammi shrugged her shoulders, flashed the small diamond on her left hand.

A ring. He’d bought her a ring. With what money? I remembered those times he called, whining that his lights were about to get turned off, that he would be evicted if he didn’t pay rent by the end of the week, that he couldn’t afford to have his car repossessed because then he’d have no way to get to work. Were they all lies? The money I’d been giving him—a little here, a little there—had he been collecting it until he had enough to buy a ring and propose? No, no. Heaven forbid I inherit another lethargic, unappreciative daughter-in-law like Kerry, who had secluded herself away in the dining room to pretend she was crying.

Instinctively, I clawed at Tammi’s hand, snatching of the ring I paid for and a thin layer of skin along with it. She yanked my arm back with one hand— with much more force than her petite frame would lead anyone to believe— and with the other hand, slapped me clear across the face. There was shouting and screaming, and at some point Kerry finally appeared in the kitchen doorway behind Ma. I could feel Tony’s arms around my waist. He and Jacqui pulled Tammi and I apart, and backing up, I tripped over Tony’s size 13 shoe and hit the side of my back on the back of the couch, re-agitating a muscle I pulled a few weeks ago when moving around the furniture in Gregory’s room.

“I ain’t gon stay where I’m not wanted!” Tammi was screaming.

“Then why the fuck are you still here?” Tony yelled.

Suddenly the smoke detector in the kitchen went off, setting off all the others in the house, including the one in the living room right above the space of floor that separated me from the intruders. The piercing peal silenced us for several seconds.

Ma rushed back into the kitchen, brushing past Kerry. “Jesus, Kerry, you don’t smell my greens burning?” She stirred the pot, added water and flicked off the eye. She grabbed a towel and begin flapping it under the detector to clear the smoke.

When the noise finally ceased, I looked directly at Tammi. “You need to leave.”

“Gladly.” She turned around and kicked open the screen door, making a sound like ripped metal and leaving behind a dent in the bottom left corner. Jacqui stayed behind for a brief moment, as if considering an apology, but quickly spun around and followed her daughter to the car. I shut the door behind them and noticed the engagement ring on the floor; it must have fallen out of my hand during the scuffle. I quickly kicked it away. The sight of it disgusted me.

“She’ll be back when she realizes it’s gone,” Kerry mumbled.

“Oh, now you got something to say? Where were you when that bitch was hittin’ my mama?” Tony shouted.

Kerry rolled her eyes and turned away. “I’m not arguing with you, Tony.”

“But you gon listen!” He stormed past me, my throbbing face obviously not too much of a concern, to finish his tirade with Kerry from earlier.

Ma returned from the kitchen, her shoulders hunched. She looked just as defeated as I felt. “Why not Chinese? They’re always open on Thanksgiving. I don’t think I can save this dinner.”

“There’s still the turkey and stuffing.”

“That won’t be for another hour. You know my old stomach has to eat early. I’m feeling lightheaded already.”

I tried to force a smile, but my face was so tight, I probably looked constipated. “Why don’t you sit, and I’ll make us some chicken salad sandwiches.”

“Can we eat them outside? I’m sick of those two yelling, and I need to cool off.”

I nodded and looked back to the window. Eating outside would only make me more anxious about Gregory, wondering if every car that drove by was him. I shook my head. No, there was no sense in waiting for him anymore. He wasn’t coming. And Tammi would surely tell him what happened here. Then, after that, I don’t think he will ever come home.

—Nortina


Written for the A to Z Challenge. This year, I’m getting a head start on planning my novel for NaNoWriMo. Prologues, character sketches, structure planning, or in the case of this post, more backstories. Stick around as I try to figure out what the heck I’m going to write in November!

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