written November 23, 2012.
The shared family Thanksgiving of yesterday was still fresh, not yet fully digested by May and I, when my sister Sonya came suddenly in the room. After asking me for some reason if I had dated much while at Western, in front of my present girlfriend, Sonya happily announced her intention to drive quickly to Canton hopes of Black Friday deals… at Goodwill. Promising a speedy return she was off. May and I wrote and chatted, finally lured to the wider house by coffee.
The discussion eventually turned to teaching. A lingering reservation on my part to take on Ms. Krupp’s class again prompted May to tell of when she had also been a “firewall” for another Incorrigible while in third grade. The conversation was expanded when I asked Mom to come in and tell us about a legendary troublemaker that had once crossed her path:
I know I told May on her first visit here of a certain oddity I was experiencing, her, the St. Louis Reality warping into my old Elmwood Reality. She has asked of this since, taking it at first not as the novelty it appeared to my senses but a judgment of her hometown suitability. Not at all. However, the small moments the two of us intermingle with my roots still gives me a tingle. When we share the kitchen. When we share in the telling our exploits. When I save her from one-on-one fatherly musings. When we chat with Mom about our shared connection of teaching.
Somehow old boxes were pulled from the back of my closet while still waiting for Sonya, ones that contained my old Navy uniforms. Gaining admiring glances from May from their dashing quality, I put on an Elrod turtleneck and a set of coveralls. “Promise,” May elicited, “these come back with us.”
Nearly noon at the time the three of us were ready to depart, it was discovered that the temperature was a brisk 32 degrees. “Not a lot of animals goin’ to be out today,” Dad prognosticated. May sat quietly, looking ahead, waiting to here whether she was to be subjected to Siberia. My heart, yet, was warm to their plight. “How about we just try to find the new downtown museum, then do some window shopping and sushi at Grand Prairie,” I offer. It was unanimous.
An unusually quiet (for us) car ride later, I led our party through the frozen, deserted riverfront complexes, winds whipping at us I hunted for the museum. While Sonya heated herself with noxious smoke, May was unfortunately without cigarettes, and began to noticeably stiffen as we finally neared the aluminum, fallen-Jenga game of a museum. While the heat was mercifully free, the tickets to the mysteries beyond were eleven dollars. Back into the cold.
Grand Prairie, if have never been, is an open-air mall, today of course packed with deal seekers. By the time we reached the stores, Old Navy was an answered miracle to May, who led the way in, quickly looking for a puffy, white coat. I perused my small section, being told I was a corduroy man. I have been called worse. The wider collection of pricey clothing and knick-knack stores held our attention in a single quick lap through, Gloria Jeans being overrun and useless to us. Food could warm us.
We arrived at a run to Jerry’s Italian Steakhouse, May desperate to finally escape the cold once we were rebuffed by a closed down Hibachi and Sushi restaurant. We sat down, ordered, and Sonya excused herself to use the phone. Alone, we contemplated how we should navigate through all the “dead-ends” of Sonya conversations through the coming meal. We decided to ask her, generally, how her life was going. When she returned to the table, Eric said, “So, how are things?” or something to that effect. In typical Sonya fashion, she wandered into conversational oblivion, discussing the need to “put bread on her plate,” ect, ect. Not seeing an end in sight, I ventured, in a jocular and friendly tone, “Tell us everything about your life. Every detail.” “Oh gosh,” she said in simple reply. Silence ensued for several more preparatory moments, until she finally said, “Well, I’m going back to North Dakota in like a week.”
Eric, sensing that every other path had been tried by his parents to cajole Sonya from making the mistake of this move, suddenly decided to pretend indifference if it would make his sister view her half-baked plans in a new light.
Sonya: (Looks at me.)
May: It’s okay.
Eric: How are you going to get there?
Sonya: Everyone always asks me that!
Eric: Okay, well, how are you?
Sonya: Train… Amtrak!
Eric: Well, how are you getting to the train?
Sonya: Brad’s mom. She’s gonna drive me to Galesburg and I’m gonna take the train from… Well, it stops in Chicago and then it goes all the way to Grand Forks.
Eric: It goes direct?
Eric: (Incredulous sound)
Sonya: I know you don’t believe me, but it does… (A long awkward silence)
Eric: How long is the train ride?
Sonya: Twenty-four hours.
Eric: Hm. Are you going to bring food on the train?
Sonya: Well, that would be a good idea… Maybe like a lot of granola bars.
Eric: From who?
Eric: From who?
Sonya: Are you, like, purposefully trying to be irritating right now?
Eric: No, Sonya. I’m just asking. It’s just a question. (Another long silence)
May: Sooo… What are you looking forward to most about going back to North Dakota?
Sonya: So you know I’ve already been there.
Eric: You just said it.
May: Just the basics. I just know the basic story.
Sonya: Well, I’d say it’s pretty obvious…
May: Yeah, well, I understand. (Silence)
Sonya: (To Eric) You’ll have to take care of Sophie for me.
Eric: Mom and Dad aren’t going to keep your cat, Sonya. Probably.
Sonya: What do you mean?
Eric: They don’t really like her, right? They only keep her because of you, so once you’re gone they’ll just get rid of her.
Sonya: Well, I can’t take her.
Eric: Why not?
Sonya: She wouldn’t be happy. She’s like 14 years old. And animals don’t like to move. I mean, I’d say you could take her in, but she wouldn’t get along with your cat. Well, I mean, when I lived with my ex-boyfriend, it took like six months for her to get used to it, but by the time she did it was time to move again, so…
May: Well, people do it all the time. They take pets all over the world.
Eric: I’m just thinking about how much it costs for Payton per month, for food and litter. I’d say about 40 dollars a month.
Sonya: Hmm, I don’t think… Well, I could ask Brad…
Eric: You should just do that, Sonya. He shouldn’t have to “let you.”
Sonya: (To May) You look really upset. You must really like animals.
May: Well, I’m just thinking that if I had to move I would be really sad to leave my animals. It must be very difficult for you.
Sonya: It is! I don’t want to leave her. Do you think you can bring a cat on a train? Do you think—
Eric: You’ll have to call 1-800-USA-RAIL.
Eric: Call 1-800-USA-RAIL.
May: You can put it above you in the overhead compartment, I think. [Food arrives]
Sonya: I don’t wanna, like, leave my family.
Sonya: I hope Mom will be okay.
Eric: We’ll have to see.
Eric: We’ll be okay.
Sonya: Mom, she’ll cry a lot. You’ll have to take care of her.
Eric: Yeah, that’s my responsibility. [arrival of coffee refill]
Eric: (To May) So, what are we going to do when we get back to St. Louis?
May: Well, let’s think. Maybe see the Messiah. And just kind of get ready for Christmas. We can get a tree, and make cookies. I’m finally going to use that cookie cutter you got me. And we can put up the lights in the window, too.
Eric: And what do you think we’ll do in Elmwood?
May: So it’s definite that I’m coming here for Christmas?
Eric: Of course!
May: Well, I don’t want to come too much…
Sonya: Why? Do you feel weird or something?
May: Well, it feels a little bit like I’m imposing.
Sonya: No. You’re definitely not. I mean, I won’t be there for Christmas this year, so Mom will be happy to have you there.
Eric: Yup. It’ll just be the four of us.
Sonya: You can be really mean sometimes…
Eric: We’ll be fine.
Eric: (To May) What do you want to do for New Year’s?
May: I already made plans.
Eric: Oh, well, have fun. I hope he’s a nice guy.
May: Oh stop. Plans with you.
Eric could not be sure is his tactic of appearing not to care worked at it. It was worth a shot, if it ultimately might keep her from North Dakota. Eric and May tried to end the conversation on a high and optimistic note, but it was not to be. Sonya said something about mention her plans to her parents, which he followed up with a “Good Luck” and a warning about the potential for further ID defacement and/or destruction by a certain someone. Sonya characteristically jumped to the defense of that someone, and the cycle began again. Eric continued the tough love refrain that everything would be fine without Sonya, and the gravity of the idea that she meant never be seen by the family again settled over the table. The bill was eventually paid, and the three faced the icy prairie winds again on the way back to the car.
Eric was preoccupied with thoughts of the situation, and with frustration throughout the ride home, while May attempted to lighten the mood with a bit of pop music from 2000 Europe. To Sonya, now hearing the ironic, rollicking rendition of “Oops, I Did It Again,” had seemingly forgotten all that had passed in the last hour.
The story of a cracked Thanksgiving concludes with “Praise be to St. Omar.”
The opening chapter of this story, “The Burden of Heavy Ornaments,” can be read here.