“I want to in­vite the kids for Thanks­giv­ing this year,” Cyn­thia said, and I said, “What the fuck? Where will I eat,” and she said, “I was hop­ing you’d eat with me, next to me,” and I said, “What a fuck­ing mis­ery,” and she said, “That’s not what you said last night,” and I said, “Well, we weren’t under a mi­cro­scope then,” and she said, “You worry too much,” which was so off-base that I didn’t bother to re­spond.

Then she went out to the gar­den in her Holly Hob­bie hat and spent five min­utes get­ting down into a kneel­ing po­si­tion on this geri­atric-look­ing green foam “gar­den­ing aid” I found in a Lil­lian Ver­non cat­a­log one night when I was look­ing for some­thing, any­thing to read while I took a dump. She stuck her lit­tle fin­gers in the earth and groped around for a while until she got a grip and then she pulled out some soil-crusted blob that was prob­a­bly a rutabaga.

“Fuck,” I said, and banged my cof­fee mug down on her stu­pid break­fast bar and turned away from the win­dow.

She was out there for a while so I let her be and cleaned up the kitchen some, washed all the plas­tic cups that she kept lin­ing up on the counter every time she had to take a pill or some­thing. I told her one sip didn’t make a cup dirty, but she felt oth­er­wise, and what the fuck do I know about germs any­way. I never claimed to know any­thing, that’s for sure. Not to her, and not to my ex. But you can bet my ex would shit her vel­vet lounger pants if she saw me soap­ing up dishes in some twinkie cot­tage in the woods. How the mighty have fallen, and all that.

After a while I re­al­ized she wasn’t com­ing back on her own, and I was going to have to go get her, so when I had all the cups lined up on the clean side of the sink, I put my shoes on and went to find her in the yard. She hadn’t gone far. From what I could tell, she’d just man­aged to ro­tate the gar­den­ing aid some­thing like forty de­grees to the left. At least that damn rutabaga wasn’t all alone. She’d dug up a stack of turd-shaped ob­jects I knew she’d ex­pect me to roast later and mash up for her. I couldn’t see her face under that hat but she knew I was there and her shoul­ders were jerk­ing around under a plaid shirt that was ac­tu­ally mine, and I couldn’t be­lieve that she’d play that same old game again, with the tears and the silent suf­fer­ing.

“It’s your house,” I said, and she said, “That’s not the point,” and she was def­i­nitely cry­ing, so I said, “Well, have them over if you want, I’m not going to stop you,” and she said, “The thing is, I’m not sure they’ll come,” and I said, “Those ass­holes will be here,” and she kind of laughed and said, “Maybe you should in­vite them, per­son­ally,” and I said, “It would be my plea­sure,” and she said in some dumb voice that was sup­posed to be me, “Yo, you lit­tle pricks bet­ter show up for din­ner,” and I said, “Some­times ac­tions speak louder than words,” and she said, “What, like you’ll go hunt them down?” and I said, “Let’s not rule any­thing out.”

Then she tried to sit up so she could show me how she was happy again, but she’d been kneel­ing too long and her mus­cles had gone soft and her joints locked up and I had to rub her down some be­fore we could get her to stand. Then I made her walk back to the house by her­self and she didn’t like that but it was good for her and we got her set­tled in her prissy old rock­ing chair on the sun porch and I went back for the veg­eta­bles and cleaned them up with the gar­den hose over a pile of dead leaves. This was the first wash­ing. She’d in­sist on a sec­ond wash­ing in the kitchen, be­fore I started cook­ing. One wash­ing was never enough, and that first round of dirt would go into the sink over her dead body. “Promise me, when I’m gone, you won’t be putting dirt in my nice kitchen sink,” she’d said, and I’d said, “What’ll you care what I do to your sink,” and she said, “I’ll know and I won’t rest easy,” and I said, “I’ll kick your ghost ass right out of here,” and that made her laugh.

Later that night she called her daugh­ter, and she didn’t want me around when she did, but I had to be there to trans­late if nec­es­sary. Those lit­tle bas­tards of hers didn’t know what she was say­ing half the time. I sat there pre­tend­ing I wasn’t lis­ten­ing while her throat mus­cles closed in on them­selves and she gagged out her usual se­ries of sounds. They started out with small talk about noth­ing, and then she said, “Do you think you could make it out for the hol­i­days?” and there was a long si­lence and she said, “I hope Bran­don can come, too,” and then, “I haven’t seen him since last Au­gust,” and then, “Could you talk to him?” and then, “Please just tell him this might be my last Thanks­giv­ing,” and I rolled my eyes at her and she saw it and it made her laugh, but then her daugh­ter made her re­peat it again, then again, and she started to get frus­trated and held out the phone.

I said, “She says this will be her last Thanks­giv­ing,” and she nod­ded at me, sat­is­fied, but her daugh­ter said, “Who is this?” and I said, “It’s Ger­ald,” and she went all stuffy and prim with the “ohs” and the “ums” and fi­nally she said, “Could you put my mother back on,” and I said, “With plea­sure,” and I handed off the phone and then Cyn­thia gave me a look like, get lost, so I did. I left her in there with her bratty child, which was how I thought of Ines be­cause I didn’t know her and that’s what she looked like in her bell­bot­tom trousers maul­ing some in­no­cent kit­ten in an an­cient Po­laroid pic­ture that had been stuck to the har­vest gold fridge with a mush­room mag­net since prob­a­bly 1974.

After that it was all lo­gis­tics, be­cause Ines was sure as shit going to come out and see who was tak­ing over the fam­ily home, and she must have said some­thing to Bran­don, be­cause he de­cided to fly out too. Never mind they hadn’t been to see their mother since I’d known her, which was quite a while, ac­tu­ally, and nine times out of ten she was the one who placed the calls. “It’s hard for them, they don’t know what to say,” she said, and I said, “Guess what, life is hard,” and she got all quiet and then she said, “When you judge them, you judge me, too,” and I said, “Yeah, and I had you pegged as a softie from day one,” and she said, “I’m pretty sure it was the other way around,” and I said, “What a crock of shit, I’m the biggest bas­tard you know, you told me so yes­ter­day,” and she said, “I’m just tired of re­sis­tance bands and rub­downs, what’s the point,” and I let it go, be­cause she was right.

Her kids got in the day be­fore the hol­i­day, pulled up in a rental car and came in with their rolling fortress suit­cases, wired up like ro­bots. Bran­don turned out to be a geeky lit­tle cock top in a nelly scarf. He couldn’t make eye con­tact, was al­ways laugh­ing and look­ing away from his mom, from me, from his sis­ter. “Nice to meet you,” he said to me when I shook his damp hand, and I said, “Fi­nally,” and Cyn­thia gave me a warn­ing look, so I let it go. Ines hadn’t changed much from the Po­laroid. She had on some fancy busi­ness, grown-up size ver­sion of the bell­bot­toms, a silky top, and that same look in her eye, like she was cast­ing about for some damn cat to throt­tle.

We got them all set­tled in and I put sup­per on the table, tomato soup and grilled cheese, and the wind started kick­ing up out­side. We ate at the break­fast bar, and I got Cyn­thia tucked in clos­est to the win­dow and Ines tried to sit next to her mom, but I put my beer down there and claimed the spot for my­self, and she didn’t like that. “This is my place,” she said, and she kind of smiled like she didn’t want to come off like a bitch or some­thing, but I just told her, “You’re all grown up now,” and she went and sat with her shifty-eyed brother across from me with­out say­ing any­thing else. Cyn­thia didn’t say any­thing about it ei­ther. The wheels were turn­ing for old Ines. I could see her siz­ing things up and not lik­ing what she saw.

I kept Cyn­thia’s chin clean but she wasn’t happy about it. She jerked away from me at one point and I saw Bran­don no­tice but he didn’t know what to make of it and he looked off out­side, but there was noth­ing to see. It was black as Santa’s boots out there, noth­ing but trees and night an­i­mals. Toot­sie the owl hooted away like a bro­ken record from out by the old car­riage house. Bran­don turned back and said to me, “So how did you meet,” and I said, “It’s a funny story,” and Cyn­thia said, “It’s not that funny,” and Ines went on high alert, and I said, “Well, she’s got a real mean streak, you know,” and Bran­don kind of nod­ded, maybe just to be po­lite, and Ines was star­ing me down with these pea-green eyes she must have got from her dad, and I said, “She came to me for PT, after three other peo­ple re­fused to see her,” and she said, “They didn’t refuse,” and I said, “Right, they re­ferred you,” and she said, “To some­one who could meet my needs,” which we thought was pretty funny, so we were both kind of laugh­ing, but Ines and Bran­don just looked con­fused and I didn’t feel like ex­plain­ing and she didn’t ei­ther.

After a while, Cyn­thia started get­ting to that part of the night where she’d kind of curl in on her­self and wilt, but I could see her try­ing to keep her shit to­gether for her kids. The strain was show­ing around her mouth and she star­tled them by los­ing her plas­tic cup, but when it slipped out of her grip, it landed flat-bot­tomed on the table and didn’t splash much. They didn’t say any­thing about it, so they prob­a­bly had no idea what was going on, which to be fair, was Cyn­thia’s fault any­way, she kept so much from them.

After sup­per, Bran­don went up to fart around with his tech­nol­ogy and Ines hus­tled Cyn­thia off for some kind of heart-to-heart while I got stuck with the dishes again like a rube. She didn’t have a dish­washer. The first night I was over, I did the dishes for her, and there were a lot of them stacked up, so I said, “Jesus, woman, get a dish­washer,” and she said, “Well, if I’m not mis­taken, I think I just did,” and it turned out she knew ex­actly what she was doing all along. Since the win­ter was com­ing, I had to suds up with yel­low rub­ber gloves or it turned my hands dry and cracked. The dry­ness never both­ered me much, but she yelled one night and ac­cused me of try­ing to sand down her skin, which was about her usual level of bull­shit. The gloves made me look like a real pussy, but wear­ing them was bet­ter than the al­ter­na­tive. When my hands got all scratchy, she pulled out this big tub of white crud for cows she called udder cream and make me work it into my hands. Then I left greasy fin­ger­prints all over every­thing.

I fin­ished the dishes and slapped the extra water off the gloves and left them dan­gling over the edge of the sink. I had to walk by the guest bed­room on my way to the den, which was where Ines had cor­nered Cyn­thia, and there was no way I could pass with­out try­ing to fig­ure out what was going on in­side. Damned if I could hear any­thing through the door but mur­mur-mur­mur-mur­mur, so I went to see if I could find a game or some­thing on her old TV. There was noth­ing so then I went to look for some­thing to read, and wouldn’t you know the only thing in the mag­a­zine bas­ket was Lil­lian Fuck­ing Ver­non and her best girl­friend, the Avon cat­a­log, so I put the TV back on and just stared at it while I waited for Ines to fin­ish her twenty ques­tions. Some show with scream­ing, jump­ing elves in pur­ple sweaters was on. They flailed and flailed and I just thought how there was no way Ines would come out of there with­out know­ing about the will.

I went into some kind of elf trance and didn’t even hear the door open, but next thing I knew Cyn­thia had shuf­fled up be­hind me, and she looked like it was all she could do to not fall over, so I said, “I don’t care what you say, I don’t want to go danc­ing. Leave me alone,” and she said, “I’ll have you know my dance card is full,” and I said, “What the fuck? Who’s danc­ing with you?” and I got up and went over there and got her around the waist with one arm and said, “I’m cut­ting in,” and she said, “If you must,” and I put her arm up around my neck and took her up­stairs, one step at a time, and when we got to the top I looked down and thought I saw some­thing move, that sneak Ines, so when we got to her bed­room I shut the door good and hard and we didn’t come out until morn­ing.

I got her all set up in the den with the Thanks­giv­ing Day Pa­rade and set­tled in to start cook­ing. I never cooked in my life until I hooked up with Cyn­thia, but it turned out I had al­most what you’d say was a call­ing. I never fol­lowed a recipe, which re­ally pissed her off at first, be­cause I could turn out, say, a steak, or a pan of sautéed veg­eta­bles I sea­soned with bacon fat and ran­dom herbs from her gar­den I couldn’t even name, and it all tasted like fuck­ing manna. “Where did you learn to cook?” she asked me once, and I said, “My grand­fa­ther was a chef,” and she said, “So you learned at his knee?” and she got this lit­tle soft look on her face like she was imag­in­ing this whole scene, and I said, “Hell no, I never met the ass­hole,” and she said, “Well, I don’t think it’s rel­e­vant then,” and I said, “I’m just say­ing it’s in my blood,” and she said, “Huh,” and we left it there.

After a while Ines showed up in the kitchen, and she washed up her hands and told me to put her to work. I gave her the pota­toes to peel, the Yukons, and she went to it, clumsy, like she never held a peeler her whole life. “Don’t cut your­self,” I said, and she said, “How do you cut your­self on a peeler?” and I said, “Keep it up and you’ll find out,” and her lips got all tight and she said, “I want you to know that Fa­ther Ma­honey will be com­ing out to visit, on a reg­u­lar basis,” and I said, “Which one’s that, the drunk or the bee­keeper?” and she said, “You should show some re­spect,” and I said, “I do, when it’s earned,” and she said, “I know what you’re doing here. I see right through you and you’re not going to get away with it,” and I pulled my fist out of the turkey cav­ity and showed her the tight bag of vis­cera and said, “It’s for your own good, you wouldn’t want a chunk of plas­tic liver in your Thanks­giv­ing din­ner,” and she put the peeler down in the sink, quiet-like, and left the room.

It was four o’clock be­fore I had every­thing ready and we all gath­ered around in the for­mal din­ing room with her lace table­cloth and all her fancy plates from the hutch. Ines went to pour the wine she brought, but I gave Cyn­thia Sprite be­fore Ines could get at her wine­glass, and Cyn­thia didn’t mind but Ines did. Then we all held hands and Ines led us in some prayer con­sist­ing of mul­ti­ple Bible verses that she rat­tled off like a ma­chine gun and I looked up and caught Bran­don rolling his eyes, and maybe he wasn’t such a bad one after all.

Then we ate and Cyn­thia got down a lot of mashed pota­toes and cran­berry sauce and even a cou­ple bites of turkey. “Ger­ald is an amaz­ing cook,” she said, and Bran­don said, “It’s re­ally good,” and Ines said, “Oh, my turkey was a lit­tle dry,” and I said, “My pota­toes are kind of bit­ter,” and Bran­don said, “Re­ally? Mine are awe­some,” and after we all fin­ished I sat back and un­but­toned my jeans and said, “Well, I’ve got a Thanks­giv­ing Day sur­prise for you peo­ple,” and Bran­don said, “What?” and Ines looked at me with her lit­tle sour mouth, and I said, “You are all on of­fi­cial clean­ing duty,” and Cyn­thia said, “But they’re our guests!” and Bran­don said at the same time, “That’s fair,” and Ines stood up and ac­tu­ally started clear­ing plates.

Then I went up­stairs to call my lit­tle girl, be­cause Cyn­thia’s kids were a shitty sub­sti­tute for the real thing, and my ex handed the phone to Jen­nie right away, but then she took it back and we had what you might call an al­ter­ca­tion about the usual sort of thing, money. She’d started talk­ing about gar­nish­ing my wages, but sev­en­teen per­cent of noth­ing is still noth­ing. The woman was never strong in math, but even she knew that much, not that she gave a shit, par­tic­u­larly. “What about a mas­sage place, some­one must be hir­ing,” she said, and I said, “You think I want to spend my days elbow deep in patchouli oil, rub­bing knots out of naked hip­pies?” and she said, “I thought you wanted to see Jen­nie,” and I said, “Are you fuck­ing threat­en­ing me? I have rights,” and she said, “So do I,” and that was when I hung up. When I turned around, I saw some move­ment out­side the bed­room door and it was prob­a­bly Bran­don. But there was noth­ing to be done about it.

They both sched­uled their flights for Fri­day to save some money, and Ines had a hus­band to get back to and a set of in-laws with some kind of cozy, cat­a­log-type lifestyle in the foothills of her sub­urb. I’d got­ten Cyn­thia all dressed up nice for them in a sweater and slacks, and she sat watch­ing them with­out talk­ing while Ines worked through spurts of ver­bal di­ar­rhea about her couch and her dog and her team at work. Bran­don darted looks through the win­dow at his mother’s pride and joy, the veg­etable patch, and picked at his scarf.

After a while Cyn­thia in­ter­rupted Ines’s sim­ple-minded stress-out about some big damn test, like a GMAT or some­thing. “It was so won­der­ful to see you both,” she said, and Ines said, “It was won­der­ful to see you, we worry about you,” and she looked at me when she said it, and Cyn­thia said, “That’s not nec­es­sary,” and Ines said, “Fa­ther Ma­honey will be by later, be­tween noon and two,” and Cyn­thia said, “Oh,” and looked con­fused, and Ines said, “He just wants to spend some time talk­ing to you, pri­vately,” and I said, “Where’s that con­fes­sion list you’ve been work­ing on?” and Cyn­thia said, “That’s your list, not mine,” but Ines didn’t think that was very funny. She hugged her mom, and then Bran­don did, and I took both their wheelie suit­cases out­side for them while Cyn­thia held on to them and it was hard for her when she got emo­tional.

I put the suit­cases in the trunk of the car and stood out­side for a minute. It was cold, a real pisser of a morn­ing, and I thought about how Jen­nie and my ex had prob­a­bly got­ten up be­fore dawn to go on some kind of sick shop­ping frenzy. How enough of that was sure to poi­son Jen­nie over time and the day would come when she couldn’t even stand to talk to me. I didn’t look for­ward to that day.

The wind picked up some and I went back in­side. Cyn­thia stood there gag­ging over some­thing she was try­ing to say. Bran­don was look­ing at the floor like he was em­bar­rassed but Ines was wide-eyed and teary. “What is it?” I said to Cyn­thia and she gasped some­thing out, so I told them, “She wants you both to call when you get home,” and Cyn­thia nod­ded so Bran­don said “Oh,” like he was re­lieved, and Ines looked re­lieved too. We all walked out­side to­gether and I shook Bran­don’s hand be­fore he got into the pas­sen­ger seat. Ines didn’t even look at me, and I fig­ured I’d made an enemy after all, not that it mat­tered much. We stood there and watched them while they drove away.

“Well, you got your wish,” I told her, but she didn’t want to talk much, so we went in­side. I picked up some, washed some clothes, and the cabin felt small, like I was stuck, and I de­cided that when the priest came out, I would leave, give them some pri­vacy. Just be­fore noon, I combed her hair and got the piss out of her and set her up in the sun porch. But fuck if priests these days don’t op­er­ate like the cable re­pair­man, and after a while I re­al­ized that when Ines said he’d be out be­tween noon and two, it didn’t mean he’d be there for that pe­riod, it meant he’d show up at some point dur­ing that range.

It burned me to see her there shrink­ing in on her­self as a half hour turned into an hour turned into an hour and ten min­utes and I had to rub her down some and take her on a spin around the room and put her back with extra pil­lows. When we fi­nally heard his elec­tric clown car crunch up on the gravel, I was on the verge of homi­cide, but she just said, “Oh, he’s here,” so I said, “How de­light­ful. I will let him in.”

I met him out on the dri­ve­way and I told him, “I’ll be back in an hour,” and he looked sur­prised and said, “Are you leav­ing?” and I said, “Yeah, I just need to run a few er­rands,” and he said, “She’s a se­ri­ously ill woman,” and I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Is there an­other care­taker there? The daugh­ter?” and I said, “You’re it, buddy,” and he said, “I’m not qual­i­fied to care for her,” and I said, “Well, it turns out the only qual­i­fi­ca­tion is com­pas­sion,” and he didn’t like that, but I slapped him on the arm and left him there. Only a prick of the low­est order would have left, and he wasn’t of course. By the time I got in my car and backed out down the dirt road, he was al­ready in­side, prob­a­bly pray­ing as much for him­self as he was for her.

When I came back with a trunk full of Christ­mas pre­sents they were sit­ting to­gether real quiet on the sun porch, and she was all hunched over, el­bows on her knees and fin­gers knot­ted to­gether, and it looked like she was pray­ing but I knew bet­ter. Her face was in shadow from the agony of it all so I brought the stuff in dou­ble-time, and this time it was the priest who met me in the dri­ve­way, and I said, “Fa­ther,” and he said, “I wasn’t able to com­plete my eval­u­a­tion,” and I said, “Eval­u­a­tion?” and he said, “The com­pe­tency?” and I said, “What do you mean?” but it was clear enough that Ines was be­hind it. He put a hand on my shoul­der like he wanted me to un­der­stand some­thing man to man, and then he said, “It was ter­ri­bly hard to un­der­stand her,” and I said, “It just takes a lit­tle prac­tice,” and he said, “It’s prob­a­bly time to look into some help, some full-time care, around the clock,” and I said, “I’ll take that under ad­vise­ment,” and he said, “Her daugh­ter has some calls out, to some fa­cil­i­ties in the area,” and I said, “Well that’s a bunch of bull­shit,” and he said, “I un­der­stand your anger, but we all have our lim­i­ta­tions,” and I said, “Isn’t that the truth,” and it turned out that all three of us were glad to see him go.

I went in­side be­fore he’d even backed out of the dri­ve­way. “God­damnit,” I mut­tered as I got her bath going. She was still crunched up in the sun room, but we both knew what she needed, and the bath filled up, all nice and hot like she liked it with the Epsom salts and the laven­der oil and those fleshy rub­ber pil­lows I had to ad­here to the porce­lain. Then it was ready and I car­ried her in and she moaned to be touched and cried when I tried to rub her arms down enough that I could lift them over her head to get her sweater off. I propped her up good on the toi­let and went for the scis­sors. I cut the sweater up the back then down the front. “Let me tell you,” I said, “This is one sorry fuck­ing sweater, and I am going to use it to clean rutaba­gas from here on out,” and she said, “This morn­ing you said it looked good with my eyes,” and I said, “That was the color, not the sweater. The sweater is for shit,” and she said, “What about the pants? Are the pants for shit?” and I said, “That de­pends on how far you can bend over,” and she said, “That’s what she said,” but it turned out I was able to get them off her with less trou­ble than ei­ther of us ex­pected be­cause they were stretchy.

I put her in the tub. It was get­ting harder, not be­cause she’s heavy, be­cause I’m still pretty ripped, even if I’ve got a gut like a knocked-up dog, but be­cause when she gets like that she can’t help any and it’s awk­ward as hell. I maybe even dropped her there a bit at the end but the in­flat­a­bles helped and she groaned, but it was OK. I sat down on the floor next to the tub and stuck my hand in the bath­wa­ter and she got her hand in mine and tried to squeeze, but couldn’t, so I squeezed for her and we waited for the heat to sink into her bones.