The Madonna of Turkey Season
It came to seem like our own special Thanksgiving tradition-one of us inevitably behaving very badly. The role was passed around the table from year to year like some kind of ceremonial torch, or a seasonal virus: the weeping and gnashing of teeth, the breaking of glass, the hurling of accusations, the final nosedive into the mashed potatoes or the shag carpet. Sometimes it even fell to our guests-friends, girlfriends, wives-the disease apparently communicable. We were three boys who'd lost their mother-four if you counted Dad, five if you counted Brian's best friend, Foster Creel, who'd lost his own mother about the same time we did and always spent Thanksgiving with us-and for many years there had been no one to tell us not to pour that pivotal seventh drink, not to chew with our mouths open, not to say fuck at the dinner table.
We kept bringing other women to the table to try to fill the hole, but they were never able to impose peace for long. Sometimes they were catalysts, and occasionally they even initiated the hostilities-perhaps their way of trying to fit in. My father never brought another woman to the table, though many tried to invite themselves, and our young girlfriends remarked on how handsome he was and what a waste it was. “I had my great love, and how could I settle for anything less?” he'd say as he poured himself another Smirnoff and the neighbor widows and divorcées dashed themselves against the windowpanes like birds.
Sometimes, although not always, the mayhem boiled up again at Christmas, in the sacramental presence of yet another turkey carcass, with a new brother or guest in the role of incendiary device, though memories of the most recent Thanksgiving were often enough to spare us the spectacle for another eleven months. I suppose we all had a lot to be thankful for, socioeconomically speaking, but for some reason we chose to dwell instead on our grievances. How come you went to Aidan's high school play and not mine? How could you have fucked Karen Watley when you knew I was in love with her?
We would arrive Tuesday night from prep school or college, or on Wednesday night from New York, where we were working at a bank while writing a play, or from Vermont, where we were building a log cabin with our roommate from Middlebury before heading up to Stowe at first snow for a season of ski bumming. Dad would take the latter part of the week off, until he retired, which was when things really became dangerous. The riotous foliage that briefly enflamed the chaste New England hills was long gone, leaving the monochromatic landscape of winter: the gray stone walls of the early settlers, the silver trunks of the maples, the white columns of birch.
Manly hugs were exchanged at the kitchen door. Cocktails were offered and accepted. Girlfriends and roommates were introduced. The year of the big snow, footwear was scraped on the blade of the cast-iron boot cleaner outside the door. Dad was particularly pleased with this implement, and always pointed it out to guests, not because he was particularly fastidious about mud and snow, but because it seemed to signify all the supposed charm and tradition of old New England (as opposed to, say, its intolerance of immigrants and its burning of young girls at the stake), although he'd bought this particular boot scraper once upon a time at the local True Value hardware store. But somehow Dad had convinced himself that it had been planted here by the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in between skirmishes with the Wampanoags and the Mohicans. He liked to think of himself as an old Yankee, despite the fact that when his grandfathers arrived in Boston, the windows were full of NO IRISH NEED APPLY signs and they weren't likely to be invited to scrape their boots at anybody's front door. A century and a half later, though, we lived in a big white house with green shutters, which Dad inevitably described as “Colonial,” though it was built in the 1920s to resemble something a hundred years older.
Most of the girls we brought-a cavalcade of blondes-were judged by their resemblance to our mother, except when it seemed, as was the case a couple of times with Brian, they'd been deliberately chosen for their controversial darkness. Each of us could see how his brother's girlfriend was a pale imitation of Mom and our own were one-offs who shared some of her best qualities. The girls, for their part, must have been a little daunted at first to discover the patterns of traits they'd cherished as unique. As different as we were, we were all recognizably alike, with the same unruly hair, the same heavy-browed, smiley eyes and all our invisible resemblances, born and bred. Brian, the eldest, kept things lively by bringing a different girl every year; we called him “the Kennedy of the family.” The rest of us took after Dad, who liked to say that Mom was his only true love. Mike had been with Jennifer since his freshman year at Colby, and Aidan met his future wife, Alana, before he was twenty. Actually, Brian showed up two years in a row with Janis, whom he eventually married, much to our and then his own chagrin. The second time, she threw the entire uncarved turkey at Brian's head, a scene that eventually showed up in his second play. Another year, he and Foster nearly came to blows at the table when it came out that they'd lately been sleeping with the same girl. It took two of us to restrain Brian.
Brian's personal life, with all its chaos, Sturm und Drang, was the workshop version of his professional life, a laboratory for drama. And of course he wrote about us. Mike said at the time that the phrase “thinly disguised” was too chubby by half to describe Brian's relation to his source material. His first play revolved around the death of a mother from cancer. There seemed to be a number of those that particular season, but his was the most successful. We all went down to the opening night at the New York Theatre Workshop. The play was directed by Foster, who'd been his best friend ever since Choate, and had gone with him to Yale Drama. We sat there, stunned in the aftermath, as the applause thundered around us. It was hard to know how to react. In the play, Brian seemed to be making a special claim for himself with regard to our mother, in that the character who was obviously him had been more loved and more devastated than the others.
Then there was the question of his portrayal of the rest of us. On the one hand, as brothers we wanted to say, Hey, that's not me, and on the other, But wait a minute; that is me. He'd put us in an untenable position. Brian was a great sophist, and if you complained about the parallels between his life and art, he would start declaiming about the autobiographical basis of Long Day's Journey into Night or point out that “your” character had gone to Deerfield, when you'd actually gone to Hotchkiss. And if you complained about inaccuracies-denied that you'd ever, for example, had carnal relations with the family dog-he would cite poetic license or remind you that you'd been banging on a moment before about resemblances and that this clearly demonstrated the fictionality of his masterpiece.
At first, it was hard to tell how Dad felt about it. He put on a brave face and went over to Phoebe's, the bar down the block, to celebrate with Brian and the cast. He seemed to be in shock. But later, in the cab back to the hotel, and in the bar there, he kept asking us, over and over again, some variant of the question “Was I such a bad father?” In truth, he didn't come off all that badly, but we all had a hard time not viewing the play as a flawed family memoir. He also cornered Foster, our unofficial fourth brother, whom for years Dad had consulted as a kind of emotional translator in his efforts to understand Brian.
“Every artist interprets the world through the prism of his own narcissism,”
Foster told him that night. “He doesn't think you're a bad father. He forgot about you the day he started writing the play. All the characters in the play, even the ones who look and sound like you, are Brian, or else they're foils for Brian.” I don't think my father knew whether to be reassured or worried by this. Of course, he'd long known Brian was massively self-absorbed, prone to exaggeration and outright mendacity. But he seemed pleased with the judgment, repeated to us all many times later, that Brian was an artist. At last, he seemed to feel, there was an explanation for his temperament, and his deviations from what my father considered proper behavior: the drugs, the senseless prevarications, the childhood interest in poetry. For Dad, Foster's assessment counted as much as subsequent accolades in the Times and elsewhere.
That year, Brian brought Cassie Haynes, the actress, who played his former girlfriend Rita Cosovich in the play, although of course he denied that the character was based on Rita, and we all wondered if Rita would, on balance, be more offended by the substance of her portrait or flattered by its appearance, Cassie being a babe of the first order. She caused a bit of a sensation around the neighborhood that Thanksgiving, husbands coming from three streets down to ask after the leaf blower they thought they might possibly have lent to Dad earlier in the fall. When we heard she was coming, we all thought, Great, just what we need, a prima donna actress, though we couldn't help liking her, and hoping she would come back during bathing suit season.
Brian's play gave us something to fight about at the Thanksgiving board for years to come, beginning that first November after the opening, when the wounds were still fresh. Mike, the middle brother, was the first to take up the cause after the cocktail hour had been prolonged due to some miscalculation about the turkey. Mike's fiancée, Jennifer, had volunteered to cook the bird that year, and while she would later become our chief and favorite cook, this was her first attempt at a turkey, and rather than relying on Mom's old copy of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, she'd insisted on adapting a chicken recipe from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. When Dad attempted to carve the turkey the first time, the legs were still pink and raw and the bird was slammed back in the oven, giving us all another jolly hour and a half to deplete the bar. We might have given Jennifer less grief if she hadn't initially tried to defend herself, insisting that the French preferred their birds rare and implying that a thoroughly cooked bird was unsophisticated. When we finally sat down to eat, Brian said grace without letting her off the hook: “Notre père, qui aime la volaille crue, que ton nom soit sanctifié-”
Mike interrupted him, asking how he'd like a well-done drumstick up the ass. Dad demanded a truce, and for several minutes peace prevailed, until Dad started to talk about Mom in that maudlin way of his, a recitation that always relied heavily on the concept of her sainthood. Usually we all collaborated in changing the subject and leading him out of this quagmire of grieving nostalgia, but now Mike wanted to open the subject for debate.
“She didn't deserve to suffer,” Dad was saying.
“Apparently, the person who suffered the most was Brian,” Mike said.
“At least that's the impression I got from the play. I mean, sure, Mom was dying of cancer and all, but I never realized it hurt Brian so much to administer her shots the one night that he actually managed to sit up with her. Maybe I'm a philistine, but it seemed to me like the point was the one who really suffered wasn't Mom, it was Brian.”
“Okay, okay,” Brian said. “I'm sorry I said grace in French.”
“That's not really the point,” Mike said.
“Oh, but I think it is.”
“I don't blame you for trying to change the subject, you self-centered prick. But you know what? We all grew up in the same house. And we all saw the play.”
“Now, boys,” Dad said.
“You, of all people, know what I'm talking about,” Mike said, pointing a fork at our father. “Let's be honest. You were freaked-out by the play.”
Dad didn't want to go down this road. “I had a few . . . concerns.”
“Don't pussy out, Dad. We've talked about this, for Christ's sake. Why are we all so worried about Brian's feelings? It's not like he lost any sleep worrying about ours.”
“Actually,” Cassie said, “I happen to know he was very worried about your feelings. I think Foster will agree with me.”
“It's not like he shows it,” Mike said.
“I think it's wonderful how women attribute lofty ideals and fine feelings to us,” Foster said. “But, I'm sorry, if Brian had spent much time worrying about your feelings, it wouldn't have been much of a fucking play.”
This quip might have defused the situation, but Mike, like a giant freighter loaded with grievances, was unable to change course. Brian parried his continuing assault with glib little irrelevancies until Mike eventually stormed out of the room, spilling red wine all over the Irish linen tablecloth, but the rest of us considered ourselves fortunate that it wasn't blood. Mike had the fiercest temper in the family, and he was three inches taller and thirty pounds heavier than his elder brother.
The whole exchange was pretty representative. While Brian had always charmed and finessed and fibbed his way through life, Mike had a fierce stubborn honesty and a big hardwood chip on his shoulder, which was in some measure a reflection of his belief that Brian had already claimed the upper bunk bed of life before he came along and had a chance to choose for himself. If Brian were assailing a castle, he would try to sneak in the back door by seducing the scullery maid; Mike would butt his head against the portcullis until it or he gave way. Mike's youthful transgressions weren't necessarily more numerous or egregious, but, unlike Brian, he was inevitably caught and held accountable, in part because he considered it dishonest to hide them. Brian never let the facts compromise his objective, and he seemed almost allergic to them. When he got caught with marijuana, he had an elaborate, if hackneyed, story about how he was holding it for a friend. But when Mike decided to grow it, he did so out in the open, planting rows between the corn and tomatoes in the vegetable garden, until someone finally told our mother, who'd been giving tours of the garden, the true identity of the mystery herb. Back then, none of us could have predicted that Mike would eventually be the one to follow our father to business school and General Electric, that he'd be diplomatic enough to negotiate the hazards of corporate culture. His reformation owed a lot to Jennifer, starting that first year at Colby. It took us a long time to learn to love her-my father was furious over her sophomore art-class critique of our parish church-but there was no denying her anodyne effect on Mike.
The year before Mike nearly throttled Brian, it was Aidan's turn. He was the baby of the family, which seemed to be his complaint-that we treated him as such. That we didn't give him enough respect. The specific catalyst, this Thanksgiving, was obscure. That he was drunk in the manner unique to inexperienced drinkers-he was a senior at Hotchkiss at the time-didn't especially help his case, and sensing this, he became even more frustrated and strident.
“Just because I'm younger . . . it doesn't give you guys the right to treat me like I'm a kid. Mom wouldn't have let you. If she was here, she'd tell you.”
“If she were here,” Brian said.
“That's exactly what I mean. Treating me like a friggin' baby.”
We all found it cute that even in his cups, Aidan had used the euphemism rather than the Anglo-Saxonism itself. He wasn't yet ready to cuss in front of Dad. Brian and Mike started sniggering, which further infuriated Aidan, who pounded his fist down on his plate, breaking it in half and cutting his hand on his steak knife, which had been freshly sharpened by Dad that morning. We all agreed that Jennifer was the only one sober enough to drive to the emergency room.
The touch-football games preceding dinner were sometimes an outlet for aggression that might otherwise have overflowed at the table, but it occasionally spilled over, as when Brian accused Mike of unnecessary roughness on the field that afternoon. At Christmas, the sport was hockey, assuming that the pond was sufficiently frozen. Our mother, who believed that exercise and fresh air were essential ingredients of the good life, had inaugurated both of these activities.
We really should have just canceled Thanksgiving the year the movie came out. Anyone could have predicted disaster. Brian spent more than three years working on the screenplay, on his own at first and eventually in collaboration with the director. (His second play, about preppy young bohemians in TriBeCa, had opened to mixed reviews and closed after an eight-week run.) Somewhere in the screenwriting process, the story had acquired a new complication, when the dying mother confides in her sensitive son about her affair with his father's best friend.
In fact, Dad's best friend lived in San Francisco, as Brian was quick to point out later, but still, it made us wonder. Mom had been popular with most of the men in our parents' circle of friends, and one husband, Tom Fleishman, had always seemed almost comically smitten. Now we started to question if it was really a joke, the way Fleishman had always mooned around Mom, or whether Brian had really been the recipient of some deathbed confession. Everyone in town had the same question, including Katy Fleishman, who called Dad in a fury after seeing the movie in September, demanding to know what he knew, and it soon became the talk of the country club. The play had been a distant rumor, but the movie was right there next door to the Pathmark store, in the Regal Cinema multiplex, which had replaced the old downtown theaters where we'd watched Jaws and Summer of '42. And it was more successful than some might have hoped, buoyed by the performance of Maureen Firth as the wife and mother. The movie played at the Regal for seven weeks. Everyone we knew went to see it.
Brian had warned us, to some extent. On the one hand, he assured us, his vision hadn't been compromised. On the other hand, accommodations had been made, nuances flattened, whispers amplified, subtexts excavated with a backhoe and laid bare. In the play there was a rumor of infatuation.
None of us, Foster excepted, had been invited to the premiere in L.A., or rather, we'd all received a phone call from Brian, who had mentioned in passing “a big industry ratfuck” and said, “I'm not even sure I'm going myself.”
And none of us knew quite what to say after we'd seen it. Brian wrote Dad a letter, assuring him that the alleged affair was strictly a Hollywood plot device and had nothing to do with reality. Dad called Foster in New York and was repeatedly reassured. Mike called Brian, threatening to kick his ass, and while the conversation was hardly conclusive, Brian swore that the affair was just a sensationalistic fiction, and it seemed as if maybe we had all had our say by the time Thanksgiving had come around. We were hoping against hope that the issue would just go away; in an unprecedented move, we even decided to water down the vodka just to keep Dad from getting too maudlin.
And for the first time since any of us could remember, it looked as if we might pass a relatively peaceful Thanksgiving, having made it all the way to the pumpkin pie without major fireworks. But despite the watered vodka, we could see Dad's eyes glazing over with melancholy reminiscence.
“I must have let her down somehow,” he said during a lull in the discussion of the Patriots' season.
All of us were smart enough to pretend we hadn't heard this remark, but Aidan's fiancée was still new to the family.
“Let whom down, Mr. C.?”
“Carolyn. I must've let her down. She must have needed something I couldn't give her.”
“But why would you think that?” Jennifer asked.
“Oh, for Christ's sake,” Mike said, throwing his napkin down on the table. “Look at what you've done, Brian. Now he actually believes it.”
“Dad,” Brian said, “I told you: It never happened. It's fiction.”
“It's slander,” Mike said. “I still can't understand why the hell you'd drag our mother's name into the gutter like that.”
“It's not our mother. It's not her name. It's a character in a movie.”
“A character based on our mother.”
“I just must have failed her,” Dad said, oblivious to the conversation around him.
“Dad, listen to me. It never happened. I'm sorry. It's my fault. I shouldn't have written what I wrote. It was the director's idea, a cheap plot device. It isn't true.”
“I always thought it was harmless,” Dad said. “They used to talk at parties, and I knew they had things in common. Your mother had so many interests, art and theater, and I couldn't really talk to her about those things. I knew she and Tom talked. But I thought that's all it was.”
“That is all it was,” Brian said. “At least so far as I know.”
“I know she told you things,” he said to Brian. “Things she couldn't tell me.”
“Not that, Dad. She never told me anything like that.”
“After my operation,” he said, “I was afraid. I was afraid of physical, you know, exertion.”
“Dad, that's enough.”
“Are you happy with yourself?” Mike asked as the tears rolled down our father's cheeks.
“Well, who's for a smoke outside?” Foster said, rising from the table. Although Dad was a lifelong smoker, our mother had, toward the end of her life, insisted that all smoking be done outdoors, a rule that Dad himself continued to observe and enforce after she was gone.
A half hour after we put Dad to bed, Mike tackled Brian and got him in a headlock, choking him and rubbing his face in the snow. “Tell the truth, goddamn it. What did she tell you? Is it true?”
“I told you: It's not true. She never told me anything.”
But nothing could ever quite dispel the doubt for us. Dad might have been forgiven for lying low, but he was determined to show himself on the local holiday party circuit. A week before Christmas, after three cocktail parties, he crashed his Mustang into an elm tree half a mile from the house.
Mike, who was working in Schenectady, was the first to arrive at the hospital. Dad was in intensive care. Aidan drove over from Amherst, arriving shortly before midnight. Brian and Foster arrived from New York just as the sun was rising and Dad was declared stable. We all spent the day at the hospital and that night traded shifts in the waiting room. Dad looked gruesome when we finally got to see him, his face bruised and puffy and green where it wasn't bandaged, his leg in traction. He was pretty doped up. “Don't tell your mother,” he said when he saw us. “I don't want her to worry.”
The doctor, who'd tended our mother in her final days, said, “It's the Demerol.”
“We could all use some of that,” Foster said.
We moved between the hospital and the house for the next ten days, keeping ourselves busy with Christmas preparations. We found a perfectly shaped blue spruce tree in the woods at the edge of the lake and we retrieved the ornaments from the attic in the old boxes from England's department store, closed years before, with Mom's block letters fading on the cardboard: CHRISTMAS LIGHTS, CHRISTMAS ANGELS, CHRISTMAS BULBS. We avoided talking about what had happened or why, concentrating instead on the practical details.
The lake had frozen early that year. After lunch on Christmas Eve, we gathered up our gear, called Ricky and Ted Quinlan next door, and trudged down for the annual hockey game. It was Foster, Ted and Aidan against Brian, Ricky and Mike. Brian's team scored two quick goals. Aidan, who had the fiercest competitive streak of any of us, started to get physical. First he hooked Brian's skate and tripped him; then he body-checked him into the rocks of the causeway. Brian returned the favor the next time he came down the ice with the puck, knocking Aidan off into the bulrushes. He came out swinging, and caught Brian in the helmet with his stick. Then he threw him down and knelt on top of him, ripping off his helmet and punching his face. By the time we pulled him off, there was blood everywhere and one of Brian's teeth was protruding through his lip. “You bastard,” Aidan sobbed. “You selfish bastard.” Brian turned away and limped up the hill, leaving a trail of blood on the ice. When we got back up to the house, Brian was gone.
Dad came home on New Year's Day. Aidan took winter term off from school to be with him, and Mike came over from Schenectady on the weekends. Brian called from New York to check in. Neither the fight on the ice nor his sudden departure was ever discussed again. From time to time, in his cups, Dad would ask Brian about our mother, and he would always insist that both the affair and the confession were completely fictional.
Dad once confronted Tom Fleishman at the country club and he, too, denied it. But Dad could never put the question out of his mind, any more than he could walk without a cane.
Mike and Jennifer had three boys, and he became the youngest vice president ever at GE. Aidan spent a year with the U.S. ski team before marrying Alana and going back to Hotchkiss to teach. Foster, one of the most respected directors in New York, recently married Cassie Haynes, the actress who first appeared at our house as Brian's date. We go down to see his plays from time to time.
Brian moved to Los Angeles a few weeks after Aidan busted his lip. He wrote a TV pilot based on his second play, and became a producer when Showtime developed the series. We can't help feeling relieved that he's not writing about the family, and Dad watches the show every week. Brian is very well paid for his efforts and has been dating a series of extremely pretty actresses. But it also feels somehow like a cheat, a big fucking letdown. After all these years of having to put up with the idea of Brian as a great genius, of knowing that our mother believed in his special destiny, we feel like the least he could do would be to justify her favor and her hopes. Nothing short of greatness could justify the doubt he cast on her memory. Foster believes that he's doing penance and that he'll go back to his real work someday.
In the meantime, we haven't all been together at Thanksgiving since Dad's accident. Now, when the leaves turn red and yellow and the grass turns white with morning frost, we feel the loss all over again. It's like we were a goddess cult that gathered once a year and now our faith has wavered. It's not that we couldn't forgive her anything. But our simple certainties have been shaken. Although we will always be Catholics, we long ago gave up on the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. We were a coven of Mariolatry, devoted to the Virgin. Brian believed in art, but lately he seems to have lost the faith. We find it hard to believe in anything we can't see or explain according to the immutable laws imbued in science class. We always believed in you, Mother, more than anything, but we never for a moment thought you were human.
Excerpted from HOW IT ENDED by Jay McInerney Copyright © 2009. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.