Chapter Two: A Bastard’s Thanksgiving…With a Side of Gravy
Uncle George was a bastard. I knew this because my mother always called him one, and she was specific with titles. My Uncle Stuart was a drinker, her business partner was a schmuck, and my father was a son of a bitch. Her business partner was never a son of a bitch, and my father was never a drinker, even when he drank. I could never aspire to be a schmuck, no matter how hard I tried. Uncle George was pigeonholed: once a bastard, always a bastard.
I even asked my mother: “Why can’t Daddy be a bastard?”
Mom: “Because he’s a son of a bitch.” Done. She was the FDA of human frailty – whatever was wrong with you, she knew it, and gave you a label.
Me: “So what am I?”
Mom: “You’re just like your father.”
Me: “So I’m a son of a bitch?”
Mom: “Go to bed.”
Uncle George the Bastard wasn’t a dictionary definition bastard – his parents were married – they were Irish Catholic and probably promised to each other at age five. He was the other kind of bastard, the colloquial kind, who despised bitches, niggers, spics, dogs, cats, kids, hebes, and my grandma.
He spoke only after long silences and thought good parenting was striking any misbehaving kid with whatever he could lay his hands on. You didn’t pee in his pool and you didn’t sit in his chair. You didn’t think for one second that your favorite TV show could possibly preempt whatever he was watching. You rode in the back seat of whatever he drove and when he told you to go fetch that thing over there and bring it back to him, you didn’t ask him, “Which thing over where?” unless you wanted to wake up sixty seconds later on the ground; you brought over all you could carry as fast as you could.
He had been a police sergeant when my father was on the force, back in the 1950’s, a decade and a half before they each met and married Jewish sisters. Uncle George the Bastard was the one who packed up my father’s shit when my mother threw him out of the house.
My mother had called her sister in a rage.
Mom: “Sis, that son of a bitch. Send George over here to pack up his shit and put it out on the curb. Sssssssssssssssss.”
She added a long hissing sibilant to the end of her words so you knew she was mad or making a point.
At this point, my Aunt Maxine (Sissy to everyone) did not do a number of things: She did not ask what Fred had done this time. She did not protest that George and Fred had been best friends since the Second World War. She did not say that George was busy eating, watching TV, beating one of his kids, degrading my grandmother, or complaining about Gerald Ford. She put down her quilting and pressed the phone to her breast.
Aunt Sissy (looking at Uncle George the Bastard): “George. Carol wants you to put Fred’s shit out on the curb.”
He looked back at her, his watery Irish blue eyes cold, falling into one of his deadly silences like an archer pulling back the drawstring on a bow. Sissy stared at him with coal black eyes and an implacable face only two generations removed from icy Polish farmland.
Aunt Sissy: “George. Just go now.”
I don’t know how Uncle George the Bastard felt about siding with family over his best friend, but he must have gone. My father’s shit did indeed hit the curb in 1976. I watched from the window, my mother standing behind me, her arms folded, her lips pursed.
Me: “Mom, what’s Uncle George doing?”
Mom: “Putting your father’s shit out on the curb. That son of a bitch.”
Me: “Why is his shit going out to the curb?”
Mom: “Because I’m not having it in this house anymore.”
My mother never answered the question being asked – she made it sound like we were out of room to store things or that my father’s golf clubs and underpants were toxic and slowly killing us all.
I asked “why the curb” because the back porch was closer, which would have made the job easier on Uncle George the Bastard. Apparently the use of the curb was part of some kind of 1970’s divorce ritual as stringent as leaning left at Passover or the wine-to-bread ratio of a Catholic mass. There was a system:
Step 1: Put the offender’s belongings on the curb.
Step 2: Change the locks.
Step 3: Leave a note:
Your shit is on the curb.
You’re a real son of a bitch.
Step 4: Reassure the children.
Mom: “Layner, I’ve put your father’s shit on the curb.”
Step 5: Turn the children against the missing parent.
Layne the Favorite: “That son of a bitch.”
As a practical matter, it meant my father had to drive up our long driveway, go to the back porch, try his key, curse, read the note, hurl more expletives, drive back down to the street, collect his shit, swear eternal vengeance upon my mother, and depart.
Our street was a busy two lane road, so he had to park along the curb with his emergency flashers on so cars would detour around him while he packed up his shit. I’m sure more than one man driving by that scene felt some sympathy for him:
Anonymous New Jersey Man: “Oh, hell. His shit’s on the curb. That poor son of a bitch.”
Uncle George the Bastard was the king of Thanksgiving in 1980. He had retired after twenty years on the force and moved his family from Cranford, New Jersey, a mile from my house, to a farm in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania, which was four hours away. That year was the first Thanksgiving we spent with them. Not sure why we couldn’t do it when the drive didn’t require pee stops, but I wasn’t in charge of anything at all until the early nineties, and then for maybe three days before I got married.
That Thanksgiving was the first time I ever had gravy. Can a good gravy change your life? This one did. Jews should reconsider gravy. We don’t use it for anything. It’s made from meat drippings and a thickening agent. It’s something you would normally throw away that instead gets resurrected and used. If we Jews had put gravy on trial before we pitched it out, it would be Jesus. In the genteel cold war between our religion and that of the Goyim, gravy is Easter. It is nowhere close to what God had in mind when He freed us from slavery in Egypt to wander the desert, eat flat crackers, and wait a dozen centuries for the Cossacks to storm down from the hills and pee in our wells.
My mother can’t cook, and knows God is okay with that. If He thought His Chosen could prepare food properly, why all the dietary restrictions? Instead of saying, “Undercooked pork can kill you, so do it right,” He ordered, “No pork.” It implies a lack of confidence in our culinary talents. He could have said, “Cook two cubits of pork over a dry fire for five minutes.” Whatever a cubit is.
So, no pork. My mother is food obsessed, and believes herself to be a great Talmudic scholar in pursuit of the Lord’s plan. At my wedding, she ruled that there must be a kosher meal. The wedding planner offered fish. My mother agreed. All fish is kosher, she informed me, so we were good.
During my first Thanksgiving on the farm, I noticed my cousins passing around a weird porcelain boat.
Me: “What’s that?”
Cousin David: “Gravy.”
Me: “What do you put it on?”
Cousin David: (dreamily) “Everything.”
I took the gravy boat.
Mom (catching my eye): “SSSSSSSSSSStace. Don’t eat that crap.”
Me: “But it has its own special dish!”
We Jews love that sort of thing. Passover has its own segmented dish. Wine goes in special cups at Bar Mitzvahs. This gravy boat must have been a relic of one of the lost tribes of Israel, so I brought it back into the fold, covering turkey, stuffing, potatoes, corn, and cranberry sauce with it.
My brother, Layne the Favorite, obediently choked his food down dry. I was so covered in gravy I needed a bath when I was done. I asked my Aunt Sissy, who I now believed to be the world’s best cook, what was in her spectacular stuffing, which was so unlike any I had ever had.
Her face got bright red.
Aunt Sissy (through clenched teeth): “Nothing special.”
My mother, who never ate stuffing, looked at me wide-eyed.
Mom: “SSSSSStace. It’s stuffing. It’s bread. What’s wrong with you?”
My aunt hustled me from the table to scrub the gravy from my hair and shoes.
Aunt Sissy (whispering): “There’s pork sausage in the stuffing. If your mother knew she would just kill me. Or give me a title. Sissy the Corrupter. Something like that. You know how she is.”
Me: “It’s got a nice ring to it. I think I’ve got gravy in my belly button.”
Aunt Sissy: “I’m not gonna risk it over a side dish.” She wiped away a glob of gravy from the back of my left knee.
Me (also whispering and horrified): “But Grandma eats the stuffing. She loves it.” Grandma was very religious.
Aunt Sissy: “Grandma eats lobster too.”
Everything I knew about the book of Exodus hit me like a brick made from Nile river mud.
Me: “Lobster’s not kosher…”
Aunt Sissy: (shrugging) “Nope. How did you get gravy in your ears?”
Me: “You ARE a corrupter! Can you teach my mother to cook?”
Aunt Sissy: “No. No one can.”
Aunt Sissy: “Why are you crying? It’s just a little spilled gravy.”
Stacey Roberts was born in a smoky hospital in New Jersey in 1971. Nine years later, he and his family moved into a Winnebago and traveled across the country. After several near-death experiences, they settled first in California and then Florida.
He attended college at Florida State University and University of Miami, where he received his B.A. in English Literature instead of Finance, which was a great disappointment to his mother.
He went on to get a Master’s degree in Early Modern European History at the University of Cincinnati, to which his mother said, “SSSStace. History? What do you need that for? What is wrong with you?”
His mother was right. He didn’t need it for anything, except to make arcane references about the Roman Empire or Henry VIII that no one else understands.
He founded a computer consulting firm outside of Cincinnati, Ohio in 1994, and resides in Northern Kentucky with his two brilliant daughters and their less than brilliant yellow dog Sophie.
TRAILER TRASH, WITH A GIRL’S NAME is his first novel.