That first full winter of the new millennium, the holiday season in particular, was an awkward time in the history of us Poseys. My mother was three years dead and my father was still bewildered by the loose ends of his retirement, and my brother, Ted, who had a wife and twin daughters and a brand-new house in Point Clear, had decided that this was the year his family needed to start establishing some traditions of their own. Ted tried to include us, of course, extended several invitations, but in the end, Dad couldn’t be persuaded to leave Mobile for Thanksgiving. I suggested that Ted bring the girls over for a visit the day before or the day after, whatever he wanted, but he felt provoked by our father’s obstinance and he, too, refused to bend. Telling it now, the whole business reeks of pettiness and folly, but like most family squabbles, it seemed important at the time.
I could just as easily begin this account in a more overtly momentous year: 1994—the year of my father’s failed campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. 1996—the year the twins were born. 1997—my mother’s last year on earth. But in a way that’s difficult to articulate, those final months of that first year of the brand-new millennium marked a culmination of all those things. In memory, the intervening years seem a sort of holding pattern, after the dust had settled on significant events, but before life cranked back up again in earnest. Though there was hardly an hour door to door between Ted’s new house and our old place on Mohawk Street, I couldn’t help imagining my father and my brother faced off across Mobile Bay like distant nations on the brink of war.
So it was under these circumstances that I found myself pitching horseshoes with my father on the last Wednesday in November. It was early evening, unseasonably warm even for lower Alabama, light melting down through the branches of the trees. I watched Dad draw back, slowly, slowly, watched him let a horseshoe fly, watched the horseshoe catch an edge and cartwheel past the stake.
In a discouraged voice, he said, “What are we playing to again?”
The ground was littered with fallen leaves, brown and brittle, all curled in upon themselves. I thought maybe I should rake tomorrow, wondered if he’d raked at all this year.
“Eleven,” I said.
“I used to be good at this.” He rubbed his eyes, gazed over the chain link fence. There was a little yellow house back there, an old woman puttering on her back porch. “We’ll visit your mother in the morning,” Dad said, meaning her grave.
We walked the length of the pit, toeing the ground in search of wayward horseshoes. The leaves were that deep. Down in the mulchy yellow grass, I spotted the ID tag from a pet collar. The lettering had weathered off. I showed him what I’d found but he just shrugged.
“It’s five o’clock,” he said. “I need a drink.”
And he trudged off toward the house without another word. I sat on the ground to wait for him, rubbed the ID tag between my fingers. You could hardly feel the traces of engraving there. Hardy the Lab, Mullet the mutt, Salmon P. Chase the cat. The long-gone pets of my youth. It was hard to believe the tag could have belonged to any of them, could have remained undiscovered in the backyard all that time. My father drove those horseshoe stakes when I was nine years old. That was nearly a quarter century ago.
Behind me, I heard a woman calling, “Allo-o.” There was plenty of French accent in her voice. “Ooo is that I see?”
I stood and faced the voice and saw the old woman closing fast from her side of the fence.
“You must be the son,” she said. “Ted, no?”
I told her, “I’m the other one,” and I would have sworn she looked disappointed. She was my father’s age, maybe a little younger. It was hard to tell. She wore her hair in a silver-blond pageboy and her features were all pinched together in the middle of her face.
“Frank,” I said.
The woman extended her hand. Her fingers were limp and knotty in mine.
“Madame Langlois. I am you father’s neighbor.” She pointed behind her at the little yellow house. “You look like your father very much.”
“He’s inside,” I said.
Madame Langlois fingered the collar of her turtleneck, a gesture made girlish by the tilt of her head and by the fact that her nails were painted prom-dress pink. “Your father, he is a good man.” Her accent was like something from the movies, all bouncy pitch and rounded vowels, her S’s edged with Z’s. “There are not so many like him willing to dedicate themselves to—how you say?—public service.” She bobbed her head to underscore the words.
What she said was true. My father was a twelve-term city councilman, an important man in his way, dedicated, locally connected. There were photographs of him with Jimmy Carter, with Mike Dukakis, with Bill Clinton hanging in the room we had always called his “den.” The Clinton photo was taken in 1994, the year Dad ran for Congress. The president was in town stumping for local Democrats. Likely his endorsement hurt more than it helped in this part of the world.
Mohawk Street was located in an older part of the city known simply and practically as Midtown—halfway between the bars and the business district and the shipyards down near where the river met the bay and on the other side, the more upscale neighborhoods in west Mobile, the country club, the private schools and so on. My father moved us there when I was six years old in an effort to expose his sons to more diversity. To an old Southern liberal like my father, diversity meant black people, and he wanted to see his boys riding bikes and playing ball with a more colorful group than was handy in west Mobile. Much to his dismay, however, lots of well-intentioned white folk had the same idea and the neighborhood began to gentrify around us almost as soon as we moved in, new paint glistening on the shotgun houses and Creole cottages, contractors banging away all day long, landscapers’ trucks parked along the curb. The net effect was to drive property values up and most of the black residents to the other, less pallid side of Government Boulevard. The house had tripled in value since Dad bought it and Ted was always pushing him to sell, maybe buy a condo on the bay, closer to him and Marcy and the girls, and sock the rest into a mutual fund or something, set him up big time in his retirement, but Dad refused. He claimed both inertia and nostalgia but I think he was embarrassed by how much the house was worth. I think he was waiting around for the neighborhood to go to pot again.
In an effort, perhaps, to expedite the process, he’d let the old place fall into disrepair, both inside and out. The toilets ran. The paint was chipped. The gutters sagged. The floors needed refinishing. The shutters were missing slats. This was not to mention nonstructural wreckage, the pile of New Yorkers in the foyer, the discarded undershirts and boxer shorts on the bathroom floor, the unwashed dishes in the sink, all of which seemed somehow to emanate, like fallout, from the den.
That’s where I tracked him down after parting ways with Madame Langlois. He was pretending to sleep in his recliner but I could tell he was awake. His face was alert even though his eyes were closed. A single lamp was burning beside the chair, spotlighting him, accentuating shadows, making the scene look staged. He had the TV tuned to the news, the volume muted.
I flicked on the overhead.
He stretched and faked a yawn. “Did you say something? I just turned this on to see the weather. I guess I dozed off. That’s what happens when you get old.”
I tossed yesterday’s Press Register on the floor to make room on the couch. The other cushions were strewn with men’s dress socks, maybe three dozen, brown, black, blue, argyle, none of them balled into a pair. The room was a sort of quintessential den, with its wood paneling, its furniture banished from other, better rooms. Mom always kept her distance, partly, I suppose, to allow Dad a sanctuary in the house but also because the room had reached, long before she died, an irreversible momentum toward decay.
“Your neighbor dropped by.”
I watched his face, his eyes.
He brought the recliner upright with a hand lever, patted his pockets for his glasses, got them situated. There was a tumbler of scotch sweating on the end table. I was pretty sure the timing of his exit was deliberate. He knew exactly who I meant.
“The French one,” I said.
“Is she gone? What did she want?”
I sniffed a blue sock to see if it was clean. “I don’t know. Just to talk to you, I guess. To introduce herself to me.” I pushed my hand up in the sock and worked it like a puppet. “Sounds like you guys are pretty friendly.”
My father made a face.
“That woman’s nuts,” he said.
We ordered pizza for dinner and when there was nothing left but rinds of crust, I suggested a game of chess. We Poseys have always played games—horseshoes, chess, backgammon, poker, darts, croquet—to pass the time. We set up on the breakfast table. By the time the doorbell rang, maybe half an hour later, my father had slugged two more scotches and played me into a corner. It was just after nine o’clock. I padded through the darkened dining room, dodging furniture by memory, catching my knee on an umbrella stand. There was Madame Langlois on the stoop, bearing a Tupperware container.
“I brought you a cake,” she said. “It is nothing. I was baking.”
Without waiting for an invitation, Madame Langlois retraced my route through the dining room to the kitchen, but my father was gone when we arrived. She surveyed the room, took in the chess pieces still poised, the pizza box on the counter. I could hear the shower running upstairs, the rattle and groan of old plumbing. Madame Langlois turned on her heel.
“It is poppy seed and lemon,” she said.
I thanked her, told her that she shouldn’t have, but Madame Langlois waved my gratitude away. She opened the refrigerator, scanned the shelves. There was hardly anything in there (I’d already decided to go shopping in the morning) but Madame Langlois hesitated with her cake as if searching for space. She made a pensive, puckery sound, then faced me again, the cake at her shoulder like a waitress.
“Listen to me,” she said. “I can see that you are helpless. You must let me cook for you tomorrow night.”
“I thought I’d take Dad out.”
“Non,” said Madame Langlois. “The holiday, it is about the home. The turkey and the pilgrims and the giving thanks.”
I almost laughed. “That’s too much trouble.”
“I insist,” she said. “It is final. No more talking. My family is, how you say . . .?” She fluttered her hand. I had no idea what expression she was looking for so she finished the thought herself. “I am alone. I have no plans.”
That’s where the trouble always started with me. I liked this woman—her overcooked accent, her aggressive loneliness—and I wanted, just then, to make her happy. Plus, I’m sure part of me was worried about being alone with Dad, worried we’d both be miserable. The whole thing was purely selfish. Though I could sense repercussions looming, I shunted all thoughts of the future aside and accepted her invitation. I walked her out, feeling pleased with myself, then headed upstairs to check in with Dad.
“I’m in the shower,” he shouted. “What do you want?”
I tried the knob, unlocked. I poked my head in so we could hear each other better. He was perched on the toilet, fully dressed. A look of panic washed over his face, then anger, then resignation. Finally, his features settled into sheepish. I’d never seen him look sheepish in his life.
“What’s going on, Dad?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Nothing’s going on.”
I told him about Madame Langlois’s visit, about the plans we’d made, and my father pushed abruptly to his feet. “No. No. I will not have my Thanksgiving with that woman.”
He dropped his shoulder, brushed past me out the door. I followed him to his room down the hall. To my surprise, the room was immaculate, a perfect contrast to the rest of the house: the bed neatly made, no clothes scattered on the floor. Even his loose change was stacked in little piles atop the dresser—pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters. My mother was always on him about picking up after himself.
“C’mon, Dad,” I said. “She’s nice. She’s all alone.”
“She’s a nuisance,” my father said.
On what used to be my mother’s nightstand, I noticed a long, red wig, the color of stained cedar, on one of those Styrofoam heads. She’d bought lots of wigs during her run of chemo but I was pretty sure that this one was the last. It was creepy, seeing it there like that, made my joints all watery.
I told him, “It’s too late to cancel,” but there was no resolve left in my voice.
“It’s not. Go over there right this minute. It’s not too late. Tell her anything you want.”
His eyes were round, bloodshot, his hair mussed like he’d been asleep. My father had gone gray years ago and he had these wild white eyebrows. My mother used to say his eyebrows put her in mind of a demented genius but just then he resembled nothing so much as a tired, old man. I didn’t see how I could refuse him.
Madame Langlois answered the door in a white silk bathrobe with what looked like peacock feathers on the lapel. She smiled, blinked, clutched her robe across her chest. Her chest was mottled with liver spots and right away I knew I couldn’t go through with breaking the date. My father would be furious, but I’d figure something out. The question now was what to tell her about why I’d come.
“Bonsoir,” she said. “Come in, come in. You will excuse my appearance, s’il vous plaït. I wasn’t expecting anyone.”
I followed her to the living room and she waved me into a chair, offered me tea? brandy? a little wine? I said no thanks. Madame Langlois settled herself on a chaise longue. The room was spare but tasteful, everything antique, old books in the built-in shelves. The whole house smelled of cooking. Not just baking but the savory aroma of meat warming in the oven. Was it possible she’d already started preparing for tomorrow?
“Do you have pets?” I said.
“Oui.” She pointed at a birdcage draped with a pale blue sheet, drew her knees up. Her shins were practically translucent. “My parakeet, Abigail. She is asleep.”
“It’s just that I found an ID tag—you know, like for a dog collar. I thought maybe you might have lost it—your pet I mean.”
“Abigail does not wear a collar.”
“Right.” I felt a blush coming on. “It would only apply if you had a dog or cat. Whatever. Maybe you know if one of the neighbors is missing something like that?”
“This is why you’ve come?”
I cleared my throat.
Madame Langlois reached over to pat my knee.
“Tell me about yourself,” she said. “I know about your brother. The lawyer.” She accented the second syllable instead of the first making Ted’s profession sound suddenly exotic. “The father of Jeff’s grandchildren. Twins, yes? But I know only that you exist.”
“He talks about Ted?”
“Your father is very proud.”
I turned thirty-three years old that year. I was single and without prospects. When people asked me what I did for a living, I told them I was a member of Shakespeare Express, this theater group that traveled around to high schools all over the South, doing half-hour versions of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet or a sort of greatest hits compilation, the big, dramatic moments from the most popular plays, anything we could cram into the time allotted for a school assembly. I hated it but how else was I supposed to pay the bills? I also performed at The Playhouse over on Spring Hill Avenue. That past summer I’d done Vince in Buried Child, which sounded, at least to me, more legitimate than Shakespeare Express but paid less well than delivering pizzas. Now and then I had a date or two with one of the actresses from whatever show I was working on. Sometimes we had sex. I mention this only because, given the specifics of my life, people often assumed that I was gay. The rest of the story is that I tried New York after college and failed and when I came home I thought I’d figure out some other way to make a living. I never did. Here’s the point: I understood, despite the holiday dustup, why my father would be more likely to discuss Ted’s life than mine, but still it took the wind out of me a little.
This time, when I got home, he really was dozing in his recliner, mouth hanging open, chin slick with drool, the TV blaring CNN. His face looked thin and pale. There was a half-empty scotch between his legs, his right hand capped over the glass, as if to keep foreign objects out while he was asleep. I worried that he was drinking too much and thought maybe I should talk to him about it but Dad had always liked a drink and it was a holiday besides—certainly not the time. So I woke him up and waited for him to get oriented. He wouldn’t let me help him up to bed.
I’d planned to go on home and come back in the morning but I made up my mind then and there to spend the night. It seemed like the right thing. And my place wasn’t much besides. I was on the road enough that it didn’t make sense to spend a lot on rent so I kept a room in what amounted to a boardinghouse here in town. I liked the idea of sleeping in my old bed. The posters and pennants on the walls, all left over from my boyhood. The musty blankets. There was still a working phone on the nightstand. I wasn’t ready to pack it in so I called Ted.
“It’s late,” he said, after I’d identified myself. “We’ve got kids here, pal. The girls are out by eight o’clock.”
“I just wanted to check in.”
“He’s all right,” I told him. “A little down, you know, but all right. Don’t forget to call tomorrow.”
In my pocket, I found the ID tag. I’d forgotten it was there.
“I’m not an idiot,” he said.
“It’s just that you sounded pissed last week.”
“To be honest, I was pissed. I am pissed. I think I have a right to be pissed that my father doesn’t want to visit his granddaughters on Thanksgiving. We’ve come to him every holiday since the girls were born. I miss Mom, too, but I have a family to think about. It’s been three years.” Ted paused, took a breath. “And you’re not doing anybody any good humoring him. You should be here, Frank, not holding his hand. I’m your brother. You haven’t even been over to check out my new house.”
“I’ve been busy. I’ve been out of town.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Right. He’s a grown man, Frank. You’re both grown men.”
I stretched out on the bed, clipped the ID tag between my teeth. How familiar all this was—the spongy mattress, the window leaking a draft over my feet, my brother’s voice on the phone, my father snoring down the hall. Ted and I had shared that room until he went away to the University of Alabama. I’d gotten in the habit back then of calling him after everyone else had gone to bed, listening to his adventures, fraternity stuff and stuff with girls, nothing major, but it all seemed foreign and magical at the time.
Ted said, “It’s true.”
“He’s got this neighbor. This crazy French lady.”
There passed a stretch of silence on the line.
“I fail to see the relevance,” Ted said.
In the morning, as promised, we visited my mother’s grave. It was cooler than the day before, cold enough to mist our breath, a suggestion that winter might at last be on its way to Alabama. Dad didn’t say a word about me sleeping over. For a long time, we stood there without speaking. I tried to think about Mom, tried to pray but I didn’t know what to ask of God. She was or was not in heaven by now and I had all these mixed feelings about religion to begin with. I tried, after a while, to empty my mind, to pay homage to my mother with silent meditation, but life kept creeping in. I couldn’t quit thinking about Ted, wondering if he was sorry that he wasn’t coming for Thanksgiving, and I was worried about what to tell Dad about Madame Langlois.
My mother was originally from Baton Rouge, a big, Cajun-looking woman, dark hair, dark eyes, broad shoulders, just over six feet tall, though she disliked her size and lied about it on her driver’s license. She moved to Mobile to take a job at the Planned Parenthood Center here. The work was trying and turnover was quick and my mother was bright and capable. She was managing the center inside two years. That’s how she met my father. He was still practicing law back then, had agreed to do some pro bono stuff for Planned Parenthood. Decades later, when the cancer forced her out of work, Mom said to me, “The good news is I’ve seen the last of all those stupid, careless girls.” I’m still not sure if she was kidding. There was real bitterness in her voice. At the time, I believed she was angry at her illness, not her job, but I don’t know. That kind of work, there’s never any end in sight. It can’t help but wear a person down. In old pictures, the first thing you notice is my mother’s carriage, how proud-looking she was, how erect, even with two young sons hanging on her like chimpanzees. But her height worked against her over time and even before she got sick, she was stooping a little, as if leaning into wind.
Back on the road, headed home, I asked, apropos of nothing, why Dad didn’t take another crack at national office. It’s not like he lost in a landslide. His opponent nipped him by 4 percent.
“Well,” he said, then he went quiet a moment, gathered his thoughts. He kept his eyes on the windshield. “You have to remember I’d already been on the city council a long time so I’d made plenty of enemies. Even in the party. Plus, this district is pretty conservative, you know that. They wanted a moderate to run against the Nazis that pass for Republicans in this part of the state. Plus, I’m sixty-six years old.” He switched on the radio, spun the dial, turned it off. “Plus, your mother—she was pretty disappointed.”
When they got married, Dad had just hung out a shingle and he was taking a lot of court-appointed cases to stay afloat. The way I understood it, it was Mom’s idea for him to run for city council, not to win necessarily but to get his name out there, to give him a forum, which might drum up better-paying business. But he did win, to their surprise, and it turned out he liked having a say in how his city worked. I wondered if Congress wasn’t her idea as well.
We drove a while in silence, past a church, a pawnshop, a Burger King. Then it was my father’s turn for non sequitur.
“Your brother is a lucky man,” he said.
“He’s making money hand over fist and he’s got Marcy. I hope he knows how lucky he is.”
I thought about my brother’s wife, how beautiful she was, how unflappable with Ted and the girls. And I thought about the twins, Lily and Colleen, each a lovely and perfect replica of the other. And I thought about my brother, too, how he was always telling me, without actually saying the words aloud, that it was high time to get serious about my life.
I said, “You had Mom.”
“Your mother, who lived her whole life right, died at sixty. That’s not luck.”
I could imagine several replies, all of them having to do with how fortunate my father was to have found someone to love at all, but it didn’t make sense to argue. I considered broaching the subject of Madame Langlois but before I could speak, my father bolted forward in his seat.
“Turn here,” he said. “Here. Quick.”
I followed his directions through a four-way stop.
“Where are we going?”
“I want to show you something. I was visiting your mother not too long ago and got turned around on the way home so I’m not a hundred percent. It’s here somewhere.” He was sitting on the edge of his seat, hands on the dashboard, eyes scanning out the window. “There,” he said. “Take this right.” He directed me to a nondescript brick rancher, told me to pull over at the curb. He was out of the car and on the lawn before I had time to kill the engine. It took a moment to realize what it was he wanted me to see: what looked like a dollhouse in the grass, plantation style, maybe four feet tall, a miniature Cadillac parked out front.
When I opened my door, I heard Elvis doing “Spanish Harlem.”
“It’s Graceland,” my father said.
“Look in the windows. It’s an exact replica. The jungle room. The bathroom where he died. It’s Graceland down to the last detail.”
I walked over and peeked inside. There was an Elvis doll in a sequined Vegas jumpsuit sprawled on a tiny leather couch, feet propped up like he was winding down after a show.
“You’re kidding me,” I said.
“It’s up year-round. They pipe music in and everything.” Dad pointed at a speaker on a corner of the rancher. “Twenty-four hours a day, though I understand they turn the volume down at night. The neighbors just got used to it, I guess. I talked to the owners last time I was here. The wife grew up in Memphis. Nice people. Love Elvis, of course. They voted for me many times.”
“I have no idea what to think about this.”
“Isn’t it perfect?” my father said.
Elvis sounded deep and sad as ever, just about right for that late November morn.
While he napped, I raked and bagged and contemplated my father in his retirement. Dad made up his mind to call it quits in 1998, near the end of his last term, and his decision took everybody by surprise—his colleagues, his secretary, his sons most of all. He was still a young man, relatively speaking, and he had nothing particular in mind for the rest of his life and he refused to give anybody a reason. When we asked, he’d go on about how he was fully vested in his pension plan and we didn’t have anything to worry about. At first he took some pro bono cases and advised other lawyers now and then in their dealings with the city and I was happy for him. It looked like he was getting back to where he started in the world. That was something I could understand. At some point, however, he quit working altogether (it took Ted and me a while to arrive at this conclusion) and what I couldn’t figure was how he filled his days. He had no hobbies to speak of. Most of his friends were still employed so he wasn’t hanging out with them. I didn’t want to ask him what he did with all his time. It seemed intrusive, potentially embarrassing, but I was concerned. I had an image of him lounging in his recliner, drinking scotch in the middle of the day and watching the world go by on CNN.
When I finished the leaves, I headed for Winn-Dixie, loaded up on basics: soup and cereal, bread and fruit, coffee and milk. That’s all Dad ever bothered with by himself, and pretty much all I could afford besides.
Afterward, I stopped off at my place to pick up a change of clothes. I lived in a converted Victorian on Dauphin Street, four bedrooms in all, two up, two down, with a communal kitchen and TV room. The landlady, Mrs. Mauldin, kept one of the downstairs bedrooms for herself, some kind of tax dodge, a way to write off the mortgage or something, but she had another residence in Maryland and was hardly ever around. Next to her lived a deaf woman named Chloe Jones. She was always talking to herself, narrating, I supposed, her interior life. “I don’t know about hot dogs,” she might say when I passed her in the hall, her deaf woman’s voice all loud and glottal. Or, “I wish I was left-handed.” I figured it had something to do with her inability to hear, with the way she negotiated between thought and word and sound, but it’s possible she was merely strange.
My room was on the second floor, down the hall from Lucious Son. He didn’t have a job as far as I could tell and he always had people coming and going and the air seeping out from under his door reeked so frequently of pot I was pretty sure that’s how he paid his rent.
Lucious was practicing martial arts in the parking lot when I pulled in. His father was Korean, he’d told me, his mother from Trinidad, his fighting style a hybrid of techniques they’d taught him as a boy. He swiveled his hips and snaked his arms and hopped from foot to foot. None of it looked particularly dangerous.
“Gimme some of that good stuff,” he said as I stepped out of the car.
I thought about it for a second. The leafless trees. The pewter sky. The weird kung fu.
I said, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers / For he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile / This day shall gentle his condition / And gentlemen in England now a-bed / Shall think themselves accursed they were not here / And hold their manhood cheap whiles any speaks / Who fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
He’d overheard me rehearsing after I moved in and now he made requests.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” he said.
He balanced on one foot, palmed his fist at about the level of his belly button and gave me a bow.
I went on up to my room. There wasn’t much to look at. The old pine desk, the bookshelves stuffed with paperbacks, the scuffed and rugless hardwood floor. The radiator was off and it was cold. It felt like nobody had been in there for a long time.
Dad started in on me as soon as I got home.
“What the hell?” he said. “What’s wrong with you? I can’t believe you lied.” I mean his eyes were bulging, hands waving in the air. He caught me so off guard that it took a minute to get my head around what happened. Turned out Madame Langlois had called while I was gone to propose a change of plans: She was still cooking but she wanted to eat at our house instead of hers.
“Goddamnit, Frank.” He followed me out to my Subaru while I retrieved another load of groceries. “You promised. I sounded like a fool.”
I noticed then that he was holding a pair of penny loafers in his left hand, fingers hooked into the heels, like he’d meant to put them on but was so anxious to let me have it that he’d forgotten. His toenails were long and yellow. I thought his feet were probably cold. My car was ping-ping-pinging about its open door.
I said, “Look, I’m sorry. You should have seen her. All alone in this robe. It had feathers on it, Dad. I couldn’t do it.”
He just stared. Nothing can make you feel more like somebody’s kid than that look of disappointment. Then he stomped back up to the house and I started lugging the groceries in myself, thinking I was supposed to be there to spend time with my father, not humor Madame Langlois, thinking no way did a thing like this happen on my brother’s watch. That’s when the bottom tore out of one of the bags and three cantaloupes went bowling down the driveway. I managed to catch up to the first one but the second veered off and disappeared into the gutter, while the third raced toward Mohawk, where it exploded beneath the tires of a passing SUV.
Four o’clock found me cleaning house. I’d always thought there was something sad about that hour, that season. It had to do with early nightfall and the encroachment of another year. Dad was holed up in his room with the door locked. I did the best I could but the vacuum cleaner didn’t work and I couldn’t find a dustpan and the house was pretty far gone besides. Mostly, I wound up hiding the mess in closets and under furniture or trying to organize it (what else was I supposed to do with all those back issues of the New Yorker?) into a neater semblance of itself. Madame Langlois was due at 5:30 and it was way too late to put her off and I had no ideas. I thought about calling Ted. He’d never have admitted it but I knew it would make him happy to hear that Thanksgiving had gone to hell without him, and I was pretty sure he’d know how to make things right, but I was embarrassed and I didn’t want to give him the pleasure. He was probably sitting down right that minute to a beautifully set table with his beautiful wife and his beautiful little girls, all of them done up like something from a Brooks Brothers catalog. Or maybe they’d already finished the meal and the house had settled into nap time, a fire burning toward embers in the hearth, a football game on TV with the volume turned down low. It was cheesy, sure, but it was so bewitching in my imagination that I was jealous of Ted and irritated with Dad for his unwillingness to compromise.
Eventually, I gave up on the house and trudged upstairs, knocked on my father’s door. No answer, but I could hear NPR ticking off the headlines on his clock radio.
“Do you think Ted voted for Bush?” I said.
I knew the answer and so did Dad but we’d just come through a messy election and I hoped politics would provoke a response. Ted’s politics in particular. I pressed my ear to the door. Somehow, the faint droning of the radio made the silence more pronounced.
I said, “I know Marcy has a sticker on her Suburban,” but Dad held out.
Back downstairs, I hunted up matching place mats, set the table for three just in case. I found some candles in the pantry. By the time I was finished, it was 5:15. Still no sign of Dad. I decided to tell Madame Langlois he wasn’t feeling well. It’d be just the two of us tonight. To steel myself, I poured a great big scotch and sat at the table, took a minute to catch my breath. I was wondering if there was more to my father’s reasons for avoiding Madame Langlois than personal distaste—he seemed almost afraid of her—when Dad himself appeared in the doorway, wearing a blazer and tie. His hair was wet-combed like a kid.
“I need one of those,” he said, aiming a finger at my drink.
Madame Langlois was right on time. It took the three of us two trips to haul all that food in from her car. Turkey on a silver platter. Sweet potatoes. Stuffing. Bread. Some kind of fish and mushroom casserole in a Pyrex dish. Salad in a huge plastic bowl. She had made both pumpkin and pecan pie. She insisted that Dad and I take our places at the table while she did the final preparations.
From the kitchen, Madame Langlois said, “I hope you do not mind. The casserole, it is French. I know this is your holiday but I love to see my American friends enjoy French food.”
She said eet instead of it. Her accent seemed somehow even thicker than before.
I waited a second, gave my father a chance to reply. He didn’t bother. Before I could speak, Madame Langlois was running on again.
“I had the most wonderful day in the kitchen. It gives me such a pleasure to cook for men with their appetites.”
Zee, she said. Geeves.
I cut a look at my father, tried, with an eyebrow thing and a complicated smile, to let him know that I was in on the joke—sure, she was ridiculous—but also gratified that he and I had been able to make her happy in this small way. He looked away, sipped at the sauvignon blanc she’d poured. He screwed his face up at the taste and went back to scotch instead.
“Your mother,” he said, “She used to drink merlot with everything. Red meat, white meat. It didn’t matter. She knew what she liked. She’d put a single ice cube in. She preferred it just a little chilled and watered down.”
An egg timer dinged and I heard a tiny continental-sounding exclamation from Madame Langlois.
Dad went on. “She never liked a turkey at Thanksgiving. You remember? Too cliché. We’d do beef tender instead. She wasn’t much of a cook but it always turned out nice.”
He was talking like Mom had been gone for decades, like he was worried I’d forgotten her. His voice was way too loud.
There was some banging and rustling in the kitchen. A minute later Madame Langlois swung into the room bearing the turkey platter, which she placed on a trivet beside my father. She lifted the lid with a flourish. It was a beautiful bird.
“You will carve for us, Jeff, no?”
My father grunted his assent and Madame Langlois shuttled in a few more platters, then took her seat across from me. She looked a little wilted. We watched Dad hack at the turkey.
“So,” she said. “Tell me, Frank. You have been to France?”
I bobbed my head. “After college. I did the backpack thing.”
“How long were you in my country?”
“Let’s see—Paris for about a week,” I said, “then the south, Nice and Antibes. Maybe two weeks altogether.”
Madame Langlois served herself some casserole, started the dish on its round. “You did not visit the Loire Valley?”
I took some, passed the casserole to my father and waited for Madame Langlois to finish with the salad. She made a little sucking sound with her tongue. “Then you did not see France. The Loire Valley is the very—how you say?—the very soul of the country. My father and his father before him and on and on like so, they had a vineyard near Lyon.”
Right then, my father slapped the serving spoon into the casserole dish, hard enough to splatter his tie and the lenses of his glasses.
“That’s it,” he said. “I can’t listen to this.” He glared at us, didn’t seem to notice the dollop of cream sauce obscuring his left eye. “This woman,” he said, bolting to his feet and aiming a finger like a TV lawyer. ‘she’s from North goddamn Carolina. Her father may have run a vineyard but what he made was third-rate domestic cabernet.” Madame Langlois’s lips were pressed into a thin white line. My father addressed her directly. “You’ve been in this country almost fifty years.” His voice leapt up in volume at the end of the sentence. “It’s absurd. You’re more American than Frank.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. He turned, too quickly, tipping his chair back on its hind legs, and stormed off from the table. The chair wobbled a moment, righted itself. Because it was too awkward and confusing to meet each other’s eyes, Madame Langlois and I stared at the space my father vacated like he’d vanished in a puff of smoke.
While I helped Madame Langlois pack all that food into Dad’s refrigerator—she insisted, said she’d made it for us, said it was too much for her—she told me two stories.
The first confirmed a fair amount of my father’s accusation while casting the details in a different light. It turned out that the Langlois family vineyard went belly-up when she was in her teens and her father was forced to take a job overseeing production at a fledgling winery in the States, the pet project of a poet who’d married an heiress and had the advantage of her money. Her father wouldn’t let his children (Madame Langlois was the youngest of three) speak English in the house, which explained, she said, the fact that she still had an accent after all this time. She’d come to Mobile to take a job teaching languages at the Jesuit college here in town.
I was beginning to wonder how my father had arrived at his knowledge of her past, when she launched, unbidden, into the second story. After months of cajoling, he’d accepted an invitation to dinner at her house. This was just before Halloween. Madame Langlois spared me no detail. The wine, the music, the candlelight. The food: smoked salmon soufflé, followed by fruit terrine. They talked, she about her father, he, after a while, about my brother. Madame Langlois was just setting a cup of coffee at his place when he took her face in both his hands and kissed her on the mouth.
“It was a perfect little kiss,” she said.
Except that it caused her to forget herself so completely that she spilled the coffee in my father’s lap. Except that once he recovered from the coffee he was embarrassed by the kiss and neither of them knew how to find their way back to intimacy. Dad had been vague and distant with her since.
When the food was put away, I walked her to her car and she rolled the window down.
“This is my fault,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“But how could you have known?”
I couldn’t help listening for traces of North Carolina in her voice. I put on an apologetic face.
“I ruined your Thanksgiving.”
“It is not my holiday,” she said.