Two Thanksgiving scenes

I was a little startled to realize, last night, that Thanksgiving looms pretty large in both my books so far, and serves as a significant turning point in the first one. This surprised me a little because I’m not exactly a stickler for holiday traditions. My son and I are happily joining friends for Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant. Although I regret not being with either my grandkids or my brothers’ families today, I have a little bit of a cold and I am actually very content not driving long distances in uncertain weather, or cooking and cleaning.

These are not the most significant parts of the Thanksgiving events in each book — I don’t want to spoil anything major — but I thought you might enjoy these little excerpts in honor of the holiday.

From The Awful Mess: A Love Story

Cover for The Awful Mess: A Love StoryAs Thanksgiving approached, the food pantry got hectic. November was prime time for food collections and for new volunteers, who naturally expected to be given something to do. The generous Thanksgiving boxes, a point of pride and competition among the local churches and civic organizations, had to be organized so that frozen turkeys didn’t defrost, stuffing mix didn’t expire, pies didn’t get squashed, and no one got lost trying to make deliveries.

Mary organized driving maps along sensible car routes for the approximate number of volunteers they expected to show up on delivery day, the Sunday afternoon before Thanksgiving. She and Annie supervised the distribution of lists and boxes. She had just finished checking off one set of boxes into the care of a couple of Catholics, when she turned to find herself facing Winslow.

“Oh, hi.” She tried to ignore the rising heat on her face. “I didn’t see you on the list. Are you here for St. Andrews?”

“No, Chapel on the Hill.” His blue eyes met hers for what seemed like the first time in months. “Dad’s back is bothering him.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Here are their boxes” — she walked him over — “and this is where to deliver them.” She handed over the packet with a tight smile. “Tell your Dad I hope he feels better.” She stepped back, anxious to avoid further awkwardness.

He boosted a box into his arms. “You’re not lifting these, I hope.”

“No, not me.” She patted her belly. If he had ever found her attractive, he must be safely past that now. Perhaps that explained the sudden willingness to talk to her again.

“My sister’s arriving tomorrow,” he said.

“Your dad told me she has big news.”

“She’s bringing Carla.”

“Does he know?”

“No.” He frowned and shifted the heavy box over to one hip.

“Don’t you think it might be a good idea to give him a heads up?”

“She didn’t want me to. She says if they have to leave, they will.”

“Well that sounds like a fun holiday for everybody.” Mary was annoyed on Bert’s behalf. “Was this your sister’s idea, or Carla’s?”

“Probably Carla’s. She can be a drama queen.”

“I could tell him, if you want.”

He looked astonished. “You?”

She suddenly realized how far she’d overstepped. There went her face, burning again. “Sorry,” she said wretchedly. “Dumb suggestion.” She turned away, blinking back tears of embarrassment, and stumbled over to another volunteer who looked like he needed direction. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Winslow staring after her. She turned her back and tried to focus on the man in front of her, who was geared out as if he were about to go climb Mount Monadnock.

“Hey, are you okay?” the man asked.

“Hormones,” she said.

The man looked alarmed. She tried to smile. “Which group are you?”


Thankfully, the Unitarian boxes were on the other side from the God’s Chapel on the Hill boxes, over by the Kiwanis boxes. Perhaps Annie had mapped out the boxes by dogma, or lack thereof. Mary helped the Unitarian fellow and then hovered while he carried out one heavy box at a time. Winslow came in and out, too, loading his own boxes. She sensed him looking over at her, but carefully avoided making eye contact until his last box was gone and him with it. Then she checked both sets of boxes off her list and collapsed into a folding chair.

“You okay?” Annie asked, panting a bit herself.

“I’ll be all right.”

“Somebody say something mean to you? Tell me who it is, I’ll fight ’im!”

Mary just shook her head.

“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”

“I thought I might sign up to work the soup kitchen in Keene.”

Annie scowled. “Why don’t you let the once-a-year folks do that? I’m going to have a nice restaurant meal with my home girls. You want to come?”

“Home girls?” Lawson was not exactly a hub of hip urban street culture.

“Other divorced women from my support group. The few of us who don’t have families we want to hang out with on Turkey Day, anyway.”

Mary hesitated. “How expensive is it?”

“Pregnant unemployed food pantry volunteers get to eat free.”

“I can still pay my way!”

Annie laughed. “No you can’t. The restaurant is owned by one of the women in the group. She never lets us pay a dime for the food, just for the service.”

“Well, that sounds lovely, actually. Thank you.”

Annie did a little happy dance. “Excellent! Now everybody’s taken care of.”

From The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.He arrived at three. He hadn’t really wanted to be that punctual. But he’d taken a shower, and shaved, and changed, and changed again. And then he couldn’t think of anything else to do, and it was still only 2:30.

It occurred to him that he should take something, so he drove to Stop n’ Shop. It was closed.

He tried the package store. It was open, of course. He bought a bottle of wine and felt like a grown-up. Elaine hadn’t even had to tell him to do it.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” he said, and handed over the wine.

“Oh, thank you!” Cassandra looked genuinely pleased. “I hope it goes with turkey. I completely forgot about wine.”

“I think maybe anything goes with turkey,” he said, as if he had a clue, which he didn’t. Elaine would have known what wine went with turkey, or she would have asked the guy in the package store. David sure as hell wasn’t going to ask.

Colin came up to take his jacket. “This is my first Thanksgiving. We don’t do Thanksgiving where I come from.”

“No? Well, and why would you?”

Colin looked unsure whether that was a dig or not. David hadn’t intended it as one, but he enjoyed setting Colin back just a little anyway.

“We do have Guy Fawkes Day in early November,” Colin said. “We light bonfires and set off fireworks and roast bangers on sticks. Bangers are sausages, you see.”

“Sounds like fun,” David said.

“What I don’t understand about this holiday is the football part of it. Not that what you lot play is what I would consider football.”

Colin had already said some variation on this to him at least once a week since he’d met him. “Are you watching the game?” he asked hopefully. He had no actual interest in the day’s games, but having a television on would reduce the pressure to have conversation.

“Good Lord, no,” Colin said. “I did watch some of that parade, though. A bizarre tribal custom if I ever saw one. Huge inflated totems, dizzying drumbeats, virgins displayed like offerings to appease the gods!”

“So where’s Molly?” he asked Cassandra, who looked as if she’d had just about enough of Colin.

“At a football game.” She sounded tense.

“A football game?”

“The Turkey Day game. It’s home this year. Shadbrook vs. East Hadley. I assumed she would be home by now.”

“You see?” Colin says. “More madness. And on a day like this.” He gestured outside, to where the snow was falling more heavily.

“I hope he knows how to drive in this stuff,” Cassandra said.

“He?” David asked.

“Steven. Steven Bishop. A guy she used to know at the local high school. He looks nice enough.” Cassandra didn’t sound too impressed.

“She was very excited,” Colin said. “Our Molly hasn’t gotten out much.”

“I wish she would get home,” Cassandra said. “I’m glad she’s getting out, but I guess I’m really not used to this. Would you like a glass of wine before dinner, David? Or one of Colin’s imported ales?”

“Wine, please.” Yes, by all means, give him a drink. Had she invited him over here on purpose to make sure he knew about Steven? Maybe this was Cassandra’s way of saying it’s over, pathetic man, get on with your life.

x x x

He was glad he’d already downed that first glass when a beat-up old Plymouth pulled up outside. “I think she’s home,” he said.

But she didn’t come in right away. No, she stayed out there in the car with Steven.

Finally, Cassandra opened the door and stepped out onto the stoop. Molly got out of the car. She tried to neaten her hair. She looked so excited and happy. She practically bounced through the accumulated snow to the door.

Despite the ache in his heart, David found it impossible not to think: This is good. This is right and proper. Look at her, isn’t she beautiful?

When she saw him, though, some of that animation drained away. She licked her lips nervously. They looked chapped. Her entire face looked rough and red. He could remember kissing like that, centuries earlier, back when kissing alone was amazing.

“Hello, Molly,” he said, and smiled bravely.

She smiled back. The happiness overspread her face again. She just couldn’t contain it, could she? “I didn’t know you were coming,” she said. “Happy Thanksgiving.”

“How was the game?” Cassandra asked.

“The game? It was fine.”

“Who won?” Cassandra asked.

Molly opened her mouth, then closed it. “I have no idea.”

Colin chuckled, then patted him on the shoulder and steered him toward the kitchen. “Let’s refill your glass, David.”


FYI — The price on The Ribs and Thigh Bones will rise after it’s released Dec. 9, so pre-order before then to save a dollar. Or pre-order because you want to help me make it more visible to other readers (pre-orders really do make a BIG difference). Or … don’t worry about it and go eat some turkey. It’s a holiday! Hope you have a nice one.

Chapter Two of The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire

Continuing on from Chapter One

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.MOLLY HAD BEEN to exactly four funerals before, one for each grandparent. She didn’t know if that was a lot of funerals for a girl of sixteen. But she knew this one was different. Emily and Elaine had already been dead for over three weeks, and there was no hint at all of their earthly remains, assuming there were any left. And, of course, Emily and Elaine had not been old people at the end of full lives, but a young girl and her mother.

“Such a tragedy,” everyone kept saying. It had been repeated so often that Molly now heard the words as if they were capitalized: Such a Tragedy. She had expected to hear plenty of that today and had steeled herself against it, hoping not to become a bawling wreck. What she hadn’t expected was what people were saying about Emily and Elaine once they got past the Such a Tragedy part.

“We’ll never see her learn to ride a bike!” Emily’s grandmother sniffed, then started sobbing outright and hid her face in a handkerchief before someone helped her back to her pew. Molly sat there thinking that Emily had already learned to ride a bike the previous summer. It had been the Bicentennial so they’d purchased red, white, and blue “Spirit of 76!” tassels for Emily’s bike handles. Didn’t this woman ever talk to her granddaughter on the phone? But then she felt mean. After all, Mrs. DeRochemont not only didn’t get to see her granddaughter learn to ride a bike, she would never get to see her ride a bike, ever.

Probably they’d missed so much because they lived all the way over in California, which had to be a very expensive long-distance call. And who was she to judge? All her grandparents were dead. They had excuses.

But her sense that things were off just got worse when they started talking about Elaine. They kept referring to her amazing talent, to her great promise as a poet and painter. Molly had worked for Elaine Asken as a babysitter and mother’s helper for four years, but she’d had no idea she ever wrote poetry, and she’d never seen her paint anything other than the bathroom – a nice sky blue.

Her mother looked as perplexed as she was. Their small town did not lack for artists. Molly’s mother was one herself (the infamous Cassandra Carmichael – yes, that one). She wasn’t shy about bringing it up, either. So how could something like this have never come up in neighborly conversation?

Back at the Asken house, now crowded with mourners trying not to chat too cheerfully over the food, Molly caught her mother examining pale David Asken with suspicion. Her mother had always seemed to like this young family across the street, to consider them the right sort of people, not too old-fashioned or Republican or anything. She particularly approved of the fact that Elaine had a job, teaching English at the local public high school. Now, however, Molly could tell that she suspected Dr. Asken of oppressing all the art out of his wife.

Molly thought it was more likely that her mother had oppressed any mention of art out of Elaine. Cassandra had hit the big time with an installation called Puberty, which had included a life-sized sculpture of Molly, twelve at the time, constructed entirely of tampons and feminine napkins – unused, thank God. This had been such a big hit that her mother had moved on to a series of papier-mâché portraits of women’s private parts she called Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. Worse, her mother always made sure the local media knew about her new shows, and they delighted in giving full coverage to her exploits.

All this had often made Molly want to curl up in the fetal position in her bed rather than go to school. People assumed Shadbrook was an enlightened town because it was so close to UMass and the other colleges – and plenty of academics did live there. But the other people, the locals – farmers and factory workers and custodians and groundskeepers – wouldn’t be caught dead pretending to like contemporary art. At Shadbrook High School the kids had saluted her mother’s first show by passing her sanitary supplies in class and calling her Tampon Girl. She was grateful when her father took pity and got her transferred into a local boarding school as a day student. At Shadbrook Academy the rich kids thought it was cool to have a mom who was so open-minded about, like, sex, and Molly tried to act as if she thought so, too. She’d already learned the hard way that betraying embarrassment in high school was like jumping into a shark frenzy with a vein open.

But Molly was not particularly open-minded about sex. She was still only sixteen, and she had never felt an overwhelming urge to exchange bodily fluids with any of the boys she knew, even the ones she considered cute. And she didn’t appreciate it when someone assumed she must be hot to trot just because her mother had a bunch of giant vulvas lined up on a shelf in her studio.

Today, though, she was less the crazy feminist artist’s daughter than she was the bereaved babysitter of the dead girl. People were giving her the same watery smiles they were giving Dr. Asken – in her case, probably because her eyes were still red-rimmed with tears from the service (so much for not bawling), or perhaps because she was helping out at the house and therefore seemed to hold some kind of official family status.

Mr. and Mrs. Pizarelli from next door tapped on the glass door off the deck and began to slide it open. Although the Asken house faced busy Federal Street, the driveway was off quiet Brinkley Street, facing Molly’s mother’s house. Only salesmen and Jehovah’s Witnesses walked all the way around. Mr. Pizarelli bore a huge pan wrapped in aluminum foil while his wife carried a homemade layer cake high up before her like a sacred offering. Molly knew they were going to want more recognition for their efforts than they could get from her, so she quickly went into the living room and pointed Dr. Asken’s sister, Denise, toward the new arrivals.

In the living room, two women she didn’t know were examining the large oils hanging there and Molly suddenly realized that they must be Elaine’s, since they were signed EDR. The two largest paintings were color studies more than anything, but a few were more representational – impressionist scenes of shells or sea oats and dunes. It was the kind of stuff her mother would dismiss as too conventional – sofa art, she might call it, with a sniff.

Molly jumped when Denise grabbed her elbow and steered her towards the kitchen. Although she lived in Minneapolis, Denise had been staying here at the house since shortly after the crash, watching over her brother while he recuperated from his injuries. She leaned in towards Molly’s ear and murmured, “How do you think it’s going?”

What made Denise think she was any judge? “Fine, I guess.”

“I was hoping David would get more involved, but I’m afraid he still has a long way to go.” She sighed unhappily.

After three weeks in the hospital, Dr. Asken still had one arm bandaged all the way from the hand to the elbow and hanging in a sling. The other hand wasn’t bandaged anymore, but it was scarred with pale, puckered trails like birthday cake icing. At rest it curled in on itself like a claw. Except for those injuries it was not really obvious from looking that he had survived a terrible plane crash. There had been fourteen survivors out of eighty-three passengers – or eleven, really, since three had since died from their injuries.

Molly assumed Dr. Asken was suffering – how could he not be? But today, when she’d dared to look, she was mostly struck by how he seemed to not really be there at all.

“Do you think you could stay for a while this afternoon and help me clean up? I’ll pay you, of course.” Denise’s plump face had managed to take on a hollow look, and she had a fine sheen of perspiration over her upper lip. She’d been shepherding people to and away from her brother, putting out food, refreshing drinks and supplying gory details to people who surely already knew what had happened but wanted to hear it all over again from a more authoritative source.

“Yes, I can stay. You don’t have to pay me.”

“Oh, aren’t you sweet.”

Molly sensed a faint touch of contempt there. Did Denise think she was some kind of provincial idiot? But although Molly could use the money, it hadn’t been her primary motivation in her relationship with the Askens for a long time.

This house had been her refuge from the general chaos at home as well as impassioned monologues about the beauty of the female body and the political importance of the female orgasm and other things she just didn’t think a girl should have to discuss with her mother. She had loved Emily because she was a sweet little girl who worshiped her, and she had loved Elaine because she was predictable and steady and kind. She’d loved coming over here into the tranquility of Elaine’s blues and greens, the houseplants that didn’t die from neglect, the sense of order and peace. Just stepping in the door was soothing.

But it was not Elaine and Emily’s house anymore; it was just Dr. Asken’s. And Dr. Asken – Dr. because he had a Ph.D. and taught science at one of the local women’s colleges – had never been anything more to Molly than a tall man with hair just long enough to make her father frown, a man who occasionally appeared, looked mildly embarrassed, and paid her.

In truth, she was not really entirely comfortable that she had been hired to work as Dr. Asken’s housekeeper for the rest of the summer.

She quietly dodged around people in the living room, collecting glasses and dishes, doing her job. But when she was loading the dishwasher and recognized Emily’s favorite juice glass, the one with Cookie Monster on it, she felt tears rise again. She dashed out the door to the front porch, where she could slip down onto the old wicker sofa behind the lilacs and try to get a grip.

Moments later, her mother stuck her head out of the front door. “Oh, there you are,” she said. “Are you all right?”

Molly nodded and gave her a surly pout, desperate to head off any serious attempt at comfort. It would only make her cry.

Cassandra sat down next to her and took out a cigarette. “I wonder why she stopped painting,” she said. She took a drag and blew out smoke in a long stream.

Molly coughed. “I wonder why you started smoking.”

Her mom blew out another long stream, and Molly wondered if maybe that was why she had started smoking – the opportunity it provided for dramatic pauses.

“I used to smoke before I got pregnant with you.”

“So you won’t mind if I start now, either?”

Her mother cocked an eyebrow at her and offered her a cigarette.

Molly recoiled.

Her mom smiled. “I didn’t think so.” Another stream. “What do you think of Elaine’s paintings?”

“I didn’t realize they were hers. I like the colors.”

“I see indications of real talent.”

Molly frowned. There was no way would her mother would have said that if Elaine were still alive. Her mother generally dismissed all but most the radical of her contemporaries as “bourgeois hacks,” and there was nothing in Elaine’s work that suggested revolutionary tendencies. Molly said, “Elaine was the warmest, kindest woman I’ve ever known.”

Her mother stubbed out her cigarette and tossed the butt into the lilac.

Molly thought it took a lot of nerve to toss a butt into a grieving man’s front garden, but then she realized there were no ashtrays on the front porch. Elaine would have thought to put some around. “Let me get an ashtray for you,” she said, and stood up.

“Don’t bother, I’m going home. Are you coming?”

“Denise asked me to help clean up.”

Her mother snorted. She’d taken an instant dislike to Denise. “Well, good luck with that.” She went back through the house, no doubt to do another round of condolences on her way out.

Molly twisted around to peer through the living room window, curious to see how Dr. Asken would react to the second, parting handshake from her mother. People in the room stopped what they were doing to watch her. Molly’s mother was not a beauty – she was a tiny woman, with unusually short, spiky hair and a face that was more interesting than it was pretty – but people did watch her, even people who didn’t know how notorious she was.

But Cassandra Carmichael didn’t get even a flicker of recognition from Dr. Asken. It was the same as the first time he’d shaken their hands, after the service – like someone going through motions he didn’t even know he was making.

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