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Meeting the Carvers: Fiction 

click to enlarge ABBY MANOCK
  • Abby Manock

The first time I met my boyfriend’s parents was on Thanksgiving, 1992. Mark and I had been together for eight months. Up to that point, his parents had been little more than disembodied voices on the answering machine, and I had contentedly settled into my role as the boyfriend persona non grata. Mark’s coming out to them some years previous had been a loud and disastrous affair, complete, I’m told, with chest beating, tears and one broken table lamp. That was followed by months of silence, and then an unspoken agreement to pretend nothing had changed.

Their willingness to have me over for the family holiday, then, surprised us both. “This will be great,” Mark assured me. “They wouldn’t have said yes if they didn’t want to.”

That’s a shame, I thought. Repressed people are so much easier to deal with than ones who say what they mean.

I dressed carefully that morning. Martha Stewart was on the television, arranging herbs in a mosaic pattern under her turkey’s skin and reminding me to make sure that everything was just so. By the time she pulled the hot bird from her oven, I had emptied most of my closet onto the bed, finally arriving at a casual-but-not-too-casual V-neck sweater and pair of khakis.

We left only half an hour behind schedule. As we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge in Mark’s Jeep, I flipped through radio stations, looking for tunes to sing along with. Singing distracted me from the images that played out in my head like a macabre slideshow. Look, thats grandma coming at Chris with the kitchen knife. Oh, and remember that? Thats when Dad dumped the body and got blood all over the backseat.

The drive to Brooklyn went way too quickly. Normally, New York City traffic lights seem to conspire against anyone in a hurry. But not this day. I gripped the dashboard more tightly as each green light got us closer and closer to Flatbush in the shortest conceivable time. Before I could muster any sense of calm at all, Mark was saying how unusual it was to find a parking space so close to his parents’ house.

Growing up in Ohio, my notions of New York City had come from Woody Allen movies and television sitcoms, from deodorant commercials where people walked shoulder-to-shoulder down impossibly crowded streets. The Carvers’ neighborhood reminded me of the closing credits from “All in the Family.” The street had a number for a name, with virtually identical row houses lining the block like uniformed sentries. Each building, some color of brick, had a stoop, cement steps and one style or another of burglar bars on the doors and windows. The bars sent a sort of mixed message — good for keeping people from getting in? . . . or getting out?

Some of the houses had front yards, tiny squares of grass littered with furniture and ornaments. I imagined, for one empathetic moment, these plastic deer and elves coming to life, wondering how they had strayed so far from their woodland homes.

Mark had no trouble picking out his parents’ house. He made a direct path from our car to the front door. I quickly appraised my reflection in the passenger side window and ran to catch up. Mark didn’t see me smile up at him as he keyed the locks and let us in.

The greeting party consisted of everyone in the house — Frank, Angela and Mark’s grandmother, Marna. They crowded into the small foyer as we walked in the door, throwing us all together like passengers on a crowded subway. As quickly as we had gotten to this moment, everything suddenly accelerated. The front door slid closed. Voices jabbered and blended around me, sounding like the records I used to play at 45 rpm instead of 33. I felt the pulse in my neck quicken and strain against an imaginary tight collar.

At first Mark had their full attention, hugs and kisses rendering me invisible. I was so close I could have easily pulled the loose button off his grandmother’s sweater. Instead, I looked behind me through the bars of the front door. I examined my shoes. When I looked up again, I had an audience. Everyone’s voices reverberated in the sudden silence. There was an hour-long second where nothing happened. Then I did what I always do. I laughed, involuntarily. It came out as a sharp little snort, not unlike a fart, and only slightly less embarrassing.

“Hi Chris,” said Angela, putting out her hand and filling the void. “Welcome.”

She sounded congenial and forced. Maybe shes been practicing, too, I thought. I shook her hand, then Frank’s, while he looked at my shoulder. Marna had already begun her retreat. I was introduced to her back.

The first thing I saw as we entered the living room was a framed 8-by-10 glossy wedding photo of Mark and his ex-wife, Kim. Mark and Kim were now two years divorced, but the photo was still prominently displayed, occupying its own shelf on an otherwise crowded bookcase. There was Mark in his tux, the one that now hung in a garment bag next to my green suit. His arms were around Kim in her perfect white gown, both of them smiling out at the living room.

I had seen the picture before. Mark kept a copy of it in his bottom desk drawer at home. But this memorial display threw me. My mind wandered to what Mark must have been thinking that day, what his thoughts were at the moment the photo was taken, and what it must be like to see it here on every visit. I was brought back when Frank carried in a tray of Bloody Marys. They were mercifully strong, and it was all I could do sip mine nonchalantly, trying not to notice that Kim’s eyes in the photograph followed me everywhere I went in the room.

The decor had a prevailing Southwestern motif. There was a Navajo print border at the top of the sand-toned wallpaper and miniature cacti on the end tables. The white carpet and upholstery, and the glass shelves and coffee table, added a kind of fragility to the room; comfortable, but also easily stained, quickly broken.

I looked around for a seat, silently weighing the advantages of each spot. Mark and his mother occupied the love seat. His father had pulled up a kitchen chair, and Marna sat at one end of the sofa. That left the recliner, imposingly throne-like, and two-thirds of the couch, which meant sitting next to grandma. She looked up at me and made little pat-pats with her hand on the center cushion. I sat down obediently and smiled wordlessly at her. Celery leaves tickled the bridge of my nose as I drained my glass.

“So,” she started in, “do you like children?” Her tone was casual, but she had a pinched expression, as if the question left a bad taste in her mouth. She wore all gray, each piece of clothing a different shade: charcoal cardigan buttoned only at the top; a nondescript dress the color of tin that was probably black when she bought it a generation ago; and a pair of new tennies, in a shade that J. Crew might have called “mist” or “confusion.”

Her hair, too, was silvery, arranged in a sort of bun that wrapped around her head with no visible hardware indicating how it stayed in place. The glare on her bifocals put white discs where her eyes might have been, with an effect reminiscent of Little Orphan Annie. I stifled my nervous laugh and jumped into the conversation.

“Yes,” I said, a little too enthusiastically, “I love kids. I —”

“And where is your family?”

“Well, I’m from Ohio, but my sisters —”

“Ohio? This is where your parents live?”

“Yes. Yellow Springs. It’s a really small —”

“When I was 14 years old, I went to Ohio.”

“Is that right? Wow,” I said. “When I was 10 —”

“Do you love Mark?”

It was like driving through fog and suddenly hitting something. I did a double take, wondering if — hoping that — I had heard wrong.

“I’m sorry?” I was stalling more than anything.

“Mark. Do you love him?”

Her interrogation style made it hard to concentrate. She may as well have had a bright light shining in my face, a tape recorder and a one-way mirror on the wall. Too much pause at this point was as bad as any answer I might stumble over, so I pressed blindly on. “Yes,” I said, and then, idiotically, “Do you?”

She smiled, probably not as oblivious as she seemed; certainly not as oblivious as Mark was, chatting with his father six feet away, without so much as a glance in my direction.

“Cleveland,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“Cleveland. When I was 14. We went to Cleveland, to the World’s Fair. Is that near your parents?” she asked.

The rapid-fire questioning had begun to feel almost sinister. I imagined the shock it would create if I were to reach across at that moment, grab her by the shoulders, and shake her. Stop this! Stop it, do you hear me? Theres only so much I can take!

“Yes,” I said. “Well, no. Three and a half hours’ drive.”

She nodded sagely, pondering this or her next move, I didn’t know which.

“Excuse me,” I said, slipping off the couch. Mark looked up at me, finally.

“Bathroom?” I said.

He pointed down the hall and gave me a raised eyebrow and a smile that said, “How’s it going?” I didn’t know the international sign for “I’m dying over here — not that you’re any help,” so I smiled and headed down the hall.

Bathrooms for me are the bomb shelters of any social situation. I didn’t need to use the facilities, but I did need to be on the other side of a locked door for at least a few minutes. Hyper-conscious as I was, however, I kept it brief. Long enough to talk myself out of exiting by the little window, but not so long as to suggest I might be making a stinky in their home. I sat on the edge of the sink and breathed; flushed the unused toilet; ran the water for a hand washing’s length of time, and even rumpled, then straightened, the blue fringed guest towel for effect.

When I came out of the bathroom, I meandered — or, did my best to give the impression of meandering — into the kitchen. It seemed the only polite way to avoid returning to grandma’s couch of terror. That, and the possibility of a second cocktail, enticed me to keep walking when I hit the living room.

Angela was alone, stuffing artichokes. I thought I saw her stiffen just slightly, then recover. “Hi Chris,” she sort of purred, in a not unwelcoming way. The Bloody Mary pitcher sat next to the sink, sad and empty. Needing some other reason for being there, I helped myself to a glass of water.

“What a nice kitchen,” I lied, insinuating myself into a seat at the dinette set, the fake rattan chair making an embarrassing noise as I sat down.

Mark’s mom was tall, thin and smartly dressed. She looked very health club in her tight jeans and patterned DKNY T-shirt. At the same time, she was very Brooklyn Mom, with her cawfee tawk accent and red bifocals on a chain around her neck. She had a broad and open face, with an engaging smile that drew me in. I felt safe, tucked into her kitchen and surrounded by the smells of her cooking. For the first time since I’d arrived, I started to relax.

Angela looked up from her artichokes. “Why don’t you go and sit down in the living room?” She smiled when she said it, but there was only a whisper of a question mark. I couldn’t help imagining the subtext: Listen, you home-wrecking punk, Ive got better things to do than to sit here holding your candy-ass hand, so do me a favor and prance on out of my kitchen.

I smiled, mumbled for her to let me know if there was anything I could do, picked up my water glass, and swung back into the living room.

“Dinner’s almost…” I began it timidly and trailed off from there, as Mark suddenly stood up. “Come on,” he said, and my heart leapt. I had a brief irrational fantasy in which he finished the sentence by saying, “We dont have to take this. Were out of here!

Instead, I got the consolation prize. He said, “I’ll show you my old room.”

The next 20 minutes were the most restful part of the evening. Mark and I sat across from each other on the twin beds he and his brother had once used, not even holding hands, and chatted until we were summoned back downstairs for dinner.

I once read an article listing the final meals requested by death-row inmates. As we sat down to eat, I was haunted by the fact that several of them had asked for turkey and stuffing.

Dinner, as it turned out, was delicious. Angela’s artichokes were followed by the traditional turkey, potatoes and etcetera, all of it skillfully prepared. The conversation centered on people I didn’t know, great gramma this and auntie that, until Frank suddenly turned to me. Sitting there at the head of the table, with slicked-back hair and a five o’clock shadow, he looked like a doughy-faced character from a Mario Puzo novel.

Concentrating on his favorite of my two shoulders, he asked, “So Chris, do you have any family in New York?” They were the first words he ever spoke to me; the question felt incredibly loaded. I thought about my cousin Mattie. She lived on the Upper West Side with her girlfriend and their baby, Tess, whom they affectionately referred to as the les-baby.

“No,” I said, “I’m pretty much alone here.”

“Ohh,” Angela and Marna said simultaneously and with the same sympathetic inflection. Buoyed by this, I went on.

“Most of my family is in the Midwest —”

Frank stood up. I didn’t even think about finishing my sentence.

“I’ll get the cards,” he said, and left the room.

As if responding to some sort of post-hypnotic suggestion, Angela and Marna rose to their feet and began clearing the table. I looked at Mark.

“I forgot to tell you,” he said, “we always play poker on Thanksgiving. It’s sort of a tradition.”

“Okay,” I said, though my approval wasn’t a prerequisite.

While Angela set up cheesecake and fruit on the sideboard, Marna wiped down the table and Frank came back in. He shuffled and began to deal. By the time the last card hit the table, everyone was settling back into their seats. Mark produced a pocketful of change I didn’t know he had brought, and slid half of it my way.

“Start off easy,” Frank said. “Five-card draw.”

I asked for three cards, and barely looked at them before I folded. When Frank took the pot with a pair of kings, I sensed everyone else was relieved. He seemed to be a guy who liked to win — more specifically, not lose. As he raked in a little pile of quarters, nickels and dimes, Angela cut slices of cheesecake and passed them around.

“Let’s go,” said Frank. “What’s next?”

The deal went to Marna, who tried to explain the rules of Anaconda to me. “Okay, so we put out these cards here, dealing around, finding the starter, jacks to open. Got it?”

I really, really didn’t get it, but the drumming of Frank’s fingers on the table answered for me. I nodded my head, figuring I would just follow along and happily lose the hand. We started to play and, before I knew what had happened, I was self-consciously raking in my own little pile of change.

“Hey,” said Angela, “look at that.”

“Good for you,” said Marna, without sounding like she meant it.

“Beginner’s luck, I guess,” I mumbled. I could see out of the corner of my eye that Frank’s head was cocked to the side. I couldn’t tell what that meant or what he was thinking, although it was easy to imagine something along the lines of “Who the hell is this guy, anyway?”

What followed was a run of beginner’s luck that bordered on the perverse. All I wanted was to quietly lose the rest of my money and go home. Instead, I learned and then won at Baseball. I learned and then won at Night Baseball. I dealt a hand of Seven Card Stud and then deliberately lost, folding with two queens and three eights. Some of the games you couldn’t fake losing. It was unnerving to watch the winnings in front of me grow against my will.

With each passing hand, Frank spoke less. He stacked his change. He stopped looking up from his cards. I couldn’t tell if he was bothered more by my winning, or by the fact that almost every game had to be explained to me before we could play.

Then, in the middle of a game of Three by Three, with two jacks showing, I asked for two cards. Everyone winced. Obviously, I had made a tactical error. Before Angela could pass me the cards, though, Frank let out an exasperated gasp.

“What are you doing?” he asked me. He even looked me in the eye.

I had no idea what I was doing. I shrunk into my seat and looked around the table. I had been caught at something, though at what, I didn’t know. I worked hard to swallow my mouthful of cheesecake.

“You don’t ask for two cards there,” he sputtered. “Jesus!”

Angela butted in. “All right, well, now he knows,” and she dealt me the two cards.

“No, it just doesn’t make any sense,” Frank continued. He was working himself into a lather. “Come on, back me up here. I mean, what kind of stupid —?” He stopped again, cutting himself off. I sat frozen by his accusation, with the two cards face down in front of me like little dead bodies I didn’t dare to touch.

Frank seemed to regroup. He put his cards down and leaned toward me, breathing out once through his nose before speaking. “No, now listen,” he said, “you got two jacks, right?”

Mark, Angela and Marna spoke all at once: “Frank.” “Dad.” “Frankie.”

Frank leaned back and put a fist to his mouth, not looking at anyone now. He reached down and tossed his cards back to Angela. “You know what?” he said. “Just re-deal. Let’s just do it again.” He drummed his fingers on the table while everyone considered this.

I played statue and stared at the wall, waiting for someone else to make a move. Mark put a hand on my knee under the table, and I jumped. “Actually, this is a good stopping place,” he said. “It’s late; we should get home anyway.”

It is amazing how goodbye, a single word, can be expressed in so many ways, and all in the same exit. We stood near the front door for a good 15 minutes, my pockets bulging conspicuously with change. I’m not sure what Angela whispered to Frank as they got up from the table, but he shook my hand neutrally and said goodnight. I shook Angela’s hand, waved to Marna perched on her couch, and stepped outside.

The cold air felt great in my lungs. I breathed deeply while Mark hugged, kissed and said goodnight three more times.

As we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge toward Manhattan, I felt my shoulders slowly moving away from my earlobes. I unbuttoned the top of my pants and untucked my shirt. The lights of the city looked as inviting as they ever had. I turned to Mark. “So, was that a sort of average Thanksgiving, would you say?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” he said, clearly nonplussed. “Kind of small, though.”

“Small?”

“Yeah, usually we have a lot more family here, but this year everyone decided to come for Christmas. Wait till you meet my Uncle Louie and Aunt Claire; now those two are a piece of work.”

I turned to look out the windshield as we pulled up to a stoplight.

“Well, it won’t be long, anyway,” said Mark. “Christmas is just around the corner.”

I managed to nod my head as I stared silently up at the red light, waiting for it to change.

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