by Warren Bull
Dad looked at me seriously and said we need ‘to talk.’ I knew it wasn’t that talk. We’d had that one months ago. I don’t know which of us had been more embarrassed and uncomfortable. In my mind I ran through the possible screw ups that I’d done that were major enough to warrant a talking to. Dad had already found the fireworks I was keeping hidden in the garage for Jimmy. Dad didn’t like my explanation that Jimmy’s dad would have had a cow if he’d found them. Dad said he wanted to be the father who was the excuse for not doing something stupid. I’d already been punished for that. As far as I knew, I hadn’t done anything excessively stupid since then.
He turned off the television where a breathless reporter had been talking about the continuing search for Willard Lenard, the dangerous psychotic killer who escaped from the Williamsville Asylum for the criminally insane located only thirty miles away.
“You know it’s been nearly a month since Halloween,” he said.
My stomach fell like the elevator with innocent people in it that an arch-villain had sent plummeting down the shaft in a super hero movie.
“It hasn’t been that long,” I protested. “It can’t be almost Thanksgiving.”
“Yes, I’m afraid it is. You know what Thanksgiving does to your mother. I need you to support her and to give her nothing at all to worry about here or in school. Understand?”
Sadly, I did. Every Thanksgiving we went to Grandma and Grandpa’s Loony bin. Their name was Loony and, boy, does that describe Mom’s family. My personal nemesis, Enormous Scott, would be there with plans to pummel me at every possible moment. Uncle Ricky would challenge Dad to a drinking contest. Dad would decline. Ricky would spend the rest of the time calling Dad a wuss and worse names. And Dad and I were the lucky ones. We were the walking wounded.
It was Mom who was most effected. She was the major casualty. She had grown up in the Loony family. As she put it, there was no fun in their dysfunction. Her sister, Patty, would praise Scott for all the progress he was showing in whatever classes he was failing this year. Then her sister, Barbara, would talk about the conspiracy of the day that her radio prophet of doom was beating a drum about. They’d compare their cooking to Mom’s and dramatically redo any food item they hadn’t brought themselves as if only the two of them alone in the whole world could prepare food properly.
“Do we have to go this year?” I asked. “I might be sick. I can feel it coming on.”
“Would you rather go there for Christmas?” Dad asked.
He had me there. He knew I would not. Christmas was my favorite holiday. I shuddered to think of how the Loonys would massacre the whole idea of Christmas.
“We could join in the hunt for Willard. It would be safer than going to the Loony Bin.”
“Don’t say Loony Bin around your mother. You know it upsets her,” said Dad. “How many people did Willard kill today?”
“Just two, but it’s only early afternoon.”
“Go be nice to your mother.”
I felt like I was walking through molasses as I dragged myself into the kitchen. There was Mom staring at a lumpy white mess with flour on her face, hands, and apron.
“Hi, Mom, what’s up?” Oops, that was a really bad thing to say.
You should know that Mom is pretty much an expert on pretty much everything pretty much all of the time. Thanksgiving was the one exception. Dad told me that for Mom Turkey Day brought back memories of her childhood so strongly that she behaved like the clueless little girl she had been. Her sisters had been merciless in their ‘take no prisoners’ attitude at anything food-related, especially baking. Every year the kitchen became Mom’s battleground in the unequal struggle against her sisters.
“Yeah, but every year you manage to figure it out,” I said.
“I don’t remember how,” she frowned. “Take a look at the loaves I made and tell me which one you like best.”
There were a series of white blobs of various textures on the kitchen table. One was still bubbling so I stayed away from that. There was a puddle of liquid followed by a cube that resisted every knife I tried to cut it with. A mound of dark brown that looked like it had vanilla icing sat next to what resembled a jellyroll with a brown outside and an oozing white inside. I don’t know how Mom managed to have such a variety of whatever they were. I was seriously considering the chance that she’d been cursed.
“The one that looks like a cake with white frosting isn’t bad if you scrape off the frosting and outer crunchy layer of the brown part.”
“Thank you, dear.” She gave me a hug.
“You know we could buy a loaf,” I said gently.
“No. My sisters would never let me forget it. I can’t say I baked it if I didn’t.”
“But they lie about stuff all the time. They say Jumbo Scott is making A’s in naming colors or whatever the class he’s in does. They claim Uncle Ricky has a job. Stuff like that.”
“I won’t stoop to their level. I’m going to bake bread and tell them I did.”
“Okay. I love you, Mom.”
She was already engrossed in reading another bread recipe from one of the dozens of baking books she had.
“That’s nice dear.”
Thanksgiving messed up my day at school, too. All the other kids were talking and joking, not even pretending to work this close to the Thanksgiving vacation. I had promised Dad not to put any pressure on Mom, but I didn’t understand the newest chapter in my math textbook.
Mr. Collins had written math problems on the board like, “If Killer Willard executed ¼ of the 50 police officers in Springfield, how many officers were left to write parking tickets?”
He made no objection to kids chatting if they kept the noise level down.
I walked up to his desk.
“Mr. Collins, I don’t get this new chapter in our book.”
“It might help if you did the homework.”
“I did, and I didn’t get the right answers.”
“You did? Really? Show me.”
I went over the problems with him. He explained how to work them. We did two together. Then I did two more while he watched but did not help me.
“I think I’ve got it now. Thanks.”
“Hey, no problem. Thanks for asking. I prefer teaching to babysitting any day.”
When I got home I went to the kitchen where Mom’s latest efforts were arranged on the countertop. A soot-colored pyramid sat next to an Albino octagon.
“Hey, you’ve got the temperature and time in the oven surrounded. Maybe try the middle between these two loaves.”
“Thanks, Kenny, but for those two I had the oven set to same temperature and I took them out after the same time.”
“Thanks for trying to help, dear, but I am determined to do the whole thing by myself.”
When Dad came home he asked me how school was. I almost told him about Mr. Collins helping me in math. Luckily I caught myself. If he knew about it he’d want me to pay attention in class before every holiday.
“The rest of the kids were goofing off. Even the Brainiacs. They were arguing about how Willard escaped when the prison is supposed to be so closely guarded.”
“I heard on the news that he took a guard’s uniform off his body and pretended to be searching for himself. Apparently he’s very smart and able to act like everybody else when he wants to. How’s Mom doing?”
“Well, the stuff out of the oven is starting to sort of look like bread.”
“That’s good. Have you thought about what you are going to do about your cousin, Scott?”
“Sick Willard on him?”
“You tell me that you’re smarter than Scott is. I believe you. I think you ought to put that brain power to think strategically about how to survive being around your cousin.”
Maybe Dad was right. I was smarter. Maybe I could come up with a plan to minimize the damage he could cause me.
The night before Thanksgiving Mom was tottering on her feet from exhaustion.
“Go lie down, dear,” Dad said. “Your loaves are in the oven. I can take them out and they’ll be ready tomorrow.”
“Can’t remember how…” she wobbled off in the direction of the bedroom.
Dad gave me a strict warning by the expression on his face and trotted out of the house. When Mom came wearily out of her bedroom, I herded her back in with assurances that her bread would be fine. I stood in the hallway between the kitchen and the bedroom until Dad came back carrying French loaves in sacks labeled, Boulangerie. He turned the oven off and took the bread out of the sacks. He removed the deeply crusted loaf pans in which unknowable chemistry was at work from the oven. He got clean loaf pans and inserted the French bread. Then he put the actual bread in the oven. He pried the chemistry experiments out of the pans, left the pans to soak and took the so-called loaves away. I hope they ended up safely in a toxic waste site.
The following day Mom pulled the bread out of the oven.
“Beautiful,” said Dad. “You pull it off every year.”
“I wish I remembered how,” said Mom.
We drove to the Loony house and, after all of us took a deep breath, we entered the combat zone—the celebration.
The place was buzzing like killer bees’ hive with activity. My cousin Julia was there with her husband, Ben, and their baby, Mercedes, who had been born in September. Gigantic Scott had a scowl on his face looking at the infant. Maybe he was afraid that acting like a baby was no longer only his role in the family.
My aunts exclaimed over Mom’s bread in one breath and criticizing it in the next. I didn’t know all of the people present. My contact is limited to once a year, and I try to keep that as short as possible. I settled down next to a man about Dad’s age sitting where there were only two chairs together.
“Do you know all theses people?” I asked. “Because I sure don’t.”
He shook his head.
“I hope you don’t mind me sitting next to you, but I’m trying to get away from Huge Scott. See, he’ll pound me any chance he gets.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it. Will you save my seat? I want to get a soda. Can I get one for you, too?”
“Thanks,” he said. His voice sounded faint and scratchy, like he didn’t use it much. I returned with the sodas. I was telling him about how Mr. Collins helped me understand the equations, when Julia’s husband, Ben, came into the room.
“Hey, Kenny, we’re getting together for a little touch football. Do you want to come?”
Get out the mad house and have some fun?
“Sure,” I turned to the man sitting next to me. “Nice to talk with you.”
Ben was one captain. Scott’s Dad, Mick was the other. They picked players one by one with the older guys going first. When only Scott and I were left, Ben picked me. He told me to block Scott. It was like blocking a bolder. Scott pinched me and tried to knock me down, but he didn’t get near Ben who was the quarterback.
Before the next play Ben said, “This time, Kenny, you act like you’re going to block and then go out short. If the long receiver is covered, I’ll toss it to you.”
Scott scooted at me as slow as a snail. When I left him to become a receiver, he didn’t try to follow. I would have sworn the receiver going long was open, but Ben tossed the ball to me. Scott couldn’t catch me, of course, and I covered a lot of ground before I got tagged.
“Scott, Kenny is your man. Cover him,” Mick yelled.
The next play I was a blocker again. Scott didn’t bother to go after Ben. He just kept shoving me and poking me.
Scott’s Dad ripped into him again. I almost felt sorry for whale-sized Scott. He couldn’t move his bulk fast enough to keep up with me. I scored a second time before the uncles said they were winded, and we needed to stop. Maybe Dad was right about figuring out how to stay away from Blubber Boy Scott.
I talked to Dad when we got back inside. “So Ben threw me the ball, and I danced past all the old guys.”
“Hey, take it easy on us old dudes. It sounds like you found a way to avoid you know who.”
“Yeah, I sat by this guy where there wasn’t a chair for Jelly Belly Scott. He was really nice.”
I lowered my voice. “He’s got to be an in-law.”
We both laughed.
I stuffed myself like always at the kids’ table. Scott sat near me, but with so many adults around, he didn’t have a chance to wallop me. After dinner I went looking for another safe place. The man I had sat by was back in his spot.
“Hi, can I sit by you again?”
“Pretty good food, wasn’t it? The loony family may be loony but they can cook.”
“Sometimes I feel like I don’t belong here. I mean Ben is cool, and I like you, but except for Mom and Dad I would avoid people in this crowd if I could. This year is actually pretty good, but most years I just want to get away, to get out of here. I felt trapped with no way out. Did you ever feel like that?”
“Sometimes these people make me want to scream at them or even…”
“Kill them all,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel,” I said. “I wouldn’t actual hurt them, you know. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I don’t remember your name.”
“You probably didn’t hear it. My name is Lenard.”
“Nice to meet you, Lenard.”
“Nice to meet you, Kenny. I like talking to you. There are too many nasty people in the word. I’m glad you’re not one of them.”
“Thanks. Oh, there’s Dad I want to talk to him. Excuse me.”
I walked over.
“There you are,” said Dad. “We’re going to go soon. I couldn’t find you. Where were you?”
“I was talking with Lenard. He’s…”
I looked, but his chair was empty.
“Oh, he’s gone.”
“He must be here for the holiday. Get your stuff.”
I headed off to get my coat. When I passed a doorway to one of the bedrooms, I caught a glimpse of Lenard. I went in to say goodbye. Lenard was shoving cornbread down the throat of Scott’s dad, Mick, who was clearly dead.
“He put green peppers in the cornbread. I hate green peppers. You can’t tell when cornbread has green peppers in it by looking. I tried to discuss it with him, but he just yelled at me. Green peppers and yelling at me. What else could I do?”
“Th-that sounds awful,” I said.
“You’ve probably figured out that Lenard is my last name.”
“Willard is your first name?”
“Yes, I like you. I hope you aren’t going to be unpleasant about this.”
“Uh, no, I was just going to tell you I’m leaving and say, goodbye.”
“That’s nice. I should probably leave, too. Bodies always disturb people.”
“Mr. Lenard, are you a relative of the Loonies?”
“No, they were just hauling things in from parked cars. I picked up a tray of olives and followed them in. Then I went back and carried in more food. Nobody said anything. I guess they all thought I was somebody else’s guest. Kenny, would you please close the door after I leave? I’d like you to stay here and not mention me for ten minutes. I need to get away, you see.”
“S-stay here with…”
I pointed at the dead body.
“He’s dead. He’ll be no trouble at all to anyone ever again. People just don’t appreciate what I do.”
“Okay, I’ll stay.”
“Thank you. I knew you were a good guy.”
I watched the clock on the wall and stayed there for ten minutes. When I left, I saw Dad.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said.
I couldn’t get the words straight in my head so they would come out clearly. I grabbed his hand and led him to the body. Dad called the police. Scott’s mom overheard him. She started screaming. Scott started crying. Everybody got upset.
A police detective took Mom, Dad, and me to the station. He let my parents stay in the room while he talked to me. He told them not to interrupt no matter what I said.
“He was very nice to me,” I said. “I told him about my school teacher and my parents. When I talked about how weird Mom’s family was, he seemed to understand.”
“He likes polite people,” said the detective. “He hardly ever kills anybody who’s been nice to him. And talk about weird families? You should meet my wife’s.”
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