by Ruth M. McCarty
Enjoy this never before published Thanksgiving mystery short story.
It all started when Uncle Frankie yelled across the table to my younger brother Tommy, “Toss me a roll, will ya?”
Tommy launched it in an overhand throw. It landed in Grandma’s gravy-covered mashed potatoes and Grandpa spilled his red wine all over my mother’s pure white tablecloth trying to catch it. My father gave Tommy a look that silenced the table, and we all watched as he downed a mug of beer. “Get me another one,” he said to no one in particular.
A typical Thanksgiving so far.
Mother placed her hands on the table and with pursed lips and bright red cheeks, pushed herself up, her chair back and said to Grandpa, “Don’t try to wipe it. I’ll get the white wine. It’ll take out the stain.”
“Aw, Ma, are you gonna waste good wine on that old thing?” my older sister Janet said. “Haven’t you ever heard of plastic?”
“Plastic!” My mother cried as she marched out of the room, “I’ll be dead and buried before I ever use a plastic tablecloth.”
“If you don’t shut up right now, you’ll be buried in one!” my father yelled after her, then under his breath said, “This is the last time we’re going to have this meal here.” Then he roared, “Somebody get me a beer!”
“Oh, here we go again,” I said. “Why can’t we ever have a peaceful Thanksgiving?”
Tommy cracked up–goofball teen that he is. Janet took a huge slug of her wine and Grandma tried to smooth things over. “It’ll be okay, honey,” she said to me. Then she yelled to my mother out in the kitchen, “Harriet, if the stain doesn’t come out, I’ll buy you a new tablecloth.”
“We don’t need you to buy us anything,” my father said in little more than a whisper, enunciating every word. Anyone who knew him ran for cover when he talked like that. We all knew he was madder than hell and one or more of us would end up on the wrong end of a punch pretty soon. If he started to whistle, I’d be in my car and back to the airport in no time.
Grandma seemed to shrink in her seat and her hand shook as she reached for her glass of wine and chugged it down. “I was just trying to help.”
“We don’t need your help.” Again the enunciation.
“Oh, go to hell,” Grandma said in a show of false bravado and we all waited for the blow that didn’t come–this time.
Mother returned with a cloth and the bottle of white wine. Janet said, “Ma, fill my glass first and Grandma’s too.”
She didn’t look too happy, but while pouring, Mother said to me, “Elaine, do you want more wine too?”
“No, I’m good,” I said. I needed a clear head today.
“Where the hell’s my beer?” my father roared from his stupor.
“Tommy, get your father a beer right now!” Mother dabbed at the red wine with the white wine-soaked cloth; from where
I sat, it wasn’t working. I looked down at my plate and picked at a green bean from my mother’s awful casserole.
“Maybe you need a little salt with that,” I said, referring to the tablecloth. “I remember reading that somewhere.”
Mother sighed, looked at the stain, threw down the cloth and poured the rest of the wine into her glass. I knew that once she gave in and started to drink the rest of the day would be a nightmare. The only time she ever stands up to my father is when she’s rip-roaring drunk and then she always gets the worst of it. I had vowed never to put up with what she did, and swore after last year’s fiasco that I wouldn’t ever come back here as long as he was alive. Yet here I was.
Being the middle child and the second daughter, I was a huge disappointment to my father and he let me know it every day of my childhood until Tommy came along ten years after I was born–a midlife surprise my mother never quite got over. She’d confided in me once, as I helped her to bed after one of her binges. “I was just waiting until you and Janet left home before I left him. Now I’ll have another ten years in hell.”
Her rotten life is what made me determined to get away, so I studied night and day in high school instead of going out and getting pregnant like Janet did and then worked my butt off in college. Now, seven years later, I have a doctorate of pharmacy degree and a full time pharmacy position in California, as far away as I could get from Massachusetts.
I looked over at my father. He reminded me of a blowfish–all swollen and puffy from the booze, with a huge belly that hung over his belt. He was slopping gravy all over his shirt and it dribbled down his chin. I nearly barfed at the sight.
“Don’t forget to save room for dessert, pop,” I managed to say.
Mother perked up at my comment. “Frankie,” she said to her brother, “Did I tell you Elaine baked a mincemeat pie and brought it all the way here on the airplane?”
“Mincemeat!” Frankie pretended to gag. “Who the hell likes mincemeat?”
My father snorted and then said, “Anyone with a discerning palate.”
“A discerning palate! You ain’t got a thing. More like you’ve got a bald palate. You’re the only asshole who likes that shitty dish!” Uncle Frankie said, then noticing the menacing look on my father’s face forced a laugh.
“Pop,” I said, as I moved my food around in my plate, ignoring Uncle Frankie’s insult to my pie, especially since I agreed with him, “Did you take your cold medicine today like I said? You still sound a little congested.”
“Yeah, I did.” He swayed a little in his seat. He leaned toward my mother and said, “Get me a couple more pills and bring me another beer.”
“You just took your medicine,” Mother said, “right before dinner and you took a double dose then.”
“Yeah, well I a feel headache coming on,” he said, grabbing her by the wrist, “especially looking at you.”
I cringed at the pained look on Mother’s face. Everyone at the table stopped eating, looking between my mother and father.
“Let him have them. I’m sure two more tablets won’t hurt him,” I said, watching their relieved faces. “It’s over the counter stuff.” I sat back and mentally counted the pills he’d taken and the alcohol he’d consumed since I arrived less than twenty-four hours ago.
Mother got up, picked up some dirty dishes and headed to the kitchen. Grandma stood to help, but I told her to sit back down and turned to my sister. “Come on, Janet, let’s help Ma cleanup the table. I can’t wait for dessert.”
Janet looked at me like I had two heads. She knew I almost never ate dessert. Give me a bowl of potato chips or a platter of cheese and pepperoni anytime. I gave her a look back that I hoped said, “Let’s get this crazy day over with.”
Once in the kitchen, I said to my sister, “Janet, you take the apple pie and the Boston Cream out to the table. I’ll cut a piece of the mincemeat for Pop.”
“Ma,” I said, “Go sit down. Janet and I will take care of all this. Take pop another beer. Maybe he’ll fall asleep.”
Mother smiled. She grabbed a beer from the fridge and tucked a bottle of wine under her arm. “You’re a good daughter,
Elaine,” she managed to say.
Better than you know, I thought, as I pulled the mincemeat pie out of the box I’d put it in for traveling. Except for a couple cracks in the store bought pie shell that I’d bought, it looked pretty darn good, but it was the filling that held the secret ingredient. Among the Granny Smith apples, raisins, figs, and cherries, the freshly ground nutmeg, allspice, and cloves, I added my own piece de resistance, one whole bottle of acetaminophen crushed to a fine powder with my well-earned mortar and pestle: Paracetamol toxicity–acetaminophen poisoning.
I knew he’d start feeling nauseated within hours after eating the pie, and then he’d start vomiting, look pale and start to sweat. He’d probably even take more pills. Within the next twenty-four to seventy-two hours he’d show signs of increasing liver damage. Finally, in three to five days, he’d have complications of massive hepatic necrosis. Liver failure–kidney failure–multiple organ failure–then death, and then, if they do an autopsy, and realize the cause, everyone will remember all the over the counter pills he insisted on taking.
It’s just a shame I won’t be there to see it all happen. Thankfully, by the time he dies, I’ll be back in California, on some sunny beach, looking forward to next Thanksgiving.
Check out more Thanksgiving short stories in our Terrific Tales section.