Still a work in progress, p.8
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       Still a Work in Progress, p.8

           Jo Knowles
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  “Hey,” I say. “I need to get back to my homework.”

  “OK. See you tomorrow.”

  I hang up and stare at the ceiling again. In the next room, I can hear Emma’s music playing just loud enough to be annoying but not loud enough for my mom to make her turn it down.

  Emma is into old songs that were popular a long time ago. Songs by the Smiths, the Cure, the Clash, and a bunch of other bands I don’t really know. It’s all a little angry and a little pumped-up and a little sad. She’s so serious about everything she does. Like it all has to have a purpose. Even her music inspires her to be a certain way, like angry or pumped-up or sad. She gets so into the things she listens to and reads, but I think sometimes they make her do crazy things, like making the Lord of the Flies list. And whenever I hear certain songs she’s playing, I know what mood she’ll be in. Lately she’s been listening to a lot of angry stuff. I can tell it’s putting her in a bad mood. I can also tell that it has my parents worried, even though no one really talks about it. No one talks about anything around here, except my parents when they think I can’t hear them. They’re always talking in worried whispers that get too loud the angrier and more worried they get. Lately, they seem to be getting worse.

  I pat my bed and let the Captain jump up. He licks my arm and makes a happy slobber sound. Sometimes I think the Captain is the only one in this family who remembers that I need some attention once in a while, too. He says “You’re welcome” by letting off a doozy. Sometimes I really can’t win.

  On the last day of school before Thanksgiving, the Tank makes us clean out our lockers. Small Tyler wanders around helping everyone else, because ever since the Locker Juice Incident, he’s refused to use his locker and carries everything he needs in his backpack. As a joke, someone put an official-looking notice on his locker door that says HAZARDOUS MATERIALS, and it hasn’t been opened since.

  Curly wanders the halls, pouncing on crumpled-up balls of paper. She’s wearing a vest with turkeys on it.

  “What happens to Curly during break?” I ask Lily, who knows everything.

  “She’s going home with Ms. Cliff,” Lily says. She sneezes.

  “Are you really allergic?” I whisper.

  “Don’t bring it up,” she whispers back. She bends down to pet Curly.

  It’s funny: I never really thought of Lily as the kind of person who would be protective of a skinny little cat, especially after what happened to the mouse. I guess it just goes to show that you can think you know someone, and then they do something totally unexpected and everything changes. Part of me really hopes she breaks up with Zach and asks Ryan out.

  Sam and I finish up pretty fast, so we offer to help Ryan. At first he acts all grouchy toward us, which is getting tiring. Then Sadie and Tate walk down the hall holding hands, and Sadie says hi to me but not to Sam or Ryan.

  “You should definitely ask her out,” Sam says. “She obviously likes you.”

  “Did you not notice the hand-holding?” I ask.

  “I already explained that.”

  “But it made no sense.”

  Ryan slams his locker hard. “This school is ridiculous. No one is going out with who they really want to.”

  “I am,” Sam says.

  “You don’t count.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “Just forget it,” Ryan says. “Whatever.”

  We go outside and sit on the steps.

  “What are you guys doing over break?” Sam asks us.

  Ryan shrugs. “I have to go to my grandparents’ with my dad. My mom’s all upset about it, but my dad says she gets me for Christmas vacation, so she has nothing to complain about. They treat me like some kind of decoration they each think looks better at their house.”

  “I thought you were Jewish,” Sam says.

  “Only half. My mom’s Jewish and my dad’s an ex-Catholic. He calls our winter break Christmas vacation just to annoy my mom.”

  “It still sounds better than my vacation,” Sam says. “My parents invited my grandparents to stay with us, and I have to give up my room for three days. My grandpa is really old and forgets where he is half the time and says stuff like, ‘Ella’— that’s my grandmother’s name —‘who is that boy at the end of the table?’ And then my grandmother will start to cry and then my mom will start to cry and he’ll say, ‘Ella, why is everyone crying? Did someone die?’ And my mom and grandmother will just cry harder, because it’s kind of like my grandfather is the one who died, even though he’s still alive.”

  “Jeez,” Ryan says. He picks up a pebble off the step and tosses it. It bumps down the steps and disappears. “Please tell me your vacation is better than ours, Noah.”

  “Not really. Emma will probably make some kind of scary tofu mold in the shape of a turkey that no one will eat, and then fight with my parents about whether they can offer guests real food, like actual turkey and gravy.”

  “Emma sure is intense,” Sam says.

  “That’s one way to describe it.”

  Ryan elbows Sam to be quiet, since they both know Emma is more than intense.

  “Molly invited me to her house, but my parents won’t let me go,” Sam says. “They say it’s not normal for a middle-school kid to spend a holiday with his girlfriend.”

  “Well, yeah,” Ryan says. “I mean, you just started going out. You’re not exactly engaged.”

  “It feels like a long time for middle school,” Sam says.

  “Middle-school time is like dog-year time,” I point out. “You’ve got to multiply it by seven.”

  “This doesn’t count,” Ryan says. “That only applies to misery.”

  “I’m glad you don’t think I’m in misery,” Sam says. “Because I am actually very happy.”

  Ryan just gives him a look.

  “Are dogs in misery?” I ask.

  “No, they just age really fast, which is sad,” Ryan explains.

  Ryan has become a little too good at being a downer.

  On Thanksgiving morning, Emma and my dad are busy in the kitchen making preparations for dinner. My parents invited Ryan’s mom, since she’s alone for the holiday. It’s going to be weird having her here without Ryan. They also invited Emma’s friend Sara and her parents. And the new couple who moved in a few houses down, Mark and Mitch. My parents are obsessed with making sure no one they know is alone during the holidays. My mom is all stressed-out, though, because Emma freaked when my dad said he thought we should serve a real turkey. But my dad put his foot down and said since we are having guests, we had to serve a traditional meal along with her vegan one. When I go into the kitchen, I can tell Emma is still upset, because she’s chopping vegetables with a vengeance and every time my dad opens the oven to baste the turkey, she runs out of the room, saying the smell is making her sick.

  I have nowhere to go but escape to my room with the Captain, who hates it when Emma gets angry. I wonder if his dog-years ratio is even worse because of all the stress around here.

  I stare up at the Super-Ball marks on the ceiling and wish Sam and Ryan were here, even if they do bicker too much. At least it’s not over food.

  I scroll through my last set of messages I got from Sam and think about writing back but don’t. It’s all Molly, Molly, Molly, and I have no advice. He’s already stressing about what to get her for Christmas! I hope he’s not sending stuff like this to Ryan, because I don’t know how much more of this lovey-dovey stuff Ryan can take before he snaps.

  I decide to text Ryan and see how he’s doing with his dad, but I get a DELIVERY FAILED message.

  The first guest to arrive is Ryan’s mom. She’s about twenty minutes early, and my dad and Emma are still busy making last-minute dishes, so my mom and I keep her company. She looks pretty miserable. In fact, I don’t really think I’ve seen her look happy since she and Ryan’s dad got divorced last year. The whole story is pretty terrible. She supposedly fell in love with her hair stylist and told Ryan’s dad. His dad flipped ou
t and got really depressed. They tried therapy to save their marriage, but it didn’t work. It’s too bad, because it turns out his mom didn’t even have an affair with the hair stylist. She just loved him. Or the idea of him. He was nice to her and talked to her and seemed to listen as if he cared, which, according to my mom, is what all stylists do to get big tips. Ryan says his mom just loved the idea of her stylist. She didn’t really love him. But by the time she figured that out, Ryan’s dad had moved out and gotten a new girlfriend. So after telling her husband she liked someone else because he paid attention to her, she ended up feeling even more alone than she was before.

  This kind of explains why Ryan gets bitter around happy couples.

  “I wish Ryan was here,” she says sadly.

  My mom pats her knee. “Would you like a drink? I make a mean Bloody Mary.”

  “Oh, that sounds perfect,” she says, putting her hand on my mom’s. “Thanks, Louise.”

  “You got it.” My mom rushes off to make the drink and leaves us alone.

  Mrs. Lamper is wearing an off-white shiny blouse that seems to be missing a button. I wish I hadn’t noticed that, but when she leaned forward, her shirt sort of bulged open and her bra showed, and now I can’t unsee it.

  She fidgets with a long gold necklace and smiles awkwardly. “It was nice of your parents to invite me,” she says. She leans forward to take a nut from the dish on the coffee table.

  I quickly look away as the missing-button space gapes open again.

  She sits back and eats an almond.

  This is probably the longest five minutes of my life so far.

  “Have you heard from Ryan?” she asks when she finishes chewing.

  “No,” I say.

  She looks disappointed.


  I shake my head.

  “They don’t seem to be getting along too well. Do you know what that’s about?”

  She starts to bend forward for another nut.

  “I’ll go see what’s taking my mom so long,” I say. How long does it take to make a stupid drink, anyway?

  Emma and my dad are busy putting dishes together while my mom pours vegetable juice into a glass. “How much vodka do I add, Jeff? I can’t remember.”

  “Depends on who it’s for,” my dad says.

  “That’s not funny,” she says, smiling. She dumps some vodka in and stirs it with a celery stick. “I need to get back out there and keep her company. Noah, can you help put food out? The hot plates are all plugged in on the buffet. You just need to set things on it. I want everything to be ready so we can enjoy cocktails with our guests before dinner.”

  Emma hands me a plate of mashed potatoes to bring out. “Come back for the squash, OK? And please put all my dishes on one end of the sideboard and Dad’s meat ones on the other.” She says “meat” in this exaggerated way, like she really means maggots or something equally offensive.

  I go back and forth for all Emma’s dishes. There’s squash, green beans with slivered almonds, tiny pumpkins filled with soup, cauliflower with fake cheese melted on top, dinner rolls, and, of course, a seitan turkey, which smells nothing like turkey and doesn’t really look like one, either. In fact, it smells like what you might imagine hell to smell like, so that’s appropriate. The gravy Emma made smells suspicious, too.

  My dad’s dishes, on the other hand, smell amazing. It’s been so long since I ate meat, I kind of forgot how good it smelled. I’m tempted to sneak a bunch of the stuffing made with turkey broth, but if Emma saw me, I know she’d be upset. I wonder if my parents will eat it or just offer it to the guests.

  While people start to arrive, I see Emma go into the dining room and put little paper signs in front of each dish. I wander over to see if she wants help. In front of my dad’s roasted turkey, she’s put a little paper taped to a toothpick that says CONTAINS DEATH.

  “Seriously?” I ask.

  She gives me a look.

  “You can’t,” I say. “Besides, I’m pretty sure people can tell the difference.” I gesture toward her hideously shaped fake turkey.

  “Fine,” she says, snatching the label away. “But I’m not eating anything. The presence of death has ruined everything.”

  “You have to,” I say. “It’s Thanksgiving.”

  “It’s disgusting. I don’t even want to be in the same room.”

  “Emma, get it together,” I whisper. “Don’t ruin the day for Mom and Dad.”

  “Whatever,” she says, and stomps back into the kitchen.

  My mom catches my eye from the other room and gives me a worried look. I try to nod at her reassuringly, but it feels like a giant lie.

  After everyone’s had a drink and settled in, my dad ushers us all into our tiny dining room, and we get in line to start loading up at the buffet. Emma is in front of me. She puts tiny amounts of each of her dishes in neat little piles on her plate.

  “Emma, you can take more than that. There’s plenty to go around,” my mom tells her.

  Emma ignores her.

  I fill most of my plate with mashed potatoes and a big scoop of real butter to make a butter pond. Emma gives me a dirty look because I didn’t choose her gross fake kind. Nothing died to make it, so I refuse to feel guilty. Especially on Thanksgiving, when you’re supposed to eat this stuff.

  “Noah, you need to eat more than potatoes,” my mom says.

  “Way to hog it all,” Emma adds.

  “There’s only one person behind me!”


  “Take some of mine if you want it. It’s not like you’ll eat it, anyway,” I say.

  The last part slips out. My mom gives me the evil eye.

  “Not now that you put butter on it,” Emma says. “Way to ruin everything.”

  “Sorry,” I mutter. I take a tiny serving of her gross fake turkey to show her I mostly mean it.

  My dad leans over and tells me not to make it any more of an issue. My mom gives me another warning look, as if I’m the one who needs a warning.

  Emma whispers something to Sara, whose plate is even emptier than Emma’s. I make a point not to sit near them.

  When we’re finally all squeezed around the dining-room table, my dad asks us to join hands to give thanks. My family says grace about three times a year: Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter. We’re not the most religious people in the world, but my parents seem to like giving thanks for being together every so often. I always feel awkward having to hold someone’s hand, but Mrs. Lamper isn’t shy at all and reaches for mine. So I’ve got Mrs. Lamper on one side and my dad on the other, and their hand-holding styles couldn’t be more different.

  My dad’s hands are kind of big and puffy and hot, which is gross. Also, he’s squeezing the life out of my left hand. Mrs. Lamper’s hands are small and fragile and cold and barely holding on. I think my hand must feel to her like my dad’s feels to me, except for the hot part, I hope.

  My dad clears his throat. “Thank you for the food we are about to receive. We’re blessed today to be here with friends old and new, and family, and we are thinking of the loved ones we miss.”

  This is kind of lame as far as giving thanks goes, but it seems to please everyone.

  Before we let go of hands, though, Emma pipes up.

  “Let’s go around the table and say what we’re thankful for,” she says, all fakey cheerful.


  “Can we let go of hands?” I ask. I don’t mean to be rude, but I can only be this uncomfortable for so long. Plus my dad’s holding on so tight, he’s cutting off the circulation to my fingers.

  “No. Don’t break the circle,” Emma says.

  My dad and Mrs. Lamper squeeze harder.

  Emma motions for Sara to go first. “I’m grateful that you invited us here,” Sara says. “It would have been totally boring to stay at home. No offense, Mom and Dad.”

  “I’m grateful to those of you who chose to eat vegan today,” Emma says. “And I’m sorry for the lives that were los
t to create the rest of this meal.”

  “Emma!” my dad says.

  “Emma’s a real animal lover,” my mom apologizes. She shoots Emma her warning look.

  “Mitch and I are really happy to be here,” Mark says quickly. “Thanks for being so welcoming.”

  Slowly we move around the table, and people list all the predictable things they’re grateful for. Good health. Good friends. Family. Even though I have plenty of time to think of something, I still don’t have a clue what to say when it’s nearly my turn.

  “I’m thankful for people like Jeff and Louise, who always make sure their friends have a place to go on Thanksgiving so they’re not alone,” Mrs. Lamper says. Her voice quivers as she says “alone,” and she squeezes my hand harder. Her eyes start to brim up, but she won’t let go of hands to wipe them, so her tears keep collecting, and she blinks and blinks and looks so awkward that I want to wipe them for her, but I can’t because my own hands are trapped. Finally, a single drop oozes out the corner of her eye and starts to slip down her cheek. She turns to me and smiles as the drop slips down the side of her face. It is the worst combination of sad and awkward I’ve ever seen.

  “Noah?” my dad says. “It’s your turn. What are you thankful for this year?”

  Who’s to say? I want to ask. But don’t.

  I look away from the tear streak before it drops onto Mrs. Lamper’s blouse. I glance around the table at all the waiting faces.

  “I’m thankful for . . . um . . .”

  “Say anything,” Emma says impatiently.

  “Anything,” I say. It’s our old joke.

  She rolls her eyes.

  “Noah, act serious,” my dad says.

  “I’m grateful for Thanksgiving,” I say lamely.

  My mom makes a disappointed face.

  “I’m thankful for mashed potatoes and my family and being able to cook with my beautiful daughter,” my dad says. “She’s turning into an amazing cook.”

  I look at the seitan lump on my plate. Yeah. Amazing.

  My dad was last, so we can finally let go of hands. Mine is a little wet with my dad’s sweat, which is totally disgusting. I wipe it on my napkin.

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