THE TIP OF the knife pierced the crispy brown skin, then plunged deeper into the flesh. A stream of buttery juice ran from the incision, down onto the platter, as a slice of pale meat rolled away from the breast. Aunt Livia’s “partner,” Douglas, shrugged back his French cuffs with a roll of his shoulders, then stood for a moment, knife poised once more over the turkey, examining it with a wrinkled brow. The surgical precision of each slice caused the turkey to fall on the platter, piling up like magazines evenly fanned out on a coffee table. Aunt Livia, sitting at Douglas’s right elbow, beamed at his deft carving skills. Cory wanted to grab the knife from his hand, hack off some thick slices, and eat. She had been smelling turkey for five hours now and was starving. Cory never understood her mom’s thing about always having a man carve the turkey. Most guys she knew couldn’t tell the turkey’s neck from its butt end.
Everyone crowded around the small table. Aunt Livia’s eyes were locked on Douglas. Her mom fussed with her hair and straightened some offending object on the table setting. Jess seemed to be drifting off, uninterested in the other people at the table or the food. Her focus was over Cory’s head, staring to the darkness outside the sliding door. Cory knew she had called Dad again. She also knew that Jess told him she had to stay with him over the summer or she wouldn’t be able to go to that dance camp thing. Judging by her zombie imitation, that must have gone well.
Wow, another cheery family holiday.
She looked at Kevyn out of the corner of her eye. He caught her and slipped his hand in hers under the table. She had been afraid to ask him to her family’s Thanksgiving dinner, and when he said yes, her fear turned to dread of a different kind. Would her mom embarrass her? She felt as if she had been holding her breath all week, hoping everything would go well. Hoping everyone would just act normal for a change. Cory took another sip of the one glass of Beaujolais that she and Jess were allowed on holidays. Its rawness slid down her throat. Probably not the best stuff. She placed the glass down with exaggerated care. It wasn’t a great idea to have snuck one earlier on an empty stomach.
Aunt Livia—actually Olivia—was Mom’s younger sister. She moved to Washington, D.C. after college, years ago, and worked for some political lobbyist or something. Cory didn’t understand her job, but it paid a lot of money, according to her mom. Also according to her mom, it cost Aunt Livia a chance to get married and have kids. Roni had told Cory the story of Aunt Livia packing her VW Squareback—one their grandmother had bought for her when she got the job—with her books, a place setting for one, and a good winter coat before taking off alone for D.C. Aunt Livia now lived in a townhouse in Georgetown. Cory examined the small woman in the Prada suit and thought how different she was from her mom.
Aunt Livia grasped Cory’s wrist. “Oh, get the camera out of my handbag and take a picture of Douglas carving the turkey. It’s just over there, on the coffee table.” She flapped a manicured hand toward the other room. Cory figured she might as well, since Douglas was taking so darn long about it. She struggled out of her chair, careful not to step on Hershey, who was wedged in his usual spot under her feet. Aunt Livia’s handbag, not unlike Livia herself, was a small stiff box sitting pertly on the end table by the door. Her mom’s bag was deposited there, too. It was an overly large, soft bag with an open zipper, collapsed across the surface of the table. Cory opened Olivia’s bag, spotted the camera among the sparse contents, and snapped it shut again. When she moved her mom’s slouching purse aside, the opening gaped wider. Among the receipts, tissues, and make-up in a side pocket, there were several opaque brown bottles with white labels. Cory looked over her shoulder, then removed one. The name of a local pharmacy and a doctor she had never heard of were printed on the label. A bunch of warning stickers covered the rest of the label, but she could still read “Vicodin.” She opened the bottle. About ten blue and white pills rolled around in the bottom. Cory fingered the other bottles in the bag to bring their labels into view. All of them were empty. The dates on the bottles were within the last four weeks and all from different doctors.
The oven had been on all day heating up the house and making the air heavy with the scent of roasted meat. Cory blew a strand of hair away from her face and pulled at the collar of her sweater. She hadn’t eaten much and the two glasses of wine on an empty stomach made her head spin. Before replacing the bottle, she shook out two pills and jammed them down into a side pocket of her jeans, then returned to the dining room.
“Want me to take the pics, Aunt Livia? Why don’t you stand next to Doug and I’ll take both of you?”
Douglas scowled. He hated to be called Doug and Cory knew it. She also knew Aunt Livia rarely allowed her picture to be taken. Livia waved in a dismissive gesture and suggested that Roni should be in the photo. The two sisters were arguing over who should pose when Kevyn jumped up and took the camera.
“I’ll take the picture. All you guys stand around Mister . . .”
“Carver,” Douglas replied.
Kevyn lowered the camera. “Really? Your name’s Carver? That’s awesome!”
Roni and Aunt Livia took their places on either side of Douglas, who stood stiffly in the middle. Jess didn’t get up. Cory nudged her chair. “Come on, Jess, family photo op.”
“I don’t feel like it, okay?” She slouched lower.
“Okay, just the sisters then.”
Cory stepped aside. “Kevyn, take a picture of my mom and her sister with Doug the Carver.”
The two women posing on either side of Douglas were opposites of each other. Her mother’s skin was dull under her carefully applied make-up. Livia smiled with her chin tilted up in a studied manner. They stood, arms linked about each other’s waists and smiled for the camera, but they were like magnets, exerting a force repelling each other.
Satisfied with the picture, Aunt Livia sat and smoothed the top of her skirt. “The table looks gorgeous, Roni,” she remarked.
A borrowed card table was pushed up alongside the regular dining room table to enlarge it. The few silver serving dishes stood out amidst the cheap furnishings and bare walls of the townhouse, like dressed-up prom-goers lost among the aisles and garish lights of Walmart.
Before everyone arrived, her mom had spent all day clearing things out of the living room and scrubbing grime off every surface. She brought up long-forgotten things from boxes in the basement. Little dishes of nuts appeared on tables, sachets of soap and guest towels were placed in the bathroom. Jess, tired of the orders to clean up, had made some remark about it only being Aunt Livia, not Queen Elizabeth.
“I’d prefer Queen Elizabeth,” Roni had answered, snapping the tablecloth over the card table extension and tugging at it to fit. “Do you know she sends Christmas cards to family members embossed with Olivia Kennedy Parker like she was one of the Kennedys?”
Now Roni sat at the table, smiling at her sister. “Well, thank you, Liv. I do try hard to make things look nice.”
“You always were the artistic one. I could never even draw a stick figure, and there you were, winning a full scholarship to MCA.”
Douglas had finally given up carving and passed around the platter of sliced turkey. Cory had a mound of potato with a shimmering pool of gravy at its center. Wondering what the holdup was with the stuffing, she looked up to see the smile freeze on Roni’s face. She knew her mom went to college for a few years and took art. She also remembered when she and Jess were small kids, Roni used to paint in the sunroom of the house in Massachusetts. And she had always helped design the scenery at Jess’s ballet performances.
“What’s MCA?” Jess asked, snapping out of her stupor.
Cory watched her mom’s focused concentration on her plate as she cut up the turkey slice into ridiculously tiny pieces. She didn’t answer.
“It’s Massachusetts College of Art, in Boston. A very good school,” Livia answered for her, then turned to her sister. “Roni, I’m surprised you haven’t encouraged the girls to pursue art, since you were so good.”
“I still am, Liv. I’m not dead yet.”
Aunt Livia laughed. “Of course, that’s not what I meant. It’s just that you didn’t keep up with it. You know, you quit school and let the scholarship go, and then you married Robert . . .” Livia’s voice trailed away as if to say, well that explains it all and I don’t need to say more on that topic.
Roni reached for an overly full wine glass, nearly slopping it onto the white tablecloth. She held the glass aloft in a shaky hand. “Here’s to lives carefully planned and executed with no messy detours along the way.” She took an enormous swallow, leaving a crescent of lipstick on the rim, and turned back to pushing food around her plate.
Douglas shifted his long legs under his chair and cleared his throat. “Yes, what is it Woody Allen always quipped? Something like, ‘Life is mostly plan B.’” He smiled at Roni and Livia for approval. His peace offering.
Kevyn complimented the food and asked for more of something—Cory wasn’t really paying attention but was grateful for his efforts. Another larger sip of wine. She still was hearing the word quit as it dripped off Olivia’s carefully outlined lips, past her bleached white teeth. She watched it fly through the air like a carving knife to lodge in the middle of her mother’s chest. She knew how that quitter word hurt. She also figured her mom must have been saving up all of those knives thrown at her, pulled from her own heart, only so she could toss them back at Cory. Roni said nothing to Aunt Livia but reached across the table to slide the wine carafe closer.
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