Authors: Percival Everett
“Can I do something to help?” I asked.
“Why do you dislike me, Violet?”
“I don’t dislike you,” she said. “I don’t care enough about you to like or dislike you.”
“Thank you for clearing that up. Let me ask you something. Most of the people in this house seem a bit crazy. You might be one of them. So, here it is. Do you have a problem with my skin color?”
“What are you asking me?”
I did not beat around the bush. “So, you think I’m too dark for precious little Maggie?”
“Now I dislike you,” she said.
“So, you care.”
She put down the last plate at the head of the table. “As a matter of fact,” she said, then without saying another word walked back into the kitchen.
I followed her. “As a matter of fact what?” I asked.
“Listen, boy, Mister and Missus have worked too hard,” she said.
“Too hard for what?”
“To have a black boy like you come around Miss Maggie.”
“Listen to yourself, Violet. Mister and Missus and Miss Maggie. This is not the antebellum south and you’re not a house slave.”
“Why, you nigger,” she said.
“Violet, you and I are pretty much the same color,” I said.
“No, we’re not,” she snapped. “I’m milk chocolate and you’re dark cocoa, dark as Satan.”
I was stunned. Saddened perhaps, somewhat frightened, but mostly just stunned.
Maggie came into the kitchen, surprisingly cheerful in a dark blue dress that made me somehow think of the Pilgrims. “Everything smells great, Violet. What kind of pie this year?”
“You haven’t had pie until you’ve had Violet’s,” Maggie said to me.
Maggie took me by the hand and led me out of the kitchen and away from the burning gaze of Violet into the living room to make introductions. I was presented rather ceremoniously to Reverend Golightly, his wife, and their grown son. I nodded to each one in turn and was sickened that I had been so influenced by my experience in this household that I caught myself gauging the skin tones of the guests. Large Reverend Golightly was the color of coffee with a generous helping of cream. Slightly more cream had been added to Mrs. Golightly. Thirty-year-old Jeffrey was an albino. Jeffrey was also mentally challenged. He shook my hand too vigorously and for too long, prompting the Reverend to say, “Let go, Jeffrey.” When he did let go he smiled a genuine smile and became the first person I’d liked in days. I sat in a straight-backed chair next to him.
“So, how do you like Washington?” Reverend Golightly asked me.
“I find it interesting,” I said.
“We haven’t had a chance to do much,” Maggie said. “We arrived just yesterday.”
“Well, you must take him to the Mall,” Mrs. Golightly said. She sipped from her little glass of sherry. “The monuments, the Smithsonian, all of it. Maggie, you must take him.”
“I will,” Maggie said.
“I like Lincoln,” Jeffrey said. “He freed the slaves.”
“A lot of good that did,” Ward said.
The rest laughed.
It was all so absurd. I expected the walls to wiggle in and out of focus and change color at any second. Yet I couldn’t seem to rise to leave. Big fat Reverend Golightly, a mound of yellow Jell-O on the davenport and human stick-figure wife stuck into the cushion beside him stared at me, smiled. And there was Jeffrey, whom I liked immediately—sweet, innocent Jeffrey, completely lacking pigment and outside the bizarre game altogether.
Then Agnes came into the room wearing a red skirt, the hem of which was as far from her knees as her knees were from her red pumps. Maggie was immediately furious and gave me a look before stomping out. I sensed that I was expected to follow, so I stayed.
The Golightlys, Reverend and Mrs., cleared their throats. Jeffrey simply stared at Agnes’s legs and said, “Legs.”
“You look nice,” Ruby Larkin said, with unsubtle sarcasm. She nudged Ward with her elbow. “Doesn’t your daughter look nice?”
“Yes, nice,” Ward said.
Ruby stood and walked toward the door to the dining room. “Agnes,” she said. The
come with me
was clearly implied, and so Agnes complied. Ruby closed the pocket doors behind them.
We sat in an awkward silence that was interrupted by the loud voice of Agnes saying, “It’s just a skirt.”
“You’re right about that,” Ruby snapped back. “It is
a skirt, just barely a skirt.”
Jeffrey looked at me, smiling, and repeated, “Legs.”
“That will be enough, Jeffrey,” Reverend Golightly said.
Jeffrey sat back straight in his chair, gave me a covert nod, tapped a finger on his leg, and mouthed “leg” to me.
We sat at the table. Ward sat at the head. At least he called it the head of the table. His exact words were, “I’ll take my usual place at the head of the table.” If that were so then I understood Ruby to be sitting at the foot. I sat in the center of the table, Maggie to my left and Agnes across from me. Jeffrey was at my right. Mrs. Golightly was on Ward’s left, and there was an empty chair on his right. That chair was for Robert, who had not yet arrived. There was an empty seat beside Agnes that was supposedly for Violet and the Reverend Golightly was on the end beside Ruby. All of this matters little except for the fact the Agnes was near enough to me to attempt a game of footsie and far enough away to mistake Jeffrey’s foot for mine. Agnes wasted no time. Jeffrey paid no attention to the candied sweet potatoes, green beans, and dressing being heaped on his plate by his father, but sat there with his eyes rolling up into his head so that only the whites showed.
“What’s wrong with you, Jeffrey?” Reverend Golightly said. “What are you doing with your eyes?”
I looked across at Agnes and offered a weak smile that I think led her to believe that I was enjoying the foot rubbing.
Ward Larkin carved the enormous turkey on a side cart beside his station at the table. He did so ceremoniously and placed the meat on a platter being held by Violet, still wearing her apron.
“I love this,” Ward said. “I feel like the king of a pride of lions.” I imagined the large feline head on his study wall.
“Jeffrey has a preference for dark meat,” Mrs. Golightly said. “He’d like a leg, I believe.”
“A leg for Jeffrey,” Ward said.
Jeffrey’s knee was bouncing wildly beside me, and there was a faint rumble of a moan in his throat. I could see the concentration in Agnes’s eyes, and every time I glanced at her, made eye contact, she became more focused on whatever it was she was doing to what she took to be my foot.
“I forgot the cranberries,” Violet said.
“Agnes, run into the kitchen and get the cranberries, please,” Ruby said.
“They’re on the counter,” Violet said.
“Send Maggie,” Agnes said.
“You’re closer to the door,” Maggie said.
“Yes, you’re right there,” Ruby said.
Agnes gave me a sidelong glance, more side than long, and broke tarsal connection with the albino. Jeffrey whimpered. At least I thought I heard a whimper. Just as quickly as he had been transported he returned; his eyes fell back to center as his attention turned to the food on his plate. I believe Agnes worked her foot back into her red high heel and after that rose and walked into the kitchen with some indignant stomping.
Agnes returned with the cranberries, and all plates became full. Ward took his seat, and the Reverend Golightly cleared his throat to announce the saying of the Thanksgiving prayer.
It was not until this moment in my life that I realized that I did not believe in a god. My mother had talked quite insultingly about Christians and Christianity, and I had listened well enough to know what she might say about a number of things, including the forthcoming prayer, but I had never, I guess, cared enough to contemplate the question or, in my case, the lack thereof. At any rate, the most striking thing to me at that moment was the fact that Violet did not sit but stood by the kitchen door, her hands reverently pressed together in front of her closed eyes.
Golightly began. “Jesus, our Lord God Savior Jesus, Godalmighty, Jesus God, thank you for loving us, one and all, each and every one, and providing this bounteous, munificent, and glorious meal as we bow our undeserving heads in the face and light and brilliance of your magnificence. Thank you, Jesus Lord God, for the presence of our beloved family and cherished friends, our visitor, and the help.”
I glanced at Violet, since my eyes were open and saw no reaction in her face or posture.
“And about this meal, dear Savior God Jesus, thank you for this succulent turkey, this big juicy bird, for this cornbread, and these candied yams with little marshmallows sprinkled on top slightly browned, and these mashed potatoes, and this creamed spinach, and these green beans, and this beautiful dressing full of walnuts and raisins.” The Reverend’s reverence was growing as he made his way through the side dishes.
Across the table, eyes closed, Agnes had renewed her pedal activity, making Jeffrey distracted from his plate and the prayer. His leg was bouncing again, but his hands remained still on either side of his plate.
“We want also to thank you, Jesus God, for our good health and the right to live in this great country of ours, where free men are free to live freely, free to live where they choose, next to whom they please and away from those they choose not to be near. Thank you for our fine homes and our nice clothes and for money. Thank you for our lineage, our good blood, and our distance from the thickening center.”
I was certain the food was barely warm anymore and even more certain that Jeffrey was about to finish up. His colorless lips parted.
Jeffrey spoke. “May your stuffing be tasty. May your turkey stay plump. May your potatoes and gravy have nary a lump. May your yams be delicious and pies take the prize and may your Thanksgiving dinner stay off your thighs.” With that, he pressed his eyes even more tightly shut, and he had, I’m certain, a rather satisfying climax. He said, “A-men,” nodding, then shaking his head.
“Amen,” Reverend Golightly said, staring angrily at his son.
At first only I was aware of Jeffrey’s experience, but I looked across at Agnes as she became aware of her successful though misdirected efforts. I then looked to my left at Maggie, who had become aware of Agnes’s attention to me, but was unaware of her bad aim. Maggie shot me the evil eye and then began to eat, tearing into her turkey while glaring at her sister.
Violet, who had yet to even graze her seat with her bottom, went to answer the front-door chimes. It turned out to be of course Robert. He was dressed, I must say, beautifully, though not to my taste, in a rust-colored suit and a dark yellow turtleneck sweater. He looked like autumn.
Maggie made a fuss over him and guided him to the chair beside her as he made his apologies for being late. While Maggie, Robert, and Ward caught up at their end of the table, Jeffrey talked to me.
“Something did happen that made me straight and now I have fallen, but I’m clearing my plate,” Jeffrey said.
“That’s nice,” I said.
“I feel somewhat sticky, messy, undone, and still eating dressing is oh so much fun,” Jeffrey said. He then held up his turkey and said, “Leg.”
Agnes nibbled on in a sort of stunned silence, her eyes locked onto her plate. Ruby knew that something had or was happening, but she didn’t know what and so she tossed glances at Agnes as she pretended to be enthralled with Reverend Golightly’s monologue about something to do with the dwindling income/tithing ratio, his mouth full all the while. Jeffrey was simply happy, chewing and greasy-faced happy. Violet was in the kitchen.
The almost restful drone of separate conversations was broken by Ward as he barked out, “That’s dreadful!” When we all looked his way, he said, “Robert has just told us that Dartmouth is using a quota system.”
“Pathetic,” Ruby said.
“Yes, it is,” said Reverend Golightly. “Would you pass the potatoes over this way, please.”
“It all goes to undermine real achievement,” Ward said. “Robert gets in by his hard work and good grades and then they just let anybody in.” He looked at me. “What do you say about this, Not Sidney? About affirmative action?”
I sipped my water and felt remarkably not nervous. “How do you know that their grades are not as good or better than Robert’s?” I asked.
Silence fell on the table like a bad simile. Even Violet stopped making noise in the kitchen. The only sound was the smacking of Jeffrey’s greasy lips.
I looked at Robert’s wide-open face. “What’s your GPA, Robert?”
He reddened. “I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” he said.
“It might,” I said. “How do you know that affirmative action didn’t get you into the college? No, really, what are your grades like?”
“My father went to Dartmouth,” he said.
Maggie gave me an angry look.
Ward’s eyes darted about. “Not Sidney has a point. But this is a Thanksgiving dinner, so let’s eat and enjoy ourselves.”
“I’d still like to know what Robert’s grades were like in high school,” I said. “I don’t understand why he’s afraid to tell me. I guess I’d also like to know if anyone at this table has benefited from affirmative action or something like it. Where did you go to law school, Mr. Larkin?”