Friday, June 14, 2013

"Thanksgiving: Bricktown" by Kate Gillen

For my grandpa.

My grandfather held court
around the smoky kitchen table
after dinner, telling us stories of the time
he released snakes into the ladies’ restroom
in the deli where he worked when he was fifteen
(he got fired that day),
or the time he accidentally
fumigated the entire apartment building
in Curries Woods one afternoon,
(he lit a sulfur candle in each room of the apartment
and returned home to find the maintenance man
being carried out unconscious on a stretcher),
or the time he rushed out of work
at the Colgate soap plant without showering as required
(of course it rained that day
and he found himself suddenly sudsing up
and turning green from the phosphates
as he made an unplanned detour home
before joining his little brothers at the bar).

My grandmother chimed in occasionally
from her place by the phone
between puffs of cigarette after cigarette
as my grandpa offered us a sly, joyful laugh.
He would be on his second piece of
coconut custard pie
after having finished his
sugar-free pudding cup
when he'd announce with his gravelly voice
that he wasn't going to check his sugar that day
because he already knew it was too high.

This year we sat at the roundtable
under the warm nicotine-stained lights
as nighttime fell over New Jersey.
We listened
as we always have
to our elders telling stories
of growing up in Jersey City,
driving trucks, and reveling down the shore.
We played our usual tune,
this time savoring, rather than cursing,
for the first time
the familiar and overpowering
scent of tobacco and smoke
while quietly acknowledging to ourselves
my grandfather’s absence
and taking in what we expected to be
our last Thanksgiving supper in
my grandparents’ house.
The stories were told
with restraint and caution,
like someone was holding the soft pedal of the piano
down, unsure of the next note
in a song where all of the chords
had suddenly been tuned
to minor.

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