“When Grandma Lucy’s right hand connected, it was clean, and beautiful,” my sister Jess says. She cocks her elbow, and down goes another shot of Old Crow. Jess went and got fired, again, and this dive has become the ritual spot for exorcising demons. Later, there’ll be bikers in here with gleaming knife-show blades strapped to their leather pants, but it’s about four in the afternoon and not dangerous. It’s just us, a frowning shadow of a bartender, and The Allman Brothers rattling out of the tinny juke.
“Remember that?” she asks, flicking her cigarette. I do. Like yesterday, Jess.
You wouldn’t know Turkey Day was a day away in this place. Not a pilgrim in sight. But Jess is distilling holiday memory. I’m nursing my ounce of whiskey.
“The look on the old man’s face when we walked into Grandma’s kitchen,” says Jess. It was classic, I say, his eyes fixed on those buckets of fried chicken.
Jess is animated, in the spotlight, telling stories. She moves like she belongs anywhere she is, always has—the boom in her voice, the graceful muscle of her shoulders and arms, the way she stares her green eyes right at you when she tells you how it is.
She drags in and exhales a backlit swirl of smoke, smiles.
“We get there to Grandma’s,” she says, settling into old narrative, “after the usual drunk arguments between Mom and Dad because we were even going to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving, because Mom’s supposed to be at home cooking him his own goddamn turkey.”
I laugh. All hail father’s kingdom, I say, raising my shot glass. “All hail,” Jess says, and downs another. She taps the glass on the bar and the bartender moves to her like a wraith, silently pouring. I moisten my lips on the surface of my shot, set it down.
“So, Dad comes in the kitchen,” Jess says, “and sees the fricken chicken.”
Stops and stares, I say. Jess lets out her own broad, happy-drunk laugh, adds “Then he starts muttering under his breath.”
After helping himself to beer from the fridge, say I, and Jess nods, says, “Yeah, and it’s like an hour of him pissing in half-whispers, bitching into Mom’s ear, refusing to eat the chicken.”
I take a real sip of whiskey. Jess shifts her storytelling focus to the bartender, and I watch her perform, playing family pictures back in my head like a familiar movie while Jess narrates the scene—
Aunt Linny arrives late, of course. Grandma Lucy’s cackling around the kitchen with Grandpa Pete, drinking her Bloody Mary. Us kids are chomping chicken legs and wings at the kitchen table while the parents hover.
Grandma pays no mind to our sour father. Never did. I admired that. Aunt Linny is cut from Grandma’s cloth. Linny always said what she had to say right out loud, especially to Grandma, and what she said that day is what my father didn’t have the guts to announce: That it’s nothing short of a white trash testimonial to be eating fast food buckets of chicken on Thanksgiving.
When this crack gets made, Grandma’s at the sink mixing another. “Mother, how could you?” Linny shouts. Linny does this twice and is ignored. The third time she leans into Grandma’s face … and that’s the bell-ringer.
Grandma Lucy turns to face Linny, feet set shoulder-width apart. I remember Mom exhaling Oh-my-god.
Grandma rotates her hips, a smooth follow-through from her right shoulder, arm extending, wrist turning in slightly at impact. When her right hand connected, it was clean, and beautiful. Fist square into the jaw. Linny just dead weight on the linoleum floor.
My grandmother, barely five feet under a crazy curl of orange hair, stands over Aunt Linny like a prizefighter, fists still balled. I understand then why everyone defers to that little woman.
My father and grandfather stand there, each with a can of beer chilling their hand, and Grandma Lucy looks Dad right in the eye. Dad turns and shoots me a “sorry-to-be-so-defeated” sort of look. He sips his beer, and asks Grandpa Pete if the game is on yet.
Jess snuffs her cigarette, and winds the story down for a now smiling bartender by telling how Linny was revived, and how she left a trail of curses behind while clomping out Grandma Lucy’s door.
Finished, Jess wheels and looks me in the eye. The way she does. The way I love. “Fools cook, fighters drink,” she says, tossing back one more shot, worry lines made plain on her face by light thrown in from an opening door. This last bit is new, something she’s added to the story, and for one whiskey-gold moment, I almost believe her.
About the Author: Michael Dwayne Smith proudly owns and operates the English-speaking world’s most mysterious name. His apparitions can be seen at Word Riot, >kill author, The Cortland Review, Monkeybicycle, Blue Fifth Review, BLIP, Northville Review, Pirene’s Fountain, and other haunts. A recipient of both the Polonsky Prize for fiction and the Hinderaker Prize for poetry, he lives in a desert town with his wife, son, and rescued animals—all of whom talk in their sleep. Conjure him on Twitter with the spell @michaelthebear or on the Interwebs at michaeldwaynesmith.tumblr.com
Story Song: "Song Up In Her Head" by Sarah Jarosz