We aren't in Berkeley anymore, or How I spent my Thanksgiving Holiday
by Brian L. Tierney
(with apologies to Jay McInerny)
It's the holiday season again, and this year it's time to visit your in-laws, so you and your wife pack and fly to Harrisburg Pennsylvania, USA. You arrive at the Harrisburg airport. You climb into Carol's (your mother-in-law) 1984 Ford Escort, which smells like an ashtray. You are surprised to see that she's over 100 pounds lighter than the last time you saw her.
You ride to downtown Harrisburg, and go to a restaurant that looks like it hasn't changed a bit in at least 25 years. Your waitress is Gayle, Keith's (your wife's father) third wife. She's about 5'7', 290 pounds, wheezes from asthma, and chain smokes. She's been waitressing for 38 years. She just lost her job at "The Tops", where she had been working for 27 years. She was taking too much sick time, so they replaced her. This is her new job. You eat the seafood platter, which includes a good crab-cake, overcooked shrimp and scallops, and canned green beans. You meet the Greek owner (no Greek food on the menu) who tells you a story about a neighbor who beat his wife to death one day.
After dinner you go to Keith and Gayle's house. You walk in and get pounced on by 5 dogs and 3 cats (the "babies"). Keith and Gayle break out the rum and diet Pepsi, and continue to chain smoke. You find a bottle of Jack Daniels and pour several shots over some ice, figuring that's the best way to get through the next few hours. They get a phone call telling them that Linda, a daughter of Keith's first wife (i.e.: your wife's half-brother's half sister, got it?) was murdered by her husband, who then killed himself. Seems Linda married this guy, divorced him, then married him again. She was trying to divorce him again, but he flipped out. She kicked him out, but he comes over, drugs the kids with sleeping pills, ties her up, and explains how he's going to tie a hose to the car exhaust and gas them all. She manages to convince him that she will stay with him, and he lets her go. So she has him arrested, but 4 days later they let him out due to insufficient evidence, and he follows her to work and shoots her, and then himself, in the parking lot where she works. Your wife has only met Linda once, and feels bad for not feeling bad. You don't feel bad either, but don't really care.
You sit at the dinning room table and get drunk with Keith and Gayle. Keith is telling stories about his Navy days, and all the places he'd been. He tells about all the best whore houses around the world. He tells you how in Panama all the girls were naked around the swimming pool, and you'd just point to the one you wanted. His best story was about the time he was in the Philippines, and he was "going at it" with this girl when a big earthquake hit. He says it knocked them out of the bed and onto the floor at the same moment the window shattered all over the bed. "We never lost contact", he says with a grin. Several drinks and a pack of Salem's later, you go to bed, being careful not to step on any of the several pieces of dog poop in the hall outside the bedroom. The bed is an old lumpy mattress with a big hole in the middle chewed by one of the dogs. Most every piece of furniture in the house has been chewed up by the "babies". On the wall is a black velvet painting of Elvis (the old, fat Elvis), and several paint-by-number paintings of landscapes. You are drunk enough that you fall right to sleep.
In the morning, you come downstairs and find Keith and Gayle having breakfast (rum and diet Pepsi). You opt for the bad coffee instead. Your wife's half brother, Terry comes. He works at the post office. His oldest daughter, Nickie, who's 18, is preg- nant. He says he's glad she decided not to marry the guy until he finds a job. Gayle makes a great lunch of crab cakes, sweet corn, and fried potatoes from a can. You've never seen canned potatoes before, and can't think of a reason anyone would ever buy such an item.
You then go to Nana and Bill's house (your wife's grandmother and her third husband). They live in a 20 year old, 5000 square foot English Tudor style house with over 200 Teddy bears scat- tered around the house. You sit around living room and talk. Nana has Alzheimer's disease real bad. All day long she just sits on the couch and says "uh huh uh huh, uh huh uh huh... I love you, God bless you, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh uh huh, uh huh uh huh", for hours and hours. Bill says its driving him nuts. You try to talk with Bill, but you don't know how to respond to statements like: "I hate queers! If it were up to me, I'd kill them all... I'd have them all cut off", and "I thought about giving this kid a ride home from school, but then I figured I can't because someone would say I felt him up or something. It's all the fault of that god dam son-of-bitch yellow bellied draft dodger in Washington."
That evening you go to a party at Darlene's, an old friend of your wife. Darlenes brother is a sprint car racer, but can't find a sponsor. You meet a friend of Darlene's brother, Robby, who recently got out of the Navy. "I quit when Clinton started `don't ask don't tell'. The commander couldn't get rid of `em any- more. It's just not the same." He also spent some time in San Diego: "I liked San Diego, but too many weirdoes... too many Mexicans". You nod and say "yeah, but that's southern California", leaving him to ponder how northern California might be different.
You go back to Nana and Bills house and go to bed. The bed is too soft, the pillows too hard, and there is a photo of George and Barbara Bush on the far wall. At least it's not the photo of George and Dan Qualye that is hanging in the living room. In the morning you go down to kitchen to get a bagel. You find Bill at the kitchen table reading the obituaries. He says he reads them every day to see which of his friends died. Bill gives you an article to read. It supposedly a copy of a communist party manual from 1907 on how to get more members by encouraging people to do drugs, be homosexuals, move away from their families, and so on. He says its still the same today. You tell him that you aren't too worried about commies, and haven't met anyone even claiming to be a communist in over 10 years.
Carol prepares a wonderful, traditional Thanksgiving feast. All the food is great, but probably would have been better without the mix of cigarette smoke. Nana got up early, and seems pretty good this day. She seems to know who everyone is, and knows that a big group is coming over for a big dinner. Dinner is at 5pm, but unfortunately by 4 pm she is tired and is forgetting who everyone is again. She has a terrified look in her eyes, like she thinks she is in a house full of complete strangers, who will probably kill her any moment. You keep thinking how you hope to be strong enough to kill yourself before you get to that point.
Carols house-mate, Kelly, gives you a ride back to Keith's house. She sells satellite TV systems door-to-door. She tells us about one time she's at this shack of a house in the hills, selling a dish to a couple that she thinks are brother and sister, who introduce her to their child who has "gargoyle syndrome", is about 4 ft tall, is wearing a diaper, and eating kidney beans from a can. The kid then starts making grunting noises, reaches into his diaper, grabs a handful of shit and wipes it in Kelly's hair. "He likes you", the kids mother tells Kelly. They next invite her to go upstairs for an orgy. Kelly says that she ran out of the house at this point.
Kelly sold a dish to Keith a couple of years ago. He pays "only" $60 a month, plus $2500 for the dish, which he financed at 20%. Plus he buys the NFL games for $134 for the whole season. The dish freezes up in the winter a lot, and you have to go out and knock the snow off of it. He says they usually watch A&E and the Discover channel. He tells you what a great deal it is. You decide not to say that you think that sounds like a ridiculous amount to pay to watch TV.
You get up the next morning and get ready to go to the airport. You can't wait to get back to your own smoke-free, animal-free world. You wonder how people with similar backgrounds can turn out so different. You think about the fact that you've traveled all over the world, to Europe, Asia, India, and the Middle East, and that these folks are almost as foreign to you as any you've met. You wonder if Christmas with your relatives will be any better.