Guess Who’s Coming to Thanksgiving Dinner (It’s Charlie)
“God damn it, Charlie, go upstairs and take a shower!” were my Dad’s first words to his half-brother when he arrived at our home on Thanksgiving Day, 2004. That might sound a little brusque, but years of unpleasant visits had us braced for the worst; Thanksgiving was “pre-ruined,” as my dad said, simply by having invited him. We hoped, of course, that that year would somehow be different, but his entrance did not bode well.
Charlie usually showed up bearing some semblance of normalcy, carrying himself with basic decorum at least for a short while, but that day he was unraveled out of the gate. With a 360-degree neck beard, long-unlaundered Dickies, and a flagrant disregard for hygiene, he looked and smelled like he’d come straight to our house from the tail end of a long-haul trucking run, although we knew he’d been home for at least a week since his last trip.
“You stink, you look like you haven’t shaved in a month, you…” my dad went on. Charlie was 35 then. My dad, at 55, hadn’t grown up with him, and had always served more as a disciplinarian than a peer. Charlie offered no explanation for his filthy state. He didn’t express any shame or even try to fake it, and actually seemed annoyed that we weren’t letting it slide. My dad motioned upwards and insisted, “Come on, Charlie.” Charlie wordlessly handed my mom the huge plastic-wrapped turkey that he had cradled in his arms, and with a sigh of resignation lumbered upstairs to the bathroom.
I joined my mom in the kitchen as she set the bird on the counter, and we beheld it with great wonder. This apparent gesture of contribution was unprecedented in the history of Charlie’s holiday visits. We’d learned over the years to have no expectations of reciprocity on his part, and until that moment he had never once surprised us. We were less than an hour away from dinner, so there was no time to prepare the turkey even had we needed or wanted a second one, but still, his offering tempered an otherwise very poor start.
Upstairs the shower spurted into action, whisking God-knows-what off of Charlie’s body and into the drain. My dad came down and joined us in regarding the turkey with a blend of shock and optimism. It appeared, we all agreed, that Charlie had made an attempt, however useless and ill-planned, to express gratitude for our hosting him. Since his parents (my dad’s mother and stepfather) had passed away, we were the only family members who were still willing to endure the chaos of inviting him for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I think Charlie was less concerned with family bonds than he was with consuming huge piles of free food, but however he weighted those motives, the turkey suggested recognition of being on thin ice. My parents and I resolved to stay calm and positive. I stowed the turkey in the refrigerator, and we resumed dinner preparations.
Soon the shower sounds stopped, and some minutes later Charlie appeared in the kitchen wearing my dad’s khakis and white polo shirt, redolent of soap. His neck, front and back, was clean-shaven, but a thick beard still covered his perpetually red, pock-marked cheeks. His wispy, dirty-blonde hair was combed respectably around the rim of his bald pate, and he wore small, incongruously professorial wire-rimmed glasses. In recent years, Charlie had developed a huge, hemispherical gut that was comically out of proportion with his otherwise strong, lithe physique. The gut was molded of beer (at a Christmas Eve gathering at our house a few years prior, he drank, by his own estimate, nineteen bottles), fast food, and Pepsi, which he consumed addictively. His movements were jerky and somewhat simian. He kept his shoulders hunched and his gaze lowered, and scurried like he was constantly trying to avoid being seen. Thusly he moved into a chair at the kitchen table. My mom and I welcomed him as if he’d just come in the front door, clean as a whistle.
“Thank you for the turkey, Charlie!” she chirped. “We won’t have time to cook it before dinner, but Ned got two ducks and a turkey this year, so don’t worry, there’s plenty to eat!” The ducks were, in fact, a provision to mitigate the effects of Charlie’s aggressive appetite. The turkey alone would have sufficed for four normal stomachs.
Charlie replied, “Yeah, my manager at the trucking company gave those out to all the drivers this year. I was hoping you could cook it for me to take back down to Charlottesville later.”
In an instant, the tension that we had attempted to disperse swept back into the room. My mom responded with strained composure, “You want me to cook your turkey, after having cooked all this food that we’re about to eat, so that you can drive a full roasted turkey two hours back to your house and eat it by yourself?” To be clear, there was no practical or logistical reason that Charlie couldn’t have cooked the turkey himself, in his own house.
He rose from his seat, and for a moment seemed like he was going to bolt out the front door, but then sat back down, stammering, “Ah, well, you know, Lynn, I don’t, uh… listen… just forget about it. I’m gonna go out and have a smoke.”
Charlie hurried out the door to our deck, and I watched him light up through a window. He smoked in his typical hunched posture, cupping the cigarette in his hand and exhaling every mentholated puff down the front of his shirt. His face bristled with tension; there was clearly a stressed inner monologue playing out behind it. When he was younger and his parents were alive, he survived these holidays by playing the oddball uncle role. We would visit my grandparents’ house and he’d mostly hang out with us kids, maybe toss a football and tell some weird jokes, and then disappear into his room when his social phobias got the best of him. Over time, those phobias blossomed into something darker that alienated him from pretty much everyone in the family except us. I was happy, as were my parents, to give him a place to be, but he made it more and more difficult each year.
Charlie flicked his butt into the yard, carried a strong ashtray scent inside with him, and commenced to hover awkwardly around the perimeter of the kitchen. To give my parents some breathing room, I took him to the basement while they finished cooking. I showed him a new guitar that I’d brought home, which he took into his arms like a giant pacifier. Much of Charlie’s reclusive life, when it wasn’t on the road, was spent shredding in solitude on a distorted Flying V, and listening to 80s pop metal — Van Halen, Warrant, Mötley Crüe, Ratt, et al. He sometimes brought his guitar along on his visits, and we’d play together and talk about music. Those were among the few, or maybe the only, moments that he relaxed and seemed to enjoy himself. I left him to noodling. When we were called to the table a few minutes later, he set down the guitar and stood reluctantly. He would have filled a plate and eaten alone in the basement if he could.
In the dining room, my parents were already seated at the heads of the table, and Charlie and I took seats facing each other. As soon as he touched the chair, his eyes bulged and twitched back and forth, scanning the plates and bowls and platters set out before him. I could see him tabulating the types and quantities of food, weighing them against our respective appetites, and frantically attempting to arrive at an estimate of how much he could rightfully shovel onto his plate and devour without crossing a line of propriety that he knew existed but couldn’t quite ascertain. Then, his hand shot into his pocket.
Charlie pulled out his billfold, withdrew a bill, thrust it towards my dad, and with a tone of outright desperation said, “Ned, I’ll give you five bucks for that duck.” He wanted to firmly claim the whole thing for himself, as if there might otherwise be a fight over one of the legs.
“Charlie. Just take the duck.” My dad burst out laughing mid-sentence, and my mom and I followed. “It’s there to be eaten. We got these for you.” Charlie sheepishly but swiftly scooped the duck onto his plate. As the serving platters made their rounds, he assembled an obscene mound of food, and plunged into it forthwith.
The abject absurdity of Charlie’s attempt to purchase food off the table created a momentary sense of levity that I fruitlessly hoped would carry us through the meal. Charlie, meanwhile, was only concerned with eating. My parents and I ended up talking mostly among ourselves while he stayed latched to his meal like a hyena to a dead gazelle. We left openings for him, which he ignored, but from time to time, in between snorts, burps and breathy chewing, he raised his face from his plate to answer direct and delicately phrased questions about his life. His responses were terse and evasive and delivered through a full mouth. Though he didn’t make any jokes, his words were usually followed by a fierce cackle that would propel bits of food in unpredictable directions. His beard collected the grease and detritus of turkey, duck, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce. All the classic Thanksgiving staples were represented there in his beard.
By meal’s end my parents and I were exasperated, mildly disgusted, and eager to move to a room that afforded more physical separation from Charlie. My dad started gathering the dishes in a fashion which in different company might have been considered premature, and Charlie readily took the opportunity to step out for a cigarette. The three of us scraped, washed and tidied, and soon Charlie was back inside. He lurked for a minute, and then started to shuffle anxiously. I could tell he wanted to say something.
Eventually he let it out. “Hey, Lynn, do you think you could go to the store and pick up a case of Pepsi for me? Regular, no diet.”
My mom snapped, “Charlie, can you see that my hands are in the sink washing dishes? Do you want me to drop everything and get in the car to go buy Pepsi for you? Why don’t you go to the store yourself?”
Charlie’s face reddened, and he started to hem and haw, but before he could form a meaningful sentence, my dad, in a move to either quell or totally avoid the situation, announced, “Well, I’m gonna head upstairs and take a nap. Charlie, take the guest bed if you want to have a nap too.” My dad always napped after big afternoon dinners, that was a given, but this time Charlie didn’t take it well.
“I can see I’m not wanted here,” he sighed, and stomped to the refrigerator to retrieve his uncooked turkey. I’m not sure if he was legitimately offended, or if he was just creating a convenient opening to leave. We protested, albeit mildly, but within a minute Charlie was on the road. His absence cleared the air, though it didn’t exactly feel like a relief.
We saw Charlie one more time after that day, at a family gathering the following summer in Richmond. He was calm and inoffensive but utterly detached, maybe self-medicated. At the dinner table he sat quietly with his head bowed, and he left early but without incident. He spared us from having to actively un-invite him from the next Thanksgiving. We had watched him become increasingly non-functional over the years, and finally, it seemed, the weight of his undiagnosed mental illness overwhelmed whatever it was that had compelled him to keep coming back. He stopped communicating with us and the rest of the family. He stopped picking up the phone, and he never had an answering machine. At some point he moved without leaving a forwarding address. That’s all we know.
William Foster lives in Portland, Ore.