Lauren didn’t have to work the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and Clay’s company held a cookout at lunch in a park near the job-site. His company provided a meal for the subcontractors who were working on site that day. And because the job was do far ahead of schedule, they were able to shut down after lunch and go home early for the holiday weekend. That kind of holiday didn’t happen often in the construction business, and it was a lot to be thankful for.
The weatherman predicted a warm Thanksgiving weekend, and Wednesday turned out to be a beautiful cloud-free start to it. It had reached almost seventy degrees by noon.
At the park, someone pulled a grill-trailer up in the parking lot, and Jerry cooked burgers on it while Logan, Jerry’s intern, unloaded coolers out of the back of his truck. There was a covered pavilion with tables and a playground area. People were gathered in clusters, talking and waiting for the food to be ready. Kids played on the swings and climbed up the slide backwards. One young mother followed her toddler around to make sure he didn’t get hurt.
When she first walked up, Lauren tried to stick close to Clay. She didn’t know anyone else except Jerry and Logan, but everyone seemed to want something from him. She was no help and she couldn’t keep up, anyway. After he left her standing by herself for the third time, she took a bottle of water from a cooler and sat down at a picnic table in the shade.
Before long, a woman sat down at the table and spoke to her with exaggerated expressions on her weathered face. The woman’s smile did nothing to disguise the dislike in her eyes, and the effect was almost manic.
“I think some of these parents aren’t watching their kids.” She angled herself away from Lauren, looking over at the playground nervously. She waved a cigarette around with her hand while she talked. “I don’t know that little brown haired boy in the camo, but he’s meaner’n hell. He ain’t yours, is he?”
Lauren shook her head. “What did he do?”
“He just stepped on that little girl’s hand while she was climbing up the ladder to the slide. Oh shit,” she looked over her other shoulder. “I hope those aren’t his parents. You think they heard me?”
“I don’t think they’re listening.”
The woman immediately forgot about her concern when she spotted someone else she knew over Lauren’s shoulder.“Hey, Georganne!” She waved Georganne over.
“Did you see what that boy over there did?” Georganne asked as she walked up, apparently as concerned about the playground bully as the other woman.
“Yeah, where’s his mama?”
“I don’t know. But someone needs to do something about him.”
Georganne smiled at Lauren without introducing herself then sat down to watch the playground with the other woman. Then before she could get situated, she jumped up suddenly, yelling across the pavilion. “Little Bobby! Git down from there!”
Georganne marched over to the playground where Little Bobby was climbing a pole that supported the shade canopy that covered the playground. He had almost made it to the yellow covering before she got there to pull him down by his jean-clad leg.
Lauren stared as the woman proceeded to spank Little Bobby out on the playground for all to see. Little Bobby was nearly as big as his mother, and even though Lauren was sure his mother couldn’t be hurting him, the boy wailed like a foghorn while his mother yelled and whacked away.
The other woman sat in front of Lauren, unimpressed. She pulled on her cigarette, watching the scene on the playground with squinty eyed satisfaction. “This will be the first time we’ve been able to go see my family for Thanksgiving in ten years. My mama is so happy,” she told Lauren without looking at her. “I’m just proud to get the chance before she dies.”
“Ten years is a long time,” Lauren said.
“Yeah, well, Mike normally has to work the Friday after.” The woman told Lauren this in a way that suggested someone was to blame for every holiday weekend Mike had ever worked. Lauren knew it could not possibly have been Clay, but she couldn’t help thinking the woman was trying to make that point.
“Be sure to tell your old man how much it means to all the rest of us to get to spend holidays with our families,” she added.
“He knows how much it means,” Lauren said. “Clay has had to work his share of holidays too.” She had no idea if Clay had ever worked a holiday in his life, but she never knew anyone who put in as many hours as Clay. “If your husband had to work this Friday, Clay would have been right there with him. And then I’d be at the house with his parents, while my old man spent thanksgiving with your old man.”
The woman cocked her head back and looked at Lauren, visibly sizing her up. She reminded Lauren of Sharla, the way her head wobbled around on her neck. Lauren noted with mild interest that people were the same no matter where you went.
“Well then we’re all blessed this holiday season, ain’t we?” The woman smiled and put out her cigarette. She held out her hand to Lauren. “Nancy.”
“Lauren.” They shook hands and continued to talk a while, about family and holidays.
When she looked up she caught Clay watching her from beside Jerry, who was cooking at the grill. He smiled at her and she stopped in mid-sentence. Nancy turned to see what had caught Lauren’s attention.
“You hungry?” he mouthed and pointed at the grill.
“He sure is good looking, ain’t he?” Nancy asked.
She smiled at Clay. “Yeah. I think so.” She stood up and straightened her dress. “I better go get food while he remembers I’m here.”
Clay handed her a plate as she walked up to him. They found a place at a long picnic table to sit down and eat together. Someone turned on a CD player, and Lauren sat in the dry fall air listening to the Bellamy Brothers, remembering the cook-out at Dan and Sharla’s house when the music had seemed like the soundtrack to a movie. The wind picked up for a second, and she watched people holding plates and catching drinks before they spilled. It all happened around her, and for a surreal moment she didn’t feel part of it.
What a long way they had come since that day in the spring. And here she was, the exact same person looking at the world through the exact same eyes. The only thread that connected her over that time and distance was the man in front of her. What an unexpected unraveling.
When all of the food had been served and the truck with the grill-trailer drove away, Clay gathered everyone together, thanked them for coming and wished them a happy Thanksgiving. Lauren couldn’t help but think that it was odd to find herself standing behind the man making announcements. So this is what it looks like from the other side? She looked down at her empire wasted dress and sandals, hoping she wasn’t an embarrassment to Clay.
His parents were driving to Waco for Thanksgiving because his sister Pamela was spending the holiday with her own in-laws. Lauren and Clay left the cook-out and went to the grocery store to get food to cook for dinner the next day. Of course Bonnie would be doing the cooking, so they called her to get her shopping list.
When they got home, Lauren put clean sheets on Clay’s bed for his parents. He would be sleeping in her room, in Allyssa’s bed, while Bonnie and Dwayne were visiting.
As soon as she walked in the door, Bonnie asked Lauren to show her around the new house. Dwayne sat down on the loveseat and reached for the remote, while Lauren took Bonnie straight to what she considered the most exciting part of the house. It was the room Clay painted. It matched the trim on the crib bedding that she bought two days after the sonogram. There were sixteen weeks left, but she didn’t see any reason to wait. The room was arranged with curtains, stuffed animals, a changing table and baby clothes in the closet. It was the only fully decorated room in the house.
Then Lauren showed Bonnie down the hall to the guest room where she and Dwayne would be sleeping. And finally, she got to the room that concerned Bonnie most the day before Thanksgiving — the kitchen. Bonnie worried out loud that the oven might not be big enough, and let it be known that she didn’t like electric cook tops. It also concerned her that the stove only had four burners, instead of the six gas burners she was accustomed to. But she put her hand on Lauren’s shoulder and told her not to worry — she had made do with worse and everything was going to be fine.
Any other mother-in-law might have made those concerns sound critical, but in her sweet West Texas accent Lauren just thought it was cute. If Lauren was supposed to feel bad about her kitchen, someone besides Bonnie was going to have to break the news to her.
Lauren stood back and watched Bonnie go to work, opening the refrigerator, the pantry and the cabinets -taking inventory. She took two bowls out of the cabinet and looked everywhere for Lauren’s mixer. When Lauren pulled the mixer, still in its unopened box, out from the cabinet below the center island, she thought Bonnie was going to choke. Lauren washed all of her unused appliances and handed them over to Bonnie. Every now and then Bonnie would send her after something, or give her a bowl to stir or mix or knead, as if Lauren knew the difference. Bonnie looked a little perplexed by some of Lauren’s questions.
She wrinkled her eyebrows and pushed her glasses up on her nose. “Now, honey, didn’t your mama show you how to fold in an egg?”
Lauren just laughed and shook her head. “No, but I can make a mean Hamburger Helper.”
Bonnie laughed. Dwayne grunted from the living room, letting her know he was listening, and Hamburger Helper was nothing to joke about.
“Here, let me show you.” Bonnie took the bowl.
Lauren folded eggs, boiled eggs, and peeled eggs, staying busy until Bonnie reached some internal milestone. Stepping back and wiping her hands on a towel, she announced that it was time to put the bird in the oven and set the timer. With that done, she washed the last few bowls and made her way into the living room, where Clay and Dwayne were watching TV.
Lauren was exhausted, so she went to bed early, leaving Clay and his parents alone to spend time together. She was fast asleep when Clay came to bed. The next morning he got up before she did, and she hardly noticed that he had been there.
When Lauren wrapped her robe around herself and padded into the kitchen, Bonnie was already there cleaning up dishes from the breakfast that Lauren had slept through. Bonnie never sat down, checking on everything, practically juggling turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce. It made Lauren tired just watching her.
Lauren knew she was only in Bonnie’s way, so she went to the living room, where Clay was awake and watching ESPN in his pajamas. After a while, Bonnie came into the living room and sat down too.
With everyone finally in the same room at the same time, Clay got up and started the sonogram video. Dwayne leaned forward and tried looking through both parts of his bifocals, then finally waved his hand at it and sat back.
“That is supposed to look like a baby?”
“Dwayne, look.” Bonnie pointed at the TV. “There is the foot. I can see her foot right there.”
Dwayne just waved his hand again, dismissing the whole idea. “I’ll see it when it’s born.”
“They didn’t have all this when I was having babies. That is just amazing.” Bonnie pushed her glasses up and wiped at her eyes with a tissue that she had pulled out of her pocket. “Have you thought about what you’re going to name her?”
“I liked the name Piper but Clay didn’t,” Lauren said.
“That’s different,” Bonnie said, and Lauren knew she didn’t like it any more than Clay did. “What do you like, Clay?”
“Anything but Piper,” he said.
“Have you got a name book?”
“I look up names on the Internet,” Lauren said. “We’re going to find one we both like eventually. If we can’t find one by February, we’ll name her Clay, Jr.”
“I knew a girl named Ricki in school.” Dwayne said.
“Hmmm, I’m gonna say Ricki is a no go,” Lauren apologized. “But don’t worry, we’ll figure something out. We have time.”
“I still like Emily,” Clay said.
“Emily is a nice name.” Bonnie looked between Lauren and Clay, nodding her approval.
Lauren got up and switched the TV back to ESPN then went to her room. She got dressed and came back out to help Bonnie set the table with dishes bought especially for the occasion. Clay and Dwayne moved into the dining room for dinner and Lauren helped bring the food out from the kitchen, even though Bonnie told her repeatedly to sit down. But Lauren kept at it, just to get a reaction out of the older woman. She giggled when Bonnie scolded her, and jumped and moved a little faster when Bonnie popped her on the butt with a towel. Before her last trip into the kitchen, she turned back to see Clay laughing at them. Then she came back with the pitcher of tea and Clay made them both sit down so that Dwayne could say grace.
It was unlike any Thanksgiving in Lauren’s experience. The food and family — the clean comfortable home. She thought the people around her would never be able to appreciate this setting the way she did. She was sure that none of them had spent Thanksgiving in a shaky trailer house, chilled by more than just the drafty windows. Her parents didn’t take a break from their dislike of each other for holidays. And for a kid, too much time around them was too much opportunity to set them off.
Lauren hadn’t missed the holidays after the divorce. But now that she had a taste of how good it could be, she wanted to burn this experience into her heart. She wanted more of this, and she put it on her wish list for her baby girl. She could make a happy home someday — she knew she could. She wanted things for the baby growing inside of her that she would never even think to want for herself.
She must have looked like a sentimental dope while these thoughts went through her mind. She caught Clay looking at her again, and he smiled. Lauren wondered what he thought of her. She still couldn’t tell. But if he kept looking at her like he was now, it was going to be hard to leave. It would be hard to remember why they didn’t work together. She reminded herself that things were not good between them until she decided to leave.
The afternoon was as sluggish as the swollen overfed people at the table. When they finished eating they stayed at the table, leaning back in their chairs, finishing their tea. Finally Bonnie got up and started clearing their empty plates, leaving them soaking in the sink for later. Dwayne and Clay drifted into the living room. Lauren sat down next to Clay, and put her swollen feet up on the coffee table.
While Clay and Dwayne waited for the game to start, Lauren leaned back and struggled with heavy eyelids. She laid the remote across her belly, watching it jump as the baby kicked.
“I just can’t get over that.” Bonnie laughed when she looked over and saw the remote moving.
Lauren’s head dropped onto Clay’s shoulder, and the remote appeared to move of its own volition. When Clay asked her if she was still awake, she mumbled that she was just resting her eyes. She could hear Clay talking to his dad about the game on TV, then about his high school football team.
“Looks like they’re going to state again,” Dwayne said.
“Now that both of those Richards boys are on varsity, they ought to have a good chance for the next couple of years.”
She napped until the half-time show. When she woke up, she looked over and saw Bonnie, leaned over with her head resting on the arm of the couch. She had fallen asleep too. Lauren got up to clean up the kitchen while Bonnie was resting. She scraped dishes and put them into the dishwasher. She put food into plastic containers with lids and covered dishes with foil.
She was bent over, head in the fridge, making room for the desserts and turkey when Clay came in to ask if she wanted to order a movie on pay-per-view later. She stood up and turned around to tell him that she didn’t care what they watched.
She stopped when she saw him watching her. Even after their months of living together, being alone in the kitchen with him at that moment set off that thing, that intangible concrete thing, that drew her to him in the first place. She wanted to know what it was and how it could obliterate all thought and make time slow down. There had to be a scientific explanation.
He stepped forward and his lips touched her first. He caught her mouth with his, pushing her head up and back an instant before his hand was in her hair catching her and pulling her against him. He finished the kiss gently, slowly pulled away. Her hands were still hanging by her sides when she opened her eyes. She hadn’t thought to move them.
She wondered how long they would have stood there, if Bonnie hadn’t broken the spell, coming to see if Lauren needed help. She stopped at the kitchen door.
“I’m sorry. I just thought you might need help with something.”
“Oh, I’m done.” Lauren said, “I just put the pies in the fridge.” She bit her lip and wiped her hands down her sides, betraying her nerves. She closed the fridge and walked around Clay toward the sink.
She stayed in the kitchen for a few more minutes after they left, trying to get her nerves under control. Later, in the living room, they turned on the movie and Lauren stayed up to finish it, but when it was over, she was ready to go to sleep again. She got up to go to bed and wasn’t surprised that Clay followed.
She had come to think of this room as her own, even if she was only borrowing Allyson’s bed. And even after living together for those months, having her in her bedroom was overwhelming. She could smell his soap, see the stubble from his five o’clock shadow, see the curve of his shoulders under his white undershirt. How many nights had she lain awake on a plain mattress in a trailer in Curt wishing she could be this close to him?
She was self-conscious about her growing abdomen, so she changed into her cotton pajama bottoms and tee-shirt in the bathroom. When she came out, he was already in the bed. They lay together quietly in the dark. She knew they were both thinking about what happened in the kitchen. This thing between them was powerful, and her common sense had collapsed under it before. But she knew that feelings weren’t the foundation for a relationship. They couldn’t be. How many stupid girls had she known who had been ‘in love’ and ruined their lives over it. That kind of love was the foundation for very bad decision making. And, if a twenty-one-year-old girl from a trailer park understood that, surely the intelligent responsible older man in bed next to her must know that too.
“Your parents are awesome,” she finally said, when the silence was too difficult to ignore.
He sighed, and she could feel some unknown tension leave him. He put his arm over his eyes and said, “Yeah. You and my mom seem to be getting along pretty well.”
“Yeah, I like her. She can cook. I’m going to have to learn a few things from her while she’s here.”
“That would be nice,” he said.
“No woman will ever live up to your mother when it comes to food, you know that right? Because, you will be a lonely man if you think you’ll find another woman that can cook like her.”
He didn’t answer. She thought he must have fallen asleep.