In the Animal Kingdom

(a Thanksgiving story)

“Mammalian life is social and relational. What defines the mammalian class, physiologically, is … the possession of a portion of the brain known as the limbic system, which allows us to do what other animals cannot: read the interior states of others of our kind. To survive, we need to know our own inner state and those of others, quickly, at a glance, deeply.” From “Programming the Post-human,” by Ellen Ullman.

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I sit here now as I sat here then. He’s not here now; he wasn’t here then. The only difference between now and then — fifteen years ago — is that I know the difference.

Then? Then I had a child’s imagination, a child’s belief that all things were possible — even the impossible — perhaps because I had no knowledge of im. Im is a prefix that comes with age, with experience, with rejection and failure. Slowly. More quickly if you have nothing even worthy of rejection. Then, im comes at you without mercy. And very quickly, you’re no longer even able to see the word “possible” without its attendant im.

But that was fifteen years ago — when I was a mere child — with a child’s imagination, a child’s belief, and a child’s still imperfect vision. None of which could distinguish between im and him. And him was what I’d been anticipating for almost a whole year.

Today, the greatest of all days on the American calendar, is Thanksgiving — now as then. No other holiday — he’d said it himself many times — can compare. It’s the day on which we all come home, wherever home may be. Sometimes, that home is just a heartbeat. But so long as a heart is beating, it yearns for home. And home is where we come — on Thanksgiving.

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“What time is Papa coming?” I shout from where I’m sitting next to the front window.

“Six o’clock,” my mother shouts back from the kitchen.

“And if he doesn’t?” I ask.

“He’ll be here. We agreed. And if there’s one thing your father is, it’s punctual.”

I know. It’s the German in him. He can’t help himself.

“It’s the German in him,” my mother shouts, unprompted. “He can’t help himself.”

My sister looks at me. I look back at her. We’ve both heard the words many times before. At a quarter to six on a cold and wet November afternoon, there’s little comfort — dry or warm — in hearing this same old gripe about my father and his people.

Her Russia and his Germany — I realize now — were thousands of miles apart and two generations distant. Nevertheless, the ethnic jibes between them had always begun like swift after-kicks on the hoof of an argument: a land-grab here, a pogrom there, Gestapo tactics everywhere. Not to mention any number of other ‘old Europe’ defects that lodged in their genes and coursed through their veins — and so, through my sister’s and mine — like slightly flawed diamonds on an otherwise steady stream of pure Doodle Dandy lava.

This was the first Thanksgiving since their separation — which my father liked to call ‘collateral damage’ by way of association with that other undoing in lower Manhattan. But the real truth of their undoing was another matter altogether.

“What time is it now, Mama?” I yell out again from my perch where Alice and I sit like a couple of famished baby birds.

“5:57. Any minute now. Trust me. No, don’t trust me. Trust him.”

I put my cheek up against the window and close my eyes tight. And that’s when I see him.

He’s wearing an old, black corduroy coat, which I recognize immediately, and which I once saw hanging on a throwaway hanger in the basement. I asked my mother about it at the time, and she told me it had been my father’s coat from his college days — something he’d picked up at a thrift shop for a couple of bucks, and which he’d too often and too proudly called his ‘Diogenes coat.’

“So why does he keep it?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe he thinks he’ll need it again one day. There are many things about your father I don’t understand.” With that, the conversation ended; and we both promptly forgot about the coat — until now.

As he comes up the street, I look more closely at this coat. It’s ragged, worn gray in spots where it should be black, the collar too wide, the sleeves too short.

As he moves closer, I notice he’s carrying a bag — a dark, brown plastic bag of no markings. I know my father and I know that bag. The contents of a dark brown plastic bag of no markings can be only one thing. This is, after all, Thanksgiving — the greatest feast of the year.

He steps up and rings the bell. Alice and I run to answer.

When I open the front door, my first impression is that he’s aged. Maybe it’s the coat, I decide. That, and something about his hair. My father had always been careful about his hair, especially in times of economic stress. “Good times might come and go,” he’d frequently say. “But my hairline takes the longer view and stays the course,” he’d invariably add with a flair for the obvious. This time, I’m not so sure that his coat — or his hairline, for that matter — are holding fast to any course whatsoever.

It’s merely a first impression. We fling the door open, and he scoops us both up while managing very carefully, I notice, to keep the contents of the bag out of harm’s way.

He brings the three of us inside — me, Alice and the bag — to greet my mother, who comes out of the kitchen bearing a dishtowel like a tired wife at a policemen’s ball. This isn’t their first meeting since their separation. But this is their first on a significant holiday. In other words, this is their first contractual meeting.

My mother looks down at the bag. “Happy Thanksgiving,” she says in a cryptic monotone.

Ditto,” my father offers in return. (My father had always believed in brains over brawn. And, whenever possible, he’d use Latin to prove it.) He quickly diverts his glance from my mother to the dining table, puts both Alice and me down before seating himself, holds the bag up to her as if surrendering a weapon.

“It looks fabulous!” he says as he glances down at the spread. “Here. The red’s for the turkey. The white’s for everything that comes up between now and the first delectation of that turkey.”

“We’re having goose,” my mother counters.

“Goose!” my father says, not even trying to conceal the fact of his pleasure. “We haven’t had goose since our very own first Thanksgiving together. Before these little munchkins — .” The last of his declaration goes the way of former Thanksgiving goose dinners, unknown to both Alice and me. “‘Must be a special occasion,” he deadpans — an all-too-familiar smirk forming at the corners of his mouth.

Alice and I look at each other. We’ve just spent a whole week preparing for such a contingency. If my father can have his collateral damage — we reasoned — we can have our preëmptive strike.

I harrumph, and my father looks at me. I indicate with my eyes a sign, taped to the wall directly behind his head. He turns ‘round and reads.

HUMOR SAVORS OF SARCASM ABOUT AS MUCH AS A LIVE TURKEY SAVORS OF A GOOD STUFFING.

My father turns back and looks at me. I know his angry look, but this isn’t it. Instead, there’s just a hint of appreciation in his eyes — the kind I was once used to seeing whenever Alice or I might say something that struck him as amusing.

It’s a look that never failed to produce in me the same sensation I’d once felt whenever he’d put his arm around me and call me his guy. It’s the same sensation I felt whenever I’d performed well at some sport and would then look in his direction for a reaction. He wouldn’t shout or rave like other parents. He’d just give me a firm, quiet thumbs-up. Whatever I might’ve just accomplished on a given field or court or diamond, however loud the cheers or rants of other kids’ parents, I’d look for his thumb. When I found it, I’d always feel that kind of shudder that opens like a gasp, closes like a sigh.

“Goose,” he says, looking at my mother. “I can hardly wait!” He then looks at Alice and me and winks. I wink back, now feeling supremely confident about Alice’s and my first success as peacemakers.

My mother returns to the kitchen. My father sits down in the Mission Style armchair we’d inherited as part of their separation agreement — his chair, once, but given up without a fight. He runs his hands along the arms of that chair as I’d seen him run his hands many times along my mother’s arms — until abruptly, he glances away, but only for an instant. His eyes and thoughts then return once again to us and to the occasion — and, his arms outspread, Alice and I rush in.

“Thanksgiving. Who amongst you can tell me the story of Squanto and the first Thanksgiving?”

“Who between you, you mean,” I correct. “There are only two of us here.” He gives me another one of his looks — doubtless piqued by my correction, but awed, too, by this bit of erudition I’m showing off like a pair of shiny new silver spurs.

“Okay, who between you? And who between you is going to cast the next stone?”

“Fowler says — ” I start in, careful, as he always used to insist, to know and quote my sources accurately.

“Fowler said many things,” he interrupts. “But Fowler’s dead, and dead men don’t throw stones. Who between you can tell me something about Squanto?”

I know, of course, because he’d brought the story to my attention years earlier. Alice is too young to know the answer — or rather, to understand the real question. He isn’t asking whether one of us knows the story of Squanto and the first Thanksgiving. Instead, he’s asking whether either of us remembers how we first came to know the story.

I pause. At this moment, I understand, perhaps for the first time, how important it is to my father to be remembered and appreciated — as a father, as a provider, as a teacher — at least by his own children.

For months now, he’s been on the outside looking in. Our contact has been almost exclusively by telephone. He’s been out there somewhere, at a distance, and growing more distant and detached by the day. But he still has an urgent need to instruct us. He still wants to believe that his accumulated knowledge of the way things work, however skewed, is of some value — if only to us. He still wants to believe that if he can’t directly feed us, clothe us, put a roof over our heads, he can at least give us a leg up on the world in which he, himself, has so badly stumbled.

“Squanto,” I begin, “was an Indian, sold into slavery in Spain.”

My father gives me an encouraging nod. “That’s him! He’s the one!”

Now it’s my turn to sigh and look back at my father as I heave coal into the firebox of a linguistic locomotive I’m about to drive towards some invisible Promontory Point. “Squanto was about hurt and separation and the pain of loneliness. Squanto was also about forgiveness. And about more hurt, separation and loneliness. But also about more forgiveness. I don’t know whether Squanto was a real person or only a symbol.”

“You mean personification?” my father shoots back — too quickly and recklessly it seems to me. Yet I can see in his eyes — whatever refinement he needs to supply to my symbol — that he’s immensely pleased with my characterization of Squanto and with my explication of the subtext of the story.

In truth, I was immensely pleased with myself — even if words like ‘characterization,’ ‘explication’ and ‘subtext’ weren’t really a part of my vocabulary just then.

There’s something else I catch in his eyes for the first time, and I wince inwardly as I see it. On the one hand, I feel pleasure. On the other, I feel a fear of something until now quite unfamiliar. What I see in my father’s eyes is his own pain, or at least the appearance of pain.

Sure, I know what real pain is, and that it often results in tears. I’ve seen tears of pain, almost daily, on Alice’s cheeks. I know the occasional feeling of tears on my own cheeks, though less often now that I’m getting older and am not supposed to cry at every little scratch or unkind word. I even know what tears look like on an adult’s cheek, as I’ve seen many such adult cheeks in the weeks and months since the ‘undoing.’ And, of course, I’ve seen tears on my mother’s cheeks since my parents’ separation — though only in the kitchen and only whenever she thought she was alone. Even then, she’s always seemed to meet my stare from around the corner with an onion in one hand and a knife in the other, as if to dismiss each new eruption of tears as the collusion of a silly vegetable and one knife’s untimely cutting of it.

I notice that Alice is fidgeting. But I want to pursue this new knowledge — and decide to try a different tack just to see if it might produce a different reaction.

“I was looking at the moon last night,” I say. “At the man in the moon.” The leather of his chair creaks as my father leans forward. “Sometimes, I’d look away. Then I’d look back again. Other times, I’d just blink. And each time I looked again, the man in the moon had a different expression. Sometimes he looked happy; sometimes, sad. Or surprised, or disappointed, or even confused. The more I looked at his eyes, the more wrinkly they got — mostly, around his left eye. It looked like he had a black eye, or maybe a scar. Do you suppose he was ever a boxer,” I finally ask with what I now know to be a stab at something adults call ‘irony.’

My father smiles at this second exhibition of my shiny new spurs.

“Cosmic debris,” he mutters. “The man in the moon is always boxing with cosmic debris.”

I look at him in complete confusion and think for a moment he might be speaking French — as he sometimes used to do on holidays.

“It’s the stuff that flies through the night — the stuff you can never anticipate. That even the man in the moon can’t anticipate, and so he just takes it on the chin. You can’t plan for it. You can’t build a defense against it. It just happens.”

I continue to look at him and wonder when I might finally be allowed to resume.

“Sorry,” he says. “‘Just rambling. Go on.”

“What I wanted to ask,” I start in again, “is why the man in the moon always seems to be changing his expression.”

My father looks at me over a fist squeezing a chin like a wet sponge. What I’d seen earlier in his eyes is now gone as he struggles to find his fatherly voice of authority. Finally, and entirely out of character, he answers. “I dunno. But maybe we can work out a theory. Whaddya say?” he suddenly lays on the Brooklynese like the phony-bologna it is, and I shudder.

We are, thankfully, saved by my mother’s announcement of dinner. “Soup’s on,” she shouts from the kitchen.

Alice and I take our places at the table. My father, of course, is already sitting — and the three of us now turn our attention to why we’re about to give thanks.

On one side of the table stand various zakuski; on the other, Vorspeisen. In between, like a happy Maginot Line — and every bit as porous — stand two bottles of French wine, one red and one white, a pepper mill and candelabrum. We can choose — if little hands care to pass through that line like intrepid soldiers — from the one side: Rotkohl; Sauerkraut; plain, unadorned herring; asparagus wrapped in Westphalian ham; coleslaw with walnuts and raisins; thinly sliced pieces of Kasslerrippchen. From the other side: sturgeon caviar and salmon roe; smoked pike and whitefish; selyodka swimming in waves of oil and vinegar with little onions like whitecaps; also maslo and pashtet iz seldi; pirozhki; vinegret; and an assortment of other salads.

In my view, the Russians clearly have the advantage. And yet, in an effort at culinary détente — my mother’s transparent attempt at a Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty — lie side by side and on one plate what she calls Buterbrodi and what my father calls Butterbrötchen. Her version, with red caviar looking like tiny red balloons; his, with plain butter — each slice standing like a smart little ship carrying a creamy golden treasure as cargo.

Our feast — no word sums it up more succinctly — was saluting from atop white lace covering ecru-colored holiday linen, all of which I now understand to have been left over from a previous era in which my parents had conclusively disposed of a disposable income.

My father stands up, reaches for the bottle of white wine, and walks to my mother’s end of the table.

Du vin blanc, Madame?” he asks like the princely student-waiter he’d once been.

Mais oui, bien sûr, Monsieur,” my mother aspirates to complete her part in the ceremony.

He fills her glass to three-quarters.

Spasibo,” she says laconically to an alienated husband who’s now once again courting her in the guise of a charming student-waiter.

Bitte,” he answers, reduced to a lean Teutonic sound bite.

He walks back to his end of the table and fills his own glass. Alice and I also have wine glasses for the occasion, though they cater only to apple juice.

From a standing position, my father raises his glass. “Auf den Abwesenden,” he announces grandly. “Za otsyustvyuskikh,” my mother pronounces as if from under the clouds of a sun-forsaken Eastern Europe, and so with far less of my father’s rain-swept Western disposition. Then, for our benefit — though we already know both expressions by sound — they pronounce in unison: “To the absent ones.”

After a few seconds’ pause, and with utensils now busily in motion, my mother continues. “You’re looking well. Well, if also a little thin.”

Qui dort, dîne,” my father offers with glass raised, though no glass meets his. And then, to the two of us as he hastily brings his glass back to port: “As the French would say, ‘He who sleeps, eats.’ In addition to which, I’ve joined — rather, rejoined — the School of Peripatetics,” he now grandly announces.

A moment of silence drops like a stone before my mother breaks it. “For the children’s benefit, what exactly is the School of Peripatetics?”

My father settles knife and fork quietly back down on his dinner plate as his eyes and the corners of his mouth run to take up battle-stations behind a smirk. He knows that this “for the children’s benefit” is nonsense. I know that he knows it. He knows that I — and maybe even my mother — know it. Only Alice is still too young to share in the general family omniscience. As amusing as it might be in certain other word-games we play, in this context it is not. In fact, it has become one of our unhappier routines whenever we find ourselves seated at the dinner table.

I seek to quash it before it can erupt yet again into tension and closed mouths. I nod at another of Alice’s and my creations on the wall, this one hanging directly over the hutch with an illustration of a very fat, very satisfied cat. My father looks and reads soundlessly:

SMIRKS ARE UNBECOMING, UNLESS ON A CHESHIRE CAT.

“Very clever,” my father says — but with nothing like the enthusiasm he’d shown upon reading our first billboard.

In the same instant, he disengages the muscles that hold the smirk, finds a couple of vagrants to replace it with a scowl, and continues in earnest to Alice and me. “Peripatesis was the brainchild of Socrates, who didn’t like to write. Its effectiveness was noted by Plato — to some laughable degree also by Xenophon — who had to walk and write at the same time because Socrates couldn’t be bothered. This was all documented and codified a couple of generations later by Plato’s greatest pupil, Aristotle — born a full fifteen years after Socrates’ death — who believed that people absorbed and assimilated — learned, if you will — new information better if they were in motion, even if just walking while talking.” He leans back again and picks up his knife and fork, a signal to us that he’s ready for summation. “And so, it was really about walking and talking and doing. Which is why, to this day — ”

My father’s eyes rather too cavalierly move to my mother’s end of the table — then, however, pull up short as they meet a yawn.

It’s entirely unintentional. I know it. I’m sure he does, too. And yet, nothing in her arsenal can turn him from gregarious to taciturn more quickly and more soundlessly than her yawn. His own radar can spot a yawn — particularly one of my mother’s — like an incoming skein of Canada geese, and all of his defenses go on foolish, full-scale alert. To his credit, perhaps, even he can appreciate that not everyone shares his enthusiasm for things like ‘peripatesis.’

I try to distract him. “Which is why, to this day — ?” I repeat, but he won’t be distracted. He simply goes back to eating. The discussion — his holding forth, really — is holding no further. Nothing — not even one of Alice’s and my billboards — can now return us to the holiday mood of just seconds earlier.

For once, my father doesn’t say anything disparaging, and my mother doesn’t pretend to excuse herself. We’re at a standstill. It feels like old times, and old times don’t feel very good — especially at Thanksgiving. We chew and swallow, each in his or her own way, each pretending that the happy sounds of holiday cheer still prevail over the near silence of chewing and swallowing.

Alice and I have worked on other billboards. They all hang there, just waiting like Band-Aids for blisters to break out from some ill-timed word from him, some yawn from her. But our remaining billboards have already turned redundant and, like my father, will find no further employment. The silence, deeper than any blister, persists. Alice and I look up at each other from time to time. For once, no giggle crosses either of our minds.

I glance at my father out of the corner of my eye. His face looks strained, much older than even just an hour earlier, and minus any remnant of the appreciation of my erudition or of Alice’s and my wit. He, too, simply eats.

Our plates are almost empty. A single piece of goose remains on the platter. My father and I are now approaching that point at which we’d often stage a mock standoff in the years leading up to my parents’ separation, when both of us were still hungry — or at least pretending to be hungry. This contest of wills and appetite was one I’d grown used to, grown fond of, grown up with as a rite of passage, not knowing until later in life that it was not so much about lingering appetite as about something more primitive — something my father had called ‘atavistic.’ He’d tried to explain it to me on a few occasions. But ‘atavistic’ had, each time, gone the way of ‘peripatetic.’ Now, however, I’ll explain.

It had been my father’s contention that the reigning male of a pride or pack always got first choice of the spoils of a hunt, and would eat his fill, only then allowing his mate and cubs to gorge themselves on the remaining bits. This — once again, according to my father — was nature’s law. He’d always illustrate it, his own fork poised with slightly menacing tines, over the last bit of meat or other desired edible. At that moment, with weapon hovering, he’d utter the injunction “In the animal kingdom…” letting the rest of the explanation flutter off like an elliptical butterfly.

However much I might’ve pretended to challenge his claim, he never failed to remind me of the law of the jungle. If he then granted me this last remainder, it was only to sit back in his chair with the benign smile of one who’d just bestowed a favor upon a subordinate. This, he knew, was also the law of the jungle — but of the human jungle.

I time my last mouthful to coincide with his last while keeping my fork aloft and with the tines pointed in the direction of the meat platter and of that single drumstick. My only competitor for the remaining bit ignores my challenge and continues to chew, holding his own spear nonchalantly. At last he swallows, and I see his eyes focus on the platter that lies before us. As he raises his arm and spear in its direction, I quickly move both of mine towards the same target-fowl. Our tines pierce the flesh simultaneously, and I look hard into his face in happy anticipation of the commencement of our ritual.

In the brief seconds that pass between his silent stare and mine, I see his eyes, like those of the man in the moon, pass rapidly through phases and moods to settle finally on the one I’d seen earlier that afternoon.

I jab at the drumstick so as to prod him on to a challenge. He doesn’t respond. Instead, he slowly withdraws his fork.

Please, Papa, no! I think to myself — and yet, for once I hope he can read my mind — “quickly, at a glance, deeply.” Fight for it! It’s yours. You’re still king. Please, Papa. Fight me for it!

But he simply retires his fork and aligns it noiselessly alongside his knife.

I remember that I then opened my eyes — my cheek still pressed hard against the front window, my father nowhere in sight. The street was dark. It would now have been well past six o’clock. Alice was on the floor playing with the only set of toys she hadn’t yet broken without hope of replacement: her ten fingers. My mother came out of the kitchen and announced dinner. I stood up from the couch and took my place opposite hers — where, I imagined, my father would’ve sat.

My mother lit a single votive candle in the center of the table. She served both Alice and me a hefty portion of chicken nuggets onto which she’d grated a bit of nutmeg. I noticed she’d bought ketchup for the occasion — a holiday treat. For herself, she’d prepared a single chicken breast and a spoonful of rice, no nutmeg.

She drank water. The two of us drank apple juice. We all drank out of water glasses.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” she said as she raised her glass of water and, with her eyes, implored us to do the same.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” we answered in unison as we raised our glasses of apple juice. I looked hard at my mother, but Alice — I noticed out of the corner of my eye — didn’t look up from her plate.

We ate. The only sound in the room was that of three people eating and swallowing — and digesting the absence of a fourth. I understood. Buildings had been undone, and families had come undone with them. The once proud circumstances of a disposable income and of a fine roof over a foursome of heads had changed, and it was only fit that we change with them. Under this newer roof, and with only my mother’s income to keep it attached, goose was no longer on the menu. Nuggets were. But we, at least, had nuggets and a roof. For that, we could be thankful at Thanksgiving — the one, true celebration.

I stood up and raised my glass. I looked first at Mama, then at Alice. “Auf den Abwesenden,” I said. “To the absent ones,” they said in unison — neither of them raising their eyes from the table.

The End