I have a Christmas present for you, Amy, and for anyone else out there who might be reading this blog, one of Keillor's Lake Wobegon stories. Enjoy.
Christmas Dinner, by Garrison Keillor
It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon. Christmas. The exiles were home. It was pretty quiet, though you could hear the gritting of teeth, and there was a moment of poisoned silence at the Clarence Bunsen home that rang like a fire bell. Before the blessing, as they sat around the table and admired the work in front of them, a still-life Christmas Dinner by Arlene, before they ate the art, their daughter, Donna, in town from San Diego, said, “What a wonderful Christmas!” and her husband Rick, said, “Well, if Democrats had their way, it’d be the last one.” Silence.
Arlene said that if Rick had his way, the turkeys would be having us. Clarence bowed his head. “Dear Lord, the giver of all good things, we thank Thee.” He prayed a long prayer, as a ceasefire. Arlene smiled at Rick: “Have some mashed potatoes.” “Thank you, Mom.” She winced. He is her son-in-law and she doesn’t know why. He is not raising her grandchildren right, he comes to Minnesota and talks too much about the advantages of southern California, he wears silly clothes, he makes fun of Norwegians, he makes fun of women including his own wife, and he says “agenda” in place of “plan” or “idea”—“Did you have a different agenda?” he says. “Let’s get our agenda straight.” “I sense a hidden agenda here.”
He piled his plate with Christmas agenda and chomped a big bite of it. He said, “Mom, this is the best dinner I ever ate. I really mean that.” She smiled her brightest smile, the smile she has used all ther life on people she’d like to slap silly. She’d like to give him a piece of her mind, but she can’t because he has hostages, her grandchildren. So she kills him with kindness. She stuffs him like a turkey. Fresh caramel rolls for breakfast, a pound of bacon and smoked sausage and scrambled eggs, and two hours later pot roast for lunch and big slabs of banana cream pie. He has gained four pounds since Tuesday. Her goal is twelve. All day he sits dazed by food. “Fudge bars, Rick? I made them just for you. Here, I’ll put the plate right beside you, where you can reach them.” “Oh Mom . . .” She’s found the crack in his armor, and it’s his mouth. His Achilles mouth. Her agenda is stuffing him so he becomes weak and pliable and goes into a calorie coma, and she takes the little boy and the girl for walks and tells them about our great presidents, our great Democratic presidents. And did you know they were all Norwegian? Yes, they were, a little bit, on their mother’s side, and that little bit was enough to make them great.
* * *
At the Tolleruds’, Daryl and Marilyn and their six kids went up the hill to the folks’ house. His brothers, Gunnar and Fred, and their families were home for Christmas, and Daryl’s family barely has room for themselves around their little table.
When Daryl went into farming in partnership with his dad in 1968, he was under the impression that someday soon he and Marilyn would move into the big house and the folks would take the little one, the one that Grandpa Tollerud built when he came from Norway. But nothing has been said about this for a long time. The little house would be fine for an older couple, who tend to sit quietly and not tear around chasing each other. But the old folks sit quietly in the big house, with four empty bedrooms upstairs. “We really need a larger house,” Daryl says. “Well,” his dad says, “Soon as we get the pig barn build, we’ll see about adding on to it.”
Up at the folks’ house, Christmas is the exact same as it’s been forever. You close your eyes and it could be any time. You might open them and you’d be six years old, not forty-two. The dialogue is the same. His mother complains about leaving the turkey in the oven too long and it being too dry, and every year it is perfect. The men sit in the living room, gently clearing their throats, and when it’s time, his dad stands up and says, “Well, I’m going to go see to the horse.”
They haven’t kept a horse for years. “You boys going to come help me see to the horse?” he says, and they troop out to the barn and he reaches down behind a horse collar and pulls out the bottle of Jim Beam. They pass it around and have a pull, and stand and say some things, and pass it around again, and the old man takes a nail and marks the new level and puts it back, and they troop indoors. Daryl wishes the could just have a drink in the living room, but to his old man there’s a difference. He is not the sort of man who keeps booze in his house. The barn doesn’t count.
Gunnar was on the wagon again, the third or fourth time. He is the oldest boy and the smartest, he should’ve gone on and become somebody but drink has cursed him since he was young. He’d go in the Sidetrack and have a bump with his buddies but then he got belligerent and tried to pick fights, which nobody wanted because he was so strong and quick, so they took care of him by giving him more to drink. He’d say, “I’m not going to take that from you. You son of a bitch, you sat down in my chair.” They’d say, “Gunnar, I bet you can’t drink a whole glass of whiskey. Two dollars says you can’t.”
“Put it down where I can see it,” said Gunnar, and Wally filled up the glass. A beer glass. And Gunnar drank it, and as he drank he forgot about the chair, the two dollars, where he was or why or who. He finished the glass, and they carried him out the back so he could be sick there, and they scraped him up and drove him home. This happened over and over. The Gunnar skipped the part in the middle, the argument and the challenge, and went straight from the first drink to the last on his own steam.
Gunnar drives a semi and when he’s drinking he takes a bottle in the cab to help keep him awake. He quit drinking this time after his last crash, driving a tank truck that jackknifed in broad daylight in the middle of Kansas and overturned in the ditch. The tank had a hole knocked in it and when Gunnar climbed out of the cab he was up to his hips in scrambled-egg mix, a thick yellowish froth. He slipped and went under and thought he was going to drown in egg but struggled to shore and hasn’t had a drink for three months.
Daryl has had some close calls himself the past couple of months. He doesn’t drink except in his dad’s barn, seeing to the horse, but several times he’d been in his old Ford about to pull onto a highway and looked left and turned right and suddenly, HONK, a car swerves and jams on its brakes. Or he looks in the side mirror, turns into the left lane, HONK, a car right there! Once he ran a red light. What’s the matter with him? Is he losing his peripheral vision? Monday he was out teaching Eric to drive and he heard brakes screech, he’d gone through a stop sign. Tuesday he went to ask Dr. DeHaven about it, who talked about changes to the brain that come with aging, a loss of reflex, a diminution of one’s facultles. “This is normal.” He said. “Ordinarily we don’t see it so much in a person of forty-two, but it isn’t anything to worry about. Just relax and slow down and take things at your own speed.”
Daryl was depressed for two days. Tuesday night he left a door open in the pig barn, and twelve got out. Recess for pigs. It took him and Eric two hours to get them back in class, but Daryl felt fast on his feet and felt the reflexes working, bang, bang, bang. Wednesday afternoon, not thinking, he walked in the kitchen and opened the fridge and got out a bowl that was full of glop and dumped it in the garbage, and just as the force of gravity was pulling it down he thought, “That’s mincemeat pie filling.”
How could he do such a dumb thing? Just wasn’t thinking. Marilyn was gone to the farm wives’ luncheon. It was two o’clock. He had never made mincemeat filling before, but how hard could it be to follow a recipe? Fairly hard, he discovered. Mincing the meat. Beef and venison. Mincing the apples. And then the recipe called for brandy. No brandy anywhere that he could find—where did she keep the stuff? Did she have a secret stash in the laundry room? Finally he took an empty mustard jar in his pocket and snuck up the hill to the barn. He crawled around back through the corn, dashed for the door, got the bottle, filled the jar, made a careful mark with the nail. Heard a door slam. Tore out back. Crawled through the corn to the end of the field, stood up, walked down to the house, whistling. Into the kitchen. Tossed in the whiskey. Mixed it, cooked it up, popped it in the fridge as the car rolled up the driveway.
Thursday, as they came to dessert, Daryl’s heart was pounding. He chose pumpkin. Everyone else chose mincemeat, except Gunnar, who chose pumpkin too. The pie was sliced and served and the first forkfuls of mincemeat came to their mouths, “Mmmmmmm,” said his mother. “Oh, Marilyn.” His dad said, “Oh my, now that’s mincemeat.” “It sure is,” said Fred. “How do you make it, Marilyn?” “Oh, it’s just from a recipe,” she said. “Do you use brandy in it?” “Oh no,” she said. “You don’t really need brandy. I just leave the brandy out.” “Well, it’s the best I ever ate,” said Fred’s wife. “You ought to have some of this, Daryl.” “No,” Daryl said. “I got my pumpkin here. I don’t care for mincemeat. Keeps me awake at night. I can’t take so much rich food anymore. I’m getting old, I guess.”