by John Brantingham
In August, Hugh’s son moves to New York for college. In September, the Army deploys his wife somewhere, but where she is going is a government secret, and he doesn’t have clearance. He imagines her in New York taking a guiding hand with her boy as she always has. In October, he moves on to a fantasy about her going back to his hometown, Redlands, California.
He can see her sitting on the sofa with his mother who died thirty years ago when she was about the age his wife is now. The women talk with each other like friends about pets because they love their dogs so fiercely. Then the fantasy shifts so his son is still ten years old, and his mother is meeting the grandson she never knew.
There’s comfort in Hugh’s little daydream at first, but soon he is mourning his mother and his wife and his son, all of them disappeared from his life. In November, his son emails him that he needs to study for finals and won’t be back for Thanksgiving, and Hugh who has never had the talent for making friends is weeping at his computer. He wonders who down at the bank where he works might invite him over if he were to let people in on how alone he has become.
The night before Thanksgiving, he finds himself putting Randall, their German shepherd, in the car, not sure at first where he is heading, and then wishing he’d packed because he realizes he is on his way to Redlands.
Just outside of Bakersfield, he remembers that his mother would want him to wear a suit jacket to Thanksgiving dinner, and he takes a chance to see if Target stocks them. They do, and he buys a bottle of wine although he’s not sure what kind she likes. He gets himself a little bourbon too.
By the time he’s checking into the hotel in town, he’s decided that there were just too many people crammed into his mother’s home, and he had to get a room. His uncles and aunts are there. His grandfather with his tan slippers and blue bathrobe has taken the spare bedroom. Even Hugh’s father has shown up, the man who does not know Hugh exists. For some reason, his father is a man with a mustache, and he wears a red cardigan sweater. There are childhood friends and cousins and his sister who stopped talking to him ten years ago. Hugh sits in the hotel room’s lounge chair with his bourbon on ice in a plastic hotel cup meant to hold mouthwash or a single gulp of water, and he sips and dreams while the television plays some schmaltzy drama on the Hallmark Channel. His grandfather strokes Randall’s head, and the dog groans in pleasure in his sleep.
“Jesus,” his grandfather says, after the two of them are both in their cups. “Could we please change the channel?”
“Mom loves this kind of movie, you know that.”
His grandfather laughs. “Yeah, I guess she does,” and the two of them settle in surrounded by the family, and together they watch the story roll on.