“Yo, Jay-cob, stop hoarding the squash.”
He sat transfixed, staring into the gold-hued, butter-and-brown-sugar-laden mound of gourd innards. His sister’s words scarcely registered amidst the clatter of silverware on plates and the collective sound of intense gluttony.
“Mom, can you poke Jacob with your fork? I think he’s buffering.”
Jennifer smiled awkwardly and reached out to shake her son’s forearm. The pristine fork slipped from his nonexistent grasp and clunked onto the draped table.
“Jake, honey…are you okay?”
The young man shook his head and looked up from his side-dish reverie.
“What?” he mouthed.
“Your sister asked you to pass the squash,” Jennifer intoned, nodding incrementally towards Emily, who was now occupied with making grotesque faces at her brother.
The precious cargo was delivered and Emily ladled a disproportionate amount of baked acorn squash onto the hinterland of her already-crowded plate. She craned her neck in an exaggerated manner, took note of her brother’s sparse portions and immediately flashed a devilish grin.
“Isn’t weed supposed to make you hungry?” she mock-whispered to her older sister.
A look of anger flashed across Jacob’s face.
“Yeah, you should know, you annoying bi…”
Like Thor’s hammer, a fork-armed fist came down on the table, causing any cutlery close to the epicenter to jump upon impact. Immediately all eyes were on Michael, the family patriarch.
“Are we still incapable of having a single Thanksgiving dinner where we don’t end up yelling at one another?”
Jacob was immediately moved by the sight of his father. Like a flash, his anger was spent, replaced by the sort of knowing melancholy that was undeniably relatable.
“Sorry,” the young man whispered, making a show out of spearing a few planks of turkey onto his plate while glaring at his sister.
“Sooo, Jacob,” his uncle, Jason, tentatively ventured, “how are things at Cathage Academy?”
“Good,” the young man replied.
“’Good’,” parroted his father, casting a side-eye at Jason. “Forty-five grand in tuition and all he can manage is ‘good’.”
After ladling a tsunami of brown gravy onto his plate, Jacob put down his utensils, linked his fingers together and then fixed his uncle with a plaintive stare.
“I’m sorry. Seems I haven’t answered your question to my father’s satisfaction. Carthage Academy is wonderful. The Political Science program is great. The class sizes are small, and I never feel like just an ass in a seat. My professors are patient, learned educators who seem genuinely interested in guiding my future career choices. All told, five stars out of five…would learn there again.”
Everyone froze mid-chew and was intently staring at him. Immediately, the dinner scene from Troll 2 flashed in his brain and it took all of his willpower not to jump up on his chair and bring this charade to an unconventional, but definitive, halt. Instead, Jacob opted not to piss on hospitality, choosing instead to stifle an outburst of laughter and skewer his father with an intense stare.
“Will that do?” he asked pleasantly.
There were no eyes to meet. His father had already gone back to rooting around on his plate with his fork.
“Better,” he replied, barely audible. “But you didn’t have to be so snotty about it.”
“Are you still thinking about going into journalism?” Jason pursued. By feeding the fire of civil discourse, he hoped to divert attention away from the palpable bad karma, a presence so real it might have been caught in the act of stealing the last of the white meat.
“Probably my best bet,” Jacob replied.
He was suddenly aware of a slight headache coming on, likely triggered by the two (three?) glasses of cheap moscato his mother always to seem to buy in bulk lately. Of course, the conspicuous absence of the elephant not in the room was an equally-feasible culprit.
“It’s pretty crazy,” he idly continued after briefly massaging his temple. “We’ve already had two or three reps from some pretty big media outlets come to the school and guarantee jobs for journalism majors.”
“Wow,” Samantha exclaimed, interdicting a morsel of sausage stuffing that threatened to leap out of her mouth. “God, when I was in college, journalism wasn’t even an option.”
Jacob pulled his plate in close, picked up his utensils and then loaded up a gravy-marinated forkful of turkey and mashed potatoes.
“Yeah, well, as soon as the T.A. got rolled back, there were a lot of new upstarts.”
“The T.A.?,” Jason asked, cocking an eyebrow above the borders of his tortoiseshell glasses.
Jacob paused and chewed diligently, rotating his unburdened fork in front of him in a gesture meant to expedite the process.
“Telecommunications Act,” he finally managed. “Clinton deregulated the media back in 1996. It was supposed to open things up for competition, but all it really did was let corporations buy up a shit-ton of independent newspapers and television stations.”
“Language,” Michael muttered, giving his son a brief Kubrickian stare, which was promptly ignored.
“Oh, yes, I think I read something about that,” Jennifer ventured, cheerily prospecting for nods of approval around the table. None were forthcoming.
“Thirty years ago there used to be over fifty different media companies,” Jacob continued. “But after deregulation, it went down to about six or so.”
“You kids are too young to remember, but back in the 80’s, the news was so simple,” Jennifer observed, looking pleasantly surprised that she now had the floor. “It was just some guy sitting at a desk reading stories with some plain-looking graphic in the background. No spin, no editorializing, just reporting the facts.”
“Yes, I remember that, too,” Jason concurred. “Everyone seemed to be on the same page back then. With the whole ‘truth in media’ movement lately, I think we’re finally getting back to that.”
Jacob nodded vigorously, stalling so he could speak again. His mother hated it when her kids chewed with their mouths full.
“Yeah it was pretty there for the longest time. The corporations snapped up all of the competition and then set up their own 24-hour cable news networks. Between that and social media, it pretty much kicked off the whole ‘customized reality’ era.”
“Haw, good name for it,” Samantha barked, pouring a fresh goblet of wine for herself. Jacob was suitably impressed; his sister was probably two glasses ahead of him by now.
“Seriously, that’s what my profs are calling it now. If you were right-wing, you had Fox News, and then Rush Limbaugh, Parler, Info Wars and QAnon for the real wing-nuts…”
“Jesus Christ!” Michael suddenly blurted. “Are we seriously talking about this? Now, of all times?!?”
Everyone’s heads collectively snapped around to look at him, risking group whiplash. Immediately Jacob felt a powerful stab of regret.
“Sorry, Dad,” he mumbled, and then instinctively cast his gaze downward.
He was immediately lost in the monochromatic landscape that was his dinner, a muddy mish-mash of gravy, turkey and mashed potatoes, punctuated by a clementine-hued asterisk at the edge of the plate. Something from this gastronomical tableau was missing, however, and he spent an inordinate amount of time lost in examination. Even the palpable sensation of his little sister staring a hole in the side of his head failed to dislodge him.
“Looks like the good stuff’s finally kicking in,” Emily whispered to Samantha, who admonished her with a playful slap and non-committal frown of disapproval.
But it was recognition, not chemicals, that finally triggered Jacob’s dulled synapses.
“Cranberry sauce!” he blurted, more audibly than he intended.
He spun his knife in his hand, like Tom Cruise with a whisky bottle in Cocktail, an old movie that his Dad and Granddad used to inexplicably watch every Thanksgiving. For years, its precious one-hundred-and-three minute runtime seemed to douse the fireworks without fail. At least until his grandfather stopped coming to dinner.
That purplish, gelatinous cylinder, ridged from its aluminum prison, quivered half-way across the table as if openly mocking him. Instead of giving his annoying sister the satisfaction of asking for her help, Jacob used his simian-length arms in an attempt to reel a cross-section of the tart prize.
“And, Emily, how’ve you been lately?” Jason queried, casting a quizzical look towards Jacob as he struggled to separate, balance and secure a limp slab of cranberry goodness.
“Alright,” she shrugged, violently mashing her squash to destroy even the slightest hint of particulates.
“’Alright,’” Michael scoffed, shaking his head. “Roof over her head and good food to eat whenever she wants it. A bit better than ‘alright’, I’d say.”
Jacob didn’t see the storm blowing up in Emily’s eyes, nor the expectant grimace that flashed across Sam’s face. He was completely preoccupied with the Herculean task of transporting that trembling disc of cranberry jelly back to his plate.
“Yeah, well, we’re can’t all be like the ‘golden child’ over here,” Emily spat, jabbing the handle of her fork in her brother’s direction.
Jason was starting to have regrets for inadvertently stumbling upon this conversational landmine, but Jacob was completely oblivious. He stuck out his tongue, like a Shaolin monk adopting the forward stance to reinforce stability and concentration before launching into a miraculous display of agility.
“Well, at least he has some focus,” Michael blared, almost relieved by the opportunity to be combative. “He’s planning for his future, and your sister had her pick of good jobs out there now. But what are you doing? Absolutely nothing!”
“Michael, please!” Jennifer said, her look pleading and pained, not angry.
The sight of that jiggling payload precariously balanced on Jacob’s fork suddenly reminded him of his grandfather. Every time his mom cracked a tin of the stuff, he could hear ol’ Bob fly off the handle, regardless of what room, or state, he was in.
‘Jesus Christ, Jenny!’ he could hear the old man bellow, as if he were sitting to his immediate left. ‘All you gotta do is boil some sugar water and throw in a few damned cranberries. Even frozen ones are good. Ten times better than that friggin’ abomination.’
The yelling in his memory was immediately eclipsed by his sister screaming right into his left ear.
“Yeah, well, at least I didn’t sign off on murdering my own father!” she screeched.
With that, Jacob lost his concentration and the glistening, maroon-hued puck slipped off of his silverware, cart-wheeled in mid-air, slapped into the side of the turkey platter and half-landed on his mother’s pristine white tablecloth with a wet “thlup” sound.
Immediately Jacob felt everyone’s stern regard turn on him. He glanced incrementally to the right and saw that his mother had cupped her hands to her mouth in shock, either because of Emily’s declaration or the growing patch of cranberry blood that was rapidly spreading out on her gilded tablecloth. He calmly placed his knife and fork down and slowly stood up.
All eyes watched as Jacob paced around for a bit, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hands and combing his hair back with his fingers. It’s not like this was a revelation. He knew what had happened, but to hear it uttered out loud had a certain crass awfulness to it. It was the equivalent of digging a dead pet out of the back-yard and using it as the table’s centerpiece. Eventually Emily reeled in his gaze, stopping him dead in his tracks. She looked devastated.
“She’s right, you know,” Jacob intoned, gesturing at his younger sister and looking at each of them in turn.
“Jake,” his mother said, exhibiting unearthly patience. “We did everything we could.”
“Really? Did we?” he returned. “Did you ever think that maybe, just maybe, after Nana died, that those people were the only company he had for the better part of the year?”
That’s when his father shot up, the chair groaning in protest as the back of his legs sent it skidding along the hardwood floor.
“He did that to himself, Jacob,” Michael growled. “All of those toxic beliefs he had. It got to the point where I couldn’t even stomach being in the same room with him. My own father.”
“Well, you should have talked to him!” Jacob countered. It was a decent bluff. Inside he felt like he was flailing.
“What, do you think we didn’t try?” Michael shot back, sounding incredulous. “He wouldn’t even listen. His mind was 100% made up. Nothing would budge him…nothing.”
Samantha suddenly cleared her throat and took a deep, bracing gulp of wine.
“Jacob, do you remember last April when he went in for gall bladder surgery?” she ventured.
“He asked me and Em to look after Troubles because he said he ‘couldn’t trust Dad anymore.’ As soon as we got back to his place we blocked every one of those stupid fringe cable channels, cleaned up his Facebook feed and unsubscribed him from God knows how many email chains.”
“Yeah, well, we all know how well that worked, huh?” Jacob snidely observed.
“You’re right, Jacob,” Michael said. “It made him even more pissed him off and paranoid than ever. Every voice mail he left for us, every DM, every email…nothing but ‘snowflakes’, ‘sheeple’ and ‘libtards.’ Whatever conspiracy-du-jour the underground rabble was still crapping out at the time - the dumbest, sickest shit you can possibly imagine about Jewish global conspiracies, cannibal pedophiles, 5G cell phone towers, monitoring chips, fucking lizard people - he’d regurgitate all of it without question.”
Jacob winced as if stung and Michael collapsed back down in his chair, seemingly drained after being forced to evoke all of this again.
“He was a smart, critically-thinking man once,” he mumbled. “But, towards the end, the shit he was peddling made absolutely no sense. For the love of God, if not for the vaccine, we probably wouldn’t all be here today.”
He fell silent, giving his wife an opportunity to pick up the invisible conch.
“We thought all of those new media regulations would clean things up and give him a chance to decompress. And, when that didn’t work, we called the Department of Continuance to get him into the clarity seminars. We hoped that would bring him around, but it just made him more angry and obstinate.”
Jason sheepishly glanced around the room. He looked as if he’d been clubbed in the head with a piece of driftwood.
“You guys never told me it was that bad.”
“It was awful,” Michael resumed. “But the worst thing was getting that call from the DOC. They flat out told me that he was too far gone and they recommended quietus.”
Except for the faint sound of Socks the cat whispering between the chair legs in search of dropped morsels, the room was suddenly very silent.
“So that’s it then,” Emily hissed, lowering her voice incrementally as if suddenly concerned that there might be monitoring devices hidden in the green beans. “We just give up on people now.”
“It was the hardest decision we’ve ever had to make, Em,” Michael responded without a moment’s pause. “We’d just suffered through four years of the worst backslide this country has ever seen, in part, because of people just as deluded and ill-informed as my father was. If forty percent of the population flat-out refuse to accept reality, what can we do?”
“I dunno,” Emily said, sounding venomous. “Maybe help them?”
“They can’t, or won’t, be helped,” he replied. “There’s no way we can progress if half the population is grossly misinformed, willfully ignorant or flat-out regressive. If we have any hope whatsoever of moving forward as a nation, people like that have to go.”
Jacob felt sweat beading on his top lip. He picked up his napkin and dabbed at his face. He suddenly felt very sick and had to sit down.
“Uncle Jay?” he asked, introducing an inaugural sip of water to his body for the first time today.
Jason looked away from an unfocused point somewhere mid-table and perked up.
“You asked me what I wanted to major in,” the young man said, scraping the increasingly-formless burgundy blob off the table and slinging it onto his plate.
“Yes?” his uncle asked, leaning forward expectantly.
“I think I figured it out.”
An endless beat of silence.
“Do tell,” Samantha said, sounding impatient.
“I think I’m gonna go into law.”
This time it was his father’s turn to drop a fork.