It’s not like I was nailing her. Not really. I mean, there was the whole boyfriend Josh thing, right? So yeah, I didn’t nail her. I mean, I wasn’t nailing her at the time, anyway. The story was going to be something like: she’d take me to Daddy’s for T-day, right? I wouldn’t have to talk to the old man, just be there when she told Mommy and Daddy about her dropping the whole med school thing.
That was the plan we’d worked out anyway, me and her, on the drive to Omaha. Like I actually had anything to do with it. Mostly I just drank hits off the Merlot.
Stop it Gerry, she’d say, That’s Thanksgiving wine, okay?
And I’d say, You’re supposed to drink white with poultry anyway. And I was really feeling the need, you know? I never was too good at holidays and shit. This one was extra stressful, with the whole Ashleigh thing on top of it. She wanted to drop out of school, wanted to study photography. Whatever. Maybe that’s the accepted trajectory for a girl too dumb for med school but smarter than the rest of her sorority. I guessed I was related somehow to that trajectory. Wide of the mark, huh?
The sky had cleared before we left Lincoln. The sun thin in the south, shining through ice crystal clouds. I pressed my forehead into the window and watched the dry snow blow across I-80 into corn stubble and duck ponds. The car dropped into the Platte valley: naked trees, on all sides. A silvery pulse of river ran through the ice jam around the bridge pylons. A green fiberglass tangle of boat wreckage peeked out through the jam. Someone’s flatbottom river fisher, I figured, wrapped around the bridge pylons with the ice jam and driftwood and river garbage, six-pack rings and shit.
The whole trip, Ashleigh gave me pointers: Don’t ask about Daddys’s tenure bid. Don’t mention cancer. Smile a little, but don’t screw up your eyebrow like that, it’s creepy. And Jesus, don’t say anything about med school, okay? I sure was glad for that wine.
So her parents—you could’ve predicted this, Pat—lived in Millard, right? This total South Omaha mall house: three car garage, no trees. There was a big letter S on the chimney. S for Swanson, that is. The little robot voice inside my head: Danger! Danger!
Dr. Swanson poured me a bourbon. I leaned into it, one ass cheek on the edge of the tailored couch. The old man was talking about the painting: a genuine Picasso, har har. Four quick strokes of black paint on a piece of newspaper, roughly approximating a cubist face. The signature bigger than the face. Har har. Dr. and Mrs. Swanson’s Martha Stewart living room and their hideous Picasso. I kept telling myself I had volunteered for this freak show. I tried to remember the light on Ashleigh’s shoulderblades as she knelt on the edge of the bed, arms bent backwards unfastening her bra. The way she pushed her hair behind her ear as she tugged on my zipper.
Mostly all I thought about was that bourbon.
Dr. Swanson put his feet onto the coffee table, swirling his bourbon and ice around with a swizzle stick, clink clink. What do you think of our Ashleigh, Gerry? he was saying, She always had an interest in writing, you know. He winked at me, the old rat. Somehow he already had the idea I was some kind of writer; and that’s when I knew the whole rotten thing was a setup. This was related to Ashleigh’s big news, I guessed. I was only half right.
Between oyster stew and the main course, Ashleigh said: Daddy, I’m not seeing Josh anymore. Truth told, she’d quit seeing Josh about Labor Day. She hadn’t exactly been sitting home weeknights, though, if you follow me. I’d speculate she was doing her photography TA, among others. You know who I’m talking about, Pat.
Dr. S looked spent, his eyes darkening under furrowed brows, his ears turned bright red. Dr. S was very big on Josh, apparently. Josh used to swim butterfly for the Huskers but now he’s getting his MBA. Pumpkin..., he was saying, looking at me, looking me over with that wrinkly tan forehead screwed into a knot.
That’s when Mrs. S walked in with that fatty old ham. She set it down on the table, glistening moistly, smelling like all the best parts of a Munson’s abattoir, with pineapples. I fucking hate pig meat. When that ham came floating in from the kitchen with Mrs. S in tow, Dr. S forgot all about that creep Josh and his Pumpkin’s best prospects for an even bigger house in an even newer suburb.
There it was, staring at me, pink and pineapple-ey and awful. What kind of sick family eats ham at Thanksgiving? Mr.—I mean Dr.—S said, Too bad that Merlot’s gone, Gerry, har har, a good bottle to drink with a ham, huh? Guess we’ll make do with the Zin, huh? The bastard winked at me.
Daddy, Ashleigh said, I’m pregnant.
I jerked my head to look at her, dropping the yam-serving-fork onto my plate. The fork flipped off the plate, into my wine glass, breaking it in two. The wine spilled into the cranberry sauce, onto the fancy tablecloth. The stain shot across the table and into Mrs. Swanson’s skinny old lap.
I can’t eat this ham, I said, I’m Jewish.
Dr. Swanson tugged at his right earlobe.
Mrs. S, her hands shaking, picked up the two pieces of the broken wineglass. I could hear the old man breathing, everyone breathing. Ashleigh looked into her lap. Mrs. S said, her voice tilted, inhuman, I’ll get you another glass, Gerry...
If I had to rewrite this, Pat, I’d make it more clear that once I did actually nail old Ashleigh.