Potatoes Au Gratitude
Updated: Dec 22, 2022
By Kristy Gustafson
Lumps. Always lumps. When will my wife finally learn how to make proper mashed potatoes? The butter, loads of it, roasted garlic, minced onion, and the top-secret ingredient of cottage cheese; just how mom used to make them. That freshly shredded parmesan crust turned golden brown in the oven. That’s what all my Thanksgiving dreams have ever been made of. Not this lumpy nightmare, the stench of burnt currently billowing from the kitchen.
I’ve offered to help, plenty. But after the seventeenth time, I’ve finally admitted defeat. Perhaps that’s the reason I feel this particular brand of holiday spirit today. That and the fact that it’s the first Thanksgiving without mom.
A series of booms and crashes now sounds from the kitchen.
“Honey?” I hear, though I’ve already made it to the threshold. The checkered tiles are now littered in a thin layer of flour, and an unfinished turkey is buried beneath shards of glass from one of the cake pans we got as a wedding present two years ago. Something rather unsightly bubbles like lava on the stovetop. The scene looks like a cross between a first snow and a botched poultry shop robbery. Patches of flour strike across my wife’s face like war paint.
“Can you help?” she asks, though we both know she hates having to ask for help.
I wet two fingers with saliva, dab them in the rogue flour on her apron, and create two strikes of war paint beneath my own eyes.
“Want me to order a pizza?”
She’s not amused. So I grab a broom and dustpan from the closet and begin my janitorial duties, sweeping flour into small landmines, dumping the shards of glass into the trash. While I do, I catch her wipe a tear out of the corner of my eye. I rise to my feet, forgetting all of my bitterness from before. I place my hand at the small of her back. She looks like a young girl every time she cries. I just want to hold her, tuck her hair behind her ear, and tell her, life is shit sometimes. But she shakes me off and zips herself up before I get the chance.
“Butter. We need butter. Oh, and cottage cheese. Can you run to the store?”
“You forgot butter?” I ask before I can stop myself. She stares at me with a kind of blankness and I know I’ve said the wrong thing. “Got it,” I say and grab my keys. “Anything else?”
She shakes her head as an unwelcome silence crashes all around us. I walk out the door without another word.
I wonder what my footsteps sound like to her as they retreat over our gravel driveway. The driveway we thought would be filled with running kids by now, tasseled bicycles, and a swing set with monkey bars in the corner. I’m so distracted by the what-would’ve-beens that I don’t see the neighborhood cat curled up by my front tire. My next step lands right on her tail giving us both a fright as I stumble over, clipping a stick and rolling my ankle before I hit the ground.
I roll to my back and take off my shoe. My ankle is already swelling and the hand I failed to catch myself with is spotted in blood. I’m out of view from the kitchen window so I lay my head back, squeeze my eyes shut, and refuse to move. Then I hear it.
“Uh, Jack?” It’s my neighbor Bill. “Everything alright?”
I should spring to my feet and get in my car like nothing has happened, but instead, I lay there and shoot him and his family of four a thumbs up and say, “Happy Thanksgiving.”
They’ve just come from the Turkey Trot in town, and I hate them for it.
When they’ve made it around the corner, I stand up, get in my car and go. I pass right by the grocery store and park in the near-empty lot of Stella’s Bar and Grill, the only bar open for twenty square miles, and I can see why. It reeks of cigarettes, and the carpet that’s trying so hard to be green looks more like tar in this light. A pair of teenagers shoot pool by the window, sipping on sodas, and what I can only imagine to be two regulars are parked at either side of the bar. It’s then that I decide to accept the fact that one of my shoes is still in the driveway back home, so barefoot and limping, I make my way over to the bar and plop right between them.
“Jack?” a woman with a messy bun asks over red-rimmed glasses.
“Do I… know you?”
“Jack Daniels.” She rolls her eyes. She’s not here to make friends and looking around, I can see why.
“Oh, yes please.”
It slams in front of me with a thud a moment later and she disappears into the kitchen.
I begin sipping. The burn isn’t what I remember, but it’s what I need. There’s chuckling next to me then.
“Jack Daniels.” The man repeats, laughing some more. He sips from a metal cup, and I can’t tell what he’s drinking. But his slurred words and hunched posture tell me everything I need to know.
I try to avoid eye contact, but he presses forward.
“So, Jack Daniels, what’s a guy like you doing in here on a day like this? Isn’t it Christmas or some shit?”
“Thanksgiving,” I correct him. And then I realize I’ve said too much. He’s hooked me.
I think of my wife at home, her lumpy potatoes missing their most important ingredients, now thanks to me. I turn my sips into gulps until I’ve drained my cup, then prepare to leave.
“Aren’t you wondering what I’m doing in here?”
“This is where I live,” he says with another scratchy chuckle.
The impatient woman emerges from the kitchen.
“Isn’t that right, Stella?” The man slurs some more. “Isn’t this my place of residence?” The word residence comes out in a garbled mess.
“Keep dreaming, sweetheart. And don’t you dare walk out on your bill this time.” She looks at me and nods. “Another?”
“I’ll join him,” says the man as he slides over one stool, thankfully leaving a chair between us.“What are we drinking to?” he asks, raising his glass in my direction.
“I’m not sure.”
“Good point,” he says, lifting his glass even higher. “What are we not drinking to, is more like it.” He slams it back as if it’s water, then yells in Stella’s direction for another round.
I tip back my own and nearly gag, my first shot since I can remember.
It’s then that I notice the silver wedding ring on the man’s hand, though I know better than to ask where his family is. Before I can look away, he catches me mid-gaze.
“Thinking about your family, Jack Daniels?” he asks.
“I don’t really have a family.”
“You have a wife, don’t you?” He gestures to my own wedding ring. “That’s family, kid. What’s she doing right now anyway?”
I shrug as Stella takes our glasses and fills them up once more. I feign a smile in her direction as she studies me.
“Waiting for me to get home with butter and cottage cheese. It’s our first Thanksgiving just the two of us, and, I don’t know, something feels off. Everything’s lumpy and burnt and––”
“For you…” The interjection comes from Stella. “You men just give up so easily, don’t you?” Though it’s posed as a question, it feels more like a statement.
“It’s not that simple.”
“It’s always that simple, sweetheart.” She’s back in the kitchen now as my own mind thinks of simpler times.
It was probably my favorite night to date, my wife’s and my very first night in the house. No furniture, no power, not even a plan. Just a sea of blankets, sleeping bags, and candles huddled around a pepperoni pizza. I wish it were still that simple now. Then I think, maybe it can be. Or maybe it’s just the whiskey talking.
“Hey Jack Daniels, take it from me and my laundry list of mistakes, okay? Nothing else matters. Tell me, can you imagine life without her?”
I reply without even having to think. “No.”
“Then go fix it.”
The kitchen door swings open then and Stella emerges with a pepperoni pizza. She places it in front of the gentleman down the bar.
“Hey, uh, can I get one of those to go?” I ask. “Actually make it two.”
“That’s some good advice,” I say, turning to the man next to me. “By the way, I never did catch your name.”
He smiles through crooked, yellowed teeth. “It’s Daniel.”
When the pizzas are ready, I leave one along with a one hundred dollar bill in front of my new friend. “Merry Christmas, Daniel.”
I make it back home and slip through the front door as quietly as I can. When my wife walks into the family room, I’ve rearranged the furniture to accommodate the sea of blankets, sleeping bags, and candles. A pepperoni pizza and her favorite bottle of wine sit at the center with two glasses.
She looks defeated but grateful.
Then comes the familiar ding of the oven.
“Have a seat,” I say, handing her a glass. “I’ll take care of the rest.”
I emerge with the only survivor of the day’s cooking conquests, a bowl of lumpy potatoes and two spoons.
“I hear mashed potatoes go great with pizza,” my wife says with a half-hearted laugh. “Maybe this, too.” She lays down a positive pregnancy test on my lap then. Later that night, I think of Daniel, that he couldn’t have been more right. Nothing else matters.