2017-2018 FINALIST, COG PAGE TO SCREEN AWARDS
Kids Eat Free
It did not feel like Christmas Eve to Alex in Clarksburg, West Virginia, despite the garland hanging from the Holiday Inn counter and the cottony snow on top of it. They were not at her grandmother’s in Ohio. Nor were they at home in Pittsburgh with their Christmas tree. They were on their way to Knoxville, Tennessee, where her father’s parents lived. Alex’s mother wanted nothing to do with Alex’s father, but she’d been shocked to learn no one was visiting his parents for Christmas.
“Six kids and no one’s coming?” she’d exclaimed to Alex. And Alex had known they would be going: because her mother felt bad. Because Alex rarely saw these grandparents now. Because it was Christmas. “Because I’m always picking up the slack for your father,” her mother said. This was called codependency. Her father, meanwhile, was skiing in Vermont with his girlfriend. He and her mother were not yet divorced, but on December 24th, 1992 they had been separated for eight months and twenty-one days. Alex counted from the night her mother ripped the phone out of the wall after telling her father not to bother coming home.
Alex was in ninth grade; her mother taught seventh. They’d left as soon as school was out the day before, only to sit in traffic leaving Pittsburgh and drive right into freezing rain. Clarksburg was barely over the Pennsylvania line. “I think maybe we should stop for the night,” her mother said, and Alex agreed, preferring not to die. Once inside, her mother whipped out the credit card she’d already sworn off for the new year. “It’s not January 1st yet!”
Now, Christmas Eve morning, the restaurant host seemed eager to seat his only customers. He pulled out their chairs and set open menus in their hands, so as not to crush the dark green pleated napkins. Then he wished them happy holidays, touching the sprig of holly in his breast pocket and nodding so deeply it was practically a bow. Alex suspected he found her mother attractive, in her black pants, black ribbed turtleneck, and red winter vest, her strawberry blond hair fastened at the nape of her neck. It made Alex wary. She was against her mother having a boyfriend, who could turn into a stepfather.
A buxom waitress with blond highlights came smiling to their table.
“Merry Christmas! Buffet for you ladies?”
Alex’s mother declined food but turned her mug over for coffee. Alex ordered pancakes, no butter. No sausage, bacon, berries, or whipped cream either.
“This one’s easy to please,” the waitress said, collecting the menus.
“Kids eat free, right?” Alex’s mother asked. Alex concentrated on rubbing her thumbnail along the edge of the table.
“Well, yes, under thirteen.”
“That’s with an adult meal.”
“That’s not what it says.”
“Mom, I can just get something on the road.”
“I’ll pay for it,” her mother said. “But it’s false advertising.”
The waitress’s smile thinned. “I’ll give it to ya. You want some orange juice?” she asked Alex.
Alex watched her give the swinging door to the kitchen a good shove, her streaked blond head and substantial backside disappearing.
Her mother examined her nails. She had recently begun “treating herself” to manicures as a reward for not biting them, and they were now a burnished red-orange.
The waitress returned shortly with a plate of dark, crusty pancakes and no smile.
“That was fast,” her mother said.
“Can I get you anything else?” the waitress asked Alex.
Alex shook her head. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, honey.” With that, she laid a check on the table and disappeared.
“You didn’t have to order the cheapest thing on the menu,” her mother said. “We paid for the room.”
Alex poured a small puddle of syrup on her plate. The pancakes tasted burnt.
“And a little butter is not going to hurt you. I wish you wouldn’t worry about your weight. You’re only fourteen.”
“I don’t think you should say that too loudly.”
Her mother brought one of her manicured nails to her lips but stopped herself in time. Then she got out her tattered Melody Beattie book, Codependent No More. As far as Alex could tell, codependency was when you did something nice for someone but it made you miserable. And you couldn’t stop doing nice things that made you miserable because it was a condition. It was like Cinderella helping her stepsisters get ready for the ball and having no time to prepare herself. Cinderella was codependent.
Her mother was not going to be codependent in 1993. It was a resolution, along with not using the credit card.
They left a five for the coffee and tip and got back in the car. The rain had ceased overnight, and the highway was almost dry. Now they wound their way through the West Virginia hills, descending into valleys with trucks lumbering past and passing these same tractor-trailers as they climbed. The branches of the thick woods brushed the sky, like an immense broom with stiff bristles. But if Alex looked at an individual tree, separated from the crowd, it seemed to her ecstatically graceful – a dancer frozen in the midst of a worshipful routine.
On certain hilltops overlooking the highway, the trees had been cleared and a trio of crosses erected. The third time Alex saw this, she pointed it out to her mother.
“I know,” she said. “Descending into the Bible Belt.”
Alex’s mother had been on the outs with God since her father left; they hadn’t even gone to Mass in Advent, and Alex had missed seeing the purple and pink candles burning down week by week – that purple one they lit the first week getting so low it threatened to ignite the greenery by the fourth. Had an Advent wreath ever caught on fire? They’d go to Christmas Mass, surely. All of the grandparents were Catholic.
“Why don’t you read some of Gone With the Wind?” her mother said.
Alex took out the book, a hardback edition her mother had given her for her fourteenth birthday, inscribed: A beloved book for my beloved daughter! It was her mother’s favorite of all time – so was the movie.
“Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable,” she said rapturously. “A wonderful love story, set against the backdrop of the Civil War.”
But Alex found it tiresome – and Scarlett O’Hara annoying. She was like those girls in school whose power required that you fawn over them or stay out of their way. Alex chose the latter and was mostly ignored. But she had fantasies of humiliating such people, of making one of the boys they claimed as their own fall in love with her. Margaret Mitchell must have had similar fantasies because Scarlett was denied her great love, Ashley Wilkes. He married quiet, mousy, saintly Melanie Hamilton.
Only now poor Melanie was in terrible pain, giving birth with only a distraught Scarlett and an inept slave girl present, while Atlanta burned around them.
“I know!” her mother said suddenly. “We can go to Atlanta! After Christmas.”
“Maybe they have a Gone With the Wind tour.” Alex had not meant this to sound as snide as it came out.
But all her mother said was, “What do you want to do? I’m open to anything.”
Alex looked out the window at the gray above and brown below. It had already snowed in Ohio. This they knew from her grandmother, when they’d called to say they were not coming. Alex wanted to wake up there on Christmas morning to the sound of the wind gusting and howling over the flat fields, creating drifts. She would listen to this from the warm bed she shared with her mother. Then, after church, she would go sledding with her cousins, something she was not yet too old to do.
“We won’t have snow,” she said.
“We can try the Smoky Mountains.”
“What will we do there?”
“I don’t know. Maybe go for a hike, if it’s not too cold.”
“Do they have skiing in the Smokies?”
Her mother’s face tightened. “If you wanted to go skiing – ”
“Nevermind,” Alex said. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to go skiing.”
“Alex – ”
“It just slipped out. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
This was true; she had briefly forgotten her father, the ever-traveling electrical engineer, and Nancy, whom he’d met doing a power quality study for a collection of ski resorts. Her mother frequently pointed out that her life, as a farm kid, had never included skiing.
They entered Virginia, and the ridges and valleys became rolling fields. The grass here died in winter, but not all of it. Green grass grew too, in strange patterns amidst the large bleached patches. What was up with that? Alex wondered.
She wondered, too, what would be going on at her grandparents’. Would her grandmother be in the midst of cooking and baking as her Ohio grandmother always was? They were very different. Her mother’s mother was a short plump woman, jovial and energetic, though she could also be sharp. She usually had flour on her hands and a dishcloth over her shoulder. At night she rolled her white hair in old netted curlers from a shoebox and held them in place with tiny pink plastic pins. Her father’s mother, by contrast, was tall, decidedly thinner, and more languid. When it was time to make dinner, she put on a dark green apron that complimented her rich, black Italian hair (never in curlers). Any scolding she did was private and strained. At these times, she was a little like a guidance counselor.
Her father’s father had a PhD in chemistry and interrogated Alex about school. He always remarked that she and her mother looked either healthy or too thin. Healthy sounded like a compliment, but if her grandfather pronounced her mother healthy, she would ask Alex, later in the bedroom, if she was getting fat, specifically if her stomach was sticking out. (It did, but Alex never said so.) Alex too, if deemed healthy, would have to stand sideways in front of the mirror, assessing. She fantasized about Scarlett O’Hara’s waist: the smallest in three counties.
In Ohio, there was no longer a grandfather, as her mother’s father had died two years before, passing first into living ghostdom with his craggy face and crooked gait. Alex’s chief memory of him was going to check the chicken coop for eggs. He alone could reach underneath the hens without getting pecked. (“He was always gentle with the animals,” her mother said.) Then he put the egg, warm, into Alex’s hand, and paid her a dollar for finding it. She took the egg to her grandmother, who broke it into the sweet roll dough and fed it to the family.
Welcome to the Volunteer State! the sign at the Tennessee border said. Why the Volunteer State? Was everyone here so wonderful? All for one and one for all? Alex’s grandfather had worked all over the country as a chemist, and Knoxville had been the last place before he retired. So that’s where they’d stayed. Alex wished they’d gone to Florida like so many other old people. Her mother would not have driven to Florida. They might have flown, gone to Disney World, the beach. But no – that would have meant the credit card.
Tennessee was hillier than Ohio and warmer and brighter. No way would there be snow. They stopped for gas and bought drinks from a hyper-friendly cashier.
“Could you understand her?” Alex’s mother asked.
“Maybe not every word.” Alex savored the woman’s friendly lilt. Y’all on the road for Christmas by yourselves? Her grandparents didn’t talk like this because they weren’t from the south. Her grandmother was from New Jersey, her grandfather New Hampshire. Alex considered herself a Pittsburgher, which was famous for yinz, though Alex didn’t know anyone who said that, and therefore a Pennsylvanian, but her family wasn’t from there either. It was just where her dad got a job. She didn’t understand states. Why was the country divided up like this? Because it got put together piece by piece, she thought, and at some point the people in a state had actually had something in common – had come from the same place or believed the same things, like William Penn’s Quakers. But that was all way in the past. Alex didn’t have anything in common with other Pennsylvanians now, and she and her mother could just as easily move to Tennessee like her grandparents. Except they might not be able to understand people.
The first sign for Knoxville indicated they had 121 miles to go: two hours. Alex sighed.
“What’s the matter?” her mother asked.
“I wanted to go to Ohio.” She couldn’t help it. The desire had swollen to a painful knot inside her.
“I wanted to lie on the couch with a book and the Christmas tree lights.”
“I know. You’ve said it about sixty times.”
Her mother gripped the steering wheel. “Fine,” she said. “Let’s turn around. They’re not even my grandparents.”
“Mom – ”
“You’re behaving like a little bitch.”
“I’m sorry – ”
“I try to do the right thing and make everyone happy – you more than anyone. More than anyone.”
Her mother took a deep breath, and Alex took a shallow shaky one. She was afraid to make any noise. The peevishness had left her, replaced by a sick weight in her stomach. After awhile, the tension subsided enough for her to turn on the radio. But they were between cities, and she could find only country music and preaching. Sometimes her father listened to country music, and he liked to make fun of radio sermons. Alex switched it off. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“Let’s make this a fun trip, okay? We can choose to have a good time.”
This was a new mantra of her mother’s: Choose joy! Alex suppressed a groan.
All the buildings in her grandparents’ condo complex had the same beige siding, the same small patio with a high fence, and the same thin strip of dead grass.
Alex’s grandmother answered the door with a strained smile. “Carrie, you made it.”
“Just barely,” her mother said.
Behind her, Alex’s grandfather’s voice boomed. “Let them in, Mother.”
Her grandmother moved aside, and Alex saw her father. He was wearing a red sweater, which glared beneath the blank gravity of his face.
“I thought you were in Vermont,” her mother said.
“I just got here. It was a last minute decision – a surprise.”
"Well, should I turn around and go home?”
“Oh no,” her grandmother said. “Pop and I would like to put you up at the Hampton.”
“I hope they serve Christmas dinner there.” Alex’s mother glared at her father, who stared at the floor.
“You’ll have dinner here,” Grandpop declared in his booming voice.
They heard a small thud from above, and all raised their eyes to the ceiling. Alex’s father cleared his throat. “Nancy would like to meet Alex.”
Her mother snorted. “I’ll be in the car.”
Alex flinched as the door banged behind her. Her mother wouldn’t leave, would she? Only her grandfather met her eyes, and he had that look of assessment she knew well. Her grandparents did not have a Christmas tree. On the mantle above the glassed in fireplace her grandmother had arranged some garland and a nativity set that Alex’s mother had painted, slowly and arduously over more than a year. She’d been proud of that gift and wrapped each piece of it with extreme care. Baby Jesus and his retinue had all arrived intact.
The guest bedroom had a sloping ceiling and twin beds, tightly made, on which Alex and Nancy sat. Alex’s father loitered at the foot of Nancy’s bed.
“I hope we haven’t spoiled anything,” Nancy said. She had long, bright orange curls, a pale complexion, and green eyes, like Scarlett’s. She gave Alex a sugary smile that showed the creases around her eyes, caked with makeup. Alex glanced down and saw that her nails were shapely and painted rose, but the backs of her hands were veined, the knuckles knobby. She kept talking. “I was sick of Vermont. Our flight is the 26th, but we could change it. No one flies on Christmas. We’re going to Florida for a little sun.”
“Cool,” Alex said. “Where?”
“St. Augustine.” Nancy smiled at her father, and Alex realized she’d bought his sweater. Her father didn’t wear red.
“What are you guys going to do here?” her father asked.
“I don’t know. Sled on all this dead grass?”
“It’s Bermuda grass,” Nancy said. “It hibernates in winter.”
How did she know that? She was from Vermont. Hibernating grass? “Awesome,” Alex said.
Nancy twirled a finger in her hair. Then her hand dropped to her thigh. She was wearing tight jeans. Healthy? Or too thin?
“I guess I should go back downstairs,” Alex said.
“Can’t we take you out for lunch or something?” Nancy asked. She looked again at Alex’s father, who looked at Alex.
“I have to ask Mom,” Alex said.
“If it’s a problem, you can just go with your dad,” Nancy suggested. “You shouldn’t come all this way and not spend some time together.”
If it’s a problem – meaning Nancy herself? The affair? They were sleeping together. The thought was off limits. Alex and her father looked at each other. Did he want to spend time with her? She didn’t know what she would say to him if they went out to lunch, and her mother would be waiting here, fuming. Maybe she and Nancy could have a chat.
“I’ll go down and see what she wants to do,” Alex’s father finally said – and left.
Nancy looked at Alex, raising her brows. “Your father’s very proud of you.”
Alex accepted this as her due. She got good grades. She ran track. But what, really, was there to be proud of? And what was she supposed to say?
“Got a boyfriend?” Nancy asked now, with a sly grin.
“No,” Alex said. That was an easy one.
“Anyone you like?” she persisted.
Alex resented the intrusion. But then she never got to talk about this stuff. Her mother didn’t ask. “No one who’ll ask me out,” she said.
“How do you know?”
Alex sighed. How could she explain? It wasn’t just shyness. She knew nothing about these boys; they might as well be aliens. She didn’t really want to know them. She didn’t want to want anything from them.
“You’re adorable,” Nancy said. “They’re noticing, believe me.”
“Thanks.” If Alex saw herself in a mirror fifty times a week, forty-nine out of those fifty times, she did not find herself adorable. The braces were gone, but she kept breaking out around her mouth. Her hair was straight and brown; it never stayed brushed, and she didn’t know how to style it. Only occasionally did everything clear up and come together: good hair day, good skin day, and some elusive extra thing. Did they notice then?
“You just have to hang out where they are and it’ll happen,” Nancy said.
Did classes count? Track meets? Should she try the boys’ locker room?
Her father returned. “She went out to the car. I told her we’d take the hotel.”
“I need a sauna anyway,” Nancy said with a laugh.
“What about lunch?” Alex asked, standing up.
“She said it’s your call.”
They didn’t dare take her up on that.
“Hey,” her father said. “Give me a hug.”
The sweater scratched her cheek. Alex could feel an ache starting in her eyes. “I love you,” she mumbled. She was embarrassed with Nancy there, but she had to say it every time they parted, in case.
Her mother was resting her head on the steering wheel, eyes closed. Alex shut the car door and stared straight ahead.
“Did you know about this?” her mother asked.
“He tells you what he’s doing, doesn’t he?”
“Not this time.”
“Where are they going next?”
“Oh, Florida. Stay in a five star hotel. Relax on the beach.”
“Can we go now?”
“Why don’t you stay? Go with them.”
“Nancy wouldn’t like that.”
“I’m sure you guys will be great pals.”
“I want to be with you.” This didn’t sound convincing, Alex knew.
“Is she pretty?” her mother asked.
“What does she look like?”
“She has orange hair, curly.” Her mother would be jealous of the nails.
“I bet she’s gorgeous,” her mother said. “Gorgeous and perfect.”
Alex’s nose itched, and she wondered if this was the beginning of a cold. “I wish we’d gone to Ohio,” she said.
“Well, we didn’t. We came here.” Her mother started the car.
“You can choose joy,” Alex muttered.
“Get out,” her mother snapped.
“Are we staying?”
“You’re staying. You can spend Christmas here. He’s your father. They’re your grandparents. She’s your future stepmother.”
“Mom – ”
“Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. I know I’m the bitch.”
“Go on, Alex. You don’t want to drive another eight hours with me.”
“How will I get home?”
“Your father has to come back sometime. You’ll have fun.”
“I don’t want – ”
“Goddamnit, just get out.”
In the silence that followed, Alex climbed out with her backpack and took her suitcase from the back seat. She watched her mother drive away and stood staring at her grandparents’ patio. They had drawn a gray plastic tarp over the furniture, and water had pooled in the creases. No sunlight reached into the yard. Alex stepped onto the hibernating grass. She could smell the dank earth, which squelched beneath her feet. A chill started in her arms and spread all through her body. She hated Tennessee.
Then her mother returned and rolled down the passenger side window. “Did they leave you out here?”
“I didn’t go in.”
This was the extent of their conversation for the first three hours of the trip home, until they stopped at an Arby’s for roast beef sandwiches and Jamocha shakes.
“We’ll get a turkey,” her mother said. “I’ll make any dessert you want. Maybe we can even go to a hotel for New Year’s. Just splurge.”
“The credit card. That’s what they’re for.”
When they got back in the car, Alex took out Gone With the Wind and a flashlight and read it aloud without listening to what she was saying. Her mother was biting her nails. The polish must taste terrible.
At a chapter break, her mother said from the darkness, “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry too.”
They drove and drove until their tailbones hurt. At long last they began to see signs for Pittsburgh. Alex’s throat was sore from reading, and she had the sour combination of many tastes in her mouth. She thought of the restaurant host and his sprig of holly and Nancy’s fiery orange ringlets. Did her father sing her country music songs in an exaggerated twang? There would be no bedroom discussions about what healthy meant. No Atlanta or Smoky Mountains. It was only four hours to Ohio, but her mother would be tired. She had earned her Christmas nap on the couch with Melody Beattie and the lights from the tree. (“This tree represents a valiant effort,” her mother had said, when they finally got it in the stand. It leaned only slightly.) They could rent Gone With the Wind. Then for New Year’s, they could stay in a hotel, and the next morning – January 1st – Alex could pretend she was twelve again and save them a little money.