Uncle Judd Gets Jugged — A COVID Thanksgiving
The clang of cutlery does not mask Uncle Judd’s commandeering, incurious voice. “Damn liberals stole another one! Trump was ahead all night, then they switched everything in the morning. Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, hell even Alaska they was sayin’ was for Joe!”
Uncle Judd speaks — angrily proselytizes might be more accurate — with boluses of greasy brown gravy dribbling from the corner of his wide mouth.
“Please, Judson, the maple carrots,” Aunt Trish enjoins him.
She doesn’t bother correcting his reductive play-by-play. Aunt Trish, and the rest of the family, well understands the futility of trying to gainsay Uncle Judd on matters political. Neither God, nor Jesus, nor Minister Henry, nor Saint George Strait, nor the estimable Sean Hannity can convince him that any Republican anywhere, anytime, loses an election fairly.
After dutifully passing the bowl of Aunt Agnes’s popular candied — for maple was not an accurate descriptor of their cheek-quinching bite — carrots, Uncle Judd holds forth: “Libs are cheaters. Always were. Always will be. From pretty-boy Kennedy to F.D.Crrriple, they’ve swindled us time and time again. What…what are you looking at?”
Uncle Judd addressed his question to cousin Jamie, the college-attending second son of his sister-in-law, Aunt Kathy. An awkward, anticipatory silence falls over the ravenous crowd — a major feat for the profuse size of the brood. Eyes, ears, mouths, and visages of all shapes bend toward the makings of an old-fashioned family duel of tongues.
That a delicate liberal like Jamie, with his curly dark hair and tan Warby Parker frames sitting low on his pale nose bridge, shares the Thanksgiving table was one of those great mysteries of consanguinity. Uncle Judd thinks he is pointing his squat index finger at his sulking nephew-in-lege, but his hand, to nobody’s surprise but his own, is gripping a turkey thigh. He had been gnawing at it with his crooked incisors before the visceral urge to say what he thought was on everyone’s mind about the election. The half-eaten ligament, with its tender slags of dark meat dangling like fishing line and bobbers, snags Judd’s attention for only a moment before his dark truculent eyes focus back on Cousin Jamie.
“I’m not looking at anything,” Jamie sheepishly mutters, taking one for familial harmony. A silent sigh of relief exhaled from the table, as forks resume stabbing trenchers filled with essential Thanksgiving victuals. But, just as Judd is lowering his behind triumphantly, and just about to take another shark-teethed crunch of the half-eaten drumstick, an ineluctable spark courses through Jamie.
He bolts upright to face his interlocutor. “Actually you’re wrong, Uncle Judd! You couldn’t be more wrong. Biden won, and you lost!”
The high-pitched outburst succeeds once again in pausing the feast, as everyone from Grandpa Murray to spinster Aunt Elizabeth, far down at her preferred seat at the kid’s table, stops mid-bite to stare at the wonder of Uncle Judd being disputed. Not since the Thanksgiving of 1976, when Judd squared off with great-grandpa Morris, a progressive gaffer who’d cast his ballot for Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party, had such a fractious en famille disputation interrupted Thanksgiving. Cousin Jamie, an aspiring communard whose idea of exhaustive physical labor was lugging his $1,500 MacBook Air and complete Marx and Hegel writings between the library and his upscale dorm, is challenging the stout and thick-headed Judd to verbal fisticuffs. It isn’t David versus Goliath, but Stephen Hawking versus Andre the Rush Limbaugh-loving Giant.
It also isn’t to be.
“Would you two sssshhhhhhh!” barks Aunt Mary Anne, the matron of the home, and overseer of the bounteous feast. She emerges from the kitchen, in a yellowed apron soiled from years of slaving over the range, holding an old mixing bowl in which she is beating a dozen eggs, to single-handedly suck the room dry of oxygen. “Y’all want Old Man Hinnigan to hear? He’ll call the damn cops on us. We’re above the people limit for private gatherings this year. There ain’t no social distancing.”
“Ain’t no such thing as a private gathering if you got commie shock trooper threatening to kick down the door!” Uncle Judd shouts, leering at Cousin Jamie who sits down as quickly as he stood up, and pulls his eyes down like shutters while picking at his specially prepared steamed vegetable medley.
“But why would Old Man Hinnigan call the police on us?” pipes little Sally from the kid’s table.
“Because, honey, he don’t got a family and wants to spoil everyone else’s fun, that’s why,” Mary Anne answers, her right arm never pausing the thwack-thwack-thwack rhythm.
“With his mouth the ungodly man destroys his neighbor. Proverbs 11:9,” says pious Cousin Mary, whose cherubic face flushed once she realized her words were heard by all.
“That’s right, Mary. Meddlers don’t serve nobody but their own rotten jealousy,” Aunt Mary Anne replies before racing back into the kitchen, the swinging door squeaking on its dry pewter hinges.
The budding debate is spiked. Judd lowers his turkey leg. Jamie continued to push his veggies around his plate. Quiet chatter picks up, first among the clucking pocket of gossipy second cousins, then among the squealing children and Aunt Elizabeth, then, finally, between the solemn and stiff uncles Morton and van Buren, both mid-level clerks at competing counting houses. The utensils start their percussive chorus as the menagerie of voices joined in, and the grand symphony of the familial meal moves invertedly from adagio to allegro.
Until the constabulary kapellmeister appears — or rather makes his presence aurally known with a resounding KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK on the front door. A nervous hush once again silences the fracas of jawing, crunching, giggling, and kibitzing.
“Is Santa here earlyyyy?” squeaks little Sally.
“No way, pigtail brains, he’s still making toys with the elves right now,” hisses little Cousin Joey with all the innocent sanctimony of a man of faith.
Aunt Mary Anne emerges from the kitchen with worry twisting her furrowed mein. She glares at the veritable feeding frenzy that is her flesh and blood. “There’s a police car outside. In the driveway, no less, which I kept clear for great-grandpa Makas. Now y’all hush and I’ll try to sort this out. I didn’t cook three turkeys and an entire garden just to have the lot of you jugged up.”
Mary Anne approaches the front door, which is just off the dining room. “Friend of yours,” Uncle Judd whispers to Cousin Jamie, who keeps up a staring contest with the table cloth.
Only the children resume eating. The adults stare anxiously at Aunt Mary Anne opening the door and speaking in clipped, inaudible phrases to the officer. “We better get desert still,” a cousin jokes. Then, without forewarning, the officer walks into the dining room. His florid moon face, half-covered by a disposable surgical mask, betrays a look a surprise at the socially un-distanced gathering: cousins upon cousins, uncles upon uncles, aunts upon aunts, relations upon relations, packed along an impossibly long dinner table, like a mise-en-abyme Rockwell oil.
“This is no good. No good at all,” the officer says. He doffs his worn forage cap, scratches his bald pate, and shifts his weight back and forth on his stocky haunches, internally deliberating on what to do about the Great Barrier Reef of eyes staring anxiously at him.
The conclusion comes to him. He replaces his cap and announces, “One of you will have to go to jail. This dinner — this gathering — exceeds the limit put in place by the governor of our great state, which states, without qualification or exception, that no more than twenty-five persons can gather in a private residence. This is the law. And it shall be respected and abided by.”
“I tried to explain that we’re just having Thanksgiving dinner!” Aunt Mary Anne cries, her face spilling tears. “We’ve always had Thanksgiving and this is family. We don’t care if we get COVID!”
“The law’s the law, ma’am,” the officer recapitulates. “Moreover, I can see there are seniors here who are especially at risk. I dare say this dinner is putting them in grave…”
The officer, serious and professional until this moment, stops. His eyes are fixed on a specific dish. “Is that…is that…green bean casserole with Lay’s on top?”
“It sure is” chimes Uncle Joel down at the far-left end of the table. “My own concoction. And those are sour cream and onion Lay’s, not original. Gives it that little zest.”
“My my…” the officer mutters. His salivary glands started syncopating behind his microfiber mask. “I don’t suppose…,” his voice trails.
Aunt Mary Anne seizes the moment, striking as if a gorgonzola souffle had risen to the perfect height and required immediate extrication from the oven. “Why, Officer O’Donnell, have you eaten? We have more than enough. Grab yourself a plate.” The quick flipping of her dispensation, from morose to obliging, would be diagnosed as sociopathic by an unfamiliar alienist.
“I think I will, I’ve been on this shift for eight-odd hours now and I’m famished.” The uncle closest to the officer offers his seat and grabs another at the far end of the table. Aunt Mary Anne fetches a plate from the kitchen in a flash, and O’Donnell immediately loads it, filling half with the chippy green bean casserole. He removes his mask then sets into his gratis feast.
The meal resumes. Not five minutes into the fray, when all seems resolved and the mood floats up from dour to chipper, Granda Murph barges in through the front door holding a tinfoil-covered bowl.
“HELLO ALL! Happy Thanksgiving!”
“Hi Granda Murph!” a chorus of full mouths rejoins.
“Well doesn’t this all look scrumptious? Aunt Mary Anne, you’ve really outdone yourself this time,” Murph calls out.
Mary Anne debouches from the kitchen, mixing bowl again in hand. “Is that you, Granda Murph? It’s about time you got here!”
“Sorry, honey, you see Grandma Trude was having some trouble with the cucumber salad here. Wait a second…” Grandpa Murph goes back to the front door, yanks it open and shouts, “Hey, Trude, did we use kirby, gherkin, or Persian cucumbers in the salad?”
“Ewwww, cucumbers!” wails one of the urchins at the kid’s table.
Grandpa Murph looks back to Aunt Mary Anne. “She’s parking the old Lincoln now. Has trouble in the driveway behind that dang police car. Didn’t know we had a flatfoot in the family now!”
Officer O’Donnell ears perk up at the comment. Grandpa Murph continues: “Had a heck of a time getting here. I swiped that neighbor of yours’s mailbox trying to park. Knocked the thing clean off the stand. Sorry ‘bout that — these eyes haven’t been the same since Bugs Moran was runnin’ hooch. But it serves him right keeping a letter box so close to the curb. That’s why Grandma Trude is parking in the driveway.”
Aunt Mary Anne looks nervously at Office O’Donnell who starts wiping his mouth with a napkin. “Grandpa Murph, I think maybe you should tell Grandma Trude to…”
“Now wait just a minute, folks,” Office O’Donnell says as he stands up at the table. The din softens again. He redons his mask. “As I said before, this happy gathering has all trimmings of a perfect Thanksgiving. But the powers that be have decided to ruin Thanksgiving this year for your own good. Now, I hate to do this after all of your generosity, but someone here has to be held responsible for this illicit-yet-tasty gathering.”
“That’s all BULLCRAP!” The collective heads of the family and Office O’Donnell swivel to the unexpected source of the resistance: Cousin Jamie, standing upright and glowering. “Locking someone up for a family dinner just to set an example is a bastardization of the law — it’s arbitrary and punitive!
“All law is arbitrary and punitive. Look at the lunkheads who write them!” Office O’Donnell shoots back.
“But you shouldn’t lock up Grandpa Murph just because he’s the easiest target and you need a head on your pike,” Cousin Jamie pleads.
“I don’t suppose you want to go to jail instead, young fella?” Office O’Donnell asks. The suggestion dims the spat of rebelliousness. Cousin Jamie sinks back into his chair without answering.
“Now hold on,” Uncle Judd interjects. He stands to address the officer: “Don’t lock up gramps or our little Che fanboy. If you need to prove the power of law, dumb or not, you can put me in the clink. BUT. I bet you won’t, because it’s downright un-American to lock up a free citizen for eating dinner with his family.”
A chorus of “YEAH”s and “HERE, HERE”s breaks out. The family affirms Uncle Judd in unison, with backslapping and clinking glasses.
“OK then, he’ll be locked up,” Office O’Donnelly says, pointing to Uncle Judd.
A wave of gasps undulates down the table. “Ha! Finally!” Uncle Judd exclaims to everyone’s shock. Judd looks confusedly around at his relations’ gobsmacked faces. “Didn’t he just say Hillary’ll be locked up?”