And When In Late November
Aaron watched the round tower of cranberry sauce cans go higher and higher as he stacked them in a fancy spiral. He could just see Mr. O’Donnell’s face when he saw it. “Just pile ’em up, Aaron. This ain’t art class.” And then Aaron would explain, so carefully, that the cans were arranged in a Fibonacci series, perfectly, all the way from the top to the bottom. From there down it went one, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen, twenty-one. Just like in nature. Just like the spirals of sunflower seeds or rose petals. No, this wasn’t art class. It was advanced mathematics. Aaron imagined Mr. O’Donnell turning that great shade of red and muttering under his breath. And maybe even rolling his eyes toward the ceiling.
Aaron’s mother knew he liked to do things differently. This year, at sixteen, he knew what to have for Thanksgiving. The week before, on Thursday, they would have a dinner of a bowl of rice, to remember all those in the world who had too little to eat. The money they saved would go to feed the poor. Everyone in the family thought it was a good idea. Jennifer, his little sister, seemed so proud of him, so he neglected to say it wasn’t really his. But the main dinner the next week had to be special too.
Aaron had done more research and told his mother the menu.
“No, Mom. They did not have roasted turkey mostly all white meat. Maybe a wild one and other game birds. Smoked venison, corn, dried cranberries, and pumpkin boiled with vinegar for flavor. . . No pretty jellied cranberry sauce, no soft rolls, no sweet pumpkin pie with whipped cream.”
She had relented and agreed to the authentic meal, but Jennifer’s eyes, deep blue and big even for a six year old, clouded over with tears. “Don’t worry sweetheart. I’ll cook us a turkey for Christmas. This will be fun, you’ll see. And Aaron has killed the deer himself.”
“I hate vinegar, Mama,” Jennifer cried. I want some punkin’ pie and with cream. Those old Pilgrims didn’t know nothin’. And that poor old mama deer . . .” She proceeded to wail so much that she was sent to her room.
“Anything, Jennifer, not nothing,” Aaron corrected. People needed to learn things. Not do things the same old way. Be creative. The traditional dinner had its place, of course, but it needed some improvement, he thought. It was illogical to have two meals so much the same, Christmas and Thanksgiving, so close together and so similar. Not smart.
As the cans neared their final, triumphant height, Aaron heard the swoosh of the doors opening. Who could be coming out so late? It was two nights before Thanksgiving, and most women were home baking or simmering green beans on the stove. He did like his mother’s, with slices of bacon added early. But they could wait until Christmas, like everything else. The store was about to close. Even Mr. O’Donnell seemed anxious to get out and on his way for once.
Aaron picked up his duster so he could at least look busy and rounded the corner of aisle 4A. Oh, just Mrs. Vang, he thought. What would she care about Thanksgiving anyway? She often had to come in late because of her job at the nursing home. He’d heard that she was a doctor, really, but she had to work as an aide until she could learn English well enough to take some test. She looked a bit confused tonight and went looking for Mr. O’Donnell. She always spoke to Aaron because he and her son Phong had classes together, but he noticed that she never asked him questions. That honor fell to Mr. O’Donnell.
Tonight she went to him right away, without trying to find anything herself. They talked for a few minutes, Mrs. Vang shaking her head several times and putting her hand on her mouth. Aaron watched as she followed Mr. O’Donnell directly toward him on 4A. They did not acknowledge him as they walked backed to 4B. Mr. O’Donnell handed Mrs. Vang a small package of flour, two pounds, and some shortening. He turned the can over and showed her a recipe. Aaron thought Mr. O’Donnell seemed a bit more patient with her than usual. Perhaps it was his famous Christmas spirit hitting early. Aaron crept around the end-aisle display where the candied yams were piled and tried to listen.
“Must be ten kinds of pie, Miz Vang. There’s apple, cherry, pecan, chocolate cream, coconut cream. The fruit is on 4A, custard mixes on 3B with the gelatins, of course. Some folks like gooseberry ’cause it’s all tart and syrupy. My personal favorite is buttermilk. It’s rich and creamy and my wife puts this little dusting of nutmeg on . . .”
“How make pie with milk?” Mrs. Vang looked puzzled and her brow wrinkled. Her head then moved back and forth. “Milk go out. Slip slosh. No, not milk pie. What pie Phong say?”
“Well, what’s it for? He ‘sposed to bring it for somethin’ special?”
“Yes, oh yes. Very special. Church party. Must bring pie for Thanksgiving. Only right pie will do. Most important.”
“Some folks make apple, some cherry, lots do pecan. Very popular. My wife makes hers with all halves.”
“No, no. Nothing I ever heard of before.”
“Well, ma’am. I’m not sure what else to tell you. There’s lots of pies.” He started counting them on his fingers again. “Cherry, apple, blueberry, lemon, coconut cream, mince. .
“Pumpkin!” Aaron blurted. “At Thanksgiving people have pumpkin pie!” The adults looked at him, startled.
“Sure, some people like pumpkin,” Mr. O’Donnell allowed without looking at Aaron. “This time of year.”
“Yes, yes. Oh, thank you. That is the word. Very important. Must be pumpkin.” Mrs. Vang looked pleased and bowed slightly toward Aaron. “Yes, must be pumpkin.”
Later, as he prepared to leave, Aaron took off his deep green apron and folded it carefully. He slid it into his back pocket and removed a limp, crumpled dollar bill. He removed the top can of cranberry sauce from its spiral and walked to the counter where Mr. O’Donnell prepared the evening’s receipts.
“I expect your mama has plenty of cranberry sauce.”
“Maybe. She said she’d have a different menu this year, to go with my deer, though. I thought we ought to do something authentic. Venison, some birds, boiled corn. They didn’t have milk, the pilgrims, you know? And no sweets like we make them. It was pretty basic, I guess.”
“Changed your mind, Aaron?”
“Well, no, not really. Yes, I guess.”
“”Somethin’ got into you, boy?” Mr. O’Donnell looked at the cranberry sauce as if trying to put it all together.
“It’s what you’d call a symbolic gesture.” Aaron mumbled as enigmatically as he could and headed for the door.
The old white pickup’s door creaked its familiar welcome. He tossed the can onto the passenger side of his old truck, rolled down his window, and drove home with the smell of the fine old American dust making him smile. It was going to be a fine Thanksgiving.