When in Late November

Aaron watched the 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 an art class.” And then Aaron would explain, so carefully, that the cans were arranged in a Fibonacci series, all the way from the top to the bottom. 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.

Aaron’s mother knew he liked to do things differently. This year, at sixteen, he had a plan for Thanksgiving. The week before, they’d 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. Although he’d read about it somewhere, he decided not to tell them it wasn’t his idea. Jennifer, his little sister, seemed so proud of him.

Aaron had done more research and told his mother the menu.

“No, Mom. They didn’t have roasted turkey, mostly all white meat. Maybe a wild one and other game birds. Smoked venison, corn, dried cranberries. No pretty jellied cranberry sauce, no soft rolls. Pumpkin boiled with vinegar for flavor, not sweet pumpkin pie with whipped cream.”

She’d 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.

“I hate vinegar, Mama,” Jennifer cried. I want some punkin’ pie and with cream. Those old Pilgrims didn’t know nothin’.” She proceeded to wail so much that she was sent to her room.

“Anything, Jennifer, not nothing,” Aaron called after her. People needed to learn things. Not do things the same old way. Be creative. The traditional dinner had its place, of course, but it was illogical to have two meals so much the same, Christmas and Thanksgiving.

As the cans neared their final, triumphant height, Aaron heard the swoosh of the doors opening. Who could be coming out so late two nights before Thanksgiving? The store was about to close. Even Mr. O’Donnell seemed anxious to leave.

Aaron picked up his duster so he could at least look busy. Oh, Mrs. Tran. She often had to come in late because of her shift at the nursing home. He’d heard that she was a doctor, really, but she worked as an aide until she could learn English well enough to take some test. She looked a bit worried 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. Tran 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 didn’t acknowledge him as they walked backed to 4B. Mr. O’Donnell handed Mrs. Tran a small package of flour, two pounds, and some shortening. Aaron thought Mr. O’Donnell seemed a bit more patient with her than usual. Perhaps it was his famous Christmas spirit hitting early.

“Must be ten kinds of pie, Miz Tran. There’s apple, cherry, pecan, chocolate cream, coconut cream. The fruit is on 4A, custard mixes on 3B with the gelatins, of course. Some old folks like gooseberry ’cause it’s 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. Tran looked puzzled and her brow wrinkled. “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. Never heard of this 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. “This time of year.”

“Yes, yes. Oh, thank you. That is the word. Very important. Must be pumpkin.” Mrs. Tran 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 went back to the Fibonacci display and took the top can of cranberry sauce, then walked to the counter where Mr. O’Donnell was checking.

“I expect your mama has plenty of cranberry sauce.”

“Not this year. 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.”

“Sounds…like your idea. Changed your mind, Aaron?”

“Well, no, not really. I don’t know. . .Yes, I guess.”

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 explained as he headed for the door.

The old white pickup door creaked its familiar welcome. He tossed the can onto the passenger side, rolled down his window, and headed home. It was going to be a fine Thanksgiving.