The Feast of None by Rob Cely
Sheila Montford labored alone under her personal burden of Thanksgiving dinner.
This Thanksgiving would be the same as all the others, of this Sheila had no doubt. She would be doing all the work. She would cook all the meals, plan the feast, decorate the house, set the table, and of course, clean up afterwards. It would be Sheila and Sheila alone who did this. Not a finger would be lifted by her family, not even a single offer of help.
You must take up your cross and follow me, Jesus had said. Sheila treasured these words in her heart. We all had crosses to bear in life, all had our burdens to carry. Family, that was Sheila’s burden.
And oh what a burden it was. No one even thanked her for the sweat and tears that she gave to her family. No one knew of the nights of anxious prayer, the days of constant worry, the trembling, the fear, the pleas to the Almighty to forgive their sins and find it in his mercy to give them repentant and good hearts again. How she interceded for them, worked for them, strove to reconcile them to the right way.
So far, her labors were to no avail. Her family remained as intransigent as ever, insisting on their reprobate state as sinners and ingrates. If she needed a reminder she needed look no further than her Thanksgiving feast. Once again, the labor had fallen all on Sheila’s poor shoulders.
This didn’t stop her from making the perfect feast. Did it matter her family was ungrateful? Not at all, she labored for the Lord. And she would make this dinner as perfect as if the Savior himself would be there.
It all began with decor. It was the foundation upon which a fine dinner was built. She had decided on a Scottish theme this year. The table cloth was a lovely beige topped with a MacDonald plaid table runner. The napkins matched the plaid, of course. Highland figurines decorated the table amid bouquets of thistle.
She wished she could have served scotch before the meal. Or at least offered some Drambuie as a digestif. But of course that was impossible on account of her father. His drinking had grown slowly more out of control since her mother had died. Lately, he didn’t seem to give it any restraint at all.
And if drinking wasn’t bad enough, when he got deep down into his cups then he would send himself back in time. He would talk incessantly about Sheila’s mother and when they met. Stories from high school became stories of his old football days at Furman. Then he would break into that awful fight song that no one could stand hearing. Everyone would laugh and egg him on, and her father was much too drunk to see that they were mocking him.
Sheila sighed, thinking of the conversation she had with her Dad that very morning.
“You can’t drink, Dad,” she had laid down the law. “Of course, we all want you here for Thanksgiving, it wouldn’t be the same without you. But really, the drinking has to stop. You can come. But no booze. Promise?”
Her father had chuckled and said, sure. It was an odd conversation, but Sheila knew he still grieved her mother. Still, it was no excuse to embarrass yourself. And who could have a decent Thanksgiving dinner with that drunken racket?
Sheila dismissed the thoughts of her father as she continued to prepare the table, setting the places carefully.. The family silver was a must. It wouldn’t really be a family dinner without it. Of course, this caused another set of issues, but that was the kind of family she lived with.
“Emily dear,” she had told her sister yesterday. “Just to let you know I am putting out grandma’s silver for Thanksgiving. I know you’re still mad that she gave it to me so I didn’t want it to take you by surprise when you saw it laid out. Not that you have any reason to be angry about it. She gave it to me because she trusted me with the silver. What with the way you and your husband lost all that money in the Lakeside investment, I don’t think she could trust you with it. I know you wouldn’t do anything with it. But your husband might just get desperate and we would see the Montford silver hanging up in some smokey pawnshop downtown. You know what Grandma would think of that.”
Her sister laughed at that. Of all things, she laughed. Sheila never understood the girl anyway. Of course grandma gave her the silver. That flighty girl would probably lose it and let it burnish in an attic while she laid out that vulgar set she bought at Pier One. What kind of dinner would that be?
No, Sheila consoled herself, everything had to be perfect. As always the burden of making it perfect fell on her.
Sheila arranged the chairs one last time before heading into the kitchen to bring in the food. The place sets had to be specified before hand. Each plate had a card on it, decorated with a bagpiper and the name of the guest who would sit there. If they chose their own seats no telling what would happen then. That whore her cousin married, for instance. Everyone knew their child probably wasn’t his. Not a trace of red hair in either family, but sure enough, that boy was as red as a summer rash. No telling where she picked that up. Sheila didn’t even want to think about it.
That woman had to be kept away from anyone who she might cause trouble with, Sheila knew. Put her husband on one side and her Aunt Carol on the other. Any single men should go on the opposite end, well away from her claws. That was the only way to make the dinner perfect.
Moving into the kitchen Sheila surveyed the elements of the meal. She had to make sure it was all perfect. The stuffing was her grandmother’s recipe on her father’s side. The rolls were from the grandmother on her mother’s side. The green bean casserole was her own devising. The brown rice consume technique had come from an old family friend. The pecan pie recipe was as old as the Montford name, and every bit as prestigious. It was as it should be.
After placing the food on the table Sheila peeked in at the turkey. Expertly basted so that the skin glistened with a moist, brown coating, the turkey was the coup de grace. Sheila beamed with pride as she placed it at the center of the table and delicately arranged the rosemary along the edges.
Looking around one last time to make sure everything was perfect Sheila took her seat at the head of the table and waited for the guests to arrive. She thought of the looks she would receive when they walked through the door and saw all the clever things she had done. Maybe they would tell her she had put herself through too much trouble, or that she didn’t have to do all she did. Whatever they said, they wouldn’t thank her or help her. That was beyond them.
Sheila checked the clock. It read 7:25. She had five minutes before they arrived. Figuring she had time for a quick drink she poured herself a scotch and soda and took her seat again. Sipping the drink she let her eyes move over the empty seats, thinking of the people who would soon occupy them, wondering how they would try to embarrass themselves or otherwise ruin the evening.
Aunt Carol would laugh like a donkey, she always did. Carol’s husband (second husband) would scratch himself too much and stare at Sheila’s breasts. Her cousin Tony would find some way to mention the time he spent in jail while his brother Rick would lie about how much money he made. Her brother Tom would almost definitely tell inappropriate stories, and his kids would make too much noise. His wife would do nothing about it, just give them her adderol smile with lipstick on her teeth while her kids destroyed Sheila’s house.
You must take up your cross, the Lord had said. This was definitely her cross, and she was determined to bear it patiently.
At 7:45 she poured herself a second scotch, followed by another at 7:55. When no one was there at 8:15 she poured a fourth. At 8:30 she opened the Drambuie.
It wasn’t until 9:15 passed by that Sheila was convinced no one was coming. She looked at the perfect table she had set, every plate exactly centered with the chair, the bouquets of thistle spaced symmetrically apart, each one with the exact same number of flowers, the food filling in the empty places between the decorations. It was perfect. It was something she could take pride in.
Instead, she looked at the bagpiper figurines. They made her feel sorry for herself for some reason. There they were, frozen in time, forever playing the melody that no one would hear. That was her, Sheila decided, a loyal figurine, playing a song no one would hear. She was just as faithful, and just as unappreciated.
Sheila let her head drop to the table as she felt tears welling up. She couldn’t believe they had done this to her again. Her family held such grudges, it was impossible to be with them, it really was. It had been, what? Five years now. Was it that long? Yes, five years. It hadn’t been since that Thanksgiving after her mother had died. No one had accepted her invitation since then. Such bitter people.
Old memories came crashing down on her. Her mother, struggling to breathe, anxious and tearing at the sheets as the cancer ate away at her. Sheila had tried to make her comfortable, but her mother worried still, till the very end. Her husband, her daughter, her sister, her brother. Take care of them, Sheila, she had said. Take care of them.
“You didn’t deserve her!” Sheila had screamed at them that Thanksgiving.
It was just weeks after the funeral, her body not even cold in the ground. But here they were laughing, celebrating, telling funny stories. Her father was drunk and singing love songs to the grandchildren. Her sister sat by the fire playing Scrabble with her husband. Her aunts and uncles poked through her mother’s photo albums, laughing and telling stories as if life were all some grand joke.
Sheila was alone in the kitchen. She was the only one that worked, that cleaned. She was the only one that kept the responsibilities going while the rest of those ingrates partied as if the world was never going to end. Had they not learned anything from her mother?
“You didn’t deserve her!” she screamed at them, throwing her empty scotch glass into the fireplace.
“Look at you! All of you! You drained her and drained her until she died! That’s right, you did it! All of you did it! You killed her! And now you want to kill me!”
Other had words had been said, other things thrown. Sheila didn’t remember them all. All she remembered after her outburst was her father carrying her to the bed and hearing the hushed whispers of her family talking around her. She woke up the next morning to an empty house that had been cleaned and all the Thanksgiving stuff put away.
No one said anything at all about that Thanksgiving. But they still held the grudge. Sheila knew they did, because no one ever came back again. No matter how perfect she tried to make it, they never returned. No matter how she instructed them in the way to have a flawless, event-free Thanksgiving, they didn’t come.
Sheila looked up and reached for the bottle of Drambuie. The feast would go uneaten for yet another year. Tomorrow she would clean. Tonight she would mourn alone. For all of her efforts unrecognized, she would mourn. For the work she put forth that would be unappreciated, she would mourn. For the cross she had to bear, she mourned.
Sheila slipped into the oblivion of her drinks, consoling herself with the certainty that of all her family, she was the only one worthy of such a perfect Thanksgiving dinner.