The Writers Bureau Short Story Competition 2019
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The Winner of the Short Story Competition 2021

Bob Thurber

1st Prize – Bob Thurber:

Thanksgiving 2010

Wednesday night I’m on the couch, slightly sloshed on two bottles of Robitussin, head throbbing, ears tingling. I’m buzzing, but it’s a miserable high, and sadly the only one I’m going to get now that Mom keeps a bike lock on the liquor cabinet. Supporting my head on the armrest, one eye closed, I’m pretending to watch basketball with Walter, whom Mom introduced as her “new live-in friend.” I hate watching any sport on TV except tennis, which I used to play. But, I’ve promised Mom I’ll be civil with Walter while I’m home, even though the man resembles a less-than-funny version of Don Rickles, whom, creepily and ironically, just happens to be the comedian my father claims is the funniest man alive.

Officially I’m home for just a few days, though lately I’ve been seriously thinking about throwing in the towel, dropping my classes, calling it quits because, let’s face it, I’m clearly not hacking it as an Ivy Leaguer.

Walter, whom Mom brags is a self-made millionaire, owns a plumbing supply warehouse and I’m wondering if maybe he could give me a job. Even part-time would be fine. I’m trying to work up enough saliva in my mouth to unstick my tongue long enough to ask him if business has been good when out of nowhere Mom proposes I invite a guest to tomorrow’s dinner.

She relays this odd, eleventh-hour suggestion from her kitchen, where, in her pink robe, pink slippers, and a full-length apron, she is prepping enough food for a battalion.

The thick scent of pumpkin and cinnamon combined with high oven heat and steaming pots has just about lulled me to sleep, so I yawn and say, "Translation please. What are you talking about?"

A blender starts up, whirling louder than a lawnmower, then abruptly stops. "You should invite someone, that’s all," my mother says.

Walter, who has a substantial wager riding on the game, fingers the remote. The TV pops to mute. I watch him pinch lint from the cuffed sleeve of his black pajamas.

"Bring someone who likes to eat,” my mother says. “I don’t care who."

Walter, his eyes on the TV, shifts in his chair. "She means 'Whom'," he says.

He’s grinning with his mouth open -- not at me, but at the lopsided score. His team is winning. When he turns to direct his laser-whitened teeth at me, I crane my neck to see over the back of the couch. "Give me a for instance, Mom. Who should I call up the night before Thanksgiving and invite?"

In her butter-and-sugar voice, sounding further away than she is, she replies, "Anyone you want, dear. Bring someone with a healthy appetite."

"Alright," I say to Walter, "What's the deal? What is she up to now?"

Mom appears in the archway, three neat rows of pink curlers rolled tight against her head, a wooden spoon in her hand. The front of her apron reads “I’M THE COOK, NOT YOUR MAID, SO DON’T ASK!”

"Why are you whispering,” she says. “Don't ask him. What does he know."

Walter focuses intensely on his slipper socks.

"It's simple math," my mother says, glaring at Walter. "Just three of us sitting down to share such a feast as I am preparing would be a mortal sin."

She stresses "feast" so delicately and hisses "sin" so hard I can feel the air vibrate.

Walter bends over and scratches at a spot of carpet.

"Invite who?" I say. "Who around here doesn't already have plans for tomorrow?"

Walter looks up. "Don't you hate when she does this?"

"Quiet you! Nobody asked you anything," she says.

Walter squeezes his eyes shut and grimaces like he's been struck by a hammer:

"A dinner guest," my mother says. "Another person to share our holiday. That's all. End of story. Don't make a federal case out of it. It doesn’t matter to me who you bring."

"So what you’re saying, to be clear, is I can invite anybody at all?”

Walter cranks up the power on his face of pain.

"I'm sure you have a long list of girls to choose from," my mother says. "Put all their names in a hat and just pick one."

"Oh, you want me to bring a girl? Is that what you mean, Mom?"

Walter, who is essentially bald except for a horseshoe of dyed black curls, pretend-pulls at hair that isn’t there.

"She wants you to settle down and get married. Don't you see? She worries about you all alone at that big college. We talk. She tells me things -- all her hope in life is in you. For me she won't say what she wants."

While he's speaking, my mother gives him a steady dose of dagger eyes until he folds back into his fat chair.

"I better shut my mouth now," he says.

I don't care two hoots about Walter. I don't care that he has a little money in the bank or that my mother acts like he and she are already married. I don't care that Walter already has a wife. I say, "Bring anybody I want? Anybody? You're serious? You really mean that?"

"We'll be honored to have them," my mother says. "Won't we, Wally?"

"Yeah, yeah. Sure, sure," Walter says, eyes on the set. His team is losing now.

"Okay. It's a deal," I announce with an air of triumph.

"Smooch on it," my mother says, kissing air.

"But no more than one," says Walter. "I'm not paying to feed an entire army."

I’m not one-hundred-percent certain, but my best guess is the person Mom expects me to invited is this pretty Anthropology major, Abigail, whom I brought home for Easter. She was a honey haired heartthrob with the long legs of a runway-model, and since she dumped me I have been hurting pretty bad. Last I heard, Abigail was engaged to a minor-league baseball player. So instead I invite my birth father, Bob Senior, whom Mom hasn’t seen or spoken to in nearly three years.

Big Bob is his usual delightful self. He arrives sober and pretty much stays that way. During pre-dinner conversation he sips white wine and remains polite, respectful, downright charming. When everyone sits down to eat he stands up to say Grace. No man says Grace with greater authority than my father.

When he’s finished, I alone applaud. I don’t stand up though I feel a standing ovation is in order. My mother says, “Don’t act like a jackass just because your father’s here.”

“He is? Where? Who let him in,” I say, and both my parents grin at one another.

Walter, to his credit, carves the turkey like a surgeon.

"Good looking bird, Rita. Everything, all of it, looks mouthwatering," Bob Senior says, and Mom blushes as she scoops mashed potatoes.

For most of the meal there is nothing but the scrape of fork tines and the mixed sound of four mouths chewing, everyone’s eyes on their food. Walter's intermittent remarks, all frivolous and shallow, pathetic attempts at humor, die swift silent deaths. Between bites, my mother keeps pushing a curl of hair behind her ear. The undercurrent of silence hums; the atmosphere develops a skin as dense as the gravy.

At one point I close my eyes and make a silent wish. I want my father to remove his false teeth and make them hop between the bowls and dishes, repeating a performance he gave the year he got them, circa 2003.

But no such luck.

Each time Bob Senior refills his glass, I question my motives for inviting him.

"Damn dirty trick that was," Walter says after the dishes are cleared, though he doesn’t appear to be genuinely upset. He is playing out his part, some role he’s assigned himself.

"Your mother’s right," he says, eyeing my above his reading glasses. "You're a clever bastard, just like him."

Mom’s country western Christmas CD is blaring on shuffle play. There is still coffee and pie and ice cream to get to. I’m sitting on a hassock, facing Walter, my back to the fireplace, sipping something that tastes like port. Walter is smoking one of the thin cigars he used to quit cigarettes. We’re playing canasta with two decks of cards, casino throwaways that have been drilled through the center. My mother and Bob Senior are in the kitchen, talking in whispers by the sink.

"And a spy on top of it," Walter says, drawing a card from the deck.

He isn’t a big man. He barely comes up to my chin. He’s got a few dollars in the bank, but he is a bean-pole compared to my father. Like most things, he takes the game too seriously, holding his cards close to his chest.

"You know, Bobby. You're not helping anyone. You might think you are, but you're mistaken. You're betting on the wrong team, Bobby boy. Note what I'm saying to you, son. Never stray from a proven winner. Never plunk down a wager on a dead horse."

I can see Mom and Big Bob through the archway. They are in profile, holding a sudsy dinner plate between them, engaged in a mini-tug-of-war. Big Bob is smiling and Mom, head tilted, is looking at him as though she has never seen anything so wonderful.

I arrange my cards, slowly licking my teeth before grinning at Walter. Then I lay down what I believe to be my winning hand.


About the author:

Born in 1955 and raised in abject poverty, Bob Thurber spent two decades working menial jobs while studying and practicing the craft of fiction. He served a lengthy apprenticeship, writing nearly every day for twenty years before submitting his work for publication. Since then his short stories have received a long list of literary awards and citations, among them The Barry Hannah Fiction Prize. His work has appeared in more than 70 anthologies. Bob is the author of six books, including "Paperboy: A Dysfunctional Novel." He resides in Massachusetts.

Comments from Competition Adjudicator,
Diana Nadin

I make no excuse for repeating myself from last year and saying how much I enjoyed reading through all the entries. It’s always and pleasure and I never cease to be amazed by the imagination and creativity that goes into so many of the stories.

But what particularly impressed my about Thanksgiving 2010 was the ultra-smart dialogue and the careful scene-setting. It was so vivid that it played out in my mind’s eye more like an American comedy on TV or film rather than a short story.

We always say ‘show don’t tell’ and the following paragraph is brilliant piece of characterisation. It gives you an insight into the narrator’s mother in so few words:

Mom appears in the archway, three neat rows of pink curlers rolled tight against her head, a wooden spoon in her hand. The front of her apron reads “I’M THE COOK, NOT YOUR MAID, SO DON’T ASK!”

On the surface this is a humorous short story about a rather dysfunctional family celebrating Thanksgiving but what sets it apart and makes it a winner is the wit and insight that lets us see what’s really going on there. It makes for easy reading but it has obviously taken some careful crafting to produce.


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