By Thanksgiving, my ankle had healed up fairly well from my fall from a horse. Para went home to Vermont to spend the holiday with her Mom, and I went to Albany. I took the train upstate, braving Penn Station’s insane crush of holiday travelers. It felt strange to see the paramilitaries there, men and women in camouflage, keeping us safe from terrorists.
There were other people in uniform, carrying duffel bags, soldiers on their way home for the holiday. I wondered what that was like, shuttling between army bases and Iraq, feeling a sudden moment of guilt that I wasn’t in the Army. Of course, I could always join; they were definitely out there recruiting. Private Benchley. The idea cracked me up. I couldn’t imagine giving everything up to go sleep in a room with 30 other men, although I had to admit that it would be cool to get a gun and practice killing things, or drive a tank.
My train number popped up on the big board, and I joined the turkey-bound throng on the way upstate, listening to Spoon the whole way, watching the Hudson to my right. I had the weird “I’m home” feeling in my stomach as I got off the train, stepping onto the concrete of Albany’s amazingly ugly train station. The neighborhood around the station is craptastic and used to make me nervous, but now it looked like any other run-down neighborhood, and actually kind of nice compared to parts of Bushwick.
As planned, there was my father’s gray Mercury. I threw my bag into the back seat and took my place in shotgun, giving him an awkward hug across the gear shift.
Dad: Good ride?
Gary: Fine ride.
Dad: Job going good?
Gary: Job is fine. I think they want to promote me.
Dad: Take it.
Gary: I might.
Dad: What’s the holdup?
Gary: Just trying to make the band work, too.
Dad: Schizopolis. But don’t count unhatched chickens.
Gary: I count only chickens that are there.
Dad: Those are the chickens that matter. Because you want to retire some day.
Gary: Definitely, within the next 40 or 50 years, I want to retire.
Dad: Then you have a plan.
Gary: A detailed plan. With maps.
My father is big on plans. When I was 20 and the bill came for my junior year at school, he asked me to create a PowerPoint presentation to outline my future plans. He said it was only fair, as he was investing so much in my future, that he know exactly what that future entailed. Slide one was:
1. Gary Benchley, English Major
Date of graduation: May, 2003
Slide two was “Applications of the English major.” Creating the presentation, I felt like a massive idiot, but when it was over, my father applauded, and I was once again his champion. His handshake and compliments were as potent as the gold stars he’d once put on the fridge.
So I spent an evening sipping wine with my father and Pat, urbane and pleasant.
Pat: Oh, no! Your father’s jokes…
Dad: [six hours later]—and the bear said, “Let me paws for consideration.”
Gary: Ho! My!
Pat: You guys!
Dad: I thought you might enjoy that.
Being at my father’s is always a polite, distant affair, in the temperature-controlled house with central vacuum that he shares with Pat. Pat’s daughter KrisKris lives with them—she’s a senior in high school—but she was out with friends, so I didn’t see her. Which was just as well, as we had absolutely nothing to talk about, my interest in lacrosse and/or Maroon 5 being minimal. I went to bed in the spare bedroom, against the huge headboard, with pewter knickknacks on the bedside table. Given that I usually sleep on a mattress on the floor in a tiny apartment in Williamsburg, I felt as if I’d landed on another planet, one with box springs.
The next day my father dropped me off at my mother’s and came in to say hello and tender his holiday greetings. Jad excused himself; my mother has poisoned him against my father.
Dad: …See you, Jad! Gary here is making an impression at his job.
Mom: I know!
Gary: I’m learning HTML.
The sound of hammering came from far away, Jad pounding something in anger.
Dad: He’s coming up in the world, our Gary.
Mom: Of course he is. And he has a band.
Dad: So I hear. Some sort of hammering?
Mom: Jad’s workshop.
Dad: Oh, you know, that’s right—I need to ask him about getting a new drill.
Mom directed him to the garage, shrugging her shoulders. My father likes to ask Jad tool-related questions and says things like, “I’ve always wished I could work with my hands,” without knowing how condescending that sounds. I always expect Jad, who has a temper, to stab my father through the heart with a Phillips-head screwdriver at those moments, but he never does.
In the living room, I found my brother and sister watching TV. Elizabeth had taken a bus up, and my brother had flown in from San Diego.
“When’d you get in?” asked my brother. I told him about the train, the ride up. I bragged about going to the gym, even though I hadn’t been in months, and left out anything about smoking. After a while, Dad came out from his visit with Jad and sat down to chat with the three of us. In the background, the sound of Jad’s hammering grew louder.
Dad asked Bill and Elizabeth to visit that evening, and they promised to swing by. I caught Elizabeth rolling her eyes when she promised. Both Bill and Liz put off visiting with Dad until they have to, because they think he’s an asshole and hate Pat. It’s a position I can understand but don’t share. He’s my father.
Dad left, and we watched TV for a while, sharing that special togetherness that only VH1 can bring, until it was time for the turkey.
Mom asked God to watch over each of us, mentioning our special accomplishments over the year. Bill had been promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade. Elizabeth had achieved honors in her classes and found an excellent, paying internship over the summer and now was likely to achieve another 4.0 average at CMU. And Gary, well, he had moved to New York and was doing very well. I waited to see if there might be a mention of Schizopolis, but none came.
Jad carved the turkey with an electric knife, and we set to eating, mostly in silence except for the obligatory compliments to my mother, who had opened many a can to make the feast a reality. There wasn’t enough stuffing, particularly after my brother took a nine-person size helping, but otherwise it was an ideal, starchy meal. Eventually, I arrived at the comfortable numb, engorged sensation I associate with Thanksgiving. Which meant it was time for the siblings to start screwing with each other.
“I’m looking forward to some pumpkin pie,” said my brother.
“That’s interesting,” I said. “I thought Navy guys liked fudge.”
“Oh, Bill, do you get good desserts on the ship?” asked my mother.
“When I was in the Army,” Jad said, “we had to eat frozen cake. They used to serve it frozen. Like a brick.”
“The desserts on board are really good,” said my brother, shaking his head at me. His look said, “later, I will beat your ass at football.”
“I asked specifically about fudge,” I said. Elizabeth shook her head.
“How’s your band?” asked Bill. “I was listening to the radio the other day, and I didn’t hear you.”
“That’s because we’re not on the classic rock station.”
“Gary? You’re on the radio?” asked my mother.
“Yes, Gary,” asked my brother. “Where can I tune in to hear Schizodopomolopis?”
“Is that a Greek name?” asked Jad.
“Schizopolis,” I said. “That’s the name of our band.”
“That’s very creative,” said my mother.
“You’re lead vocals, right?” asked my sister. “Is it going OK?”
“And rhythm guitar.”
“That means you can’t play guitar for real, right?” asked Bill.
“That’s what it means. But in response to Elizabeth’s question, we’re getting a demo together, and we’ve got a manager,” I said. “So, bit by bit.”
“What does that mean, a manager?” asked my mother.
“He’ll sell the album,” I said.
“No, mom,” said Elizabeth. “He represents the band to the label. He’s like an agent.”
“Sounds real promising,” said Bill.
“Bill, I’ve been meaning to ask you,” I said, “does it get lonely on the carrier? Sometimes you just need a hug, right?”
“Gary,” said Elizabeth, “I hate to rain on this, but the Navy is co-ed now.”
That was very disappointing. On the train ride up from Manhattan I’d come up with more than a dozen clever ways to imply my brother’s homosexuality.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes,” said my brother. “The Navy is a very progressive organization.”
We ate until we were all a little sickly, then sat around a little bit, and helped with the dishes. Following this came the obligatory football-passing. After three minutes of tossing, the game went full tackle, and a minute later I was aware that my brother was standing over my prostrate form, yelling, in a drill-sergeant voice, “Get up, muddy bitch pussy-boy, so I can beat you down again!”
I stood up, wet mud covering my slacks and sweater, an ache in my bad ankle, and Elizabeth laughed until she doubled over. “Bitches have a lesson to learn,” I yelled, and leapt toward my brother from almost a yard away, enjoying a moment of flight, and took him to the ground with a crunch.
“Not bad for New York,” he said.
We stood up together and I pointed out, “Elizabeth doesn’t have any mud on her at all.”
“Come on,” she said, “seriously, don’t.”
“Ooh,” I said. “I hate when she uses her whiney voice.”
“Me too,” said Bill. So he and I chased her in circles around the back yard, out into the street, then back into the yard, finally taking her down to the mud. She yelled out “you assholes” over and over, laughing hysterically. Then we went back into the house, all three of us filthy, for some pumpkin pie.