Ghosts of Thanksgiving Past

Just before she snapped this picture, I had brushed some dirt off your gravestone. We were in Asheville, North Carolina. Breathing in that pure mountain air like it was a cool, cleansing tonic that really could clear tubercular lungs.

I wondered if that air could make me write like you.

As I knelt at your grave, I never imagined you as a Thanksgiving Day guest.

That would be impossible. Right? You being dead and all.

Of course, back then I also thought it would be impossible that she’d dump me. I thought we were for keeps.

She never even bothered to say, “It’s not you. It’s me.” Always a good line. Especially when it’s not true.

We spoke by phone a lot. She lived in a small town in Missouri. I lived in Chicago. Not the best set up for destiny. And when I started hearing stories about how much fun she was having going fishing with this guy she knew from town; when she told me that he owned a jewelry store. When her voice got more and more faded and distant with each call, I kind of figured that the jeweler would eventually close the sale and make them a couple.

It happened just before Thanksgiving. I got the call that there would be no more calls. I finally saw destiny drift away on a warm southern wind.

Yeah, I know. Old story. It’s not “Look Homeward Angel.” It’s just a young guy, who would not be venturing out from Chicago to her Mother’s house in Gulfport, Mississippi for Thanksgiving that year.

Which left me alone at Thanksgiving. And I’d been through that once. Had to take some action. Did not know what. But I had to do something.

I would not be stuck around some dinner table where everyone gathered because they thought they were supposed to gather. Following some genetic instinct of what holidays and family are supposed to mean. A rhythm unstoppable by anything else than a nuclear blast because most times, if you’re dancing to that rhythm, you don’t even know it’s there.

What does that mean? Sorry for that last sentence going on forever. I think I’m a little nervous telling you this story Mr. Thomas Wolfe. And I tend to go on and on when I get nervous.

All I was trying to say was that I didn’t want to spend Thanksgiving with someone just because I was supposed to spend it with them. I didn’t want it to be about obligations. Even if I liked the people. I didn’t want obligation to be the orchestra leader.

Or, worse yet, I didn’t want to be that last minute guest with nowhere else to go. Sitting in the chair with the nametag in front that said LOSER.

What I was missing though, was an actual solution. I really didn’t know what to do.

So going down to the local tavern seemed like a good choice. Thanksgiving was two nights away. Maybe if I drank enough between now and then, I’d figure it out.

It had just started to snow, the Chicago winter winds like jet engines revving up for takeoff. Coming into the bar, a joint over on Wabansia, I opened the door under the faded neon of a Hamm’s Beer sign, and there was a shout of “Hey, close the damned door, kid!”

I wasn’t sure at first, who had yelled. The bartender, faceless in the shadows at the back of the dark bar. Or was it the guy with wire-rimmed glasses and very intense eyes sitting at the bar?

Stomping the dusty snow off my boots and unzipping my big down coat, I looked again at the guy hunched over at the bar. He was like a shadow. He seemed to fade in and out.

Thinking I better drink quick, I ordered a beer and a shot of Jack Daniels before I had even sat down. That faceless bartender put it down, I put a $10 on the bar, turned to offer a toast to the guy with the glasses, and once again, he seemed to fade away. Where he had been, was only an empty bar stool. The bartender had retreated back to his corner. So I felt totally alone. And as soon as I felt most alone, the ghost on the bar stool faded back into view, gave me a wink and said, “Yeah. It’s me. Sorry about the whole Thanksgiving thing, kid. I know what it’s like getting dumped. Me and Frenchy. . . . . “

I interrupted. Couldn’t help it. I knew who he was. I knew Frenchy is what he called Simone deBeauvoir. “No way. Algren? Really? Nelson Algren?”

“Do I look like Papa Hemingway, kid?”

“How did you . . . what is. . .why am I. . .what the . . .”

“Easy kid, We’ll let you ask your questions. But first, lets get a table. We’re gonna have some company.”

Algren motioned me over to an even darker corner of the bar. And that’s when I saw you, Mr. Wolfe. This time, alive as you could be! Wild hair, eyes darting all over the room. I could see you writing without even having a pen or paper or typewriter. Just sitting there fidgeting in your chair, you were writing!

You said to me “Sorry about the Thanksgiving thing kid. Thought I’d pop by. See if I could help. Awful nice of you to come by the grave that time.”

“Yeah,” said Algren. “We figured we’d have Thanksgiving tonight. See, where we come from, the exact day doesn’t really matter too much.”

“I have,” I said, close to losing the ability to speak, “so many questions!”

“Well, that’s nice. kid. But why don’t you wait till everybody gets here.”

“Who else is . . .” and just then the barroom door opened. Framed with another swirl of snow, in walked perhaps the greatest of all American male vocalists, Joe Williams. As if reading my mind while he watched my jaw drop, he boomed out a laugh and said, “That whole being the greatest male vocalist? Not the way Frank Sinatra sees it. But truth told. Does it matter?”

“No. I guess not. But why are you here, too? I mean this has got to be the greatest Thanksgiving night I’ve ever spent. And it’s not even Thanksgiving night! But there is so much here I don’t understand…”

“Which is why you get to ask each of us one question,” said Thomas Wolfe.

“But—why can’t I ask more?”

“How about this, kid. If you asked us each more than one, it would make the story too long. Christ kid, you already tossed in the bit about getting dumped at the beginning. What was the point of that? To make us like you more or something? Ever hear of editing, kid? Ever hear of getting to the point? Story is already too long. So you get one question answered by each of us.”

“Well sure, but I . . .well Mr. Wolfe . . .gee, I remember when I first started reading you, how many times did I think, why the hell do I want to write? I’ll never, ever, ever be as good as Thomas Wolff! So why bother? I guess that’s my question. Why bother trying to write? What’s the point?”

”Ok,” answered Wolfe, “you ready for your answer?”

“Yes sir.”

“Here’s the answer: I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? You’re Thomas Wolfe! If you don’t know why we bother to write—especially now, with you being dead and all—how will I ever figure it out?”

“You won’t, kid. You’ll never figure it out. Because the answer is a mystery. No one knows. That’s the point. No one knows.”

“So what do I do?”

“You stop asking questions like that. You just write. Because here’s the thing kid. When I write—and of course I still do it now—when I write I am never alone. So I just write. So enough on that. Nelson, it’s your turn.”

Nelson Algren had sold books all around the world, Hemingway considered him one of the greats; he is still read today. Yet his books were never in the Chicago Public Libraries. He wasn’t all that well-liked in his home city of Chicago. So little liked that he, towards the end of his life, eventually left Chicago. If I had to choose one of the million questions I had for this teacher it would be the one I spoke out loud that night in the dark bar. “Mr. Algren, what if people don’t like your writing? Don’t like or don’t care. If people don’t respond to your writing, what do you do?”

And this is what he said. “Kid, let me ask you a question. Is this about you or about the writing?”

“Well, I. . .”

“Do the people who really matter to you like your stuff?”

“You mean the people who will buy it?”

“No kid. I mean the people who matter to you. The list is different for every writer.. Take, for example, you. You remember that lady writer from Ohio? You know the one. She’s living in my neighborhood now.”

“Karen Novak?”

“Of course Karen Novak! Do you remember what happened when she wrote you and told you that you were the real deal? That you could write? Do you remember what that did for you? How your self-confidence shot up like a rocket? Do you remember the fact that Roger Ebert has tweeted your stuff? Do you remember that writers read you? Writers you respect?”

“Well I. . .yeah.”

“Then that’s the answer. When somebody doesn’t like or worse yet, doesn’t care, about your work; when no one comments on what you do, then what do you do? You ask yourself, do the people who matter most to you care?”

There was silence for a moment. The wind had started to pick up outside.

“Oh. Well then I guess I got one more question. Mr. Williams sir, I am honored you are here. But I’m not sure why. So I guess my question is this, why are you here?”

“That’s an easy one, son. I’m here because good writing is always full of music. So everywhere somebody is talking about writing, I’m there too.

But there’s another reason I am here today. A more important one. It’s to tell you this: Every time someone writes, every time someone tells a story, it’s an act of Thanksgiving. That’s what it is, son. Telling a story is an act of Thanksgiving. And when you are giving thanks, you are never, ever alone.”

As I let that sink in, it was as if the wind had stopped blowing for a moment. I closed my eyes to think about what he had said, and when I opened them, my three Thanksgiving companions had vanished.

Left with their answers. Left with Joe Williams’ words:

“Every time you tell a story, you are giving thanks. And when you give thanks, you’re not alone.”

I said that out loud again as I put on my coat and opened the door to walk out into the snow. I thought about my Thanksgiving. The one I ended up sharing with three of my teachers.

“Every time you tell a story, you’re giving thanks. And when you give thanks, you’re not alone.”

And as I spoke his words out loud to the snowy winter wind, I could hear Joe Williams sing.

A song of thanks.

Originally published as “The University of Thanksgiving” in fictionique.

4 Responses to “Ghosts of Thanksgiving Past”

  1. Naomi de Plume Says:

    This would be a Thanksgiving worth attending.

    • Paulhaider74 Says:

      Roger, you have written another wonderful story. This holiday began with our ancestors (John Alden and Priscilla Mullins of Surrey,England) arriving at Plymouth, Massachusetts in November of 1620 when they were seeking a form of freedom that is still more prevalent in England and other Europeans countries. D’oh! It would be my wish for Thanksgiving to spend it with you and Maria at the home of my parents. However, I will be in the neighborhood of River North instead of Edgewater. Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. chicagoguy12 Says:

    Paulie–will miss you!

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