My great uncle Swanny was drunk when he showed up for Thanksgiving dinner at my grandfather’s, but I didn’t know that. I’m sure other members of the family knew, but at seventeen I was too young at the time to know what to look for. My only known exposure to alcoholics up to that point were my father and grandfather, and Swanny wasn’t behaving like a silly man who wanted to loudly argue politics and religion.
This was a rare occasion for me; my father’s family wasn’t close and my grandfather was very much a loner. Sharing a table with some relatives I’d never met and friends of my dad’s side of the family was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. To add to the mix, I was escorting my girlfriend, who saw it all as a grand adventure.
We parked in front of the 1950’s craftsman house in the middle of the 1980’s crack-ravaged Rainier Valley Orcas Street neighborhood in my black, 1965 Rambler Classic station wagon. Neighboring houses on either side sported chain-link fences and airs of random disrepair and neglect that only the drug-addled can generate. My grandfather’s house looked almost perfectly frozen in amber compared to them with its neatly trimmed bushes and swept stoop, with bars on the windows and doors the only imperfections.
A couple of years later, my grandfather was walking back from the bus stop when his neighbor’s pit bull attacked and bit him on the arm and wouldn’t let go. The police were called, and they had to shoot the dog off of his arm. The only explanation for the attack was that he was wearing a blue jacket, similar in color to Seattle police uniforms. Crack house dogs are trained to attack police so the occupants have enough time to escape or flush evidence. The neighbor did not come out to claim his dog afterwards.
We were a bit early, so only my grandfather, father, stepmother, and her friend were there, cooking. They’d obviously been there for a while, as my grandfather was busy re-telling about his trip to the Himalaya and visiting an abbey where the master chewed leaves to get high.
“He said, ‘Your man,’ and of course he meant Jesus by that! ‘Your man disappeared for a few years and he traveled from the Levant to India, and it expanded his mind. How else could he have become saintly?’ and then he’d take another leaf from a silver tray and begin to chew it,” he pantomimed to gales of explosive laughter.
“Wine?” my father offered to me and my companion.
“Uh…sure!” Neither one of us were going to pass up this opportunity.
We helped as we could, mostly by staying out of the way and helping the conversation along as needed.
“Sheisters and thieves! That’s what they all are!”
“Politicians!” he’d roar, “Bah! They’re all the same! Democrat and Republican! Liars and thieves!” Then he’d become quiet, lean in closely and with a twinkle in his eye and a slurring whisper say, “It’s time for another Manhattan!”
The ritual was observed.
Friends drifted in and the volume rose. My stepmother’s friend was teasing my grandfather about stockpiling whiskey for his Manhattans as he returned from the basement with another bottle.
He held up his glass and looked down his nose at her, “I don’t stockpile,” he declared with mock offended airs, “I purchase provisions on sale.”
A rapping on the front door was heard.
“They’re here! Let them in!” he shouted.
Swanny and my grandfather’s sister came in, and where Swanny was affable and outgoing, she was quiet and looked like she wanted to hide insider her brown, tweed dress. Swanny held a large bottle in brown paper in his hand.
“Just a little something for the party!” he said, and vodka was revealed and then quickly shuttled to the kitchen for dispensation.
With all actors accounted for, we sat at the table. My father, stepmother and her friend across from us, my grandfather at the head of the table, and the other characters scattered on either side.
“Are you going to say grace?” Swanny asked.
With a wag of his finger, my grandfather replied, “Mon dieu! Of course!”
The table fell silent, some clasped their hands together and bowed their heads. The atheists and Jews smiled at each other.
“Dear Lord, we are thankful for the food before us and thankful that we only have to say grace once a year. Amen!” Guffaws and chortles came from the
unbelievers, pinched lips from the devout.
We tucked in with gusto, and the river of conversation meandered with the freely flowing wine and drinks. Uncle Swanny and my grandfather were doing their best impressions of drunk old men in wooden chairs when Swanny excused himself to use the bathroom, and headed for the back door.
“Where are you going, you old drunk?!” my grandfather called.
“I’m going to piss in your garden!”
“The bathroom’s down the hall!”
“That’s not as much fun!”
My great aunt flushed at this exchange, and become very interested in something on her plate that she used her fork to toy with.
Swanny fumbled with the door and staggered into the mudroom. He had more trouble with the metal door, and struggled with it.
“You’re going to pee your pants; go use the bathroom!”
“Ah-ha! I’ve got it!” he cried triumphantly as he disappeared into the darkness, the metal door slamming shut behind him.
My grandfather leaned into one of his dinner guests and whispered not so quietly, “He’s locked out, you know. That door can only be opened with a key.” He stuck out his tongue and started to laugh.
We ate and drank for who knows how long before someone asked, “Where’s Swanny?”
“I bet he’s lost in the back yard,” my grandfather offered. “The back door’s locked and he’s probably too drunk to knock or find his way to the front.”
“It’s been a while,” my dad said.
“I’ll check,” my stepmother volunteered.
She returned quickly.
“He’s fallen down and he’s bleeding!” she cried.
Several got up to assist or look – it was hard to tell at this point. My girlfriend and I were trapped in the middle of the table with our backs to the wall, so we just watched the mayhem in mild shock.
My stepmother’s friend was a nurse and she sprung into action. “Call 911! Someone get a towel!” she called as she rushed outside.
Throughout all this, my grandfather was hooting with laughter. Swanny’s wife primly set her silverware down, wiped her mouth, looked at her brother and quietly said, “You’re an asshole,” before getting up to check on her husband.
This gave my grandfather pause for a moment before he roared a guffaw and through tears threw, “Swanny’s taken a swan dive!” back at her. She shot him a dirty look on her way to the door.
The commotion beyond the mudroom grew and I could hear my stepmother’s friend shouting, “Has anyone called 911 yet!?!”
Some began to filter back in. There’s not much show in the dark, cold rain.
“Well?” my grandfather asked while arching an eyebrow at one of his friends.
“There’s lots of blood, and he’s out cold.”
“This I’ve got to see!” my grandfather said as pushed his chair back and then unsteadily wobbled outside.
Throughout all this, my father, who was sitting opposite, just kept on eating dinner. “This is great turkey,” he would say. Already heavily pickled, he watched the unfolding drama with an amused smirk.
“Uh,” I asked, “do you think he’s going to be alright?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, probably. The stuffing’s good, too. Would you like some more?” A grin broke out. “He’ll be fine. More wine?”
Someone started banging urgently on the front door.
“Who the hell is that?” my stepmother muttered as she went to answer it.
Most of the other guests had filtered back in and didn’t know what to do, so they sat back down and started eating. The conversation turned to analyzing Swanny’s decision to pee in the back yard.
“Back here! Back here!” my stepmother called as she rushed into the kitchen, trailing three paramedics. Two of them wrangled a stretcher with a toolbox on top. Their polyester jackets were soaked from the rain and they were dripping wet.
They looked around the kitchen dubiously.
“Where?” asked the man in front.
“Outside! Outside!” as she dashed to the mudroom.
The medics with the stretcher rolled their eyes.
“They got here fast,” a guest remarked.
“They’re just up the street and they know the address,” my father managed through a mouth full of turkey.
The lead medic grabbed his gear and followed my stepmom out. The other two debated what to do.
“Whattya think?” medic one said.
“I think there were a lot of stairs,” replied medic two. “Are there stairs out the back?” he asked the room.
“Only one,” my dad offered.
“Yeah, but that’s a pretty narrow doorway,” medic one gestured.
“It’s pouring outside, and the side of the house looks pretty dark,” said medic two dubiously.
“The bushes are pretty close to the house, too,” my father volunteered. “Man, I can’t get enough of this turkey.”
They shook their heads and rolled their eyes again.
“Through the door,” said medic one as he nodded.
Just then, my grandfather burst back in. “Mon dieu! He’s bleeding like a stuck pig! My doormat is filled with it! That stupid old drunk tripped on the way back in and gashed his head on the concrete step! I need a drink.” He regarded the medics. “Oh, hello!” he said with a smile. “He’s right outside the door.” He pointed helpfully.
They nodded curtly and banged their way out with the stretcher, chilling the kitchen with the open doors.
Swanny’s wife came back in with my stepmother’s friend. She looked pale, and clung to the younger woman as she was led gently back to her seat.
“Turkey?” my dad offered.
The lead medic came back in and sought her out.
“Ma’am, how much has he had to drink tonight?”
“Just a few,” she quietly replied.
“How many is a few?”
She thought. “He had two or three glasses before we left.”
My stepmother’s friend went back outside.
“Two or three of what, ma’am?”
She looked around the kitchen and spied a highball glass. Pointing, “About that size.”
“You know he went outside to pee?” my grandfather interjected, laughing.
He ignored him. “Uh-huh. And what did he mix it with?”
“Okay. And how full were the glasses?”
She spread her fingers wide in measure.
His eyes widened a bit. “Alright. Is he on any medications?”
The back doors were propped open as the stretcher was manhandled back into to kitchen. Another gust of cold wind blew through.
“There he is!” my grandfather called as they wheeled him through. “How are you, Swanny, you old drunk you? Are you going to wash off my step? It’s covered in your blood.”
A bloody bandage was taped to his forehead and he gave a feeble wave as he rolled by. There was a bit of a commotion as chairs were shifted to let them by.
“Ma’am? Do you want to ride with us, or meet us at the hospital?”
She fretted and wrung her hands. “Where’s my purse?”
My stepmother volunteered to locate it and her coat.
“Watch the stairs!” came from the porch. “The last step is wet.”
“Man, this turkey is great,” my dad said with a smile. “Best Thanksgiving ever, eh?” he winked at my girlfriend.
The front door slammed shut.
“After that, it’s time for another Manhattan! To Swanny!” my grandfather cried.