BLESSINGS
follows "Choice"

 

***November 21, 2022***

It was, Richard Carver thought proudly, the jewel of Main Street.

Okay, Maybe he was exaggerating. But when he woke uncharacteristically early that Monday morning and followed his partner out the front door of the Dark Crystal, the restaurant/bar he owned in the tiny town of Milbury, CT, with his partner (in all ways, he smiled to himself) TJ Gomes, the sight of the place, even closed as it would be on a Monday morning, was his own jewel, as precious as diamonds that came out of the earth at Kimberley.

TJ gave him a hug and set off on his five-mile jog while Shard–as his friends called him—posted a big "Closed Thanksgiving Day" sign on the front door and more on the two big front windows, as well as on the front window of the defunct Rite-Aid Drugs next door which served as their overflow seating. Alexandra Eames' suggestion eleven months ago had paid off: the owner of the drugstore, weary of payments on profitless empty property, sent his own people to take down part of the wall between the Dark Crystal and the Rite-Aid. While they now had to pay rent, the venue had done well enough that, if he and TJ weren't exactly growing wealthy, they were still paying their employees a living wage and realizing a small profit.

Even Robert Goren's wish had come true. In March the small ice cream place across the street had re-opened under new management. Informal summer music jams at the front of the abandoned service station had lured people to Main Street to sample flavors and combos—and TJ's wings and clam cakes. In August El Rancho, a street food non-chain Mexican taverna, had opened next to the Starbucks. This drew a new lunch crowd, and in this way more people discovered the Dark Crystal as well. Now signs were advertising a breakfast place to open in January, promoting eggs, pancakes, crepes, and vegan offerings. A renaissance, Bobby had hoped for. It was slow, but it had begun.

He peeked in the window of their "extension," chuckling in remembrance. There had been one riotous Monday in February when the combined Eames family and the Gorens' other New York friends, plus Russ Jenkins and the kids from Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and Bruno Volpe and Viola Perrino and Abril Diaz had all descended on the old pharmacy, discarding junk, scrubbing floors and walls during the morning, then painting the walls in Dark Crystal colors: purple, blue, black, gold. Bobby and Mike Logan had manned ladders and strung more miniature lights from the ceiling tiles, replacing the intense fluorescent bulbs in the drop fixtures with something more warm and subdued. The children had gone home dotted with paint, with Bobby Goren (nearly as paint-spattered as they) having reveled in directing them. Alex had played supervisor until red-headed Timothy Stratton, future physician and sound maven, had appeared with the equipment they needed, and together they planned where each speaker should go.

The following Monday workday had been setting up additional tables and chairs while Tim connected and tested acoustics. The pseudo-"Starry Night" mural had been demolished with the wall and Bobby and Alex had lost half the long dais on which "The Wizard" and "Princess Ozma" ran their twice weekly trivia game—still gathering kudos on NewEngland.com (and, as Alex had cheekily pointed out, since they now had three regular players from Rhode Island, the nearby motel was garnering extra cash, too)—but they seemed quite happy to sit closer together as they ran an impromptu game for the staff, and then Farouk completely surprised them by playing haunting tunes on his zither, leaving sentimental Tilde in tears. On the final Monday TJ's Rhode Island School of Design friend Cara appeared with airbrush, paints, and glitter and worked a new mural behind the reconstructed dais, an abstract magician and sorceress in blues, purples, black and gold. The magician cupped "a dark crystal" in gloss black with deep blue highlights and gold edging, silver glitter deep in its core, outstretched in his right hand.

By now it was as if the conjoined places had always been one, and today it would play host to something special. On Thanksgiving Day the restaurant family would be in different venues celebrating. Today was theirs.

By noon, people were converging on the venue, parking at the rear, entering through the employees' entrance, some with bowls and containers—not just staff, but "family and friends": Shard's mother and father and younger brother; Elizabeth and Stephen Hogan, Alex's sister and brother-in-law; Bruno Volpe, who was the Gorens' Korean-war-veteran neighbor; Viola Perrino, Alex's former neighbor in Southbury; Russ Jenkins, Bobby's fellow volunteer at Big Brothers; Abril Diaz and the two grandchildren she was raising, Luciana and Carlos Serrano; Tim and his wife Tamara; Bobby's car-specialist friend Lewis; Bobby and Alex's old friend from the NYPD's Major Case unit, Mike Logan, and his girlfriend Carla Antonacci; Alex's cousin Phil Cochran and his girlfriend Becky Balcer. Others had sent regrets as it was a work day or they just couldn't make it.

When Alex and Bobby appeared, carrying covered bowls, almost everyone had arrived except for Mike, Carla, Phil, and Becky. The kitchen was redolent of oven-roasted turkey, and there was another in the fryer outside the door. Ibin Farouk and his timid wife Neda, who retreated into her hijab when spoken to, had bought a vegetarian dish of lentils and vegetables that TJ kept checking out appreciatively even as he baked cubed butternut squash.

"What did you bring?" Tilde Svenson asked as Alex set a sizeable ceramic blue bowl on the table in the corner where the staff usually ate their own meals. The short, blonde woman had a voice as sweet as her temper.

"Bobby went historic and made Indian pudding," Alex answered briskly. "And we have fresh unsweetened whipped cream to go on top. I made maple-glazed carrots, my sole specialty."

"Unsweetened?" Mickey Dolan asked, peeking at the creamy Indian pudding, brown and headily fragrant with cinnamon and cloves and maple syrup.

Bobby bent over the maitre d's shoulder. "The pudding's too sweet to use regular whipped cream. It would make everyone sick—except Ms. Sugar Shock here."

"Love you, too," Alex quipped.

Mickey shrugged. "I'd risk it." He was relatively short next to Bobby's towering form, forever laid-back, dark hair in a sweeping curl like a backward forelock, all in black instead of being marked in purple as on work nights, but then they'd all dressed up today, if not in formal clothing, at least in their best casual. Bobby, his curls silvered more each day, looked like a benevolent bear in crisp corded pants and a solid-color blue flannel shirt; Alex had mirrored him in dark tweed below and a blue sweater. Even TJ was crisp in white shirt and pressed mahogany trousers, difficult to see since he was currently swathed in his canvas chef's apron to stay clean.

Finally all was ready: the tables pulled together, a buffet area of folding tables lined under the big plate glass windows. Carmella Innocenzi and Zhou Shanyuon had decorated the buffet tables with a long garland of autumn leaves and orange and brown crepe paper in scallops at the edge, and at the center of each table were honeycomb paper turkeys. Shard had set up one of the televisions over the bar to play autumn-themed music along with old standards and classic jazz.

When the turkeys were finished, they made a semicircle around TJ as he deftly carved the birds with his electric knife, with the wings and the drumsticks framing stacks of meat. Both platters of white and dark meat and the lentil dish joined the roasted squash, mashed potatoes, creamed onions, mashed turnips, sweet corn, maple-glazed carrots, several kinds of stuffings and dressings, turkey gravy, green bean casserole, pastelillos, and sliced, juicy pot roast for those who didn't like turkey. Spread on other tables were pumpkin and apple pies, the Indian pudding and the whipped cream, a big blueberry trifle, and a massive chocolate cake. Lest someone was still hungry, there were chocolates, nuts, cheese and crackers, vegetables and dip, and hummus. The savory scents filled the space like New England fog on an autumn morning.

Bobby squinted at the table. "Who brought the creamed onions? I haven't seen those since the 1960s.

"Used to love them," Russ answered, "so I made them. And the chestnut dressing—my Mawmaw made that every year."

"I haven't had chestnut dressing in years!" Hailey Carver said in delight. "Thank you!"

A sharp rap came at the front door of the Dark Crystal and a second later a familiar voice shouted, "Hey! Where is everyone?"

Shard hurried to the door to unlock it. A sweep of wind and dried autumn leaves whisked inside to accompany the four people who came close behind. "Hey, man, sorry we're late," Mike said as he and Carla hurried in, followed closely by Phil and Becky. "There's an accident on Route 67 and we've been trying to get around it for about an hour."

"Mystery jam on I-84," Becky supplied as they pulled off their coats. "Besides, Phil wanted to make an entrance."

Bobby regarded them with a grin. "Especially today, of course."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Alex's cousin challenged, but he was suppressing a smile.

"Oh, come on, we didn't work Major Case for nothing," Alex returned.

With a smile, Becky raised her left hand to display a diamond circled by tiny emerald chips glittering on her ring finger.

"There must be something in the water," Carla joked, because at the same moment Mike had lifted her left hand to flourish an attractive crimson ruby on the same finger, and in a moment the room was a flurry of hugs and congratulations, and the single moment when Logan said, as earnest as Bobby had ever seen him, "All I wish is that we're as happy as you and Alex."

"I wish you that, man. You deserve it," Bobby bade soberly.

Their contributions added to the feast, the newcomers took places with the others at table according to the neatly-lettered pumpkin and autumn leaf motif place cards that the head server Sharon Kovacs had made. Ana crowed triumphantly, "I get to sit next to Mr. G!" and Bobby bowed to her as he pulled out chairs for both Alex and the eleven-year-old, although her abuela finally had to say sternly, "Luciana, siéntate!" before she'd settle.

Shard clinked on his drinking glass with his fork to get everyone's attention. "All right, folks. I've asked Bobby to say a few words about Thanksgiving."

His father, former ADA Ron Carver when Bobby and Alex had been detectives, currently a district court judge, whose voice Shard's favored so much in timbre, checked his watch, then looked up and said puckishly, "Wait, I thought dinner was at two, not five."

"Your Honor, I have been advised not to let the food get cold." Bobby said dryly, just as someone rapped "shave-and-a-haircut" at the front door. After a beat of silence where his eyes searched the face of each person at the table, his eyes fixed on Alex, recognizing her tell. "Princess Ozma," he intoned in his best Wizard's voice, "what have you done?"

"Why not find out yourself, Oscar Diggs?" she challenged with lifted chin as Shard motioned him to the door. With the blinds down, when he opened the door it was a complete surprise...

"Hi, Uncle Bobby. Sorry we're late; three cop cars stopped an SUV on I-91 and all the rubberneckers had to watch," Donny Carlson said breezily, his arm linked with his mother's. His nephew had "cleaned up nicely" since he and Alex had last seen him, shaved and handsome in a button-down dress shirt and crisply creased trousers and polished shoes, and his mother, her hair cut short since the last time they had seen her and now nearly all silver, wore a green wool dress and comfortable flats. She said softly, "Hello, Bobby."

He gave her a kiss on the cheek. "Come on in, Evelyn. Hello, Donny," and when he turned back to the table, two spaces had been vacated across from him and Alex, and two places set with two place cards. "You were all in on this, weren't you?"

"Yes!" was the chorus.

"I didn't know!" Ana piped up.

"Because you can't keep a secret," thirteen-year-old Carlos retorted.

"Niños!" And there was silence.

Bobby made his way around the table as Donny and Evelyn took their seats, tilting his head at Alex's mischievous face. "I'll deal with you later, Eames."

She gave a cat smile. "Counting on it."

"Where was I?"

"Thanksgiving," Shard prompted.

"Hopefully not a dissertation," Lewis teased.

Bobby cleared his throat. "We all know the iconography of Thanksgiving: Pilgrims and Native Americans feasting, from the account by William Bradford in 1621. The Pilgrims—they called themselves 'Saints' or 'Separatists'—wouldn't have called it a Thanksgiving...um...that was a church service. Instead it was a 'Harvest Home,' one of numerous...traditional harvest festivals in many cultures. An autumn celebration. Upon arriving at the celebration, the Wpanak—we call them the Wampanoag—saw a need for additional food, and, as was traditional in their culture, they provided a contribution.

"But this so-called 't-traditional' story was lost and only re-discovered in the late 1840s, then pretty much forgotten again. Following Abraham Lincoln's proclamation of a Thanksgiving holiday, when waves of immigrants arrived in the late 1800s, Bradford's tale was resurrected to assure the newcomers that dissimilar cultures could find peace together, promoted heavily in schools, and that's how we know the 'traditional' story today.

'Thanksgiving,' or...um...what we know as Thanksgiving—the feast, the journey home, the reunion with family and friends—grew without it. From the early 1600s to the mid-1800s, New Englanders carried the custom and the stories westward with them: about great feasts or small but heartfelt meals, games and dances, quarrels mended, lost f-family members found again. A winter holiday...winter iconography, so the image we now know had radically changed.

"I mention the...um...history," and now Bobby's voice was reflective. "because there's one way Thanksgiving hasn't changed. The author of an essay I read some years back said Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday because there were no extreme expectations attached to it—no flamboyant decorations, no massive purchases necessary, no expensive clothing. Granted, people look forward to turkey and certain foods, but all you really need to celebrate Thanksgiving are people you care for, somewhere to gather, and your memories. The food...is lagniappe.

"For me—had Thanksgiving 2021 been in September," and his grave eyes traveled from Shard and TJ to the rest of the staff, "I would have said I was thankful for m-my friends who became my new family," then his eyes shifted to Mike and Russ, "and you two, and my kids–" Carlos grinned, and Bobby took a deep breath. "Then in October a busybody insurance salesman," and here Becky chortled and nudged Phil, "turned up with my heart's desire." He saw Alex look up, her eyes speaking without words. "Last Thanksgiving...I didn't think my life could ever be any happier."

One hand settled to caress Alex's shoulder when he saw her face, then his smile flickered because Steve was handing Lizzie a handkerchief to wipe her eyes. The Eames women, steel inside and out, but with a disarming sentimental core...he had to re-center himself to finish. "This year I'm thankful for a small bird, a dance, a honeymoon, and a vacation—especially when the latter involves l-lost family members found again–" Here Donny looked abashed, while Bobby reached for one of the plastic goblets at each place setting, a small serving of apple juice in each so that Ana and Carlos could partake in the toast, and lifted it before him. "To family, to friends who are family...to Thanksgiving—the day when we remember what's important."

"To Thanksgiving," then the click of goblets against each other.

Bobby sank down at the edge of his chair where Alex affectionately put her arm around him. Now Carlos shifted in his seat, then admitted, "Mr. G asked me to say the blessing, but I think Ana should do it. She said she found one that reminded her of Ms. Alex."

Ana looked around the table, then ducked her head as if suddenly struck shy. "We'll say it together, okay?" and he grinned and clasped her outstretched hand.

"Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you for the world so sweet.
Thank you, God, for birds that sing—" here Ana sparkled eyes at Alex, who smiled at her.
"Thank you, God, for everything."

"Amen," said Mike earnestly.

"I'm ready for some turkey!" said Dean Carver, pushing back his chair.

"I want a wing!" Ana exclaimed, jumping from her seat.

"Abi-Abi," Carlos said to his grandmother, "what can I get for you?"

Richard Carver leaned back in his chair, watching his family by blood and by choice as they queued at the buffet. Bobby and Alex were still at the table, Bobby leaned forward talking earnestly to Evelyn with his left hand patting her right, while Alex had said something to make Donny laugh. His mother was bantering with TJ, Steve was helping his wife fill her plate with turkey as she leaned on him for support, something had tickled Tilde's fancy for her chuckle was unmistakable, Neda had relaxed enough to speak to Viola, Tamara was popping a creamed onion in Tim's mouth, while awaiting their turns Mike and Carla were indulging in a kiss.

The Dark Crystal indeed was a jewel, a diamond of the first water—here, inside, were its carats.

And when he looked toward TJ again, his partner's smile warmed his heart.

Sharon, already wearing the season's first ugly Christmas sweater, chosen from her ample collection, looked at him curiously. "Hey, bossman, you gonna eat?"

Shard smiled the soft grin he'd inherited from his father. "After I count my blessings."

 

 

 

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This was inspired by the season 2 episode "A Wing and a Prayer" from St. Elsewhere.

 


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