"Look, Nicky. Here's a letter from your school. I bet it's your grades. Do you want to see them?"
Nicky sat at the dining room table, finishing a supper of cheeseburgers and soup. He glanced at the envelope his mother held out in her hand.
"I don't need to," he answered. "I already know what I'm getting." Two 'A's, in biology and Spanish, and the rest 'B's except for a 'D' in physical education.
"I'll let your father open it then," said his mother. She set the letter and the rest of the mail on the table. "Can you put these by his chair when you're done?"
Nicky nodded as he put the last bite of his grilled cheese into his mouth. He took the mail, the letter from school and two others which looked like bills, to the living room and set them beneath the telephone.
He couldn't believe that Thanksgiving was only a few hours away. The first trimester had seemed to go so fast, even with being grounded. Soon his brother would be home; as soon as his father brought him from the airport. He wanted to talk with Robert in hope of finding out what he remembered about the family's escape from Cuba.
Nicky helped his mother and sister clean the dishes so they could leave for Thanksgiving mass in time. The walk to the church was a frigid one because the temperature had dropped considerably since sundown under clear skies. Nicky wanted to walk faster, but had to wait for his mother as she stepped gingerly over the icy spots on the sidewalk.
The church was drafty, so Nicky shivered during the mass. The only part of the service he paid attention to was the homily. The priest talked about being grateful for God's blessings, and listed a number of them. Nicky thought about his mother and Emily sitting with him, Butch and Eugene, school, his full stomach, and the warm house he'd be going home to. He felt good inside because God treated him so well.
Then the priest talked about serving God in return. God's goodness, he argued, should motivate us to worship, love our neighbor, and help others in need. Nicky's warm feelings about God dissipated. No way could he do enough good deeds to repay God for all the things he was grateful for. He went home sad, not saying a word the whole way.
Some additional lights on in the house indicated that his father and brother had come home, although the downstairs was deserted. After putting his winter clothes away, Nicky hurried upstairs and found them in Robert's room.
"Hi, Nick," Robert looked up from a duffel bag he was unpacking.
Nicky returned the greeting and assumed an uncomfortable stance inside the door, considering himself to be an intrusion but feeling too foolish to leave.
His father reclined in a chair by the window. "What's that for?" he questioned Robert as his son pulled a hard hat from the duffel.
"This?" Robert held the hat up for an instant before tossing it on the bed. "I wore it to an anti-war rally."
"What do you need to protest about?" Mark leaned forward. "You don't have to worry about getting drafted as long as you're going to school, and besides, Nixon's getting us out of the war."
"Dad," Robert said condescendingly. "I went for the excitement."
"I wish you wouldn't. You could get hurt."
Nicky stepped aside as his mother entered the room. "Hello, Robert," she said. "How do you like being home?"
"It's okay," Robert shrugged. "I'd rather be at school."
She continued. "Well, there's cookies in the kitchen if you want to come down for them."
"No, thanks," Robert declined. "Dad and I just finished a huge supper."
Nicky took advantage of the opportunity to leave, going with his mother.
"Nicky. You've been awfully quiet since church," she spoke to him on the staircase. "Is something the matter?"
Nicky replied. "It's what Father Ghalichi said."
"I don't know why that would bother you," she said. "He had a lot of nice things to say."
Nicky didn't say anything more, doubting his mother would understand. He ate chocolate chip cookies with milk in the kitchen while his mother and sister made preparations for Thanksgiving dinner. Emily worked on a pie crust. Her mother poured an instant gelatin mix into a bowl of steaming water with ice cubes and asked Nicky to stir it until the ice melted. Then she put celery and carrot shavings in it before putting it inside the refrigerator.
An hour later, when Nicky returned upstairs, he heard Robert and his father still talking in Robert's room. Not wanting to interrupt again, he decided to try to talk to Robert the next day and went to bed.
A hazy sunshine woke him in the morning. He looked at Robert's bedroom door on the way to the bathroom, finding it closed as he expected. He knew his brother would sleep until almost noon. Then he went to the kitchen for breakfast, settling for cold cereal as his mother and sister shoved stuffing into a turkey.
Mark came downstairs in a bathrobe, looking for coffee. He wandered into the living room while his wife started a pot for him and returned with the mail.
"Look at this," he perused the envelopes as he sat down. "Bills on Thanksgiving Day." He looked across the table at Nicky. "I hope you appreciate what I do for you."
Nicky scooped another spoonful of cereal into his mouth. He couldn't wait for the day when he'd be able to support himself. He didn't like depending on his father and feeling like he owed him the world.
Linda arrived with a cup of coffee at the same time that the telephone rang. Emily answered it in the kitchen.
"Dad," she called. "It's your boss."
"I'll get it in the other room," he replied, and took his coffee to the living room with him.
His wife gathered the mail he left behind. "Oh no," she muttered to herself. "I hope he doesn't have to go to work."
She set the letters on top of the refrigerator and started putting together a cucumber salad. Nicky finished his breakfast and placed his bowl and spoon among a mass of other dirty dishes that had piled up beside the sink. He asked what he could do to help, and was given the task of peeling potatoes.
Mark stomped into the kitchen. "Damn boss doesn't know what a holiday is," he grumbled.
"Oh, Mark," Linda complained. "Don't tell me you have to go to work."
"I told the jerk I wasn't coming until after I ate dinner," he turned away from her. "I'll be upstairs."
She watched him go with a hand on her hip in frustration. Nicky peeled the rest of the potatoes. The cooks didn't have anything else for him to do so he went into the living room to watch the Macy's parade until his half hour of television was used up. Then he went upstairs to see if his brother was awake yet. He caught his brother returning from the bathroom and followed him into his bedroom.
"Hey, Nick. What's up?"
Nicky closed the door behind him. "I did a speech on the Berlin Wall for English class."
Robert pulled on a pair of pants. "Yeh?"
"It got me thinking about when we escaped from Cuba," Nicky said apprehensively. He didn't know how his brother was going to react to his questions. "What do you remember about it?"
"Not a whole lot," Robert fastened his belt. "I wasn't even four years old."
Nicky leaned against the door. "Don't you remember anything?"
Robert pulled a sweatshirt over his head. Then he put a hand to his lips as he thought.
"I definitely remember the smell of fish," he recalled.
"Did we escape on a fishing boat?"
"I suppose so," said Robert, putting on his socks. "I also remember Dad clamping his hand over my mouth. It really hurt."
"We must have been in danger of getting caught," Nicky surmised.
He felt pressure on the door at his back and got out of the way so Emily could come into the room.
"There you are, Emily," said Robert. "I've been home since last night and I finally get to see you. What have you been up to?"
"Cooking," she answered. "Dinner's almost ready. You should come down now."
"I'm on my way," said Robert. He finished tying his shoes.
"We need to be careful," Emily led the way out the door. "Dad's in a grouchy mood."
Great, Nicky thought. He had his father's boss to thank for that. He wished that his father's job would go better for him, or better yet, that his father wouldn't let it upset him all the time.
Mark was already sitting at the table, dressed in a gray pinstripe suit and looking at the mail again, when his children came downstairs. Robert took his place beside him, facing the kitchen, and Nicky sat at the end facing his father. Emily helped her mother bring dishes laden with food from the kitchen; rolls, cucumber salad, gelatin, mashed potatoes, gravy, and stuffing.
"Robert," Mark addressed his son. "Unfortunately, I have to work and won't be able to spend much time with you while you're home. I'll make it up to you at Christmastime. I promise."
Robert fingered his fork. "Dad, my friends are going to Colorado after Christmas. I'd like to go skiing with them."
"Oh," Mark's face went blank.
"You don't mind, Dad, do you?"
"No, not at all," said Mark, opening the letter from Nicky's school. "If that's what you want, that's fine."
Nicky had no reason to feel nervous as his father looked over his grades since most of them were good, and a 'D' in physical education was nothing uncommon. Therefore, he didn't understand when his father set the grade report down with a scowl on his face.
"Do you mind explaining this detention to me?" he tapped the paper with a forefinger.
Nicky felt the blood draining from his face. He stared at his father wordlessly, horrified that his detention had been reported with his grades.
"Then you had the nerve to not even tell me," Mark snarled. "Why?"
Nicky's voice sounded small in his own ears. "I was afraid of you getting mad."
"Well, this has made me twice as angry," Mark pounded the table with a fist, rattling all the dishes on it and causing Nicky and Robert to jump backward in their seats. "What did you get a detention for?"
Nicky tried to answer in a fashion that would least upset him. "I was playing cards during my free time."
"With Butch Simpson?"
Nicky nodded reluctantly. He had hoped to keep Butch out of it.
"How many times have I told you to stay away from him? He's nothing but trouble, but do you listen to me? Of course not."
Although Nicky knew better, he tried to make an excuse for himself. "This happened before you told me; before I was grounded."
"You can bet that you're getting grounded again," Mark promised. He pointed toward the steps. "Go to your room. I'll deal with you later."
His wife stopped next to the table, holding the turkey on a platter. "Mark. You can't send Nicky to his room during Thanksgiving dinner," she objected.
"Stay out of this, Linda," Mark commanded as Nicky rose from his chair to go to his room.
"No," she refused. "I'm not going to let you spoil our Thanksgiving dinner."
She closed her eyes as her husband swung his arm, but he struck the turkey instead and knocked it out of her hands. The platter shattered on the floor and the bird rolled to a stop at the feet of Emily, who stood frozen between the kitchen and dining room.
"Thanksgiving dinner!" Mark shouted at his cringing wife. "Who needs it? We could be eating hamburgers! We wouldn't even have your precious Thanksgiving dinner if I didn't work. I'm going to work even today and look at the grief I get from my own family."
"Dad, calm down," Robert begged, rising from his chair.
Mark turned to give his eldest son a menacing stare. "Keep out of this, Robert."
Robert slid back into his seat and didn't say anything else.
"I told you to go to your room," Mark yelled at Nicky.
"Mark, no," Linda grabbed her husband by the shoulder, sobbing. "Don't send Nicky to his room."
He shoved her away. "Shut up and clean this up," he jerked his head to indicate the mess on the floor.
He clenched his fists. "You're my wife. Do what I say."
She stiffened. "No!"
"How dare you," he growled, and began striking her; blow after blow as she tried to protect herself with her arms.
Nicky's stomach turned as he watched his father beat his mother to the floor. He had never seen him hit her so hard. Finally, when he couldn't bear watching any longer, he threw himself between his parents.
"Stop," he cried. "Stop!"
His father hurled him into the table, and Robert dodged the cucumber salad as it fell into his chair. Nicky saw his father raising his arm against his mother again, so he lowered his shoulder and knocked his father backward with a charge into the stomach. Then, before he thought, Nicky struck his father across the face.
Mark froze, glaring at him with eyes that looked like they were going to pop out of his head. Nicky felt immobilized in terror. His mother was sprawled below him on the floor, weeping, with her hair in wretched disarray, blood oozing from her nose and lips, and a cut wrist from a piece of the broken platter.
Then Mark grabbed Nicky around the throat and tossed him half way to the living room. Nicky put a hand to his aching neck and used the other one to rub the elbow he had landed on.
"Get out of here," his father raged. "Get out of this house!"
"No, Mark," Linda pulled herself to her knees and took hold of her husband's arm. "He doesn't have anywhere to go in this cold."
"Get away from me," he pushed her into a wailing heap against the wall.
"No, no. Not my Nicky. Please don't send him away. Please, Mark. Not my son."
Nicky started for the stairs, not believing that his father would actually throw him out of the house.
"Where do you think you're going?" his father stopped him. "I told you to leave the house and I meant it."
Nicky argued. "Dad. It's freezing outside."
"You should've thought about that before you hit me."
Nicky ducked as his father advanced upon him and screamed when he felt his hair getting pulled. The pain intensified as he was dragged into the living room and thrown against the front door.
"Out!" his father demanded.
Nicky reached into the closet for his coat while his father struck him with continuous blows.
"No-o-o-o!" a bloodcurdling scream erupted from his mother. "Nicky! Nick-e-e-e!"
Unable to withstand the pummelling any longer, he fumbled with the doorknob and escaped to the outside.
Read Chapter 18.
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