The Scraping Sound of Auto Parts
Your little sister is late. Outside the terminal, a slight drizzle slants in the orange streetlights. Everyone else on your flight has long since been picked up or connected to another destination. You hear her car before you see it, a scraping sound of auto parts traveling across potholes. As soon as she pulls up, your nephew climbs through the passenger window and jumps on you, tries to pick you up around your knees. Your sister rushes towards you.
“Hiiieeee,” she hugs your arm then yells at your nephew to get your bag. He's pierced his left ear, a tiny silver hoop hanging off it, just like yours. You get in on the driver's side because the other door is broken. Your nephew slides past you into the back. He bounces up and down, then thrusts a tape into the stereo and turns it up loud. “This is my new favorite band,” he says.
Your sister adjusts the volume and asks if you're up for Thai food. It takes a few minutes for her to get the engine to turn over. “How was the trip?” she asks. “It sucked. Baby next to me got sick all over its mother. And I mean allover. Even on her face.”
“Ohhhh nasty,” your nephew leans over the gearshift, his head wedged between you and your sister. “You're one to talk. You did that to me once,” your sister pushes him backwards. “No way.”
“You did, your first Christmas when we were going to Grandma and Grandpa's. Just as we got on the plane. I had to wear your dad's coat the whole way because my shirt was a total mess.”
“Just don't let it happen again. Baby puke is one thing, 12-year-old puke is another,” she pulls up in front of the Thai restaurant. While she runs inside to get the food, your nephew turns up the music again and drums the back of your seat. “You're losing your hair,” your nephew drums the top of your head. You are always amazed at how clean your sister's house is. She must have gotten a gene or something that you didn't in order to be able to work full-time, look after your nephew and keep the house looking like this.
You like coming here for Thanksgiving, a comfortable, effortless holiday, only one meal, no presents to buy, your favorite relatives. And there are never any family negotiations because your parents have already driven to Florida for the winter and your older sister, Nancy, and her family go to the in-laws every year. Everything is all set.
Christmas is a whole other story. Your sister has candles and a tablecloth for every meal, even takeout. The foil containers of food leave oily yellow stains on the batik cloth. You listen to the rest of your nephew's new favorite band while you eat. He's starting his own band, he tells you in between gulping down an entire portion of chicken curry. Their New-Agey neighbor, Charlotte, stops over to borrow some eggs for an apple pie she is baking. Even though she's old enough to be your mother, she has a crush on you, your sister told you a few years ago. She manages to come up with a lot of excuses to drop by whenever you are visiting. “Hey you,” she gives you a long hug, an overpowering scent of patchouli wafting off her soft, billowing body. Then she helps herself to a glass of wine and sits down at the table. Your sister stands behind her mouthing “I'm sorry.”
You are only too happy when your nephew asks if you want to come up to his room and listen to some music. He plays you a song he wrote on his guitar while you sit cross-legged on the bed. The walls are covered with posters of bands and skateboarders replacing the ones of the Mariners and the Sonics that were up last time you visited. You take out your new iPod that you bought in anticipation of being hired by the producer. Even if you don't get the job, at the very least he'll give you an occasional rewrite, you justified to yourself in the Apple store. “Awesome,” your nephew says as you show him how it works. “Coast is clear,” your sister knocks at the door. “I'm just going to take a bath.”
“Wanna watch TV?” your nephew asks. You sit together on the living room couch while he flips through channels, finally settling on MTV 2. Above the television, there is a picture of you and him at an amusement park when he was about five. You are stoned in the picture, after sharing a joint with your sister before you left your apartment, blowing the smoke into a towel so he wouldn't notice. It was hot and you carried him aroundon your shoulders for most of the day. Your nephew visits you by himself now, but you still go to amusement parks every time. It is like being on vacation when he comes, doing all the things you wish you did more often. Eating breakfast at various diners every morning, taking him to the beach, on hikes. He is like a novelty item and you bring him along to everything you'd do anyway, like parties, or out to dinner with your friends.
After he goes to bed, you stay up late with your sister, drinking red wine in her kitchen, discussing your older sister Nancy. If you get Nancy's husband when you call, it will be a long time before he lets you talk to her, giving you the update on the Italian villa style home they are building. Last year they bought a plot of land and knocked down the century-old farmhouse and barn on it in order to create this marble monstrosity. “It has a 20-seat screening room and an indoor gym,” your sister imitates his hollow voice while she opens another bottle of wine. Nancy doesn't do anything except spend her days chauffeuring their twin girls to horseback riding lessons, the tennis club, in between her personal trainer workouts. And they give the girls ridiculous gifts, like matching fur coats for their eighth birthday. It is somehow satisfying saying these things about Nancy, makes you both feel a little superior at two in the morning.
When you first wake up, you don't know where you are, a familiar feeling. It is late and even your nephew has already eaten breakfast. He is perched on the kitchen counter drumming with wooden spoons and your sister has her feet up, reading the paper. “I thought we were going to Ollie's,” he grabs your shoulders as you walk past, shaking you slightly. “We are,” your sister yawns. ““Hey did I tell you that we're not doing the turkey thing this year?” she says to you. “I'm trying to be a vegetarian again and I couldn't deal with cooking a bird. The whole thing is so gross anyway.” “Whatever,” you'd been thinking about stuffing all week. “Are you pissed?”
“I don't care.” “Jeez, I didn't know it was that important to you.”
“What part of ‘I don't care' do you not get?”
“Ok, ok, ok. Have some coffee,” she goes back to the paper. “Before I invite Charlotte over.” They always take you to Ollie's when you are here. It is similar to a restaurant you went to when you were a kid for special occasions which seemed unbelievably fancy at the time, but was basically a Denny's. The place is busy for Thanksgiving. “Maybe everyone is considering vegetarianism and not up for dealing with cooking a bird,” you say as you order the special, a turkey dinner sandwich with all the trimmings. Your sister threatens Charlotte on you again. “She just got licensed to be a massage therapist,” she moves her eyebrows up and down at you. “I'm surprised she didn't ask to practice on you.”
After the late afternoon lunch, your nephew wants to see this new skateboarding documentary. One of your friends worked on it, you start to tell him, but stop yourself. Your sister is always accusing you of name-dropping, especially in front of your nephew. You go with him to get popcorn while she guards the seats. She told you that he has a new girlfriend and asked if you could find out more. While you wait in line, you sucker punch him in the stomach, twist his arm around. “Stop,” he smiles, lips retreating over braces. He hip-checks you and you bump into the family waiting in front. The mother scowls. “Sorry,” you say, your nephew laughing. “So how's the girl action this year?”
“What do you mean?” he turns red and looks around to see if anyone has heard. “You know.”
“I'll tell you later, all right,” he whispers. The three of you eat an entire vat of popcorn, your hands coated with butter and salt when the movie is finished. “Are your friends still coming over?” your sister asks him on the way home. “Yeah,” he leans over the gearshift again and looks at you. “Tonight is gonna be my band's first rehearsal. Maybe you could help us think of a name.”
“How about ‘The Fuckheads,'” you say, shoving him backwards, softly punching his open palms. “Don't,” he laughs. “We're going to have a fucking accident if you don't knock it off,” your sister slaps your ribcage. You take a nap when you get back to their house, waking just as your nephew's friends arrive. “That's my uncle,” he says, pointing to you on the fold-out couch. You wait for him to ask you up to his room, but he doesn't. His friends follow behind, looking you over as they walk past. Some have brought guitars and you can hear them alternate between trying to play their own music and listening to albums. Your sister opens more wine. “Did you get anything about his girlfriend?”
“Hey, I'm not your spy.”
“He wouldn't tell you, would he.” You shake your head. Your nephew comes down and asks if he can show his friends your iPod. Then your parents call and you all take turns talking to them. You stay up late again, this time discussing them. It is not as much fun as talking about Nancy. Your sister is always angry with them for this reason or that, trying to get you on her side. There are usually long periods of time when they aren't even speaking to one another. You switch to beer halfway through the evening. Your nephew's friends leave, but he doesn't come downstairs to say goodnight. In the morning you watch more MTV 2 sprawled out on the couch, your nephew curled up in the armchair. He doesn't provide his usual music video banter, endless facts about the band, the director of the video, record label this, record label that. Instead, he just sits there quietly. Your sister's ex is coming to get him in a little while. You ask him if he's going to visit over his February vacation like he did last year. “I guess,” he shrugs. “Unless I go to my Dad's.”
You have a shower and go get changed in his room. His backpack is on the bed, stuffed with clothes and magazines. You look closer. Your iPod is in there too. Maybe he forgot that he had it in his bag, you think, taking it out and putting it in your pocket. The doorbell rings. You pull on your shirt and hurry out of the room, drape the towel on a hook in the bathroom. Your sister's ex is at the kitchen table. He takes up the whole room. You were wrestling with him once years ago when they were still together, and he got you in a choke hold, wouldn't let go until your sister picked up a baseball bat. They got married when your sister was five months pregnant, then divorced right after your nephew's first birthday.
“Look at you,” he offers a firm right hand. “Yeah, how you been?” you nod slightly. Your nephew concentrates on his toast, your sister has her back to everyone, the water running over dishes in the sink. “Well we better get going,” he spreads his wide hands through your nephew's hair. “Got tickets to the game,” he says loudly, so your sister will hear. She turns around. “Cool,” she sounds distracted, as if she's busy thinking about something else. “Go get your bag, honey.”
“Don't call me that. You know I hate it.”
“Don't talk to your mother like that,” he slaps your nephew on the back of his head just a little too hard. You and your sister exchange a look. “Since when do you care,” your nephew goes out of the room. Your sister glares at her ex then goes back to the dishes. He doesn't say anything, just picks up the paper. You start to follow your nephew and explain out in the hallway, away from his parents, that you took back the iPod but there's no hard feelings. Instead you stop and just watch him leave the room. When he comes back down, his face is wrinkled up like he's trying to read subtitles in a language he doesn't understand. “Bye,” he mumbles, not looking at you, focusing on something far away. “Maybe I'll see you in February, man.” You do this handshake that the two of you made up when he was little, where you interlock elbows and make a warbling noise. He goes along with it reluctantly. Then you grab him and pull him towards you, his face cradled in your armpit. Everyone goes out to the front of the house. Your nephew isn't wearing his earring anymore, you notice as you walk behind him. He throws his bag in the back of his father's car and glances at you briefly before getting in. Then they drive away.
Your sister picks up some trash on the small patch of lawn in front of the house. “Assholes,” she crouches down over the squashed beer cans and McDonalds' wrappers that someone must have thrown out of their car window as they drove past. She looks especially small and young in her sweat pants and oversized T-shirt, balancing the garbage in her hands. She throws it out, then stands there for a moment, staring at the spot where the car was. When you were growing up, she was always bringing home stray cats and dogs, injured birds, friends who were thrown out of their homes, anything she could take care of. She starts to go inside then stops, unsure what to do with herself for the next 24 hours she has until her son comes back. She looks at you, hoping you might have some ideas, then away, knowing you won't, before heading into the house. You look out over the other houses on her road which swerves around and connects to a commercial street dotted with record exchange stores, a food warehouse, second hand furniture outlets. Your bare feet stick to the cold cement steps. The sun slips out from underneath metallic November clouds as you sit down and toe at the wet grass sticking up through the cracks in the pathway.