Proud to be an American
Chris woke up late Sundays and holidays, which gave Lee time to make tea. He microwaved the water; they didn’t own a tea kettle. It didn’t really boil, but the steam drifted up after four minutes or so, licking his clean-shaven cheeks with welcome softness. If Chris had eaten leftovers the day before, the steam carried a faint smell: barbecue, marinara, greasy undertones of shredded cheese melted on nachos. But when Lee dipped the teabag into the mug, the steam-smell altered to heady spices, soft herbs. Quiet flavors. Lee kept the tea packets in his room, next to the Bible his grandparents had bought when he was born. Its pages, tinged in gold, had remained in the same pristine condition for eighteen years today.
Lee let the tea steep and looked around the trailer home. He didn’t feel eighteen. More than that, it didn’t feel like Thanksgiving. No pumpkins, turkey (except the deli slices going bad in the fridge drawer), no pilgrims, definitely no Indians. They had popcorn. In some history class, Lee had learned that Indians taught the settlers about popcorn. He hadn’t told Chris, for fear they would never buy popcorn again.
All there was to celebrate the holiday was the same tired American flag stapled to the far wall next to his father’s computer and green screen; all there was to celebrate his birthday was the text that had woken Lee thirty minutes before his tea alarm, which still sat carefully unread in his messages. His grandparents might send a gift in the mail, but more likely they would give him a check come Christmas, when he would visit them in Michigan. They knew Chris didn’t check the mail unless he was expecting Party updates, and the Party usually didn’t send on holiday weeks.
If Lee read the text, he’d have to respond, and, no matter what it said, the thought tightened in his chest. It was 6:30; Chris wouldn’t be up for another four hours. He’d stumble out of the bedroom, mumble about the lack of breakfast, and open his computer to check for emails. If Lee was texting anyone, Chris would ask about it. “Anyone I know?” The knowing drawl swept through Lee’s imagination, his father’s straggling brown beard twisting along a smirk. Chris looked nothing like Lee in the mornings. He looked like a caveman, a recluse: ragged, puffy-eyed, chest hair sticking through a deep- V T-shirt. Until he had coffee, the sleepiness hid the green in his eyes Lee had inherited. Until he showered, and straightened his back, they didn’t have the same broad shoulders, the same way of walking, with the easy confidence earned by two men living in a trailer home.
The tea finished steeping. Rich-brown ripples echoed in the cup as Lee removed the dripping bag and tossed it in the trash. He breathed in the steam. The spices prickled his nose. Sitting down at his father’s desk, which doubled as the breakfast table, Lee took a tentative sip and, when it burned his tongue as he knew it would, set it down to cool. His phone ended up in his hand, and he stared at the notification.
Happy birthday Lee! Hope it’s a good one. H…
It cut off there. Lee stared at the message, willing it to reveal what came after that “h”. “Have a good day” seemed plausible, but so did “Hey, I think you’re cute.”
Dumb. He was dumb. Chris would slap him, if he could read minds. Lee took another sip of his tea. Chris only drank coffee, so black it burnt the back of Lee’s throat when his father forced him to drink. “You’ll need a taste for this stuff if you’re going to college,” Chris had promised, with a twisted grin. “That’s what they say, anyway.”
Kaylee was going to DBU. Lee’s stack of manila envelopes had grown over the past two weeks to include UT, Houston, Texas State, and one University of Iowa.
Did Kaylee drink coffee? Was it racist to ask if she drank tea?
This was dumb. Chris might wake up early and then Lee couldn’t answer the text until Monday, when he would see Kaylee again in Calculus. “Bet she’s good at math,” Chris would snarl, if he knew. “Bet you could cheat off her, if you wanted.”
Lee’s thumb slipped the phone open, his father’s hatred ringing in his imagination.
Happy birthday, Lee! Hope it’s a good one. Hey, a group of us are getting together this afternoon after Thanksgiving lunches at Dairy Queen to work on the test review for Tuesday. No rest for the wicked, I guess. Want to come? We’ll get you birthday fries!
The tea slid down his throat, just cool enough to swallow. He read the message at least ten times before responding.
Thanks, yeah that sounds goof what time
His hands shook a little. Lee felt like an idiot. Kaylee was just being polite. He finished his tea, put the mug in the overcrowded dishwasher, and went back to his room.
Chris woke up around eleven so Lee was sure to emerge from his room by eleven-thirty, taking time to tousle his hair so it looked like he was fresh off the futon. “Coffee?” Chris asked, in a voice hoarse with mucus. His allergies always acted up this time of year.
“No, thanks. I’m probably going out pretty soon.”
“Out? Where to?” Chris’s pudgy eyes sought his son out blearily from whatever dismal world he saw pre-coffee. “It’s Thanksgiving.”
“I want to get some stuff,” Lee said. “For college. Books and stuff.”
“Books.” Chris nodded sagely, almost missing the mug with the pot’s dark stream. Pungent coffee tendrils shot out of the mug to play with Chris’s patchy beard. Lee could smell it from the table. “History books?”
“No, math and stuff.”
“You picked a college yet?”
“No. Just want to be prepared.”
“Listen, you take history, you come to me. The Party’s got some good literature so you don’t get any fool ideas from those damn professors.”
“Yes, sir.” Lee watched him gulp down the first half of the coffee; Chris shivered as the scalding liquid snaked down his throat. “You got any assignments today?”
“Yeah, a response to UT’s dumb-ass football team. You ain’t going to that school.”
“You liked that school.” Lee remembered the Confederate tour they took, how excited Chris had been to hear Lee’s namesake praised.
“Not anymore.” Chris shook his head so vehemently some of the coffee spilled on the linoleum floor. “They gonna change the school song. Damn liberals. It’s part of our heritage as Americans.”
“What’s wrong with the song?” Lee asked.
“Nothing. Here, read the script the Party sent.”
Chris set his coffee mug on the table and bent over his desk to the file bin below. His knees cracked. Lee watched his sweatpants pull against his rear, tightening all the way down to the backs of his knees, where they draped forward to almost cover his father’s mangled toes. Welding accident, Chris had told him. Glad I’m done with that.
With a quick, huffing groan, Chris righted himself and held out a wrinkled clump of papers to Lee. Lee took them, his stomach pulling tight at the sight of the Party logo at the top: a white diamond with a black crosshairs in the center, surrounded by blood red. KNIGHTS PARTY RESPONSE TO LEFT-WING HATRED OF AMERICAN HERITAGE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS, the title read. Lee skimmed, but it was all the same copy he’d read before in his father’s magazines, on the website, and in the books Chris gave him.
“Huh? That’s all you got?”
“Shame,” Lee offered, but he didn’t care. Mom never cared about Party stuff either. She tolerated Chris’s rants when they came, but she made him keep everything Party in his office at the old house. “You have your beliefs, but we get to have ours,” she told him. Chris wasn’t in any position to complain. Mom, with her soft green eyes and killer taco soup, was the perfect American wife. He couldn’t have asked for more. Still, Lee hadn’t expected Chris to stay when chemo started. Lee himself had wanted to leave; he couldn’t stand the sight of Mom’s hairless, shriveled body reaching thin arms for a tortuous sip of water. It hadn’t been his mother. When hospital bills drove them out of the old house, they moved here, and the Party became Chris’s life. He’d forgotten Mom so quickly.
“I’ve got your application,” Chris announced. Lee frowned.
Lee’s stomach flipped. “Um.”
“Now I never made your mama join, because she was happy supportin’ me. But you — you’re a man. You’ve got to follow my lead. The Party’d be lucky to have you fightin’.”
Doing what? Writing outdated rhetoric for angry, lonely men to read on the website? Making videos with a crappy green screen that only ever got ten views before YouTube blocked them for being hate speech?
Lee hoped that was all Chris had done. He’d never asked, for fear of the answer.
Chris handed him a pen and the application. “Happy birthday, son.” He picked up his coffee mug and took another gulp, eyes on Lee’s hands. Waiting.
Lee mumbled some sort of excuse and escaped to his room. He shoved the application in his backpack, (if he left it in the room, Chris could find it) and tugged on his sneakers. He’d just get to Dairy Queen early, before Chris tried to get him sized for a white hood or something.
Guilt, hot and confusing, burned his throat when he saw he had another text from Kaylee.
So a couple kids canceled (grandparents flew into town) and it looks like it would just be you and me studying, do you still want to go? My family doesn’t do Thanksgiving so I’m totally free and I DID promise you birthday fries…
Yes. Yes, he would very much still like to go, but the why behind that still remained unclear. Chris would kill him if…if what? He and Kaylee were friends. Well, that was enough, then. Chris would kill him for that. He’d rant about World War Two and Pearl Harbor and unfair labor distribution and then he would kill Lee.
Friends with birthday fry benefits, though. That had to be something. Right?
This school wasn’t his, so friends were scarce. When they moved, Lee lost the house, Mom, the protection of the study door that Chris locked when he worked — and he lost a school full of friends. Now he did his best to remain anonymous. Desperation in Calculus spurred his friendship with Kaylee, who sat in front of him. After the first couple weeks of school, they began sitting together at lunch to work on problems. This was when Lee first began to notice Kaylee’s hair: thick, black, straight, braided, tucked behind her tiny seashell ear. It started distracting him in class. And her laugh wasn’t like every other high school girl laugh. Kaylee had the ugliest laugh he’d ever heard. Lee started talking more, just to hear it.
And now they were friends with birthday fry benefits. He waited until he was safely in Chris’s truck to respond.
Yeah lol ofc I’ll still come I’m actually headed that way right now so I’ll see you at 12
The truck was old and the green paint was starting to chip off the exterior. It groaned and sputtered before finally starting, and Lee had to be gentle when pulling out of the RV park. Too much rush and the truck would die.
His phone buzzed, and Lee forced himself not to look, but instead to keep his eyes on the road, where the last-minute Thanksgiving hordes were swarming dangerously at suburban neighborhood entrances.
Rose Trellis Mall sprawled five minutes from the RV park, at Deereye’s small Texan heart. Mom had died in Dallas, at the old house, where they were five minutes from a real mall, one with a Target where Lee had bought her a swollen blue whale balloon with the white words GET WHALE SOON printed on its belly. That had been one of the last times he’d seen Mom smile. Rose Trellis didn’t have a Target. It had Dairy Queen, a Super1, a steak place (crowded with families who didn’t have a matriarch to cook the turkey), three women’s clothes stores, and a Bed, Bath and Beyond. Only DQ, Super1, and the steak place remained open today. Lee pulled into the near-empty Dairy Queen parking lot and shoved the truck into park. He opened the text.
Great! I’ll head that way. Don’t eat without me!
Here, I won’t, green truck
He pulled the keys and the truck settled to silence. Through the cracked windshield, Rose Trellis Mall hummed like an anthill. Cars scooted in and out of the restaurant parking lots, and a tiny Super1 employee had a near-death experience concerning a cart stuffed with toilet paper and a parking lot pothole. Lee watched, letting his mind drift. He realized as Kaylee’s red Ford Focus purred into sight that he’d forgotten his Calculus book at home. He still had his notes, though.
“Hey,” he said, meeting her at the tail of Chris’s truck. “What’s up?”
“Hey, Lee!” Kaylee beamed. Her hair shone in the sunlight, deep black so it was almost blue. She wore round little sunglasses which hid her brown eyes with their delicate lashes. “Not much, actually. Sorry everyone canceled.”
I don’t care about them I just wanted to see you which is weirding me out because if Chris knew he’d kill me and I don’t even know what Mom would do because she’s dead so I’m really out on an emotional limb here….
“As long as I still get birthday fries,” Lee said instead. Kaylee laughed the ugliest, perfect laugh Lee had ever heard.
Inside, the plastic booth clung to his back and thighs as cold air tunneled through the vent right above their table. Kaylee took off her sunglasses and Lee noticed with a jolt that she was wearing makeup. He’d never seen her wear makeup before.
“Just fries?” she asked. He realized he’d been staring.
“Yeah, that sounds good.”
He handed her a five-dollar bill, and Kaylee scooted out of the booth to order, leaving Lee alone. He stared at the ice cream decorations on the walls and tried to feel anything but the strange buzzing in his chest. She’d worn makeup for him.
“O-kay,” Kaylee sighed, settling back into the booth. “So. The exam.”
“Yeah,” Lee said, pulling out his notes. His scribbled handwriting laughed up at him; he tilted the paper so she wouldn’t see the letters Chris forgot to teach him to form. “Shouldn’t be too bad.”
The fries arrived midway through their third problem, along with a burger for Kaylee. Only wrappers remained by the end of their fourth problem and Lee’s head was starting to hurt. He set down his pencil and rubbed his temples.
“If we need to take a break, we can,” Kaylee told him. Lee looked up and saw her push aside her notes and book, lean forward to stare at him with a little smile on her lip- gloss lips. “It’s your birthday, after all. Fifteen minutes?”
“Sounds great,” Lee groaned, pushing away his own notes with an elbow. “It’s probably from smelling Chris’s coffee, honestly.”
Lee pulled his hands off his temples abruptly. He could’ve slapped himself. “My dad.”
“Who you call by his first name?”
“Got it. So, not a coffee drinker, huh?” she asked, sipping her milkshake. “That’s okay. More for me.”
Lee watched the milkshake slip down her throat. Near the end, all Mom could “eat” were liquids. He’d had to blend up protein shakes for her to gag down an eternally dry throat, ignoring the gasping whimpers for him to stop and just let her go.
“How long you live in Deereye?” Lee asked.
Kaylee shrugged. “This next December makes two years. We moved the week before Christmas, for Dad’s work. That was the only year we didn’t have a tree.”
Lee almost asked what work Kaylee’s dad did, but it would have led to a reciprocated interest and he didn’t have a good lie ready. “I’ve been here since freshman year, so three years ago. We’re both new, then. Where’d you move from?”
“Oh, you’re a born Texan.”
“I’ve never met someone who wasn’t.”
“Really? We’re still pretty decent people. You just have to watch out for the anti- Texans.”
Lee snorted. “I’m glad you’re here, anyway. And you’re not an anti-Texan, right?”
“Depends on the Texan. I’m not an anti-Lee, and that’s what matters.”
She’d said his name twice. Two times she’d acknowledged that it wasn’t a mistake they were sitting there, homework dropped as a pretense, talking.
“So, you don’t do Thanksgiving?” Lee asked.
Kaylee’s eyebrows furrowed into moving shadows. “My mom grew up on a reservation, so she’s not really the cardboard Indian type.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you were…” he stammered to a halt. None of the words his brain offered remotely covered what he thought Kaylee was.
“Yeah, everybody usually just assumes my mom’s white,” she grinned. “I don’t look super native. But it’s cool. We still visit the reservation to see my grandparents sometimes. But Dad doesn’t really care about Thanksgiving either, since his parents forced it on him when he was younger and they moved here. So it doesn’t bother him. We’ve always done Christmas, though. What about you?”
“Um,” Lee said. “My dad…”
“Yeah. He’s not the best at remembering holidays.”
“What about your mom?”
“Oh, she’s dead.”
He winced. She looked away.
“Wow, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” he said, face so red he matched the ketchup bottle. “She’s fine now. She was the best of us, so we weren’t too worried about what happened to her, after.” Kaylee still stared at the table, her hair falling down around her ears. Lee couldn’t believe he’d ruined the conversation. “Um,” he said, trying to fix it. “Did…did you ever want to celebrate Thanksgiving?”
Kaylee shrugged, glancing back up. “I mean, pie is good.”
“Yes!” Lee almost shouted. “Pie is very good!”
She grinned. “I’m glad we agree.”
“Do you…do you want to go get pie?” Lee asked, his face still burning. “So we can kind of have a tiny non-Thanksgiving pie-eating? Since everyone else is getting pie right now.”
Kaylee’s grin widened. “Yeah, that sounds good. Better than the exam, anyway.”
“I bet Super1 has a pumpkin pie.”
“I bet it’s disgusting.” She laughed. “Let’s go.”
Even though it was only across the mall, they drove in Lee’s truck. It had started to drizzle outside; by the time they reached Super1 (which took two minutes), it had started to pour. “You wait here,” Lee shouted, over the battering raindrops on the truck’s thin roof. “I don’t want you to get soaked.”
“A true gentleman,” Kaylee shouted back.
Lee locked the truck behind him, just in case, and bolted across the deserted parking lot. The miserable employee guarding the carts at the entrance had on a mask with pumpkins printed across it. “Happy Thanksgiving,” she shouted.
“Thanks, you too,” Lee shouted back.
In the store, the empty aisles yawned with depleted rows of canned green beans, canned corn, puréed sweet potato, marshmallows. Beans were still proliferous, as were corn chips. Bread varied based on grain count; most of the white bread had disappeared. Lee took this all in as he made a beeline for the bakery. Stacks of pies waited on crates for last-minute holiday fiascos. They were all wrong: pecan, meringue, chocolate, cherry (cherry?), apple….none were what Kaylee asked for. At last, he found a sweet potato pie shoved underneath a meringue. Close enough. He grabbed it and turned, almost running into a solid, overalled figure. Lee stumbled back, pie clutched to his chest to prevent accident.
“Lee Wharton!” A voice boomed. It was Earl Thatcher, Chris’s friend who had a ranch outside of town. His thick hands gripped Lee’s shoulders. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Getting a pie,” Lee stammered. “How are you?”
“Good! Just getting the family an edible pie. First year since the missus left me, and I can’t be trusted in the kitchen for the life of me.” He laughed, a broiled laugh. Earl hosted Party meetings every now and then. Chris always came back from those drunk from Earl’s moonshine experimentation. “You gettin’ something good for your dad?”
“Good! He deserves it, all the hard work he’s put in. None of the rest of us know how the computer works. And that’s how we’re spreading to the younger generation, you know. It has to be online, or they won’t hear the truth! Your dad give you your birthday present yet?” He didn’t let Lee reply. “It’s an honorable thing, to follow your father. That’s why I’m where I am today. You’re in a good place, Lee; you’re the voice we need with the young kids.”
Earl was waxing editorial now, his voice mellowing into a pastoral bellow. A sermon on dehumanization. Lee could feel the pie beginning to sweat in his hands.
“I tell you, the things I hear the young people doing, good Christian girls getting pregnant in high school and all these damn riots…”
I just want to get back to the truck and eat this pie with plastic forks from Raising Canes that Chris keeps in the glove compartment and forget about the world for one very small day
“And even churches condoning this racial equality propaganda…”
“Earl, isn’t your family waiting?” Lee pleaded. Earl blinked.
“I guess they are. You fill out that application quick now, Lee. I’ll be proud to second the nomination and get you a good job to start.”
“Thanks.” Lee felt something cave in his gut as he watched Earl lumber away. He almost couldn’t hold the pie; it wasn’t sweating, but he was. He paid, and he left.
The rain had quieted down to a dull plink-plink against the pie’s plastic lid. Lee squinted through the rain; he could see the green truck, sunken on its tires.
The passenger door swung open, letting steady trickles of rain spatter over Lee’s notebook, his gaping backpack, loose papers that had fallen to disintegrate in parking lot puddles.
Kaylee was long gone. In the passenger’s seat sat the Party application. Lee could see, as he set down the sweet potato pie on the console, that Kaylee had clenched her hands when she read it (she must have been looking for a phone charger, or his notes, or maybe an umbrella to go running after him because he was taking too long), crumpling the sides. Chris had written Lee’s name already in the blank. His handwriting looked just like Lee’s.
“Brought pie,” Lee said, when he got back.
“Good! You get your books?”
“Nope, I forgot. All the places are closed for a holiday.”
“Okay.” Chris went back to the computer. The video’s blue light reflected off his pallid cheeks. The rain skittered down the sides of the trailer.
Lee closed the door to his room. He sat on the futon and stared at the application for a long time. Then he got a pen and filled in every single letter of his name, giving the e’s black eyes and turning the o into a void. He crossed through it. Three straight lines. He drew a frowny face inside the white cross at the top. Shredded the application into halves, quarters, eighths, sixteenths. How far could you go until human fingers weren’t capable of tearing paper? He found the limit, but had lost count. The college application forms sat, untouched, unopened (unbelievable) next to his lamp. Lee picked them up, felt the soft paper stiffen under his touch. He began to read, pen in hand.