Uncle Roy has been dead for years, but we still set a place for him every Thanksgiving. Lucky beer glass, plate piled high with cornbread stuffing and dark meat (white meat was “for pussies,” as Uncle Roy always so eloquently explained), extra napkin for stuffing into the collar of his shirt. Uncle Roy was a big eater, so Thanksgiving was the day of the year that he could be totally unapologetic about stuffing his face with second and third and fourth helpings of lard-laden comfort food.
He died six years ago, just weeks before Thanksgiving. Heart attack. Gone before the paramedics even showed up. Poor Aunt Rose cooked enough leftovers that Thanksgiving to feed the army, her time-tested recipes overwhelmingly abundant without Uncle Roy’s appetite to trim down the volume. It was strange to have him missing from the table, especially when he’d been there just a week before, sitting in his own little throne in his own little castle. It felt almost like intruding, and the heavy sense of loss sucked the joy out of the family’s most cherished holiday.
That night, my mom spent the night at Aunt Rose’s house, offering some sisterly support for an especially rough day in a stretch of rough days. As she tells it, they sat up on the couch until late at night, getting shitfaced on cheap wine, an honored family tradition. As they listened to the generic holiday Pandora station play the same song for the third time, Aunt Rose leapt up with a shriek, her eyes like porcelain dinner plates. Her hand shook violently as it pointed at the sliding glass door behind my mom.
“It’s…Roy!” she screamed. My mom grabbed her sister by the wrist and tried to yank her back down on the couch, assuming that between booze, stress, and grief, Aunt Rose had simply mistaken her own reflection in some kind of horrible be-careful-what-you-wish-for wishful thinking. But instead of sitting back down, Aunt Rose didn’t budge even an inch, just let out a painful yelp as my mom accidentally dislocated her elbow.
Well, that made Mom start screaming, seeing Aunt Rose’s arm dangling limp from her rapidly-swelling elbow. It wasn’t until Aunt Rose grabbed my mom’s face with her still-good arm and turned her head sharply that she finally faced the window.
It really was Uncle Roy. The suit he’d been buried in was still in pretty good shape, but the same couldn’t be said for the rest of him. Even through the darkness and glare on the window glass, they could tell that he was seeping fluids all over the place, and his eye sockets no longer held the mischievous twinkle that Uncle Roy had always been known for. But he still had that same kind smile, and enough left of his face for the trademark dimple to show through.
Aunt Rose and my mom stood frozen in shock and horror, staring open-mouthed at the well-dressed corpse on the back deck. Uncle Roy raised a hand and knocked gently on the sliding glass door, then gestured at the handle. Neither woman budged. Uncle Roy shrugged and took a few steps past the door, toward the side of the deck where the garbage cans were kept. They heard him rummaging around, flinging the metal trash can lids against the porch railing. The wooden boards underfoot creaked as Uncle Roy shambled back toward the sliding glass door.
He held up the bag of turkey gizzards that Aunt Rose had tossed in the trash earlier, then tore the paper packet in half and messily dumped the contents into his mouth. He politely dabbed the corners of his mouth with the damp paper before folding it and tucking it into the pocket of his suit jacket. Then Uncle Roy waved a goodbye to my mom, blew a kiss to Aunt Rose, and headed back where he’d come from.
Ever since then, Uncle Roy gets a real plate every year, along with a glass of his favorite beer, festively laid out on a card table on the patio. There’s a little less of him every time, but he always brings his smile and his appetite.