What Samuel loves most about going to his Aunt Virginia and Uncle Joseph’s house is the fish tank, though it usually isn’t kept very well. Last time the glass was covered in a thin layer of grimy algae, and the dull freshwater fish swam slowly. There were even two floating at the surface next to the broken filter. So, Samuel is surprised when he finds the fish tank clean, with a new filter and plenty of fake plants rooted in the bed of tiny stones. He leans closer to the glass to find the fish.
Right as he spots a few small ones, he hears a familiar voice from behind him. “Well, if it ain’t Li’l Sammy.”
In the doorway stands Samuel’s cousin Mallard. He’s one of Aunt Ginny and Uncle Joe’s sons, tall and skinny with long hair and basketball shorts even when it’s cold out. He grins and holds a fist out for Samuel to bump with his own.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” Samuel tells him, because his mama tells him every year that he’s supposed to say it to everyone.
“I’d say you too, but Thanksgiving sucks,” Mallard replies.
Samuel turns back to the fish tank. “Why does it suck?” he asks, tilting his head to follow a neon tetra he’s spotted behind a fake rock. “Mama said it’s about blessings.”
Mallard leans against the wall beside the tank. He shakes his head. “Fuckin’ white people is why, Sammy.”
If he wasn’t so distracted by the fish, Samuel might have asked what fuckin’ white people had to do with Thanksgiving sucking. He learns about the Pilgrims and the Mayflower every year, but he doesn’t remember them doing anything bad other than dying from sickness on the boat. At school in the suburbs, where the corn fields are, Thanksgiving is about food and making fun crafts. It’s about watching the Charlie Brown VHS tape on the TV hanging from the ceiling in the top corner of the classroom.
“What’re those tiny ones?” Samuel points to a couple of small, thin fish that look almost clear except for two horizontal, turquoise stripes going across their sides.
“Those are the killifish. Dunno what kind, though.”
“Do they kill the other fish?”
“Hope not. Do you like them? I picked ’em out last month after Ma gave me the tank.”
“Is that why it’s all clean and nice? ’Cause you’ve been taking care of it?”
Mallard nods. “You bet. Got it for my birthday when I turned sixteen cause her ’n Dad didn’t wanna take care of it no more. Had to go to the library to do research, though.”
“You should become a fish scientist when you go to college,” Samuel tells him.
Mallard smiles at him, just one corner of his mouth lifting. “College?” he repeats, then laughs sourly as if it’s the most ridiculous thing in the world. “You kidding, Sammy? Look at me! I ain’t goin’ to college.”
Samuel looks at Mallard and squints. “What do you mean? You look fine to me. Plus, you can read. If you can read, you can do anything. That’s what Frederick Douglass said.”
Mallard just shakes his head. “You’ll get it when you’re older.”
“That’s what my sister always says to me,” Samuel says. “Why’s there so much stuff I gotta not understand? And why do I hafta be older to know it?”
“Just how it works, Sammy.” Mallard pushes himself away from the wall. “C’mon, it’s almost time to eat.”
“Did Aunt Ginny make the sweet potatoes again?”
“Even more than last year,” Mallard answers. “What would a Ginny and Joe Thanksgiving be without the sweet potato mash?”
“It wouldn’t be nothin’,” Samuel says with a grin.
There are two dinner tables set up, one in the kitchen and one in the dining room. They’re both just two folding tables pushed together and draped in Aunt Ginny’s best tablecloths, the gold ones with light swirls embroidered on them. After they all hold hands and Grandma Rosemarie says grace, it gets loud. Samuel is squeezed between his mama and his cousin Isaiah, who looks a lot older than he did last year, with white spots in his beard. He has a knit hat covering his head, which Grandma Rosemarie makes him take off for grace.
Samuel makes sure to get two scoops of mashed potatoes, since he knows they’ll be gone fast. The meat is good, but better with raisin gravy on top. He ignores the bowl of buttered green beans and sliced almonds and takes a little bit of the cranberry sauce he and his mama made yesterday.
“What are you up to these days, Samuel?” Aunt Ginny asks from across the table.
“I’m a writer now,” Samuel tells her after he finishes chewing. “I’m making a book.”
“Another talented artist, just like your sister,” Aunt Ginny says, smiling as she brings another forkful of food to her mouth.
The mention of his sister bothers Samuel, though he’s not quite sure why. “Writing’s a lot different than drawing, Aunt Ginny,” he says, and begins jabbing his fork into the mashed sweet potatoes on his plate.
“Sammy, have some green beans,” his mama tells him, pushing the bowl of vegetables in front of him. “You can’t eat nothin’ but mash.”
“I have other stuff,” he says, but takes the green beans and counts until ten of them are on his plate. That seems to satisfy his mama, who goes back to talking with the others.
By the time he’s finished eating, Samuel is tired. The afternoon is waning, and he wants to go home and spend the rest of his time off from school riding his junkyard bike around the neighborhood. But the Bills are still playing the Cowboys on the living room TV, so they have to stay, because Uncle Joe insists that the only good things that ever came from this darn country are hot dogs, Obama, and the great American football game.
Cara Roets is a multi-genre writer from Rochester, New York. She takes every opportunity she can to write about unique subject matter and convey the complex with simple words.