Rumaan Alam

This Year I’m Thankful For

My sister is slicing an onion when a giant cockroach runs over her foot and she starts screaming hysterically. In her defense it’s a pretty big roach, but then all kinds of shit starts happening, including Miranda, who is all tucked in on the couch happily asleep, wakes up and starts screaming too, and my brother-in-law Ben is like Fuck this and pours himself a drink and I know that’s not going to end well because if I had to pick one nice thing to say about Ben, you know, because you’re supposed to say something nice or nothing at all, it’s that he’s an excellent drinker. The bottle of Jameson won’t live to see tomorrow.

I’ll take the baby, I say. 

Miranda: still screaming. 

We’ll go for a walk.

A walk? My sister looks at me like she’s never heard the word. It’s 100 degrees inside because the oven is on and she’s baking a pie. It’s 40 degrees outside but who cares? 

A walk, I say.

There’s a lot to do because tomorrow is Thanksgiving and Ben’s judgmental mother is coming, and so is his sister and her husband. They live in Manhattan and are millionaires because he works in construction and they don’t have kids. They go on lavish vacations all the time. In fact, on Friday, they’re leaving for Puerto Rico. 

Go for a walk, Ben basically screams at me over the sound of Miranda crying. He’s banging a bag of ice against the edge of the countertop to loosen some, and let me tell you, the noise isn’t making Miranda feel any more relaxed.

I run into the living room to pick her up which takes ten seconds because the living room is about four inches from the kitchen. Miranda’s face is red and there’s snot running out of her broad, flat nose, but I don’t care even when she rubs it all over the cardigan I bought two days ago. Poor baby, even though she’s not a baby, is closer to three than two. She settles a little, stops crying, kind of buries her face in my neck. Her breath is hot.

We’re going to go outside, I yell, unnecessarily, because my sister has stopped screaming, and Ben has stopped banging, having successfully loosened a handful of ice, tossed it into a tumbler, and filled it pretty much to the brim. He looks relieved. 

Her jacket is by the door, says my sister in this weird far away voice and now I kind of wonder if they’re going to have sex while we’re out at the park or whatever. Their alone time is at a premium. I know because my sister has mentioned it. She wants us to be those kind of sisters, who compare sex lives over pedicures and cups of herbal tea. The thought of it makes me move fast, so I get Miranda out of her wet diaper and into a clean one, stuff her into her overly puffy jacket, then we go. 

My sister and Ben’s apartment is the ground floor of a little three-story house, with a tiny backyard my sister has attempted to make feel suburban by trimming the grass with an electric weed whacker borrowed from the couple next door because where would she keep a lawn mower. She’s also put one of those picnic tables with benches attached on the little patch of concrete outside the backdoor, and one of those metal and wire contraptions you lay clothes on to dry them in the sun, and a plastic toy house for Miranda, with a little red half door that creaks when you open it. Miranda loves it, except she can’t play outside unattended because a mean little boy who lives on the fourth floor of the apartment building behind the house throws stuff out his window at them whenever they’re out back. 

You little fuck, Ben will yell at him, after the kid tosses out a pencil. You can see him hiding behind the crooked venetian blinds. My sister is scared one day he’ll throw something out and hurt the baby. It’s an issue. 

Their apartment isn’t much bigger than mine, but our father’s dead, our mother is insane, I haven’t had a boyfriend in months, and so where else am I going to spend the holidays, especially the holidays that revolve around families sitting around tables and eating together? I was here for Easter too. We hid dyed eggs in the backyard, then sat at the picnic table eating egg salad sandwiches and those hollow chocolate bunnies that don’t even taste that good. 

There’s a park nearby, a ten minute walk, not a very nice park but city parks aren’t all that nice once you look closer and see the grass is actually weeds, there are empty Snapple bottles in the pond, there’s yellow CAUTION POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS tape wound around the upper boughs of the biggest tree, the trash cans haven’t been emptied in days and are spilling over like cornucopias a bounty of knotted plastic bags containing the shit of conscientious owners’ dogs. City living requires sacrifice. The nicest park in the city is Gramercy Park, and that’s because it’s locked and only millionaires can go inside. 

Miranda is clapping her hands and trying to bounce up and down in her stroller, but she’s strapped in so tight she can barely move. It’s more like the rocking of a catatonic person. Remember that story about how the babies in those massive orphanages in Romania, desperate for human contact, learned to rock themselves to sleep? Remember that footage of malnourished toddlers rocking their bodies back and forth like the devout at the Wailing Wall? If only my parents had adopted a baby from Romania. I wouldn’t wish my insane mother on even a parentless child, but still, it would have been nice to have a brother.

In addition to being the place that city kids without backyards go to play this park is for some reason where you go to take your driving test. There are always about a dozen cars just outside the park, and then other cars drive up and teenagers—or not teenagers—get out of one car and into the other and the driving instructors make them drive around the neighborhood and back. I’m not sure why this happens here of all places, maybe because it’s a residential neighborhood so first time drivers won’t get spooked by a lot of traffic and buses and bike messengers and stuff. 

It’s the day before Thanksgiving but people still need to get their driver’s licenses so there are like eight cars lined up by the park. I wait at the crosswalk for a second. I think yielding to pedestrians entering the park is the first thing on the test, but it seems pretty fucking risky to run a bunch of teenagers on an obstacle course featuring real people and their babies in strollers. We hurry across.

I push the stroller into the park, toward the playground on the far side. The cold feels good. The baking was making me too hot, and my sister was unburdening herself. Two sisters baking pies, a premise straight out of a movie, so she used the moments in between measuring teaspoons of stuff and cracking eggs to tell me all her problems. For starters she’s been unemployed for almost eight months because of our recent economic downturn. That’s starting to drive her insane, and not sending Miranda to daycare because they can’t afford it anymore and there’s no reason because my sister isn’t working isn’t exactly helping her mental health. Then there’s our mom. 

I’m so disappointed in you, my mom said to my sister. Says pretty much every time they talk. 

There’s nothing I can do, my sister will say. They’re making cuts. Everyone is making cuts. 

I just feel so ashamed, my mom says. I hope none of my friends ask about you. I don’t know what I’m going to say. 

They have some version of this conversation like every other day. I keep telling my sister not to talk to our mother anymore. I don’t. But my sister still feels sorry for her, worries about our mother, old, sort of infirm, slipping and breaking a hip and lying in the bathtub alone with only her spite. I don’t worry about that one bit. 

The breeze is kind of nice. The apartment always feels tight when Ben and my sister and the baby and me are all there together. It’s going to be something tomorrow at dinner with Ben’s mom and his sister and her husband. He always kind of eyes me up and down, with this weird look somewhere between pity and lust. I’m not all that interested in either of those things, and certainly not from Tony, who is disgusting. 

I stop the stroller in front of a bench and unbuckle Miranda. She’s clapping her hands so it’s a little hard to get the one and then the other out from the shoulder straps. Kids are buckled into strollers with the same harnesses and care that astronauts are buckled into their seats. Miranda’s not a baby anymore even though we still sometimes refer to her as one. I pick her up and set her down and she’s off, into the sandbox. I try not to think about the animals that must use this sandbox as a toilet at night and sit down on the edge of the sunken sandpit. At least we’re not barefoot. 

Miranda’s grabbing fistfuls of sand and letting the stuff trickle slowly out of her grip, like a rueful archaeologist in a movie. She’s smiling, she’s always smiling. She was born with an extra chromosome, she’s got that telltale flat face and is short for her age. She’s generous with the hugs and kisses and even though she’s always smiling every time she does you feel like you could die from goodness. Sometimes I look at her and can’t catch my breath. 

There’s no one on the playground, maybe because it’s cold, maybe because everyone is at home baking pies and freaking out before their in-laws arrive. I trace a line in the sand with my foot.

Look Miranda, I say. I’ll write your name. I add three lines to the one I’ve just made and make a giant M.

Miranda looks thrilled. She’s pointing at something behind me. B, b, she says. 

It’s the ball, bright green, tucked into the little pocket under the stroller seat. I get up and get it for her. She holds the ball like it’s a baby, close to her chest, and kind of putters around in the sandbox, looking for something. It’s sweet. This is what playing is. In about half an hour it’ll be too cold to bear. I get up out of the sandbox and hide behind the bench. Hide and seek is a favorite of Miranda’s.

It’s forty-seven minutes before the cold seeps into me like water into your shoes. The weather doesn’t seem to affect Miranda. Nothing affects kids. They will play. I stuff her back into the stroller and deal with the six-point harness. There’s a snack inside the diaper bag, which is really just a canvas tote bag from the library that’s permanently hanging from the handles of the stroller. It’s this tiny foil envelope with two rice crackers in it. The crackers are shaped like surfboards and they’re completely tasteless, at least to a grown up palate, which I know because I ate one once when I had Miranda out and I was starving. 

There’s a store on the corner across the street. It’s nothing fancy because this is not a fancy neighborhood, just a place you can get toilet paper and milk, and there’s coffee too. It’s not very good, but it’s only a dollar.

It’s hard to balance pushing the stroller and holding the cup of coffee. Living in the city is an exercise in carrying things and walking. I’ve lived here for almost ten years. Growing up, we never walked anywhere. There’s nowhere to walk in the suburbs. 

I put the coffee cup on the ground and carry the stroller up the steps. I have my own key to their place because of emergencies but I don’t have it on me so I ring the doorbell and Ben yanks it open about one second later like he was standing right there.

Jesus, I say.

Sorry, he says. I was right here though. Hey honey! He sticks out his tongue. Miranda laughs hysterically.

I go back outside to get my coffee and when I come back it’s immediately clear to me that yes in our ninety-minute absence Ben got lucky and is now proceeding to get drunk. He’s a good guy. I’m not noting his drinking as some kind of moral failing. He has a terrible job, helping people understand their state health insurance coverage. He sits at a folding table in the hallway of the hospital, going over forms with people who have loved ones who are dying or in crisis. In the goddamn hallway. I’d drink too. 

Fuck fuck fuck, I can hear my sister say, and I don’t have to go any further into the house to know what’s happened. The pie has burned and you can smell it. 

They’re back, says Ben nonsensically since obviously she heard me ring the doorbell. He’s unbuckled Miranda and is pulling her out of the too puffy coat. 

Fuck fuck fuck, my sister says again, three times just like before, a mantra. 

What happened? I take my jacket off and hang it on the doorknob because the coat rack is full. I keep my scarf on. 

What do you think happened? Then she looks at me all guilty because she’s being a bitch. I’m sorry. 

Let’s order pizza, says Ben. I’m starving. 

It’s five thirty but whatever, pizza sounds great. 

The pizza arrives in what feels like minutes because who orders a pizza before six o’clock? Ben and Miranda have a picnic at the coffee table. My sister sits at the dining table looking miserable. 

So, I say. I’ve got to proceed with caution. Should we make another? 

The pumpkin pie is charred. There’s no salvaging it, and no point denying that. 

I need to make the cornbread and the cranberries. I need to prep the beans. I need to clean the bathroom. I need to, I don’t know. I wanted to go to bed early. 

Do you need a pie? 

We need a pie, she says. This isn’t North Korea. We need a goddamn pumpkin pie. 

I can make the pie, I say, which is hilarious because the only thing I can do with my hands is type and I can’t even do that all that well. 

My sister looks like she’s going to cry. It’s obviously not the pie and obviously everything else. I’m not sure what to say.

It’s late now, she says. I’ve got to get her ready to go down for the night. And it’s not like I have another can of pumpkin in the house. Fucking hell. I also finished the cinnamon.

You did? Everyone has cinnamon.

I know, she says. That’s what I remember thinking when I poured out the last of it and threw the bottle away. I remember thinking huh, now how am I going to remember to buy cinnamon so that the next time I need it there won’t be some emergency last-minute cinnamon-buying trip?

Listen, I’ll go to the store, I say. I don’t know what kind of person volunteers to go to the store on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving but I feel sorry for her and also kind of want to get back out of the house again even though we just got back.

She shakes her head.

Eat some pizza, I say, I’ll go to the store.

Ben’s slumped low on the couch resting his glass of whiskey on his stomach and watching the local news which is doing a story about this horrifically obese college student who posted a video to the internet soliciting donations so she could pay the balance of her tuition. I fail to see how this qualifies as news. I kiss Miranda goodnight. My sister is holding the baby, who has tomato sauce all over her face and is yawning. 

I’ll get her down, you’ll be back, we’ll bake, she says hopefully.

Shhh, says Ben.

Don’t worry, I say. It’ll be fine. I grab a piece of pizza and eat the whole thing before I get down the stairs.

The coffee kicks in, the winter air is bracing, and I feel so much more alive. While I walk I do that thing everyone does when people insult them—think of all the things I should have said to my sister, but too late. Like: You’re not sad about the pie you’re sad because our mother is a crazy bitch, you don’t have a job, you have a kid with some problems, and your mean mother-in-law is coming over tomorrow. It’s reasonable even if I could obviously never say most of that out loud.

I’m the lucky one, in a way. No husband, no baby, and our mom won’t really talk to me because I don’t have the aforementioned. She thinks I’m unstable, also a little bit selfish. The irony there is hysterical. The last time she called me was after that hurricane, with the power outages and all that destruction. 

You must be volunteering to help out, our mother said. All those poor people. Imagine? She loves a disaster. 

Not exactly, mom, I said. 

What kind of a person are you? Our mother said. How could I have raised you to be so selfish? Later my mother sent me an email, detailing her plans to come and volunteer in the city, making peanut butter sandwiches for the hungry displaced, pumping water out of basements. She made a point of saying she wouldn’t be able to see me and my sister on this trip, as she’d be far too busy. Her lies are getting more elaborate as the years pass. If she came to New York and made peanut butter sandwiches then I’m the queen of England, as they say. 

I stuff my hands in my pockets like I mean business which is the way I walk around the city when I’m alone because I think it makes me look tougher. Single girl, big city, but what if I have knives in the pockets of my leather jacket, and I walk around with my hands wrapped around them all day long waiting for someone to fuck with me, what then? 

The way to the grocery store takes me past the park, so I’m retracing my steps and I see the yellow facade of the corner store. Maybe I’ll try there first. 

There’s no one inside which seems weird because it’s the night before Thanksgiving and there must be people out there desperate for an extra onion, but no, just me. The store is pretty small, and the shelves stretch nearly to the ceiling to maximize their inventory. The first shelf is about two inches from the swinging glass door, and it’s covered with seasonal necessities. Genius. There’s a can of pumpkin in its reassuring seventies-era packaging and I lunge at it like a crazy person in a news story about Cabbage Patch Kids. I hold the can close to my chest even though there are like forty more. Conveniently the recipe, such as it is, is written on the label. We need cinnamon, obviously, and I’m willing to bet there’s no evaporated milk in the house so I better get that too, and then maybe I’ll get eggs and sugar just in case. There’s a pile of red shopping baskets by the door, so I grab one and drop the can into it. 

I’ve got the basket hooked over my elbow like a little old lady in a country market. Trying to find things in the jumbled chaos of this store is a game. Eggs, easy, they’re in the refrigerated section, an open display case with sheets of plastic hanging down in front of it. It hardly feels that cold. I get the eggs and two percent milk too because what if they’re running low, what will Miranda drink?

Now for the other kind of milk. I can visualize the white can, smaller than standard issue, but it could be anywhere—here, with the black beans and the single box of instant Mexican-flavored rice, or there, with the cans of salmon above a display of batteries. Nope, here it is, down way below eye-level near a little cardboard box filled with Yartzeit candles, because maybe lots of bereaved Jews shop here? OK, sugar. This seems like it’ll be easy—I’m picturing those puffy yellow bags, hard as cement, and when you dump the contents into the canister there’s always some residual stuff bouncing around in the bag. It’s not near the flour, which makes zero sense. It’s not near the cereals, nor is it even in a bag. It’s in a box, in a prim row next to a row of boxes of cornstarch. It’s like the inventory of this store has been organized by someone who has never eaten food.

I find bug spray and light bulbs, paper napkins and birthday candles, a flyswatter and sponges, baking soda but no spices. 

I go to the counter. The guy behind the register sold me my coffee two hours ago.

Excuse me, do you have any cinnamon?

Cinnamon, no. He shakes his head. Sorry.

I probably look devastated because he gets a panicked look on his face. Maybe. You looked by the flour?

I looked by the flour, I tell him.

The counter he’s behind eventually turns into a deli counter, where the glass front displays unappetizing logs of “roast beef” and “turkey.” He walks the length of the counter and joins me on the other side, disappearing into the shelves. There’s a pack of doughnuts by my elbow and the fact that they’re only eighty-nine cents makes me want to buy them.

Cinnamon right? 

Cinnamon, I say to the empty store. 

No cinnamon, he says. Sorry. He reappears. No cinnamon.

No cinnamon, I say. Crushing defeat. I have everything else, but maybe I don’t really need the cinnamon? Maybe the pie can just taste like what, nutmeg? There’s no point thinking that, because if I show up without cinnamon my sister will probably start crying because she’s in a fragile place what with the baby and no job and Ben, who has probably fallen asleep by now, hand stuffed down the front of his faded navy corduroys. I have to continue on my way to the real grocery store. 

Just this then? He’s back behind the counter eyeing the contents of my basket. 

I don’t especially want to buy all this shit here and then schlep it all the way to the grocery store and then back home. It’s heavy. So I’m just standing here holding my basket like a moron but whatever, there’s no one in line behind me. 

Is something wrong? 

I need cinnamon, I say. I can’t leave without buying these things, that’s clear. It would be so rude. 

It’s OK, he says. I have cinnamon upstairs, in my apartment. You can have it. 

What? No, no, I shake my head. That’s ok. I’ll go to the store. 

All you need is cinnamon? You’re making a pumpkin pie? 

Yes, I’m making a pie. Thanksgiving. 

Yes, I know, he says. I’ll get it. 

No, I can’t take your cinnamon, I say. 

No, you can, he says again. I don’t need it. I don’t even know why I have it. But I’m pretty sure I do. Almost certain. You wait here. 

What if someone comes in? 

OK, you can use the register? 

I can’t use the register, I say, but I’m pretty sure I can. I do a lot of math at my job. 

You come here, stay at the counter. Someone comes in, you know what to do. 

I’m still standing on my side of the counter. What if he’s crazy? Not necessarily in a slash your throat kind of way, but what if I go behind the counter and he leaves and never comes back, what then? Am I supposed to live out my days looking after the corner store? I can’t do that, I say. I don’t need your cinnamon. 

Believe me, he says. I don’t need it. And it’s right upstairs. Just take it. Only please watch the register for me because I can’t leave it. 

Just watch the register? Why not. This has a small town 1950s feel. I bet the mom in Blueberries for Sal was often left alone in the country store while the proprietor went out back to pluck warm eggs from underneath the hens. 

I’ll watch the register, I say, with as much excitement as reservation. Pressing buttons on machines is kind of fun. I’m picturing a woman, older than me, a little harried, maybe she’s got four kids at home: she’s here, and she’s desperate for some flour. She needs flour, or Thanksgiving will be ruined. And is there flour? There is. I’ll show her where, I’ll point out that there’s even whole-wheat flour, the healthier alternative. No, there’s no cinnamon, I’ll say, but there’s whole wheat flour, right here ma’am, that’ll be three dollars and forty-nine cents and here’s your change and would you like a bag or no, I can see you care about the planet so you’ve brought along a battered cotton tote from the public radio pledge drive, and good for you! Yes, here’s your flour. What, I saved Thanksgiving? No, no, it’s nothing. Enjoy your holiday.

Please, come over here, he says. Behind the counter there’s a heavy rubber mat on the floor so it’s impossible to trip, and there are shelves of expensive and forbidden things. I hope no one wants a cigar, because I’ll never be able to reach those. Ditto the Band-Aids and razor blade refills. There’s a step up behind the counter, so I’m able to survey the store from back there.

What’s your name? I ask him.

I’m Mohammed, he says. 

This is so nice of you.

I’ll leave the register open. He jabs at it and the drawer pops open. Here’s a calculator. He points to a calculator. If you need to do the addition. I’ll be back in two minutes. 

You’re going to leave me here? 

I live upstairs. I only need to find the cinnamon, it will take two minutes. If anyone comes, you help them. It’s easy. He’s on the other side of the counter now, smiling at me, and this role reversal feels totally insane but it’s the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the day has a surreal cast so I fight the temptation to say Thank you, come again in some racist accent and I wave feebly and he’s gone, out the door, and I’m alone.

The store isn’t totally quiet—the refrigerated cases hum electrically, and after a second I can hear the sound of water very slowly dripping off of something and onto something else, though I can’t pinpoint the source of the sound and I don’t want to leave my post at the register anyway because if someone comes in I want to be able to size them up right away, be able to tell if they’re a casual pop-in-for-milk kind of person or they’re going to have some more challenging demand like do we carry lemon-scented wood polish, which I happen to know we do since I saw some on the bottom shelf of the middle aisle. 

I pull open the drawer of the register. It is full of money, obviously, more than I would have guessed. I can’t believe Mohammed left a complete stranger alone in his store like this, and then upped the ante by leaving the cash drawer open. I must have an honest face after all, something I vaguely recall some boyfriend of mine or maybe it was just a friend or a friend’s father saying that. It sounds like a compliment but probably isn’t. There’s a photograph of a little girl taped to the side of this little shelf under the register. It’s out of the way but still visible. She’s cute, maybe eight, her hair chopped short, the straps of a bright pink backpack on her shoulders, posing in a living room somewhere. 

I wonder what my mother would say, if she happened to be in town and happened to walk into this store and happened to see me standing behind the counter like the proud proprietress. She’d probably say Ah-ha! because my mother is convinced I’m throwing away the education she claims she paid for, even though the bills I get every month ($440 for the next, oh, seven thousand or so months) tell a different story. She’d probably think my working in a store was at once fitting and embarrassing, at once appropriate and shameful. She’d probably think I’ve worked at this store all along, have just been pretending to work in the development office of the college. She thinks I’m a liar, she thinks everyone is always lying, because she is, and I admit I see a certain logic in that. Anyways I haven’t talked to my mother since March. She called me as I was leaving work and informed me that she was standing on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge contemplating suicide. I asked her where she parked the car, because she’d have to get off 95, find a lot, and then hike back and that seemed pretty complicated. Not to mention: no traffic sounds in the background. 

There’s a tall bar stool, shoved out of the way, and I bet Mohammed sits there when things are slow. I have no idea how late the store is open but it must be pretty late, because it would be plain bad business to not stay open later than the grocery store, and besides the condoms, the beer, the cigarettes, the scratch lotto tickets, the aromatic cheap cigars, these are things one needs at night mostly. Maybe I’m mistaken—maybe the stool comes in handy in the afternoon, when the shoppers are girls looking for tiny canisters of cinnamon, and later, Mohammed needs to stand at attention when his clientele is tough teenagers trying to trick him with shoddy fake IDs.

If I stand on my tiptoes I can see over the signs and stickers that plaster the glass window and out onto the street. It’s dark now, not late but dark, in that winter, clock’s ticking, year’s ending sort of way. I wonder if Miranda’s asleep. I wonder if my sister has tossed the burnt pie into the garbage. I wonder if Ben’s asleep while the television plays the fourteenth episode in a row of that one crime procedural, which always seems to be the only thing on television. It feels late even if it’s not, feels like I’ve been alone in this store for hours. I don’t even know the name of the store. What if the telephone rings? Am I just supposed to pick it up and say…Hello? Do people call down to the corner store anymore?

I wonder what my mother is doing for Thanksgiving. She’s always got some new friend, sometimes a new boyfriend, and she loves to talk about them in lavish detail. Like Sandy, a nurse, who she met while they were in line at the grocery store, which I guess is a perfectly reasonable place to meet someone. My mother ended up helping Sandy do the flowers for her oldest daughter’s shotgun wedding to this guy who manages the Red Lobster in town. They got married in the backyard of his dad’s house, which overlooks a nice pond, or so my mother says when she told me this story last summer, but the frogs singing sort of put a damper on things. For this occasion, my mother says she drove out to a florist an hour away to pick up a bulk order of roses and baby’s breath and then sat with this Sandy for hours, building a bouquet for the pregnant bride, something lavish to distract from her tummy, and stuffing blossoms into cheap vases unearthed at a dollar store and putting those on tables and at the ends of the aisles, which were actually just rows of folding chairs. The question is whether Sandy’s daughter’s wedding actually happened, or whether that, and the time she went to the aquarium with John, or the afternoon volunteering at the soup kitchen with a kindly, not-too-pushy-about-religion group of nuns are simply fictions, plot lines from the made-for-TV movies she whiles away the remaining evenings of her life watching. I hate her, though I admit she’s diseased and so feel two kinds of guilt, the guilt of hating a parent plus the guilt of hating the ill. Maybe I’m unkind. I don’t ever want to see her again.

I check my wrist even though I don’t wear a watch. It feels like he’s been gone for a long time, longer than it takes the average person to pop into their spice cabinet or spice rack or spice drawer or spice whatever, grab the cinnamon, and go. Maybe he stopped to take a phone call, or make a peanut butter sandwich. I can’t help wondering—what if a robber comes in? I look around on the shelves, slide open a drawer, because there’s probably a gun here somewhere. How long has he been gone? Has it been two minutes or twelve? 

A police car goes by but then police cars go by all the time so surely it’s not indicative of rising crime stats in this zip code is it? Even if I run out into the night, will there be anyone there to save me, or is everyone on the train or stuck in traffic on the highway, heading to their grandmother’s or mother-in-law’s, with a bottle of wine or some dish wrapped in aluminum foil and stowed in a brown paper bag? 

Then he’s back, Mohammed is, pulling the door open like any other customer, and in his hand, as promised—a tiny jar of cinnamon. 

I’m sorry, he says. It took me longer than I thought to find it. 

That’s ok, I say. Thank you. 

Sorry. Did anyone come in? 

I shake my head no. This is so kind of you, I say. It feels wrong to be back there so I dart around the counter and out into the store. My heart’s racing and I feel like an idiot. This is so nice of you, I say again for some reason. 

It’s no problem, Mohammed says. The red basket with my other things is sitting on the counter but he hands me the jar so I can inspect it. It’s cinnamon. Or fragrant brown dust, which is just as good, for my purposes. I just need a tablespoon of the stuff to make this pie taste like pie, to make everyone happy by giving them what they expect, to keep us focused on the meal and distract everyone from noticing my sister and Ben’s poverty, Miranda’s obvious problem, even though we all love her and wouldn’t change a thing, the fact that Ben’s mom hates my sister and me by extension I guess, the fact that our own mother will tell us she’s volunteering at a soup kitchen but is almost certainly at home microwaving a Lean Cuisine. 

This is so kind of you, I say again. I don’t know what else to say but it is so kind of him there are tears rising into the corners of my eyes. I’m going to cry, that’s how bad I needed someone to be nice to me. If I had a store and someone needed something I didn’t sell I probably would never run out to my house and give them my own whatever it was—jar of cinnamon, extra light bulb, you name it. I open the jar and smell it. It smells like cinnamon. I don’t know what I expected. 

You need it, Mohammed says. Now he’s back behind the counter and everything seems right in the world again except for I can’t hug him now but maybe that’s for the best. 

This is very kind of you, I say for like the twelfth time only this time it comes out sounding so weird and formal. You have to let me pay you for this.

No, no, he says. It’s Thanksgiving. And I don’t need it. You do. Please take it. I see you, with your daughter. We’re neighbors.

That’s so sweet, I say, which feels like not the right thing to say. I feel like I’m being condescending without meaning to be. She’s not my daughter, actually. Miranda. She’s my niece.

Beautiful girl, Mohammed says as he starts grabbing things out of my basket, jabbing the price into the computer, and then putting the things back on the counter. He can see I’ve brought my own bag. 

Here’s my bag. I try to put the milk in the bag myself but he doesn’t let me. Thanks, I say.

She’s how old, Mohammed says. He puts the cans of milk and pumpkin into the bag.

Two, I say. I want to ask him about the picture of the girl taped up behind the counter but can’t. I want to tell him that I didn’t rifle the cash drawer, help myself to a twenty, but I can’t do that either. 

It’s nineteen fifty, he says, and the figure is so improbably round it’s like he made it up. I’ve got a twenty stuffed into my pocket. I unfold the bill, sort of smooth it out before I hand it over.

He’s already got two quarters out and drops them into my palm with one hand as he hands me the canvas bag with the other. Here you go, he says. Happy Thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving, I say. I wait a second because it feels like there’s something else I should say but if there is it doesn’t come naturally and so I smile and turn and leave the store.

It feels so late. Miranda must be asleep by now. I shiver even though I’m not cold. It’s the shiver like you’ve just passed a ghost, but it wasn’t a ghost who came and gone, it was my mother, leaping off an imaginary bridge, setting up chairs at an imaginary wedding. I’m not interested in pretend. I’m interested in reality. I need to get into that kitchen, warm from the oven, and bake the replacement pie. I need to sneak outside and smoke a cigarette because my heart’s pounding like I just had sex or anyway a scare. I’ll use the empty can of pumpkin as an ashtray and try to see the stars overhead, which you never do in the city, and I’ll plan what to say when tomorrow my sister’s mean mother-in-law insists that, before we eat, we take turns telling the group what we’re thankful for. I’ll say this year I’m thankful for and I’ll surprise her and everyone including myself with just how long my list is.