by Sam Gridley

Patty's immediate concern was how to construct her face. Amazement? Horror? Wry amusement? The occasion might allow for any of these expressions, or more, but it was impossible to choose.

Because what Louise had said was beyond inappropriate. If taken literally, it was insensitive, almost immoral. But could it be an off-key joke?

Oddly, just this morning Patty had scanned an online article about how to handle political disputes at a family Thanksgiving. She'd smiled to herself, knowing her own clan was too homogeneous to argue about any political topic more momentous than the rights of free-range turkeys. In fact, here at Mom and Dad's new condo, smack in a "blue bubble" of the Philadelphia suburbs, they could assume that everyone within a two-mile radius qualified, in national terms, as a rabid socialist. Still, it jumped up at them—this problem.

The three siblings and their spouses, with Mom and Dad, sat around the long table contemplating the remains before them: strings of white and dark meat, dabs of sweet potato casserole, splotches of cranberry sauce, blobs of stuffing, a gnawed drumstick or two. The three children who so far comprised the next generation had vanished to the condo's basement playroom, leaving a smeared mess on the far end of the tablecloth.

Patty, a social worker, was well versed in what she called face problems: how to look when a client presented a preposterous or tragic or outrageous story. For now, she solved the quandary with no expression at all.

Her brother Brian, Louise's husband, reacted to his wife's incredible comment by staring at his plate. Mom's eyebrows bent in a startled expression toward Dad, who tilted his head as he gazed past Louise's shoulder. Sister Molly watched the paint on the dining room wall while her husband, Mike, slurped the last of his wine. Patty's own husband, Ray, burped and surreptitiously loosened his belt. Nobody challenged Louise, maybe because some people weren't even listening.

It had started with Mom's traditional annoying prompt, "Let's all say what we're thankful for this year," and they'd gone in turn around the table, counterclockwise, speaking of health, the children, the family, their love for each other—"I'm grateful your Mom still puts up with me," Dad had said to a laugh—until Brian, next to last, made a political statement. "I'm thankful," he said, "that our ancestors came to this country before the days when children were put in cages at the border."

Those who were still paying attention nodded. Of course the cruel border policies were unconscionable, no dispute from this crowd.

Yet Louise, the last to answer the prompt, broke the consensus. Or appeared to. She'd always been an awkward addition to the tribe, a New Yorker, Ivy Leaguer, inclined to expensive necklaces, eye shadow, and glossy nails, with skirts a bit too short for family occasions. She was also inclined to criticize Brian and boss him around—"high maintenance" being the term the family used behind her back. If he dressed the kids in winter coats, she'd imply they were too warm; if he took the coats off, she'd object again. What, Patty had always wondered, did Brian see in her?

What Louise had said was this: "Yeah, those immigrant kids, it's too bad, we can make sympathetic noises, but for a lot of them, a safe cage with food may be better than what they came from. They're lucky to get it. Actually, I'm thankful they're not coming here to take opportunities from our own children."

What???? was Patty's unspoken reaction.

Ray's sigh, as his belly expanded to the new belt setting, could be heard down the table.

It wasn't like Louise to talk politics. Was she being ironic tonight, parodying a right- winger? She didn't sound ironic, and her tight mouth looked all too earnest. Nor did her posture suggest she was joking: she faced straight ahead toward the turkey platter, shoulders hunched.

But the other implication, that she actually believed her children's future might be at risk from immigrants, felt equally implausible. Her two kids downstairs, six and four years old, might each have more net worth, counting trust funds, than Patty and Ray combined. Though her slight frame and narrow hips resembled a teenager's, Louise was a partner in a major corporate law firm, and Brian had his own accounting business with 24 employees. Their mortgage was paid off. They had a beach house and a full-time au pair from Germany. Louise liked to brag that they were "putting money away" for the kids.

When no one responded to Louise, Brian stood up abruptly and began clearing plates. This was all too typical of the family's way of handling the Louise problem. Yet Patty followed Brian's lead, gathering glasses and utensils and hurrying after him to the kitchen.

There, the subject felt too delicate to broach, even for a trained social worker. Brian piled dishes roughly in the sink, ran water over them, went back for more. When he returned, Mom followed with the turkey platter, which gave Patty an excuse to speak: "Dessert now or later, do you think?"

"Later," said Mom. "Let the kids play awhile."

"I'm sure they're glued to the TV," Brian mumbled. "My two anyway. But at least they're not fighting. Or, if they are, we can't hear them."

"They don't fight so much," Patty defended them. "They were perfect at dinner."

"All my grandchildren are perfect," Mom said, "except for leaving green beans on their plates."

The phrase "all my grandchildren" gave Patty a pang, since she had contributed none. Past her mid-thirties, she'd been trying to get pregnant for years. Compared to Louise, she lacked not only income but fertility. Louise had popped out her first a mere seven months after marriage. Sister Molly, six years younger than Patty, had a five-year-old.

Brian cleared his throat. "I'll do the dishes, Mom. Just bring them in, then relax." Mom, Molly and Mike carried in more dishes and then disappeared. Though Patty longed to find a quiet corner and whisper with Molly about Louise's offense, she stayed to help Brian. Already he had the dishwasher a quarter full. She packed away the leftovers and dried large or fragile items that couldn't go in the washer.

Watching Brian at the sink, she thought his arms seemed heavy, his hands impatient and clumsy as he soaped the platter. His back was stiff, neck bent, face pale as a boiled parsnip—Patty deduced unhappiness. Plus, she'd never seen him wash dishes willingly, so he must be avoiding his wife. She wondered how much Louise's boorish remark had been aimed at Brian himself, to undercut what he'd said.

As kids, only 18 months apart, Patty and her brother had been close. On rainy weekends the boy often sought out his older sister, willing to play whatever game she suggested. Now his shoulders seemed to fend off any inquiry from her. The awkwardness, the distance pained her. When Brian handed her the clean, bone-white platter, she hefted it in front of her face as she dried, and from that shelter she blurted, "How're things at home? We haven't seen you guys in—ages. Since the summer?"

Brian grimaced. "It goes on," he said.

"What does?"

"Everything. You know."

Patty didn't know, but she made another deduction: Ms. High Maintenance was causing difficulties in the marriage.

Again she felt a face problem. Brian wasn't asking for sympathy, might even reject it, but her heart ached, not just for him but for his kids, who didn't deserve family trouble. The younger one was the cutest little girl she'd ever seen, and the older had become Patty's favorite male to hug in the whole world.

When the dish routine concluded—it had the weight of a ritual, though she'd never before done Thanksgiving cleanup with her brother—Patty put on a face of resolution. She might not know what to say to Brian, but one thing she could do: be the best aunt possible for his children. She'd head down to the playroom to spend quality time with all three kids.

When she passed through the living room, Dad was watching a football game while Ray slumped in an easy chair and Molly and Mike cuddled on the sofa. Mom was absent, perhaps gone to the playroom. Louise sat alone to the side, pretending an interest in the TV, though she knew nothing about sports. Her legs were crossed uncomfortably, the upper knee poking out from under her skirt. Her skinny face looked twice as long as usual, and her shiny fingernails dangled on the bare knee.

Isolated. Almost like she'd been shunned.

For a moment, with a twinge of sympathy, Patty felt impelled to break the impasse—to pull this wayward alien toward the family's center. Patty took a step toward Louise, then another half step. Louise looked up.

"I," said Patty, "I thought I'd, I mean, did Mom go down to the kids? I'm heading down to see what's up, maybe play a game with them."

Louise showed no interest in joining. With droopy lids and a flick of glistening nails, she gave the faintest of nods, which suggested a grant of permission.

Patty's jaw dropped before she tightened her face and spun on her heels. Shit, she thought, I don't need your fucking approval. Why don't you check on your own kids? What've you done to make my brother so unhappy?

Patty thumped down the stairs, intending the noise as reprimand. Let the ungrateful rich bitch sit by her lonesome. Let her stew in her own bitter cage. After all, in this family Louise was only an immigrant, and soon, from the look of things, they'd be rid of her.