Thankfully Yours (PG-13)

Kirby wasn't comfortable attending family holiday gatherings even thought it had been nearly two years since his divorce. It felt strange showing up stag after nearly thirty years of marriage. His ex Denise had been an important part of the family and Kirby found himself missing her most on these types of occasions, remembering the holidays of the past spent with her by his side.

He was also a child of divorce which is why there were always two family gatherings for each holiday - one with his father and his second wife Joan, and the other with his mother who never remarried after her divorce. Kirby was eighteen when his father walked out of his marriage and less than a year later the 45 year old lawyer was remarried to Joan, a successful real estate agent fifteen years his junior. Most of the family blamed Joan for the break up of their parent's marriage. She was a snobby, self-centered and opinionated woman who was quick to criticize her stepkids while treating her own children as prince and princess.

About the only satisfaction Kirby and his siblings had now was that Joan was approaching seventy and while she hadn't lost her abrasive personality, she had lost some of her looks and figure. Ironically, at 82, Kirby's mom now looked to be in better shape than Joan.

It was Thanksgiving Eve and most of the Reese family gathered at Kirby's father's house to celebrate Turkey Day (Part 1). Kirby's father lived in an expensive and attractive house in one of the better sections of town. Kirby had been envious and resentful of his father's second marriage and the quirks it brought – the fancy house, the younger wife, and the two "new" kids – Nancy and Preston – from Joan's first marriage.

The well furnished house was full of relatives by the time Kirby arrived. His older brother Marty and his wife Paula, his older sister Amy and her husband Al, and his kid sister Emily and her husband Craig were all present along with several members of the family's next generation.

Kirby made the rounds saying hello to those gathered, including Joan who Kirby had yet to forgive for telling him that he was unable to "keep" his wife. She was dressed to the nines as usual with more jewelry than Zsa Zsa Gabor and wearing enough make up to add three pounds to her weight. Kirby's Dad was holding court in the study which held more books than the town library and was full of cigar smoke. Marty, Al and Craig were in there too and Kirby spent a few minutes shooting the breeze with them before making his way through the rest of the house with the exotic paintings on the walls, fancy crystal on the shelves, and the expensive furniture gracing the rooms.

Paula and Amy were helping in the kitchen while Emily was watching television in the family room. Kirby spent time exchanging pleasantries and catching up on the most recent family news.

"Hey, Uncle Kirby!" Amy's son Mike bellowed when Kirby entered the formal living room to find his nephew sitting on the two-mile long couch with his long time girlfriend Laura and another woman Kirby didn't recognize. Marty's daughter Kasey and her husband Josh were also there along with Emily's daughter, Janis.

"Mike!" Kirby said with a grin, shaking hands with his tall and lanky blonde haired nephew. "Happy Thanksgiving."

Kirby also said hello to the rest of the next generation in the room.

"Hey, Kirby, this is our friend Claudia," Mike said, introducing the person Kirby hadn't recognized.

Claudia was a professional looking woman, thin with a skinny face and black hair that had been curled at a beauty salon. She was personal and friendly with a smile that certainly caught Kirby's attention.

"Hello, Kirby," Claudia said warmly. "Happy Thanksgiving."

"You too," Kirby said politely as he took a seat in one of the high backed Victorian arm chairs.

Talking to his twenty and thirty-something nieces and nephews was one thing, but it suddenly struck Kirby as strange to be chatting with an unfamiliar woman of the same age group who wasn't family.

"You're the house painter," Claudia said.

"Yeah," Kirby acknowledged.

"I'm sorry," Claudia smiled. "I'm just trying to keep everybody straight."

"You need a scorecard for that!" Laura laughed. She was a husky woman with black curly hair and a deep voice.

"Marty is the plant supervisor," Claudia said.

"Al is the auto mechanic," Kirby said. "And Craig is the restaurant owner."

"Yes," Claudia said. "And Paula is the school teacher and Amy is the photographer and Emily is the unemployed accountant."

"And Denise was the nurse," Mike volunteered.

"Denise?" Claudia frowned. "Have I met her?"

"She's my ex," Kirby sighed.

"Oh, right, sorry," Claudia replied.

"Aunt Denise was great!" Janis said but the others gave her looks to let her know not to go there.

Janis was as thin and tall as her cousin Mike with straight brown hair and freckles on her face even though she was in her late twenties.

"Yeah, she was great," Kirby sighed, climbing out of the chair and leaving the room. He could hear the others admonishing Janis as he left.

Kirby hung out in the modern kitchen with his sister Amy and sister in law Paula along with Joan who appeared to be supervising the others instead of doing any of the work herself. Joan assigned Kirby the job of making the salad and he took a seat at the kitchen counter and went to work.

Claudia made her way into the room after a few minutes, drawing a few eyebrows from the kitchen workers.

"Your people are out there, dear," Joan said with a frown.

"I don't mind helping," Claudia replied. "Is there anything I can do?"

"You can help Kirby with the salad," Amy suggested. "He's not very good at this sort of stuff." The red head with glasses turned and stuck her tongue out at her brother.

"Sure I am!" Kirby protested but he didn't argue when Claudia took a seat next to him and helped him skin the carrots.

"Claudia works with Laura at the bank," Amy explained for the others. "She just moved to Hillsboro a few months ago."

"Where you from?" Kirby asked.

"Oregon, originally," she answered. "But I grew up in a military family so I've moved around a lot."

"And what brought you to Hillsboro?" Joan snooped.

"I was living at Fort Drum in New York when my marriage fell apart," Claudia replied. "I saw a job posting here and went for it."

"You're divorced?" Amy asked with surprise. "Geez, my kids haven't even been married yet!"

"I married young," Claudia explained. "He was in the military. Guess we were doomed from the start."

Kirby didn't feel quite so stigmatized now knowing there was another divorced person among the group.

"Oh, honey, you're too young to be divorced," Joan lamented.

Kirby and Amy exchanged eye rolls knowing Joan was younger than Claudia when she divorced her first husband and moved in with their father.

Finished with the carrots, Claudia stood and went to the sink to discard the shavings. She glanced out the window and admired the expansive back yard. "It sure is nice here," she commented.

"We like it," Joan said.

"How long have you lived here?" Claudia wondered.

"Thirty-five years," Joan boasted.

"Whew!" Claudia whistled. "Longer than I've been alive!"

Paula burst out in laughter. "Well, that certainly makes us feel better!"

Paula was the oldest of Kirby's generation, pushing sixty now (her husband Marty was a young fifty-nine!), a thirty-two year veteran teacher at Hillsboro High with long gray hair she often wore in braids. Paula had put on a few pounds over the years but she still looked elegant in her appearance.

"Sorry," Claudia replied as she returned to her stool at the counter.

"You don't have to apologize for being young," Amy smiled.

"But we have to apologize for being old!" Kirby joked.

"You guys aren't that old," Claudia observed and the entire room got a hoot out of that remark.

Kirby tried to hide his smirk of amusement by placing his hand over his mouth while Claudia blushed with embarrassment.

"Sorry again," she said, nervously brushing a strand of her hair from her face.

"Oh, we're pretty thick skinned around here," Amy laughed.

Kirby glanced at Claudia and seconded Amy's opinion with a nod of agreement.

"Guests should be polite," Claudia reasoned.

"Yes," Joan agreed and the others knew their step-mother was slamming them more than Claudia.

Kirby smiled at Claudia. Her presence had suddenly given him a surprising emotional lift and he was amused by her apparent foot-in-mouth disease.

"Don't worry about it," Kirby remarked. "I don't think anybody is polite in this family!"

"That's because my husband's children were never taught etiquette," Joan pointed out with an edge in her voice.

"Mom! I'm here!" A voice rang from the front of the house.

"Nancy's here!" Joan exclaimed as she bolted from the kitchen.

Kirby, Paula and Amy exchanged amused grins.

"I'm guessing you guys aren't Joan's favorite family members?" Claudia asked.

"What makes you say that?" Kirby deadpanned.

"Oh, just a feeling," Claudia replied with a smirk.

"In this family, you're either a Reese like us or a Hillard like Joan and her kids," Amy explained. "You can't be both."

"So, which one do you want to be?" Kirby asked with a laugh.

"I think I'd rather be a Reese," Claudia decided.

"Good choice," Amy said with a wink.

Paula grinned. "Ah, an interest perhaps?" She teased Claudia, throwing a glance at her brother in law Kirby. "Take it from one that married into the Reese Clan, there's never a boring moment!"

Kirby gave his sister-in-law an annoyed look. "Let's not be embarrassing Claudia any more than we have to, Paula."

"It's okay," Claudia replied. "I'm just glad I'm not alone for Thanksgiving."

"Well, you're never alone when you're with the Reese clan," Amy laughed.

"Yes, there are only about fifteen of us here tonight!" Kirby laughed.

"We're glad to add one more!" Paula said.

Joan retuned with a woman in her mid forties that looked a lot like her with frosty blond hair expensively styled wearing a dress that definitely didn't come off the rack.

"Claudia, this is my real daughter, Nancy," Joan introduced.

"Hello," Claudia said pleasantly.

"Yes, hello," Nancy replied, barely looking at Claudia. "I thought we'd be eating by now," she complained. "Anthony is very hungry."

"Well, as soon as Amy and Paula get the show on the road, we will be eating, Dear," Joan said tartly, escorting Nancy from the room.

"Who's Anthony?" Claudia asked.

"Nancy's stick up the ass husband," Amy reported.

"Let's get moving before there's a revolt," Paula suggested.

Claudia and Kirby helped Paula and Amy organize the food and bring the dishes out to the large table in the formal dining room. Kasey and Janis gave a helping hand too and soon the entire clan was stepping into the dining room for the formal meal with the huge turkey and all the fixings, squashing around the table that had two leafs in it and a card table fitted in at the end.

The elder Mr. Reese said Grace, remembering those who weren't able to dine with them. Marty's son Kevin lived in Alaska, Amy's daughter Millie lived in Florida, and Kirby's adult children would be by for the family gathering the following day.

"They've got to split their time with their mother," Kirby explained to Claudia when their absence was mentioned.

Joan's son Preston arrived late and was feeling no pain but everybody ignored his state of inebriation as he took his seat among the family. He was wearing a three hundred dollar suit with a silk tie but he looked disheveled and his eyes were bloodshot. His brown hair was nicely styled and he had an interesting looking chin but that didn't hide his state of drunkenness.

"Who's the new chick?" Preston asked when he finally spotted Claudia ten minutes into the meal.

"That's our friend, Claudia," Mike explained.

"She's hot," Preston announced for all to hear.

"Preston, not at the dinner table," Joan reprimanded.

"You doing anything later?" Preston asked Claudia who immediately blushed.

"It's kind of you to ask, but I'm not interested," Claudia replied politely.

"I drive a brand new Mercedes," Preston bragged.

"I drive a ten year old Toyota Corolla," Claudia replied with a smile.

Suddenly, everybody around the table started calling out the make and model of automobile they drove, preventing Preston from furthering his conversation with Claudia.

Multiple conversations took place among the many dinner guests as the meal progressed.

"Why aren't you interested?" Preston asked Claudia fifteen minutes later.

"She's recently divorced, Press," Mike volunteered.

"Ah, still nursing your wounds, just like Kirby huh?" Preston grinned. "Hopefully you won't still be moping around two years from now like Kirby!"

Kirby ignored the asshole preppy boy Preston. Both he and Nancy were at least ten years younger than Kirby but they had always been spoiled, pampered, snotty kids and nothing had changed in adulthood either but Joan found no fault in them whereas she found easy fault with the Reese children.

"Too bad Diane and Danny couldn't make it, Kirby," Joan remarked at one point. "I would think you have insisted they come see their grandfather for the holiday."

"It just didn't work out, Joan," Kirby replied, not wanting to get into a pissing contest with her. "Maybe next time."

"Well, next time will be Christmas and I certainly hope they can make the time to come see us," Joan replied.

Aside from Preston's drunkenness, Nancy's condescending attitude, her husband Anthony's indifference, and Joan's usual abrasive nature, there weren't too many glitches during the protracted dinner. Amy, Paula and Kasey were the servants for most of the evening, Mr. Reese entertained the table with funny (but often told) stories, Joan offered her criticism whenever the Reese children or grandchildren volunteered information or conversation, and Claudia observed the unfolding events with interest and intrigue.

Kirby had grown quiet as the evening went along, missing Denise and the kids but Claudia made it a point of bringing him back into the conversation by asking a follow up question his way when family made various remarks and statements. She also tried to engage him in a few conversations of their own, mostly in an attempt to avoid Preston who continued to flirt and come on to her.

It was well after ten o'clock by the time the main course, pie, and coffee was served. Claudia joined Paula, Amy, Kasey and Kirby in the kitchen cleaning up while most of the others adjourned to the den and study for a nightcap and Joan entertained her two children and Anthony in the living room.

"How come your sister Emily doesn't help you guys?" Claudia asked, noticing that Emily had spent most of the visit watching television.

Amy burst out in laughter. "Oh, this type of stuff is beneath Emily," she explained tartly.

"Emily is allergic to housework," Paula agreed.

"And addicted to television," Kirby noted, shaking his head.

"Just as well anyway," Amy said. "She'd be complaining if she was forced to help us."

"And she'd do a rotten job," Kirby said.

"That's how she got out of doing stuff as a kid," Amy laughed. "Just do it bad."

"Her washed dishes had grime and crud still on them," Kirby recalled.

"Her made bed looked like the dog slept in it," Amy added.

"She couldn't fold a shirt at gunpoint," Kirby said.

Claudia laughed listening to the others poke fun at their sister, amused by how good naturedly they did it.

"So, what's Preston's story?" Claudia asked after a break in the conversation.

"He's a playboy," Amy replied. "You'd be wise to stay away from him."

"Unless you like Mercedes," Kirby said.

"And drunken sex," Paula added. "Preston's good at both."

"He's just not very good at commitment," Amy remarked.

"Good thing he works for his mom!" Kirby grinned.

"Wouldn't have his Mercedes without it!" Amy smirked.

"He's a smooth operator and a natural bull shitter," Paula said. "He's the perfect real estate agent!"

They all laughed and Claudia was surprised at how much delight they took at razzing their step brother. She gave Kirby a look and he shrugged in reply.

"Hillard versus Reese," he explained.

"The bastard took the same commission when he sold us our house," Amy said. "No such thing as a family discount with him and Joan."

"Well, are we really family?" Kirby teased.

"Geez, Joan has been with your Dad for thirty-five years and you still don't get along?" Claudia asked with surprise.

"What fun would that be?" Amy asked.

It took nearly an hour to get the kitchen and dining room cleaned up. By then, Emily, Craig and Janis were long gone while the others were still entertaining Mr. Reese. Preston had passed out after a couple of after dinner drinks and Nancy and Anthony had headed home too. The rest of the group started saying their goodnights now that the chores had been finished.

"You going to the game tomorrow, Uncle Kirby?" Nephew Mike asked as he and Laura and Claudia got ready to leave.

"Sure, Hillsboro pride," Kirby replied.

"We'll see you there then," Mike said. "Should be a good game."

"Good night," Claudia said warmly as she headed to the door behind Mike and Laura with her coat on. "It was really great meeting you."

"You too," Kirby replied, giving her a nod. "Happy Thanksgiving."

"You'd better snare her before Preston does," Paula remarked once Claudia was in Mike's car and out of ear shot.

"She's almost half my age," Kirby groaned.

"So what?" Paula laughed.

"I could never date a woman our kids' age," Kirby replied.

"Hey, after a certain point age becomes irrelevant," Paula remarked. "Besides, I don't think she was out in the kitchen because she likes soaking her hands in Palmolive!"

"You haven't really been seeing anybody since Denise, Kirbs," Amy pointed out. "She does seem nice."

"She's friends with Mike and Laura," Kirby rebutted.

"Maybe she wants to be friends with you!" Paula said, elbowing Kirby in the ribs. "Preston was right about one thing, you know. You have been moping around for almost two years. It's time to move on with your life."

"If not with Claudia, then somebody," Amy agreed. "We just want to see you happy again."

"Thanks," Kirby said with a smile, giving his sister a kiss on the cheek. "I'm fine." He started for the door.

"He says as he heads home to his empty house," Paula sighed.

"After tonight's gathering, an empty quiet house might not be such a bad thing!" Kirby joked as he headed out the door.

But Kirby couldn't help but think about Claudia's warm smile and friendly banter as he drove home.

### ###

The Hillsboro Hurricanes had been playing the arch rival Greenville Giants for more than seventy-five years on Thanksgiving morning. It was a storied and dramatic rivalry that brought the fans out in droves.

Kirby had only been to a few games since his son graduated from Hillsboro High fourteen years earlier but this year shaped up to be a great game as the undefeated Giants were playing the one-lost host Hurricanes for all the marbles. Kirby usually ran into old teammates, classmates, football sponsors, customers and other familiar faces at the big game so he didn't mind showing up this year, especially when the weather turned out to be unseasonably mild with a bright sun, blue skies, and temperatures predicted to hit 50 degrees in late November New England.

But it was bittersweet to be back at the football field without Denise by his side. She had grown up in Greenville and gone to Greenville High so it was fun to attend the games together as adults rooting for their individual alma-maters (although Denise rooted strictly for Hillsboro when Danny played for the Hurricanes). Kirby wondered if Denise would be in the Greenville stands rooting for the Green with her new boyfriend Norm (whom she had also dated back in high school, ironically enough).

"Hey! Uncle Kirby!" It was Mike calling to his Uncle from the sidelines as Kirby made his way through the crowd.

Kirby was surprised to see Claudia standing along side Mike and Laura by the ropes that kept the fans from the field.

"Do you like football?" Kirby asked Claudia with interest.

"Oh sure," Claudia smiled. "You?"

"I played football," Kirby smiled. "Way back when."

"My mom says Uncle Kirby was pretty good back in the day," Mike said with a grin.

"He was!" A voice spoke from behind them.

Kirby turned to see his son Danny standing with a couple of other former high school friends, all of them wearing their old Hillsboro Hurricanes team jackets.

"You were a lot better!" Kirby grinned, punching his son on the arm.

The group exchanged pleasantries and ribbing before Danny moved off with his friends. Kirby was relieved that Dan assumed Claudia was with Mike and Laura – well, she was with Mike and Laura but for some reason Kirby felt slightly awkward standing with her in a group.

"Nice looking kid," Claudia smiled at Kirby.

"He's got a girlfriend!" Laura joked from where she stood close to Mike.

"That's not what I meant!" a blushing Claudia replied.

"Hey, Reese's Pieces!"

Kirby turned to see his old high school teammate Crash Lewis approaching. The two friends high-fived the other. Crash weighed about 250 pounds now with a shaved head and battered knees but he looked like he wanted to jump the rope and go play the first set of downs.

"Man, I think you and me are it from the old team," Crash complained. "Nobody comes here anymore. It's too crowded!"

"We're getting too old for this stuff," Kirby replied. "Even all our kids have graduated."

"I guess," Crash sighed. "But I still love watching the game."

"So, you were a good player?" Claudia asked Kirby with interest.

"That was a long time ago," Kirby replied. "Another lifetime."

"This guy held the record for most receptions in a season long before you were born, baby," Crash volunteered.

"Not that long before," Claudia remarked.

"Crash here led the league in tackles," Kirby said.

"Not that anybody remembers," Crash complained.

"Records are made to be broken," Kirby smiled. "I think mine lasted three years!"

They both laughed while watching the Hurricanes warm up on the field. The two former players made a few general observations about this year's squad and Kirby answered a couple of questions Claudia asked about the history of the series and the meaning of the game.

"It's mostly about town pride and school spirit," Kirby explained. "Once a Hurricane always a Hurricane."

"I went to seven different schools in twelve years," Claudia noted. "It must have been nice to have gone to the same place the whole time."

"It helped the team bond," Crash said. "Most of us played together since Pop Warner."

"It's important having roots," Kirby said. "I could relate to my son when he played here after me. Every time I come here I remember and feel the history of this place. The games we played. The guys we played with."

Claudia watched Kirby looking out onto the field and she smiled at his nostalgic sentimentality. "Do you miss it?"

"You can't look back," Kirby answered. "What's done is done. What's gone is gone."

Claudia nodded her head in agreement.

"Good times, good times!" Crash laughed. "Still having them, too!"

Claudia stood by Kirby's side for most of the game. Crash hung around too, although he wandered off to chat with other familiar faces from time to time too. He seemed interested in the way Claudia was paying attention to Kirby.

Occasionally, somebody Kirby knew would stop by and say hi and Danny returned with his friends a couple of times to hang out too. Kirby didn't seem to know how to introduce Claudia so he just said 'Mike and Laura's friend'.

"Is your mother on the other side?" Kirby asked Danny as half time approached.

"Don't worry about it, Dad," Danny replied. "Just enjoy the game."

"Your ex is a Giant fan?" Claudia asked Kirby after Dan left with his friends again.

"She went to school there," Kirby explained.

"How'd you two meet?"

"My cousin lived near her," Kirby replied. "She introduced us and we started dating when we were both going to Blue County Community College."

"And you were married for how long?" she asked.

"About as long as you've been alive," Kirby replied, giving Claudia the eye.

"I don't know why you're so hung up on that," Claudia said, rolling her eyes.

"Do you know what today is?" Kirby asked.

"Thanksgiving," she answered.

"It's also the anniversary of something," Kirby told her.

"What?" She asked.

"President Kennedy was assassinated forty-nine years ago today in Dallas," Kirby revealed.

"Oh yeah, I heard that on the radio," Claudia said.

"I was in the first grade," Kirby recalled. "The Principal came in and told the teacher who burst into tears. We were sent home early. I went home and my mother was out in the back yard hanging out the laundry, crying." He studied Claudia for a moment. "Who was President when you were in the first grade?"

She thought about it for a moment. "Ronald Reagan."

"I rest my case," Kirby remarked.

"Look, I just don't think age difference is that much of a big deal," Claudia remarked. "Sure, if you were nineteen and I was twelve, that would be a problem," she admitted. "But as adults, age sort of stops."

"What was the Beatles first hit single?" Kirby tested.

"Let it Be?" she guessed.

"Love Me Do," Kirby corrected her. "When did Neil Armstrong land on the moon?"

"1970."

"1969," Kirby corrected her. "What year did The Waltons first air?"

"Who are The Waltons?" Claudia wondered.

"It's not important anymore," Kirby replied. "Except all those things are frame of references for me. They are a part of my life. And you have no idea what any of them are all about."

Hillsboro scored a touchdown which distracted Kirby from the discussion. He screamed and yelled in support and when half time arrived, the Hurricanes held an 18-16 lead over Greenville.

"You staying?" Mike asked.

"Of course," Kirby laughed. "You never leave a game until the final whistle.

"We're heading out," Mike replied. "We'll see you Grandma's." He turned to Claudia. "You coming with us or staying with Kirby?"

Claudia glanced at Kirby. "I'd like to watch the rest of the game," she said hopefully.

"You'll take her to Grandma's?" Mike asked.

"Ah, yeah, sure," Kirby replied, suddenly feeling slightly nervous.

"Sweet – see you there! Mike said as he took Laura by the arm and started to walk away.

"I can't believe you're leaving!" Kirby protested. "It's a great game."

"I was never a big fan," Mike confessed. "I was just here because Laura wanted to see her niece cheerlead for a while."

"Ta-ta!" Laura said as she and Mike disappeared into the crowd.

"So, it looks like it's just you and me, Kirby!" Claudia smiled.

"People are going to think you're Diane," he mumbled.

"Who's Diane?"

"My daughter," he groaned.

Claudia laughed. "You've really got to get over this whole age thing," she said. "Let's just have a good time and not worry about anything, okay?"

"I feel like a dirty old man," Kirby confessed.

"Why? All we're doing is watching a football game, right?"

"Sure," Kirby agreed with a smile. "We're watching a football game."

They walked to the snack shack and waited in line for some coffee.

"What did you like most about playing football for Hillsboro?" Claudia asked.

"What Crash was saying before," Kirby replied. "The sense of team. The friendships. The common goals and purpose. The record was nice but the only reason I got it was because Dale Williams had a great arm and was a terrific quarterback. He set records for most passing yards, touchdown passes, and receptions so it was easy for me to get a record too."

"You still made the catches," Claudia pointed out.

"What I remember most about playing was it was really the only time my father paid attention to what I was doing and took an interest in it," Kirby said. "He'd come to the games. He'd cheer me on. He bought me a car when I got the record. It was used but it was still better than the junk I had been driving. Then, a few months after I graduated from high school, my parents split up and it was never the same again."

"I'm sorry," Claudia offered.

"It was a long time ago," Kirby reasoned. "Doesn't matter much now."

"We never get over things that happen to us in our lives," Claudia told him.

Kirby glanced at her. "Why? What are some of your big regrets?"

"I don't suppose I really have any," Claudia replied. "I mean everything I've done in my life I did because I wanted to. The disappointments I experienced really were out of my control. I couldn't do anything about growing up in a military family. I didn't know my husband was going to turn into an abusive drunk."

"Sorry," Kirby said.

"I'm here now," Claudia smiled. "I have a good job. I'm renting a studio apartment I can call my own. I've met Laura and Mike and now the rest of your family. I'm watching Hillsboro-Greenville on Turkey Day with a former record holder."

Coffees in hand, they walked back to their spot along the sidelines. The bands finished their half time performances, the teams ran back onto the field, Crash returned from his nips in his car in the parking lot, and the second half began. Claudia cheered for the Hurricanes alongside Kirby and when Hillsboro staged a late game twelve play drive to score the winning touchdown with less than a minute to go and hold on for the 30-28 victory, Claudia cheered as loud as anybody, high fiving Dan who watched the last few minutes with his Dad and letting Crash lift her up and give her a twirl. She was slightly disappointed that Kirby didn't show any demonstrative gestures of celebration other than to pump his fist and smile happily.

Kirby and Claudia said so long to Crash who ran off to celebrate with other fans. Danny told his dad he'd see them at Grandma's house (he wanted to celebrate with the guys for a while before heading out). Kirby escorted Claudia to his pick up truck in the parking lot.

"Sorry," Kirby said when they reached the nine year old truck with "Kirby Reese Painting" on both side doors and the tailgate. "I never got another car when Denise left."

"Oh, I like trucks," Claudia replied. "My Dad used to drive a '52 International."

Kirby drove them to the house he grew up in. His father and Joan's house was modern and spacious and fancy but his mother's house was much older and less glamorous, a two story box of a home with a wrap around front porch and four bedrooms upstairs.

"It looks nice," Claudia remarked when he pulled the pickup truck to the curb in front of the house.

"I paint it every five years whether it needs it or not," Kirby replied. "She really should sell it. It's much too big for her to be living in it all by herself."

"You didn't want to move in after Denise left?" Claudia asked.

"I'm too old to be living with my mother," he replied.

Claudia noticed the difference between Joan's home and this house the moment Kirby opened the door. Laughing voices and loud conversations spilled from the rooms. The house had a lived in feel to it with thirty year old furniture, family photographs, faded carpets and even a comfortable and relaxing smell.

What Claudia noticed right away was that there was no tension like the undercurrent she felt at Joan's the evening before. Nobody was looking over their shoulder and watching what they said and how they said it. Claudia said hello to everybody she had met the night before: Marty and Paula, Kasey and Josh, Amy and Al, Mike and Laura, Emily, Craig and Janis, and she noticed that all of them looked much more relaxed, at ease and comfortable than they had the night before.

Claudia was welcomed like an old friend of the family and she was intrigued when an attractive older woman with gray hair stepped out of the kitchen.

"Who's your lady friend, Kirby?"

"She's Mike and Laura's friend, Mom," Kirby was quick to reply, giving his mother a hug.

"Well, that's no reason why she can't be your friend too, is it?" His mom asked with a warm smile before turning her attention to Claudia.

"This is Claudia," Kirby announced. "She works with Laura at the bank."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Claudia," Mrs. Reese said, taking her hand. "Please make yourself at home. We're happy you can enjoy Thanksgiving with us."

The Reese Thanksgiving celebration was an informal and laid back open house format. There was perpetual food on the dining room table (Ham, duck, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, scalloped potatoes, kielbasa, shrimp cocktail, bacon and stuffed scallops) and Claudia liked that it was not the traditional Thanksgiving meal. Mrs. Reese knew that's what was served the night before and didn't want to duplicate the meal.

Visitors were free to come and go, visiting other in-laws and girlfriend families, and returning for a second course or pie. The football games were on the television, Danny showed up with his girlfriend Gretchen who was about three inches taller and twenty pounds heavier than him, a cheerful and funny woman who was a natural entertainer. Kirby's daughter Diane also arrived with her wife, Linda. Diane was a thin dirty blond with a wide smile and Linda was dark haired and quiet and Claudia was impressed by how easily the couple was accepted by the rest of the family.

It was clear that Diane and her wife were not welcomed at Joan's and that sparked several conversations as the day went on. Claudia quickly figured out that making fun of Joan and her children behind their backs was a good natured sport with the Reeses.

Claudia felt embraced and accepted by the entire family and she enjoyed her many interactions. She helped restock the food when the plates became thin, she watched football with the guys, and she enjoyed a tour of the house by Mrs. Reese, a warm and friendly woman who obviously took great pride in her children and grandchildren.

Claudia was amused that the bedrooms of the children looked much the way they had when they were last occupied (as much as forty years earlier in Marty's case). Claudia stepped into Kirby's room and saw the football trophies and other mementos of childhood, including photographs of him in his various uniforms,and his prom photo with an attractive young woman in a beautiful dress.

"Who's the girl?" Claudia asked when Kirby stuck his head into the door to find her sitting on his old bed holding the prom picture in her lap.

"Frannie Fontaine," Kirby replied with a smile. "My high school sweetheart."

"What happened to her?"

"Oh, she's married to a dentist and lives in Ohio now," Kirby answered with a sentimental smile. "I saw her at a couple of reunions."

"You sure do look handsome," Claudia commented.

"That was a long time ago," Kirby said with a self-deprecating laugh.

"You're still handsome!" She assured him.

"If you like broken-nosed wrinkled faced old men!" Kirby replied.

"Your beard hides the wrinkles," Claudia joked. "How come you didn't take this stuff with you?" She asked, glancing around the room at the old memories.

"The past belongs in the past," Kirby answered. "Why take my childhood into my adult world?" He walked across the room and glanced at the plaque recognizing his receiving record. "Does it really matter now?"

"Everything we do now is based on what we did before," Claudia theorized. "Everything we accomplished makes us who we are today."

"How 'bout everything we failed at?" Kirby sighed.

"That too," Claudia replied honestly. "We are the sum of our parts."

"I don't think mine add up!" Kirby joked.

"Did you enjoy your prom?" Claudia asked, studying the photo of him and Fannie Fontaine.

"Yeah, it was fun," Kirby admitted.

"I never went to mine," Claudia revealed.

"What!?" Kirby asked with surprise, crossing the room and sitting on the bed next to her.

"I was new to the school that year," she explained with a shrug. "I really didn't know anybody. I went to the movies with my mother instead."

She glanced around the room. "I don't have these sorts of memories," she said. "Everything kind of blurs together because I moved around so much. It's hard to remember what kid I knew where. They came and went and so did I. I never played on any one team long enough to establish my reputation. I never lasted long enough to form any real bonds. You've known Crash for how long?"

"First grade," Kirby replied.

"The one person I've know the longest outside my immediate family was my husband," Claudia revealed. "Only because I married him. Otherwise he would have disappeared too."

"Guess he disappeared anyway," Kirby remarked.

"Only because I made him," she replied with a sad smile.

Kirby took the prom photo from her hand and placed it back on the bookshelf. "They're just moments from the past captured in time," he said.

"But you have this shrine to help you remember," Claudia sighed. "We were throwing stuff out every time we moved. I lost half the stuff that mattered to me. 'Lost in shipment' they'd say. I don't even have a yearbook."

"I think my mother likes to keep the shrines up more than we do," Kirby said as he stood. "She likes to remember the way it was."

"The house would probably feel empty if she didn't keep the links to the past alive within it," Claudia remarked as she stood too and followed Kirby from the room.

The Texans beat the Lions 34-31 despite a missed call by the referee and a foolish mistake by the Detroit coach who threw the challenge flag on an unchallengeable play. The second game was the traditional Redskins-Cowboys match up and Claudia joined Kirby on the couch to watch some of it. At one point, it was Claudia and Kirby, Danny and Gretchen, and Diane and Linda all sitting around the tube watching the game and Kirby wondered if this was supposed to be a natural thing. Claudia was from his kid's era but here she was more interested in being with him than with them or her friends Mike and Laura who had left to go visit Laura's family.

Kirby wondered if his kids were bothered that he was seated next to an attractive younger woman of their age group but if they were they didn't say anything. Actually, the entire group was having a good time watching, cheering, rooting, and commenting on the game as it progressed. Other family members entered and left the room, catching a few minutes of the game, joining in on conversations, starting their own, always including Claudia in the discussion who became a natural at fitting right in with the commentary, attitude, and humor.

The Redskins and RGIII upset the Cowboys 38-31. Claudia said she lived in Texas for a few years and that football fever ran rampant. High school football there was as big as college football was in most other parts of the country.

"It really is Friday Night Lights," she observed.

"Where else have you lived?" Diane asked.

"Well, I was born in Oregon, but I've lived in California, Texas, New Jersey, Germany, Georgia, Virginia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, New York, and now Massachusetts," Claudia answered.

A quick poll of those in the room revealed that only Linda had lived somewhere else besides Massachusetts.

"I guess we're kind of boring homesteaders," Danny observed. "At least Kevin and Millie managed to get out of town."

"You guys are definitely not boring," Claudia replied with a laugh. "I remember seeing a Christmas card once that read 'He was born in an obscure village, the son of a peasant woman…he never visited a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where he was born….' Jesus stayed close to home and look at all that he accomplished and the difference he made in people's lives!"

As far as Claudia could determine, with the exception of Joan and possibly Preston and Nancy, everybody she had met in the past few days were definitely Massachusetts liberals. While the political discussions had been understandably muted and contained the previous evening at Joan's, today's banter, discussions, debates and complaints had been loud and opinionated, from the recent local, state and national elections, to the general shape, morale, and attitude of the country.

Because Claudia had been raised in a military family and had married to a career Army guy, she was able to offer a different opinion and viewpoint without being critical or "wacko" as Marty phrased it.

"Don't worry, I'm not right wing crazy," Claudia laughed.

"But you're not left wing loony either," Kirby noted.

"I guess I see both sides since I've been everywhere and met everybody," Claudia observed.

"What'd your ex do?" Marty asked.

"He's a Platoon Sergeant," Claudia answered. "We got married the year before 9/11 just after he got out of boot camp and he was deployed four times in the next twelve years to Iraq and Afghanistan."

"No wonder your marriage didn't last!" Amy remarked.

"There were other issues," Claudia revealed.

"Those damn wars take such a toll on those guys," Marty commented.

"We don't need to talk about it now," Kirby offered with sensitivity. "Claudia deserves a Happy Thanksgiving without dealing with that crap."

So they talked about football and the next day's Black Friday and told family stories for Claudia's benefit, most of them funny and semi-dysfunctional, some involving Police intervention, others borderline crazy in scope and tale.

"But everybody survived," Mrs. Reese was quick to point out.

"Especially you, Mom!" Amy laughed.

By the time the Patriots game started that night, the only ones still at the house were Kirby and Claudia and Danny and Gretchen. The others left once all the food was picked up and the kitchen cleaned. When New England scored three touchdowns in the span of 53 seconds in the second quarter against the Jets, Danny announced the game was over and he and Gretchen left.

"All of a sudden the house seems pretty quiet and empty," Kirby remarked, glancing around.

"Yes, I hate it when it gets so lonely," Mrs. Reese sighed.

"We'll stay and watch the game with you for a while, Mom," Kirby told her.

"You're very sweet," she replied.

So they watched the Patriots blow out the Jets 49-19 and because Mike and Laura never returned, Claudia was in need of a ride home.

"I guess I'm it," Kirby said, knowing he was the only one left.

"I could call a cab if it's that much of an imposition," Claudia remarked semi-sarcastically.

"Don't be ridiculous!" Mrs. Reese frowned. "Kirby is more than happy, capable and able to give you a ride home."

They said their goodnights to Kirby's mom and Kirby walked Claudia to his pick up truck.

"That was quite the day," Claudia marveled. "I've never experienced a Thanksgiving like this before."

"You mean a crazy one?" Kirby smirked.

"Your family's great!" Claudia said. "I was an only child in a military family that moved around a lot," she explained. "If I was with more than five people in one sitting, it was a big deal. Keeping up with your clan is a full time job!"

"I guess I tend to take them for granted," Kirby admitted.

Claudia rented a studio apartment in one of the refurbished old factory buildings along the Blue River. She showed Kirby where her door was and he pulled the truck to a stop in front of it.

"So, your sisters, Paula, Kasey and Janis are all doing the Black Friday thing at the mall tomorrow," Claudia grinned. "You sure you're not interested?"

"I'd rather have a root canal," Kirby replied.

"What are you doing?"

"Working," he replied.

"Painting?"

"I'm getting the Wallenford house over on Hillside ready for sale."

"By yourself?"

"I have a couple of part time contractors who work for me sometimes but not tomorrow," he answered.

"Well, good luck with that, and thanks for a really nice Thanksgiving," Claudia said with a smile. "I don't know what I would have done with myself these last few days if Laura and Mike hadn't been so thoughtful."

"Good night, Claudia," Kirby said politely. "Happy Thanksgiving."

"It really was!" She grinned as she climbed out of the cab and headed for her front door, turning and giving him a wave before disappearing inside.

Kirby sighed and drove home. It really had been a good Thanksgiving, all things considered. He realized he hadn't obsessed about and missed Denise all that much since he had been occupied with Claudia's presence. She didn't spend every moment with him but he was always aware of her even when she was with his sisters and mother in the kitchen, or hanging out with Mike and Laura, or shooting the breeze with his kids or other members of the family. Nobody seemed to have a problem with her even when they figured out that she was there just as much to be with Kirby as she was to hang out with Mike and Laura.

It really wasn't a bad day after all (especially with Hillsboro beating Greenville!).

### ###

The Wallenford place at 48 Hillside Avenue was a sixty year old house in structurally good shape. It had bay windows in the dining and living rooms facing the street and noticeable features like oval doorway arches, built in hutches and bookcases, and a modern kitchen. There was a year round side porch and a small study with a bathroom on the first floor and three bedrooms and a large bath upstairs. The cellar was redone with a bar, fireplace, and pool table. The house was empty and the owner wanted the rooms painted prior to selling it.

Kirby had been working there for about a week and had already finished the second floor. He was diligently working on the side porch when he heard the front doorbell ring. He assumed maybe it was the next door neighbor Elliot Issotti, a long time friend of the Wallenford family who was acting as curator for the property but he was surprised to see Claudia standing on the front step with a Box of Joe and carton of donuts from Dunkin Donuts.

"How'd you find this place?" Kirby asked as he opened the door.

"I asked the people at Dunkin Donuts where Hillside Avenue was and then I just looked for your truck," she smiled. "I can't stay long. I have to go to work but I thought maybe you could use a little breakfast."

"You're very thoughtful," Kirby replied, stepping back so she could come through the door.

She headed for the kitchen and Kirby followed.

"I saw a truck for Hipkin's Painting when I was at Dunkin' Donuts," she said. "Your competition?"

'Yeah, he's pretty young so he hasn't really established himself yet," Kirby replied. "I've been around long enough to be well known. Boone the Builder is probably my biggest competition but he tends to contract me out for some of his jobs so it works out okay."

Claudia placed the donuts and coffee on the counter. "I think I ate too much these last few days," she laughed. "So I got low fat!"

Kirby grinned as he took one of the donuts from the box and watched as she poured him a large cup of coffee. She glanced around the kitchen. "This is a nice house."

"Yeah, the owner had a stroke and is living with her daughter out in the Midwest somewhere," he explained. "They're selling the place. The guy next door is quite broken up over it for some reason."

Kirby was quiet for a moment as he pondered the situation before chuckling to himself.

"What's so funny?" Claudia asked.

"Ah, I was just thinking the guy next door is probably another middle aged divorced lonely sap like me," Kirby answered.

"You're not a sap!" Claudia grinned.

Kirby gazed at Claudia for a moment and then looked away, glancing out the bay window overlooking the back yard. Claudia was quiet as she followed his gaze out the window too although she watched Kirby out of the corner of her eye.

"Now that Thanksgiving is over winter will be here soon," Kirby commented, more to himself than to her it seemed.

"Winter can be lonely," Claudia replied as she took a sip of her coffee.

"But pretty in New England," Kirby said.

"Some say romantic," Claudia volunteered. "Although I didn't find Fort Drum all that romantic last winter."

"Well, it's a new year," Kirby said hopefully.

"Yes," she agreed, taking the last sip of her coffee. "I've got to get going."

"Thanks for the joe and munchies," he told her.

"My pleasure," she smiled. "Have a good day."

He walked her to the door and opened it for her. "Bye," he said.

She left the house and he watched her until she was safely in her car and driving away.

"What a nice kid," Kirby said to himself as he closed the door.

### ###

The Hillsboro High School Alumni Association held an Alumni gathering every year on the Friday of the Thanksgiving weekend, figuring plenty of people were in town visiting for the holiday and it was a good time as any to hold the event.

Kirby had gone to the last few gatherings. He saw plenty of the 'townies' all year round but it was nice to bump into out of town visitors at the Alumni social so he didn't mind going, especially since Denise moved out.

This year's gathering was at The Bullpen Tavern by Beano Field and the place was already packed by the time Kirby arrived a good hour after the function started. The Bullpen was a sports bar so there were wide screen televisions everywhere, some showing the Celtics game, others the Cincinnati-South Florida college football game.

Many of the attendees were wearing Hurricane Brown shirts and sweatshirts with alumni buttons. Memorabilia, old yearbooks, photos and other collectables were set up on display in one corner while members of Hillsboro High graduating classes from the 1940s through the 2000s showed up to reminisce, most putting on 'Hello My name is' sticky tags with their class year underneath their name.

Kirby was thrilled when Dale Williams strolled into the tavern with his wife Holly, home to visit Dale's elderly mom and spend time with his sister too. The two former teammates hadn't seen each other in thirty-five years and it was fun to catch up. Dale was huskier than his playing days with a bit of a pot belly and a receding hairline and tired face but he was just as enthusiastic as ever. His wife had a California sun tan and a pretty smile.

Kirby stood shooting the breeze with Dale and Crash and he was surprised when he saw Claudia coming toward him with a drink in her hand.

"Hi Kirby," she said with a pleasant smile.

"I'm surprised to see you here!" Kirby exclaimed.

"You forgot that Mike and Laura are Hillsboro graduates?" She grinned, gesturing to the two of them sitting at the bar. They both waved at Kirby with smiles on their faces, lifting their beer mugs in a toasting salute.

Kirby was beginning to wonder if there was some sort of conspiracy going on to make sure he and Claudia kept bumping into each other. Claudia was happy to stand by Kirby's side for the rest of the evening listening to all the sports stories, high school tales, and other memories of the past as various people approached with new stories and observations to tell.

A few people looked at Claudia with interest and even intrigue, especially those who had known Denise over the years. Kirby felt awkward but Claudia didn't seem to mind what people might be thinking about her. She could sense some of the guys from Kirby's age group giving her the appreciative eye, perhaps envious of Kirby for having a woman her age by his side and she liked feeling valued and perhaps even wanted.

Claudia was slightly annoyed when Kirby went out of his way to explain on more than occasion that she was his nephew's friend (implying that she wasn't his friend) but she didn't openly challenge his stipulation and she let others make their own assumptions, not correcting the record if someone called her Kirby's girlfriend when he was out of earshot. About the only person who seemed to be uptight about any of this was Kirby!

Dale Williams, the former all-star quarterback, was commenting on how no matter how long he had been gone from Hillsboro, nothing seemed to change whenever he came back to town. "People say hello to me as if they just saw me yesterday," he told Kirby.
"Sometimes I wonder if some of us are just too inbred," Kirby replied. "Too many of us never left. And now here we are thirty-five years later with nothing to talk about."
"Oh, there's plenty to talk about," Claudia interjected. "This place is like Cheers where everybody knows your name!"

"Finally, a cultural reference we both know," Kirby grinned.

"You guys have the same frame of reference," Claudia told them. "You share the same communal DNA. You know what its like to watch a ball game at Beano Park and you remember who won the Turkey Day game in 1975..."

"Hillsboro," Crash said.

"You know the same people, remember the same families, had the same teachers," Claudia said. "I have no place to go back to," she said sadly. "Sure I've been everywhere and done everything and seen everything but nobody knows me. If I walked into some Alumni gathering in any town I lived in growing up, nobody would know who I was."
She looked sad as she thought about it. "This is your hometown," she said quietly. "Be proud of it. Be proud being a part of it. Be proud you can call it your own. I wish I had a hometown."

"Hillsboro can be your honorary hometown," Kirby offered.

"I do like it here," Claudia said with a smile. "There's something...Rockwell about it."

"Wow, two pop cultural references we both get in less than a minute!" Kirby laughed.

"See, we aren't that far apart," Claudia grinned.

"You've lived all over the world and you'd pick to live in Hillsboro?" Kirby asked with surprise.

"Why not?" Claudia asked. "It's a good a place as any."

"You're a smart woman," Dale decided.

"I've only been here three or four times since Dale and I married," Holly volunteered. "But Dale mentions it at least every few days. We live in the hills overlooking LA with a picturesque view but half the time I think Dale would rather be standing on the crest of the Hilltop neighborhood looking at Hillsboro."

"Sometimes," Dale admitted with a smile. "But life took me elsewhere. Life kept you guys here. And now it looks like it brought Claudia here."

"Maybe," Kirby replied with uncertainty.

They told a few other stories and Dale and Holly then went off to mingle with other Hillsboro alumni while Crash did the rounds too.
"Do you have regrets that you stayed?" Claudia asked Kirby as they took a seat at a table.
"I think sometimes my father wished we left," Kirby replied. "He's a big deal lawyer and his wife is a successful real estate agent still working at seventy. I don't think he was ever all that impressed with anything his kids did which is why he gets along with Nancy and Preston better than us."

"He gets along better with Preston and Nancy because he's afraid of Joan," Claudia countered.

"I wish he'd be afraid of us once in a while," Kirby sighed.
"Why don't you think he's proud of you guys?"
Kirby shrugged. "We're all just blue collar working stiffs. Middle class dregs. No glory. No fame. No names in the paper. He's won millions in law suit settlements and Joan sells million dollar houses on Green Hill in Greenville. I paint houses. Marty is a factory supervisor. Amy takes pictures in a make shift studio in her house. Emily is unemployed. Al is a mechanic. About the only two who made the grade in Dad and Joan's eyes are Craig because he owns a popular restaurant and Denise because she saves lives as an ER Nurse."

"And she's not even around anymore," Claudia remarked.

"No, she's not," Kirby sighed. "Funny, Dale never even met her. A whole piece of my life gone as if it never existed."

"I think Danny and Diane would disagree with that," Claudia said.

"I suppose," Kirby agreed.

"When did you find out Diane was gay?" Claudia asked.

"She came home from college one day and announced it," Kirby recalled. "But I had a pretty good idea before that. She never got all hysterical over guys in high school and she liked female companions."

"Your father and Joan didn't approve?"

"I don't think my father cares one way or the other," Kirby said. "And it was just one more thing for Joan to use against us. I don't think she's homophobic, she just likes to create controversy, conflict, crisis and division."

"You don't seem as political as your siblings," Claudia observed. "You didn't involve yourself in a lot of Marty and Amy's ranting and raving yesterday."

"I suppose as a small business man I should be a die hard Republican arguing for less taxes and all the rest of it but I have a hard time listening to those guys tell me that my daughter doesn't deserve equal rights, can't get married, and is genetically flawed so I keep my mouth shut," Kirby said with a shrug. "Politics is mostly noise and I try not to get sucked into it."

"I'm surprised by how much some people take it as life and death," Claudia replied. "I get involved in important issues but I don't let this stuff run my life."

Dale and Holly returned from their socializing and joined Kirby and Claudia at the table.

"Hey, I saw Scoot Rogers over there," Dale told Kirby. "You should go say hi."

"Okay, on my way to the men's room," Kirby said, excusing himself just as Crash returned too.

"So, what was Kirby like in high school?" Claudia asked.

"Pretty much the same guy he is now," Dale answered. "He hasn't changed much."

"And he dated Frannie Fontaine," Claudia said.

"Oh, wow, Frannie!" Crash sighed. "She was definitely a babe."

"What happened to them?" Claudia wondered.

"It was high school," Dale replied. "Those things don't last."

"She was better for him than Denise though," Crash decided.

"What makes you say that?" Claudia asked.

"Frannie was fun. Down to earth. Easy going," Crash reasoned. "Denise seemed to be much more full of herself. I think she kind of kept Pieces down, really."

"In what way?" Claudia asked with interest.

"When they met, she was just some flake going to community college," Crash explained as he worked on his beer. "Pieces was goofing off, working for a guy painting houses, taking a few classes, just having fun so they got along fine. But then she got her nursing degree and she became the real bread winner of the family. Had the good job. His painting business was always hit or miss, often on the verge of collapse, and I don't think she was really all that supportive. She made it seem like she was the success and he was the loser in the deal."

"Who left who?" Claudia asked.
"Denise is the one who moved out and now she's shacking up with her old high school flame so I guess she was the one," Crash said with a disapproving frown.

"But we don't know what goes on behind closed doors," Dale said.

"Why so many questions?" Holly asked Claudia with interest. "I thought Kirby said you were his nephew's friend."

"Just curious," Claudia said innocently.

"You have my permission to jump his bones," Crash said, leaning over and practically whispering it to Claudia. "The guy has been glum for a long time."

"You don't think I'm too young?" Claudia tested.

Crash laughed. "Too young for what?"

"Kirby thinks I'm too young," she sighed.

"He's just old fashioned," Crash said.

"I think you two look good together," Dale said with encouragement.

"I'll reserve comment," Holly decided. "Because I'm the old broad here!"

"It never occurred to me that age would be such an issue," Claudia admitted with a sigh. "You see somebody you're attracted to, you get to know him, and you get together. Why should age matter?"

"Because twenty-five years from now he'll be drooling in his oatmeal and wearing Depends and you'll still be working," Holly said.

"What difference does that make if you truly love somebody?" Claudia wanted to know.

The others didn't respond, not quite having an answer for her.

Kirby returned from the bathroom and from shooting the breeze with Scoot Rogers.

"Cincinnati just won, 27-10," he reported.

"How's Scott?" Claudia teased.

Kirby laughed. "Full of stories."

"None of them true," Crash noted.

The group shot the breeze for a while longer and Claudia excused herself to use the ladies room.

"Man, you're the luckiest guy I know," Crash told Kirby once Claudia was gone.

"What do you mean?" Kirby wondered.

"That broad is crazy for you!" Crash laughed with envy. "Go for it!"

"She's just a kid," Kirby replied. "She'd think I was a perverted old man."

"She hasn't left your side all night!" Crash groaned. "Are you crazy?"

"She does seem interested," Dale revealed.

"I don't think I'm ready for something like this," Kirby admitted.

"Oh yeah?" Crash asked sarcastically. "When do you think you will be ready? Let me know, because in the meantime I'll see if she's interested in me!"

Claudia returned from using the bathroom and Dale and Holly said they needed to go because they were flying out the next day. Claudia took a few photographs of the couple posing with Kirby and Crash before they left and Crash eventually drifted off to visit with others.

"I think Mike and Laura left me again," Claudia realized, glancing around the tavern without spotting her friends.

"I only had one beer," Kirby replied. "I can drive you home if you want."
"That would be nice," Claudia replied.

They hung out for a while longer and when the alumni crowd began to thin, Kirby asked Claudia if it was okay that they leave.

"Sure," she agreed.

Kirby escorted her to his pick up truck and drove her to her apartment building.

"Would you like to come in?" Claudia offered when he pulled the truck to the curb.

"I'd better not," he replied.

"Why not?" She asked, surprised at his remark.

"I just…..shouldn't," he said.

She peered at him for a long moment. "I don't get you," she said.

"Of course not," he agreed. "That's because we're from different generations."

"That's not what I meant," she said.

"What did you mean?" He asked, slightly confused.

"I don't get why you're so hung up on irrelevant realities," she said.

"I'm old enough to be your father."

"So what?"

He looked at her and shrugged.
Nodding her head, she let out a long frustrated groan. "Thanks for the ride," she said with defeat.

Claudia was surprised when Kirby reached out and put his arm around her shoulder in an awkward attempt to give her a hug. She used the opportunity to move in closer and kiss him passionately. She thought he might recoil or push her away so she was pleasantly surprised when their tongues briefly met but it didn't last long and after a moment he came to his senses and gently pushed her away.

"We shouldn't have done that," he sighed.

They were silent for a moment and then she laid her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes. Kirby glanced at her and saw the smile that graced her pretty shaped mouth. He gave a half a smile and gently took her hand in his. She opened her eyes and looked into his face.

"You sure you don't want to come in?"

He nodded sadly and let go of her hand.

"Good night, Kirby," she said before sliding across the seat and climbing out of the cab.

"Good night, Claudia," he replied watching her walk along the sidewalk.

This time she didn't turn to wave goodnight and Kirby felt sad as he drove home.

### ###

Kirby was seated at the counter of Johnny C's Diner the next morning eating his breakfast when he felt a presence next to him. He turned and was surprised to see Claudia seated at the next stool.

'I saw your truck parked outside when I was out talking a walk," she explained when she saw the look on his face.

"I'm surprised you're talking to me," Kirby said.

"Why wouldn't I?" She asked innocently.

"You hungry?" He asked as he took a bite of his pancake while gesturing toward the waitress standing in front of them.

"Could I have a coffee and a blueberry muffin, please?" Claudia asked politely.

"Of course," The cheerful waitress replied and the mug and muffin was in front of her in a matter of seconds.

"What are you plans today?" Claudia asked.

"I was going to make a pot of chili for the football games this afternoon," Kirby replied. "Marty said he might stop by."

"Sounds fun," Claudia replied, taking a sip of her coffee.

"You?" He asked.

"No plans," she revealed. "I haven't really made any friends yet besides Mike and Laura and I think they're getting sick of me."

Kirby didn't say anything for a long moment. "Would you like to help me make the chili?" He finally asked.

"Sounds fun," she said again, trying to hide her smile.

Ten minutes later they were in Kirby's truck driving to his house, an attractive ranch in a neighborhood only a few blocks from last night's The Bullpen Tavern. There was a large garage behind the house with a workshop added, obviously used for Kirby's painting business. He parked the truck in front of the garage and escorted Claudia into the house which was well maintained and neat in its appearance.

"This is nice," Claudia remarked, glancing around.

"Thanks," Kirby replied. "Bathroom is the first door on the left at the top of the stairs if you need to use it while you're here. Otherwise, kitchen….." He walked to the door and gestured to the next room. "Small dining room. Living room beyond that. And three bedrooms upstairs. Cellar is fixed up with a family room and half bath."

"Denise didn't want it?"

"Norm has a better place," Kirby said with a frown as he returned to the kitchen, Claudia following him. "I had to refinance and give her half the value."

"Sorry," Claudia replied. "All I wanted was the car and my personal affects," she said. "I let him have everything else. We lived in base housing, of course."

Kirby pulled a large pot out of one of the lower cupboards and placed it on the stove. "Have a seat," he said, gesturing to the kitchen table in the middle of the room.

She obeyed and watched him pull a package of pork sausage from the refrigerator.

"My father made this for us every Saturday when we were kids," he explained, pulling out a large onion from the frig and handing it to her along with a chopping board and a knife. "Go ahead and chop that up if you don't mind."

"You trying to make me cry?" She teased.

"Never," he replied seriously as he pulled out a celery stalk and handed it to her. "You can dice this too."

"Okay," she agreed.

"Sometimes we'd help but usually he'd do it himself," Kirby explained. "I tried to continue the tradition here. The kids helped when they were little."

He took a large can of whole tomatoes from the upper cupboard, opened it with the electric can opener, and then dumped it into a bowl which he placed in front of Claudia at the table. "You can chop these too."

"You like to cook?" Claudia asked as he pulled out a jug of tomato juice from the refrigerator and poured two cups into a measuring glass.

"It can be fun," he answered. "When you have a reason to cook."

She nodded her head in understanding and continued her duties as he poured two tablespoons of maple syrup and ground cumin into the pot, along with some powdered sage and ground black pepper, followed by the tomato juice.

He put a frying pan on one of the lids and began to cook up the sausage and then he dumped four cups of kidney beans into the pot. When Claudia had the onions chopped, he dumped them into the skillet with the browning sausage and then added the celery. When the celery softened, he dumped the entire contents of the skillet into the larger pot along with the other vegetables Claudia had prepared.

"Now we let simmer," he said.

"For how long?" She asked.

"Oh, for as long as it takes," he smiled. "Thanks for your help."

"It already smells pretty good," she said with a grin.

"We can chop up some sharp cheddar cheese later," he said. "I usually have cornbread or buttermilk biscuits with it."

"Sounds great," she said.

"And beer too of course," he grinned.

"Of course," she smiled.

"Would you like one now?" He offered.

She glanced at the clock hanging on the wall over the refrigerator. It was barely eleven o'clock in the morning.

"Sure," she said, taking one from him when he retrieved it from the refrigerator.

"I'm not one of these guys who sits around drinking beer all weekend," he let her know as he sat in the kitchen chair opposite him. "But with chilli…."

"It's okay," she smiled. "I don't drink that much either."

"I know your ex did," Kirby said.

"Yeah," she sighed. "It got pretty bad."

"Preston's obviously got a problem but Joan is in total denial so it's never discussed," Kirby remarked. "Craig was hitting it pretty good for a while but he's been sober for about ten years now."

"That's good," Claudia said. "I suppose every family has to deal with it in one way or another."

"Denise used to let the kids drink in the cellar when they were teenagers," Kirby sighed. "Said she'd rather have them doing it here under our noses than out somewhere else."

"You didn't agree?"

"I thought it was sending a mixed message," he said.

"They seem to be good kids now."

"Yeah, once you get them to adulthood the pressure's off," Kirby joked.

They sipped their beers in silence. Kirby glanced out the kitchen window for a moment before returning his gaze to the table in front of him and then slowly up to Claudia's face.

"What are you doing here?" He sighed.

"Waiting for the chili," she said.

"You know what I mean," he said.

"It's Thanksgiving, Kirby," she reminded him.

"So?"

"So, what are you thankful for?" She challenged.

"My family," he said. "Having a job. You know."

"What would you like to be thankful for?"

"I don't know what you mean," he said with confusion.

"No, I suppose not," she sighed, sitting back and taking a long swig of her beer. Several moments passed. "Aren't you going to ask me what I'm thankful for?"

He peered at her for a long moment. "What are you thankful for?" He asked sheepishly.

"I'm thankful that I got out of an abusive marriage," she said. "I'm thankful I came to a lovely little town and got a good job and met nice people like Mike and Laura. And that I was able to have a wonderful Thanksgiving with an interesting family that welcomed me into their home." She looked at him for a long moment. "And I'm thankful that I've met you and that we're sitting here together like this right now."

"I'm a middle aged washed up loser," he sighed.

"I don't think that."

"Geez, Claudia," Kirby remarked. "You're young. You're beautiful. Mike can set you up with any number of his available friends. Why are you hanging out here with me for?"

"Because I like you," she answered.

"You sure it's just not the chili?" He joked.

Claudia broke out into a smile. "Does that mean I can stay?"

"I was going to watch some college football," he said with a shrug. "Ohio State is playing Michigan. Baylor versus Texas Tech. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are having a show down. Notre Dame and USC tonight to see if the Fighting Irish can remain undefeated."

"We don't have to watch television the whole time," she said with a smirk.

"Marty might come over."

"When?"

"Threeish?"

"We have plenty of time," She said.

"Plenty of time for what?" Kirby asked cautiously.

"I'm sure we can think of something," Claudia said as she stood.

"Listen," Kirby said nervously. "When I was fifteen, I dated Frannie who was also fifteen. When I was nineteen, I dated Denise who was also nineteen. Now at the age I'm at now I just assumed when I finally did get back out there, I'd end up with someone that was a contemporary. Who would know what the Beatle's first #1 hit was. Who would remember The Waltons. Who would appreciate the '75 Sox."

"Those are just excuses, Kirby," Claudia told him bluntly. "Look, I grew up in a military family. I was always hanging around with older people. I don't get caught up in the whole age thing. I'm not sure why you're so hung up on it now. Do you like me or not?"

She headed for the door to the dining room. "Check the chili and then come find me." She called out.

Kirby went to the stove and stirred the pot of chili, taking a small test taste to see how it was doing. Satisfied, he put the spoon down and exited the kitchen, nearly tripping over Claudia's shirt that was strewn on the floor, as was her pants, Kirby discovered as he continued walking, as well as her sneakers, her bra, and finally her panties as he nervously made his way up the stairs.

He stepped into his bedroom and saw the naked Claudia standing with her back to him looking out the large window overlooking the backyard.

"I count twenty-seven shrubs," she said, glancing over her shoulder at him.

"Took forever to plant them," Kirby said with a smirk, his eyes trained on her backside.

"I bet," she said, slowly turning to reveal her entire self to him. "I bet you don't mind a thirty-something's body," she said with a smirk.

"Too bad I no longer have one," he sighed.

"Can you think of anything else you might be thankful for, Kirby?" She wanted to know.

"You," he whispered thankfully.