Humming Along with the Boss


One hundred and twenty-five seats in the social science auditorium, most of them filled, and not one of their temporary inhabitants could even tell you the last sentence I said.

Not that "Every culture provides a set of concepts or images for viewing the situations of reproduction, care of the young, and passage from generation to generation; these images are summed up in the term Kinship." is going to get me into the anthropology professor’s hall of fame.

If you’re dumb enough to still be doing kinship Thanksgiving week, this is what you get. I should have moved on to religion and magic by now – at least magic keeps them semi-conscious. When Noel said she’d take my classes while I was recup’ing, she didn’t say she’d keep them current.

I lean against the lectern; Rainer’s pre-digested Anthro 101 suggested kinship lecture (once sworn to never be found mumbled out of *my* mouth) flowing forth like sludge. Multi-tasking is a wonderful thing. I can actually stand up here, make like Dr. Rachins and put half the class to sleep (the Golden Rule of teaching fellows: Do unto as has been done to you) and still have mental energy enough to do a perpetual tape loop of how well this morning went – not.

Enough of this. I am not Dr. Rachins.

"Sex and food."

Heads lowered on arms bound up. Gets them every time.

"We can talk about kinship but what we’re really talking about is sex and food and who shares it with whom. Now, as this is Thanksgiving week and most of you are headed to the parents’ -- in one form or another -- for the holiday, I can pretty much guarantee that you’re going to get more of one than the other. So, what we’re talking about here is food."


My plan was to be crashing at Cleo’s before now, but that was before William decided Jim had surpassed my ASL ability. Like that hasn’t been true all along.

Who am I kidding? There’s a really, really good chance I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Like I’m going to walk up to William Ellison and say "Hey, man, Jim doesn’t really need an ASL tutor. What we really need here is a witch doctor."

How is it that something can seem so friggin’ clear when it’s the dark of night and Jim’s right there and if he wasn’t, well you wouldn’t have remembered how to breathe, and a few days later even a rare burst of Cascade sun can’t shine bright enough for you to see the right path?

If the Ellisons can agree on nothing else, they do all agree that Jim is better when we’re tethered at the wrist. Of course William wants me to simply bob there like some kind of silent balloon. And, let’s face it, even Steven doesn’t seem to understand how I could believe Jim’s been conversing for years – but only with a large, South American jungle cat.

And Jim …

This morning, when he understood what the duffel bag in the hall meant, he picked it up and took it back to my room, firmly shaking me off as I tried to disentangle his fingers from the straps. Then we had a tug-of-war over the bed that Jim easily won.

"Come on, Jim. I tried to explain all this last night."

Okay, so I didn’t really believe he understood, but I did think I could contrive to slip out unnoticed. I was even coming by after class, before I headed to Cleo’s, to check that everything was all right. Yesterday Jim had let me haul out to pick up stuff at the Uni without a blink. Even seemed okay with some time of his own in the studio.

Obviously he knows if you don’t take your stuff, you’re bound to come back. And if you do take your stuff … well, there’re no guarantees. Since he seems to have figured this out spontaneously, I’m beginning to wonder if the guy’s smarter than I am. Took me a couple of lovers before I caught on to the notion that if they leave stuff in the bathroom, chances are you’re gonna be forgiven and the makeup sex will be great.

"I’ll be back in a few hours."

Jim just looks at the bag of Ellison-supplied clothing and sundries in his hand and I topple down on the bed, scrunching my hair in my hands.

"How do I explain this? Look, you and your dad live here. Well, I live …uh, I *lived* in the warehouse. It was my home. It’ll be just like Steven, right? He has a house. But he still comes over here every day."

Jim’s hands worry the web straps and his eyes dart frantically. Finally he puts the duffel down on the bed and moves to unzip it.

I lay a hand over the ones dragging out my meager wardrobe. "Jim. No."

Finding the usually gentle hands jerked out of my grasp, I try to refold a flannel shirt and begin what turns out to be a prolonged isometric exercise in packing, with Jim putting into retrieving my clothes a force exactly equal to my effort to return them to the bag.

I don’t know if extreme stubbornness is a Sentinel trait, or just a Jim Ellison one.

No surprise I give up first.

"Jim …" I’m hoping to get him to look at me, but he will not be distracted from his task of putting my jeans back in the closet. "You’re gonna be okay, man. And I’m not deserting you. We’ve got that whole jungle-thing going and you know I’m going to stick around for the ride. You’ll be okay."

Crap. Like I know how to explain the idea of "future continuous" to somebody who lives only in the present moment. Maybe William’s idea of an ASL tutor isn’t the idiot idea I thought it was – well, if I’m the one getting the tutoring.

From the look on his face, all Jim apparently feels at the present moment is panic.

I move around to stand bodily between him and the hangers he’s restocking. "Okay, okay. You win. I’ll leave the clothes and I’ll come back and try this again, but right now I’ve got to get to class."

While this might have worked had the duffel bag not made an appearance, Jim certainly isn’t in the mood to let me walk out of here now. Even if he does have sole custody of all my clean underwear. A flannel shirt flutters to the floor and my wrist is immediately cuffed by one strong hand.

"Oh no, Jim. Come on. You haven’t done this in weeks. I don’t have a choice here. I’m already on the shit-list for taking so much medical leave. I can *not* ditch this class." Stopping my efforts to draw away, I close the space between us. "You’re going to have to help me here, big guy. I need you to get over this separation anxiety thing."

Damn, he’s nearly a match for me when it comes to hyperventilating. I push him gently down on the bed, then have to kneel beside it as he’s nowhere near ready to let go of my wrist.

"Okay, first thing is you’re giving me a stress fracture." His eyes are wide and staring tearfully at the ceiling. Any cracked bones of mine are clearly going to have to wait. "Next first thing is you gotta slow down your breathing."

I take a cue from what Jim instinctively did the night it was me on the bed, wheezing like I’d just run the Boston marathon. My free hand goes to his chest and I press down gently in time with my own breathing.

"See, Jim, not so fast. Feel that? Slow it down."

Worried blue eyes finally manage to focus on me as the huffing slows. A little more murmuring and the tight hold on my arm eases. Jim stretches a little to look behind me.

Shit. Sally’s brown eyes are concerned and a little teary. William is knotting his tie aggressively, looking aggravated. When he finally makes a sharp soldier-like turn and marches out to his car, my sigh is audible.

"I gotta go," I apologize, glancing back to Sally for help. "They’re gonna string me up if I don’t get back to teaching."

Sally nods her understanding and she reaches into her apron pocket for some of the candy she always keeps there. I don’t think chocolate will do it this time, but I’m going to be late as it is. I’m a TA. I don’t even rate the wait-ten-minutes rule the undergrads bestow on associate professors.

Her advance is distracting enough that I wiggle my arm away from Jim’s grip. I’m up and through the door before Jim really grasps what’s happened. I hear a small cry of distress, followed immediately by Sally’s comforting murmur as I rush down the stairs. It’ll take eight bucks to park in the garage next to the student union, but it’ll be worth it to not have the associate dean blister my butt again for being late to my own class.


Trick of the teaching-trade – while you’ve still got them laughing try to slip in a little information.

"Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed – particularly this time of the year -- that food is a serious vector of social control. Now, many great thinkers may have contemplated this as far back as Egyptian and Roman times, but we’re going to stick to more recent history and talk about Michael Goodenough’s ethnography on the d’Entrecasteaux islands.

It’s not as good as incest taboos, but I can riff on abutu exchanges with the best of them. Besides it’s always worth it to watch them try to wrap their minds around a culture where you give someone your most valuable possession if you’re pissed with them.

Forty minutes later they’re exchanging personal horror stories of relatives who were ruined for life because the turkey burned or the whole family got food poisoning from undercooked dressing.

I didn’t even get to the throwing of the yams.


Leave the cell off for ninety minutes and you get six messages. I flick through the missed calls. All from the same, very familiar telephone number.

The Ellisons’ number.

Oh fuck.

My heart is suddenly splashing arhythmically in my chest like somebody’s dropped it in a bucket of cold water. Numb fingers that I only dimly recognize as belonging to me hit the call button.

Steven’s voice when he answers is tense. That he should be at the office and not answering his father’s home phone isn’t lost on me.

"What happened?"

I must not sound much better, ‘cause he says uncertainly, "Blair?"

"Yeah. It’s me. Is Jim all right?"

"He’s okay. He’s …"

"He’s okay?" The little Sandburg who lives in the back of my brain is stomping around in a circle aimlessly muttering that they wouldn’t have called six times if he’s *okay*.

"I don’t think he’s in any danger."

"Steven, where is he?"

"He’s in the studio. He … I think he’s zoned."

Okay, zoned isn’t good, but zoned I can live with a lot better than "he’s out in the street trying to follow you to campus" or he’s "bashing his head into the masonry." Both of which momentarily flashed across my mind in terrifying Technicolor.

My feet have been unconsciously moving me toward the parking lot ever since I recognized the phone number blinking numerous times on the miniscule screen. So, by the time I really notice where I am, I’m at the rental car. I blink at it a moment, my conscious trying to catch up.


God, he’s cold.

Jim’s in the farthest corner of the studio. The one that still has mechanics’ tools and still looks like it once belonged in an upscale garage.

I bend down beside him, laying a hand on a white cheek, rubbing softly under blue eyes that stare up towards the ceiling. What was he looking at? I try to mimic his position, see if it’s vision he zoned on, but nothing catches my attention.

"Jim?" He’s sitting on the freezing concrete wearing nothing but his pajamas. It’s nearly noon, which means he could have been this way for hours. "Come on, buddy. Wherever it is you’re visiting, it’s time to come home now."

As I’m mumbling my inanities William and Steven are pacing and exchanging looks full of meaning over my head. A silent argument over my abilities -- or my guilt. Probably both. Steven stops long enough to pat my shoulder encouragingly, rub a gentle circle in his brother’s hair. Jim tilts his head minutely toward the soft stroke, finally connecting back with touch. I take the opening and rub my thumb lightly over top of his upper lip. I remember Naomi telling me that slight indention, the philtrum, is the mark an angel’s finger leaves on you the moment before you’re born. At this moment I’m just hoping it’ll provide Jim with two sensory paths home -- touch and scent.

Finally Jim’s eyes close and he sighs. It’s hard getting him to his feet but between us, Steven and I manage. William is the one who’s looking shell-shocked. The hand he runs through his gray hair is trembling.

As we go into the house I can hear the radio Sally plays softly as she works.

We've given each other some hard lessons lately
But we ain't learnin'

We're the same sad story that's a fact
One step up and two steps back


Steven throws his hands up and shakes his head, pointing me toward the kitchen. Where I do not want to go. Naomi tried to have Thanksgiving dinner once – the fall we lived with an oil baron in Houston. He had alligator boots and a washed-out Stetson. Naomi’s cooking skills extended to boiled eggs, not turkey for twelve. I remember crying and yelling and a crash that was a sixteen-pound flightless fowl in a roasting pan doing aerial acrobatics across the industrial-sized kitchen. If nothing else, Naomi could toss a bird.

I’ve unpacked under Jim’s exacting eye. While doing so, I made a nice, long speech about the necessity of an unrelated grown-up (me) finding my own place to live and not living off the charity of others. And just ‘cause I had my own pillows somewhere else didn’t mean I wouldn’t see him as often as possible, hell, every day if that’s how often he needed to see me. Then he personally took the duffel bag and hid it somewhere.

He’s now sitting on the couch by the fire, contented – and if I read that small smile correctly, rather smug.

Steven, on the other hand, is turning out to have a major weak spot in that ever-courteous composure. A spot named William. I’m the one being held hostage by a Sentinel with an unpacking fetish, but apparently the Bambi-look is not restricted to unpaid police observers. I’m starting to understand how Simon feels and, man, that’s scary.

I raise a hand in what’s starting to be a well-practiced sign of capitulation and reluctantly trade Ellisons. Hell, Jim’s happily staring into the fire and rocking ever so slightly doing who-knows-what to his vision. No reason I shouldn’t be curled up on the other end of the couch, happily letting him. God, I’m a pushover.


"Look, look," I’m tempted to reach over and turn William’s face toward me the way I do Jim’s when he won’t hear me. "Look!"

Okay, that gets me the CEO’s rather shocked attention.

"We’re not talking all or nothing here. Jim’s doing great. I understand why you want to show him off. It’s terrific that you do want people to see how good he’s doing. But you have to understand it’s going to be at his speed." Nobody talks to the head of Ellison Enterprises this way. I know this. This is a man who leaves everyone in an entire forty-floor office building – from the doorman to his own vice-president – quaking in their boots. "But just because he’s probably not going to make it through a five-course meal does not mean you have to call the whole thing off."

Who the hell has a *five-course* Thanksgiving dinner anyway? What is that – turkey appetizer, turkey salad, turkey soup, turkey and pumpkin pie? He couldn’t have, maybe, started Jim off with a couple close, quiet friends rather than twenty people and five courses?

Shit. My mind has really been wandering because it occurs to me that I hadn’t even called the shelter to tell them I wasn’t going to be available to do my usual Thanksgiving duty.

I can tell by the way William’s staring at me, that it’s completely inexplicable to him that just as suddenly as I got the upper hand, I got distracted and forgot to keep talking. Trust me, it’s a very Sandburg trait. The sudden thought he’s probably rethinking the idea of leaving me the company causes me to snort undignifiedly.

"Okay, here’s the deal. Let’s let Jim decide how much he can handle. I’ll stay with him --if the guests start to get loud, if Jim just wants to leave, he and I will go for a nice drive or something."


Should have figured that a five-course Thanksgiving dinner required a jacket and tie. A requirement from which I have personally exempted Jim. One, he was too fascinated by the Macy’s parade to pay any attention to anything I was telling him and, two, he was not going to leave an uncomfortable piece of cloth knotted at his neck. When the second strip of patterned silk found its way into a heap on the floor I gave up.

I haven’t figured out Jim and the TV. Vision is usually Jim’s big problem and I can’t imagine that thousands of little pixels aren’t distracting as hell. He does watch it in an odd kind of way, never quite straight-on. It’s more a glance under his lashes, slightly to the side. If it was a woman, she’d be swooning. But as it is, the TV is patently oblivious.

The doorbell chimes again. And that’s not a metaphor for your usual tinny brass ringing. The thing really chimes. Plays an entire fucking cantata. The guests have generally left before it reaches the coda.

"We’re on, Jim." I’m lucky the parade has gone to commercial. I don’t think I could tear Jim away from the swirl of color otherwise. He looks at me, frowning suspiciously. Probably thinks I have another tie to torture him with. Then he tilts his head slightly, listening to the voices downstairs.

I hold out my hand. "It’ll be okay. It’s just your relatives." I think that may be an oxymoron, at least Naomi would think it was one, but Jim seems reassured as long as he gets to hold my hand.

So, it’s with his long fingers tucked into mine that we go downstairs to face the crowd.


Jim is distracted by everything at once. Apparently forewarned, the guests part, leaving the deep colors of the Persian rug before us dry like the Red Sea. We’re the center of a hush that ripples out and away until it captures the entire entrance hall. I can hear Steven trying to restart the conversation, his repeated sentence like the whirring cough of a balky motor.

It’s Jim’s tiny, wren-like, great-aunt Lily who finally braves the silence.

"You must be Jimmy’s friend, Blair." She reaches in Jim’s direction, a fragile hand closing ever so slightly on his arm. "I brought you something, Jimmy. Come on and see."

Jim balks only slightly, his forehead furrowing and his breathing going a bit rough before both smooth out. He breathes deeply and, doing the same, I catch the slight scent of old-fashioned rose water. Jim closes his eyes. Lily’s been identified. As he shuffles forward obediently, the birdlike hand readily accepted as a guide, I realize Lily has long before been deemed safe.

The promised gift turns out to be one of those naked music boxes. Cool metal with a hand crank that send Jim into rapt, closed-eyed concentration as he turns the plastic-hatted handle.

She pats him on the shoulder and smiles at me before making her way back into the main hall. Nobody else works up the courage to disturb the quiet of the library, though I catch a few of the guests peeking through the half-closed French doors. Snatches of conversation float their way in, a few words loud enough to break the spell. For me, if not for Jim. Words I don’t want to hear blare with a sharp edge like someone’s turned up the volume. Pity. Shame. Waste. Jim is thankfully aphasic, far too deep in communion with "You Are My Sunshine" to care.


The dining room looks like something minions of Martha Stewart should be photographing. William has the connoisseur’s taste for old growth hardwood and heavily upholstered seating. Sally bustles over a temporary kitchen staff dressed in spotless tuxedo shirts and the dining table has had so many leaves put in it that sitting on the end nearest the door and farthest from William makes me feel like I’m in one of those medieval dining halls. I want to pull one of those three-pound legs off the pair of perfectly roasted turkeys and find a boarhound to toss it to.

At least Steven has the grace to look faintly embarrassed at the excess.

Jim, again, has a steel grip on my fingers and he’s studiously avoiding making eye contact with the something-removed cousins sitting directly across from him.

The tuxedo-clad server pouring out undoubtedly fine pinot noir skips Jim’s glass and shakes her head when I wave her back over and examine the bottle. I look about two miles up the table and catch Steven’s eye, grateful when he immediately hikes back to where Jim and I are sitting.

He hunkers down between us, a hand gently squeezing Jim’s arm. "What’s wrong?"

"Is there some reason Jim can’t have a little wine?"

Steven frowns at me in a way I normally associate with William. "We don’t let Jim drink."

I lean down, whispering, although the way the Ellisons-from-far-and-wide are going out of their way to ignore us, it’s probably not necessary. "He’s not on medication and he’s way over twenty-one. I don’t think a half-glass is going to matter."

"What about his—"

I gesture toward the reluctant server still clutching her bottle. "You’re going to think I don’t know this, but *that* is a bottle of Domaine de la Romanee Conti and pinot noir has to be about the most sensual wine in existence. If anybody here is capable of appreciating it, Jim is."

"Blair," Steven looks pained. "What if he—"

"Enjoys it?"

"I just don’t think this is the time to try that. Hell, I’ll make sure they save a bottle back, okay?"

As Steven gets up, giving me his usual reassuring pat, I try not to imagine Jim spending the nearly twenty Thanksgivings of his adulthood relegated to his own solitary children’s table in the kitchen.


Cutting Jim’s meat for him earns me a few curious stares and I have to disentangle my hand to do so, which nets me a moment of wire-walking until I see if Jim is going to bolt.

"It’s okay, Jim," I murmur, reaching over to place the fork in his hand. "Go ‘head. It looks good."

Shyly Jim looks over to the cousins who are trying their damnedest to not look like they’re looking back. I pick up my own fork and start in on the mashed potatoes and gravy. Out of the corner of my eye I watch Jim observe the rest of the table as the ambient conversation drops and they dig in to William’s feast. The fork trembles and I hold my breath. Then Jim spears a hunk of turkey. I grin triumphantly at the confused relatives who smile back, not quite getting it.


As the dinner goes on and the bottles of pinot noir dwindle the table gets noisier – in a still-dignified, Town and Country sort of way. Apparently old money only degenerates so far – no matter what the alcohol content.

Since Jim’s presence seems to dampen any nearby conversation, I fall back to observing and start thinking about Paul Fussell. He was the one who said while money is necessary to make it to the icing on the social cake, it’s style and its use of symbols that really determine class in America. I’ve just taken a sip of very stylish wine when the thought hits that, when it comes to the social cake, guess I’m pretty much the crumbs. In an attempt not to laugh and spray burgundy all over the pristine ivory tablecloth I choke. Uh, badly.

I’m dimly aware of Jim rising from his seat as I tumble off of mine and find myself–

Oh shit.

Hello kitty.

The big, black guy looks faintly bored, the way cats always do. He turns an equally disinterested gaze to the blue undergrowth a few seconds before I catch the rustling in the leaves and the padding of more paws joining us.

Okay, so I took that test on the internet. So, it said my spirit animal was a wolf. But it said the same thing about some girl named Mercy whose blog I gacked the link from. I just somehow don’t think Mercy’s been having quite the same experience. She probably would have mentioned it in bold red flashing html, right after the word "WARNING".

"Uh, so," I look at the two pairs of blue eyes and six pairs of incisors. "I’m thinking there’s supposed to be more to it than this."

The dark cat stares at me unflappably. "You talk to Jim," I accuse.

The wolf settles down next to the jaguar and yawns. "Great. Want to at least tell me what I’m here for?"

"Esophogeal spasm, actually."

On the theory that is probably *not* the voice of my animal totem, I blink my eyes open to find the only forest I’m in is one of chair legs.

"Mr. Sandburg?" I turn my head to the other side. "You doing okay?" A pair of dark eyes framed by wire glasses observes me. "Can you say something?"

"Where’s Jim?" I wheeze, trying to lever myself off the rug.

"Steven’s got him." Fingers competently knead my neck, holding it still against my attempt to look around. "Just let me look you over. Sore throat?"

I nod and she looks speculative. "Ibuprofin will probably take care of it."

"Doctor?" I rasp. Leave it to William to give a dinner fully equipped with medical staff.

"Resident at Memorial." She judges me fit enough to release, giving me a hand up. A seeming multitude of palms reach out to steady me, as I’m not quite land-worthy. "Jimmy’s in the library."

The table is littered with half-eaten desserts. William tries to corral the curious throng back to their places now that the dinner-show is over but I’m still grasping a chair back every few steps just to make sure I remain vertical. Not quite as good as Naomi’s flying gobbler, but I’m pretty it’ll go down in the annals of Ellison Thanksgiving for years to come.


Jim is lots calmer than I expect. He’s got that slightly far-away look that means he’s listening – hard – to something the rest of us can’t hear, but he looks peaceful. I’m a little confused over exactly why … well, this is going to sound conceited … uh, why he’s not at least a bit upset over my near demise, but, hey, *he* made it through dinner just fine. Didn’t embarrass anyone.

Maybe it’s just a Sandburg family trait. We never were much good at formal occasions, while Ellisons are apparently genetically inclined to know what the hell that pair of little forks they put at the top of the plate is supposed to be used for.


Blue eyes refocus their distant gaze and his mouth crooks in a slight smile. One hand moves toward his ear in the sign for "hear."

I stop and listen. The conversation from the dining room is a wordless murmur. "What do you hear, Jim?"

Steven shrugs under my glance. "He’s been signing that ever since I brought him in here. I figured he was listening to you." The natural worry that is Steven comes to the forefront and he looks me over critically. "You okay? I mean I thought since Jim wasn’t tearing the doors down everything was probably all right, but you sound a little rough."

Actually I sound like my vocal cords have been lightly sandpapered, but I wave off any more questions with a hand. By then Jim is on his feet. I hold out my hand to him, and even though he takes it, I don’t think he’s entirely with me.

"One foot in the jungle, big guy?"

Steven raises an eyebrow and does that impression of his father again.

Jim just repeats his earnest sign for "hear". Wish I knew the sign for "deaf" ‘cause that’s what I apparently am. "’Afraid they don’t talk to me, Jim."

No, Simba and his wolf pal just look like they’re expecting me to do something. Like that’s not a depressingly familiar event. Ah well, when life gives you wolves …

"Hey, Steven," Jim tugs at my hand and I squeeze his, tighter. "I’m thinking your father may be right -- a sign language tutor might not be such a bad idea."

"So, go to it."

I know Steven’s casual permission is a blank check and in the Ellison sense a blank check is really that – carte blanche to spend whatever I want. At the moment I’d gladly pay a near-fortune for somebody who’ll just teach me how to say, "Tell me what the jaguar said."

We slip the up the back stairs and I rewind the tape of the parade. Jim settles on the bed and falls back under the spell of the pixels. I putter around for a while and find myself humming despite the two-hundred-twenty member band marching out "Jolly Ole Saint Nicholas."

Bird on a wire outside my motel room
But he ain't singin' …

Same old story, that’s a fact

One step up and two steps back.