The Fowler family had its own special traditions when it came to Thanksgiving. Alexa never had school until the following Monday, and Derrick Fowler and his ex-wife did their best to take those four days off. Aside from Christmas, which was always spent at the in-laws’ brick house in Santa Clara, Thanksgiving was the one time that Fowler could count on having everyone together.
That tradition hadn’t lasted long. By the time Alexa was a teenager, she had become more interested in making plans with her friends or socializing with her own devices than spending quality time with her parents. It was natural, Fowler thought, and he let her go off on her own.
He didn’t know at the time that these opportunities would dwindle. His wife had grown disillusioned by the suffocating drudgery of work and family life. It wasn’t a surprise when she left, if he was being honest with himself. She had found someone else more engaging‑‑‑man or woman, he didn’t know at first. He had heard rumors about one or the other, or both. But she got married to another man only a few months later, and that settled that.
Thanksgiving had never been much of a holiday for his wife when she was growing up. Her parents viewed Thanksgiving as a season dedicated to the eradication of indigenous populations and the entrenched racism that belied the entire tradition. Some of this sentiment had seemingly seeped down to Alexa, who at times over the years had expressed her opinions pointedly at the dinner table, even as she took another serving of mashed potatoes. But unlike her parents, Fowler’s ex-wife seemed to view Thanksgiving as a rare chance to be at peace for a little while. A chance to reconnect with her daughter. Fowler never understood why she had thrown that away.
The divorce was much harder on him than it ever could have been on her. The thought of seeing her with someone else was surreal, and so he steadfastly avoided her. Things were easier now that she had moved up north and Alexa was in college. He trusted that Southern California was still Alexa’s real home, and that she would eventually find her way back to it, like a migrating bird. Now that she was coming back to Los Angeles for the holiday, as a nineteen-year old sophomore, he would have her all to himself, for the first time. He was a little worried.
The stacks of papers were the first things to go. He’d been lazy about tidying his apartment. Until the man from Unison had stopped by, there had never been a need for cleanliness, and he hadn’t noticed the gradual build-up of clutter. But McCabe’s visit prompted Fowler to freshen his environment. A cluttered living space meant a cluttered mind, he thought. Everything would be brighter once he washed the windows. It would be a good winter cleaning. He had missed spring cleaning, and now it had nearly come around again. He had to get his act together. Alexa would be expecting it. He needed Southern California to be wonderful for her.
He made up her bed with scattered pillows like her mother had always done. He left mementos from her childhood here and there. Alexa had clumsily sculpted a clay gargoyle in art class when she was eleven. One of its wings was chipped from falling off the dresser years earlier. It was a beastly-looking thing, but he cherished the imperfection of it. He had squirreled it away when the possessions were being divided. One day, he believed, she would see it again and it would bring to mind some sentimental memory from a time when they had all been a little happier.
Alexa was opposed to the idea of being picked up from the airport. She was going to take an autonomous cab. Fowler waited anxiously, half-watching the football game and perking up at every sound in the hallway. An M.O.I. would have been useful just then. It would have told him when she was close to the front door. But then he would have anxiously waited for it to tell him. There was no getting around it.
Alexa could have just opened the door, but she knocked formally. He rushed to open it. Her cornflower colored M.O.I. pushed through first. He didn’t let it bother him. He just wanted to see her face. He wondered if she still had that eyebrow ring he thought was so stupid. She didn’t, but her hair was cut asymmetrically and draped over to one side, as was the fashion. She was wearing tungsten-colored eye shadow and there was a small tattoo in black just under her right earlobe. It read: “PH.” He prayed that it was temporary, but he could already guess that it wasn’t. No doubt the initials of her boyfriend, whom she had graciously left up north. He could imagine her rolling her eyes when he asked about it.
She had the strap of a duffel bag slung over her shoulder and they met with an obligatory hug. He excitedly led her inside, cautious not to step on the M.O.I., who was circling around curiously. It was mapping the entryway and comparing it to the one it had made during their previous visit.
“Looks like you made it in one piece,” he said. It was the most tired, parental thing he could say and he realized it. But it was better than asking her if she had seen a mirror lately, or why she hadn’t returned his several phone calls. He knew her M.O.I. was receiving them.
“Ta-da,” Alexa said dryly. She was, in fact, here in one piece. The corny comment had come to mean something else recently. A team of scientists in England had discovered a way to transport atoms across the length of their lab room through thin air. The goal was to have the atoms arrive in one piece, and then stack them together in more and more complex chains. They had just teleported a paper clip ten meters at the cost of eight-thousand pounds per meter. Alexa was aware of this development, and it colored her interpretation of her father’s comment. Fowler himself was unaware.
“Well, don’t stand there in the doorway. You know where your room is.”
He moved to take her duffel bag, but she pulled it away. “I’ve got it. It’s not that heavy.”
Fowler rushed to mute the game. Alexa looked around, perhaps hoping to see some grand improvement in the apartment since her last visit, like an M.O.I., or at least carpeting. She was so underwhelmed that she didn’t notice how unnaturally clean it was. The entire apartment smelled like sour citrus.
“How was your flight?”
“I didn’t fly. I took the tube.”
“Oh. Wasn’t that more expensive?”
She mumbled something and went to drop her bag in the bedroom. A bird perched on the windowsill in the living room. Alexa’s M.O.I. stopped to study it. The bird tweeted. The M.O.I. tweeted something back. The bird looked up, startled, and then flew away.
Fowler was astonished. “What did you say?” he asked it.
Alexa’s machine usually limited itself to short responses. It was as reticent as a teenager around its cloying parents.
“I told the bird that there was a cat in this apartment,” it said in a hard female voice.
“I didn’t realize that bird languages were so complex.”
“It was a black-headed grosbeak. Rare in Southern California during the autumn and winter. Very rare, in fact. I’ll alert the Audubon society.”
There was an audible click, as if the M.O.I. had smacked its lips. Its eye strip flashed wildly. A recording started to play, in the M.O.I.’s voice.
“Ask your M.O.I. how to donate to the Audubon society today. Your donation may be tax deductible.”
Alexa rushed in from the other room, where she had been unpacking. “She’s playing another commercial. I can’t figure out how to get her to stop.”
The M.O.I. seamlessly awoke from the disruption and wandered around the small space, whistling something indecipherable in birdsong.
“In the future, every moment of our lives will be commercialized,” Fowler quoted. “Do you know who said that?”
Alexa ignored him. “I just don’t get it...” She turned to her machine and put her hands on her hips. “Petra, I want you to stop playing commercials. I’ve told you this before.”
But the M.O.I. ignored her and continued to whistle. Fowler smiled. It was just like his daughter’s M.O.I. to ignore the reproach of its elders.
He was glad for the commercial. The distraction gave him an opportunity to surreptitiously study Alexa’s tattoo. Anything to be unique. Yet wasn’t every young adult doing the same thing? How was that supposed to make her unique? Didn’t anybody think these things through?
The unmistakable smells of his modest Thanksgiving dinner were wafting in from the kitchen. He rushed in to check the timer. When he returned, Alexa was sitting on the couch watching the game. She had unmuted it.
“I don’t remember you watching football before!” he remarked.
She shrugged. “It was always too violent before. All those poor people, battered and broken. And no one to take care of them once they retired. But now it’s different. More humane.”
“Some would say more boring.”
Her eyes narrowed sardonically. “Yes, I’m sure a linebacker’s life is more boring now that he can walk without assistance into his early fifties.”
Fowler couldn’t help but be proud at the astuteness of her quick retort. “Well, I guess I can’t argue with that.”
He suddenly felt the need for a beer. He wondered if his ex-wife let Alexa drink. He could never be that kind of parent himself. Permissive. Lax. Disinterested. Alexa could wait two years, although with that tattoo, he doubted that she had.
“People are finally valuing the human brain more than the human body,” she continued, undeterred by his concession. “Don’t you think that’s the way it should be?”
“Yes, in life. But this is football. It’s a game of strength.”
“A game of strength that used to be the equivalent of the gladiator games in ancient Rome. People dying for our amusement.”
“That’s a little extreme.”
The oven timer went off, and Fowler was able to escape from the conversation for a moment. But once he had pulled out the turkey and was setting it on the countertop, he realized that Alexa had followed him.
“So you honestly prefer the old games?”
“We need to let the turkey rest for ten minutes or so,” he said, desperate to change the subject. “Keeps it nice and juicy.”
“You can’t just bury your head in the sand.”
“What are you talking about? What do you want from me, exactly? To admit that football is barbaric? I grew up playing football. I enjoy watching it now. Unless you’re accusing me of suffering from brain damage too, I’d say that disproves your theory.”
“Ha ha. I think a brain damaged person might find it hard to write out a tuition check in his early fifties.”
Somewhere in northern California, his ex-wife was sitting down with her new husband. Her road back to happiness had been quick; just an off-ramp from a freeway that she had already been on during the marriage. There had never been a small one-bedroom apartment on her horizon. But however things had turned out, Alexa was here, now. And that meant that he had won. Just one point in a lifelong tennis match, sure. But a point that she couldn’t take back from him. At least as long as he didn’t blow it. And he felt like he was getting close. He backed off.
“No, you may be right. Players are living longer now. That’s really all that matters. You can’t be a fan of the game without caring about the wellbeing
of the players.”
“That’s very enlightened of you, Derrick.”
“Not so enlightened that you can start calling me Derrick. We’ll stick with Dad.” He playfully slapped her on the shoulder with an over mitt and collected a handful of spoons. He dropped one into the dish of corn and one into the dish of mashed potatoes. “I’m being magnanimous. I’m not expecting you to start calling me ‘Daddy’ again.”
She looked back at him shyly. She had called him “daddy” until she was fifteen‑‑‑dropping the habit far later than her friends had. This allusion to her childhood made asserting her adult personality impossible. How could she be strong and independent while remembering that just a few years ago she had cheered for the 49ers alongside her father, and had been whisked away into his arms after a touchdown and swung around the room like an airplane, all while she squealed with joy? He looked at her eyes and she averted them.
“I was right to change the subject,” he said. “You should listen to me more often.”
“Let’s talk about school.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You want to talk about school?!? Okay. What about?”
“You haven’t asked me about my tattoo.”
“I didn’t want that to be the first thing out of my mouth.”
“But you do care that I got it...”
“Is that why you got it? So you could see whether I care if you get a tattoo or not?”
“Derrick....Dad. Don’t be tautological.”
“I’m not being tautological. Your M.O.I. should come with a dictionary. I do understand big words from time to time. I’ve got the same education you do, except I’ve already finished.”
“Well, then don’t be...so...uggh. Petra!”
Her M.O.I. was watching the football game in the other room but had been listening to the conversation just the same. It slid on the wood floor as it came around the corner and into the kitchen.
“What is it?” it asked.
“What word am I looking for?”
“No, something more advanced.”
“He doesn’t have a tattoo!”
"I’ll give you partial credit for tautological,” Fowler sighed. “Be happy with that.”
She stomped her foot. “Go back into the other room, Petra. And next time I expect you to actually be helpful.”
“What’s the score, Petra?” Fowler asked.
“Points or injuries?”
“Seventeen to ten. The Rams are leading. It’s the second quarter. But it’s zero injuries to zero.”
“That’s not a thing, Petra,” Alexa added.
The M.O.I. stared up at her and then retreated back to the living room. Fowler and his electric carving knife were making quick work of the turkey. He asked Alexa to grab a porcelain dish from the dishwasher, and the dish was still hot when she handed it to him.
“Did you really want to talk about your tattoo?”
“Yes. It’s important. I’m not ashamed of it.” She tucked back her hair to give him a better look. “Do you know what it means?”
“P.H.? I can’t say I know for sure. Is that someone’s initials?”
“It stands for posthumanism.”
He frowned. “As in the Church of Posthumanism?”
“No, not a church! Give me some credit.”
“Well, you got it tattooed on your face. Don’t be shocked that I asked.”
“It’s not on my face, it’s on my neck. Now you’re being hyperbolic.”
He smiled. “I’ll accept hyperbolic.”