Our Prefab Thanksgiving


First Person

Celebrating the old-fashioned way: at an African-themed indoor water park in Wisconsin.

The yellow three-track potato sack slide is encased in ice, and the go-kart tarps are encased in ice, and the Paul Bunyan chain-saw carving has grown a beard of icicles so tentacular one can’t help but imagine him having been recovered from one of Verne’s deeper leagues. The afternoon-shift dancers outside the Wisconsin Dolls Gentlemen’s Club wear parkas with fur-lined collars and smoke their cigarettes, waiting for the gentlemen to arrive. Their lips are chapped and their calves are rosy and their exhales hang in the cold air in front of their faces, nowhere to go. They take turns reading the club’s Yelp reviews from a single cell phone, which they pass between them.

Every dancer working was cute, with the exception of one.

What could be improved? 1. Men’s bathroom. 

There were 100% more people wearing head bandanas than I expected-saw like 6 dudes wearing them. Also, the Outlaw motorcycle gang represented with a couple of people rocking their colors! 

Pro tip: with so many blacklights inside, remember to wear your white pants.

Housed in a double-wide trailer (for real) and next to a sleazy strip motel (also, for real), disappointing ladies shake and shimmy on a tiny pit-style stage.

This last trip was particularly depressing, mainly due to the preggo dancer who was prancing and spinning topless and bottomless with a modified tube top covering her baby bump.

For some god-awful reason, I’ve been here twice. 

Our three cars idle, defrosters on HI. In mine, on the radio, the commentator intones something about a murder rate, something about a falling dollar; in my parents’, Foreigner still thinks it “feels like the first time”; in my sister’s, the wheels on the bus are, indeed, going round and round. In the first car, my dad—having solicited directions to the new indoor water park where my family will spend this year’s Thanksgiving amid over-lit buffets and screaming children with chlorinated hair—beeps the horn, and not a single one of the women acknowledge our ceremonial departing-by-honk.

This is our sixth consecutive Wisconsin Dells indoor-water-park Thanksgiving—we chose the location because it serves as a midpoint between my wife and me, my sister and brother-in-law and two little nieces, and my parents; and also for the waterslides, Build-A-Bear booths, and pottery painting outposts that will keep the girls occupied. But for the first time, we’ve deviated from our usual resorts, The Wilderness and Chula Vista, for the more upscale Kalahari, which, later this evening, on the free shuttle back from the casino, a fat old tourist from Duluth will call “That place with the Chinese name.” For the next four days, we will, torturously, share a suite, never having to set foot outside, each attraction and item necessary for our (physical) survival linked by overcrowded skyways and underground catacombs-cum–video arcades where potbellied men and their sons enjoy a cornucopia of joysticks and steering wheels and plastic orange rifles on hoses.

The Kalahari buffet has carving stations. No more dry, precut, steam-table turkey breast for us: our bird is carved to order by a jittery old man whose spine is clearly oppressed by his obligation to keep his columnar white paper hat balanced atop his head. The sweat stain asserting itself from the brim at his forehead is cumulous. I order my requisite two slices and his fingers, sheathed in a hand-shaped plastic bag, struggle to hold onto the knife as he cuts. I move on to the string-bean casserole, the once-green vegetables beneath the packaged fried-onion crust now sweaty and limp and the color of pencil graphite. The onions, radiated, resemble skinny blisters, and I have trouble believing that they, and the beans they suffocate, once grew in soil, in a field. Each pseudo-edible seems to have emerged prefab, according to some mold. As my family heaps their plates, I engage the form of expression I’ve overused and perfected for the past six Thanksgivings—the dejected sigh.

Back at table #97 (this according to our centerpiece, a plastic card in a metal ring dispensed by the hostess), we put ketchup on everything, even the gravy. Our eyes are inflamed with chlorine—the levels of which are chart-topping in these wave pools and these “lazy rivers” in order to kill what must also be chart-topping amounts of child urine. My nieces get cranberry sauce on their Build-A-Bears, and my sister reacts as if this were a crisis, and my nieces cry and stop eating, and my sister soaks a napkin in my lemon water and wipes what appears to be viscera from the Bears’ bowties. “Why my water?” I ask, but am greeted with a silence so resounding I can hear, across the room, the old carver sneezing an aria between the turkey’s spread legs.

For dessert, American cheese and whipped cream, the former also sliced to order from a jaundiced brick.

A hall of mirrors at a Wisconsin Dells resort. Photo: Tim Lindenbaum

After dinner, all of us, except my wife—who returns to our suite to read in front of a fake TV fireplace that renders the image of the logs and flames upside-down—head via skyway to the orange-carpeted conference room, where we take our places on the foldout chairs for JEREMY ALLEN’S GRAND ILLUSION. The show involves a boy magician dressed in a white silk shirt sewn with gothic symbol patches—seriffed crosses and stars of David—trying very hard to maintain an unnerving glare from beneath lowered brows. In his attire alone, he seems confused, but nebulously determined. He waves his arms out to his sides a lot and commands a disturbing array of scantily clad female assistants with Eastern European accents that I fear are genuine. He performs card tricks and other sleight-of-hand illusions, mumbling his lines into a gooseneck microphone attached to his collar, which serves mostly to amplify the sound of his shirt.

Inexplicably, surprisingly, but most of all sadly, the magic show culminates with the manifestation of a real white tiger in what was, just moments before, an empty thermoplastic coffin. The tiger is too big for its enclosure, and has to cock its neck at an unnatural and clearly uncomfortable angle. It tries to claw at the plastic, but can’t wrest its paw from the corner. Its face is contorted into a cringe as it tries, and fails, to stretch its whine into a roar. I wonder in what Wisconsin Dells storage garage this beast is kept when not “performing,” and if they feed it the leftovers from our buffet.

Just after Jeremy Allen’s intended pièce de résistance, my one niece squats in front of her chair and loudly announces the achievement of her defecation-into-diaper. On the way out, my sister buys the girls one plush white tiger each from the souvenir table. They fight over who gets to name theirs Jeremy.

Now it’s nine thirty, and we want a few more gos on the slides before they close for the night. My sister buys the girls virgin piña coladas from the Mud Hut Swim-Up bar, and my mom starts in on her Cosmos, my dad and I on our Canadian Clubs. Tipsy and dyspeptic, we ride the “Authentic African-Themed Waterslides” with monikers like The Flowrider Experience, Sahara Sidewinder, and Screaming Hyena, the latter of which affects the sort of freefall that, upon being dumped into the pool at the end, recalls an oxidizing but not entirely unpleasant enema.

I emerge from the water, my throat inflamed with something sharp and sterile and turkey-ish, and, somehow, in spite of myself, surrounded by bleary-eyed family, I’m laughing, even as it takes three tries to extract my swimming trunks from the cookie-cutter crack of my ass. Decompressing together on blue inner tubes in the Anaconda Lazy River, we clutch our plastic cups around a curve against the logjam of other revelers on tubes. We’re headed for “Victoria Falls,” and, desperate to down our drinks before the deluge, we struggle through a feeble toast, clinking plastic. This is living, we tell ourselves, without quite using the word thankful. This, at the very least, is the life.

Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo. This winter, he tempered his gin with two droplets (per 750 ml) of tincture of odiferous whitefish liver. For health.