It began twelve days before Christmas. That’s when Bernie gave me the bird. In a way, I can understand him. He fills out one of those “Win Your Holiday Turkey” contest slips at the neighborhood deli. Only who’s to know the prize was alive?
Of course Bernie turned to me. He knew I had experience slaughtering and dressing animals from my having grown up in New York City. So he leaves the big white thing tied with a shoestring to my front door knob, along with a bag of seed and a note wishing me merry giblets.
I let it in. What else can I do? But I have to tell you: I never knew turkeys were that big. I mean I’m used to them on a cutting board, in pieces. And this one is a real gem. At least a fourpoint tom. And the gullet: a halfpound dewlap minimum. I figure it will last through two jars of mayonnaise easy. Only thing a little strange: the bird is white, from tail feather to top comb.
I’ve got a tiny balcony to my second story apartment. So I stretch a little turkey wire around it, and bed the bird down. I tell it my plan: I’ll fatten it up, give it the life of Reilly for a couple of days, then kill it, dress it down and maybe even mount its rack…with plenty of time leftover to find the best recipes for poached poultry.
My cat, Anastasia, a Maine coon cat with a beautiful plume for a tail, is quite perplexed by the new lodger, but keeps out from under claw.
As I go to sleep that first night, something tugs the back of mind. But I put it to rest, assured by the prospect of a Christmas feast, and knowing that the bird was still alive.
On the tenth day before Christmas, I am beside myself with glee. The bird is eating everything in sight. If he gets much bigger I’ll have enough to serve heart shaped turkey patties for a romantic Valentine’s dinner.
As I look closely at this huge awkward thing, I have this nagging feeling again…like I’ve seen it somewhere before. Then it hits me. “Baretta.” Now some of you may not remember the television series of that name. That’s too bad, because it was one of the great bachelor epics. A bachelor police detective lives alone in a kind of fleabag apartment building. To perk up his life a little, he had this bird, a kind of big white parrot named Fred.
When I look at the turkey, I can’t help but see the resemblance. A little bigger, maybe, but resemblance nonetheless. So I decide to call him Fred in honor of the TV show. I want us to be on a first name basis before our relationship is…severed, so to speak.
Meanwhile I sharpen my log-splitting maul. I figure I’d do the deed out on the porch the next day. The temperature’s dropping and if I’m lucky, I’ll have the bird flash frozen in no time. I like to freeze all the turkey parts I don’t plan on using Christmas Day — all except the giblets. I don’t like the taste — or even the idea — of giblets. I’m not even fond of the way the word sounds.
But what the heck, Anastasia can tear ‘em apart, as long as I don’t have to deal with them.
That night, I fortified myself with a prune and rum yogurt fizz and girded my loins, figuratively, for tomorrow’s task, because, after all, the bird was still alive.
The next day began early. At 3 AM I heard noises from the balcony, kind of a Morse code-like tapping. It was Fred, freezing out there, pecking at the French door with his beak, asking to be let in. I figure, why not? A last request from the condemned…so I relent.
The bird snuggled up by my feet while Anastasia kept to the pillow. I felt surrounded but kind of good, warm at both ends. In the morning I felt closer to Fred, and I realized things were getting too friendly. I needed to give the bird a new moniker, a name that would allow me to keep a slight hostility towards him, so I could perform the deed with detachment. I change his name to Nixon.
As I whet the ax, I whet my appetite with visions of cranberries nestled on white meat. Nixon is ensconced in the pile of logs near the fireplace, pecking on wood mites. I see in his eyes that he’s definitely not going out on the balcony again…ever.
I wanted a meal, not a house guest, but I allow as he deserves one more day. I plan the execution for first light on the morrow and let him enjoy the sound of crackling logs as long as he can before he gets rotisseried over them. I sleep peacefully, ax by my side. I knew that we are getting closer to that romantic moment when the cat knocks down every ornament I own just before she and I exchange gifts, and after all…the bird was still alive.
On the seventh day before Christmas, I learned a lot about poultry behavior. I didn’t know turkeys could move that fast. Turkey trot indeed. Nixon was in the Argentinean tango league.
I was trying to explain that to Agatha, my 88-year old neighbor as I extricated the business end of the ax from the wall above her sink. Luckily I missed the water pipes. Unfortunately, I missed Nixon too.
He holed up in the fireplace after that and wouldn’t close his eyes all day. Which was all right with me — it took that long to let the plaster set and the paint dry. I felt I owed Agatha something, so I promised her a drumstick. Of course, Nixon was in no mood to talk drumsticks, because, after all, that damn bird was still alive.
On the sixth day before Christmas, I made the decision to hypnotize Nixon, and THEN commit the crime. Of course, you are all familiar with this process with poultry. Simply draw a straight line on the ground in front of a fowl, he looks at it for a while, and then, VOILA, instant catatonia. The bird is immobile.
I guess it was the thud of the next morning’s newspaper hitting the front door that finally woke me. I couldn’t figure out how I had fallen asleep standing up in front of a line on the floor. Or how I had misplaced a whole day! I mean it was the fourth day before Christmas, and the Bird was still alive.
But the new day brought new ideas. Drugs. I would drug the bird and place his inert neck across the block. I hand painted some Valium capsules to resemble prime grubs and placed them strategically near the woodpile. Nixon took the bait. Limp as a sack of dew-laden grass, he folded easily across the upended log. I raised the honed steel…
Whether it was the cat’s scream or the sight of a turkey lurching up full speed at me while spitting out undissolved pills from under its tongue that caused my aim to veer, I’ll never know. I finally found Anastasia’s tail on the coat rack. She looks good as a Manx — anyway I got her retail in the first place. But you couldn’t say I wasn’t worried. I mean, after all, THE BIRD WAS STILL ALIVE.
On the second day before Christmas, I would have no more of it. I hadn’t used the shotgun since boyhood, but who could miss at three feet? As I pointed the muzzle at Nixon’s eyes, I couldn’t help but think of all the Bambis in all the forests all over the world. Just as I was about to relinquish my feast to sentiment, the bird dove for my trigger finger. The gun veered crazily and the last thing I recalled was the deafening roar of both barrels discharging at once.
Neighbor Agatha says there’s always something to be thankful for. If it hadn’t been for the turkey, she says, I might have ended up eating alone. Of course I had to invite her over. You’ve no idea what buckshot does to a microwave, even when it’s slowed down by a couple inches of sheetrock.
So we chowed down together for a strictly vegetarian celebration on Christmas Eve. Actually there was an advantage. When we needed something I didn’t have, we could step right through the opening and get some of Agatha’s china, at least the pieces that weren’t shattered.
Of course, the landlord came by to assess the damage. He kept yelling that he doesn’t allow barnyard animals…only the occasional pet. Agatha and I wondered to whom he could be referring. At table on Christmas Eve, there were just the four of us: Anastasia, Agatha, me, and Fred, my albino blue heron.
After Agatha left through the hole, I sealed it as best I could with duct tape and junk mail, while the animals cleaned up the table. A storm brewed outside. I was waxing poetic, and decided to take pen to paper:
‘Twas the night before Christmas
and all through the flat,
Not a sound to disturb us,
Not one single spat.
Anastasia purred softly,
Fred by her side,
I whipped up dessert,
While underwear dried.
I felt selfindulgent and boring as hell;
When all of a sudden I heard the front bell. It rang again. Feigning indifference, I answered.
She must have been 80 years old. She looked brittle and her skin was the color of burnt filo dough. Despite the wind howling, I could hear her creak. And she smelled like the bag lady of Hanford’s reach.
I figured she was OK though, since the animals lit on her like she was a prize fish carcass.
“Come in,” I offered.
“I am in,” she said, brushing past me. She dumped herself and her load of paper bags on the living room couch. “Could I have something to drink?”
I brought her water. She took the tattered scarf from her mottled hair and removed her shoes. Her feet were parched and leathery.
I was going to ask her to make herself comfortable but by then, the question would have been redundant. Not wanting to appear impolite, I explained that while I was only too happy to provide this momentary shelter from the ravages of storms, I was expecting company first thing in the morning and therefore…..I let the sentence glide to an extended landing. I was more than a little startled by her response: “So am I,” she said flatly.
She chortled through what appeared to be three good teeth in an otherwise cavernous mouth, and promptly nodded off, Fred perched on her arm, the cat serpentined in her meager lap. Perplexed, I pondered the possibilities. I could call the home for the bewildered. No, they might think I was just trying to get rid of a delinquent, ancient relative.
I could leave, take in a show and stiff drink and hope that she’d be gone by the time I returned.
I could wake her up and tell her my hovel had been invaded by killer wasps drunk on lutefisk and lefse. Or that crazed penguins were ready to leave the cracked bathtub in search of human flesh.
The amazing thing was that I knew nothing about her, yet felt perfectly comfortable in her sleeping presence. I rifled through her bags in hopes of discovering just who she was, and God forbid the ominous nature of the “visitors” she was expecting in the A.M.
One bag contained several dried fish, some bread and wine.
Another loomed empty.
A third bulged with the detritus of civilization. She must have rummaged through the back alleys of the world. There was a guide to Uruguayan beers, a pamphlet outlining 98 uses dead circuit boards, a doityourself kit on doing it yourself, a conversion unit for turning tap water into wine, manifestoes, recipes, elk horn buttons, unfinished sentences, bottled screams and a bandolero from the Gaza Strip.
My consideration of these items was interrupted by the sharp crack of her guttural voice: “So, what is it that Timmie wants for Christmas?”
First, let me tell you, no one, but no one, except my Mom on days when I was awful, has called me Timmie since early childhood. Second, how did she know my name? I had the bizarre feeling that happens to you when you first realize that thousands of eyebrow mites live out their life cycle on your face without your ever really feeling them.
“How do you know my name?” I demanded.
“Just a stab in the dark,” she retorted.
And then a wild inspiration hit. I garbled, “Now wait a minute, you just didn’t guess you knew who I was. Are you S SSanta Claus the real one?” She said nothing, so I plunged ahead.
“I mean a lot of people think of Santa as male, fat and bearded, but that’s probably just some guy from central casting. You’re really the one, right?”
I wondered if the reindeer were parked on the roof. I could barely contain my excitement.
The hundreds of lines that marked her face crinkled in merriment, her liquid eyes sparkled with the knowledge of a thousand Christmases. For an instant, a simple, radiant beauty poured through her wrinkled smile. I suppose I could have stared at the depth of that smile forever if the door hadn’t quite suddenly opened.
Three ragged and haggard mudridden men entered and sat on the floor beside me. They, too, had bags filled with the remnants of eons: astrolabes and tool tables, fishing gear and stuffed hawks, pieces of eight and pieces of wit, sandy shells as tiny as drops of mist, a pharaoh’s footstool, bits of old dreams, leviathan teeth, an ancient slingshot, an ageless rose.
They smiled in acknowledgment and talked with the old woman in a language I once knew but have long forgotten. They lit incense and offered her gifts of greeting. All through the stormy night they talked, softly and with purpose.
At dawn they bundled up in long woolen topcoats, and with the woman, trundled off towards the East. The bags of goodies were gone. They left the empty one for me. To fill. I found Anastasia purring at the bottom of it.
The bird, the cat and I stood on the porch and watched them mount the hill. To Bethlehem. To Gethsemane. Again. I wondered how many times we would have to see them climb it before we found peace. I closed the door and inhaled deeply. Myrrh and frankincense cloaked the morning air.