Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

I originally wrote this for a comic crime fiction challenge. It didn't get picked up. It's not really the kind of story that it makes a lot of sense to hold on to for something else, so I'm putting it up here as a holiday gift of a sort. Enjoy.  

Cold Turkey
 Seana Graham 

I was catching a quick nicotine fix with Jimmy Delfino behind the movie theater I was working at back then when he asked me what I was doing for Thanksgiving. Most guys, if they ask you something like that, you’d be safe in taking it as an invitation. But Jimmy wasn’t most guys. Jimmy was the guy who’d cadge a cigarette from a girl even if it was her last one. Because it was Jimmy, I knew he was trying to cadge an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner as well. I suppose I was just a tad too gleeful about letting him down.

“I’ve volunteered to serve dinner at the shelter this year.”

“Oh right--Saint Cheryl. I should have guessed.” He took a big drag of his cigarette and gazed off moodily, with the upshot that I felt a little sorry for him. In those days, moody always worked with me.

“You could come,” I said.

“I’m not homeless, Cheryl.”

Not this month, I thought. I knew he was shacking up with a girl from my class named Bootsie Malone, but had heard a rumor that things were going sour.

“They don’t ask for ID, Jimmy.” I looked him over. “You could pass.”


He sounded hurt and maybe he even was—it was hard to tell with Jimmy. He had always been a little vain about his looks. Because I wasn’t sure, I added, “Or you could work.”

“Work?” he asked. He sounded puzzled, like a small child would when confronted with a big new concept.

“Sure—I could get you in.”

“I don’t know, Cheryl—how well does it pay?”

“It’s volunteer work, Jimmy. It doesn’t pay anything. That’s the whole point.”

“Not a very good point, if you ask me.”

“Well, you do get a free dinner out of it.”  

“Free?” he asked. For a moment I thought he was going to point out the holes in that logic, but no, he had simply been hooked by the thought of something for nothing. The word “free” was like a bright lure dangled before him. “So, what would I have to do?”

“Just help,” I said. “Same as you’d do at any Thanksgiving dinner—peel some potatoes, set the table. Help wash up afterwards. You know.” I wasn’t really sure he did, and I was almost certain he didn’t realize I was talking about doing this for three or four hundred people.

“Look,” I said, warming to my pitch. After all, Jimmy might benefit from doing an honest day’s labor. “The shelter’s having an organizational meeting on the Monday before at six. If you don’t have any better offers by then, why don’t you stop by and I’ll introduce you?”

“Yeah, maybe I will.” He reached over and poached one more cigarette out of the pack in my jacket pocket. “For the road”, he said. And, yes—it was my last one.

I could tell he thought he’d have plenty of offers better than serving supper in a soup kitchen. But as it turned out, he was wrong.


I don’t know if you’ve done much volunteer work in your life, but people come to it for many different reasons, and not all of them are pure as the driven snow, either. There are a few predictable non-altruistic motives, though, and one of them is the need to know better than everybody else does. Sergeant Major was an outstanding exemplar of the type.

He really was called Sergeant Major. His real name was Dan Major and he had been a Sergeant in the Army at some point, and if you think he was ever going to let anybody forget that, you haven’t met him. I’d had a few run-ins with him myself, once because he assured me I was peeling potatoes the wrong way, but you don’t survive working low level jobs like cleaning up spilled popcorn in a movie theater without learning to take a certain amount of guff quietly. But on the evening of the organizational meeting, it was obvious pretty fast that this wasn’t a strategy that was going to work for Jimmy.

I probably should have prepared him for Sergeant, but that wouldn’t have been as much fun.

Sergeant was the kind of guy who not only had a wristwatch but also a stopwatch that dangled from his belt loop. When Jimmy showed up half an hour late to the organizational meeting, it was clear that Sergeant wasn’t going to let him just waltz in any time he pleased, or leave when he felt like it either.

“Real men don’t go when the going gets tough, they get going,” Sergeant said when Jimmy asked how late he’d have to stay.

I thought Jimmy might “get going” then and there, but instead he only slouched a little further down in his chair, “Whatever,” he said.

Sergeant gave him the gimlet eye, but then looked at the time and must have realized that we were falling a little behind schedule.

“Cheryl, perhaps you’d give your—” he paused, not knowing who Jimmy was to me. Brother? Cousin? FiancĂ©? Sergeant was the type who liked definition in relationships.

“Friend,” I said. “Jimmy and I go back a long way.” So far back, in fact, that sometimes we’d been enemies, but I didn’t think this was something Sergeant needed to know. Jimmy rewarded me with a smile.

“Yes, yes—whatever,” Sergeant said pointedly. “Perhaps you could give your friend a little tour of the facilities. Then bring him back here and I’ll assign him his post.”

“My post?” Jimmy asked, half-rising. Jimmy always said he was a lover, not a fighter, but this wasn’t strictly speaking true.

“Jimmy,” I said. “Jim!” when that failed to deter him. In a lower voice I said, “It’s just a word. It’s just a position, an assignment. Come on, let me show you around.” And I pushed him out of the room with as much grace as I could manage in the instance, which wasn’t much.

Out in the hall, Jimmy said, “Jesus, Cheryl. How do you put up with him?”

“He’s not so bad,” I said.

“He’s a freaking freakazoid. What a control freak!”

“Well, someone’s got to be a control freak when you’re putting on dinner for several hundred people.”

“Several hundred people!” he stared at me. "You know, thanks for the invite and all, but I’m out of here.” He looked around for the nearest exit.

“Whoa, Jimmy—just hold on a sec, will you?” He was breathing hard and so was I. “Why do you let him get your goat like that?”

“I don’t know. He reminds me of my dad.”

I’d forgotten that Jimmy’s dad was retired Marine Corps. Green Beret, no less. A hard act to follow. “Just take his stupid assignment and that’ll be it. You’ll hardly see him on the night, he’ll be so busy running around like a chicken with his head cut off.”          

It took visible effort for him to stop reacting to the guy. But then he did. “Turkey, you mean.”


“The only bird that gets its head cut off for Thanksgiving is a turkey.”

“Turkey it is,” I said. But I didn’t really like where this was going.


It was Tuesday night. I had let Jimmy sneak into a movie. It was pushing the line a little, but it didn’t hurt anyone so I let him talk me into it. He gave me a ride home afterwards, which made me feel like he wasn’t just using me—no, we were using each other. It was pretty late by the time we left the theater and I wondered what Bootsie might be thinking, but I had a feeling that Bootsie maybe didn’t care as much as she would have once.

We hadn’t gone far when traffic slowed down and then ground almost to a halt. There had been some sort of accident. We crept on, until we came to a part of the road lit by flares and the glaring lights of emergency vehicles. Then I saw an odd thing. It was a turkey lying in the middle of the road. Not a live turkey—a frozen one. Jimmy saw it too.

“Get it,” he said.

I looked at him blankly.

“Just open your door as we go past and reach out and goddamn get it.”

“Jesus,” I said. But I did what I was told.

The lights ahead got brighter and this led us to behold a gruesome sight. There were bodies all over the road. Naked bodies. The bodies of frozen fowl. A truck full of frozen turkeys had jackknifed and divulged its treasure.

As we drove closer, we saw the cops and the driver. The driver had a head wound, but it didn’t stop him from expostulating animatedly with the two highway patrolmen who stood with him. Anybody might have thought that they were to blame for the fiasco.

Jimmy passed the jackknifed truck and slowed to a stop.

“Jimmy?” I said.

“What? You’re the one who’s supposed to be the good Samaritan, aren’t you? Let’s see what we can do to help.”

If these words had come from any other lips, I might have believed them. But they hadn’t. Jimmy didn’t help. He helped himself.

The driver was lamenting loudly to the highway patrolmen as we came up.

“No refrigeration! They all done for.”

“Who’s all done for, sir?” one of the cops asked, as if he couldn’t have gotten a clue from the poultry all over the highway.

“I supposed to deliver these turkeys for Thanksgiving. Somebody not going to have no turkey for dinner now. Lotta somebodies.”

“I think that the fact that you don’t have a valid driver’s license on you and have apparently been drinking might be a bigger of a problem for you right now, sir.”

I looked at Jimmy. He looked at me. “The freezer at the shelter,” I said. “There’d be plenty of room to store them in there.”

“Just what I was thinking,” he said. He turned to the policemen and the driver. “Gentlemen, while you attend to the, uh, paperwork, I think there might be a way we can take these birds off your hands.”


We went to the nearest 7/11 and I bought five bags of ice, which we put in the trunk of Jimmy’s car. Then we went back to the truck and with the help of a couple of patrolmen loaded the turkeys into the back.

“We should call Sergeant Major and let him know we’re doing this,” I said, reaching in my purse for my cell phone. Jimmy reached over and stayed my hand. 

“Let’s tell him in the morning,” he said.

I mentioned before that there were all kinds of reasons people get involved in philanthropy. One of them is power. Another one is crime. Jimmy had the whole ride over to turn me into an accomplice.

“Come on, Cheryl. It’s one carload. Who does it hurt?”

“Jimmy, we told the cops we were taking these to the shelter.”

“We are. We just aren’t leaving them there.”


“The shelter already has plenty of turkey. You showed me yourself.”

“It has enough, probably. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t use more.”

“Look, if it makes you feel any better, we can leave them a few.”


“A few.” He looked at me.  He could tell my resistance was softening. “Cheryl, it’s not just people at the shelter who could use a good turkey dinner, right? We can take it right to the neighborhoods that need it most, offer them a cut rate bargain.”

I gave him a withering glance. “Robin Hood you’re not, Jimmy.”

“Well, I could be if you’d let me, Maid Marian.”

By the time we got to the shelter, he’d talked me into it. But you’ve already figured that out.


By using the back seat as well, we had managed to “rescue” about fifty birds. I had a key to the shelter and between us it took us a good few trips to get them safely stowed in the freezer. By the end of it, even I was beginning to feel that we deserved a bit by way of compensation. Especially since, by dawn, we would have to do the whole thing in reverse.

“Six AM?” Jimmy asked. “Seriously?”

“I’ve seen Sergeant poking around the soup kitchen as early as eight.”

“Fine. I’ll pick you up at quarter till. Unless you want me to stay…”

“Bootsie will be missing you,” I said firmly.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said. He sounded unconvinced.



When we got back to the shelter that morning there was no one around the kitchen area. It was just as well because the fight we got into was not one I would have wanted the other workers to hear.

“Cheryl, if we leave some, they’ll have to be explained. If we leave none, no one will be the wiser. It’s like we were never here.”

“That’s not what I agreed to when you talked me into this.”

“I know, but it’s not like you can’t change your mind.”


In the end we stopped arguing only because we were running out of time. It was light by the time we had gotten the last birds out as it was. We left the shelter with ten, and took the other forty. I didn’t feel good about it, but I told myself I had done the best I could.


It turned out that it wasn’t as easy to sell discounted turkey out of the back of your car as you would have thought. For one thing, one of the big supermarket chains had offered a promotion on Butterballs the weekend before, and everyone who’d been looking for a bargain was pretty well set. We headed for a poorer Spanish speaking neighborhood that we thought might be a bit beyond Butterball territory, and opened the trunk. A man who’s battered face made him look like he hired himself out as a punching bag leant in and inspected one of the turkey’s more closely. Jimmy and I beamed at each other—we could practically feel the money in our pockets.

“Is that a tire mark?” 

“Uh…” Jimmy said.

“Hijo de puta!” he said. The language proceeded to get more colorful from there. A crowd was forming, so Jimmy slammed down the trunk lid and we got the hell out of there. We were probably lucky they didn’t run us out on a rail.

By four o’clock, we had sold six turkeys and made ninety bucks. Taking into account the amount of money we had spent on gas and on refilling the car with ice, it was not between the two of us what you’d call a decent day’s wage. And despite various precautions, the trunk had begun to fill up with ice water. I didn’t want to think about the upholstery in the back of the car, and was glad it wasn’t mine.

We sat on the back of the trunk and listened to the water drip from some unknown place within down to the pavement beneath.

“I give,” Jimmy said. To be fair to him, he always did seem to know when it was time to cut his losses.

“But what are we going to do with the turkeys?”

“Dump ‘em somewhere. What do I care?”

“It’s perfectly good meat, Jimmy—even the one with the tire track.”

“Okay, since you’ve obviously thought about it, what do you want to do, Cheryl?”

“Take it back to the shelter, obviously.”

“Hell, no--are you out of your mind?””

“They can still use it. They use worse than this all the time.”

“I’m not going to do it, Cheryl.”

There was a long, pregnant pause.

“Whose car is this, anyway?”

“What are you talking about?”

Whose car?

He let out a long sigh. “Bootsie’s.”

“You think she’s going to be happy when she finds out what you’ve been up to with it? Filling it with ice and turkey carcasses?”

“You’d never tell her.”

But I could see he didn’t entirely believe that.

“Try me, Jimbo.” I’m not usually like this, but it had been a long day.

It was now late Wednesday night and we’d watched the last of the shelter volunteers leave. There was a security guard who came round sometime in the night, but I didn’t think it was till later. Besides, I had a key. Technically, I wasn’t trespassing. We had gotten as far as the kitchen, me hugging a big turkey to my chest and Jimmy with one under each arm, and I was just trying to nudge the handle of the freezer open with my elbow when a flashlight shone blindingly out at us.

“WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING WITH MY BIRDS?” a ringing voice called out of the darkness. If I hadn’t known Sergeant Major so well, at that moment, I might have mistaken it for God’s.

Which might explain why Jimmy, who’d never minded lying and was normally pretty fast on his feet, didn’t even bother to try it out.

“Taking them out for a drive,” he said meekly.

Which was, strictly speaking, the truth.

It turned out that someone in the other part of the shelter had seen us in what was perceived as our “early dawn raid”, and had called the police, who had sent someone over to talk to them and ascertain what was missing. Sergeant Major couldn’t claim that he noticed anything missing, but that only made him believe that the thieves must be fiendishly clever and he resolved to set up a little stakeout of his own.

The fact that they weren’t actually his turkeys counted for very little with him. The fact that we were bringing them back counted for less. If he could have figured out how to have us thrown in jail, he would have.  As it was, he was about to throw us both off the premises, but then he realized that we still had the turkeys.

“”Forward, march!” he said. I have a feeling that overseeing our return of the turkeys was the most fun he’d had in a long time. Sergeant Major—what can I say? He was the kind of guy you felt probably wished he’d been around to help orchestrate the Bataan Death March and handled it all a lot more efficiently too.



It was about ten thirty on Thanksgiving night. Jimmy and I were standing out back of the shelter, sharing a cigarette. We only had the one. Sergeant Major had confiscated the rest when he’d caught us taking a break earlier. Breaks weren’t in his plans for us. Neither was smoking. We’d both been there since early that morning. Jimmy hadn’t wanted to come back to the place after our long night there, why would he, but I’d said, Come on, you still don’t have a place to go for dinner, and it will be better if you’re there.

“Really?” he’d asked.

“Sure,” I’d said. I’d only meant that it would take some of Sergeant Major’s punitive focus off me. But then again, maybe it wasn’t all I meant, either.

We’d started by scrubbing potatoes in the morning and finished by scrubbing pots at night. They were the longest hours I’d ever worked at the shelter and probably the longest Jimmy had ever worked, period. Our Thanksgiving dinner was eaten on the run, and unmemorable. Though I will say one thing-- there was an awful lot of turkey.

But now it was over. We leaned against the wall, companionable, our harmony restored.

“Bootsie just called me. She isn’t too pleased about the car,” he said.

“You surprise me.”

“Thing is, it kind of means I don’t have any place to stay.”

“You could stay here. That’s why it’s called a shelter.”

“No freakin’ way.” He paused. “Come on, Cheryl. Let me crash with you for a while. It’s the least you can do.”

“The least I can do?” and I was building up a head of steam to finally let him have it, really have it, when suddenly I realized that he was right. I was the one who had gotten him involved in all this in the first place. Besides, who was I kidding?

Definitely not him.

“All right,” I said.

“Yeah?” he said. He smiled. He plucked the cigarette from between my lips and, taking a deep drag from it, exhaled in contentment. I was standing so close to him that it made my eyes sting.

That was okay, though—it wasn’t the first time James Anthony Delfino had blown smoke in my eyes.

And as he leaned in just a little bit closer, I realized it probably wouldn’t be the last.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

bragging rights

I just heard today that The First Line is going to take my story for their winter edition.  I've posted about The First Line a few times here (like  my very last post) because they offer a  first sentence prompt, you write a story and send it in. No fees, no contest, it's pretty simple. That said, I have tried to write a story from their first line a few times and never had one accepted before. A couple of these stories have gone elsewhere since, so I've never felt like it was a waste of time even when I've gotten a rejection email, but I must say it does feel pretty good to write a story for a specific purpose and have it accepted.

I do feel that every once and awhile it's okay to toot my own horn here, because, let's face it, those moments are few and far between, but I also have another reason. The first line that this story came from wasn't particularly inspiring to me, and the only reason I tried it was because I'd blown their last deadline. And I think it's important to realize in writing that you never know what is going to come from what. You don't have to feel super inspired to begin something. Although I do think a deadline and the idea that someone on the other end of your email transmission will actually read it helps...