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.
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? Fiancé? 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.”