I’ve been working on this one for a few days. I hope you enjoy it.
Young Doug McMurtle wanted to pretend that buying the Thanksgiving turkey with his father was a boring affair. Fifteen-years old, he believed the world was something of a joke; he yawned through classes, receiving the highest marks and teacher’s disdain; the local papers—for lack of better news—frequently reported on Doug’s newest athletic achievement and the promise of his future; but when his father, Damon McMurtle, asked Doug help him get the annual bird, Doug struggled to conceal his excitement.
Doug walked—but was nearly skipping—beside his father, working to keep pace, and wishing he would hit his growth spurt sooner. The thin soles of his sneakers revealed every crack, panel, and vent along the sidewalk. It was a dirty, uneven sidewalk, with cigarette butts, bottle caps, and glass shards. The random street tree—planted for no sensible person or civic reason—only provided bumps and ridges where the roots paid no heed. An oblivious pedestrian was likely to fall, but there were no such oblivious pedestrians in the city’s “Gangplank” corridor.
It was nearing dusk. Any such night would merit a door-blocked-with-crossed-arms from Mrs. McMurtle and a scolding that they ought to know better. This was not one of those nights. The Gangplank corridor was no home of quaintness. When the sun fled and the streetlights assumed flickering facsimiles, the McMurtle’s neighborhood did not become an endearing corner of the city. Nobody left their homes, and when gunshots boomed, beds were checked and prayers were made. Mrs. McMurtle gave a tight smile as they left the house.
There was an edge to Doug’s breathing as they left the front door, the sun just fading behind the tallest tenement buildings. It was not yet dark out, but late enough, late enough.
Doug thought of the other Thanksgivings his father snuck out of the house and in the morning, there being a great big bird in the oven. The roasting turkey guaranteed a meal that the whole family would gather around. Past arguments would come to a halt. The savory smell of the McMurtle secret sauce calmed every sense. Neighbors would knock, hinting for an invitation. The McMurtle’s never said no.
As they walked quickly down the city streets, Doug realized they weren’t heading towards his father’s car. They would surely need it to reach a grocery store, as only liquor stores and chain fast food joints dared this part of the city. Doug glanced at his father.
Damon McMurtle was a big man. Old football days lingered on his hobbled ankles. On hot days, he grabbed at his knees and asked if someone wouldn’t kindly get an ice bag for their dad. He never spoke about his semi-professional days and rarely helped Doug with his various sports. Tonight was different: Damon’s stride could have carried him halfway to the moon. Damon McMurtle was a man drilled in the art of determination and the precision of strategy, and he still possessed the raw instincts of the big game. Doug didn’t know it then, but his father lived for this night.
Damon glanced at his sports watch, its brilliant turquoise light illuminating his coat sleeve. “C’mon, Doug, we gotta go down Woods. You’re doing good.”
Doug wiped at his sweaty brow. He was nearly jogging to stay abreast. “Thanks Dad.” He thought of asking why they weren’t in a car and why on earth they would go down Woods, but Doug knew that his father knew what they were doing. At least, Doug hoped he knew.
Damon scanned the streets. He kept a wide hand on Doug’s shoulder. A few people quickly walked the streets. From 81st and Woods, Damon and Doug looked ahead at 82nd, where five men sat on a couch and lawn chairs. They were smoking cigarettes, talking amongst themselves, and waiting for junkies.
They stood at 81st for thirty seconds, Damon counting off under his breath. A dented black sedan approached and stopped even with the men at the intersection of 82nd. One of the men had already risen, went to the open window, and came away with several bags, which he passed to the others. The car idled. Damon blinked the light on his watch. “Too long,” he said.
“What?” Doug said. He thought that perhaps his heartbeat had been louder than his father’s words.
“Nothing, hang on for me while Dad thinks, Doug.” But then he let out a breath as a man rose from his lawn chair, went to the car, and stuck a hand through the window. Moments later, the car pulled from the curb, stopped at the intersection, swept a slow U-turn, and drove steadily down the street.
The men resumed their lounging and ate hamburgers and fries.
Damon gripped Doug’s shoulders, and they walked carefully towards 82nd Avenue. Doug glanced at the men. They looked normal. He sometimes wondered if these men were as bad as his father and mother told him. Doug never challenged his parents because he knew this: Damon and Sophia McMurtle were good people, and when good people tell you something, you listen to them.
They made it past 82nd Avenue and continued down Woods. They paused at James Hill’s Park. The sun’s ambient light was fading as it reached the horizon. A city planner designed James Hill Park as the first in her “city revival” series. When she died in a car accident, so did her plans; the mayor lost his reelection; the city forgot the revival; and James Hill’s Park became the last in its series.
Geese were rampant in James Hill’s Park, lying on the grass when not drifting atop the roughly Olympic-pool sized pond. Shoe treads quickly accumulated handfuls of stringy feces. Day or night, no one entered the park.
“Dad, what are we doing here?”
“Doug, we’re here for Thanksgiving.”
For a moment, Doug thought his father meant to eat Thanksgiving at James Hill’s Park. Is he out of his mind? There’s no place to eat that doesn’t smell like shit! As Doug began to protest, Damon raised a hand for silence.
“You hear anyone?”
Doug strained his ears for any sound other than their breathing. “No, but Dad—”
“Ok, Doug, here we go. We’re going to move real fast here. I want you to pay attention in case you gotta do this for your old man in the future. We’re talking about the McMurtle Thanksgiving. You want a big old bird for everyone to eat? This is where we get it. Now, we don’t have…”
Doug understood nothing of his father’s next words. They were here for Thanksgiving. His mother had let them leave, despite the time. They weren’t in a store.
“…so you just stand behind and make sure you see everything I do.” Damon looked at Doug in the twilight. He squeezed Doug’s shoulder. “You ready, Doug?”
“Dad, we’re here to get the Thanksgiving bird? The one that you always bring back from the store? Is this just a joke? Why are we really here?”
Damon sighed. “Doug, we don’t have a whole lot of good light left to have a conversation. Can we do this later? You don’t gotta do a lot; we went over the plan. Just stand by in case I need you. Can you bear through it, son?”
Doug nodded heavily, but he knew he couldn’t. Emotions roiled in his heart, and no amount of thinking would quiet them. When his father turned away and headed toward a settling flock of geese, Doug ran away.
Doug ran like it was the race of his life. Lines in the pavement zipped past. Instinct took over. He kept his knees high, stayed on his toes, loosened his shoulders. His track coach always marveled at how effortless Doug’s form looked. Tears coursed down his face. Homes, light poles, fire hydrants, and park cars blurred. He didn’t know which way he was headed and didn’t care. Once breathing became a struggle and his muscles ached for oxygen, he slowed to a trot, then a walk, and finally stopped and leaned over a fence. Vaguely, he hoped there were no dogs in the adjoining yard. Doug took stock of his location.
He had only run three blocks toward home.
He wanted to keep going. He wanted to go all the way home, to cry in his mother’s lap, to tell her that they didn’t eat turkey for Thanksgiving, to tell her that it was all a lie. Instead, he only felt drained. The chain-links rattled and bent as Doug slumped against the fence.
“I can’t run anymore,” he said. “I’m the fastest boy in my school, and I can’t run anymore.” He wiped at his wet eyes with the back of his hand then glared at his palms, examining the lines in them. A palmist had once traced each line and told him the meanings.
“You’ll be a strong runner because you have a big heart,” she said. “Pumps lots of oxygen, makes you faster. These crossing lines mean that you’ll never be confused for very long. And you see this long curving line, untouched by anything else? That signifies…” The woman had paused. Gathering her thoughts and peeking at old maps hanging in her rafters, she cooed with realization. “Ah, yes, the long line refers to the lasting health of your family.” The palmist may have gotten that one correct if Damon McMurtle (then on crutches) had brought Doug to see her rather than Sophia.
Sneakers scuffed against the pavement as a pair of shadows—silhouettes in the diminishing twilight— stepped up to Doug. One of them threw a crumpled paper bag into the yard behind Doug.
“What’re you doing here, little man?” The voice was quiet and gruff.
Doug was afraid. He could feel his hands trembling on his knees, and he was unsure whether to stand or remain seated. His breathing quickened. The chain-links behind him rattled. “I’m just about to go home.”
“You’re about to go home, huh? You look like you’re sitting. Do we know you?”
“He’s with me.” Silent as a tiger, Damon McMurtle stood hulking behind the two men. “I owe you all a great amount of thanks for watching over my son so diligently, but we’ll be getting home now.” Damon’s voice was gravelly and forbidding. It brooked no room for discussion. Doug felt that—at that moment—no man in the world would have had the courage to defy his father.
The two men split and melted into the night.
“Come on, Doug, let’s go home.”
Doug looked with bleary eyes at his father. The sun’s light completely gone, Doug could only just make out the hulking form of his father and a dark object hanging limply by his side. “That’s a goose, isn’t it, Dad?”
“Yeah, son, it’s a goose.”
“We’ve been eating goose for Thanksgiving. We don’t even get it from the store like regular people. We kill them while they sleep—in a park, in James Hill’s Park.”
“Yeah, son.” Damon sighed deeply, and it seemed as though his hulking form lost several inches. He sat next to Doug. A few streetlights came to life. Under the soft amber lights, long streams of sweat glistened on Damon’s face. He was breathing heavily, his nostrils flaring and somewhere between breaths came a thin whistle. “I’m sorry you thought otherwise.”
“Me, too,” Doug said. He meant his words to be harsh. Impossibly, his father deflated more.
“You gotta realize that it’s not really the bird that matters, Doug. It’s bringing everyone together. Getting our neighbors together. Making us feel like a community, even if it’s just for one day. It’s the best day of the year, isn’t it?”
Doug couldn’t help but nod.
“That’s right, son. The best day of the year, and it’s all because of the McMurtle’s and their damn good secret sauce. I didn’t bring you out tonight just to be cold and sit against a fence. I wanted you to see that the world is only what you make it, not just the things that come easy or that everyone else is doing or expecting.”
They stood up.
“Next time you decide to run away, don’t go down Woods.”