On Christmas morning, Grandpa Joey heard the doorbell ring. He grabbed his walker, slowly shuffled to the door and opened it. Nobody there but a big, white styrofoam cooler with a red ribbon tied around it.
And a note. It said:
Merry Christmas Grandpa! Don't worry, it's still fresh! Love, Ricky
* * *
The day before, Ricky Hunnicut was driving his mother, Mary, towards his Aunt Peggy's place in Middleburg. A combination Christmas/Birthday pot-luck dinner awaited them.
"And don't mention your cousin's urinary tract infection. She'd be mortified if she knew that you knew. And on Christmas Eve of all days... bless her heart!"
"This is the fourth time Becky's come down with it in two years. Poor gal, she's only sixteen!"
"Seventeen, she's seventeen today. I wonder why she's so infectious?"
"Ricky, girls are built differently than you boys. It's quite common."
He rolled his eyes, "Duh, mom, I'm 22."
"Well you act like you're ten sometimes."
"Seems to me it comes from filth or sex." Ricky couldn't resist provoking his mother.
"Hush your mouth! Becky is pure. I'm sure of it. Besides, your aunt Peggy would tell me if she were otherwise. We sisters share everything... Watch out for that red Honda up ahead... and slow down for heavens sake!"
Mary Hunnicutt was alway critical about her son's driving. More so today, what with the stress of preparing for the party. Preparation–whether giving or attending a party–it was the preparation part that made Mary crazy. What to wear? What to cook? What kind of present to buy? Instead of happy anticipation, she looked forward these tasks with a sense of grim determination. Made it too important and took the fun out of it. Ricky wasn't sure if it was just her or some kind of woman thing. For him, planning a party was a twelve pack of Miller Ultra and a jumbo bag of pork rinds.
He hadn't even wanted to go to this damned party but his dad had managed to get out of it first, by claiming he had to go fishing with his boss from the Tire Store. Ricky figured he was lying but didn't want to risk getting popped in the head for saying so. Since Mama was too fat too drive safely, it was up to him to cram her into his old, white Toyota Corolla for the thirty mile drive to Aunt Peggy's country mobile home in cracker Middleburg.
"Honey, are you driving the speed limit? I think not, just slow this thing down."
"Mama, I'm only going two miles over the speed limit."
"I don't care. Look at those clouds, I'm sure it's going to rain."
No matter how well Ricky drove, it was never good enough for Mama. He was always either too fast or too slow. She really got nervous when they were on the highway. All the cars changing lanes looked like chariots of death to her. Mary would assume the role of co-pilot :
"Watch out for that truck. He should be in the right lane, the fool."
"The exit sign says 25. We're going to tip over on the curve!"
But the worst distraction was when Mama started air-braking: slamming her foot down on the floor when she felt they were too close to another vehicle. Her body would stiffen and her right leg pumped the carpet in jerky movements.
"GOD-IN-HEAVEN SLOW DOWN!"
Ricky couldn't count the times she had scared him witless with that trick. Although it could backfire; one day she had air-braked repeatedly as they drove across town to the new Walmart Superstore in Orange Park. "THUMP! THUMP!" "THUMP! THUMP!" By the time they got there, Mama had a bad cramp. She waddled up to the entrance like she had a peg leg. It was the first time she rode in an electric buggy to do her shopping.
She rode in them all the time now.
They left the urban sprawl of Blanding Boulevard onto an empty two lane country road. Mossy oak trees, scrub pine and palmetto palms lined both sides. Mary slipped out of her flip-flops and wiggled her toes. Raindrops started to spatter on the windshield.
"It's raining. Turn on your wipers... and roll up the windows, I don't want Pooh Bear to get wet."
Ricky glanced over his right shoulder to see the white mini poodle; it's paws and head were hanging out the rear window, happily licking raindrops off its wet nose. The dog had just recently been to the beauty parlor and was sporting a classic poodle haircut, complete with pink painted toenails. It looked like the gayest dog in Florida.
"Hey dog. Pooh, over here," he said as he patted the middle backseat cushion.
"Good Lord! Keep your eyes on the road and both of your hands on the steering wheel."
"Fine, I just didn't want to decapitate the thing." He shut the windows with a touch of the electric button.
"Pooh Bear is not a thing," said Mary as she twisted her girth around to talk to the dog in a singsong voice," She's my precious, yes she is! Who's my sweet precious? Who my sweet?"
Pooh barked and pranced to return the love, yapping louder and louder as Mary goaded him on.
The rain grew stronger but Ricky pressed down on the accelerator. Not that he was in a hurry to get there, it was only going to be a small pot-luck with the family. Becky had had her fun party with her school buddies on Friday night. That meant none of her hot girl friends would be at the house. No lusting over jailbait in tube tops and short shorts today.
"Is Grandpa Joey coming?"
"No, he and your auntie are still not talking."
"Still? About the deer?"
"It's not that he served venison, but Peggy is sure it was road kill. And you have to admit Grandpa is far too old and fragile to go shoot one himself these days."
"Well I thought it was good."
"You would, you're just like him. Anything you boys find in the woods you'll eat."
"Only if Grandpa cooks it. He's a genius."
"Well, you'll have to do with honey baked ham tonight. From a store."
Ricky was sorry his Grandpa wouldn't be there, but his stomach started to rumble when he thought about all the good food they'd eat: ham, sweet potatoes, string beans, cream pie. And Mama's contribution; her much loved "Confederate Navy Beans." Ricky had carried it himself, red-hot from the oven, to the car. It lay there, in a big Pyrex dish covered in tinfoil, on the floorboard by Mama's feet, so Pooh wouldn't burn himself.
The aroma was heavenly.
"Mama, those beans sure smell good."
"Well they'd better. Cost a fortune to make. I just can't believe how much food prices have gone up."
"No silly, for the bacon. I only use market bacon from Teeters Meat Shop. It's up to six dollars a pound. May be the last time I make it. Damn that Obama."
"How come you used white cheese this time?"
"It's provolone. Got it on sale."
"That doesn't sound very Confederate."
"Son, I assure you that the Confederates ate whatever they could get."
Mama started giggling.
"What's so funny?"
"He he! You got to promise not to tell... "
"The barbecue sauce I used... He he he... It's from New York City!" Mama slapped her knee.
"So much for southern cooking." Ricky started laughing too, Mama was infectious.
"Ha ha!" said Mama, "Nobody will ever know, they're so used to eating your Grandpa's road kill! Ha ha ha!"
"The south will rise again! HA!HA!"
"On the gas from these here beans! HO! HO! HO!"
"HAHAHA! Stop it ma, you're killing me!" Between the rain and the water in Ricky's eyes, he could hardly see the road.
And the turkey standing in the middle of it.
Other than its homely face, the Florida wild turkey does not look like the bird that is served at Thanksgiving. It is much thinner and stands on long legs. It can reach up to four feet tall. One can tell the mood of a turkey by the color of its head: blue for amorous, red when angry, and in the case of this bird, ashen white, as it realized it had a split second to live.
Ricky slammed on the brakes.
Mary slammed her air brakes into the Confederate Navy Beans.
The car lurched and slid its bald tires on the wet roadway.
Pooh Bear flew from the backseat and landed on Ricky's shoulders.
Mary's bare, right foot pierced through the aluminum foil into the hot beans and cheese; she screamed as if she were giving birth. Ricky and the dog joined her.
The car began to spin.
The struck turkey had flipped over the hood and caught its foot in the windshield wiper. It did a full fledged death dance, wings flapping against the windshield: left and right, left and right, left and right.
They spun round and round until the right rear tire popped, stopping the car.
They sat there silently for a few seconds, watching the bird's last convulsion.
"Do you think it's dead?" said Mary.
"More important, are we still alive?"
"Son, I believe the car's facing the wrong way."
"I think the dog peed on me. My back is wet."
"Do we have any tissue? I got beans stuck between my toes."
"Check the glove compartment."
Ricky got out of the car, pried the bird off the windshield and threw it to the side of the road.
They drove on the flat tire at a walking pace for a quarter mile to the parking lot of a solitary Quiki Market. While Ricky changed the tire, Mary went inside and came back out with a plastic knife and spoon. She took the Confederate Navy Beans out; there was a perfect Hollywood footprint in it. Sitting on the curb, she blended it back to its original form.
"Good as new. Not. A. Word. Y'hear?" she said, tossing the plastic spoon for Pooh to lick clean.
"My lips are sealed. Say, Mama, did you see any ice coolers for sale in there?"
* * *