THE CHRISTMAS TURKEY Being unemployed at Christmas is a bitch, but being self-employed at Christmas was a roller coaster. You think you have it all covered, but then the contract holder calls you in. "Sorry Mr. Ames, but we decided to put your contract up for bid. Unfortunately your contract price was bettered by another bidder. No, of course it's not anything you did, we just felt that we should be positive that we had the best deal. We have to be as frugal as possible for our depositors and stockholders, you know. Since we were sure that you were already doing the job as inexpensively as possible given the size of your business, the bank just took bids only from larger companies. No, Mr. Ames it would not be fair to allow you to match the bid. You do see how that would undermine the bid process. It just wouldn't be fair."
No, but it was fair to dump it on me without any warning. Corporations have the legal standing of a person, but they have no heart. It was a saying my brother loved. It looked like he was right, after all.
Since the contract holder was a bank, they hadn't bothered to tell me until the day before the new company would take over. It had to do with people who were upset handling bank records. Even the smallest act of sabotage could be devastating. So they were going to buy out the remaining week of the contract so as to have the new people in place the day after Christmas. It was going to be a nightmare for me, and probably worse for Maggie. Maggie was my one employee, and she was a super lady. She was married to a good friend of mine, so we respected one another's space. It was going to be a real bitch to tell her. I gave some thought to calling her cell phone to tell her just to drop everything where it was and to hell with the bank. Instead, I waited in the downtown branch's lobby for her. She had a right to know what had happened before she made any further holiday plans. I just hoped that she and Jeff could survive on his pay until I landed something else for us.
"Hey Maggie, I need to talk to you a second." I said it to the woman I knew to be 28 years old. She looked to be well over 30 that day. It might be Christmas eve but she looked haggard already. A couple of kids and a full time job tend to age a woman, or so I am told.
"What you doing up here Sammy? Is that meeting over already and, more important, do we get the raise?"
"They didn't even let me bring it up. They had already let the contract to someone else." Maggie's mouth fell open. "You have got to be kidding, Sammy!"
I simply nodded.
"So, how long have you known?" There was an angry edge to her voice.
"I don't deserve that. You know that if I had known, I would have told you."
"I'm sorry, Sammy. This is just such a shock. It is gonna be hard next week knowing it is the last week on the route."
"They don't want us back. When you drop those bags, were through. They want our keys back right now.
"What about the Federal Reserve run?" Who is going to take the bags down there?"
"I have no idea, but it is not our problem." I couldn't bring myself to smile, not even at the prospect of the Fed fining them, for not bringing their bags on time helped my mood.
"So Sammy, what you gonna do, hon?" Maggie didn't seem to be as upset as I had expected her to be.
"I'm going to wait for you to deliver that bag, then I'm gonna buy you a drink."
"Not tonight; I am going to need to talk to Jeff. He and I have been thinking about starting a little business. Now might be the time for it." Not only did Maggie not seem as upset as I thought, she actually looked as though she might be pleased. "I've been giving some thought to the catering business, but I didn't want to leave you in a jam. This might be the right time."
I knew Maggie had always done those church reception tray kind of things, She would put together a finger sandwich and veggie dip reception for anyone who asked. I didn't know that she wanted to get more involved in it, though. I looked at her but couldn't tell if she was serious, or just trying to make me feel better. Either way it worked, I felt much better than if she had cried.
Maggie caught an elevator up to say good-bye to her friends while I walked into the bank's rear parking lot. Maggie would be headed home after her last drop. I sat in my tiny hatchback trying to decide where I would spend Christmas eve. I sure as hell wouldn't be spending it in my home. Truth was that it hadn't been much of a home for years anyway.
The cell phone rang as I started the 10 year old Ford Festiva. "Hello." I knew just as soon as I said it that I had done it wrong. If I was going to answer it at all on Christmas Eve, I should have used the company name.
"Sammy, this is Beth. I hate like hell to do this but I am gonna have to cancel our lunch tomorrow."
She didn't hate it as bad as I did. Beth was my sister. Lunch at her house was the only holiday plan I had. With the loss of that, it seemed I was gonna be one of those lonely looking men in the cafeteria line on Christmas day. I almost punched in my wife's number, but I just couldn't face any part of Christmas with her or her family.
The phone rang again while I was negotiating traffic on the way to my small office and shop. It was also where I had been spending my nights at the time. "Hello, Sammy's package pick up." It looked like it would be back to that phrase for a while at least.
"Hi. Are you the manager?"
"I am the manager, the janitor, and the owner," I replied.
"The is Hondo Lister at \lquote Wheels of Glory.' Do you know who we are?"
"The bikers who run the drug rehab, right?" I had seen the articles about them in the paper. During that time of year the newspaper was filled with "feel-good" stories.
"We do a little more than that, but, yes, we run the drug program for the churches in town. So you're Sammy?"
"Yep, I'm Sammy. What can I do for you, Hondo?' I wanted to snicker at the silly name.
"I have a rather unique problem. One of those other things we do is to feed the homeless on Thanksgiving and Christmas."
"Okay, let me guess. You're seeking donations? Sure, put me down for 20 bucks."
"Well, thanks, but we need a little more from you." His voice had changed a little. He actually was talking down to me.
"Oh? What could you need from me?"
"I've called every delivery company in town, but for one reason or another they can't do it. I need someone to pick up 50 turkeys for me."
"Hondo, I can tell you why. Oh, hell, never mind. Where are your 50 turkeys? Are they at one of the local stores?" I figured one of the markets had donated the birds.
"Mendenhall's game farm," he replied. "It's about a 100 miles west of here."
"Let me get this straight. You're looking for someone to drive three or four hours up there and the same back to bring you turkeys?"
"Well it's only a 100 miles," he replied.
"And it's only Christmas Eve. Have you ever driven on a Christmas Eve?" I asked it shortly.
"Actually, I don't recall that I have."
"Trust me, you're talking eight hours round-trip, minimum."
"It's four now. If your man leaves shortly, he can be back around midnight."
"I never said I would do it. "I, sure as hell, won't ask one of my drivers to do it on Christmas Eve." He didn't need to know that Maggie, my only driver, was headed home. "What kind of condition are the turkeys in?"
"Frozen. They will be packed in dry ice, I think. All you have to do is drive back here with them. I can send a guy with you to load and unload them. You won't even have to touch them."
"How much are the birds going to weigh?" I asked because I still had an old truck. It was licensed and would probably make the trip, but I would prefer to drive the mini van. From all the talk of trucks and vans you'd think I ran a big operation. Truth is that it had been until I got careless. I started to drink and lost it all, and Lori, too. I was still battling the bottle, even though I hadn't had a drink in over a month.
"I got 50 birds at 20 pounds each more or less. We had planned to pick them up in our church van but it go stole last night."
"Nice, somebody stole the church van on Christmas Eve."
"Sure did. The cops found it, but they won't let us have it back. Something to do with needing to process it for evidence first." Hondo didn't sound convinced, what he sounded was suspicious of cops.
When I pulled onto the lot of my converted service station, I was ready to tell him no. I have no idea to this day why I didn't. God knows I should have. "Hondo, does anybody there know the way to this farm?"
"Yeah we got somebody. Why?"
"Because I'm going to drive the van, and I do not intend to get a 100 miles from here on Christmas Eve and be lost. So, instead of some ox to do the loading, get me someone who knows the way."
"K. When you gonna be here?"
"I'm going to pick up the van, get some gas, and be on the way there. Are you still using the old church camp?" I knew they were. At least they had been two days before when the last article came out in the paper.
"Yeah, come on over to the two-storey gray building just inside the fence. I'll have somebody meet you out front."
"Okay I should be there in about twenty minutes." I switched vehicles, then drove to the pumps. I realized that I hadn't asked Hondo to pay for the trip. I guess we both assumed it would be my Christmas donation. Well, the twenty bucks I offered would buy the gas.
The biker in the dirty jeans and black leather jacket with the \lquote Wheels of Glory' logo, was waiting just inside the door. I pulled up, and he ran to the van. "Light in the ass," I thought as he climbed in.
"So how do I get to this place?" I asked.
"Get out on the interstate and head west. Go to Statesville, then turn north on highway 77. It won't be too far up there. I can show you once we get off 77."
Now I know I am not too bright, but I recognized the voice first as a woman, then as an educated woman. I took a second at the next stop light to give her a good look. She wasn't very attractive, I decided. What she was, though, was young and dressed in jeans that cost as much as the almost-new black leather motorcycle jacket. The blouse under the jacket, which she had opened in the heat of the van, was pure silk. I knew it not from experience, but from the total look of the woman.
"The light is green," she said it looking out the windshield. If she knew I had been appraising her, she did not let on.
"Yeah," I said not knowing what else to say. "So, what do I call you?
" Most folks call me George, but you can call me George." She smiled at her witty remark. I glanced at her again. I noticed that she had freckles so thick that they touched in places. I guessed the bandana hid red hair.
"So, George, are you doing the cooking?" I asked it smiling to myself. I couldn't imagine her with a spoon and mixing bowl.
"Don't think so, Sammy," She grinned at me. She noticed my curious look. "Hondo told me your name. He said to be nice to you, but not too nice."
"Ah, hell, just my luck." I grinned at her showing my best side.
"Well Sammy, you're way too old for me anyway so the warning wasn't necessary." At that point I gave some thought to throwing her out on her ear. It was only after I calmed down and realized that she was right that I gave up on the idea. She was about 19 and I was into my 40s at the time.
We spent the next two hours talking as only a man and woman with the sex crap behind them can talk. She told me her Poor Little Rich Girl story, which culminated in drug addiction. She then told me that the Wheels had saved her. She was one of the few who came to them still deep in addiction. She signed herself in thinking she could leave if it got too tough. What she hadn't counted on was the farm. The farm was where the Wheels sent addicts to dry out. Even when they came from the hospitals, they went to the farm.
According to George, it was a hellish place and impossible to escape from. She dried out and got straight. Not only were you required to do the group thing, you also were required to attend classes in God speak. According to George, you didn't have to believe it, but you had to understand it. She understood enough to spend her first allowance check from home on a leather jacket. That had been six months before, and she still wore the coat.
I was lulled into telling her all about my troubles. George and I forged some kind of friendship. It was probably based in need, since she wasn't going home for Christmas, either. Then again it might have been that she was \i almost\i0 daughter like to me. Probably not, though, since I still had visions of her pale body without the designer jeans.
After driving only 50 miles in two hours, I pulled off the highway. On the feeder highway I found an open convenience store. From all the empty parking lots around, it looked like it might be the only store open. I wished at that moment that I'd brought my road kit. In the box, which contained my road kit, a Thermos could be found. Without the Thermos, the best I could do was the large coffee poured into one of the store's cups, plus another in my Delta no-spill cup.
I managed to finish the coffee before we left interstate 77. The directions which George gave me sure enough led to a game farm. The farm raised several different species of game birds and other critters. They were mostly sold live to restock game ranches. While George and I loaded the van, the owner explained that he and his wife had seen Wheels of Glory's TV plea for turkeys to feed the homeless. Since they had a freezer filled with exotic wild turkeys, they decided to donate them to the ministry.
The game farm's idea of a cold pack was to place a Styrofoam carton in the van, then add two turkeys and ice from a bucket. George and I filled the bucket over and over as the cartons in the rear of the van increased. After we filled the 25 cartons one at a time, we spread a plastic tarp over them. The coolers and the ice belonged to the game farm, but the tarp was mine. I expected it would do a lot of good, since it was water proof and probably would hold the cold in.
"So, Sammy, you gonna spend Christmas with the wife and kiddies?" George asked it as we pulled out of the game farm's drive.
"No, the kiddies left a couple of years ago. The wife tossed me out last year."
"So, what you doing for Christmas?" She asked it in a voice that seemed to show concern.
"Who knows?" I replied. "I really haven't had much of a chance to figure it out."
"Come on down to the camp. I think I can find a turkey leg for you."
"Thanks, but I am gonna pass on that one."
"Well, we got a couple of hours, I can try to change your mind." She grinned at me. "You know Sammy, you really shouldn't run that heater. If anything happens to those birds, there are going to be a lot of disappointed bikers and other assorted misfits."
"The 'misfit' probably describes me perfectly," I admitted.
The road was filled with families headed home for the holidays. They were those last minute lunatics trying to get home for their turkey dinners. At least, that's what I imagined them to be. We were probably all lulled into a hypnotic state by the highway's monotony iand the hot stuffy vehicles we drove.
I was only half paying attention when I saw the car in front of me head straight for the shoulder of the road. I swung over a bit just in time to see it roll over. I also saw the deer land, on the road and close enough to the van to scare holy hell out of me. I'd passed the car that flipped but I pulled to the shoulder nonetheless. I backed the van up quickly. When we ran down the bank, the smell of gasoline was strong. I yelled for George to stay back. She was silent but ignored me completely.
"I would love to leave them in the car, but the smell of gasoline is just too much," I almost shouted it to George. I wanted her to tell me what to do, she didn't say a word. She looked to be pretty much in shock herself. I might have called 911 for advice, if I'd thought of it. I was terrified that the car would go up so I opened the door. I had the man who was the driver out when I heard George.
"Sammy, get a move on," she shouted. I looked up to see a small plume of smoke rising from the engine compartment. I was even more frightened as I tried to get the woman free of her seat belt. The buckle was jammed. The smoke was getting heavier, and I was terrified.
"I can't get this buckle open." I shouted it and waited for George to tell me what to do. Her response was not in words. She slid something over the roof of the car. It came to a stop a few inches from my face. It was a large, nasty Bowie knife. Without a thought I slashed the seat belt, then pulled the woman from the smoking car. When she was free, other good Samaritans ran up to lift her. We cleared the wreckage expecting it to explode at any moment. It never did.
The smoke just stopped. I sat on the bank while the EMT personnel treated the couple from the car. While I sat with my head down, trying to get my breathing back to normal, one of the EMT people walked by me. "You're damn lucky nothing was broken. They could've died, if they had a broken rib you know."
The paramedics were gone when I looked at the car sitting rumpled but complete. "Some fucking hero I am." I spat out the sick feeling in my gut then stood. "Come on, George, we got turkeys to get delivered."
It was three a.m. when we got back to the camp. I helped George and the kitchen people unload the turkeys. I was careful not to damage the coolers. I wanted to do my best to get everything back as I had found it.
"You're too tired to drive home now. Come on up, There's a spare bed in the dorm."
"You have to be kidding. I am not going to sleep in a dorm." I stood to leave but staggered. "Just for a couple of hours, but then I'm going home. I've had about as bad a day as you can have. Hell, I've had about as bad a year as you can have." I allowed her to lead me to the room with four beds, all of them were empty. The only other thing in the room was a pile of blankets. I took two, then fell exhausted onto a bed. I fell asleep feeling about as depressed as a man can feel without opening a vein for relief.
I was physically and emotionally exhausted, I slept well into the next day. When I awoke, I found a note from George taped to the mirror in the bathroom. I was to clean up and be back at the camp at two for lunch. If I was not present, the complete Wheels of Glory motorcycle club would be at my house to escort me.
The cleanup was easy, and I even had time for a couple of cups of coffee, straight from my filthy Mr. Coffee machine. The drive to the church camp was along mostly deserted streets. Every empty block added to my depression. When I arrived, George was on the curb to meet me. I had a fleeting second of hoping that she had fallen madly in lust with me. It was furthered by her taking my arm and leading me into a room away from the dining room. She kept me there without saying much until exactly 2 p.m.
We got to the dinning room in time for the prayer. I joined in, though I didn't really feel up to it.
"Ladies and gentlemen I give you our guest of honor." The tall, drug-ravished man with the grey ponytail had to be Hondo. He had led the prayer, and he was acting as master of ceremonies. He looked at me and began to clap his hands. The others followed suit, soon everyone was doing it. An older couple walked into the room. The man shook my hand, and the woman cried. She also hugged George.
"But, I didn't do anything special. Hell, they were never in any danger." I was trying hard not to show how affected I was as I spoke to the biker closest to me.
The woman must have overheard, because she asked me in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. "When the smoke was pouring from that engine, and the smell of gasoline was choking me, did you know the car would not explode?"
I shook my head humbly. "When you stayed there and cut that belt off me and then dragged me to safety, you became my hero. You always will be, and I don't give a damn what anybody else says." I cried with her as she spoke.
The crowd was quietly embarrassed until Hondo added. "And he brought us the turkeys. Now, let's eat."
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