If you’re tired of stuffing yourself with food this Turkey Day, feel free to gobble down “Tryed Thanksgiving,” another flash fiction story from Midwest BSFA member, Renee Tecco! Enjoy!
Albert was fully dressed and sitting on the edge of the cot an hour before the sun crept through the window. He was ready to leave to get the day over with and began to add up how many more days he might have of this existence before he could pass over into relief? 4380? 12775? Who knows, maybe his end will come with a cold that transforms into pneumonia and all he will have to trudge through are 35 more days of sleeping in the shelter.
Albert hated the winter. It was during the cold, dark days that thoughts the life “up yonder” crept into his mind; in warm weather his attention is geared towards finding a private place under a bridge or socializing with transient friends who find their way back into town for a few days or weeks. But when cold weather hit, like today, he was forced indoors into the shelter where he slept on a cot in a room with at least a hundred men. At least he tried to sleep. The pungent smell of sweat and urine ceased to disturb him long ago, but the possibility of someone touching him or fondling him – or worse, stealing his stuff – kept him on a constant vigil. The noises of the other men helped to keep him awake. Every so once in a while it’s the moans of fornication but more often it’s whispering or whimpering or low moan that sometimes turns into a full out wail. The workers will come in and pull that person out if the loud sobs last for too long, they are unsure if the person is detoxing or having a psychotic breakdown. When that happens, the dimmed lights come up full blast and Albert stays still on his cot, aware of everything going on around him but still miles away reading at Walden’s pond or on sledding across the Alaskan tundra or perhaps fixing a panel on the space station. Whatever he read that day is where his mind transported him that night.
He never thinks of how he got here, why he is living on the street instead of living in a nice home with a nice family who loves and cares for him similar to the one his parents created for him as he was growing up. It came to his mind once (and only once) as he lay on a cot reliving his life. The next thing he knew the dimmed lights were bright and the worker/guards were manhandling him. He wondered why were they bothering him and not the person screaming like a banshee when he realized later it was him thrashing about and screaming at the top of his lungs. He stayed in the county ward for two months; they talked to him, gave him some meds and then sent him on his way. Once out he took the pills for a few days but then gave up on them. He didn’t need them, he thought. They won’t help. He began to self-medicate with literature. He filled his mind up with some much useful and useless knowledge that it never had to tap into the archive of his old thoughts because he was always putting bright new ones into his brain. The Tryed Stone Public Library became his new home (during open hours, of course) and he was always in a corner with a stack of books to read. Last year, he read all that the small town library could offer on Michelangelo; a few months ago he was committing the untranslated poetry of Rumi to memory and now he was reading the biography Xuanzang. Before he left the building he handed his stack the short blonde man and told him to hold the books under his name because he would be back the next day.
So he sat on his cot and stared into darkness for 30 minutes. Then he got up, gathered his tote bag and then his backpack and began to head out of the door. It was 7am on the nose.
“See you later, Albert!” The female worker at the desk called to him as he rushed out of the door. She said something else but in his haste to leave the building her words sounded jumbled as they drifted to his ear.
Outside Albert adjusted his backpack, got a firm grip on his tote and began to walk the three mile hike into town. His head was bowed against the cold wind and his eyes looked downward where he noted more broken glass and food wrappers underfoot than autumn colored leaves. No one was out yet and only a few cars speedily drove pat him on the way to the business district. Many citizens were afraid of the neighborhood where mostly the poor whites, blacks and Hispanics resided. Aside from the homeless shelter the one-square mile neighborhood had sections of rundown section eight houses and a trailer park. More whites than people of color lived there, but the area was always associated with indictable minorities.
Albert arrived into town a little before 8am. The first place he went to was the local coffee shop to get a cup of coffee before he headed over to the library.
“Good morning,” called the young man from behind the counter. He always smiled at him with a big toothy grin that seemed sincere. He also didn’t seem to mind that he carried his life’s possessions around with him and took up a whole table with them, even when the place was packed. “Happy Thanksgiving!”
“Yeah,” Albert said mindlessly, barely hearing him. He was rummaging through his wallet for his last few dollars and making a mental note to swing by the bank to take out a few more dollars. “Back to you… Happy Thanksgiving. Just a large regular coffee.”
The young man was already pouring the coffee before Albert had his dollar out of his wallet. “Here you go, like you like it. No charge. “
“It’s no charge, man. “ He extended his arm further and held the coffee out to him.
Albert grinned back at him. “Thanks.”
Albert sat at the table closet to the door and slowly drank his coffee as he watched people slowly trickle in and out. When he saw the sallow shelver brusquely get his coffee and leave he realized it was close to 9am. He began to gather his things and left quickly on the heels of the shelver as he ran out the door.
Unlike Albert shelver, who was several long strides ahead of him, wasn’t wearing a coat. The colorless man wore only a black and blue striped sweater and jeans, his free hand stuffed into the pocket. Every few steps he held the cup up to his lips and took a swig.
As they approached the library Albert noted that the shelver wasn’t heading for the employee entrance as usual nor did he head up the front walk. As a matter of fact his gait didn’t slow down and he kept right on going, quickly going past the building. Albert watched him huff off, power walking at a speed of ten miles an hour, fueled entirely by coffee.
With the heft of his backpack and his tote Albert began to slow down as he turned onto the library’s front walk. As he approached the front door he noted the usual people who normally stand at the entrance were missing today. There was no Sunny Smiley and Valerie and Ralsted, the computer addicts who are there from opening to closing, were missing, too. As he pulled on the handle he noticed the sign on the door:
Closed for the Thanksgiving Holiday. Will Open Tomorrow.
Albert though back to what the young man said to him inside the coffee house and the greeting he thoughtlessly gave back to him. Thanksgiving… he thought. He picked up his bag and turned around.
Albert walked slowly around the building, looking for a way to get in. He didn’t want to squat or steal anything valuable; he just didn’t want an interruption to his routine. All he wanted to do was sit in an area with a barricade of books and read, even if it happened to be a book he has read ten times before. He noticed two cars in the employee parking lot and heard a quick laugh coming from behind the door. It sounded female (and he counted the children’s librarian among the females) and wondered if librarians had a special Thanksgiving celebration among the books that the public wasn’t privy to.
He decided to head to the park to socialize, if anyone he knew there was out. A group of people from the homeless shelter were now out and about. Most were already planning to head over to the Tryed Stone Good News Church to get a dinner. As Albert went to go stand in line for a meal he saw the errant Valerie and Ralsted walking up the street.
“Hey, Albert!” Valerie called out as she ran to him and gave him a hug. “Hey!”
“’Sup, Albert,” Ralsted was right behind his girlfriend. Valerie was short, blonde and had a happy disposition except when Ralsted was looking at online porn or cheating online. She carried a little extra weight which Ralsted liked, except when he was looking for something to use against her. Ralsted was fat and quiet. When Valerie would go off on him inside the library about his online women he generally just looked at the ground until the big bullish security guard would come to kick him and Valerie out. Valerie would then quip that everyone in the library was just against interracial love.
“Getting yourself a plate, huh?” Ralsted asked.
“Yeah,” Albert answered.
“Hey Albert, hey,” Valerie was still holding on to him. Her arms around his waist, her back arched and head thrown back to look at the face of the six feet five man. “Hey, what are you doing later? We’re cooking dinner.”
“Yeah, we got some free food from the pantry and we’re gonna cook it up,” Ralsted said. “Just not at our place because our electricity’s off.”
“Hey Albert, Albert. You wanna join us?”
“We’re going out to the old Lawrence place. Come on, Albert come.”
“A group of us is going, you should come.”
“Right now?” Albert wasn’t sure if he wanted to give up his place in line. This was a sure thing and what they were planning didn’t seem so viable.
“Yeah, we need help with the boxes,” Ralsted said.
The three of them walked away from the food line and walked the half mile up hill to Ralsted and Valerie’s apartment. Their apartment wasn’t located on the same side of town as Albert resided; Ralsted and Valerie lived on the southeast side, about a mile away from the downtown business district. Large trees lined the street and there were more houses than apartment buildings and all of the domiciles were nicely kept up. As Albert walked down the street he noticed actually leaves on the ground instead of trash and they were in neat piles or lawn bags by the curb waiting to be picked up.
The group headed towards a four-apartment dwelling and Valerie took out a key to open the security door. They walked upstairs to the second floor where the apartment door was unlocked (actually, it was a bit ajar) and walked into an empty living room, where only a 12-inch television set sat alone on the south wall beneath a window. Albert followed Ralsted into the kitchen (again another room empty of furniture) and grabbed one of the three boxes of canned goods; Ralsted stacked the other two boxes on top of one another and began to head out of the door. Valerie followed carrying two plastic grocery bags filled with paper plates and eating utensils.
Albert was the last one out of the empty apartment. As he exited the door he put down his box and was pulling the door up behind him when Ralsted stopped him. “Hey man, don’t worry about it.” He was looking over the guardrail but continuing his descent down the stairs.
“Oh,” Albert replied. Valerie was still watching Albert quizzically as he picked up his box and followed them out the door.
The trio walked a half a block down the street when they stopped at small two toned, two doors Honda that had plastic for a rear window. Ralsted opened up the trunk and put their boxes inside. Valerie jumped into the front passenger seat, left the door open and bent the back of the seat over so Albert could sit in the back. Ralsted got in and started the car after seven consecutive times and a lot of cursing. The back of the driver’s seat was broken; it leaned far back which caused Ralston to slump over a bit over the wheel. The muffler also had a big whole in it so everyone down the street could hear the vehicle coming.
Ralsted drove 48 minutes (give or take a few) to the east side of town and turned north onto Drake Creek Road. All of the residents in the new houses turned a blind eye to them or perhaps they were just out of town but no one came out to glare as a raggedy car that wasn’t even worth the price of their toaster turned onto their street. Soon they were past the new homes and into wooded area; then they were past the paved street and onto a dirt road. Finally the Lawrence mansion loomed ahead of them. Albert thought he saw the house blanch as they pulled up beside it.
Ralsted popped the trunk and grabbed his two boxes and walked around to the back of the house. Albert grabbed his box and followed with Valerie in tow. In the backyard there were 25-30 people milling around from place to place. Ralsted walked over to a young white male who was standing over a makeshift barbecue spit with two large turkeys going around it in rotisserie style. There were several tents set up and a couple of people were cooking over a campfire with a pot. Under a canopy of autumn leaves was a picnic table with a plastic table cloth decorated with turkey’s wearing pilgrim hats.
Albert set his box on top of Ralsted’s and overheard the designated turkey baster request a beer from Ralsted.
“They are in the cooler in the kitchen, “said the young man. “Could you go get me one?”
Ralsted turned to his woman. “Val, go get the man a beer,” he ordered.
“Okay,” Valerie said, unfazed. She headed up the back porch steps. Albert followed behind her.
Several men and women were standing in the kitchen talking and drinking beer. They turned to look at Valerie and Albert enters the room and finding them of no importance dismissed their presence and went back to their conversation.
“Hey, Albert, you ever been here before?” Valerie asked as she stuck her hand into a large blue cooler.
“Uh no,” Albert said. “I thought this place was abandoned. When did someone buy it?”
“It is abandoned,” Valerie was wiping the water off the top of the beer can with her coat sleeve. “These are just people who come here around this time every year. They’ll be gone to other places tomorrow. Do you wanna see it?”
“The rest of the house? I can show you around since we are here. “
“Oh, yeah, why not?” Albert said. Valerie grinned a big grin at him as she grabbed him by his arm as if to pull him but very gently showed him around.
“This is the dining room,” she said as they entered the next room. “My mama said there used to be a big grand chandelier hanging above but when hard times came during the depression the family sold it off. There used to be some candle holders on the wall but that got sold off, melted down, or something.”
“Something,” Albert nodded. He noted again the use of the word “grand” and wondered if that was her mother’s specific adjective.
“Can’t you just see them here in this room?” Valerie was standing in the middle of the room with her eyes shut and her hands clutched beneath her chin. “What their Thanksgiving dinners musta been like. This place musta been grand with a big chandelier, a hutch with fine china and a large mahogany table.”
Albert wondered if those were things that were actually there or if Valerie liked to conjure up visions of furniture for empty rooms. Maybe it’s something that came easy for her if she did it with her own place.
“I can smell the food, Albert. Can’t you smell the food?”
“I think it might be what they are cooking outside,” Albert grinned sheepishly.
The next room was the parlor and Valerie pointed out the faded wallpaper (It was once grand! she said) and gave descriptions of what was once possibly there. She pointed out the big fireplace and the hooks that held the food (we can’t cook in here, who knows when the last time was the chimney as cleaned).
Next was the second floor. “Be careful of the steps, Albert,” Valerie warned. There were loose boards and places where the steps were missing.
“There are four bedrooms up here,” Valerie said. “And look! There’s even a bathroom.” Valerie opened the door to a small room that did indeed have a toilet a sink and a bathtub. “It must have been grand when they first put it in. My mother said so. They kept the outhouse out back; you can see it from out the window, look.”
“And this is the room where that girl died,” Valerie said taking him into the last bedroom. “They said her closet used to have a small door that had a passageway that leads to the cellar but when they rebuilt after the fire they left it out. You know, some say you can still here the runaway slaves crying in the walls, screaming still because of the flames on their skin. I feel for Lydia, I do. She fell for that black man but couldn’t keep him. She died because of it. She’d probably be jealous of me, really. I got my black man; I love him. I get to keep him.” Valerie looked over at Albert with a determined look, a look she often got right before she would hit Ralsted upside his head in the library. Ralsted was hers and nothing, not even Ralsted, was going to take him away from her.
Valerie took Albert down the back stairs and they were in the kitchen again. The group that was standing there drinking had left. She showed him a little room off to the side which was the servant’s room. Then she opened up the door and pointed down into the dark.
“Down there is the vegetable cellar. That’s where they stored their food for the winter. It’s cool down there, too, that’s why they keep.”
Albert thanked her for the tour and they both left the kitchen to join Ralsted in the backyard. When they found him sitting at the picnic table he was pissed because they went on a 30-minute tour of the house and turkey baster guy whined so much about being thirsty that Ralsted had to go and get the guy’s beer himself.
“Can’t you do anything I ask you?” Ralsted jibed. “Next time when I tell you to get something you go get it and come right back.”
An hour later the turkey was finally done and everyone grabbed a plate and began to line up for the food. Albert was glad to be there; the food tasted a lot better than what they served at the church every year. After dinner everyone sat around talking about where they were going the next morning. Some of the people were squatters and came to Tryed Stone for this annual dinner once a year, some people were bohemians who liked what they called “The pilgrim spirit” of gathering with a bunch of people and eating alfresco. Some were transients. Only Albert, Valerie and Ralsted were native Tryed Stoners. Each year the local police knew that of their gathering at the old Lawerence house and chose to look the other way. They didn’t mind as much as long as everyone was gone by noon the next day.
By early evening colder weather began to set in and most of the party had moved into the house. Around 10pm people started heading to their respective tents to sleep the tryptophan off. Ralsted and Valerie decided to sleep there at the house which meant Albert would be sleeping there, too. After midnight a man whose skin was ashen grey handed out candles so people could find their way around. With candles and blankets Valerie, Ralsted and Albert followed eight more people down into the vegetable cellar to sleep.
As everyone drifted off to the land of Nod, Albert spent the first 30 minutes trying to get comfortable. Then he spent the next 30 minutes listening to deep breathing and snores around him. He tried to let his mind drift and conjure up words from Oliver Sacks’s book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. But he couldn’t envision it and he could always see something from anything written by Sacks. He turned over onto his side, facing the stairs and decided he could see something.
A faint glimmer of light coming from underneath the stairs. Was it fire? He thought. Did a candle set a fire? He crawled on his hands and knees and went beneath the staircase. He discerned it wasn’t a fire but light was showing beneath a door. He didn’t want to wake anyone up so he decided if he couldn’t open it he would just crawl back over to his pallet. But the door opened easily and he crawled inside.
The light was still dim and he decided to chase it. He crawled on his hands and knees toward the light, moving slowly at times over sharp objects that he couldn’t see. It was hard on his hands, it was hard on his knees but he kept going. He felt like he was moving at a slight incline. He wasn’t sure.
Finally he reached his destination. It was a candle. The passageway lead to a small alcove where sat a candle and a stack of letters.
Mama said I ought not to let you speak to me that way. You are beneath me; lower than me which is as God has made. She said that I being the higher being ought to know better and that you don’t know where of you speak but have let the tongue of the devil get into you which is what inspired you to say such words…
Albert curled up with the bundle and began reading. The alcove was cozy; as he sat there it got warmer and warmer. He was through the halfway through the fifth letter when he fell asleep.
“It’s time to go,” Ralsted said pulling Valerie to the car.
“We can’t go. We don’t have Albert!”
“He probably walked back to town,” Ralsted gave by way of explanation. A pretty young redhead at the Thanksgiving Feast had given Ralsted her email address with the promise of pictures while Valerie was off socializing with other people. He was in rush to get to the library to email her and to check his other prospects. “Or maybe someone gave him a ride in. He’s probably at the library as we speak.”
“We can’t just go,” Valerie said again, emphatically. “He has to be here, somewhere.”
Everyone else was packing up and leaving. It was 11:32 and by agreement with the local police they always cleared off the property by noon.
“Look, it’s time to go,” Ralsted began pulling on Valerie’s arm. “He’s a grown man who can take care of himself. You will see him later.”
Valerie shook her head and planted herself down on the back porch steps. People trying to get around her began to groan. Ralsted picked Valerie up, carried her to the car and threw her into the passenger seat.
By 12:01, the Tryed Stone Police drove past the Lawrence property. Officer Jacobs stepped out of his patrol car and inspected the grounds. He then padlocked both the front and back doors to keep the local teens from playing around in the abandoned house. As he headed back to his car a wind kicked up and rustled through the trees. He turned around and looked behind him, shook his head, and then proceeded to go to his car. He thought he heard the muffled sounds of voices whispering and as he drove away he thought he got a whiff of the scent of burned skin.