By Wayne Cresser
Whenever Neva drops by, I think she has come to get her turkey out of my freezer. She bought two for the price of one a year ago for the holidays, and since she had no room in her fridge for an extra turkey, the bird — all frozen, featherless, and pimply-skinned — came to live with me. I hardly knew her when she asked me if she could bring it by. Just somebody I met one morning in the exercise room at the Y. We had coffee and talked about our pets. I have a beagle that loves to chase birds out of the yard and used to go nuts at the smell of my ex-wife’s cooking. Neva has a cat named Basil, but despite his name, he doesn’t want any part of her kitchen. Not even fish, I asked her about it. No interest, she said. I never heard of that before, I said.
Anyway, the whole time we talked at the Y, her hair distracted me. It was blonde and kind of silver at the tips. I was not absolutely sure the colors were natural, but I found it attractive. She kept all but a few strands stuffed under a Boston Red Sox cap while she worked the stair stepper and the treadmill. And I have to confess I was taken in by the perfect way the dangling pieces framed her cheekbones, which were high and delicate. Now I haven’t learned anything new about women in twenty-five years, but I do know people like to be noticed now and then. So I took a chance and told her she had striking hair. Just blurted it, but sometimes that’s how things start, you speak up. When she said, “Thanks, that’s nice,” I asked if I could buy her a cup of coffee.
“You drink coffee after workouts?” I said.
“I drink coffee after everything,” she said.
And that was the beginning. Right away we discovered that there were a few things we both loved, like the music of the Kinks. Neva loved the detail in their old songs about everyday people. “They make you notice the wallpaper,” she said. “They sit you down in their parents’ parlors. Now who else in rock n’ roll ever did that?”
I did not know. Maybe nobody, I said.
After that we’d bump into each other at the Y. At some point she gave me her phone number. She told me she got a lot more out of exercise when she had someone to do it with.
Me too, I said.
In the heat of the summer, one of the staff at the Y set up a cooler full of different fruit juices near the check-in counter. Neva said we ought to try some cranapple nectars at “the juice bar.” I liked the idea, so after workouts, we did that too, bought drinks at the juice bar, and eventually mornings couldn’t contain us.
Sometimes we’d walk from the Y to the city arboretum. I have to admit, I felt kind of lost there. I’m okay with trees, but the names of flowers and shrubs run into each other in my mind. So many of them sound alike. For instance, there’s verbena and viburnum. There’s bluebonnet and bluebottle. Sweet William and Sweet Sultan.
Neva, on the other hand, knew a lot about these things, especially herbs, not their uses so much, but their names and smells. She was always breaking off little pieces, rubbing them between her fingers, and then holding her hands up to me.
“Smell this!” she would say. I would and I’d feel like she had let me in on something special. Our hands would touch or I’d brush her fingers with my nose and feel like I wanted to take them in my mouth and kiss them. In this way she was breaking my heart.
It’s nearly Christmas now, and I think the kids I teach would say we’re still chillin’, Neva and I, like bffs. On this crisp December morning, while she sits at my kitchen table, she sweeps some of that wispy blond hair from her forehead and sips Folgers instant coffee.
“Excuse the mess,” I say, indicating the knot of recipe cards, cookbooks, paper plates, and plastic wrap strewn about her. “But you know how the holidays are. Baking is good for stress. Fishing did it for me when the boys were still with me, but we haven’t fished in awhile.”
It’s strange but when I mention missing the boys, I am not thinking about the boys at all. In fact, I’m not thinking about anything but Neva’s turkey and the season. Has she come for it? Has she been saving it for Christmas? I keep thinking, when the turkey goes, she goes. So I never bring it up.
Neva has something for me, she says, and hands me a carefully wrapped package. “Open it.”
I love the suspense of unopened packages at Christmas, so I tell her I can wait another week, until Christmas morning. I’m thinking maybe I’ll ask her to come over and have a breakfast with me and the boys before they take off to their grandparents.
“Please, Chas,” she says.
What can I do? I open a compact disc of The Kinks’ Greatest Hits, mostly songs from the seventies and eighties.
“Not their best, I know,” Neva says, ‘but it’s the only one I could find with ‘Father Christmas’ on it.”
“I love that one.”
“Can I get you any more coffee?”
“Thanks no,” she says. “I’m buzzing already. And before I forget, I have to tell you that I saw the nuttiest thing today, on the footbridge over 195, near Fox Point.”
“I know that place.”
“Yeah. There was a guy dressed in a Santa suit bouncing up and down on a pogo stick.”
“I remember those,” I say.
“Up and down, up and down in the same place,” Neva continued. “Traffic was slowing down to look at him. He had tremendous rhythm, but I don’t think he had a clue that he was disrupting everybody else’s.”
I’m a little dense, I think, because I am not following her. “Everybody else’s what?”
“Everybody else’s rhythm, flow, the pace of business getting done. You know how busy the world gets at this time of year, silly goose. Everybody’s on the go.”
I smile lamely. Goose, turkey, turkey or goose, the business of Neva’s bird is on my mind, and I make a decision that if she doesn’t take it today, I’m going to give it back to her, and then I’m going to ask her out. We won’t go anywhere here in the suburbs either. No, I’ll take her into Providence, to the Hill maybe, someplace with valet parking. I’ll wine and dine her, and tell her that she fascinates me because she does. Then we’ll dance. On New Year’s Eve maybe.
The tick-bell of the oven timer goes off. My banana bread is done.
“It will take about a half hour for it to cool,” I tell Neva as I place the bread on a trivet in front of her. “Can you stay long enough to have some?”
“Smells great,” she begins, and then changes the subject. “Where has Spaceman gotten off to? He should be sniffing around.”
Spaceman is my dog, and truthfully, I haven’t thought about him all day. I don’t want to confess this to Neva though. She might think I’m careless or all the stories about the kitchen and the dog were not true.
“I honestly don’t know,” I reply. “I usually can’t keep him out of the kitchen when it smells like this. Old habits die hard.”
“Maybe he’s got more important things going,” she laughs.
“Such as maybe he was hungry when he hiked out of here. Maybe he’s camped out on somebody else’s doorstep.”
“Is he barking, do you think? Making a nuisance of himself?”
“No,” says Neva. “He’s too sweet to be a nuisance, but some lady is probably wondering if he’s got some place he should be going.”
“How do you know it’s a lady?” I ask.
Neva looks off. “Did I say lady?” She stirs a spoon in her coffee. “I don’t think I said lady. I was thinking of the people there, that’s all.”
I’m thinking of people too. Neva and me, walking on treadmills, bouncing on pogo sticks.
“Speaking of going places,” she says softly, “I’ve been invited to Key West for the holidays. You know Bethany?”
“Sure,” I nod.
“Well Bethany’s father has a house down there and told her we can use it as long as we like, that is, if we don’t mind some of her relatives popping in and out. It would be nice, Chas, to get away from all this cold weather and all this rushing around that just seems to lead me back to the same old parties and the same old people.”
I don’t know how to take this, which thing to respond to first, the news or the complaint. Key West sounds exciting, so I nod my head, “You don’t say? Key West?” I say, drawing the last two words out, making the place sound as far flung and exotic as Pago Pago or Katmandu, when the whole time I’m thinking, aren’t you forgetting someone? I certainly don’t fit into “the same old parties and the same old people” crowd. That’s not me — I’m the guy you guided through shady park lanes and ran road races with. I’m the guy you leaned against at the finish line. I’m the guy who wants to take you fishing in the bay and sleep with you in the cabin of his very small boat.
Then I think about how I’ve never told her any of these things and my mind tumbles further to all the other things I haven’t said or done for her, like ask her anywhere, let alone Key West. I haven’t touched her other than to hug her when she walks through the door or kiss her on the cheek when she leaves.
Then I get a funny idea. I could never suggest it to Neva though, because the truth is that for all I know about baking, I know nothing about cooking, like her turkey, for instance. Stick it in the oven at a certain temperature, for a certain amount of time. Is that all there is to it? Isn’t there stuffing? Basting?
Jesus, I’m in a situation here, and it reminds me of a remark a friend of mine once made when he was having girlfriend problems. “Chas,” he said. “I can tell time, but I can’t make it.” And it becomes clear to me that the clock is ticking and there is a place I ought to be going.
“Neva, listen to me,” I say. “Maybe Spaceman would come home if he smelled something good coming out of this kitchen.”
By now my mouth has taken complete control, and I’m talking very fast while my head spins with the names of herbs and spices and troubling visions of Neva wrapped in a sarong, cutting loose in some Key West nightclub.
I press on. “What do you say? You could stay for awhile and show me how to cook, roast, I don’t know, how to prepare a turkey. Spaceman would love to get a whiff of that. C’mon, you can walk me through it.”
Neva’s face flushes and she gets up from the table. She fingers the edge of one of my cookbooks and fixes me with sad and certain eyes. Then she walks away, toward the window.
“It was always a point of pride with him,” she says, her face to the window now. “He did all the kitchen stuff. He read the books, took the classes. I could have helped with the herbs, the flavors, but I never did. I can’t tell you why I had so little interest, except that he was not easy to be around when he was up to his elbows in mustard-glazed butterflied leg of lamb.”
She turns around and waves me off. “Don’t ask,” she says. “At some point after he left though, I felt that maybe I could get interested. We would try to work it out together. Anyway, my plan was to bake a Christmas turkey with all the trimmings. He said he missed me and wanted to get together sometime during the holidays, so he was really happy, he said, that I had thought of it.”
I lean back against the stove. My intuition tells me not to speak. I do. “You were stuck then? He never came back?”
She looks me in the eyes. “That’s right, Chas, he gave me the bird, and I stuck you with the turkey.”
I smile, but I’m thinking I have to step up now. I really need to step up. I cross the room and place my hands on her shoulders, pressing my fingers into the soft lamb’s wool of her sweater. I hold her now and I can feel it, an unwavering sense that she’s not going anywhere, not just yet.
“Can we get unstuck then, do you think? Try this thing together?” I say. “I’ve got the turkey, Neva, if you’ve got the time.”
She tilts her head to one side and brushes her warm cheek against my hand; then she steps away from me and heads over to the table again. She opens my copy of The Joy of Cooking and begins to rummage through the pages.
Copyright Cresser 2013