Read an Excerpt
The day Aunt Iris called Daddy and told him to come home, snow lay thick and deep throughout Ellenton. The weather was still deteriorating, and by dark, the snow that had fallen wispy and free all day long came down in wet clumps, dense as sludge, icing the second after touching the ground. It fell wet and sticky and fast making us all look rather abominable as we traversed yards made remarkably unfamiliar in the dark by the sparkling wintry coat. Palmer Conroy, Lucky Luther, Billy Parker, and Tommy Patterson converged along the alley that ran beside my house, and there we built a fire to warm frozen hands and feet as we battled the frigid night taking breaks from downhill runs that began in front of my house and ended in Palmer Conroy’s driveway.
Palmer’s sled could carry six down the hill at incredible speed. The only problem was we could not steer the thing at all. Our slim, gangly bodies could not coax the sled to do anything but fly in a straight line, and so we grabbed hold of one another, the cold air whipping tears from our eyes, blurring our world as we raced out of control. On each daring ride, at the last possible moment, somebody would yell, “Jump!” and all would bail out rolling off the sled for lack of nerve to stay on. Our bodies tumbled and slid through snow and slush as the unmanned rocket careened across Third Street and up Palmer’s driveway before crashing into the backend of the Conroy’s still new 1965 Pontiac Catalina.
Each time the sled drove headlong into the rear of the car, we rolled ourselves up and out of the snow to stand erect, bodies raw and chapped watching the empty collision take place. It was as if we were still waiting for Palmer’s father to come blasting out of the house in undershirt and boxer shorts as he’d so often done to laugh at us. But RC Conroy had been dead for almost three years, and so the sled sat immobile in the quiet emptiness, lodged beneath the Catalina until one of us gave in and walked the short distance across the street to retrieve it.
The night my daddy slipped out of the storm, the winter sky broke open momentarily to produce a shower of moonlight catching our attention and drawing our gaze upward. We had studied space in school, knew our planets and could pick out the redness of Mars in the evening sky and Venus in the morning. We knew what NASA stood for, and could imagine the power of a Saturn V rocket blasting an Apollo capsule into the vast emptiness of space. Through that brief patch of clear night, we strained to see astronauts streak across the sky, but our imaginations could not stay aloft for very long. The brilliant flames of the fire in front of us kept pulling them back down to earth. When the sky disappeared behind the storm, snow resumed and a figure appeared out beyond the fire trudging his way along the street curb. It was Daddy coming home.
We watched as he slowly plodded toward us, hands pushing hard against thighs with every step in an effort to wade through nearly a foot of snow. He made his way slipping and sliding across Robbins Street and then pushed the final distance to arrive upright, melted snow freezing quickly to his unshaven face. A blanket of white laid evenly over his hat and well-worn hunting jacket, and though he did not say, I knew he had been outside for a long time, that the walk had brought him a great distance home. He came close to the fire, and there, within the circle, sat down on a concrete block to warm exposed hands and thaw plastic loafers that were cracked in the seams, packed full with snow.
He sipped Jim Beam from a pocket flask, his body steaming heavily like he was on fire. He whistled for us to come around, waved us in close to the flames with his flask. From where I stood, I could see his hands were clawed up, his knuckles scraped until the soft red exposed meat glistened with the wetness of damp blood. Though his eyes were no more than bruised slits, they still could lock a boy down, and he pulled each of us in from the cold without question to talk about things my daddy said were important.
When we were all accounted for, he spread the snow to uncover raw ground and pluck up a short, wide blade of grass, delicately positioning it between his two thumbs. He lifted his torn hands to his face like he was ready to pray, but instead, blew across the paper-thin edge to create a warbling, gobblelike sound of a turkey.
The awkward noise pierced the winter night, echoing off houses down the alleyway filling the air with the sudden sound of anxious mutts pulling hard on chains and clawing up fences. As each warbling echo died and the darkness outside the range of our fire began to settle, Daddy would lift his hands to his lips and break the silence wide open again. Three times he did this. Three times he brought lights on in bedrooms and robe-wrapped bodies out onto front porches.
We all laughed out loud, as drunk on the evening as my daddy was on his Jim Beam. Tommy Patterson rolled around on the ground and started making monkey sounds. Billy Parker stuffed his mouth full with raw snow and then blew it out into the fire, the hiss soft and subtle in the burning coals. Lucky Luther laughed so hard at Billy spitting snow that he peed in his pants and had to go home early. Palmer Conroy asked my daddy for a cigarette, and that stopped us all. We watched as he thought about it and then gave the boy a Camel. Palmer held the nonfiltered cigarette as if it were a natural extension of his hand. He lit the end with a burning twig and then inhaled the aromatic smoke before letting it seep out of his mouth and nose.
Tommy Patterson sat up and stopped acting like a monkey. “Goddamn Palmer, I didn’t know you smoked.”
Billy Parker said, “My daddy says smoking will stunt your growth.”
I said, “Give me one of those,” and Tommy Patterson said goddamn again.
Daddy took a long swig rolling the liquor cheek to cheek before spitting into the fire. The sudden blast of alcohol re- ignited the flames and sent sparks floating through leafless trees. The burst of flame projected Daddy’s shadow onto our house and he became bigger than life.
He stood up holding the flask out before him. “All you boys got mouths dirtier than dog shit, so just shut up ’cause there’s something you ought to know about what I just did.” He pointed out into the dark alley toward a field that lay deep in snow. “I seen the animal when I was your age right out there by the Parker house. It wasn’t there yet, Billy Parker’s house I mean. There was only a field of weeds most of the time. We played a lot of ball out there. I hit the hell out of a baseball on that field. I could hit it all the way to Perty Spears’s back porch. Hell I took out her kitchen window more than once. Got my hide tanned for that, I’ll damn guarantee you. But I could hit it and so I did. I suffered the consequences for a talent I just had to use. I was about your age when I first saw the turkey. I was eleven or twelve years old. Biggest bird I ever laid eyes on.”
Palmer Conroy had moved away when Daddy ignited the flames and now sat in deep shadows cast like fingers from the trees rooted on the edge of the fire pit. The ember from his cigarette pulsed each time he drew his lungs full of smoke, and I could see Daddy was watching him out the corner of his eye. Palmer flicked ashes, then spit into the snow. “RC said that turkey story was just bull. He said this ain’t no Wild Kingdom. They ain’t no wild nothing roaming around here.”
Palmer had always called his parents by their first names, something I could never have done and then lived to tell about it. And even though RC was dead, Palmer talked about him all the time like he was still alive and walking around. I looked at him and said, “How do you know about the turkey?”
Tommy Patterson said, “Everybody knows about the tur- key, Raybert. Where you been all your life?”
Everyone at the fire laughed for a moment and tossed loose snow at me, the cold flakes stinging where they stuck to chapped skin. I looked over at Daddy embarrassed and he winked at me like it was nothing, like he had been there forever and had not just shown up for the first time in two weeks. I wanted to spit at him for not telling me about the turkey sooner than in this public offering. I wanted to say I could smoke a cigarette, that I had just smoked one from a pack Palmer stole from Nichols Market before we came to build the fire. I wanted to scream that he could go back to wherever it was he had come from, that he shouldn’t be there anyway. But of course, I didn’t dare.
Palmer made nothing out of any of this. He smoked his cigarette and looked at Daddy, still challenging, making him work harder than I imagine he really wanted to. Daddy paused only long enough to lift his flask to his lips and then turn his gaze toward the boy. “Palmer, God rest your daddy’s ghost, but he was just wrong about all that. I seen the turkey and right after I seen it, the next day, Perty Spears was dead on the ground out in back of her house. She had tried to mow her grass in the middle of the afternoon in August heat and her heart give out. Now, Perty Spears wasn’t no crazy old coot. She knew better than to do a fool thing like that. They say she saw the turkey and went insane, tried to use the lawnmower to get the old bird. Instead, she had a heart attack and was already cold when they found her.” Daddy swigged at his flask and then looked directly at me. “And you know what?”
I shook my head.
He looked beyond the flames into the dark sky, his nar- rowed eyes roaming, reaching out past our wet bodies. “When old man Vance came to get Perty, the turkey was only fifteen feet away from her. It had flown off as best turkeys can fly when the hearse drove up into the yard. Old man Vance nearly had a heart attack himself when he saw what the bird had done. Perty Spears’s eyes had been pecked out. Yes sir, pecked out clean. At the funeral, they kept the casket closed. Wasn’t nobody gonna look at her without eyes.”