A Bird in the Hand

by Verlaine

 

I'm running a little late—every Sunday driver in Bay City is out on the road instead of sitting at home eating turkey or watching the game—so by the time I get to Venice Place I just hustle it up the stairs with my box full of food, and all I'm thinking about is making sure I don't trip and dump half our Thanksgiving dinner all over the landing. The door's open as usual, so I make it all the way into Hutch's kitchen and have everything on the counter before I notice something's wrong.

 

My other excuse is that the minute I get in the door, I'm distracted by the smell of roasting turkey.

 

Heaven.

 

Hutch may do too much of that weird seaweed and yogurt stuff, but he still can roast a bird like nobody's business. He's one of those people that if the instructions say "baste every half hour", will actually go into the kitchen and do it, every half hour. And, at least for this meal, he likes things all nice and traditional: turkey, dressing, pumpkin pie. None of that far out shit that a self-respecting human being can't even pronounce.

 

Course, I always have to spend a little time talking him into it. Hutch doesn't feel all that much better about Thanksgiving than he does about Christmas. It isn't the food part he minds—Hutch will chow down on a nice brown drumstick as fast as the next guy—it's, well, everything else.

 

I don't blame him. I've met his family.

 

Oy gevalt, as Uncle Abe would say.

 

So I'm standing there sniffing and drooling, just imagining that crisp succulent skin and juicy tender meat—and gravy, Hutch does amazing gravy—when it hits me that the place is real quiet. Way too quiet. Hutch almost always has music playing or some boring guy from NPR on the radio, and having it this quiet is giving me some nasty flashbacks. On the other hand, outside of a pile of dirty bowls and pans beside the sink, and what looks like—and is—a glob of cranberry sauce on the fridge door, the place doesn't look any different than usual.

 

"Hutch?" I hope I don't sound like I'm expecting him to be lying on the bathroom floor bleeding or something; it would be real embarrassing if it turns out he just wanted some peace to meditate on the pleasures of sage and onions for a while.

 

"Out here." It's so quiet I can hardly hear it.

 

I stop at the greenhouse door. Hutch got dressed up for dinner. He's wearing a pale blue shirt that just matches his eyes, and those nice white pants that fit like a second skin in all the right places. He'd look gorgeous, except he's slumped down on the bench, one hand stroking the big Zamia I got him last Christmas. Hair, mustache, shoulders—everything's drooping. It looks like it won't take much before he dissolves into a puddle on the floor.

 

"Hey, buddy," I say quietly, and settle down next to him.

 

"Hey, Starsk." He doesn't look up at me, just keeps playing with the plant.

 

"What's wrong? You singe the turkey?"

 

"My mom called." He still won't look at me, just sighs, and leans forward, elbows on his knees, hands scrubbing over his face. "Remember when I called home in October, and they said they'd be traveling in November, and there was no point in me going back to Duluth for Thanksgiving? Well, she and Dad just flew in and want me to come over to the Hilton for dinner with them before they leave tonight."

 

Well, shit.

 

I give myself five seconds to feel sorry for myself, and then mentally straighten up my shoulders and suck in my gut. Being a cop teaches you real fast that the right thing to do is almost never the easy thing; lucky for me right now, we get a lot of practice at it.

 

"Uh, huh." I nod. "So why are you sitting out here, instead of combing your mustache and picking out a tie?" I give the mustache in question a little stroke with one finger.

 

"I'm not going."

 

I blink and take another look, just to make sure I'm sitting next to my big blond partner instead of a six year old kid.

 

"Hutch. It's your family. It's Thanksgiving." I'm trying to be reasonable.

 

"Yeah, yeah, I know." He waves his hands around. "It's childish. It's immature. I'm letting them push my buttons. But, dammit!" He looks at me miserably. "We made plans. We cooked. It's our Thanksgiving this year. And then they just turn up and —" He waves his hands some more.

 

"Hey, I got it! Why don't you invite them over here? We've got plenty of food."

 

He looks down at the floor, and I can see his ears turn pink.

 

"Hutch?"

 

There's no answer, he just seems to slump down a little more.

 

"Babe?"

 

"I did," he mutters. "Dad said they'd rather not, you know . . ." his voice trails off into more muttering.

 

I give his shoulder a little shake.

 

"Rather not, what?"

 

"They'dlikeitjusttobefamily." He says it real quick, like if he spits it out fast enough, maybe I won't quite understand it.

 

I feel a slow burn starting in my own ears. They're trying to make him choose? No wonder he's like this: Hutch has probably been sitting here gnawing on his liver ever since he hung up the phone.

 

Like I said, I've met Hutch's parents, and the feeling on both sides was that once was just about enough, thank you. You ever meet people working so hard to be polite that they don't need to come out and tell you what they really think? But, shit! At Thanksgiving a lotta people sit down at the table with people they probably don't speak to for the rest of the year, and it doesn't kill them. I was angry for Hutch before, and I'm really pissed now.

 

Still, I push it back. This is about him, not me.

 

"Well, they don't see you that much. And they are family." I'm pretty proud of myself: I just about kept the snarl out of that.

 

"Really?" Hutch has that sarcastic tone in his voice he uses when some scumbag on the street gets uppity. "I didn't notice my mom rushing over here with a pumpkin pie and one of those green bean casseroles with those godawful French-fried onions on top."

 

I snort. "For which I had to fight you for every spoonful last year, if I remember right."

 

He doesn't even take a breath. "And I don't think my dad will be wrestling me for the wish-bone, or bitching about how my stuffing doesn't taste like grandma's." He stops. "Well, he probably would do that, but he'd, you know, mean it."

 

I pull him over, and he lets his head rest on my shoulder, while I pat his back, and rub his shoulders. After a few minutes, he tilts his head up, so he can look at me without moving away.

 

"No matter what I do, I'll feel like shit," he confesses.

 

Like I didn't know that.

 

"No, you won't, dummy." I nudge him with my shoulder until he sits back up. "Here's what we're gonna do. You go put on your tie, and head over to the Hilton and have dinner with your folks. I'll put the food in the fridge, and sack out on the couch and watch some football. And try to remember to baste the bird every half hour until it's done. And when you come home, we'll have turkey sandwiches." I give him a slow wink and my best hot-to-trot grin. "In bed."

 

The pink comes back, brighter than before, then fades away. For a second he looks all happy and hopeful, and then that fades away too.

 

"It's not fair to you, Starsk. I mean, you're more . . . you mean . . ." he stumbles to a halt.

 

I lean forward and give him a quick smooch on the forehead.

 

"Hey, just think of all the guilt points I'm accumulating." Now that I've made up my mind, I don't want him getting all soapy on me and getting us both depressed. Or more depressed.

 

I keep reminding myself: right, not easy. If I say it often enough, maybe I'll get used to it.

 

"Still not fair," he grumbles.

 

"Fair, shmair." My turn to wave my hands. "In a few hours they'll be gone, right? But I'll still be here." I give him another slow wink, and the blush comes back. "And so will the turkey."

 

"Two turkeys, more like," he says and hugs me hard enough that the air kinda whooshes out, and I feel my ribs bending. When I squirm, he eases off the pressure, but still holds me for a minute.

 

"If I never have anything else to be thankful for. . ." he whispers against my ear.

 

Now it's my turn to squeeze.

 

While Hutch roots around in the closet looking for something Hiltony to wear, I go back to the kitchen. I wrap the pumpkin pie in a double layer of Saran wrap, and stick it and the whipping cream into the fridge next to the salad bowl, cover up the green beans and the sweet potatoes and put them aside on the counter, and check out the bird in the oven. It's getting nice and brown, and when I wiggle one of the drumsticks, I feel it give a little. Not done yet, but not much more than an hour, I'd say. I baste, and pour off some more juice into the gravy pot on the stove.

 

By the time Hutch comes into the kitchen, I've got the sink full of water, and I'm plowing through the dirty dishes. He's wearing a nice coat and tie, his hair is combed, he's shaved. He looks so good, I get a funny little pain right around my heart.

 

I just hope to God those people appreciate what kind of a son they've got. And that they don't do or say anything to fuck up our Thanksgiving any more than they already have.

 

"Do I, um, look okay?" He's tugging his tie and trying to straighten his jacket, and looking as nervous and uncomfortable as if he were on his way to court.

 

I dry off my hands, and go over and settle his collar and tie.

 

"You'll do. Now go. Eat. Make nice with your folks. Come home."

 

He gives me a quick hug, and heads for the door. He stops, with his hand on the doorknob, then turns around and comes back. He puts his hands on my shoulders

 

"You know what? I'm going to tell them, this is the last time I'll do this. From now on, it's a package deal. Both of us, or nobody."

 

"You sure you want to do that? It might turn out to be 'nobody', if you push it."

 

He nods. The smile he gives me is so full of love that it just about knocks my socks off. It makes postponing Thanksgiving dinner seem worth it after all. 'Cause I'll put up the Torino against a million bucks, they won't be getting a smile like that.

 

"I owe them one warning. But only one."

 

He gives me another squeeze, grabs his keys and he's out the door.

 

When I turn back to the dishes, I realize I'm whistling. And I figure I can always spend a little of my spare time this afternoon thinking up new and interesting uses for cranberry sauce.

 

For when Hutch gets home.

 

 

 

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