Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Turkey in the Trunk

If ever you come with me to visit my cousins, Kate and Larry, within the first half hour of Larry’s appearance, you’ll hear the story of the turkey in the trunk. I know this because it has happened every time since the infamous turkey event took place over 30 years ago.

Larry’s first remark is something like, “What’s for dinner dear? Oh I know. She has a turkey in the car. No she’s driving a little car now. It’d have to be a Cornish hen.”

At about this point from behind her grin, Kate, his wife would graciously intervene, not wanting you to be the only one not part of what has become a legend in the family. She relates the tale of the turkey in the trunk, much like the tribal priestess/comedienne teaches about those who’ve gone before. The remarkable part is that she retells the story accurately and she wasn’t even there.

The only one who lived the story was me.

The saga begins on the day I was born. Well only for a second that is. You need to know that I was born smell-blind. That’s what they call it when you can’t smell anything. This factoid plays a role in the course of events.

Flash forward to my third year of teaching. It was the last Wednesday of November, a cold, gray day, the kind all November days in Chicago seem to be. It looked like it might snow on this day before Thanksgiving, and I was looking forward to being home before the weather decided to dump snow on the prairie. I’d just sent my 36 first graders to their parents and was looking forward to a long weekend blissfully first-grader-free, when the principal called the teachers into the lounge. She gave a small holiday speech and passed out gifts from the school board—14 pound frozen turkeys—one apiece.

This was the first time I had a turkey of my own. I wondered what I should do with it. On one hand I was confused, on the other I was pleased. The kid in me wanted to name it. But I didn’t have time to contemplate turkeys on the busiest travel day in the U.S. I was set to drive straight to my parent’s house after school. So I packed the turkey just past my suitcase in the spare tire in the trunk of my car. I felt pleased with myself at finding a place where the shape of the bird was a perfect fit.

The drive home took about two hours. It was me, music, and the empty Illinois cornfields. My thoughts were busy with the day to come, seeing my brother would convince everyone to cause diversions while he ate my lunch for me, and how my cousin Joe and I would sneak down to the basement when we were “peopled out” to get space and catch up on things.

I arrived. I parked in the driveway. I grabbed my bag, went into the house eager to reclaim my past. Once inside I went looking to see what had changed since I’d been there on my last visit. I had not a thought for that frozen bird, not on Wednesday, or Thursday, or even on my way back to the big city. The poor bird was totally forgotten—totally as in wiped clean from my memory. Sad, but understandable I guess. Who thinks of turkey after four days of eating turkey leftovers from a Thanksgiving feast?

My lapse of memory wasn’t a problem until there came the spring thaw. Then one-by-one, friends who rode in my car started sniffing the air and making strange faces. Conversations like this one began occurring.

“Would you like the heat on?” I might ask.

“Ah, no. There’s a smell in your car,” Susie Browne said. “I can’t quite place it. It’s a little unpleasant. Let’s open the windows instead.”

We would look all over the front seat and back, but there was nothing that seemed to be causing that smell.

It became the “Great Smell Mystery,” especially to this smell-blind person who had no idea of what, or how bad, it could be. These conversations and on the spot checks went on for a couple of weeks. Then one night around 3a.m. I awoke and said, “Oh my god! I don’t think I ever moved the damn turkey.”

Sure enough the turkey was still in the trunk of the car at the end of March. Do the math. It was now some four months since I’d placed it there. It was no longer a frozen bird, more like a dripping plastic back of mush. The bag dripped from the trunk to the dumpster. Then I did some unexpected special task force spring cleaning.
This discovery and the resulting cleanup occurred the week before Easter—another long weekend spent in my hometown with my family. That’s when I told the story to my cousins, Kate and Larry. The same story that Kate would tell you.

Larry would wait until Kate ended the story. Then he would look at me and say, “Forgetting about the bird in the trunk wasn’t stupid. What was stupid was telling us about it.” It’s gotten to the point where sometimes I say it with him. Then we can get on with normal conversation. That story is a long way of saying, “Hello, how’ve you been?” It’s been raised to the level of folk lore and oral history.

My family has a deep sense of tradition.
—me strauss Letting me be


Anonymous said...

mmmm, mmmm, mmmm. dayum! that is one impressive story - leaving anything in your trunk for four months. (my hubby would be right there with you.)

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Hey Beth.
Thanks for stopping by. Remember at least kit stayed frozen all winter and I can't smell. Now I have a car too small to hold a turkey so I'm safe.


Anonymous said...

Ohhhh...yuck! lol

Poor you! What on earth did you do with the car? Did someone buy it?

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Actually Tanda, the car cleaned up fine. All of the riders attested to that. So I was able to keep it.

Still the story lives on. I last heard retold to my son on August 6th.

Anonymous said...

That's good news!

I'm reminded of a scene in "Knight's Tale" (Heath Ledger) where the knight is found dead and "Rollins" is quoted as saying, "His spirit is gone, but his stench remains!"

The turkey legacy lives on!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful image this is:
"It was me, music, and the empty Illinois cornfields."
This is certainly you at your best with writing a solid personal narrative. Enjoyed reading. Good use of tension to keep your reader involved right to that wonderful discovery in the trunk. Or maybe not so wonderful. Did I hear someone say, "Gobble, gobble."

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Thank you Tanda, I'm going to remember that the next time I hear the story.


"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Hi Scot!
Thanks for the input.
The situations was worse for my friends I think. The retelling is my "grief." The bag didn't break so it couldn't have been THAT bad. Could it???