The Great Turkey Hunt

November, 2015.

My shift had Thanksgiving off that year. That meant we would work Christmas, but that felt fine. If there was a time to be out in the field in solidarity with lonely teenagers, Christmas seemed more appropriate. The other shift would do something nice for Thanksgiving, save dessert night for Thursday, let the kids decorate with leaves and flowers, make time for an extra long talk story around the bonfire. Christmas would be a little sadder. We would feel more needed.

But for Thanksgiving we needed each other. Friends, coworkers. Those who shared the fifteen hour days in the field, in the garden camps. The strict schedule, the meal prep, the mood swings, the de-escalations. Those who’d collapse onto each other at the end of the night, during staff meetings, seeking the comfort of touch. Who’d nod at each other in the morning, as we crawled from our bunks or tents or cars, where ever we chose to sleep that week. As we silently brewed our caffeine of choice, screwed the lids on our thermoses, tied our shoes, and headed out to greet the kids. And those who, at the end of the eight-day shift, would exhale and laugh deliriously together, making plans for the week off, to spend even more time together. Because after all that, there was a bond, an interdependence, that made us almost inseparable. 

Most of us weren’t leaving the island for the holiday, and so, once I’d conferred with my house-mates and agreed to host a dinner at our place, the invite list grew to thirty plus. Everyone would bring a dish, and we would eat in the yard of our lush acre of Hawaiian heaven, tucked behind the coffee shop and next to the Buddhist temple in the sleepy rainforest town of Honomu.

I would cook a turkey, and some other things, just to make sure there was enough food. On Monday night, I sat cross-legged on our beige vinyl “wood” floor, writing a list at the coffee table. Coqui frogs and rain drops chirped in from the darkness outside. I listened for the ocean, sometimes it was so thunderous we could feel it crash and shake the earth even this far up the hill. 

Jessie slinked out of her room and plopped on the couch across from me, in her sports bra and sports shorts, like usual. With this job, roommates turned into best friends quickly, but in our case, we were best friends first. According to me, we were best friends the night she carried me off the basketball court with a broken ankle, three days into our first week of training. Or more-so, one hour before I broke my ankle, as we sprinted through the dark to the small store for chocolate before it closed, giggling and out of breathe. As we turned that corner from mature composure to unhinged silliness, I knew she was a keeper.

We were best friends when we just decided, unspoken, to stay together that first off-shift, to camp and live out of my car. We were best friends as my ankle healed, and she carried the heavy things and handed me my crutches. As we rescued each other and sped away from the crazy man at the beach park, then laid side by side awake through the night, listening for more crazy men in our new camping spot. As we came to look at a car for her to buy, and also found this house, and decided, of course, that if we were going to rent a house, we would rent it together. We wondered for only a second if we would be good roommates.

Jessie was a vegetarian. I looked up from my list and asked her if she would eat any turkey on Thanksgiving.

“I was just thinking about that.” Her voice sometimes has a way of grinning, a quality of choked up excitement. I smiled in anticipation of her brewing thoughts. “I was thinking, that I would eat a turkey,” pause, “if…I hunted it myself.”

I blinked. “You’re going to hunt a wild turkey?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, with one big, determined, smirking nod.

I shrugged, “M’ok.” I looked down at my list, drew a little line beside the turkey and wrote ‘Jessie’.

For the great turkey hunt, Jessie enlisted the help of JP, one of our supervisors at work, a calm, compassionate man with a chuckling sense of adventure. Supposedly he knew how to butcher a turkey, and they had been hanging out lately, going on some bike-rides and swims…athlete dating, I called it. I encouraged it. I had seen them dancing at the Halloween party, wildly swinging each other around the abandoned living room, a perfect reflection of energetic enthusiasm. You can tell a lot by how people dance, and by how they dance together.  

Supervisors worked a split shift, to spend time with both crews of field guides, so JP wouldn’t be free until Tuesday. Neither of us were sure if they could actually catch a wild turkey, but Jessie seemed confident. And I figured I’d still have time to buy one if not. (I didn’t say that out loud.) But I wasn’t worried.

They stopped by the farm store in Hilo for a thirty pound sack of turkey feed, then packed snacks, and a couple of old bed sheets, and headed out in Jessie’s Chevy Tracker for the mountains north of Honomu, on the way to the sacred Wai’pio Valley. I wished them luck, and set to work prepping potatoes and pies.

Around five o’clock, the sky was getting dim. I’d taken a break earlier to drive the ten miles to Honoli’i, our local surf spot. Now I was home and showered and just drying my dripping hair when my phone buzzed, Jessie calling. I grabbed it.

“Did you catch a turkey?!” I asked, before she could say hello. I could hear the hum of pavement through the phone.

Sigh. “Noooo.”

I laughed. “What happened?”

“I’ll tell you about it when I get home. But do you know, wild turkeys are really smart! And they can fly!”

I hung up, smiling. I couldn’t wait for the story. Her’s were usually enthralling, ridiculous adventures with a tinge of comedic blunder. But first, I had to go find a last-minute turkey. I dressed and drove back to town, back past the surf spot, to Hilo, and barged into the natural food store. I rushed to the freezer and dug through the local chickens, to the last of three frozen turkeys, from a farm on the north end of the island. Perfect. 

When I reached the register I held up my frozen carcass proudly. Yes, that’s right, I’d be cooking a turkey. And I would not be lighting it on fire this year, like I did in 2014. 

(To be fair, I was trying to make Thanksgiving dinner at sea, and the crew had not bought an actual turkey, but a stuffed breast from Costco, which actually did not need to cook for four hours, as I tried to do, thinking it was, in fact, an actual whole turkey. True…maybe I should have noticed the difference.) But this year would be different!

The middle-aged cashier looked from my eager smile to the fat bird on her counter. “This is gonna take a while to thaw out, you know,” she said. I frowned. I hadn’t thought of that. 

I heard Jessie coming up the stairs to our second story house. I was at the sink, running a thin stream of cool water over the submerged bird. Just a little trick I’d seen my farmer brother do. God I hoped it worked in time. I looked over as she burst in the door, a frazzled, wet mess of bags and bed sheets. 

“So?” I said.

“Ugh!” she flopped on the couch again. “Ok, well first we had to find the turkeys! Which I thought would be easy because whenever we’re driving there are turkeys all over the place, you know, but when we want to find them they just disappear!” she threw up her hands. “Like they know we’re coming or something. Did I mention turkeys are really smart?”

I laid on the futon across the living room from the couch and listened. She and JP had driven around for most of the morning, up rural roads and winding valleys, looking for open fields filled with turkeys. Eventually they spotted some far in the distance, in a meadow sloping up to the misty Ironwood tree-line. They parked and grabbed their hunting gear and headed off.

I stopped her. “So, what did you bring again? What was the plan?”

“Well!” she said, “We had the big bag of turkey food. So the plan was to lay it out to draw them in and then catch one.” She shrugged.

“Yeah, but catch one how?”

“We had the bedsheets, so we would just throw it over it, like a net,” she said, matter-of-factly.

“And then how were you going to kill it?”

“I don’t know, Michelle!” she said, feigning frustration as I laughed. “I mean, we had a knife!”

For a while they stalked the flock, coming close enough to believe they could make a dash, only to make a dash and watch the quick birds dart away. Then they worked together to surround the birds, sprinting in on the count of three, only to realize that the wild animals with wings could actually…fly away. So then they sat in the field, waiting for the turkey flock to wander across their patch of sprinkled turkey food, and somehow get tangled in one of their bed sheets. 

And they waited.

“And we didn’t bring much to eat, because we didn’t expect it to take all day, just like a couple of hours. So we were hungry and out of water, and then it started to rain, and so we tried to cover ourselves with a sheet, but it was, like, a sheet, so we got all wet anyways!” Sigh.

I smirked and raised an eyebrow, “So, you were huddled together in the rain under a sheet?” 

Jessie stopped and looked back at me, with a sly grin. “Yeah,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “And we were all cold and miserable, and I’m pretty sure our hands touched.”

Turkeys taunting…

Thursday morning I was up at six, heating the oven and prepping the bird, which had slowly and mercifully thawed under its stream of cold water in our kitchen sink. I stuffed it in the oven, set myself an alarm, and went right back to bed, remembering a childhood Thanksgiving in the Caribbean, where the fathers insisted on cooking the turkey in a hole in the ground, wrapped in banana leaves and covered in hot rocks…that was a late dinner. I’m beginning to realize this day is less about the food and more about the story.

I woke a couple hours later to mash some potatoes and make some salad, and met Jessie in the kitchen for a pancake breakfast. The turkey was done by 11:00 and we changed into our bathing suits and stomped down the stairs to collect Nikki, our third co-worker-roommate-turned-bestie, from her bottom level apartment. She emerged bleary-eyed in her usual off-shift outfit, board shorts and a t-shirt, and threw us a cranky, loving smile. We loaded boards in the back of my Subaru and headed to Honoli’i to meet our friends for a Thanksgiving surf.

Nikki charged ahead with her determined stride, her puff of frizzy hair bobbing as she lead us along the water to the river mouth, and the tumble of smooth stones that made a small beach. I never hung out there. I always just went right from my car to the water and back to my car. But a cluster of our friends had camped out on the far end of the beach, past a few families with boogie boards. Hawaiians loved to be outdoors. We marched over and settled our boards and towels and snack among the empire of blankets and coolers spreading out from our crew. 

I squinted at the ocean. The sun sparkled through spotless sky and off pure emerald water. A dry day in the rain forest. Behind us, the road crossed the river as a high, arching bridge, hung between lush green cliffs. The freshwater rushed down into the ocean, sitting as a cold blurry layer a couple feet thick on top of the clear, warm, saltwater below. Turtles bobbed and lazed among the surfers, so dense you had to dodge them on the waves.

I watched the swell. Clean, orderly, knee high waves, perfect for beginners. I smiled, and looked back at our growing flock of friends, chatting and laughing, reaching over each other for chips or crackers. Could this day be more perfect? We’d share surfing, and then we’d share a meal.

We played in the water for hours. I buzzed around my buddies, taking turns giving some tips, and then catching my own waves, to show off a little. The waves were small, kinda weak, but as I bobbed gently on my aged, yellowed, dented fish, and glanced around the twinkling bay and the laughing faces of my tried and trusted crew of comrades, at Nikki shrieking and cursing with joy as she barreled along on her boogie board, I could not remember ever enjoying surfing so much.

I took a break and paddled in to the rocky beach, dropped my board and flopped down on our giant quilt of puzzled towels and beach blankets, somewhere between my handsome blond friend Nick and a convenient spread of chips and salsa and cheese. I dove greedily into stuffing my cheeks with snacks, until a quiet comment pulled me back to attention.

“Aw, look at them, that’s cute.” 

I glanced around at our faction of non-surfing loungers, laying propped on their elbows, looking out through sunglasses at the water. I followed their gaze and saw Jessie, paddling a long blue surfboard, smashing out awkwardly through the breaking waves, with JP paddling right behind her, on the very same board. 

I smirked. ‘Excellent,’ I thought. But at the same time, tandem surfing for them didn’t automatically mean romance. It could just be another stunt in their playbook of athletic courtship. Just another innocent adventure oblivious of attraction. I really couldn’t tell.

Eventually the group started to disperse. There were showers to be had, outfits to be donned, finishing touches to be brushed on potluck dishes. Everyone bubbled about the food they were bringing, their favorite dish from childhood. Some I had never heard of. Like ‘Chicken’n’noodles’, from our Indiana colleague, Allison. (Or was she from Illinois? We could never remember, and it tickled us that it drove her crazy.)

“You’ve never had Chicken’n’noodles?!” she balked. We all just shrugged.

It was the only party where people trickled in early. I hadn’t even put on my dinner dress, my fifties housewife dress, I called it. Blue and white polka dotted, with a stiff collar, a cut-in waste, and a pleated skirt. Seemed sarcastically appropriate for the Thanksgiving hostess. I think that was the only time I ever wore it.

Nikki came upstairs first, her face a mix of excitement and anxiety. “They’re coming, oh shit they’re coming!” She wagged a hand towards the yard and I looked out the window, at a few friends wandering in carrying covered plates and pots. 

We had told everyone to park in the Buddhist temple parking lot. I hope those Buddhists didn’t mind. Then they could just slip through the small, damp alley between the back of the bakery and the abandoned building next to our yard.

But there was nothing to be anxious about. This was the ideal party, the party of a family of friends, who all worked the same job, who were all trained in feedback, respect, and nonviolent communication. Who knew how to chip in, and how to have fun. This was the party where every guest knew how to both lead and support, and how to read the room to know which was needed. Where no directions needed to be given, where all jobs were effortlessly covered.

Allison arrived with her Chicken’n’noodles. I peeked in the pot. “So, a chicken casserole?” I asked.

“No, it’s Chicken-noodle!” she chuckled in her raspy voice, and set it down with the other steaming pots, before disappearing into one of the bedrooms to carve the turkey, finding the task that suited her best, as everyone seemed to be doing.

A small group set to work foraging decorations and designing a ceremonial space for the meal. I monitored the oven, and washed dishes as they were made. Jessie darted through the crowd with her little silver video camera, capturing our friends in their awkward moments. Blankets were spread in the yard, between the mango and avocado trees, avoiding ant hills. The right woman for the job (Christina;) found the computer and made the after-party playlist. And for everyone left without a task, there were coconuts.

Our rock-climber colleague Gretchen wandered into the yard, from where she’d parked her purple Ford truck, (her home for the year), carrying a box of green coconuts. She smiled her big-toothed smile, high off adventure, adrenaline (and maybe venom), as she showed us the angry red bites covering her thin brawny arms. The tropical toll of the tree she had just climbed to bring us her contribution to the meal. Then she set to work handing out cocos, teaching machete skills, and plucking the hollow-stemmed papaya leaves to use as straws. Adults became giddy jungle kids as they crouched in the yard and sipped from nature’s soda fountain.

When it was time to eat, more than enough willing hands lined up to carry food down to the lawn, where we sat in a circle, patiently breathing delicious aromas as every one of us (thirty plus) shared in a round of thanks. Followed by a moment of silence. Just like we did before every meal with the kids.

Then we ate, and laughed, and lingered and reveled in the good weather and our love for each other. Someone set up a badminton net, and as night fell, clumps of friends shifted between the yard, the stairs, the small upper balcony, and eventually all gathered in our cleared-out living room, where we drank final glasses of wine, and ate final scraps of dessert, and danced to final songs on the playlist. Eventually we faded away to sleep in our prospective beds. A scattering of tents in the yard, a slew of bodies in the living room, while many hugged goodbye and headed back to their own houses.

I caught up with Jessie in the kitchen the next morning, as we scrubbed pots and cleared glasses from the coffee table. We were such an efficient cleaning team that the traces of last nights’ splendor disappeared almost too fast. I fantasized about the three day, camp-out holidays of my childhood. (Pie for breakfast, and kick ball tournaments, and movie nights with…more pie.)

I brought a handful of cups over to the sink, where she stood with her hands in the soapy water. 

“So,” she said suddenly. “JP and I went for a walk in the park last night.” I froze, eyes fixed on the side of her face.

“Mm hm?” I said. 

“And we ran around in the playground.”

“Yes?” I knew that game. My current boyfriend was still asleep in my room. We’d gone on that same walk a month before, through the sleepy streets of Honomu, to the ball field at the edge of the forest.

“And then we climbed the Banyon tree….”

Alright. I waited.

“And then we kissed.”

“Woooo!” I shrieked, too loud for the rest of the house. Then, quieter, “Was it good?”

She finally turned her face to look at me, flicked her eyebrows up and down a couple times, and grinned wide. “Oh yeah.”

November, 2020.

I’m cooking another turkey. In my friend’s oven because I have an outdoor kitchen now, and only a toaster oven. But if my first turkey lit on fire, and my second barely thawed in time, my third was a step-up in cuisine art. I’d soaked it in brine for a day, and stuffed it with a rice pilaf, prepping as much as I could in my jungle kitchen before bringing it all over this morning, to cook in time for an evening surf.

It will be a small dinner this year, a gathering of strays. Four people who are friends to me but strangers to each other. But I think it will work. 

My phone buzzes on the counter, a constant stream of family messages and pictures from Oregon. I can’t be with my brother and mother this year. Partly because of COVID, partly because I am focusing on my life here, in Puerto Rico.

It’s a message from Nick, my handsome blond friend from Hawaii, now living in Portland with his boyfriend Chris. “Five years ago you threw an incredible Thanksgiving! Love you and those memories!”

I smile, and my eyes cloud with happy tears. I write back, “Was that the night that you and Chris fell in love.”

“Pretty much,” he replies. “We were love drunk:)”

Another message pops through. My mom sends a picture of her cat in a mixing bowl. My brother sends a video of him dancing topless in his kitchen. I smile, missing all of them, all of the people I have ever loved, and return to stirring the pumpkin coconut curry I’m making.

Another buzz. The group message between Jessie and Nikki. My girls from the Honomu house, my ladies for life. I write, “Thinking of our Hawaii Thanksgiving…I might have to write a story about it and Jessie’s failed turkey hunt…”

Nikki writes, “That will always be my favorite one.”

Jessie writes, “That one will always be mine as well.”

And then, “Oh my gosh! That reminds me, it’s JP and my five-year anniversary!”

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