Thankful for the meat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OYSTERBACK, Maryland -- Ralph, the youngest Boone Brother, has returned to Oysterback for Thanksgiving. Not so much because he wants to, either. Would you want to visit your family if they ran the Boone Brothers We Fix and Road Kill Cooked Here Cafe and Garage?

His elder brothers Gabe and Mike are all the family Ralph has, and he finds them embarrassing, if you want to know the truth. They're these burned-out old hippies who haven't figured out the '60s are over. The '80s were more Ralph's decade, when greed was a good thing. Actually, Ralph doesn't have much choice about coming back to town. He's been in Jupiter, Florida, but since the Special Investigations Unit began asking a lot of questions, and about the same time his fourth wife, Cyndee, left him for that pit boss she met in Vegas . . .

Well, coming home for a nice long visit seems to be a wise thing to do; he should be thankful this hick dump hasn't dried up and blown away. Oysterback is about the last place on the face of the earth anyone would look for him, especially Monte "Big Tuna" D'Abrunzio, who is someone you and I don't want to know about.

In Oysterback, Ralph is explained as a change-of-life baby.

Miss Catherine Swann dreads Thanksgiving, because that's the day that Mr. Hardee gears up for the Christmas-light season, and all 700,000 of his string lights have to come out of storage and be tested, strand by strand, before he can start putting them up all over the outside of the house the day after.

Hardee goes over them bulb by bulb, looking for the one burned- out light that will keep the whole chain from lighting up most of Devanau County. Strands of multi-colored lights drape over every surface in the house, up and down the stairs, around the living and dining room, through the hallway to the kitchen, around the corner and out the door.

Miss Catherine is terrified that if Hardee doesn't trip over the cords and break a leg, he'll fall off the roof mounting the Nona Classic Life-Size Santa and Eight Reindeer & Rudolph and kill himself. You try cooking a turkey under those conditions.

She and Mr. Hardee are going to eat their Thanksgiving dinner at the Ye Olde Colonial Watershed Bed and Breakfast Inn, if she can drag him away from his latest acquisition. Mr. Hardee has added a state-of-the-art Comp-U-Lite Talking Scrooge With Tiny Tim to his 37 secular and 14 religious life-size illuminated holiday lawn figures, which include the legendary and much-coveted Good Shepherd of Graceland Elvis Figure that has made him the envy of other Christmas lighters throughout the tri-state area.

For this, Mr. Hardee is very thankful. Before Miss Catherine can examine what she's thankful for, she hears a horrible crash and the sound of thousands of tiny plastic lights breaking.

After lurking fruitlessly in Faraday Hicks' wood lot over to Slaughter's Crossroads for several weekends, precariously balanced for endless hours on a tiny stand, sitting dead still through rain, sleet, heat and a couple of hard frosts, Junie Redmond, whose greatest Thanksgiving wish has been a deer to fill the freezer, has given up all hope. Looks like the family will be eating a lot of tuna noodle casserole and Hamburger Helper this winter.

On Junie's way back to Oysterback, an 18-point buck hurtles out of the woods just past Tubman's Corners and slams into the side of his truck. Mercifully, the deer is killed on impact, but Junie, a man who knows how to appreciate irony, is thankful for the meat.

Desiree Grinch, who knows which buttons to push and where quite a few bodies are buried, has begged, borrowed and blackmailed three 20-pound turkeys from various and sundry sinners around Devanau County, and is roasting them up in the kitchen at the Blue Crab Tavern. She and Professor Shepherd are whipping up 30 pounds of mashed potatoes to go with the 200 yeast rolls and three gallons of stringbean casserole they've already put together and stored in the freezer.

When the turkeys are done to a golden brown, Desiree and the professor will load them into her monster truck and take the whole deal over to A Safe Place, the women's shelter in Patamoke. Desiree Grinch is a woman who also knows a thing or two about being poor and in trouble. She's thankful she's still capable of moral ambiguity in a good cause.

Starting Something

Over to Miss Nettie Leery's, delicious smells drift through the house along with that ineffable air of tension that happens whenever Hudson Swann and Buddy Leery are in the same room for too long. Fortunately, they can focus their attention on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, rather than try to make polite conversation. Both have been warned about opening their mouths about politics and Starting Something.

Miss Nettie and Jeanne are in the kitchen, and Jeanne is lecturing her mother about the evils of cholesterol as she layers the sweet potatoes and Marshmallow Fluff into a baking dish. The twins, Ashley and Amber, are upstairs, having found their mother's high school yearbook. Jeanne, who thought that Farrah Fawcett hairdo was quite glamorous back there in the '70s would be horrified to know how hilarious her daughters find her prom photos.

The kit-kat clock slowly ticks away the minutes until dinnertime. A week to prepare it and 15 minutes to eat it. Miss Nettie is thankful that she and Miss Sister Gibbs have booked that Caribbean Christmas Cruise: If she has to cook another holiday meal for this family, she'll scream. Although, being Miss Nettie, she would never actually think that.

She'll just let them turn up Christmas day and be surprised.

Down on Black Dog Road, Ferrus T. Buckett, the world's oldest waterman and carver of genuine reproduction antique decoys, has forsworn the traditional turkey in favor of a little something he found in Julia Child. His guest, the Mozart soprano Aurora Beauchamp, opens the Veuve Cliquot just as the fruits de mer vol-au-vents are ready to come out of the oven. Ferrus is thankful that the morels are suitably fresh, and the Chambord souffle has risen properly.

Over to Patamoke Seafood, Venus Tutweiler shuts down her forklift just as the microwave timer in the lunchroom starts to ping. With a sigh, she sinks into a chair and removes the cellophane from her Lean Cuisine Turkey Dinner. As she waits for the gravy to cool, she pops the tab on a Diet Pepsi. Venus hoists the can in a toast to the silent factory.

"Here's to Thanksgiving," she proclaims. She's thankful she's drawn a holiday shift. "It's a dysfunctional family reunion where everyone brings a covered dish and an unresolved issue."

Nonetheless, when the mouse, who lives behind the refrigerator, pokes its head out, she's careful to drop a bit of stuffing on the floor within rodent reach. Sometimes, even Venus hates to eat alone.

Helen Chappell is the amanuensis of Oysterback.

Pub Date: 11/27/96

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