Why Not A Duck?
by Laurie Boris
(Ulster Park, NY, USA)
“Holiday Help Line, this is Matthew. How can I help you?”
“I’m going to slit my wrists,” she said. “I hate Thanksgiving. I hate that the Christmas decorations have been up in the stores since Halloween. I hate the Macy’s parade and the Rockettes and cooking and cleaning and the men sitting on their asses watching football and I swear, when the sweet potatoes are done I’m taking the biggest knife I have and…”
Matthew cast a frantic glance around the cubicle farm for someone who’d been on the phones more than an hour. But there was no one except the other newbies. He was supposed to ask questions, although he couldn’t remember which ones. He grabbed his training manual. A corner caught on the shelf; a sheaf of notes slipped out of the inside pocket and spilled across his desk.
“Oh, crap.” But there was the page he needed. Step One. Clarification. “Okay. Ma’am? You need to tell me what the problem is.”
“It’s the turkey. It’s ruined.” She let out a soft sob. “Eighteen people coming to dinner, and it’s ruined. I hate turkey, why do I even bother? I have no idea what I’m doing!”
“Okay.” Matthew’s confidence surged. “Turkey. That helps.” Step Two. Restate the problem. “It sounds like you’re saying that you’re upset about the turkey.”
“No, I’m upset about the value of the dollar on the overseas market! I always call complete strangers when I’m worried about the world economy. Of course I’m upset about the turkey!”
“I’m sorry, I wanted to make sure...” He thumbed through the index of his binder until he found “Turkey,” and then he checked his cheat sheet again. Step Three. Get to the root of the issue. “So...uh...what’s your relationship with poultry?”
Silence. “What are you, some kind of crackpot?”
“I’m trying to get to the root of the issue.”
“Issue? It’s a turkey.”
Matthew nodded. One of the first things he learned in orientation was that it’s never just about the turkey. “I’m only trying to help you, ma’am.” Step Four. Reassurance.
“Ma’am,” she said in a mocking tone.
He heard the sweet crack of a bottle top and imagined a beer. He’d love one, but no drinking allowed on the job. He was expected to remain sharp at all times.
“If we’re going to talk about my relationship with poultry, then you might as well call me Rita.”
“Okay. Rita.” The sound of her name made him long for the warmth of his sister’s house, the family spilling in. Patsy.
“Do you like turkey, Matthew?”
There was no Step Five. By now, the program assumed he’d resolved the problem and moved on to the next call. Crap. They didn’t say what to do when the caller started asking him questions.
“This isn’t about me.”
He heard a loud smack, possibly the beer bottle set down too hard against the counter.
“Just because it’s Thanksgiving, I have to stick some big dead bird on the table? Why not lasagna or roast beef or something I know how to cook? Or if it’s decreed by the Constitution that we have poultry this one day of the year, why not Cornish game hen? Squab? Goose?”
Matthew considered the possibility that she had gone off her medication. But there was nothing about that in the index, and he couldn’t think of a sensitive way to ask. He shoved the pages aside. This was no way to help people—a white cubicle, a book, a blinking phone.
“Or a roast duck?” she said. “Why not a duck?”
“Yes, why not a duck?” Patsy used to make roast duck for Christmas.
“It’s easy. It fits in the oven, brush it with apricot jam and you’re done.”
He scribbled on his message pad. “Apricot jam?”
“Yeah, it’s really good. Don’t get the cheap stuff. Use a basting brush and cover the whole thing.”
“Why, what do you do with duck?”
“Well...Patsy used oranges.”
“Oranges.” Rita laughed. “That’s a bit…pedestrian.”
Not the way Patsy made it, with little curlicues of zest, and scallions. The way she dressed things up. People underestimated the value of a good garnish. God, he wished he could wrench that beer through the phone. “We’re talking about you, Rita.”
“Is Patsy your wife?”
“Fiancée. Well, ex-fiancée. She left me. Two years ago today. After the accident.” She was baking pies to take to his sister’s for Thanksgiving. They’d argued. The oven wouldn’t light; gas filled the room. It was ugly. Meringue and pumpkin everywhere. Matthew’s eyebrows still hadn’t grown back. The prospect of spending the rest of her life with an ungarnished man must have been the final straw.
“Oh, you poor thing,” Rita said. “That’s why you work the phones.”
“I do what I can.” Matthew’s voice cracked. He cleared his throat. “Now about the turkey?”
“The hell with the turkey. Let’s talk about your relationship with poultry. Do you live in the city? We have plenty of food, my sister-in-law’s stupid Pekingese only got a small chunk of the leg when the turkey fell on the floor. Do you have somewhere to go?”
“Usually to my sister’s, but this year I’m working.” He gathered himself. “But this isn't about me.”
“Right. It’s not about you. Most of you shrinks go into psychology to get your own therapy, but it's never about you.”
Matthew scrunched together the bare ridges that used to be his eyebrows. “I'm not a shrink.”
“Of course. It’s the holidays. The real shrinks are out of town. What are you, a grad student? Intern?”
“Well. Intern. But not in psychology. I'm studying culinary arts.”
“Yeah. I want to be a chef. I want to open my own restaurant.” His heart beat faster. He’d never told anyone this before, not even Patsy. She would have laughed, said he could barely boil water. “I’m only going to serve comfort foods. Pot roast, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, sandwiches with those little furry toothpicks.”
“I’m talking to a chef.”
“Not yet. I need seventy-two more credits to graduate.”
“Pardon me. I'm talking to someone who needs seventy-two more credits to become a chef.”
“Yeah, but I made the Dean’s List my first two semesters.”
“I’m ready to slit my wrists because of this turkey, and they give me someone with no training whatsoever?”
He’d been prepared for tears or lumpy gravy but not this. Over the holidays, they’d told him in orientation, most people would be happy to speak to anyone with a calm voice and a good ear. “Who’d you expect on Thanksgiving, Martha Stewart?”
“I expected at least some relevant experience!”
If she ever came into his restaurant, he’d spit in her soup. Too bad, because he’d sort of liked her. The sound of her voice, her throaty laugh.
He frosted over. “Turkey’s the easiest thing in the world. Every year the magazines are filled with pages and pages of how not to screw it up. And still you call. ‘How do I know when it’s done, do I put the stuffing inside the bird, what do I do with the guts in the plastic bag?’”
“Guts?” Her voice shrank. “This isn’t the Holiday Stress Line?”
Crap. His supervisor had warned him about the listings, one atop the other in the directory: Holiday Help Line, Holiday Stress Line. Some people called the wrong one by accident, too distraught about the mashed potatoes or the alcoholic parent to parse the difference.
He sighed. “Sorry. I'll get you that number.”
“No, I’m feeling better now. Really. It’s only a turkey, right?”
He smiled. “Did your sister-in-law’s dog really chew on the leg?”
“Only a little. Stupid mutt. Can I still serve it? What do you think, just put the dog in a roasting dish and brush him with apricot jam?”
“Normally I’d recommend orange on Pekingese, but perhaps we should talk more about your relationship with dogs.”
“Oh, stop,” Rita purred. “Come for dinner. Please? You’ve helped me. Or maybe stop by for dessert? No one should be alone today. I made three kinds of pie. You like pie?”
Matthew scratched his missing left eyebrow. “Not especially.”
“Not even apple?”
Patsy never made apple. Matthew fumbled for his pen. “Where do you live?”