The problem is not Thanksgiving, not the cooking, or the dinner itself, not the football, and certainly not the parade. The problem is the next morning. I work on Black Friday. I have for the last 10 years, until last year.
I had nightmares about Black Friday. People who are nice people, seemingly mild-mannered individuals turn on you. Like Mr. Poulin, or Mrs. Crabtree. The fear started the first of November, and it built right up until I finished the gravy at Grandma’s house.
I’m a sane, rational thirty year old man, but something snapped. Instead of driving home, I found myself on the interstate, then at the airport, and on the plane. I kept looking over my shoulder, as if Mr. Summers, my boss, would drag me off the plane.
Once we took off, I finally started to relax, even drifted off to sleep, for about ten minutes. Then I woke up in a cold sweat, realizing this wasn’t a dream. I had ran away from home, on Thanksgiving day!
Of course, it wasn’t exactly home. It was a one bedroom apartment over my Uncle Felix’s garage, and there was no one at home. I was headed to a strange city, on a family holiday, all by myself.
It may sound like my senses had returned, but it hadn’t, only a momentarliy tremor. Instead of grabbing a ticket on the first plane home, I got a taxi, and a room at a small hotel. There was only one person to call, one person that would talk me back from anxiety town, Grandma.
She listened calmly, replied at the appropriate points, and waited for me to run down. Then she started talking, and said the complete opposite of what I had anticipated. When she says something I do it, no matter what.
“Preston, you need to quit your job. Stay in … where did you end up?” I swallowed hard. “Right now I’m in Pittsburgh, but …”.
“Stay there, you need this. You’re my grandson and I love you, but you lean towards the routine, you need something to shake you up. I’ve been praying for years you would wake up and try something, now you have.”
“This isn’t forever, give it two weeks, some things are going to happen to you Preston, and they’ll happen before you get back on the plane to come home.”
I was too stunned to argue, so I agreed, and followed her instructions. First, I called a sleepy Mr. Summers, and quit my job. Then I ate a nice dinner, life altering events make me hungry, and I went to bed.
You know how your subconscious works things out while you’re sleeping? Well, mine went this way. In my dream, Grandma was President, and I was the Turkey they pardon every year, only instead of a farm, I went to Pittsburgh!
Others would run away to Hawaii, California, or Alaska. Me, I ended up a state away, in a city I didn’t know anyone in. I really felt like the turkey in my dream, who tried to fly, but couldn’t get off the ground.
So, the next morning I got up, shaved, showered, and what do you think this college graduate, bird brain, did? I went to a department store. A lot like the one that had terrified me enough to run away from. As I said, “Gobble, gobble”, under my breath, I thought of how much I felt like what I ate yesterday.
Then I found me correcting myself, “He had a purpose”. I had thought I had said it in my mind, when the store clerk asked me. “Who had a purpose?” Realizing I probably seemed crazy, I answered, “The turkey.”
I don’t know what I expected her to say. No, I take that back, I expected the look I give crazy shoppers when their fighting over a set of dish towels. Instead, she just said, “Oh.”
It wasn’t that it had been a kind response, more like a deer in headlights reaction. That’s what, I think, made me notice her. She seemed as helpless as I felt. Apparently, people in Pittsburgh were just as confused as I was.
If that was the case, then why was I here? I asked myself again if Waikiki wasn’t a better place to find yourself. All of this took place in about thirty seconds. We just looked at each other, and not the way you look at someone you’re attracted to, at that point, I doubt either one of us could tell what the other looked like.
It wasn’t that we saw each other, but we saw ourselves. Helpless on a major holiday, and it terrified us. I’d like to tell you I did something noble, or offered her some kind words, but I can’t.
I ran. I immediately left the store, and was in a taxi in five minutes, heading to the airport. The only thing that made me change my mind, was the red light. When I saw it, it was as if I heard my Grandmother saying stop.
I paid the cab driver, who seemed confused too, but I didn’t have time to rescue him. So I walked back the two blocks it took to get there, and went right back to her. I stuck my hand out, and said “My name is Preston, I’m new here.”
I think I started to break through the haze that a survivor of retail Black Friday experiences has after a few years. She shook my hand, said her name was Liza. “What are you doing in this store?”
I admitted that I didn’t rightly know, and ask if she wanted dinner. “There’s a diner across the street. It’s probably bad food, but it’s in public, and since you don’t know me, you don’t have to worry.”
Which is the best way to cause someone to worry, by the way, but it turns out she was a brave soul. I found out much later, she also was an excellent shot, and was never without her firearm.
Dinner wasn’t bad, but it was the first Black Friday that I ever had Norwegian food. I found out I liked it, more importantly, I liked the conversation. We talked about her. We talked about me.
When I told her what I was doing in Pittsburgh, or at least what I thought I was doing, she looked at me. “You are crazy, but I wish I had your courage.” That’s when I laughed.
“It wasn’t courage, it was fear. I was too scared to go to work, so instead I went to Pittsburgh.” That’s when I looked at her really. She had brown hair, and hazel eyes, and I realized she was beautiful. Then I was even more terrified.
She shook her head. “I don’t mean the courage to get on the plane. You’re terrified, that’s completely obvious. I mean the fact that you were brave enough, not to get back on the plane. You took a chance that, being out on a limb, isn’t the worst place to be.”
We talked for about an hour more after that, and then she went home, and I went to the hotel. We promised to meet the next morning, back at the Norwegian place for breakfast. I was starting to realize why I was in Pittsburgh.
Coffee was good, but there was something different about our conversation. She was still friendly, and I was too, but it was as if a third person, that we were afraid to talk in front of, had sat down at our table.
The longer the conversation dragged on, the worse it got. I was desperate. I knew that if I didn’t do something fast, I would lose what might be a connection. So, sane wasn’t working, and crazy seemed to, so I decided to play what worked.
I stood up, and announced to everyone in the diner, that we had one mission at the moment. “Today folks, our goal, is to convince this miserable young woman, that there is no future in retail.”
Everyone looked at me like I was a moron, as I explained. “You see, she hates her job. She’s been at it, not as long as I was, she’s only been working there eight years. Mark my word, if you don’t get out before year ten, you may never get out.”
“You may get used to the odd questions about the difference in the colors of grays and browns. Why toothpicks should be wood instead of plastic, or why people fight over the last coffee maker in the store.”
“Don’t make the same mistake I did. Get out, before it takes running away to confuse you more than you’ve ever been before. Seek help, seek a career, find a hobby, work in insurance, but do something!!!!”
She laughed. It was with her hand over her face, and embarrassed completely, but she laughed. I still had a chance, she had decided that crazy was, not necessarily cute, but entertaining.
Liza stood up, paid the check, and motioned for me to follow. “Where are we going?” She laughed again. “You’re going to find me a job. If you want me to quit this one, give me a reason to get out of the wonderful world of retail.”
I didn’t stop to figure out why she agreed, but I did stop to ask myself how, where, and who was going to hire her based on my asking. That’s when terror started to set in, again. This turkey had set his own oven timer, and I was feeling the heat.
Then I asked myself, what the difference was between a domestic gobbler, and his wild cousin. Besides the fact that one has a better chance of seeing a second Thanksgiving than the first. Of course the obvious answer took a second to register. The wild turkey can fly!
I decided that, since this was the wildest thing I had ever done, it was time to try stretching my wings. “So, some ground rules. Even if it’s only for a day, you have to interview for any job, which matches your work history and skills, that I decide on, and if hired, work there at least two days?”
“One and a half days, with an option to leave after lunch the second day. Agreed?” I nodded, then motioned for a taxi. She tried to ask where I was going. I just winked at her.
We ended up at the airport. I booked two tickets back home to Akron. She protested, but I reminded her that she agreed to at least interview. She looked at me funny, smiled, and got on the plane.
You’re thinking, none of this is logical, and I would have agreed then. It makes perfect sense to me now. It didn’t then, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t surfing in Waikiki, or exploring the African Rain Forest, but I was seeing something amazingly beautiful.
A less than total stranger eating potato chips and laughing at me. When we landed, I took Liza to the job I had picked out. In the taxi trip to the airport, I had realized something. No matter how good the job was that I picked, Liza seemed to be a rational, intelligent person. She would humor me for the agreed upon time, then go home to her life.
Our adventure would be nothing more than a Black Friday memory. I was determined to make it something else, a Thanksgiving classic. So that meant I had to find her the most miserable job in the world.
Something that would make her wish she had never went on this trip, never met me, and had never left Pittsburgh. I know, it seems counterintuitive, but it was the only thing that made sense.
The question on the taxi trip from the airport in Akron was, what could possibly be the worst job in the world for Liz. Once again, I turned to my Grandmother for inspiration, or at least a story she had told.
Fresh out of college, she was smart, young, with a business degree, and no money. She told me that the worst job in the world was working somewhere she couldn’t make a difference.
Things were starting to crystallize, that was why I hated working where I had for ten years. So off to Mr. Summers we went. I spoke to him alone first. He ranted and raved for about ten minutes, until he ran out of steam.
“You don’t show up, ON BLACK FRIDAY! Then that night, you call me up, wake me, quit your job, and now… You walk back in here asking me to hire this girl for a couple of days. Answer me one question, why should I?”
I’m not sure what he expected, timidity or anger, but he got neither. I was calm, direct, and pleasant. I stood straight up, and looked him square in the eyes.
“Ten years of faithful, hard working, dependable experience. Of working the days nobody else wanted to work, trading days for those who had families, and hoping for my chance one day at one. Mr. Summers, this is my chance, and you are going to help me.”
He put her to work in the department I chose, electronics. I kissed her cheek, which neither of us expected, told her I’d see her at seven when her shift ended, and went to work. Grandmother was my first stop. As always, she smiled and offered to help, and I took her up on it.
I needed this to go well, and I needed it to be just like Thanksgiving, but as different from it, as it possibly could be. I was going to cram a whole year into a day and a half, and it had to work out right.
After a long day of doing everything, she’d be tired, hungry, and angry. Liza had helped pull stock, which the electronic department has to do when it’s slow. She had answered the same questions a thousand times, and any other miserable thing Mr. Summers could thing of.
If I had worked it right, she would almost want to hit me when she saw me. She would also expect dinner, and for me to try to make it a big evening. I had to give her a facsimile of it, but it couldn’t follow the pattern.
So instead of a tux and flowers, I showed up in overalls and carrying a stuffed turkey, the plush kind. I had what appeared to be dirt on my face, and looked like a crazy man.
“How was your day?” As predicted, she punched me in the arm. I handed her the turkey. She laughed, said she was going to get even, and followed me to the exit.
Instead of a taxi, or my car, I picked her up in a pickup truck. I had rented it for the evening. It was nice, top of the line, but it wasn’t a limo, or anything she had figured I would try.
When we got in the truck, she sighed. “I can’t stand it.” She took a handkerchief from her purse, yes, she carries one, and wiped my face. It was then she discovered that what she had thought was dirt, wasn’t. “This smells like nutmeg.”
I smiled, handed her a bag of sweet potato and kale chips, and headed to dinner. It took about twenty minutes, but it was worth it. Even I was impressed, but you can always count on Grandma.
The barn was old, clean, and covered in lights, and there was a table with two chairs. Grandmother even had violin music start when we sat down. I thought it was a little much, but apparently Grandmother had researched Liza.
It turns out she plays the violin, and pretty well. The waiter was dressed as plain as I was, though he wore it better. The first course, potato soup, the second, a turkey soufflé, and for desert, pumpkin tarts. It was a non-Thanksgiving dinner.
We laughed, and she told me all about her day. “Why are you doing this?” I took her by the hand, strolled to the field, and pointed to the stars.
“Do you see that, isn’t it beautiful? I’ve dreamed of starry skies, a beautiful woman, and the possibility of a life, most of mine. It took me a while to find it, and now I’m trying everything I can to keep it.”
She leaned her head on my shoulder and we walked on. “What does that have to do with putting me through the ringer, in the worst job possible? What happened to making the person you, care about, happy instead of miserable? I know you’re new at this, but …”
I interrupted. “If I had chosen an easy job, you would have gotten back on the plane as soon as it was over. I had to keep you guessing. This way you might want to stay once a day and a half is over.”
“Maybe give this turkey a way out, and pardon him for the rest of his life? As he annoyed you day in and day out, til we’re old and gray. What do you say?”
She didn’t, say that is. No words, she only walked back to the truck, and drove away. I had left the keys in the truck, and she had left. At first I laughed, then I started to worry. Ten minutes went by, then an hour.
I gave up, called for a car to take me home. I got a text, “I’m at your Grandmother’s. I’m safe, see you in the morning.” I had given her Grandmother’s number before I left her with Mr. Summers. I went home, but I didn’t sleep.
The next morning, a knock on the door, and a basket of muffins outside it with a note. “You are not a turkey. See you at the airport at noon.”
I sighed, showered, and went to the store. She wasn’t there. Mr. Summers said that he hadn’t seen her. I had about an hour and a half until time to go to the airport. So I went to the one place that made sense, Grandmother’s house.
Only she wasn’t there either. I wandered around, until it was time to say goodbye. She was there at the terminal gate, bags packed, holding the ticket in her hand.
“I guess you decided one day was enough?” I asked, trying to hide my disappointment. That’s when I heard a voice from behind me. “My friend does not break her promises. I hired a personal shopper for the day. We really must stop calling Mr. Summers while he’s asleep.”
I looked from one to the other. “Then why all of this?” Liza held my hand. “Three things. One, you never put me through anything like yesterday ever again. Two, we have a plane to catch. Three, we are never working retail again.”
Grandmother kissed me. “She may not call you that, but I will. Go on my little stuffed turkey, fly over Pittsburgh.” She hugged us both, and we boarded the plane.
I had taken one chance that morning, although it seemed useless at the time. I put the gift I was saving for her retirement party at noon. Somewhere over Pittsburgh, I proposed, and she said yes.
The last year was incredible. We got married that afternoon, and bought the little Norwegian dinner across from her old job. That was last year, this Thanksgiving, we took a few days off, and closed the diner for the week. This year, we’re going to Grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving.