In our second Thanksgiving gift of the year, we offer a Thanksgiving Mystery. It’s our hope that Deer Thanksgiving warm your heart, and remind you that even an old iron deer can be a reason to be Thankful.
The year she won it was 1942, off the back of a cereal box. Great Grandmother Henderson was so proud, they say, of her triumph. “Your Great Grandmother had sent in over two hundred jingles to that contest. She ate cereal every other meal for months, but she did it. Her grand prize, an iron deer.”
I had asked Grandmother Tolbert a thousand times, so she answered automatically, even though I hadn’t this time. “It was a status symbol. Most iron had went to the war effort, and we had given any scrap we had. Now that the war was over, she viewed it as a symbol of victory over Hitler, Mussolini, and a celebration that her three boys had returned from service safely.”
“As children, all of the grandkids loved it, but none of us were too keen on inheriting it from Uncle Gerold. I had one incident with it that was not fun at all, but I finally took it at the last minute.”
“Somehow it became important to have it, as a connection with Grandma, family is so important. It’s been in my yard ever since. I suspect your Mother will eventually melt it down, or stick it in storage.”
“Mom, I’d never do that, I mean I can’t stand the ugly thing, but it’s important to you. I’ll stick some flowers around it and put it in Frank’s den. We agreed it’s too bulky for your new condo.” My Mother Jessica Tolbert Keene meant well, but everyone else knew Grandmother didn’t share that “agreed” upon viewpoint.
Who was I to argue, I lived in an apartment the size of a suitcase, not literally, but it felt like it. I’m Natalie, the oldest of Mom’s kids, but not the oldest grandchild. Anyway, the iron deer seemed like a member of the family. Aunt Hattie named it Nat, after Nat King Cole. He was her favorite singer.
She liked words, and was an English Professor. She was also my inspiration to become an Etymologist. I work at the University, in the dusty department. It’s what everyone calls it, they call all of dusters, because years ago they all coughed from the dust. Now everything is computerized, so we look it up that way.
I mention etymology along with Nat because it led to a very surprising November. None of us had any inkling as to what was happening that day, things were just in the process of getting started. The only thing I knew was, I had to call Professor Irwin.
Professor Irwin was writing a book. He teaches at the University, and I was helping him research his book on Economics During Strategic Times. Don’t tell him, but it seemed really, really boring to me.
I called him in between shopping. “Hello Professor Irwin, this is Natalie. I’ll have those documents for you tomorrow. Hang on a sec. .. Grandma it’s by the Iron Deer. Sorry, I had to answer my Grandmother.”
He went crazy. “Iron Deer! Did you say iron deer, as in a World War II era lawn ornament? Where is it? Can I come see it, please?”
It was such a weird conversation, I didn’t know what to say, so I said yes, and gave him the address. “That’s perfect, I’ll be there this afternoon, thank you!!!”
It turns out Professor Irwin, Jack Irwin to be exact, charmed my Grandmother. He was nicer to her than he had ever been to me. It wasn’t that he had been rude, but he had been professorly with me. With Grandma, he seemed normal.
“Would it be possible to buy it, Nat did you say? It would be great if I could. How much would you be interested in selling it for?”
“Thank you young man. It’s not that it’s financially valuable, but sentimentally it is. If I sold it, what would you do with it?”
“I’ll put it in my garden. My Grandfather knew a girl who had one as a teenager. He always mentioned it lovingly. I think it’d be a great gift for his birthday. It’s on Thanksgiving Day. I have to admit I didn’t realize until we were introduced that this was the iron deer Grandpa had talked about for years.”
Grandma suddenly had a weird look on her face. Her tone changed slightly. She wasn’t rude or anything, but now she was guarded. “I don’t think Nat would be happy in a garden I’m afraid, I’m sorry.”
Professor Irwin was confused at the change, he picked up on it. “Are you sure? It would mean a lot to him, he’s had a rough couple years.”
Her tone changed again. “What’s your Grandfather’s name young man?” Now I was curious.
“Jackson Silva, I’m named after him. Until Grandma passed two years ago, he lived in Colorado, but he moved back here. He’s staying with me until he gets a place he likes.”
Grandma sighed. “Tell Jackson, Nora says hello. You can have the deer young man, on one condition. Your Grandfather does not come with you to pick it up. I wish him well, but no disrespect, I never want to see that man again in my life. Good day.”
Grandma went into the kitchen without saying anything else to anyone. Mom followed, which I couldn’t believe. I work with this man, I didn’t know what to say to him.
“Professor Irwin, I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s going on. My Grandmother is a wonderful woman. I’m sure there is a misunderstanding.”
He laughed. “Yes, but not the one it sounds like. I didn’t realize she was that Nora! They didn’t date. Your Grandmother saved my Grandfather’s life. Though not long after, she never wanted to see him again, it’s all wrapped up in that iron deer. It was because Grandpa could have gotten her thrown into prison by accident.”
I told him this was a story I had to hear, but he refused. “It’s not mine to tell I’m afraid. I doubt Grandpa would share it with anyone. I suspect he feels bad about it all, but you’d have to ask him.”
With that, he thanked me and left. I was bewildered, confused, and curious. I was able to wait two whole seconds before bolting for the kitchen where my Mom was already pressing Grandma for answers.
“I do not care to discuss it. Jackson Silva turned out to be nothing but trouble, and I want no part of him. I’m sorry for his loss, Grace was a beautiful lady, but I will not see him ever again. Natalie, you be careful, that young man seems nice, but he looks and sounds just like his Grandfather, he’s dangerous.”
When Grandmother set her mind to something, no one could change it. You might as well talk to, yeah I’ll say it, an iron deer. I had one possible trick to play, and I didn’t know if it would work. I’d have to wait til the next day to find out.
With coffee in hand, a full two hours before work, I was at my desk. I was looking for any scandal where my Grandmother, or Jackson Silva, Jack Irwin’s Grandpa was named. After two hours, I turned up nothing but a recipe for turnip casserole from a home economics article where they both were mentioned.
It took some digging, but I found a class roster for that class. It included Jackson Silva, Grandma, Grandpa James Tolbert, and Jack Irwin’s Grandmother Grace. They had all been classmates. The only other name that interested me was the teacher’s, and it was only because it had a unique ring to it, Lydia Popov.
The trail was cold. The one thing I knew about Jack Irwin, besides that he could bore you to tears with economics, was he liked his coffee. I like coffee, Jack Irwin loved it. I ran out to the local campus coffee shop and picked up a special latte, the fanciest thing they had, which cost double what my cappuccino did.
I knocked on the door. “Good morning Professor. Here are the documents you had requested. Also here’s a pumpkin latte I picked up for you. It’s my way of saying, yesterday was weird.”
“Can I ask a quick question about the other day. What did your Grandpa do? Are you going to take the iron deer after all?”
He smiled, nice smile. “That’s very nice of you, and thank you. Grandpa definitely wants it. He laughed his head off at the way she reacted, no disrespect. I asked him about you wanting to know. He said he wouldn’t go against your Grandma’s wishes, but to tell you to look up the school paper, not the news article.”
“It’s the same High School I tutor at on the side. So I got a print out from their library. Now I won’t read it to you, but I’ll just leave it here while I step outside. I’m going to place an order for some more of this coffee, I love pumpkin.”
Jack Irwin had a sneaky streak, maybe he was a little less boring than I thought. I tried not to holler out when he left. He waited five minutes before coming back. I looked up smiling.
“Did you read the part about the FBI?” He said upon his return. I nodded, floored. Then I pointed to the last paragraph at him. It was the one about the missing money.
He shook his head. “It can’t be in the deer, surely she looked years ago. Besides Grandpa’s well enough off, he’s not rich, but he doesn’t need the money. He wants it for sentiment. Your Grandmother, not to be crude, but is she wealthy?”
I shook my head no. “Grandpa and Grandma made good money, but nothing like that. If there was anything, that deer would be just a memory. She mentioned it connects to her Grandmother, and to a bad incident when Grandma was younger. When you are going to take me to see your Grandpa?”
“I didn’t say I was. I didn’t tell you any of this. I haven’t been in trouble with him since I wrecked his beat up second hand Ferrari, I don’t intend to start now.”
I can be pretty convincing. “That’s okay. I can just wait til you are out of class and follow you home. Or I can look you up in the faculty guide and show up at your door. Which one do we try?”
He laughed. “It runs in the family. Okay, four this afternoon, but let him tell you what I did not say audibly? I did not audibly tell you what happened, right?”
Jack showed me in, and we walked out to the garden. Mr Silva was planting some roses. When he saw me, he did a double take. “You’re Nora Tolbert’s Granddaughter. You look just like her. Jack, are we going to have another talk about Ferrari’s and going down the wrong road?”
Jack looked a little nervous. “Probably, but later, after she’s gone. For now, tell her what her Grandmother won’t tell her Grandpa. Tell her how you both almost started World War III.”
Mr. Silva looked at me. “The boy is mischievous, gets it from his Grandmother Grace. I loved that about her. Sit down young lady, but keep in mind there’s three sides to every story. There’s my version, your Grandmother’s, and Lydia Popov’s version. One of those ladies’ versions almost got me killed, and someone else in prison.”
The story took two and a half hours to tell. He didn’t embellish I don’t think, but Jackson Silva was an expert storyteller. I was a little sad when he finished with the line, “An that’s why we never spoke to each other ever again.”
Jack was as enthralled in his Grandfather’s story as I was, even though he’d heard it before. I could tell he admired his namesake. They looked alike, both were tall, had nice smiles, and blue eyes. Even their hair was similar, thick full hair, though one was gray and the other was black.
“So what are you going to do young lady with all of this info? Are you going to forget it. Go public with it? Or maybe write it down like Jack here?”
I looked at Jack suddenly. “Write it down? Don’t tell me your going to put this into some boring academic article?” I didn’t mean to sting by calling his work boring, it slipped out.
“Hardly, he’s turning it into a fictional novel. I think the deer becomes a deposit box, or bonds, something a bit more believable. He thinks the iron deer is a little far fetched, but Hank Randolph made it for Lydia. I guess Grace was too romantic a person to throw it out.”
Jack smiled, and changed the subject. “Grandpa, why don’t you fix up some of your famous gumbo. I’m guessing like me she missed lunch. Do you like Cajun food?”
I smiled, and we headed to the kitchen. Mr Silva just laughed. He muttered something about Hank Randolph again and started cooking. It was the best gumbo I had ever eaten.
I thanked them after supper, tried to help with the dishes, and they refused. I left soon after, and went straight to Grandma. “You went out on a date with Jackson Silvia’s grandson? After I told you not too?”
I was appalled. “I did not go out on a date with him. I went to find out what you wouldn’t tell me. I just had dinner with his Granddad, and him. That’s not a date.”
“Which one of them asked you to stay?” She asked with a fierce look in her eye, and a twinkle of a smile. When I didn’t answer, she laughed again. “That’s the same way the boy’s Grandpa got Grace to go out on their first date.”
Did I know it was a date I asked myself. I refused to answer Grandma or me at that moment. “Any way, that does not change the fact that you had this amazing story, and you never told anybody. Grandma, this could have replaced Uncle Gerrold’s football story every year!”
“As much as I cannot stand that story, I don’t have any intention in my harrowing experience to be told and retold over pumpkin pie every Thanksgiving. We will not discuss it. Good night dear, I love you, but good night.”
She woke up up at midnight. “Dear, I’m sorry to wake you, but I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t leave things the way they were. I guess the statue of limitations may have run out by now. If not, oh well.”
I set up, trying not to giggle like a kid. It had been a while since Grandma had told me a bedtime story. Especially one that sounded this mysterious and intriguing.
“We were teenagers. I was in love with your Granddad, Jackson was in love with Grace. We did not really see much beyond each other. We were not the only ones in love though, so were two of our teachers.”
“What we did not know was, one of them was not who she claimed to be. That’s what almost got Jackson Silva killed. It didn’t start out that way, it started with a cup of what you would now call pumpkin spice coffee. Back then it was a lonely bachelor’s way of keeping busy.”
“As I understand it, Hank Randolph was a former soldier, shop teacher, and amateur artist. He was also incredibly lonely. Mr. Randolph was from a big family and joined the military as a young man. When he got out, he no longer had siblings or soldiers to room with.”
“He started any and every project he could to stay busy, until a new teacher arrived in school. That morning, in the teacher’s lounge, he was offering his pumpkin coffee concoction to anyone who would try it. The home economics teacher was new, Lydia Popov.”
“Hank was in love from the start. At first, they said she was receptive. They would have coffee together, go on dates. Rumors were starting, and that’s when everything changed. Lydia suddenly stopped having anything to do with him.”
“It broke his heart. Hank Randolph tried anything and everything he could to win her back. He would send her gifts, try and talk, but nothing worked. When anyone is desperate at love, there’s a pattern dear. First he plays it smart, then he goes from questionable to, well reckless.”
I laughed, Grandma meant that the more heartsick you are, the crazier you act. I remember hitting Tommy Calloway in the face with a black eye when I was five, because he stopped sitting beside me at recess. Tommy moved away that summer.
“One morning, we showed up at the school, and inside the classroom, was our stolen iron deer. It had been taken the night before, and that didn’t make sense, much less this part of it. That was weird enough, but the card on the deer was weirder.”
“He did not resort to any corny pun at least, I wish he had. If it hadn’t been for that stupid note we would have been confused, but not involved. That note almost got someone killed.”
She paused for effect, and I couldn’t wait. “What did it say? How did that note almost get someone killed?” Grandma laughed, she was enjoying telling this after all.
“I never quite figured out what it said, only what language it was written in. The note was in Cyrillic, or Russian. Jackson Silva knew that it was Russian, he had seen it used in signs for the props of the Brothers Karamazov in the school play.”
“I remembered laughing when he told me. ‘You’re kidding. Mr Randolph is from Texas, and they say Ms Popov is from New York. What would either of them be doing writing Russian?’ That’s the sentence that almost got him killed.”
“Jackson Silva could not stand to be laughed at back then. He jotted it down, and went to his Drama teacher, Mr. Chevalia. He confirmed it was Russian, and said that the words were very dangerous. Mr. Chevalia asked Jackson to grab the note. Jackson grabbed it just before Ms Popov returned from yelling at Mr Randolph.”
“We thought he got away with out her seeing him with it, but we were wrong. Her car tried to run him down that afternoon! I was standing beside him, and pushed him out of the way because he wasn’t looking.”
“The only thing was, even though I knew it was her car, I couldn’t see the driver, only their hand. It looked like a man’s hand, not a woman’s. I made the mistake of telling Jackson this. He insisted that it had to be Mr Randolph trying to stop us for her. He didn’t have a car.”
“There was no reason to not believe Jackson, so we devised a plan. We had to have proof, and we didn’t. You know in mysteries when the amateur detective tries to confront the murderer, well it only works in stories.”
“I tried to outsmart Mr Randolph into confessing while Jackson was recording him. Mr Randolph was angry, started yelling at me. Told me to mind my own business.“
Grandma looked at me. “I know how far fetched it all sounded, but the next day, Hank Randolph, Lydia Popov, and Evan Chevalia were all gone. Thinking about it later, we think Mr Randolph didn’t steal the deer after all, but Lydia Popov did. We think he was trying to persuade her to give it back to keep her out of trouble. The news at school was one was arrested, and the other two had turned in evidence against her.”
“The kids believed she was a Russian spy, though who knows what she was doing at our school. We assumed the other two went into witness protection. At any rate, no one ever saw the three of them again. I was so shaken up, I never wanted to see Jackson Silva again either.”
Grandma kissed my forehead like when I was a child and said go to sleep, as if. I realize how old that statement makes me sound by the way, but it was the way I felt. Something felt, if you’ll pardon another pun, hollow. I called Jack Irwin as soon as the sun was up, and within an hour I was having breakfast with him and Jackson Silva, quickly recounting Grandma’s version.
“Now that I know your version, and her version, why don’t you tell me the third version? You mentioned there were three sides to it, I want Lydia’s version.” I smiled for effect when I said it. That morning a little bit of research of my own came back before I left to join them. It yielded some interesting dividends.
Jackson Silva looked at me a minute, then at his grandson. He sat there silent for a moment or two. Finally he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Why not, it was declassified last year. So you want the Agent version?”
He just laughed. “That incident inspired me to join the military. It wasn’t the only reason, but it did set me on the path. Eventually I transitioned from the military to intelligence. Curiosity had me dig into the iron deer story. What I found was surprising. It was a story far different than I, or your Grandmother Nora thought.”
“Hank Randolph was exactly what he seemed, and who he claimed to be. Lydia Popov was not who Jackson Silva 1.0 thought she was. Her real identity was highly classified. ”
“There was no Russian spy, but there was a bank robbery. Special Agent Lydia Copland was undercover trying to catch the guy, and the group he was connected too.”
“The thief was low level, connected to some higher people by association. He was an out of work actor. The man sometimes taught drama in school, Mr Chevalia.”
“Mr Chevalia was too smart to keep the money on him, so he hid it. Lydia thought it was in the hollow part of the deer. She took it late one night to try and retrieve the money. Hank, who was lovesick, had showed up at her apartment that night to talk to her.”
“He saw her bringing it home. He assumed she had stolen it. Trying to be chivalrous he put it in her classroom, figuring she’d return it.”
“Hank didn’t know it was from a house connected to the students. It was Cyrillic, but Hank didn’t write it. That note is what Mr Chevalia dropped near the deer. Lydia had picked it up, but then she dropped it in her driveway.”
“Chevalia had written it in Cyrillic because he figured no one knew it. It was directions to where the money was actually hidden. Two were witnesses, one was arrested, but it wasn’t Lydia, as far as she was concerned, it was over that day, or at least she thought.”
I laughed. “Hank had other ideas didn’t he? Which one of them won?”
Jackson laughed. “Both of them. Lydia told Hank that she was an agent, and had no interest in him. According to the dossier, she was pretty convincing, but Hank was stubborn. She was about to walk out of the room when he said something silly, about their first argument, and she laughed.”
When she did, he said, ‘Lydia, you’ve got two choices, either marry me, or arrest me. If you don’t I’ll tell everyone in the world you work for the government, and you’ll be too famous to investigate anybody.”
“They argued, until her Chief called her in. ‘We can reactivate him through the military and ship him off somewhere if you want. Seems like a nice guy. Do you want me to make the call, or…”
“Lydia stormed out at him. ‘Chief are you crazy? I’ve got important work to do. Of course I don’t want …’ She stopped. The woman couldn’t bring herself to say anything.”
“Lydia was a loner. Her parents were gone at an early age, and she went to law enforcement like her Aunt. Her Aunt was gone now too. Lydia Copeland was alone in the world, or at least she had been.”
“Her Chief handed her a folder. ‘There’s another option. He’s going to be under this name’, I won’t share that part of course, ‘he could use a Mrs. The boy looks like he could use someone to take care of him. I can get you a job in the local police force if you’d like?’”
“The two of them got married, raised five kids, and I don’t know how many grandchildren. Besides getting the girl, Hank got the last laugh. The first year they were married she sent him to pickup a turkey for Thanksgiving. He came back with a venison roast instead, on an iron platter.”
I was smiling, but I still didn’t move. Neither did he. I don’t know if he knew I was bluffing, or if he thought I had more than just a feeling. Either way, I was playing my card.
This time he didn’t laugh. “I told her it wouldn’t work, I told her. Jack go call Nora, ask her to drive over.”
When she walked up, she didn’t acknowledge anyone but me. “Hello you precious little snoop. You’re just like your Grandfather. You may have my face, but his brain. Go ahead Jackson.”
He did. “It was about twenty years later. I had moved on from the iron deer. I think your Grandmother had. I know my Grace had, but one or two people hadn’t. Primarily, your Grandfather. Nora says the man loved a good mystery. He figured out what no one else had, the location of the money.”
“James realized the iron deer wasn’t where the money was, but the key to the mystery. He figured it had to be some clue that made everything else fit. She laughed at him when he went outside, but wasn’t when he came back with the key. It was hidden in a hollow part of the hoof, somewhere no one had looked.”
“James called the Bureau, and they assigned me to the case. No one including your grandparents knew I worked for them, it was a shock when I called. I came to town as a old school friend and fishing buddy. We could use that cover to go to the money.”
“It was at the dock. Mr Chevalia had one of the old lockers, paying rent on it from a distance for years. When we called to inquire about it, as procedure, the owners let him know.“
Jackson Silva finished. “That’s the real reason your Grandmother didn’t want to see me. Chevalia showed up at the dock, and tried to shoot your Grandfather. I managed to keep him from getting seriously hurt, and get him to the hospital. Then I went back for Chevalia.”
Grandma looked at me. “I know it wasn’t Jackson’s fault, but seeing him reminded me of how pitiful your Grandpa looked in that hospital room. It just was a hard memory, but that’s behind us now. What you have to do, is totally forget this ever happened.”
I looked at her astonished, trying not to say anything that would get me in trouble with her. “Grandma, what does it matter now? Hank and Lydia ended up happy, Chevalia went to prison, and all the money went back, why is it important who knows?”
Now she had a surprised look. “What do you mean Lydia and Hank ended up happy? What do you know that I don’t? Jackson?”
He looked at us both. “I had never told her what I told you. Back then it was still classified. Nora, we didn’t mess up Hank and Lydia’s life. If anything, our curiosity brought them happiness.”
“Had we not reported everything, and made a huge mess, Lydia Popov would have left town with two broken hearts, hers and and Hanks.” He quickly gave her the short version.
“They tell me that they thought fondly of us every Thanksgiving. We were what brought them together, a few bumbling teenagers, and an iron deer.”
Grandmother smiled. “All these years I had felt bad because I thought they were miserable. I suspected she loved him, and I knew he loved her.” Grandma looked at me and Jack, I mean Professor Irwin.
“They turned out as happy as me and James, and you and Grace. Jackson I’m sorry for being rude. Why don’t you and your Grandson join us for Thanksgiving, if you don’t have plans?”
He accepted with a smile. No, Mr Sillva and Grandma never dated, they were still too much in love with the memories of their spouses for that. Jack Irwin and I on the other hand did. Thanks in large part to the machinations of Grandma and Mr. Silva.
A year later, we got married on the weekend after Thanksgiving. It was beautiful. By the way, the deer stayed where Grandma wanted it too, we ended up moving into Grandmother’s big house. She ditched the condo in favor of the little guest house and we’re all together.
Mr. Silva bought Jack’s old place. It was easier than looking for anything else. Plus, it had been where he and his wife would stay while visiting the family the last few year’s holiday visits. Family as Grandma had said, is so important!
We had the wedding outside. We played Nat King Cole, and decorated in fall colors. There was pumpkin flavored mouse in the cake, and our wedding pictures, were taken, beside of the iron deer.
Now we had our own story with the deer to share with the pumpkin pie. Believe me, it’s much better than Uncle Gerold’s football story. Like most families, our story linked generations. I was thrilled at the thoughts of retelling it every November. I even had a title for it, Deer Thanksgiving.