Thanksgiving Day “1989” was wet and miserable, with the cold kind of November drizzle that doesn’t have the decency to become snow, nor the courtesy to yield to the ineffectual warmth of a mid-autumn sun. My hunting jacket was not quite soaked through, but my Austrian Loden pants were damp from the knees down. I carried a Browning A-5 12-gauge shotgun at port arms as I aimlessly moved through the brush, barely conscious of the task at hand. Technically speaking, I was hunting pheasants, without a dog, and without much hope of seeing anything on a day where forest life stays hunkered down against the elements. But the inside of my head was as bleak as my immediate surroundings and I was numb to my circumstances, as I walked aimlessly through fields and woods in the company of a beautiful, Belgian-crafted firearm.
All I could think of was getting the letter in the mail... The one that began: Riepe vs Riepe.
The first round of my first divorce knocked the wind out of me. I returned from a business trip to find the closets in the apartment empty. My wife, a former newspaper reporter and an accomplished writer in her own right, had taken our five-year-old daughter and fled to the sanctuary of her pit-bull of a mother. These were days of my early thirties, when I wrote for politicians and anyone who could guarantee the check would clear. This apparent lack of editorial ethic, coupled with other things (like a hair-trigger temper and the inability to see the other side of a philosophical argument) constituted my growing list of character flaws and genetic defects.
Yet as bad as things had apparently gotten, I didn’t think they were anywhere near the possibility of getting divorced. This was just one result of assuming that everyone on earth really thought like I did... Or that silence from the person closest to you means tacit agreement. But she was gone and there was a whole new set of rules in place for seeing my kid. This was going to be the first Thanksgiving — and the first really big holiday — on which my daughter would be shared between families. In an attempt to be magnanimous, I told Maryann that little Katherine could spent the holiday with her family.
Magnanimity does not come naturally to me, and I was sorry the instant I made the gesture. It felt like I was consigning some part of myself to a void that was to become a new unthinkable norm. My family used to be a lot closer than they are now, but that was when my mother was still the center of the universe. Each of her kids felt that unique gravitational pull that ended in a hot kitchen permeated with the aroma of holiday baking. It was my thought that at least half of many future Thanksgivings would start with Maryann, little Katherine, and myself stepping through the door, and completing the family circle around the table.
But now I would be arriving like a sprocket with missing teeth. Instead of showing up with the first grandchild, I would be the sole representative of domestic failure. And I couldn’t believe just how much I missed my daughter. My first thought was to spend the holiday alone, cooking for myself, in the apartment that held the relics of crashed dreams and the tokens of my inability to hold things together. A call to my mother quashed that.
“Don’t be an ass,” she laughed. “Jackie, you’re going to have to find a bright side to this. Here’s one... You’ll never have to spend another holiday with that desperate pain in the ass, Maureen, and that face she makes, like she’s smelling shit, every time you come into the room.” She was referring to my future former mother-in-law. “Just come down here... The sooner the better.”
My whole family lived in New Jersey then, and distance was relative. My mom’s house was inland from the shore, in Ocean county. (You could smell the Atlantic on most days, but you couldn’t hear it.) This put her 86-miles south of my place (on the Palisades, overlooking the Hudson). The horror of driving to the shore on the Jersey Turnpike (on Thanksgiving Day) was not to be seriously considered, and I left late the night before. The memory of some family traditions linger long after they have ceased to exist. I grew up on instant coffee... Yet on special occasions, my mom would set out an electric, chrome percolator, which brewed Folger’s coffee (just like the commercials). On this Thanksgiving day, the fragrance of hot coffee mingled with the aroma of coffee cake right out of the oven. And this was at 5am.
Yet despite the allure of sitting around sipping coffee in a warm kitchen, I felt I had to get out in the open... To release the doldrums that were nailing me to a cross of mental reality. It was barely first light when I carried my hunting gear out to car and headed off through the pine barrens. New Jersey is odd place. It has some of the ugliest open urban sores that you can imagine, yet harbors some of the most beautiful spots in the United States. These are Cape May, the countryside around Peapack-Gladstone, and some rare wildlife management units down in the pine barrens. It was to one one of these tracts deep in the scrub pine that I headed.
There were five or six other cars in the muddy parking area, and hunters —with the kind of dogs that point at pheasants in a highly accusatory manner — were heading out into fields planted in millet or other bird candy. They were all wearing florescent orange hunting gear that had LL Bean stamped all over it. I was wearing an old army fatigue jacket, under a bright orange New Jersey Department of Transportation vest I’d grabbed at a flea market for $2, and an orange watch cap. I had no dog and the other hunters looked at me like I was a bad joke.
“Fuck all you assholes,” I thought to myself, as I smiled and said, “Good morning.”
I had never been to this place before and just set out across a field that was loaded with knee-high underbrush. My mind was not exactly on the task at hand, and I might have left the shotgun at home for all the hunting I was doing. All I could think of was my first wife, and what my little girl was up to. She had a dog at her grandma’s... A huge golden retriever named “Duke,” who was like the dog world’s goodwill ambassador to humanity. At five-years-old, my daughter had the kind of personality that gave her the character of a circus midget. She could get into really good mischief, then amaze you with an observation that went far beyond her years.
I passed through several stands of hardwoods, wandered around some pines, and ended up in a sticker patch that must have covered three acres. Thorn bushes come in two varieties: the little ones that scratch skin, and the bigger ones, that scratch expensive Browning gunstocks. I had apparently located a thorn bush convention.
Surrounded by a sea of thorns, I sat on a rotting tree stump that was dead center in this maze of sharp edges. The rain started coming down in earnest and I felt as if my entire world was thorns and wet clothes. I must have sat there almost 20 minutes. I had long since ceased to hear the dog whistles of the other hunters, nor the cow bells on the collars of their dogs. I didn’t even know in what direction lay my Surburban, the first of five I would own.
But you can never tell what effect your troubles might have on the world around you, or when things might change. My odd behavior on the tree stump was annoying the living shit out of a huge cock-bird of a Chinese Ring Neck pleasant. He had a tail like a comet and an attention span shorter than mine. With that cackle peculiar to their species, he set off at a 40-mile-per-hour jog.
I was dumbfounded.
Then I started to chase him through the thorns like the late John Candy in one of his hysterical movies. I scratched my face, and my gun, and left my hat on a low-hanging branch. The pheasant was a sport, and cackled a taunt every now and again. He and I broke out into a clearing at the same time, and the bird sailed aloft with a final cackled obscenity. The Browning A5 (the BMW K75 of shotguns) barked once, and the cockbird was mine.
The other hunters were calling it a morning back in the parking lot. All they had to show for three hours of wading through the millet was a half-dozen smelly dogs and unfired firearms that would each require an hour of serious cleaning. I had a cockbird with a tail as long as a moose’s dick. I could feel their penetrating gazes, never congratulatory in New Jersey, as I put my stuff in the trunk.
My mother met me at the door.
“Did you catch anything,?” she asked.
“It’s not like fishing, Ma.”
Then she saw the pheasant.
“You shot a peacock,” she exclaimed. “How could you kill such a beautiful thing?”
“It pulled a knife on me,” I replied.
I cleaned and prepared the bird in the kitchen. My mother watched in fascination. It went into a much smaller roasting pan alongside the turkey in the oven.
“This will be done in less than an hour,” I said. “I’m going to take a nap.”
I awoke three hours later. The house was filled with the mixed aromas of baking, roasting, and pots steaming on the stove. In the kitchen, my mother and sister had just about finished the pheasant, leaving me three ounces of meat.
“That was delicious,” said my mom.
It was the first and only time I’d shot something for Thanksgiving dinner, and almost missed it. But gone were the doldrums... And they didn’t come back for a long time.
I really gave thanks for that pheasant.
I hope all of my Twisted Roads readers who are celebrating Thanksgiving in the US today have a warm and special holiday. I hope their tables are full, and I hope their families are there to share in it.
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2011