Bailey White's Thanksgiving Story: 'Call It Even'

Nov 24, 2011

It's been an All Things Considered Thanksgiving tradition since 1991— a Bailey White original short story. Over the years, White's stories have included tales about a rose queen, a telephone man, an ostrich farmer and a wife exacting revenge. This year, White presents "Call It Even." It's about a shy painter who moves from Florida to Vermont and wants to feel like he fits in — so he raises a dozen turkeys.

When he first came to live in Vermont, he thought in watercolor names: stumbling through a thicket of willows to come out at a swirl of water in the bend of a stream, he thought viridian green and cobalt blue; seeing the flanks of a row of Jersey cows in the dusty sunlight of the dairy barn at the Tunbridge Fair, he thought burnt sienna and Vandyke brown; the inky late afternoon shadows in the woods behind the Goodenough barn – Winsor green and alizarin crimson.

He had built a successful career for himself in Florida as a portrait painter, selling commissioned watercolor pictures of rich people's pretty little children, high society ladies, and fat businessmen whose jowls he slimmed with skillful shading. Then three things happened at once: He turned 60, the governor vetoed the state legislature's funding for public radio stations, and he was handed a certified check for $10,000 for a 3-by-4 foot painting of an ugly flat-faced black-and-white dog named Poochie.

"I'm getting old and fat," he told his agent. "It's my last chance. I want to paint in the open air — rocks, farm fields, the Green Mountains. I want to live in a state I can be proud of."

"Cows," said his agent, like Mr. Robinson said, "plastics."

It was a bold move, and for a while the painter felt brave and proud. In June, he bought a used Subaru and a tiny white house in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, between the Tibbits farm and the Goodenough farm. He sold his first painting of the Goodenough barn for $5,000. He made friends. He drank beer with the pastor of Beth Page Church at Claire's Restaurant on Friday nights, his neighbor Albert Goodenough took him fishing, and though she never knew it, he fell in love with the beautiful woman at Air Foods Farmstand who sold him King Richard leeks. Rose madder genuine, he thought, looking at her glowing face over a pile of green and yellow beans. But he was shy, and all he could do to express his feelings was to leave extra money in the cash box, and eat a lot of bok choy.

If he had to pinpoint it, he would say that it was on the day in early fall when Albert Goodenough took him fishing on the upper Connecticut River that he began to feel his powers recede. Albert Goodenough was so kind to take the time to set him up in a good spot to paint.

"Yep," said Albert Goodenough, "you got your distant mountains, you got your line of trees, you got your bend in the stream." Then he waded off into the river with his fly rod.

The painter should have been proud at the end of the day with his three pictures – a classic little landscape with the water very nicely done, a grasshopper in the style of Janet Marsh, and a stylish quick study of a rainbow trout in Albert Goodenough's wet hands with a lot of white left in. But on the long ride home, in Guildhall, Albert Goodenough stopped the truck, backed up, got out, and picked up a dead bird beside the road. He opened his pocketknife, skinned it, threw its naked carcass into the bushes – "Something will enjoy that tonight," he said. From a bin in the back of the truck he took a fistful of salt and smeared it over the birdskin, wrapped it up in a grocery bag, and set it between them on the seat. "This winter Bob and I will tie some flies off of that," he said, "bead head pheasant tail nymphs."

That night after supper, when the painter looked at his three pictures, he felt uneasy. "I paint all these things, but I don't know what I'm looking at," he thought.

The next day he set his gas-powered self-propelled lawn mower out by the side of the road with a FREE sign and drove into town and bought an old-fashioned reel mower at Aubochon. All afternoon he pushed and shoved it over his lawn, enjoying the clickety sound and the shower of fragrant grass. This is the Vermont way, he thought. He was edging around the rock wall and feeling very pleased with himself when he heard an unfamiliar snicker snack, and here came Albert Goodenough perched up on the little seat of an elegant old mowing machine, pulled by two great golden horses. Clickety click, thump thump thump, they made their way straight and true to the back of the field. Then the horses seemed to know just what to do. They arched their necks, chomped at the bit, and crossing their huge feet one in front of the other, they made a right angle turn. Albert Goodenough nodded as they passed, touched the bill of his cap.

The painter stood and watched in wonder all afternoon, smelling the newly mown hay, and now and then the horses and the oiled harness. It was the most beautiful thing he had seen yet in Vermont, a magnificent and ancient sight, but he didn't get out his paints. He just stood and stared and later sat and leaned his back against a rock until after dark. "Damn," he said.

That night, he lay in his bed feeling the puny ache in his legs. "I'm nothing but a flabby, freckle-faced, bald-headed little man from Florida," he thought.

The next day when he stopped for his beans at Airfood Farmstand, the beautiful woman was loading corn into the back of a truck. "For the community dinner at the church," she said. It was the beginning of a little conversation. People in Vermont did not talk and talk and talk about nothing at all, and he felt honored when she started telling him about the farmstand. She leaned against the truck, brushed corn silk off the front of her skirt, tucked her hair behind a rosy ear. This was their third year, she told him. They were doing better now that they had the cold room, though it was such an expense.

"But you're giving away food," he said.

"Oh, this time of year we have more corn than we can sell," she said. The afternoon light struck her face in such a way that she seemed to shine, as if she had a tiny light bulb in the roof of her mouth.

"And what do you do?" she asked.

"I," he stammered – but instead of what he usually said, with some pride – "I am a watercolor painter, mostly portraits," he opened his mouth and he heard himself say, "I am a medical illustrator."

"A medical illustrator!" said the pastor that Friday night at Claire's. They were drinking a new beer that tasted like grapefruit. "Why in the world did you say that?"

"It came out of a wish to seem useful," said the painter. "I can never catch up in Vermont. I put 10 extra dollars in the Airfoods cash box, and she gives away $500 worth of corn. I mow my little patch of lawn with my new push mower, and here comes Albert Goodenough mowing a seven-acre field with horses that look like Pegasus. Vermont!" he said. "They grow their own food! They brew their own beer! They catch fish with birds! And I come up here from Florida with my little paint box and in 15 minutes I dab up a picture of something that evolved through hundreds of years of ingenuity and toil. I'm ashamed of myself."

The pastor was a wise man. He did not offer trite comfort about the value of art in our lives. "I know exactly what you need to do," he said. "You need to raise about a dozen turkeys."

On a Sunday after church in mid-September, when the first swamp maples fired up the edges of ponds and streams, the pastor came out to Tibbets Road with his truck full of tools and poultry books. "We're going to build you a turkey house," he said. The painter learned to frame a wall and figure the pitch of a roof. Albert Goodenough knew a man with a portable sawmill, and on a blustery Sunday afternoon when the maple woods were brighter than the sky they put siding on the turkey house – flitches, with a wavy edge and a strip of bark. By November, the leaves were gone and the tamarack trees gave off the last glow of the year. Albert Goodenough brought a beautiful paneled maple door out of his barn for the turkey house, and some old windows with tiny panes. And there it stood, a neat, tight little house, sitting straight as a pin with a row of south-facing windows and the door in the east end.

On a snowy day in late November, the painter went next door to see Albert Goodenough with the delicate matter of payment – the door, the windows, a roll of wire, the hours of work. Albert Goodenough was in the barn sharpening his knife on a stone. A deer was hanging in the doorway by its back legs.

"That's just good neighbors," said Albert Goodenough. Then he turned to the deer, there was a graceful sweep of his arm, a measured step back, and a cascade of steaming offal fell away from the deer and slumped into a washtub between its front legs. Not one drop fell on the ground or on Albert Goodenough's boots. "Tell you what," Albert Goodenough said. "Next year you bring one of those turkeys over to my house and have Thanksgiving dinner with me and my family. Then we'll call it even."

That night it snowed — the first real snow of the year. The painter went from window to window looking out – snow on the field, snow on the barn roof, snow piled up on tree branches. A medium-strength wash of Payne's gray smoke rose against a phthalo blue sky. Snow drifted up to the windows of the little turkey house. The painter slept under three blankets and a quilt with a wool hat pulled down over his ears.

Long before daylight, he opened his eyes to see a strange orange light sweep across the bedroom ceiling. He crept to the window, and there came Albert Goodenough heading up the driveway with a snow plow on his truck. He nodded once, touched the bill of his ear-flapped cap. The painter sat down on the edge of his bed and stared at the silly slippers on his pale feet. "We will never call it even," he thought.

It had been his intention to paint from photographs during the winter months, and in January he sat in the middle of his snow-lit studio and looked at his photographs: Albert Goodenough's barn door, the Airfoods woman holding a bunch of beets, Albert Goodenough's Belgian horses.

For several days, he sat in his swivel chair with his blank paper taped to the table in front of him and his jar of water at his side. One morning he found a little drowned mouse curled up at the bottom of the jar. The next day he did not get out of bed all day long, but lay with his feet on a hot water bottle, reading about turkeys.

In March, he took his few little summer paintings to his agent in Florida. "This is it?" his agent asked. "Where are the cows?"

When he got back to Tibbets Road, though it didn't look like anything that could be called spring, it was time to order his turkeys. "Narragansett, a remarkably attractive bird," said the Murray McMurray catalog. "Known for their calm disposition and early maturation... limited supply, not a common variety."

He brought home a cardboard box from the grocery store and set it up in the kitchen under a heat lamp. From the hardware store he got a Mason jar waterer, a feeder, and a bag of Game Bird Special. From Albert Goodenough, he got maple shavings.

On a cold April morning, the post office called at 7:30. "Your turkeys are here." He turned the car heater on high and brought his turkeys home through a light snow.

In the kitchen, he carefully lifted each turkey out, cupped in his two hands, dipped its beak in warm water, and set it up on its wobbly legs. At first they just stood there peeping plaintively — a high pitched, piping, long held note. But he set the lamp closer and they settled peacefully down on their knobby elbows in the circle of warmth with their feet sticking out from under them, and stared up at him with all their round eyes, cocking their heads from side to side. He sat by the box and stared back at them, now and then reaching in to touch a little toe or stroke a little striped head.

On the morning of the third day, he found two turkeys dead and stomped flat in a corner of the box. He hauled home an eight-sided cantaloupe box from behind the grocery store, burned the old box and shavings in the backyard, and set up the new box beside his bed so he could hear in the night if the peaceful chirruping turned into the shrill cries of distress. The turkeys' necks grew long and lumpy, and little scruffy looking tufts of feathers poked out through their down.

On an unseasonably warm day in late April, he fashioned a little ring out of chicken wire and netting in a sunny spot in the font yard, and one by one he carried the turkeys outside. Immediately they knew just what to do, scratching in the dirt and joyfully flopping over each other to catch flies out of the air. Albert Goodenough came over and squatted by the pen. "Fine looking birds," he said.

That afternoon, the painter sat down in his studio and painted his first picture since the summer river trip – Albert Goodenough's horse, its glowing flanks built up in layers of glazing.

After that, he took the turkeys outside on every sunny mid-day, moving the pen to new ground each evening. The colors in the woods changed from gray to gold. Apple trees bloomed in orchards, the meadows were a carpet of dandelions, and budding willows colored the low places a watery sap green.

Maybe the pastor was right and it was the turkeys that did it, or maybe it was the change of season. Every day he painted from his photographs, and on the June day when the turkeys spent their first night in the turkey house he painted outside all day.

In July, some kind of scourge swept through. First one turkey was sick and gasping, its eyes listless, then another and another. Six turkeys died within a week. The painter raked all the shavings out of the house. He sprayed the walls, floor, and ceiling with disinfectant and spread new shavings. He took each turkey into the kitchen and washed its feet and head with antibacterial soap. "All I need is one of you," he told them, "for Albert Goodenough's Thanksgiving."

The turkeys were so well trained by now they did not need a pen. They were truly that most fashionable of fowl – free range. Every morning he turned them out and they roamed the woods and fields. At night, when he called them, they came running and gliding to land at his feet and follow him to the safety of their roost in the tight little house for the night.

But freedom is dangerous, and one by one the turkeys got caught and eaten – an owl, a fox. "That was a fisher cat," said Albert Goodenough, examining a mutilated carcass. By October, there was only one turkey left, a gobbler just coming into its magnificence.

With all its fellows gone, this turkey now saw the painter as its flock, and stayed close. It followed him on his walk every morning, puttering around catching grasshoppers. In the late afternoon when the painter sat at his easel in the raking light the turkey sat right down by his side and they both gazed out at the same scene. Sometimes the turkey would cock its head and turn up its little eye to look the painter in the face, as if he had just said something challenging. Now and then it would jump up on the painter's shoulder and settle there, watching the progress of the work.

The beautiful woman from Airfoods Farmstand stopped by one day. They stood together and watched the turkey strut and drum, turning itself this way and that in front of her so the sun would flash from its feathers. "That is the prettiest sight I've ever seen," she laughed. "Narragansett is my favorite of all those heirloom turkeys."

"Is your oven big enough?" said the pastor. "Beth Page Church has a big commercial range. Roast him in the church oven."

"You are the one," the painter said to his turkey.

On the day before Thanksgiving, Albert Goodenough came over with his hatchet in a leather sheath. "You got your water hot?" he asked. "Where's your stump?"

The turkey was so tame from all the handling it had had in its life – the antibacterial baths, the moves in and out of box and house, the easy camaraderie. When the painter gathered it into his arms it curved itself against his chest and laid its neck along his shoulder.

"This won't be bad at all," said Albert Goodenough, and it wasn't. His hatchet was so sharp and his swing so true. There was one solid thunk as the blade of the hatchet bit into the stump. What had been a cherished life was turning into something just as precious – food.

Nothing he had ever painted had given him such a feeling of pride and accomplishment. The satisfaction came from deep inside and it lasted all day, through the plucking, the gutting, the singeing, and the tedious picking of pinfeathers, and into the last light as he sat with his aching back, pulling primary feathers from the wing tips with a pair of pliers. At last he laid the bird into a washtub of icy brine, weighted down with a rock, and went to bed.

Before daylight on Thanksgiving morning, he poured off the brine, dried the turkey, rubbed a paste of butter and rosemary under the skin, and salted the cavity. He drove the turkey to the church oven through the gray bitter cold dawn.

For the first hours he sat by the stove as the turkey roasted, dozing off over church bulletins. Half in a dream, he imagined his arrival on Albert Goodenough's doorstep that afternoon. It would be a Norman Rockwell scene, the eager scrubbed faces of children, the old dog curled up by the woodstove. How the door would open on him and the turkey, how Albert Goodenough would step back and throw his hands up, his face wreathed in admiration. How the light would catch a sheen on the turkey's breast and glint off the edge of the ironstone platter.

But where was that special antique ironstone platter with the gold-painted edge? The turkey still had an hour to go. He drove home through a light snow to Tibbets Road.

When he got back, the whole town smelled like a squash casserole. The stores were all closed and there were no cars downtown, but Church Street was full of carts trundling back and forth between Beth Page and St. John's. In the church parking lot, men and women were stacking Styrofoam containers into the backs of vans and trucks.

The kitchen of Beth Page Church was full of people wearing aprons and rubber gloves. "Overflow!" a woman called out to him. "It must be the flood, we have never had a turnout like this for Community Thanksgiving! People have brought food all the way from Warren! Alice!" she called, "here's a new volunteer, do you need a loader or a server?"

And there she stood in the middle of the church kitchen, his Airfoods friend, with a white paper hat on her head, holding a great knife with a carbon steel blade. "Happy Thanksgiving!" she said. "Are you here to help?"

"I've come for my turkey," he said.

"Your turkey?" she said. "Your Narraganset turkey was in this oven?" Her shoulders slumped and her eyes grew wide.

"My oven wasn't big enough," he said.

"We served that turkey," she said. "I thought it was a community Thanksgiving turkey. I think it went to Adamant."

He sank into a chair, his elbows on his knees. She knelt down in front of him. "I am so sorry," she said. "I am so, so very sorry. It was a beautiful bird." But she was still holding the knife with the long black blade, and the combination of remorse and the fluorescent light of the church kitchen made her face look ashen and grainy, and he could not be comforted.

Of course, Albert Goodenough made nothing of it, and there was plenty of food. Someone had brought a smoked haunch of moose. It became a joke about the turkey. Men slapped him on the back, women hugged him.

"You lost your turkey!"

"Some people in Adamant are smacking their lips tonight!"

One wag got out a calculator and figured up how much the turkey had cost per pound, counting the materials for the house and his and the pastor's and Albert Goodenough's man hours. "Amortize it!" he said. "It won't be as expensive next year!"

Anthropologists say that in primitive societies, joking is a mark of acceptance of a newcomer into an established social group. And he had to laugh at himself, how much he had loaded onto that turkey.

"There's nothing I can do about it," he said to himself. "There is not a turkey in the world that can turn me into a Vermonter."

That night he went home and began his most ambitious painting. Bare trees with pale trunks – raw sienna dried bone hard, and a wash of lampblack – a woods so deep and dark it seemed as if light would never come again. He gently scraped the edge of a sharp knife over the paper –snow. And last, with a flat brush, he added little curling wisps of ivory black, a few last turkey feathers drifting over a frozen ground – Thanksgiving.

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