"Holiday Help Line, this is Matthew. How can I help you?"
"I’m going to slit my wrists," she says. "This is it! 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 the cranberry sauce and all the cooking and cleaning and the men sitting on their fat asses watching football and I swear, I’m going to do it, when the sweet potatoes are done I’m going to take the biggest knife I have and..."
Matthew’s pulse races as he casts a frantic glance around the cubicle farm for someone who’d been on the phones more than an hour. But there’s no one except the other newbies, and his supervisor had gone out for a smoke. He’s supposed to ask questions. But can’t remember which ones. He grabs his training manual. A corner of the binder catches on the shelf, a sheaf of notes from orientation slip out of the inside pocket and spill across his desk.
"Oh, crap," he mutters, and shoves papers back together. Then finds the page he needs. Step One. Clarification. "OK. Ma’am? You need to slow down and tell me what the problem is."
She lets out a soft sob. "It’s...it’s...the turkey. It’s ruined. I have twelve people coming to dinner, and it’s ruined, it’s horrible. I hate turkey anyway, why do I even bother making it? I have no idea what I’m doing!"
"OK," Matthew says, feeling his confidence grow. "Turkey. OK, 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, but I just wanted to make sure..." He thumbs through the index of his binder. "Turkey...turkey...uh...OK! Here it is!" Then refers back to his problem-solving cheat sheet. Step Three. Get to the root of the issue. "So...uh...what’s your relationship with poultry?"
Total silence. "My relationship with—? What are you, some kind of crackpot?"
"I’m just trying to get to the root of the issue."
"Issue? It’s just a turkey, and I don’t really think—"
Matthew nods. One of the first things they’d told him in orientation was that it was never just about the turkey. "I’m only trying to help you, ma’am." Step Four. Reassurance.
"Ma’am," she says in a mocking voice. He can hear the sweet crack of a bottle top. He imagines it to be a beer, would love one himself. But no drinking on the job. Never. He is 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."
"OK." He smiles. "Rita." The sound of her name makes him long for the warmth of his sister’s house, the family spilling in, hugging each other, laughing.
But that only reminds him of Patsy.
"Do you like turkey, Matthew?"
Crap. There is no Step Five. By now, the hotline program must assume that he’s resolved the problem and is ready to pick up the next call. They don’t say what to do when the caller starts asking him questions.
"Um...well, this isn’t really about me."
He hears the smack of solid against solid, possibly the beer bottle set down too hard against the counter. "It’s so boring!" Rita says. "Just because it’s Thanksgiving, I have to stick some big dead bird on the table? Why can’t we just have lasagna or a nice 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 considers the possibility that she’d gone off her medication. But there’s nothing about that in the index, and he can’t think of a sensitive way to ask. He shoves the pages aside. This is no way to truly help people—a white cubicle, a book, a blinking phone.
"Or a nice roast duck?" she says. "Why not a duck?"
"Why not a duck?" Patsy used to make roast duck for Christmas. Before the accident.
"It’s easy," Rita says. "It fits in the oven, brush it with a little apricot jam and you’re done."
He scribbles a note on his message pad. "Apricot jam?"
"Yeah, it’s really good. Don’t get the cheap stuff. Then just take a basting brush and cover the whole thing."
"Really? That’s all you need?"
"That’s it. Why, what do you do with duck?"
"Well...Patsy used oranges."
"Oranges." Rita laughs. "That’s a bit...unimaginative, don’t you think?"
Not the way Patsy made it. How he misses her little curlicues of zest, and scallions. The way she used to dress things up. People underestimate the value of a good garnish. God, he wishes he could wrench that beer through the phone. "We’re here to talk about you, Rita."
"Is Patsy your wife?"
"Fiancée. Well, ex-fiancée. She...left me. Two years ago today. Right after the accident." She was baking pies to bring 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. That, and the rippling muscles of the fireman who rescued her.
"Oh, you poor thing," Rita says. "That’s why you work the phones."
"I do what I can." Matthew’s voice cracks. He clears his throat. "Now about the turkey—"
"The hell with the turkey. I think we should be talking about your relationship with poultry. Where are you, anyway? 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?"
"I usually go to my sister’s. This year I couldn’t get away, and..." He gathers himself. "But again, this isn’t about me."
She lets out a long sigh. "Right. It’s not about you. Three quarters of you shrinks go into psychology to get your own therapy, but it’s never about you."
Matthew scrunches 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 probably all out of town. What are you, Matthew, a grad student? Intern?"
"Well. Intern. But not in psychology. I’m studying Culinary Arts."
"Yeah. I want to be a chef. I’m going to open my own restaurant one day." His heart beats faster. He’d never told anyone this before. Not even Patsy. She would have laughed, said he could barely boil water. She should see him now! "I’m only going to serve comfort foods. Pot roast, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, overstuffed sandwiches with those little furry toothpicks—"
"I’m talking to a chef."
"Well. Not yet. I need 72 more credits to graduate."
"Pardon me. I’m talking to someone who needs 72 more credits to become a...chef."
"Yeah, but I made 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. He’d been prepared for lumpy gravy. Stove fires. Stained tablecloths. But not for her. Over the holidays, they 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 frosts over. "Well, lady, I didn’t expect to work the how-not-to-screw-up-your-turkey hotline on Thanksgiving, so we’re even. Turkey," he snorts. "It’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 they still call. ‘How do I know when it’s done, do I put the stuffing inside the bird or not, what do I do with the guts in the plastic bag,’ every little thing."
"Guts in the plastic bag—" Her voice shrinks. "This isn’t the Holiday Stress Line?"
Crap. He should have known that this was one of those calls his supervisor had warned him about. The listings are 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 should have given her the number right from the start. But he thought he could help her. Obviously he’s worthless at that, too.
"No," he sighs. "Sorry. I’ll get you that number."
"No—you don’t have to. I’m feeling better now. Really. I mean, it’s only a turkey, right?"
He smiles. "Your sister-in-law’s dog really chewed on the leg?"
"Only a little," Rita says. "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."
"I seem to do better with humans."
"I seem to do better with food."
"Oh, stop," Rita purrs. "You helped me."
"Come for dinner, Matthew. Please? If you have to work late, maybe you could still come by for dessert? No one should be alone today. I made three kinds of pie. You like pie?"
He scratches his missing left eyebrow. "Not especially."
"Not even apple? With vanilla ice cream?"
Patsy never made apple. And never a la mode. Matthew fumbles for his pen. "Where do you live?"