Authors: Bru Baker
By Bru Baker
Carson is a California transplant settling into life in the Windy City. On his first Christmas away from home, he assures his worried family he’ll be having a real Christmas dinner.
Recent culinary school graduate Tom Stockton earns some extra money giving out cooking advice at the Talk Turkey hotline. Tom’s honeyed voice and sharp sense of humor are attractive to the lonely Carson, and Carson finds reasons to call the hotline again and again. But on Christmas Eve, Carson’s call is less playful and more panicked with the big meal looming. Carson is just looking for advice, but Tom has a surprise in store that might lead to much more.
be that difficult. People had been doing it for centuries. Longer, even. Man had probably started roasting turkeys over the fire as soon as someone realized the ugly buggers were edible.
Not that the pristinely wrapped turkeys in front of him bore any resemblance to the sort of turkeys he was used to seeing. These weren’t crispy-skinned and steaming, with drumsticks and wings held aloft with string, ready-to-be-carved turkeys. They were vaguely ovoid-shaped and covered in bright yellow netting that didn’t look the slightest bit appetizing.
Did he need a turkey with a timer in it? How would that even work? Wasn’t that what a meat thermometer was for?
Carson paced in front of the display. What size did he need? They seemed to range from big to enormous, and they’d always gotten two of the enormous ones at home. But had they come from the grocery store? He didn’t remember. Turkeys always just appeared in his parents’ refrigerator a few days before Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now that he was thinking about it, none of the turkeys had ever had the weird netting stuff on them. Did that mean he was in the wrong place? Where else could you buy a turkey?
Carson sighed and fidgeted with the phone in his hand. He could solve this easily by calling his mom. One little phone call and he’d know exactly what size to get and what to do with it. But then she’d be worried about him spending Christmas Day alone, and that was the whole reason for being in the turkey aisle in the first place.
Moving a few days after Thanksgiving had been a stupid idea. Now he was stuck all the way across the country, too new in his job to take time off to go home to celebrate with his family like he usually did. And his mother was leaking anxiety all over her e-mails and Skypes, even though Carson could tell she was trying hard not to.
He was a grown man, for God’s sake. Why did it matter if he was spending a holiday alone eating a Hungry-Man dinner? Sure, it wasn’t ideal, but he’d been in Chicago less than a month. He didn’t have any friends to speak of, and all of his family was on the West Coast. He expected he’d have a few rough times, and this was just one of them.
But she’d been so happy when he’d told her he had plans for Christmas. He’d hedged and avoided outright lying when she asked who they were with, making noncommittal sounds as she made assumptions about coworkers and neighbors and all these friends she seemed to think he was making. In reality, his plans involved Netflix and something he could microwave. But then she’d started sending him recipes and Pinterest boards about holiday decorations, and it had all spiraled out of control.
It was tempting to just snatch a picture off the Internet and send her that, but she was surprisingly computer literate these days, and there was a not insignificant chance he’d be found out.
So here he was, standing in front of a daunting display of turkeys in Safeway because his mother had made him promise he’d send her a picture of the turkey he was making.
Damn it all.
A cheerful-looking sign on the wall showed a beautifully dressed and perfectly browned turkey resting on a kitchen counter, with a group of people visible through a doorway, all gathered around a Christmas tree, laughing. “Hosting this holiday? Spend your time entertaining, not with your entrée. Call the Talk Turkey hotline for tips!”
Carson hesitated for a moment. He wasn’t the kind of guy who would call a turkey hotline. Was he? The alternative was his mother, though, and that was even less appealing. He grimly entered the number into his phone book. That alone was demoralizing enough. He’d call from the privacy of his own apartment.
L ride later, he was standing amid the myriad of unpacked boxes in his kitchen, waffling over whether or not to call the hotline. It was probably a question he could answer himself with a little googling.
In fact, it definitely was. He should do that. He hesitated, his finger over the browser icon. Or he could call. The Internet was full of misinformation. And it had nothing to do with the fact that Carson hadn’t spoken to anyone since he’d left the office on Friday.
Not a bit.
He sighed and called the number.
“Thanks for calling the Talk Turkey hotline. This is Tom.”
The voice was like velvet. Deep and soothing. Carson’s frazzled nerves instantly calmed, and his tense shoulders released a bit. Did they train the hotline operators to talk like that? Surely anyone who was desperate enough to call a turkey hotline was in a bad way. And really, Tom?
“Tom,” he said, disbelieving. “Like Tom Turkey? Is that what they call every guy who works there?”
The husky chuckle that came across the line gave Carson goosebumps. “One, I’m the only guy who works here. And two, my name really is Tom. Thomas Alexander Stockton. But, yes, I do get my fair share of Tom Turkey jokes.”
It was Carson’s turn to laugh. “Maybe you should go by Thomas instead. It makes it less obvious.”
Tom hummed thoughtfully. “The only people who call me Thomas are my mom and my grandma, and even then it’s only when I’m about to be smacked. I don’t think I could shake the association.”
“Well, I suppose the jokes are inevitable, then.”
That earned him another throaty chuckle. Carson swallowed hard, his chest tingling.
“I’ve gotten used to them,” Tom said dismissively. “Can I get your name and a brief description of your turkey problem so I can give you a better customer service experience?” The silky, easy cadence of his voice had taken on a bit of stilted hesitation.
Carson wondered if he was reading off a script now. How starved for human contact was he that he’d melted because the person who’d answered a turkey hotline sounded hot and interested?
He cleared his throat. “It’s not so much a problem as a question. Uh, and my name is Carson Saxton.”
There was a beat of silence on the other end punctuated by the sound of typing. “Thanks, Mr. Saxton. We don’t record our calls here at the Talk Turkey hotline, but we do keep a customer profile so we can help you easier in the future if you call with further questions. Do you mind if I get some basic information from you?”
Seriously? That seemed like overkill for a turkey producer’s troubleshooting hotline. Whatever.
“Call me Carson, please. Go ahead.”
Tom’s voice warmed back up, and even though he didn’t know how he could be so sure, Carson was positive he was smiling. “Great. Carson, can I ask where you are located?”
“Chicago. Do you need an address?”
“If you don’t mind giving it to us. Some people don’t, and we don’t strictly need it. But I can send a turkey prep booklet and some recipes to you if you do.” He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “And a few coupons. Not everyone gets those. Rude callers only get the turkey prep book.”
Carson laughed. This guy was unreal. It didn’t say good things about his own social life or mental state that this call with Tom was the most fun he’d had in a month or two. He really needed to put more effort into getting out there and making some friends.
He gave Tom his address without peeking at the reminder he’d jotted on the edge of his desk calendar, feeling proud at finally getting it down. He’d had to give it to half a dozen other customer service operators since he’d moved, but this was the first time it felt natural coming off his tongue.
“Is this nine one six number the best way to reach you?”
Carson startled a bit at that, but of course the Talk Turkey hotline would have caller ID. He relaxed back into the chair he’d splurged on last week during his mammoth IKEA outing. It was as far out into the suburbs as he’d ventured since he’d gotten here, and it had been what his father would call two trips in one—first and last. As overwhelmingly crowded as the city was, the suburbs were infinitely worse.
“Yeah. It’s my cell, but I don’t have a landline here.”
And he probably wouldn’t get one. Nor was he willing to give up his old number just yet. He’d probably have to at some point, but it was a nice reminder of home right now.
Tom made a nonverbal sound of agreement. “I’ve been gone four years and I still have my five one zero,” he admitted.
That sent a pleasant shock through Carson. He’d met a few California transplants since he’d arrived in Chicago, but no one who was from northern California like him.
“Oakland,” Tom said. “And nine one six, that’s San Jose?”
“Nice. How long have you been in the Windy City?”
Carson glanced down at the calendar. Notes about cable installations and furniture deliveries were scrawled all over the page, starting just after the first of the month. “I drove up after Thanksgiving.” It was kind of a waste to have a car in the city. He hadn’t realized how little he’d use it. It was nice to have it handy so he could take those death-defying trips to the suburbs for the mall and IKEA when he wanted, but he was really happy with his neighborhood and all the little shops and restaurants within walking distance. He’d even gotten used to taking the L to work. Plenty of people in his office drove, but the monthly parking was higher than his grocery bill.
Tom whistled. “That’s quite a drive.”
“How long since you left Cali?”
It was a completely inappropriate question to be asking a stranger on a turkey helpline, but Carson didn’t want the conversation to end. If there was a little give-and-take, he could pretend he’d met Tom in a bar and was just chatting him up, not that he was a customer calling about turkey.
“Ah, hmm,” Tom hedged, but just as soon as Carson opened his mouth to apologize for prodding, Tom spoke again. “I had to count, and it took me by surprise that it took two hands,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve been gone for almost seven years. Moved away for college and never went back.”
Assuming Tom started college right after high school like Carson did, they were only a year apart in age. Most of the people he met at the Chicago Stock Exchange were a good ten to twenty years older than him, and the ones who weren’t all had busy social lives that left no time—or inclination—to take their California transplant of a coworker out after hours.
Most of them belonged to a slew of clubs and young professionals groups that kept them out late every night, drinking and eating at Chicago’s upper-crust restaurants. Carson did okay as a systems analyst, but he didn’t make the kind of bank that the traders did. Not that he’d join them even if he could afford it. He preferred staying in.
“So, Carson from California, shall we talk turkey?”
Carson grimaced. “That was terrible.”
“It’s my one joy in this job,” Tom said, unrepentant and cheerful. “Did you have a question about turkey preparation? Or need a recipe? We’re—” There was a pause and a soft rustle. “—two weeks from Christmas, which is when I assume you’ll be cooking your bird?”
Carson coughed. “Yeah. But I’ve never cooked a turkey before, so I’m a little worried. And I have no idea what size I should get. Hence me calling.”
“A good question,” Tom said, his tone reassuring and confident. “I can definitely help you with that. How many people are you feeding?”
The tiny warmth that had been building in Carson’s chest died. “Just me.” He braced himself for Tom stuttering through an apology, or worse, some sort of overbright assurance that spending a holiday alone was perfectly normal.
“Well, I have a really important question for you,” Tom said without missing a beat, his tone just as chipper as it had been a minute ago. “How do you feel about leftovers?”
He’d assumed he’d be drowning in them, actually. And that was fine. His new apartment had a decent-sized refrigerator with a large freezer, so he’d be able to make his turkey last for months, if necessary.
“I’m amenable,” he said, his stomach unclenching from his worry over Tom’s reaction to his pitiful confession that he was on his own for Christmas.
“Good. If you’re attached to the idea of roasting a whole bird yourself, I’d go with an eight-to-ten pounder. That will feed you well and give you a fair amount of leftovers. If you want less, I’d recommend just getting a turkey breast to cook. Of course, if you’re some sort of turkey fanatic who wants to be eating it till Easter, get a bigger bird.”
Carson laughed. “Eight to ten sounds about right. That was the smallest size I saw at the store. I just wasn’t sure if that would be a ridiculous amount of meat or not.”