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The Man Who Ate Too Much

Let the tale be told.

"A turducken is a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken..."

{Let the Tale Be Told}

The roads this past November were particularly treacherous. In fact, more than once I considered turning around to drive back home. I owed it to the others to make it to Stonelodge for I knew Lumley, Whitt, and Landers would be there. Twenty years ago after winning a substantial jackpot in a national lottery we bought the house made of stone as a sort of retreat. Four bedrooms, two baths, a great room complete with hardwood floors, animal heads on the wall, and a fireplace we could stand in shoulder to shoulder.

And of course, the Winstons. Evelyn and Dale—our caretakers when we weren’t there. They lived in a modest cottage on the acreage next to Stonelodge. A white picket fence running from State Route 25 to the edge of the bluff overlooking Lake Huron separated the two domiciles. A swinging gate opened over a walkway of flat stones to allow passage between the two yards.

None of us four lived at Stonelodge. We were free to come and go as we felt. However, we had a standing commitment to meet the Saturday after Thanksgiving every year. No guests, no spouses or significant others. Just us and the Winstons. The purpose? Well, anyone who has felt the soul melting dread of having to spend a holiday dinner with relatives who have opposing views on politics, religion, and sports understands why we four needed to get away. We sit in front of a fire, drink our bourbons, and smoke a cigar.

We tell our stories.

It was out of respect to the maxim hand-chiseled into the mantle face long before we bought the property.

‘Let the Tale be Told’

We based our stories on things that happened to us or something we observed. On rare occasions the story may be a work of fiction. After sharing our tales, we voted for the best one told, making sure to recuse ourselves from our own. The winner took home a pewter mug that hung on a wooden peg on the west end of the mantle. Like the engraving, the heavy, old mug came with the house.

I was not the last to arrive. Lumley and Whitt sat at the Alcove Bar, a small room off the foyer. The space was paneled in a darkly stained shiplap of cherry wood. The bar itself was a zinc topped, L shaped peninsula that matched the walls. Mr. Winston served up frothy whiskey sours while Mrs. Winston showed me into the house.

“Wasn’t quite certain you’d make it this year, Mr. Morrison,” Mrs. Winston said.

“I wasn’t certain I would either. How are you, Mrs. Winston?”

“Strong as iron, determined as the wind.”

“Do you ever rest?”

“Rest is for the weak. Here they are.”

She opened the interior French doors otherwise protecting my friends from the gusts of the polar vortex tormenting us. Lumley and Whitt turned to me.

“Men,” I said.

“Men,” they said together. We each tapped the thumb end of our right fist to our foreheads. A secret salute amongst four young men who once stocked boxes in a mall shoe store for a boss who continually called them stupid and knocked on his head to indicate how empty theirs were. Those cocky young men pooled their money and bought that winning ticket. The thumb-tap-to-the forehead originally mocked old Mike but then it became a bonding measure amongst them.

“That’s some weather you brought, Morrison.”

I left an open stool between us. “You might say the weather brought me, Whitt.”

Mrs. Winston took my hat and coat. “If this weather keeps up you’ll be here a day or two longer than you bargained for.”

“I hope you’ve sufficiently stocked the pantry,” Lumley said. “Otherwise Whitt here might go all Donner party on us. Didn’t that ancestry DNA test link you to a survivor of that unfortunate event?”

Whitt’s retort was a bit sardonic. “I believe it was more like a clickbait quiz on social media.”

Mrs. Winston scoffed. “The good Lord fed the masses with five loaves and a few fish. I’ll work miracles with canned beans and biscuits.” She marched from the room.

“I don’t doubt that,” Whitt said. He gave her the fist-double-tap salute. Lumley and I did the same.

“Would you care for a whiskey sour, Mr. Morrison?” Winston asked.

“Oh, they’re good, Mo,” Lumley said.

“Who am I to turn down an offer like that? Winston, catch me up.”

“Of course sir.”

I scooped a handful of spicy snacks from a bowl and crammed them into my mouth.

“Miss a meal today, Morrison?” Whitt asked.

“Carb loading,” I explained. Winston handed me the whiskey sour. “Let the tale be told!”

“To all who are present!” Lumley and Whitt raised their glasses.

Two rounds later we had yet to be joined by our friend Landers. I voiced concern whereupon we all checked our phones for messages or voicemails. When Mrs. Winston came in from snow-blowing the driveway, she told us a county snow plow driver stopped to tell her the state police had closed then Interstate. We each sent a message to Landers to tell him not to risk coming to Stonelodge. An hour later there was still no response or appearance of Landers.

Mrs. Winston served us bowls of chili and homemade butter rolls. We finished the meal, helped clear the dishes to the kitchen, and retired to the great room where Winston had built a fire. He stood in the center of the room behind a rolling cart of Old Fashion glasses and three different bourbons. The Dant, of course, along with a maple-bacon infused whiskey and a dark, spicy one. We told Winston what we preferred. Once he served, Whitt thanked Winston and said he and Evelyn could call it a night.

Now just the three of us, Stonelodge suddenly seemed too large and empty and somewhat cold regardless of the roaring fire.

“What do we do about the stories?” Lumley asked.

“We could still tell them,” I said. “We just wouldn’t vote.”

Whitt shook his head. “No. Landers and I tried that once. We both came up the same night unbeknownst to the other. So we tried telling stories but it didn’t work.”

“Why?” Lumley exhaled a smoke ring.

“Because the story only lives if there is an audience to appreciate it. When it’s just two guys it’s a conversation.”

“There’s three of us,” Lumley said.

Whitt shook his head. “Sorry, Lum, but we have a pact. No. It has to be the four of us or no stories.”

Lumley drifted a smoke ring in my direction. “What say you, Morrison?”

“Truth be told, Lum? I vote with Whitt.”

“Fine.” Lumley picked up the pitted pewter mug from the table between his leather chair and Whitt’s and hung it on the peg. “I think I’ll call it a night.”

The door in the foyer opened with such force we thought the storm had blown it open. A force greater than nature had unlocked it. Evelyn Winston, dressed as if she were going to scale Everest, came in first. She removed her snow goggles.

“We found him,” she announced. “We found Mr. Landers.”

The three of us were on our feet. We collected our own inadequate but rather hip winter clothing.

“No need to go out,” Evelyn said. “Dale is bringing him in.”

Dale Winston had one arm around Landers’ waist and used his other hand to pull our friend’s arm across his narrow shoulders. Whitt caught the other side and they dragged him to his chair in the great room.

“Get some brandy in him,” Mrs. Winston said. “I’ll warm up the chili.”

“Where was he?” Lumley asked.

“About a mile south of here,” Winston said. “Evelyn and I went out on our snowmobiles. His car had slid off the road and was stuck in a ditch. He had passed out.”

Lumley poured Landers a brandy. “He could have died of hypothermia.”

“I forgot you were pre-med when we won our fortune,” Whitt said. Landers moaned. “Ah. He’s coming around.”

Mrs. Winston brought in the chili. Her husband served up a dark, hearty beer.

“You men best hunker down,” Mrs. Winston said. “State Police have closed all roads in Huron County.”

Landers took her hands. “I cannot thank you enough.”

“Don’t stay up all night,” Mrs. Winston said.

Her husband gave her a terse warning. “Evelyn…”

“Point taken, Mrs. Winston.” Landers stood. He put a hand on each of their shoulders. “Thank you both.”

“You’re like our family,” Evelyn said. “If we’d had one.”

“Come along, dear,” Winston said.

“Listen,” I said. “It’s been an eventful evening. Sleep in tomorrow.”

“Nonsense,” Evelyn said. The iron will and determination were back. “Pancakes and sausage at nine. I don’t like to waste food so bring your appetites.”

It was almost like we should have saluted her. Lumley saw them to the door.

“So did I miss any stories?” Landers asked. He left the brandy and beer aside for the chili. I can’t say as I could blame him. I felt my own stomach rumble.

“Actually, we decided to hold off,” Lumley said. “But now that you’re here…”

Whitt scoffed. “Really, Lum? The man just about froze to death tonight, at least according to your diagnosis.”

Landers reached out a hand. He took hold of my arm. “I—I have a story,” he said.

Lumley and Whitt turned to me. I shrugged. “Let the tale be told.”

“To those who are present,” the others said in unison.

“Let me just grab the snacks from the bar,” I said.

“Are you certain you’re up to this, Harry?” Whitt asked.

“Let me get a little of Mrs. Winston’s chili in me and I will treat you to a Thanksgiving story that is sure to sour your appetite for the holiday food fest.”

“Well, this is certainly intriguing.” Lumley settled into his chair.

Whitt refreshed all our drinks. Landers took a healthy swallow of the beer. He let out a sigh that rose from the silt of his soul.

“How familiar are you guys with the turducken?”

“I’ve seen it on Pinterest,” Lumley said.

“Seriously?” Whitt asked. “Is there a social media you don’t peruse?”

I cleared my throat. “Gentlemen. Let the tale be told.”

“To all who are present!” We raised our glasses.

Whitt lifted his glass to our friend. “Apologies, sir. Tell on.”

Landers smiled. The flames from the fire danced in his eyes. He continued.

“A turducken is a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken. The birds are deboned to make this over lapping of meats possible. Some even manage to add a savory bread stuffing to the chicken. It takes about thirteen and a half hours to prepare the beast of three birds after it has soaked for a couple of hours in a salty brine.”

“I thought all brines were salty.” Lumley whispered mainly to himself.

Whitt shushed him.

“The tale, Lum.”

“Of course.” Lumley raised his glass. Softly he said, “The tale must be told.”

Landers took the opportunity to refresh his drink. With a steadier hand than he put on Winston’s shoulder, he poured himself more of the brandy. He held up the bottle to us. Lumley accepted. Landers sat and stared at the fire reflected in his drink. He told the rest of the story uninterrupted.

***

{Landers' Story}

My cousin Judith hosted the family this year. Her husband invited some members from his branches of the tree. One was a delightful young woman named Kylie. Petite. Perky. She was an absolute delight. The man she brought with her was as opposite her as day is to night. He stood six feet tall. Must have weighed just under three-fifty hundred pounds. When he entered a room, the first thing you saw was his straining belt buckle. There were moments when I thought the buckle would break free of the belt and shoot across the room quite possibly putting a hole in a wall or striking one of the children sitting at the kiddies’ table.

Don’t get me wrong, gentlemen. I am not body shaming the man. I just had serious concerns. If he tripped and fell would he crush Grandma Nellie? Would the Amish made chair at the dining table accept his girth? Would any passed dish escape his appetite? These were my concerns and I could hardly wait for the moment my cousin Judith would call us all to the table.

In the meantime, it was cocktails and conversations.

I couldn’t help but notice the way Kylie fawned over her man. Side by side, she barely reached the middle of his bicep. She would laugh and put a hand on his arm after he said something witty. Occasionally she patted his enormous belly. Sometimes she rubbed it.

Eventually my cousin Judith’s husband introduced me to Kylie and her boyfriend. The heavy man’s name was Edgar Cleef. Cleef said very little. Kylie, on the other hand, talked a mile a minute. I’m not even positive I caught everything she said but one thing I did hear her say was she was a singly born twin.

“Singly born?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said solemnly. “Mother says I ate my sister in the womb.” Kylie laughed most manically only pausing when she burped. This seemed to set off a new wave of laughter.

“So how did you two meet?” I asked.

“At a support group,” Edgar said.

“Yeah. I used to have a problem,” Kylie said. She rubbed and patted Edgar’s belly. “I owe it all to Edgar.”

“I’m her sponsor,” Edgar said.

“Oh, baby. You’re more than that.” Kylie stared at him with a hunger in her eyes I found inappropriate for the holiday gathering. Edgar took her hand. Kylie gasped as she came out of her reverie. She giggled, wiping the back of her hand over her mouth.

Judith asked us to take seats at the long table. She sacrificed her seat at the opposite end of the table from her husband Paul so Edgar Cleef could fit. He looked like a pot-bellied lawn sculpture. Kylie took the seat to his left. I sat in the center tot Cleef’s left. The rest of the guests filled in the remaining chairs.

The turducken was a masterpiece. Paul carved off large steaks that looked like slices from a marble rye. He put a slice on every plate. Kylie pulled her plate back leaving Paul to balance the slice between the blade of the carving knife and the prongs of the serving fork.

“Oh, I only need half as much as that, Paul,” Kylie said.

“Kylie. It’s Thanksgiving. Indulge.” Paul moved the knife and fork forward. Once more Kylie swung her plate out of his reach.

“It’s just champagne they told the alcoholic.” Kylie set her plate down on the table.

Paul leaned forward. Judith stopped him from putting the three layered bird on her plate.

“Paul. Respect your cousin’s wishes,” Judith said.

Paul started to bring the turducken back to the platter when Edgar Cleef lifted his plate.

“You can put that on mine,” Edgar said.

“Edgar…” Kylie moved some of the marshmallow encrusted sweet potatoes on her plate with her fork.

Edgar set the plate down. “Moderation, my dearest. Your cousin-in-law went to a lot of trouble to make this meal. It won’t kill you to try it.” He cut off a sliver that offered a sampling of each bird and a layer of stuffing. That, combined with a small serving of corn, green bean casserole, and cranberry relish barely filled Kylie’s plate.

She made the most intimate of sounds as she took a forkful of the turducken. Her eyelids fluttered. ‘Mmms’ rose from a visceral place only she knew she had. I can’t speak for everyone at the table but I thought Kylie was about to re-enact a famous movie scene set in a deli.

“Sweetheart,” Edgar said. “You’re making your fun noises again.”

Kylie’s eyes popped wide. She giggled, covered her mouth with a linen napkin the color of dark grapes. “I’m so sorry. I just love food.” She pushed the plate away from her. “That is part of my problem.”

Very quietly, Edgar replaced his empty plate with hers. Not only did he eat what remained on hers but he laid waste to anything no one else touched. Aunt Clara had made a rice pilaf dish with golden raisins. There wasn’t a single grain of rice left in the Pyrex bowl. Someone had brought pumpernickel squares and a honey butter spread he consumed like a swarm of locusts approaching a cornfield. Nothing was safe in Edgar Cleef’s path. I sat at the table thankful the children sat away from us less they lose fingers to his maw.

The guests started to leave around seven. Kylie and Edgar joined the rush. They’d arrived in Edgar’s full size van. He got in from the sliding side door and sat in a specialty seat customized for his girth. I stuck around to help Judith and Paul clean.

Judith and I were loading the dishwasher when I broached the subject of Kylie and her date.

“Kylie’s boyfriend didn’t leave you much in the way of leftovers.”

“I know. At one point I worried he would accidentally eat one of us.”

“Good thing the children were at a separate table,” I said finally sharing my fears. “What does she see in him, anyway? She’s petite, sure. But she’s also cute and perky. He, on the other hand, is a walking cardiovascular event waiting to happen.”

“Paul says her mother used to call Kylie ‘pleasantly plump’. Her eating got so bad they sent her to a clinic for help.”

“Maybe the fat shaming pushed her over the edge. What was that whole ‘eating her twin’ about?”

“Oh, there was a mistake on the sonogram. It looked like there were twins but the image blurred is all. Everyone thought that one of the reasons Kylie was so large was because she had a second stomach. Her mother used to say it was because she had a second mouth.”

“Like Edward Mordake?”

“Who?”

“Edward Mordake. He had a whole other face on the back of his head. It couldn’t see or speak but if Mordake was happy the second face would smile and if he was sad it would frown.”

“So maybe when she was hungry, Kylie fed the second mouth as well.”

“Except I didn’t see a second mouth on her.”

“Maybe it’s in a place not immediately visible.”

“I don’t think we should discuss this any further.”

Paul came in with a tray of dirty flatware. He set it on the counter. True to his OCD, the utensils were grouped by genre.

“We’re missing a carving knife,” he said.

“Maybe I brought it in on a platter,” Judith said. “Harry? Did you see a carving knife?”

“No. I’ll go look in the dining room and see if it fell on the floor.”

“No need,” Paul said. “I already checked.”

Of course, we checked again anyhow. And then checked again and then again. After an hour, the knife never turned up. By now it was almost nine. I still needed to pack for our weekend here. Paul and Judith walked me to the door. Judith gave me a hug as Paul opened the door.

“Well, that’s odd,” Paul said.

Judith and I pulled apart. Outside the house, Edgar Cleef’s customized van idled at the curb.

“Do you think they’re all right?” Judith asked.

“I’ll go check,” Paul said.

I followed him out to the street. Judith stood on the porch, arms folded over her chest, watching us.

Paul held up a hand for me to stop. He pointed at his ear and then at the van. We moved up quickly and quietly. Inside we could hear Kylie’s intimate moans of pleasure. I remember thinking, ‘They couldn’t get a room?’

Behind us Judith asked, “What’s wrong?”

We turned, holding back the laughs, and waving for Judith to be quiet. Paul’s foot moved under the running board which tripped an infrared trigger. The side door slid open revealing the most gruesome site I’d ever experienced.

Edgar Cleef lay on his back, his arms spread out, his belly carved open. Kneeling next to him was Kylie, the missing carving knife in her hand. Her mouth was red from her post dinner eating binge. Blood clotted in her hair, dried on the windows, congealed in Edgar’s extremities.

“I told you I have a problem,” Kylie said. She held out the remnants of Edgar Cleef’s stomach. “Do you want some?”

***

{Aperitif}

Landers finished his story. We sat there in the dull glow of a fading fire.

Lumley spoke first. “So wait. She ate a duck stuffed in a chicken stuffed in a turkey stuffed in a man?”

“Yes.”

“That did not happen,” Whitt argued.

“I’m afraid it did.”

I reminded my friend of our protocol. “Remember, Whitt. Whether it’s true or not, it’s the tale that was told.”

“Well, I can’t top that one,” Whitt said. He raised his glass to Landers. “Touché, Harry. Well crafted. Utter bullsmotch but well told.”

Landers gave him a single shoulder shrug.

“Gentlemen,” I said. “It is now after midnight. Mrs. Winston will expect us at the table by eight fifty-five for breakfast.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy food again.” Landers finished his drink.

“I move we call it a night and finish the telling of the tales tomorrow. Do I have a second?”

Lumley seconded my motion.

“All in favor?”

“Aye.”

“Aye.”

“Nay.”

“You are in a foul mood tonight, Whitt. Two hours ago you moved we cancel the storytelling all together. Now you want to keep telling them?”

“Well, Harry has given us some food for thought. Sleep on that.”

“I have just one question,” Lumley said.

Landers shook his head. “She only had one mouth, Lum.”

“Oh. Okay. My question was actually ‘Why did she do it?’”

“I don’t know for certain but I would hazard a guess that all those years of being shamed by her mother followed by the Svengali like mentoring by Cleef somehow made her snap.”

“Maybe she was just really hungry,” Whitt said.

“This was more than just hunger, Whitt. It was all out savagery.”

We stood in a subdued silence. Lumley and Whitt went up to their rooms. Landers lingered.

“Going up, Harry?”

“In a few.”

“Your story really happened, didn’t it?”

“Yes. I would have been here earlier but the police had questions for me. Then I ran into the icepocalypse.”

“But you made it and you told your story.”

“The tale must be told.”

We tapped our fists twice to our foreheads.

I left him by the fire, his skin glowing like that of a properly cooked turkey. The kind that cracks as it’s cut and the juice runs out. I put a hand on the bannister, a bit tipsy from all the drinking. My stomach gurgled. I told myself I couldn’t be hungry. Mrs. Winston’s chili and sweet rolls were hearty and filling. I did, after all, have two full bowls as well as the half a dozen rolls I used to mop up the residual smears left in the bowl.

At that point, my mind was elsewhere. I doubted the validity of my friend’s story. Granted, there have been a variety of individuals over the years who have feasted on their neighbor. And of course, the conditions warranted a somewhat gruesome comparison to the Donner party. I will say I doubt any of us slept well that night. The lake effect snows piled up quickly. We would be snowbound for a couple of days. If not for the tenacity and preparedness of Evelyn Winston, I wondered how long my friends and I might last before we too gave into our basic survival skills and turned on one another.

I looked at Landers in the glow of the fire.

My stomach rumbled.

I went to see if there was anything—anything—else I could eat.

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