Published on November 23rd, 2015 | by Rafael Alvarez
Turkey Necks: A Tutwiler Thanksgiving
“ …we didn’t have no place to go, so we just walked around and lived in them woods… we were lost then…” Morrison, Song of Solomon
The woods are the woods and what kid doesn’t believe in spooks?
But the woods of West Baltimore are not the fields of Mississippi and Junie Bug found this out on his first visit to Deep South relatives he had heard about but never met.
Most black folks from Crabtown trace their heritage to the Carolinas. Somehow Junie’s ancestors from the Magnolia State took a wrong turn on their way to Chicago during the Depression (somebody was following something they shouldn’t have been chasing) and landed not on the shores of Lake Michigan with Big Walter and Muddy but along the banks of the Chesapeake Bay.
The work was just as hard, the dollars about the same (shipyards instead of slaughterhouses) with large swaths of Baltimore as mean toward colored people as any part of Mississippi. Or so Junie’s great-grandmother used to tell him as she peeled potatoes at the kitchen sink.
Junie Bug lived alone, sunk in voluntary exile far inside the 1,200 acres of Leakin Park on the western edge of Baltimore. He got his mail at the nearest post office, regularly walking off of the trails and onto the asphalt to send letters on the pages of school notebooks some kid had thrown away.
In early November of 1990, Junie received a five dollar bill from his Great Aunt Bossie in Tutwiler—FIVE DOLLARS!—along with her annual invitation to come home “where you’ve got family” for Thanksgiving.
“We have a place for you at the table as always,” wrote Bossie, his great-grandmother’s last living sibling. “Please join us.”
And for some reason—with old man Bush about to carve the bird for U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia as the Gulf War paved the way for a darker one to come—Junie at last agreed to the request of his presence, leaving the thickets to do more than work the Farmers’ Market for the first time since disappearing in the third grade after his father’s murder.
“We would be so happy to see you,” wrote Bossie. “There’s family here who don’t know the first thing about our Maryland relatives.”
“If the minutest privilege could be imagined, the ruling class claimed it …” Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns
Junie had lived in the woods digging in vain for the body of his father since he was nine-years-old. He was 24 now. He’d enjoyed some proper Thanksgiving dinners in the past—church suppers for the homeless, one or two with vendors from the Market—but none with kin since his father was killed over an outside woman and, according to hearsay, buried somewhere along Leakin’s Dead Run Valley.
He took a seat in the bus station the Tuesday before the holiday, a 20-hour ride with a dozen stops to go—and spent Aunt Bossie’s five dollars on an awful ham and cheese sandwich, a bag of chips, and a can of Squirt, paying for the bus ticket with cash from selling honey he cultivated in the park.
The waiting room was crowded with just one empty seat in the station; it was next to Junie as everyone else decided another spot was preferable to the one alongside the handsome, unkempt man with dirt embedded in the creases of his knuckles.
The seat was soon taken by an electrical engineer who worked in a suburban bomb factory and greeted Junie with a friendly nod and hello.
Black and white; leg and breast; one leaving for relatives in the south, the other waiting for a loved one to return from the north. The man was chatty and after a few moments of small talk it was revealed that they both gardened, though Junie thought of himself (with pride) as more of a farmer.
“Damn shame what’s happened to this city,” said the man, allowing that he’d been an art student in his youth—“steered my kids away from that,” he chuckled—had switched to engineering to be more useful and was partial to roses: white, yellow, pink, and red.
“To make the world more beautiful,” he said, smacking his knee with a rolled-up newspaper.
Junie knew that his world was as perfectly beautiful as God had made it, despite the three hundred or so holes he had dug without finding his father’s body. The man kept talking, saying he was waiting for his daughter to come home from college and he was eager to show her the miniature roses he had grown to decorate the table on Thursday.
The man spoke as though he and Junie were intimates and returned to the heartbreaking ruins of Baltimore—“everywhere you look,” he said—as though he could say anything he wanted in the spirit of ain’t it a shame.
“Have you ever thought of teaching kids in the city how to grow roses?” asked Junie.
“Nope,” said the man, hopping up when his freshman daughter came through the gate with a bag of laundry and a smile as big as pumpkin pie. “Never thought about it.”
“I never let myself think of that before…” – Baldwin, Blues for Mister Charlie
Inside, the women were basting the bird and tending to the trimmings, bean pies cooling on the sill. Out back, behind ancient stables with trees growing through the roof, boys goofed around with a football, not quite a game, just tackling whoever wasn’t fast enough to keep the others running in circles. Two young girls played jacks on the back porch.
Beyond the stables, the autumn brown fields of Mississippi stretched as far as Junie could see; a tree here and one there but little else to block the horizon.
“What’s Bossie whippin’ up this year?” asked a gray-haired man standing at a 500-gallon oil tank cut in half and turned into a grill across which lay the crooked gray flesh of three dozen turkey necks crackling black around the edges, dripping fat into the fire, the necks from just about every turkey roasting in town that day.
“Hogs ass and hominy,” laughed the matriarch’s son-in-law, turning the necks with a long fork carved from the branch of a chestnut tree. And with that, Bossie’s brood welcomed Junie into the fold, passing him a beer from a bucket with thanks for making the trip down.
“Never seen her so happy,” said the son-in-law.
One of the younger men at the grill, a community college student not much younger than Junie, a history major who read the letters from Baltimore when Bossie left them on the table, asked: “Is it true you live in the woods?”
Junie paused to get a proper fix on the question, deciding to answer sincerely and wondering if, perhaps after pie and coffee, someone might drive him to see the ruins of the Tutwiler Funeral Home where morticians mightily tried and hopelessly failed to make the body of Emmett Till presentable for his mother, who then presented the horror to the world.
“That’s right, I do,” said Junie. “Same as you.”
“No sir,” declared the man with the fork, plucking a neck from the grate and extending it to Junie for the first taste.