In honor of the holiday, here’s a full-chapter excerpt from my unpublished novel, My Friend Velociraptor.
As I might have mentioned before, Thanksgiving was Velociraptor’s favorite holiday. What I probably didn’t touch upon was the fact that he didn’t consider himself a mere enthusiast, blithely gnoshing the stuffing and gravy with no appreciation for the finer details of the holiday. No, he considered himself an expert. He even made himself a little badge that said “Thanksgiving Expert: Ask Me About Thanksgiving,” which would have been all well and good, except he couldn’t find anywhere on his scales to pin it so he made me wear it, as part of an ensemble including an “I’m With Stupid” shirt pointing in his direction. The problem was that people kept coming up to me anyway, asking me stupid questions about cranberry/walnut salad or whether they should brine or deep-fry their turkey. Most of the time I just shrugged my shoulders and pointed my thumb at Velociraptor, whose suggestion 99.98% of the time was “eat it raw,” which got me a lot of nasty looks. I tried underlining the “Stupid” part in sharpie, but it didn’t help much; I have a feeling that some people, especially Trevor Bandersnatch, did understand the shirt thing but liked bugging me anyway. He must have approached me like seventeen times, always with the same question: “How is your mom like Thanksgiving?” To which the correct response was, apparently, “Your mom lol!” Yes, Trevor actually said “lol” out loud. He lolol’d. He was a lololer. After the fifth time, I would just rotate my upper body ninety degrees every time I saw him coming, which allowed me to pretend I didn’t notice him and pointed my shirt-arrow in his direction, for a little tasty passive-aggressive revenge. Meanwhile, Velociraptor bemoaned the fact that people didn’t “get” his “vision,” as he put it, and kept referring darkly to “that time with the beef collars.”
I didn’t realize how serious he was about his area of expertise until Ms. Terner tried to teach us about the history of Thanksgiving. She had just gotten to the part where the settlers are starving, freezing, disease-ridden, and dying in a foreign land, which was apparently some sort of curse that the Native Americans were about to inherit–remember, kids, never share maize with a stranger–when Velociraptor stood up on his desk with his arm extenders held high. “Did you have a question, Velociraptor?” Ms. Terner asked politely.
“No, but I have an answer!” Velociraptor huffed. It was difficult to believe, but I think he was actually indignant. I’d never seen him like that before, and I’ve only seen it once since. If he were one of those frilled lizards, his frills would have been quivering; if he had been wearing a beef collar, he would have achieved a perfect medium-rare of anger. But since his neck was undecorated, the only way you could tell was by looking in his eyes, which, once you did, you would realize was a place that you really didn’t want to be looking. “The answer,” he continued, “is this: how long are you going to keep telling these lies?” I think it was around this time that I tried to see if I could literally sink my face through my desk. I couldn’t.
“I’m afraid I don’t quite follow,” Ms. Terner responded calmly. “Are you saying you know something we don’t about the harsh New England winter?”
“No,” Velociraptor replied, with an icy calm that could only have come from a cold-blooded reptile. “But I know a little something about Thanksgiving.” He pointed to my shirt. “I’m the stupid Thanksgiving expert!”
“Well, perhaps you would like to teach the class for a while? We’re always open to different viewpoints here,” Ms. Terner said, with a small smile.
“Well perhaps I will!” Velociraptor shouted, stamping his indignant little feet in a tantrum that would have been cute if it hadn’t been so terrifying, or perhaps it was the vice versa. “Perhaps I certainly will!” Tossing his arm extenders aside, he leapt the space between his desk and Ms. Terner’s. She pulled her chair off to one side and sat with her hands folded in her lap, watching calmly. Velociraptor turned on the rest of the class, that cold fire still in his eyes. “Frankly,” he began, “I’m a little tired of nasty old Ms. Terner, no offense Ms. Terner, feeding you little tidbits all these lies! Feed us pies, not lies, I say! They don’t call me the stupid Thanksgiving expert for nothing!” I have to say, he wasn’t off to the best start. I’m pretty sure that one of the first thing they teach you in the Toastmaster’s society is that, when giving a speech, you aren’t going to win the hearts of your audience by referring to them as “tidbits.” Then again, he hadn’t yet referred to their hearts as “morsels,” and he wasn’t trying to physically win their hearts so that he could bake them into a “hearty meat-pie of truth,” so it couldn’t be considered the worst speech he’d ever delivered.
“What most people don’t realize about Thanksgiving,” Velociraptor went on, doodling on the whiteboard, “is that it is actually one of the oldest holidays in the history of everything. Of course, it wasn’t always celebrated the way it was today. We used to call it ‘Thanks, Giblets!’ and instead of mashed potatoes, we would eat mashed hamsters, which is the only way to eat hamsters. Especially with hamster gravy, which for those of you who’ve never cooked a Thanksgiving dinner before is the stuff that comes out of the hamster when you mash it. Anyway, that was back in Prehistoric times, and we didn’t write a lot of stuff down back then because we were too busy having fun, so alas the true meaning of Thanksgiving has been forgotten in the red mists of time.”
Constance Ruth tentatively raised her hand. “Uh, maybe you could tell us what it was all about? Since you were around back then?”
Velociraptor shot her an I-will-eat-the-entrails-of-your-favorite-puppy sort of glare. “It’s been forgotten,” he said emphatically. “But it was definitely something about giblets.” When I asked Sea Monster later about the historical accuracy of Velociraptor’s story, he gave me a “no comment” and a wink.
“Well, thank you very much, Velociraptor,” Ms. Terner said, rising from her chair. “That was very…enlightening.” And she returned to her lesson, Velociraptor returned to his desk, and everybody considered the matter forgotten, except for Ribsy McCracken who is just a naturally suspicious person. You might consider our attitude naïve, since trouble for Velociraptor is an irresistible lure, like a swimming pool full of lemurs, which he insists taste exactly like meaty Oreos, and who’s going to taste one to find out if he’s telling the truth? What I mean to say is that trouble is Velociraptor’s middle name, or, more accurately, D@##!t is his first name. But I prefer to think of our position as “imaginatively hopeful.” Besides, none of us could have really anticipated what would happen next, except for Ribsy McCracken, but he also anticipated that the school mayonnaise was infected with interdimensional soul-sucking parasites, so he brought his own mayonnaise from home. Anyway, this was before Mrs. Grammar made The Play, which changed everything.
Our first whiff of trouble was when she appeared at Friday assembly wearing a “historicoemotionally precise rendition of aboriginal garb.” Actually, it was more than a whiff, since the main component of her outfit appeared to be some sort of dung, which she called “earth of the great buffalo.” This set Velociraptor off on a long tangent about how if you want great buffalo you need to marinate it in pork gravy, which keeps it nice and tender and juicy, so I missed whatever else was said about the costume, but I did notice that the longer she talked, the further away from the podium the other teachers scooted their chairs. And she talked for a long time. Finally, after expounding on the “feather of the illustrious mallard” that she wore between her…um, let’s just call them her feather-supporters…she finally got around to the main point.
“Children,” she announced, “I have a titillating revelation for you all.” This earned a good round of giggles, especially from the other kids who had noticed her feather-supporters. Even Signore Botanico had to pretend he was dusting off his moustache. When the hilarity had subsided, she continued: “Earlier this week, on the night devoted to the primal deity Woden, I was haply visited by the muse of patriotic fervor in the form of this segment of root-vegetable-derived pastry, spiced with a blend of special herbs also of the earth.” She pulled a soggy, half-eaten slice of sweet potato pie from her bag. Now, I’m no expert on women, but I’ve lived with my grandmother long enough to form a sort of biological hypothesis. You know how some dinosaurs had their brains in their tails, and how Velociraptor’s brain is in his stomach, and men are supposed to keep their brains in their pants? I’m not really sure what’s meant by that last part, since the pockets of men’s pants are hardly big enough to fit a wallet, let alone a healthy adult brain. But it did get me thinking: if that’s true, then women have got to keep their brains somewhere else, since they don’t even always wear pants, and a lot of skirts don’t have any pockets at all. Of course, the most logical place to keep one’s brain would be inside of one’s skull, but I think if you’re debating where to put your brain in the first place then logic probably isn’t on your side. And if they’re going to keep them anywhere except in their logical place, it would have to be in their bags. Think about it: the more organized and on top of things a woman is, the smaller and more organized her bag tends to be. And the reverse is true as well: the larger and more chaotic a woman’s bag is, the loopier she’ll tend to be. I only mention all of this to say that Mrs. Grammar had the biggest bag I’d ever seen. It was almost not a bag at all, more of an open burlap sack in which could be glimpsed, on any given day: books large enough to be called tomes, bottles of some dark liquid or other, bits of twigs and feathers, half-digested fast food, and even, on one memorable occasion, a live cat. There’s still a lively debate about whether it was just a stray cat that wandered in there in search of hamburgers and couldn’t find its way back out, or whether she carried an entire menagerie around with her at all times and hired her bag out as a mobile petting zoo for a bit of extra income. There are also those who whispered that the cat was her familiar, but then Velociraptor said it didn’t look familiar to him, and Jaundice Jones said that Velociraptor wouldn’t recognize a cat if it was coming out of his own butt, to which Velociraptor replied that he could too and he was going to prove it, and then thankfully Mrs. Grammar walked in and the conversation was over.
“As I was luxuriating in this seasonal indulgence,” Mrs. Grammar continued, weighing the sodden pie as though she were judging the souls of the unworthy, “I became overcome by a vision so powerful that I found I could masticate no longer.” This got another round of giggles from the crowd, who had likely given up on straining for the actual meaning of the words and were latching like desperate remoras onto anything that sounded remotely dirty. It’s a blessing that her play didn’t require a skilled pianist, or that she didn’t start discussing its ramifications, or we’d probably still be sitting in that assembly. “I sat all night, in the luminous lunar luster, and inscribed the words that came to me. The product of this pastry-inspired atavistic regression will be performed in two weeks, immediately preceding the start of the Thanksgiving holidays. Auditions are open to all incipient thespians in the sixth grade.” While she was talking, she had removed her glasses to polish them, which left her eyes so crossed that you could use them to play tic-tac-toe. Which just made it more unsettling when she stared directly at me as she spoke these last words.
That look stayed with me long after Mrs. Grammar left the podium and Principal Loxburger returned to close the proceedings and disinfect the microphone. The way her right eye pierced directly into my soul, while at the same time her left eye pierced my ear…she had some sort of evil plans in store for me. I’d decided she was definitely evil after she had given my Edgar Allen Poe project a B, when it so obviously deserved an A++. I mean, I’d stayed up for hours trying to come up with a rhyme for “feline decapitation,” for pete’s sake.
Anyway, I figured that as long as I kept as far away as possible from those auditions, and kept my mouth zipped during English, I should be safe. It’s a well-known fact that Librarian Curses are only effective if you cast them while the victim’s tongue is in view; that’s why it’s so dangerous to talk in the reading room of your public library. Of course, there was still the problem of being called on during class; even armed with my knowledge of her occult ways, Mrs. Grammar had the power to ensnare me with a single pointed question about the theme of honor in The Old Man & The Sea. However, here was where my own craft came into play, for I had raised not being called on to the level of an art. Once you’ve got a reputation as a prodigy, the worst thing that can happen to you is to be asked a question you don’t know the answer to. I can’t divulge all my secrets, because one day I’m going to get it patented and publish a self-help book and go on tour giving speeches to less fortunate kids and pointedly not answering their questions, and then I’ll be able to retire hopefully before I’m out of high school. But for the time being, I’ll give you a few free pointers. First of all, avoid eye contact at all costs. I think all modern teachers come equipped with retinal scanners, so they don’t need to memorize names or seating order. But if you don’t make eye-to-eye, they won’t be able to pull up your ID file, which in addition to your name gives them DNA sequencing, favorite flavors of ice cream, and discussion topics most likely to cause a brain aneurysm. Without this stuff, they’re much less likely to pick on you. Here’s another freebie: teachers hate to call on you if you raise your hand all the time. Now, this is something of a gamble if you forgot to do the reading and don’t want to be picked on the entire day, but luckily there’s a way to raise your hand without actually raising it. Start out with steps one through four of the normal hand-raising technique, outlined in my book, but then on step five do a quick-feint into a hair manipulation maneuver or, if you’re lucky enough to have acne, a pimple-popper. Your goal is to bait them with the partial hand raise, then make them either so embarrassed or so disgusted that they physically have to look away. When practicing the hair manipulation technique, it helps to have lice. I know a place where you can order them online for cheap.
I spent all of first recess mentally brushing up on my question avoidance procedures, but it turned out to be no use, for reasons I’m about to tell you if you’ll just hold on a second. And no skipping ahead to the next paragraph, either, because that’s just plain cheating. Anyway, when lunch rolled around, I noticed a suspicious Velociraptor-shaped gap at my table. I was just about to get up and see if he’d brought out the sitting-rock again when he came hurrying up to me, breathless, a huge toothy grin on his face. “Guess what, Billy?” he asked. I told him I’d rather not, because if what I was guessing was right, then he’d better have a really good letter of apology prepared for the Springtree PD, and if I didn’t guess right, it was probably something worse. It turned out to be something from Column B. “Guess what, Billy? I signed us both up for the Free Pie Club today after school?”
“The what?” I asked.
“The Free Pie Club that Mrs. Grammar was talking about at assembly today! I hope they have grasshopper pie, it’s my very favorite! You gotta love that crunch when you get a leg…”
“Of course, Deer Steak & Kidney Pie is delicious too, and very seasonal. Ooh! I think otter season is open! I wonder if she’ll have otter pie?”
“Velociraptor, she’s not going to have any pie!” I cut in.
Velociraptor fixed me with a critical look. “How do you know?”
“Well, I suppose it’s possible she could have pie,” I conceded. “But that’s not what you signed us up for. That was the audition list for the school play. Now we’re going to have to go whether we want to or not.”
“Oh.” Velociraptor gazed thoughtfully into the distance, contemplating his gaffe. It was good to see him actually think about the consequences of his actions every once in a while. “Still, I wonder if she’ll have otter pie?” he mused.
“I can guarantee you that she…probably won’t have otter pie,” I said, remembering that it was Mrs. Grammar we were talking about. It was at least a fifty-fifty split. “Besides, since when do you care about hunting seasons? I thought you just sort of pitched a tent and ate whatever wandered by?”
Velociraptor shook his head like a disappointed tutor. “Billy, you need to get in touch with nature here.”
“Since when are you in touch with nature, Velociraptor?” I asked. “Last time I checked you were hunting the wild beef in the deli section of the supermarket.”
“What are you talking about?” he replied indignantly. “I’m full of nature! The world of meat is like…a meaty symphony of…meat. And tastiness. There’s a rhythm to it, and…something about cycles which I didn’t really get, unless it was about my Velociraptor velocipede…”
“Velociraptor, are you just repeating something Sea Monster told you?”
“Yeah,” he said guiltily. “But that doesn’t stop it from being true! The gristle of it is, if you time it right, you get more bang for your buck!”
“No pun intended,” I offered.
“What? Yeah. Like the time that I set up my tent at the top of the waterfall while the salmon were spawning…it was like nature’s seafood buffet!”
“Okay,” I said. “So, back on topic, what are we going to do about these auditions? You do realize she could turn us both into…something horrible with just a wave of her pencil.”
“Oh yeah. I keep forgetting she used to be a magical librarian.”
“It sound so silly when you say it like that…so what do we do?”
Velociraptor shrugged. “We’ll go, I guess.”
So we did. I was still worried about being turned into a toad or something, but it had to be better than being sent to the principal’s office for being absent to an after-school activity. Actually, now that Velociraptor had planted the idea in my head, I was weirdly certain that Mrs. Grammar was planning to turn me into an otter and then turn the otter-me into a pie. I’m not sure how I knew, but I knew.
When we arrived at the auditions, the room was predictably empty. Participating in a non-mandatory activity that puts you on a stage in a stupid costume in front of the rest of the school? Let’s just say you’d have a hard time taking out a life-insurance policy. Which isn’t to say that nobody showed up: there were always those too oblivious to see that they might as well be dressing up as ducks and riding treadmills back and forth across the stage, shooting-gallery style. Constance Ruth was there, though I wouldn’t have pegged her parents as the type to support something as bohemian as the theatre. So was Ollie Ringbald, who was large enough to do pretty much whatever he wanted without fear of bullying, and Trevor Bandersnatch had turned up to point and laugh and ended up being cast in the role of Farmer Rape-o’-the-Land. Horatio Valentine, the school’s resident theatrical whiz from one of the other homerooms, had made an unsurprising appearance, and was off in a corner doing vocal warm-up exercises like “Maybe my Mommy may go to Miami and maybe my Mommy may not.” Like I said, oblivious.
There was one sight, though, that made my heart stop the moment I walked into the room. And it wasn’t some of Mrs. Grammar’s dark magic. No, this was very, very good magic, birthday-candle wish type of magic. There was one other person at the audition, and it was the female type of person. A particular female type of person with hair the color of strawberries. A second-swing-from-the-left-sitting sort of person, although at this moment she was sitting on a bench, quietly looking over her lines. I couldn’t believe my luck. I almost grabbed Velociraptor and kissed him right then and there, except that might have looked weird in front of the girl I liked and Velociraptor has been known to mistake people’s lips for prosciutto.
So things were all rainbows and swingsets for all of, oh, .58 of a second, until Mrs. Grammar noticed us come in. Her face split open into an evil grin, the kind that you just know would go well with some cackling even though there’s no cackling going on at the moment. I nearly turned around and ran away, except that Velociraptor was directly behind me and underfoot, as he tends to be. So I just sort of stood there, mouth agape–how could I forget my curse defense at such a crucial moment?–and waited for Mrs. Grammar to make the first move.
“Oh my, what a serendipitous happenstance!” Mrs. Grammar trilled. This sounded an awful lot like a mystical curse to me, but when I glanced down to check, all of my parts still seemed to be in the right shape and position. “Children!” she denounced, addressing the thoroughly disinterested kids in the rest of the room, “these auditions are hereby concluded. For we have discovered our star player, against whose splendiferousness all else is moot!” She gestured grandly in my direction.
“M-me?” I stammered. I couldn’t believe that, out of all the kids in the school, she was singling me out for the starring role. Maybe she had just caught on to my natural charisma, which nobody else ever seemed to notice?
“No, of course not!” Mrs. Grammar said testily. “Step aside, child, and make way for a being who truly embodies the primal struggle of civilization versus bestial chaos which serves as this great work’s anchor and core! Children, allow me to introduce a creature who requires no introduction, your Noble Turkey!” Producing a bundle of dayglo-colored feathers from the jumble of her bag, she strode proudly forward and draped them across Velociraptor’s hindsection. He immediately spun around and tried to eat them.
“Wait a second,” whined Horatio Valentine. “You’re telling me you gave the lead role to this mouthbreathing primate?”
“Mouthbreathing reptile,” Velociraptor corrected, taking a momentary break from snapping at his own brightly-colored tailfeathers.
“Whatever. After I spent all fifth period practicing my gobbling?” He demonstrated a highly realistic ululation of the “93-year-old lady gargling marbles” variety. The volume was impressive, too; apparently he was really putting his diaphragm in it. I don’t think I need to repeat the part about oblivious. Besides, the gesture was wasted, since, as Trevor pointed out, nobody can out-gobble Velociraptor. He’s a born gobbler.
Once the situation had been explained to Velociraptor several times, with special emphasis placed on the fact that just because he was a turkey didn’t mean he was suddenly obligated to devour himself, Mrs. Grammar got started assigning the “auxiliary roles.” In spite of Horatio’s misgivings, there were, in fact, more parts than students present, so Mrs. Grammar declared that she would have to “don the mast of Thespis once again.” She cast herself as the Herald of Anamnesis, a.k.a. the narrator, which was a bit funny because the script didn’t have any lines for the narrator written. There were just a few bits here and there that said something like “Here the progression halts as the Herald of Anamnesis expounds upon the dramatic irony of the diaspora of the so-called pilgrims displacing, in turn, the indigenous peoples of the Americas” or “Herald of Anamnesis: extemporaneous ode to corn.” But somehow, whenever we were in rehearsal, it would turn out that the narrator had more lines than everybody else combined. Very strange.
Velociraptor’s and Trevor’s roles, as I mentioned before, had already been settled. Horatio was somewhat mollified to be cast as Chief Mudswallow, the only role outside of the turkey that was guaranteed to win him a month’s supply of swirlies. Inside the turkey, it was too dark to read, haha. Ollie Ringbald was, Mrs. Grammar said, the consummate Spirit of Fecundity, a weird little part that seemed to consist mostly of rolling around tossing flower petals and corn-husks on the ground and running away from Trevor. I got to be the Backhanded Underwriter, who from what I could tell was supposed to be a bad guy, but then again everybody except for the Noble Turkey seemed to be a bad guy in this thing. Most of my lines were about how I was going to divide the land into unnatural borders that disrupt the ley-lines, and how I would love nothing more than to turn all the fallow fields into supermarkets. This, at least, I could get behind, because who wants to spend months tending crops and stuff when you can just drive down to the Spring-Mart and pick up ears of corn three for a dollar.
To my chagrin, swing-girl was cast as Goodwife Rape-o’-the-Land, which meant she had to fake-kiss Trevor Bandersnatch, which left me with Constance Ruth as Mistress Underwriter. There was no fake-kissing involved between us, which was a huge relief: I wanted my first fake-kiss to be special, and I don’t think Mistress Underwriter would have gone for it anyway.
On the way to the bus, as I flipped idly through the script, and I was overjoyed to discover that I had one whole scene alone with Goody Rape-o’-the-Land, when she came to plead with me on her husband’s behalf to extend their farmland onto the neighboring aboriginal burial ground. The script even said that I touched her hand reassuringly, which meant I would get to touch her hand! Reassuringly! I imagined how I would stare into her eyes as I did it, and how she would know that I liked her without me having to actually say it, and how she would be so overcome by emotion that she would divorce Trevor on the spot and announce her love for me in front of the entire audience, and then we would go backstage and…it got a little blurry at that point, but in a way that was both enticing and provocative. The whole situation seemed too good to be true, which should have been my first indication that it was.
You see, as we were soon to discover in rehearsal, I had some sort of exotic speech impediment hitherto unknown to medical science. The kind of speech impediment that had hair the color of strawberries. It wasn’t stage-fright, because I could get my other lines out just fine, though Mrs. Grammar kept saying I needed to be more patriarchal, whatever that means. But whenever swing-girl was on stage, my semi-confident tenalto tones would revert to incomprehensible chattering noises that sounded like Horatio’s turkey-gobble with a bad case of laryngitis. It eventually got so bad that Mrs. Grammar had to write the scene out of the script. I approached her after rehearsal and shyly asked if I could still touch swing-girl’s hand reassuringly, but she said that drama was an all-encompassing ideal, and that I’d just have to touch my own hand reassuringly like the autoemotional priapic gender-model that I was. I’m guessing that she’d just had a bad day, or a bad pastry, because she seemed to have forgotten all about it by the next rehearsal. Still, I didn’t want to press my luck, or she might rewrite the whole thing to have me touching Trevor’s hand instead.
Velociraptor, meanwhile, was having problems of his own. The concept of scripted dialogue must have been post-Cretaceous, because no matter how many times we went over his lines, when it came time to rehearsal he would just wander onstage and start gnawing on the smoked turkey-leg that he wore around his neck “to help get into character.” On the few occasions we could get his attention focused on the play for more than ten seconds at a time, he would start complaining about how it was species discrimination to make him play the part of the turkey, how just because he looked and acted like a turkey in real didn’t mean they could make him look and act like one on stage. It all came to a head during Springtree Elementary’s annual Cranberry Festival, just a day before the big performance.
“Today, we will be harvesting our own cranberries, just like the pilgrims of old,” Principal Loxburger announced, with somewhat less enthusiasm than his position required. Not that I was 1/1 certain about it either. For one thing, I had a feeling the pilgrims of old didn’t harvest their cranberries out of an old wading pool. Plus, I’ll bet they didn’t do it in stupid construction-paper hats that kept falling into the “bog” and dissolving so that you had to spend all night washing pasty black and white clumps out of your hair, which is gross whether it’s bird poop or not. I’d actually discovered this principle a few years earlier, when I’d been reading my Wardrobe Man comics in bed and had accidentally dozed off. When I woke up, I found out that I had been using my emergency box of oreos as a pillow, which at least explained the eating-your-pillow dream for once. Anyway, to get back to my debunking of popular cultural myths, I’m willing to bet that the early settlers couldn’t collect twenty-five cranberries and trade them in for a hefty scoop of cranberry jelly, sort of like those cooking shows with the magic ovens that can cook a turkey in a few seconds. I’ll bet the pilgrims of old really had to work for their cranberry sauce; at the very least, the exchange rate had to be higher in those days, like a thousand cranberries per teaspoon of sauce.
Anyway, Velociraptor chose that moment to air all his grievances about the production. I tried to explain to him that stomping around in a crowd of children with cranberry juice smeared across his talons and mouth was perhaps not the best time to go into hysterics, as somebody might get the wrong impression and then we’d have to have to wait outside the school gates while Principal Loxburger had The Talk with animal control again. But I guess the thing about when somebody is in hysterics is that they’re not likely to listen to you when you tell them not to be in hysterics, no matter how logical your arguments are. Velociraptor wanted to vent, and I had to listen.
“I don’t want to be a tasty turkey!” he whined. “I’m too young to be tasty!” I could have pointed out that sixty-five million years old isn’t exactly the first bloom of youth, but that just might have made things worse, so I let him talk. “I mean,” he went on, “I worked hard for my reputation as the worst-tasting animal on the planet. You believe me that I taste awful, don’t you?”
“Of course I do,” I said, touching his red-stained talon reassuringly.
“That’s right! And what happens if there’s a great white shark in the audience? Has anyone stopped to consider what that would mean?”
“Well, for starters, it would mean that Springtree had been hit with a record tsunamai. But I see where you’re coming from. But just think, you get to be the center of attention, and represent the spirit of Thanksgiving, and…”
“Thanksgiving?” Velociraptor gaped incredulously, and somewhat messily; he hadn’t bothered to swallow the can of “crab-berry” sauce he was working on first. “Is that what this is supposed to be about? Okay, that’s it. This has gone too far. I won’t have someone stand around and tell me Thanksgiving is about knobbly turkeys and corn-fed herbivores…”
“You’d rather they took the turkey out of Thanksgiving?”
“I didn’t say that!” Velociraptor contested hotly. “But it’s not about turkey. It’s about turkey giblets. And the proud carnivores who have eaten them for thousands of generations!”
“Well, there’s not much you can do about it now,” I reasoned. “The play is being performed tomorrow, and you’ve barely memorized your lines as it is.”
“Oh, I’ll give her lines,” Velociraptor murmured darkly, guzzling another jar of gelatinous scarlet liquid.
“Velociraptor, I can hear your mumbling threateningly over there,” I sighed. “And it doesn’t even make any sense. You should be saying ‘I’ll give her turkey’ or something.”
“My turkey!” Velociraptor gasped.
“Oh.” His eyes darkened again. “I’ll give her metaphorical turkey. I’ll give her more metaphorical turkey than she can eat.” He looked up at me. “But I still get all the real turkey, right?” he asked.
“All you can really eat,” I said.
“Do the reassuring thing with your hand?” he pleaded. I grudgingly complied. Maybe if I put a red wig on him…
Then, before we knew it, it was the big night. Backstage, in my allegorical Hat of Industry and my allegorical Puffy-Sleeved Coat of Political Deceit and my unfortunately very real purple tights, I peeked out at the audience through a gap in the curtain. “Are there a lot of people?” asked Velociraptor, whose view was hampered by knees and ankles, mostly.
“Yeah,” I gulped. I had never seen so many grown-ups in one place before, especially ones that I sorta knew. There were Constance Ruth’s mom and dad, who I knew from Open House: they were the ones who always brought their own sack of carrot-sticks and fresh-pressed apple juice to the refreshments table. And Horatio Valentine’s dad, spread across three seats on the far right of the front row and already pink-nosed and guffawing loudly, and his mom, a delicate creature who reminded me of a stick-bug, seated on the far left of the front row and nearly squashed beneath an enormous handbag–uh-oh, another crazy one! I figured Trevor’s parents probably wouldn’t show, Ollie Ringbald’s mom was the one who had to sit on three cushions to see the stage, and…I tried to work out who swing-girl’s parents might be. After rejecting several Miss Americas and a handsome Teutonic Cary Grant type, I decided that it would be better to think of her as having sprung fully formed from a giant clam-shell or something. Perhaps Sea Monster could furnish an introduction. Speaking of Sea Monster, there was a particularly damp seat front and center where he had originally tried to sit, but he had apparently been asked to move to the back because of the way he loomed. I couldn’t see Grandma Millie anywhere, but that didn’t really worry me. It was dark, and besides, with her eyes she probably couldn’t see me either.
Then Mrs. Grammar had us all form a Power Circle backstage, which meant that the play was about to start. Luckily, I didn’t have much of a chance to get butterflies, because the first thing we did was Pass the Pulse, a game in which you hold hands in a circle and squeeze the hand of the person on your left when your right hand gets squeezed. I call it a game, but I’m not really sure there’s a point to it; I’ve never seen anyone lose, and the scoring system has to be some sort of Olympic-style thing based on wrist precision and squeezing technique. Anyway, it was supposed to get our energy up and make us forget our nerves, and it worked on that last point, although mainly due to the fact that I was standing to the left of Trevor Bandersnatch and I was too busy worry about him breaking my arm to worry about the play. Constance Ruth, holding Velociraptor’s claw, had similar concerns to deal with, particularly because of the way he kept sniffing at her leather skirt.
And then the play started, and it was an unmitigated disaster. Well, maybe it didn’t start out so bad. The Herald of Anamnesis talked longer and more confusingly than ever before, which gave us a good long opportunity to remember our next lines, and the Spirit of Fecundity got a pretty good laugh when he started throwing out banana peels instead of corn-husks. I tried to be as patriarchal as possible, which I had looked up and which meant having a really big beard, so I had painted one on with sharpie and stroked it whenever I spoke. It turns out the ink wasn’t quite dry all the way, so I ended up with very “hairy” black fingers for most of the play, but I figured that could only make me more patriarchal. Chief Mudswallow hammed it up as always, and it was particularly gratifying when one of the “flames of his ancestors,” a.k.a. a flashlight with orange crepe paper in front of it, refused to light and had to be whacked against the wall a few times before it finally flickered on. His duet with the Spirit of Anamnesis was truly nauseating. But one character in particular stole the show, and that was Goodwife Rape-o’-the-Land. She was so vibrant and captivating and not only did she know all of her lines by heart, she also knew most of Trevor’s, which was a good thing because he sure didn’t. It almost made the whole excruciating ordeal worthwhile to see her stomp on his foot every ten seconds as he fumbled through his dialogue, not to mention the time he sat down on the Sacred Squash and she ad-libbed that hilarious joke about squashing a squash.
I said it almost made the whole thing worthwhile. The part of the whole thing that wasn’t included in that almost was the part where the Noble Turkey took the stage. I knew Velociraptor was planning something, mainly because of the way he kept repeating “I’m planning something, I’m planning something” under his breath. For a species known for their stealth, he wasn’t very good at being secretive; either that, or he was just trying to motivate himself, like when you say “I will talk to her after the play, I will talk to her after the play.” Anyway, even with the foreknowledge that something was going to happen, I had no idea it was going to be such a big disastrous something. I’m not sure even Velociraptor knew: it’s possible he hadn’t gotten to the actual planning something stage of planning something, and was just winging it, puh-doomp-chah. In the interest of clarity, and because it sounds like fun, I’m going to change formats for this bit. In five…four…three…two…
Curtain opens on final act of The Play. FARMER RAPE., GOODY RAPE., BACKHND. UNDERWR. and MISTRESS UNDERWR. are huddled UR. B.U. is frozen in the act of grinding the SPIRIT OF FECUNDITY beneath his heels, while FARMER and GOODY R. poke SPIRIT enthusiastically with their pitchforks, esp. FARMER. MISTRESS U. stands somewhat apart from the others, bouncing a blanket containing a “BUSHEL OF MAIZE” in her arms (actually the MULTIETHNIC BABY-DOLL). UL, CHIEF MUDSWALLOW brandishes his medicine-stick menacingly, with accompanying PEALS OF THUNDER (marbles in an aluminum mixing bowl) performed by the HERALD OF ANAMNENSIS, C.
HERALD: Witness as this tragedy concludes
This archetypal tale of earth and blood
As Oedipal man in hubris thinks is won
His battle ‘gainst dam nature blindly waged
While he still suckles at her chainèd teat
And note the symbolism of the blood in the bushel of maize
MUDSWALLOW: I implore you in the name of the Great Mother, unchain this land’s spirit!
UNDERWRITER: Never! (strokes beard) We will lash it ‘til the yoke runs red with bloody clay! (strokes beard)
NOTE: this line was a killer to memorize. I’m still not sure what it means, but I think it’s part of an omelet recipe.
MISTRESS U: O husband, if you only knew what harvest this red clay has brought!
GOODY R: (dazzlingly) We do not fear you, nor your savage ways!
Long pause. GOODY R. jabs FARMER R. in stomach with pitchfork.
FARMER R: What? Oh. Uh…the fruit of conquest is sweeter when it’s…plucked by force and stuff.
MUDSWALLOW: You shall surely starve for your arrogance!
HERALD: (says something involved about foreshadowing that I didn’t really catch because I was trying to figure out what Velociraptor was doing offstage that was making so much noise)
Assembled pilgrims clutch convincingly at their bellies, esp. FARMER R. SPIRIT grabs a bucket of ICE WATER from offstage and dumps it on the FARMER’S crops, then rolls merrily away.
MISTRESS U: Wait! Please, accept this symbol of peaceful coexistence between our people in this…bushel of maize! (twitches aside the blanket to reveal a MULTIETHNIC BABY-DOLL)
MUDSWALLOW: By the spirit of the Great Divine Squash, I can not allow your people to starve, though it will be the death of mine.
MUDSWALLOW: I shall call upon my ancestors to form the spirit of the Noble and Holy Turkey, that we may enact an annual sacrificial harvest ritual to remind us of the cost of audacity and help usher Sister Sun back from the Underworld.
CHIEF M. waves his MEDICINE ROD impressively, and the NOBLE TURKEY enters from R, wearing a large pouch over his chest.
TURKEY: Behold, it is I, the Knobbly Turkey!
MISTRESS U: Let us feast and rejoice, for–
TURKEY: Your dress smells like hamburgers!
TURKEY chases a terrified MISTRESS U. around the stage as she tosses various props in his direction. She lands a stunning blow to the skull with the MULTIETHNIC BABY-DOLL, enabling her escape. Silence. GOODY R. steps forward, scoops up the DOLL, and hands it to UNDERWRITER.
GOODY R: Here. I’m sure your wife would have wanted you to have it.
UNDERWRITER: (strokes beard in silence)
TURKEY: Behold, it is I, the Knobbly Turkey!
GOODY R: You said that already. (to FARMER R.) Don’t you have something to say?
FARMER R: I…uh…this is stupid!
HERALD: Casting off the shackles of performatism is a commendable practice, but I implore you to follow the script!
GOODY R: (to FARMER R.) What was that? Did you say that you would engage yearly in this ritual to remind yourself that man is a bestial creature at heart?
GOODY R: (to UNDERWRITER) Didn’t you hear him say something like that?
UNDERWRITER: (strokes beard in silence)
HERALD: And now our pageant settles to a close
As we reflect upon…
MUDSWALLOW: Wait a second, are we skipping to the end? I didn’t get to say my best monologue yet! Ahem…though true in heart and harmonic with the earth, I find myself unable to resist the softnesses of White Man’s world, and…
FARMER R: This is so stupid. Good thing our families didn’t show, huh, Billy? (beat) What, you didn’t know? Oh yeah, that friend of yours that smells like the drainage ditch was saying your Grandma wasn’t able to make it, because of her arthritis. He said he wasn’t going to tell you until after the show, because he didn’t want to mess you up. Well, I guess I just whoopsed it up, didn’t I? Since we’re on the subject, though, what’s it like living with someone who needs a blender to chew her food? At least you don’t have to worry about being the only one in the house who wets the bed…
UNDERWRITER: (strokes his beard angrily)
TURKEY: Everybody be quiet! Especially you, Farmer Rack-of-Lamb, if that’s even your real name!
Everybody is quiet, esp. FARMER R.
GOODY R: It isn’t, by the way. It isn’t even his fake name.
TURKEY: I don’t care! You’re all so wrapped up in your petty squabbles that you’ve forgotten what’s really important! Thanksgiving isn’t about families or grandmas or who ate the turkey when nobody was looking and then stuffed the skin with mash potatoes! The really most important part of Thanksgiving is in here… (pats his chest)
MUDSWALLOW: (to the audience) Alas, how could we have forgotten? The most important part of Thanksgiving is in the heart–
TURKEY: What? No, no, the most important part of Thankgiving is in this pouch! (unclasps pouch from around neck, dumps out a large pile of turkey giblets) Giblets for all! (flings giblets very enthusiastically at the audience. Standing ovation as parents and relatives stampede for the exit)
HERALD lunges angrily for TURKEY with the mixing bowl held in bludgeoning position, but he dodges her attacks and continues spraying the stage and the empty seats with seasonal showers of giblets.
HERALD: D@##!t Velociraptor, come back her so we can make a feast out of you!(to audience, of whom only one member remains, applauding wetly) It’s all very meaningful, I promise!
TURKEY: Giblets for all!
TURKEY blinds HERALD with a particularly well-aimed shot of giblets, sending her wailing offstage. Notices that he is alone in the auditorium. Scoops up an enormous double-armful of giblets, flings them into the air. Stands C with jaws open wide, waiting for those that didn’t stick to the Fresnels to fall down to earth.
TURKEY: Giblets for all!