by Kathleen Gerard
Last Licks is from the Untreed Reads anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry. The entire anthology is only $0.99 and available wherever ebooks are sold-check out the link at the end of the story. There are actually four different books in The Killer Wore Cranberry series.
I didn’t know what hit me. All of a sudden there was a thud! and a wet splat! that triggered everything to go flying everywhere—atop the sparkly crystals of the gently swaying chandelier; the steaming gravy boat that sat alongside that big, trussed up bird, half of it carved up on a platter; the beads of sweat rolling down the glass water pitcher; and even onto the cheek of this runny-nosed kid, who was sitting in a highchair across from the scene of the crime. After it happened, there was silence. Nobody moved. Nobody breathed. Every face looked at every other face, pale and stunned. But it wasn’t until one of the tall, wax tapered candles singed and launched a curly ribbon of smoke in its wake, and that snot-nosed kid started crying, that I knew things were bad. Real bad. And here I was, just a few forkfuls away from cleaning up in the betting pool.
It’s a long story that started back when we were surrounded by this oppressive darkness. There was lots of it. The two of us, Spud and me, we had been stuck in a heap for three months, covered by mounds of well-drained, moist-textured soil that smelled of clay and compost. It was a small plot of land tended by folks who had way too much time on their hands and believed in tomorrow. Every morning, noon and night, I could feel their determined footsteps trampling all over us. The ground quaked with their hard work and ambition. The heavier one wore clod-hopper boots whose soles sank into the earth like dull spikes. He got down on his knees and dimly mumbled his prayers aloud while he dug in the dirt until his fingernails turned black.
“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread….”
Spud and me, we had no choice but to learn those prayers by repetition and rote all the while we feared for the tip of a trowel jabbing into the earth all around us. Any weeds that might’ve had a chance to hatch above us, were cut down before their prime. And the land, never given a chance to rest, became weary. Over and over, again and again, the raw earth kept turning until the sunshine that had been beating down on us all day warmed us up through the lengthening dark of each night.
Even though Spud and I weren’t able to see each other, or the light of day, we knew we were swelling and growing larger, taking up more and more of that patch as time went on. It was getting crowded in there. We could feel it.
“Hey, listen to that,” Spud whispered to me one morning. We could hear the bright sound of someone whistling above us. “The surface of the earth. It’s getting closer. Can you feel it? Why, that’s the tell-tale sign that we’re growing up, Sweet.”
“Yeah, and that can only mean trouble.”
“Well, maybe they don’t even know we’re still in here.”
“Oh, they know, all right. That praying guy knows his potatoes like Jesus knows his sheep. Trust me. He’ll be relentless in search of saving each and every last one of us. And the strays, like you and me, Spud—we’re the ones he’s dying to get his hands on.”
“But he might think he lost us to the blight. Look at how many he was forced to yank outta here last week. We’re probably all he’s got left.”
“No, we’re not the only ones. We can’t be. We’ve just strayed from the pack is all,” I told him. “Besides, this guy’s too careful, too smart. He’s not gonna give up on us without a fight.”
“Then neither should we.”
“Well, what are you proposing?”
“I say we hedge a bet, for fun—a bet against our future. You in, Sweet?”
“That all depends….”
“How about if—and when—we finally get dug outta here, we say that whoever’s the first man off the Thanksgiving table, wins.”
“Wins?” The sound of my laughter was deadened by the density of the dirt covering up the both of us. “I think what we’ve got on our hands here is a lose-lose situation. Me and you, Spud, we’ve been made for dying.”
“Well, that’s the nature of us all. But where’s it written that we can’t at least have ourselves a little fun enjoying the journey? How about it? It might help us pass the time.”
“So what you’re saying is that this is gonna be a popularity contest?”
“Yeah, the last licks of us—who’s gonna get ’em? In the end, who’ll be more appealing on the plate—me or you?”
“But what do we win if we win?”
“It’s all about going the distance. Satisfying the palate… Hanging in and fighting the good fight—the good food fight, that is.”
“What’s the matter, Sweet? Don’t you think you have what it takes?”
“Is that a dare?”
In the silence ripening all around us, Spud and me, we knew it was a done deal. From that moment on, whenever we heard the sound of whistling sprinkling down on us like droplets dribbling out of that watering can, we knew that one of us was inching closer to winning and the other, losing.
* * *
I don’t know how much time had passed. All I knew was that one day, Spud was gone. He was just out of there. I was talking to him when I realized he wasn’t talking back. Why, one minute I was all snug, six inches under, and the next, I could feel the earth splitting apart and light cracking through. These big, fat claws started digging around me. And all of a sudden, I found myself cradled by these warm filthy hands.
“Holy-Moly, Nell. You’re not going to believe this!” a deep voice proclaimed. Those hands, like great big paws, were rough in wiping dirt away from my skin. “Bring the camera, hon.”
Next thing I knew, I was staring at a shock of white hair and the surprised face of a weathered old man. His wide eyes were split by the line of his bifocal glasses. He rotated me this way and that, inspecting all my facets, while a woman with silver hair came bursting out the back porch as if the house was on fire.
“What’ve you got there?” the woman preened, a camera strapped to her wrist like an oversized charm bracelet.
The old man pressed me against his hip. He reached down and with a creek in his knees, he let out a labored groan while he picked up Spud. He pressed the two of us against the bib of his overalls like he was more greatly endowed than Dolly Parton.
“What in heaven’s name!” the missus said, her chin unhinging.
“Never seen nothing like it, have you, Nell?”
“No. Can’t say I ever have.”
There was Spud, smack up against me. He was a russet, though he didn’t look a thing like I thought he would. He was all misshapen and knobby. He looked grey and brown and some of his skin was peeling off to reveal white underneath.
“Hey, you don’t look much better yourself,” Spud told me. He must’ve read my mind. “I think ‘archaic’ is the word you’re searching for—but don’t you dare say it!”
“Okay, now. Smile pretty and say Tasty Taters,” the woman said, hiding behind the camera and snapping our picture.
The sun was beating down on us so strongly that I felt naked beneath its glare, and when the blinding light of the camera flashed and lit up the stark shadows it felt as though we were being X-rayed.
“I’ve been working this land since I was a boy, Nell,” the man said, beaming as proud as a father of newborn twins.
“I’ve never harvested anything like these before. And I didn’t even use no fertilizer or nothing. These boys here might break our record. Why, I’d bet they’ll clock in at twelve or fifteen pounds apiece.”
“Try more like twenty for that one there.” The woman peered around the camera and pointed in my direction. “He looks more like a sweet tater to me.”
When the man handed Spud over to the missus, the unexpected weight of him made her arms sink toward the earth as though she’d just been inundated with an anvil.
The man slid his glasses down his nose. With his two hands, he brought me up close to his face and narrowed his eyes, suspect.
“You know, Nell, you might be right. With all these dark veins and cracks, and these fibrous roots under the surface, we might have ourselves here a yam.”
With delight on his face, the man looked from me to the missus. “And here we thought we’d lost them all. The whole crop. God must’ve known we’d be needing at least one of each.”
“Well, it looks like your prayers have been answered in more ways than one. Every Thanksgiving, you’re always complaining there ain’t never enough of my candied sweets to go around for seconds. With that monstrosity, we could feed our whole tribe, plus all the hungry pilgrims in the county, I’d bet.”
The mister and missus burst out laughing. Part of me took pride in the way they were gushing and fawning all over me, but just then I heard Spud clear his throat.
I stared down at him cradled like a big fat baby in the arms of the missus. “Do you hear that, Sweet?” he asked.
He started singing in a low, rumbling voice. “Pray for the dead and the dead will pray for you… They might be eating you up now. But once we hit the table, there’ll be a lot more of you than there is of me… What does that tell you?”
When I envisioned my fate, I suddenly felt queasy. Sick. If I could’ve gulped, this would’ve been the place where I’d swallow a brick of air. I didn’t like the idea of losing. Not one bit.
* * *
The mister and missus gave me and Spud a bath in the kitchen sink. They drew out the nozzle sprayer and took a bristle brush and cleaned us, nooks and crannies, like we had been exposed to plutonium or something. Why, they scrubbed and scrubbed so hard that our skins felt raw. What a welcome relief it was when they finally set us down to dry on a soft, Turkish towel.
Afterward, Spud and I were dropped onto the bathroom scale.
Spud clocked in at 11.78 pounds. I came in at a whopping 18.25. Then onto the dining room table we were set to rest. All spit and polished, we stayed there until Thanksgiving.
It was a long six days made even longer by Spud who was relentless and unmerciful in badgering me.
“Well, Big Sweet, it’s been nice knowing you, pal. Enjoy your steam bath and look for me in the winner’s circle,” was the last thing he said when the missus finally hauled me away and dropped my bulk into a vat of water. She flipped the gas on the stove. Warmth started growing beneath me.
I must’ve dozed off while I was steaming, because when I came to again, I found myself all sentimental and tender. I was a bright, blazing shade of orange all over. I’d been peeled and sliced into half-inch pieces and arranged in a great big baking dish—a pool made of glass Pyrex. Next came my favorite part where I was dotted with butter, brown sugar and cinnamon. Then I was drizzled with a slick of super-sweet Karo syrup and topped with toasted walnuts that stuck right where they’d been dropped onto the sugary, sticky glaze.
I knew I’d be delicious, but I wasn’t kidding myself. I wasn’t putting on airs or anything.
The size and weight of me might’ve been my greatest asset for the dinner, but it could also be a grave liability in terms of the bet. I tried not to overthink it. After all, the hell I already went through in gussying up to meet this challenge would be no match for what Spud still had in store.
There, on the kitchen table, I had a front row seat as Spud took his lumps.
The missus cut him up into one-inch cubes. Then she took a large pot, filled it with cold water and dumped in a whole mess of salt. When all of the little pieces of Spud were plopped into the pot, shivers rippled across the cold, cold water. The missus turned up the heat and left him to simmer until he was soft enough to be pierced with a fork.
With steam rising from the pot, Spud was dumped out and drained in a colander. Then into a sieve he went until he was flattened and mashed. Ground beneath the beaters of an electric mixer, he was whipped with hot butter and milk until he was all creamy and smooth—salt and peppered, the stiff peaks of him were piled as high as Mount Everest in a great big crockery bowl.
“I think we’ve both died and gone to heaven,” I moaned to Spud while we rested side by side in a lukewarm oven. Spud yawned. He nodding off all the while I kept being basted in that warm, sugary glaze. Oh, the delicious perfume of us…all that butter, cinnamon and brown sugar…The aromas were intoxicating!
When the doorbell rang a little while later. Spud and I finally stirred. “Wake up, sleepyhead,” I told him. “I think it’s showtime.”
* * *
They oohed and aahed over the pictures of us, and all were rapt by the story of Spud and me. Someday the anecdote would be passed down as family legend. But for now, the story served to make us all the more appetizing.
The crowd finally sat down for dinner and squeezed into their chairs. There was barely enough elbow room around the table—a long, rectangular oak extended with two card tables on one end and wobbly snack trays on the other. When the turkey was brought out on a platter, everyone admired its fat legs and brown, crispy skin. Spud and I were crammed in amid the rest of the side dishes that congregated at the center of the table. We were surrounded by the old and young, fat and thin, porcelain-skinned and wrinkled. All were hungry. Someone tapped his knife against an empty wine glass. The chime was enough to get the crowd to hush and folks to stop talking long enough to put their hands together. The old man, whose white hair now looked like an ordered, rain-slicked nest, cleared his throat and led the group in saying grace.
The old man’s long-winded hails of Thanksgiving only served to heighten the suspense and ratchet up the tension for Spud and me. Our warm, spirited vapors visibly wafted into the air like anxious ghosts until the prayer finally culminated with, “And Lord, we thank you for the abundance of our harvest even amid the blight this year. Who knew that two big taters would be able to feed us all like the story of the loaves and fishes. Amen, I say… Thanks be to God. Now let’s all dig in!”
It was as though the old man’s prayer mirrored the proclamation of, “Gentleman, start your engines.” No sooner were his last words spoken, when the solemnity of the silence erupted into clamors of sound. Folks sitting around that table scraped their chairs and sat up tall. They tucked in their napkins, picked up their forks and knives, and practically started foaming at the mouth as if they hadn’t eaten in years.
Dinner was served. The feast was on. The bet got underway.
“Good luck, Sweet. You’re gonna need it,” Spud said, as a heaping, creamy spoonful of him was scooped out and landed in a glob to christen the very first plate.
Lifted and passed—person to person, plate to plate—Spud and I were dished out onto the fancy china that was being crammed with slices of turkey and mounds of dressing; green beans with slivers of almonds; creamed corn and cranberry sauce.
Spud quickly pulled ahead and took the lead. His bowl began to empty as heaping portions of him were divvied out around the table. I watched as brown pools of giblet gravy sunk down deep inside each fluffy mound of him. Some forks gently tined through the puddles while others simply broke the dam and dove right in.
But I was holding my own, not doing too bad for myself either. Large chunks and slices of me were carefully balanced on a big spoon. When I was set down to rest, rivers of dark syrup slithered away from me, seeking out tributaries to fill all the gaps on each plate.
With mounds of food piled high, I listened while the good silver clinked against bright, white teeth. Spud and I eagerly passed through the wide open gates of lips and were released. We were swallowed down like Jonah into the belly of the whale—gleefully drowning in cascades of apple cider and red wine waterfalls.
Second helpings were passed. Biscuits mopped along plates until the floral patterns on the china were once again revealed. That’s when I noticed that the crockery bowl that once held Spud seemed as empty as a canyon. A wave of clammy sweat broke out all over me. There was little left of Spud, except for a thin smear at the concave bottom and around the edges and rim. My few remaining, bronze-orange chunks felt trapped in an eerie chill. That cinnamon-Karo syrup was slowly cooling, congealing in that glass serving dish.
“Well, Sweet,” Spud said. “If this is how it all ends, then we both cleaned up pretty well. A fair fight. Don’t you think?”
But I wasn’t about to concede—not just yet. “Hey, it ain’t over til it’s over. There’s such a thing as third helpings, you know.”
And just as I said those words, the old man lifted the Pyrex sending slices of me to careen all around that dish.
“C’mon, there’s only a tad here, and I don’t believe in leftovers,” he said. “Whose gonna help me kill this?”
There were a few pats on bloated bellies and heads that swayed from left to right. And then there was silence. No takers? An agonizing swell of defeat surged through me.
“All-righty, then,” was his last call. “I’m stuffed, but we can’t let these go to waste.”
The old man tilted the dish and spilled me out in a sluggish wave all over his plate. There I was, oozing over tainted-white smears of Spud, a few drizzles of brown gravy, and broad red strokes from leftover cranberry sauce.
The old man, he loosened his tie. He undid the top button of his trousers and let out his gut. Then he reached for his fork, pressed it through a soft, pliable hunk of orange and lifted me to take a bite.
I went down smooth and easy.
Victory was now in my reach. I could taste it. Bite after sugary bite, chew after sweet chew, Spud and I waited with baited breath. I readied myself to be stabbed and swallowed, again and again.
But suddenly, the action stopped.
All was still and calm on the plate.
I looked up. And there, in the face of the old man, I could see that he’d stifled a burp. With the palm of his hand flattened and his fingers splayed upon his chest, his face flared red. He looked down at me in distress.
And that’s when it hit me…He hit me—face first. A thud! and a splat! What little was left of me went flying everywhere—atop the sparkly crystals of the gently swaying chandelier; the steaming gravy boat that sat alongside that big, trussed up bird, half of it carved up on a platter; the beads of sweat rolling down the glass water pitcher; and even onto the cheek of this runny-nosed kid, who was sitting in a highchair across from the scene of the crime. After it happened, there was silence. Nobody moved. Nobody breathed. Every face looked at every other face, pale and stunned. But it wasn’t until one of the tall, wax tapered candles singed and launched a curly ribbon of smoke in its wake, and that snot-nosed kid started crying, that I knew things were bad. Real bad.
* * *
Spud and me, we called it a draw.
A few months later, in the spring, Spud and I returned to our old stomping ground. Seedlings were hatching and the tops of crocuses were already pushing up between new shoots of grass.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…And to earth ye shall return,” said the silver-haired woman cradling an urn in her arms. With her eyes growing moist, she reached inside and sprinkled coarse handfuls of her husband over that little patch of land right in their own backyard—that garden all tilled and prepped, plowed and planted that she now anointed as Holy Ground.
And it was there, amid floating fragments of bone and ash and lingering traces of that Thanksgiving dinner—the memory of those candied sweets and creamy mashed all mixed in—that Spud said, a lilt of hope in voice, “Hey, looks like we might have ourselves another crack at that bet again next year. What do you say we go double or nothing?”
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