It’s not a holiday until I get into the kitchen with Mom. Even though I live in a different city now and we don’t cook together much any more, we fall back into the familiar rhythms. She places her best knife on the cutting board in front of me. I hand her the salt before she realizes she needs it.
The turkey was in the oven, and we were both sitting at the table peeling potatoes. The picture window in my mom’s dining area gave a panoramic view of the Gunderson property across the street.
They had already decorated for Christmas, and went all out. The house was entirely outlined in Christmas lights. Six angels graced the roof, each holding a sign painted with a seasonal word such as “peace” or “joy.” The front door of the house was gift wrapped, and several wreaths hung from the fence. Four foot tall plastic candy canes lined the drive, and a giant inflatable Santa in a bass boat was moored in the front lawn next to an enormous oak. The Santa strained at the lines with each gust of wind.
Despite the recent snow, Mr. Gunderson had raised the garage door and set up a big screen TV in the driveway. Three guys were sitting in lawn chairs, drinking beer and watching football. Another guy was lovingly waxing a red Firebird as he kept an eye on the game.
Mr. Gunderson had set up a turkey fryer in the driveway, and the oil was heating. He was standing at a card table next to it, cutting up something disgusting that looked like raw liver and tossing pieces into a bait bucket. A small pack of dogs surrounded him, nosing at the table. He swatted them away, but they kept coming back. A neighborhood cat sat on the fence, watching his every move.
Grandma Gunderson shuffled along the driveway with her walker. She kept listing to the right, like one of the wheels was sticking. Mr. Gunderson called something to her and she shook her head and waved him off.
The Firebird guy stood guard over the bait, shooing away the dogs, while Mr. Gunderson went into the house and brought out the turkey. The other guys gathered around and watched as he lowered it into the oil. A flame shot into the air and he dropped the turkey and jumped back. He tried to put out the fire with an extinguisher, but it froze up. The men shouted and laughed, but the flame died down quickly. They lost interest and went back to their game.
Mr. Gunderson finished with the bait and was carrying the bucket up the driveway when a gust of wind shook the tree and a large clump of ice broke loose and rolled down a branch, dropping into the fryer. Fire flared several feet into the air, igniting a “seasons greetings” flag hanging from the rim of the basketball goal. The men had all jumped to their feet, but they didn’t look alarmed. They were keeping an eye on the fryer to see if the flame would die out again.
A piece of flaming fabric from the flag fell onto one of the candy canes, and it started to melt, toppling and igniting the next candy cane in the line. The second candy cane exploded with a bang like a firecracker and flung flaming bits of plastic, sending the dogs into a frenzy.
The cat had been hiding under the Firebird. It shot out from under the car and ran down the drive. One of the dogs gave chase, knocking into Grandma Gunderson as it passed. She spun in a circle, one side of the walker lifting off the ground. As she was about to overbalance, one of the other dogs seized the tennis ball on the leg of the walker. It tugged the ball loose, pulling the walker back upright. Grandma Gunderson took a shuddering breath, then shuffled down the drive away from the fire.
Mrs. Gunderson ran out of the house with a kitchen fire extinguisher. Her hair was wet and she was wrapped in a robe. Her husband ran to meet her. He tripped over the extension cord stretched down the drive, yanking the TV over with a crash. As he fell, he flung the contents of the bucket onto his wife.
The dogs took her down. The chunks of liver were gone in seconds. Mrs. Gunderson shrieked as the dogs tugged and wrestled her robe off, running away with it. The fire extinguisher rolled away. One of the other guys ran after it.
The fire had spread to a leaf blower lying next to the drive. It ignited and the force of the explosion knocked over the basketball goal. As it fell, it snagged a string of lights, pulling them loose from the house with a sound like popcorn popping. The lights yanked loose a section of guttering. The other end of the gutter tipped up and whacked the joy angel. She teetered a few times, then tumbled down the roof, doing a nosedive through the windshield of the Firebird.
I stood there at the window with my mouth hanging open. Mom grabbed the phone and called the fire department. A couple of neighbors ran out with fire extinguishers, trying to prevent the blaze from spreading. The inflatable Santa in his bass boat tore loose from its moorings and went flapping down the street like it was fleeing the scene.
Mr. Gunderson ran past our window, his wife streaking after him, brandishing a barbecue fork.
As the woman passed, Mom squinted at a tattoo on her butt. “What is that? A mouse on a surfboard?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a spider playing a banjo?”
Mom sighed. “That woman brings me a tin of pfeffernusse every Christmas. I’m going to have to look her in the eye.”
I giggled. Mom threw a dish towel at me.