To tell the truth, folks….No one ever chops wood at the party… It’s a misnomer, actually. We cut and carry and stack and split huge piles of firewood with a wood-splitter…But no one ever chops. Ever.
Each year, we gather on the Brownville bluff…loyal friends of Albert Austin…neighbors, loved ones—professionals and ordinary folk. We’ve come to replenish the winter wood supply… Each year we invade those deep, mysterious woods: Mr. Austin’s Paradise. He reigned as King of the River Bluff for years, but now the old man is gone and his Christmas Tree Farm has passed on to his daughter, Nancy.
Nance called me the night before The Party. “Vic—you’ve got to help me out,” she said. “I’m making chili for the party and I’m all out of seasoning. Without chili powder, it tastes awfully flat!”
Chili powder. I made a mental note. “Anything else….?”
“Not that I can think of,” Nancy said, “…but you should see Squeaky! The cat’s all upset about what’s happening. The noise of hamburger frying in the kitchen is scaring her to death. Tells you how often I cook!” Nancy laughed. “I guess I’m no domestic diva!”
I nodded. It was going to be an interesting weekend.
I showed up at Austin Acres the next day, fully armed. In my car-trunk were spices and cans of store-bought chili just in case…. I took one look at the simmering crock-pot in the kitchen and I sighed. A quarter-inch of grease floated on top of the chili.
“Ummm Nance…?” I said.
But Nancy was gone. Out of the house and down the hill she went, to supervise her many workers. Nancy flitted amongst the volunteers like a pretty sprite amid the evergreens. “Wonder Woman” was what her daddy called her—and she certainly looked the part, today, as she breezed through her troops, waving her arms to the chorus of chainsaws
Everyone at Austin Acres was busy, and I set to work, too—dipping grease from the crock-pot. I taste-tested the chili. Nance was right… it was flat as a board!
I put in the chili powder, and tasted it again. Still needed something. I grabbed a few cans of store-bought chili out of my car, and dumped them into the crock-pot. Reaching for the spice rack, I started sprinkling. Garlic powder. Seasoning salt. And sweetener…?
A bit of sugar always makes chili good.
My search of the kitchen turned up nothing but a box of sugar cubes. I grabbed a handful and dumped them into the crock-pot. I stirred quickly. Chili splattered on my white shirt and a bit splattered on the newly-painted wall. Oh crud…. I was making a terrible mess.
I heard voices outside. Someone was coming. Crew members were heading up the hill toward the house, and the Wonder Woman was sure to be among them.
I tossed the empty chili cans in the trash and scrubbed up my mess as best as I could. I could hear Nancy’s laughter skipping merrily above the other voices. “Well…Vic!” she said, coming around the corner. “What are you doing?” Her hair was full of sawdust….her eyes bright and curious.
“Oh, just helping out…” I said, dabbing at my shirt-front. “I was skimming the grease off the top of the chili. But it’s fine, now. Just needs to simmer a while.
With a nod and an absent-minded smile, Nance trotted off to tend to her partiers and I escaped to the woods. I spent several hours working with the others, scrambling up and down the slopes of Austin Acres. We cut and carried and stacked and split wood amid the towering trees, till hunger drove us back up the hill toward the house.
People were everywhere. Kids skittered about the porch deck, munching on cookies as they tormented one another—their shouts and laughter echoing along the river bluff.
The TV blared out the score of the Husker game, luring more volunteers out of the woods. They collapsed into chairs to rest while staring at the screen. They groaned and moaned. The game was not going well. The weary fans were grieved, especially the menfolk. They slumped in their chairs till a bevy of bikini-clad Hooter gals paraded across the screen. The masculine sector revived, then, feeling comforted.
Tid-bits of conversation drifted about the room. Snatches of nonsense. I picked up my writing notebook and pen. I needed to record some of the foolishness going on here, today.
Nancy’s brother, Jim, was going full-tilt, as he wandered about sipping his cappuccino. I followed him outside and we stood watching the arrival of volunteers from the woods. Sawdust-laden people with scratched-up hands and faces. Jim’s gal was there, chattering to the other ladies. She looked astounded. Dismayed.
“Man!” she was saying to the others. “Do we have any medical people on hand? A doctor or nurse maybe–just in case…? There’s an ol’ guy climbing through the treetops like he’s walking on a sidewalk….He’s freakin’ me out!
“He must be nuts—”
“Such an old guy, too—”
“Who?” I said. “The 73 year-old-man? That’s my dad, and he’s been doing it for half a century.”
The chattering ladies paused. They stared, noticing me for the first time standing there with my notebook and pen.
“What are you doing?” they wanted to know.
Nancy’s brother intercepted them. “Vicki’s a journalist and she writes down everything. She’s a famous ‘Pulitzer Surprise winner’. It’s a surprise, see?…even to herself.” He chuckled at his own wit.
Still grinning, Jim scanned the crowd. His gaze settled on a group of children squabbling nearby. His grin turned upside down. “What’s wrong with those children, anyhow…?” he said. “They’re acting like children!”
I sighed and brushed at the sawdust clinging to Jim, accidentally knocking the cup of cappuccino out of his hand. It somersaulted to the ground and splattered everywhere. Jim looked rueful. “You ruined my cappuccino and my cup,” he said. “Now I need some duct tape.”
“Jim—it’s a Styrofoam cup!”
“I know,” he said. “Like I’m saying—I need duct tape and some more cappuccino.”
I gave up on Jim and wandered back inside. Amid all the voices, I could hear the prattling of the Wonder Woman. Nancy was in fine form, today, as she wandered about chatting with her guests. How happy her father would’ve been to see her like this.
I looked at the old man’s photograph, sitting there on the coffee table. His bright gaze stared past me, watching all the hoopla. He was clearly fascinated.
“Mr. Austin,” I murmured. “How we miss you! You loved these Wood-choppin’ Parties, didn’t you?”
The King of the River Bluff didn’t answer. But he was smiling.
The Choppin’ Party was turning out to be a great success. With each passing hour, the fresh pile of wood grew higher and higher—a mountain of crisscrossed sticks and slabs—each piece blessed by the camaraderie of friends and family.
The holidays would be a cheery time at the Austin’s Christmas Tree Farm, this year….with a home-grown fire burning in the wood-stove and a home-grown evergreen in the corner. Lots of warmth and laughter and wood-choppin’ memories on top the river bluff.
I gazed out the great bank of windows at the deck and the forest beyond. Soon snowflakes would whisper past those windows and the critters of the bluff would leave snowy footprints across the deck, in search of leftovers from Nancy’s kitchen. Possums, coons, a fox or two…and of course, the hungry winter birds. The feathered friends were even now sitting in nearby branches, waiting for the guests to leave so they could begin a feast of their own. The birds watched the kiddy cookie-eaters, their eyes bright with anticipation.
The children sweetened the deck, scattering crumbs here and there, and the birds waited–patient and knowing. Cardinals. Titmouses. Red-bellied woodpeckers. The ones that the Austins called Greedy-guts. The birds watched—cocking their heads from side to side.
I watched and waited, too. The day was drawing to an end. I knew that a moment of reckoning was coming. And soon.
There was a commotion in the kitchen. The pizza had arrived and the lid of the crock-pot was lifted. It was time to fill the bowls.
Uneasily, I watched as somebody ladled up the doctored chili. What if I’d put in too much garlic salt, or too many sugar cubes? I scanned the crowd, waiting. The chili bowls were full and steaming. Everyone chatted and laughed in the homey atmosphere, feeling relaxed as they reached for their spoons. Everybody but me. I watched as they raised spoons to their mouths.
“Oh Nancy!” one of the ladies said. “Your chili is wonderful! What did you put in it? I want the recipe.”
Nancy blushed a bit—exuding the air of a domestic diva. Modestly, she flapped away the compliment with fluttering hands, then rattled off the list of ingredients….airing her chili recipe for all to hear.
She smiled…and I smiled, too. The Wonder Woman need never know.
At least not till now, dear readers….Not till now.