|Jan/Feb 2001 Fiction|
I see it as I'm leafing through one of my mother's cookbooks. I turn the page and there it is.
"Dump Casserole." One can each corned beef hash, French-fried onion rings, mushroom soup, celery soup, green peas, and creamed corn.
"Dump Salad." One can each mandarin oranges, shredded coconut, fruit cocktail, pineapple chunks. One cup each shredded carrots, sour cream, Cool Whip. One package miniature marshmallows.
What sort of people eat this slop? I wonder with vague horror.
"Dump Cake." One can each crushed pineapple and cherry pie filling. One package of yellow cake mix.
"Can you believe these recipes?" I ask my mother, who is busy devising something resembling dinner for the two of us. My mother's boyfriend is at his bowling league tonight and my wife is working late again, or so she says.
My mother glances at the page in the cookbook and smiles.
"Well, of course, Elliott," she replies. "I made them faithfully every Wednesday night when you were growing up. They were your favorites. Don't you remember?"
When I was little, my mother, devotee of dump cuisine, would take me on the subway into Manhattan to ride the carousel in Central Park. As I whirled around and around on my garishly painted pony, she would mysteriously dematerialize before my eyes, perfectly blending into the sea of other waiting mothers with their Miss Breck hair and Republican cloth coats. Like a living demonstration of trompe l'oeil, she managed to become one with the neutral hues of soot and cement and concrete, vanishing into the cityscape's anemic palette of colors as effectively as the little brown sparrows that picked among the dirt and debris in the gray streets.
Once, I became so panicky at her fading away that I hurled myself off the merry-go-round horse. After I hit, my head had the squishy consistency of an overripe peach. Out of nowhere, my mother appeared, cheerily announcing to no one in particular, "Just a little scrape. Some Bactine and a bandaid and all will be well," as she mashed three lace handkerchiefs, her silk scarf, and nice-lady white gloves against my bloody face.
Riding home in a taxi, redolent of cigarillos and wet wool, she briskly informed me, "You're just fine. Your father's got enough worries already and thinks you're a mama's boy as it is. And don't you tell him we took a cab instead of the train. He'll be furious."
I vomited, and the cab soon reeked of reconstituted bologna on white bread, banana, and Hostess cupcakes, along with my mother's perpetual hair spray, which surrounded her like the odor of sanctity that reputedly emanates from saints.
"Your father says you're so pale that you look sick all the time," my mother told me. "No wonder you don't have any friends. They're afraid they're going to catch something."
It was either get a sun lamp or go to college in Florida.
Back then, nobody went to college in Florida to study, but of course, I didn't know that. My specialty has always been doing what everyone else has enough sense not to do. It takes great courage to keep making the same mistakes so many times.
While the other guys joined frat houses and sloshed in the surf, sucked up brewskis and screwed babes in yellow polka dot bikinis, I elevated angst to an art form. When I wasn't in the cafeteria assuaging my anxieties with meals comprised entirely of carbohydrates, I talked a lot about alienation in the cold war era. I'd just emerged from a childhood career of perfecting the ability to crouch under my schoolroom desk and kiss my ass goodbye when The Bomb fell.
"It's anomie," I told everyone. That was my new favorite word from a sociology textbook and no one I talked to had any idea what it meant. "We're all living in a state of anomie and don't even know it."
Everyone gave me funny looks and tapped another keg.
They knew they were living in the Sunshine State, land of the free and home of the laid.
Back at home in New York, where I was finishing my last three years of college to obtain my B.A. in b.s., I watched the grimy city sun crawl up every morning over the jaundiced bricks like a wary cockroach while I consumed my mother's latest version of breakfast. One week it was Maypo, the next Metrecal ("Your father says that all you must have done in Florida was stuff your face"), then some recipe from a magazine—"Ten Tried and True Ways to Tantalize Your Family at Breakfast Time."
The women's magazines were my mother's Bible, and they uttered the dire prophecy that a family without breakfast was on its way to delinquency, divorce court, depravity. New recipes raced to the rescue: pancakes with flotsam and jetsam—leftovers, fruit, snot, God knows what detritus drifted in that bizarre batter. Waffles with nuts like land mines. Eggs captured in a sea of bubbling Vesuvian Velveeta, dotted with a grain or two of paprika.
Suitably fortified for my climb to the heights of success's ladder, I took the subway to class, assiduously studying the Miss Rheingold contestant billboards during the ride, selecting my fantasy du jour. The girls had a little biographies underneath their photos. They supported widowed mothers, baby brothers, right wing causes. They had helmets of hard, shiny hair and lips as bright and wet as watermelon slices.
Their impervious faces japed at me, like the pretty girls at parties who routinely rebuffed my awkward advances and the monkeys at the zoo, sitting on their perches and studying me skeptically as they pulled at their private parts.
"You're dating the daughter of Miss Etta Kitt?" my mother said in disbelief. I was a senior and had become the unlikely object of a certain well-connected young coed's ardent attention. "Oh, my. I always read her article every month. She's famous."
My girlfriend's mother's real name was Eugenia Hamilton Brewster, and under her clever nom de plume wrote a column called "To the Manner Born" for a women's magazine, in which she carefully guided her gracious readers through the deeper waters of decorous deportment.
"Always spoon the soup away from you in the bowl, never toward you," she reminded the gentle ladies of America. "Never put the spoon in your mouth, but sip the soup from the edge of the spoon. Silently, it goes without saying. And of course a cultured person does not blow on his or her soup. Ever."
My girlfriend's father "did something" on The New York Times, which made me think of him more as an unhousebroken puppy than a newspaperman. He was a quiet, nervous man who wore his three strands of remaining hair carefully swirled over his shining dome and drank a lot of scotch from his wife's Waterford cocktail glasses.
"Why is Miss Etta Kitt's daughter interested in you?" my mother marveled. "I mean, you're nice, but you're not in her league. They're a very old New York family." She didn't need to remind me. I knew quite well we were nouveau everything, having only recently arrived from the Bronx, which was no better than coming from the Third World in a banana boat, socially speaking.
My girlfriend viewed me as the human equivalent of an urban renewal project. Like her mother, who staunchly believed that good manners were innate and simply needed to be encouraged, my girlfriend saw all sorts of possibilities in me.
"You'd look so nice in this," she told me, patting a tweed jacket on a mannequin in Brooks Brothers. "White-on-white patterned shirts are so European," she informed me, handing me several. I peeked at the price tags and put them back.
"The Met is doing 'Don Giovanni,' you know," she announced, and I knew for sure I'd be missing "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" that evening.
"I have such delicate hands that I only wear a size four and a half ring," she remarked every time we walked past Tiffany's diamond window.
"My parents know all sorts of people who can help you with your career," she assured me every Sunday evening, as I sat in their over-decorated Park Avenue apartment at a very long dining table with too many forks. "Daddy, tell Elliott about all the influential people you're going to introduce him to after he graduates." The nervous tic in her father's face grew more pronounced and he signaled the maid for another Johnny Walker.
After dinner, when we went to get my coat, she would shove me into the hall closet for our weekly encounter. "Isn't this romantic?" she'd say, as I groped and grabbed at what I could. She'd whisper messages in my ear, like TV commercials written by a sex maniac. "When you come home from work every night, I'll be waiting for you, wearing only plastic wrap," she'd murmur. "When we're married, I'll put Cool Whip on your you-know-what and lick it off. I heard that the Marquis de Sade ate scrambled eggs off a woman's bottom. On our honeymoon, you can eat scrambled eggs off my bottom. Oooooh." We'd squirm and writhe until she'd say, "Uh-oh, I think I hear someone coming," and shove me out of the closet unzipped and clutching my coat around me like a flasher in the park.
Week after week, I couldn't wait to hear her next intriguing idea for using average household items and ordinary foodstuffs in ways unimagined by Ladies Home Journal.
My aunt Nancy invited me to lunch at a restaurant in the East Fifties where people gathered to be seen. On the day we dined there, we saw a couple of Rats from the Pack, the Flying Nun, and Dr. Joyce Brothers. They saw a Chanel suit and sable coat in the dubious company of pimples and a permanent slouch.
She wanted to advise me about my career, a sad debacle since my graduation, consisting of teaching dead languages to disinterested preppies and selling encyclopedias. Even Miss Etta Kitt's daughter had given up on me and married a guy studying dentistry. Just thinking about what she did to him night after night with dental floss was enough to fill me with unease.
Aunt Nancy knew a lot about getting ahead. She'd gotten herself out of the Bronx years before the rest of my woebegone family did. She'd been a model in a Seventh Avenue showroom before attaching herself to a murky man "from abroad" who sported a French name and peddled outrageously overpriced objets d'art to the nouveau riche. He oozed a carefully cultivated, obsequious Old World charm, and Nancy of the mile-long legs and Titian hair did the rest. The client who indulged his wife's yen for ormolu clocks that didn't work and Louis XIV chairs too rickety to sit in was assured that Nancy had a very special lagniappe later on in private just for him.
Aunt Nancy was miffed because the maitre d' had seated us at an undesirable table. She surveyed me censoriously, pointing out that none of the other gentlemen dining in La Soupcon bought suits in bargain basements. When the warm aura of the waiter's attention failed to bathe her shoulders, she huffily insisted her entrée be returned to the kitchen.
"The fish isn't fresh," she told me. "They've cloroxed it. It smells like my laundry with shallots and dill." She sipped the wine and wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Vinegar! And at how many bucks a bottle?" She frowned in my direction. "Your father thinks you're a bum, you know."
She fretted over the kaleidoscopic dessert cart and decided she wanted nothing. When the check arrived, she decried the cost and agonized over the tip. "They don't deserve a cent," she pronounced, then toted up a whopping gratuity. "I won't be able to show my face in here again otherwise, you know," she told me, with a little sigh of resignation.
She kissed the air around my cheeks. "I hope I've helped you, darling. Getting your foot in the door in this city isn't easy. Believe me, I know." She gazed at me, her drawn-on eyebrows denting into a perfect, disapproving V. "For heaven's sake, Elliott, at least stand up straight. You have all the savoir-faire of a deflated inner tube."
I decided to move out West, because a hippie girl I met in a Greenwich Village coffee house told me the good news that everyone fitted in out there. She was fifteen and planning to run away to Haight-Ashbury over Christmas break instead of going with her parents on a trip to the Bahamas. She took me back to her parents' brownstone where she played "California Dreaming" and "If You're Going to San Francisco" on the stereo while we played Show & Tell. She showed me some flower tattoos on interesting parts of her anatomy and I told her about the Marquis de Sade's scrambled egg idea.
"Wow! Groovy," she said, and headed for the kitchen. "Hey, like maybe we could go out West together, you know. I've been lifting cash from my mother's purse for a few months and have over $500. I know some real cool people in California who'll let us crash for sure at their pads."
I told her I'd think about it. California sounded appealing, but even a bum like me knew better than to be on the road with jailbait in love beads.
The day of my departure, my mother knocked on my bedroom door at 7:59 A.M.
"The men from the thrift shop are here," she said, "to pick up the things we don't need anymore. Hurry and get up."
No sooner was I out of it, the bed was whisked away. My bureau followed, with the drawers still full of my underwear and my secret collection of Playboy mingling with my old Peanuts comic books—Linus with his nose nestled in the luscious lap of Miss October who was lightly festooned with autumn leaves and undoubtedly waiting for the Great Pumpkin, too.
I went into the kitchen and looked around for breakfast. The room was so pristine it gave the impression that no one really lived here, like the kitchens in TV ads.
"I thought they'd feed you on the plane," my mother said, shrugging.
"Christ, Ma, I'm taking the fucking bus."
Everyone in California was very busy. The other instructors at the college where I taught spent their time sailing, sleeping with each other, smoking weed, sitting zazen, studying for their real estate licenses, learning to pilot small planes. Their lives fatigued me. In my free time, I drove around, sampling the local fare: a Basque restaurant in Santa Maria, a Danish inn in Solvang, a barbecue joint in Pismo Beach where the mesquite smoke hung like exotic-flavored smog. "The way you get to know a place is to go to the restaurants," I told everyone. "What people eat is a window into their lives."
In a tiny town in central California, where no one spoke English and everyone congregated in a nameless restaurant on the one paved street, I ate a Mexican meal that ran together on my plate like primordial ooze. I didn't like it very much, but that didn't matter. I had taken out a lifetime membership in the Clean Plate Club.
I thought the waitress there liked me. As she served the meal, she buffed her pelvis against my arm, her breasts bobbing like apples I was dying to dunk for. She hovered over me, bringing me more chips and salsa, a couple of extra Coronas she didn't put on the bill. When I left a big tip, she flashed dark eyes and bright teeth at me. "Wan' go out? Wan' a date?"
Of course, I wanted a date. My social life in the Golden State was as barren as the Mojave. The oases that occasionally loomed always proved to be mirages. The women who said yes turned out to be dull or desperate or maladapted. Worse still, they all had the persistence of a pit bull. They wouldn't let me go.
The waitress told me to meet her behind the restaurant.
"What would you like to do?" I asked her, thinking a drive up the coast road to San Simeon might be pleasant at sunset.
She just looked at me with an odd expression on her face and laughed.
In the alley, beside the dumpster, she wasted no time, working with deft hands and a supple mouth, slippery with lipstick that left smears of purple like painless bruises. Before she went back into the restaurant, she extended her hand to me and I reached out to clasp it, thinking Miss Etta Kitt certainly was right about good manners being inborn in us all. The waitress snatched her hand away and stared at me with undisguised contempt.
It took me a moment to realize my mistake. I fumbled in my pocket and pulled out a twenty, desperately hoping that it was the going rate for dates these days and walking quickly away so she wouldn't see the unmanly blush spreading over my chubby cheeks.
It took a few years, a few moves, and a few more mistakes, but at last I was pleased with myself.
I had a good job with a real title in a large company in San Francisco. A great apartment with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge if you stuck your head far enough out the bathroom window. A wallet full of platinum and gold cards—every month I read and re-read the history of my new life as told by my record of impressive debts and experienced something similar to sexual arousal, but more exhilarating.
I had a power-suited, pearled girlfriend who worked as a manager in the international department of a bank. Self-assurance and accomplishment emanated from her with the potency of pheromones. I'd drape her on my arm like my new Burberry raincoat, confident of heads turning wherever we went-here, indeed, was a connoisseur of life's finer things, everyone was certainly thinking.
When I was alone, I thought: So you were a late bloomer, buddy, but now you're up to speed, and how. I pondered the photo album she kept prominently displayed on her coffee table, with snapshots of her at parties and on beaches, in restaurants and at clubs, on golf courses and tennis courts with men who wore success like the perfect tan. She could have anybody she wants, but she wants me, I reminded myself. I began checking out diamond rings in jewelry stores, scanning real estate ads for starter homes in the Bay area.
One evening, my girlfriend took me to a banquet at a private club for visiting Asian dignitaries. We dined on monkey brains and the private parts of tigers, or perhaps I should say, they did. I had always thought I could eat anything, but I discovered I was wrong. I tried to hide my serving under my rice, but I didn't get away with it.
"Mr. Wu says you should sample the specialties," my girlfriend informed me, after he whispered something in her ear. "He says to tell you, 'Very important that man eat these things. Very good for virility. Be big and strong like tiger in bedroom.'" She and Mr. Wu exchanged glances and laughed.
My girlfriend had been in charge of making the arrangements for the dinner. For weeks, she had complained to me about the difficulty in locating purveyors of contraband cuisine. "Do you know what it's like, hanging around every nasty dive in Chinatown trying to find a black marketeer? You have no idea how humiliating it is, having to ask for the penis of some animal."
At the dinner, when she thought I wasn't looking, her hand slid under the table and into the lap of Mr. Wu, who remained utterly inscrutable, discoursing on the balance of trade while she kneaded him like a lump of dough.
Late that night, back at her place, I made her beg for it. "You want big dick of rare bedroom tiger? Ah so, not so easy to get," I said, doing a perfect imitation of Mr. Wu. At first, she thought it was funny, that it was a game. Then she suddenly changed her mind, started to cry, tried to push me away, wanted me to stop.
Stop? I was nowhere near finished with that woman yet.
I knew my likeness would not be joining all the others in the special memory book on her coffee table, but I wanted to make good and sure she didn't forget me, just the same.
Nobody could believe I wanted to move back East. Out West, it is an act of treason to leave California, the mystical land explorers and pioneers died trying to find. But my hair was falling out as fast as my love handles were expanding. I figured I could fit in anywhere now.
On my drive back to New York, I breakfasted one morning in the shadow of the Grand Tetons, watching the mountains' jagged teeth devour the sliver of moon and a sun as pallid and cold as a scoop of vanilla ice cream slip tentatively into the darkness. The lights blazed in the diner, holding back the mountains' spreading blue stain.
There was a woman sitting at the counter who reminded me of my mother when I was young. Faded and brittle as old china, she looked as if she might shatter. Her skin was so wan and thin that she was in danger of attaining that peculiar invisibility my mother possessed.
We drank coffee in blue mugs speckled with white like the sky on a summer day in one's imagination. She was full of bright chat, but her eyes brooded like troubled clouds over the ridges of her sharply planed face. I stared, fascinated, at the bones of her wrists and neck and knees. They were prominent, with the picked-clean, accusatory quality of roadkill after the vultures have departed. Such pitiful bones, so often jumped and then jilted, should be enshrined in a reliquary and brought out on Ash Wednesday to confront sinners with the hard edges of shame, I thought.
She was from Chicago, she said, and moving out West to make a new life for herself. Her green Dodge Dart sat outside the diner window, its backseat a barely contained explosion of possessions, cookware and quilts and clothes pressing themselves desperately against the windows. "Where are you headed?" she asked.
"I'm in no hurry. I can stay in Jackson Hole a few days," she said, peering hopefully at me through the thin blonde bars of her bangs. She wanted company, of course.
For a week, we averted our eyes as we hastened from the lonely tangle of sheets to all those meals awaiting us in loud, crowded places, where we could sit like amicable strangers and dare at last to gaze into the other's face. "You're very pretty, you know," I told her. "You remind me of Audrey Hepburn in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's.' I can see you in the rain calling, 'Cat, cat.' You'd look pretty even soaking wet on a dirty street, like her."
Her eyes flickered like embers struggling to stay alive in an ash heap. "You're a very sweet man, Elliott," she finally said. "Really."
And we smiled at each other, because we were both old enough to know the one fact of life so dirty it's never discussed—no one wants to dine alone.
"Do you want me to bring you back something from Luigi's?" my secretary inquires as she heads out to lunch. She fills up the doorway of my office, a robust, busty sort of girl. Though her attire is appropriately prim for Park Avenue, everything about her seems round and ripe and ready to pop. Even when she's down the hall at her computer, I swear I can hear her seams sighing and skin stretching.
She eats foot-long subs for lunch from the Italian deli around the block. I can smell the grease from that place in my office on the twenty-first floor. On Fridays, she and the other secretaries go for the two-for-one Happy Hour with All-U-Can-Eat hot appetizers at Hooligan's Pub in the lobby of our office building. I don't know if she's married. Every woman is a Ms, of course. She wears lots of bright little bands on her fingers. If one is a wedding ring, then like everything else on that bountiful body, it teeters on the brink of bursting. I can feel flesh and metal warring, and I know which will be the winner.
"Come on, give it a try," she urges me. "You'll like it."
It takes me a moment to realize she means lunch from that awful place.
"Sure, why not." I shove a wad of bills toward her across the desk. "Surprise me."
While she's out, my boss drops by to tell me about the Mexican vacation he's planning. I make a few remarks about the Aztec ruins; I've never seen them in person, but I watch those National Geographic specials. I sound so knowledgeable that he thinks I've been south of the border. "Hey," he says, "you been to those sex shows they have down there? You know, where a woman does it with a donkey and everything? I hear it's pretty wild—anything goes. I can hardly wait."
When my secretary returns, we eat in my office, fingers slippery, lips slick with olive oil and meat grease. I eat only half of my sandwich. She has devoured hers with characteristic efficiency, and now sits, smiling and eyeballing mine. I push the untouched half toward her. "Help yourself. Please." She delicately plucks a meatball and pops it in her mouth. I shudder and look away.
After lunch, I send her downstairs to the newsstand in the lobby for a roll of Tums, then reconsider and tell her to make it a whole bottle instead. I have a feeling I'll be needing them.
Never let it be said that my mother didn't keep up with the times. After my father died, she bought a dishwasher and invited me for Dishwasher Chicken (wrap fryer parts in foil, place on the upper rack of the dishwasher, run through all cycles.) Never one to waste, she always put her breakfast and lunch dishes on the bottom rack, of course.
For dessert, she made Kidney Bean Cake.
I'm funny about where I eat nowadays. I don't like eating at home anymore. I think my wife's having an affair. She comes in, hair and skin reeking of strange spice. The smell taints everything she touches and lingers in my sinuses like a bad memory, making me lose my appetite. I met her a few years ago at a party where the only thing I recognized on the tray of canapés were the Carrs crackers. She had her mouth full of some unidentifiable mound from that platter and was busy reaching for more. That alone should have been a warning to me.
We can't agree on what to eat. She's partial to those trendy restaurants that serve dangerously underdone tuna on a bed of seaweed with a side of squid ink pasta. Streaks of red and yellow decorate the plates, reminding me uneasily of bodily fluids. It vaguely resembles a Jackson Pollock, but makes me worry if a mishap of a particularly nasty nature occurred in the kitchen.
"You won't eat out, you won't eat in," she shouts at me. "What sort of choice do you think you're leaving me?"
I don't do any better at my mother's. That new boyfriend of hers is a smoldery old fellow from who knows where and when he isn't busy bowling, she cooks to please his palate. She makes soup out of hot water, stale breadcrumbs, and an egg—some recipe he fondly recalls from a deprived childhood in a grim ghetto in some horrible part of the world. Her refrigerator is crammed with large jars of things being pickled—eggplants, hot chilies, obscene-looking roots. She serves salads of whole pickled garlic cloves.
Last time I went over for dinner, I got a calf brain burger with a side of stewed prunes and onions. She'd roasted some eggs in the oven and sliced then. They lay on the platter, their yolks green and their whites a mottled red, staring up at me like bloodshot eyeballs.
The boyfriend watched me silently.
I'm not fooling him. He knows I'm a bum.
McDonald's is my favorite these days. I like the Happy Meal. A hopeful sort of name, not too much food, and a toy as well. I enjoy eating my cheeseburger with the Little Mermaid or a tiny Pocahontas to keep me company.
Forget about Burger King. "Have it your way"? Who the hell are they kidding?
There are already too many choices in this life as it is, and how many, I ask, are good ones?