Wednesday, April 14, 1999

All In a Good Day's Work

He was enormous, overlapping the seat of his chair on both sides.  His eyes were but two little slits, almost hidden in the flesh of his face.  His girth was such that his belly positioned him far enough away from the edge of the table that his fat arms had to reach a fair distance to his plate.  Around his thick neck, he had tied a large white napkin and from front view, the ends of the knot looked like bunny ears misplaced at shoulder level.  

She could not take her eyes from him, and the hamburger on her plate, ignored, grew cold.  The dedication with which he ate fascinated her and would have been admirable, were it not disgusting.  He plunged his fork down into the spaghetti, twirled it and brought it up to his gaping mouth and chewed.  Next, a swig of ice water, and fork down again, this time into the salad, and up to the mouth.  Chew.  Chew.  Another swig of ice water.  

He pulled the basket of bread toward him and picked up a slice, slathered it with butter, and with his teeth, snatched off a piece. Chew. Chew.  A quick swipe of his arm across his shiny chin left a  yellow smear across his wrist.  He speared a meatball and took it up into his mouth.  Chew.  Chew.  Again a swig of ice water.

With head bent low, so that his second chin bobbed precariously near the table top, his eyes moved constantly here and there over his food, back and forth from salad to spaghetti, as if deciding, while chewing one mouthful, what to attack for the next.  And all the while (he seemed scarcely to take a breath,) cycle followed cycle in uninterrupted rhythm.  Spaghetti--twirl--chew--water--salad--chew--water--meatball--snatch of bread--swipe the lips--again spaghetti......     

Twice the young waiter refilled his water glass.  The third time he left the pitcher of ice water on the table.   

She wrenched her attention away from the orgy long enough to look at the waiter for his reaction to such an eating frenzy, but his young face, smooth and serene, gave not a clue to what he must be thinking of this awful man.  Man?  She shuddered. More like hippopotamus, she thought.  Would she have been equally offended, she wondered, if this...this monstrous man were instead slender and handsome?  Probably not.  She turned to her own lunch, but it had lost its charm.  Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him grab the waiter by the arm as he walked past.  

"Yes sir?"

"Apple pie," he said, twirling up the last of the spaghetti.  He tilted back his head, popped the fork in his mouth, pulled off the food with his lips, chewed a long moment, swallowed, drank from his glass, and then continued, "double portion.  A la mode."  Out of the tomato-stained cavern of his mouth, his tongue darted to the right and mopped up a bead of water on his cheek.  "And coffee -- regular.  Cream and sugar." 

The waiter nodded.  "Right away, sir!" 

Eavesdropping, she visualized the next course.  Enough! she thought.  I have had enough!   And as the waiter passed by her table, she stopped him and asked for her check.

He looked at her solicitously and pointed to her untouched food.  "Something wrong with the hamburger, mam?" 

She shook her head.  "No. I simply have lost all desire for food -- probably forever."  Then, a sob catching in her throat, she said, "Oh, you poor man!  How ever do you stand it?  How can you BEAR to wait on such hideous pigs!"

He looked puzzled.  "Excuse me, mam?"

Suddenly she blushed and wanted to be out of there.  "I'm sorry.  Please forget it," she said.  Impulsively (in appeasement or in sympathy?) she laid a five-dollar tip on the table.

The waiter's eyes opened wide.  He smiled broadly. "Why, thank you, mam," he said.  "You have a very good day now, you hear?"

Wednesday, April 7, 1999

Life Sentence

Something big was going on.  I could tell.  I was no more than seven years old, but when my grandmother showed up at our door with her hat all askew, I knew.

They never discussed real things with me, but fed me instead a diet of fairy tales.  I appreciated even then that they were trying to protect me from the anxieties of life, but it's amazing how much truth can be unearthed by pretending to not be listening.  They didn't know I knew, but I did; my mother was going to have a baby.  I had known for quite some time now.

"Why did Daddy look scared?" I asked my grandmother after my father, wearing a worried face that chilled my heart, had rushed off with my mother to Mercy Hospital.  "Mommy isn't going to die, is she?"

"Nonsense, dear," my grandmother said.  "She's just going into the hospital for a good checkup.  Now you get ready for bed.  School tomorrow, you know.

"Okay," I said, playing their game, "good-night, Grammy."  Baby for sure by morning, I thought.  I hoped it would turn out to be a brother.

Mother always wanted a son.  "For your father's sake," she used to tell me, but I knew it was for her own sake, which was okay, except that it made me feel I was letting her down for being a girl.  As for my father, I think he liked it fine having a daughter.  He often said that all he cared about was that I be happy and healthy, grow up good, and make all A's in school.  I hoped he was kidding about the all A's.

Later, as I lay just between awake and asleep, I thought of this little brother of mine.  They would name him Jim after my father.  This I knew for certain, because I had heard my mother time and again say to my grandmother that she wanted a boy to carry on my father's name.  I know now she meant the family name, but at seven, I couldn't have been expected to reason out everything, no matter how much eavesdropping I did.

"You listen here, Jimmy," I whispered to him in the privacy of my warm bed, "don't you think you can come into this house and take over, even if you are a boy, you hear?"  That was something that had to be made clear even before he took his first breath.  "You can go ahead and be Mommy's son and carry on the name and all that stuff as much as you want, but I'm still Daddy's favorite -- you got that?"

The next morning my grandmother wakened me with an extra loving kiss, and breaking with tradition, spared me any fairy tales...well, almost any.  "Your mommy is fine and will be coming home real soon," she said, her arms around me tight, "but she is very sad, so you must be an especially good little girl for her.  You see, Jesus sent her a baby boy during the night, and then took the dear little fellow right back up to heaven again.  Do you understand what I am telling you, darling?"

Oh I understood, all right.  I thought of Jimmy and how mean I had been.  There were two things instead of just one to feel guilty about now, and young as I was, I knew it was only the beginning.  If it wasn't one thing, it would probably always be another, to the very end of my days, and I would never, ever be free.