I'm standing at our bay window, curtain pulled aside, watching for my father’s truck. We can’t eat until he's at the table. Dinner is chicken with some vegetable. It smells good. I'm hungry. I usually am. My family hates me. There are five of us and not enough of anything to go around. My father is our sole support. My mother doesn't work. Feeding seven people is expensive. And I take more than my share. That's why they hate me. I try to be a good person, stay out of the way. I’m the youngest and shit rolls down hill and — why I should I care?
“Why should I care?
If I have to
cut my hair
I got to
move with the fashion
or be outcast.
"I know I should fight.
But my old man
is really all right
And I'm still living at home
even thought it won't last.”
My brother Jake is in his room, blasting Quadrophenia. I can hear it just under the Mario Lanza on my mother's stereo, a piece-of-crap Realistic receiver (8-track player built in) and BSR turntable built into an old gramophone cabinet my father restored. Connected to two shoebox-size speakers, the whole thing sounds tinny and doesn't get very loud. I've recently been sneaking records onto it, though. Just today I got home from school, dreaming of Rosemary, grabbed some Hawaiian Punch from the refrigerator and headed off to my room for the 45, Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes. It's my own copy, from Korvette’s.
I was on the fourth play, imagining Rosemary in her green plaid dress and white knee-hi's when my mother got home from shopping. "Turn that damn thing off!" she yelled, hitting the wall switch just inside the door, shutting it off herself. The needle spun down on the vinyl... Love grows w h e r e m y R o s e. . .
I jumped over to the BSR, lifted up the needle, slid the 45 into its sleeve and switched the selector knob from “PHONO” to “FM”. My mother flicked the wall switch up and soft Christmas music filled the room. Her station is out of Paterson, New Jersey and soothes her nerves.
"Help me with the damn bags!" my mother barked. I ran outside after her, careful on the snow, down to the station wagon. I grabbed up four grocery bags and had them back up the stairs and in the kitchen in no time. I dropped them on the kitchen table and got back to the door in time to hear my mother say, "Open this damn door!" I’d forgotten to prop it open. I opened the door, grabbed the bags and ran them back to the kitchen.
My mother huffed her way inside, saying, "Jesus, it's cold!" She stamped her boots, took them off, left them by the radiator. "Why are you using my stereo?!" she asked, loudly. My mother has no other mode, actually. She's easily the loudest person on the block. Her only real competition is my father.
I began tearing through the bags, looking for something to eat right away. There was nothing in the house. No peanut butter, no eggs, no bread, no spaghetti, no tuna. Nothing. And the bags were full of all these. My mother had gone shopping for the week. There was a cornucopia before me, ice cream included. I immediately fished out the Nestle's Quik and made myself a tall glass of chocolate milk, licking the spoon. Then I dug out the Skippy's and Wonder Bread. The bread tore as I spread the peanut butter hastily, but some Welch's grape jelly made the mess palatable. Soon I was feasting.
"Can't you put anything away before you eat?" My mother stood in the kitchen, pouring herself a tall glass of Coke. "I was hungry," I say.
"You're always hungry."
It was true. I was always hungry. I seem to be forever eating, if you ask my family. That's why they don't like me. I take more than my share and am no longer cute. Being the youngest has gone from asset to liability. And my mother still intervenes on my behalf when one of my brothers threatens me with a beating, even though I ask her no to.
Like tonight, with Quadrophenia. I wanted to stay in Jake's room and listen. He threw me out, saying, "Leave NOW, tons of fun!" That's what he calls me. And “Blimpo” (mostly he uses "fat fuck"). My mother saw me crying as I left his room. She went and banged on his door, yelling, “I TOLD YOU NOT TO TALK TO HIM THAT WAY!!!” Which means I’ll get punched real good the next time Jake gets me alone. He’ll hit me in the arm as hard as he can and say, “You tell anyone and I’ll fuckin’ KILL you!”
I try not to think about all the impending beatings, from Jake, from Nate. The house is warm. Our tree is lit. I lean on the pane, watching my breath. It’s cool against my forehead. Mario Lanza finishes Oh, Holy Night. I lean over and pull the album off the turntable. I’m in charge of the records. My mother requested Sing We Now of Christmas. I slip it out of its sleeve. I like Little Drummer Boy the best. I listened to it three times last night while my sisters and I decorated the tree. I’ll put it on first.
Come, he told me, ba-rump-ba-ba-bump...
I'm also in charge of the Nativity. There’s probably fifty pieces: the wise men on camels, the shepherds, flocks of sheep, oxen, lamb, ducks, geese — so many animals! Then there’s Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus (he’s not set out until Christmas Eve). Nana made all the figures by hand. She has a good eye and a steady hand. The wise men all have different skin-tones and the same gold piping on their robes.
Nana has two kilns in her basement. I like to go down there and see what’s green, what’s been fired. She teaches a ceramics class for local women. Sometimes I’ll bring her a ginger ale while the ladies sit painting and gossiping. “Is this your grandson?” they ask. “Yes!” my grandmother beams. “He’s a big boy!” they’ll say. “I’m big for my age,” I’ll answer.
I check out in the street again. Dad will be driving the Willys, my favorite. He leaves Mom the Dodge during the day, in case of an emergency. He drives the truck. He's in business with my Uncle Ron. The Willys is a service vehicle. They put the plow on it in winter, drive it back and forth to the parts store and use it to tow stranded customers. The Willys has four-wheel drive. My Dad thinks it's a pretty good truck. “Never gets stuck!” he said one time, patting the hood.
I wonder what Dad will think of the tree. He set out the base last night. It’s a half circle of plywood, set on covered wire crates and pushed to the wall. Years ago, Dad brushed glue and sprinkled tiny rocks to make roads on the surface. The roads start at the wall, on either side of the tree, and lead to the manger.
My grandfather made the manger. He died before I was born. It’s fairly nice, almost a log cabin. He put real straw in it and a blue bulb at the back, where the angel descends. It’s nice being down at eye level with the Nativity. I feel like I’m in Bethlehem and am God.
I want to be ready when Dad rounds onto our block. I'm going to run out and lift the garage door quickly so he can sail right in. I’ve been watching for almost an hour. I run to the window every time I sense a car in the vicinity.
I'm in the kitchen, refrigerator door open, pouring some soda, when I hear tires on the corner. I screw the cap back on the bottle, shove it in the fridge, drop my cup on the table and tear off to the front door. My other brother, Nate, is a blur, chugging past me. He leaves the front door flapping behind him. I get outside in time to see Nate yank the garage door wide open. Dad has just turned in to our driveway. He rolls the Willys right in.
Nate is inside, too, pulling on the driver’s side door before the car comes to a stop. My father ducks his head down, climbs out of the truck. “Damnit, Nate!" he says, "Watch how far you open that door!” My brother, pulling too forcefully, whacks the door into the concrete wall of the garage.” Jesus!" Dad says, adding, "Didn’t I tell you not to throw the garage door open like that, too? You wanna break the damn springs? What is it with you and doors?” My brother stands there smiling. I feel conspicuous in the driveway and try to duck back in the house. Dad calls my name: “Victor!”
“Is supper ready?”
Well, what is it?”
"Chicken and mashed potatoes. And corn.”
"Chicken!" my Dad snorts.
My brother switches off the light in the garage and yanks the heavy wooden door down HARD. It slams into the concrete floor, rebounding a few inches as the springs go BRAAAAANNNNGGGG!
"What the HELL is WRONG with you?!” my father yells. “Didn't I JUST TELL YOU about that G. D. (God Damn) DOOR?!”
My brother screams "Sorry!" and tries to run past Dad. My father reaches out an arm, barricades him, spins him around and SMACKS him flat on his ass. My brother grabs his butt, rubbing as he jumps up the steps into the house. I walk alongside Dad, then hurry ahead to open the front door for him. “Why are you letting all the heat out?” he asks, stepping up and inside.
My mother is putting the finishing touches on dinner. She pulls the pan of chicken pieces out of the stove, directs my sister, June, to find a trivet. I can't figure out how she does it but my mother makes the most unappetizing chicken you can imagine, thoroughly greasy outside and completely dry inside.
For vegetables, my sister, Darlene, is boiling a bag of corn while singing Society's Child to herself. I'm supposed to mash the potatoes. Nate is pouring glasses of Coca-Cola and bringing them to the table in two’s. He sticks his head around the corner into the hallway, says, "Hi, Dad!" and asks, "Coke or Ginger-Ale?"
“Either... “ my father grunts. I hurry to the potatoes, boiling on the stove, then go looking in the cupboard for the right bowl in which to mash them. As he steps into the kitchen, a loud, collective, “HI DADDY!” meets my father!
“Hi.” he answers, stepping to the sink. His hands are black with grease. His coveralls are filthy. He turns on the kitchen tap, rolls up his sleeves and scoops some Goop from the ever-present container on the counter. He slaps his hands together beneath the water and begins the first pass, saying, “Did that bulb go out?”
“What bulb?” my mother asks, plopping chicken parts onto a serving platter. “The one by the front door." Dad says. My mother, losing hold of a wing, says, "Shit!" as it falls to the floor. Daphne — our Weimanerer — is on it before anyone can stop her. "I don't know, Jake! Maybe one of the kids forget to switch it on...” Daphne spirits the wing off to her spot in the hallway. “You don't know?” my father says, on his second pass with the hand-cleaner. “I was making dinner," my mother says, agitated, "I thought one of the kids turned it on. Do you think you can say ‘Hello’ before starting the interrogation?”
“I said ‘Hello’ when I came in. Didn’t you hear me?” My father begins his third pass, his hands only slightly less filthy than when he began. “I guess I didn’t.” my mother says, carrying the chicken to the table. Darlene empties the corn from the bag into a small yellow bowl. June gathers up serving spoons and forks. I grab the bowl of potatoes and the electric mixer. I pour milk and butter into the bowl and shove the beaters in. I click the switch to its highest setting and begin, adding more milk and butter until the lumps are gone. We place everything on the table. Nate is setting out the cutlery and napkins.
It's Friday night — no school tomorrow. My brothers and sisters and I are in a relatively good mood. My father doesn't appear to be. He works six days a week, sometimes seven. When he's not working he's fixing things around the house. "Victor – go check that light!" he says to me. I hurry off to the light switch by the front door. I flick it on. "It's working!" I shout. My father heaves a sigh of relief, then says, "Is it too much trouble for one of you kids to turn the light on when it gets dark?" It's quiet for a moment. Then my father hears it.
“You say she's a virgin?
I'm gonna be the first in.
Her fella's gonna kill me?
Ah, fucking will he?”
"Victor!" my father yells. "Stop that!" I shut off the mixer. My father grabs a towel, dries his hands, steps over to Jake's door. Then he pounds on it, yelling, "OPEN THIS DAMN DOOR!" Nothing happens for a moment. Then the music is turned down. My father pounds again. "OPEN THIS DAMN DOOR RIGHT NOW!" The door is swung open quickly. My oldest brother, Jake, my father's namesake, stands there, half-grinning. "What filth are you listening to in there?" my father asks. "The Who." my brother answers. My father, thinking this is yet another of my brother's wiseass answers, pulls back his fist and swings his arm forward. My brother jerks his head back but my father pulls up short. Jake Jr. jerks his head back. "Wipe that shit-eating grin off your face and turn that garbage off!" my father yells. He sniffs at the air in the room a moment, then grabs my brother by his T-shirt and adds, "And if you're smoking in there, I'll kill you." My brother has recently taken up the habit. My father smokes a pipe. My mother smokes Kools. Jake Jr. sneaks those. And pot. Lots of pot. Clapping her hands once, my mother breaks up the father/son glaring contest, saying, "Dinner is ready! Let's sit down!" Nate, June and I begin to scoot in behind the table, silently sliding down the banquette. Jake Jr. skulks past my father and joins Darlene on the outside of the table, where my mother and father sit.
"Would you like me to break my neck on the steps?” my father asks, resurrecting the bulb discussion. He bows his head to say grace and I imagine his neck permanently at that angle, broken. We all bow our heads. No one makes a move until Dad does. He reaches for the chicken, takes a breast and then it's GO and God help you if you're slow. My father forbids extraneous talk at the table so we serve ourselves wordlessly. I'm too late for a breast. I take two drumsticks and a wing. Damn. I'm pulling the skin off my chicken. June scoops mashed potatoes. Jake spoons corn. Nate drinks Coke. And Darlene whines, "Jake! Leave me some corn!"
"Darlene!" my mother scolds, "Your father is trying to EAT!"
"But MA...!" my sister singsongs. "Here!" my brother sneers, shoving the bowl at her. My sister, pouting, takes it and spoons out a heap of corn. My mother asks my father, "How was work?"
"I don't want to talk about it," he says. "I want to eat." I bite into the chicken. Greasy and dry. I sip some Coke. Dad lifts a forkful of mashed potatoes to his mouth. He stops halfway and puts the fork down. "Where are you going?" he asks June. She's trying to slip out beneath the table. "I'm not hungry,” she says. "You're not hungry?" my father asks. "I had some potatoes.” my sister answers. She thinks she's fat. "You eat some of that chicken," my father commands. "Dad!" my sister pleads. "Sit back down and eat some G.D. chicken."
"Jake..." my mother begins.
"Don't say a damn word." my father interjects. "I work like a slave to buy that chicken. She's going to eat it."
"Jake..." my mother says again.
"What the hell did she take the chicken for if she doesn't want it?" my father asks. My sister stares down at her plate. I keep my head down, too. My mother says, "She'll just put it back. She doesn't want it."
"She doesn't leave this table until she's eaten everything on that plate." my father says. June crosses her arms over her chest, juts out her lower lip. "Do you hear me?" my father asks. "You better start eating, if you know what's good for you." It's our custom to ask to be excused, but only when we're done eating. My father has this thing about not wasting food. If it's on your plate, you must eat it. He can't stand when one of his kids puts food "back". My sister continues to pout. She hasn't taken a bite since my father's proclamation. "Don't screw around with me, June!" my father shouts. I'm glad it's not me in his gaze. Jake asks, "May I be excused, please?" My father looks at Jake's plate. "You haven't finished, either." There's a lump of mashed potatoes, two forkfuls of corn and a complete chicken wing on the plate. "I don't like it..." my brother mumbles.
"What?" my father asks. "I don't like it." my brother says. "You don't like it?" My father is incredulous. "He turns to my mother: "He doesn't like it." My mother implores, "Jake..."
"No one asked you to like it. Your mother made this meal and you'll EAT it. I don't care if you don't like it. You'll finish what's on your plate." I plow corn and mashed potatoes into my mouth together. I devour my chicken wing, stripping it to the bone. Jake grumbles and pushes his food around on his plate. Nate says, "Look Dad! I'm all done!" He lifts his plate up for my father to see. "That's good, Nate. You’re excused." Nate slides underneath the table, emerging between my mother and father. He scurries off to our room, probably to finish the Frankenstein model he's been building. My mother gets up, puts her plate in the sink and runs the tap. Jake and June still aren't eating. My father turns to the sink, asks my mother, "Can you get me the ginger-ale? Darlene seizes the opportunity and pushes the remainder of her potatoes and corn back into their respective containers. Then she waves her drumstick under the table for Daphne. My father feels the dog brush past him. He turns back toward the table and says, "Who the hell is feeding the dog under the table?" No one answers. "How many times have I said NO FEEDING THE DAMN DOG UNDER THE DAMN TABLE!”? He ducks down under the table to catch the offender. Darlene is too fast. "May I be excused?" she asks. My father draws himself back up, gives her a suspicious look and says, "Is your plate clean?" Darlene shows him her plate. It's shiny with chicken fat but otherwise clean. "Okay..." my father says, "but if I find out it was you feeding that dog you'll be back here." My sister slides out from the banquette and hurries for the back door. Jake and June sit pouting. My father says, "No one is leaving until those plates are clean." June takes a feeble stab at the pile of mashed potatoes on her plate. Jake has taken a hard-line. He won't uncross his arms. "Pick up that goddamn fork... " my father directs him, "...and eat that goddamn food I'm paying for." Jake doesn't budge. June begins to cry. Before anyone knows, my father scoops their plates in each hand and overturns them on their respective heads. June and Jake sit with corn, mashed potatoes and chicken grease oozing down their faces. My mother turns from the sink, where she's been washing dishes, and screams, "Jake!"
"Don't say a goddamned word!" my father yells. June is sobbing uncontrollably. Jake is quivering. "Get the hell up from this table and go wash yourselves," my father hisses. They lift the plates off their heads, place them back down on the table. I have corn on my shoulder. We slide out from the banquette as one. June and Jake run for the bathroom. I sit back down behind the table and reach for another helping of mashed potatoes.
I always did like the way I made them.