WE THREW A PARTY. THE SAME PARTY, EVERY YEAR, WHEN I WAS a kid. It was a spring lamb roast, and we roasted four or five whole little guys who each weighed only about forty pounds over an open fire and invited more than a hundred people. Our house was in a rural part of Pennsylvania and was not really a house at all but a wild castle built into the burnt-out ruins of a nineteenth-century silk mill, and our backyard was not a regular yard but a meandering meadow, with a creek running through it and wild geese living in it and a Death Slide cable that ran from high on an oak to the bank of the stream and deposited you, shrieking, into the shallow water. Our town shared a border so closely with New Jersey that we could and did walk back and forth between the two states several times in a day by crossing the Delaware River. On weekend mornings we had breakfast at Smutzie’s in Lambertville, on the Jersey side, but then we got gas for the car at Sam Williams’s Mobil on the New Hope side. In the afternoons after school on the Pennsylvania side, I walked over to the Jersey side and got guitar lessons at Les Parson’s guitar shop.
That part of the world, heavily touristed as it was, was an important location of many events in the American Revolutionary War. George Washington crossed the Delaware here, to victory at the Battle of Trenton, trudging through the snowy woods and surprising the British in spite of some of his troops missing proper shoes, their feet instead wrapped in newspaper and burlap. But now my hometown has become, mostly, a sprawl of developments and subdivisions, gated communities of small mansions that look somewhat like movie sets that will be taken down at the end of the shoot. Each housing development has a “country” name—Squirrel Valley, Pine Ridge, Eagle Crossing, Deer Path—which has an unkind way of invoking and recalling the very things demolished when building them. There is now a McDonalds and a Kmart—but when I was growing up, you had to ride your bike about a mile down a very dark country road thick with night insects stinging your face to even find a plugged-in Coke machine where you could buy a vended soda for thirty-five cents. Outside Cal’s Collision Repair in the middle of the night that machine glowed like something almost religious. You can now buy a Coke twenty-four hours a day at half a dozen places.
But when I was young, where I lived was mostly farmland, rolling fields, rushing creeks when it rained, thick woods, and hundred-year-old stone barns. It was a beautiful, rough, but lush setting for the backyard party my parents threw with jug wine and spit-roasted lambs and glow-in–the-dark Frisbees. The creek dividing the meadow meandered and, at its deepest bend, was lined with small weeping willows that grew as we grew and bent their long, willowy, tearful branches down over the water. We would braid a bunch of the branches together to make a Tarzan kind of vine rope that we could swing on, out over the stream in our laceless sneakers and bathing suits, and land in the creek. That is where we chilled all of the wines and beers and sodas for the party.
We were five kids in my family, and I am the youngest. We ran in a pack—to school, home from school, and after dinner at dusk—like wild dogs. If the Mellman kids were allowed out and the Bentley boys, the Drevers, and the Shanks across the street as well, our pack numbered fifteen. We spent all of our time out of doors in mud suits, snowsuits, or bare feet, depending on the weather. Even in “nature,” running around in the benign woods and hedges and streams, diving in and out of tall grasses and brambles, playing a nighttime game that involved dodging the oncoming headlights of an approaching occasional car, bombing the red shale rocks down into the stream from the narrow bridge near our driveway to watch them shatter—we found rough and not innocent pastimes. We trespassed, drag raced, smoked, burgled, and vandalized. We got ringworm, broken bones, tetanus, concussions, stitches, and ivy poisoning.
My parents seemed incredibly special and outrageously handsome to me then. I could not have boasted of them more or said my name, first and last together, more proudly, to show how it directly linked me to them. I loved that our mother was French and that she had given me that heritage in my very name. I loved telling people that she had been a ballet dancer at the Met in New York City when she married my father. I loved being able to spell her long French name, M-A-D-E-L-E-I-N-E, which had exactly as many letters in it as my own. My mother wore the sexy black cat-eye eyeliner of the era, like Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren, and I remember the smell of the sulphur every morning as she lit a match to warm the tip of her black wax pencil. She pinned her dark hair back into a tight, neat twist every morning and then spent the day in a good skirt, high heels, and an apron that I have never seen her without in forty years. She lived in our kitchen, ruled the house with an oily wooden spoon in her hand, and forced us all to eat dark, briny, wrinkled olives, small birds we would have liked as pets, and cheeses that looked like they might well bear Legionnaire’s Disease.
Her kitchen, over thirty years ago, long before it was common, had a two-bin stainless steel restaurant sink and a six-burner Garland stove. Her burnt orange Le Creuset pots and casseroles, scuffed and blackened, were constantly at work on the back three burners cooking things with tails, claws, and marrow-filled bones—whatever was budgeted from our dad’s sporadic and mercurial artist’s income—that she was stewing and braising and simmering to feed our family of seven. Our kitchen table was a big round piece of butcher block where we both ate and prepared casual meals.
My mother knew how to get everything comestible from a shin or neck of some animal; how to use a knife, how to cure a cast-iron pan. She taught us to articulate the “s” in salade nicoise and the soup vichyssoise, so that we wouldn’t sound like other Americans who didn’t know that the vowel “e” after the consonant “s” in French means that you say the “s” out loud.
And yet I remember the lamb roast as my father’s party. I recall it was really his gig. With an art degree from Rhode Island School of Design on his office wall, two union cards—stagehands and scenic artists—in his wallet, five able-bodied children, a French wife, and a photograph torn from a magazine of two Yugoslav guys roasting a lamb over a pit, he created a legendary party—a feast that almost two hundred people came to every year from as far away as the town-houses of New York City and as near as our local elementary school.
My dad could not cook at all. He was then a set designer for theatrical and trade shows and he had a “design and build” studio in Lambertville—the town where he himself had grown up, the town where his own father had been the local country doctor. We kids were forever running into people who’d say, “Your granddaddy delivered all three of my sons!” Or, “Your granddaddy drove a Cadillac! One of the very few cars at the time in Lambertville!”
After growing up in that small rural town, my dad, the youngest son, went away to college and then to art school. He came back with a mustache, a green Mustang, and a charcoal gray suit and installed himself there, in his hometown. In 1964, he bought the old skating rink at the dead end of South Union Street with its enormous domed ceiling and colossal wooden floor. In that building he started his studio, an open work space where scenery as big as the prow of a ship could be built, erected, painted, and then broken down and shipped off to the city for load-in. Every year when he got the job to build the sets for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus there, we would go after school and zip around on the dollies, crashing into the legs of the chain-smoking union carpenters and scenic artists who were busy with band saws and canvas and paint. We would run up and down mountains of rolled black and blue velour, laid out like in a carpet store, and dip our hands into oil drums full of glitter. Prying back the lid on a fifty-gallon barrel of silver glitter—the kind of barrel that took two men and a hand truck to wheel into the paint supply room of the shop—and then shoving your hands down into it up to your elbows is an experience that will secure the idea in your heart for the rest of your life that your dad is, himself, the greatest show on earth.
We made our Halloween costumes out of lighting gels, backstage black velour curtaining, scrim, and Mylar. When we went with our father to see the actual circus at Madison Square Garden, we spent almost the whole show backstage where we met Mishu: The Smallest Man in the World, and petted the long velvety trunks of the elephants in jeweled headdresses. We met Gunther, the lion tamer, and marveled at his blond blond hair and his deep deep tan and, giggling like the children we were, his amazing ass—high and round and firm, like two Easter hams—in electric blue tights.
I associate my dad almost exclusively with that lamb roast because he could dream it up and create the scenery of it. My dad has an eye for things. He can look at the stone rubble covered in scaffolding that is the Acropolis, for example, and without effort, complete the picture in its entirety, right down to what people are wearing, doing, and saying. In his mind’s eye, out of one crumbling Doric column, he can visualize the entire city, its denizens and smells, the assembly’s agenda and the potted shrubs. Where the rest of us saw only the empty overgrown meadow behind our house, riddled with groundhog holes, with a shallow, muddy stream running through it and a splintering wooden wagon that I had almost outgrown, he saw his friends: artists and teachers and butchers, scenic painters and Russian lighting designers, ship captains and hardware merchants all with a glass in hand, their laughter rising high above our heads and then evaporating into the canopy of maple leaves; the weeping willows shedding their leaf tears down the banks of the stream; fireflies and bagpipers arriving through the low clinging humidity of summer; a giant pit with four spring lambs roasting over apple-wood coals; the smell of wood smoke hanging in the moist summer nighttime air. I mean it. He sees it all romantic like that.
He says, about all of his work, “Everybody else does the bones and makes sure the thing doesn’t fall down. I do the romance.”
It must have been my mother, the cook, who was in the kitchen with the six burners and the two-bin sink making the lima bean salad and the asparagus vinaigrette and the all-butter shortcakes, counting out the stacks of paper plates with the help of my older sister—the two of them doing “the bones” as my father called it. But it was from him—with his cool, long sideburns and aviator sunglasses, his packet of unfiltered Camels, and box of watercolor paints (and artist’s paycheck)—from him we learned how to create beauty where none exists, how to be generous beyond our means, how to change a small corner of the world just by making a little dinner for a few friends. From him we learned how to make and give luminous parties.
There was a Russian Winter Ball, I remember, for which my dad got refrigerator-sized cartons of artificial snow shipped in from Texas and a dry ice machine to fog up the rooms and make the setting feel like a scene from Dr. Zhivago. And there was a Valentine’s Day Lovers’ Dinner, at which my father had hundreds of choux paste éclair swans with little pastry wings and necks and slivered almond beaks that, when toasted, became their signature black. He set them out swimming in pairs on a Plexiglas mirror “pond” the size of a king’s matrimonial bed with confectioner’s sugar snow drifts on the banks.
“Swans,” he pointed out, “mate for life.”
For a kind of Moroccan-themed party that my parents threw, my dad built low couches from sheets of plywood and covered them with huge fur blankets and orange velour brought home from the studio. By the time the candles were lit and the electric lights extinguished, the whole house looked like a place where the estimable harem of a great pasha might assemble to offer their man pomegranates, pistachios, and maybe more carnal treasures. There were tapestries and kilims stacked as tall as me, where adults stoned on spiced wine and pigeon pies could lounge. By the time that party really got rolling, I remember walking from room to dimly lit room feeling acutely the ethos of the era—the early 1970s—as if it, too, were sprawled out on the “scene shop” couch wearing long hair and a macramé dress, barely noticing how late it was and that I was still up.
But the lamb roast was not a heavily themed and elaborately staged one-off. It was, as parties in our family went, a simple party, thrown every year, produced with just a fire and a sheet of plywood set over sawhorses for the carving of the lambs. We built a fire in our shallow pit, about eight feet long and six feet wide. It’s possible that my dad dug it alone, but if there was an available sixteen-year-old around, like his son, my oldest brother Jeffrey, it’s very likely that they dug it together. At each end of the pit they set up a short wall of cinder blocks with a heavy wooden plank on top, looking like the head and baseboards of a giant bed, where the long wooden poles onto which the baby lambs had been lashed would rest. The baby lambs, with their little crooked sets of teeth and milky eyes, were slaughtered and dressed up at Maresca’s Butchers, then tied onto ten-foot poles made of ash because the branches of an ash tree grow so straight that you can skewer a baby lamb with them easily.
Jeffrey had a driver’s license and a 1957 Chevy truck with a wooden bed and a big blue mushroom painted on its heavily Bondoed cab. It had big dangling side-view mirrors and torn upholstery over which we threw a mover’s blanket, but it ran. So on this bluish early summer weekend, Jeffrey drove his new jalopy out the winding country roads, past Black’s Christmas tree farm, and past the Larue bottle works. I rode in the bed of the truck, in a cotton dress and boy’s shoes with no socks, hanging on as tight as I could to the railings and letting the wind blast my face so hard that I could barely keep my eyes open. Even with my eyes closed, I could tell by the wind and the little patches of bracing coolness and the sudden bright sunshine and the smell of manure when we were passing a hay field, a long thick stand of trees, a stretch of clover, or a horse farm. We passed brand-new deer emerging from the woods and standing in herds of forty in the wide open cornfields. Finally we got to Johnson’s Apple Orchard where we picked up our wood for the fire.
The orchard and the Christmas tree farm are long gone, the butcher shop and the dairy farm are still, oddly, in business, hanging on like grave markers in a sunken and overgrown cemetery—historical “by-the-ways” for the tourists on their way to Bowman’s Tower and Washington’s Crossing. Where there were four separate places for four separate things, now everybody just goes to the Shopping Plaza to get all of them in one big harshly lit store—milk, apples, meat, even the Christmas tree—while the kids wait in the car and eat fries in the backseat.
At Johnson’s orchard, in season, they sold yellow peaches and half a dozen kinds of apples in wooden bushel baskets. But at the time of the lamb roast it was still too early in the year to buy fruit. They had pruned all the trees back for the season, and we filled the truck with the trimmings, piling the apple-wood branches high above the truck bed, which we’d extended with two eight-foot sheets of plywood. This green wood would burn longer and hotter, hissing all night long as the sap dripped down into the flames. On the way back home, I sat up in the cab of the truck between my brother who was driving and my dad who had the window rolled all the way down and his elbow hanging out. He said, “That’ll burn with the fragrance of its fruit, you see.”
The paraphernalia of butchery may be repulsive to some. But to me, hacksaws, cleavers, and band saws all looked manageable and appealing. I loved going to Maresca’s, the Italian butcher shop up the road on the Jersey side, and always asked to be taken along on errands if Maresca’s was on the list. There was no “artisanal” at this point, no “organic” or “diver-picked” or “free-range” or “heirloom” anything. In 1976, there was no such thing, even, as 2 percent milk. We just had milk. And the Marescas were still just butchers, father and sons butchers—Salvatore, Joe, and Emil—working in a shop with sawdust on the floor. The father Salvatore and his son Joe looked exactly like butchers—with girth, flannel shirts under their long jackets and aprons, and greasy, beefy catcher’s-mitt hands. Emil, on the other hand, looked like he could have been a chemist in a lab or a home ec teacher—in an apron, always, but with a V-neck sweater vest over his flannel shirt and a pair of nice brown corduroys. He wanted to be a baseball player, I had heard, but ended up in the family business. Emil spent most of his day in the old kitchen open and adjacent to the butcher shop, skewering and marinating cubed meats and making all the shop’s sausages and cooking the daily lunch for the family.
All three Marescas knew as much about an animal as anyone could. They could judge how old an animal was when it was slaughtered by touching the cartilage, how often and what it was fed by examining the fat deposits and marbling in the meat. Pointing out a thick streak of fat in a side of beef, Joe said, “Here you can see the lightning bolt where the rancher started to feed him fast and furious at the end to fatten him up, but what you really want is steady feeding so the fat is marbled throughout.”
Outside the shop were two huge forsythia bushes, bursting optimistic and sunny yellow branches. Inside, the refrigerated enamel cases were packed with bloody meat, ground meat, tied meat, and birds, whole and in parts. On the long white tile wall behind the cases, where the Marescas did their actual bloody work, was a giant mural in friendly colors, depicting a roly-poly, mustachioed butcher in a clean white apron, frolicking in a round, green curlicue fenced-in pasture, with cottony white sheep with little soft pink ears and porky, bristle-less pink piggies, smiling while sniffing the yellow buttercups. The sky overhead was robin’s egg blue, the few clouds were pure white, and the birds and the butterflies went about their song-filled business even though the butcher was wielding a giant cleaver in one hand, headed for one of them. To the right of the mural, hanging from pegs were all manner of hacksaws, cleavers, and giant knives.
Besides meat, the Maresca’s sold canned goods, and in the spring and summer, a few of the vegetables that Mr. Maresca grew in his garden behind the shop. They were always arranged casually, in a plain carton or basket, on the floor by the refrigerated case, with a handwritten sign on the back of a piece of brown paper bag advertising the price: PEAS 20¢/lb.
I spied those fresh peas in a bushel basket at the end of the counter. While my dad and the guys were talking and leisurely loading the four whole dressed lambs onto newspaper in the back of the truck, I snagged a handful of them and hid behind a display case.
I love how you can snap a pea’s stem and pull the string and how it leaves a perfect seam that opens easily under your thumbnail. And then you find those sweet, starchy peas in their own canoe of crisp, watery, and almost sugary pod.
When Mr. Maresca found me eating the pilfered peas, instead of scolding me, he grabbed the hem of my dress and pulled it out to make a kind of pouch into which he placed a big handful of them for me to eat, not in hiding but openly, in the sawdust-floored shop. Every time his son Joe opened the heavy wooden cooler door, I caught a good eyeful of carcasses hanging upside down with their tongues flopping out the sides of their bloody mouths and their eyes filmed-over, milky, and bulging, along with disembodied parts—legs, heads, haunches, sides, ribs, looking like something in a Jack London story. I wanted to follow him in there. I wanted to be in with the meat and the knives and to wear the long bloody coat.
That night we slept by the fire in an otherwise pitch-black meadow, five kids vaguely chaperoned by my brother Jeffrey who was well on his way to becoming a teenage anthropologist, hunter-gatherer, and naturalist. He collected the deer and raccoons that had been hit and killed out on the dark country roads and dragged them back to hang from the trees bordering the meadow until they bled out. Then he cleaned the hides, burned off the hair, saved the teeth, and scraped the sinew from the bones and dried it to make thread with which he’d sew his pants, made of deerskin and raccoon fur. I was enthralled by him and his fastidious, artful, freakish habit. And in love with his boarding-school good looks dressed down by the chin length of his hair and new habit of wearing dashikis. I hadn’t totally understood, with the eleven years between our ages, that he may have also gotten into the habit of “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out,” and that there was likely a psychotropic reason he could go so long without blinking. My parents hadn’t totally understood this either, probably, because on that night, the night before the big party, Jeffrey was left in charge of the fire. He worked the stumps and branches into a fierce, burning domed pyre.
My brother Todd was with us but would have preferred being up in his room, with the door closed—you always had to knock to enter—counting his money, or losing himself in his few but in-good-working-condition acquisitions: his brand-new electric guitar, his reel-to-reel tape recorder, his dual cassette deck, his electric amplifier, and his brand-new soldering iron. With coils of solder and copper paper clips, he fashioned quirky little uninspired sculptures of boats and trains and skiers. Todd, the second oldest, lay in his sleeping bag tuning us out, playing air-guitar Led Zeppelin while listening on his headphones, which he bought himself with money earned busking in town for the tourists. A loan of five dollars was never denied; it was breezily granted but came with interest and was entered into Todd’s ledger. He hired me to give him leg massages after work with my lucky rabbit fur, a half hour I found uniquely intimate and a responsibility I took very seriously, and he paid me in dollar bills and mixed tapes.
Simon, who was closest to me in age, was having a pretty bad preadolescent, very high IQ, low attention span, pissed-at-everybody-and-everything summer vandalism spree. Every cop car he saw was an opportunity for a five-pound bag of white sugar in its gas tank. Glass panes in empty houses gamely blown out with rocks accurately pitched. He was turned on by his badass-ness and was waiting sullenly until we all fell asleep so he could sneak out of his sleeping bag and go relieve his boredom by walking into town and leaving his mark on it overnight.
My sister Melissa, the middle child, was only a teenager but already responsible and professional enough to have a negative white mark on her tanned arm from her wristwatch and a job as a lifeguard. A wristwatch at fourteen! She had the incomprehensible ability to open a whole scrumptious sugary package of chocolate-covered graham cookies, put two of them on a paper towel, reseal the package neatly for another day, and eat only those two crackers. Left to my nine-year-old devices, I would be sick on the whole package within ten minutes. Melissa would be the one in the kitchen with our mother the next day, dutifully shelling lima beans and cutting butter into flour and sugar while I was in the master bedroom rifling the jacket pockets and handbags of all of our guests, helping myself to twenty-dollar bills and quarters that I would later spend on Dr Pepper, Italian meat hoagies with oil and vinegar and hot peppers, and individually wrapped Tastykake iced fruit pies.
While we were all lying around the crackling and sparking pit, wondering how late it was and how late we would stay up, Jeffrey invented a little language and a nomenclature for our family. He started with my dad, “The Bone.” This was not his own invention. Some of the carpenters at the scenery shop had started calling my dad “The Bone” behind his back. Playing with words and language as they do, schoolmates had changed Hamilton to Hambone ever since the eighth grade. My father hated being called Hambone and worse, being called Ham, as that is what his own father was called, by his own mother, no less. But someone clever at the skating rink had just cut to the chase and started calling him “The Bone.” Have you seen “The Bone?” Where’s “The Bone?” You better make sure “The Bone” signed off on that. “The Bone” is never gonna go for that.
From “Pa-Pa Boner,” the lewdness and double-entendre of which can still to this day put Jeffrey into a breathless laughing fit, it took nothing to get us going, and soon we were dubbed from oldest to youngest, J Jasper Bone, T-Bone, Bonette Major, Sly and the Family Bone, and me, finally, Bonette Minor. Our battered Volvo station wagon became the Bone Chariot. Something authentically, uniquely my dad’s—like the dimmer switches in our house never working, or the house almost being auctioned off at the sheriff’s sale because he hadn’t paid the property taxes in a year—was “bone-afide.” Real, expensive Champagne at Christmas in spite of the lien was “bone-issimo.” And parties—all of my dad’s parties—became “bone-a-thons.”
Decades later, when Melissa and I were in our separate homes with our own families, she left me a message about a bone density study that was being done at her local hospital, and all I could hear in the background of the message was Melissa herself, howling and shrieking into the phone “Bone Density! Bwa ha ha ha ha ha bwa ha ha ha ha ha!”
I won’t pretend that I was a humorous or clever part of this little word game we were playing out in the dark meadow by the big fire. Being the youngest, I had to work very hard to understand the joke, or to make like I understood, and as often as not I got caught up in my own mind, my own puzzle, my drifty imagination. I was the one out of the five kids who was always thrown in the car and taken on long errands with my parents because I was purely content to sit in the car and wander around my own mind. Watching the world itself, the people in it, and my whole internal life was more than enough to keep me entertained. My parents had an understanding at this time about disciplining me: Do not send that Scorpio girl to her room for punishment because she loves it there. So whatever it was that had them all cracking up—whatever jokes and jabs and teasing Jeffrey—now JJ Bone—had got going, like referring to my mother as the one who “got Boned”—I wasn’t really getting it. I had no idea. I held on to the leash of their banter, which ran like a rowdy sheepdog twice my own weight, but I would not let go.
I quietly thrilled to be packed into my sleeping bag right up next to them. I felt cocooned by the thick crescendoing song of the crickets, that voluptuous blanket of summer night humidity, the smell of wood smoke, the heavy dew of the tall grass around us, the necessary and anchoring voices, giggles, farts, and squeals of disgust of my older siblings. This whole perfect night when everyone is still, pretty much, intact and wholesome, is where I sometimes want the party to stop.
In the morning the sun will come up and the rest of life will resume—where it will become cliché to admire the beauty of the stars, facile to feel transported by the smell of wood smoke, childish to admit to loving your siblings, and weak to be made secure by the idea of your parents still married up in the house—and we will awaken and kick out of our sleeping bags and find in the pit a huge bed of glowing coals, perfect for the slow roasting of the lambs.
But on this last night that we all spend together fireside, being ravaged by mosquitoes and uncomfortably dampened by the dew absorbed by the cotton army-issue sleeping bags—when we have not yet even eaten the lambs—all that yet troubles us is whether, when it rang, you answered the Bone Phone or the Bone Touch Tone.
When we woke up, the mist was burning off as the sun got strong. My dad was throwing huge coils of sweet Italian sausage onto the grill. He split open big loaves of bread to toast over the coals, and for breakfast, instead of Cocoa Puffs and cartoons, we sat up in our sleeping bags, reeking of smoke, and ate these giant delicious, crusty, and charred sweet Italian sausage sandwiches.
Then there were a million chores to do, and my dad needed us to do them. I learned that I could drive, work, haul stone, hammer nails, handle knives, use a chainsaw, and tend fires—anything boys could do—simply because my dad was always so behind, so late, so overextended and ambitious and understaffed on every project that he was always in desperate need of another pair of hands, even if they were only a nine-year-old pair of girl hands. All of us had clocked enough hours with my dad backstage at theaters, watching the scenery go up or come down, that by the time he was throwing this party in our backyard and instructing us to light the paper bag luminarias right at sundown, we understood theater terms like “the fourth wall” and theatrical lighting expressions like “Close the barn doors!” and “Dimmer two segue to three, please!”
We had to roll up our pant legs and walk barefoot into the frigid stream, build a little corral with river rocks, and stock it with jugs of Chablis and cases and cases of Heineken and cream soda and root beer. Having to walk barefoot into the cold stream to get a beer instead of just comfortably reaching into one of those ice-packed bright red coolers that normal people would use was, in our new vernacular, bone-afide. I had to mow the meadow and rake it, and the smell of fresh cut grass was bone-issimo. We had to fill hundreds of brown paper lunch bags with sand and plumber’s candles, then set them out all along the stream’s edge under the weeping willows and at all the groundhog holes so nobody broke an ankle or fell drunk into the stream later when it got dark. And we had to juice up the glow-in-the-dark Frisbees in the car headlights so we could play later out at the far dark end of the meadow. Those glowing greenish discs arcing through the jet black night, sent and received by the invisible bodies of my older brothers, were bone-ificent.
The lambs were arranged over the coals head to toe to head to toe the way you’d put a bunch of kids having a sleepover into a bed. We kept a heavy metal garden rake next to the pit to arrange the coals as the day passed and the ashes built up, moving the spent coals to the edges and revealing the hot glowing red embers. The lambs roasted so slowly and patiently that their blood dripped down into the coals with a hypnotic and rhythmic hiss, which sounded like the hot tip of a just-blown-out match being dipped into a cup of water. My dad basted them by dipping a branch of wood about as thick and long as an axe handle, with a big swab of cheesecloth tied at its end, into a clean metal paint can filled with olive oil, crushed rosemary and garlic, and big chunks of lemons. He then mopped the lambs, slowly, gently, and thoroughly, back and forth with soft careful strokes like you might paint your brand-new sailboat. Then the marinade, too, dripped down onto the coals, hissing and atomizing, its scent lifting up into the air. So all day long, as we did our chores, the smell of gamey lamb, apple-wood smoke, and rosemary garlic marinade commingled and became etched into our brains. I have clung to it for thirty years, that smell. I have a chronic summertime yearning to build large fires outdoors and slowly roast whole animals. I could sit fireside and baste until sundown. Hiss. Hiss. Hiss.
The rest of the meal was simple but prepared in such quantities that the kitchen felt hectic and brimming and urgent. There were giant bowls of lima bean and mushroom salad with red onion and oregano and full sheet pans of shortcake. Melissa, with a pair of office scissors, snipped cases of red and black globe grapes into perfect portioned clusters while my mom mimosaed eggs—forcing hard-cooked whites and then hard-cooked yolks through a fine sieve—over pyramids of cold steamed asparagus vinaigrette. Melissa and my mom worked quickly, efficiently, and cleanly—mother and daughter together in the kitchen, both in bib aprons each with a dish towel neatly folded and tucked into her apron string, “doing the bones” of our lamb roast.
Todd gave the lambs a quarter turn every half hour. Simon parked the cars. Jeffrey politely kissed the older guests, who arrived more than punctually, on both cheeks. And I plunged in and out of the stream to retrieve beer and wine and soda.
Then they started pouring in, all these long-haired, bell-bottomed artist friends of my dad’s and former ballet dancer friends of my mother’s, with long necks and eternally erect posture, and our friends, too—the Drevers and Mellmans and Bentleys and Shanks—the whole pack of us dogs, muddy, grass-stained, and soaking wet in the first fifteen minutes. I hardly recognized the washed and neatly groomed Maresca brothers with their father, Mr. Maresca, out of their butcher coats.
Slowly the meadow filled with people and fireflies and laughter—just as my father had imagined—and the lambs on their spits were hoisted off the pit onto the shoulders of men, like in a funeral procession, and set down on the makeshift plywood-on-sawhorse tables to be carved. Then the sun started to set and we lit the paper bag luminaria, which burned soft glowing amber, punctuating the meadow and the night, and the lamb was crisp-skinned and sticky from slow roasting, and the root beer was frigid and it caught, like an emotion, in the back of my throat.
I HAD NO CLUE THAT MY PARENTS WERE UNHAPPY WITH EACH OTHER until I was sweeping up cornichons and hard salami and radishes off the kitchen floor. It was a Sunday, and my dad had been outside building a stone wall all morning, which was a decades-long kind of joke because of the nature of the burnt-out old mill, which we called “the ruins” for good reason. He had come in for lunch.
My mother had been cooking that morning, standing at the six-burner in her apron with her wooden spoon in hand, as usual, something elaborate and involved with her many ingredients laid out at her reach on the butcher block kitchen table. My dad came in from outside, powdery with lime and concrete and sand, washed his hands in the deep stainless sink, and then opened the refrigerator. He eked out some space among the diced onions and paprika and wine and cubed beef my mother had arranged on the table, and set up his Kronenbourg beer and his salami and a hunk of Jarlsberg. He pulled out of the fridge some radishes and butter and some cornichons and Dijon mustard and set these things out, with a Sunday’s unique sense of pleasure, in front of his wooden chair. Impossibly, he managed to arrange the fat Sunday New York Times right there next to him on this small, already laden table. Triumphantly, he spread out his elbows and sat down. They did not seem to speak to each other.
I had been sitting on the little padded bench in the kitchen writing in my treasured red leather diary that locked with a real key and canoodling with Ralph. He was a large tomcat, indifferent to us unless we had food, and we replaced him whenever it became necessary, after death by car wheel or dog chase, with exactly the same cat, and named him the same. For the nearly dozen years that I lived with my family, we had one cat named Ralph. I hoped inordinately each day that the cat would forgo mousing out in the dark nights and instead find my room and my bed and sleep with me. And when he did and he fell asleep dead in the center of my slim single bed, leaving no room for me, I curled up and contorted my own body to sleep around him even if it meant I was hanging on to the outside edge of the mattress and one whisper of the covers. My mother could never understand this. She kicked the cat away from her ankles and said, “Ah la la la la la la. The problem with kittens is they become cats!”
I heard the thick Sunday newspaper hit the kitchen floor with a thud. And then my mother, who had yanked it out from under my dad’s elbow while he munched the radishes and had dropped it on the floor at his feet, actually smiled when he swept his arm across the entire table and sent every item on it clattering and shattering onto the terra-cotta tile floor. I had no idea what was happening between them. My mother, still smiling, then clasped her hands together in front of her like a schoolmarm waiting for the spitballer to hand over his straw and paper wads, her head tilted disapprovingly down and to the side forming an extra wrinkle under her chin. Turning to me, as if we were old, old friends grooved in a routine of sarcastic observation, she said, “Oh lovely.”
Looking directly at my father, but addressing herself to me she said, “Gabri, could you please pick up your father’s wonderful display.” And my dad pushed back his chair and walked out.
Until this moment, more or less, I sat in her lap after dinner every single night. For a period I was too young for after-dinner chores—clearing, washing, drying—and possibly too favored, and so I eagerly crawled up and took my place in her lap, barefoot and drowsy. I leaned back into her soft body and listened to the gurgling as she chewed and swallowed. I breathed in her exhale: wine, vinaigrette, tangerines, cigarette smoke. While all of the others were excused from the table, I got to sit, alone with my mother and father as they finished. I watched her oily lips, her crooked teeth, and felt the treble of her voice down my spine while she had adult conversation and gently rested her chin on the top of my head. She cracked walnuts from the Perigord and picked out the meats, extinguished her occasional cigarette in the empty broken husks, shifted my weight in her lap; she squeezed the tangerine peel into the candle flame and we watched the oils ignite in yellow and blue sparks. I sat in that woman’s aproned lap every single night of my young life, so close to the sounds and smells of her that I still know her body as if it were my own.
I went everywhere she went. In the car, in the woods, in the market, in the kitchen. She took me to the farm to get our milk. As only a Frenchwoman can—in a heel, a silk scarf, and a cashmere skirt—she’d pull up the long driveway of the dairy farm in her chocolate brown antique Mercedes-Benz, and without a single awkward gesture, get down and fill four rinsed-out gallon plastic jugs with raw milk from a stainless steel tank while forty woolly Holsteins chewed and pissed in the over-humid next room. We left our money in the honor system coffee can. And I sat in the back of that old car, while she struggled with the mechanics of a shifter on the steering column but no clutch on the floor, and inhaled as deeply as I could the stink of the farm and the cow shit that lingered on our skin.
I still very much like that smell of manure. I like it in my food and my wine and even in certain body odor. That milk was so thick and shitty that the cream separated and rose to the top and we siphoned off three inches from every gallon of milk we brought home. My mom used a turkey baster to extract the cream, and she kept it separate in a jar in the fridge. This entire errand she could run, effortlessly, in suede heels.
The Stecks were among many French friends my mother had cultivated in our area, and lived a few rural towns away, north of us following the Delaware. Theirs was a deep woods overrun with chanterelles, and we couldn’t ever eat in one sitting all that we had collected. Jean, so recalcitrantly French that he wore a beret, espadrilles, and a blue canvas jacket, sturdily greeted us in his driveway, on damp opportune mornings. His wife, Hilda, with the watery, sagging blue eyes of a basset hound, emerged from the house, a little wobbly. They were old enough to be my mother’s parents. In aggrieved tones, they spoke to each other in French about entirely pleasant subjects, but Hilda’s jowls jiggled with every “oui, oui, oui,” that she offered—in that way that the French have of speaking on inhaling rather than on the exhale, “whey, whey whey”—in apparent commiseration with everything Jean or my mother uttered. And Jean made deep, disapproving faces with the exaggeratedly downturned corners of his sharp mouth. My own mother huffed out phrases I’d been hearing my whole life, “C’est pas vrais!” And “Mais, non?!” and “Oh la la la la la la,” sounding quite miffed and then, abruptly, we cheerfully kissed everybody on both cheeks, and parted ways, calling out, “À bientôt!”
“Okay, Prune, let’s get going!” she prodded, using her pet name for me, and I followed her into the damp woods where we picked all morning.
My mother could loosely fill a paper grocery bag—could that be fifteen pounds?—ferreting out the true chanterelles from the poisonous orange look-alikes, and I was taught how to differentiate them by the time I hit first grade. The smell of the moist, loamy dirt and pine needles clinging to their stems and gills permeated the car as I held the paper sack on my lap the whole car ride home.
In the spring, in the surrounding woods, we walked, and she pointed out to me the Johnny-jump-ups and jack-in-the-pulpits also just coming up at that time of year, and with paring knives we cut the fiddlehead ferns still tightly coiled like snail shells and took them home for a quick blanche and then sauté. Dandelion grew everywhere in our back meadow once summer came on fully, and occasionally she’d pick it and make salad, using lots of fat and eggs and bacon to temper the bitterness.
She taught me to eat common clover—the purple and white blossoms that grew in the grass in the meadow, which you could chew on and suck the sweetness from while searching for a four-leafer. From her I learned how to pull the pistils out of the honeysuckle flowers and eat the one small bead of pure clear sugar water. While many mothers were ever alert and poised to keep their kids from shoving sticks and rocks and bugs in their mouths, ours, on the contrary, locked us outside every day even in the rain and demonstrated to us how to eat slugs and grass. We’d tromp around in the mud and taunt the geese in the meadow who’d lower their necks and come at us hissing mad, try to spear fish in the stream, and pick the big black berries off the mulberry bushes near our mailbox while inside our mother would whistle along with the classical music station, stir pots of fragrant stews, and repose in her chair, howling out loud, a New Yorker open on her lap and a particular cartoon cutting her in half.
One summer my mother took just me out of all the kids, just me, to Greece, and it was with her on that trip that I accidentally got drunk for the first time, even though we’d had watered wine at the dinner table plenty of times.
“We’ll split a big bottle,” I remember her saying, referring to those mega beers they serve in Europe that you rarely saw in America. We were inside the kitchen of a tiny taverna on the island of Ios, she in Jackie-O sunglasses and a bright patterned headscarf, looking in the pans on the top of the stove while the cook held the lids. I was flat-chested in my T-shirt, in boys’ shoes, such a tomboy that I was always given the key to the men’s room when I asked at gas stations or restaurants to use the bathroom, and not quite nine years old.
I pointed to the pastitsio, as I did at every meal that I didn’t order the moussaka, as it was so greasy and delicious and the closest thing to Hamburger Helper I’d ever get to see. We sat at a little wooden table outside under a tree. She poured the tall beer into our two short glasses and when we finished our lunch and got up to head back to our whitewashed rented rooms, we discovered I was bombed.
I weaved while she stayed the course back to our cool, spare rooms where we napped through the hottest part of the afternoon; outside, a small war of blue sky and wild oregano and buzzing bees and someone’s lone donkey up the hillside, shrieking out his bray in that train-tracks-on-steel-rails way, was waged. Voula, our smiling thick-middled proprietess, sun-dried her own grapes and figs on straw matting right on the roof above while her husband, Iannis, cleaned his fishing nets in the shade. Even through my disoriented beer high and in spite of my age, I could see in them that unspeaking way that married people who live directly from the ancient land, with only olive trees and fish from the sea and tomato vines, have of moving around each other and their life’s chores, of pausing briefly in the afternoon and squinting out at the same horizon where the sea meets the sky and becomes indivisible, like themselves.
HERE IN OUR KITCHEN, with the mustard streaked across the floor and the cabinets and my dad’s uneaten lunch and my mother’s half-prepared dinner scattered about the floor, I watched while my mother smiled unemotionally, surveying the debris of their own life’s chores, her eyes resting for a moment on the few dusty cement footprints left by my father’s boots and I thought, What a fucking bitch.
I scrambled off that bench and was down on all fours as fast as the cat. There was adrenaline pumping through my own heart, but for some reason I was smiling, too, and had to hold back giggling, I was so startled and so awed and exhilarated. I had never felt such profanity come into my thoughts with such effortlessness. I had never been this alert or this awake in reality. The cutting board that Todd had made in ninth-grade shop class that looked like a raquetball paddle made of solid maple, the bread knife, the bread, the hunks of dry cured salami, the Jarlsberg cheese, the radishes, his beer bottle, butter, hard-boiled eggs, and cornichons were suddenly scattered across the kitchen, and I was on all fours gathering it all up.
Still, I had no idea their divorce was coming. None. “Family Meeting,” my mom called out, and late in the afternoon, with dusty yellow sun slanting in, we assembled in the long narrow dining room, all of us at the dark wooden table that had so many leaves it could be extended to seat twenty-four. Simon and I were lying down on the oriental rug, Ralph between us, vying for his attention by pattering our fingers on the carpet and making little psst-ing noises. The cat ignored us both and I turned my attention to the very large bushel of apples my mother kept in the coolest part of the room. My mother shopped in bulk, like a restaurateur. With five kids in the house she never had a small decorative still-life type of fruit bowl on the dining room table with just two pears, a melon, and an apple. She bought whole legs of lamb, four gallons of milk at a time, whole wheels of cheese.
I was gazing at that full bushel of apples when she made her stunning, preposterous announcement, that I have possibly never recovered from. “Jim, it’s over, and the kids and I have decided you should go.”
IT PROBABLY TOOK OVER A YEAR, OR ALMOST TWO, TO DISMANTLE THE family. But I was eleven turning twelve, and I felt as if I fell asleep by the lamb pit one night and woke up the next morning to an empty house, a bare cupboard, the leftover debris of a wild and brilliant party, and only half an inch of Herbal Essence left in the bottle on the ledge in the shower. At that age, washing my hair and how I was going to wash my hair with no parents and no shampoo felt utterly important to me. I walked around the empty ruins of the mill that was our home, looking in all the cabinets and drawers and closets to see what there was left that I still recognized, and claimed for myself anything I fancied, not unlike a looter the day after a blackout.
I don’t know how they technically worked it out, my parents—what the actual physical arrangements were that they had made for us when they decided to split up—but I think it’s probable that my dad was supposed to be in charge of us that next summer the year following their finalized divorce. And it’s possible that he wasn’t entirely up to the job. Because that first summer after their divorce, my seventeen-year-old brother Simon and I were left alone—and this I remember acutely—for weeks. This may have been an oversight, like leaving your cup of coffee on the roof of the car while you dig out your keys and then drive off. Or wishful thinking on my parents’ part that their two youngest children were old enough to fend for themselves. Either way, Simon and I were on our own. And we were better off, we seemed to agree without discussing it, each to fend for himself.
If this happened now, a government agency would have been called. But not in 1979 in our small benign town, where we were a big, well-known family. The older kids were accounted for, in a relatively natural way—Jeffrey, at eighteen, had taken that anthropological impulse of his and hitchhiked to Africa. By the time my parents were splitting he was already deep in the Ituri forest in Zaire, a wannabe Colin Turnbull, in a loincloth, hunter-gathering with a tribe of pygmies. Todd, with his collection of electric and acoustic guitars, was already popular on the Skidmore campus, even as a sophomore, in his band Tempo Tantrum. Melissa was finishing her first year at Sarah Lawrence and spent that summer in New York City in love with her first real boyfriend, a smoker, a literary snob, and, I always thought, a little bit mean.
Our mother had moved to a profoundly remote and rural part of northern Vermont. Something about that setting she—at that time a rage-prone, menopausal, highly distressed woman with the ink barely dry on her divorce papers and two sullen teenagers in tow—found soothing. But it was one that held no appeal for me and Simon, whom she had pulled out of school and taken with her. And after a long winter school year in Vermont, which we joined a couple of months after it had already started, we returned, decisively and definitively, to our dad and the remnants of the house we grew up in for our first summer after their divorce.
My father, for his part, had bought the Barry Gibb and Barbra Streisand Duets album and played “What Kind of Fool” over and over and over, like a much younger man, or even a heartbroken boy, might have done.
It was kind of tremendous timing to hit adolescence just as the family was disintegrating. It’s not too bad to live out your Pippi Longstocking fantasy right when you most seek independence from your parents and are practicing it so ardently. There was no curfew and no dress code. My distracted, self-absorbed dad was probably trying to figure it all out himself—how to be forty-five and single after all those years of being married to a woman I believe he loved emphatically and who brought such concrete order to his otherwise watercolor life. He worked forever hours, then fell asleep in his bed with the light on and the crossword puzzle half-finished, and his felt-tipped pens left large black ink spots where they bled into the sheets.
But that summer happened to coincide with one of my dad’s worst financial periods ever. Some had been bad, but this would not be bone-issimo. Nor bone-ified. This would be the summer of boneless living. Gasoline was being rationed and you could fill up your car only on odd or even days, according to the date on your inspection sticker. My father was being so aggressively pursued by banks and creditors that our home phone—the bone phone—began to ring punctually every morning starting at seven-thirty. My dad went to New York and hid there for the bulk of summer, launching a show for which he’d designed the sets. That show just made it through previews and all of eight performances before they were taking down the marquee letters “Got Tu Go Disco!” and nobody got paid what they were owed. I answered the phone every morning and gave truthfully vague answers concerning my dad’s whereabouts, not to derail the creditors, but because I actually didn’t know where he was or when he would be able to be reached.
There followed one of the many, many fall semesters when we each arrived on our various campuses only to be barred from registration and directed to the bursar’s office, where the administrator shook her head “no” unsympathetically and seemed to enjoy, on some level, that cocktail of panic and humiliation and despair blooming in us. Private schools for all five children, both in high school and college, in spite of the artist’s paycheck?
Overreaching? Not in our vernacular. De-Bone-aire. My father has said a hundred times, and I have paid attention, that it’s stupid to let money be the reason you don’t do something.
By the time my parents might have realized—a glance in the rearview mirror—that they’d abandoned us, we were not to be recovered. That summer was the definitive end of some things and the rather hastened beginning of many others. While Pippi charmingly moved her horse onto the porch and wore mismatched striped socks when she found herself alone, I smoked cigarette butts salvaged from public ashtrays and sidewalks and retrieved from the asphalt from passing drivers who flicked them out the car window. I wore Candie’s spiked heels that I shoplifted and a watermelon-red tube top. I did my first line of coke, and then my second and third, and made lots of “friends” in town who, like me, had no curfew and nobody watching, but who, unlike me, were twenty and not thirteen. I hastily grazed through the menu of adult behavior and tried on whatever seemed attractive, for whatever inchoate reasons, as they occurred to me. It was a spectacularly scattershot and eclectic approach, as I found myself still going to Little League practice in the afternoons while reading D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love at night, because it had a photograph of naked people in bed on the back jacket.
But quickly I realized that I would need money. I had entered a few of my neighbors’ houses by crawling in windows when I knew they wouldn’t be home or sometimes even just walking in the unlocked front door and for reasons unknown to even myself, made off with some of the strangest things, like wine that I didn’t even yet care for, and adult’s clothing that didn’t fit me. I had managed to lift a few silver objects—ashtrays, a birth cup, candlesticks—and had pawned them in town, but even so, I understood I needed a job. So with the hardly faint traces of all the parties we’d thrown still swirling around in my blood—the laughter of drunk adults still echoing in my ears and the lingering powerful aroma of roasted lamb smoke still clinging, practically, to my skin—I walked the mile or so along the train tracks into town to find work.
What can a thirteen-year-old do in a heavily touristed town of a hundred bad restaurants? Cut bread. Haul bus tubs. Take out the garbage. Wash dishes.
I did all of those things for a few weeks at The Canal House. I applied there because, I realized thirty years later on a walk through town with my own young children, it was the first restaurant you came to when you got into town along the route I walked. It was picturesque, perfectly located, a tourist trap with unintentional food, a piano player on the weekends, and outdoor seating romantically arranged right along the canal where the tourists could throw bread from their dinner baskets to the ducks below, and with geraniums growing in planter boxes hanging from the railing canal-side. With portions designed to signal value, the waitresses asked, when clearing your plates, “Did ya get enough to eat?!” It was a very, very busy restaurant.
Johhny Francis, the owner, knew my father, but I didn’t know this. He was probably only forty years old or so when I walked in and asked for a job on a hot summer weekday. I thought I was talking to an old man, his years of restaurant life hung on him so. I was extra polite as I had been raised to be. Johnny wore glasses that got darker in sunlight. He sat down in the now-empty canal-side dining area and looked me over while puffing on long white cigarettes.
“This’ll be a summer job? Part time? What position are you applying for?” he asked, rather gruffly, I felt.
I totally panicked; I didn’t even know the names of the jobs in a restaurant. I’d never heard of busser, salad girl, runner. We ate in restaurants when I was a kid, but not like families do today; to dine was an exception and a special treat. We had to sit in our chairs the whole meal, say please and thank you at every exchange with the server, and eat everything on our plates with a fork and knife. We ate at the Lambertville House, the Colligan’s Stockton Inn, and rarely, Conti’s Cross Keys Inn in Doylestown, where they made Caesar salad tableside, with both egg and anchovy. As a reward for our good behavior, we were allowed a Shirley Temple, just one, and at Colligan’s we were allowed to throw pennies in the wishing well outside and, until we got too big, to sit on the owner’s especially giant St. Bernard dog named Brandy. At the Lambertville House, we were allowed to be excused from the table to go visit Fritz the bartender in the back of the restaurant and eat pretzel mix.
I said to Johnny with a straight face, “I’m sixteen, and I was thinking of being a waitress.”
I had just started “borrowing” cars from the repair and body shop up the road, which would be left in the lot with the keys in the ignition or under the floor mat in those days, waiting to be serviced. I would go up at night, now that I had no curfew and no chaperone, and first just sit in the cars. And then turn the engine on. And then finally, I crept the cars out of the parking lot and onto the road. I went everywhere that it used to take me hours to get to on my bicycle or on foot, and places I’d been to with my mother, keenly alert the entire time to the route and to being sure I could find my way back, which I’d never before had to actually attend to. For a few days there was a pale blue Volkswagen bug that I so thrilled to drive—it fit me so well—that I felt heartache when it was finally serviced and no longer in the parking lot. I returned it, my body wrecked from the exquisite exhilaration of having bathed in such unknown freedom and the nearly narcotic, depleting relief of not getting caught, having burned out the clutch and run out the gas. With the headlights off, I coasted the car right back into its spot at the gas station, put the key back under the floor mat, and walked home alone down the dark back road. Somehow, because I could do this, because I possessed some of the talents of an average sixteen year old, it felt effortless to claim it to Johnny Francis.
In that thirteen-year-old way of understanding the world, I didn’t realize somehow that New Hope was a small town, and that if it was small enough for everybody to know almost everybody and that my dad was kind of a big fish in a small pond, then the very thing I was hoping for, that my last name would help me, could also work in the reverse. That Johnny Francis could easily pick up the phone or run into my dad at Smutzie’s lunch counter and say: “Gabrielle came looking for a job a few weeks ago, claiming to be sixteen.”
Luckily, he didn’t. He sat with me and just talked for a while. “You’re Jimmy’s youngest?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s right,” I answered, a little spooked that he would know that.
“I knew your great-aunt Helen Louise.” He smiled warmly. She had been kind of legendary in town, my father’s aunt. She drove a black antique Thunderbird, wore coral-frosted lipstick, played Burt Bacharach on the piano—rather well—and kept a vintage bric-a-brac shop in town that was considered quite stylish and elegant. We reminisced about her, and it was as subtle as the way his lenses lightened in the cool shade of that terrace that his face and demeanor softened during the talk. Then we went out onto the sidewalk in front of his restaurant, in the blazing sun, and surveyed the scene. He asked me, from behind his now-black lenses, what I saw.
It was probably not later than eleven a.m. on a weekday. I didn’t know what to say. What was I supposed to notice? The tchotchke store across the street was just opening up: The Ember Glo’, filled with glass menagerie and incense and the kind of trinkets that end up at yard sales across the country. A few tourists straggled along the cobblestones, window-shopping.
“Look at those people,” Johnny said. “Where are their shopping bags?” He dragged on his cigarette easily, blew out with a little fatigue, irritation, world-weariness. “It’s a tight season.”
But by the end of our conversation, he let me come and try to be a busser on a Saturday lunch. I didn’t know to wear an ironed shirt. I didn’t know how to properly pour ice water. I didn’t know the right way to clear a plate. He had me off the picturesque, canal-side serving floor and back in the kitchen within an hour, and as soon as I saw the three-bin stainless steel pot sink, exactly like ours, I felt instantly at home and fell into peeling potatoes and scraping plates for the dishwasher like it was my own skin. And that, just like that, is how a whole life can start.
It almost didn’t happen because, at that age, I didn’t understand that a schedule was a rule not a suggestion and so I didn’t show up one day, when we, the green-capped Mets, had a game against the yellow-hat Astros. Only three teams in the league had a girl player, and the Astros’ girl was a pitcher. I was our third baseman. It was not the first year that they let girls play Little League, but it was only the second, and I was acutely aware of the skepticism and also the shame for some of the parents when I tagged out a runner at third and drilled the ball to first for a double play. Joanie Carrozza, the black-eyed, thick pony-tailed Astros’ pitcher, easily struck out boys twice her size and of course plainly heard the taunts aimed at the batter who walked, fuming, to the bench. You got struck out by a giiiirrrrll? It was not possible for me to be absent from this game. Nor could I reveal to my employer, who was supposed to be taking me for a sixteen year old, why I couldn’t work the shift. Of course there was no job waiting for me at The Canal House when I went, audaciously, to pick up my pay.
But I got another job, this time as a dishwasher at the Picnic Basket, and listed the Canal House, on my application, as Previous Experience. When I saw two women making out in the kitchen—a chef and a line cook deeply tongue kissing up against the walk-in freezer door—my heart raced so fast and I felt such a prickling of adolescent embarrassment that in the middle of the shift I quickly changed out the garbage in my station, hauled the half-full bag out to the Dumpster behind the restaurant, and sprinted home along the train tracks. Afraid to be caught, I ditched my apron in the woods.
On so many occasions, vestiges of my real chronological age and all its attendant ignorance and confusion tapped a disruptive finger against the smoke rings I was convincingly blowing on the exhale of a Marlboro and must have startled so many people who took me at my word even though they surely perceived, on some level, the cleavage between the girl and her doctored-up story. Simon had found mealtime surrogate family life in the homes of some of his friends whose mothers were the more-the-merrier types who good-naturedly added another plate to the table and fed their broods Pop Tarts and frozen French bread pizzas. There must have been some adults who might have liked to have put a strong warm hand on the back of my neck, to walk me gently off the field for a quiet talk, and then to walk me back into the game, with better focused purpose and direction. But I was meeting only the kind who were enthralled and titillated by me in a red tube top, who were lavishly entertained by the way I said “cunt,” “fuck,” “dick,” “ass,” “bitch,” and “shit” in a single conversation, and who gave me just the enormity of attention I was so seeking. “She’s eleven going on twenty-two,” my dad used to say, proudly, to a stranger when introducing me.
During this summer I learned how to cook. I spent most of my time in our home in the kitchen, opening old jars of stuff my mother had left behind in the pantry. It was the only room in the large house that most resembled what it had looked like when my mother and family all lived in it together. How complicated it must be to separate out a vivid and fruitful marriage of twenty-five years. Half of the furniture, the photographs, the sheets, and the books had made their way to Vermont, and nothing had taken their places. When you split up, and you are struggling with the very meaning of everything said and promised in love itself, who is able to divvy up the contents of the pantry?
Our mother had her own double-tiered, potbellied couscoussier, and she made tagines with preserved lemons and cardamom pods, pigeon pies with sultanas and pine nuts, painstakingly brushing each fragile layer of phyllo dough with melted butter using a special brush made of white duck feathers, which would neither leave loose bristles in the dough nor perforate it. She knew to serve mint tea and sliced oranges with onions and olives, if she was making a bisteeya, and never put a meal together in a careless, eclectic, or incoherent way. The meal was always organized correctly, traditionally, which I now appreciate, but as a kid, pigeon was not a treat, even if it was served with the traditional condiments.
On certain nights, she gave us baths and then hair washes and then dessert, sort of. Side by side, however many could fit, we knelt at the edge of the tub after we had bathed, leaning over a drainful of suds, just as we had waited in that same huddle every Christmas morning at the top of the stairs before being allowed down to see the tree and attack the pile. Huddled there, we pressed washcloths to our clenched eyes until brown curlicues and stars formed from pressing too hard while she hosed water over our heads and shampooed us. When we were clean and dry, we stood in the kitchen while she stood before the pantry, its shelves laden with red boxes of raisins and cashews; crinkly yellow bags of sweet baker’s chocolate; metal tins of flour; sugar; green, yellow, and orange candied fruits; glass jars of oatmeal; dark bottles of olives, vinegars, and syrups; salt; strange cans of fish, beans, and crackers; tubs of peanut and almond butters. The boxes leaned against the stacked cans, and the stacked cans towered over the jars that sometimes lay on their sides.
One at a time, she blindfolded us with a dish towel, spun us around a few revolutions, and then set us in front of the shelves. With blind outstretched hands, each of us in turn surveyed the shelves and from behind came the shouts, “Cold! Cold! Lukewarm! Okay, Warmer! Warm! Hot! Hot! You’re burning!” of the siblings, trying to guide each other to something good.
Whatever we blindly landed on, that was our dessert. It was a game of roulette. You could have a can of cling peaches or escargots, equally. If you picked the wrong package—Trenton Oyster Crackers—tough shit. The older kids were better at this than me, obviously, rehearsing the layout of the pantry shelves ahead of time, peeking out from under the blindfold.
Our sweets were mostly of the “natural” kind: a piece of fruit, yogurt mixed with jam, sliced bread with butter and granulated sugar, the occasional little square of good chocolate. And our school lunches were just plain embarrassing: leftover ratatouille, a wedge of Morbier cheese, a bruised pear. We were given one piece of Saran Wrap for the week, to be reused and brought home each day, washed and left to dry in the dish rack over the back of an upturned ladle or wooden spoon, ready to wrap our lunch in the next day. My mother turned soured milk into buttermilk with the help of a tablespoon of cider vinegar, and then it went in the blender with strawberries for our breakfast. Stale heels of bread became bread crumbs, made by grating on the toothy holes of a box grater and then kept in the freezer. Mold was cut away until the creamy tender edible part of whatever thing was revealed.
Now without her, but left with the strange contents of her pantry, which my father had not cleaned out—the way a griever won’t empty the clothes closet of the deceased spouse? Or the way of a man who has not had to do any cleaning his whole married life?—I relied on what I had seen her do and improvised from there. I ate tinned white asparagus with capers and some of their juice and olive oil and parsley from the garden. I ate canned sardines and chewed through the spines and the silvery unpleasant skin until I finally realized how to skin and filet them gently with a paring knife, placing the meaty bodies on horribly stale Triscuit crackers with sliced shallots and mayonnaise. I washed lettuce from the garden in warm water so my hands wouldn’t get cold and watched it wilt but ate it anyway. I added Dijon mustard to milk and tried to make a pan sauce that curdled but I still ate it, poured over rubbery cold-and-raw-in-the-center chicken breasts which I had placed, still completely frozen, into the pan, reasoning that this would all just take a little longer to cook. When we ran out of Dijon mustard and olive oil, I used tomato paste in my salad dressing, and raspberry jam, and once even some chicken broth.
As my mother had shown me, I picked the Japanese beetles off the bean plants in the garden and dropped them into a mason jar of gasoline and harvested the lettuce from outside of the core so that it would regrow and continue to yield. I climbed into raspberry bushes and picked the fruit, getting stained, stung, and ripped apart in the doing. Our abandoned garden produced all summer, in spite of my inexperience, and I ate whatever it offered. I learned to cook a lot of different vegetables the way my schoolmates learned to put together a PB and J.
I finally got another job, where I managed to make my home for a few years working summers and after school and during holidays, at a restaurant on the main drag called, ironically, Mother’s. There I grew into a teenager and a beginning cook and even worked as a waitress and bartender for a stint when I dropped out of college. I started by helping in the retail bakery, cutting and rewrapping the two full cases of cakes for which the restaurant was rightfully well-known. They made everything from scratch in the bakery upstairs and produced gorgeous tall cakes that drew in thousands of customers who planned their meal around saving room for one of the twenty buttercream castles on display in the gleaming refrigerated case near where you waited for the maitre d’ to take you to your table. But I soon wanted to be back in the noisy, hissing kitchen, behind the two swinging doors with round ship windows—enter left, exit right—and so I washed dishes. Then I helped with salads on extremely busy or understaffed days, and I eventually even made it on to the hot line by the time I was fifteen. Mother’s had a popular dish called a seafood chimichanga, which was a big pile of sauteed seafood—scallops, shrimp, and salmon, all mixed in with minced jalapenos, and then draped with a couple of slices of Monterey Jack cheese melted under the broiler. Instead of wrapping the seafood up in a tight package of flour tortilla and then deep frying it like a fast-food chimichanga, at Mother’s the cheesy filling was tipped right from the pan hot from the salamander into an edible bowl made of a deep fried flour tortilla that looked like a giant bloom or clam shell. The sauté guy then garnished the gluey seafood with an orange half-moon and a sprig of curly parsley and sent it out the swinging doors.
I made stacks and stacks of those chimichanga bowls by dropping the flour tortilla into the deep fryer, where it would float and sizzle on the surface for a moment like a lily pad on a pond. Then, with a deep ten-ounce ladle, I pushed down in the center, and the tortilla came up around the bowl like the long dress and underskirts of a Victorian woman who had fallen, fully clothed, into a lake, her skirts billowing up around her heavy sinking body. We served, I am sure, two hundred chimichangas a day on weekends in this quaint town with its endless antique and art shows and mule barge rides along the canal, and I garnished every single one of them with its orange wedge and curly parsley sprig.
On the walk home from town, after the mats were hosed down, and the stainless steel scoured with soapy green pads, then toweled off as Chef Joe and Chef Tom supervised, I held in my hand my paycheck from Mother’s—$74.11 after its inscrutable and unwelcome FICA and FED WT—and had precocious thoughts about who was in charge of me now, if I was earning my own money and everybody else was hiding in New York City or the hills of Vermont. No future graduate-level feminism seminar would ever come within a mile of the force of that first paycheck. The conviction was instant and forever: If I pay my own way, I go my own way.
IN JUNE 1982, I GRADUATED FROM ALTERNATIVE HIGH SCHOOL, BAREFOOT and in an ankle-length white gauze dress that I’d shoplifted from a store in town. Even though the school was only two miles from our house, I was enrolled as a boarder because there would be consistent adult supervision, regular meals, and “structure.” I’d sort of skipped some of ninth grade and some of twelfth grade at that school where, at the time, you could substitute sports credits for science credits and theater credits for history credits, and where my English credits were strong enough to stand in for all the others. “Life experience” and “individual character” were also taken into consideration, and after my interview with the heads of the school, I was allowed to graduate at sixteen. I moved to New York City the day after the ceremony with $235 in graduation checks that friends of my parents had sent me. Both of my parents came to the ceremony and struggled with the awkwardness of having to pretend to be perfectly comfortable seeing each other, while I flitted away as often as possible to have ultra-jaded, ultra-sarcastic huddles with my teenage friends until the whole thing was over, and everybody left campus and I went and packed up my dorm room. It took four roundtrips on the Hunterdon Bus Line, its underbelly stuffed each time with my bags and the odd wicker hamper full of miscellany, while I rode inside with a desk lamp on my lap. I also had a huge jar of change that I kept in the apartment I moved into in Hell’s Kitchen with my older sister, Melissa, who was away for the summer, and I lived off that change for the first three months. The apartment had a cockroach infestation of such magnificent proportions that I have never ever encountered the like since. They even scattered, by the dozen, from the bed when you pulled back the covers.
The little grimy apartment was on Twenty-ninth Street and Tenth Avenue directly across from the Morgan General Mail Facility, where all of the city’s correspondence passed, and one block south of the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, with its constant reciprocation of traffic—commercial and domestic—between New Jersey and New York.
Some of the astonishingly underdressed hookers who worked the tunnel would hang out on my stoop, in good weather, and have egg-on-a-roll sandwiches from the Terminal Food Shop Deli downstairs. I did not know about egg-on-a-roll sandwiches. They didn’t exist where I grew up. For ninety cents you got a griddled buttered roll, split in half, into which the deli man set a fried egg, a slice of cheddar cheese, and a couple of strips of bacon. With a sweet and light deli coffee in a blue cup designed with the Acropolis on it, and that sandwich, I started each day of my first summer in New York City.
“Iassou, Dimitri,” I said each morning to the owner, proud of my ability to pronounce his name correctly and to speak a few words in Greek. Everyone called him Jimmy, which is how he introduced himself, but I’d been to Greece and wanted to show him how clever I was. Whether he was charmed or annoyed, I could never tell because he had that utterly Greek way of being friendly to everyone.
“Iassou, Gabriellaki.” He smiled every morning and sometimes tsked and raised his very bushy black eyebrows as a way of refusing my ninety cents, which I had nervously counted out from the dwindling jar upstairs. It must not have taken him very long to notice that I never once pulled out a crisp five-dollar bill to pay for my breakfast, but always arrived, instead, with a stack of dimes.
Delis were still run by Greeks then, not Koreans, and they were not the twenty-four-hour salad bar affairs they are today. You could get a can of ground Café Bustelo, cat food, toilet paper, cigarettes, and a turkey sandwich but that was it. There was no Annie’s sesame-ginger salad dressing and precut packages of watermelon on ice. No fake crab leg sushi rolls. No vegan cookies or wasabi peas. The corner deli was a carefully edited experience in those days. Egg on a roll and coffee were the measure of a good deli, and a good deli man.
I took my foil-wrapped sandwich and the Times and sat with the ladies on my stoop, counting the Nina’s in the Hirschfeld while feigning total nonchalance regarding the elaborate production going on around me involving Charisse, and the laying out of a single baby wipe on the step before placing her totally naked ass on it.
My jar of change was running low. I bought rotten and bruised fruit from the little stand on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Twenty-ninth Street, which was kept in a separate bin and sold for only nineteen cents a pound. The fruit was easily salvaged with a paring knife—with a quick bit of work, you could remove the offending, unsellable bit of brown—which the few West Indian women and I who bought this waste often exclaimed about, with great pride.
“Look at these plums! These are perfectly good plums!” we shrilled, willfully ignoring the large brown bruises at the tops.
I stole fistfuls of ketchup packets from all the McDonalds on Eighth Avenue and I’d make pasta “sauce” with it. The Village Voice advertised bars that held happy hours with free hot hors d’oeuvres. After walking around all day from job interview to job interview, saving myself the subway fare by walking, I would make my way to them for dinner, from five to seven pm. With my purchase of two beers for five dollars, I would eat my two little plastic plates of complimentary—and to my frame of mind, utterly delicious—buffalo wings, which had just become “the new thing” in culinary New York City, and then walk as many blocks home as I was far from it.
I lived on canned sardines cheaply bought at the grocery store for thirty-five cents each.
I had strategically sworn off the habit of shoplifting, because I had this naive idea that in New York City, I would be sent immediately to women’s prison if I got caught. I’d heard stories, exaggerated and magnified just as you’d imagine, back in Lambertville, that quite convinced me to not shoplift.
I pounded the pavement, instead, looking for a job. Because I didn’t know my way around New York and because I didn’t know what I was doing, I pounded it a little harder than was necessary. I ushered two nights of a performance way downtown for twenty-five dollars and saw Kate Valk naked on stage. I stood on the corner of Thirty-third and Sixth and handed out fliers. I sold something brand-new called FrozFruit from a cart in Central Park during a No Nukes free concert. With my earnings I bought a dime bag at a bodega that had about three dusty candy bars in its case behind the bulletproof glass through which you passed your money and back through which they handed you the weed. The same friend of my sister’s who had told me you could do this—buy pot at the store!—also introduced me to his “slug” dealer, a guy who sold little brown packets of fifty copper slugs that got you through the subway turnstile, at half the price of a real token.
On my way back home to Twenty-ninth Street from an interview at a Spanish restaurant on Fourteenth Street that I had read about in the Voice that morning, I casually wandered into a bar with a revolving door on Thirteenth Street. It’s only now, in the retelling, that I realize I was lost, walking south and east, away from home rather than toward it.
The Lone Star Café had a giant iguana on the roof, looking down over Fifth Avenue. It was dark inside, with the glare of midday crushing in through the few windows the place had. There was a tall guy with a well-groomed glossy brown beard in denim and cowboy boots with a beer gut standing at the entrance talking to a young woman in a high ponytail, which swung around dramatically as she performed her portion of the conversation.
“I just have have have have to take it,” she was saying, as I entered and stood slightly stunned at the door while my eyes adjusted. He looked pissed. Shifting his French-fry gut back and forth, arms crossed over his chest, he set his lips tight and said nothing.
“Okay, Donny, I’m sorry but …” she singsonged, untying her apron and kind of scooting away.
And there I was, in the right place at the right time, a warm body, sixteen years old about to lie to be twenty-one, and he hired me on the spot.
He looked at me standing there still disoriented both from the change of light and from quickly trying to understand what was happening before me. Was this a waitress quitting right this very minute?
He said, “What do you want?”
I said, “Hello, I am looking for some work as a waitress …” and he cut me off by barking, “What’s wrong with your eyes? Why are they so red?”
This was decidedly not Johnny Francis letting me—kindly and gently—lie my innocent thirteen-year-old lies. This was no pleasant sunny interview by the canal with ducks. But I mustered myself and said, “There’s nothing wrong with my eyes. What? Do you think I’m stoned or something?”
And he actually smiled, and his face turned into a good-looking warm face, and he was pleased with my comeback, and he gave me the job of waitress, the job I’d tried to bluff my way into three years before unsuccessfully.
Suddenly, I was in a navy blue Lone Star Café T-shirt with white lettering, a short denim skirt, and cowboy boots.
My first few weeks had been entirely wholesome and uneventful, working the practically dead lunch shift, with this beautiful, friendly, seasoned waitress named Lori who taught me how to use a credit card machine, how to write an order on a dupe pad, how to check out my paperwork at the end of my shift, and how to tip Billy, the daytime bartender, the required 15 percent of my daily tips. Hardly anyone ate lunch at the Lone Star Café—it was a nightclub after all—but there were a few businesses around and not many other options, so we served chili and chili burgers and beer, slowly and easily, all afternoon to the few who did join us. When I tipped out Billy my 15 percent, it was not more than ten bucks. I left it at the service end of the bar, calling, “This is for your help, Billy. Thank you,” as Lori had taught me. Not even a year had passed from the time I was still in high school plays, and so I said my line to Billy the same stiff way I said my lines, in tenth grade, in Hedda Gabler. And Billy waved from the middle of the bar where he was talking with an early happy-hour customer, “Thanks, hon!”
In the fall, I started my very first semester of college a few blocks away at NYU. I told Donny that I needed to switch to nights. And somehow he was persuaded. He handed me off to the night manager, Buddy.
It was incredibly loud, crowded, smoky, and great fun at the Lone Star. It was the original urban cowboy joint in New York at a time when urban cowboy was really hitting. Wall Street was off the hook, and young white traders from Goldman with not-thin stacks of hundred-dollar bills in their pockets would pile into the place while their black stretchies idled outside, waiting to take them to the Odeon later for steak frites and Cristalle as a nightcap.
I clocked in for my first night shift just after Labor Day. There were six women over thirty in the locker room, spraying their hair, squirting Visine, and chatting easily, though I thought somewhat frantically, with each other. Not one of them said hello to me. Up on the floor, I worked my station as best as I was able, but with the aisles packed with guys screaming their conversations at each other and dancing and the live music and the tower of amps vibrating on either side of the stage, it was a whole new game compared to anything I’d played at lunch, where the loudest thing had been fifteen minutes of sound check. I made my way through the crowd by tapping people on the leg with my foot, while carrying a large and very full tray of long-necks over my head, high up in the air. Not unlike the way we had drilled at basketball practice—sweaty teenage girls with ponytails—just one spring ago.
The cocktail waitresses ran a cash-and-carry business. We bought the drinks from the bar ourselves, and then we sold them to the customer at the table and collected his money on the spot, making change if needed, from our own cash in our apron pockets. Sometimes the bartenders would be so busy that we just left our dupes there in a slot with everything we needed written down in funny code: arrows for “up” drinks and x’s for drinks on the rocks, and when we came back in a few minutes our tray of drinks would be ready and our ticket rung up. In the mayhem of the place, I had sometimes received drinks I’d asked for but forgotten to write down and which the bartender had forgotten to ring up. When I found time later during my shift, I hailed the bartender, who oozed irritability, and squared up, as Lori at lunch had taught me.
I was the early girl out my first night. I don’t remember the band, I don’t remember how I made it out the revolving door, I just remember proudly handing Chris the bartender my tip-out—a whopping twenty-five bucks, unlike anything I’d done by day, and saying thanks.
He picked it up like it was covered in wet mucus and sneered at me, “What the fuck is this?”
I had never been spoken to like this.
“Twenty-five fucking bucks is your tip-out?” he spat, with a kind of sybillant “s” as he had a space between his two front teeth. His eyes were hard to see under the brim of his baseball cap, so to me he seemed like a dangerous raccoon.
I was electric with fear, with his unapologetic aggression. He seemed to have not one qualm about generating conflict with another human being.
“I made one hundred and forty bucks, that’s my fifteen percent, what’s wrong? What do you want?”
“I want you to learn how to work your fucking tables.” He shouted and turned away and walked down the bar, his back lit by glowing liquor bottles like that black-pawed critter who has just ripped apart your garbage and now waddles off into the hedges, silhouetted by the little mushroom cap lights that line the driveway.
I turned seventeen during my waitress shift at the Lone Star Café, high on coke. And I made a big show of it. It made me feel something, something like bad and good, to run to the restroom in pairs, giggling with one of my new waitress friends, while patrons watched. I felt, somehow, as if I were sending a coded signal to potential admirers if I made an oh-so-casual point of wiping the little trickle of coke-laced snot from my upper lip and then licking my finger so as not to lose that last shot of tongue-numbing tingle.
We were partial to an after-hours club called the Zodiac, which I’m embarrassed to say that in spite of having been there dozens of times, I couldn’t find today. Possibly it was in Soho, as I recall we always made a point to walk to Houston to get a cab home. I remember, with a kind of powdery nausea settling over me, coming out of it often and seeing droves of children coming home from school. Jake, the dealer, sat in a booth at the Zodiac and sold coke by the line. You slid into the banquette across from him, he cut out the line, you paid, snorted, and then vacated the seat after a soft and unpleasant handshake.
Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” was a constant pick on the jukebox and the last time I walked out of that place, late summer 1983, it blared out the doors as I pushed them open and, wincing from the daylight, hailed a checkered cab, one of the last of a dwindling fleet. In that spacious backseat with so much room for your luggage and the round low stools for extra passengers, I lay down and thought, “Does anyone know where I am?” and rolled whichever way Tenth Avenue bumped me.
Obviously, I had learned how to work my fucking tables. Everybody was working their fucking tables, I soon learned. The girl at the door was selling tickets for the show while keeping half the “sales” for herself. The waitresses were not getting lost in the mayhem and accidentally not writing down drinks on their dupes and the bartenders were not supplying those unrecorded drinks unwittingly. They were in business together. I too, learned to sell them at the table, to keep the cash from the sale of a drink that didn’t, on paper, exist, and to share that profit with the bartender, through tipping.
The tip-out at the end of a night when the waitress has pocketed seven hundred bucks is obviously a little more appealing than when the stupid sixteen-year-old lunch waitress hands over a “fucking” twenty. Chris and I had become, tentatively, friends. He slipped me an occasional shot of Cuervo for myself and only once spiked it with Tabasco.
There was a bartender upstairs, at the bar that serviced all the tables on the balcony with great views of the stage, who was rumored to have his own cash register, which he’d bring in zippered up in his duffel bag, set up under the counter behind the bar, and ring up drinks all night long that never made it into the company till. I never saw this, but the rumor was persistent and sworn to more emphatically the more I dismissed it as urban lore.
Even the coat-check girls were on the take. They invented a two-dollar fee for checking your coat and then were tipped as well for the pleasure. I was now cutting most of my classes at school but becoming friends with everybody at work. I, too, was frantically chatting away in the dressing room with Tooney and Duggan and Auntie Mary, the ninety-pound Englishwoman at least forty-five years old who kept right up with the coke and the job and the short denim skirts. Laura, an unexpectedly Upper East Side type of girl who kept her hair in a short pixie cut and wore penny loafers, had become an especially good friend. She always doubted her ability, after a certain point in the evening, to keep track of things, so she had the habit of bundling up her cash in hundred-dollar increments, rubber banding it, and putting it in the waistband of her stockings throughout the night so she wasn’t walking around with half a grand in twenties bunched up in her denim apron pocket.
There was so much money being passed around at that place—legitimately and otherwise—that the owners had all of us bonded. We all went through a long, paperwork-filled process by which they insured themselves against theft.
Lloyd, the Jamaican night porter who drank warm milk with Guinness stout and a few drops of honey, had a whole substantial second income derived from doing our closing sidework, for which we tipped him lavishly. The sooner we got out of work, the sooner we could get to the bar at 1 Fifth, or the Zodiac, or a place on Tenth Avenue called Chelsea Commons, which would let us in after hours and lock the door with us happily inside because someone knew the bartender.
I never made it to the end of my first semester. I couldn’t get to morning classes after what I’d done the night before. I dropped out. My dad, whose impeccably performed complaint to all of his friends at the time was that his kids only ever called when they needed money, was bone-ificently relieved to be sprung from the balance of the tuition he carried after my student loans and aid package covered what they could. I paid my mother’s electric and phone bills that year, while she puzzled out how to be an independent, financially solvent divorced woman in blue jeans for the first time in her life. I gave her a wide berth. When Jeffrey had been questioned about the liberty he was taking by helping himself to a couple of eggs out of her fridge the morning after the long drive up to Vermont in his truck filled with her things retrieved from the split, furthermore making some derisive comment about our dad’s inconsistent and inadequate support checks, I decided to just send the electric bill money and to avoid the fraught visits to her home. She mishandled a lot of things in those first years, but nothing more so than her evident inability to shield us from her significant fury at my father. I bought a stereo and got a Macy’s credit card. I flew to Aspen and went skiing. I took home more than ninety thousand dollars that year and spent most of it on drugs.
At some point, urban cowboy started to slow down as a hot trend in the city’s nightlife, but we didn’t pay attention and we didn’t scale back. Around this time a new girl started at the club, and I, for the first time in my life more senior than someone, ignored her in the dressing room. She carelessly left her book of dupes sitting in a drawer in the waiter station while she was having a pee break, and I stole them. Now I had a whole book of checks, marked in sequential order, which should have been returned to the office at the end of the night accounted for, wrapped up in her neatly organized paperwork. They had not been assigned to me, and I could do what I liked with them. It was the waitress’s equivalent of having her own cash register. I used them judiciously over the next few months, getting my cash-and-carry drinks rung up on these checks that could never be traced to me. But things were slowing down so considerably that we began to scale way back and frequently, in fact more often than not, worked whole shifts on the up-and-up.
On a slow night, one month shy of a year to the week after I’d started, I arrived at work, almost late and out of breath. I had woken up late and hurting from a night of decidedly more sinister hue than average, most of it unrecoverable in my memory, and I was particularly disoriented from not being able to recall even one detail of how I had gotten home, and when it was time to leave my apartment, I was rushed and ill-prepared. I couldn’t find a clean T-shirt or a clean apron. Melissa had left a brief note, in reference to the cockroach problem, “Remember Mr. Kornfeld when we were kids? A German exterminator! Get this: He drove a Volkswagen bug!!! No kidding. Ha. Ha. Ha.” I grabbed an old dirty apron that still had bobby pins and matchbooks in the pockets and a couple of chili stains on it and ran out the door. I got changed in the locker room, put on my apron, and discovered in the pocket one of the old checks I had stolen from that new girl a few months before, who had not lasted even two weeks.
It faintly registered in my dull and harried mind to take care, but then the thought vanished, and I went up to my assigned station on the balcony. We were used to big acts, Jorma Kaukonen and Bob Dylan and Dr. John—I even worked an Osmonds gig once at which every customer was a Mormon female clutching a scrapbook and a decaffeinated ginger ale. But this was a quiet night, with an unknown onstage, and very few customers. Laura was working the downstairs station alone—they’d cut the second waitress. And I was the only girl assigned to the balcony. At seven o’clock I had only three tables nursing their drinks, and so I stood at the service end of the bar, chatting with the bartender.
“Things are strange,” Tom, of the rumored cash-register-in-his-duffel-bag fame, said.
“Yeah,” I agreed, assuming he was referring to how dead it was.
“Buddy’s around,” he said, with a barely discernible tone of warning.
“Okay,” I said, letting him know that I understood that we would be playing by the rules tonight. No stealing. All drinks written down and rung up.
Buddy had been around a great deal lately. Something, clearly, was off in the numbers and the owners knew it, but they couldn’t find it. Buddy is that guy in a restaurant or club, the general manager who walks around with a huge keychain and has no one to talk to his whole shift. He used to stand, silently letting his presence be seen and felt, watching the floor from the mixing booth, the curved staircase leading to the balcony, or by the pass-through at the kitchen where we picked up thousands of bowls of chili and spindled the paper dupes. He would look on, poker-faced under his cowboy hat, while we dodged in and out of Wall Street big spenders, and snuck each other shots of tequila, and giggled and sniffled like teenagers. He tried sometimes, awkwardly, to bridge the gap between his brusque authority and our compulsory approval, by telling a joke and laughing at it himself, or by strangely revealing something personal about himself and his wife, and it just felt miserable to have to stand there, politely paused in front of your superior, while he struggled with his aloneness.
Suddenly, he was walking directly toward me. I was carrying a tray with one hand, bearing only three drinks, but still involved in balancing the tray, and heading over to one of my tables to deliver them. Buddy reached into my apron pocket and pulled out my checks. While I stood there with the drinks, he scrutinized each one, and I could see his eyes scanning the serial numbers of each one on the upper right corner. Back and forth his eyes went, trying to understand their sequence. He and I understood at almost exactly the same moment that I had a check in my pocket totally out of sequence.
“What the fuck is this?” Buddy said, still looking at the checks, but starting to shake.
“Oh. My God,” I said, putting down the tray of drinks on a nearby empty table. “I’m going, I’m going, I’m going,” I said, backing away from Buddy, who was now looking almost purple in the face. I feared, truthfully, that he was going to beat me. I started running down the back stairwell, untying my apron, taking the steps two at a time. I ran to Laura on the ground floor, who was applying beige lip gloss from a long wand with a sponge tip, and grabbed her by the arms, hissing, “He got me! He got me! Fucking Buddy just busted me!” And without stopping to talk to anyone else, I pushed open the safety bar on the side doors that spit me out onto Thirteenth Street and ran a few steps down the sidewalk. I hid behind our Dumpster, shaking, until I saw Buddy open the door and look up and down the sidewalk and then go back inside. Laura came out five minutes later with my stuff from my locker, nervously smoking, but laughing wickedly.
“You are so busted,” she squealed, her nose wrinkling up with glee.
“What the fuck’s gonna happen?” I asked.
“I don’t know but don’t say anything about the rest of us,” she warned, and flicked her butt to the curb before slipping back inside.
It was not even dark out. At seven-thirty or so on an August night, the city was alive and daylight lingered. I had thirty-seven dollars in my apron pocket. Tens of thousands of dollars in cash had passed through my fingers that year, and I ended up with thirty-seven wrinkled singles, shaking with the fear of having bluffed my way into a circumstance well out of my league, crouched behind a Dumpster on Thirteenth Street. I walked all the way home, north and west, wondering what was going to happen to me. What was left in the change jar?
The owners called in the morning. The bonding company called in the morning. And then Detective Sperro of the Sixth Precinct called to explain that he was the government official charging me with Grand Larceny and Possession of Stolen Property. He explained that the bonding company was the party pressing the charges, not the Lone Star Café itself. He advised me to retain a lawyer, and said, if I liked, he would send a squad car in half an hour to bring me in to his station on West Tenth Street. He read me my Miranda rights over the phone.
“Do you understand fully everything that I have just explained to you?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Iassou, Gabriellaki,” called Dimitri, as I entered the Terminal Food Shop Deli. He looked at me fully, with his eyes fixed on mine. “You are coming home too late, kooklamou,” he said, like a concerned uncle. He had seen me many mornings, getting out of a cab, struggling to appear coherent, as he was opening the shop.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
I sat on the front stoop with my egg-on-a-roll waiting for the cop car, not in a million years the way I imagined a felony arrest would be.
The next day, I called the only person I knew who had ever been able to help me out with money: my brother Todd. He had amassed a collection of guitars that filled a whole basement room in his Brooklyn Heights brownstone, but instead of becoming a professional musician, he had cut his hair very short, invested in a few work suits, and started a career on Wall Street, in Ginny Maes. A few too many bone-a-fied humiliations surrounding money experienced in his youth, perhaps, had driven the artistic impulse right into the basement, to be let out on weekends only. Hidden under his crisp white Brooks Brothers shirt, he wore a thin leather necklace with a sterling silver electric guitar dangling at the throat, and years later, when he was a very secure and well-compensated veteran of Goldman Sachs, he wore a silver bracelet and didn’t worry that it was not hidden by his white cuff. Rather, that was his point.
“This is Todd,” he said, picking up the line.
“Steve, two fifty! Two fifty!” he shouted to someone. “What’s up?” he shouted to me, uncertain to whom he was talking.
We managed a clipped and perfunctory four-minute phone call, Wall Street traders shouting behind him in the background, and he shouting at them with me mid-sentence hanging in his ear, during which he put me on hold more than once. This was how all phone calls would be with him for the next dozen or so years that he spent on Wall Street, and they were, those phone calls, the very first step in an incremental distancing that would eventually lead to a complete and definitive loss. I knew it was too bothersome to call him during work. It was too alienating to try to talk, like siblings, with someone who is putting you on hold every twenty-five seconds, as his work demanded. The days of lucky rabbit fur leg massages were long behind us both. I learned to call infrequently and to talk fast when I did. But in those four minutes, while on hold, he had retained a lawyer to help me, for fifteen hundred dollars, and conferenced her in to the call.
“Jesus, Gabs. I had no idea this was going on,” Todd said in closing.
“Right,” I said. “I know. Sorry.”
The lawyer and I then spent twenty minutes on the phone during which she asked me to describe the details of the scheme and how I had learned it, and then, in the final three minutes of our strategy conversation, she asked me my date of birth. When she put the math of the year together, she stumbled for a minute: “Are you telling me you’re only seventeen years old and you’ve been serving alcohol at the Lone Star Café for the past year?”
As I explained that part of my story, I could nearly hear her smiling ear to ear through the wires.
It apparently took less than an hour of her time, billed against her retainer, to get the charges dropped, but when she called me a few days later to tell me the good news, she was not festive. She advised me, authoritatively, to get my life together.
“You need to enroll in school and get out of state,” she counseled. “In lieu of juvenile prosecution they could consider you for a juvenile diversion program, with counseling for twelve months, and this will also show on your lasting record. But I can’t guarantee it so you’d better do a lot of good stuff, Hon, and do it fast.”
I never even met her. But this stranger, brought to me by my brother through that technological innovation the conference call, was that walk-off-the-mound coach I’d been in need of some years earlier. Her grip on my neck was not as soft and not as encouraging as I always imagined the concern and guidance of an authoritative adult would feel. She scared me. It was sobering to finally encounter someone who wasn’t egging me on to greater extremes of outrageousness, for their own vicarious pleasure, and who didn’t for one second take me for anything but the teenager I was. I knew that I did not want to go to that juvenile diversion program because I had an intuitive sense that it would turn me irrevocably into the kind of character that I was now only rehearsing to be.
“I’m going to bill Todd and you work it out with him, okay? And you need to follow up with me in fifteen days so I can report back to the assistant DA.”
And within a few weeks, I was, indeed, enrolled in college. I arrived on the campus of Hampshire College in the middle of an apple orchard in Amherst, Massachusetts, via Peter Pan bus. I was like a deep-sea diver who does not take the appropriate time coming up from twenty thousand leagues. People all around me were discussing Third World feminism, doing shifts at the on-campus food co-op, building eco-yurts for academic credit, and playing Ultimate Frisbee in their bare feet in the rain. I was still in cowboy boots working my fucking tables, sort of.
Monday through Thursday I wandered around this rural campus, with no required classes and a highly politicized culture, and started to get steeped in the language of the place—div’s and mod’s and integratives—and I ate stir-fry and tempeh and tofu for the first time in my life, as it was what we ate in our cooperative housing units where we spun the dial on a shared “work wheel” to divvy up the household chores. I met no one who knew where to score an eight-ball of coke.
Immediately, I got a job in town at a short-order diner called Jake’s, cooking eggs and hash browns on a griddle top ladled with liquid oleo on Friday and Saturday night shifts. When the bars closed at one a.m.—rather provincial, I thought, having just come from New York and its four a.m. closing time—hundreds of drunk and stoned students from the surrounding five colleges crammed in for big plates of greasy food and coffee, rowdy from the bands they had just been out to see, or morose and limp from the foreign films they had endured, but either way, closer to me in age than anyone I’d been near to in years. I couldn’t take my eyes off them and feasted on their fully incubated youth.
On campus, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley wafted out of the dorm windows, but in the kitchen at Jake’s we crushed it all night long to Guns N’ Roses. On weekends I cooked side by side with Greg, a part-time, Republican, poli-sci student at UMass, and we cranked out a thousand griddle-topped omelettes and pancakes at a pace I had not encountered since my chimichanga experiences as a young teenager. In the middle of the rush, he once called me over to the pass to look out at a father and his young daughter having pancakes after a night they’d had at the roller rink. I was truly impressed by this out-of-the-blue tenderness, taken aback that Guns N’ Roses Greg had such a soft interior that he could call me over to admire this father-daughter moment, and as I looked back at Greg, beaming, he tossed his spatula in the air and whooped, “I bet she’s pretty tight!”
He was smart and dirty-minded and a perfect gateway friend for me between the larcenous crowd I had just been with and these obscure new classmates I was now soaking bean curd with.
I had not heard of the My Lai Massacre, the Sandinistas or the Contras, Pinochet or Allende, but in the exact same way that I had been able to put on the navy blue T-shirt and make friends in the dressing room with the waitresses at the Lone Star Café, and to recite my line to the bartender when leaving his tip, I quickly enough learned to say “regime of torture” and “system of apartheid” and “military-industrial complex” as the coke snot dried up and my hair grew longer and I tried to become a college freshman, all over again.
I was not good at self-initiated studying and worse still at navigating a place that had no required classes and nobody writing you a demerit for detention if you didn’t show up and didn’t do any of the work. The first time I cut a class and nobody noticed made me feel from then on that nothing mattered and nobody cared. It was the most ill-conceived—not to mention expensive—education model I ever could have imagined for myself, this one in which you spring loose totally aimless eighteen-year-olds on a campus designed much more like graduate school than undergrad, and then watch all but the most serious and exceptional of them flail and falter. But it seemed like a perfect match when I was scrambling for a solution to my Grand Larceny and Possession of Stolen Property problems. A good friend of mine had graduated from the place and was on some Committee of Campus something at the time that I was having my run-in with Detective Sperro. My friend got me the application and the over-the-phone interview, not to mention the over-the-phone acceptance, in a dizzying span of two weeks, during which time I never once mentioned to the school my impending felonies. We were the hottest spot on the planet to be for Halloween—Purple blotter! Windowpane!—according to Forbes magazine, or maybe it was Esquire, with Bennington coming in second—LSD dosed out from Visine bottles!—and we had, as well, an attrition rate as infamous. I was out in five semesters, ditched, with barely any of my basic requirements met. But I was brimming with all of the appropriate intellectual angst and political discontent that had at first been foreign to me when I arrived. Now I was a staunch Marxist feminist, a budding lesbian, a black nationalist sympathizer, and a literacy advocate. I was also, once again, a dropout.
AT FIRST, MELISSA LET ME HAVE A LITTLE OF THE WIDE-OPEN SPACE of the dirt-cheap loft she’d moved to on Driggs Avenue in Brooklyn, while I figured out what to do next. Together we smoked Camel filterless cigarettes and let our all-black laundry pile up while I wrote endlessly in my journals and she painted large canvasses of dried flower pods, clearly influenced by the painter Terry Winters, whose brushes she was cleaning for a living. The winter days were pitch-black by four forty-five in the afternoon, and with my dropout’s prerogative, I did not ever wake before one, leaving what felt like half an hour in which to rally one’s wholesome life into shape. I could barely shower and finish the crossword puzzle before the day was already over.
I did not seek out my old Lone Star Café friends, and my brother Todd, in just that short time, had become truly wealthy, inaccessible and hard to reach, but also unrecognizable, with the new relentless and lacerating sarcasm of a young man come lately into a shitload of power. Melissa, who had gracefully managed to barely grimace or flinch while I was coking it up at our apartment on Twenty-ninth Street now flexed her maternal muscle and suffocated me with instructions about the kitchen dish towels, the coffee pot, the correct route to the subway, and the hours of the Metropolitan Public Pool. It was way too late in the game for me to be able to receive surrogate mothering with any gladness. Meanwhile, if there was any single inch of my own flesh or remote coil of my own brain that I have warm regard for at this time, I cannot recall it. We agree that I need to make some different arrangements—maybe a summer in the country—and when spring emerges some weeks later, I have left Brooklyn and moved back to my hometown.
By the time I am gathering a lame and terribly-pecked chicken from the pen on my dad’s property, readying it and myself for its slaughter, it’s become clear that a full summer of country air has done nothing for my outlook. I’ve been out of school for almost a full year, aimlessly putting a paycheck together in a hodgepodge of strange ways—I cleaned the rooms of a charming and historic bed and breakfast, cooked hamburger patties and turkey club sandwiches at a local public golf course canteen, and picked up as many waitress shifts as I could get at my friendly old spawning ground, Mother’s on Main Street. The earth and sun have somehow revolved around each other so many times that, again, it’s already getting dark by five o’clock and I am not one gibbous closer to a life plan. I live in the cold basement apartment of my dad’s house.
That fall, I was often outside in my canvas jacket sitting on the log pile at dusk smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, feeling shrouded in gloom. I watched the garden decay, and a frost settle, and thought about death and the inherent beauty of the cycle of life. How untragic it would be, I thought, if I just killed the mailman or maybe myself, and returned to the earth. I was reading Dostoyevsky—who arranges the timing of these things?—and identified too strongly with Raskolnikov’s desire to have all feelings, all sensations, and to kill a human being. I had it confused at the time with some literary context but I think, in hindsight, I was just brittle with subcutaneous rage, and bone tired. I had been hustling for a long time. Eternal sleep had strong appeal. I’ve all but begged to kill this chicken.
There was no need for me to be killing chickens. This wasn’t 1930 or anything. And we weren’t out on the Nebraska plains. We were in what had been my grandparents’ house, up on the hill overlooking Lambertville, on the Jersey side of the Delaware, where my dad had been living since he’d sold the ruins. The house looked over a cemetery and had a deep woods behind it. It’s true that my dad didn’t have TV—the “tivvies” as he calls them—a telephone or a microwave—but these were aesthetic choices. There were people on either side of us—normal New Jersey neighbors—who knew of things like ice-in-the-door-of-the-fridge, MTV, and instant ramen noodles. He kept chickens as part of his gestalt.
There was one chicken in the coop being badly henpecked. My dad said we should kill the chicken and spare it the slow torture by its pen mates. I said I’d like to kill it. I said I wanted to kill it. I said it was important to confront the death of the animal you had the privilege of eating. I said it was cowardly to buy cellophane-wrapped packages of boneless, skinless breasts at the grocery store—desensitized, sanitized, devoid of any semblance of its live form.
This was what two years at Hampshire College had done to me.
My father, wishing I would comb my hair more often and pass quickly through this particular phase, said, “You can kill the thing when I get home from work.”
He claimed to have grown up with chickens and said he had killed many in his boyhood, so I let him coach me through it.
From a remote spot on the back kitchen steps, he told me how to decisively gather the chicken out of the pen. Adding my own bit, I spoke to it philosophically about the cycle of life. I held it firmly and calmly with what I hoped was a soothing authority. Then he told me to take it by the legs and hold it upside down. The chicken protested from deep inside its throat, close to the heart, a violent, vehement, full-bodied cluck. The crowing was almost an afterthought. To get it to stop, my dad told me to start swinging it in full arm circles. I windmilled that bird around and around the way I had spun lettuce as a kid in the front yard, sending droplets of water out onto the gravel and pachysandra from the old-fashioned wire basket spinner my mom used.
He said this would disorient the bird—make it so dizzy that it couldn’t move—and that’s when I should lay it down on the block and chop its head off, with one succinct whack. If you’re as practiced as my father claims to have been, your ten-year-old brother windmills the birds while you are chopping off their heads, and no sooner have you tossed one chicken into the grass to run around headless, than your brother is handing you another dazed chicken to whack, and like a machine you just spin and whack, spin and whack, until you’ve got twenty birds ready for the icebox for the next five winter months of Sunday suppers.
In my own way, not like a machine at all, I laid it down on a tree stump and while it was listless and trying to recover, I clutched the hatchet and came down on its neck. This first blow made a vague dent, barely breaking the skin. I hurried to strike it again, but lost a few seconds in my grief and horror. The second blow hit the neck like a boat oar on a hay bale. The bird started to orient. I was still holding its feet with one hand and trying to cut its head off with the dull hatchet with my other when both the chicken and my father became quite lucid, and not a little agitated. The chicken began to thrash about as if chastising me for my false promises of a merciful death and a poignant logic to his demise at my hand. My dad yelled, “Kill it! Kill it! Aw, Gabs, kill the fucking thing!” from his bloodless perch up on the landing of the kitchen steps.
I kept coming down on the bird’s throat—which was now broken but still issuing terrible clucks of revolt and protest—stroke after miserable stroke, until I finally got its head off. I was blubbering through clenched teeth. My dad was animated with disgust at his dropout daughter—so morose, so unfeminine, with the tips of her braids dyed aquamarine, and unable even to kill a chicken properly. As I released the bird, finally, and it ran around and around the yard, bloody and ragged but at least now silent, he shouted, “You weren’t fair to the damned thing!” which I heard as, “What kind of person are you?”
For a solid minute, and for a significant distance, the headless chicken ran around in the yard before its nerves gave out, spent themselves, and it fell over motionless in some dead brown leaves. This sight is pretty arresting but I was familiar with it as I had been to the Kutztown County Fair many times as a child where Mennonites and other rural Pennsylvania agricultural folks convened to sell scrapple, souse, double-yolk eggs, and funnel cakes. Bearded, suspendered guys at the fair butcher live chickens and let them run around in the pen with their heads cut off before wrapping them in butcher paper for you to take home.
The other chickens in their pen, now silhouetted against the darkening sky, retreated inside to roost for the night. My dad closed the kitchen door and turned on the oven.
It’s quite something to go bare-handed up through an animal’s ass and dislodge its warm guts. Startling, the first time, how fragilely they are attached.
I have since put countless suckling pigs—pink, with blue, querying eyes—the same weight and size of a pet beagle—into slow ovens to roast overnight so that their skin crisps and their still-forming bones melt into the meat, making it succulent and sticky. I have butchered two-hundred-twenty-pound sides of beef down to their primal cuts, carved the tongues out of the heads of goats, fastened whole baby lambs with crooked sets of teeth onto green ash spits and set them by the foursome over hot coals, and boned out the loins and legs of whole rabbits that—even skinned—still look exactly like bunnies. But at the time of the chicken killing, I was still young and unaccustomed.
I retrieved the bird off the frozen ground and tied its feet and hung it from a low tree branch so it could bleed out. Then I went inside and boiled a blue enamel lobster pot full of water. Once the bird bled out, I submerged it in boiling water to loosen its feathers. Sitting out on the back steps in the yellow pool of light from the kitchen window, I plucked the feathers off the chicken, two and three at a time. When I finished, it was reduced in size in a way I hadn’t anticipated. Its viscera came out with an easy tug; a small palmful of livery, bloody jewels that I tossed out into the dark yard.
There are two things you should never do with your father: learn how to drive and learn how to kill a chicken. I’m not sure you should sit across from each other and eat the roasted bird in resentful silence either, but we did that too, and the meat, as if scripted, was disagreeably tough.