Fragment from Family Memoir

December 27, 2014

The following draft was first started at the end of 2009, and there is a lot more writing connected to it but I’m posting this fragment for the time of year.

It was on Christmas night when I first saw my dead parents. In keeping with my Yuletide ritual of getting quietly drunk, I began to feel expansive with holiday mirth and ventured outside to walk my dog. It had snowed briefly the night before and a mantle of white lay on the houses and cars and streetlamps, on the trees and bushes lit up with Christmas lights. But tonight was clear and brilliant. Orion tilted above me, the stars Almitak, Almilan and Mintaka — the Hunter’s belt stars — evenly spaced apart. The air had a bite when you drew it deeply into your lungs, frosting the nose hairs. My dog and I were the only souls on the street. I wanted to reach out and touch the heavens. I thought of other galaxies. I thought of other stars.

But when I re-entered my house I was immediately consumed by the smell of boiling tongue. A big cow’s tongue boiling in one large iron pot and skinned potatoes boiling in another; a pale gray scum frothing on the surface of both pots like a head on cheap beer. As a boy, on cold winter evenings, I had nearly always entered the house at Wayward Avenue through the back door which faced Larchmont Avenue and which led into our kitchen, coming in maybe after a snowball fight or skating in the woods or delivering the evening newspaper, coming into warmth and into a cloud of steam that smelled of salty meat and starchy potatoes, the cloud moving against a thicker, more tar-toxic one of cigarette smoke, as if the clouds were colliding fronts roiling in their fused and respective densities. And my parents emerged like apparitions from this acrid pall of vapors swathed in nicotine; my parents were there suddenly, seated or moving about in the cramped kitchen. They were real and this was the heart of the home.

Welcome . . . .

The rancid odors were so solid, so literally in your face and earthy (we were all Taurus’s in my family), that some of my friends would become nauseous upon entering the house and we’d then have to leave and head back into frigid January darkness to resuscitate our sinuses. I barely noticed the odors back then, though I now recoil in horror from this scene a half century later. I could tolerate the smell, and was maybe a little queasy at the sight of tongue, but I could not stand the taste of tongue and boiled potatoes. I lathered the tongue with copious amounts of Gulden’s brown mustard and attempted to melt frozen chips of butter on the grayish white boiled potatoes. Even then I would often gag and commence a filibuster in hopes of having my plate removed. With my knife I had to trim the rind of taste buds from the tongue meat.

I was momentarily pulled back into 2009. The time was 8:41. 8:41 appeared on the stove clock and the Cable TV receiver. I saw 8:41 on my alarm clock and my cell phone, on my PC and microwave oven, any appliance that haunted you with digital time in bright red, amber or yellow-green numbers. The street address of the house I grew up in — the house of the boiling tongue and boiling potatoes — was 841 Wayward Avenue. And somehow the minute became eternal.

Welcome to Our World. . . .

An early morning in January. My parents are in the pitch dark kitchen with no breakfast cooking at first, just the bitter smell of coffee and cigarettes. Their cigarette ends are glowing coals, signals from opposite shores, one if by land, two if by sea . . . coffee . . . burning tobacco . . . eventually the smell of a toasted English muffin slightly charred along its rim. My father ate the muffin with a liberal topping of margarine and honey (Golden Blossom) — two amber pools with clots of wan yellow in the slight concavity of its warmed halves. As I tried to wake up, I’d often stare at the honey pools because the muffin had often been saved until the main part of breakfast had been consumed—eggs sunny-side up with bacon, ham, or even a flank steak. The honey would often run and drip as my father bit into the muffin, and he liked to keep a portion of it to sop up the smear of egg yolk on his plate. He would then light a Marlboro and have another cup of coffee, ladling and stirring spoonfuls of white sugar into his porcelain cup (and at a later time, Sweet-and-Lo). He seemed to crave a lot of sugar.

There was also a sleepy minimal conversation among the glowing coals, only those few words needed for daily survival: “one more cigarette and coffee.” “do you have your keys?” “call you later.” And in the large interstices of conversation, the small tinny radio: crooner songs, big band nostalgia, pop hits, chatter, and numerous spots like:

Welcome to Our World. Welcome to the World of TWA!

The kitchen had been a tight space for five people and sometimes a couple more on Sundays and Thursday nights when my other grandmother and great aunt joined us. The kitchen. . . Linoleum floor. Half paneled walls even more dulled by stains of nicotine. Formica counter tops. A tarnished plastic laminate dining table with black metal legs. A cat clock on the wall. Several plastic ashtrays holding crude pyramids of butts. A plastic napkin holder sculpted in the shape of a phallic looking mushroom. Yellowing white cabinets with black metal handles. A working waffle iron and toaster that my grandmother had won at a Catholic church bingo game in 1929, the year of the Big Crash, a sturdy iron relic of a happy prosperous decade when supposedly everything was still right in the world just before everything collapsed.


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