I do not go outdoors. Not more than I have to. As far as I'm concerned, the whole point of living in New York City is indoors. You want greenery? Order the spinach.
Me:Then why does Central Park exist?
Paradoxically, I am being sent by an outdoor adventure magazine to climb a mountain on Christmas Day with a man named Larry Davis. Larry has climbed Mount Monadnock in southwestern New Hampshire every day for the last five plus years. I will join him on ascent number 2,065.
The trip up to New Hampshire will involve a tiny plane from Boston. I tear my medicine cabinet apart like Billie Holiday and still only uncover one Xanax. The hiking boots the magazine sent me to buy, large, ungainly potato-like things that I've been trying to break in for the past four days, cut into my feet and draw blood as if they were lined with cheese graters. I have come to hate these Timberlands with a fervor I usually reserve for people. Just think, the shoes I wouldn't be caught dead in might just turn out to be the shoes I am caught dead in.
It bears mentioning here that Monadnock is not Everest. It is 3,000 feet high and the most climbed mountain in the world. It's not even a real mountain.
Me: OF COURSE IT'S NOT MT. EVEREST! MT. EVEREST IS IN THE HIMALAYAS, WHICH IS IN ASIA, AND IT'S 29,000 FEET HIGH! AND EVEN THEN, IT'S NOT AS TALL AS THE MARIANAS TRENCH (If you measure from the floor to sea level)!
I do not let this sway me from my worrying. I have other reasons for concern. My status as an adult perpetually teeters on the verge of being exposed as a sham and revoked. Plus, I am only playing at reporter here. I have, up to this point, relied upon my relentlessly jokey, glib, runny-mouthed logorrhea and the unwarranted good graces of magazine editors who just let me make stuff up. I have never been sent anywhere on someone else's dime, and it takes all of my strength not to call my editor and tell him that the jig is finally up, that I cannot do this piece. It seems too bad that the jig has to be up so far from my home in New York, with its excitement, bright lights, and major teaching hospitals.
The central drama of my life is about being a fraud, alas. that's a complete lie, really. The central drama in my life is actually about being lonely and thin, but fraudulence gets a fair amount of play.
At the connecting airline at the Boston airport, I sit, the only dark-haired person among the broad-faced butter-eaters, wondering if my outdoors journalist drag-- flannel shirt, jeans, most hated boots of Satan's workshop
Me: Alright, are you Eogrus, arguably one of the most offensive fanfic authors in the world?
down jacket-- is fooling anybody. A brief flight and half a Xanax later, I land in New Hampshire, horrified to learn that the place where I'll be staying is a bed and breakfast, not a hotel. My heart sinks. That means there is probably neither television nor phone in my room, and I have very little patience for what is generally labeled charming. In particular, country charm. I have an intense dislike of flowered wallpaper. Ditto jam of all sorts.
Me: Ditto jam? Alright, Team Plasma, you have a point...
The former is in all-too-abundant evidence when I enter, and the latter, I'm sure, lies in ominous wait somewhere in the cheery kitchen. There is a knotty pine bar off the entrance hall with a settee with several embroidered pillows. "I'd rather be golfing." "On the eighth day, God created golf." "Golfers have sex in some humorous, golf-related manner." Et cetera.
Me: I'd rather be playing golf than listening to your indecipherable oily sounding trite!
The proprietress is the kind of tall, stalwart woman of a certain age that used to be called "handsome." She is approximately nine feet tall. Her eyes are blue, resolute. Her faithful dog Charlie at her side. She smiles at me warmly and introduces herself as Annie, extending a hand the size of a frying pan. "You must be Dave," she says. In New England, everyone calls you Dave, regardless of however many times you might introduce yourself as David.
I'm reminded of those fanatically religious homophobes who stand on the steps of Saint Patrick's Cathedral during gay pride, holding signs that say, "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." I have always wanted to go up to them and say, well, of course not Adam and Steve. Never Adam and Steve. It's Adam and Steven.
Me: SO WHAT?! You want me to NEVER refer to someone by their short name? THAT'S JUST WRONG!
What, I can never refer to the former drummer of Guns & Roses as Steve Adler? F*CK YOU, DAVID RAKOFF!
"You're in room three," she continues. "Why don't you go into the dining room, and have some lunch, and then we'll talk some. Come on, Charlie dog." In spite of myself, I am charmed. She puts on a dark green slicker and knee-high Wellingtons and is out the door, presumably to chop the ice off the pond, deliver a calf, or simply raise a barn.
I eat a club sandwich and drink some coffee to try to eradicate my Xanax buzz. I am trying to appear legitimate, masculine, adult, like I deserve to be there. Larry Davis stops by the inn. I shake his hand in a hardy, hale, fellow-well-met way. As my reward, he gives me dispensation to climb the next day in my $20 plastic Payless shoes.
I realize I've done almost no research for this trip, so I walk into downtown Jaffrey to check things out. This seems to smack to me of journalistic realness, a kind of topography as destiny, New Journalism, Joan Didion opening, perhaps. I am taking notes by speaking into a little tape recorder. Perhaps that is what attracts attention.
Or perhaps it is that there is not another living creature out at 5:00 PM on Christmas Eve, because a car passes and immediately circles back. The driver rolls down his window and asks me if I want a lift. I do not. But "how nice," I think. He drives on.
I'm charmed by the congeniality of this interchange. How friendly. How uncreepy. I speak too soon. He circles back. He hands me a rectangular package in tartan wrapping paper. "Take this. The most-watched video in the world," he says. This man is giving me a copy of Forrest Gump? "It's The Life of Jesus." I beg off politely, claiming Judaic immunity. He drives on.
Mebviously, that guy has never heard of Gangnam Style.
Here's an interrupting thought. If your therapist calls to reschedule your appointment, as mine did just at the moment I finished writing this part of the story, and you make him laugh, as always, and if in wrapping up, you say, "Well, I'll see you on Wednesday at 12:30 then," and he responds, "I'm looking forward to it," is that bad?
I return to the inn, now wreathed in the kind of Christmas-in-New-England, warm-hearthed cheery verisimilitude that Ralph Lauren would burn down a synagogue to achieve. Nat King Cole's Christmas album plays at tooth-loosening decibels. I go upstairs and continue reading the new Truman Capote biography. The inn starts to fill up with families and couples who have come for Christmas Eve dinner. Alone, Jewish, and awash in unkind thoughts about Christmas and the countryside as I am, I stay out of sight, for the most part. I can hear general revelry and prandial merriment coming from the dining room.
Finally, I head directly into the bar of golf pillows. Annie is there with a couple. "Merry Christmas, Dave," she greets me. A retired airline pilot sits at the bar enjoying a decidedly un-New England cocktail with an orange slice, maraschino cherry, and pineapple spear crowding the glass. The bartender is a woman in a sweater knit with a portrait of a family of snow people. The wife of the couple also wears a sweater, knit with a smiling, holly-festooned teddy bear.
The husband presents Annie with a very well-rendered framed watercolor of a widemouth bass. It's really very good, and I say so. "Well, we'll put it here to keep you company," says Annie, propping the frame up on the bar stool next to mine. I make sure to look at it attentively, my face frozen into the art appreciation rictus until Annie and the couple go into the dining room. Cricking my neck, I order a steak and a red wine.
"Are you the writer?" the bartender asks me. "The writer." Finally. Despite the fact, or precisely because this is just what I wanted, I reply, my voice far too bright, "Oh, god, no. I'm a complete idiot." She doesn't entirely know how to take this. She gives me the careful half-smile one levels at a very large, possibly erratic dog.
The pilot is the anti-me, a man so utterly comfortable with himself that he can drink a cocktail with no fewer than three different pieces of fruit in it, and still seem the very picture of adulthood. He talks a while about fixing up houses. It's what he does in his retirement. His voice is velvet-soft and Atticus Finch-authoritative. But there's a sad whiff of mortality, a smell of old leaves, underneath everything he speaks of. It's a bit like watching This Old House hosted by Baudelaire.
The pilot leaves fairly early in the evening. I hope he had somewhere to go. Then again, I think, I don't have anywhere to go. Why am I so concerned with the imagined loneliness of a total stranger? Then again again, I actually am somewhere. I'm sitting in a bar of a New England inn on Christmas Eve. I am the writer, eating a steak, drinking alone, talking to the bartender. And even though I loathe animals, I lazily toss bits of popcorn to Charlie as he sits at the foot of my bar stool. It's just me and the bartender and my faithful dog. Plus my date, the widemouth bass, whom I've been ignoring.
Me: Alright, you thought the full name thing was bad? His hatred of nonhumans makes that look like a minor annoyance! I hate PeTA and see nothing wrong with Seaworld, but I still want to get the animals on the Endangered Species List off of there. If you're thinking like him, just think to yourself: Would Thetis (The one from Megaman ZX Advent) want to fight ALONGSIDE me or AGAINST me?
I fairly drip with authenticity now. I have let go of my paranoia about being scrutinized. I feel completely comfortable. So comfortable, in fact, that inexplicably, I find myself asking the bartender if there's either a synagogue or a gay bar in Jaffrey. I clearly feel the need to out myself to her in every possible way. Why stop there, I wonder, and not just go ahead and ask if there is a Canadian consulate nearby?
She keeps refilling my wine glass as we talk. She cuts me an enormous piece of baklava. More popcorn for the dog. I have a mountain to climb in the morning, damn it.
My reverie is undone by the strange series of glottal kecks and surds coming from below. I look down to Charlie dog, whose neck is arching forward and back in an ominously regular, reverse peristaltic fashion. I find the words as my voice Dopplers up to a fairly effeminate and vaguely hysterical pitch. "I think the dog might be getting sick. The dog is getting sick. Oh my [UNINTELLIGIBLE], the dog is sick!"
Charlie vomits out a small, viscous puddle for which, from my quick and queasy perusal, I am largely responsible. The bartender cleans it up without a second glance. Thoroughly unmasked, I settle up for dinner and take myself upstairs to sleep. And to all a good night.
The climb hardly bears mentioning. It was fairly awful-- cold, slippery, kind of arduous, in the middle of an ice storm. Although kind of monochromatically silvery, pale, and glamorous at the top.
A lot of the talk focuses on "1028's." "Think we'll see any 1028's?" "She was a real 1028." "All we need is some 1028's to make this a perfect Christmas." "1028" is code for babes.
I realize that everything about me-- my inappropriate footwear, my effete lexicon, my unfamiliarity with such natural phenomena as trees, rock, and ice-- are all met with great equanimity and good grace. They're friendly. It becomes quite clear to me that the only one casting strange glances of disapproval my way is me.
Me: So? You still don't wan't to improve?
At the summit, I made Larry take my picture a number of times. When the film comes back, I will look at the photos of myself, scanning them for evidence. Looking for the face of an adult, the face of a man who climbs mountains, the face of a Dave. Thank you.
Me: Alright, now to the next one!
Friday nights of my childhood and early adolescence were spent at weekly meetings of a socialist, Zionist, youth movement. My brother, sister, and I were members. The meetings took a variety of forms. There were the earnest discussions of Marx and the great labor Zionist thinkers like Theodore Herzl and A. D. Gordon, bull sessions about who in the group had hurt whose feelings, and playing air guitar to "Come Sail Away" by Styx. All activities that formed us into pretty deeply committed young socialists, ready at the age of 15 for the ultimate prize the movement could bestow, a summer living and working on a kibbutz, one of the collective farms that were a central part of settling the Jewish state.
There, we would meet other members of the movement from all over the world and spend many a happy hour engaged in honest labor
Me: You would spend a happy hour doing something detrimental rather than having a drink with your friends? I'd hate to see what your idea of celebration looks like.
laughingly baling sheaves of wheat, picking olives, oranges, peaches, grapes, the sweat on our brows a shining reminder of the nobility of collective farming. In the evenings, we would gather together and dance around the fire, sing Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young songs and, if one's older siblings were any indication, lose our virginity. Years later, we would renounce our bourgeois upbringings and return to Israel, making lives of simple, agrarian bliss. This would all change for me in one single evening, in a shed of 5,000 chickens.
The kibbutz I was assigned to was one of the oldest in Israel, settled in 1928 by Jews from Russia, Poland, and Germany. For the most part, our arrival was met with little to no notice. We were just another group of volunteers, no different from the countless other Europeans and Australians just passing through, taking time out to pick fruit, work on their tans, and contract cystitis from their rampant and unchecked coitus. But we were different. We were members of the movement.
I thought that our political ardor would be immediately apparent. I had visions of our bus being greeted by garlanded, folk-dancing youth, so happy to have us there to share in their dream. I had been raised on a fairly steady diet of just such socialist, utopian Ziegfeld numbers, songs, film strips, and oral histories that all attested to just this scenario.
Trees weren't simply trees. They were jungle gyms of plenty, with smiling children clambering over their branches. A field was somewhere you brought your guitar, so that your comrades could dance down the rows after the day's work was over.
Me: So, let me get this straight. After you do all this awful work you dance to ONE ACOUSTIC GUITAR? Sorry, but I can't imagine dancing to anything but EDM. And the way you dance... Nobody dances like that... EXCEPT FOR THE NAZIS!
I was assigned to pick pears. Work would begin at 4:00 AM and finish sometime mid-morning, before the heat had set in. How filled with fervor I was that first morning, the light barely dawning as I headed out in the back of the truck, wearing my simple work shirt, a pair of shorts, and the traditional sun hat worn by so many pioneers who had come before me to make the desert bloom. I should pause here to point out that we actually said things like "make the desert bloom," all the time. So off I headed to the orchard.
I know I sound like the Central Casting New Yorker I've turned myself into with single-minded determination when I say this, but the main problem with working in the fields is that the sun is just always shining. Dyed-in-the-wool Northerner that I am, it became apparent after about two days that I was completely unsuited to working outside. And I was moved around among the kibbutz's various interior jobs, the furniture factory, the metal irrigation parts factory, and the kitchen, assured all the while by the group leader that there was nothing emasculating or ersatz socialist in being moved inside. After all, each according to his needs, each according to his abilities. My abilities seemed to lie in passing out from heat stroke after a scant two hours in an orchard.
This continued for weeks. It was a somewhat idyllic, if not a mite monotonous existence, that is, until the long night of the chickens. The boys of our group were gathered together one day and told in the hushed tones reserved for trying to avert impending disaster that we would forgo our regular work details and spend the night from midnight until dawn packing truckloads of poultry.
Why this needed to be done with such urgent secrecy under cover of night and why the girls were excused was never explained to us. And we didn't ask. We greeted the news with the respectful Hemingway silence of the Y chromosome, no dopey girls allowed. It was all imbued with nocturnal, testicular melodrama, like some summer stock production of Das Boot.
We slept that evening from 9:00 to 11:00, what I would come to know later, in a far different context, as a disco nap. We rose, drank some tea. The girls sprayed perfume into some handkerchiefs for us to wear around our noses and mouths. And we were off in trucks to do battle with the insurgent chickens. The scene had everything but the diner waitress standing in the road watching us go, worriedly wiping her hands on her gingham apron.
The chicken coop of the kibbutz was a one-storied structure of corrugated iron, about half the size of a football field. It emitted a low rumbling, a vague buzz that you could hear from far away. And of course from even farther away, there was the smell, a smell of such head-kicking intensity as to make a perfume-sprayed handkerchief almost adorable in its valiant naivete, Wile E. Coyote warding off a falling boulder with his paper parasol. And the combination of floral scent and dung merely increased the vileness.
Me: Alright, now's the time for my Chemical genius to come in! So, I know this is the ultra-poor-having-bootleg-Chinese-Legos-is-considered-punishable-by-death Kibbutz-iverse, but IRON? Ultra-weak, rustable IRON? DOESN'T ANYONE THERE KNOW ABOUT STEEL OR ALUMINUM?
Chicken [BLEEP] is horrible stuff. Unlike cow manure, which according to David Foster Wallace, smells "warm and herbal and blameless," chicken [BLEEP] is an olfactory insult, a snarling, saw-toothed, ammoniac, cheesy smell, needlessly, gratuitously disgusting, a stench of such assaultive tenacity that it burns your eyes. Rather than making you never want to eat a chicken again, it simply makes you angry. It makes you hold a grudge. You'll eat chicken again, by god, and you'll chew really, really hard.
Me: Ok, two problems with this. One: David Rakoff pronounces the H in herbal, which shouldn't be done, and two, being a big fan of industrial smells like motor oil, jet fuel and isopropyl alcohol, your opinion is invalid in my case.
One of the barrel-chested Israelis shows us what to do. Pick up four chickens in each hand. This is done by grabbing hold of the birds by one leg. "If the leg snaps," he says, "it doesn't matter, just to get four in each hand. B'seder?" he says. OK?
He faces us, holding the requisite eight, four in each hand, living masses of writhing feathers. He looks like some German expressionist cheerleader, his pom-poms alive, convulsing, filthy. "Who will see their dreams fall away into the abyss and eventually succumb to the crushing sadness and meaninglessness of it all? We will. And what does that spell? Madness. Louder. I can't hear you.
He crams the chickens roughly into a blue plastic crate smeared with wet guano. "And you close the lid, and tchick tchack," he tells us, clapping his hands with "that's that" finality. Before I even try, I know that I will not be able to do this. It is midnight, and we will be here until dawn, or until the truck is piled to capacity with crated birds.
I walk out into the sea of chickens. I reach down and grab one, its leg a slightly thicker, segmented chopstick. I recoil and stand up. I take a fetid breath, regroup, and bend down with new resolve, grab the chicken by its body with both hands, thinking somehow that might be preferable. Although how I think I'm going to get eight of them this way, I'm not sure. Its ribs expand and contract under my fingers, a dirty, warm, live umbrella. I drop the bird as if it were boiling hot.
I leave the coop and go out to the trucks. Hoisting myself up onto the flatbed, I start to help with the stacking of the full crates. I know that my unilateral decision to change my task is met with displeasure on the part of the men who run the coop, but I do not care. Their muttered comments are predicated on a direct poultry-penile relationship. I might as well have spurned the stag party whore or gone to the woodshop and fashioned myself a sign that said "fag." "Ma ito? What's the matter with him," the head of the work detail asks when he sees me on the truck.
[SPEAKING HEBREW], he is answered, using the female pronoun when referring to me. "The lady doesn't like the chickens."
It would be years before I was referred to as "she" again, and then very rarely and only as a joke by friends. I turn around to look at the man, making it quite clear to him that I understand what they are saying. The man who called me "she" avoids my eyes and busies himself with straightening a pile of crates and tightening the tarpaulin on the side of the truck. "You're right," I tell him in Hebrew. "She doesn't like the chickens."
Have you ever had one of those moments when you know that you are being visited by your own future? They come so rarely and with so little fanfare, those moments. They're not particularly photogenic. There's no breach in the clouds to reveal the shining city on a hill, no folk-dancing children outside your bus, no production values to speak of, just a glimpse of such quotidian, incontrovertible truth that after the initial shock at the supreme weirdness of it all, a kind of calm sets in. So this is to be my life.
At that very moment, I saw that I would never live on a kibbutz. I would not lose my virginity that summer to any of the girls from the group. Indeed, I would not care to do so. I am grateful to that macho blowhard. He made me consciously realize what I had always known but been somehow unable to say to myself. He's right. I don't like chickens. I like men.
Now, I live in Manhattan, the un-kibbutz, where nobody would dream of touching a live chicken, where whatever spirit of collectivist altruism people might have had dried up long ago. At camp, when I was young, I and the other children of affluent professionals would gather under the trees every day to sing before going into lunch. One of the songs was always "The Internationale," the hymn of the proletariat. One summer, we were even taught to sing it with our left fists raised.
We were, none of us, by any stretch of the imagination, what could be described as prisoners of starvation, wretched of the earth, or enthralled slaves. Admittedly, they are all catchier metaphors and easier to scan than, "Arise, ye children of psychiatrists," but they had little to nothing to do with us personally. And yet, for those few moments when we were singing, those words seemed so true. How can I describe to you that 11-year-old's sense of purpose, that thrill of belonging to something larger, something outside of my own body, the sheer heart-stopping beauty of a world of justice and perfection rising on new foundations. And that one line, "We have been naught. We shall be all."
Naught. It spoke as much about my wish to be delivered from this pre-adolescent self-loathing as it did to any consciousness of liberating the masses. But it held such promise of what I might hope for that even now, as I write this, I can still call up that old fervor. It still makes my breath catch in my throat.
Me: THIRD ONE!
King Constantine the Second, the deposed monarch of Greece, was passionate about my French vanilla root beer floats. The French vanilla was definitely one of our better flavors. We charged $0.05 more per scoop. Not every ice cream parlor in Toronto in the summer of 1982 came equipped with lapsed royalty. But Athos and Melina, the married couple who owned the shop where I worked, were old friends of the king. They had known him ever since the good old days when Constantine was still ensconced in happy figurehead-hood, and when Athos and Melina were at the tippy-top of Athenian society, he, a drug company executive, she, a scientist in the perfume industry.
The sense one got was that this was a couple on the lam for some reason. From Athens, they had fled to the Sudan, where they continued their rarefied lifestyle. And where a few years later, the volatile politics of that region would send them into flight yet again, landing them here in Toronto, exhausted and vaguely punch-drunk, the stunned franchisees of a well known ice cream parlour chain. Regrouping, they settled into their new lives in this ersatz San Francisco gold rush saloon, with its faux Tiffany lamps, frosted mirrors, and wrought iron chairs. It was an aesthetic so relentless and so forced in its attempt to evoke those bygone days in the city by the bay, that it even went so far as to name its biggest and most vulgar sundae after a civic disaster where thousands upon thousands of San Franciscans were killed.
Me: THE Sudan? And how can a sundae be vulgar?
I know a special birthday boy. Will you be having the earthquake?
Imagine, if you will, Marie Antoinette, who instead of succumbing to the decapitory charms of the guillotine, is safely spirited away from France to Engrand along with other fortunate aristocrats. Now resettled, she runs a fish and chips stand in Brighton, where daily the tiny, golden ship perched in the frothy waves of her high-powdered wig regularly topples into the deep fat fryer. This will give you a sense of how profoundly strange was Athos and Melina's presence in our midst.
Me: Engrand? Is that where they speak Engrish?
Athos looked like a latter day Jean Paul Belmondo, a formerly handsome man whose features have gone rubbery and heavy with age. He was, for the most part, a surly, taciturn man, constantly trying to bilk us out of our near minimum wages by suddenly pretending to understand less Engrish than he actually did. But despite his gruff manner, y chromosome, and ultimate control of our salaries, it was no secret who was truly in charge: Melina. Formidable, fire hydrant-sized Melina.
If she had ever decided to withhold our payment, she would have never resorted to falsely broken Engrish. She would have simply told us outright. I adored her. She was smart as a whip, possessed of an appreciative and often bawdy sense of humor, and sounded not a little bit like Peter Laurie. She was also prone to moods so changeable-- from borderline inappropriate affection to homicidal seething rage in mere seconds-- that one gave up trying to guess her mental state and surrendered to the hurricane of emotion that was Melina.
Actually, Athos and Melina weren't even really aristocrats. They were meritocrats. Their position in that world of Levantine glamour from which they had been lately cast out was earned by dint of study, expertise, and labor. They definitely knew the meaning of hard work.
We all sought refuge in the back. The kitchen became a haven for us. It was the place where they kept the industrial-sized tank of nitrous oxide used to make the whipped cream.
As anyone who has ever worked in an ice cream parlor can tell you, two things end up happening really quickly. You get sick of ice cream almost immediately. And soon thereafter, you fall in love with nitrous oxide. You heart whippets.
Me: You also love NO2 if you're a car enthusiast.
This ardor eventually cools when you realize that it's been weeks since you've been able to subtract simple sums, use an adjective correctly, or spell your own last name. But at the first blush of narcotic romance, you merely wonder where whippets have been all your life.
Me: Subtract simple sums? Isn't subtracting indicated by the word DIFFERENCE?!
We were frequently joined in our daily worship at the nozzle by Melina and Athos' son, Nick. I was desperate to be Nick.
In 1982, I was valiantly trying to manifest as alternative, eccentric, divo. Instead, with my hair in a short back and sides do with a long and floppy neuromantic quiff on top, framing a face of such poorly concealed sweetness and naivete, I looked about as threatening and alternative as a baby poodle, as complicated as one of the ice cream cones I spent my days scooping.
But Nick. Nick had perfected that epoche brand of [UNINTELLIGIBLE] with his eyelids at the perpetual half mast of weary disdain, his two-tone spiky hair and tapered jeans. Athos and Melina seemed as oblivious to his silent truculence as they were to each other.
If the front of the store was their putative living room, where they didn't feel the need to talk to one another except in the presence of company, then the kitchen in back was Nick's domain, where they almost never ventured. The teenage bedroom of one's dreams. Namely, one with a working refrigerator, a six foot tall tank of pressurized mind-altering gas, and a gaggle of stoners to laugh at everything you say. Athos and Melina's complacent disregard of their son seemed yet more proof of their European sophistication.
Aside from occasionally working the register, Nick slouched about curating the music, a seemingly constant running loop of Big Science by Laurie Anderson, giving special play to its hit song, "Oh Superman," with its obligato of metronomic aspirating laughter. But his true pride and joy was his self-published punk new wave magazine, Before andAfter Science. It was a cut and paste affair of black and white checkerboard backgrounds, ransom note typography, and sci-fi movie chicks in beehive hairdos with cats eye glasses.
It was available for sale at the front of the store at a cost of $5 for the premiere and, what was to sadly be, only issue. I think I'm the only person who bought a copy. But still, the pile of magazines provided a welcome counterpoint to the maudlin boosterism that invaded the store that summer. It was dubbed the summer of Annie by proclamation of the head office in honor of the release of the musical film adaptation of the Broadway show. Franchisees across North America had been encouraged to invest in Annie ice cream, a special tie-in flavor.
Annie ice cream was a noxious combination of strawberry and marshmallow, of such a vile and diabetic coma-inducing nature that it was too cloying even for its target market of little girls. Seven and eight year old angels would skip into the store, all pigtails and horse love, and the scales would fall from their eyes as they spied the pink and white tubs of Annie, seeing the concoction for what it was, insidious marketing, a pernicious inducement to submit to the patriarchy. These apple-cheeked youngsters became suddenly hardened and cynical. They took up smoking right there on line, laughing bitterly like baby [? peofs ?], derisively ordering futility shakes and double scoops of alienation chip. Or, perhaps memory exaggerates just a tad.
Available along with the ice cream and stacked into a doomed unpurchased pyramid were the Annie glasses. Drinking glasses emblazoned with the movie's logo and the likeness of Aileen Quinn, the little girl chosen in a nationwide search to portray the plucky iris and pupil-deprived orphan. Sales of these would benefit local charities. Even this altruism was not enough to move a single tumbler.
Melina employed her usual unctuous tricks. Are you wearing Anais Anais, madam, she would coo. Ah, yes. It's a lovely fragrance. I was one of the chemists who created it in Paris. Yes, thank you so much. Can I interest you in one of our Annie glasses? Of course, it's for charity. No? That's perfectly fine. I thank you, madam. Good day. Wheeling around the instant the door closed she would hiss at us.
Did you see the jewels dripping off of that woman and she would not even buy oneAnnie glass. This is a film directed by John Huston, the man who made The MalteseFalcon. What is wrong with you people?
Me: You can't hear it because this is text, but when D.R. read the transcripted paragraph above this comment,he kind of sounded like the 1994 Ruby-Spears Megaman animated series's Cutman.
We laughed, imitating her behind her back as I am doing now. But of course, Melina's rages had nothing to do with your customers' lack of appreciation for the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] of John Huston. At the age of 17, I was too young to smell the tang of flop sweat in the shop air. That smell of exertion that comes from trying to keep away the wolves of defeat. Looking back now, I can see in Melina's pendulum mood swings the desperation of a woman running out of ground beneath her feet where she could resettle and start over yet again.
It must have seemed so foolproof to them, an American ice cream parlour. And so close to America. And how perfect too, that summer's thematic undercurrent, the unloved cartoon urchin with her little mongrel, delivered from abandonment and privation to a life of love and untold riches. Nick's magazine might almost have been the story of their family, before and after science. Before was their tenure in the reliable field of chemistry where something as ethereal and intangible as a fragrance could be created through the sober logic of a recipe. After was this random, anarchic world of business, a world that was failing them.
A year later, away at college, I would be sent a small newspaper item. The story between the lines made only sadder by the clinical dispassion of the clipping. A precipitous disappearance, no forwarding address, thousands of dollars in loans and bills outstanding, a shuttered store with no plans to reopen, a sheriff's department notice of seizure taped to the window.
If I look carefully, I can see them on an airplane. Athos sleeps. Nick tampers with the smoke detector in the bathroom, so he can light up. And there is Melina's face at the small round window. Shielding her eyes against the glass, she stares out into the light, past the blinking wing lights, past the western edge of the continent, out over the ocean, scanning the horizon for the next piece of dry land.
Me: Fourth one! This is also the last one!
The following shall constitute the binding agreement between Mr. Gregory Stolzenberg of Yonkers, New York, hereafter known as Owner, and his mother, Mrs. Barbara Stolzenberg, of Tenafly, New Jersey, hereafter known as Mother, in regards to the third floor bedroom of number 41 Old Alewives Lane, Yonkers, New York.
One. Upon completion of chemotherapy and surgery at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Mother shall take occupancy for an as yet undetermined period of time, hereafter known as convalescent period, not to exceed four weeks in duration.
Two. A front door key will be left underneath the stone frog near the rhododendron. Mother agrees to return said key to its hiding place, for once.
Three. Mother acknowledges herewith that she is aware that, as a converted attic, the third floor and its bedroom are accessible by a retractable ladder.
Subparagraph one. Mother hereby waives any and all recourse to the Americans with Disabilities Act and to any liability on Owner's part in the event of any injury.
Subparagraph two. Included in Mother's accommodation, she shall be given 24-hour access to the bathroom on the second floor.
Four. Per Mother's previous request, she shall occupy the lower bunk of the third floor bedroom, while Owner's eight-year-old son, Robby Stozenberg, shall occupy the top bunk.
Five. Mother may take breakfast and supper with the family-- please see attached appendix detailing the meal plan-- and agrees that upon finishing eating, she will, quote, "make herself scarce." As has been previously and frequently discussed, quote, "sitting quietly with a magazine and not saying a word, even if you begged me to say something," unquote, differs wholly in spirit, letter, and intention from making oneself scarce. Mother further agrees not to do, quote, "that thing with the chewing and the breathing."
Me: What is "spirit" and "letter" in this case?
Subparagraph one. Further to the matter of, quote, "making oneself scarce," unquote-- and it is herein that this subparagraph not be construed as belaboring a matter to the point of obsession-- but Mother further concedes herein that both Owner and his wife have been medically assessed to be of excellent to above average hearing. And as such, any and all comments, even though spoken at a whisper, are perfectly audible. Further, Owner's wife, as a Mexican-born Catholic, and therefore, not possessed of a formal Yiddish education, is well aware that the word "kurveh" has entered common English usage to mean "whore." And the use of said word, even when muttered, is heard and emphatically not appreciated.
Me: Yes, it is OCD behavior!
Six. Mother may make daily use of the public rooms on the main floor, such as the living room, from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM, or until Robby Stolzenberg returns home from school, whichever happens sooner, at which time, Mother must relinquish the television remote and, quote, "make herself scarce," unquote. See paragraph five.
Mother may receive visitors, no more than two a day, although under no circumstances may Mother receiver her daughter, the omniscient and perfect-- it is acknowledged that both adjectives are being employed ironically-- Mrs. Marla Stolzenberg-Burns of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, for reasons that have been previously and frequently discussed. If Mrs. Stolzenberg-Burns' eagerness to see her mother is deemed as so overwhelming, then perhaps the entire location of the convalescent period can be reassessed. Just say the word. Go on. Say it. Say it. Say it.
Me: I think you used the word "Ironically" wrong. That includes the definition used on Futurama. And who even lives in Ho-Ho-Kus, anyway? If I lived there, I would move out or just deny that I lived in such a terrible place.
And JEEZ! I DIDN'T KNOW THAT BRAINLESS MECHANILOIDS LIKE YOU COULD BE SO PUSHY!
Subparagraph one. Mention is made hereby that, in the matter of the husband of the omniscient and perfect Mrs. Marla Stolzenberg-Burns-- the Owner's brother-in-law, Dr. Howard Burns of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey-- Mother further agrees that there is a material difference between a dermatologist and God Almighty. And that there are, indeed, many things that the former does not know, regardless of how much he pulls down annually.
Me: Of course there's a difference between a dermatologist and God! The difference is that dermatologists actually exist (or at least we have proof they exist!)
Seven. All efforts have been made herein to draft an impartial agreement with malice and favor towards none. This document is to serve as a mutual protection to both parties, and the full execution of which, it is hoped, will avert any future difficulties that might in any way resemble events of Thanksgiving 2005, 2006, 2007, or August 2008, at the beach.
Me: WHAT HAPPENED? SHOW DON'T TELL?!!
and that's the end...