July 1, 2013 by The Citron Review
Somehow my mother had divined, well before the mercury scare, that you can’t have tuna salad for lunch every day. Jewish kids, thank God for this, don’t eat spam. Peanut butter and jelly isn’t real food. Instant ramen has yet to be invented. The options are narrowing down. Some days you’re gonna get bologna, like it or not.
On the morning following one of those days, Dad and I are together in the living room, perched on the green silk-upholstered custom-plastic-covered sofa. Facing us, lined up along the kidney-shaped marble-topped coffee table, are the three matching straight-backed silk etcetera chairs. Three invisible witnesses.
Dad is addressing my problem. “If you don’t like what your mother gives you for lunch, it’s better if you don’t tell her. You can just throw it away, and then come ask me for pizza money. I ask only one thing: don’t say anything to get your mother upset.”
It’s a familiar refrain. Anything I might say could upset her, so of course I have been reminded plenty of times not to say anything. Dad blows smoke rings as my eyes travel the multi-colored area rug, tracing the geometric pattern as if walking a mental labyrinth, a habitual practice for using up lingering afternoons while waiting to be old enough to leave. It was here on this rug that my brother Marvin and I used to practice our white belt judo, until the day we got Coco over-excited, inciting him to bite Marvin. Which reminds me of the day Marvin snapped at me, after Mom had sent him to drag me back from the beach, where I’d taken my cousin’s saxophone out on the jetty to wail as if my feelings were legit.
Back here at the asylum, it was mostly Mom and Dad arguing about whose fault it was that “your son” was the way he was. “You baby him too much,” and “You should have taught him to play ball.” Marvin telling people his name was Johnny, like the pizza guy he admired, less for the way he handled the dough than for the wad he packed in his Levi’s. Making crank calls for “Help! My-uh pizza place is on-uh fire!” Me calling him Johnny, which must mean I loved him.
But the fucker was ruining my life. No matter how invisible I made myself in an effort to avert unrest, no matter how much phlegm I swallowed in the name of composure, I was overshadowed by the troublemaker, who insisted on provoking our mother. “You’re-uh crazy!” one of them would scream, and “What did you dare say to me?” and “You heard me, you’re-uh crazy!” as they chased each other from kitchen to bedroom and back, Johnny sporting his Jack Nicholson grin, Mom wielding a broomstick, a dust mop, a slipper. They were close.
To Dad, Marvin was a lost cause, a momma’s boy. I was his lone disciple, Daddy’s girl.
Which is why I’m listening to this bologna sandwich spiel. “Stick with me, and everything will be alright. When have I ever let you down? But you have to help me out here. Just say everything’s fine, you ate the bologna, it was good bologna.”
I nod, and sniffle.
“Aw, don’t start crying on me. Now you’re being like your mother. Don’t be so sensitive. You have to learn to be like me. Easygoing.”
I did want to be like him — tall, thin, self-confident. But what I wanted most in life, other than to get away from home, was to not be like my mother — depressed, hysterical, dismissible. I didn’t know there were more than two alternatives.
“Your mother’s not a well person, you know that. All you have to do is say everything’s fine, no problems. Otherwise she gets all worked up, and I’m the one who has to bear the brunt. There’s only so much I can take, and then I’m left with no choice.”
No choice, he means, but to pack up his pecker in his pockets of gold and flee, one more time. Stick around awhile, it’s bound to happen again. Sometimes his feet can’t help but follow his heart. If only they would get a divorce, then we could be easy going together, just like he said.
Listen. Hear it? The rattling of the security chain as the metal door slams shut, his quickstep echoing down the long empty hallway?
Sheila Meltzer holds a PhD in linguistics from the CUNY Graduate Center. She lives in Berkeley, hunts software bugs for a living, and dances, for joy. In weekly writing workshops she’s begun coaxing out a life’s worth of buried treasure. Her loot has appeared in Vine Leaves Literary Journal and Lowestoft Chronicle.