Archive for January, 2009

#4 of 52 stories: Happily 8

For the 52 stories/photos group on flickr.

story 4 - happily

There were only so many small bars in the area, only so many places that would keep serving you gin and tonics even though you were so drunk you couldn’t tell a cigarette from a tampon and tried to smoke the latter. So Pearl often ended up Stickman’s Bar & Grill - also known as Sticky’s - which had more to do with the condition of the floor and seats rather than the owner’s nickname.

Sticky was good to her in all the ways she needed. He kept her glass filled, didn’t ask prying questions and discreetly called the right people to pick her up whenever she passed out in one of the famously sticky booths. There was no press at Sticky’s. No gossip columnists hanging around, waiting for a good story. They were all at the big, trendy places, the ones that changed names and themes so often that it wasn’t unusual to see a starlet type woman emerge from her limo decked out for Disco Revival Night at Xanadu to embarrassingly discover that it’s Bang Your Head Night at Hardcore’s.

Pearl had been there, done that, had the permanent bags under her eyes to prove it. Over the past year, as things with her and Chaz descended to some unknown level of hell, she had deftly moved away from that crowd. They were so self-involved they barely noticed she stopped hanging out with them and Pearl only knew what was going on in the lives of her former friends from reading Page Six.

On this particular Friday Pearl found herself in a familiar place, perched on a sticky barstool, watching hockey and staring into her sixth gin and tonic. As always, her eyes drifted from her drink to the mirror behind the bar. She stared herself down again, noting with bemusement that the gradual progression from black hair to blond had finally stripped her of the last thing of her former life she had clung to. Gone was the pasty skin, replaced by hundreds of dollars worth of bottled tan. Gone were the rosy cheeks, which had fled town along with the sparkle in her eyes, right around the same time Chaz asked for a divorce. And gone was the bird-like demeanor that once defined her - the delicate steps, the gentle chirping of her sweet voice, the flighty way in which she danced around the house while cleaning or taking care of their charges. She had become a buzzard, all sharp-beaked and cackling. No, what had Chaz called her just yesterday? A hag. She chuckled out loud. The irony of him calling her a hag was completely lost in Chaz’s simple mind.

Pearl took another sip of her drink and looked back toward the bar wall. Mirror, mirror…..No, she wouldn’t go there.
Mirror, mirror….

“Are you still hung up on that ‘fairest of all’ crap?”

She hadn’t realized she said the words out loud. She turned slowly, even though she recognized the voice and knew who was standing behind her.

“Chaz. How nice to see you.”
“Your voice betrays you, Pearl.”
“Would you like me to sing it for you, Chaz? Maybe a little ditty about how thrilled I am to see the husband who left me for some fat little bakery girl? Shall I gather the birds and the bunnies? Throw some flowers at your feet?”
“Shit, Pearl. How many drinks have you had?”
“I don’t need to be drunk to be bitter, Chaz. ”
He let out a little snort. “Don’t I know it.”

Pearl clumsily slid off her stool.

“Where are you going?”
“I don’t want to be near you.”
“I came here to talk to you, Pearl. I want to make things right.”
“Oh, look, my Prince has come to save me!” She waved her hand theatrically towards her husband and raised her voice a notch. “Oh Prince Charming, thank goodness you are here to make everything better! Kiss me now and save me from a life of treachery! ”
Sticky and the rest of the drinkers stared at the couple, eager for some prince-on-princess excitement. It had been a long time since a good domestic squabble broke out a Sticky’s.

Pearl grabbed Sticky by the arm and swung him around to meet her. She launched into an awkward waltz, dragging the barkeep across the floor with her as she sang.

Someday my Prince will come
Someday we’ll meet again
And away to his castle we’ll go

Chaz came up behind them, grabbed Pearl by her waist and dragged her back to the bar. The foosball players applauded and Pearl tried to curtsy while her husband pushed her onto the bar stool.

“Is this a regular thing, Pearl? You come in here, get drunk, tell a few good stories about our marriage?”
“Marriage. Hah. More like a business agreement.”
“I don’t want to have this conversation again, Pearl.”
“Why not? Let’s have it for the hundredth time and for the hundredth time we will resolve absolutely, fucking nothing.”
“Pearl, please. Language.”
“I’m not your child, Chaz. Stop telling my how to behave.”
“I’m just saying….”
“Oh, that’s rich. The guy who ran off with Gretel the Baker after he knocked her up  is telling me how to behave.”

“Sticky, could I get a Guinness, please? Pint?”

Chaz moved his stool closer to Pearl’s so he could talk without having to raise his voice above the clacking of the foosball table and the dance hall techno coming from the jukebox.

“Pearl, I want to apologize. I want to come back.”
“Oh, did Gretel kick you out? Is the love affair over?”
“I don’t love her. I never did. I was just trying to rectify what I did wrong.”
“Rectify a wrong? By leaving me to fend for seven incontinent, senile midgets by myself??”
“I didn’t really have it easy, Pearl. You know what happened to mine and Gretel’s baby.”
“Hey, everyone knew Hansel needed professional help. It wasn’t the first time he tried to stuff a kid in the oven. Some people never get over things that happen in their childhood, you know. They act out on them later in weird ways.”
“Yea, like trying to give your husband a poison apple?”
“It wasn’t poison, it was just a laxative. I was just trying to humiliate you.”
“Yea, well mission accomplished. My chain mail still smells like diarrhea.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, each sipping their drink and thinking of what to say next. Pearl wanted to tell Chaz to leave her alone and never come back, but as soon as she opened her mouth to say as much, she shut it again, not sure if that’s what she wanted at all.

Chaz had come to Sticky’s with a prepared speech, but found himself unable to recite it. He was going to beg her forgiveness, promise to make things good again, sweep Pearl off her feet with words of romance and love. But as he watched his wife lift her drink to her mouth and miss, letting the gin and tonic dribble down her chin and neck, he remembered why he slept with Gretel in the first place.

“I’ll tell you why I slept with Gretel.”
Pearl stared at Chaz. She wasn’t sure she really cared why he did it.
“Oh, please. Regale me with your tales of justified adultery.”
“You let yourself go, Pearl.”

The foosball players stopped mid-play. Sticky, who had been washing glasses, paused and turned his head toward the prince and princess. The jukebox stopped on its own volition. Every other patron turned their head toward the couple, their mouths agape and their eyes wide in fear.

“I….what?” Pearl’s voice was shrill and loud. Somewhere, a glass burst.
“You…you……,” Chaz stammered a bit but went on, oblivious to the fact that he was in the midst of making the worst mistake a man could ever make. Yet everyone else in Sticky’s knew it and watched the drama unfold with eager anticipation.

“You let yourself go, Pearl. What happened to the beautiful princess I found in the crystal coffin? What happened to your ebony hair and fair skin and slim figure?”

The anger that soared through Pearl’s blood could not be contained. She reached for an empty beer bottle on the counter and hurled it at Chaz’s head. In her drunken state, her aim was way off and the bottled sailed over Chaz, smashing against the wall in a clatter of broken glass and splintered wood. The patrons gasped in unison, their mouths still hanging open like cartoon characters feigning surprise.

“I let myself go? I. Let. Myself. GO?” Pearl’s voice had almost reached dog whistle levels, it was so high. “I spend all those years cooking for eight of you, cleaning up after eight of you, doing your laundry and making you fresh pies and shining your shoes and cleaning your filthy work clothes with absolutely no time left for myself and you have the nerve to say I let myself go? Where was the time for me, Prince Charming? When did I have time to exercise or get some sleep? WHEN??” She was screaming now and someone who had been shooting pool ran outside, knowing that the gossip columnists gathered next door at Xanadu would pay them handsomely for the tip off that there was a royal fight going on in Sticky’s.

The door burst open just as the fight was going into fever pitch. The pool player breathlessly led the charge of celebrity gossip mongers into the bar, pointing at Pearl and Chaz, who were all red faced and gritted teeth.

“You owed us, Pearl. If it weren’t for me and those incontinent midgets, you’d still be passed out in a glass box!”
“My god, Chaz. It’s 200 years later. Do you think I’ve maybe repaid you and those batty old men for your kindness already? How many years of slave labor do I need to do to satisfy you all?”
“Oh, please. You had your fun. How many nights a week did you go out clubbing with your friends? How many times were you on Page Six, Pearl? While I was in the mines, you were at some oxygen bar getting Botox treatments.”
“Oh, well excuse me for trying to have a life besides getting mine grime off of your tunics and entertaining the little woodland animals. It got really fucking tiring, Chaz. You try spend 200 years knee deep in dishes, with insipid little rabbits and skunks following you around all day.”
“That was your job, Pearl. Is it so fucking hard to just be a proper wife?”

Bulbs flashed. Camcorders whirred.

“You bastard. You misogynist, sexist, ungrateful bastard. Why don’t you go back to that little piggie Gretel? How can you yell at me for being out of shape when you fucked that cow? What does she have that I don’t???”
“At least she was willing to sire me a child!”
“Ohhhh. So that’s what this is about? That I didn’t want to have children? I had eight people to take care of, Chaz. Were you going to help with a baby?”
“I did. I helped Gretel. Ask her. I was a good father.”
“And that’s supposed to make me feel better? That you changed shitty diapers and burped your bastard kid while I was home wiping piss off the toilet bowl? ”
“That’s what a wife does, Pearl. You have these ridiculous modern ideas of what a woman’s role is. That’s why I went to Gretel, because she knows a woman’s job in this land is take care of her man! Especially when her man is a PRINCE.”

The crowd that had gathered in and outside of Sticky’s held their collective breath. All you could hear was the scritching of a pencil on pad as the Page Six columnist recorded every word.

Pearl eyed a broken beer bottle on the bar and grabbed it. She menaced her husband for a few minutes, waving the bottle around like a ninja showing off his nunchucks. She charged across the room towards Chaz, arm outstretched, jagged bottle pointing towards the prince’s stomach.

A reporter snapped a picture and the flash went off, temporarily blinding Pearl. Her lunge towards her husband’s mid section struck only air and she flew off balance, landing on the parquet floor. The bottle skidded across the bar and stopped at the feet the prince. He kicked it aside and bent down to help his wife to her feet. They stared at each other for a few minutes before heading back to the bar counter.

The gossipers, realizing their story deadline was approaching, ran out of the bar. The royal spectacle had ended. Bar chatter started up again as if it never stopped, people picking up conversations where they left off before the fracas began.

Chaz pulled a stool out for Pearl and she sat down, picking up her warm gin and tonic. Chaz asked Sticky for a shot of bourbon and then changed his mind and asked for the whole bottle, which he began to gulp down in earnest. The couple sat in thick silence for a while, rehashing in their minds what just happened. Above them, Channel Five News flashed a breaking news report on the screen - Royal Couple in Bar Brawl, Film at 11!

Chaz raised his bottle to Pearl and she responded by lifting her glass towards him.

“To Happily Ever After.”
“Yea, to Happily Ever After.”

red, red wine - week 2 of 52 stories 9

red red wine

I’ve joined a flickr group called 52 stories. We’ll all tell a story a week for a year, with picture. Week 1 can be found here. Subsequent weeks will go here.

My grandfather was big wine drinker. A wine connoisseur, he was not. Just a drinker. He kept his wine in jugs; glass, gallon sized jugs that he hid all over the house. My grandmother would snoop around each day, opening cabinets and moving books to see if she could spot the hidden wine. I think almost every fight they had - and we are talking daily - was over the wine. Grandpa drank it morning, noon and night. Before lunch, with dinner, sitting in the yard, watching Lawrence Welk - any occasion called for glass of hearty red wine.

Grandma hated the drinking. She hated the singing that came with the drinking. At about seven o’clock every night, you could stand on the corner of Kingston and Ramona and hear Grandpa sing “When the moon hits your eye, like a big pizza pie…..” followed quickly by grandma screaming something in Italian, words that I didn’t understand but my mother told me to never repeat.

Grandpa shared his love of wine with his grandchildren. He’d pour a bit into our glasses during dinner, mix it with Coke, and then whisper in our ears to never ever tell our grandmother. We drank the whole glass down each time (”whole glass” being about one ounce), and even though there was barely enough to get us the least bit tipsy, we would run around for the rest of the evening like we were drunk.

Insert some wavy lines here as we go back to the early 70’s.

We’re sitting at Grandma’s table; there’s me, my sister and six or seven cousins. Grandpa has his jug out and, per usual, pours us each a small glass of wine. Grandma walks into the kitchen and sees us sitting there, in Alla Salute! pose, ready to drink. She glares at grandpa, a long, evil stare, and you know that she’s silently damning him to hell or conjuring up evil curses.

Grandpa snickers, doesn’t even give Grandma the satisfaction of acknowledging her evil stare. He just picks up a peach and pairing knife and starts slicing. He drops one slice into each of our glasses and then looks at grandma, smiling.

“It’s just fruit. They’re just having a treat,” he says.

He gives us a nod and we all follow his lead; we dip our fingers into the glasses, pull out the wine-soaked peach slices, and slide them into our mouths as if they were the greatest treat on earth. Which they just might have been at the time.

Grandma goes ballistic.

“You dumb bastard!” And now it’s not even a matter of Grandpa giving wine to us kids, it’s that he defied her with the wine drinking at all. She lets loose with a string of unintelligible Italian curses (though I do recognize one that was loosely translated as “go fuck yourself”) and for some reason I notice that it’s 6:50 and Grandma is ten minutes ahead of her screaming schedule. Grandpa hasn’t even started singing yet! This is both shocking and unnerving. The routine of the 7:00 Sing and Yell Show is shot to hell and we all - me, my cousins and my sisters as well as two aunts who come running into the kitchen - know that this isn’t going to be an ordinary five minute tirade.

Grandma reaches across the table and grabs the jug of wine before Grandpa can react. We watch in horror-movie vision, with our hands over our eyes, peeking through the web of our fingers, not wanting to see, but having to see, just so we can tell the story to all the other cousins later.

In one deft, practiced move, Grandma swipes the jug away from the table, leans toward the sink and pours the wine down the drain. It’s like watching blood being poured from a wound and one of my aunts screams, as if it’s the blood of Jesus Christ himself being spilled, which is when I have the absurd vision of my grandfather as a martyr, hanging on a cross, sacrificing himself for Italian grandfathers everywhere who aren’t allowed to drink their wine in peace. It’s not even the loss of the wine that’s so horrifying; there are a hundred more jugs just like it hidden away in the garage. It’s the act of draining the wine from the bottle, the balls of my grandmother to take that one thing, that one joy my grandfather has and discard it like that, right in front of him, while muttering “Va fa’nculo!” in a voice that’s a close imitation of a snake hiss. We’re freaked out and Patty whispers that maybe we should make a run for it, but then Grandma stalks back to the table and turned on us.

She waves her hands at us and I focus on her skin, the way it dangles from her fingers in fleshy folds. I tune out the tirade and instead wonder if Grandma’s bones are shrinking or if her skin is growing. I tune back in just in time to hear her say:

“Now you will drink every bit of that wine in your glasses!”

Huh? Was she talking to us? After all her bitching and screaming about Grandpa giving us wine, now she’s forcing us to drink it? From the sound of Grandma’s voice, it’s supposed to be some sort of punishment and I wonder if it’s directed towards us kids or towards Grandpa, whose empty wine glass has zero chance of a refill and he’s now being forced to watch all of us drink what was left. I look to my aunts for help, but they’ve already scuttled back to the living room, away from the maddening scene.

“Now! Drink it!”

We all lift our glasses and drink the wine down, afraid of what grandma will do if we don’t follow through. You might think this is a good thing, but none of us had ever drank a full glass of wine before, with or without peaches. After three sips the wine burns my throat. One of my sisters gags and my cousin George sobs instead of drinking.

“You can’t leave the table until you are all done.” Again with the wagging skin and bones. She points a floppy finger at my grandfather.”And you, you can’t get up until they are done, either.”

I get it now. She’s punishing us for being on Grandpa’s side, for playing his little wine games and winking conspiratorially at him when he showed us how to dunk the peaches and feign nutritional content. If only I had lurched from my chair and proclaimed “Grandma’s right, wine is bad for you!” at the outset, I would be in the living room with my aunts, watching Wheel of Fortune. Instead, I swirl the wine around in my Bugs Bunny glass - formerly a Bugs Bunny jelly jar - and contemplate which grandparent should really have my loyalty in this fight. Grandma, with her loose skin and torrent of curse words and spilled blood, or Grandpa with his hanging jowls and five o’clock shadow and desire to turn his grandkids into alcoholics.

Just then, Grandpa starts singing.

When the moon hits your eye like a big-a pizza pie, that’s amore!
Patty quietly chimes in with the follow-up That’s amore!

Grandpa grins. Grandma scowls I sing:

When the world seems to shine like you’ve had too much wine, that’s amore!

We sing, sip our wine and watch Grandma turn a angry shade of purple. When we drain the glasses, we slam then down like cowboys in a saloon and head into the living room, feeling a little bit drunk for real this time. We leave Grandma and Grandpa alone in the kitchen, waging their wine duel.

A couple of months later, the whole fiasco is forgotten amid new family scandals and holidays. One night, my parents ask Grandpa to come over and babysit while they go see Chuck Berry at the Westbury Music Fair. Grandpa shows up at 6:00 sporting a jug of wine. What kind of parents let a man carrying a jug of wine babysit for their kids, grandfather or not?

Ten minutes after my parents leave, Grandpa and my youngest sister are sound asleep in front of the tv.

“Let’s taste the wine,” my other sister says.

Not having learned my lesson from the previous wine incident - which ended with me needing five St. Joseph’s Aspirin for Children to get rid of the ensuing headache - I agree.

Afraid that Grandpa or Lisa will wake up and spot us stealing the wine, we haul the gallon jug into the bathroom. We attempt to pour the drink into the little Dixie riddle cups (”What time is it when an elephant sits on your fence?” is a lot funnier after a few sips of homemade wine). We miss the cup often, and soon the bathroom floor is littered with used riddles and magenta puddles.

I really don’t know what happened after the fourth round of “Time to get a new fence, hahahhahh!” I’m pretty sure it involved my parents coming home to find Grandpa and Lisa still sleeping in the living room, and Jo and myself sound asleep on the bathroom floor, our pajamas stained with red spots, cups everywhere, the toilet spotted with vomit.

Of all the lessons learned through Grandpa’s drinking habit the only one that has stayed with me is that red wine will give me a headache.

Oh, and don’t let a man carrying a jug of homemade wine babysit your kids. Grandfather or not.