Then there was always Joe, the myna bird, perched in his cage, listening...
Family dinner: shriveled pork chops, green beans with mashed potatoes, and he could hear the sound of chopping, the boing of boiling, and the sound of the mash mash of the potatoes, and she would tell everyone that “Dinner will be ready when the mashed potatoes are done,” and Joe could sneeze, talk, whistle and laugh, but the one and only sentence he learned in 8 years was “Dinner will be ready when the mashed potatoes are done.”
It was dinner time and the family came to the kitchen table though she, Gaga, never sat at the kitchen table with the family because she sat on a high stool near the kitchen counters behind the refrigerators. She said there was not enough room at the kitchen table, and she liked to sit out of view, near the kitchen counters by her cigarettes. Even though she cooked the food, set the table, served the helpings, she never ate with the family at the kitchen table, always behind the refrigerator, near the kitchen counters by her cigarettes. Even though the family knew she was there, no one had an actual view of her since the kitchen table was in front of the refrigerator and Gaga sat behind it.
Gaga, around fifty, the maternal grandmother, lived with the family. Her husband had died of a stroke when he was forty nine years old, and Gaga had no place to go, so somehow—the stories changed—she wiggled her way into her daughter and son-in law’s home, even though she and her daughter, Barb, detested one another. Gaga was 5/11, a throw back from the Roaring Twenties—permed red curls, hats with blue feathers, crimson lips, and prone to fits of hysteria.
Everyone was seated at the kitchen table except Gaga, who sat behind the refrigerator, near her cigarettes, and Bob, her son-in-law, husband, and father of the three children, stood near the kitchen sink, stirring a tablespoon of Nestle’s instant tea into water, followed by heaping tablespoons of sugar, several iced cubes, and two lemons, and Sash, the middle child, imagined herself as one of the ice cubes inside the glass of tea. She felt splashes of sugar, like snow falling and then it began raining lemons—she imagined whirling as her father was stirring: she was spinning and felt alive, liquid, and fast, yes, better to be in this tea stirring world, she thought, not the dinner table world of mockery and fear and no, he would not quit stirring his tea, and he added more ice cubes and kept stirring as the ice cubes clanged against one another and hit the glass, which was when Barb, his wife, and daughter of Gaga, covered her ears since she could no longer stand the tinny sound of ice clanging against the glass and she insisted that he stop his “miserable inhumane stirring,” but he kept at it and by then, smoke ringlets from the counter behind the refrigerator emerged and Mike, the youngest and hungriest, bit into his petrified pork chop, and felt his tooth dangling from the roof of his mouth. It wasn’t funny, but Sash couldn’t hold back laughter and Kathleen, the eldest, was silent and numb from the storm and furry of it all. It wasn’t funny, and if Sash thought it was so funny, she could please be excused from the kitchen table. Mike sat in his usual spot, with his hand over his bloody mouth, and dinner continued in silence.
Bob, whose tea stirring frenzy was over, sat down at the kitchen table. No one said it, but everyone knew that Mike was in trouble for biting down too hard on his pork chop. Finally, Bob said that if Mike could bite that hard on a pork chop, then surely he could swing a bat and at least hit a ball to center field. Mike had played Little League baseball for 3 years and Bob was one of the Little League coaches which was why he could not understand why Mike wasn’t the wasn’t the best hitter on his team since Bob, a natural athlete, was awarded “Best Athlete of the City “ in his day, and his name was engraved in gold on plaques that still hung on the walls of his Jesuit high school. If Mike couldn’t be the best hitter on the team, his father thought that at least he should be the fastest runner because Mike had long legs, disproportionately long legs, the longest legs of anyone on his team, so it made sense that he should be the fastest runner, and even Barb agreed that with those long legs of his Mike should be a running star, if not a running phenomenon. Mike could hear his parents yelling their lungs out: “Faster, faster,” he heard, and he ran as fast as he could, but for legs that long, everyone thought he should run faster so it was a bitter disappointment for Bob when he witnessed his son being thrown out on first base. Everyone in the car was silent after one of Mike’s Little League games. No one said a word. Sash had the window down in the back seat and stared at the clouds, looking for her invisible friend, blueblackhorn. Kathleen remained silent.
Barb glanced across the kitchen table and saw that Kathleen was wearing that long face of hers. Nothing irritated Barb more than Kathleen’s long face. It was a well known fact that everyone in the family knew that Kathleen wore a simulated or so called “long face,” but it was doubtful that Kathleen or anyone else in the family knew what a “long face” meant. Genetically, Kathleen did not have a long face, she had a classical, Grace Kelly face but she was always accused of wearing that “long face” Finally, Barb demanded:
“Kathleen, get rid of that long face of yours,” and suddenly, Gaga leapt from behind the counters, and screamed:
“Stop picking on poor Kathleen, Barb,” for everyone knew that Kathleen was Gaga’s favorite grandchild, which embittered Barb, thus, they argued on a daily basis as to whether or not Kathleen liked Gaga better than Barb or Barb better than Gaga, and they cornered her, insisting that she choose, but Kathleen, remained silent, “For god’s sake’s, Barb,” Gaga pleaded, and then Barb hollered back every low down quality she thought Gaga possessed—her big feet, lousy marriage, loose dentures, wooden pork chops, and Gaga, beat red, stomped out the kitchen and roared:
“”You treat me like a dog, a dirty, filthy dog, and you’re gonna drive me to the insane, though the children did not know what the insane was, and having said that, Gaga left, and everyone was silent again. Joe whistled.
It was a loud wolf whistle that could be heard throughout the neighborhood, so loud that it jolted Barb’s memory, recalling when Bob won Joe on a national writing television show, and she never failed to remind him that all he had to show for his writing talent was a myna bird; Instead of following his own dreams of becoming a writer, Bob’s father demanded that he attend Iowa State University College of Engineering, even though Bob despised engineering; his father, a tyrant, insisted that he go to Iowa State University College of Engineering, though engineering would have been Bob’s last choice, for he had always been praised for his writing talent, and since they lived in Missouri, Bob had wanted to go to the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, known as the top journalism school in the country, but his father demanded that he go to Iowa State University College of Engineering where, as it turns out, the only saving grace was Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor which gave Bob an escape route to join the Merchant Marines.
She glanced at him across the table. There he was, sitting there, gulping tea; he was not the man she thought he was, no, he was not climbing the social ladder like all of her friends’ husbands; he was not a doctor or a lawyer; he was an engineer, a boiler inspector, and he never made a dime, and what right did he have to gulp down his iced tea, indulge like that when he didn’t make the kind of money that her friends’ husbands’ made. She blurted:
“Stop gulping your iced tea, Bob,”
but he kept at it and all three children knew that her tonal value of the “g” in “gulping” was spoken as though something was raw, disgusting, primitive, savage- like and the children knew that that tone was cue for the supreme argument, the lack of money argument, the “I can’t go to the Country Club like my friends’ and play bridge all day argumentt"; instead, she was forced to work, and none of her friends’ worked because they had money, money to burn, while Bob made a pittance at the insurance company, and here she was, a housewife of the fifties, and forced to work, while everybody knew that the the man was supposed to be the provider, only Barb, the prettiest girl in the city in her day, had to get down on her hands and knees and learn how to decorate, and get out there and work her head off, while her friends were chatting at the country club on a daily basis, and the supreme argument would continue the rest of the night, so Mike said that he had to get a wet towel for his bloody mouth, then Sash said she had to catch the last rays of the sun before twilight, and Kathleen scooted her food around her plate and snuck portions of food in her napkin, (to give to poor Gaga, who had run upstairs) then Kathleen left the table, saying she had homework which left Barb and Bob to themselves, battling out the supreme argument while Joe whistled.