Rock Island, IL
Five o’clock on a summer Saturday morning and not a minute to lose! Soon it will be suppertime.
Out of bed and down the stairs. The knees snap and crack. The left plantar loosens in muted shrieks agony. But so what if the flesh be weak? The spirit is willing. This body—this failing creaking tomb-doomed body—will have its moment this very day in the late summer sun.
For oh! the fullness of man! The groaning rag-weed-sneezing splendor of the incarnate condition! Tonight’s meal will remind us that the labor of six days, and not only The Lord God Almighty’s, was all very good.
5:02 at the coffee pot with its built-in timer. O Thou timer! The greatest of all inventions. First the smell and now the taste of French roast. How it greets me! Me, the chief of sinners!
Amazing love! How can it be
That oh these beans have found out me?
The synapses fire. Brain and mind alike jump to life. Nabokov, you were right. There is nothing like coffee in an empty stomach to clear and enervate the head.
In no less than twelve hours I’ll be cooking for five. What to do first. What to do. . . .
I know! Read!
Ah! My chair, my footstool, my end table, the birds at their matins outside my window, the rosy-fingered dawn creeping up on me. Who does not adore so great a thing of beauty as Dawn’s early crack?
The pages turn to count the clock that tells the time; hideous night rises to brave day. Where has this novel been all my life? And what is that I hear? What but the stirrings of my first-born son. He wants me to himself. And who wouldn’t? I took him and the others, one and all, for local ice cream last night. I’m Father of the Year.
No “good morning, Dad.” No greeting whatsoever. It’s a waste of time for the child of my right hand, and joy. He wants to know if we’re going to the market.
Of course on bikes.
“Yes!” he says, and off he goes to dress himself. If I am not mistaken, he’ll come back down in shorts, a tee shirt, a ball cap, and Converse All-Stars. He’ll also have some loose change in his pocket for the musicians down at the market, who deserve his largesse. (It’s my largesse.)
He descends in shorts, a tee shirt, a ball cap, and Converse All-Stars, and out he goes to get the bikes—his new Schwinn, which somehow made it down the chimney last Christmas, and my old one, which is so ugly and so “out-of-date” that not even the hobos will steal it. You may have seen it before. It’s an antique machine, and a beautiful-ugly one at that, with a milk crate band-clamped to the back rack. It weighs more than anyone tall enough to ride it.
We check the tires and off we go into the morning air! Down into the river valley and up onto the bridge. O Mississippi, thou storied river! Speak! Sing to us ere you roll to that warm sunlit basin of ancient sunlight. O thou muddy waters! What soil and oil await thee in the troubled, the too too sullied gulf. Soft you now! Slow be thy flowing, thou river of all my days and ways!
We whiz down the nether side and coast along the Iowa bike path. It fairly throbs with life. Ahead of us two young studs are out for a morning run. I catch in them the image of my former self. They are swift and light and unconquerable. What beautiful strides they have. My knees call out to them. Nay, to the skies they call out. Why must my days be three-score year and ten but only two-score minus five be allotted to my joints?
We pass an abandoned building where a crypto-graffitist is wont to leave his mark. And lo! He has struck again: “flesmihkcufognacsucitammargoramvrekinomehtybseogohwdrawoceht,” if I remember aright. What can it mean?
Never mind. Nor do I envy these glorious runners their youth. Let them run and eat and love. I’m peddling with my boy to the market and looking out at the river as the sun grows round this very day, my heart vibrating to the iron string of a summer mood. There will be plump tomatoes and stiff cukes, sweet corn aplently and garlic and onions and cilantro and chickens and buffalo meat. There will be music and smoke from the grills and girls in summer dresses, wine and honey and pastries, friends to greet, enemies to avoid, peaches to taste, bird houses to admire (and copy), and my boy tugging at my shirt and saying, “Daddy, may I have a lemonade?”
O, my handsome growing infuriating boy, you may! Here. Get two. We’ll toast the numerous goings-on of life.
Aging heart of mine, if you should throw a calcium deposit now. . . . Don’t do it, foolish foolish heart. Not now. Not yet. Beat on, old heart. I’ve got to cook for five tonight. Heart of gold, keep me searching. I’ve got another boy, a boy full of piss and vinegar, it is true, but a boy all the same, and a graceful girl coming of age, and (oh!) a bride these many years ready to say, “I know you of old, you old goat! Come here, you!”
(And, God help me, I will. I will.)
To the chicken man I go. A whole fryer, a dozen brown eggs, and a little banter—until a more shapely patron steps up. I know when I’m beat. I’m off to get my beans, my sweet corn, my tomatoes, my white onion, my blue potatoes from the ragged boys calling themselves the Mad Farmers.
So they know, then! Well they’re getting my money, I can tell you. Long may they thrive. May they live to write their own manifestoes and to sow their timothy in the moonlight and to come into the peace of wild things.
My boy! Where is he? Ah! There he is, listening to the jazz combo and scaring up the nerve to toss them a few quarters. Which he does.
“So, how much did you give them?”
“A few quarters.”
“Of your own?”
“Good for you, buddy.” (The bass player was once a student of mine.) “Now let’s hit the bikes.”
And we do, and my milk crate is loaded for bear. It’ll be a tougher ride across the river and up our side of the river valley, but we make it at last. Into the fridge go the frigeables. I leave the fryer out to defrost. Foghorn Leghorn, I tell you verily: Old Square Britches will be our main fare tonight. God bless the gal for what she laid and for what (and whom) she didn’t and for giving herself to our board this very night. How I shall relish her!
But it ain’t night yet. It ain’t even eleven o’clock in the morning.
Oh to be standing in the kitchen now, pressing garlic, sautéing yellow onion in butter. To be at the grill turning the plump breasts and the dark thighs and the damn-nigh meatless back over the glowing coals.
But the day’s work lies ahead: grass to cut, traps to check (and, perhaps, dead groundhogs discreetly to dispose of), oil to change, this and that to fix, and—damn me to the outer darkness—did I really promise to make Inigo Montoya swords for the boys? I did.
So then to cut, to check, to dispose of (it’s a 25-pounder if it weighs an ounce), to change, to fix, and at last, after cranking up the garage radio to “The ’70s with Steve Goddard” and cracking a can of the sudsy stuff, to design swords on a scrap of plywood. Jigsaw, clamps, and sandpaper at the ready, boys poised—nay, baited— and I (no longer Father of the Year but of the Decade) about to go to work.
And after the careful cutting (my old impatient neighbor tells me I’d separate black from white in pigeon shit) and the sanding we discover that the swords, which are made of plywood, look like plywood, whereas they’re supposed to be silver.
To the hardware we go for paint and, no doubt, a jawbreaker apiece and a promotion for yours truly to Father of the Galaxy, while the beneficiaries of the jawbreakers are sworn to secrecy from You Know Who.
The painting done, the swords dry, the work pronounced “very good”–it can only mean that the fighting may now begin. And so it does (“… you killed my father. Prepare to die!”).
So be it. I at last am ready to do the day’s real work, which begins with cutting the chicken.
Some people buy their chickens already cut—to “save time” or “cut down on labor.” I confess I don’t understand this at all. I want to increase my time in the kitchen. I want more work to do. There’s music to listen to, and a drinky-poo to get through, and a shimmering vibrant woman to nudge and pinch and bump against. Shorten the time for this? Inconceivable!
Michael Buble’s birds fly high on the hi-fi. Old Granddad’s in the tumbler where he belongs. I begin cutting the chicken my way: first the wings, then the legs, then the thighs. Then I separate the back from the breasts, and then I separate the breasts. My spirits soar.
Now a careful chef might have done this the day before in order to brine the chicken. Great idea. I’ll do this myself occasionally. But in the summer I like to cut the bird I bought that morning and carted home on my old ugly Schwinn. So I do. And then I salt the bejeezis out of it. Shake shake shake. Shake shake shake. Shake your shaker. Shake your shaker.
So sing I as I salinate the bird, and if I am not mistaken the jewel of my eye, passing through the kitchen, rolls her eyes and disappears. Her scorn and indifference can mean only one thing! What a lucky devil I am.
And then I shuck the corn and lay it by. And I snip the beans and put them in the steamer and lay them by.
I light the water on the stove and then I light the grill. I’m a charcoal and/or wood man by training, by discipline, and by moral commitment. You grillers with gas, I extend my hand to you in friendship even though I cannot credit your way. But Old Granddad has kicked in; the gears are turning nicely, and I, so long a worshipper of charcoal, greet you in brotherly affection. Let us not quarrel on this splendid summer Saturday.
Back to the kitchen. There must be salsa. So I chop the tomatoes, the white onion, the cilantro, and a wee bit of heat off a fresh cayenne pepper newly plucked from the garden. Squeeze the key limes, pour on the salt, and we’re ready for the chips.
We? Lo! I’m alone! I’m Mr. Flood. I raise the tumbler to no one: “here’s to no one’s showing up.”
Great Scott! I almost forgot the Greek salad! Cut some fresh oregano from the crop out back. Chop more tomatoes, cukes, red onion, and feta cheese. Grind in the pepper, shake in the salt, press in the mother lode of raw garlic, and shower on the oregano. (You users of dried oregano, I extend my hand to you too.) Drizzle on the olive oil and toss the colorful mix. (Place the vinegar at hand for those who use it. You users of vinegar, join the ranks of those who grill with gas and dabble in dried oregano. For O magnanimous me! I befriend you this very day.)
Bread? Why not! A simple baguette will do.
Into a bowl goes a bottle of barbeque sauce—I’m ecumenical on this score: let local tastes prevail—and out to the grill I go, heavily armed with a dead chicken, sauce, a brush, grill tongs, and the residue of the Old Grandad (with maybe a little more added for good luck). I ring the dinner bell. This signifies that it’s time for someone to set the table, toss in the corn, and for everyone else to move tableward, a process that includes rebellion, tantrums, urination, and protracted hand-washing.
I, for my part, am going to look out upon the waning summer light, watch the finches and the hummingbirds, question the squirrels frolicking on the redbud tree, commune with Granddad, reflect upon the glorious day, congratulate myself on my promotion to Father of the Galaxy, and grill my bird in solitude.
Once the pieces are nearly done, I start brushing them with sauce, turning them in order to cook the sauce in, and then I brush them some more. When at last they’re done, I put them on a platter and drown them in more sauce. If a little is good, a lot is better.
And then I present myself to the table—now set and laden and peopled—as Lord of the Grill and Father of the Galaxy.
No one notices. There’s a fight over who gets to pronounce the blessing, a fight about which, at this point, I’m agnostic. Once arms and hands and fingers have duly crossed the torsos, chaos ensues.
But above it all I hear Mozart speaking to me across the centuries, and oh how I relish the tastes, the joys of the fullness of man, the incarnate condition …
And suddenly there is only carnage before me. The children are out in the warm and never-ending summer evening; their mother, whom I fain would toss upon the turnips, is knocking about in the kitchen.
I kick her out of doors with an amorous foot applied to a splendid bottom. What a lucky foot!
The reward for my labors isn’t what you’re thinking, you lecherous loyal reader. My reward is to be left alone to clean the mise en place, to listen to what I want to listen to, and, at long last, after baths and stories and resistance thereto, which is the way of things on long summer evenings, to end the day as I began it—in my chair with my book. Where has it been all my life?