Tell Us a Story

Mom wakes us up in the middle of the night.

She says hello, my sleepyheads and I know when we tell her we’re so sleepy. She tugs coats on over our PJ’s, then takes us out to the driveway and buckles us into the van. She says Brrr! from the front seat.

We wait, chattering our teeth, till the ice melts on the windshield.

On the drive into the city Caleb slumps asleep in his car seat. I sit next to him and poke at his veiny eyelids. I open them slow to see his eyes flutter up. I imagine he’s dreaming about bottles, coffee tables, all the things you get to see, crawling around on the carpet. When he starts to fuss, mom catches eyes from the rearview. I put my hands in my lap.

It’s so boring, to drive and drive in the dark past the Citgo sign. My brother, James, and I stay awake the whole ride. We say tell us a story, tell us a story! Mom asks us to be specific and James says outer space and I say love story.

Mom tells us the story about how she met dad when he cooked at Armadillo’s, but we already know how it goes. The parts I remember most are how dad wore suspenders when nobody else did. Crazy guy Mom says. How crazy we ask, and mom says messy hair crazy.

She says dad walked up to her table, dark and tall, then took her walking late at night and showed her Sam Adams statues.

There are only a few cars on the road. Mom turns up the heat.

We wait for dad in the back parking lot. We always have to pick up him up after work, but never this late. Mom tells us when you’re opening a new restaurant, you have to work very hard, and everything is very. Like very hot, very late at night, very sorry we are so very sleepy.

Waiting for my dad to come out takes forever. Mom runs out of stories. The guys standing by the back door are smoking cigarettes, when he does. Then we hear his voice from inside the van. He shakes their hands and says things like Atta boy! and See you Mik-AY. He pats them real hard on the back, like he’s saving them from a choke.

I watch as he climbs into the front seat. His shirt is always stained with red splotches. The door to the van slams as he leans back onto the headrest. He lets out a short Argh. Mom turns to look at him as she’s pulling out. The car fills with his scent: soy sauce, onion, sweat. He grips his hair back and I imagine it’s hot from stoves and fire, that if he shook it, flour would come out.

On the ride back, I copy James. He’s really asleep. I fake dreams to seem more believable, letting my head hang on my shoulders with hair in my face like Cousin It. I squint through my bangs as street lights flicker on mom’s face. When we pass over a bridge I hear dad say something sharp as he gazes out at the Charles.

Mom turns off the bridge and I know we are taking him to Columbus Ave. She parks and the lights come on. She turns back, holding up a finger to me because she knows I’m awake. They walk up the steps to the door of dad’s new apartment, but I can’t see them past the gate. The orange click click click of the van wakes up Caleb as mom rushes back with a scarf around her mouth.

Mom takes us to the new restaurant for dinner. We take the T eleven stops. She takes a picture of James and I outside Rialto, but it’s freezing. There are too many people on the sidewalk and I don’t smile.

We walk up dark wood stairs and sit in a black booth in the back. The booth is raised so you can see the whole scene through pillars: a bright blue rug with confetti polka dots, tables with handcrafted roosters and pigs, men in suits who drink dark drinks and women dangling forks over their plates, and the highest ceiling, higher than our church’s. Dad hired painters and they stood on ladders for weeks drawing old naked angels that dad called rococo and mom called gothic then insane.

By Christmas, famous people are coming into Rialto. There’s frenzy by the door till they’re lead to the back by Davey, the host who looks like a CIA agent. Sometimes we eat with rock-stars or Red Sox pitchers. When Harrison Ford came to eat at our table, we lay on mom’s lap while a big white screen dropped from the ceiling and we watched a black and white film of a prom from the twenties.

I whispered who is Harrison Ford? to mom. Everyone laughed.

Tonight there are no famous people and I’m glad. Sharkey comes to our table and holds out a tin can full of crayons. James and I pick out our favorite colors and he gets all the good ones, forest-green, jet-black, navy-blue. Sharkey waves waiters over to our booth. They bring us cheesy flautas and we smile as the goo dribbles up off the plate.

Sharkey works for dad. Dad’s the boss of Sharkey but Sharkey’s the boss of everyone else. Sharkey isn’t his real name, but no one here has a name like Sam or Bob. When we’re in the back of Rialto, Sharkey calls me Rena Bird but I don’t call him anything.

Secretly I think Sharkey is a funny guy, and he is kind of handsome, in the way only funny guys can be. He’s see-through pale like me. Only James has my dad’s skin, dark like wood with shadows for eyes.

I try to draw Sharkey’s face on the back of my menu with a white crayon but I can’t make his blue eyes look like the sky on your favorite day, the way they are in real life. He talks with his hands, like Italian men do, but he isn’t Italian, he’s Irish like mom.

He leans over the side of our table sending us colored plates, eat, eat, eat! he says, with his apron folded over at the waist. He tries to make mom laugh when he says her name.

I look up at her when she does. Her laugh doesn’t sound like other ladies. She gets breathless and hits the table with her hand, her white teeth spreading through her lips. Her eye wrinkles wince towards mine. She gets pink. Caleb bounces his knees on her lap, tiny fists gripped tight around her fingers, spit dripping from his only tooth onto her jeans.

If Sharkey were my dad I think he would be sitting next to my mom in the booth, instead of leaning over the side of our table. James and I would face them and Sharkey would hang his arm over my mom’s shoulder like they were in high school. He’d watch her get pink. He’d let Caleb wrap his fingers over his and he’d lift him up into the air like Caleb was a superhero. Sharkey would butter my bread and call me Rena Bird and I wouldn’t be mad about it anymore.

Inside the restaurant the lights are dim. I can only make out the whites of eyes but when I go downstairs, the kitchen is like a different channel on TV. I sit on the stairs with the rubber mats and bits of lettuce.

In the kitchen, stoves and refrigerators match silver knives and pans. Cooks run around in checkered aprons, bumping into each other. They wear backwards hats, wiping sweat from their foreheads with their shoulders. Steam blows from a pan and knives smack through meat onto wooden boards.

Dad is in the back at the stove. He’s holding a giant pan with a damp cloth, one hand over the handle, red sores on his knuckles. The pasta in the pan flies up as he flicks his wrist and catches it back as it lands, a ghost’s mouth of fire burning down electric blue. He keeps his head down but his hands are quick and moving, pinching salt from high above a plate. He chops an onion to bits with a block knife, then stirs and tastes sauce with a wooden spoon. He licks the back, pauses, then keeps stirring.

He’s silent, till he yells Oregano! He holds out a hand till Sharkey places a green glass shaker in his palm. Everybody in the kitchen moves around him in orbits, bringing him plates and olive oil. When he points to the stove there’s always someone leaping to the pot like an orchestra.

Dad sees me on the stairs and holds up a hand. That means he’s busy-busy. It means two seconds. Heat floods from the ovens and blurs faces.

I get bored and go back upstairs. It’s dessert time and mom’s sipping coffee, her bare ankle bouncing. James and I are under the table, shadows through white linen, banging matchbox cars together, flipping them off the ramp of the table leg. We take off mom’s shoes. Here comes Dadda! we hear her say to Caleb.

Look he says. He finds us under the table, crawling under with a striped rag over his shoulder.

He’s cupping one hand over the other. His pointer finger is covered with drippy chocolate from the downstairs stirring bowl, big as me, and he says taste it, Rena like a dare. James watches me in a squint. He’s always craving something sweet.

Dad comes to the house on Sunday. Mom makes us go to church and we hate it. Dad doesn’t come with us, even though she asks if he’s coming every Sunday. She says kiss us goodbye! lifting Caleb’s face up to his as he pats James on the head and comes to the door where I’m waiting with my hand on the knob. He leans over to kiss me. I hold the air in my chest. The stubble on his face is sharp.

He comes on Sunday because on Monday mom works at Mass General and he has to watch us.

He picks us up after school. I always find James first because dad never stays in the same spot, like where mom always waits, waving by the flagpole. I stay close to James till we find him, late like all the other kids who wait for buses.

We walk home through the snow. Dad walks ahead of us, taller than the basketball hoop in our backyard. He keeps his hands in his pockets. James walks in front of me and I see dad and James ahead of me only different heights and distances. The sky is already dim and orange as James turns around so I can see his nose scrunched, his creek brown hair parted at the side. You coming? he says, then he walks the rest of the way behind me.

Mom comes home and we click off the TV, running to the front to watch her take off her jacket. James takes off her scarf. We fight to hang it. She sits on the stairs, unbuckling her heels.

It’s as cold as outside because dad doesn’t light the pellet stoves like mom does, when she wants to make the house nice and toasty. He says it’s too expensive to waste the heavy bags of pellets he lugs inside the house from the garage over his shoulder.

When dad comes downstairs, mom’s taking chicken out the oven. The fire’s roaring and James and I are getting dizzy in the dining room, setting forks and knives. Dad goes over to the fire, staring at it as he shifts his feet.

Then he goes to the garage and from the table we hear the clink of the weights dad lifts, spinning on the handles.

We stay quiet at the table, till mom says everybody name one good thing about their day. James looks up at her and Caleb says his first word, Mum-ma.

We drive dad back to his apartment on Columbus Ave. I sit in the backseat and stare out the window. People in coats cross the walk when it says “Don’t Walk.” Mom ticks on the blinker. In the window, the trees reach out then pull farther apart as we drive. On Dad’s street, mom slows down. A guy walks into dad’s building with a case of beer over his shoulder. Dad leans over to kiss mom on the cheek as she stares out the window and says, see you on Monday.

We walk with mom down the cereal aisle. She tells us we are going to take a picture with dad for a magazine called Food and Wine. Caleb waves his arms out in the cart, blabbering to mom who mouths hi! I throw cereal into the cart and mom takes it out. I throw it back in and say who cares about dad. James, his backpack half-slung over his shoulder, smirks at me from across the cart. Mom blinks and a tear slips down her cheek, so quick I barely see it. James takes her hand and says don’t cry, mom as I walk ahead, my cheeks hot as I trail my hand over the rows and rows of bright boxes.

Mom leans over the sink and scrubs, she wipes, dusts, sprays, and sweeps. She takes us to Filenes Basement. In the dressing room, she drops to her knees with her purse to button James’ new shirt. She twirls me in a zipper dress that itches and pricks.

Dad and photographers come to our house. They set up lighting and big black equipment in the kitchen. They take “test shots” of dad cooking omelets. He moves around like a robber, sneaking a butter knife out the drawer and slipping a rag off the handle. He waves me over from where I’m waiting by the doorway.

I go to the stove. He puts his hand on my shoulder. He hands me a piece of cheddar cheese. He lifts me up by the waist in my velvet dress. I drop the cheese and we flip the eggs in the air together, his hands over my hands on the handle. It’s hot but feels good on my palms.

When it’s time to take the picture we all stand behind the counter. There are plates in front of us with mint leaves and diced fruit. The photographer angles us together as dad wipes oil from the edges with a rag. Mom holds Caleb up to her face while James stands by her hip. They switch lighting and move us around.

Dad lifts me up and I wrap my arms slow around his neck. The light from the window heats up around my hair like a vacation.

It takes forever. It has to look right.

I rest my head on dad’s shoulder. I see him stare straight into the lens. His chin is up as the photographer holds fingers in the air. I tell myself I’m eight. I’m Serena. I’m his girl. I hold tight. I want to remember how this feels. The photographer says beautiful, right there, and snaps bright light flashes.  

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