This story has been with me since I was 20, so it means a lot to me.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
The Pepperoni Cure-All
The Pepperoni Cure-All
Everything would have been alright, Richard told himself, standing in the whispy, Christmas night snow, if Luther hadn't danced with the duck. Then he remembered telling himself earlier, everthing would have been alright, if I hadn't sat on that rickety stool and talked to Stacy. And before that, everything would have been alright if Dom hadn't wrecked his car trying to screw Jackie Martin.
And it all led back, no matter how many times Richard went over it in his memory, to his uncle. If Richard's uncle hadn't died like that, on Christmas Eve in some immaculate Florida hospital....Yes, that's it, Richard thought, if Uncle Dale hadn't died, everything would have really, truly been alright.
(I remember being five. I remember some things before that, but more clearly than anything—my first, clearest memory—I remember being five and running across a long green field in summer...running toward Uncle Dale and letting him lift me up high and take away his hands for just a moment, long enough to give the feeling, the illusion of falling...falling-without-really-falling, because he tightened his arms again and held me and I was looking down into his face, laughing and him laughing an then, after falling another second or so, he spun me around—a swirl of sky and field, green/blue/green/blue—an rubbed my face with his rough, bearded face and it was like...it was like nothing has been since.)
Father and son sat in a darkened room—completely dark because no one had turned on any lights since the call came. The call had come in daylight, where there had been no need for light. So Vernon and Richard sat in a dark room and Susan, Vernon's wife and Richard's mother, was upstairs, where there was light, packing.
Vernon was crying softly. Richard wished some lights were on, even if it were only the lights on the white pine Christmas tree in the corner. It was simply too dark. There needed to be some light for Richard to tell his father that he was not going with him to Florida for Dale's funeral.
Up above their heads, father and son could hear Susan crossing the room, walking fast, gathering clothes, knowing they must leave at dawn.
In the darkness, Richard could smell the white pine and the lime after-shave his father used. The lime was spoiled by the smell of travel. Vernon had driven all night from Florida and arrived just in time to discover that the brother he had left in that immaculate hospital had died while he was driving across North Carolina.
As soon as Vernon was in the door and had the news, he slumped in his favorite chair. He had not moved for three hours. Now, he sat in darkness, mourning his brother. He did not yet know Richard wasn't going to the funeral. Vernon had simply assumed Richard would.
“You know,” Vernon said to Richie and the darkness, “even if I had known Dale was going to die before I got home...Even if I could have known that, the ride back with George would have been worth it. We talked, Richie, my older brother George and I talked...really talked...for the first time in years, the first time ever, maybe. About Dale and us growing up and lots of things. It was good, I don't know if you understand, it was so good....”
If the Christmas tree lights had been on, Richard would have seen his father's wet face creased with reds and greens and blues. But there was no light. Father and son sat in the dark and listened to the foot-falls above them. Susan packing. She called down the stairs, “Richie, will you pack for yourself or should I do it?”
Richard was 19—27 days from 20—he was a college sophomore home for Christmas break. And he had months ago decided, even before his father and uncle George left for the first trip to Florida, that he was not going to Dale's funeral. He simply was not going. And nothing could make him, not even his father's soft, invisible tears in the darkness. Not even his mother calling down the stairs. Nothing in heaven or on earth would make him go to Florida for that sad, meaningless ritual of putting his uncle Dale in the ground.
Vernon blew his nose into an already soaked handkerchief. Richie sat in darkness and wished that he could, by force of will, turn on a light. Susan stood at the top of the stairs, waiting, and called again--”Richard, did you hear me?”
It was then that Richard said, out loud in the darkness, “I'm not going, mother.”
After that, Vernon rose from his chair and turned on a light to enlighten the argument that did not good. Richard was not going.
(When I was small, long before Uncle Dale sold his Esso station to Poppy Erskin and moved to Florida to be near his daughter and her family...sometimes he would eat lunch at our house. He would get up from the table and tear a package of Red Man in half and put half of it in his mouth and lay down on our couch for a nap. He always put The Welch Daily News on the couch beneath him to keep from getting car grease on the fabric. I would watch him sleep and wonder if he swallowed the tobacco juice. He never seemed to spit—whether he was asleep or awakek—and when I asked him about it he told me he had pockets in his cheeks, just like a squirrel and when I was older he'd take me hunting and we'd kill some squirrels and he'd show me the pockets in their cheeks. But he never did, because he knew I'd hate hunting and knew that he was lying anyway. He simply swallowed the tobacco juice and didn't get sick.)
They left at dawn—Vernon and Susan and George—driving in Vernon's new 1966 black Ford Fairlaine 500.
Vernon put his hand on Richard's shoulder and started to speak, but just nodded and got in to drive the first 300 miles. Richard stood in the dim cold for a long time after they were gone, just looking down the street where they had driven. Then he went to the basement of their house and banked the furnace with fresh coal. That had been his final argument about staying home.
“Someone has got to keep the finance going, Daddy,” he had said. “Or all the pipes will freeze in the cold.”
Susan had been involved by that time. “I've already asked Mr. Short across the street. I'll give him and key and he can come in whenever...”, she said.
Vernon had raised his hand and she stopped talking. He looked directly into his son's eyes as he spoke, “Richard will stay here and keep the furnace going.”
That is all he said. And his son felt deeply moved, profoundly close to his father in those words.
After the furnace was tended to, Richard went to his room and slept until just past noon. He had no dreams and woke full of pain and not hungry at all.
At 12/22 p.m., he turned on the Christmas tree lights and opened a present from his mother's sister in Charleston. It was a brown sweater with a darker brown corduroy front. He imagined it would itch. He put it back in the box and crumbled the paper—red and green with swirling snow flakes—to take to the basement and put in the furnace when he gave it more coal.
As he passed the kitchen phone, it rang. It was Mrs. Short from next door. After pleasantries and sympathy, she said, “Delbert was going to tend to your furnace, but then your mother called and asked if we would look out for you instead.”
Richard nodded, but even though he could see the short house's kitchen window from his own, he knew she couldn't see him nod. So he said, “yes m'am”.
“So...” she said, very uncertainly, because Richard had always been a strange and dreamy boy and she didn't know him very well, “I thought you should come for Christmas dinner with us about 4 o'clock....”
“Thank you Mrs. Short,” Richard said, as polite as could be, “but I won't be eating a big dinner today. I want to be alone.”
There was a long silence on the phone. Then Mrs. Short said, “I know how upset you must be, Richard, but life goes on, you know, and you really shouldn't miss a Christmas dinner.”
By the time she finished talking, Richard knew that his mother's hand was heavy in this concern. He said, as sincerely as he could, “if I change my mind and need to eat, I'll sure be there Mrs. Short. But don't expect me and don't wait on me. I really think I'll want to be alone.”
After hanging up, Richard went to his room and slept until almost four o'clock.
(When I was eight, Uncle Dale bought me a first baseman's mitt. I remember how red my hand would get when we played catch on the railroad tracks behind my house. The glove said “Ferris Fain” on it and though I didn't know who he was, Uncle Dale told me he was 'a superior fielder' and I could 'do worse' than have Ferris Fain's name on my mitt. Every warm day we would toss until it was so dark that all you could do was throw pop-ups and listen to the crickets singing down by the creek behind the Short's house. I always wished my mitt had been signed by Bill Skowren or Orlando Cepeda.)
George Lucas had left his three year old Buick Electra for Richard to use. Just past four o'clock, with 3 eggs he had boiled, a napkin and a salt shaker, Richard went to the alley and sat in the Buick, listening to sad country music—George Jones and Tammy Wynette—and eating the eggs. When he was finished, he carefully folded the egg shells into the napkin and sat in the car watching it grow dark.
He looked over at the mountains behind the creek. There were no pine trees on that particular mountain so everything was brown, turning gray in the winter twilight. He tried to remember what happened to his first baseman's mitt with Ferris Fain's name on it and remember for the life of him. Near the top of the brown-turning-gray mountain, he could see a strip mine where the trees and earth had been torn away. He noticed how the earth was peeled away to reveal rounded patterns of different colored rocks beneath. All the rocks, in that light, were brown, turning gray.
Richard wondered why he was so cold, even with the Buick's heater on high.
Then it started to snow.
Back in his house, he sat by the front window for a few hours, watching the snow. The Christmas tree to his left was on as he sat by the window and he counted the lights on the tree: first the red ones, then the green, then the blue, then the white.
When he finished counting, the phone rang.
“Yes, I need help.”
“Long story, can you come and get me?”
“Talk louder, Dom, I can hardly hear you.”
“Listen, I'm at old man Barker's house on Peel Chestnut Mountain. I wrecked my old man's car, dropped it in a hole on an off road. Do you know where I mean, the Barker place?”
“Come and get me.”
Dominic Rizzo was crazy. Richard knew that, even without Vernon's testimony and his father was Dom's boss on the hoot-owl shift at French #2 mine. But Dom was his friend. So even though his Uncle Dale was dead and cold in Florida, and even though the snow was sticking to the road, and even though he hadn't checked the furnace since the morning, Richard pulled out of the alley in his Uncle George's car to go get Dom.
When he got to old man Barker's place it was snowing like mad and Dom was outside waiting. When Dom saw it was Richard, he ran back to the house and brought out a girl, all bundled against the cold. She slid into the middle of the front seat beside of Richard and Dom followed her in.
“Let's get the hell out of here,” Dom said. “I need a beer.”
Richard searched his memory and found that the girl's name was Jackie Martin. She was probably little more than fifteen and Dom should know better. She had a lot of makeup and it was obvious she'd been crying. But nobody was talking and Richard was driving so he drove to a roadside cafe and pulled into the red dog parking lot. It was snowing so hard that the Christmas lights around the windows of the cafe were eerie and shimmering.
(Once, two years before he died, Uncle Dale and his family were visiting West Virginia. Uncle Dale was sitting in a lawn chair in our front yard. It was autumn and the mountains were burning red and orange and yellow. Uncle Dale's grandson, Marty, came around the corner of our house, grinning like crazy, with his pant's pockets bulging. I asked him what he had in his pockets and he nearly laughed as he told me, “rocks!” His face was smeared with coal dirt. Uncle Dale put his hands behind his head and leaned back in the chair, crossing his feet in front of him. “There are no rocks in Florida,” he said to me. I laughed. Then I remembered the only time I'd been to Florida, the first time I'd seen the ocean. I remember standing on the beach, looking out at a storm gathering on the horizon and almost crying out with aching. The ocean was gray and ominous and I was 13 and it was so big, so infinitely big, and I felt so infinitesimally small. I remembered that and then Uncle Dale looked at me and said, once he knew I was listening: “Really, I'm not kidding. There are no rocks in Florida. Just sand. Not a single rock. I hate it. It's going to kill me.”
Dom bolted from the car and ran into the cafe through the snow. He almost fell, slipping on the snow covered gravel. “God-damn!” Richard heard him say. Jackie Martin was sniffing, rubbing her nose with a balled up Kleenex.
“You want to go in,” Richard asked.
“No,” she said, between sniffs. “But you go on, just leave the motor on so I'll be warm.”
“You're sure?” He said.
“Sure, I'm sure,” she said, with some anger.
Inside the Monarch Cafe there were four red booths, two against the front wall, one in the back corner and one in the middle of the room. There were three pinball machines and a long bar with rickety stools across the back wall. Dom was already on a stool, drinking a beer and Richard noticed that Luther Barker, old man Barker's oldest son was in the back booth with a large, black-haired woman who wore blood red lipstick. She had enormous breasts and was laughing very hard. Between them, on the table, was a duck—fat and white—with a string around it's neck. The woman and Luther seemed to be laughing at the duck.
Tammy Wynette was singing a sad song from the jukebox about losing her lover.
Richard went straight to the bathroom. On the way he noticed there were cheap Christmas ornaments hanging from the lights and all around the edges of the room. There was an enormous bread company calendar hanging on the men's room's door with a picture of pine trees and a snowy church with the messages “Happy Holidays” and “Betsy Ross Means Good Bread.”
The bathroom smelled of cheap whiskey (out of bottles in brown paper bags since only beer could be sold by the drink in West Virginia) and stale urine. The walls were painted a dying-grass green. Above the urinal there was a crude drawing of a naked woman, on her back with her knees almost behind her ears. She was pushing a long, thin dildo into her vagina. Beneath the picture, written with a much sharper pencil, was the title: THE PEPERONI CURE-ALL.
As Richard left the bathroom, he was thinking about the missing 'p' in 'pepperoni'. When he got back to the bar, Brenda Lee was singing “Jingle-bell Rock” and two more people were there. There was a tall State Policeman in a khaki jacket, too small and unzipped. He was talking to Lou, the man who ran the Monarch Cafe. And Stacy Jame Ebel, a high school classmate of Richard and Dom's was sitting beside Dom drinking Miller High Life from a clear bottle.
Richard sat beside Stacy and listened to Dom's story.
“God, Jackie is tight,” he was saying, eyes already glazed from two quickly drunk beers. “I must have tried to get into her six times and she started yelling, 'it's too big, too big!' and crying like crazy. I was so pissed I tried to turn around on that narrow road and dropped my old man's car right into a hole. No way to get the damn thing out tonight.”
Dom motioned for another beer. He was grinning and saying, in a high pitched voice to no one in particular, “it's too big! Too big! Jesus!”
Lou was moving toward the beer cooler but the State Policeman called him back and whispered something in Lou's ear. They both laughed.
Stacy James told Richard that he'd been fired from the shipyard in Newport News where he made really good money and was now working at a can factory in Baltimore. “Here's my job,” he said, shaking his head, “I push a god-damned button and this big ass sheet of aluminum gets cut in half and goes on down the belt. Down the line somewhere it gets turned into cans. I don't know how.”
“Do you like it?” Richard asked, trying to picture the sheets of aluminum and the shiny cans at the other end of the line.
Stacy sniffed, “it's a job,” he said. “I live in a rented room and drink a lot of beer.” Stacy was pale and melancholy. He spun his stool and looked right at Richard. His voice was beery. “How about you, my man,” he said, “how's college?”
“Fine,” Richard said. “Really fine. But my uncle died yesterday.”
Dom glanced over, a Falstaff in a dark bottle half-way to his mouth, poised. “Which one?” he asked.
“Uncle Dale,” Richard told him. “The one in Florida.”
Dom took a long swallow and stared at the bottle rings on the counter. “Damn,” he said, “that's a shame.”
“He used to run the Esso?” Stacy said, still looking into Richard's eyes. Richard nodded. “One time I was in there at night,” Stacy continued, “I don't remember why, and Gene Kelly's boy, the really dark kid, was trying to borrow money from you uncle. What was his name—big nigger—Potter, that was it. Anyway, your uncle told him no and Potter pulled this big knife on him. I almost jumped over the Coke machine when I saw that knife.” Stacy laughed, remembering.
“You'd look good on a Coke machine,” Dom said. He got up and wandered over to the silent jukebox and fed it two quarters. The machine whirled and clicked and George Jones starts singing a fast, honky-tonk sounding country song, a song about drinking and running around.
“Anyway,” Stacy went on, leaning against the counter, speaking softly, “your uncle got up, real calm like and something like, 'Potter, you're just drunk, you don't want to do this,' and quicker than anything, Dale took that knife away from that big nigger, twice your uncle's size, and twisted Potter's arm behind him and threw him out into the road before anyone besides me knew what was happening.”
Richard leaned in, listening, but Stacy paused. He took an unfiltered Camel from a pack on the counter and lit it with an aluminum lighter. As he let the smoke out through his nose, he said, “next day your uncle gave Potter a job pumping gas and washing cars.”
Richard smiled, almost laughed and then almost wept.
“Wasn't that the damnest thing?” Stacy asked in what seemed to be genuine amazement.
Dom had been standing, absent-mindedly in the middle of the room. Just as Stacy finished his story, Dom yelled out, above the twanging steel guitar of the record, “God-damn, look at this!”
Luther Barker was up on the floor, dancing around the duck, holding its string in one hand. The duck went in a circle as Luther danced around and around, and the sting tightened on the duck's neck. Luther was stumbling drunkenly as he danced and the woman in the booth laughed so hard she was about to fall out of the booth. She put her elbows on the table and tried to hold her head, but she rocked sideways with laughter.
The State Policeman, who Richard didn't recognize, shook his head with disgust and started toward Luther. Richard saw it all in his mind before any of it happened and there was nothing he could do. He couldn't move a muscle. He was paralyzed on his stool. He tried to close his eyes and look away. Dom was laughing now and Stacy was laughing and the State Policeman was grabbing Luther by the shirt and hitting him hard in the face with the back of his right hand. Once, twice, three times he hit him and then let him go and Luther fell backwards and struck his head on the edge of the table where the fat woman held her head in her hands. Blood spurted from Luther's lip and nose and suddenly no one was laughing. The duck staggered toward the front door, choking, and vomited some green bile on the floor.
The record had ended and everything was silent except for the whirling and clicking of the jukebox, finding the next record. Richard was suddenly free from his paralysis and ran across the room, bumping Dom on the way, making him spill some beer.
“Hey, watch it....”, Richard heard Dom yell after him, but the door of the bathroom slammed shut and Richard threw up what was left of the eggs into the toilet and gagged until his eyes watered.
When he looked up, he saw the picture of 'the peperoni cure-all' and, through tears of mourning and relief, all he could think of was wishing he had a pencil so he could put in the missing 'p'. Through the bathroom door, he could hear the State Policeman yelling obscenities at Luther and a country singer whining, intentionally out of tune, “I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...just like the ones I used to know....”
(The last time I saw my Uncle Dale, we were sitting on Uncle George's porch and it was spring and we were arguing about religion. I can't remember how it started but he was being stubborn and telling me that anyone who hadn't accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior—including Jews and Roman Catholics—was going to hell. I knew he didn't even believe in hell, that he didn't believe in anything much, that he was a comfortable agnostic. But he went on saying it, knowing it was making me crazy. He sat there with his hands behind his head and his legs stretched out and his feet crossed, like he always sat, being stubborn and baiting me. I got mad and stormed off the porch. He called out to me, “I'm going back to Florida tomorrow morning, Richie, don't forget to write.” And even as mad as I was with him, I had to laugh. We both knew we'd never written each other a letter in our lives and never would. It was early Spring, I was home on Spring break and it seemed to me he always planned his trips to West Virginia around my breaks from college. The robins were digging in my Uncle George's front yard. That October, Dale got sick and on Christmas Eve he died.)
Dom decided to have Stacy take him home, so Richard drove Jackie Martin back alone. He hadn't tried to explain where Dom was since he knew Jackie hadn't expected him back anyway. She nodded at Richard sadly when he slid under the driver's steering wheel and said, “sure is snowing hard.”
Richard turned on the wipers. Ice was beginning to stick to the Buick's windshield and he drove slowly, peering out a clear space surrounded by gathering ice.
When Richard stopped the car outside Jackie Martin's house, nothing happened. She didn't open the door and get out. Instead, she sat, stone still and stared at her hands.
After a long while, Richard said, “Jackie, you're home.”
Nothing much happened, even then. She stared at her hands and then looked out the window. “Here's the truth,” she said, very softly, much more like a mannered, mature woman than little more than a girl, “the worst thing about this night is that you had to know about what happened, how Dom and I were parking up on the mountain and....” Her voice trailed off into silence.
Finally, she looked at him, her large, over-made-up eyes, puffy from crying, looked directly into his heart, his soul. “I'm so terribly sorry your uncle died,” she said. “Mr. Barker told me while we were waiting for you to come. I know how awful that has made your Christmas—even more awful than mine.”
Jackie leaned across and kissed Richard softly on the lips, her fingers gently touching the back of his neck. Richard thought it was one of the softest kisses he'd ever had.
“Thank you,” he said. Then she got out and ran through the snow to her house.
When he parked the car in the alley behind his house, he noticed Jackie had left a balled up Kleenex on the front seat. He took it with him and as he stood in the alley he knew the snow would stop soon. It was turning colder and the snow would stop. He tried to imagine his parents and George taking turns driving through southern Georgia, almost to the Florida state line. He walked to the front of the house and noticed the only lights were the Christmas tree lights he'd left on all day. They were green and red and blue and white. He smiled and rubbed the last, dying flakes of snow from his face with Jackie's Kleenex. He could smell her face powder on it.