Wednesday, December 17, 2014

10 Ways in Which I Have Ruined My Sons' Lives (Irreparably. With flawed bagels, and beets.)

I have ruined my sons' lives completely and forever and here is proof.

1. I made my six-year-old take a shower. Yes, I actually made him take a shower. (He didn't want a bath, either.) Direct quote: "You have ruined my life forever. You have even ruined all my birthdays for the rest of my life, and all the weeks leading up to every one of the birthdays. And the weeks after the birthdays." (Note: This particular cleansing did not take place anywhere near his birthday.)

2. I failed to answer my phone when my 11-year-old called me to ask if he could go to his friend's house. Before he could try again, his phone battery died, so he was forced to come home, and was quite displeased. Direct quote: "Would it be so much trouble to actually answer your phone for one time in your entire life? Is it your ENTIRE life's purpose to make my life suck?" (Note: I did not answer my own phone because my battery was dead.)

3. When my nine-year-old, who tends to strew a lot of food around his seat while he eats, left bits and pieces of crumbs all over the floor, I jokingly suggested that we nickname him "Bits." He bolted from the room in tears. Direct quote: "You are a cruel mother."

4. Once, at a local Grange fair, my six-year-old desperately wanted to try one of the arcade games in which you shoot darts at balloons to try to pop them and win prizes, including ugly stuffed animals in appalling hues. Each try cost five dollars. I refused, and explained to him that these games were often rigged, and that he would not win the giant purple gorilla. And even if he did, the beast would not darken the threshold of my home. Direct quote: "You have ruined my life forever, and you have ruined it so bad that you have even ruined it after I am dead. I want a different family."

If you don't have one of these in your house, you have definitely ruined your child's life.
5. I served the same six-year-old a bagel on which the cream cheese was not properly smeared so as to cover every nook and cranny on the bagel. He looked at it in disgust, and then promptly burst into tears. Direct quote: "I can't even get a good bagel around here. No one ever helps me. I have to do everything! You need to fix this bagel so that there is not ANY spots that do not have cream cheese on them!"

You missed a spot. You worthless failure! I would have been better off raised by circus folk who would have LET me have a go at that balloon-popping activity and I would have WON a stuffed animal, for sure I would have. Now fix my bagel. 
6. Just about every time a child loses a tooth, I completely forget to put money under the pillow from the tooth fairy. I remember the next morning, and in a desperate frenzy I rush upstairs hoping that the child hasn't noticed. If I am lucky, they also forgot because they were too hungry for breakfast, and the tooth is still there. However, in most cases, they have re-hidden the tooth in some completely obscure place in one last effort to find out if the tooth fairy is clever enough to find it. Now it is far too late to do anything but write an elaborate, long note from the tooth fairy explaining that she got caught in a windstorm or had a lot of work to do after a fistfight in which children lost many teeth. 

In addition, my brothers ate the cookies that we left out for Santa last year with such gusto and chomping and "yum yum" noises that my nine-year-old was drawn out of his bedroom and compelled to spy upon them. Direct quote: "Mom. I know things. I have seen things. Many things. You don't want me to speak them out loud. Do you? DO you?" 

7. After having had too many margaritas at a friend's party, I ended up telling their 10-year-old daughter the name of the girl that my son liked at the time. Whoops. I guess that was pretty bad? But for goodness sake, the child should've been in bed! Let's move on.

8. I told my 11-year-old that his two younger brothers were like a gift to him because he had constant companions and steadfast friends that would last a lifetime. Direct quote: "Your poisonous fecundity has completely ruined my sanity and deprived me of any chance of a nice hot relaxing shower without the revolting scent of my sibling's turds plopping into the toilet at the SAME TIME." He didn't say it out loud. But his eyes did.

9. When I served my six-year-old an innocuous chicken tender, he informed me that this wasn't the type of chicken tender that he preferred, and that I should know this by now. He just doesn't care for that brand of chicken tender, and the fact that I served it to him indicates that I have little understanding of his needs. Direct quote: "This is the worst day of my life."

10. I tend to write humiliating blog entries about a child pooping out blueberries during tubby-time, and other things that my sons surely would not want the world to read. However, I have been posting so sporadically that I think I have only about five followers by now. So it's seriously not a problem at all that I can use phrases in my blog like "ass-grabbing toadhat" and "muppet-fondling marmoset" (totally hypothetical examples of phrases that I might use, mostly in photo captions). Because just a handful of local moms of my sons' friends will ever read this blog and cast shame and aspersion upon my family, and will come for us with the beets, rutabagas, eggs, offal, old toys, etc. to toss at the property with cries of "Pfaw! Horrid badly-raised children!"

All these items would look totally NOT out of place on our lawn. I mean, my son did say he wanted "beets" for Christmas this year. He definitely meant these types of "beets," right?

Fertilized by Doctor Dre! I mean, um...what? These are beets!
So maybe I just ruined a few birthdays and all the weeks leading up to them and all the weeks following them?

Coming Soon....Chapter 14 of the Manny diaries! In which he gnaws off his own tongue. Sorta. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Art and Love Therapy for Evil Little Boys

Since our return from NH two weeks ago, my three boys have been on the verge of fratricide. At summer camp, they were all in separate cabins and left to torment only those in their own age bracket. And their counselors, poor scarred 18-year-olds who still probably wake up at night in a cold sweat.

But now they have turned on each other like wolves, guided only by my new 14-year-old babysitter who was left with no recourse but to lock them in the basement and blast the "Frozen" soundtrack at them from the stereo. I fully sanctioned the activity. When they finally broke free my eldest son snatched an empty Vodka bottle from the recycling bin and chased young Mordred (as they call her) down the street brandishing it at her. I am sure the neighbors have an even finer view of us than they did before!

The evil reached its pinnacle yesterday afternoon, when 1) Eldest Son hauled Middle Son across the driveway, leaving him with horrible asphalt burns 2) Littlest Son scratched Middle Son so viciously that 3) Middle Son kicked Littlest Son clear across the room and cracked his head into the record cabinet housing the turntable.

The babysitter had long been let off duty, and I hastened downstairs to the screams. The accusations flew fast and fierce.

"He hurted me worser than I did him so he should be punished badder!"

"I did NUFFINK."

"I did nothing; however, I am sure I shall be blamed as I always am, because this is the course of things."

That last speaker, age 10, then flung the TV remote at my head and, as it bounced off my skull, I shouted "GO UPSTAIRS!"

"You always punish ME and not THEM!" he shouted. "Just because I hit you in the head with something you punish ME! Is this fair? Oh, you are such a good mother!"

He was right. They all went into a big fat time-out while I fumed about what I would do to PUNISH them. For wasn't punishment the only acceptable solution? I fretted that I was a bad mom. I didn't know the least thing to do right now. What would serve justice for their naughtiness?

Then it came to me. I would kill the little buggers with kindness. I gathered them in the living room and proposed several options to make reparations. They were:

1. You will each write a heartfelt letter to both brothers expressing that you love them and WHY. The letters must be of a reasonable length and written to the best of your abilities.

This got feedback:

"I dunno how to spell!"
"This is the worstest!"
"Oh shoot me now."

2. You will perform a skit representing the theme of "Brotherly Love." The skit must be of reasonable quality. It may not include battle scenes or death.

This also got feedback:

"But skits without conflict suck."
"Can we have just one battle scene? It could, like, lead up to a scene in which we all hug?"
"Will you be filming it? Cause if so, NO."

3. You will parade down our street singing a song that I will quickly compose called, "I Love My Brothers and My Brothers Love Me."


"I will nevah evah do that."
"Option Three sucks."
"Shoot me now."

Middle Son was openly weeping at this point, and Eldest Son was thrashing about in chair rubbing at his eyes. Littlest Son was staring glumly into space.

So, all options voted down, I told them that they had to collaborate to devise Option Four themselves. And they had to do it without arguing and come to a polite and genial agreement amongst the three of them as to what Option Four would be. This was, of course, the secret behind Option Four. The devising of the option was the activity in itself. Whatever they cooked up would simply be bonus material.

I left the room and returned in about five minutes. During that time, they had all mutually consented to make gifts for each other. The gifts would be made out of clay. They were very keen to get started. There was no talk of screen time. They were, in fact, excited about their plan.

I got out a bucket of air-dry clay and put on some music and they made these. They aren't done yet; they still need to be painted and presented. But they check them throughout the day to see if they are completely dry yet, and Middle Son keeps asking when he can give his presents to his brothers.

A magnificent dragon.

Handmade necklaces.

Strange stubby things?
After the experiment was over we met in a circle for a group hug, during which the boys, unprompted, said things like:

"I love you, my brother."
"My brothers is the best!"
"Hugs and love! Hugs and love!"

We concluded it all with a "Go Team!" cheer, after which I solemnly reminded them that any of the previous options could easily be invoked at any time.

The next day we heard a long, piercing scream from the bathroom. Middle Son had sprayed perfume directly into Littlest Son's eyes. He claimed he had been spraying it to "cleanse the room of bad smells" and that he had sprayed it far from Littlest Son's face. In fact, the victim had had his back turned to him!

Littlest Son cried out that his brother had "broken the bond of brotherly love."

A forensic reenactment of the crime revealed that the lie was preposterous, and the offender was sent to bed. The next day, I decided to bring down Option One (letter writing) as the penalty.

The gist of the letter read, in sum:

"I did absolutely nothing wrong and have no guilt whatsoever because I am innocent and did nothing wrong and am innocent. Will you forgive me? Love, your brother."

I shall start work on my original Brotherly Love song shortly, which will be filled with uniquely embarrassing references such as:

Brothers never argue, brothers always share.
Brothers even give up their last pair of underwear.
My brothers are my blood, to them I'm always true.
If they ever called upon me, I'd even wipe their poo.

Public performances forthcoming.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Manny Diaries, Chapter 13: I Found My Two Gallons of Mezcal

"Miss Jennifer! Miss Jennifer! I'm going to buy ten chickens tomorrow!"

Such were some of the first words that Manny spoke when he finally reached me by phone from his new home in Oaxaca, Mexico. And boy, did he ever sound drunk. Happy drunk, mind you. Ebullient drunk. Almost giddy with drink.

"Ten chickens! Like, 20 cents a piece. Hey! Do you know you can get two GALLONS of Mezcal here for only $16. Two gallons! Not that I'm drinking anything because, man, I'm about a mile high up in mountains and it's beautiful and I don't need to drink or do anything bad at all. Nyet! Nyet!"

Will he name one of his new chickens "Bun-Bun"?
Was that Russian he was speaking? Yes, he revealed to me that he can speak about 10 different languages fluently. Never once while he was staying with us had I heard him speak one word that wasn't English or mangled English.

"Any Eastern European language there is, I can speak it. I don't like to tell people because they will get an impression of me," he said. "Like a wrong impression or a weird impression, you know?"

It seemed odd that a man who forgot how to pronounce words like "guacamole" and called a "beet" a "parsnip" and a pork loin "that other meat--the meat, you know the one, that's not chicken and not beef, dammit, what's that called?" would have such a facility with languages. But I didn't argue.

"Nyet!" he said again, and then: "Dammit! There I go again. It's so confusing, all these languages going around in my brain."

"How about Spanish? You learning Spanish?"

"Yeah yeah! Uno, dos, tres, nachos!" I laughed. "What, what?" he said.

Mexico was treating him rather well. He loved it there, after only two or three days. He could see the President of Mexico's house from where he stood! The food was fresh and good and unbelievably cheap. He repeatedly remarked on the cheap price of the Mezcal and then quickly added "not that I'm drinking it" after every reference. He mused about the two gallons of Mezcal that were about to be delivered to his casa, and sniggered gleefully over the cheap price. "For cooking. And maybe a sip with lunch. Just a splash," he coughed.

He insisted that we all come down for a visit and live like kings. Heck, we should all just move down there permanently, because it was heaven on Earth. "Those boys can run wild in the agave fields!" he said. "It's the safest thing! A mile of space! They would be perfectly safe to just run wild. Except there are these burros...these really big burros. What are they called? Burritos...OXEN. I mean, bulls! You don't pet those guys. They could gore you."

That is one big Burrito!
The trip down had gone perfectly. His large bag weighed two pounds over the weight limit, but the woman in the baggage area had winked and waved him onward. The Federales treated him kindly and laughed at his jokes, despite the fact that he'd been gurgling free double Absoluts on the plane (apparently Aeromexico hands these out for free, plus hot breakfast. What an airline!) "I would not be escaping from anything, of course. Who the hell wants to escape TO Mexico?" the Manny snorted at customs, as they all laughed and waved him through.

His new landlords met him at the airport and took him out for dinner: A huge meal with tequila shots that amounted to about 8 dollars total for three people. After this he became really chatty and mentioned that in Vietnam, he had killed 163 people. Apparently, they keep a tally. It's considered a sort of honor, a point of pride. I think it has haunted Manny his entire life.

"That's a lot of dead people," he said, almost soberly. His landlady had hushed him and said, "Let's not talk about that, okay? Not out in public and not to other people, at least?"

"I almost screwed my pooch there, Miss Jennifer!" he said. "163 people. That's a lot." There was a long moment of silence and then he was off and running again:

"Do you know how salty the salt is here? And how sugary the sugar? I took a big lick of a salt pile and it was so salty I almost threw up. They have mountains of salt! Your dad, I mean your husband, would hate all that salt. The sugar is just so sugary. And the sun? I'm brown like a beautiful Mexican girl! I've found my smile. I have finally found my smile. There is nothing better than this. Do you know how much free booze there is, Miss Jennifer? I mean, I'm so happy, I'm not needing to drink at all. Just a little with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you know?"

From left to right: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner.
He called back about 10 times in the next two days. He sounded a little lonelier; he asked to speak with the boys and they all shouted things like "We miss you!" as we poked them and pointed at the phone. He'd received his chickens and was prepping to name them. They each produced about one egg per day. He thought he might name three of them after the "little guy, the middle one, and the big one," our sons.

"You really ought to come down here. I'll pay for your trip! I'm working on a new business plan. Pretty soon I'll be making 10K a month. Hey, did you know that you can get a meal down here with eggs, beans, chorizo—all you can eat—plus three shots of Mezcal, all for three bucks?"

The last time he called was June 21. I recall that when he had been gone a few days we took note of a strange sort of melancholy, almost as if we had been at a funeral. "I feel as if someone has died," I said, in the parking lot of Trader Joe's. And then there was the thought: He has gone there to die. We will never see him again.

We will never see him again.

Never again will I be worried that, upon stepping out of the shower robed and towel-turbaned, that Manny will sight me and recoil and stammer his way into a doorframe. Never again will I see the plate of fresh-cut fruit that he has laid out for the boys at 6 am, making sure there is an ample supply of red apples (the only ones youngest son likes!) in proportion to green apples, along with cuts of watermelon and pineapple. Never will I see the chaotic mess he has made of the kitchen after a stir-fry extravanganza, with drippings down the edge of the stove. We won't hear him moan and cry out: "The pain! The pain!" as he plods up the attic stairs to his dark aerie.

I hast barfed profuse filthy dishware whilst I wast cooking.
Here is what I wonder on this rainy, desolate, wind-cooled night: As he steps out beyond his meager possessions (wok, pot, coffee carafe, lemon squeezer, spoon) and looks past the casa to see the burros plodding along, carrying firewood against the sunset, is he perhaps, strangely, the happiest of beings? Does he know even one sure thing that we do not, if even for the briefest of moments? He has claimed his smile. He knows better, perhaps, than to expect its certainty each dawn.

We dream a fiction. We can never really know the truths that fools and madmen hold in their dark, stung, longing hearts.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Manny Diaries, Chapter Twelve: Chippy and the Back Scratcher

He made it. The Manny made it to Mexico. He's really there, and he is really not here. I think I'm suffering from a fair amount of disbelief.

There's a residual effect in the air, like he left some ghostly effluvium here, such that I can almost hear him groaning "The pain! The pain!" as he treaded up the stairs at night. I still realize with a start, at 5:15 pm, that no one is cooking my boys a gourmet dinner, and now I have to toss some frozen lump of a thing in the oven to get them fed. I look out the window and expect to see him shuffling through the garden in his slippers, inspecting the pea shoots and looking for Bun-Bun, his special tame friend, who must have lost his (or her?) parents to a hawklike personage because the thing is FEARLESS.

This is Bun-Bun.
I once remarked that we shouldn't be so quiet and gentle around Bun-Bun because we were teaching him additional fearlessness that his parents had failed to teach him and he was gonna get snacked upon. I worry about the little fellow daily, as does, no doubt, the Manny.

Before he left, we suggested that he would be lonely without his special animal friends, Bun-Bun and Fatty the Groundhog, who lives under our shed. So we jokingly plucked a "lovey" out of the Vast Bin of Neglected Stuffed Animals and gave him Chippy the Chipmunk, who is a hand puppet,

He really took to Chippy. He walked around with him a bit, talking to him and working the hand puppet so that Chippy would "respond." I said it made him seem less crazy because at least he was talking to SOMETHING as opposed to just babbling to himself. In fact, he took Chippy with him to Mexico. But, he left the back scratcher (pictured below) behind. Do you know how I found out? When we were cleaning his room, after his departure, my husband gently scratched me on the back with it as I was bent over stuffing things into a garbage sack. glgflflh!!

Chippy and the Back Scratcher. Use your imagination to picture the scene with the Manny in it. 
The cleansing went on for quite a while. It took all morning to take down his blackout curtains and let the sun shine into the attic room, sweep the desk of detritus, and gather up a sackful of greasy and sticky coins. There was some half-gnawed peanut brittle. There were some half-empty Coke bottles, and a bottle of ear wax remedy. There was not, however, an empty liquor bottle of any kind. We figured he's gotten pretty savvy and spirited them out in the dead of night, or maybe poured the stuff into Coke bottles in the parking lot of the CVS and then tossed the evidence.

The things we leave behind.
Because there was no doubt—no doubt whatsoever—that he had started drinking with a feverish intensity right before he left for Mexico. On Friday morning, two days before his departure, he showed up in the kitchen at approximately 8:30 am as crocked as a monkey. He was mumbling and slurring and blathering about how dreadful his life was and how fearsome things had become.

"Someone's gonna screw my pooch!" he said dolefully. "Everything that could have gone wrong for me has gone wrong. All of it!"

I said: "Are you drunk?"

He staggered backwards into a doorframe as if I'd punched him in the gut, his eyes bugging out.

"Drunk? DRUNK? howonearthcouldibedrunk? Huh? Heh?"

"Well, even a child can see that you're drunk."

"No no no no no I'm not drunk! I don't drink! Why would I be drunk? My life is so bad...the pain, the pain." And he massaged his aching hip. He stumbled around, mumbling madly and bumping into things.

My husband had words with him. Well, they weren't just "words." They were bad words, spoken at a high volume. By the time we came back from a school concert event, he had gone into the city to conduct one last errand. Husband sent him a note apologizing for raising his voice, but Manny simply must not drink and lying about it just made it worse. He wrote back:

Not drinking  I'll have    a hotel Saturday  need to go don't trust you
What about thee quorts in your space you have your own problems 

"Thee quorts" referred to something he'd seen in our own liquor cabinet—intriguing, given that he had no possible reason to look inside that cabinet.  But then again, we'd been noticing a few things vanish from that cabinet now and again.

Here was a dreadful dilemma. How was he to get to the airport? How would we ensure that he was going to get on that plane and fly to a different country? And would he return in time to pack Chippy, his wok, the back scratcher (evidently not, in this case. glrk!), his French press, his lemon squeezer, and a handful of underwear?

Fortunately, he did. And he came back wearing this jaunty chapeau, which I think he imagined as a Mexican sombrero-like accessory but, on him, looked a little small atop his big ol' head.

Heisenberg Dos, in straw.

This isn't the last chapter, of course. You've probably figured that out by now. There is more. Indeed, there is more.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Manny Diaries, Chapter Eleven: Mexico is for Lovers

On Sunday (6/15/14), if all goes according to plan, the Manny will be winging his way toward his new home in sunny Mexico. The odds that he actually makes it onto the plane grow increasingly slimmer, in direct proportion to his nervous nattering and hand-wringing, and the reality that he's drinking again. Yeah. His fears include:

  • Being detained at the airport and made to pay exorbitant taxes on the few beat-up possessions that he's taking with him.
  • Finding out that his landlords will put him in enforced servitude upon arrival, and that the Craigslist listing was an elaborate ruse to get a slave.
  • Discovering that whatever suitcase he brings is exactly 1 inch too large to qualify for the one free bag (because of the wheels!) and being forced to pay more money to transport it.
  • He will get waylaid by banditos at the local Wal-Mart
  • He will accidentally drink the local water and get Monty's Revenge
  • Since he can't speak Spanish, the cheap translation app he bought will say "pussy" instead of "gracias." When we typed in "thank you." Which it does. For real.
  • And much more!

In the interest of a smooth removal, I took him to the local Goodwill to find a cheap suitcase of exactly the right dimensions. We found one right away! Here it is:

Manny accosted a fellow who was sorting girls' clothing on the racks.

"Do you work here? Or are you just some creepy guy who likes touching little girls' clothing?" he asked the man, then guffawed. "Anyway, do you have a tape measure?"

Manny opened the bag and reached into an inner pocket, immediately yanking his hand out and flinging a pair of dirty women's undies violently away from him. They landed on the end of the clothes rack and dangled there. Virginia is for Lovers, indeed.

"OH MY GOD I HAVE CRABS NOW!" he said, scratching his arm violently. "Look, do I have a rash starting?"

"Crabs don't jump that fast," I suggested.

"They jump FAST!" he said. "Like lightning! They hop. They leap."

He bought the suitcase anyway, but the whole way home he scratched at his arm and inspected it for crabs and fresh bites. He got home and obsessively washed his hands and then started on the dinner prep. Except earlier that day, my husband had hidden the salt, after an overly salty meal that had rather bloated and sickened us. (The cooking was starting to lose its shine, after we realized that the scale was telling a tale of buttery, greasy, salty, sausagey overindulgence).

So he went seeking the salt, becoming almost crazed in his hunt.

"Where's the SALT? I can't find the SALT. Could someone have HIDDEN the salt?"

"Maybe," I said cryptically. "Maybe someone did hide the salt. I believe that may have happened, yes."

"Who hides salt?!! That's a creepy, crazy thing to do. WHO hides salt? I mean...I just can't even understand why ANYONE would ever hide salt. That's troubling."

He scratched at his head and worried about the crabs again, a little bit. Then he went searching for the salt again, muttering and cursing.

Next, he decided that he wanted to have a tag sale and get rid of all his worldly possessions, but for a few treasures that he would take with him to Mexico. So he made some truly extraordinary craptastic signs and tacked them up around the neighborhood, and he sat on our lawn, sweating in the heat, surrounded by a panoply of strange goods, including the Aunt Jemima bookends from Part Ten.

This print, by the artist Niagara, greeted shoppers as they arrived at the sale.

Here are some things he said to people who dropped by:

Woman: Is this something to rest your spoon in while you're cooking?
Manny: You can use it to cook up your heroin, actually.

Man: I'll offer you $20 for that.
Manny: Don't screw my pooch! I'm not an idiot. Didn't the ad say "no crackpots"?

Husband's Frenemy who lives down the block (returning item that he bought for $10): I got home and the wife said "no." So I'm bringing it back. Can I have my $10 back?
Manny: Who the fuck DOES that?

He sorta had me in agreement at that last one.

Anyway, he managed to unload a variety of things and made some decent cash.

As his possessions disappeared one by one, I began to wonder about the mental state of a man in his 60s who is suddenly unburdened. Lightened. Free to travel to Mexico, and perhaps to never return. One of the few things he hadn't chosen to sell was the urn containing his beloved bulldog's ashes. That would go into storage, along with the bulk of his art collection. The cast iron pots, the spoons, the coffee grinder, the French press—all of it sold, gone.

And I did think of all our relentless, endless belongings in the attic, those things that we call home. What we cling to and what remains. Ashes and memory. And how my friend texted me today and said "Is Sunday a special celebration combining Father's Day and 'Get the Fuck Out of My House Day?'"
Yes, all of that.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Waters of the Afterlife Are Filled with Man-Killing Fish

I recently had a conversation with Littlest Son, now age 6. Somehow we got on to speaking of the meaning of life, and where he might have been before he graced us with his presence on the planet.

Mom: Where were you before you got here?

Son: In the Before Place. It's just grass. Grass and lots of darkness, and people talking in the darkness.

Mom: Babies about to be born—they're the ones who are talking?

Son: No, there are no ages in the Before Place. Well, actually, everyone is five years old.

Mom: What about life after you die—do you think there is an afterlife? What's it like there?

Son: How would I know?! I am not dead yet!

Mom: But what do you think it might be like there?

Son: Oh, it is all trees and grass and flowers! Everything is very beautiful. And peaceful. Half of the world is grass and trees, and the other half of the world is water. The water is blue. It's all beautiful!

Mom: And?

Son: And the part of the world that is water is totally filled with sharks.

Mom: Sharks?

Son: Oh yeah, sharks.

Mom: So, in the afterlife, you can't even swim because the water is completely shark-infested?

Son: Yes, but this is only including those sharks who have died. Not all sharks.

Mom: So, a reduced number of sharks?

Son: Yes.

Mom: What about the bunnies? Aren't there any bunnies in the afterlife? Butterflies? Nice things like that?

Son: Nope, only sharks!

In the category of "Where on Earth did we come from?" you might also like The Oeuf Room.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Manny Diaries, Part Ten: Tequila Farming!

I never thought I'd say this, but lately I have been finding Manny something resembling...invaluable. Every single day, he comes downstairs quite early, before we are even awake, and cuts up a plateful of fresh fruit for the boys. Then he waits, ready to spring into action and fry up bacon and make gourmet omelettes filled with things like fresh asparagus and feta cheese and some delicious sausage that he sourced out at the Italian deli.

By the way, he washes his hands religiously and insists on separate serving utensils for each dish. If a kid reaches out a hand toward a serving dish, he flinches and groans.

It's filled with Manny-ness!
Later, he has dinner ready on the table by 6:00 p.m. Skirt steak tacos, fresh salmon with dill and lemon, garlic mashed potatoes, roasted beets in some sort of astoundingly good salad with delicious unknown ingredients and pepperoncini poking out of the top.

One day, he made the boys a pork roast. It was absolutely fine and tasty, but one of the boys decided it wasn’t for him.

Middle son said, “I don’t really like this.”

Manny, distraught, said, “You don’t? You really don’t? Why? What’s wrong with it?”

“I dunno,” middle son shrugged. “It’s kinda flavorless and chewy.”

Manny wandered off in a tither, all the way into town. I got repeated text messages such as:

Should I try more spice??
Think they would like quiche???
Stir fry

I had the boys make a list of foods they wanted to try and the very next day, he set out to start cooking the items on that list, one by one. That night we had BLTs, except he used fancy prosciutto. They were awesome.

Let’s face it…aren’t you starting to wish that you had a Manny right about now? If you want one, you have to accept the whole package.

He hums while he cooks, and mutters to himself. He talks and doesn’t listen. He makes crass and unfunny jokes—and an occasionally exceedingly funny one. And he brought in these somewhat…unusual bookends to prop up his cookbooks.

We throw a cloth over these when people come to visit. Not that they are not, well, somewhat of conversation starters.
He mixes up his words all the time.

“I put the leftovers in the other refrigerator,” he says, gesturing at the oven.

“How about I make some guacacado?” he asks another time. “Oh! I mean, something with those eggstables. Eggpants! Eggplant hummos.”

“You mean baba ganoush, right?”

“Yeah, that!”

(The baba ganoush was excellent.)

But he is kind. He got in the habit of pushing the boys on the new tree swing that our neighbor built, and pushing them much higher than I ever could, such that they would call out for him to “give me another push” and he would comply, despite sore shoulders and aching back.

So when he said he was going to move to Oaxaca, Mexico, at the end of June and live on a tequila farm, I had some mixed feelings.

I can't wait to drink this!
One, hurrah! Two, the Manny Diaries may have to come to an end. Crap. And three, what kind of bonehead would choose to live on a tequila farm when he oughta know the one poison he should never, ever have is booze?

In fact, he got so excited about his new life as a tequila farmer that, on Sunday, when he was purportedly out buying some food for dinner, he must have wandered into a local drinking establishment. He came bumbling in at 6 pm with no food and with a bottle of tequila, made in his future hometown! He presented it to us as a gift. He stank of booze and slurred and denied having a drink, so we sent him to his room.

We can’t really kick him out now, with so little time between now and his departure. He has rented a place in Mexico and even paid for plane tickets. He says he’ll stay sober until he leaves, even during his four-hour layover on the way to his new home. If he makes that connection it will be a miracle.

I can imagine getting a tearful, drunken phone call from the Oaxaca jailhouse (do they even allow phone calls?) saying that we gotta bail him out because he insulted some Mexican dude and then got into a pistol duel over the man’s underage daughter. I can just kinda imagine that.  But I think that truth will be even stranger than my imagination can conjure at this moment. 

Don't you? WHAT do you think our Manny will do next?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Spying on My Son at Recess

Today I went on a little run to blow off some steam, in the middle of the day. And my normal route took me past the elementary school playground where Eldest Son and Middle Son attend school. But lo, I'd arrived at an odd hour, for all the kids were outside for recess! I normally ran past this area much earlier in the day, but work had intervened.

I slowed to a walk, looking for the distinctive green shirt my son was wearing. Here was a rare opportunity to observe him in his native habitat. I might get a glimpse of something interesting. For, as he has told me, fifth-grade boys like other fifth-grade girls and vice versa. And there is lots of intrigue!

I am NOT a helicopter mom. This was a total accident!
I prowled along the fence line for a bit. I wondered if any of the teachers policing recess would think I was a creepy stalker-type, although stalker moms in jogging outfits are probably rare, so I decided that putting my hand to my forehead to shield the sun and actively looking for my son would make me appear to be more of a "concerned mom" who was just checking in on his well-being. I even affected that "concerned mom face" as if I might be a mom who had received a message just then about a child vomiting during recess and had been called to pick him up immediately.

I couldn't spot the little devil so I patrolled the playground border one more time. Then I spotted him! He was in a group of about four or five kids, smiling and talking and looking like he was holding court. Yes, this was good. I recognized one of the boys next to him. A possible ally, possible enemy. One never knew with this character. I'd have to keep a close eye on the fellow. Eldest Son looked pretty confident. He almost swaggered a bit, despite some run-ins with a chunkier bully that had caused a bit of trouble during the fifth-grade year. His long, blond, girl-magnet hair was gleaming in the sun. "Yes. Yes! Yes to never paying a barber's fees ever again!" I thought.

And! One of the girls standing next to him was the girl that he has told me he likes. She was hanging on his every word. He'd picked well. She was definitely the cutest girl in his class, in my estimation. Her back was turned to me, and I could see Eldest Son slouching and acting all cool and digging his hands in his pockets and scuffing at the gravel with the toe of his sneaker. Maybe this meant...she liked him too?? I'd pulled my headphones out of my ears in case I could hear a bit of the conversation, but the burble and cacophony on the playground blurred everything.

Then I saw one of the other girls in the group poke at Eldest Son and gesture towards me, and I read her lips: "Isn't that your MOM?" I tried to duck down but too late. Eldest Son gave me "the look" that said: "Oh good grief, what are you doing??!!" Before he could react further I shot off like a rabbit down the street, as if I'd not been on a little jog but actually a crazy, ass-burning sprint. Yeah, I'm trying to beat a personal record! I waved to him idly as I shot off down the street.

When I asked him on the walk home from school what they'd all been talking about, he simply said: "Oh god, Mom, what were you doing, anyway?"

"I was interested in seeing my son, as any mother would be! I care for your welfare and like to see how you are doing and all that! And I totally happened to be passing the school. So, um, does this mean that she likes you?"

He moved rapidly away from me, shaking his head, his backpack bouncing on his thin shoulders. "Whoo boy, mom, you really...I dunno. Mom! You are crazy," he said.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Manny Diaries, Part Nine: Conspiracy Theories

Perseverate: To repeat something insistently or redundantly; to repeat a response after the cessation of the original stimulus.

Conspiracy theory: An explanatory proposition that accuses two or more persons, a group, or an organization of having caused or covered up, through secret planning and deliberate action, an illegal or harmful event or situation.

Put two things together, and what do you get? The Manny, that's what. 

For three weeks now, he's been blessedly sober. At least he appears to be, and there's no hint of fumes on the breath or the eggy, bloodshot eye. He snacks on pounds of chocolate and pretzels in bed, by his own admission, and says that there's no way he's a drunk because "alcoholics drink, and I'm not drinking! See?"

He perseverates on various things. Someone hacked his files and stole all his contacts. Something in the universe is out to get him. The post office is up to no good and is out to destroy his career. Why does something named "Grumpy Cat" have a career and he doesn't and couldn't he do the same if people were not out to get him? Goody Longbottom down the way gave him the evil eye and soured the milk in the cartons and the cows' udders. No amount of logic and humor can address these fears, and they are brought up every single day, numerous times per day, unless I can avoid him through stealth and speed. 

"I don't know, Miss Jennifer. It just seems that an evil force is out to get me. I have been betrayed. I did so much for so many people. And they betrayed me. My feeling is that there's something suspicious going on, for them all to betray me at once."

"Maybe they noticed you were a blathering drunk and they were afraid to do business with you?"

"Ah, no, not possible! My customers are all idiot drunks themselves! Most of them, anyway. No one minds if you're a drunk with lots of money. People just mind if you're a drunk without money and out of luck."

He might have a point there, with that last one.

He natters and blathers and perseverates so much and so persistently that I fear I will go mad, and will tear at the curtains with my teeth and kick him in the throat and stand on my head going "yah, yah, yah!" until he runs and hides in the attic.

Oh, speaking of the attic. I had an acquaintance come visit yesterday and she wanted to check out our attic, because we always say it's cool and has lots of potential and space. I kind of warned her that there was a man living up there but I am not sure she was prepared. We wandered into his space and he was sitting there among some orange peels, surrounded by dirty laundry, on a carpet black with filth (crap-daddle, that is one of my old carpets and I hadn't had the nerve to walk in there for quite a while, but now that I saw it I can't un-see it. Aw jeez, can it even be saved? No, it cannot.) My acquaintance hemmed and hawed and made some polite throaty noises but I could see she was jarred. Why does Jennifer have a troglodyte living in her attic? She seemed like a normal woman, but now I am convinced otherwise. And, the creature sitting there in the dirt has a pornstache!

[Manny shaved recently. And he has a pornstache now. And short hair.]

I can cook a mean pork butt.
He has outlasted the two days of sobriety once predicted by my friend, and he has not nipped at the sauce. But I confess that we are waiting for that fine day when his conspiracy theories will coalesce into a singular notion: If only I had a cocky-tail, perhaps everything in the world would right itself?

Haven't you ever thought the same, those of you who have had a whiff or two of the bottle? And when that day happens, what will become of him? 

Meanwhile, he tends our new tomato plants and braises the chicken thighs and mashes the avocados into a guacamole of which I can't pretend I'm not jealous, even though I was once considered the Guac Queen in our household. And I watch our boys attack Manny with their small, ineffectual limbs, because clearly he's fun to try to climb aboard, as big and rangy as he is. They are like mosquitos to him; he plucks one up and puts him gently aside just as the next boy launches himself. He laughs. He seems happy. He is good with them. I swear it. 

Something rotten this way comes.
He says he is happy, but for, you know, that problem. The betrayal. The conspiracy. Everyone is against him. He's trying to get a handle on it, wrap his mind around it, move forward. And he's really worried about the Korean grocery in town, because the veggies there are wilted and why would anyone sell wilted veggies and are they about to go out of business and if he had recommended them to someone they would think he was full of shit, just plumb full of shit, and that would give him a bad reputation for recommending bad grocery stores, and some of the veggies in that store sink in right under your thumb because they are so filled with rot, and there's something wrong going on in this world and why won't anyone wake up and see it? 

If you ever read this blog, Manny, know that I acted alone. No conspiracy. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Manny Diaries, Part Eight: Back in the House

It's not over....

For all we knew, the Manny had been living comfortably on a pig farm for the last several weeks, enjoying the company of his new porcine brothers, reveling in the fresh air, and enjoying a snort of bourbon whenever and how often he liked.

So we were pretty dismayed to get a phone call from him on March 11th, in which his opening conversational gambit was: "I'm cold. I'm homeless! And I'm scared."

He was clearly drunk. He claimed he was sitting atop a grate in NYC with all his bags and baggage and was freezing to death. Interestingly, that day was a balmy high of 66 degrees with a low of 45, but "It's below zero out here!" he stuttered.

"Dude, what happened at the pig farm? Why did you leave?"

"Oooh, their son was really annoying. I couldn't tolerate him! He was crazy!"

Some information was clearly missing. Perhaps he had gotten too cozy with one of their pigs in the sty and they sent him on his way? Either way, he was sitting on the streets of NYC.

"You drinking?" we asked.

"Me? Nah! I've been sober for 15 days, at least." Except it came out a bit like: "I'sh been stober for fiteen days at leash!"

"And your choice to quit drinking was motivated by...?"

"I just didn't need it. Can take or leave it. Why bother?"

He didn't listen much to reason, including the suggestion that he check in at an AA meeting.

"Why would I do that?" he said. "I don't drink!" Except it came out a bit like: "I dunnn drinkuh!"

After a while, he hung up. We were worried about him, but what could we do? It wasn't like he'd even proposed a solution to us. He hadn't even asked to come back.

Then, a couple of nights ago, we got a voicemail at 1:30 a.m. "Dude, I'm homeless," it said. "I am homeless. And scared. And you fucked me. You screwed me."

I didn't really like that message. So when he called the next day we were prepared for the worst. But this time he was sober. Completely, rock-solid sober. He said that he had hit bottom and was prepared to do whatever it took to get help. He was terrified. He sounded like a scared little boy who had thrown a rock through a window.

What would you do? Really? Here is what we did. We drafted up a list of ironclad rules and told him to come back and take a shower and start attending a program for drunks and show us the chips they hand out at AA and blah-de-blah and, oh, by the way, pack up your stuff and get the fuck out ASAP or we will do it for you. The point was, Obey the Rules or Ye Shall Be Homeless Again.

Last night I was lying in bed and at around midnight I heard the front door open and he came in, huffling and shuffling. I hid beyond our bedroom door as he thumped and mumbled up the stairs on his way to the attic. I peered through the crack into the light but I couldn't see him as he passed. When he was gone I darted to the bathroom and back, on bounding fleet feet like a kid afraid of the dark.

I didn't see him today at all. And I didn't hear from him either, except for that one time he entered the upstairs bathroom and released a series of loud farts.

 I told the story today, in brief, to a friend who has some knowledge of alcoholics. "He's sober right now," I said. "And we've given him lots of warnings and all that. And he said he hit rock bottom. So, we expect things to get weird but maybe he'll make it this time, maybe—?"

As we were speaking she held up two fingers.

"Is that the peace symbol?" I wondered, briefly. "Is she wishing me peace for being a good egg for taking in this poor soul again?"

Then she leaned over and said: "I give him two days. Two."

Friday, February 28, 2014

I Immobilized My Kid With This Handy Device

My child just had a panic attack. But I immobilized him quickly with the Papoose Board and he calmed down SO fast. The "spread-eagle" position is so comforting for little kids. It makes them believe that they are about to, like, hug Barney or Dora or another cuddly character. The head-strap aspect makes them super-secure, too, because they can't flail up and head-butt the mo fo who thinks that strapping them down is a good idea. The child pictured here was previously stupefied by continuous rounds of "Minecraft" and was therefore limp and flaccid when captured. Most children will bite you before being subjected to this humiliation.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Manny Diaries, Part Seven: Crumbling Walls

Hundreds of people wait for the end to this story. "Why not thousands?" I asked my friend. "Because you don't have a kitten playing a piano," he suggested. "You have only a drunk who can cook. It's not so visually spectacular."

Once we discovered the receipt for the bourbon, we conferred. My husband and the Manny engaged in the following dialogue:

"Did you buy a bottle today?"

"Uh, no?"

"So you didn't buy a bottle of bourbon today?"

"Uh, well, I guess I kinda did."

"I can't have you drinking and being around the boys. And if you are going to drink, you can't live here."

"I'm 63 years old. No one should be able to tell me what I can or can't drink!"

"OK, then. You have to promise me that your drinking will not become a problem. You need to be an asset. I don't need any more liabilities."

"I promise. Absolutely. Not a problem!" And he enwrapped husband in a giant, sloppy bear hug.

For the moment, his nannying duties were on hold, with the exception of cooking. Some mornings we'd come down to find he'd cooked chorizo and asparagus omelets for the boys and prepared a massive fresh fruit salad brimming with mangos, watermelon, and apples. He made homemade beef negimaki on the grill, whipped up fresh guacamole and spicy salsa, and ground gourmet espresso from the specialty coffee store. And little by little, sip by sip, we sensed that he was, occasionally, getting pickled on bourbon.

One night he ground up a whole lot of bourbon-flavored coffee and made himself a full french press worth. He retired to the attic and gurgled it down along with what must have been several shots of actual bourbon on the side, so that when we saw him next he looked like an old eggy-eyed groundhog given an electrical charge to the buttocks. He was literally vibrating with caffeine. We thought he meant to disguise the bourbon scent with the coffee scent, but we were not fooled.

I think I ought to back up for a moment to explain here, for a moment, why we—a nice, "normal" couple in a Westchester suburb—would ever choose a boozeaholic old fellow for our childcare in the first place. (Although the Manny, in his 60s, would resist the term "old fellow" most fiercely. "Good God, she's gotta be pushing 50! Too ancient for me!" he said of a woman who had asked for his number and persisted in calling him.)

There are a number of reasons. Among them, there is perhaps an idealistic, money-saving sensibility at play. After all, I found my fabulous Weber grill in someone else's curbside trash! Hand-me-downs and trash-picker finds include my lawnchairs, sleds, snow shovels, table umbrella, wheelbarrow, lawn tools, bicycles, snowboots, and couches. I get most of my clothes from boxes that my glamorous LA friend sends me when she cleans her closet. (Note to friend who is reading this: Send more!) The rest I get from the Salvation Army.

But we always think it's going to work out.

As an example, here is a section of our back stairs:

So trendy. Going for that "your wall is a map of unidentifiable Balkan states after-dinner quiz!" kind of look.
In a burst of energy, I'd torn off some ugly wallpaper and revealed a crumbling wall in need of professional assistance. I'd wanted to paint the wall myself, do it on the cheap. I'd gathered some paint samples. It would work out just great. Just like our new cost-effective nanny.

The wall never got fixed. It was too much for me to handle. Not without money, which is not in steady supply.

And, we really believed that the Manny was a good person. And indeed, he is. He once visited us at a time when Eldest Son had a serious problem with a bully and he was golden around the boys, really golden. He protected them. He had stood up for what was right.

Over a year later, our long-time supernanny had to move back to England. Manny wanted to move back east. We wanted to save some money. We thought: He loves the boys! He's a great cook. He can for sure pick them up and drop them off at school. What could go wrong?

But now our great cost-effective solution turned out to have problems, like the wall which, once revealed, was chunking off in powdery bursts of ancient plaster and revealing more weird Rorschach tests in its facade.

Manny started to slur and stumble. The Blanton's bourbon took hold.

I had a work trip that took me away for five days during which we had two big snowfalls and just as many days off from school. Manny was good as gold during those days, but I received texts from my husband:

"If you don't come home on time I will crack up!"

"Dishwasher broke."


I got home and things were weird indeed. Manny, pajama-clad, was roving freely about the house. He was rambling about fish. He was a drunken mess. He wanted fresh fish and he needed to cook them, now! He started sobbing and laid his head against my arm and told me his real name, the one he'd been born with, and how his adoptive parents had disregarded him. He wandered up the front stairs and reappeared almost immediately down the back stairs, rambling and stumbling from room to room. I couldn't escape him.

"Miss Jennifer! My life is bad!" and he'd grip me by the arm and start to sob.

Over and over, he lurched and wept against my husband and told him how he loved him and how he needed a hug, repeatedly. And my husband, who had had just about enough, begged him, "Get away from me and stop touching me and go away! I have had more physical contact from you today than I have had with my own wife in five days! Just give me some space!"

At which point Manny said: "Stop yelling at me!"

Husband had not been yelling. But now he proceeded to do so: "I will not I will NOT please just get away from me RIGHT NOW."

I heard this from the next room but apparently right then the Manny swelled up like a big puff adder and his arms got fat like fire hoses and his chest got real big and pinwheels started to turn in his eyes.

Husband stood strong and glared at him, wondering what it might feel like when the Manny struck and his head hit the kitchen counter and his jaw had to be wired shut. (Manny is not a small man, by the way, nor is he a weak man.) They stood that way for several extremely tense moments. Both of them knew that if he threw a punch, the next call would be to the police. And, finally, Manny deflated.

Manny shuffled off to bed. "Once he sobers up, we'll talk to him," we agreed.

The next morning he was excitedly babbling about fish again. So, I agreed to drive him to the fish store. It was 11 am, and by the time we got in the car I realized that he was already three sheets to the wind. We parked and he wandered in and saw this:

I am a succulent red snapper on ice!
He became enamored with that fish. I mean, he started gazing into its dead eye. And then he started saying things like:

"The last time I broke a man's hand it was over a fish like that! OOPS! Don't repeat that!"

"Hey fish guy, you ever do wetwork? Yeah, don't ask me about that. What do you think of Mister Obama? He's a criminal! You gonna overcharge me for this fish or what? Rest your hand on the scales or what, right? Kidding! Just kidding!"

"Miss Jennifer, these fish are beautiful! You want a shine in the dead eye of the fish, you do. You don't want it to look dead and all you want it to look sheeny. You don't want it to look like a guy who got whacked last week and was left sitting in the alley. Fish ought to be fresh."

He was rambling all over the store picking out this and that but he spent his own money ($87) so I did not complain. We got snapper, scallops, salmon, and more, and then we stopped at the greengrocers (where he insisted that another shopper, an elderly woman, was flirting with him), and we went home.

He started stuffing the beast. He had bought all sort of herbs and he got the stomach of this fish open and stuffed it to a faretheewell.  His hands were peppered with herbs and such and as he was washing them he said, "I think I shall go on a little walkie."

I knew what that meant! No drunk who lives in an attic ventures out at 4:50 on a gloomy day for no reason. He was headed to the liquor store for certain. The last thing he needed was more booze. We'd been waiting all day for a sober moment to speak to him seriously.

My husband came home from the grocery store and asked where Manny was. I told him he had gone on a "little walkie."

Husband texted Manny: "Do not buy a bottle. I have been waiting for you to get sober so that we can talk. You promised me that it would not be a problem, and it is."

Husband then immediately called him, and said: "I just sent you some texts. If you just bought a bottle, you need to return it."

Manny said, "Okay!" relatively genially, and they hung up.

He didn't come back to the house. But twenty minutes later, he called back. "I can't be treated like a bitch," he announced. "My friend is coming here to pick me up in an hour. The decision has been made."

He came back with a sack of something liquid and quietly packed his bags and waited. He didn't eat one bite of that fish. That beautiful, stuffed, sheeny-eyed fish. We asked him to partake. He said, "I want your boys to have it. I want them to be fed."

Before he left he got teary-eyed and huggy in the kitchen again. "This just isn't working out," he said, shaking his big head. "No one is to blame. I'm not mad at you."

"But," said my husband, "if you'd just stop drinking...."

But Manny cut him off, as if that wasn't at all the issue. "Ah, this is what's best for both of us!" he said.

A car came to get him and the silhouette of a man stood at the end of our driveway. They were waiting to take him to the pig farm an hour north from here, where he currently resides. Manny rolled his suitcase out the door and I saw his slippers sitting there, his stupid slippers. I tried to latch them onto the outside of his rolling bag. I didn't have any success and finally I just rested the slippers there and they slid off with a soft whump onto the floor, and he said patiently, "Don't worry, Miss Jennifer. I will come back eventually and get them."

Will he? Will there be a Chapter Eight?

The next evening, Eldest Son said, "Mom, where is Manny? He promised he would do a cooking show with me. I kinda...I kinda miss him. I really do."

Manny always said that Eldest son was his "go-to guy." Eldest Son has never been able to tell a lie. And he wasn't lying now.

"Manny went to live on a pig farm for a little while! Say, let's cook right now. I have this recipe for chocolate mousse. Chocolate squares and eggs and heavy cream and cointreau? Hmm, don't have that last one. How's Grand Marnier? And let's make this chicken dish. We don't have the exact ingredients but we can improvise. You up for it?"

"A Moose! That sounds great."

(I didn't know what I was doing, not really. Not like a master. But it didn't matter.)

He started pounding chicken flat with a mallet and poking bresaola, cheese, basil into the folded packets. We melted chocolate and stirred in egg yolks and beat the cream into frothy peaks. We chilled the results and waited, excitedly, for the next day's reveal.

Since that night my son and I have made several recipes together, thus far. Don't underestimate the gifts that you bring into this life. Drunk, slurred, broken. There is always something left.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Manny Diaries, Part Six: Sober Up, We're Going Meat Shopping!

One fine winter's morning, the Manny came down from the attic. I saw him padding through the kitchen in soft slippers, apologetically filling a glass of water and retreating, as silently as he had come, back to his aerie.

He made small appearances throughout the day, like a dazed rodent, each time quietly filling a glass of water. Eventually, he accepted a proffered piece of gingerbread.

He must have emerged during the night, for by morning there had been further nibblings on the gingerbread. By day two, the gingerbread had been savaged. Quietly and neatly, with a knife. But there was little left.

By the third day out of seclusion, he started to make conversation again. He was wearing the same costume he'd had on since his return: flannel pyjamas and a sweatshirt. Whatever torments he'd endured in the attic to flush the booze from his system had seemed to do him a world of good. His eyes were brighter and he wasn't muttering and mumbling to himself.

He looked rather longingly at the cookpots and stovetop and said, "Thinking of going shopping anytime soon? Because I'd sure like to cook a meal for those boys. I sure would."

"You'd have to get dressed," I noted, and he practically leapt up from his chair, almost shedding his garments as he did so.

"I'll get changed and get some pants on and we can go buy some MEAT," he said. "We could get pork, and chicken, and pork, and meat, and maybe some beef and some things like that. OH, and some fresh vegetables, maybe like asparagus? And maybe some HERBS? I'll be ready in five minutes."

But gingerbread is tasty!
He clearly hadn't eaten anything other than gingerbread in days. So there we went off to the A&P, the closest local grocery store, which is staffed by octogenarians and patronized by other octogenarians. All of them are waving coupons and squawking to "Hector" or "Agnes" to come over to the register to verify a 45-year-old's ID. Things move slowly around there. I once likened the experience to being pecked to death by an aged duck.

Manny moved rapidly through the aisles, a new spring to his step. He prodded at avocados and rejected grapefruit that I would have happily tossed in my cart. He never even glanced at the junk food aisles. While in the produce section, he seemed more contented than he had ever been. He picked up herbs and sniffed at them. He fondled the rutabagas. More fresh items went into the cart: flip, flip, flip.

He really got going in the meat section. Some meat wasn't worthy of his attention. He really examined it, with the true cook's appreciation for a fine cut. He also squinted at the prices.

Meat makes the former drunk very happy.

"This is a good deal," he announced, tossing a family pack of meat into the cart. He picked chicken, pork, beef. He got more excited as we rolled down the aisles. He started blathering about grains and eggs and all sorts of food. He also grabbed a giant-sized bottle of Aleve and a lump of cured meat and a jar of caviar.
We checked out and loaded it home and he went to work, slicing and dicing and flipping things in his precious wok, which hung on our wall when not in use. The results were phenomenal. The boys gave me a little squint-eye as if to say, "Hey, thanks for the NUGGETS while he was gone. That was really great, mom, those frozen NUGGETS."

"You know what I wanna do?" he said. "I think I ought to start a catering business. I could do well at that. I really could, Miss Jennifer! I could sell good food to a lot of people around here who just want to eat! And I could cater their parties and such. And then, oh, I want to start a cooking show with Eldest son! He wants to learn to cook. I can teach him. I'll set up a video camera right here and then, we'll cook, we'll cook! And we can show how it's done, right here!"

So the days went on and the wok sizzled and the boys ate and ate and the Manny beamed. And then one day he went for a walk. And when he came back he accidentally left on the kitchen table a liquor store receipt for an expensive bottle of bourbon.

This stuff.
He saw me glancing at the receipt and he snatched it up fast as blazes and stuffed it into the garbage can. (Which was a dumb move, really, when one has pockets available.) Then he realized his error and hung about like a rabbit on hot cinders waiting for me to leave the kitchen so he could get the receipt out and destroy it. He kept walking out and coming back and shuffling about the downstairs, huffing and sighing.

But I didn't leave the kitchen, not until he went upstairs. Then I snatched the receipt out and took a photo of it. Then I took the garbage bag out of the can and left it by the back door.

He appeared in the doorway moments later, and his gaze went straight to the garbage bag leaning there against the cabinets.

"I'll take that out for you!" he said. "I'll sure take that out for you right now get it out of your way get it out of the kitchen yeah yeah I'd be happy to."

"You do that," I said. And he shot toward it like a man possessed.

I thought I smelled the stink of bourbon. And I knew that our world was unsteadily tipping, veering toward its next conclusion.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Manny Diaries, Part Five: What a World

The Manny was in the house.

For a couple of hours, we heard nothing. He was up there, sleeping it off. I wondered when I would see him.

Our upstairs bathroom has two doors. I had entered through door #1, while door #2 remained closed. I was putting my contact lenses into my eyes, when he lurched in through door #2, looking like he'd been deposited there by a tornado belching up its unwanted offerings. He was wearing a snappy new pair of pajama pants but otherwise looked unwashed and miserable. His eyes looked like fried eggs sprayed with shellac.

"Why, hullo," I said. He promptly screamed like a little girl who has seen a spider.

"I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry," he mumbled, and then he repeated one of his favorite maxims: "People scare me."

He used to say this a lot when he first moved in with us. You'd surprise him at a bend in the stairway and he'd shriek and flutter back against the peeling walls, whispering People scare me. We have two stairways in our house, front and back, and so he'd take to creeping down one when he knew the other was occupied, just to avoid unforeseen meetings. No matter how innocuous your behavior, if he ambled into the kitchen and saw you there frying up an egg he'd gasp and flail backward as if spying a predator with a baseball bat.

"What, you didn't expect to see me?"

"It's just that...people scare me."

He told me once why it was. He did it to stop himself from immediately beating the tar out of whomever innocent had startled him. His natural reflex was to launch himself into kill mode, and to arrest this impulse he had developed a highly-tuned startle reflex, so that the first impulse became "scream like a tiny girl in panties" while "destroy the enemy" moved into second place. While in Vietnam, he had been taken prisoner for several weeks. They had sliced both his Achilles tendons so that he couldn't run away, and then they punched and kicked him until he spat blood.

But on this morning in the bathroom, I didn't know that story yet. I turned to him and said, "So, I hear you were in the hospital?"

He shook his head vigorously. "No way, no way.  Hospital? Pffah! I missed my flight, man. It's my friend. The friend I was staying with. She got me all upset. She pushes my buttons, man, she pushes my buttons!" And he jabbed at the air vigorously.

"So you weren't drunk and strapped down by EMTs and carted off to Bellevue?"

"Crazy talk," he said. "Lies!"

"What about your tooth?" I said.

He said: "I am dead inside. I am just dead inside. My toof hurts."

I prodded at my contact lens until it made purchase with my eyeball.

"What will you do about your tooth?" I asked.

"That bitch ruined it all!" he said, running his hands through his now-short hair. "She was out to get me, let me tell you. She set me up. She ruined me. She ruined my life. Lies. I mean, she called an ambulance on me. Who would do that? WHO would do that?"

"Maybe she was trying to help?"

"Help? She was trying to ruin my life. She was trying to see me destroyed. This is what happens when you trust people, Miss Jennifer. This is what happens when you are a nice person. Oagh, my toof!

I couldn't look at him anymore, so I backed away and darted downstairs. I heard him shuffling and mumbling about upstairs. Then I heard him plodding back to the attic. My husband sent him an email. It told him that we knew the true story and, while we loved him, he must not drink one more drop of alcohol. If so, he would be out. Last chance. And he didn't come out of the attic—not at all—for two more days. I swear I didn't hear him come out to urinate, or anything. He didn't eat a scrap.

I asked a friend for some advice and she said: "He's up there detoxing. Your home has now become a halfway house, a rehab facility. With three kids under the age of 10 under the roof. I guarantee that you are not prepared to handle this. This man needs medical supervision. You should get him to a hospital."

I looked upwards, to the attic, and thought of the ominous and terrible task of extracting the Manny and delivering him to a nearby hospital, with no medical insurance. I thought of the only possible recourse if he should come barging down in a drunken apoplexy, which was calling the police. That would truly "ruin his life." I thought about the fact that it was only 6 degrees outside. Drunks die in the snow.

I thought about the fact that once, when Manny was a very young boy, he had seen an old man stumble off some apartment steps in the cold. The old man had fallen and his teeth had been knocked out—bang!—on the concrete, and he had died right there at Manny's feet. And Manny had wanted to tell someone, anyone, but his adoptive parents (distant relatives of some sort, as his biological parents had been murdered by Stalin) didn't love him and didn't care about anything he had to say or think.

He said to me, "What a world. What a world! I watched that old man die, and no one cared."

I looked up toward the attic and simply waited.

Oh, what a world! What a world!