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