Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 16: Christmas and the Real World

Chapter 16
Christmas and the Real World


            The visit home fit my usual pattern, a pattern whose existence I always forgot to anticipate. Never satisfied with people or things as they were, when away from family—and not demonizing them—I remade them mentally to conform to a lofty ideal. A model family reflected better on me, and so, I selected the best memories and added a strong dash of fantasy. But in their company, I was forced to accept the reality that they were simply themselves, and in no way affected by any of the improvements I had assigned them. I learned this lesson each time I saw them, and the unfairness of it always left me sullen and aloof.
This time, the setting was different. A year before, my father retired from the oil company, which during the span of his career, had moved our family across the Midwest and Northeast seven times. My parents needed a homeland. They sold their house in Pennsylvania and moved to a smaller one they built on a tidal creek near Wilmington, North Carolina—my father’s birthplace. My mother, the promise of master’s points dancing in her eyes, played bridge—lots of it. Dad devoted himself to cooking, cleaning, and hunter-gathering. He scoured the docks for the best-priced heads-on shrimp, and at the u-pick-it farms, filled buckets with strawberries, blueberries, and peaches. He bought two crab traps that he dropped from his dock in season. The new upright freezer, which had been full in August, was being emptied systematically. In my family, after a bite of chicken, you had to eat a forkful of something else. All items on a plate had to be eaten at the same rate. The rules that applied to the plate applied to the freezer as well—all things were consumed in order and proportion.
            Regardless of their new roles in retirement, my parents retained their quirky ways—ones shared, they believed, by all people possessing even a modicum of gumption: six a.m. to rise, six p.m. for dinner. Electric skillets were called “chicken fryers”—they had no other sensible use—and there was a correct pattern for vacuuming each room. For as long as I could remember, they had laid life out on practical lines of least resistance, but all I saw was ruts.
            I had found time for little Christmas shopping, so instead of giving gifts, I treated my parents, brother, and two sisters to Christmas dinner on Crystal Pier. Earlier, after the remaining Catholics had gone to Mass and the mountain of gifts under the tree had been opened, my father ferried us to the nearest barrier island in his fishing skiff. With my sister’s Labrador standing watch in the bow, we wound a mile through the dark waters of the winter marsh, and then crossed the Intracoastal Waterway—two trips to get us all there.
The island ran north from our landing point, and where we alighted, it was only the width of the dune. We beached the boat by the skeleton of an abandoned shelter, its silvered timbers pitted by blowing sands. The flaxen remains of the summer’s sea oats waved along the rise of the dune. We crossed it and walked toward the waves that crashed on the beach. In the shallow water, two women in hip boots were casting into the surf. A pair of sea trout marked time in their bucket.
The strip of land ran long, but was too narrow for development. We walked north, facing into the wind. Along the shoreline, breakers kicked up a mist, and through it, I could make out the soft outlines of houses on Topsail Beach, several miles ahead. There was no name for our unspoiled island—or so we liked to think.
We walked a mile up the beach and then back. Even in my family I was tallest, the rest of them standing only six feet—or an inch or two over. With the wind in my ears and the separation of my height, I did not fight to join their conversation. I reflected on my Key West life—hip, worldly, and vibrant. I walked tall—full of the importance of my place. Here at home, my job impressed only my mother. My brother and sisters were curious about the celebrities I had met, but in this family of readers, I was disappointed that my position afforded no special status.
The next day, CBS broadcast the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony. It seemed I had lived a life since the event, but only three weeks had passed. My mother, always tuning to cultural programs, planned to watch it. I had not even known it was on.
Suddenly, there they were—people I had met, parading across the stage. However, through the eye of the camera, they were canonized and untouchable—icons in a box. A wave of anxiety hit me as I watched. I did not belong to the world on TV, but I did not belong to the family surrounding me either. I was merely an accident in Tennessee’s life. Where was my place?
“There you are!” my mother said as she leaned forward, pointing.
I caught a glimpse of myself. The camera had found Tennessee sitting in the audience, and caught me sitting next to him too.
            “Wow!” my sister Julie said. “You were on TV! What was that like?”
She turned to my brother and my other sister who were sitting on the sofa intermittently talking and watching.
            “Did you guys see that?”
“See what?” my brother asked.
“Scott was on TV!” 


Five days with family had been enough. Returning to Key West, I puddle-jumped in a Piedmont Airlines 737—me, and the whole Baptist flock from Mayberry. The aircraft shook and shimmied through the clouds on our short hop to Greensboro. Bouncing in the tail, I smoked cigarettes as I watched the bobbing backsides of a field of crash-helmet bouffants.
            The plane swooped in a half-turn, and then bumped down at Greensboro. I tried to look through the rain-streaked window. Surely, there was a terminal building somewhere, but with my seatback at attention, only my ribcage had a view. I sat tight in my seat. I was sure Greensboro was not worth bending over for.
A few minutes later, two men in yellow slickers rolled a staircase to the door. Rain bonnets fanned open and were tied in place, umbrellas were readied, and then half of the congregation filed out and were quickly replaced. Before I knew it, we were back in the air.
When we landed at Charlotte, I had to change planes. As a city, Charlotte was growing so rapidly, its veneer of southern culture had peeled nearly away. Its airport denizens were more cosmopolitan than those in other Tar Heel towns, not all Baptists like the ones I had flown in with. Some dressed flashily, like Methodists, and a few appeared to be Episcopalian. I amused myself guessing the denominations of the people I passed. This church-going look of North Carolina air travelers was a holdover from a more ordered, restrictive time. It was also a proud display of status for those recently graduated from Greyhound. And then, it was Sunday.
I quickened my step. I did not have a confirmed seat on the non-stop to Miami. In the land of Carolina, smoking seats were sure to go fast.
I claimed my window seat next to a middle-aged couple. As soon as we heard the thunk of the landing gear and the light went out, we lit up in unison. Exhaling luxuriously, we glanced at each other, thin smiles of congratulations on our lips.
I tilted my seat back, thinking of the last time I traveled to Key West alone—the time I moved there, just over a year ago. I flew down to find an apartment before moving my belongings. I had just gotten the job at Tux. In desperation two years earlier, I had begun a career in restaurant management. During the years I had lived in Cape May, I learned to cook, and prepared meals for large and small groups of friends. I had thought of opening a restaurant one day, a restaurant that would serve food and drink in an atmosphere of easy conversation and creative inspiration.
Then, after my hospitalization and the dive into depression that followed, I had to face re-entering the world. I remained at my parents’ home in Pennsylvania, trying to sort things out, and after a few weeks, began searching for work in Philadelphia. I found an employment agency that specialized in filling restaurant management positions. The agency screened applicants before sending them out on interviews. On the day I answered their ad, they needed to fill an order from a steakhouse chain.
Before the initial interview, I sat with five others, filling out forms. I lied to cover the time I had lost to my illness. Discovering the positions were with a budget chain, I clenched up as I lowered my expectations further, afraid even McDonalds’ would not hire me. I looked around the room. The competition had led only the most industrious of lives, free of difficulties, detours, and nut-house commitments. I wanted to run. Instead, I continued to the health questionnaire. I did not lie about being manic-depressive—nor did I elaborate. The form stated at the top that it was confidential and for insurance purposes only. A secretary collected our paperwork and took it to the owner’s office. I fidgeted as we waited for Jim to scan the forms.
From down the hallway a booming voice shattered the silence. “Who the hell wrote ‘maniac depression’?”
Blood drained to my feet, and then shot to my face.
“Whoever wrote ‘maniac depression’—see me in my office. Now!”
I had no hope of slithering out under the door. My fellow applicants averted their eyes as I rose to my feet. I walked down the hall and presented myself.
“Erase that,” he said, stabbing at the phrase with his finger.
I did, and without a word, returned to my seat in the other room.
In Jim’s world, health problems of any kind simply did not exist. My entry had not been important enough for him to read correctly. “Split ends” would have offended no more or less. A blank spot fixed everything. At least if later accused of lying, I could blame Jim. I could try.
The next day, he sent me to interview, and I got the job. But I never filed a claim with their insurance company for the psychiatrist appointments or the Lithium prescriptions. I paid them out of pocket, afraid that if I were found out, I would lose my job.
Although I quickly advanced to executive manager, I did not enjoy the two years in budget steaks. The work was an exercise in mass feeding, efficiency, and “quality control.” The food was as American as aerosol cheese—and just as soulless. When I got the offer to manage Tux in Key West, I was thrilled. The owner, Gail, was the ex-wife of a good friend of mine. She had a passion for food and high standards. In a time when most vegetarian restaurants served macro-biotic and other foods with the rectitude and panache of the Pilgrims, Gail celebrated the flavors, colors, and textures of organic foods. For her creativity and the joy she infused in natural-foods dining, she had been written up in national magazines. However, she had sold Las Palmas del Mundo, and neither she nor I had the skills for this new, expanded venture. She was under-funded as well. For nine months, we wrestled with the operation, but in the fall, the tourist flow slowed to a trickle and the problems could no longer be hidden behind the cash flow. She cut the restaurant’s hours and laid me off.
Three years in restaurant management and my accomplishments were as dry as husks. The Tux adventure had ended in failure. Working for Tennessee was my salvation. I felt proud and important, and I enjoyed it despite my frustrations and the utter lack of job security.


“Complimentary Caribbean Punch . . . or Mimosa?” the stewardess asked, passing out cocktail napkins as we unsnapped our trays.
Most airlines offered a free drink en route to Miami—a restorative for pale fugitives from the North. They hailed from Manhattan, Toledo—and Charlotte. Stuffed into southbound planes, heads filled with palm trees and flamingos, they watched through windows as the earth greened below.
You did not have to be a snowbird to get the drink, however. “Mimosa,” I said.
The woman next to me hesitated.
“Oh . . .”
“Go ahead, Shirley,” her husband said.
Even Baptists partake of earthly pleasures when away from the pack, but Shirley was in a stall.
“Mimosas are delicious,” I said, “—orange juice and champagne. The punch is bug juice.”
The stewardess coughed a small laugh.
Shirley ordered a mimosa. Her husband asked for punch.
“I’m Shirley, and this is my husband, Earl.”
I reached across to shake Earl’s hand.
“We’re going to Miami Beach,” she said. “A full week!” She smiled and looked over at Earl. “We haven’t been to Florida since our honeymoon—twenty-nine years ago.”
Earl took her hand.
“Are you on vacation too?” he asked.
“No, returning from Christmas with family. It’s back to work for me.”
“Oh! Shirley said. “In Florida!”
“What do you do?” asked Earl.
I always wondered what Baptists—presumed Baptists—thought of Tennessee and his plays—characters struggling with alcoholism, mental illness, homosexuality, and more. Did Baptists have only sin in their eyes, or did they cheer the struggle of life?
This was a chance to find out—and possibly too, to impress.
“I work for Tennessee Williams.”
Earl leaned forward. “Really! What do you do?”
“Well, whatever is needed—manage the household, travel with him, deal with his agent, lawyers, accountant.”
“Oh!” said Shirley, grabbing my arm, “We saw him once . . . with Minnie Pearl! We—Earl and me,” she grabbed Earl’s arm too, “just love country music—the real kind.”
Of course.
These people were sprinkled throughout the population, and I ran into them even in the most unlikely places—dinner parties, bars, and even one at the Kennedy Center. To them, “Tennessee” could only be Tennessee Ernie Ford. They never failed to surprise me.
 “Tennessee Ernie Ford,” I said. “So easy to confuse with Tennessee Williams—the playwright. Glass Menagerie.” I always stopped right there with certain people, not wanting to over-stimulate them.
 Ohhhhh . . .” Earl said, as he leaned back. Shirley stared into her mimosa.
It would be a quiet hour to Miami. I looked out the window and watched the horizon tilt as the pilot adjusted our course.


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