“Cafe Misfit” by Dave Zoby
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. The TMR staff wishes you a happy week. Dave Zoby’s 2013 Jeffrey E. Smith Prize-winning essay “Cafe Misfit” is today’s piece, which evokes the insular community of workplace relationships with more than a touch of humor.
By Dave Zoby
Beauty is the sole ambition, the exclusive goal of Taste.
Suddenly one summer Joe and Oscar appeared in the Fan neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with the idea that they could open a bistro on the ground floor of the old Windsor Building, an aged apartment building situated mere yards from the humanities compound at Virginia Commonwealth University. Oscar and Joe believed they could attract wealthy academics, administrators with refined palates and deep pockets, visiting professors of modern art. They hired a fleet of waitresses and released colored balloons for their grand opening. They hired a chef of reputation and a passable sommelier fluent in Portuguese. They had thought of almost everything. But what they didn’t know was that professors are the worst kind of customers in the world, the very bottom. They don’t tip for squat, and they don’t socialize as much as you think.
They called their bistro Old Virginia Café. (Oscar, already betraying a vision conflicting with Joe’s, campaigned for Black Stocking Café, or Zingers.) But Joe had more money invested, and he insisted on the understated Old Virginia. They were Italians from Philly; there was no hiding it. They drove imposing black sedans with tinted windows. They wore the tight mustaches of card dealers and circus barkers. Even their shirts, silk and buttoned low enough to let their wiry chest hair escape, told a story of strange migration. One of the first things they did was to stroll with their lady friends along Monument Avenue to take pictures of the old Southern generals. I saw them halted under the gaze of Jefferson Davis, snapping photos like mad of a statue aged by passing traffic.
No one knew how they had decided on Richmond. They had run several lucrative businesses up north. There was mention of a limousine service, a dry cleaning supply business. Joe owned a Cessna and taught private lessons. Oscar co-owned a concrete outfit. Out of thin air, with no prior experience, they had decided to open a restaurant. Ripening in their late fifties, they said they had always wanted to have their own place. They loved to cook and drink, so the obvious next step was to open a restaurant. But they didn’t need a restaurant, and that would prove to be a problem. The only good restaurateur is a desperate one.
I kept my eye on Old Virginia for a year without going in. I locked my bike up to the rack across the street on my way to literature classes. Frequently, I spotted Joe placing menu boards on the sidewalk, advertising the daily specials: fried shad roe, calamari salad, ribeye sandwiches. His café was empty save for a few pairs of lunching ladies and a disquieting number of ferns he had spread around the windows for charm. Ferns like that, they won’t survive the winter, I wanted to say. And your prices are too high. No one is going to pay $10.95 for a stuffed flounder.
But I didn’t say anything; I just watched, expecting any day to see him close down like the ones before him.
The Fan, in 1993, was in ruins. Bricks were loose and falling from buildings. Roots buckled the sidewalks from underneath. Warehouses were shuttered. Over on Grace Street, where I lived, roofs were water-damaged and leavened. There was a handful of underemployed prostitutes who worked the corner of Broad Street and Boulevard. Rude bands played in some of the old bars that still thrummed with life. But on most nights, as I pedaled my bike back toward my rented room, the Fan seemed permanently vacant, a failed experiment, an apology.
How Joe and Oscar thought they could waltz down South and take our money I never fully grasped. I was infuriated to see Joe emerge one spring with his menu board: Virginia ham with peanut gravy; beer-battered rockfish nuggets, braised split quail and spring greens. I’d thought the last ice storm had cleared him out. I had not spied Oscar’s black Cadillac for months. I had just received the overwhelming good news that I had won a teaching assistantship. My tuition would be waived. And I would earn over three thousand dollars a semester, a staggering amount of money at the time. I swaggered into the café and sat at the huge horseshoe bar. Joe came out and offered me a menu. I ordered a German beer off the tap and settled on the burger, which was “hand-shaped” and came with fresh-cut “Virginia fries.”
Nearly thirty minutes later, Joe returned with my burger. He had spared no expense or labor. The roll it rested on had come from one of the local bakeries. He had even pounded out his own homemade horseradish as a bonus. The burger bled weakly on my plate while Joe poured himself a beer, leaned back against his beer coolers and asked me why I was studying literature.
“I love all of those guys—Shakespeare, Keats, Byron—but I don’t see how you can make a career of it,” he said.
“This is the best fucking burger I have ever eaten,” I said.
“I know it,” he said. “But how much does a professor make, anyways?”
My mind was elsewhere. I noticed that Joe’s dishwasher, Scott Black, had stepped onto the back porch, apparently, to smoke. But what he was really doing was looking for his dealer, Ramon. Joe’s chef, Freddy Macintyre, came in as I was finishing my meal. I had seen him many, many times in the grottoes of the Village Café, where he ran an all-men’s AA meeting. Freddy, a former chef for D.C. ambassadors and various diplomats, had lived the tumultuous life of a celebrity cook. These days he was clean, but he shook uncontrollably at the slightest crisis. He was distraught already because he had ordered crayfish and they had not been delivered. He was fretting and looking out the window for the deliveryman. I noticed things. And, most importantly, I noticed a gaping absence at the corner of the bar where Oscar used to lean.
Joe gave me my bill and went back to work on a cheesecake. He took a beer with him. With the bill in my hand, I rounded the horseshoe bar and looked into the kitchen through the tiny pane of glass. Joe stood at a huge stainless steel prep table. I pushed open the door and entered a cathedral of sunlight on metal. There was a nearly new Hobart dishwasher that belched and hummed through a cycle, its gills rows of fresh white plates. It breathed the sweet breath of bleach and steam. There was a rotisserie with ceramic bricks, two convection ovens, fryers large enough to bathe in, various pestles and their corresponding mortars and a grill to keep two chefs busy. Steel mixing bowls, iron stock pots, milky white ramekins, room-sized walk-in coolers, refrigerators that reflected my image like a fun house mirror: it was as if Joe and Oscar had imagined the most expensive kitchen they could think of and decided to improve upon it. Joe must be terribly underwater. Or, it occurred to me, he must have been rich to begin with.
Joe looked up from a dozen yolks he was whipping. He grinned.
“Do you need a bar manager?” I said.
We agreed on a small salary. I would work Thursday through Saturday nights and order the liquor for the restaurant. He gave me a key—I wouldn’t have given me a key. And then he said there would be no W2s; we would “work something else out.” Before I left, I refilled his beer and brought it to him.
“You’ll like it here,” he said. “We have all kinds of things planned for the menu.”
As I was leaving I bumped into his waitress, hurrying to make her shift. She had fresh bruises on the nape of her neck. Her blue eyes were wrecked with signs of alcohol poisoning. She had short red hair and deep charcoal stains on her fingertips: the telltale signs of an art student. “Joe is going to kill me,” she said—to me?—in a rough voice. But I had never spoken to her in my life, so she must have been talking to herself or to that arbitrator we all talk to when we are ashamed.
Why offer fried cod on your menu when you can go to pains to acquire blue catfish from a dealer near Yorktown and then drive out there to pick it up yourself, the white flesh in loaves, still smelling definitely of the river, of brackishness, a wet copy of The Richmond Times-Dispatch serving as a cover? Or maybe you don’t drive out there yourself, but you send one of your lackeys or Chef Freddy himself, with orders to stop by LaPrell Nursery for several trays of fresh herbs, chives and cilantro specifically. Freddy, if you forget the goddamn cilantro don’t even bother coming back. Just keep driving to Utah, Joe might say. And Freddy would fall apart with the shakes, not knowing whether it was a joke or not. Why serve your shad roe on toast when you can spend the morning driving around Richmond to the various bakeries until you settle on the white baguettes from Mechlers? And for God’s sake, don’t use store-bought bacon with your roe; call a farmer in Culpeper and have him slaughter a young hog for that purpose specifically. Go there and stand in the smokehouse, ruining your clothes forever. And your sauces: Are you going to make them all at once like some hack, or are you going to take down the copper saucepans which came from the French countryside of Flaubert and make each sauce upon order? Why would you do it any other way? These were some of the questions Joe sought to answer about the Old Virginia. The customers, confused by the length of time it took to get their orders of lamb meatloaf (he ground it himself) served in a red wine and rosemary reduction, looked at Joe with something related to pity. I served them a glass of wine on the house to apologize for the forty-five minutes they had sat there by the windows overlooking the skateboarders enjoying a session on the nearly vacant campus across the street. In June, I was giving away more booze than I was selling. Scott Black, the implacable dishwasher, would come out and sit at the bar and stare. He didn’t cringe at the long spans of time it took Joe and Freddy to serve a meal. Scott Black would ask for his shift drink—usually an expensive whiskey he liked to order just to say the name. The customers, meanwhile, looked at their watches and sighed.
“Joe,” I said one night as he was unwinding from a burst of late orders of cheese fries (a dish he loathed, a remnant of Oscar’s uninspired vision) “People are calling your place the ‘the old vagina.’ The food takes too long.”
He sighed heavily.
“I didn’t want to tell you, but it’s the truth. And Annie said she’s not coming back. She’s gone back to dancing.”
“Who is Annie?”
Joe got up from his chair and came behind the bar where I was refilling the sink with hot, sudsy water. He poured himself a shot of Basil Hayden and dropped in an ice cube. There was a thunderstorm swaying the trees along the avenue. He seemed dazed by the rain coming in sheets.
“Why don’t the professors come over? I always thought we’d get more business from those fucks. I don’t understand it.”
Joe sat and began to tell me some of the challenges he was facing with the restaurant. “Oscar’s loopy. He’s crazy as hell,” said Joe. “To tell you the truth, I am glad he’s gone. All he did was drive the waitresses away.” Then there was a problem, in Joe’s mind, with getting quality meat in Virginia. He wanted to age it himself, and nothing he could find was quite right. He had been flying his Cessna back and forth between Philly and Richmond with loads of prime beef, sausages, pork butts, which Freddy would drape obscenely in the walk-in. He was outraged at what passed for charcuterie in Richmond. And there was another issue: the Cessna needed an inspection, and no one out at Byrd Airport could do it. He didn’t want to fly it down to Atlanta just for an inspection, but he would if push came to shove. And good help was hard to get in Richmond, Joe complained. But what vexed Joe the most was the cold shoulder he was getting from the faculty at VCU.
“Is there some way I could get my place reviewed? Could you get someone from the English Department to come over?” he whined.
“Joe, you don’t want that.”
He poured another drink.
“I went to a place in South Richmond called Red’s this weekend, and they were eating goddamn gravy with coffee in it. The blueberries were artificial. The syrup was fake. And the place was full, packed with well-dressed people, the kind of people I want in here.”
Finally, Joe was learning something about the South.
My tenure as the bar manager at the Old Virginia Café was an innocent one. Perhaps I was not experienced enough to face the world. I was shocked when one of the waitresses took me to her apartment and popped in a sex tape before she poured me a glass of wine. Money was always a problem for me, even with the teaching position. I worked nights while my fellow students went to readings and art shows. I reveled in the unfairness of it all. Depressed for days when I learned the dean of Humanities was sleeping with one of my fellow grad students, I went into the Carriage House Book Store and approached the clerk with a copy of Baudelaire. “Kid, you don’t really want that,” he said. And it was true. So I put it back on the shelves. Riding my bike along Monument Avenue, the odor of hot pavement thick in the air, I marveled at the white statues of Civil War generals and a culture that revered their swords, their bad shoulders, their bladders cast in stone. I would often sit on the stoop beside the restaurant reading my graduate-school texts, and between the scurrying pigeons and the strolling pairs of academics, I would be approached by the same drug dealer day after day. He wore a navy blue skullcap through the blaze of summer.
“Need anything?” he’d say.
Was it that obvious?
“Get yourself laid,” Joe would hiss, and he’d give me a fifty under the table. But that was the problem with Joe: he was too invested in the visceral pleasures, the petty venalities of the world. He roared too much about “free-market capitalism.” He had no intellectual ambitions, as I had, unless you counted his desire to impress college faculty with his tricky cuisine. He went on and on about making love to various women. Dipping his Cessna over the fall foliage, he once told me, was like an extended orgasm. He never invited me along. He took waitresses up for short flights, and they would come back red-faced, giddy, as if they had witnessed a rare bird. He took them all up as a sort of application process.
Meanwhile, I plodded along with my bar rag in my pocket and a poem in my head. Late nights, I would try to tell Joe about the existential pitfalls of being midtwenties and studying literature. He didn’t want to hear it. “You’re doing it all wrong,” he’d say when he discovered me reading Leaves of Grass. “Why don’t you go out and fuck someone?” When I told him I wanted to write, he frowned a bit, shook his head. “Jesus Christ, can’t you do both?” Then he went back into the kitchen to check on his cheesecakes.
Joe, over the late summer, spent a great deal of time with his friends at the bar. Buzzed, they wandered down to the farmer’s market. Outside of town, the crops were ripening and the outdoor markets were resplendent with obscene eggplants, carrots the hue of sunsets, huge heads of white cauliflower and broad-leaved cabbages stacked like cannon balls. Joe, stumbling along the stalls of sweet corn, stood no chance. He bought everything in reach and let his lackeys tote it along, especially bags of sweet onions with clods of Spotsylvania County dirt still clinging to the roots. Fish mongers offered fat flounders from Knott’s Island. Tilefish? Littlenecks? Are you serious? The oystermen shucked their huge shellfish into Joe’s cupped hands, allowing great flows of milt to overflow and spill upon the ground. Joe stood no chance. When he returned to the restaurant, he was woozy, accompanied by a troop of new friends, each carrying a sack of food. They would all enter the kitchen, a dozen men, and within minutes, Chef Freddy, pissed off and intruded upon, would clock out and leave. Patrons at the bar would take note of the incredible volumes of beer and liquor and, always, laughter flowing from the kitchen and the outbursts that rose up from there. I discouraged paying customers from wandering back there, for once they met Joe, they became one of his friends and never paid for another drink, though their lives improved radically.
Around this same time Joe traded in his black sedan for a pickup. He bought one with an extended cab, so he could sleep there when he came back from his adventures in the countryside. I often saw him silhouetted in the truck, his neck cranked back, his mouth sadly agape, and I would feel sorry for him. I brought him cups of water and aspirin. But he was out of it, unable to say much. Hours later he would startle awake, start the truck, allow it to idle for twenty minutes while he regained his bearings and drive away, back into the Virginia countryside in search of adventure, or something related to it.
Joe kept land notices around the bar, and I often found him reading about upcoming auctions. He and the beer distributor would go out on Smith Mountain Lake to fish a bass tournament, or he would go to the cheese monger’s Blue Ridge cabin to throw hatchets and drink homemade whiskey that landed him in the hospital for three days. He’d flirt with the true nature of Southernness, then scare himself and buzz back to his wife and daughter in Pennsylvania. And the more he left, the more I found myself running the Old Virginia Café. The key burned in my hand, and I sometimes found myself there in the dark restaurant with nothing but the ferns to keep me company and the sound of the walk-in freezer doing its thing.
On one of Joe’s prolonged absences I fired Scott Black. He was two hours late and stoned. I said, “My only regret is that I can’t fire you twice.”
“Joe will hire me back,” said Scott, and he shook off his apron and flung it at me. It was incredibly clean, dry, hardly used. He pounded the Hobart with his small fists on his way out; the dishwashing machine seemed his only friend, yet he had punched it in the face.
With one phone call I hired a fellow poet and grad student supreme, John Venable, and within hours he was pumping the Hobart, steaming his hair into a pile of fibers. His skin turned pink, and I could see by his expression that he would not last long. He brought with him a radio/tape player, and he played rude Lou Reed concerts, bootlegged editions no one else could get or wanted. Immediately, he asked about vacations and sick leave. “I do bring a lot of experience to this position,” he said. He even had the nerve to ask about his shift drink, this within hours of being hired. I wanted to fire him, too, but I was already shorthanded. And in the restaurant business no one fucks with the dishwasher, or at least they begin with a certain patina of holiness, and it erodes from there. Besides, Chef Freddy was in another one of his moods, complaining about late orders and trying to close the kitchen at 9:00 PM.
“Freddy, goddamn it, you know we serve a late menu.”
But with Joe gone, the chef felt he could do as he wanted. He walked out. Luckily, one of Joe’s new friends, Gary, was seated at the bar. He was pretending to read a three-day-old copy of the Times-Dispatch, a crumpled pane of it in one hand. His bar tab was already becoming symbolic in nature.
“Sheeeet, I could do that man’s job twice as well,” said Gary. I was slightly disappointed that Joe was missing this display of outward Southern confidence, a fault of ours. Joe could learn a lot from Gary.
“Gary, tell me what do you know about cooking,” I said, playing along.
“After Vietnam I lived in Paris for five years, walking distance to the Bastille. I worked them tiny kitchens. I can cook like a motherfucker, stocks, breads, cassoulets. Shit, man, I can show you some stuff round here,” he said, and he stood, wobbly. I saw this as a grand opportunity to recover some of his outstanding debts. He was hired on the spot. But I had to pay him cash out of the register, one hundred bucks a night, because he didn’t want his old lady to know he had a job.
Gary fell into his duties and began to crank out homestyle Southern food with a touch of French. He baked Cornish hens and served them with a bed of mustard greens and collards. He made little pizzas christened with dollops of barbecued beef. He made a cassoulet of white beans and pork butt. He said, “People don’t want to be confused by the food they eat; the world is confusing enough for damn sure,” and he drank prodigious amounts of beer. You must remember that this was back in the early ’90s, before the proliferation of food shows—whole channels devoted to people stuffing their pie holes and making culinary postulations, before the widespread celebrity of Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck and the rest of them. One day, as I was wiping the bar, I heard Gary order a new keg of Miller. “That German stuff ain’t selling for shit,” he said to Arnie, the distributor. He poured himself an inaugural glass of Miller and took it in like smoke; here was a doer, a leader, the assistant manager I had longed for. I had a key made for him immediately, and when Scott Black came around looking for Joe, I told him to talk to Gary.
“This place still owes me a shift drink,” he said on his way out.
Of course Joe, upon returning with a crate of Maine lobsters and cases of white burgundy, immediately undid all my moves. Freddy came back, sanguine and aloof as always. He had discovered photography in his brief romance with unemployment and asked Joe for an eight-hundred-dollar cash advance to buy a lens. And Scott Black, in the dusty, wee hours of the previous night, had snuck in and regained his old position at the Hobart. There were not enough dishes for one dishwasher on most nights, but both John and Scott stood around in the steam and took frequent breaks where they drank Miller on the stoop and spoke with the drug dealers and history professors who wandered by. They began to drink so much keg beer that I offered to run a line back to the kitchen so they could pour it themselves. Joe, not knowing I was joking, said he would call Arnie and look into it.
Freddy was smug when I tried to apologize. I found him one September afternoon playing with two live river eels he was going to cook in a strawberry and champagne sauce, Joe’s dinner. He was tormenting the pair of fish, grabbing them so that they panicked and wrapped their jade-colored bodies around his forearm like bracelets. I told him that I had only fired him because he had done the unforgivable—walked out on a shift. This is the rule in restaurants from Baltimore to Shanghai: if you walk out on a shift, keep walking, man, and don’t even look back.
“It’s the rules,” I said to Freddy. He held a cleaver in his hand, and he cudgeled the first eel but only stunned it.
“I’ve been in kitchens longer than you’ve been alive,” he said. He struck again. This time he killed the eel, and it spewed a shock of orange roe onto the cutting table. “Don’t tell me about rules.”
A flat of soft-shelled crabs arrived the next morning, alive and weakly protesting. They were in neat rows like soldiers, and they were strung with wet seaweed to keep them alive. Gary breaded one and fried it for Joe’s breakfast. The two men were terribly hung over. Seafood seemed to pick them up some. Venable wandered in with love bruises on his neck. Gary fried him a crab too, its legs kicking as it went into the butter.
“Joe, why don’t you just fire Freddy?” I asked.
“Fire Freddy? Have you ever tasted his bouillabaisse? The man’s a genius, a saint!”
“Well, seems like people like what Gary cooks—”
Gary seemed embarrassed.
“So I will keep them both. What’s it to you?”
“Well you gave him eight hundred bucks for a lens. I don’t see how he’ll ever pay you back.”
“When you get your own place, you can do whatever you goddamn well please.”
I was hurt by Joe’s directness. He was right; the Old Virginia was his place, not mine. I went back out to the bar and wiped the bottles down, the odd liquors that nobody ever orders, the Pernod, the Drambuie, the Galliano. A few minutes later, Scott Black came in and punched his time card. And why did I care? In one year I was going to graduate and move to Colorado or some other mountain state.
But I was hurt. I avoided Joe for weeks. Finally one night, he sat at the bar as I closed the place. He told me that he trusted me.
“Well, you should back me up when I get rid of these folks.”
“But where would they go? Freddy is a mess. Scott—he’s a child.”
“Even if they cost you money?”
“It’s all they have,” he said. He finished his drink and went back into the office to count the drawers.
I had never thought about it before, but it was true. The Old Virginia was not a restaurant but a place for lost souls who needed the dignity of a job, even a symbolic job, to tether them to the world. I pedaled my bike over wet leaves toward my apartment on Grace Street and thought about this revelation. There was a new waitress, Stephanie, a single mother, who told her customers all the details of her ugly divorce. There was Venable, who was so distraught over a recent breakup that I wondered if one day he would not show up at all and I would have to go downtown to identify his body. And the men who sat around the horseshoe bar, they were all destroyed and broken in various ways: window salesmen, realtors, plumbers with six-pack-an-hour habits. They were cheats and scoundrels, braggarts and bastards. And what about me? If Joe was in the business of collecting the truly miserable and giving them jobs, wasn’t I cast among them? Joe had come to Virginia to gather and study us losers.
Recently, I had been snooping in the books. I had discovered that there were names of people on the payroll who did not exist, folks I had never met. Oscar was still being paid a ridiculous sum. There were inflated salaries (47K for Freddy and 45K for Gary). I saw lists of cases of wine and booze that never arrived at the café. Fuel costs and maintenance for the Cessna were included in Joe’s accounting. And there, in the bottom columns of the ledger, I saw that the expenses far exceeded the profits. The Old Virginia Café, I realized, was meant to lose money. Sometime, I am not sure when, the restaurant had become something intended to fail. I had a suspicion that there was a twin restaurant in Philly where the cases of wine and liquor were going. There were parties there that I would never attend. The Old Virginia was a ruse and always had been, an illusion like Joe’s oddball reflection in the refrigerator doors, like my kiss-ass overtures toward high-minded literature and the balding, old professors of English who seemed permanently out of breath.
I pedaled down Grace Street and stopped at Annie’s apartment. She was home, fresh from a shift at the Red Light. She was washing the ridiculous makeup from her face. One of her roommates was watching movies, so we went into Annie’s room. It was cluttered with canvasses and frames, squirts of paint on her bureau. She said she was disappointed with her portfolio, that she was thinking of moving back to Virginia Beach and working at her father’s car dealership. She asked about the café, if things had gotten better for me there. We crawled into bed with little fanfare. She said to be careful with her knees because they were bruised.
“You know,” she said afterward, “those same guys who come into the Old Virginia also come into the Red Light. Joe tips like a fool.”
She showed me some of her charcoal drawings. There was Chef Freddy with a venison sauerbraten, Gary smoking one of his cigarillos, Joe standing by his Cessna (I realized he must have taken her for a flight, which probably meant she had screwed him.) and a few of me behind the bar. I was dark, brooding, and she had captured something about me that was unsettling. There were too many of me.
“I look so unhappy,” I said.
For a few weeks after our rendezvous, Annie came in and sat at the bar by herself. She drank the same thing, expensive tequila on the rocks. I never charged her. “She’s a good girl,” Joe said, “you should go with her.” I stayed as far away from her as possible and spent my time cleaning bottle necks and scooping buckets of ice. And after her one drink she’d say, “Stop by after work,” but I never did because I was working feverishly on a backpacking memoir, a real piece of shit that would never see the light of day. Joe and Gary were out looking at land. They had been AWOL for weeks, and the spring was becoming possible, and after that, graduation, and the rest of my life, whatever that meant. The old professors loved my latest work and said it was “illuminating and moving.” They told me that I was at the height of my power. Gary bought me a book about Colorado from the Carriage House and left it behind the bar wrapped in simple brown paper.
One day, just as Annie was leaving, John Venable came out of the kitchen and watched her go. He poured himself his shift drink and popped a cigarette in his mouth. I was days away from leaving Virginia forever. I asked him if all the dishes were done and the silverware sorted. He looked at me in surprise.
“What happened to you, man?” he said, and he kept looking at me until I had to turn away. See, John had bought the Baudelaire.
I have lost all of them. Only John takes it upon himself to call me and inform me of the relevant tragedies. He called recently from Pittsburgh to tell me that Joe was dead, that the Old Virginia had become academic offices. Stomach cancer is what got Joe. When they buried him, Venable says, there was virtually no one from the café there, none of the old buddies, and the food at the reception was nothing Joe would have accepted. But Oscar was there, tall and gray-headed, stoic in a long black jacket.
We cried on the phone for a few minutes. Then we hung up.
And all I could think about was that time in the spring when Joe had asked me to come and look at some land. He had never taken me along before. I drove Gary’s truck with a john boat in the bed. I drove all night through southern Virginia, past battlefields and bights of dark, abandoned land and arrived just in time to pick up Joe and Gary at a rural airstrip. We drove through stands of timber to a small lake where Gary sculled us along all day and we caught tremendous large-mouthed bass.
“I think I will buy this place,” said Joe, threading a fish on the stringer, “Or I won’t. What’s the fucking difference?”
Joe and I left in the Cessna. Gary waved to us from the tarmac. And then we were up above the blue tree line, and I could soon see Richmond rising in the distant haze, the Blue Ridge to the west. As we flew over the city, I could see the Fan, water trapped on the tops of apartment buildings in pools, the James River brown with spring rains. It was too loud to talk in the cockpit. Still, I tried to get Joe’s attention to show him the huge amount of water tumbling over the falls. But he had something else on his mind. He drove the throttle down and pointed the small plane toward the trees. The Cessna began to tremble, and the trees were roaring up at us, blurring from the vibration. Papers began to stir and float around our faces. The bass slid around at my feet. We were seconds from death. We both smiled wickedly as the plane fell from the sky. But I wasn’t afraid. I had a shift that night. There were bottles of white wine specifically for this occasion, and the sea salt and spices stood in cones, ready for the touch of a chef’s hands.
Dave Zoby was born in Norfolk, Virginia. At VCU he earned an MFA in poetry. Dave has published poems in 64 Magazine, the Southern Poetry Review, Georgia State Review, Blackbird, the South Dakota Review and others. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Ninth Letter, the Sun Magazine, Gray’s and the Missouri Review. Fire on the Beach (2001) was published by Scribner. This work of nonfiction tells the previously untold story of Richard Etheridge, an African-American coastal hero who led daring rescues of shipwrecked mariners along North Carolina’s storm-swept coast. His latest book is an essay collection, Fish Like You Mean It.
“Rachel’s Wedding” by Rose Smith
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. “Rachel’s Wedding” by Rose Smith won the 2017 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for essay. Through recounting her longtime friendship with the titular Rachel, Rose Smith examines female friendship, as well growing past societal labels such as “outcast” or “misfit.”
by Rose Smith
The early September light on the lake is unreliable. It’s late afternoon; clouds race on the wind and the water laps the shore. Flashes of sunlight glint off restless waves in quick succession. The surface of the water changes from gray to bright blue as the clouds pass over the sun. I am looking out the window over one of the small lakes near our home in upstate New York. This is after I get married but before I get pregnant. I’ve spent the summer waiting for a baby to quicken: a baby I know is close but elusive. Beyond the lake is a cornfield, stretched out across the hills. The tips are turning brown. The corn gathers sweetness, waiting to be cut.
Standing here in the “Perla Suite” of the Glass Lake Inn, I feel a cool breeze coming off the water. I am wearing a white strapless top with boning in the bodice. My white pants stretch snug across my hips. Draped over it all is a sheer white sheath that I made yesterday. My friend Rachel is wearing a white wedding gown with a train and bell sleeves. The cut of the bodice shows off her long, straight neck and pale shoulders. Her golden hair is swept up into an elaborate twist. Behind me, gathered around the bride, are the two Megs and Rachel’s college roommate, Nazeera, who flew in from Prague to be here. I took the train up from the city, where I had been working. Rachel wanted us all to wear white: something breezy, flowing, and all white at her wedding. Nazeera is wearing an ankle-length peasant dress. It’s perfect.
One of the Megs calls me back from the window. “Did you design your dress?” she asks me.
“Yes,” I tell her, even though it’s really just two rectangles of fabric sewn together. “But it’s pretty simple.”
“I wish I could sew.” Her name is Meg. Her best friend since first grade is named Meg too. We are almost thirty, and the two Megs still look alike: short and pear-shaped; blond, close-cropped wavy hair; intelligent glasses. In fact, they both look just like they did in high school. Rachel and I, on the other hand, are unrecognizable from our teenage selves.
Rachel’s mom comes into the room, and a jolt of electricity runs through our little group. It’s time. We follow her out of the inn and onto the lawn leading down to the shore. The groom, fifteen or so years older than we are and born and raised in the city, waits for us on the other side of the lake. Rachel’s mom hands each of us a large silk scarf. The Megs get royal blue and emerald green, Nazeera a deep gold; mine is peach. We drape them over our shoulders so they hang long in the back, flapping in the wind behind us as we walk. Rachel’s mom kisses her on the lips and hurries off to her car. She’s driving around the lake to the other side, where the wedding tent is set up. The “gaggle of girls,” as Rachel calls us, will be traveling by barge, called like sirens across the water by the groom’s saxophone. Rachel is marrying a Jewish jazz musician named Saul. She even converted for him. A chupa and a glass to break and a rabbi all wait for her in her new life on the other side of this water.
I am sure we are a beautiful sight from the shore, but the wind is rough, and the barge is really just a raft with a motor that some teenage boy is steering from a crouch behind us. My hair stands straight up, and my eyes water from the cold. Our scarves whip frantically as the raft motors through the water. I watch as a long ribbon of golden silk lifts high into the air. It hangs suspended, almost still, in the chaos of wind and mist. The setting sun rests in its folds, a kind of floating origami light box. I think of my husband, standing near the shore with the other guests. I can’t make him out yet in the distant crowd. The scarf lands on the surface of the lake and is subsumed in an instant. Nazeera turns and lunges as it disappears. She almost falls overboard, and we scream and cling to each other, laughing and holding each other up, until Rachel’s dignity gets the best of her; she straightens up and faces the music.
I can see Saul standing on the shore now. He stands erect in his black suit, blowing on his horn. Snatches of the music carry on the wind, and the disjointed song is haunting and sad to me. Rachel’s jaw is set, and her back is straight, as always. Her eyes are wide with her smile, and her beautiful hairdo is a mess.
I’m in my new bedroom, with the new yellow bedroom set we bought when we first moved here. Two twin beds, for if I have a sleepover, and a matching dresser and vanity. I lie in my bed, reading Little Women again. Lots of the pages I already know by heart. The other yellow bed sits there all made up. There haven’t been any sleepovers. No one has even sat there. I’ve thought about messing up the covers just so I won’t feel so bad when I see it.
My mom pokes her head around the doorway. “Go outside,” she orders me.
“Quit reading and go outside. Enough is enough.”
“I don’t want to go outside.”
I look at her.
I put my book down and pull on my shoes. This new town couldn’t be more different than home. First of all, it’s mostly forests here, and so quiet. At home there were sidewalks and streetlights and always, at night, the noise from the go-go bar on the corner. Our new house is at the top of a steep hill, on a curving street lined with wooden houses. It’s the summer before I start sixth grade at a new school. I’ve been here almost two months, and I still don’t know a soul. I’m getting pretty nervous.
I walk down the impossible hill, feeling the rubber soles of my running shoes grip the slanted asphalt. There are no sidewalks here. A few miles down the highway are the 4 Corners Market and a post office and a dance school. At the bottom of the hill is another cornfield. Viewed from above, it looks like a giant patchwork quilt. The corn is so tall it is like a forever forest of waxy green stalks, millions of them, standing in a row. There’s a patch of grass before the first rows of corn and a big shade tree. I sit under the tree and lean my back against the trunk. I’m feeling pretty sorry for myself. I imagine I am Jo in Little Women, when Amy sets off for Europe. I don’t have any hope at all of going to Europe. Two girls come out of the house across the street and start toward me. I stand up when they step on the grass.
“You moved into my grandma’s house at the top of the hill,” says one of the girls.
“The blue one?” I ask.
“Yep. That’s my grandma’s. You didn’t buy it, you’re just renting.” She’s a pretty girl with blond hair that curls around her shoulders. She has boobs, too. I can see the outline of her bra under her T-shirt.
“OK,” I say. The other girl is hanging back. Her hair is long and straight like mine, but hers is golden and shines like silk. She has a straight nose that makes her face look as though it belongs to a woman, not a girl. Her body is like mine: skinny and childish.
“I’m Kristie,” says the pretty girl. “And this is Rachel.”
The room is mostly dark, our faces pale and luminous in the moonlight. Rachel’s house is far from town, an old farmhouse at the end of a long lane, and the stars out here are always the brightest they’ll ever be on earth. The Megs are here, and me and Rachel. We’re sprawled out on pillows and blankets in the downstairs living room. Her parents are asleep upstairs.
“Have you seen Kristie since graduation?” Rachel asks me.
“No. Not a word. She doesn’t call back or write. I even stopped by yesterday, and her mom told me she wasn’t home yet. But I think she was there.”
“I never understood why you were friends with her,” says Meg.
“She was so mean,” says the other Meg.
“She was my fiercest defender.” I say it with bravado, to make everyone laugh, but really I feel bereft and confused.
“Well, maybe she’s disappeared because you don’t need her anymore.” Rachel says it in her mom voice, but her tone is also kind of sad for me. I look at her white hands as she gestures in the faint light. She stretches her neck back and forth, popping the bones into place, crack-crack-crack. Rachel’s hair is cut. After we graduated from high school, she cut all her hair off, short like a boy’s. I can’t stop reaching over to touch the back of her neck. As ever, Rachel sits erect, back rod-straight, among the rest of us with our slumping, curled frames wrapped around pillows. She has grown into her woman’s face, and she is beautiful like a runway model, gaunt and rare.
“Ok . . . boyfriends,” I say. We are home for the holidays after our first semester of college. I still don’t recognize myself in the mirror, but my confidence is growing.
“I have important information for you girls,” Rachel starts. I am alarmed by her instructive tone. She definitely did not know anything about boyfriends three months ago. She went to school in Montreal. We visited the college together during the fall of our senior year. We wandered around that campus with her dad all day, and I left feeling inadequate and out of place, but Rachel seemed galvanized. In the car, I sat in the back, leaned my head against the seat, and stared out the side window while Rachel and her dad talked all the way home.
“I’m telling you right now not to do anal.”
“What?” squeaks Meg, sitting up.
“You know, sex in the butt.”
Oh, my god, I didn’t even know that was an option. “I thought only gays did that.”
“No,” says Rachel. “My roommate and her boyfriend decided to try it, and she started bleeding everywhere and I had to take her to the emergency room and she had to get stitches. Stitches. Up there!”
I breathe a small sigh of relief that she is only talking about her roommate. As far as I know, Rachel has never even had a boyfriend. She went to the prom with the Flemish foreign exchange student who was like twenty or something. Of course I didn’t go at all.
“Oh, my god, Rachel. That sounds horrible.”
“Consider yourself warned.”
“OK. OK.” We all look horrified for a few moments, and then I start to laugh. And then we are all shrieking and laughing and falling in a pile and clutching at each other to keep from rolling off the mountain of pillows.
When we can breathe again, I say, “Chip and I never even thought of that.”
“Oh, maybe Chip did,” Rachel suggests. She raises her eyebrows at me. We have a suspicion that the nice boyfriend I got at the end of our senior year is really gay.
“Oh, shut up,” I tell her. “And anyway, it was enough for us the regular way.”
“You and Chip had sex?” Rachel.
“Oh.” Other Meg.
“Yeah,” I answer. I surprise even myself that I admit this.
Everyone is silent for a moment. I feel intensely embarrassed.
“Oh, honey. I didn’t realize that you were going through that back then.” It’s her mom voice again, and she’s so full of love for me, and caring, that she suddenly even looks like my mom. I hate it when she does that.
We want to ride down the impossible hill. We go through the options, eliminating the ones that seem too dangerous or dumb. Bikes? Too out of control. Tire? No one wants to be upside down. Roller-skates? Only Kristie has them. I have a red wagon that belongs to my brother. The pinstriping is peeling up in places, and there is a dent in the front corner, but if we put a blanket in the bottom to make it soft and cushiony and hold the handle so we can steer, it seems like the best choice.
Rachel and I climb into the wagon at the top of the hill and stare down the asphalt incline. I’m in front, and she’s wedged in behind me. The cornfield below is brown and dry; the stalks have all been chopped low to the ground, and the rows of brown dirt make stripes in the land that stretch far into the distance. The air is cold, but it hasn’t started snowing yet. Soon, the snow will cover everything, as far as I can see. Soon, this will be the best sledding hill in town, and everyone will be here on snow days. We’ll have to wait our turn to slide down our own hill. For now, though, Rachel and I are about to drop. This is when Rachel still thought of her body as reliable and strong. Before she had to be careful.
Rachel steps off the barge and gingerly places her satin shoes on the wet, sandy bank. The Megs hold her train up away from the water. Nazeera and I climb gracelessly down into the spongy grass. I hold her arm as she hops down, and I realize: Nazeera is the roommate. With the stitches. I am wearing my new heels, a fancy designer pair that I bought in London when I was working there. They look more like art than shoes. The photographer snaps, snaps, snaps.
Once we are away from the water, the evening feels calm and familiar. Early fall in upstate New York. The sky goes from a cool blue to a pale pink and settles finally into a charcoal. I keep getting the sensation that there is someone nearby, watchful and waiting to join me. The stand of weeping willows by the shore is black in silhouette, a group of old women bent over their work: veiled, gnarled, intent, immobile. It’s a waxing moon; the stars are stealing the show, and it feels like home.
I move through the crowd, looking for my husband. He’s a big, gregarious type, tall and broad shouldered, with a heavy brow and dark eyes. I spot him talking to Rachel’s dad. He’s gesturing wildly, telling a story. Rachel’s dad is jumping up and down, switching feet, bobbing his head. He’s a lanky man with a long beard and graying hair that curls around his ears. He’s wearing a tie and a vest. When her dad sees me, he puts his arms around me in a big bear hug. As he lets me go, he pokes me in the ribs and says, “Quite a man you’ve got here.”
My husband winks at me. Rachel’s dad is pleasantly stoned. The three of us stand peacefully, looking out over the party.
The guests are a mix of old hippies (Rachel’s parents’ friends), hip jazz cats and intellectuals (Saul’s friends), a few upstate farmer types (neighbors), old Jewish New Yorkers (Saul’s family), and us (Rachel’s high school friends). Rachel’s Aunt Helen walks over to us. She’s wearing a pillbox hat trimmed with pearls. She looks smaller than the last time I saw her and so frail my breath catches as I say her name. She pulls me in and puts her palm on my cheek. “Oh, look at you,” she says. “You take my breath away.”
“This is my husband,” I tell her. She laughs as she pats his arm and gives me a told-you-so look. In a way, I love her like she’s my own.
Rachel’s mom comes by to tell us to find our seats for dinner. My husband pulls me to him as we walk, his hand firm around my waist. He fits his fingers into the shape of my rib cage. He likes the sharpness of my bones. How close to the surface my frame is. He likes to feel the elemental structure that holds me together. Once we find our table, I tell him I’m going to find the bathroom. “Be careful in those shoes,” he tells me, his lips close to my ear.
Near the bathrooms, I run into two guys from high school. Jonathan is about five foot three, and Sev must reach six foot five. They were the tallest guy in the school and the shortest. And they were inseparable. Jonathan married one of the Megs last year. I’m happy to see them.
“He looks like a guy you would marry,” says Jonathan.
“Your husband. He looks like a guy you would marry.” An awkward moment ticks by while I try to figure out what he means by that, and what I should say.
Sev steps in, “You look beautiful. You really do.”
“Thanks, Sev. I’ll see you guys after dinner.”
Rachel put us at a table with some of Saul’s friends from the city. The guy on my right is telling us about his job as a puppeteer on Sesame Street. I start to tell him about the dream I’ve had a thousand times, where Big Bird takes me flying over the red cliffs of southern Utah, but someone is beginning a toast, and we all turn in our seats.
It’s one of the hip jazz cats, and he speaks almost as if he is singing:
“O Saul, you lucky, lucky man.
O Rachel, you happy, happy girl.”
The school nurse opens her door again to let the next kid into her office. Rachel’s last name begins with G and mine with H, so we are always next to each other. Lines, lockers, assigned seats. The Heffner twins are making fart noises, and Kelly Ferraro is giggling stupidly at them. I roll my eyes, and Rachel tosses back her hair. We thought about wearing makeup today, but I decided against it. I don’t like to draw attention to my face. Makeup certainly won’t make it better. I told Rachel on the phone last night that she doesn’t need it anyway. She said maybe we’ll try it for the seventh grade dance on Friday.
The door opens, and Kelly goes in. We are all wearing undershirts today, so the nurse can do her tests and not embarrass anyone who doesn’t need a bra. Like me. Like Rachel. Kelly definitely wears a bra. The Heffners stop farting when the door closes. The lights on the ceiling of the hallway drone like summer insects. When Kelly comes out and Rachel goes in, I stand alone and try to appear disinterested. The twins lean against the wall, yawning and blowing spit bubbles. Rachel comes out with her hair shining and her shirt all rumpled. I want to smooth it for her as she passes, but the nurse is calling me in. The nurse’s office is small with beige walls and a metal desk. There are a couple of cots and some curtains for when you have a headache during class. I pull off my shirt. I’ve been through this before. I fold at the waist and put my forehead against my knees. The nurse puts her hands on my back and feels up and down my spine. I know why they do this in ballet auditions, but I can’t imagine what this has to do with school. She tells me to put my shirt on and go back to class. The Heffner twins look bored as I walk by.
The first day Rachel wears her back brace to school I am surprised. Not by the fact of it. I knew it was coming. It’s the metal and hard plastic that throw me. There are metal rods on the front and back of her body rising up her spine, straight and cold and ending in a plastic rest to hold her chin up, to pull her neck long and erect. The molded plastic that encases her waist and hips is vaguely pelvis-shaped. She is wearing her sister’s clothes because they are a size larger and button over the brace.
We stand at the mirror in the girls’ bathroom. It’s time for PE, and we are hiding out. Not for the whole class. Just to get our bearings. I look at Rachel. She’s brushing her hair, letting it hang like a waterfall down her back. From behind, with her hair down, you can’t tell she is wearing a brace. I catch a glimpse of my own face. It’s getting worse as I grow. I was only three when we had our car accident. Riding along the dusty road, windows down, dry air blowing our hair, sitting in my mother’s lap: that is the moment I am thinking of when I look in the mirror. The moment before. Next came the moment after.
Here’s what happened in the space between: My mother’s arm slammed into my ribs as she pulled me tight to her body. We were both hurled forward. Her face hit the glass of the windshield. Shattered. Shards finding purchase in her left cheek. Body arced into a grotesque shape. No arm thrown up in fear, hands still firmly wrapped around me. Below, as the shards fell, was my face. Smashed. Between the metal dash, and her stomach: blouse, skin, muscle ribs tendons uterus placenta amniotic, my brother, his beating heart.
There was blood everywhere. My mother lifted me out of the seat and set me beside her on the road beside the truck. The car in front of us was folded in on itself. The driver stood by, her tongue worrying at a cut on her lip. Her hands were at her sides like caught fish.
My mother was wailing. What she was saying didn’t make sense but it got under my skin and into my flesh and stayed there like a warning.
“Just live, she screamed. Just live!”
At the hospital her cheek was sewn up, a five-inch seam from jaw to temple. I was taken into surgery. The bones in my face were broken. Shattered. The university surgeon contemplated mending the bridge of my nose, my destroyed cheekbones, my broken jaw, my caved in sinuses. He had the skin pulled back to assess the damage. Defeated, he carefully sewed up my flesh, covering the chaotic mess with neat, loving stitches. That night, speaking softly to my mother, he attempted to explain: complex craniomaxillofacial trauma . . . soft-tissue injuries as well as multiple fractures to the underlying skeleton . . . growth will lead to secondary deformities needing surgical intervention. “You’ll have to wait until she’s grown,” he said.
“For what?” she asked.
“To fix her face.”
From behind, with my hair down, I just look like a little kid. In art club I am learning to make stop-motion animations after school. Rachel and the Megs are working on self-portraits. They sit at tables with mirrors in front of them and sketch in the lines of their features. Mrs. Reed tries to get me to start on a self-portrait, but I won’t relinquish the 8mm camera. I love the world it contains inside its glass lens.
After months of phone calls with the insurance company, my mom has made an appointment with a surgeon in the city. She says it is time we find our doctor. The operation to fix my face is still many years away, but the process is beginning. The long wait until I am “done growing” is almost over. Looking at myself in the bathroom mirror—the concave center where it was smashed in the accident, the flat nose, the hollow cheeks—I suddenly feel close to Rachel. We are like sisters now. Odd. Separate. Undesirable. Then, as she spins around to go change out for gym, I realize that she may not want to stay friends with me now. Before, we just ignored the fact of my face and instead complained about our flat chests and skinny legs. With me as a friend, she becomes half of a pair of misfits. I’m not even sure I should stay friends with her.
She walks through the door ahead of me, stiff and erect, her neck pulled long by the silver rods. I think of her like that while I am in dance class in the afternoon. My own neck is long and straight, but free. As I step out onto my new toe shoes, I balance there: my back arches, my leg rises in a high arabesque behind my head. I no longer take for granted the way my body curves and bends at will.
It is a May weekend, and we are in my mom’s baby-blue Bonneville. I’m at the wheel. Rachel is shotgun. The Megs are in the back. They are singing the harmonies of some show tune. One of the Megs is the lead in the high school play. I roll the window down all the way and look over at Rachel. Her hair whips around her face until she catches it in her hand and twists it all into a golden knot on top of her head. The seat belt stretches across the metal bars of her brace. I wish for her straight nose and fine high cheekbones, her perfect jaw. The sounds of the wind and road drown out the warblers in the backseat. I am wearing a white button-down shirt and black pants. So is Rachel. The Megs have their clothes with them. They’ll change when we get there. Where we are going is Aunt Helen’s wedding. She has asked us to be the waiters at her “dinner under the stars.”
“My Aunt Helen is getting married,” Rachel says to no one in particular. We are all a little shocked by this fact. Aunt Helen always seemed like one of us. A grown-up version, but still one of us: a woman too strange for anyone to love.
When we get to Rachel’s house, her mom puts us straight to work setting the long wooden tables out in the garden. There are lanterns hanging from tree branches. Cut flowers stand in canning jars. They’ve rented folding chairs, and someone has already placed them at the tables. Meg and I lay the plates out while Rachel and the other Meg arrange silverware.
“Fork on the left,” calls her mom. Rachel rolls her eyes. I pretend to stab myself in the chest with a butter knife. Rachel holds up a fork and pretends to throw it at her mom’s back. “Stop laughing and get back to work, girls! The guests will be here any minute.”
I need to pee, so I sneak inside the house. It’s a farmhouse like ours. At least a hundred years old, two stories, wood siding, steep eaves. Everyone enters through the mudroom on the side of the house. I don’t even know where the front door is. The downstairs bathroom is occupied, so I go upstairs. Helen is standing on the landing. Her ivory dress is trimmed with antique lace at the collar, cuffs, and hem. It’s fitted at the waist, and the narrow skirt falls just below the knee. Her ivory leather shoes button across the instep. Her hair is gold, like Rachel’s, but short and shaped into finger waves around her head. A small piece curls in front of her ear into a spiral on her cheek. She takes my face in her hands and cups my cheeks in her palms. Her hands are warm and dry. “I hear from Rachel that you’re having your operation this summer,” she says.
I feel the heat and color rise under her palms. No one else ever mentions this to me. Other than my mom, only Helen is willing to talk about it directly.
“What will they do?” she asks.
I move her hands so I can show her. I hold my finger up to my lower jaw, “They’ll cut bone out of here,” I move my finger to point at my upper jaw, “and then insert bone up here. Then they’ll put in cheekbones carved from my hip. They’re still deciding what to use for the bridge of my nose. Maybe a rib,” I tell her.
“Oh, it is amazing what doctors can do, isn’t it? I can’t wait to see how beautiful you are. And just when Rachel gets to take off her brace. What a pair you will be then!” She’s feeling romantic. I’m starting to get embarrassed. She looks around us at the narrow wooden staircase and runs her hand over the smooth, dark banister. She’s just remembered what we are doing here.
“It is my wedding,” she says. “I better put on some lipstick.” She has Rachel’s face, just thinner and older. Her skin is so white, it is almost translucent. Her trademark red lipstick always seems too much to me on her pale lips.
“I’m so happy for you, Aunt Helen,” I tell her. “Congratulations.”
My husband holds me close on the dance floor. Rachel and her new husband dance by. I do a little hop to avoid stepping on her train. Our eyes meet, and she raises her eyebrows at me. I know she’s as surprised as I am that we are here. With husbands. Rachel’s parents dance up and grin at us. They are happy. Soon they will fade into the dark outside the tent’s glow to get high, but for now they are present and accounted for, dancing the first dance. The next run around the dance floor, Saul is dancing with Rachel’s mom and Rachel’s dad has Rachel spinning and laughing.
The band, full of famous jazz musicians I’ve never heard of but that my husband is impressed by, ends the song with a bang. There’s an expectant pause, and then I see Aunt Helen walk slowly across the riser. Her husband has his hand on her arm as she takes her place at the microphone. She’s thin; her dress drapes over bony shoulders, blade-like forearms, jutting clavicles. Her bald head is pale in the twinkling lights of the tent. She has left the pillbox hat behind. Earlier she told me, “I just don’t have the energy for wigs anymore.” She moves carefully, and she is so fragile that I expect her to whisper.
We breathe a collective sigh as she begins to sing, a cappella. Her voice is strong and clear, “Like a bird, on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried, in my way, to be free.” At that, the band strikes up, and she swings the tune, just a bit, while we all smile up at her. In her hands, the song loses its ponderous tone and skips lightly, hopefully, toward freedom. She has been in remission before, but the news about her lately has been pretty bad.
My husband gets called to shoulder the chairs, and as the Hava Nagila builds, Rachel and Saul are lifted above the crowd. Rachel’s mom grabs my hand and pulls me into the circle. Her sister fits in on my other side, and we begin the spinning, circling dance that gets wilder and more frantic as it goes on. We are singing and stomping and kicking our legs in the air. Rachel is laughing. Saul has his hand on her arm across the gap between their chairs. My husband is holding the leg of her chair high in the air, but his other hand is on her waist, holding her firmly in place. I feel the heel of my shoe clip off the back of the dance floor, and the whole scene tips backward. And then I am on my back in the grass, just outside the reach of the tent’s light. Rachel’s mom and sister clasp hands to close the gap I’ve left behind, and I watch them spin away.
I try to stand, but my foot gives way in a burst of sharp pain and heat. I crawl over to a chair nearby and pull myself into it. The tent is glowing and pulsing with energy. The song is reaching its crescendo, and Rachel’s cheeks are flushed bright pink as she drifts past, lifted high above the crowd of dancers. The band transitions smoothly, and it doesn’t take long for my husband to find me sitting on a folding chair with my bare foot propped up on a table. “Do you have a broken wing, tender bird?” he asks me. He calls for a doctor. Two psychiatrists and an ophthalmologist tell me that my foot is definitely not broken. Their wives all disagree. My husband says we are going to the hospital for an x-ray.
“Just let me sit a moment,” I tell him. Out here on the lawn, it is dark and peaceful. Inside the tent, children slide across the floor in their socks, and old aunts dance arm in arm. We sit together watching Rachel’s dad: his tie is loose, his waistcoat unbuttoned. He’s got both of his daughters, one in each hand, dancing with him. He’s grinning like mad and hopping from foot to foot, waving his arms in the air. The girls are laughing as he spins them away from him and back in again.
“Look how happy he is,” my husband says. “So happy with his daughters. So much joy he can’t stop dancing and smiling. It’s utterly goofy. Totally free. That’s me out there someday,” he says. “That’s me, so happy.”
The lake sends a breeze over the lawn. A cloud moves, and moonlight flashes over us, illuminating the trees all around. There it is again. That feeling that someone is watching, waiting. We’re ready, I think. Come on.