Some time thirty winters ago, during the darkest seeming days of my life, when I literally dreaded to speak and felt like I was living underground, miles from any light, my sister and her prospective husband asked me to be the Best Man at their wedding. For some reason I cannot explain now I accepted. I felt well enough the following fall to give the toast, which was heavy in irony, particularly when I said: “and now, without a hint of irony, I welcome my new brother into the family.”
There is a photo of me raising a glass, in my tuxedo. Behind me is a smiling, slightly odd looking fellow, also in a tuxedo. His smile is strained, if you inspect the picture critically in light of what happened shortly afterwards. My parents laughed during my toast, but apparently their laughter was as sincere as this guy’s smile. The guy, a complete stranger, looks ready to punch me in the face. Not long after the toast he would do just that, back in the kitchen, in the middle of a circle of off-duty cops.
“I see you’re making this story all about you,” said the skeleton dourly. “You deliberately ruined your sister’s wedding and now you are writing the definitive account of you as the hero of the story. Typical.”
No, don’t worry, the story is about you, your reaction to the whole ugly thing, the huge fight a few days after the wedding. Have no fear.
“I’m beyond fear, up here on Cloud Nine. Another thing I want to talk about– this device of talking to me is getting a little tired, don’t you think? I mean, I understand you feel we should have talked more, without the concertina wire topped walls I always put up, and I was a gigantic ass to keep rebuffing your many attempts to have these talks, painfully regretted it all on my death bed, wished it had been otherwise and blah blah blah. I’ll even grant you that you’re right to feel this way about it. I just think the device of our ‘chat’ has become a rubber crutch, and about as funny as one. You show me a man who insists on conversing with a talking skeleton and I’ll show you a man no literary agent will ever take seriously.”
That all may be so, but it’s how I’m telling the story, at least for now.
“Addressing the reader directly, as you so often seem to do, is the mark of an amateur, don’t you think?” said the skeleton.
I am an amateur. As is every writer who writes but doesn’t get paid for the work. Dialogue is the most important thing I can think of, especially when I’m writing, since writing is essentially a conversation with the reader. Dialogue was painfully missing at home during my childhood, which is one reason I was drawn to friends I could talk with for hours, even if they were otherwise poisonous people. My sister and I still routinely talk for a couple of hours on our weekend calls. All this is a side show at the moment anyway, I think the story of my sister’s wedding reveals some terrible truths that need a-revealin’.
“You always were a vindictive little prick,” said the skeleton.
You can’t make a damn omelet without breaking a few eggs, padre.
“You always liked to bust balls,” observed the skeleton.
Only yours, really, or anyone who reminded me of you, actually. Turn about, fair play, all that rot, you understand.
When the chicken was served at my sister’s wedding it was yellow. The game hens were kind of a light beige color, really, and, if you cut into them, pink lymph oozed out over the knife blade. Few things horrified my sister more, on her plate, than an underdone chicken.
“Sure, we’re talking about the chicken now, not about how you deliberately ruined your sister’s wedding,” said the skeleton.
Every waiter at the Mark Twain Diner knew to hand the plate back to the cook if my sister’s chicken did not have crispy dark brown, almost black, skin. If they brought it out to her at the table in that juicy jaundiced condition she’d make a face, ask if she really had to explain again how she couldn’t eat underdone chicken. She ate her steak medium rare, but the chicken had to be well done. We both liked our chicken nice and slightly dry, and delicious.
The small chickens that were brought out for each guest at my sister‘s wedding were yellow. They were basically sashimi chicken.
“So what, that’s not the point! So fucking what?” said the skeleton. My mother, if she was in this story, would be getting even more worked up than the skeleton at this point.
I went into the kitchen and past a table full of perhaps fifty more chickens on plates ready to be served, all that same sand color.
“You shouldn’t have been in the kitchen in the first place! You had no right to be in the kitchen, you conveniently omit this fact because it proves you were wrong in the first place,” said my father’s skeleton, echoing his case-in-chief at the time. My mother’s ashes snarled a nice background part to my father’s growl.
The caterer had told me earlier, when I’d asked for ice, or something like that, to go into the kitchen and get it. He already had indicated it was no problem for me to go into the kitchen.
“Oh, sure, and that’s why you marched in there like you owned the place and provoked him to punch you in the face!” yelled my mother, who, although ashes in a fancy shopping bag, could not, finally, restrain herself.
You see, gentle reader, what I am up against.
“Oh, shut up!” said my mother.
That was their consensus at the wedding and in the days after the wedding. In fact, to this day, if they could vote, they’d cast their ballot for ‘he deliberately ruined his sister’s wedding’ and they wouldn’t have to hold their noses to cast that particular ballot.
With all respect for their certainty about my motives, my misguided purpose for being in the kitchen was to find a well-done chicken, and not finding one, look for the caterer, explain to him the bride’s preference and ask him to please put one into the oven and make it nice and well-done for her, that it would mean a lot to her. I thought this small, easily made gesture would be easy to explain to the caterer and that he, seeming nice guy, would agree at once. I was completely wrong on both counts, as well as in my conversational choices when things got tense.
I didn’t find the caterer in the kitchen. What I did next was wrong, I realize now, but I could hardly be blamed for not foreseeing that it would lead inexorably to the flurry of grunting punches that were soon to follow. I’d found a box of kitchen matches and devised a plan. I’d put a chicken or two on a pan (might as well make one for me as well) and roast it for another fifteen minutes or so, bring it out to my sister perfectly done. She’d be very happy, I thought, to be able to eat something she could enjoy at her own wedding.
“What the hell are you doing?” asked the caterer, appearing as I was bent over, peering into the oven, trying to figure out where the pilot light was. I smiled and explained what I needed, what I would like for my sister.
“I don’t want to make her sound like a diva, or demanding or anything, it’s just that she literally can’t eat chicken unless it’s well-done,” I said, “and it’s her wedding and I’d… you know, it would mean a lot to her, and to me.”
“You can bring her any chicken on the table, but you can’t use the stove,” he said quickly, distracted, his men busy serving the undercooked birds.
“Thanks,” I said, “but, look, they’re all done about the same. If I could just put one in the oven for a few minutes it would be ready in no time, I could stay here and watch it, I don’t want to give you any hassles while you’re serving.”
To his mind I was already doing that, and he made it clear when he said “look, I really don’t have time for this, I told you, take any one on the table, you’re not using the oven.”
“I get it, but look, do you see one that is well-done? I mean….” We had arrived at an impasse in the conversation.
He took pity on me and explained, in a human gesture I appreciated, as far as it went. “Look, I have an arrangement with the women who run this place, I cook the meal in an outside kitchen and serve it here. I do a lot of business with them, and they don’t want me to use the stove, and I’m not going to jeopardize that for one chicken for your sister. So with all respect for your sister, take any one of these chickens, but I can’t let you use the stove.” And he turned to walk back into the dining room to continue supervising his staff, and smiling at my parents who had hired him.
“He was a very nice guy,” insists the skeleton to this day.
I’m sure he was. In retrospect, viewing the circumstances in their fragile totality, the shaky house of cards the festivities actually were, the many ironies in delicate equipoise, I should have put out of mind any thought that my parents were paying for my sister to be served an inedible chicken at her own wedding, a bird that would go, untouched, straight into the dumpster. A small thing in the cosmic scheme, really, but I allowed myself to become emotional rather than cooly analytical about it. Things happened quickly, though, and what I said next was probably not the best thing for me to say, but he was in a hurry and, in my own defense, it was succinct.
“I know you’re in a hurry so I won’t waste any more of your time. I understand what you’re saying. You’re not going to help out here. Your business is very important to you, I get it. I work as a bike messenger, money is not that important to me. I must say, though as a businessman you’re doing the right thing… as a human being, you’re a piece of shit.”
Then I turned, hurled the box of wooden safety matches I was holding against the wall and headed back toward the dining room.
Unbeknowst to me, the caterer, Frankie, by name, was an off-duty cop. He worked full-time by day and did this gig as a second job, probably took a little pep drug to keep him hopping at night and so when he yelled at me to get the fuck over here and I told him, over my shoulder, to suck my dick, I was already resisting arrest. I was literally surprised to see this bull of a man charging me. I turned, indignant, shoved him, told him not to even think about it. He didn’t. He shoved me up against a counter, held me off balance against his hip, as he’d no doubt learned in the police academy, and commenced to punching me in the face.
(to be continued)
“Oh, shut up!” said my mother.
“‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death’,'” said the skeleton quoting Exodus 21:17.