Blueberry or Plain
I thought my dad was just like every other dad, until the day I worked my first Sunday brunch. I stepped over a line that afternoon, a thin wrinkle in time, hanging in the ether between breakfast and lunch. It was subtle, a wisp of a moment, like God giggling as he licked his thumb and turned the page on Providence. Distracted by the fact that my father had traded his sanity for a paper chef hat and a set of utility tongs, I missed it — but the moment happened. They say the Lord rested on the seventh day. Not so. He went out to brunch with the rest of creation.
I began working at my father’s restaurant, with the rest of my siblings, at twelve. George, my father, enlisted all of us at an early age. Child labor laws didn’t apply back then in our family, so my father could do anything he wanted with us, and he did. There were nine of us: Johnny, Jimmy, Katie, Peggy, Chrissy, Amy, Steve, Jeremiah, and me. I never thought there was anything unusually large about my family. I still don’t. Today, when people hear nine kids, they always gasp. The gasp that offers an implied “a lot” or “too many” or “holy cow.” But when you’re number nine, when you’re the last one who arrives at the party, just before time runs out and the uterine door is slammed shut forever, you don’t gasp — you sigh. I suppose some of the older siblings, the ones forced to rinse out poopy diapers left soaking in the toilet before they used it, may have occasionally thought eight or nine was one or two too many, but not me. I never saw what life looked like without them. Sure, I imagined it, every time Jeremiah stuck his disgusting bulbous white wart in my face, but that just doesn’t count. To me, nine was normal.
I never saw what life looked like before the restaurant either. It was present in the definition of our family — the member that equaled the whole. Employment there, when we were kids, was simply understood. Every day the sun came up, and food needed to be prepared. I never heard a single conversation regarding whether or not one my siblings would go to work. What I did hear was the phone ringing, someone calling in sick, and Peggy and Chrissy fighting about whose turn it was to go. Perhaps we could have unionized, but we were too scared, and too small, to think of such a thing. The eight of them went before me, some before their tenth birthday, so I guess I was lucky.
Here’s how I ended up in my father’s chain gang: I slipped up and got caught stealing time on the sofa.
It was July, I think, 1982. Our summer cottage in Cedar Grove had become our permanent residence the previous August. It was a Swiss chalet replica tucked at the end of a gravel road along the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan. I had access to some of the most pristine beach in North America, yet instead I chose to watch TV. Late one beautiful Saturday morning, George, my father, caught me lying on our woolly plaid couch, still in my Lanz nightgown, watching The Lone Ranger. That was the moment I kissed unemployment good-bye.
Admittedly, it was a rookie mistake. Even at twelve, I knew enough to run from the TV when I heard his footsteps on the loose floorboard outside their bedroom door. Television existed in our house for the moon landing, assassinations, and my mother’s sanity. Period. For us kids, any enjoyment via TV was strictly prohibited.
So that morning, my father went on a semi-hysterical tirade about a beautiful summer day, reading a book, laziness, and the covered-wagon days.
I just sat there with my mouth open.
Then, his parting words, “You’re coming with me to work the brunch tomorrow,” slapped me out of the television’s tranquil grip.
Maybe I sabotaged myself, because in truth, I was actually excited to go. I adored my siblings, and aside from Jeremiah, they had been trickling out the door, one by one, for years. Johnny and Jimmy were married with families of their own, and the rest were either in college or getting ready to start. When they did come home on weekends and holidays, usually to work, I felt an excitement that I think is unique to the babies of the family — and puppies. If I’d had a tail, it would have wagged. So I raced to catch up with them; anything they were allowed to do that I wasn’t held a delicious mystique. Once in a while, as our parents slept, my siblings secretly let me sit on a lap at the kitchen table in my pajamas, teaching me how to fold pizza and say “shit” while they chatted with their friends. But their time at the restaurant had still remained a mystery. After a full day at work, they came home with hands smelling of smoked fish and stale strawberries. I heard tales of needle-nose pliers and slipping the pinbones from a side of whitefish. They never talked much about George. Looking back, it seems a little odd. I honestly don’t think it ever occurred to any of them to alert me, to say something like, “Hey, head’s up, Dad’s . . . um . . . not quite right on Sundays, so don’t do anything stupid.” That would have been nice, but it’s not how they rolled. In a family business, some things, no matter how out of the ordinary, are just accepted as “normal.” They didn’t know any better; therefore, neither did I. All I knew was that when my time finally came, I would clean flat after flat of strawberries. And I would do it as well and as quickly as my siblings did, if not better and faster.
Of course, I had been at the restaurant hundreds of times. More often than not, though, I was just along for the ride. I had never worked an entire day. Sometimes I carried a five-gallon pickle bucket and cleaned the parking lot of candy wrappers and chewed gum, but mostly I just sat at the bar, ate hot fudge sundaes, and waited for someone to take me home. My sister Katie would make fluffy grasshoppers for the customers, then pour me the remains from the blender. It was wickedly cool, minty, and grown up.
My father didn’t wear a suit, sit at a desk, or hang around a water cooler, but his job at the restaurant seemed regular enough to me. I never gave it much thought. Truth be told, I didn’t really care. He left the house early every day and he came home late. He brought home raw meat and other unidentifiable leftovers from his office. So what? Aside from that, George was just like every other dad: he dressed like a goober and was never home. Saturday mornings were when we usually saw him. Before going to work, he made us eggs, any way we liked them: scrambled, fried, over easy, over hard, stomped on, or perfectly soft-boiled.
On the rare night he was home, my father read to me: Stuart Little, Little Women, Little House on the Prairie. Lots of Littles. Before we moved to Cedar Grove, we lived in a redbrick colonial on Prospect Avenue in Milwaukee, a street lined with elm trees and loaded with kids. There were the Hoys, the Reillys, the Popaliskys, the Dineens, the Kliemans, the Kublys, and the O’Laughlins, and each family had a pile of kids. There was chaos everywhere, tumbling in every dryer, left in every driveway, smoking behind every garage, and stuck to the bottom of every shoe. One family on the block, the Downeys, had only two kids. The father was a world-renowned composer, the mother a famous opera singer. Their son and daughter channeled their energy into creative pursuits such as piano playing and ballet dancing. The rest of us channeled our energy into fashioning bongs out of soda cans and lighting stuff on fire.
Our house had six proper bedrooms; the seventh, a converted walk-in closet, was mine. I was an “oops” baby. I slept in a youth bed — not quite a twin but not a crib either — shoved up against the wall. When George came in to visit me, he had to squeeze in like a sardine in a can, head on the pillow, feet on the top of the footboard. I liked to sandwich between him and the wall, folding myself in half, resting my head on his big belly, with my dirty feet up on the wall and my knees around my ears. My room was a comfy spot. During those visits, I sucked my thumb and listened to my dad’s soft voice reading about Stuart Little’s adventures. Every now and then I caught him reading with his eyes closed. His ability to see the words through the puffy, pinkish folds of his eyelids was downright supernatural. I guess after eight kids he didn’t need the book anymore; he could just recite the story by heart. Still, it scared the bejesus out of me.
Like most dads, he had various and exceptionally irritating ways of waking us up. Some mornings, he’d enter our rooms wearing only his boxers, slapping his stomach as if it were a snare drum and singing, “School days, school days, good ole golden rule days.” Other days he whipped open the shades and bellowed, “Rise and shine, daylight in the swamps!” The most offensive was the Bee. He entered buzzing, pulled off the covers, and pinched us repeatedly, until irritation finally got us out of bed. Glasses of cold water were used on my dope-smoking siblings.
My father did not golf or play tennis. He did not run, swim, or jog. Once in a while, before we moved to Cedar Grove, he’d ride his bike to work. He wore a white button-down oxford shirt, red tartan plaid pants secured tightly around his right ankle with a rubber band, black socks, and brown wingtip shoes. His stomach was rock hard and rounded, like a watermelon, his legs skinny, like bamboo shoots with feet. He kept in shape by drinking beer and brandy Manhattans — not at the same time — and eating cheese so noxious it could be melted and used to strip varnish. He kept his hair cut tennis-ball short. He never napped. He wore bow ties decorated with unicorns, which, on him, were never stuffy. They just said: “Damn glad to meet you.”
On my first Sunday brunch, we pulled into the parking lot a little before eight in the morning, my eyes still swollen with sleep. George looked at me and said, “Wait here.”
What’s this? I thought. He’s not even going to let me out of the car.
He returned a few minutes later, knocked on the window, and held up the pickle bucket. “Pick up the parking lot,”
Outside, I was immediately covered in a blanket of July heat. The humidity filled my lungs like a sack of wet gym socks.
“It’s gonna be a scorcher today,” he said, chuckling as he walked in the restaurant’s back door.
Picking up the parking lot was among the dirtier jobs at the restaurant, but nothing compared to cleaning out the grease trap. It looked pretty harmless to me, but according to my siblings, opening it released olfactory horrors that could cause brain damage. If you complained about another job, George often threatened you with the grease trap, so now I silently took the bucket and headed straight for a pile of cigarette butts. Customers often emptied entire ashtrays right next to their cars with no regard for the small hands that had to pick up the mess. They never put any money in their ashtrays either — just old candy, gum, and aluminum flip tops. I used my bare hands — it never occurred to me that a broom and a dustpan might have been helpful, or even a pair of gloves. The work was delicate and disgusting but better than brain damage.
After I was sufficiently drenched in sweat, George opened the back door and let me in. Finally, I had officially been signed to the team, the ninth man. I stepped across the threshold into my future, the big leagues, the bowels of the basement, where my father would teach me the secret handshake.
He was already dressed: a white chef’s T-shirt with snaps, houndstooth check chef’s pants rolled up to his shins, and brown socks and shoes covered with what looked like pancake batter, but I knew it was Ammens powder. He had a thing about Ammens. In a constant battle against chafing, he had Fitzgerald’s Pharmacy deliver cases of the stuff to the restaurant and the house. Keeping his business dry was a top priority. Of course, chef pants are loose, and so are boxers, so 90 percent of the powder ended up on the carpeting next to his dresser and in the seams of his work shoes.
That Sunday morning I sensed something different about him as he ordered me up the stairs to the kitchen, a tone I didn’t recognize. A little pang of dread sprouted in my gut — I’d felt it before, when my brother Jimmy threatened to hang me on the bathroom doorknob by my underpants — but then I smelled the brunch.
Brunch was the best smell in the world. It was real food, fresh food, a potpourri of bacon, sausage, strawberries, raspberries, fresh-squeezed orange juice, cookies, cakes, cinnamon buns, and apple strudel, one scent after another, dancing like Fred and Ginger at the party in my nose. I knew then that heaven smelled like Sunday mornings.
After I washed my hands until they were raw, my sister Amy handed me an apron. I was too short to reach the stainless countertop, so she told me to flip my bucket over and hop up. The party ended quickly when she set another bucket next to me, this one filled with cooked shrimp, and said, “Start peeling.”
I looked over at a pile of ice full of caraway seeds and celery bottoms. The hot shrimp underneath gave rise to a hot steam that reeked of the sea. The smell made me gag.
“How many should I do?”
“All of ’em.”
Crying was not an option, so I laughed. “Seriously?”
“Yeah, c’mon, there’s four more buckets over there.” She pointed to a spot next to the stove. “Hurry up. We open the doors in an hour and a half. I’ll go find you some chef clothes. You’re doing pancakes.”
I burrowed my fist into the ice. “I can’t . . . get — ”
“Just do it. Dad’s freaking out.” She scurried away.
I was going to say, “I can’t get at them because my hand is already frozen,” but somehow I knew it didn’t matter. Instinct kicked in; my hand could freeze solid and fall off, yet brunch would still go on. Judging by the amount of shrimp waiting, that bucket was my destiny.
She did say “chef clothes,” though. That was something. Every team member has to have a uniform. I fantasized about looking all cheflike and professional — pants, coat, and tall paper hat like George, maybe even a scarf tied just so around my neck. Amy had said “doing pancakes” too. I had no idea what that meant, but if it was in uniform, I could perform. I’d never made a pancake in my life; I had no idea how to tell when they were ready to flip or when they were done, but I was up to the challenge. Besides, I’d look cool. The siblings would all wonder how they had survived without me. Customers would ask George where he’d been hiding me all these years, and he would beam with pride and wonder the same thing. He’d put his arm around me and say, “Oh, this is Julia. She’s my baby.”
I had to do well with pancakes. Doing pancakes would be my ticket off the bucket.
A little later, my father peeked over my shoulder to check my work, and I just about toppled over. He had a different look in his eyes, unlike the one he had when we had parked our bikes in the driveway. This expression was glassy, distracted, and a little possessed.
I showed him my bloodied fingertips, cut by shrimp tails that had poked my frozen skin — and then something happened.
He twitched. This was not your run-of-the-mill little eyebrow tick. I watched it develop, moving in stages, like a body skidding across the ice, or a ten-car pileup. His eyes closed, his neck swiveled, his right shoulder rolled, his knee jerked, and his foot kicked. Ammens, like tiny snowflakes falling from somewhere in his pants, floated slowly to the floor. At once amazed that his head was still attached and afraid that it might happen again, I thought, What the hell was that?
“Dad?” I said.
He just looked at my meager progress with the shrimp. “You know, Grandma was slow, but she was old.” He walked away.
I was too shocked for the insult to register. I had seen variations on “the twitch” before, like, every time someone put the milk carton back in the fridge with two sips left in it or when he found an errant spoon in the ice cream. But that day at brunch, the twitch had an intensity that sent a shiver down my spine. People’s bodies were not supposed to behave like that unless they were wearing a straitjacket and buckled to a bed. And those people were heavily medicated. They could not possibly make soft-boiled eggs, or read Stuart Little with their eyes closed — could they? And what was that shit about Grandma?
Amy finally arrived with my chef clothes and took me to the employee bathroom to change. She kicked open the door and disappeared behind a wall of smoke before I got the chance to ask her about Dad’s twitch. I followed. Waitresses stood before cloudy mirrors, pulling up skirts and nylons, tidying aprons, corralling hair by using bobby pin after bobby pin and gallons of Aqua Net. Cigarettes dangled from every lower lip. This was the dressing room, the inner sanctum. I was part of the club now, dressing among restaurant legends whose names I’d heard around the kitchen table — Margie, Marlene, Bernice, Gail, Sue, Geri, Willie, Lillie — names that commanded George’s respect and therefore mine.
In short, these women were the front line. They took all the shit. This was their foxhole, and I had climbed in.
Don’t cough, don’t cough, I thought, trying to breathe with all that smoke, or they’ll never let you back in. It was bad enough being the boss’s kid — we were all marked — but I was the baby, soft and spoiled. Many of these women had been in that bathroom since before I was born. They had crust; I only had puncture wounds. Their chops, taut and sinewy, had been tested in some of the ugliest shifts in the industry: Easter Sunday, Father’s Day, and the dreaded Mother’s Day. My chops still had baby fat.
They watched me as I dressed, one eye closed behind tendrils of smoke, the other sizing me up.
Nothing fit quite right. The chef pants were too tight, squeezing my linebacker thighs, and way too long. And the chef coat, bright and crisp from the laundry, could have doubled as a shelter for a family of five. It was double-breasted, though, very cheflike. The size didn’t matter. I loved the way it felt, buttoning one side over the other. I slid a brand-new bib apron over my head, folded it a few times, and tied it tight around my tummy.
The only thing missing was the hat. Headgear in most restaurants is much like the headgear in the Catholic church — each hat represents a distinction in the hierarchy. Tall chef hats, short chef hats, chef caps, baker’s caps, baseball caps, bandannas, and hairnets usually indicate a person’s position in the kitchen. We didn’t stick to those formalities. George, being the leader, had a tall, white pleated paper hat. Everyone else, no matter where on the food chain, wore bandannas or baseball caps adorned with the restaurant’s logo. I opted for the bandanna. The bandanna said you were tough enough to handle whatever the ride threw at you.
I looked in the mirror, turning this way and that, smoothing the outfit around my sides. Yes, I was the real deal.
my father served the brunch from behind a giant chafing dish on wheels. We called it the eighteen-wheeler. Every Sunday it was rolled it to its designated spot in the dining room and plugged it in to an outlet. Stainless-steel pans filled with bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, tenderloin tips, egg noodles, and the beloved whitefish sat elevated above simmering water and underneath three heat lamps. It was parked directly across from the pancake station. Next to the eighteen-wheeler stood a table covered and skirted with white linen. This was where the brunch-goers picked up their plates from under another heat lamp.
Amy gave me a quick lesson in the art of pancake making. Honestly, it was a snap. I wielded a swift spatula. My practice cakes were light, fluffy, and done to golden perfection. As customers approached, I asked them, “Blueberry or plain?” Simple.
George stood across from me, fidgeting with the serving pieces, placing them just so, running his hand along the stacks of plates every thirty seconds to make sure they were hot, and clicking a set of tongs with such rapid fire that they sounded like the camera shutters of a thousand paparazzi. Click-click-click, as if he were keeping time to some sort of schizophrenic beat in his brain. The twitch, and the big vein pulsing just above his glassy left eye, fell into perfect rhythm: Click-click-click-click, twitch, bulge; click-click-click-click, twitch, bulge. As I poured batter, blueberry or plain, onto the griddle, I wondered if this thing of his had a diagnosis. One of my brothers — Jeremiah, I think — had let me watch The Exorcist, and it looked to me like George and Linda Blair had the same problem.
Nothing stopped the brunch, though, not even demonic possession. I plodded along. It turned out that “doing pancakes” was fun for exactly six minutes. It’s not that tough to get them right, again and again. There’s a book out there about a guy who goes to heaven and plays so much golf that eventually he gets a hole in one every time he steps up to the tee. Perfection begets boredom. Talk to anyone at a cocktail party who got a 1600 on his or her SATs. That’s what “doing pancakes” was like, minus the sense of superiority.
Outside, the temperature was a sweltering 95. The air-conditioning in the dining room didn’t stand a chance against the steady tropical hiss excreted by the pancake batter, bubbling on a greasy griddle. It had to be 112 degrees where I was standing. It felt like I was on the equator. Everything stuck to everything. And my underpants, thick with humidity, had become an issue. Each bathroom break became a tricky twenty-minute battle between hurried hands, a fleshy bottom, and sticky, tangled cotton.
Because it had become so unbearably hot, I decided to keep a tall glass of ice water on the ledge next to me. It seemed like a good idea, it really did. I had just finished with a rush of pancake lovers. A thin river of sweat rolled down the middle of my training bra. My clothes felt fused to my body. I lifted my glass, the icy water just about to pour across my lips —
Then I realized that, across the room, George was watching me. My heart kicked up as if it were clothespinned to a bicycle spoke. Instinct told me I was about to be killed: death by tongs in front of three hundred brunch-goers.
He walked slowly toward me, the tongs, the twitch, the vein. Click-click-click-click, twitch, bulge. Click-click-click-click, twitch bulge.
He stopped in front of the griddle, gestured to my glass with his tongs. He leaned over and whispered, in a gravelly voice sounding just like Linda Blair’s, “Never, never eat or drink anything, ever, ever, in front of the customers.”
His admonition set my lip quivering. Who the hell was this guy, and how did he get to be so mean? Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, I told myself while I held my breath and squeezed back tears, and his look bored a hole in my psyche. Jesus, please help me, I prayed.
Then my father turned and walked away, the tong punishment avoided. It was a miracle — small, but a miracle nonetheless. Jesus saved.
A little while later, lips white with dehydration, I retreated to the kitchen, out of sight, to get a drink. Once there, I also realized I was starving. Oddly, you don’t eat much when you work in a restaurant. If you do get to eat at all, it happens on the run. I spied a plate piled high with breakfast sausage, fresh out of the oven, glistening under the heat lamps on the cooks’ line.
I listened for the tongs. Nothing; the coast was clear.
I pinched one sausage off the pile and tossed it from one hand to the other as I headed back to my pancake post.
We’ve all done it, taken a bite of hot, greasy pizza and burned the hell out of the roof of our mouths. The only difference with a sausage is that it’s not just the roof that gets it: your entire mouth — tongue, cheeks, and chin — are instantly awash in hot, sticky liquid. The thing seemed to have life of its own, and the harder I tried to swallow, the hotter my mouth got. The sausage defied every attempt at consumption
A line was forming at the pancake griddle. Shit. Shit. Shit. For some reason, instead of saying, “Throw it away,” instinct said, “Hide it.” Sunday brunches come with messy waitress trays by the dozen, everywhere, piled high with china, glasses, and flatware used in multiples by customers visiting the buffet two, three, and four times. Not that day, though; certainly not that moment. Thoughts raced through my head: Throw it against the wall; throw it on the floor; hide it, hide it, hide it, somewhere, quick. My father’s warning flashed through my panicked mind: Never, never, eat or drink anything, ever, ever in front of the customers.
Then I had an “aha!” moment. At twelve, instinct is underdeveloped. Foolish. You do crazy things, things you wouldn’t do at perhaps . . . thirteen. I looked down, pried open the right pocket of my beloved chef pants, and squeezed the sausage in.
In a panic, certain things just don’t occur to you, like, say, for example, the fact that something hot in your mouth is just as likely to be hot in your pocket. Chef pants are supposed to be heat resistant, but they don’t say how resistant. They don’t come with a warning that reads: “Not to be used as a hiding place for breakfast sausage, stupid.” It took a moment for the hot grease to soak through the cotton pocket and into the skin across my thigh. I let out an imperceptible little whine as I stepped behind the pancake station. I debated, but knew I couldn’t take the sausage out. Those customers, waiting for their pancakes, would tell. My stomach churned. Tiny sweat beads clawed their way through the tight skin on my forehead and upper lip. The customers’ faces wobbled before me, like they were staring at me from a fun house mirror, shrieking, laughing, and pointing. They knew. They would tell on me. And I’d be left alone to face the look, the vein, the twitch, and the tongs. It would mean shame for me and disappointment for my father. That sausage was an indelible black mark, my ticket back to the pickle bucket, back to theparking lot. After finally making the team, I’d be taking myself out of the game, just like that.
No, I decided, I couldn’t let that happen. Some decisions we make and some are made for us. Either way, life leaves its little mark, defining us, before and after. I crossed over that day. I decided. I played through the pain, asking each customer with a whimper, “Blueberry or plain?”