In this fantasy novella set sometime between the 1970s and early '90s, a little mermaid washes up on the New Jersey Shore, where she learns to tread the treacherous waters of human love and heartache.
$7.50. Not a lot. Not even the price of a pound of Bustelo. But I choose to be cheap and skip the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel with its tollgate, and head for the bridge instead. I easily add an hour to our travel time right there. The rain doesn’t help. What should be a two hour trip to Nana’s takes us three and a half.
I got my license late. I didn’t need it. Not in this city with the most subway stops and longest track (this per Theodore’s pal Joaquin, a kid obsessed with mass transport). I was 25 at my road test in Red Hook. I remember I checked my mirrors before I pulled away from the curb. But I forgot to look over my shoulder. I failed. I got it right the second time. Dad was with me both times. I can still see him punching the air when the instructor said I’d passed.
For years my license served strictly as photo ID. I didn’t own a car until the birth of Theodore, when I was 38. Despite my late start, I’ve grown to love driving. Lip syncing to the “Queen of Funk,” Chaka Khan, I “tear up” the streets of Midwood, swerving around cyclists, honking at sleeping pedestrians and dodging potholes (most of them). I’ve become a nimble parallel parker. Highway driving however, with it’s confusing signage, is still a challenge.
Upon a friend’s suggestion, I download the navigation application Waze to my Iphone. It’s a good little app. It maps out my road trips, alerts me to traffic tangles and offers alternative routes. It would be a great app if I paid attention to what it tells me.
But I go the way I go.
As it turns out, that rainy Saturday morning of Columbus Day weekend, the Brooklyn Bridge on-ramp is closed. Waze is trying to tell me this by redirecting me back to the tunnel, “In 500 feet, turn right onto Court Street”. It keeps telling me this. All the way to the bridge. I throw the phone next to the poodle, on the passenger seat beside me.
We end up crawling over the Manhattan Bridge to Canal Street. Nightmare. It’s bumper to bumper. I’m staring at the back of a panel truck with Chinese symbols. The panel is cracked open 6 inches. I peep cabbages rolling around and wonder: Why can’t I just take direction? I’d be sailing past these snarls if I’d just listened to Waze. At the foot of Canal, I ignore the cartoon car chattering into the naugahyde. Instead, I follow the frantic white glove of a traffic guard. Waze starts recalculating. Humbled, I open my ears to the asexual voice rising from my Iphone and allow myself to be led crosstown along unfamiliar side streets, Elizabeth, Barrow, then up 10th Avenue to the Lincoln Tunnel.
The rain has stopped. I can make out filtered light at the end of the tunnel. There’s a tricky series of turns that start in Weehawken. I know the basic route: 3 to 46 West to 23 North to County Road 515, but I decide to play it safe and follow the way of Waze. I pass my phone back over my right shoulder: “Here,” I tell Theodore, “you navigate.” He takes the job seriously. “Turn right onto route 23 North towards Butler.” I swerve left. Turn right Mommy.” I’m trying to read the signs. “Turn right. NO RIGHT!!!” Too late, we’re headed in the wrong direction. I take the first exit and look for signs to get back on the highway heading north. “You’re the worst driver in the world Mommy!” Superlatives shouted through the neck rest do nothing to help the situation. Still, I keep my cool and keep my eyes on the horizon. Instinctively I know when it’s safe to lose it, and when losing it can result in the unthinkable. I haven’t yet lost it in the driver’s seat. I’ve lost it at the kitchen table, bringing everyone to tears, and once, on the street, I found that key the unlocks the cage of mommy frustration, releasing furious tigers with the strength to heave a six-year-old upside down, clawing and gnawing, 3 long blocks to the elevated F train.
We’ve righted the KIA Rondo. We’re heading northwest, but because we took so long getting to, through, and off the island of Manhattan, Mommy needs a potty break well before Wayne. We stop at the 7-Eleven. It’s magic. Kids and mom forget their troubled past. I self-serve “seasonal” pumpkin spice coffee, size suburban sprawl, and topped off with 6 thimbles of half and half. Theodore gets a Slim Jim, as long as his arm, and William, Reeses’ Peanut Butter cups, the 4-pack. Billy downs 3 and a half (I get the last half). We hit the road, restored.
With blood sugar levels hovering happily in the zone conducive to nonviolence and maximum patience with mommy, it’s happy trails the rest of the way. The Waze pipes up occasionally, at critical turns, her words repeated by my back-seat driver, but otherwise she naps, alongside the senior poodle.
As we pull up Nana’s gravel driveway about 3 o’clock, we send white-tailed deer “high tailing it” westward, towards the wetlands at the bottom of the fourth field, and their cover of cattails along the Pochuck river. We were lost today, but we find ourselves, with the help of a little humility, a little app, a little convenience store refreshment, and a determination to get to Nana’s apple pie.
We arrive just in time for pork roast, chunky applesauce, swiss chard from the neighbor’s garden, and apple pie, still warm from the oven.
Force-feeding kids is a big NO NO. Pediatricians, child psychologists, even Nanas—who live to watch their grans eat farmhand breakfasts of slab bacon, eggs, and flapjacks—all agree upon this: Let a child eat only as much as he likes. Let him dine, at his pace, undisturbed. His body will tell him when he’s full. To foster a healthy attitude towards food, just put the plate down and walk away…
But how about lizards? Does the same rule apply to finicky class pets you take home for the summer? The school science lab was divesting of its living teaching tools for summer break and my son begged for the bearded dragon. At the end of June, I wheeled the travel tank home atop my shopping cart. But where to put him? I was cautioned against setting the tank down in direct sun or draft. The habitat had to be central. My only option: the dining room buffet. I pushed aside crystal vase and covered cake plate to make room for canned worms and crispy crickets. The tank stretched the length of the silverware drawer; its wood chip litter undulating with all stages of the beetle life cycle. Dinner time next to the lizard tank was not for the squeamish.
He came to us without a name. “That’s sad,” I observed. “We should give him a name.” Everything with a heartbeat that you take into your home should have a name. Hmm…scaly with sharp talons, this beardie had a cute way of cocking his head to greet you when you stepped into the room. Fluffy. It fit him. I promptly fell in love.
It was my own fault that he came to hate his tank. In the day his domain was my garden, a paradise of overgrown hosta and neglected roses. He would scamper from corner to corner, flailing his little legs awkwardly. I don’t know how I expected a lizard to move, but it wasn’t like that. I fell a little harder. “Fluffy would like sand,” said my six-year-old in the surf at Coney. So we scooped a Nathan’s cupful and watched Fluffy frolic on that bit of beach in the backyard. Returning him to his glass cell at nightfall, he would nap, then wake around 10 and watch me on my laptop at the dining room table, blogging well into the night. He’d paw the glass and press his snout into the corner closest me until I relented. I exchanged my lap dog for a lap lizard. Fluffy gave off no heat, but it was pleasing to run my index finger down the ridged furrow of his spine. I moved him to my chest, over my heart. I wondered if he felt my heartbeat? I liked him there, my little reptilian blogger muse.
In early August I had an interview in the Science & Nature Program at the Museum of Natural History. I didn’t get the job, but I did get a bag of live crickets. Until then, I had no reference for bearded lizards. The museum beardies were plump and rosy. I was shocked and scared. Fluffy was half the size and sallow. I’d never actually seen him go after the teeming life in his tank, and his food bowl was untouched. I’d chalked up his lack of appetite to moulting. Sitting around a low interview table (kid-friendly but adult-hostile), I mentioned that Fluffy had the weird habit of flipping himself over onto his back and getting stuck. He couldn’t flip back. “That’s not a good sign,” said the director, not destined to be my boss. Fluffy needed intervention. She encouraged me to force-feed.
I started with a medicine dropper and applesauce. Once I got over the fear of losing a finger, it was easy, and intensely satisfying to pry open his jaw and watch that skinny lizard wake up to the pleasure of chomping down on mangoes and Jersey peaches. Better still, a live cricket: “There, there Fluffy…” stroking his gullet to help it go down. Dammit, the school lizard was not dying on my watch.
But he did.
Theodore was destroyed. “I’m never taking home another school animal. If we’d just taken him to the vet, he’d be all right. This is your fault mommy.”
I agreed. I’m better with plants than animals. I haven’t met a fish I couldn’t kill with overuse of aquarium chemicals I don’t understand.
Little brother William piped in: “We should have taken the turtle.”
Flashback to first-grade: Last day of school. I take home the class mouse. One week later I have seven mice. The metal wheel spins non-stop: mama mouse runs frantically to escape her offspring, unable to keep pace, spinning round and round behind her, upside-down for hours... And they stank.
I nestled Fluffy in an Italian cookie box, along with William’s half-eaten biscotti. Granddad buried him in the woodlot of the family farm. The woodlot: final resting place for all family pets. My brother’s pit bull, beloved Susie, was wrapped in a wool blanket and buried in a shallow grave in the woodlot. Too shallow. Something dug her up and scattered her remains. The kids still don’t know.
My father-in-law turned 91 in June. Bless him. Unfortunately, in September, he started to fail. He lost his appetite. Like Fluffy. His daughter arranged for him to say goodbye to each of his eight grandchildren. My two, the youngest, spoke to him last. Poppi was unintelligible. It’s not clear what they made of that phone call. My ten-year-old went to the funeral, and held the hand of his thirteen-year-old cousin through the whole service. He returned home, older.
Walking my senior poodle one dank late-summer night I notice his right hind leg isn’t bending. Instead it swings out to the side as he steps. And he pants, almost from the moment he leaves the gate. He’s sixteen, or thereabouts. Shelter dogs don’t come with birth certificates.
My old pooch wakes from naps to walk or eat. Otherwise he sleeps. Sensing his fragility, my sons cuddle him, wrap him in their hoodies, and whisper close to his ear. “Gigot! Best dog in the world! I love Gigot…” He can’t hear them. He’s deaf as the microwave oven. Nana’s a little deaf too. The boys know this.
I’d prefer to forget my own Nana’s wake, but I can’t. The open casket was bad, the wailing, worse. This stiff imposter in the satin-lined casket could not be my Nana, a hummingbird in a housecoat, in constant motion, shampooing my hair and towel-drying it in the sunshine... and serving me little star pasta, pastina, with big pats of butter. It was awful experiencing Nana like that, no longer smelling of Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps, but of the stench of funeral home Easter lilies.
I still don’t get open caskets, but I understand wailing now. In that funeral parlor in Tarrytown, my mom, at her own mother’s wake, cried the Hudson River at its widest point. She was unhinged, and I saw that. She cried for months after too, and then it was over. Maybe she still sniffled at night, into her pillow, with the starched and pressed pillowcase, but in the day she was back to normal. At Christmas, the stockings were stuffed with new socks and chocolate oranges, and there was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on the dinner table.
What will I look like to my sons when the dog dies, possibly as soon as November? Unhinged. I will recall driving home from the shelter in East New York, ll shivering pounds on my lap, matted and reeking of dried feces. I will comfort myself with the thought that he’d had a good life of gnawing soup bones and chasing balls on the beach. I will remember that he was a pound puppy living on borrowed time anyway. I will mourn the loss of a companion, always trailing me from room to room. I will cry the East River, the lower harbor at it’s widest point. I will wrap him in my old cardigan and bury him, with his favorite ball, beside Fluffy, in the woodlot. I will bury him deep. Then I will stop crying, blow my nose and help Nana roast the turkey and serve it on a bed of fresh sage. I will watch my sons’ eyes widen to the bounty, as they and their cousins hold their forks, improperly, around the Thanksgiving table.
Rest In Peace Fluffy.
Recently I asked a friend who’d just read “Pick It” to tell me about her favorite childhood activity. It turns out, for her too, it was berry picking.
But here’s what that meant to her:
Berry picking for Trang meant picking berries (and green beans and cucumbers) for pay every summer, between the ages of 12 and 17, seven days per week, with her four brothers and four sisters in rural Auburn, Washington. Her family would rise at 4, reach the fields by 6, and pick until dusk.
I was appalled. “Did you ever have a day off?” I asked. “Only when it rained,” she replied, “we were so happy when it rained.” All things considered, Trang remembers these summers fondly. Her mother would pack a delicious lunch: “Pork and rice with watermelon. Those lunches were sooo good.” At the end of each day the siblings would pool their earnings and cheerfully fork the purse over to the most industrious matriarch of the Pacific Northwest. These kids were proud of their collective contribution to the family cookie jar.
Where was I off track in “Pick It?” In assuming that all kids have limitless leisure time to dawdle their summers away, as I did, berry picking or watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus from my Texas Memaw’s shag rug.
Here’s another example where my limited thinking didn’t match reality:
One night I’d loaded the dishwasher and realized I was out of detergent. I didn’t want to lose my parking space by driving to the Shop Rite for soap so I hit all the 99 cents stores within a ten block radius of the Newkirk Plaza, searching for automatic dishwasher detergent. Guess what? 99 cents stores don’t sell Cascade. Why not? A woman, standing on the checkout line of Junior’s 99 cents overheard my request and explained proudly, but with some bitterness too: “I’ve never had a dishwasher. My dishwasher is me. Always has been. And I’m 58.”
That was meant for me, that slap in the face:
Wake up Maria! Roused, I realized that I bob along in a state of unconscious entitlement. Always have. I assume the gifts given me are givens for everyone else…
like a college education without student loan debt
like regular pediatric dental care followed up with orthodonture to correct buck teeth
like small class sizes and clean school bathrooms
like expert orthroscopic knee surgery that has left me nearly symptom-free for 30 years
like trips on planes and trips out of town
like ballet lessons and exchange programs to Paris
like orange juice, butter and roast beef instead of Sunny-D, margarine and bologna
like ham at Easter, turkey at Thanksgiving, & standing rib roast at Christmas
like gifts stacked so high under the tree that it takes the better part of Christmas morning to open them
Yes, all this time I have assumed that every kid has languorous summers and every grown-up deserves a dishwasher.
And here’s the danger of my pervasive presumptions and sense of entitlement: I remain oblivious to my privilege until someone, less fortunate, points it out to me.
Like the 99 cents store lady, or like my friend Trang, sitting at my kitchen table, enjoying my chicken soup.
Lessons learned: I try harder to dodge assumptions about how others live, and I try harder to wake up to the fact that I’ve got it better than most. I try to give back, in small ways, whenever opportunities present themselves...
To level the berry fields...
...and I insist that my 10 year-old shuck six ears of corn before supper and carry his plate to the sink after it. After all, it feels good to contribute to the family cookie jar.
This one came to me scraping raisins off the kitchen floor after breakfast…
ah to be
what would I take of me
my boobs for sure
but not much more
not my brain
not my dating
not my bad back
that was whack
my bad back
not my job
oh good god
not that job
so I’ll take
with too much texting
and not much resting
with warm family relations
and working towards
peace among nations
with robust health
and right perspective
and 2 boys
who don’t take directive
these 2 boys
with all their toys
spread on the floor
there’s not much more
really it’s great