Sample text for Every crooked pot / Renee Rosen.
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the saltwater remedies
The day we got pulled over for speeding, I was sitting in the backseat of the family station wagon—Lissy to my left, Mitch to my right, my Keds straddling the hump. My mother was riding shotgun with my father. It was mid-December of 1968 and I was seven years old. We were on our way to Florida for a business trip my father had disguised as our winter vacation. My father wanted out of the carpet business and thought this was his chance for a steady gig, playing clarinet at his friend’s nightclub in Miami. It was a long drive down from Akron, and my father was set on making it to Savannah by the end of the day. That’s why we got pulled over somewhere in southern Ohio, clocked at eighty-seven on the radar.
Even before the highway patrolman reached the car, my father was out of the driver’s seat, walking toward the cop. “Officer,” my father said, hands slightly raised, like the cop had him at gunpoint, “thank God you stopped us! I know I was speeding, but you’ve got to help me—I’ve got a very sick child in the car!”
Lissy, Mitch, and I looked at one another, confused, wondering who was sick. Then my mother reached back and gave my knee a squeeze, smiling at me with one brow raised.
I twisted around in my seat to get a better angle on the action. And while the flashing light on top of the patrol car went round and round, I tried timing my eye blinks just right, so that each time I opened my eyes, all I would see was red.
My father and the policeman were talking, but you couldn’t hear the cop, just my father. “Officer,” he said, “with all due respect, in the time it would take me to explain this to you, it could be too late.”
The policeman came closer to the car.
“Listen,” my father pressed on, walking alongside the cop, “it’s very technical. If you really want to know, the orbital mass in her eye has ruptured.” Followed by: “The retinal vascularization is swelling up and her festorial glands are coagulating!” My father was on a roll. There was no stopping him.
The cop muttered something into his ticket pad, his tongue working the inside of his cheek, rolling around like he had a jawbreaker in there. My father hadn’t shaved that morning or slicked back his hair with Brylcreem. He looked a mess with his hair jetting out in all directions.
“All you have to do is look at her! Look at her eye! My God, the poor thing’s hemorrhaging like crazy!”
I wasn’t hemorrhaging. I always looked that way. It was my birthmark. The doctors said it was a hemangioma, but everyone else called it my port wine stain or my strawberry mark. To me it looked more like I’d been punched in the eye. The lid was always puffy and there was a big lump growing out of my eyebrow. The white of my eye was always filled with blood and the outside was all red and purple. The doctors told my parents it was because I had too many blood vessels in my eye.
“Officer,” my father continued, “I’ve got a doctor standing by. He’s waiting for us at a hospital in Cincinnati—and if I don’t get her there soon, she’s gonna lose her sight in that eye!”
Lose my sight? I didn’t even need glasses.
The officer tugged on his cap and leaned over to look at me. I made sure the cop got a good shot of my eye, and I knew better than to smile. My father was counting on me. I had a job to do. So I made my bottom lip curl under and scrunched my shoulders up close to my ears. My whole face went all sad, like a clown’s. Normally, my eye never hurt, but right then it felt like it did. Given another minute, I could have cried.
The officer looked at my mother, offering her a half-nod, like the crossing guard at school giving you the go-ahead. He turned back to my father and the two men exchanged a few words, then shook hands.
My father got back in the station wagon, leaned his head back, closed his eyes, and started to laugh so hard that his shoulders were shaking. Then the cop pulled out ahead of us in his squad car and switched on his red sirens full blast.
“Hang on, gang! Here we go!” My father revved the engine and off we went, following close behind the police car. My father pointed toward the flashing light on the cop car and howled, “Here comes the Goldman express!” He pumped the accelerator as we whipped past another mile marker.
Instead of a speeding ticket, the officer gave us a police escort to the hospital. We ducked inside the sliding glass doors of the emergency room and waited until the cop drove off. Then my father herded us back to the car and hit the gas. Even with the detour, we made it to the Ohio-Kentucky border in record time.
Outside of Lexington, we’d started playing that license plate game where you try to get all the states. Mitch and I shouted out every plate we saw, even those states we’d already nailed. We could tell we were getting on Lissy’s nerves, so we kept doing it just to make her cover her ears and lean as far away from us as she could. She was three years older than Mitch, six years older than me. She was a teenager now, which meant she was done playing with us.
For a long stretch, ours was the only car on the road. No license plates to be found. We were bored, with nothing to look at other than faded barns, weather-split with Mail Pouch slogans blanched out on the sides. Mitch kept kicking the back of my mother’s seat, asking how much longer.
“Not too much,” she said, keeping her eyes on the road, like she was the one driving.
My father was slouched in his seat, his shoulder pressed to the window, one wrist draped over the steering wheel, fingers free for snapping. “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” was coming over the radio, accompanied by the squeaks from the Styrofoam cooler, which was sandwiched in between the suitcases. My father was singing along with all his heart, going, “I’ve got lots of friends in San Jose/ Wo oh oh oh . . .”
When we got to the Holiday Inn that night, my father was in the adjoining room. He was lying on the bed with his right foot dangling off the edge, smoking his pipe as he read the Savannah phone book. That was what he did in every hotel room on every road trip we ever took: He read the Yellow Pages. He said you never knew what you might find.
Mitch and I were in the other room, fighting over my Etch-a-Sketch. He was holding it high above my head, making me jump for it.
“Give it back!” I said, slapping at his arms.
“Uh-uh-uh! Somebody’s gonna get hurt.” My mother stood watching us from the doorway of our connecting rooms. She was cleaning out the cooler, the lid tucked under her arm as she threw out half-eaten sandwiches and a bag of crumpled chips.
I kept slapping Mitch on the arm until he got mad, dropped the Etch-a-Sketch, and shoved me onto the bed. He leaped on top of me, sat on my stomach, pinning my arms back with his shins while his fingers played typewriter on my chest, hunting and pecking. “ChChChChChChCh—CHING!” He hit my cheek like it was the carriage return.
I wiggled out from under him, got back up, and charged toward him. He grabbed both my arms and turned my hands on me. “Why do you keep hitting yourself, Nina?” he said, whacking me in the head with my own fists. “Why do you keep hitting yourself? Huh? Huh!”
My mother came to my rescue. “Will the two of you just settle down and get ready for bed. We have another full day tomorrow.”
“Tell what’s-her-name to get out of the bathroom,” Mitch said, now bouncing his Super Ball off the headboard.
“Mitchell, will you please— Lissy?” My mother rapped at the bathroom door with the Styrofoam lid. “C’mon now—you’re holding everybody up.”
Two seconds later, Lissy opened the door and stepped out. Her long blond hair was rolled in emptied-out cans of Tab, held in place by a strip of hair clips that looked like a band of bullets. She wanted to know why she had to share a bed with me.
“I do not snore!”
“Melissa,” my mother said, “if you can sleep with all that hardware on your head, then you can sleep through a little snoring.”
“But I don’t snore!”
My mother bopped me on the head with the lid of the cooler. It made a hollow thump. She bopped Mitch too, then Lissy. It made us laugh.
My father was still in the other room, reading the phone book.
The next morning, we hit the trail at 6:30 a.m., and after stopping at a music store my father had discovered in the Yellow Pages, we arrived in Miami Beach. We passed a hotel marquee advertising Neil Diamond for Christmas Day and another one, next door, pushing lobster tails and Elvis Presley for New Year’s Eve.
Mitch was clowning around, asking, “Hey Dad, where’s the sign with your name?”
My father didn’t answer and Mitch didn’t ask again. It was the height of the season, and in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Collins Avenue, my father was no longer slouched in the driver’s seat, no longer finding his way to San Jose. The back of his collar was damp with sweat by the time we pulled up to the Newport Hotel.
Inside, the lobby was loud and crowded. An oversized Christmas tree slowly rotated in the center while a dozen or more artists sat at easels, cartooning the tourists. A trio of musicians in matching vests, playing mandolin, trumpet, and conga drums, performed for people as they passed by.
“What do you think, gang?” my father said, tapping his foot to the music. “Is this not a hopping place, huh? Huh?” He was pleased with himself for having selected the Newport. “Not too shabby, huh, gang?” My father was stomping his foot now, clapping, gesturing to the conga player, who smiled back, nodding.
I stared at my father’s loafers and started stomping my foot, wishing I could keep the beat the way he did. He looked at me and grabbed my hand, twirling me around like a Hanukkah dreidel.
After he’d spun me around a few more times, my mother told Lissy to go get Mitch, who had wandered over to the fountain. He was leaning along the marble ledge, his feet off the ground, his shirt all wet in front as he ran his fingers through the water, trying to scoop out the coins from the bottom.
I turned away and noticed a couple stepping off an elevator. He was tall and slim, with sideburns to his jaw. She had long frosted hair, kept her sunglasses propped up on her head, and wore a silver bracelet high up on her arm, way past her elbow. You didn’t see women like her back in Akron. She reminded me of the fashion models in Lissy’s magazines. She glided when she walked, and I was sure she always had handsome men following her around everywhere.
When I grew up, I wanted to be like her.
“Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I say this was a great place?” my father said when it was just us five up in our rooms. The Newport Hotel was way better than the Holiday Inn, with blue-and-gold-striped bedspreads that matched the drapes and chairs. There was a big marble bathroom, with a tray on the counter that was filled with little bars of soap and miniature bottles of shampoo.
My father went to the window and pulled open the drapes. “Is that not gorgeous? Come here, kids . . .”
We all crowded around him, me slipping in place beneath his arm, a snag on his nylon shirt rising and falling against my cheek as he breathed. When he was happy like this, I just couldn’t get close enough.
“Look out there,” he said, tapping his middle finger to the glass. “You could take a picture—like a postcard. You kids have any idea how much extra it costs just to be on this side? Just to have this view of the ocean?”
That night we kids sat three in a row on the side of the bed, voting for which color shirt my father should wear with which color suit. My father was color-blind, so I grew up watching him walk around the house half-dressed, going, “Does this go with these? Does that go with this?”
Back home, my mother had systemized his sock drawer: Black socks were tied, browns were rolled, and navies were folded. Shirts were hung from light to dark, with brown collars facing right, blues going left. Everything needed a specific order; otherwise, my father got into trouble.
Once he found a men’s clothing outlet in the Peoria Yellow Pages and bought three pairs of chartreuse slacks. My father said they stood out on the rack. “Sharpest goddamn pants in the place!” No one could talk him out of them, not even the salesman.
My father couldn’t see colors and couldn’t dress himself, but he could sell carpet. He was a salesman all right, and he’d have customers buying wall-to-wall shag in a shade they never thought they’d own. My father was a frustrated musician, who hated what he did for a living, even though it was the thing he did best.
“Okay, gang, which one?” He draped four ties over his arm for us to choose from.
The neon sign outside Flipper’s had a lit martini glass with an olive blinking on and off. Flip, the owner, was an old navy buddy of my father’s. They’d been stationed together in Pensacola, and after leaving the service, my father went north and married my mother, while Flip went south and opened his nightclub.
My father stood under the awning, looking back at the parking lot. “Didn’t I tell you, Sandra? Huh? Huh! Valet parking and everything!”
We didn’t valet our car that night. Instead, we parked in the lot across the street. My mother made us all hold hands as we
crossed the interstate. I don’t think my father liked the idea of pulling up to Flipper’s in his station wagon with QBC—Quality Brand Carpets—running across the sides and back, not when all the other cars were Cadillacs and Lincolns. We had a Cadillac back home—brand-new. That was the car my mother drove. We would have driven her car down to Florida, but my father didn’t want to put that much mileage on it. But I knew that if we had brought that car down, my father would have valeted it, in a second.
My mother took a final drag off her cigarette before crushing it beneath the toe of her pump, giving a twist to make sure it was out.
“You kids have any idea who’s played here? All the big names—big, big stars.” My father said this without naming a single one. Then he wiggled the knot of his tie and took his clarinet case from Mitch. He took one last look at the parking lot and shook his head. “Valet parking and everything. Flip’s done all right for himself . . .”
Flip was a large sunbaked man who had a gold medallion hanging from his neck. He greeted my father at the entrance with a big bear hug. Then he stood back and rapped his knuckles on my father’s clarinet case. “Artie, I see you’re still carrying that licorice stick around.”
“Yeah, well . . . you know, haven’t played much lately . . .”
My father had been rehearsing every day for the past three weeks. My mother had accompanied him on the piano, taking time out between numbers, darting into the kitchen to check on dinner.
“You know,” my father said with a shrug, “I figured for old times’ sake, I’d bring it along—give the kids a treat.”
Flip laughed as he reached an arm around my mother, pulling her to his side, saying she was just as beautiful as ever. And she was, even though she looked older than my father. It was the hair that did it. My mother had been gray for as long as I could remember, but her face was young. She had high cheekbones, a perfect nose, and blue-gray eyes that everyone said were her best feature.
Lissy looked just like my mother and Mitch took more after my father. He had the same dark eyes, long face, and squared-off chin. People said I was a combination of the two, but I thought they were saying that just to be nice.
Flip led us down a flight of stairs and past the bar to a table close to the stage. “You’re in for a real treat, Artie,” he said as he pulled out a chair for my mother.
“Yeah? If these guys are half as good as we used to be, then you’ve got yourself a winner here.” My father gave Flip a little jab in the side as he sat down.
All through the first set, my father danced in his chair and Lissy kept inching away from our table as far as she could get, until a cocktail waitress told her she was blocking the aisle. As she scooted in just a bit, my mother reached over and squeezed her hand. “Everybody’s watching the show, Lissy. Nobody’s paying any attention to him.”
When the band took a break, Flip came over to our table and said, gesturing toward the empty stage with his thumb, “Aren’t these guys outasight, man? Didn’t I tell ya, Goldman?” He made a clucking sound. “Outasight!”
Flip pulled over a chair, turned it around, and straddled it, resting his chin on the back. While he and my father were talking old times, my mother reapplied her lipstick. Mitch had challenged me to a stare-down and Lissy kept elbowing me, trying to make me blink.
During the last set of the evening, Flip cut in on the piano player and called my father to the stage. They started off with “What a Wonderful Life,” and after Flip soloed, it was my father’s turn. Eyes shut, knees slightly bent, head bobbing left, then right, giving it his all, one note after the next.
I glanced over at my mother. She was smiling, her left hand on the tabletop, beating time to the music. Then people started to applaud, and for the first time since my father had gone onstage, I settled back in my chair, smiling big and proud. Even Lissy pulled in closer to our table, wanting to belong to him again.
My father and Flip played three more numbers. And my father looked like he belonged on that stage. He dazzled up there, joking with the audience between songs, making them laugh and clap even louder. He really did have what it took to be a star. Pizzazz, that’s what my father had. And he knew he had it. He didn’t even have to work at it. It was just there.
My father and Flip ended their set with the two of them standing before the microphone with their arms over each other’s shoulders, singing “Fly Me to the Moon.”
Copyright © 2007 by Rene;e Rosen. All rights reserved.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Ohio -- Fiction.