“Get that ‘ho’ off the street!” 🍸😂☃️🍷

(Images: Amazon.com)

——

It was my father’s belief that nothing built character better than an after-school job. He himself had peddled newspapers and delivered groceries by bobsled, and look at him! My older sister, Lisa, and I decided that if hard work had forged his character, we wanted nothing to do with it. “Thanks but no thanks,” we said.

  As an added incentive, he cut off our allowance, and within a few weeks Lisa and I were both working in cafeterias. I washed dishes at the Piccadilly while Lisa manned the steam tables at K&W. Situated in Raleigh’s first indoor shopping center, her cafeteria was a clubhouse for the local senior citizens who might spend an entire afternoon huddled over a single serving of rice pudding. The K&W was past its prime, whereas my cafeteria was located in the sparkling new Crabtree Valley, a former swamp that made her mall look like a dusty tribal marketplace. The Piccadilly had red velvet walls and a dining room lit by artificial torches. A suit of armor marked the entrance to this culinary castle where, we were told, the customer was always king.

  As a dishwasher, I spent my shifts yanking trays off a conveyor belt and feeding their contents into an enormous, foul-mouthed machine that roared and spat until its charges, free of congealed fat and gravy, came steaming out the other end, fogging my glasses and filling the air with the harsh smell of chlorine.

  I didn’t care for the heat or the noise, but other than that, I enjoyed my job. The work kept my hands busy but left my mind free to concentrate on more important matters. Sometimes I would study from the list of irregular Spanish verbs I kept posted over the sink, but most often I found myself fantasizing about a career in television. It was my dream to create and star in a program called “Socrates and Company,” in which I would travel from place to place accompanied by a brilliant and loyal proboscis monkey. Socrates and I wouldn’t go looking for trouble, but week after week it would manage to find us. “The eyes, Socrates, go for the eyes,” I’d yell during one of our many fight scenes.

  Maybe in Santa Fe I’d be hit over the head by a heavy jug and lose my memory. Somewhere in Utah Socrates might discover a satchel of valuable coins or befriend someone wearing a turban, but at the end of every show we would realize that true happiness often lies where you very least expect it. It might arrive in the form of a gentle breeze or a handful of peanuts, but when it came, we would seize it with our own brand of folksy wisdom. I’d planned it so that the final moments of each episode would find Socrates and me standing before a brilliant sunset as I reminded both my friend and the viewing audience of the lesson I had learned. “It suddenly occurred to me that there are things far more valuable than gold,” I might say, watching a hawk glide high above a violet butte. Plotting the episodes was no more difficult than sorting the silverware; the hard part was thinking up the all-important revelation. “It suddenly occurred to me that . . .” That what? Things hardly ever occurred to me. It might occasionally strike me that I’d broken a glass or filled the machine with too much detergent, but the larger issues tended to elude me.

Like several of the other local cafeterias, the Piccadilly often hired former convicts whose jobs were arranged through parole officers and work-release programs. During my downtime I often hung around their area of the kitchen, hoping that in listening to these felons, something profound might reveal itself. “It suddenly occurred to me that we are all held captive in that prison known as the human mind,” I would muse, or “It suddenly occurred to me that freedom was perhaps the greatest gift of all.” I’d hoped to crack these people like nut 
s, sifting through their brains and coming away with the lessons garnered by a lifetime of regret. Unfortunately, having spent the better part of their lives behind bars, the men and women I worked with seemed to have learned nothing except how to get out of doing their jobs.

Kettles boiled over and steaks were routinely left to blacken on the grill as my coworkers crept off to the stockroom to smoke and play cards or sometimes have sex. “It suddenly occurred to me that people are lazy,” my reflective TV voice would say. This was hardly a major news flash, and as a closing statement, it would undoubtedly fail to warm the hearts of my television audience — who, by their very definition, were probably not too active themselves. No, my message needed to be upbeat and spiritually rewarding. Joy, I’d think, whacking the dirty plates against the edge of the slop can. What brings people joy?

As Christmas approached, I found my valuable fantasy time cut in half. The mall was crazy now with hungry shoppers, and every three minutes I had the assistant manager on my back hollering for more coffee cups and vegetable bowls. The holiday customers formed a loud and steady line that reached past the coat of arms all the way to the suit of armor at the front door. They wore cheerful Santas pinned to their baubled sweatshirts and carried oversized bags laden with power tools and assorted cheeses bought as gifts for friends and relatives. It made me sad and desperate to see so many people, strangers whose sheer numbers eroded the sense of importance I was working so hard to invent. Where did they come from, and why couldn’t they just go home? I might swipe their trays off the belt without once wondering who these people were and why they hadn’t bothered to finish their breaded cutlets. They meant nothing to me, and watching them move down the line toward the cashier, it became apparent that the feeling was mutual. They wouldn’t even remember the meal, much less the person who had provided them with their piping hot tray. How was it that I was important and they were not? There had to be something that separated us.

I had always looked forward to Christmas, but now my enthusiasm struck me as cheap and common. Leaving the cafeteria after work, I would see even more people, swarming out of the shops and restaurants like bees from a burning hive. Here were the young couples in their stocking caps and the families clustered beside the fountain, each with its lists and marked envelopes of money. It was no wonder the Chinese people couldn’t tell them apart. They were sheep, stupid animals programmed by nature to mate and graze and bleat out their wishes to the obese, retired school principal who sat on his ass in the mall’s sorry-looking North Pole.

My animosity was getting the best of me until I saw in their behavior a solution to my troubling identity crisis. Let them have their rolls of gift wrap and gaudy, personalized stockings: if it meant something to them, I wanted nothing to do with it. This year I would be the one without the shopping bags, the one wearing black in protest of their thoughtless commercialism. My very avoidance would set me apart and cause these people to question themselves in ways that would surely pain them. “Who are we?” they’d ask, plucking the ornaments off their trees. “What have we become and why can’t we be more like that somber fellow who washes dishes down at the Piccadilly cafeteria?”

My boycott had a practical edge, as this year I wasn’t expecting to receive much of anything. In an effort to save money, my family had decided to try something new and draw names. This cruel lottery left my fate in the hands of Lisa, whose idea of a decent gift was a six-pack of flashlight batteries or a scented candle in the shape of a toadstool. Patently, joyfully normal, Lisa was the embodiment of everything I found depressing. Nothing set her apart from the thousands of other girls I saw each day, but this fact did not disturb her in the least. In her desire to be typical, my sister had succeeded with flying, muted colors. Unlike me, she would never entertain deep thoughts or travel to distant lands in the company of a long-nosed proboscis monkey. None of them would. Along with everyone else, she had traded her soul in exchange for a stocking stuffer and now would have to suffer the consequences.

As the holiday season advanced, so did my impatience. Four days before Christmas we were seated in the dining room, celebrating Lisa’s eighteenth birthday, when she received a phone call from what sounded like a full-grown woman with a mouth full of gravel. When I asked who was calling, the woman hesitated before identifying herself as “a friend. I’m a goddamned friend, all right?” This caught my attention because, to my knowledge, my sister had no adult friends, goddamned or otherwise. I handed her the phone and watched as she carried it out into the carport, stretching the cord to its limit. It was a forbidden act, and because I felt like causing some trouble, I told on her. “Dad, Lisa carried the receiver outside and now it looks like the phone is going to spring off the wall.”

He started out of his chair before my mother said, “Leave her alone, for God’s sake, it’s her birthday. If the phone breaks, I’ll buy you another one for Christmas.” She gave me a look usually reserved for eight-legged creatures found living beneath the kitchen sink. “You always have to stir the turd, don’t you?”

“But she’s talking to a woman!” I said.

My mother crushed her cigarette into her plate. “Big deal, so are you.”

Lisa returned to the table in a hurried, agitated state, asking my parents if she might use the station wagon. “David and I should be back in an hour or so,” she said, grabbing our coats from the front-hall closet. “David who?” I asked. “This David’s not going anywhere.” I’d hoped to spend the evening in my bedroom, working on the pastel portrait of Socrates I planned to quietly give myself as an anti-Christmas present. We stood negotiating in the dark driveway until I agreed to join her, no questions asked, in exchange for three dollars and unlimited use of her new hair dryer. Having settled that, we got into the car and drove past the brightly decorated homes of north Raleigh. Normally, Lisa demanded strict control of the radio. At the sight of my fingers approaching the dial, she would smack my hand and threaten to toss me out of the car, but tonight she gave me no grief, failing to complain even when I settled on a local talk show devoted to the theme of high-school basketball. I couldn’t stand basketball and only tuned in to get a rise out of her. “How about those Spartans,” I said, nudging her in the shoulder. “You think they’ve got what it takes to defeat the Imps and move on to the city championship?”

“Whatever. I don’t know. Maybe.”

Something had clearly placed her beyond my reach, and it drove me wild with something that felt very much like jealousy. “What? Are we going to meet up with the mother of your boy friend? How much do you have to pay her to allow him to go out with you? You have a boyfriend, is that it?”

She ignored my questions, quietly muttering to herself as she drove us past the capitol building and into a defeated neighborhood where the porches sagged and a majority of the windows sported sheets and towels rather than curtains. People got knifed in places like this, I heard about it all the time on my radio call-in shows. Had my father been driving, we would have locked all the doors and ignored the stop signs, speeding through the area as quickly as possible because that’s what smart people did.

“All right, then.” Lisa pulled over and parked behind a van whose owner stood examining his flattened tire with a flashlight. “Things might get a little rough up there, so just do what I tell you and hopefully no one will get hurt.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder and stepped out of the car, kicking aside the cans and bottles that lined the curb. My sister meant business, whatever it was, and in that instant she appeared beautiful and exotic and dangerously stupid. LOCAL TEENS SLAIN FOR SPORT the headlines would read. HOLIDAY HIJINKS END IN HOMICIDE.

“Maybe someone should wait with the car,” I whispered, but she was beyond reason, charging up the street in her sensible shoes with a rugged, determined gait. There was no fumbling for a street address or doorbell; Lisa seemed to know exactly where she was going. I followed her into a dark vestibule and up a flight of stairs, where without even bothering to knock, she threw open an unlocked door and stormed into a filthy, overheated room that smelled of stale smoke, sour milk, and seriously dirty laundry — three odors that, once combined, can peel the paint off walls.

This was a place where bad things happened to people who clearly deserved nothing but the worst. The stained carpet was littered with cigarette butts and clotted, dust-covered flypaper hung from the ceiling like beaded curtains. In the far corner of the room, a man stood beside an overturned coffee table, illuminated by a shadeless lamp that broadcast his shadow, huge and menacing, against the grimy wall. He was dressed casually in briefs and a soiled T-shirt and had thin, hairless legs the color and pebbled texture of a store-bought chicken.

We had obviously interrupted some rite of unhappiness, something that involved shouting obscenities while pounding upon a locked door with a white-tasseled loafer. The activity consumed him so completely that it took the man a few moments to register our presence. Squinting in our direction, he dropped the shoe and steadied himself against the mantel.

“Why if it isn’t Lisa Fucking Sedaris. I should have known that bitch would call a fucking bitch like you.”

I would have been less shocked had a seal called my sister by name. How was it that she knew this man? Staggeringly drunk, the wasted, boozy Popeye charged in our direction, and Lisa rushed to meet him. I watched then, cringing, as she caught him by the neck, throwing him down against the coffee table before gathering her fists and dancing in a tight circle, thoroughly prepared to take on any hidden comers. It was as if she had spent a lifetime dressed in a black gi, breaking two-by-fours with her bare hands in preparation for this moment. She never faltered or cried out for help, just gave him a few swift kicks in the ribs and proceeded to carry out her mission.

“I ain’t done nothing,” the man moaned, turning to me with his bloodshot eyes. “You there, tell that bitch I hadn’t done nothing.”

“I beg your pardon?” I inched toward the door. “Oh, golly, I don’t know what to tell you. I’m just, you know, I just came along for the ride.”

“Guard him!” Lisa yelled.

Guard him how? Who did she think I was? “Don’t leave me,” I cried, but she had already gone, and suddenly I was alone with this shattered man, who massaged his chest and begged me to fetch his cigarettes off the sofa.

“Go on, boy, get ’em. Fucking bitches. Lord Jesus, I’m in pain.”

I heard my sister’s voice and looked up to see her fleeing the back room, dragging behind her a clownish, tear-stained woman of an indeterminate age. Her face was lined and puffy. The thick, fat, mottled body had a lot of mileage on it, but her clothing was unseasonable and absurdly youthful. While my mother’s crowd favored holiday maxiskirts and turquoise squash-blossom necklaces, this woman had attempted to offset the ravages of time with denim hot pants and a matching vest that, fastened together by a cross-hatching system of rawhide laces, afforded an unfortunate view of her sagging, ponderous breasts.

“Out!” Lisa shouted. “Hurry, now, step on it!”

I was way ahead of her.

“My shoes and, oh, I better take a jacket,” the woman said. “And while I’m at it . . .” Her voice faded as I raced down the stairs, past the other equally dark and volatile doorways where people fought over the noise of their screeching televisions. I was out on the street, panting for breath and wondering how many times my sister would be stabbed or bludgeoned when I heard the screen door slam and saw Lisa appear on the front porch. She paused on the stoop, waiting as the woman put on a jacket and stuffed her feet into a pair of shoes that, in their bulk and color, resembled a matching set of paint cans. Instructed once again to run, her friend proceeded to totter down the street on what amounted to a pair of stilts. It was an awkward, useless style of walking, and with each step she ran her fingers through the air as if she were playing a piano.

Two young men passed down the sidewalk carrying a mattress, and one of them turned to yell, “Get that ho off the street!”

Had we been in a richer or poorer neighborhood, I might have searched the ground for a gardening tool, fearful that once again I might step on the thing and split my lip with the handle. Ho. I’d heard that word bandied about by the cooks at work, who leered and snickered much like the young men with their mattress. It took me a second to realize that they were referring either to Lisa or to her friend, who was squatting to examine a hole in her fishnet stockings. A whore. Of the two possible nominees, the friend seemed the more likely candidate. At the mention of the word, she had lifted her head and given a little wave. This woman was the real thing, and I studied her, my breath shallow and visible in the cold, dark air. Like a heroin addict or a mass murderer, a prostitute was, to me, more exotic than any celebrity could ever hope to be. You’d see them downtown after dark, sticking their hatchety faces into the windows of idling cars. “Hey there, Flossie, what do you charge for a lube job,” my father would shout. I always wanted him to pull over so we could get a better look, but having made his little comment, he’d roll up the window and speed off, chuckling.

“Dinah, this is David. David, Dinah.” Lisa made the introductions after we’d settled ourselves into the car. Apparently, the two of them worked together at the K&W and had come to know each other quite well.

“Oh, that Gene is a real hothead,” Dinah said. “He’s possessive, like I told you, but, Lord, that man just can’t help himself from loving me. Maybe we’ll just drive around the block a few times and give him a chance to cool off.” She lit a cigarette and dropped it, lowering her high, teased head of hair before sighing, “Oh, well, it won’t be the first car I’ve set fire to.”

“Found it!” Lisa held the cigarette to her lips and inhaled deeply, releasing the smoke through her nostrils. A beginner would have gagged, but she puffed away like a withered old pro. What other tricks had she learned recently? Was there a packet of heroin tucked inside her pocket? Had she taken to throwing knives or shooting pool while the rest of us were asleep in our beds? She stared thoughtfully at the street before asking, “Dinah, are you drunk?”

“Yes, ma’am, I am,” the woman answered. “I surely am.”

“And Gene was drunk, too, am I wrong?”

“A little bit drunk,” Dinah said. “But that’s his way. We like to get drunk in the winter when there’s nothing else to do.”

“And is that good for your work-release program? Is getting drunk and having fistfights something that’s going to keep you out of trouble?”

“It wasn’t nothing but horseplay. It got out of hand is all.”

Lisa didn’t seem to mind making the woman uncomfortable. “You told me yesterday at the steam table that you were ready to break it off with that sorry little bastard and work your way up to carving. A person’s got to have steady hands if she wants to carve meat all day, don’t you know that?”

Dinah snapped. “I can’t remember everything I said at the goddamned steam table. Hell’s bells, girl, I never would have called if I’d known you was going to hassle me half to death. Turn around, now, I want to go home.”

“Oh, I’m taking you home all right,” Lisa said. The sorry neighborhood receded into the distance, and Dinah turned in her seat, squinting until her eyes were completely shut, and she fell asleep.

“Mom, this is Dinah. Dinah, this is my mother.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” my mother said, helping our guest out of her shoddy rabbit jacket. “For a moment there, I was afraid you were one of those damned carolers. I wasn’t expecting company, so you’ll have to excuse the way I look.”

The way she looked? Dinah’s mascara had smeared, causing her to resemble a ridiculously costumed panda, and here my mother was apologizing for the way she looked? I took her aside for a moment.

“Whore,” I whispered. “That lady is a whore.” I’m not certain what reaction I was after, but shock would have done quite nicely. Instead, my mother said, “Well, then, we should probably offer her a drink.” She left me standing in the dining room listening as she presented the woman with a long list of options delivered in alphabetical order. “We’ve got beer, bourbon, gin, ouzo, rum, scotch, vodka, whiskey, wine, and some thick yellow something or other in an unmarked bottle.”

When Dinah spilled her cocktail onto the clean holiday tablecloth, my mother apologized as though it had been her fault for filling the glass too high. “I tend to do that sometimes. Here, let me get you another.”

Hearing a fresh, slurred voice in the house, my brother and sisters rushed from their rooms and gathered to examine Lisa’s friend, who clearly cherished the attention. “Angels,” Dinah said. “You’re a pack of goddamned angels.” She was surrounded by admirers, and her eyes brightened with each question or comment.

“Which do you like better,” my sister Amy asked, “spending the night with strange guys or working in a cafeteria? What were the prison guards really like? Do you ever carry a weapon? How much do you charge if somebody just wants a spanking?”

“One at a time, one at a time,” my mother said. “Give her a second to answer.”

Tiffany tried on Dinah’s shoes while Gretchen modeled her jacket. Birthday cake was offered and candles were lit. My six-year-old brother emptied ashtrays, blushing with pride when Dinah complimented him on his efficiency. “This one here ought to be working down at the cafeteria,” she said. “He’s got the arms of a busboy and eyes like an assistant manager. Nothing slips by you, does it, sweetheart? Let’s see if he can freshen up an old lady’s drink.”

Woken by the noise, my father wandered up from the basement, where he’d been sitting in his underwear, drowsing in front of the television. His approach generally marked the end of the party. “What the hell are you doing in here at two o’clock in the morning?” he’d shout. It was his habit to add anywhere from three to four hours to the actual time in order to strengthen the charge of disorderly conduct. The sun could still be shining, and he’d claim it was midnight. Point to the clock and he’d only throw up his hands to say, “Bullshit! Go to bed.”

This evening he was in a particularly foul mood and announced his arrival well before entering the room. “What are you, tap-dancing up there? You want to put on a show, do you? Well, the theater’s closed for the night. Take your act on the road; it’s four o’clock in the morning, goddamnit.”

We turned instinctively to our mother. “Don’t come into the kitchen,” she called. “We don’t want you to see your… Christmas present.”

“My present? Really?” His voice softened to a mew. “Carry on, then.”

We listened to his footsteps as he padded down the hallway to his room and then we covered our mouths, laughing until our sight was watery. Swallows of cake revisited our throats, and our faces, reflected in the dark windows, were flushed and vibrant.

Every gathering has its moment. As an adult, I distract myself by trying to identify it, dreading the inevitable downswing that is sure to follow. The guests will repeat themselves one too many times, or you’ll run out of dope or liquor and realize that it was all you ever had in common. At the time, though, I still believed that such a warm and heady feeling might last forever and that in embracing it fully, I might approximate the same wistful feeling adults found in their second round of drinks. I had hated Lisa, felt jealous of her secret life, and now, over my clotted mug of hot chocolate, I felt for her a great pride. Up and down our street the houses were decorated with plywood angels and mangers framed in colored bulbs. Over on Coronado someone had lashed speakers to his trees, broadcasting carols over the candy-cane forest he’d planted beside his driveway. Our neighbors would rise early and visit the malls, snatching up gift-wrapped DustBusters and the pom-pommed socks used to protect the heads of golf clubs. Christmas would arrive and we, the people of this country, would gather around identical trees, voicing our pleasure with worn clichés. Turkeys would roast to a hard, shellacked finish. Hams would be crosshatched with x’s and glazed with fruit — and it was fine by me. Were I to receive a riding vacuum cleaner or even a wizened proboscis monkey, it wouldn’t please me half as much as knowing we were the only family in the neighborhood with a prostitute in our kitchen. From this moment on, the phrase “Ho, ho, ho” would take on a whole different meaning; and I, along with the rest of my family, could appreciate it in our own clannish way. It suddenly occurred to me. Just like that.❄️

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