Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 5

 

     Thus the car trip to Tim and Margot’s wedding was even more painful than it should have been. Being creatures of habit—and habit is, after all, an attempt to create order from randomness—the Banker family sat in their customary car trip places: Jackson Robert drove while whistling to an all news radio station, Erta was in the front passenger seat staring out the window, Jet sat in the right rear watching the roadside sights, and Job was in the left rear pinching Jet.

     Jackson Robert rebounded from daily crises better than his wife. Polish his shoes, de-lint his suit, straighten his sock drawer, and—lo and behold!—he’s back on track. Erta, however, took a much longer time to recover. While watching his Holiness Charles on TV had helped, she could easily spend the rest of the day sulking over the fact that she never knew the right thing to say at the right time. Being the queen of esprit de l'escalier, she was eternally coming up with the perfect repartee just a few minutes too late.

     "Dad, can we hear some music?" Job asked from the back seat.

     "What's wrong with the news?" his father replied.

     "Come on Dad, if we’ve gotta sit in the car all day at least we oughta have some music."

     "We're not going to be in the car all day," his father told him. "And besides, a little news wouldn't hurt you once in a while."

     This was actually quite true, since Job's idea of current events was to watch the weather forecast on TV to find out when high tide and low tide would occur. Job pinched Jet hard and gave him a dirty look.

     "We want music," he said to his father, then quietly to Jet out of the side of his mouth, "don't we."

     "Actually I’d like to hear whether there’s any more news about the break-in at Cordin’s Jewelry Store," Jet said.

     "What’s it to you?" Job asked.

     "Nothing," he lied. "Just curious." Then, leaning up to the front seat, he asked his father, "Was there anything in the paper today?"

     "About what?" his father asked.

     "The break-in. You know, at Cordin’s."

     "Didn’t notice anything," his father said, proving that the importance of an event is directly proportional to one’s involvement.

     "Dad! We want music," Job said, grabbing Jet’s thumb and pushing it back towards his wrist. "Don’t we?"

     "Yeah. Music’s good," Jet said, jerking his hand away before Job broke his finger. Again.

     Over the last four years Jet had suffered Job’s wrath to the tune of forty-seven stitches, a broken finger, a dislocated shoulder, two cracked ribs, four sprained ankles, two first-degree burns, one second-degree burn, a punctured eardrum, and innumerable cuts and bruises.

     It wasn't that Job was overtly violent; somehow it just ended up that way. Whereas Jet philosophized, Jackson Robert cleaned, and Erta prayed, Job faced life's frustrations head on and ended up beating them into submission.

     "Mom," Job asked, "what's your vote?"

     "Vote on what?" Erta asked, still staring out the windshield.

     "Music or news?" he asked. "Where have you been?"

     "Why don't you boys play a game?" Jackson Robert asked from the front seat.

     "Yeah," Job said to Jet, "let's pretend the news isn't on the radio."

     "Let's pretend Job isn't in the car," Jet added.

     "Enough!" Jackson Robert said. "If you two can’t get along then you can each just look out your own window and play with yourselves."

     "Haven’t we been through enough of that for one day?" Jet asked. "Masturbation can cause anti-social disease, you know."

     The look on Job’s face told Jet he was going to get it later.

* * * * * *

     From the moment they set foot in the banquet room of the Rockcrest Country Club, Erta began introducing Jet and Job to a never ending stream of relatives the boys didn't remember.

     "Why you must be Job," an obese blue-haired woman wearing gooey red lipstick and an ill-fitting floral print dress told Jet. As she bent down and kissed him on the cheek, leaving a red blotch that had the consistency of axle grease, he was engulfed by a cloud of fumes that smelled like a mixture of maple syrup and embalming fluid. Eau de Slow Death. "I bet you don't remember me, do you?"

     "Sure I do," Jet said, even though he wasn't sure he'd ever set eyes on the woman before and was fervently hoping he never would again.

     "Well then, who am I?"

     Jet looked at her blankly, waiting for the whispered prompt from one of his parents which never came.

     "I'm your Aunt Gertrude," she explained, "now you remember, don't you?"

     Jet paused as if trying to conjure up a residual memory of the beastly woman. In actuality, he was repeating "I wish you'd go away. I wish you'd go away" over and over in his head, hoping it would have the desired effect and she would be teleported to a parallel dimension that he would never have the displeasure of visiting.

     "No," he finally said, knowing that if he said yes he would most assuredly fall into another one of her devious traps designed to embarrass him.

     "Then surely you must remember your Uncle Carl."

     "Ummm, no."

     "I can't believe you wouldn't remember us," she said, folding her hands over her heart and feigning deep emotional wounding.

     "Well," Jet said, "you've got to face life's frustrations."

     He was saved by the arrival of the bride and groom, seizing the diversion as an opportunity to slip from his mother's side and scope out the room. He stopped to look at the table piled high with presents—hundreds of square boxes, covered with silver and white gift wrap. He watched couples clumsily dance as the band played what should have been an illegal arrangement of "Satin Doll" performed on drums, clarinet, and accordion. He surveyed the food tables, which were barren except for empty chafing dishes filled with steaming hot water and two proud centerpieces: a sculpted ice swan and twenty-two pounds of chopped liver artistically molded into the shape of Bloomingdale’s.

     Jet stopped by a set of swinging doors safe in the knowledge that everyone was too busy dancing and drinking and wondering when the food would be served to pay him any attention. The double doors swung open, nearly knocking him back into the wall. Two men and a woman, all wearing black pants and red waiter's jackets, entered the banquet room carrying silver serving trays neatly arranged with food. As the doors swung the other way, Jet slipped around them and into the kitchen. He looked at the trays neatly adorned with celery stalks stuffed with cream cheese; triangles of crustless white bread topped with egg salad, paprika and a gherkin slice; and small pastry puffs filled with pimento cheese.

     He had just shoved the third open-faced egg salad sandwich in his mouth when he was startled by the sound of footsteps approaching. He turned and spotted an open doorway behind him. Stepping inside, he found himself in a large pantry. As the three red jacketed people returned noisily to the kitchen, Jet crouched behind a big cardboard box, chewing and swallowing as quietly as he could. On the side of the box were the names of the freshly married couple, written with a nearly dead black Magic Marker: Tim and Margot.

     He silently lifted the flap of the box and peeked inside. He was about to commit his second crime.

* * * * * *

     Jet re-entered the banquet room through the front door. Spotting his parents, he picked his way through the crowd until he was standing directly behind his mother. He stood quietly for about a minute, which was how long it took Erta to turn around and notice him.

     "Where have you been?" she asked.

     "Right here."

     "Jet..." she said, giving him one of her I-want-the-truth looks.

     "I was mingling with my long-lost relatives," he told her. "Isn't that what I'm supposed to be doing?"

     "Have you seen your brother?"

     "No, but I'll find him."

     Jet turned and walked away, pretending he couldn’t hear his mother calling after him. As he scanned the crowd looking for his brother, he noticed that nearly everyone was holding a small plate of food in one hand and a drink in the other. He stopped by one of the food tables long enough to impale four Swedish meatballs on a toothpick tipped with red cellophane curlicues. He was using his fingers to pick the meatballs off the toothpick and pop them in his mouth when he passed the kitchen doors.

     "What do you mean you can't find them?" a piercing woman's voice demanded.

     "I know they're here, 'cause I brought 'em in myself," a man said defensively.

     "Well they didn't get up and walk off, did they?"

     "We're looking for 'em," the man said, his voice rising in pitch. "We'll have 'em out there in a few minutes."

     "Don't you have any others we can use in the meantime?" the woman asked.

     "Why would we? We had those."

     "Well what do you expect everyone to do," the woman nearly screeched, "wipe their mouths with toilet paper? Find the fucking napkins!"

     Jet spotted his brother standing in a corner and headed towards him, finishing his last meatball as he reached his brother, who was standing with their cousins Jello and Jello.

     The Jellos, as Jet called them, were his Aunt Doris’ children. Jet thought Doris was a shrill, overbearing, domineering, whiny and abrasive woman. Since Jet's parents firmly believed that everyone was supposed to like their relatives—a theory Jet didn’t subscribe to—they never let on that they too thought Doris to be a shrill, overbearing, domineering, whiny and abrasive woman.

     Doris ruled her two children, as well as her husband, with the tact and diplomacy of the Fourth Reich. By the time her children were four and six years old, and her husband thirty-seven, they had begun to resemble slightly humanoid lumps of quivering Jello. This in itself wouldn't have bothered Jet much except that he hated Jello. He hated Jello with canned fruit cocktail in it, he hated Jello with whipped cream on top, and he hated Jello most of all when it came out of a mold shaped like a dead fish. Jet realized human shaped Jello was really no worse than fish shaped Jello, except that at least the fish shaped Jello was neither a cousin nor an uncle.

     "Mom's looking for you," Jet told his brother.

     "That's nice," Job said with his mouth full.

     "Is that the message you want me to give her?"

     "Can't you see I'm busy?" Job said impatiently.

     "What, eating?"

     "They're having a contest," the younger Jello said.

     "If it's IQ, Job loses; if it's looks, Job loses; and if it's sense of humor, Job loses." Job threw a piece of food that splatted into Jet's forehead.  "But if it's temper, he wins."

     "Your brother and my brother are seeing who can eat more egg rolls," young Jello said. "They're up to forty-four."

     Jet picked up the miniature egg roll Job had launched at him and offered it to his brother. "Make it forty-five?"

     "We're out of egg rolls," Job said as he knocked it to the ground. "Let's find more."

     The four of them headed for the main food tables. People were standing around, mouths smeared with Swedish meatball gravy, fingers coated with fried chicken wing grease, and mustaches stained with whiskey sour foam.  And not a napkin in sight. The women wiped their mouths with the backs of their hands, smearing their lipstick. The men ran their suit jacket sleeves across their mouths. And more than one person surreptitiously wiped their hands on the tablecloth.

     Job, Jet, and the two Jellos elbowed their way to the table, stationing themselves in front of a chafing dish half-full of baby egg rolls. Job and Jello the Elder resumed the contest, matching each other egg roll for egg roll as the younger Jello acted as official scorekeeper.

     Jet watched an elegant looking woman daintily wipe the corners of her mouth with her fingers, then casually clean her fingers on the coattails of her husband's expensive Italian suit jacket.

     "I'm sorry about this," Jet heard the woman who been screaming in the kitchen say to a man who was sticking his fingers in his mouth and sucking them clean. "We ordered a thousand napkins with Tim and Margot’s names hot stamped in gold and the damned caterer can't find them. Do you believe it, he can't find a God damned napkin anywhere."

     "Fifty-seven," young Jello announced loudly.

     "Now don't let the napkins spoil your day, sweetie. Everything's just lovely," said a woman in an Indian bedspread skirt and Mexican peasant blouse as she scratched her forehead, leaving a mustard stain that could have passed for a Jewish Indian's war paint.

     "Fifty-eight!" young Jello said, his voice rising.

     "I don't know if I can eat anymore," Jello the Elder said, gasping for breath and holding his stomach.

     "Napkins, shmapkins," a man said as he scratched his chest, smearing a bloody red barbecue sauce stain across the front of his freshly starched white shirt, "I'm havin' a great fuckin' time."

     Jet began a play-by-play commentary of the eating contest, a soprano Marv Albert hoping for a grand slam home run in the bottom of the ninth with bases loaded and two outs. "And the crowd holds their breath expectantly," he announced to no one in particular. "Can he do it? Can he eat just one more egg roll and go home with the title? Will he retire as the champ, or will he leave with egg roll on his face and bowels that won't move? Ladies and gentlemen, a heavy stillness has fallen over the crowd as everyone asks the same question...Can he do it?"

     The room suddenly fell silent as everyone turned to see what the commotion was about. Job reached into the chafing dish and picked up an egg roll. He dipped it in a small dish of mustard and wiped the excess on the side of the bowl. Tilting his head back, he opened his mouth wide. the egg roll was poised at arm's length above his head .

     "The moment of truth is upon us," Jet continued loudly. "It's either now or never. Everything he's worked so hard for is hanging in the balance at this very moment.  Can he go through with it? Or will he choke?"

     "I hope he chokes," said Jello the Elder.

     Job opened his fingers, the egg roll falling through thick air in slow motion, a yellow blob of mustard appearing on the tip of his nose as the egg roll bounced off, ricocheting into his teeth and plopping into his waiting, gaping mouth. He chewed once, then swallowed.

     "He did it, ladies and gentlemen! Yes, he did it! This is absolutely amazing. Yes! We've got a new champeen!"

     Jet and the Jellos started clapping loudly. Not knowing why, for they didn't even understand the import of what had just happened, a nearby couple joined in the applause. And just as laughter can be contagious, so can applause. And it was, spreading quickly through the crowd until the entire room was clapping wildly.

     Job grinned broadly, bending at the waist to take several exaggerated bows. Jet and the younger Jello each took one of Job's hands and held it as high above his head as they could reach, jumping up and down excitedly.

     Now it's quite possible that Job had just plain eaten too much, for fifty-nine egg rolls—even miniature ones—is more than any living person should consume in a month, better yet ten minutes. And it's also quite possible that the three glasses of champagne Job had managed to chug behind the large potted plants while no one was looking were a bit much for him, which wouldn't have been surprising since he was, after all, a fifteen year-old unaccustomed to drinking. But the truth is, the excitement of the wedding reception was more than he could take, and Job held a well deserved reputation for getting overexcited at any party-like function. As he straightened up from what would be his last bow his expression made an abrupt change.

     He leaned over the table and threw up all over the twenty-two pounds of chopped liver in the shape of Bloomingdale’s. 

* * * * * *

     The Banker's left immediately, barely slowing down as Erta repeatedly said good-bye and apologized for their hasty departure. The rest of the guests stayed for several more hours, eventually leaving with gravy-stained shirts, teriyaki-stained cocktail dresses, and grease-coated pants legs. Three minutes after the last guest left, the bride's mother threatened the caterer with a lawsuit for mental anguish caused by the humiliation of not having any napkins at the affair, her husband refused to hand over the check for the balance due the caterer, the caterer punched the husband and broke his nose, and the police arrested the caterer for assault, later discovering that he had outstanding warrants in four states for passing bad checks.

     When the bride and groom arrived at the Saratoga Spas Grand Hotel two hours after the reception ended, they discovered a surprise in the trunk of their car. Instead of their luggage, they found a cardboard case containing one thousand white paper napkins with their names and the date of their wedding hot-stamped in gold.

     That's life.

 

Chapter 6 ]



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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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