Popeye by Thomas R. Pryor
Thanksgiving morning, 1961, Mom woke me quietly and whispered, “Rory is sick. If you wake him up before you leave, you’re not going either.”
I shook my head yes. I felt bad that my younger brother, Rory, wouldn’t see the parade, but I was happy to go with Dad alone. It was much easier having a good time with Dad when it was just the two of us. This was my first Macy’s parade and I didn’t want one of Dad’s bad moods blowing it.
At nine o’clock, we slipped out the door. We met Dad’s friend, Richie, and his daughter, Erika, inside Loftus’ Tavern a few blocks away. The four of us were going together. Richie was talking to Jack, the bar’s owner over coffee. Erika sat on a bar stool sipping a coke and sucking a cube of ice with the hole in the middle. She was a year older than I was, stuck up, and knew everything.
I hated her guts.
Richie greeted us. “Hi, Bob, where’s Rory?”
“He’s sick. We’ll catch up later at my mother’s for dinner. Hi, Erika, you look so pretty and grown up.”
With a wide phony smile she said, “Thank you, Mr. Pryor.”
I almost vomited.
Saying goodbye to Jack, we went out the bar’s side door, smack into a vicious cold wind. A Checker cab was just turning off York Avenue heading west on 85th Street.
“Cabby,” Dad yelled and we piled in.
Despite plenty of room to sit alongside our fathers, Erika and I sat in the pull-up seats built into the floor of the cab. The seat was a toilet bowl with no opening.
For adults, a Checker cab was transportation; for a kid, it was an amusement ride. And it was better than most rides because there was nothing to strap you in. On the pull-up seats, you bounced around. We were two abandoned socks in a clothes dryer.
Erika and I didn’t acknowledge each other. The cab made it non-stop from York Avenue to Fifth Avenue through a swirl of green and yellow lights. My head slapped the roof several times. The driver impressed me. He was providing an excellent ride. We dove into the 85th Street transverse that cut under Central Park.
“You’re in second grade, right?” Erika asked.
“I’m in third grade,” she said, pleased as punch.
She knew what grade I was in. She continued talking while looking out her window. I tried ignoring her.
“What are you getting for Christmas?” She asked.
That was a dirty trick. It’s nearly impossible for a kid to stay silent when this subject comes up.
“Things,” I said.
“I’m getting a bike and an Erector set.”
“That’s nice,” I said.
“What did you ask for?” Erika pressed on.
“I’m still deciding. I have a list.”
“What’s on the list?”
“Lots of stuff.”
“Oh, come on, name a few things.”
“That’s between me and Santa.”
“WHAT?” she said.
“It’s between me and Santa.”
“Well, good luck, dummy, because there ain’t no Santa.”
Despite my lingering hope, I worried it was true. I wanted her dead.
I tried to recover. “I know there’s no Santa, stupid.”
“No you didn’t, but you do now.” Her eyebrows arched up and down.
“I play along for my brother. It makes him feel good. He’s just a kid.”
“Still believe in the Easter Bunny?” she said.
Oh crap, him too? I thought, then said “No, of course not.”
I never realized until that moment, how much detail there was on the stone blocks lining the underpasses through Central Park. The road was twisted and bumpy. My forehead banged repeatedly against the window’s glass. It felt good. It took my mind off the other pain. Silently staring out, I saw the glitter of the granite and the chiseled cuts where they sliced the stone to make the blocks. I imagined Erika’s head being dragged across that rock as we drove back and forth through the park. Kaput!
“Johnny, leave us off on the corner of 86th Street and Central Park West,” Dad’s voice broke my dream of vengeance.
The driver aimed for the curb. The air was frigid. I barely noticed. Normally, I would’ve run ahead toward the action, but my heart remained behind on the cab’s pull-up seat. I took Dad’s hand, even though I didn’t feel like a little boy anymore. We walked south to 77th Street in formation. Dad squeezed my hand. I weakly squeezed back.
“I don’t think we’re staying too long. I think Tommy’s got something too,” Dad said to Richie.
We stood inside the park’s wall on the rocks. This allowed us to see the parade over the sidewalk crowd. Only because Dad announced the balloon names as they passed by, do I remember they included Betty Boop, Popeye, and Bullwinkle J. Moose from Frostbite Falls, Minnesota. It couldn’t have ended fast enough. There were two things I never wanted to see again – that dumb parade and Erika, the Wicked Witch of the East.
Around one, we got back to my father’s family’s apartment for Thanksgiving dinner. Dad’s Mom, and Step-Dad, John Rode, Nan and Pop Cuckoo to me, always cooked our bird. Mom’s parents did Easter’s lamb roast. At the kitchen table, Mom and Nan were snapping ends off a few pounds of string beans and throwing them into a spaghetti pot. Rory and Pop were in the living room watching Babes in Toyland starring Laurel and Hardy.
“Hi, all, I thought we were eating at one?” Dad said.
“The bird’s got a way to go – maybe another hour,” Nan said.
Mom gave Dad a silent, “No way.” I was a first class Mom lip reader.
Dad went over to the oven and opened the front.
“Jesus Christ, who are you feeding?”
“Shut your mouth,” Nan said.
“That prehistoric beast is the same size as Rory,” Dad said.
“Mind your business.”
“Did the tribe bring him down with a spear?… or a net?” Dad said.
Mom whispered to me, “Rory is smaller.”
“We’ll eat tomorrow,” Dad said.
“Another hour. Go inside and be useful.” Nan said, waving Dad away. “Get two folding chairs and bring me my bag. I forgot something and need you to go to the store.”
Dad eyed me up and down. He wanted to send me to the store but he thought I was getting sick. Resigned, Dad exhaled loudly, ensuring, everyone in the balcony knew he was leaving the stage. Being at Nan’s cheered me up. Everything was big. She was big. Pop was big. The coffee cups were big. At her house, I could drink anything I wanted, when I wanted. Dad returned from the front room to the kitchen with Nan’s pocketbook. I could see his arm muscles working hard, lifting the heavy bag.
“Here you go. What do you need?” Dad said.
“Go down to Parker’s and get me a pound of butter.”
Dad walked to the fridge, opened the door and stuck his head in it. “You have a full pound.”
“I need six sticks for the mashed potatoes.”
“We’re six people! That’s a quarter pound of butter per person. Are you trying to stop our hearts with a single meal?”
“I’m making mashed potatoes for the week and it’s none of your business. Get the butter.”
“And the thirty pound bird? I suppose that’s part of your long-term meal plan?”
“Don’t exaggerate. It’s twenty-six pounds.”
“Oh, only twenty-six pounds. Let’s see, at more than four pounds per person that should cover our meat provision on our Easter Island sea voyage.”
I was curious: Would Nan slap him or not? I was pulling for a slap. She seemed real close. Instead, she stared him down. He wisely took the money and went to the grocery store. I joined Rory and Pop inside the living room. We watched the end of the movie. Dad came back from the store and stayed in the kitchen with Nan and Mom. More than an hour passed.
“I’m starving. How much longer?” Dad said.
“I’ll take a look,” answered Nan.
I got up and watched through the doorway. Nan opened the oven and took the turkey out with her arms firmly hanging onto both pan handles. From behind, she looked like a Russian Olympic weightlifter. She placed the pan on the counter and checked the thermometer. Dad was right behind her.
“What does it say?” Dad said.
“135 degrees,” Nan said.
“Forget it, put it back in.”
“No, it’s done.”
“It’s fine, look?”
Nan sliced into the meat. It was pink as a flower.
“Meat is supposed to be 175 degrees before you eat it,” Dad said. “That bird just stopped breathing.”
“That’s it. Let’s go.” Nan said and moved the enormous pan toward the table. Dad met her halfway across the kitchen floor and began guiding her back toward the oven. They both had their hands on the pan’s small handles.
A turkey dance!
“Give it to me,” Dad said.
“Leave me alone. Start mashing the potatoes,” Nan said.
“Give it to me!”
He tugged. She tugged. The pan didn’t know what to do.
Then in full view, the confused pan flipped over. The bird with all its natural juices leapt to its death; landing on Dad’s new dress shoes with the little pinholes all over the leather. Stunned, Nan and Dad stared down at the linoleum and the bird for a long time. Nan spoke first.
“Ah shit, I’m lying down,” And she did.
She passed through the living room. Me frozen in the doorway and Pop had Rory on his lap. They watched like two wide mouth bass. I wish I could’ve taken a picture of their faces. Pop and Mom exchanged places. She joined Rory watching TV. Pop went to the kitchen and began to help Dad. They put the bird back in the pan with a couple of cups of water to replace the lost gravy. Then they put the pan back in the oven. Pop gave Dad one of his extra large tee shirts. None of Pop’s pants fit Dad, so he gave Dad a pair of boxer shorts. Dad wore Pop’s boxer shorts over his boxer shorts – that went nicely with his dark socks and skinny legs. I saw Mom peek in, point at Dad and start to laugh.
Sometime much later, Pop announced, “OK, everything is ready.”
He went into the front room and brought Nan back. She returned to the kitchen and took over as if nothing had happened.
“Bob, carve the meat.”
Dad grabbed the knife and did as he was told. This relieved everyone. The table comfortably sat six people yet with the large amount of food on it, it was hard to see each other. Everyone was scary polite. Late in the meal, Dad looked at the bucket of mashed potatoes and said, “You know from this angle, I believe I can see a couple of goats circling the top of Potato Mountain.”
We all laughed except Nan. But she didn’t hit him. The storm passed and Rory and I started looking forward to our favorite Thanksgiving ritual – Pop watching. He was a gentle bear and never yelled at us. After the meal, he drank two short glasses of Ballantine Ale, wiped his mouth carefully with his linen napkin, and said, “Thank you, excuse me.”
He lifted himself from the table, then walked from his kitchen chair to his living room chair. Once Rory and I heard “Swoosh,” Pop’s bottom sinking into the plastic, we started counting backward, “10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1…”
We peeked into the living room. Pop was sawing wood. Rory and I stared at him.
While Pop slept, a cartoon came on with two poor kids who go to bed with nothing to eat. They dream, people come and bring them goodies and music starts to play. Rory and I stood behind Pop’s chair on each side of his head and sung quietly into his ears along with the cartoon song:
Meet me tonight in dreamland, under the silvery moon.
Meet me tonight in dreamland, where love’s sweet roses bloom.
Come with the love light gleaming, in your dear eyes of blue.
Meet me in dreamland, Sweet dreamy dreamland,
There let my dreams come true.
Our singing didn’t wake him. Pop had a stretched out snore with three different sounds. Nan had a toy piano with eight color coded keys. You could play a full octave of tones. It came with a color-coded music book with classics like Pop Goes the Weasel, Roll Out the Barrel and This Old Man. Rory was pretty good on the thing – he played Jingle Bells with ease. Rory went over to the piano. In between snores he’d hit a key. It sounded pretty good. Rory played around a bit until he located a couple of notes that harmonized with Pop’s snoring. Not wanting to be left out, not having Rory’s natural musical talent, I improvised. Nan’s toilet door made a nasty creaking sound when you opened or closed it. I went over to the door and opened it a smidge to see if I could somehow join the band. I found a funky “eek” noise and added it to the mix. Leaning over, looking back into the living room, I could see Rory. Once we made eye contact, it was easy to find our rhythm. We riffed, “Snore, piano key, eek; snore, piano key, eek.”
“Our song had a hook,” as Dad liked to say. Mom threw a sponge at my head. I ducked. The band played on. Sponge two was in the air. I avoided it by doing the cha-cha.
“I will kill you both. Keep it up, I’ll kill you both,” she said.
Noticing Mom had run out of sponges, and the next airborne item could be a spoon or fork, Rory and I left the airwaves. Later on, Pauline and Charlie Hannah came over and started playing Pokeno with Nan and Pop. Dad and Mom moved to the sink area. I sat on the washing machine right next to them. Mom picked up a dish and started scrubbing it. Dad squeezed too much dish soap into the water, then started playing with the faucet’s screws.
“Let’s get this over with,” Mom warned. “You’re moping.”
“Not true, the secret is a long hot soak. Then the grease slides itself off.” Dad said and continued to play with the faucet.
“The secret is you’re full of shit and have a bony ass,” Mom said.
“Leave the kids here – you can pick them up in the morning.” Nan helped them gather their things, and threw them out of the house.
Rory and I conked out together on one bed listening to the Pokeno game. We didn’t mind that kind of yelling, you could sleep through it. The last thing on my mind as I drifted off was Santa’s sleigh flying high over the 59th Street Bridge, turning left up York Avenue headed toward my house.
Thomas Pryor’s work has been published in The New York Times, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, A Prairie Home Companion, Opium Magazine Online, Underground Voices Magazine, New York Press, Our Town, Ducts and Thomas Beller’s Anthology, Lost and Found: Stories from New York. His blog, “Yorkville: Stoops to Nuts,” is listed in The New York Times Blog Roll, and his weekly internet radio show is featured on the Centanni Broadcasting Network. This fall, Thomas appeared on Channel 13’s nostalgic TV series, “Baseball: A New York Love Story.”