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Cooking for Harry
I did not attend Harry's company's annual Holiday Raffle. Spouses and partners were never invited. Harry's company believed that restricting company-sanctioned gatherings to employees encouraged collegial bonding. This always seemed to me like a euphemism for extramarital affairs, though Harry assured me it wasn't.
"It's just dot-com nonsense, Francie," he said, pulling on his coat and patting the pockets for his keys. "Some business psychologist told them to do it, so they do."
He stood by the door, shifting from foot to foot, jingling his change. He always got nervous before he had to go to a party. "Too many adults walking around unattended," was how he explained it. But everybody in the company had to participate in the Holiday Raffle. You had to sign in with the office manager to prove that you'd been there.
Harry's company was so uptight I wasn't even allowed so say what it was he did, other than "computers." There was more and more talk of the company stock going public, but I wasn't supposed to say that, either. The company was an Internet spin-off of the staid and stodgy company where Harry had worked for nearly twenty years. At forty-three, he'd been the oldest employee to make the leap. Now, at forty-seven, he was the one the twenty-something dot-cowboys were referring to when they whispered, "It wouldn't hurt to have some white hair in on the deal." Enter Harry, familiar as a slice of Wonder Bread in his conservative tie, his wandering hairline, his solid mass of reassurance. The clients signed on the dot-com line. The cowboys high-fived one another over the tops of their cubicles.
"That's the only time they listen to me," Harry complained now, the change in his pockets jingling like sleigh bells. "When they think something might fall through. As soon as things are back on track, they hustle me out of the picture."
"Why? You've got more experience than any of them."
"That's the problem." More sleigh bells. "To them, anybody over thirty is ancient. They call me Father Time. And that's what they call me to my face."
"Say something," I urged him, even though I knew he wouldn't. Harry wasn't big on confronting people. Sure enough, even the possibility was making him uncomfortable. He turned to open the door.
"Ah, well. They're only kids." He winced at the blast of cold air. "Deep down, they love me, right?"
"They love your cookies, anyway."
"Cookies." The thought seemed to cheer him. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
I, for one, was talking about the actual, edible kind of cookie--known in company parlance as literal cookies--as opposed to the cyberspace cookies that they were all busily coding and decoding. On hump days--that is, Wednesdays--Harry always brought in four or five dozen literals and reheated them in batches in the office microwave. Many were his own inspired recipes: Helplessly Chocolate, Peppermint Power, Coconut Monkey Faces. The Peanutbetter Butterbursts, however, remained everybody's favorite, and the aroma never failed to lure the cowboys in from the flat-screened fields. They elbowed one another out of the way like the children they still were. They chewed with their mouths open. They tried to sneak handfuls back to their workstations, which had been forbidden ever since crumbs had gotten into a keyboard and made it go berserk. Harry liked to describe the scene in the voice-over tones of a nature documentary, even though he'd signed a confidentiality statement promising not to discuss anything that happened at work.
I tell you these things as a way of saying that it was no sacrifice to stay home from the Holiday Raffle, which always began with upbeat group exercises in cooperative thinking and mutual trust. Last year, the employees had to build some kind of scaffolding and help one another climb over it. Fortunately, Harry hadn't been quite to the top when the thing collapsed. Everybody had been very, very nice, he'd told me later, on the way to the emergency room. This year, rumor had it that employees were supposed to take turns standing on chairs and falling backward into one another's arms. Harry's waist was now a tight forty-two.
I just didn't want to think about it.
So as soon as his car pulled out of the driveway, I got to work decorating the house for the holidays. It was the first year we'd be relatively on our own. Tina and Trish were volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. Amber had flown to Jamaica with Malvin, declaring that December in Pittsburgh and suicide were synonymous. My mother, who had retired to Florida, begged off with the promise of attending Jason's high-school graduation in June, when the weather was civilized. At least Jason was still around, studying upstairs in his room, but who could say where he'd be next year? He was graduating at the top of his class, one year ahead of schedule. College recruiters had been calling nonstop; Cornell and Stanford had already offered scholarships. At seventeen, he'd be gone. It would be just Harry and me. There'd be time for hobbies. Weekend getaways. Maybe even those gym memberships. And on the horizon? Retirement. Travel. A couple of grandkids. An RV with one of those waving yellow signs in the window: caution: i'm spending my children's inheritance.
Frankly, it didn't sound half bad.
I polished the menorah from my daddy's side of the family and set it on the dining room table. I scattered foil-wrapped chocolate coins across the mantel for gelt, even though I knew that Harry would just eat them. Then I hauled the artificial Christmas tree down from the attic in honor of my mother's Baptist kin. I vacuumed away the cobwebs, untangled the various strings of lights, and fitted them with multicolored fish of no particular denomination. Finally, I dug out the enormous Christmas clock that Harry's parents had given Amber when she was just a year old. It's face was--what else?--Santa Claus's face, and every time the hour struck, an awful mechanized voice chortled, "Ho-Ho-Ho!" It overwhelmed my daddy's lovely old menorah like a condominium complex beside a turn-of-the-century Victorian. I hated the thing, but the kids had always adored it. To them, it was part of the holiday season, like spinning the dreidel, like eggnog and fruitcake.
I was studying the Christmas tree, debating the tinsel issue, when Jason came down the stairs.
"You put up the tree," he said reproachfully. "I would have helped, you know."
"I knew you were studying."
"I could have taken a break."
Harry's old nickname for Jason had stuck, but Jason didn't seem to mind. Regardless of test scores, he would always be Pop-Tart to his family.
The Santa Claus clock chimed ten p.m. "Ho-Ho-Ho! Ho-Ho-Ho! Ho-Ho-Ho! Ho!" I watched Jason's head snap around. His mouth opened into a little round Ho! of his own beneath the wispy mustache he'd been trying to grow for a year.
"Aw, the Santa Claus clock!" he said, forgiving me everything. "I love that clock."
"The tree needs tinsel, don't you think?"
"I was actually thinking of stringing popcorn instead."
"I'll make it," he said, heading for the kitchen. "Dad still out?"
"Isn't he late?"
"Think he got hurt again?"
"I hope not."
Jason shook the heavy pan as the kernels rattled and popped. He had his father's way with popcorn; the smell was heavenly.
"Let's put butter on that batch," I said, digging through the junk drawer for the sewing kit. "We can always make more for stringing."
"Don't worry, I made plenty." Jason threw a whole stick of butter in a bowl and stuck it in the microwave. To look at him, you'd never have guessed that he came from a family that did not believe in margarine. He was so thin that it made me want to apologize. I suspected his accelerated brain was leeching necessary minerals from his body.
"I wonder if Dad'll win anything this year," he mused.
I'll say this for Harry's company: Their raffle prizes were extraordinary. Many were prototypes for things you still couldn't buy on the market.
"I could go for the flat-screened portable TV," I said.
Jason made a face. "I hope he wins the robo-dog."
"I hope he does not win the robo-dog!"
"Aw, Mom, you'd love it. I'd program it to get your slippers."
"I don't wear slippers."
"I'd program it to follow you around and keep you company."
Jason saved a small dish of popcorn for stringing, then shook the rest into the same bowl Harry and I had shared for so many years. He dumped the butter in with a splash and carried everything to the table. I handed him a needle, already threaded.
"The last thing I need," I said, stabbing a hot kernel, "is some little mechanical thing following me around. I spent too many years with little human things following me around."
Jason was more interested in eating popcorn than in stringing it. He filled his mouth with an impossibly large handful, then studied me, crunching. Since his babyhood, he'd looked somber, thoughtful, even when he was smiling, and he wasn't smiling now.
"What?" I said.
"You're going to be lonely," he said. "After I'm gone. So will Dad."
"You won't be gone, you'll be in college," I protested, though it was exactly what I'd been thinking earlier. Jason had a way of listening in on people's thoughts. You'd think to yourself, I'm kind of thirsty, and he'd appear with a glass of water. It was unnerving.
"You may experience mild to moderate depression," Jason said, adopting a formal tone. "You might start to question fundamental assumptions. Basic values could appear subjective."
"In other words, I'll be reaching for the Prozac?"
"Don't laugh," he said, shaking his head disapprovingly. "While it's true that professionals often dismiss the plight of the empty nester, the syndrome is a genuine phase-of-life transition with genuine consequences. It's best to be prepared."
I stared at my mathematically brilliant, hopelessly earnest son. In many ways, he seemed younger than seventeen. He was planning a career in quantitative psychology, which I gathered had something to do with creating statistical programs on computers to map the impulses of the human brain--after getting his M.D., of course. I imagined him in his high-school cafeteria with the athletes and the potheads, immune to their curiosity and scorn, quantum physics and pop psychology dancing like sugarplum fairies in his head. At six, seeing me unplug the vacuum with a yank of the cord, he explained why it was safer to grasp the plug, elaborating on the conductive nature of electricity. I could see that same six-year-old in him now, and I wanted to embrace him, but you don't do that to a teenage boy--even a boy like Jason, who prided himself on being free of what he called Oedipal angst.
"Around that same time," he continued soberly, "it is likely Dad will have a midlife crisis. Mom, don't laugh. It's hormonal. His testosterone levels will drop. There's nothing funny about it."
"I'm sure there isn't," I said, stringing popcorn madly.
"It may be happening already," Jason continued. "Have you noticed he's looking kind of, you know, puffy?"
Jason nodded. "That can be one of the signs. Hormones affect metabolism. Any idea how much he weighs these days?"
I shook my head. I thought I'd been the only one who'd noticed that, after years of slow creepage, Harry's weight had been rising exponentially. I'd been planning to say something to him about it, too, as soon as the holidays were out of the way. He always ate more around the holidays. He also ate more whenever he was bored, or unhappy, or nervous about something, or--especially--working long hours. Lately, since the dot-coms had been strafed by reality, he'd been putting in ten-hour days--all the surviving dot-cowboys did the same. But they were twenty years younger than Harry. Perhaps he was simply feeling his age. On weekends, he seemed to be sleeping more and more. Napping in the afternoon. Falling asleep on the couch after dinner. He was oddly . . . sluggish. Puffy, too. But it had been a particularly dark and dreary Fall. Everyone in Pittsburgh was sluggish and puffy.
"Maybe he's just been eating too much." I was still trying to keep things light.
"But the question is why?" Jason said. "For physiological reasons? Is he craving some vital fatty oil to regulate his amino acids? Or perhaps . . ."
"Perhaps he's been seeking emotional solace in food."
"Or perhaps he's just been eating too much," I repeated.
"People don't 'just eat too much.' " Jason fixed me with a paternal stare. "Are you and Dad, you know, okay?"
"Jason!" I didn't know whether to laugh or be offended. After twenty-four years, Harry and I weren't exactly honeymooners, but still. We enjoyed each other's company. We never fought. Sometimes we even held hands at the mall. "Of course we're okay."
"What about his job?"
They call me Father Time. "Jason, please, everything's fine."
"Maybe this involves latent childhood issues. In my opinion, Gramma Kligler was awfully overprotective, and Grampa--"
With relief, I heard Harry's car pull into the drive. "Hey, I think I hear the Hormonally Imbalanced One now."
Jason looked at me sympathetically. "Mom," he said. "Just remember I'm always here for you. I mean, if you ever want to talk."
"Thank you," I said, as soberly as I could.
"Don't mention it."
"Hello?" Harry shouted from the entryway, and not a moment too soon.
"What did we win?" I called back.
"Just a minute and I'll show you." We could hear him taking off his coat.
"The robo-dog?" Jason said, his voice cracking with excitement.
But when Harry padded into the room, he was carrying a flat, square box. Thankfully, he didn't look like a man who'd spent the past few hours falling backward off a chair.
"What's that?" Jason asked.
Harry handed it over. "Not the dog. Sorry, Pop-Tart."
"Can I open it?" he asked.
"Sure." Harry observed the tree. "Needs tinsel, don't you think?"
Jason was already inside the box. " 'The New You Digital Scale with Select Vocalizations,' " he read out loud. "Hey, a new scale! Just what we need around here."
He gave me a thumbs-up behind his father's back.
"It was the prize next to the TV," Harry said. "Can you believe it?"
"You were robbed," I consoled him, ignoring Jason.
"I tried to trade it for a sonic foot massager."
"You did the best you could."
"No, wait, Dad, this is really cool," Jason said, flipping the box to read the back. "It's got one of those learning chips. You have to program it."
His eyes glittered the way they did whenever something needed to be programmed.
"Be my guest," Harry told him. He sat down with an oomph and started in on the popcorn. "What an evening."
"How can a bathroom scale learn?" I asked Jason.
"It remembers your profile. You know, how much you weighed the last time, what your ideal weight should be, that kind of thing. And then it responds accordingly." Already he had the thing out of the box and was pushing buttons. "Hey, Dad?" His voice was innocent. "When you weigh yourself, do you want to hear a male or female voice?"
From the Hardcover edition.
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