Memories of Dinners Past
by Chris Sharp
"All right," the old woman said, "my name is Madame Melanie. Never mind my real name. My lineage is Mexican, and not a drop of gypsy or Transylvanian blood in me, so you know I have a different way of looking at time and life than do most of the crystal ball players and tarot card readers in town. I make a living from time reacting as a two-way street, and since we already have an over supply of psychics who conjure the future up ahead, I make myself available to those clients who need me to lead them back into the past."
Her seamed, olive-skinned face could have been Mexican or Italian or Greek -- Si Gottleib didn't know and didn't care. He only cared about what she claimed she could do for him... But she prattled on, ignoring the way he tapped his foot and shifted position on the lumpy, threadbare cushion of the ancient kitchen chair.
"Let me tell you what I think of Mexico, my native country," she said. "In the part of Mexico City where I grew up, most of us didn't think about the future if we could help it. For one thing, we were not sure that there was life existing after the present. And if there really was something out there beyond what we were doing, the odds looked very stacked against it being very nice. In the meantime, while we put this whole issue on the back burner, we were left with our life as usual which didn't look so great either. But we also had the past, which was the key for everything that was happening to us.
"Go to my old neighborhood and you see. My experience says the one image that stands up to the heat for you is that of an eagle strangling a snake to signal the wandering people called "Aztecs" to settle after decades of wandering around Central America.
"Oh, to be so settled at last..."
Finally, she seemed to notice Si's impatience.
"Anyway, Mr. Gottlieb. Enough about me. Before I bring up your past for you, based on the sketches you gave me, let me summarize the goal of our session. You want me to bring into this room, as best as I can, your wife who passed away from mortal existence some decades ago."
"She died," said Si Gottlieb. He twisted in his chair, first to the left, then the right. He slid his hand up over his forehead, but there was enough sweat on his forehead to make it show on his hand.
"Patience, please, Mr. Gottlieb," she said. "Just relax and breathe naturally, and try not to move around too much. This will take a couple of hours--"
Gottlieb's heart sank, and frustration began to rise in its place.
"-- and for us to succeed, most of those two hours time will have to be spent in silence and thoughtfulness."
Waste of time. Waste of money, Si thought. But what if she can really do it? And he stayed in his chair and swallowed his words.
"All right, Mr. Gottlieb. Are you comfortable with a little quiet now? Let me tell you a French joke, to help relax us a bit. Do you know why French restaurants have so much lighting, especially sunlight that comes through the widows? Because the French believe the way a person eats reveals the core of an individual. Why so many young people in Paris bistros measure each other up on the al fresco portions of the sidewalks.
"This brings up, I have food here myself, for us to share. It is part of our package, paid for by your fee, but to eat with you also helps me with my work. So eat, for your sake. I have potato chips, and nice Mexican bean dip, some different kinds of salsa, and a selection of cheeses with crackers, and because it's Friday, I have some pretty decent imitation crab. It is actually pollock painted like crab so it won't violate kosher laws against shellfish. Is that okay? Can I call you Si?
"You can call me Mr. Gottlieb," Si said, frowning. "Oy, so now I have to eat. I'm not even hungry. Okay. How about the pollock and some crackers?"
"That sounds pretty good to me, too," Madame Melanie said. She stood, walked through a bead curtain, and returned with a tray full of assorted crackers and a bowl of pink and white stuff that Si guessed must be the fake crab. They both helped themselves to a few crackers, loading them with the fishy-smelling concoction using the tarnished spoon stuck into the bowl like a naked flagpole.
"Let's start with the memories of the moment," Madame Melanie said at last. "The night before last, you say you were sitting in a kind of piazza in the city of Santa Clarita, which used to be a retreat for the wobbly white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who commuted to work into L.A. Today, though, the other face of California, the Mexican Catholic, is rediscovering these nestled bedroom communities, as you know. But this city in spite of many changes still sees any poor people as best hidden and not heard, so you can find the poorest around some back dust road that no one can find. In your very presence you disturb the dressy presentation of this valley center named after our Saint Clara, as you sit in the piazza, on a bench before an unending water fountain. The holes and stains in your yellow sweater more precisely express your anger than your actual poverty --"
"Excuse me," said Gottlieb. He fanned his face with one of the many People Magazines that Madame Melanie had waiting for her client, each with a peeling subscription label in one corner of the cover. "You're talking about two days ago, when I went to Santa Clarita on a business trip. I thought we were going on a long-distance journey tonight, Madame Melanie."
"Every journey begins at the place we are at now, Mr. Gottlieb," she said.
"Now please, give this some time. You are consulting a professional on the subject of other worlds that you don't have access into by yourself, but we are hoping with my help you will get there. It takes me two good hours to go backward in time to bring someone back who seems to have gotten lost in all those years. Right now your part is to patiently accept that the most important part of this session is not when I am talking, or you are speaking, but in the lengthy silences between what we say."
"Just to remind you, my expectations are every bit as outlandish as your promises," Gottlieb said. He had bitten almost daintily into the fragile crackers he had crowned with the imitation crab salad. As he ate, his pinkie finger thrust out, he shook his head steadily and somberly, as if he wanted to temper his acceptance of the fake shellfish with his own natural skepticism. His perspiration that warm evening was keeping up with her every move. "I'm asking you to bring Nancy Josephson out of her death and into this room. The whole, very alive woman. Nothing less will do, except it will bring your ruin through my retaliation and the energy of my disgust."
If Madame Melanie was surprised by his threatening tone, she hid it well. She sighed, and asked, "Do you agree if we create an atmosphere of good will in this room, it increases the odds of Nancy wanting to come here?"
"That's true of everyone," said Gottlieb. He bit another imitation-crab morsel.
"What about love?" the old woman prompted. "If we create an atmosphere of love tonight in this room, won't that be a greater draw for her to come in here?"
"I remember love songs being sung on the Ed Sullivan show, after Bobby Kennedy was shot just miles from here. But Bobby died anyway, didn't he?"
Gottlieb stood and looked out a picture window at the fading sun, at the people outside who seemed to be alive but could also possibly be ghosts in mortal disguise checking in and watching the rest of us. They walked in senseless crisscrossing patterns, as spies who often hide their real purpose might do to confuse pursuers. As Gottlieb relaxed into staring at the twilight scene off the beach, he finally found one man who bore a distinct resemblance to Senator Robert Kennedy, but he was dressed in the dirty rags of a homeless man.
The humorous hanging clam shells strung from Madame Melanie's window mocked both the curtains and the ragtag beach people outside. Rows of wind-swept restaurants and small businesses offered themselves as buffers against the power of the ocean lapping up to the beach outside. Directly across from Madame Melanie's doll-like house, the computer store owned by Gerard and Irene Gilvarg stood as lasting testimony to the magic the psychic used to bring these deserving old spinsters together in marriage.
Meanwhile, Madame Melanie's room was gathering together its well-known quietness, so the sea could be heard. Gottlieb imagined that it was meant to be a comforting, welcoming silence, but for him it was an emptiness that needed to be filled.
"I'm starting with your journals and notebooks, Mr. Gottlieb," the old woman said. "The writings you will not show me, but have already referred to more than once, which shows how much they really mean to you.
"You said I wouldn't understand a thing from reading your writings, so I will now have to understand it all without actually looking at them. You talk about the lists you write in your notebooks. Lists that at least have an order each time, every time a beginning, a middle, and an end. It helps organize you, too, to write these lists, because you recognize you are in the middle of a past, a present and a future. Time is trinity, Mr. Gottlieb.
"From here, I keep thinking about your lists in those notebooks. Lists of things you plan to accomplish within a year, or even within a day. For example, lists of books you plan to read this year. But as you know, I'm the psychic that goes backwards, so what interests me more are those lists that tell me of your memories of New York, when you knew Nancy."
Gottlieb looked sharply toward the old woman. Finally, she is getting somewhere --"
"Would you every guess I once lived in Manhattan myself?" she asked.
Gottlieb winced. Oy, again it's about her.
"Many, many years ago -- when I was slimmer and looked good enough to stop a taxi on any street -- for three years I lived in a little hellhole room in Chelsea. It had only a twin bed and a very old chest of drawers that gave away to scratching sounds when I turned my own light bulb out. Mice, or very large roaches, quien sabe?. I shared a communal bathroom and a somewhat partitioned shower room with both men and women who were off the beaten track by even my tolerant standards. For my first winter my refrigerator was string that I attached between my bed legs and the neck of a bottle of milk. Usually I kept a jar of herring and sour cream I placed outside on the little ledge of my fifth story window, ha, so I let the freezing New York winters take care of my food.
"But even though my room was so bad, and every morning we all had to walk around this terrible exhibitionist with two long brown beard tips pretending to shave himself with a towel wrapped around himself in the vestibule, by being tolerant to all this stuff I was able to live in Manhattan for only $55 a month.
"Then in the morning I went to the Eighth Avenue subway station and took an IND train to City Hall, where I then stepped to a walk-up office to start my daily psychic services. It didn't hurt to be about the only Mexican in New York City. By the time the natives saw me the typical New Yorker seemed to assume that the only Latinos in America must be Puerto Rican. For anyone there to find out about a local Mexican who had special psychic powers gave me a certain star quality, as the shirtless ones said about Evita in Buenos Aires. Am I right?"
Gottlieb might have interjected a few choice words about getting on with it, but he missed his chance.
"Was I lucky, too," she went on, "to have a little rag-paper publication operating in the same building that basically sold and published ads from little hustlers who would be lost in the ads of the daily papers. They were kind enough to let me advertise my special Aztec psychic services in exchange for getting on the phone and soliciting some ads for them in the mornings. Then, I got a night job at Anita's, a rare Mexican restaurant on the Upper West Side, where all I had to do was greet customers and be Mexican.
"Mr. Gottlieb, if you lived in the West 75th Street when you met Nancy, I am sure you must have visited me at Anita's at some time. If you had visited the West Side eateries as much as you say I am certain I must have hosted you and Nancy at Anita's once or twice. Let's go back there now. Are you ready? As you see I have a couch here, just like Dr. Freud, so you can lie down and relax as we take our journey."
Gottlieb glared at her. The couch looked no more comfortable than the chair, and he wasn't there for a nap.
"Okay, you don't want to lie on my couch then. Well, that may not matter. I am just want to remind you that Nancy will not enter this room tonight if we lock ourselves up in any way. You need to relax as I work with you, and just keep relaxing as we continue. Otherwise, why would Nancy want to be here?
"I see that it wasn't a party that you and Nancy were seeking as you set out on the streets of Manhattan every night. Let me remind you that your family came out of the Jewish experience in Germany and the Holocaust and Nancy's family escaped from the less precise Jewish exterminations in Russian under Stalin in the early Fifties. Should it be so surprising after that you would both find so much comfort in the everyday good nature of Americans, in those singing cowboys at O'Lunney's who looked and acted so unlike either Hitler or Stalin?"
"Very good," said Gottlieb. For a change, she was focusing on his life -- his and Nancy's. "It was Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys who got us started on that at the Lone Star Cafe. Keep going."
"You told me yourself, though, as I understand it, there was a little restaurant called Gleason's on Columbus Avenue that you and Nancy considered your real home. There was chicken in baskets, red plaid tablecloth and the recurring people who would come back to eat dinner, like family. The blackboard prices for dinner were nothing that a twenty dollar bill couldn't handle, which even in the Seventies wasn't bad for any real New York eatery. You met the actor Milo O'Shea there after he had opened in a cute English play called "Comedians" on Broadway, who ate with his pretty little red-headed wife Kitty. Remember his Father Lawrence in the Zefferilli "Romeo and Juliet," and he was so good as Leopold Bloom in the film 'Ulysses.'"
"How do you know all this stuff?" said Gottlieb, facing everything in front of him but looking at nothing at all. "Where do you get all these details after all these decades have passed?" He had told her none of these things, and he was sure they weren't written down anywhere she could have found them.
"Again, patience, Mr. Gottlieb. It is now time for us both to relax into a period of silence again. You can find a lot of psychics who will see things in the future for you. But if you want to see things as they were in the past, I'm your girl..."
Gottlieb's frustration was now tinged with curiosity -- and hope. She knows things -- maybe she can do it...
"I know it was so liberating for both you and Nancy to be sleeping to the sounds of American traffic and street artists in the city. In its different rhapsodies, the city told you about being delivered forever from the Hitlers and the Stalins of history. You even began to feel so protected in each other's company, that you began to venture from the protections of kosher law and ordered cheeseburgers in baskets."
"Nancy and I," said Gottlieb, "were not Hasidic or Sephardic or anything else that was very traditional and orthodox. Please, Madame Melanie. Let's move on from an ethnicity profile. We were modern Americans from old-world European families. Okay? But not everything we had for dinner was matzo balls and borscht."
"No," she said, "but Nancy was from a conservative Jewish family, and as I was brought up in an old Mexican family, I understand a little the forces from where she emerged. Her Russian mother and father expected her to shave all her luscious brown hair and wear a synthetic wig as a binder to her future husband --"
"Please, Mrs. Madame, if I'm paying for this session, I want you to go where I say. I don't want to go down the road of her Russian mother and father."
Madame Melanie sighed. "Mr. Gottlieb. I am calling another intermission now. Please be quiet and think about what I have been saying."
This time, Gottlieb had no trouble being quiet. He closed his eyes, and the sights and smells of the past surrounded him, and he could almost -- almost -- see Nancy's face...
"Okay, it's time to start up again. Those many dinners at Gleason's were a release from the seriousness of your apartments. These were those days when you could just sit and look at each other's eyes, and at the other customers, at Milo and Kitty over there, at the funky actress with all that lip gloss and that silent-movie eyeliner she liked to put into your face. At that point, you were okay with the idea that time could go on forever that way, huh?
"When I was in New York, I found the local German cockroaches enjoyed the high-rises and the brownstones even better than the yuppies liked that life, and so you and Nancy had joined the West Side exodus driven from the vermin at home into the neighborhood restaurants for shelter.
"At Gleason's, you chose a table by the window just to watch the parade of people on Columbus Avenue. There is a special way of upward dressing for the crowd on the Upper West Side set into pace by the specialty stores on Broadway. On weekends, the whole Columbus Avenue scene looked like a set for color and fabric coordination.
"Getting off my hostess work at Anita's, I once saw the actor Anthony Perkins and his young wife Beri Berenson, seemingly wrapped into one in rumpled denim ensemble that fit perfectly with that Columbus Avenue style. That was ten years before Perkins died of AIDS, with Beri and their children at his bed, and some twenty years before Beri died on one of those planes the jihadis rammed into the World Trade Center..."
"Yes," said Gottlieb. He was looking intently at his folded hands, studying his sun-spotted knuckles as if they were old scripture. "Killers."
"But at the same time, at Gleason's, there was only life around as usual. People never died at Gleason's, did they? For you and Nancy, it was a Garden of Eden every other night or so. You felt yourself protected by the innocence of the props, like the red-plaid table cloths and the young waitresses too obviously wistful that their last cattle-call auditions didn't work out and they were not standing on a Broadway stage.
"As you told me, Nancy was working then as a fashion staff writer for the Wall Street Journal, covering the ready-to-wear markets on Seventh Avenue and sometimes even flying to Paris and Milan. You felt a little land bound then, as you were still finishing up a business graduate program at Bernard Baruch while you remained an unappreciated defensive player in Henri Bendel's merchandise replenishment system. Yet at both workplaces New York fashion was bonding the two of you together over your renegade cheeseburgers at Gleason's.
"But truly, what was even less kosher than cheese and beef in the same bite were the waves Nancy had permed for her wedding. Those flowing waves of her brown hair had also recalled the Jewish wedding of her parents, the shaved head her mother had so proudly offered to her father as her marriage gift to him. Remember, this was at a time when Stalin was killing off traditional Jews because by his 30th year in power he was running out of his usual people to kill.
"So that final dinner at Gleason's before your wedding was able to include drama of life and death, even in your little safe haven on Columbus Avenue.
"Now, I think we have to talk another pause. We need these silences or what we have done so far will do no good."
Again, Gottlieb let himself drift into the memories that Madame Melanie had revived and even revivified. But as enthralling as his reverie was, he soon remembered that he had come here looking for more.
"Am I going to see Nancy, or what?"
"I don't mean I want to see her in a sťance. I want to see her like I see you."
"That's what I understand."
"No more talk. Bring her to me, or get on your knees and admit you're a failure."
"I have her now."
"What do you mean, you have her now?"
"Mr. Gottlieb, feel this moment and feel what's happening. You feel so powerfully about Nancy that you brought her to me without knowing it. After all that, are you now going to leave her? Look into my eyes, Mr. Gottlieb. You brought her into my thoughts tonight, this young Russian-American woman with the long brown hair and the brown eyes that never rested, and you had her enter my own mind so fully that there is nothing else there now but Nancy sitting in front of her dinner at Gleason's, looking at you, her lips for you open like her eyes, because this is not just a typical encounter."
"Please, Mr. Gottlieb." She leaned closer, forcing Gottlieb to meet her eyes. "What do you see, Mr. Gottlieb? Mr. Gottlieb. Si. Look at me, Si. It's Nancy. I'm right here."
The old man with the white Van Dyke beard reached for his wallet as he stood. "Yes," he said. "I know. It's okay, Nancy. I'm sorry. But I had to see you again, Nancy." He took out two one-hundred dollar bills, looked at their faces for a minute, and then handed them both to the 320-pound Madame Melanie, who looked nothing like Nancy at any time in her life, but who was Nancy.
"It's one hundred dollars even for the two hours," said Madame Melanie, giving him back one of the bills.
The man looked at the floor, and seemed unable to look any where else. Madame Melanie picked up her box of tissues.
She could still feel Nancy Josephson inside of her, watching the man who used to share cheeseburgers with her at Gleason's. Sometimes these people did that, lingering just a while when they had a chance to see someone whom they had once known. Madame Melanie could only guess how uncomfortable such a being could be, based on the horrible extraction that her old friend finally began to feel from his own unexplored depths.
"Please sit," she said. "Use these tissues. Don't feel you have to rush off. No one else is seeing me tonight. But it isn't bad, just hearing the sea break outside, is it?"
The man nodded and sat, then he took tissues to blow his nose. He was looking so hard at her eyes that she looked down.
"I have some very red jam I made myself the other day with fresh strawberries," said Madame Melanie. "Are you hungry?"
The man took out a small sealed bag in his jacket. "This is the brand of matzo cracker we had at our last Seder, so you see I brought a little for us tonight again." He was close to whispering. "Yes," he said, clearing his throat. "But I had to see you here, Nancy, because I'm weak. I'm weak, and you have to understand that, Nancy, please."
"It's all right, Si," Nancy said.
© 2008 Chris Sharp
Bio: Chris Sharp graduated from Fresno State University in 1997. In 2003, he won the West 35th Street Award for best new fiction by Crimestalkers.com. His story "The Colors of Shadows" appeared recently at PopulistArt.com. Between stories, he is a public school teacher at the Menifee School District in Riverside County, CA. Chris's surreal tale of madness and mother issues, The Momma on the Beach, appeared in the August 2007 Aphelion, and his story A TRUE Ghost Story in the December 2007 issue.
E-mail: Chris Sharp
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