|Homer Simpson steppin' out in a muu-muu|
"You know, in case that's why you're into cooking now."
|Zippy the Pinhead|
|Smitten Kitchen poached egg, photo by Deb Perelman|
Billy Squier's "The Stroke"
I look three floors down and see a heavyset girl smiling up at me through dark curls, her face round and plump, but still unmistakeably an O'Shea.
"Can you help me?" Her voice is trembly even though she's calling up through the humid summer air.
I hear the guys on the other side of the house, and climb down.
"My name's Erin," she says, "Kevin's little sister."
Her hair is sprinkled with white paint, and her paintbrush is already splayed and useless with thick paint. She reaches her hand out to shake mine. Her wrist is lined with fresh stripes and scores. Before I can say a word, she whispers,
"I'm in the Suicide Club."
I'm too startled to say anything, so I just help clean the brush and teach her how to paint simple baseboard.
Weeks later, we finish the Victorian. Kevin never shows any romantic interest in me, so finally I give up. Erin and I become friends. I don't ask anything about the Suicide Club, but I never forget. Often I sneak looks at her wrists when she's not looking. Then one night over ice cream, Erin tells me how she slashed her wrists and ended up in McLean Hospital, that it was her third attempt. My mother spent time at Austin-Riggs, the other mental health joint in the neighborhood. McLean is known for tough treatments, no-nonsense care. Austin-Riggs is the softer version, which suited my mother just fine. Back then, most facilities promised a One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest experience. I wonder what treatment Erin got, but I don't ask. I don't tell her about my mother.
"My father wants to meet you. I told him you eat a lot," she giggles. "He's the best. He loves me so much. And he's a great cook," she says shyly, looking down.
"When was this?" I say.
|Singer Anne Murray|
"Cut it out! Do not sing that sickening song!"
"She's from P.E.I.!"
We laugh, make plans to see the harness racing later that night in Charlottetown, and the road keeps unspooling beneath our wheels.
When we reach the house in P.E.I., dusk has fallen. The way I remember it, steam and smoke billowed from the small rural house and I could hear the sound of sizzling from the driveway, but that can't be true. I do remember her father swinging the door open and standing there with his legs spread. Mr. O'Shea was so wide he almost filled the doorway, blocking most of the light and bubbling pans, and so tall he had to duck his head to avoid slamming it into the door jamb. It was dark, but his teeth shone in the velvety light.
"Just in time for dinner. Get your asses in here!"
Then I remember sitting at the wooden table inside. We barely had time to drag our bags in and set them by the door. The food was thick and spicy. Some kind of simple stew, a huge metal pot planted in the center of the table where it belched steam and savory smells of carrots, and meat, onions, some kind of tangy greens. A plateful of bread loaves rested nearby. A big bottle of Guinness stout and a pitcher of water.
"Who else is coming to dinner," I asked in between small talk as I ate my first bowl with appreciative gusto.
"Just you two beautiful girls."
Mr. O'Shea winked at us, and I could see he had the same eyes as his children, sparkly green with a fringe of long lashes -- though his were veined with red.
"I heard you liked to eat, so I cooked a lot. Eat!"
Erin said not a word the whole meal. Picked at her bowl. Extracted vegetables and secreted them in her napkin which she wadded into a ball and tucked under the mat.
"Erin! Aren't you going to eat? What's the matter with you?" he growled.
Erin hunched over her bowl with more concentration while I jumped in with more chatter. I'd always been a good talker. After my third bowl, I was full and happy. I pushed the bowl to the center of the table and leaned back.
"What a delicious meal," I said. "Thank you so much, Mr. O'Shea."
Mr. O'Shea stared at me for a long. I stared back. An owl hooted. Then stopped.
"I thought you ate a lot. Christ on a stick. Erin! My pretty-bitty little Irish rose with your fat rosy cheeks. Did you lie to me again?" He turned to me. "You have not finished your stew yet."
Something twisted in my gut, and I sat up very straight, muscles tensed. I could smell the liquor on Mr. O'Shea's breath from across the table. The front door was slightly ajar.
"Oh, I couldn't eat another bite. I had three servings thanks to your excellent cooking."
"Eat another bowl. I insist. Here."
Mr. O'Shea ladled more stew into my bowl until it slopped over the sides and onto the oilcloth decorated with red tulips. He pushed the bowl toward me.
Erin kicked me under the table. I felt the bench shaking beneath her agitated body.
I stood up, grabbed Erin's arm, and yanked her to the door.
"We've got to go! We're late for the harness races! Thank you!" I called as I grabbed up our bags and ran to the car, Mr. O'Shea thundering close behind.
"What do you girls think you're doing? Come back now and finish your dinner!" he bellowed.
Mr. O'Shea stumbled on something and I hit the gas, tearing so fast out of the dirt driveway I ripped a small bush out of the ground. I burst into nervous laughter, but Erin was curled into a ball in the passenger seat, whimpering.
|Harness racing, P.E.I.|
I never visited P.E.I. again. Erin and I lost touch. But sometimes I think about Erin, her sad green eyes, and the way the white paint speckled her brown curls like fairy dust.
If I can cook anyone can. Eat well, and eat mindfully.