It Could’ve Killed You But It Didn’t So It’s Funny

Larry, the little black cat bent on stealing your soul, licks the back of his knee. I would need spinal surgery to attempt that maneuver. The cat is bathing himself languidly next to nine new transparent violet and golden orange glass balls I will hang from hooks in the ceiling all over our apartment. I’ve returned miraculously uninjured from the family birthday dinner, and I’ve laid out all my beautiful presents large and small on my gift carpet next to my handsome and irritable pussycat. Hear me squealing with glee? I am squealing with glee!

Last night, Siobhan stopped by to assist in the highly difficult two-woman medicate-the-kitty race. Siobhan speaks the secret language of the pussycats, which is just as shocking each time she translates something new for either delegation. Last night, she followed Larry, the little black cat bent on stealing your soul, into the kitchen and as I watched had a brief discussion with the cat consisting of clicks and consonant sounds that ended with the cat sitting peacefully in her arms. I stared. The cat would claw my face to hamburger if I tried that and he loves me. Siobhan frowned and tapped her foot. Startled, I wrestled the cat’s mouth open and squeezed the dropperful of icky medicine down the back of his throat. Siobhan scratched his head and put him down gently. Thus, today Larry has been both in a cheery, pain-free mood and unusually bitey.

I’m exhausted! Gleeful and exhausted! Earlier this week, John found the online portfolio of artist Elizabeth Hickok’s fantastic San Francisco in Jell-O. I do the Happy Dance each time I look at it. Liz Hickok was nice enough to grant Poor Impulse Control permission to resize and post one of these jewel-like photographs, though we’re strangers. The photographs reminded me of a story from the Onion, years ago: Pudding-Factory Disaster Brings Slow, Creamy Death To Town Below.

CENTRALIA, IL–Sweet, creamy death swept through this small Illinois town Monday, when nine 300,000-gallon storage vats violently burst at the local Snak-Tyme pudding factory, burying hundreds of residents in a rich, smooth tidal wave of horrifying pudding goodness.

The death toll from the lip-smacking tragedy currently stands at 350 and is expected to rise.

Tragedy is the shock-wigged mother of comedy, which we may realize with a start when we learn that in the North End of Boston, molasses flooded the streets on 15 January, 1919, killing 21 and injuring more than 100. That was the year my grandmothers were born. This evening, sixteen members of my family, including two baby girls under one and three little boys under seven, invaded a small Italian restaurant in Somerset, NJ. Other people had dinner. We had a gift-wrapped riot.

When I arrived just a little after 5 p.m., I brought with me three bags of Christmas gifts from Miss and Mr. Sasha. A waiter saw me struggling on the sidewalk and opened the doors for me. I’m sure he was sorry later he didn’t lock the doors and hide behind the reservations desk. As I turned the corner into the empty dining room, Daria said, “Ta knows what time our reservation was – ” Daria, Tyler, their three kids, Auntie InExcelsisDeo, Uncle Frank and Sandy are seated; after I sit down, Anya, Corinne, and Anya’s two small children turn up. Mom and Tom arrive last. The restaurant fills behind us. My back is to the room but in front of me is a wall-size mirror. My nieces are the flying babies passing from person to person; my nephews have napkin capes and play superheroes. Our waitress is unbelievably patient and unimaginably competent. During the course of the evening, she makes not a single mistake. Some of us worked a decade or more in food service. We appreciate her skill for what it is: a giant step toward sainthood – just as she knows what we are: a well-groomed punishment from God.

Anya: Tyler Two asked you not to hit him. He doesn’t think it’s as funny as you do.
Ezekiel: (Being very three) But it’s funny for me!
Mom: Why are you laughing?
Tata: Anya told Ezekiel don’t hit Tyler Two because Tyler Two doesn’t think it’s funny and Ezekiel said, “It’s funny for me!”
Mom: COUGH!
Tata: Did you just spit calamari past my head?

That was hilarious and not upsetting because when the waitress asked, “Would anyone like appetizers?” five voices said, “Calamari, please.” Daria, taking charge, narrowed it to three and ordered chicken fingers for her boys, while Anya, a vegetarian, ordered ravioli for Ezekiel. His ravioli looked great, which I noticed just as Sandro grabbed the parmesan cheese and threw it into Auntie I.’s soda. Daria responded sternly but I laughed and Auntie I. kept looking at me with mirth in her eyes, and back to little Sandro doubtfully. Other than Mom, Tom and possibly Daria’s husband Tyler, this is a group of people who’ve spent our lives at the kids’ table.

We pick at our salads and pay little attention except to each other. Corinne’s kids are with their father tonight so the usual family boy-pack is reduced in number by one. The little boys follow Tyler Two’s lead and throw napkins over their heads. After a while, we are grateful the little boys let us herd them against the wall, where they only scream somewhat. Our family used to eat with pinkies up and cluck when someone exclaimed loudly at another table. After seven babies in six years, we feel lucky to make it home without permanent sauce diagrams of our family dinner square dance splashed all over everyone. Sometimes I look around the table, surf the cacophony and laugh. The six-year-old has questions.

Tyler Two: Why are you laughing?
Tata: It is very funny to be me!
Tyler Two: You should ask people why they’re keeping secrets from you.
Tata: That is a brilliant idea! I’ll walk up to people and ask what secrets they’re keeping from me and why!
Tyler Two: They have to be like cashiers and other people you would talk to anyway.
Tata: I will do it!

Our dinner plates arrive with altogether too much food on each plate. We kind of cheated as we always do. Nobody ordered the same things. The plates touch the table. Everyone takes one bite of their pasta. And…and..GO!

Eleven people ask each other what you ordered, pass plates around and take a bite of pasta or dip a piece of bread to taste the sauces. It’s like a slow-motion food fight with more “Wow, that’s tasty” and “Have another shrimp.” For about ten minutes, nobody sees their own plate and when they come back everyone says the same thing: “I thought you’d eat more. Have some more of mine.” Nobody finishes their plates and everyone takes home at least a little of their main dish and we skip to dessert, where this shindig’s been headed the whole time. Once again, our waitress ought to have a halo around her head because she gets coffee and dessert orders for fourteen straight while holding a tray of Italian confections. I watched her hold the tray over Mom’s head, lay the order pad on her own forearm and note everything without dropping gelato down the back of Mom’s blouse. I thought that would end in lip-smacking tragedy for sure.

During dinner, an older couple on their way out comes to the table with slightly crazed smiles.

She: What a healthy family you have!
He: It makes me miss my grandchildren!
She: I’m going straight home and I’m going to call them all!
He: I love that we can send them home. To their parents.
Mom: Thank you?

When it happens a second time, I wonder if the restaurant’s lacing the grated parmesan with Ecstacy. I fully expect someone to cross the dining room for a turn at holding tiny Miss Fifi, who is wearing a red plaid onesy with a matching cap and spends the evening laughing at the flying baby in the mirror. I’m playing along and I’ve ordered dessert, which I do once a year so restaurants don’t bring me bowls of Bolognese sauce with crooked floating candles. The room behind me takes a breath when my tiramisu arrives on fire and everyone at the table sings Happy Birthday. I blow out the candle.

Tata: Thank you, thank you all! You’re like the Alpine Hillbillies.
Anya: Can’t we be the Tuscan Hillbillies?
Tata: We’re not actually from there. Do Tuscans yodel?

Daria’s ordered three desserts she wanted to taste and pass around. She reviews them for us.

Daria: This molten chocolate cake is pretty good.
Tata: What? If it were really good you’d tell us it’s terrible and stuff it in your purse.
Daria: The chocolate mousse cake has a nice light texture and the Ghirardelli cocoa doesn’t hurt.
Auntie I.: If it were really good, she’d shout, “Look! Tom Cruise is testing couch springs at the pet store!” and when we turned back, she and the cake would be nothin’ but crumbs.

When the waitress asks if I want more flavored coffee I tell her no, thank you. I’m too exhausted. That’s enough terrifying birthday goodness for me.

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