I still can’t seem to figure out the key to cooking rice. I’ve created a brown mush, so sticky it takes a tomahawk chop just to get it onto my plate. It is like chewing brown tar that sticks between my teeth and takes an expedition to clean out.
Last time I made the opposite, a sort of brown soupy thing. The directions said not to take the lid off of the pot, so I didn’t, but how was I to know the rice was hiding a small lake underneath? Rice soup, at least that’s what I called it for dinner that night. And I think that is what bothers me about rice; it looks fine until you stir it up but then it ruins the rice. It isn’t art but it isn’t science either.
I think I have a good thing going tonight with this pot, two cups of rice and four cups of water. Combine the two in a medium pot, bring to a boil then turn the heat down to low and let simmer until all the water has evaporated. Easy. I bought a new pot with a glass top so I can see when the rice is ready.
My son is on his way over for dinner so this has to be right. When I cook for myself maybe I get too distracted by the T.V. or a good story in the paper, but not tonight. I am like a cadet in boot camp.
The water boils, I turn the heat down and now begins the waiting game. I pace. Twiddling my fingers I try to think of reasons why this pot will be different. Will it be? Of course it will, I’ve given this pot more tender loving care. In forty minutes we’ll be eating brown gold.
I grab a beer from the fridge. The crack! snap! of the can is a familiar sound, a comforting one even. And man, that first sip is always the best. Tonight’s drink of choice is a dark, malty amber ale from a great brewery in Colorado. It finishes strong with a hint of citrus and caramel. I may not have had much in life, and probably never will, but I won’t budge and drink cheap beer. I’m just not interested in brown water that fizzles.
A hallow knock comes from the door. I get up, walk to the door and look through the peep hole. It’s my son and I swing open the door and throw my arms in the air. He smiles back, relaxes his face and like a puppy walks into my arms.
“How are you my boy?” I ask.
“I’m fine, tired, really tired.”
“Want a beer? I’ve got a great amber ale from Colorado in the fridge.”
“No thanks, I’m trying to cut back. I can’t think when I’ve been drinking,” he says.
“Why? Hey listen, let’s eat first… shit!” I run over to the pot but it is too late. The rice has turned to sticky mush, like drying muddy pebbles. I place the empty beer bottle down on the table where it joins the others sitting in the bottle graveyard.
“That was the rest of the rice and I’ve already chopped all of the vegetables,” I say.
“You know how to cook rice?”
“Yeah sure,” he smiles at me, “just get a rice cooker. Stops automatically.”
“Hmm. Well I ruined dinner, want to go down to Emilio’s for a slice?”
I grab my coat and hat and without putting them on and make my way to the door. My son is standing in the same spot, looking at the bottle graveyard on what used to be my desk. He stands as silent as a mouse, which is odd considering he has such a big frame. He’s skinnier now, but he still has those broad shoulders.
We step into the hallway and walk to the stairs. It is a long walk down seven flights of loud stairs. Each step we take sounds like a bass drum from the marching band. It is an old building and the stairs are steeper than most. Or, they are getting steeper as the building sinks into a hole in Manhattan, down to the swamp below. At least that is what I tell myself each time I feel more tired walking up and down these stairs.
The street is a different world like a raging river. Any one moment looks exactly the same as the next, though it is always moving with new cabs and people. Even the stores change all the time.
I remember when I first moved into this place. Every corner had mom and pop joints where you could get food that tasted different, tasted real. Now it is all simple food, scrubbed clean by health codes. Back then it was ok to be different. Not like it is now where the only good different is the “new cool” different.
“This way,” I say to my son, Tommy. “How is the job?”
“Good, fine. You know it’s different. Sometimes I just want to wake up and go to a coffee shop and write or go jam. But the people are nice, different types of people but nice.”
“I’m sure it will take time. How’s Rachel? She showing yet?”
“No, not yet. She’s sick as a dog though. She’s had to call in a few times even. No action for a few weeks and it’s killing me,” Tommy says with a smile.
“Sorry to hear that. It’ll pass though. I remember your mother-” Even saying that makes the lump in my through come back. I crumple my face, pull my nose up and purse my lips. Tommy doesn’t notice. “I remember when your mother was sick with you. She ate some of the craziest shit I’ve ever seen. In fact, a few days ago I was watching this show on T.V. about a guy who eats all sorts of food in other countries. Things like Zebra heart and bugs. The whole time I thought ‘you don’t have nothing on her.’”
A fake laugh comes out of Tommy’s nose, like a snort. Truth is I found myself saying that all the time. I’ll see a young girl with a fake body on a magazine cover and all I can think about is my wife when she first woke up in the morning. Sometimes I’ll even say, “you don’t have nothing on her,” right to the magazine cover, just to make sure the young girl knows it.
“Yeah it is wild. I’m not ready for this. I don’t know anything about life. How am I supposed to raise a kid?” Tommy says.
“Oh you’ll figure it out,” I say, trying to be reassuring but knowing how hard it’ll be. “Have you been playing much?”
“No, not really. We stay late at work, sometimes 9 or 10, and by then I just want to come home and sleep. Plus I’m just brain dead all day regardless. Even if I did have time I don’t have the energy,” Tommy says.
“What about the band?”
Tommy doesn’t answer. He just keeps walking with his hands in his pockets. We turn the corner and Tommy runs into a family of Japanese tourists. They had stopped to ask someone, anyone, to take a picture of them in front of the Empire State building but he just holds out his hand in a sorry fashion. I guess he didn’t see them holding an invisible camera up to their eye, complete with the clicking motion with their finger. No doubt they wondered why Americans were so rude.
Tommy continues, “Well, I missed a bunch of practices. They asked another bassist to join.”
“What? That is crazy, you started it.”
“And how could they find a better bassist? I trained you myself!” Those aren’t just nice words. I really can’t believe they could find another bassist. Tommy has been playing bass since his fingers could move.
“They needed someone more consistent. I had to miss a gig for work and they were left scrambling. I guess they found a replacement and he’s pretty good,” Tommy says.
I’d never met someone who wanted to play music more than Tommy. When he was a kid he would play every kid instrument; the kid drums, kid guitar and even the demonic recorder. For years all I could hear in my right ear was “Hot Cross Buns.”
“I don’t know what to say, son, I’m sorry. Maybe you could find a new band to play with? I mean this is a big city, there’s got to be bands out there that need some help,” I say.
“No use. I tried and failed, you know? What can I do? I tried to make the band work and it didn’t. Rachel needs to eat and soon I will have another mouth to feed. It was different when it was just me. Not a big deal to not eat one day and line up at a soup kitchen. But I have responsibilities now, real responsibilities.”
“Yeah,” I say with a draw.
“I have to grow up some time, right?”
Emilio’s is almost completely empty. It is a classic pizza eatery, with white walls and checkered red table cloths. Each table has a suite of post pizza purchase goods; red pepper flakes, grated Parmesan in plump shakers and a rolled up set of plastic silverware. Four plastic chairs per checkered table and the setting was complete, a perfect experience to eat the world’s greatest pizza.
We walk up to the glass and view the spread. There are ten, twenty or maybe even thirty different pizzas in varying degrees of completeness. Some are down to the last slice, some fresh from the oven. I wish I could smell them all at once. I wonder what they smell like from the other side. Can you imagine? Smelling thirty pizzas at once?
I order the works, paying homage to the veggies that are left behind on my table. The slice is the size of a bigfoot print. Tommy orders cheese, just plain cheese, like always. The same man that serves us our slices also rings us up. We add drinks and a side of garlic bread. I hand the man my card, and we begin the waiting game. After the swipe I get nervous, always. It is like pulling the lever on a slot machine and hoping I come back with the message “Accepted.” Fail, card is denied. I reach for another but Tommy, already ready with his card, places his hand on my forearm and says “I got it.” Should I feel embarrassed? Maybe. I’ve had a long road to get here. Sometimes I’m even surprised I kept myself alive. I’m past that, at least I tell myself.
Sometimes the choice of seating is more difficult with so many options. My go-to table by the window, where I watch the oddities of New York stroll by, is open. But tonight the booth, the holy grail of Emilio’s, is unoccupied. I always say they should have a sign that illuminates “Vacant” when it is open.
We sit and immediately take a huge bite of pizza. The bite brings back a flood of memories. The mix of cheese and sauce, just perfectly sweet with the right spices, can bring back just about my entire life in memories. Tommy and I used to come here every Friday night when he was a kid. It was our time together as father and son. He’d always order cheese and I’d never order the same thing twice in a row. After we stopped our date nights, I kept coming back every Friday and would pretend he was there. Sometimes I’d even order an extra slice of cheese pizza, so that in my daydream I could tell myself he was just in the bathroom.
Susan and I had our first date here. I chased her for months and finally, she broke down and accepted through a smile I will never forget. She wore a white button up top that hugged her figure, tucked into the bluest pair of blue jeans. She was taller than me that night with those heels. She wore her hair down, curled at the bottom and thick eye make-up. We each ate 3 pieces of pizza which is almost a superhuman feat. It was raining that night. Deep black clouds covered the city and dumped sheets and sheets of rain. I thought the rain could crack the concrete. I fell in love with her that night.
I crease my pizza and watch as Tommy does the same. It took him almost twenty years to believe me when I told him that the best way to eat pizza is folded in half. He finally listened, hard headed as he is, and has not gone back since. Like father like son I suppose. Gulping pizza and drinking a swig of Coke, I look at Tommy and smile.
“You don’t seem well son,” I say.
“I don’t feel well. I don’t. I haven’t been sleeping much. Between work and Rachel and the baby I can’t seem to close my mind down for the night. Plus, does it seem like the city is louder?” Tommy doesn’t wait for me to answer, “And I just want to be back in the band. But I can’t. I barely ate when it was just me. I can’t feed a kid and Rachel.”
I just look at Tommy as my mind races what to say. He saves me a response by continuing, “I can’t imagine life this way. Sure I make more, a ton more, but I sit in a small cube and just look at a screen all day. And I don’t even do real things. I just click something somewhere. And it isn’t real, you know? It isn’t really real at all, just a screen and plastic and a bunch of images on the screen. Did you know they track how many calls we make each day? Every day I have to make 80 calls, at least. Some of the real winners make like, double that. That is one call every three minutes, without break, for eight hours a day.” Tommy stops himself. He sits and looks at his slice of pizza, slowly bringing it up to his mouth and taking a bite. With each second he chews it slower and slower until he finally swallows.
“What am I supposed to do?” he finally says.
“Well,” and though I am trying to think of something else to say, that seems to be the only word that I am sure makes sense. I take another big drink of Coke. “Well, it is a tough spot. I hoped you wouldn’t have to make this choice too. You know when your mother was sick and she could still talk and remembered things, she told me something,” I feel the shake come back in my hand, “Well, first, you know she didn’t make it because they wouldn’t treat her? I know I don’t say much anymore about her but I think you need to know this.” Tommy sat up and his eyes focused on me. “She was sick but they could have helped. And they could have helped if we had had more insurance or more money to pay. But we didn’t. We didn’t have anything because I followed my dreams and failed. I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to write the next great American novel and I just had to do it. My father always told me I’d fail and I did. And I failed to keep her alive, too. You see she could have lived if I had been responsible, like you. We were at the public clinic and they just couldn’t, they just couldn’t keep her there. She might still be here and we’d be a real family and maybe we’d live on the Upper West.” I realize I am rubbing my hand on my forehead like I am sanding down a piece of wood.
Tommy’s eyes were wide and starring right at me.
“I guess what I am trying to say is that in life, a man follows his dreams or he follows his responsibilities. People rely on you now. You’ve got to be a man. I followed my heart and couldn’t provide and now we are all alone. And look at me now, Jesus help me, I can’t even pay for a piece of pizza!” I broke. The years of torture and thorns and thoughts came back. Had I even said anything worth saying? Were those words worth this torture?
A slow tear rolls down Tommy’s cheek and he doesn’t bother to wipe it away. He reaches over and grabs my hand as I shake from the inside. Grief rolls and rolls like a big boulder falling from a cliff to smash an unlucky car below.
“We have each other, right? Right?” he says.
“What did mom say?”
“You said mom told you something, what was it?”
“Oh, right.” I wipe a tear away. I can’t imagine the face I am making right now. I liken it to the way a torture victim looks between sessions. “She said a man can’t control his dreams. Then a few days later she died.”