Read Grist Mill Road Online

Authors: Christopher J. Yates

Grist Mill Road (9 page)

The cake was supposed to be a peace offering on my part, an apology for bringing shame on our family and a congratulations to my dad for his new, more successful life—although I'm sure to my father the act of baking was nothing more than further confirmation that I had never been cut out for a role in The Kennedy Plan. Anyway, I would never have cooked the thing had I known at the time what my brother told me in a bar many years later, that my father had in fact first met Carla all the way back in 1976—at the Democratic National Convention in New York City, at which time Carla's husband was very much alive. Apparently, shortly after the party nominated Jimmy Carter for president, my father and Carla made their way to a midtown hotel, where I imagine they discussed Ford v. Carter at great length.

For the next six years Dad and Carla continued their affair at various political functions across the Northeast—a meeting of minds, my father told Sean, my mom never having been the world's most enthusiastic party foot soldier—until, with his seat in New York seemingly lost, wouldn't you know it, we upped sticks and moved to a house less than a mile from the home of my father's mistress.

But for almost seventeen years I would continue to believe that the reason for our move, and my parents' subsequent divorce, was all because of something I'd done—or hadn't done, I suppose you could say.

*   *   *

MOM WAS ADAMANT THAT SHE
didn't want her boys moving school again, so we stayed put in our neat house, a family home fit for a modest politician on the rise. Wanting to avoid the black mark of a messy divorce, mainly for the sake of my father's political ambitions, my parents agreed financial arrangements between them without resorting to a court. But either Mom was too sheepish to ask for much, or Dad was too skilled a negotiator to offer a comfortable monthly sum, which meant that, struggling to pay the mortgage and bills on a house slightly larger than we needed, my now-single mother had to find work. And so, having nothing recent or of note on her r
é
sum
é
other than homemaker, she took various cleaning jobs in private homes and dental practices, car dealerships and real estate offices. And when she wasn't cleaning, even if she was at home around dinnertime, she was always too tired to prepare food, so instead of home-cooked meals, we ate sterile TV dinners from segmented foil trays. One day my brother, his Salisbury steak only half-eaten, dropped his tray to the floor and said, Mom, this crap tastes like death.

Grateful for my brother's bluntness, I was about to toss my tray as well when I saw that Mom had started to cry.

I cooked my first ever meal the next day from a recipe I found on the side of a pasta box. Our mom still gave us an allowance, even though she never had anything to spend on herself, and so I had enough money to buy vegetables, canned tomatoes and ricotta. We already had some ground beef in the freezer and although I couldn't afford Parmesan and mozzarella, I knew there was some waxy orange cheddar in the fridge, so I used that instead.

I think that lasagna turned out pretty well. My brother said it wasn't bad and when my mom finished her last forkful, she cried for the second night running.

Gradually I became quite the home economist. Mom would tell me how much money we had to spend on food each week and I would budget. I bought secondhand cookbooks and learned how to make mac and cheese, sloppy joes with ground turkey, and spaghetti and meatballs. I found a meat grinder that cost almost
nothing at a yard sale. Grinding my own beef cut down on the cost of making lasagna, meat loaf, homemade hamburgers and chili. When we had almost nothing to spend I cooked up a large pot of red lentil soup, which my brother called stupid hippie food, but he still finished his bowl every time, and if we had a little extra cash come Friday, I roasted a chicken on the weekend, making stock from the carcass and using up the leftover meat during the following week. I could turn one chicken into three meals for three, which made me realize what good value that bird had been, and we started eating roast chicken every Sunday, our new family triangle experiencing something like happiness as we shared our weekends at that dinner table. I learned how to bake bread, each loaf costing me only a few cents to make, and then figured out that adding milk to my dough kept the bread softer for longer and started using it to make toast for breakfast and sandwiches to take to school. My brother refused to give up his morning cereal and that was a big dent in my budget—until he left for college, that is, although whenever he came home I had to make sure we had his damn Cheerios in the pantry—but mostly I'd say that my brother supported me. He could have called me a little fag for liking to cook (his favorite term of abuse back then) but he never did.

I loved every second I spent in that kitchen—almost three years, from the age of fifteen until shortly after my eighteenth birthday when I left for college as well.

When you cook you can silence your mind for a while. You never feel sad or down when the heat starts to rise in front of a busy stove. I suppose that somehow I had stumbled upon exactly what I needed, the ability to unplug from life for a while—and not only the small world outside but also the larger world spinning twice as fast in my head.

Another thing I loved was the sense of transformation. I would line up my ingredients on the kitchen counter and draw a picture in my head of what these different elements were about to become. Sure, maybe I'd never get all the way to that picture, but I always got somewhere, the journey ended with a reward every time.

But what I liked most of all about cooking was simple. I had
learned to make people happy. I'd discovered that food does not have to be only sustenance, food can be love.

*   *   *

WHICH IS ALL PERFECTLY WONDERFUL
—I'm sure everyone needs to escape from the world sometimes and perhaps I'd found the best way to buy myself a few hours' silence each day, which was something I desperately needed because, every moment since it had happened, the story of that hot yellow day had been playing on loop in my mind, reeling away at the back of my skull like a home movie being projected in Technicolor over and over.

Baked orange bicycles, bright rocks and blue skies, black rat snake, Red Ryder BB gun …

Even when I wasn't consciously thinking about it, I was aware of the story whirling away, mindful of the background noise of my shame, the sound like the buzz of a neighbor's television set coming through the walls. When I did think about it, watching the events unfold behind my eyes, reliving that day again, the story would stick to the very same script every time—but only up to a point, because then, as the story neared its factual climax, it would take on a fictional twist. Yes, whenever I told the tale to myself, the ending would be different, a new sting in the tail each time. Patch running at Matthew and crushing his skull with a rock, Patch leaping in front of the forty-ninth bullet, Patch finding a splintered branch and driving it deep into Matthew's chest, Patch fetching the slingshot from under the tarp and firing a perfect shot into Matthew's left eye …

And I told it again. And I told it again.

Look, Dr. Rosenstock, I know what you would say if you read this, that when my imagination conjured up these changes to the end of the tale, I was coming to terms with what had happened. That by turning myself into the hero of the piece, I was finding a way to forgive myself.

Only, that wouldn't be true, Doctor, not even close. Because I'm certain beyond a doubt that this and only this is the message I was sending myself—

That there must have been a thousand and one different ways I could have saved her that day. But what did I do? I did nothing.

And I tell it again. And I tell it again.

So that now even the act of making food, an act of love, is something that has begun to catch and darken at the edges. Every day in the kitchen, every day with my thoughts—how would it feel? The crushing and cracking of things. The searing heat of a pan. The feel of the blade as it slices through flesh.

Because now it seems to me I have the chance to write my own ending. Now I can truly become the hero of the piece. Only this time around, I can make it the truth.

 

NEW YORK, 2008

Patrick ascends toward the world's number one restaurant on an escalator, its scrolling steps heavy with tourists, inside the marbled shopping mall of the Time Warner Center.

The tourists wear bright rucksacks, windbreakers and sneakers. Patrick has on a lightweight charcoal suit but no tie, because an hour earlier, when he received confirmation of the lunch, he went through his closet examining the necks of his shirts and discovered all of them frayed where recently he de-collared each one of them with kitchen shears. He picked out a blue-and-white Bengal stripe and tidied the loose threads with nail scissors.

Breathing slowly through his nose, he tries to untangle his thoughts and worries he will mistime his dismount from the escalator. When he sees the restaurant door across the narrow space of the fourth-floor gallery, he worries that he doesn't know under which name the reservation is held. And then he worries that these minor worries are only a distraction from what he should be worrying about most of all. That this meeting is probably a sham, not a life-changing event at all. That in all likelihood TribecaM is someone in PR who wants Red Moose Barn to promote spray cheese.

As he nears the restaurant, the mall is transformed into an avenue of orchids and bay trees and when he enters through the
heavy antique door (shipped over from Jean-Jacques Rougerie's village of Crain, he has read), he is greeted by a man in a black suit standing at a slender lectern.

Mr. McConnell, welcome to Le Crainois. Mr.…
uh
 … your dining companion is seated already. Is there anything you'd like me to take for you?

Patrick pats his pockets. No, thank you, he says, looking at his greeter's black silk tie, feeling the absence around his own neck.

Another man appears. Good afternoon, Mr. McConnell. My name is Fr
é
d
é
ric, I'm the ma
î
tre d' at Le Crainois. Would you like me to show you straight to your table?

They move down the corridor, through a beige bar, on toward the dining room. Patrick has noticed a unique rate of ambulation among the staff in the world's finest dining establishments—the precise velocity at which a koi carp drifts from sunlight to shadow.

Fr
é
d
é
ric says something in a friendly tone that Patrick fails to take in as he tries to spot TribecaM in the dining room ahead.
What does he look like?
Patrick wonders, having already felt a small sense of disappointment when the man at the lectern revealed the gender of his lunch companion.

How did you know my name? Patrick asks the ma
î
tre d'. The man at the front knew it as well, he says.

Sometimes images are available, says Fr
é
d
é
ric. Whenever that's the case, we like to familiarize ourselves with our guests before they arrive.

Images available? says Patrick.

Online, for example, says Fr
é
d
é
ric. And then he adds, Your photo of the sorrel soup was mouthwatering.

There are only a dozen tables in the dining room, its color scheme of browns and creams peppered with tubs of greenery and sculptural twigs. Patrick follows Fr
é
d
é
ric past a long window that forms one side of the room, several floors above Columbus Circle, the statue of Columbus on his pedestal dominating the view, surprisingly paunchy when seen at eye level. Central Park fans out beyond the statue, its paths and trees overfringed with a hazy line of tall buildings.

Fr
é
d
é
ric leads them around a pillar. Patrick doesn't know how he will be able to eat, feeling as if the contents of his breakfast are lodged up against his breastbone. He tries to shift the obstruction, swallowing hard as he arrives at a secluded table set in its own glade with its own private stretch of window, the face of the man seated at the table obscured by the wine list, a leather book as big as an atlas, Patrick almost starting to laugh as the mounting sense of this lunch-tease begins to feel preposterous.

And then the wine list is lowered, unveiling a face that Patrick recognizes in an instant, even though it has been twenty-six years, the eyes as insistent as the last time he saw him. Columbus, Central Park, New York—everything beyond the window a haze at the end of a vertiginous drop. There is only his face, Matthew, and the air smelling faintly of pine.

 

INTO THE BLUE

When I saw you again it was the late springtime of 2003, exactly a week after I'd swallowed too many painkillers, or perhaps not enough. I was gazing down from the balcony, early for my Bronxville-bound train, a blue puddle of light soaking into the pink marble concourse of Grand Central Station.

I was thirty-three years old and up to that point in my life I'd tried three times to kill myself. There's never been a fourth attempt. And naturally it was all because of you that I stopped at number three. I always wanted to save you, Hannah, but of course it was you who saved me.

I've never told you about those times I tried to end things, I never will, and I don't know if that's because I didn't want to burden you or whether it's because I was worried you might think me less of a man.

Anyway, more than two decades had passed. My last memory of you was your chin on my shoulder, the two of us together on my bike and a feeling of faintness. I had no idea that you were living in Manhattan. It was a Saturday morning, hundreds of city visitors spilling onto the station concourse, a small crowd massed around the famous meeting-spot clock, awaiting their loved ones, their friends, maybe even their futures. That's when I saw you.

I remember the reflection of your legs in the blue-splashed marble, the way you moved unassumingly like someone trying not to be picked out in a crowd. I kept on watching you, twenty steps, thirty, unable to look away, something about you. And then an impulsive urge propelled me down the steps, two at a time. A few moments later I was standing directly behind you in the ticket line, even though I'd bought my ticket ten minutes earlier.

I studied the winglike shape of your shoulder blades through your raincoat, listening in on your conversation.

I assumed you were talking about a movie or TV show because you were saying something about torture and someone taped to a chair. And then you said,
They chopped off his thumbs with a bolt cutter. I know, right? Left them standing in a tub of
 
… oh damn, how can I forget the name? The Greek dip
 
… No, not hummus
 
… You know, cucumber and
 
…
Dammit
 
…

Tzatziki
, I said.

You turned around.

Yes, tzatziki
, you said into the phone, smiling warily at me before turning back.

I was already smitten.

You were at the front of the line now and soon the ticket counter came free.
Wait,
you said,
I'll have to call you back.

I strained to overhear your destination.
Yonkers, round trip
.

Not one of the stops on my line. I remember the quick surge of my disappointment and then a second impulsive idea.

As soon as you moved away from the window, I rushed straight up to the counter and said loudly,
Yonkers, please
.

You stopped and turned around.

Round trip?
came the question from behind the window.

Sure,
I said.

I was facing the counter but all my attention was on you. I sensed your quizzical look.
Sure?

Scooping up my ticket, I waved it like a kid going to his first ever ball game, you looking at me as if figuring me out harder with one eye than the other.
Maybe we're going to the same party,
I said.

Never in my life had I done anything like this.

No,
you said,
you're probably going to one of those fancy cheese and tzatziki parties I keep reading so much about.

Sorry,
I said,
I couldn't help but
 
…

Were you eavesdropping on my private phone conversation?

Eavesdropping?
I said.
No, it was impossible not to hear
 
…

Oh, so now you're accusing me of speaking too loudly?

Either that or the trains pull into Grand Central too softly.

I went over what I'd just said, certain I'd blown it. But you laughed. It was the most perfect laugh I've ever heard.
I'm Hannah,
you said, offering me your hand to shake, the movement of one hand making me think to look at the other. No ring. That's the only place my brain went in that moment, not making the connection, your name.

I shook your hand.
Patrick,
I said.
But my friends call me Patch
.

And then something happened that I didn't understand at the time. It felt as if I'd unwittingly detonated a bomb. The look on your face changed and I saw you more clearly, your eyes widening, two minutely different shades of the same fierce blue.

A moment later you were running—not toward any platform, but out of the station.

Hannah.
Hannah
.

*   *   *

I SAT ON THE TRAIN
to Bronxville thinking about you, staring at the carriage's reflection in the dark window, my ears popping as the train burst clear of the tunnel, blue light crashing over me like a wave. I'd thought about you so many times since that day but in my thoughts you'd never aged. Were you beautiful back then as well? At twelve years old, thirteen? Yes, you were, this became suddenly obvious to me. I'd been too young to notice.

I was on my way to my brother's house, his first yard party of the year. I'd long been banned from making food for these events, or even helping out with the grilling.
We don't need all that fancy shit, bro!
And whenever I asked what I should bring my brother always responded,
Any hot secretaries at your place?

All afternoon I drank keg beer, wondering how I would ever
find you again in such a vast city. Wiener jokes flew around the backyard while Sean and his colleagues talked law and sports. And as the light faded to its deep blue of dusk, my brother, drunk and boasting about his youthful prowess as a high school wrestler, pinned me to the ground and whispered,
Spin me over, bro—Annie's looking, she likes you, man
.

And I liked Annie but I didn't spin him over. No, you win, Sean, I said, tapping out.

Annie offered to clean a grass stain from my white shirt and I said not to worry, taking the train back to Grand Central Station a half hour later, alone.

*   *   *

SUNDAY MORNING I WENT OUT
to get coffee, landing on a street strewn with the debris of another Saturday night in Partyland. Pizza crusts, chicken bones, crushed plastic cups. It had rained overnight and the remnants of a sodden newspaper were pasted to the sidewalk. The cover photo was the face of a man smiling up from the blue waters of a swimming pool. But something made me look down at the newspaper a second time.

MILLIONAIRE MURDERED FOR PEANUTS
trumpeted the headline. And then,
CASINO HEIR TORTURED AND SLAIN IN HIS HOME.
I unstuck the few sheets from the ground. On the front page there were only two or three lines on the story, followed by the words
SEE PAGE 5
. I pulled the damp newsprint apart. Three, four, five …

And there you were, Hannah Jensen, your photo next to the byline.

Thumbs … bolt cutter … tzatziki
.

I'd found you. The
New York Mail
.

I looked up at the sky in a gesture of gratitude. And it was so blue overhead, the morning so perfect, I knew right away what it was I would do.

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