Let me set the context for this anecdote. My Mom has married the slightly wooly fella that would become my Dad and they’re both working at the restaurant where they met, the Parson’s Table, in Jonesboro, Tennessee. Dad had only been working at the Parson's Table a short while when this story takes place.
He'd met my Mom while making deliveries for another venue the owner of the restaurant owned, a place down the lane on the bend with a vintage volunteer horse drawn fire fighting pump perched out front called the Salt House, an antique store wherein I saw my first photograph of a real person shot dead while they napped in their chair in their lair, shot dead by an FBI agent dressed quite fair. Mom’s best friend Jan worked over at the Parson’s Table.
I’m not sure if Jan had ever known or dated Tom, my biological father, though seemed like a few of his ex’s ended up being friends or acquaintances of my Mom’s while I was growing up, Julie Repenning for example, who I’ll write posts about later for certain, particularly that summer in Pennsylvania while Julie made a go of farm life with her then husband Tom Repenning, that experience made a lasting impact on this impressionable kid. Not sure about Jan, though, Mom might've known her some other way, Jonesboro being a small town and all.
What I do know is that Jan remains Mom’s best friend to this day, and it was she that convinced Mike, my Dad to be, to deliver / ferry stuff in the back of his big green Ford pick-em-up truck from the Salt House to the back door of the Parson’s Table where my Mom would be in early doing the backing, covered with flour and getting Popeye forearms from kneading all that dough. She could lift me up indefinitely with on hand then, her back strong from the job at the furniture place, her arms strong from the baking, her legs strong from a lifetime of dancing, and her mind strong from drawing some defining lines for herself and striking out on her own with two boys in tow.
Matchmaker Jan dated a man named Benny who Mike had grown up with. When Mike returned from a government contract job measuring smokestack outputs for the Environmental Protection Agency in Florida, a job that had paid so little he’d slept at times on the shore with only the dinner he’d caught from the shore with his rod and reel for dinner. Where he’d learned tricks for making beans and rice palatable day after day from the Cuban, Creole, and Mexican day laborers sharing the beaches. Where he’d learned to make a little go a long way, and taste good. Growing up with parents that actually know how to cook is something you really appreciate when you move out on your own and realize you should have paid more attention and learned how to make some of that stuff yourself.
I’m somewhere inside of second grade about a year before we up and moved out to Telford and I changed schools to Happy Valley, land of corn fed bullies and thick necked pug nosed knuckle dragging brutes proud of the number of years they’d been held back.
Jonesboro elementary announced a talent show, likely an annual event, and still getting flak from kids for the pink beak on Big Bird, I wanted to reclaim some fame through a mighty display of undeniable talent at the talent show. The only problem with this plan, a niggling little issue, a tiny red flag flapping in the back of my mind, not nearly enough to slow my hand as I volunteered and signed up on the big sheet to claim my spot in the evening’s lineup.
Red flags might appear small because they are, or because they are far away. As you race towards them at breakneck speed, they certainly swell and grow. Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear. And as I sat on the carpeted stairs of the Parson’s Table restaurant space, push sweeper nearby waiting for attention, I wondered what talent I could pretend to have or learn in time for the talent show a mere week away. My parents discovered early on that having assignments and tasks around their workplace kept me in sight and out of trouble, not long after they introduced me to coffee, actually.
Mike the Dad-to-be and I were getting the house across the lane behind the Parson’s Table ready to move our meager belongings into. I helped dig out the broken piece of sidewalk leading to the side door into the house, then helped lug all the magazines from the main room to fill the hole, then helped fill the rest with soil and gravel, afterward Mike mixed and poured in concrete to fill the hole and make the path viable again. I believe the magazines we buried had largely been old Playboys, Clubs, Hustler, and Penthouse. I had been too young to want to flip through any of them, yet I remember the covers overlapping in that shallow grave, and I remember that while the living room had been full of stacks of magazines, and it wouldn’t be the yellow bordered National Geographic issues ending up under the paved path.
The weather had gone chilly damp cold and by the time we finished burying the boobs I’d nearly turned blue, chilled through. We parked the rake and shovel on the porch and head across the lane, down a flight of concrete stairs that lead into the warm hearth of the kitchen where my Mom baked up the breads and confections for the two restaurants connected to the bakery kitchen, the Parson’s Table and the Widow Browns. Both restaurants had their own food line kitchens, the baking portion between them like a full service situation, a milk mother for fraternal twins.
Mom gave me a warm roll fresh out of the wood burning oven, then poured me what would officially be my very first ever cup of coffee, heaped with sugar and cream, and the coffee became instantly the best thing I had ever tasted in my life. Even now, as much as I adore beer, I wholeheartedly love coffee more.
So I sat on the stairs and thought and considered, brow knit, chin between fists, elbows on knees, frowning with concentration, toes together as through attempting to cross one another for luck. And then I had an idea, a story I could act out the way I’d seen done on TV, on the Muppet Show or Sesame Street in one of those rare segments with the real humans dressed in black pantomiming actions and using clay or notepads to create faces and facial reactions. I concoct a yarn about a clumsy man that needs to feed his brother’s lobsters in the lobster store, and I mapped out the scene in the restaurant space, using the tables and chairs as natural boundaries and landscape.
I practiced, made mental notes and adjustments, pushed the sweeper around to finish my assigned chore while replaying the actions of the scene out in my head. I ran through it again, and pushed the sweeper around some more, and as I got the last steps and under the final set of chairs, I knew I had a talent to show, a talent as a storyteller, though not with words, but with actions.
The days ticked by, and somehow I opened my big mouth. Perhaps looking for validation, or envy, as my putting my name on the signup sheet had clearly garnered other kids’ attention, how could I be so brave, where these leadership skills on display, or the whimsy of an utter fool in their midst? Neither and both, I suppose. Noticing the attention, feeling compelled to sell my grand vision, I began acting parts out for people, and something strange happened. People asked if they could join.
I didn’t know what to do. I felt caught off guard, as I never expected to start anything, to gain followers, to have others want to empower my zany ideas. I just wanted to put myself out there to gain some credibility, and maybe a little popularity, among the fickle fancies of my as yet unidentified prospective friends. I was lonely and wanted some attention, certainly, though I didn’t identify my intentions as that then, just followed my gut and impulse, and intended to follow the commitment I’d signed up for to the potentially bitter end.
At first I said no, and kids looked crestfallen. Broke my heart, and plagued my insecurities, I began to doubt myself, could I pull off something like this on my own, maybe I did need help, maybe they could help to assure the audience that I, their creative leader, had what it took to make the magic happen, the dance that brought the rain, raised some cane where once the playing field had sat barren, a drought of talent or tenacity.
I think rappers have posse crisscrossing stage slapping skin and whooping for the same core reasons I went from a solo act to a party line throng twelve kids strong. The hungry lobsters I needed to feed became full sized dogs played by my fellow teasers turned thespians, kids crawling frantically around overselling their method acting as they channeled their inner mutts. All sense of story devolved into becoming a wrangler, a ring leader, a project manager for precocious prepubescent peoples, a baker’s dozen children teamed up to storm the talent show.
A couple days before the big night, Grandmother AKA “Mike’s Mom” (said as one word) located a felt Civil War jacket my Dad had worn in his youth, back when he and his brother watched Zorro on TV and chased each other around, marking their turf with the chalk at the end of their plastic rapiers. M for Mike, M for Mark, M for marking the spot. G for Grandmother having to keep soap water handy for all the chalk on the furniture. She also found a leather aviator’s cap and a Civil War hat. I recall going back and forth between hats up to the very last minute, the aviator cap won I believe.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Jonesboro elementary school was a round flying saucer of a building, with the auditorium like a mini arena donut hole in the center. I remember arriving, discovering that my pack had grown magically over the day, kids showed up with their siblings as understudies, and when the time came we hit the floor of the arena almost twenty strong, a seething tide of bounding, hopping, squawking, barking, yowling, unabashedly waving at parents posse with only one thing in common, we were all making fools of ourselves and demonstrating, at best, only the talent to travel the circumference of the main floor basking in the blinding glow of the spotlight for a couple victory laps before we were ushered / encouraged to depart, our time elapsed. We didn’t have a song, though I did occasionally point the direction to go, or yell Sit! and see at least a few kids attempt to emulate their family pets. On kid fell over trying to scratch his ear with his sneakered foot, that got a laugh from the crowd, as did the kid that kept tumbling and occasionally cart wheeling. Which breed of spaniel cartwheels, again?
Polite applause followed us out, particularly from any parent delighted to see their children actually show some enthusiasm about anything in an academic environment. I think we should have gotten an award at least for the epic scale of our groups participation, despite not singing or synchronized interpretive dancing much of anything. I’m tempted to say this might have been a sign I would end up working as a video game designer, however video games didn’t really exist then, except maybe Pong. More likely parents then might have projected I had the potential to grow up and lead a cult or some pyramid scheme. Actually, game design is not all that far off, except we have beer rather than Kool-Aide and our myriad acts of make-believe mayhem always have an option to start a new save game.
A year or so later, after we moved to Telford and I began to attend the ironically named Happy Valley, I put my hand up for a show and tell to tell the class about my talent show antics. I got eager volunteers from the audience to play the lobster dogs, and lead them through a couple laps around the classroom before the teacher thanks me for presenting, politely hooking me off stage and out stage left. No one had seen anything like it, however once the opportunity for acting obnoxious went away, instead of leaving class with a posse of new friends, I simply left as the new kid with the weird story that let extraverts get some laughs playing precocious pups.
The next show and tell I tried a different tactic, bringing in my R2-D2 and my C3PO figures to demonstrate how I’d discovered that C3PO’s head fit into R2-D2’s barrel if you angled R2-D2’s body up like a cannon. I accent this demonstration by flinging C3PO across the room as though he were being fired from R2-D2. 3rd Graders are a tough crowd, including the teachers. My toys were confiscated until the end of class, C3PO’s arm was broken, and I was prohibited from participating in any further show and tell opportunities for the rest of the year. School had only been in session for a month.
At least that time I didn’t have to bring a note home for Mom to sign. I didn’t need her receiving any more notes from teachers or the principle via my preferred passive-aggressive method of dispatch, whereupon she would find the notes folded up in my jeans pocket as she checked my clothes before putting them into the washing machine. Like Wiki leaks, is it the fault of the information provider or the person that searches for information when what they find displeases them? I'm kidding, Mom!