Johnny America


Ex­cerpts from the Can­cer Ward


1: The Cook­ing Channel

It’s beans day for a woman on the cook­ing chan­nel. She loves beans. Her Louisiana ac­cent and sil­ver hair make her the grand­ma­ma every­one wants but nev­er had. She must smell like al­monds. This is her mar­ketabil­i­ty. We trust her cook­ing be­cause no one cooks like grand­ma­ma. We watch her be­cause our grand­ma­ma nev­er taught us to cook. We watch her be­cause we’ve al­ways want­ed grand­ma­ma to cov­er us with a blan­ket af­ter we fell asleep in front of the tele­vi­sion. We want­ed her to run wrin­kled fin­gers with chipped pearl nail pol­ish through our hair and hum a song with a sto­ry at­tached to it. A sto­ry about the skirts she wore dur­ing the war. A sto­ry about how the on­ly thing to eat dur­ing the war was lard sand­wich­es with salt — sug­ar if it was a spe­cial oc­ca­sion. A sto­ry about how she nursed grand­fa­ther back to health af­ter the war. A sto­ry about her one true love that died in the war.

We watch this woman’s show be­cause she is the grand­ma­ma we nev­er had. The one that doesn’t wor­ry about sodi­um or sug­ar or cho­les­terol or grease or fat. The one that feeds us choco­late cake and tells mom that she fed us sal­ad with­out dress­ing. The one that lets us sip the cook­ing wine and pre­tends to not know about the boy across the street and how we let him feel the lace un­der our skirt.

If I worked for her show, I’d call her Grand­ma­ma. I’d be fired.

2: Gro­cery Shopping

One box of green tea — it has antioxidants.

One box of Lucky Charms.

One box of Froot Loops.

Two quarts of soy milk.

Pre-made peanut but­ter cookies.

Pre-made choco­late cake.

A quart of soy milk.

Two bot­tles of non-dairy creamer.

One box of Cap­tain Crunch.

Two bags of whole bean cof­fee — the im­port­ed kind — al­so has antioxidants.

One more quart of soy milk.

One 24-case of bot­tled water.

3: Bal­ance

Mom’s voice sounds like a soiled di­a­per as it spat­ters in­to the bot­tom of an emp­ty trash can. Smoke comes out of her mouth even when a cig­a­rette isn’t lit. I tell her I was in the show­er and couldn’t an­swer the phone. I tell her I’m sorry.

Some­times you can be too naked to an­swer the phone — even if it’s your mother.

She said she called to make sure I didn’t die be­fore her.

I tell her I’d let her know if I died, and that I was count­ing on her to re­turn the favor.

We re­al­ly do love each oth­er. She laughed and hung up the phone in mid-cough. She is the one that taught me to watch the cook­ing chan­nel. Said woman does not live on ce­re­al alone. Thanks to the cook­ing chan­nel and Grand­ma­ma, I can make a va­ri­ety of grilled cheese sand­wich­es. Mom said that was good enough — a high fiber di­et can counter the ef­fects of too much cheese. Bal­ance things out.

That was her moth­er­ly ad­vice: al­ways keep a balance.

Any­thing can kill you if it’s not bal­anced out. If it’s not in mod­er­a­tion. Even wa­ter can kill you if you drink too much.

4: The Love Sto­ry — Part 1

I once chipped a guy’s tooth. We were mak­ing out at the time. I told him I was sor­ry, but nev­er told mom about it — she wouldn’t be­lieve me.

5: Rum is like Candy

Be­ing rum-drunk is like eat­ing a box of Froot Loops — you’re drunk fast, but an hour lat­er you’re tired, sober and have a headache.

The first time I drank with mom was the night of my high school grad­u­a­tion. Mom poured half a shot of rum in a glass of or­ange juice and hand­ed it to me, think­ing I didn’t see the third shot she poured in­to her Coke. We sat down at the din­ing room ta­ble and drank and laughed and she smoked.

Be­ing rum-drunk is like eat­ing a dozen peanut but­ter cook­ies — it makes you laugh, then it makes your stom­ach hurt.

I nev­er knew my grand­ma­ma. Mom nev­er showed me pic­tures. She said that my fa­ther took them when he left in that puff of smoke. He took every­thing ex­cept her, me, a pack of cig­a­rettes and a note that said he wasn’t sor­ry. The note was framed so I didn’t have to be ashamed when my friends came over and there weren’t any toys. The note was hung on the wall in the din­ing room, in the space my father’s head used to fill with smoke.

Be­ing rum-drunk is like drink­ing a pot of cof­fee — it makes you feel warm in­side, and then you can’t feel.

When our glass­es were emp­ty, mom took the note off the wall. She placed it face-down on the ta­ble and opened the back of the frame. Her wrin­kled hands with the chipped pink nail pol­ish trem­bled when she lift­ed the pa­per off the glass. It was small­er than it looked in the frame and mom’s hands start­ed to shake.

Be­ing rum-drunk is like dri­ving to grandmama’s house — it makes you dream of good times, and the dream is al­ways better.

The char­coal fin­ger­prints that were so clear­ly vis­i­ble be­hind the glass were al­most in­dis­cernible. When we first found the note, mom told me not to touch it un­til the po­lice came, but I nev­er re­al­ly lis­tened to her then. My sev­en-year-old thumb is now for­ev­er con­nect­ed with a fa­ther I can on­ly re­mem­ber as smoke.

Mom looked at the hand­writ­ing, and with an in­dex fin­ger, sud­den­ly calm, she traced the words. Then she put the frame back to­geth­er and hung it on the wall with the note re­versed. No more words, no more ex­cus­es, no more shame — just space.

Be­ing rum-drunk is like hold­ing hands for the first time — your heart beats a lit­tle faster, but it’s al­ways about the anticipation.

6: Gro­cery Shop­ping with Grandmama

One loaf of San Luis Sour­dough bread.

One block of ched­dar cheese.

One block of jack cheese.

One large tub of but­ter — none of that low-fat nonsense.

One cup crunchy Jiffy peanut butter.

One and one-third cups of processed sugar.

One egg.

One tea­spoon of vanil­la extract.

Pre­heat oven to 350 degrees.

Com­bine in­gre­di­ents and roll in­to wal­nut size.

Press a criss­cross de­sign in each cookie.

Bake for twelve min­utes and sprin­kle with processed sug­ar to make them “mag­i­cal.”

One bag of red beans.

One bag of pin­to beans.

One bag of black beans.

One raw chicken.

One bag of almonds.

7: My name is _______ …

And I al­ways want­ed to be an ad­dict. If you’re an ad­dict, it’s okay not to have con­trol. If you let peo­ple know, they pat you on the back and hold your hand and cry with you. It’s a dis­ease and they want you to get bet­ter. A hug would be your chemo. A hand­shake your med­ica­tion. A prayer your cure, even if some­one has to buy it for you.

When peo­ple ask where my fa­ther went, I tell them that he was a sex ad­dict and he killed him­self. On­ly one of those is true.

8: Ma­ter­nal Advice

The first time I had my pe­ri­od, mom told me about boys as she blew smoke rings at the win­dow. It was snow­ing and I thought how per­fect it was to be bleed­ing on a day the world was cov­ered in white. As the smoke blend­ed with the snow, she gave me five rules:

Nev­er call a boy.

Nev­er let a boy know you like him.

Nev­er make the first move.

Wait as long as pos­si­ble be­fore you let him touch you.

Nev­er kiss back un­less it’s worth it.

Mom flicked the ash off her cig­a­rette, went out­side with­out a jack­et or shoes, and stood on the apart­ment bal­cony. The snow stuck to her shoul­ders and hair, and a lit­tle to her eye­lash­es. She opened her arms and put her head back and let the snow fall on her chest and face. Smoke stopped ris­ing from her right hand and I knew her cig­a­rette had gone out, so I left the room. Mom was talk­ing to my fa­ther, and it’s al­ways rude to eavesdrop.

9: The Love Sto­ry — Part 2

Even af­ter I chipped his tooth, I nev­er told him about my father.

10: Mom is Al­ways Right

There’s a woman on the cook­ing chan­nel I refuse to watch. She’s like that one aunt that you al­ways avoid be­cause you know she’ll pinch your cheeks and coo at you, even though she’s on­ly a few years old­er than you are. Mom tells me that I shouldn’t dis­like peo­ple I don’t know. I tell mom that I don’t dis­like her — I hate her. Mom says she has good recipes and de­serves a chance, even if she is over­ex­posed. I say I still can’t cook, but I did learn how to make a White Russ­ian. She tells me to buy a bag of peanuts and be care­ful of who I drink with. I tell her I’m al­ler­gic to peanuts.

It turns out, mom is right. She does have good recipes.

11: Gro­cery Shop­ping with Mom

One case of Par­lia­ment cigarettes.

One quart of or­ange juice.

One bot­tle of white rum.

One twelve pack of Coke.

Two ounces of vodka.

One ounce of Kahlua.

Two tea­spoons of soy milk.

Shake with ice.

Strain in­to chilled glass.

Gar­nish with choco­late syrup.

One bag of peanuts.

12: The Love Sto­ry — Part 3

I fol­lowed all of mom’s rules — ex­cept one — and I still chipped his tooth.

13: “Your Love is like Smoke”

I lied to mom. I do re­mem­ber one thing about my fa­ther. I re­mem­ber a sen­tence. I can hear his voice, but his face is cov­ered with smoke. I re­mem­ber his words, but not his ac­tions. One sen­tence is all he left to me. It is his lega­cy. It is what I can pass on. The fam­i­ly heirloom.

14: Bird Flu

It’s fried chick­en day for Grand­ma­ma. I’m sure she still smells like al­monds, wrist deep in raw chick­en. She is clean —al­ways. She is my Grand­ma­ma — the one I al­ways want­ed. She is the one that taught mom to al­ways keep a bal­ance. She is the one that taught mom about boys. She is the one that hummed a song about the war and cov­ered me with a blan­ket and ran her wrin­kled fin­gers with chipped pearl nail pol­ish through my hair.

She is the Grand­ma­ma my fa­ther took when he left in that puff of smoke. The Grand­ma­ma that hid her gam­bling ad­dic­tion. That gave mom cold med­i­cine to make her sleep. That re­fused to let mom and my fa­ther see each oth­er, be­cause she is al­ways right. That gave us a his­to­ry. That brought every­one around one ta­ble and made us laugh and cry. That taught me how to tell a sto­ry about the war. That taught me how to clean a chicken.

I haven’t told mom I’m a veg­e­tar­i­an. I watch this show for her.

Filed under Fiction on July 8th, 2007

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TAG wrote:

you are kind of a big deal…no, you ARE a big deal 🙂

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