I am alone in the nightclub’s kitchen when it happens, an industrial kitchen, all stainless steel: a wall of broilers across from me, a huge stove beside that, Friolator nearby, deep double sink to my right, wall of freezers and refrigerators around the corner. I lean over the butcher-block table where, on Saturday mornings, my stepfather, Kirdy, slices bloody sides of beef into steaks and slays lobsters with a single stroke of the pointed knife. I kneel on a green vinyl chair from the bar—green for The Emerald Room, his Burlesque club.
It is nearly midnight, late August. Sunday, so the club is closed, the huge dining room where the comics coax laughter out of couples drinking and dining, waiting for the exotic dancer. But the bar is open for business, and Kirdy is there on the other side of the wall and at twelve I’m too young to be left home alone every night. In the kitchen, the translucent slats of the jalousie windows are open, letting in salt breezes from Long Island Sound. Letting in invisible gnats, an occasional fat fly. Moths flutter in the floodlights over the kitchen door. I stare at slices of the world outside: darkness, moths, light.
Suddenly, Uncle Sonny streaks by, the floodlights giving his skin an eerie, mildly jaundiced pallor. He’s all angles, tall, skinny frame bent forward, but neck twisted, face toward the glass, a specter from life before The Emerald Room.
Something is off, and it’s not just the shock of seeing my mother’s brother running up the driveway between the nightclub and rental cottages, heading toward the fenced-in pool deck overlooking Long Island Sound. It’s not just that it’s nearly midnight, or that a grown man is rarely glimpsed in a flat-out run. It’s not just that he doesn’t live up the street anymore, like when we all shared a house with his mother and younger brother, but miles away on the other side of New Haven harbor, with his wife and young children. It’s not even that, in the six years since my mother married Kirdy the families have rarely mixed. His side never visits hers, and while one of her sisters or brothers might stop in at The Emerald Room, it’s by invitation only, in the light of day, to eat lunch out by the pool. Never at night, for the show or bar.
None of that compares to what’s really off: the angle and pace, that gawky man contorted but on the move, a face lit up for a moment and then gone.
I hold absolutely still, hoping that it wasn’t really him. Hoping that whether it was Uncle Sonny or some other man, I haven’t been noticed. Hoping that Uncle Sonny or the twisted running man that reminds me of him will jump over the locked gate to the beach below. After a few minutes, I try to convince myself that it was an apparition. It’s crazy to think that Uncle Sonny dashed past, cut into strips by the jalousie window.
In the bar, on the other side of the wall behind me, the men drink and watch TV. Sunday night means only the regulars, half a dozen men, faces all shadow from the odd mix of lights: candles on the table, green fluorescent Emerald Room sign in the dark front window, blue TV light from over the bar. The TV voices rise and fall, fast and slick. I can’t hear what the men are saying, but I recognize their cadences: the laugh that sounds like a bark belongs to the fat one who lives upstairs in the hotel my grandmother runs. My stepfather’s rising melody of a laugh, “a ha ha ha haaaaaah.” The murmur that explodes into a short-syllable ending—the punch line—belongs to the one who always wears green janitor jumpsuits.
About every fifteen minutes my stepfather yells out for the bartender in mock hysteria, an operatic tenor with a long high note on the second syllable, as if they will all die without another round. “Har-eeeeee!” I can’t hear the response; Harry is a bent old man with a guttural mumble—somewhere between Jimmy Cagney and Louis Armstrong—a voice I’ve come to love.
I picture him in his wrinkled black suit, limping from the bar as he always does at my stepfather’s cry with fresh shots of scotch and half-glasses of Schaeffer on the round tray, a crisp white cloth slung over his arm.
On summer nights like this, before she migrates south for the winter, my grandmother sits at the head table beside her son, oblivious, an unlikely companion to men downing shots. She stares up at the TV with an angelic expression, no matter if it’s the news showing casualties in Vietnam, a soap opera playing out sexual betrayal, or a sit-com with a laugh track. She will be sipping on the Sambuca she poured for herself before I abandoned the bar for the kitchen. She is not a drinker like the men. She takes a glass as tonic before bedtime, a practice I’ve come to associate with elderly immigrant women. Her Sicilian customs and those of my father’s mother, a Lithuanian immigrant, clash in every way except for this: drink is medicinal, for healing illnesses and bringing on a good night’s sleep.
She is dressed in mourning—black dress, dark stockings, black clunky shoes that resemble the half-boots nineteenth century women wore. Her husband died long before my mother married into the family, about the time she was divorcing my father, and yet it is my grandmother's way. For the rest of her life she will mark herself by the loss of her husband.
The men call her Ma. She smiles at them. “That’s a’ nice,” she says, when she is happy.
“That’s a’ nice,” she said when I told her I was going to the kitchen to draw in my sketchbook, and she kissed the top of my head.
But I am not sketching. I am doing nothing, staring at the butcher block table, staring out the window, looking at old sketches—trees, deer, my mother playing the piano, her hair wrapped in a cloth—dreaming of the receding summer. Already, the summer girls have gone home—fast Italian girls from New Jersey, thirteen-year-olds who teach me to smoke and flirt. Technically, I am only a year younger, but years away in experience and looks. Their shapely women’s bodies make me look like an overgrown child, tall, skinny, and flat.
It is the summer of my first crush, the younger brother of the lead guitarist for the rock band my stepfather hired because Burlesque, the business he’s relied on since he got out of the army in WWII, is dying out. I haven’t yet realized his desperation in hiring a bunch of long-haired Rolling Stones wannabes and putting up with teenagers swarming the deck. I’m too wrapped up in what my world is becoming to notice what might be lost, too enthralled by the sudden Friday night “Splash Parties,” the concrete pool deck, my own turf, transformed by budding flower children in what I think is the prime of life. The driving drum beat, the frenetic guitar, couples leaning into each other in corners by the locker rooms, stripping down into bikinis and cut-off Levi’s and wading into the deep end of the pool hand in hand.
Only a year before, Friday nights meant baby-sitting for my little sister while Kirdy and my mother went on a date. But now, Friday nights mean dressing in a halter top and bell-bottom jeans, leaning on the chain-link fence at the edge of the deck, the sand ten feet below, waves beating against the concrete, smoking Marlboros with girls from New Jersey and flirting with the guitarist’s little brother, even though he had made fun of the blonde hair on my thighs, hair my mother refuses to let me shave because twelve is too young to think about things like that.
I stare at the kitchen window, at the spot where I thought I saw Uncle Sonny race past. No more apparitions appear. No Uncle Sonny. No other man. I turn back to my sketchbook, to my reverie about summer nights poolside with that boy, swaying to “Hey Joe,” which, I believe for years is the band’s original song. I won’t hear of Hendrix until just before he dies.
“Hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand?” I ignore the gun part. Hey Joe, where you going, I sing to myself. Where am I going? I am only twelve but already my life feels like it’s standing still. Like it’s empty. Like I am nowhere. It is an emptiness I’ve noted for years, made worse by the abrupt departure of my mother mid-summer.
What I know about her trip is the rare evening phone call when Kirdy argues with her and then turns the phone over to me for a session of her syrupy “I miss you’s” and “we’ll be home soon’s” which haven’t panned out. What I know is that I sit around at The Emerald Room every night because she’s left for Germany to visit a sister, taking my five-year-old half-sister, not me.
“It wouldn’t be fair to your father,” she’d said, leaving me mystified but stuck. When she made declarations about what was fair and what wasn’t, that was that. Decision made. “End of story,” as my stepfather said.
But it makes no sense. There is nothing dazzling about my presence at my father’s house on Sundays. He is a good father who takes me ice-skating and horseback riding, but he doesn’t dote on me or pine for me. He has what passes for a full life to adults: a job, a girlfriend, friends. I ponder my mother’s statement as if it were a mathematical equation: She would be gone a few weeks. Each week had one Sunday, the day I spent with my father. A few days of my absence from my father’s house equaled an unfairness so profound that it cancelled out a trip to Europe and my mother’s company. It meant I had to sit glumly home with Kirdy over the amateurish dinners I tried to put together and then go to work with him and close down the bar every night.
It’s not that I had wanted to go. Not to Hamburg, where I knew I’d only get stuck with spoiled cousins while each night my mother, her sister Prudence, and Prudence’s husband, Steven, would drink themselves crazy, promise fantastic trips, pass out, and then wake up late the next morning, moaning and hung over, to mock us for expecting those trips. I hadn’t wanted to go, but couldn’t bear to be left behind. My mother had chosen between us, inviting Francesca, my half-sister—half my age, half my size, half my blood relative. Francesca had been thrilled to go and hammed it up the day they left, clinging to our mother’s legs, peering at me and smiling. A mocking smile, I’d thought.
The bar behind me is dim, smoky, full of talk and laughter and TV. I’ve longed for silence to daydream in, light to see in. I want to breathe, want to see something other than that flickering TV, even if it’s just that wall of broilers, aluminum double sink, built-in butcher-block table, brick-colored tile floor, row of ketchup bottles, and green-rimmed white dishes stacked on open shelves. The air is clear, invisible. No jokes to ignore, no TV to look away from. Just quiet, my sketchbook, my thoughts.
But then something moves in my peripheral vision and he’s back, staring in the window, hand forming a visor over his eyes, blocking the floodlight to see who’s in the kitchen. Uncle Sonny is at the door, and I know it’s not locked. He walks right in, swaggers over, stands behind my chair, and nuzzles his face into my long hair, tickling the side of my neck. My shoulders rise up, but otherwise I hold still.
“Hi Jocelyn,” he says into my ear. “Sweetheart,” he adds. He tells me he loves me. That he never sees me anymore.
I don’t say hi until he goes around to the other side of the table. He sits on the stool where Kirdy sits when we work together on Saturday mornings preparing for the show. The jerky movements. The glassy eyes and lurid stare. The slurred words. Uncle Sonny is drinking again. When my mother left my father and moved back home with her mother and brothers, he’d driven a borrowed car over to get us, and he’d lived with us there, grim, silent, sober.
Uncle Sonny asks me how I’ve been, and I tell him fine. I see him once a year now, at family reunions my mother hosts in our big back yard at home.
He asks me if my mother is enjoying her trip.
“I guess so,” I say.
Uncle Sonny leans forward on his elbows. “Uncle Sonny is very sad,” he says. Uncle Sonny is sad, he explains, because his wife doesn’t understand him, because he works so hard at the factory, because he comes home, tired, to her nagging. Uncle Sonny’s wife makes him unhappy.
“He” instead of “I” means trouble. It means you will be ordered around, transformed into a servant girl. Aunt Prudence talks like that when she stays with us and lounges on the couch demanding favors.
“Bring your Aunt Prudence some roast beef,” she says. “She’s so hungry.” Third person is wheedling. Third person moves away from responsibility. It isn’t Uncle Sonny plying me with sorrow, but a proxy. Third person is need. You are rendered helpless in the face of such desire.
As he talks, Uncle Sonny wags his head from side to side. He leans across the table, moving closer, elbows turned out, fists almost touching, weight on his forearms, as if preparing to leap across the table.
“Do you understand what he is saying?” Uncle Sonny asks.
“No,” he says. “You don’t.”
He looks down, disgusted and depressed. He is directing me in some intricate choreography, but I don’t know how to follow the steps. I only know that it is something to dread. I have seen this behavior before—the questions, the pleading, the intimacy that ends in rejection. I have seen it in Uncle Sonny and in his sisters.
He looks up at me and the disgust is gone. He slumps back in his chair. He curls his lower lip. No, his expression argues, he’s not an animal about to pounce; he’s just a sad little boy. He has given up.
“Come over here,” he says. “Give Uncle Sonny a hug.” His voice has turned firm, authoritarian. No more little boy. An uncle. A patriarch.
I hold still, not daring to disobey, but hoping he’ll think I haven’t heard him. Hoping he’ll forget what he has said.
He sits up and spins sideways on the stool. He holds his arms open in the direction I will approach him when I behave myself and get up and walk around the table as I have been told.
“Come on, Sweetie,” he says. “Come here.” He does not look at me, but straight ahead, where I will be when I mind.
I rise slowly, hoping my grandmother will come in to say goodnight before she heads upstairs to the hotel where she keeps a summer apartment, or that Kirdy will check something in the freezers, or Harry will bring dirty glasses in for the dishwasher. But no one comes.
Uncle Sonny cocks his head and stares at me. He gestures for me to walk over. It has never been in me to disobey an adult, not openly. I stand. I look desperately over into the dark service bar, where my grandmother, Kirdy, or Harry would appear if they walked out of the main bar and headed into the kitchen. I take baby steps along the side of the table toward Uncle Sonny. He holds out his arms. When I am close enough, he leans forward, wraps those long arms around me, and pulls me into his chest. He leans over me. I smell the whiskey as he speaks into my hair.
“Give your uncle Sonny a kiss.”
He hunches over me, locking me in with his knees, his arms, long torso. His breath tickles the top of my head. I hunch too, knowing that obeying elders is a family law, but unable to open my face into his with its potent breath, glossy eyes. With its bottomless need.
It is less a decision than a spasm: I am flinging out my arms, jumping backwards, running through the service bar—past the open door to the bar where the men and my grandmother sit—pushing open the swinging dining room doors, and creeping across the pitch-dark, empty dining room, through a maze of tables draped neatly in crisp linen tablecloths, bumping into emerald chairs, feeling my way to a booth in the farthest corner. I crawl under a table and up onto the cool, smooth vinyl bench. A tablecloth makes a curtain between the room and me.
I close my eyes. My breathing, my heartbeat are loud as in a Poe story. I listen for the swinging doors but hear nothing but breath and heart.
In the dark, in the far booth, I lie on my stomach, arms crossed under my chest. My cheek sticks to cool vinyl. The dining room remains utterly silent save for my heart, my breath, and now the rhythmic banging of the ventilation fan high on the wall. A late ocean breeze has come up.
In this room, I have watched Burlesque shows on the hydraulic stage rigged to rise up out of the dance floor, up above the tables. The comic tells his jokes. The singer croons, the exotic dancer undresses, teasingly, hips circling to the beat of the band in the pit behind the stage. In this room, I have played games with my cousins on summer days. Jacks on the cool linoleum floor. Hide-and-go-seek among the tables. The silence, the dark, they are a refuge. The stuff of nightmare is out under the fluorescent lights. I don’t know what will happen to me now. I don’t know what will happen to Uncle Sonny. Or to my mother and stepfather. I sense that something wrong has happened, that something has been broken, that I am at fault. But there, in the dark, on the cool vinyl, it is all held at bay. Whatever may come crashing down, whatever may come flying apart will happen in the future. Now in the cool, in the dark, it is still.
Then the dining room doors open with their swooshing sound. Footsteps cross the room to the stage. Sure steps, heavy shoes.
“Jessamine.” My grandmother’s voice, the best she can do with my name. Decades in the States and she hasn’t shaken her thick Sicilian accent. “Jessamine,” she says again. Her voice is little more than a whisper.
I lie still. She walks to the light panel, turns on only the softest pastel lights designed to mute the dancer, to soften her, to blur her when she’s nearly down to pasties and g-string. She calls my name once more. And then she is silent, waiting for me to give myself up.
I might like to stay there forever, or I might like to go to that voice that sounds so gentle, a tone I have never before heard her take. She is a harsh woman more often than not, harsh like her son, flying off the handle, banging on the table when crossed. “Huh?” they say—loud, seemingly angry—if you speak too softly. A benign fury unlike anything I’ve seen in my mother’s or father’s families, but one that bubbles off fast.
I sit up. She walks over to me and holds out her hand. I take it. She sits in a chair across the table from me. Our hands stay linked. She places them on the white linen cloth.
“What he do to you?” she says.
I shake my head.
“He’s a bum,” she says, back to her usual raspy voice. “He’s gone. I throw him out.” I have seen my grandmother throw men out. She’s small and stocky, just over five feet tall, with a voice that would stop a confirmed criminal. But if her voice doesn’t phase someone, she’ll pick up anything handy—book, board, butcher knife—and wield it so there’s no mistaking that she knows exactly what she’s doing.
She’s thrown questionable tenants down the concrete steps out back, physically removed disruptive drunks from the bar. I’m relieved and terrified. Whatever she has done to Uncle Sonny she has done because of me. Had I sat still in his embrace, Uncle Sonny would not be a bum thrown out somewhere. He would be in the warm, bright kitchen. Now he’s on the other side, irretrievable.
“Come,” she says. We walk out into the kitchen hand in hand.
Kirdy is leaning against the butcher-block table, gritting his teeth in that way he has, shaking his head. “That bum,” he says. “What did he do?”
I say nothing.
They don’t ask again. Years later I will gather that they imagined something worse, imagined the very thing I sensed Uncle Sonny might be headed toward when I bolted. But I am only twelve, from a family that embraces lies and the shadows of lies. I believe that my silence protects Uncle Sonny. If I refuse to speak, then the night will be erased. Uncle Sonny won’t be a bum. I won’t be responsible for making him one.
“You should see,” my grandmother says. “He go down to beach. He empty pockets. Throw all his money in the air. He run and throw money. The wind pick it up. Boys run behind him, take his money.”
She speaks with disgust, and even then I can see that she believes this news will be a comfort to me. That I will feel safe and protected as she must feel when she tosses some grown man down her back concrete steps onto the pool deck. Her property rid of him, the offending person gone from her presence, she resumes the stolid life of a semi-retired proprietor who lives in the hotel she and her husband built up, who flies to Florida for warm winters while her son watches over the property and sends her cut in the mail.
She turns on the gas stove to start a cup of tea. She puts out the big jar of honey. Her tea is sweet and she knows just how I like it. Kirdy pats me on the back like a buddy who’s just been through a close call, and returns to the bar.
Across from me, Grandma tends the kettle. Behind me, through the wall, the TV hums. The men murmur and laugh. I sit back down in my emerald green chair and stare once again at my sketchbook. But I see Uncle Sonny running along the beach, his blonde hair crazy in the wind, his arms raised, his money flying, our lives emptying out into thin air.