UNCLE CARL hunkers over his four-burner gas stove. The thermometer nailed to the scrawny poplar tree outside, were anyone to read it, might say that it’s already 100 degrees. And it’s only early morning, a summer Saturday morning in central Oklahoma. Uncle Carl wears red-plaid boxer shorts. Wrapped around Uncle Carl’s big head is a cotton tea towel. The tea towel, I am sorry to say, features a smiling Aunt Jemima in repeat print. Thus, many many Aunt Jemimas wreathe Uncle Carl’s head, and sweat soaks all the Aunt Jemimas. The time is 1954 and we do not yet speak of racism or sexism.
What Uncle Carl is doing, standing by his gas stove, is cooking. In one hand he holds a yellow yardstick. He sticks the yellow yardstick into the huge canning kettle and stirs and stirs and looks perturbed. The water bubbles in the kettle.
I am sitting at the kitchen table. I am young enough and short enough that my feet don’t even think of touching the floor. I ask Uncle Carl how it’s going. I probably wipe with the back of my wrist the milk moustache that dries above my upper lip. I probably think how great it is that my mother isn’t here and that nobody’s going to snap at me about using my napkin. I don’t even have a napkin.
Uncle Carl stirs and says that he hopes it works. He says that Jon is coming this afternoon (which I already know) and he says he wants to get this bedspread dyed chartreuse and out on the clothesline and dry before Jon gets here. Jon is coming from Tulsa to help Uncle Carl redecorate. Everything in his bedroom is going to be chartreuse. The walls, he and Jon have already painted chartreuse. Jon is an interior decorator. He is bringing with him from Tulsa fabric for the drapes. They are going to hang the drapes, and that night they are going to give a dinner party that Uncle Carl calls “The Chartreuse Gala.” Everybody’s coming: Max, Len, Dan, Alfred, Knox, Terry, Boris, Bob. All the food except for T-bones is going to be green and even the T-bones will have green basil butter. Jon is bringing the basil from Tulsa. They have everything in Tulsa.
What’s in Uncle Carl’s kettle isn’t dinner; it’s his white chenille bedspread. Uncle Carl has used four boxes of Rit dye, one green and three yellow, and he is telling me that he hopes to God — whom, by the way, he does not believe in — that green and yellow make chartreuse. One reason Uncle Carl is sure there is no God, he says, is that nobody who created the world in seven days would ever create that depressing First Methodist Church where Uncle Carl plays the organ. He needs the money.
But Uncle Carl is not talking about God or money or his full-time job teaching organ and 18th-century counterpoint at the Agricultural & Mechanical College. He’s wiping sweat with the Aunt Jemima towel, and he’s saying it’s hotter than Hades and I am agreeing, because my shortie nightie is damp from sweat on the panties part and even though I’m usually hungry, I am not hungry. Why I am not hungry is that I am so hot. So Uncle Carl, who sees I’m dawdling with my Cheerios, says “Maybe, Toots, we should have root beer floats.” Which is something I love about Uncle Carl, that you don’t have to eat the right food.
Almost the minute my mother deposited me at his house for the summer, he took me to Piggly Wiggly. Well, he did wait until Mama drove off for Missouri to take care of their mother, who was dying. But as soon as Mama hit the road, Uncle Carl and I were at the store. He said, “Get what you want, Toots.” I couldn’t believe he meant this because my mother was strict about food and always watching my weight and watching her weight because she was a singer and very vain and beautiful and because, as she said about me, I “ran to fat.” She sometimes added that I ran to fat like my “useless father,” from whom she’d long been divorced.
Uncle Carl didn’t do squat when I started piling into the cart everything I liked to eat and some things I wanted to eat and never had tasted — cherry ice cream, for instance, and a TV dinner with a picture of a fried-chicken leg on the box. I heaped in Grapette and Royal Crown cola and Nehi orange and sacks of Planter’s peanuts with Mr. Peanut printed on the see-through sack, which, back then, I think was cellophane. I was Mr. Peanut’s fan, because in Manhattan, where I lived, you could see Mr. Peanut dance on a bright-lit sign in Times Square.
That hot summer morning, though, while Uncle Carl boiled his bedspread, he let me put down my Cheerios for his obese yellow tomcat, “Tom,” at whom Uncle Carl often yelled because Tom got into the urn where Uncle Carl grew an avocado tree and did what Uncle Carl called his “business,” which was shitting. While the yellow-green water bubbled, Uncle Carl and I sat at the table and sipped cold root beer and spooned out with long iced-tea spoons from the fussy brown root beer froth, the cold vanilla ice cream. Uncle Carl said, “Mmmm” and licked his ice cream lips. He sighed, “A busy, busy day ahead!” His eyes were huge and brown. “Bedroom eyes,” my mother said they were. He had long thick lashes like horses have, and he opened his eyes wide when he looked at you. He said we were going to clean house, we were going to get this bedspread on the line whether it turned chartreuse or not, and he was going to Piggly Wiggly.
He unwrapped his sopped Aunt Jemima rag from his head and started writing on his lined pad: T-bone steaks, garlic, lettuce, Spanish onions, tomatoes, butter, celery, green bell peppers, Idaho potatoes, grapefruit, vanilla ice cream, and many limes, because Jon, he said, and he smiled when he said it, was going to make daiquiris. We had liquor because even though Oklahoma was a dry state, everybody bought liquor from a bootlegger, and you bought lots of liquor at once. Uncle Carl had a closet of liquor. Uncle Carl’s sweat fell on his list and smeared his writing and he said, “Hells bells.” Then he calmed down and said that we had so much to do before Jon showed up from Tulsa, and that after we got the housework done he would drop me off at the swimming pool, which was six blocks from his house.
First, Uncle Carl had to get the bedspread on the line, and he told me to hold wide open the screen door that led from kitchen to backyard, and I hopped up and unstuck my sweaty self from the chair and did that and flies swooped in past me and poor Uncle Carl grunted as he carried the heavy, steaming pot out to the grass. This was a big mess, which I won’t go into here except to say that Uncle Carl scalded his hands trying to wring out the spread, and he got chartreuse water on his feet and hands and legs, and he was screaming and worst of all, green spots splotched the spread, and Uncle Carl said “Hells God damn bells” and turned the garden hose on himself to cool off and finally got the spread hitched on the clothesline and wrung it more and then started laughing his deep-laugh.
I also won’t go into how we cleaned house like banshees for two hours or how Uncle Carl kept going to stare through the screen door at his ruined bedspread, which, decades before tie-dyed, looked tie-dyed, and how he scrubbed green spots off the stove and how we got ourselves dressed and Uncle Carl let me off at the pool after saying thank you, Toots, for the help. I won’t bore you with how I changed into my suit, which had a flowered skirt, and how I floated on my back in among every other floating and splashing body, and I looked up into the blue blue cloudless sky and thought my ten-year-old’s thoughts.
Even before it was three o’clock, when I was supposed to start home, my skin had
withered and I was lonesome because I didn’t know any kids. I got out of my suit and slipped back on my shorts and walked home fast and dripped sweat and hurried in the back door determined to drink Grapette and eat a sack of Mr. Peanut. Nobody was in the kitchen, which was a bake oven, and I didn’t hear a sound except fans whirring. I saw lettuce heaped up on the cutting board and garlic cloves mashed into a mushy heap and already-baked potatoes for the twice-baked potatoes and chopped parsley and basil and lime halves. I smelled lime juice and garlic. I smelled baked potato.
Then I heard a cat sound. Up on the counter was fat Tom; He’d torn off the white butcher paper and was ripping like a jungle animal at raw T-bone. I tried to snatch him off the T-bones. He scratched at me. He hissed. I grabbed the broom. I swatted him. With steak in his mouth he jumped off the counter and streaked out through the kitchen screen door, which I hadn’t shut. I was worried. I hurried through the dining room where the big table already was set with china and wine glasses and through the living room. I walked into the hall and saw into Uncle Carl’s bedroom and he and Jon were stretched across the ugly chartreuse bedspread and they were naked except for boxer shorts, and they were kissing, I guess, and didn’t see or hear me. By the bed on the chartreuse scatter rug, I saw four empty Grapette bottles and I knew, then, there wouldn’t be Grapette for me.
I didn’t know what to think about the kissing, I really didn’t. I didn’t mind. And, in fact, I lied up above. They actually were naked and I put them into boxer shorts so that you wouldn’t be shocked or disgusted or whatever. I truly didn’t mind. I’d seen butts before. I’d seen kissing, too.
What I hadn’t seen was a cat eating T-bone. I went back to the kitchen and started screaming, “Uncle Carl, Uncle Carl, come quick,” and next thing Jon and Uncle Carl were right there, dressed in shirts and seersucker slacks, which was what men wore then in summer, and I was telling how I got home and was thirsty and went to get Grapette and Tom was on the counter tearing at T-bone. I showed where he scratched me, which was all down my arm and bleeding, and told the truth about how I’d left the screen door open, and Tom streaked out with one whole steak in his mouth. Jon, who was as old as Uncle Carl was then, which was 50-something, shook his head and looked sad. Jon had a long, narrow head and skin that always looked tanned because he used a sun lamp. I thought he looked like what, back then, I thought of as “a foreigner,” maybe an Egyptian like Egyptians I saw in the Metropolitan Museum mummy section. Uncle Carl laughed and Jon shrugged and said he guessed that “Que sera, sera” and that company would be here at five and we’d better rub garlic onto the steaks and into the wooden salad bowl.
Uncle Carl rustled in the refrigerator and got me out what he said was the last Grapette, and I stood right there and drank it down. He and Jon tied on aprons, and Jon went to the living room and plopped on the record player his Edith Piaf 78 that he’d brought from Tulsa. It was Edith Piaf singing “La Vie En Rose.” I said I hated garlic smell and Uncle Carl said, “Well, then, Toots, why don’t you cut the grapefruits in half for me and tip out the seeds?” I knew how to do that and I did. I stood by the counter and cut grapefruits in half and tipped out seeds until I felt like a grapefruit-factory worker.
I didn’t say a word about the cat hair on the counter, which would have made my mother go mad. I didn’t ask if they knew where Tom was with that T-bone because I could tell they didn’t care. While Uncle Carl carried on with his garlic smearing onto steaks and French bread and the salad bowl, Jon cut limes and squeezed lime juice and sang with Edith Piaf, and the singing made poor Uncle Carl wince because Jon was off-pitch. They talked about their menu and in what order to do things. They listed the menu aloud — the crackers with cream cheese and chives, the Green Goddess dressing for the green salad, the green beans, the Chartreuse to pour over the ice cream, and so on and so on. Jon had already scooped out the baked potatoes and mashed the potato with parsley and butter and put mashed-up potato back in the skins. Once I got the grapefruit done, Uncle Carl asked me to line up the halves on the cookie sheet, which I did, and he opened the creme de menthe bottle and poured syrupy green liqueur onto the grapefruit halves until the fruit turned green for the chartreuse evening. Uncle Carl told me they were going to broil the grapefruit and serve them for appetizers. Jon, in the middle of “La Vie En Rose,” said to no one in particular, that people were going to love the grapefruit. I didn’t say I wasn’t so sure. I wasn’t.
Uncle Carl asked if I’d seen the drapes and I hadn’t, so I went to look and they were in a print that now that I am old I realize was Miro, with the background dyed chartreuse. They were very ugly and very modern and a breeze billowed them out from the window. I stood in the cool bedroom. My feet were bare and the floor felt good. I wondered where Tom went with the steak. I didn’t think about the kissing I saw. Many years passed before I thought about it again. I thought about the green splotches on the bedspread.
I picked up the empty Grapette bottles and carried them to the kitchen, and Uncle Carl, who was so polite, thanked me and suggested that I wash up and put on my pink dress because any minute our company would arrive, and we would serve the daiquiris and crackers and cream cheese, and Jon was already crushing ice in the Waring blender and the hot kitchen smelled lime, and I went into the bathroom, which was the darkest, coolest place in the house, and I washed the cat-scratch blood off my arm and changed into my dress and white sandals, and next thing I knew the doorbell rang and I was excited to see Max, Len, Dan, Alfred, Knox, Terry, Boris, and Bob, and they said I looked pretty and the smell was aftershave and rum and the sounds were laughter and Edith Piaf and the Waring blender turning out more crushed ice and Uncle Carl rushed into the kitchen to stick the green grapefruit under the broiler and then he rushed back into the living room and took into his arms the bouquet of flowers that Dan brought and said, “Welcome to our chartreuse evening,” and everyone laughed and laughed, and I knew this was a joke that was beyond me. I knew right then and there that I would think about this evening for many years and I did and I have.