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The Salad Essay

Good Friday I got the bad news my freelance contract would not be extended. I took the bus to the lakefront and gazed at the paltry waves. Then I walked back west, bought myself an excessively large pity pizza and carried it across the street to Simon’s. To every stranger who approached the bar I offered a slice, confident I could bribe my way into some bonhomie. The side-burned bartender was kind, interest is inevitable, he said, but patron after patron declined. I could soon hear the desperate way I was saying pepperoni. A kid showed up, said his name was also Tim. A smart kid, I could tell by the way he listened to me. The room tilted towards a woman downbar, toward the precarious way her legs exited skirt. I leaned in close to Tim and told him a secret. My family consumes two types of meals: those with a salad and those with a fucking big salad. Just that morning, I had talked to my parents, asked them what I should make for brunch. They said salad. Sunday was Easter. I was hosting a family thing.

The next day I got back on the bus and headed to the mega-grocery for salad fixings. From my seat, I watched a shirtless man on the curb rub sweat off his bald head with a napkin. He did so in a continuous, circular motion. Then, as the bus pulled away, he tossed the soiled napkin into the wind with a laugh, his performance complete. While my sister’s nervous breakdown came first, mine was objectively more spectacular. Back at home, her post-grad plans in shambles, she wandered one day into a police station and asked the front desk attendant for help. Me, I tend to run from the police, we have different relationships with authority. A couple of months later, I got drunk and pulled the fire alarm in a half dozen dorms across my college’s quaint campus. It’s good to know the nature of your catastrophe before sounding the bell: I was in love with a snowman melting before my eyes. When I got suspended my mother’s solution was to ship me off to Paris. My cover story was study abroad. I studied fashion at the Catholic University of Paris, went to the movies every day and lived in a dorm in the 11th.  My new next door neighbor was an easy going Greek kid who bummed me hand rolled cigarettes. He had pictures of Lenin, Stalin and the burning Twin Towers taped to his walls. It was spring, and the scent of flower blossoms and rain were in the air. Our rooms were on the third floor, and as I blew smoke out the window, I flirted with idea of defenestration, but decided I’d just end up breaking my legs.

Chopping a salad gets everything nice and mixed up. The ingredients quickly abandon any notion of autonomy. My mother’s half-brother flew his Cessna into the side of a mountain. I imagine fog, a soundless disappearing. To call it an accident would require talking about it. When my grandpère died, I didn’t attend his funeral back in France. I was not there to witness when surprise! a second, secret family appeared. Who’s the legitimate one? My aunt Chris lives out west with her husband, a wino vascular surgeon who retired before they could pull his license. They take one cruise vacation after the other, the way heavy smokers light cigarettes. Topless black and white couples-portraits of the two of them adorn their master bathroom. My folks can’t understand, not the vacations, the cosmetic surgery or how she dotes on the grandson of her first husband, no kin of hers. I’m just glad to see someone in the family chase their dreams.

The table set and chairs arranged, I peeked out the window and waited for the buzz of the intercom. Not all damage comes by invitation. Years ago, my aunt Nancy had a husband named Tim. He worked as a security guard and was struck and killed by a car while helping the victim of an entirely different accident. Tim was a measure too crass for my parent’s tastes. Your father and I named you Timothy, my mother would remind me if she ever heard anyone call me Tim. Once, I was sitting next to Tim at a Kansas City Royals game when a foul ball careened into our section. A kid in the row ahead of us reached over the ledge to grab it, but the ball skipped off his hands and down to the lower level. “BUTTERFINGERS” Tim yelled out, smiling up to his eyebrows. Twenty years later my sister fell in love with a Tim twenty years her senior, a math professor. My sister calls him Math Tim. He’s a bit of a talker-ater but good with my niece. My mother can’t stand him and worst of all thinks she can hide it. She channels all her negative energy into upgrading their house. The last time she visited she had a panic attack in a pottery barn picking out curtains no one had asked for.

After all that, Easter brunch was quite pleasant. A champagne toast, then the all-important salad, tiny almond shards, honey in the vinaigrette. We stop our discussion of dramatized familial secrets to explain to grandmère that it doesn’t matter when a show broadcasts, time is meaningless, the past isn’t even the past, it’s on-demand. After dessert grandmère transitions to the couch to rest her eyes. The champagne had made her sleepy. And she insists she doesn’t drink, my mom stage-whispered with a wink.

The keys to day drinking were imparted to me by an old boss.  You’re going to have to do two things you are not going to want to do, Jon said. First you’re gonna have to eat something. You won’t want to, but you need to. He delivered these instructions with an air of gravitas. Crew cut and thick necked, he had the face of a cop or a soldier but had become a barman instead. The shutters were down and the chairs were up. We were playing Big Buck Hunter; he had once again talked me into keeping him company. Second, keep drinking, don’t stop drinking, no matter what, he said. Stop and you’re done for. We pointed miniature rifles at pixelated wildlife while Jon catalogued his collection of Nazi war memorabilia. Around four he started talking about his daughter. His eyes brimmed with tears as his dog ran in circles, barking at ghosts.

We cleared the table while grandmère, the very last of the grands, dozed. Of my other three, no one expected Phyllis to go first. After all, she had been in charge of what was left of the clan down in Kansas City. During the service, the boy minister waxed on about her famous wit. I sat there, full grown, struggling to recall her ever being funny. Under the breath, pass the butter quips, maybe, peppered with resentment. I turned my head and took in the faces of people in the pews behind me. People who I sensed loved my grandma if not more, than more purely than I did. Their memories were unencumbered by mine. Looking back at those people, I felt like dirt, like absolute dirt. A second ceremony for blood relatives followed, out on the church’s gated, red brick patio. The boy minister called it a sacred place. I teared up; Nancy sobbed. The boy minister asked who would like to spread grandmother’s ashes onto the remembrance garden, a patch of earth and ivy. I volunteered. He handed me a clear gallon plastic bag two-thirds full of grey powder, twist-tied shut, but no scooper. So I balanced the bag in my right hand, palmed out handfuls of ash with my left and tossed them on the ground. A thick layer of ash stuck to my sweaty palm.  When it was her turn, my sister encountered the same problem. After handing the bag off, she pulled hand sanitizer from her purse and was about to apply it to our grandmother when our Mother noticed and discreetly scolded her. I half-listened to the boy minister thinking sacred place? more like tacky, what with the sticky heat, drone of traffic and Panera-anchored strip mall across the street. Then I felt ashamed, like a big-city snob. When it was over I found the bathroom and not knowing what else to do, washed my grandmother off my hands.

Kisses on each cheek, then I closed the door and let out a sigh. That’s not how this should end. Did I mention my sister had her baby? The French genes won out, bushy eyebrows cover an alert pair of eyes. When I met her, I held her in my arms and whispered in her ear. When you’re here, you’re family. Salad comes with never-ending breadsticks. Blood is but time liquefied. Rest assured: time marches on, from brain to foggy bottom, mountain high to tippy toe. Do not despair. One day we will learn we consist of equal parts alcohol, blood, gratitude, memory, semen, song, tears and time. I call my mother and immediately regret it.

Timothy Parfitt is an essayist, medical writer and former disgruntled caddy living in Chicago.