Friday, May 15, 2009

Bite Your Tongue

Here is a short, short story I wrote for my writing workshop.

Bite Your Tongue

All I want is a piece of tongue. Is that so much?

Tongue on rye. With some of that spicy mustard. Makes my mouth water just to think about it.

Ruth, my lady friend, thinks I’m crazy. “You’re just a trouble-maker,” she says. Well, I say, “our children are paying a pretty penny for this high class nursing home. The least they could do is give us a shtickle tongue now and then.” Chicken breast, that’s all we get. Dry as dust and no flavor.

Now, my mama, she knew how to cook a piece of tongue. In a sweet and sour sauce with raisins. My brother wouldn’t touch it. He’d seen the raw meat sitting in the kitchen one day before she cooked it.

“It looks like a big tongue!” he cried. Well, what else did he think it would look like? But, by the time mama did her magic, it was tender and juicy and melted on my own tongue.

She made it for my bar mitzvah lunch. We didn’t have a lot of money, but mama wanted it to be special for me, the oldest son. No one had fancy parties like they do today. The family came over for a l’chaim – schnapps and a piece of apple cake – after the service. And then for lunch, mama served her sweet and sour tongue.

I remember so clearly, standing by the table and waiting for a slice. Then, during the dessert, I made my little speech. Mama was so proud. That was the last time I stood up for anything.

Two days later, the polio had me. No one today remembers what it was like then. Before the Salk vaccine. In summers we were scared to go to the beach because of the polio. No one expected me to recover. But I did. Except for my legs.

I didn’t let it stop me. I managed to get around on my crutches faster than most guys. When the war broke out, the Navy was happy to have a civilian manning a desk and running operations at the yard since I certainly was in no shape to go to sea or fight. After the war, I couldn’t qualify for the GI bill, but I went to college anyway.

That’s where I met Donna. The minute I saw her, carrying a load of books twice her size, I knew she was the one. She wasn’t so certain, but I was determined. And in the end, she found she could love a guy with crutches.

Mama made tongue for the wedding. And she gave Donna the recipe. Which was a special gift, since mama never shared her recipes. She claimed she just put in a little of this and a little of that. She never measured anything. She made rugelach we still talk about today. We’ve never tasted anything like them. And we never will, since she took everything to the grave with her.

Except for the tongue. Donna made it herself for the party we had when our Joannie was born. You never saw such a gorgeous baby. She was the image of Donna with big blue eyes and hair the color of mahogany. Thanks to Dr. Salk, we didn’t have to worry about polio anymore. Joannie had sturdy legs and was running around the house before she was a year old. What a pistol she was! It wasn’t so easy for me with a lively toddler, but she liked to read, like her mother. Every night, she curled up in my lap, and I made up stories about Paul Winchell, Jerry Mahoney and a duck.

No one remembers Winchell any more. He died last year. Joannie loved him and his dummies. She cried when she read the obituary. Did you know he invented an artificial heart?

Unfortunately he invented it too late for my Donna. Life always hands you a sucker punch. I was the weak one – the cripple. I had two useless legs, so I concentrated my strength into my brain. I worked hard for Donna and Joannie. Donna was happy staying home, taking care of Joan. She was a wonderful mother. They played games and went to museums together. In the summer, they spent every day by the pool at Mermaid Lake. Donna loved to swim, and she was teaching Joan.

Right there, in the middle of the pool, her heart just stopped. Stopped.

That was before cell phones and 911. By the time the ambulance arrived, Donna was gone, and Joannie was screaming like there was no tomorrow. It turned out that Donna had a small hole in her heart. Who knew about things like that?

Donna had a million friends, and they all tried to help us. One of them, Nancy I think her name was, even brought a sweet and sour tongue to the shiva. But it tasted like dirt to me then. Everything did. Joannie was only six, but we clung to each other. As the days and the months passed, we got strong together and we survived. Well, what else can you do?

I never remarried. Raising Joannie kept me busy. Women weren’t exactly running after a guy with crutches either. As I got older, it was harder to manage the crutches, so I got myself a motorized wheelchair, which was really sexy.

Joannie got married and had kids of her own. Her husband is like a son to me. They visit every Sunday. It hasn’t been a bad life overall.

When my eyes started to go, Joan made me stop driving. And I moved here to Majestic Heights. Now, I’m very popular with the ladies. I may not be Paul Newman, but there are 10 women for every man, and few of them still have all their marbles. Which I do.

And I still have my taste buds, too.

So, Mr. Nursing Home cook, how about a nice piece of tongue for dinner tonight?

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