I was sitting in this dreary restaurant on West 58th Street in New York with an equally dreary expression on my face. The restaurant was the kind of place that had white tablecloths that were greyed by age, and the waiters wore stuffy penguin suits with coattails so long they seemed to be dragging across the mildewed carpet. I was dining alone in the nearly empty place when I saw the hostess lead a family of three through the sea of vacant tables and seat them a few feet away. It never ceases to amaze me the number of times somebody has plopped down next to my table when the rest of the restaurant is a ghost town.
The family was well dressed, the father in a dark navy suit with matching tie and the mother in a long black dress with a mink shawl wrapped around her neck. They looked comfortable in their formal attire, which is more than could be said for the boy. He had on a tight pair of trousers paired with an even tighter blue blazer. He was a plump boy of about 10 still wearing the clothes his mother had bought when he was 8. His hair was combed forward, the bangs sticking up with the support of some sort of expensive gel. They were, no doubt, on their way to the theater and, for reasons I could not fathom other than its proximity to Broadway, had stopped into the drab confines of the West 58th Street restaurant for an egregiously priced dinner.
I ordered a bottle of chilled sparkling wine and a plate of Kumamoto oysters. The waiter grunted a response and disappeared. I watched the mother swat her son’s hand away from his forehead as he tried to smooth out his ridiculous looking bangs.
“You look fine,” she said.
“It feels weird,” said the boy.
“Style isn’t meant to be comfortable,” she told him.
The father ordered for the table and when their food arrived I had no clue what any of the dishes were. I threw back an oyster and sipped on my wine and stared at their plates of nothingness with the same level of disgust the boy appeared to share. He poked at his food as though asked to perform some sort of science experiment on it. The parents ate happily away at their dishes of brown and yellow with parsley sprinkled around the edges. They had this potent satisfaction on their faces that made me want to vomit the Kumamotos up.
“Why aren’t you eating?” the father asked.
“Look at it,” the boy said, poking at the brown blob. It bounced back at him like a cheap piece of rubber.
“Nonsense,” said the mother. “Eat up.”
“I don’t think I can,” the boy said with such a palpable honesty it nearly knocked me out of my seat.
“If you don’t eat you can forget about dessert,” the father said.
“And the theater,” the mother added.
The boy made a sour face and looked at his plate, seriously weighing his options...
When I was a boy, the neighborhood kids and I used to make bonfires in one of our backyards. We’d roast marshmallows, attempt to relay the scariest stories any of us knew, and, when the parents weren’t looking, throw unopened cans of soda in the hottest part of the fire and wait for the pressure to build up before they exploded. And then when the fire had died and the parents were fast asleep, we’d sneak off to the darker parts of the neighborhood and play hide-and-go-seek tag until one of the many curmudgeons who lived on our block called our parents to complain we had traipsed through their Azalea garden or destroyed their coveted blackberry bush. At this point, my father would ring the cowbell he kept in the garage to signal 1) it was time to come home and 2) there was hell to pay.
Like most nights before the bonfires we sat down for family dinner, which was always scheduled for 6:00pm sharp. Most of our meals composed of simple, Midwestern-fare that had such little remarkability I won’t waste precious words on their lackluster existence. But on this particular evening, as the other kids were finishing their usual dinners of tater tot hotdish or fried walleye and tartar sauce, my father set before us a steaming tin of Salmon Loaf. He had baked it in one of our old bread tins, the one that had begun to rust at the bottom and always smelled faintly of sour milk.
My brother and I looked up at my father half-expecting tonight’s main course to be a joke. After all, the thing looked more like a museum artifact than a Friday night supper. But when he saw our expressions his face turned grave and all he said was, “Well...eat up.”
“What is it?” my brother asked.
“Salmon Loaf,” he said beaming, as if he’d just cracked the Holy Grail of culinary ventures.
“What’s Salmon Loaf?” I asked.
The thing smelled the way copper smells when it’s gently heated. The top of it crackled, the ketchup my father had slathered on now bitter and burned. The parts of the salmon we could see were green in places, yellow in others, and brown in the ones that weren’t green or yellow; but nowhere in the entire bread tin did we see pink or orange to signal what we were looking at was, indeed, salmon.
“Is this canned?” my brother asked.
“Of course it’s canned,” he said. “You think I’m made of money?”
My father cut into the Salmon Loaf similarly to how you would cut into meatloaf, but upon making the first cut the horrendous smell kidnapped the kitchen. He shoveled the first piece onto my mother’s plate. She looked at the thing apathetically, but, to her credit, managed to not make a face. I, on the other hand, upon my first glance at the fetid slab of loaf, raised an eyebrow, flared my nostrils, and frowned so severely I felt the muscles in my neck twinge.
“It smells like the used car lot near my school,” my brother said.
“That’s a junkyard, dear,” my mother corrected.
My father scooped a serving onto my plate, next came my brother before he portioned one off for himself and took a seat.
“I don’t think I can eat this,” my brother said.
“Yes, you can,” my father said sternly.
“I can’t either,” I said, still wearing that eyebrow-raising, nostril-flaring, frowny-face expression.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “Salmon is high in Omega-3s.”
“I don’t know what those are,” I said.
“You can’t go out and play until the salmon is cleaned from your plates,” he said.
“That’s not fair.”
“I work all day...” he began with the same speech he had recited to us for years previous. We knew what was coming, but that didn’t stop him, “...and I come home and slave over the stove to put food—food your mother and I work hard to get, by the way—but put food on the table, and all we ask of our children is to be appreciative of what we provide.”
“How can anyone appreciate this?” my brother said, poking at a green piece of salmon flesh. “It looks prehistoric.”
“You’re right!” I said. “It does smell like that car lot.”
“It’s a junkyard, dear,” my mother corrected again.
“I’m prepared to sit here all night if I have to,” my father warned. “You boys aren’t going out until that salmon is all the way down in your bellies. You’ll thank me for this later.”
As it turned out, we never thanked him for it later.
Ninety minutes came and went and we hadn’t so much as touched the salmon. In a bizarre twist of events, my brother and I had devoured our Brussels sprouts, wolfed down the wilted kale, and inhaled the baked yam without so much as a peep; but when we tried to put a teaspoon of Salmon Loaf near our lips all we could do was make that eyebrow-raising, nostril-flaring, frowny-face expression.
The doorbell rang and my neighbor Joe asked if we were ready for the bonfire. My mother informed him of the unfortunate news that we couldn’t come out until our dinner was done.
“What are you having?” Joe asked, genuinely curious, either because of the putrid smell hanging above our house (and, most likely, the neighborhood) or his own hunger had gotten the best of him. Let’s just say Joe was a well-fed boy. He had this round belly that looked like a perfect sphere. He never passed up an opportunity for a meal even when the rest of us were agonizingly full. One time he ate an entire container of potato salad before taking down a nearby container of coleslaw, thus ruining his mother’s forthcoming barbeque. They still had ribs, I suppose, but once Joe got his hands on those, the guests quickly vacated the premises.
Joe looked at our plates, saw the pinkless salmon, and made that all-too-familiar eyebrow-raising, nostril-flaring, frowny-face expression. He said, “Good luck, I guess. Hope to see you tonight,” and promptly left.
At one point I dropped my Salmon Loaf on the floor and said, “Oops” to which my father responded by slopping another piece onto my plate.
My brother tried to take down half his piece in one mouthful (and, to his credit, he got it down), but that killed the rest of his stomach and all he could do was sit there the rest of evening wondering what the hell had happened.
I finally choked down a third of the piece by plugging my nose and closing my eyes.
“Don’t do that,” my father said.
“You never said we had to enjoy it,” I told him.
My father, annoyed he hadn’t enacted such an amendment before making us eat, sat back in his chair and watched me struggle with the rest of the salmon.
I took a second third down, chasing it with half a glass of milk. “It’s not bad if you mask the flavor,” I told my brother, impressed by my own epiphany. He tried the same thing, but it was much too late for him—my brother was already lost. He ended up spitting the milky piece of loaf onto his plate and staring blankly at the white residue.
The third bite took some struggle, but I got it down and regretted not leaving a few Brussels sprouts behind to taper off the dreadfulness of the Salmon Loaf.
“All right,” my father said. “You can go out and play.”
I practically ran to the front door.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” he said just as I turned the knob. And, of course, I had forgotten something. After each dinner it was required of us to set our plate in the sink and thank our father for dinner. But on this evening, it wasn’t the clearing of the plates my father was concerned about.
I gritted my teeth. “Thanks for dinner,” I said, and ran out to the bonfire as fast as my legs would take me.
I came back inside hours later, after the coals of the fire had died, the exploded soda cans had stopped hissing, and the many games of hide-and-go-seek tag had ended. As I crept into the house, careful not to disturb the usual creaky floorboards, I found my brother sitting at the kitchen table, enveloped in the room’s darkness. He was staring at that yellow-brown-green-anything-but-pink piece of salmon resting on his plate, and that eyebrow-raising, nostril-flaring, frowny-face expression was still stuck on his pallid face.
Back at that gloomy West 58th Street restaurant, I gathered up the empty Kumamoto shells and deposited them back onto the crushed ice. I paid my tab, gathered up my coat, and left, feeling the full effects of that bottle of sparkling wine. As I passed the boy on my way to the exit I noticed he still hadn’t touched a corner of that yellow mess his parents called a meal, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they ever wound up making it to the theater.