Jennie, or How Things Go Down in The Yankee Doodle
Already Jennie hated the other woman’s handbag. It was shiny-faced, like its owner, and oystery from too many rhinestones.
She still couldn’t believe her regular, her Milt, had come with a date at The Yankee Doodle that night. For one, he usually had dinner at 5:48. It was already 7:30.
Jennie defiantly chewed on Juicy Fruit gum. Mr. Sekulski didn’t allow gum on the clock, but Jennie considered it an integral part of her server face, so quite often chomped away behind his back. She thought her jaw action a nice cross between demure and dominant. What did Mr. Sekulski know of bad habits, anyway? He chewed his nails every time he tried to figure out which numbers to beat on the cash register. Jennie had honed her server face, first at Il Muto’s, one of those greasy “Italian” chains, and now here at The Yankee Doodle, re-established in 1964 by Mr. Sekulski’s grandaunt, long since imprisoned for tax evasion. Although she disliked the similarity between the words “server” and “servant,” she disliked even more how people spoke the word “waitress,” like it was a pit with a bull attached somewhere on the edge.
Even though she and Milt had never been lovers, she was the one who faithfully microwaved his meals three times a day. Their daily conversation consisted of:
“What would you like today, sir?”
The usual just meant pea soup. But it was like Beethoven to Jennie’s ears. She loved how she knew what Milt was thinking, even before he’d say it. It made her feel she finally knew the reason she’d returned all her library books on time, all these years.
Milt never exchanged her smiles. Sometimes she thought his reticence was his best feature, a sign of integrity. She had been married for three years to a man named Grant who didn’t excel in the honesty department. How he smiled at her every time he did something wrong, like when she caught him wearing her maternity underwear or that time he ran over the last garden dwarf. And now that she thought of it, she had read Moll Flanders at the age of twelve and had ever since dyed her blond hair blonder, almost white really.
All of a sudden, she worried that she still hadn’t gotten over Grant and Moll Flanders. She blamed it on the other woman’s gaudy handbag.
There must be some mistake. Or some deep-sleepwalking going on. For a moment, she flattered herself into thinking that it might be a ploy to insert more dialogue in their relationship, hers and Milt’s. However, Milt’s lopsided necktie told a different story.
In her heart Jennie knew that most communication occurred without words. Her own parents were spookily similar, like twins, and seldom spoke. When they did it was about milk. Her father drove a milk truck until he died. He liked milk.
Jennie tried her best to hang on to the old ways. She glided toward Milt’s table, minus the pre-warmed bowl of green pea soup, hopefully sparkling, even without the usual sparkling mineral water.
“What would you like today, sir?”
“I’ll have the menu-of-the-day. The lady will have some green salad.”
She stayed tableside a moment too long. She had been seriously hoping for a future with Milt, had been hoping to introduce her nine-year old Sonia to him. She hadn’t yet been able to come up with a plausible excuse, couldn’t decide whether “I’d like you to meet Sonia” should go before “Enjoy your meal” or after it. Until the perfect occasion arrived, Sonia continued to wait for her out in the car, doing her homework, at times falling asleep without even brushing her teeth.
“We’d also like some red wine. And heap on the MSG,” he winked.
Jennie was startled. Again, she was reminded of her ex, and of The Hut. That’s what she had called the family cabin in Vermont where they’d gone to live, to get away from cable tv. Grant wanted to go back to nature. Married with a small child, Jennie had naively moved with him into those mountains, believing his stories about how he could fish and live off the land. Grant’s wealthy parents had pretty much disowned him and he didn’t tell them that they were moving up there. As long as he thought it was financially sound, he’d stayed in touch with them. But when he discovered that his father had given away his money to his guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Grant got all huffy and hurt. For her part Jennie sent a cheery, vague postcard to her cousin in Boston.
Could Milt be setting a trap? But what was that to her.
“You okay?” asked Bill Sekulski, looking up from a gigantic can of tuna.
Jennie ignored him and continued into the kitchen with her usual efficient pace.
When she came out with their tray, she didn’t notice the slippery-when-wet sign. As she tripped, she noticed an errant crack on the ceiling. It joined up with another crack and formed the shape of Ohio. This in turn reminded her of last night’s dream. Grant was there with Jennie’s nonexistent sister. The Hut was full of antiques. A squirrel detail highlighted how Jennie wasn’t in touch with her food feelings. Everything was in sepia tones, almost colonial.
As long as she could remember she’d wanted to be an artist but now she was a waitress and she was having trouble with her equilibrium. She watched the pot roast, the pasta, the buttered jacket potato fly. All she could think of was: Is this the only way to go down on a man?
It was then that Jennie remembered a lot. It was a moment like a painting. The painting answered ten (invisible) questions. Is this the only way to get along in this under-civilized world? Did Mao carry around a little book of sayings by actual word birds? What’s number 17 — Haddock or Meatloaf? What would it be like to live in a room full of silver clothes? The man said start on the seventh floor but Jennie started on the first. How does it feel to be a distance? Which soup goes best with death? Do these crop patterns really belong here, in this family game? What is the distance between two speeding trains one carrying Jennie with Sonia and one carrying Milt? Why all of a sudden this foray into a shared past?
And in this painting, she knew there was no getting over her past. Grant had been right, though she’d denied it. She wanted to escape her past, including the fairly recent past, every step of the way. These last months, the leering cops and stingy hippies, were making her antsy. She and Sonia spent many hours in the local library looking at maps of the world.
During the whole slow-mo, potato-sailing nanosecond, Jennie remembered more things about Grant.
Before The Hut they lived in numerous shabby apartments. Grant had assiduously avoided employment. Not that he wasn’t qualified for any manner of job, but he managed to miss interview after interview. Once he made it to a job interview, on time, he was likely offered the job, but he invariably missed the first two days of work. His supervisors didn’t have to try too hard to find ways of letting him go. So their second apartment was crummy as their first, only located near a drug corner and ten feet from the elevated. Convenient, the ad had boasted. It seemed to be haunted by red-eyed mice.
During these lean years Jennie supported them by her minimum wage clerical job at a foundation for humanitarian concerns. Quitting that job to go back to nature with Grant had seemed easy at the time. She had forgotten all of this, except parts about Sonia.
Up in the mountains Grant quit shaving and bathing. Jennie got tired of cold baths. The first couple of weeks passed calmly. She and Sonia made sculptures out of sticks and stones. Witches, some might suspect, if they saw them. But it became clear fast that they didn’t have enough supplies and that Grant had no idea how to live off the land, farm, sew, fish, build, cook. He was good at scheming, but all of his schemes required capital and infrastructure, not to mention customers. For example, he considered butler school. He’d read that there was money in that, and that when the boss was away, he’d have the run of a stately home. His only plausible idea was to start an eco-T-shirt company, with Jennie designing the mottos and illustrations. But that scheme only lasted one long, dark November evening. He’d forgotten all about it the next day. Soon after he really started to scare Jennie and Sonia with his vacant eyes and soundless dances, Jennie knew they had to bolt.
Jennie was falling down again, this time in the Yankee Doodle. Everything went black for a nanosecond.
There was baked potato mashed into many crannies, including the other woman’s handbag, her cleavage, the bald spot on Milt’s head. What was Mr Sekulski shouting now? Something about the end of the world again?
As Jennie fell, the floor became part of her face for a moment. It felt like a bad marriage that had suddenly righted itself.
When she propped herself on her elbows, there was Milt, fawning over his date. She experienced a sense of release, of happiness almost, for the first time in what seemed like a hundred years. All this excitement was making her hungry. And she was never hungry. Now that she had remembered so much she knew that she could proceed safely on and on with her forgetting.
Reading by Nathan Moore — Download the MP3
“Jennie, or How Things Go Down in The Yankee Doodle” was the first story that Arlene Ang and I wrote together. We wrote and edited it “inside out,” the way we both tend to write poetry. We both like taking one word or phrase written by the other and just running with it — so we’re always delighting and surprising each other with new directions. After the first few drafts, we get into this mode, also, where we edit quite freely any aspect or part of the story. In “Jennie,” we wanted to tell a big story in a short space. Jennie’s own story is revealed to her during the traumatic episode at the center of the story. Sometimes when reading or writing that kind of thing can actually happen.