Jul 28, 2008, 07:07AM

Adventures With My Parents

"'I don't know how I've put up with this man for 40 years,' my mother says to the air, sighing the way she always does after a 'this man' comment. 'Careful Mom,' he says, before bringing out the usual comeback, 'Or I'll trade you in for a 35-year-old.'"

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Photo by Banalities

The Liquor Store: I travel by train for a weekend in Long Island. It’s raining hard when I arrive and my father pulls the car up near the platform steps. He honks for my attention and I quickly get in.

“Remind me before we go home,” he says immediately, “We need to stop at the liquor store. If I forget your mom will kill me.” “Mom’s drinking now?” I say. “You know,” he says, moving his hand to usher his next words, “She needs wine for the tomato sauce.”

We take Straight Path to Deer Park Ave. where there's a big Crazy Billy's Liquor Store flanking the street with its yellow sign. “Are Crazy Billy and Crazy Eddie related at all?” I ask. “That's a good question, Iris.” He thinks for a moment, giving my query its full weight. “No,” he says finally.

I grow pensive too. “You know, looking back, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise that Crazy Eddie got put away for nefarious business dealings. He did say he was crazy after all. He admitted his prices were insane.” We are stopped at a red light. “Perhaps it was a cry for help, and we just weren’t listening, Dad.”

“You’ve got a point. Crazy Billy, too.” “Was Crazy Billy arrested also?” I say in near disbelief. “What'd he do?” “He blew up a competing liquor store that was threatening his business with even crazier deals. He went away for a while. I think he's out now.”

We park and run through the parking lot, splashing through the puddles as we go. Crazy Billy's is huge. Upon entering you can find every kind of novelty drink. Shots in test tubes, plastic rifles filled with rum, little chocolate bottles filled with scotch, and then huge bottles of every variety of hard liquor or wine stacked about the store.

My father quickly becomes mission oriented. He opens up the slip of paper he had crumpled in his pocket, unfolds a pair of glasses hanging from his shirt and examines the sheet with great scrutiny. Moving the paper toward his face and then away again, he removes a second pair of glasses, laying them on top of the first pair. My father has been known to wear three pairs at once if the print is fine enough. He scoffs at prescriptions though, and simply shovels the whole rack of reading glasses at K-Mart into his shopping cart. He keeps glasses scattered all over the house, as well as a whole collection in a two-tiered candy dish in the kitchen. “Ah,” he says, now able to decipher the writing. He reads out loud the name of a fine $5.99 chardonnay thus preparing me for the hunt, when an employee happens to overhear him.

“Oh, right over here, sir,” she says pointing the way. “Good, good,” my father says, barely noticing the young woman and heading straight for the bottles. He looks them over carefully, judging size and weight, and engineers a plan. “Alright, Iris. Let's tank up!”

In his arms, he tries to gather as many bottles as he can, Y2K style. My father’s not a big drinker, but he likes to buy in bulk like a survivalist. When the apocalypse comes, we’ll have enough wine not to care, I imagine. Suddenly, he freezes, puts the bottles back down, having decided upon a better way. He calls to the lady who’s just helped us, “Uhhh, I need two cases of this.” She looks at us, trying to conceal a certain surprise. “We’re going on a road trip,” I explain to dispel her concern.

Saturday Afternoon: “Mom! Mom!” my father calls to my mother, “Where did you hide my glasses?” “How do I know where you left your glasses,” she yells at him in her Greek accent, which, because of its staccato, sounds always a little threatening. “They're probably in the bathroom with your Scientific American.” “They're not. I checked. You did something with them!” “Go look now! I'm cooking.”

Returning from the bathroom, “No, these are my broken glasses,” he says holding up the one armed pair. “Huh,” she sighs, as one eyebrow shoots up like lightening and she brings a knife down on an onion, before flashing him an annoyed look. My father is already ignoring her, absorbed now in another thought. “That's okay, I can fix it,” he mumbles, looking from the broken pair of spectacles in his hands to the trees beyond the kitchen window. He puts on his shoes methodically and wanders around the backyard for a while, stopping occasionally to stare at things that don't seem to warrant inspection.

After an hour he comes through the kitchen door, preoccupied while my mom is preparing the salad. He walks over to his desk where he keeps his tools and the odd bits one acquires over time that have no proper storage. He begins rummaging through a drawer. He returns to the kitchen table and sets about his work. In a half hour, he puts his glasses back on. “There,” he says pleased with himself, having attached the right sized twig to the armless side with a small bit of twine he has saved from an old box of cannolis. “Hey, Mom,” he says turning to face her, “Check this out,” he exclaims showing off his quick-witted repair.

“You look ridiculous,” she says singularly, looking up from a brain of lettuce. “I think it's cool,” he smiles, holding his Scientific American at a distance to demonstrate the utility of his work. “Right, Iris?” he says motioning to me across the table where I’ve been consuming a seventh cup of coffee and complaining to my mother for the last half hour about my incomprehensible insomnia. “You've outdone yourself, Dad. Let's get Alex to film an infomercial!” “Don’t bother your brother now. He’s taking a nap,” my mother says to us both.

The Supermarket: My parents like to go to this out of the way Greek market that has excellent deals on Feta and olive oil. Because the prices are so reasonable, the store is constantly packed with other like-minded senior citizens equally lacking in patience. My father pushes the shopping cart for my mom through the narrow aisles of the produce section, navigating between green peppers and avocados, focused on the agenda's next vegetable. In pursuit of red onions he blindly steps in front an old man (a few years younger than my dad, actually), waiting on line to pay for his Metamucil.

The man stirs. Rattled, he looks up from the label that he’d been poring over, “Hey, what are you doing? Watch where you're going! I was here first!” the man says raising his voice in Andy Rooney-like indignation, thinking my father is trying to cut in line. My father regards him coolly, silently registering the man's complaint. Others turn away from their carts, tomatoes and squash in hand, to see the altercation. My father is still looking at him, thinking for another moment before he says, "And you're an old man!" My dad starts to laugh loudly at his own zinger. Neighboring shoppers erupt into uncomfortable laughter too. My mom, a shy woman, is at the other side of the aisle trying to pretend she doesn't know him. Turning to the woman next to her, she shrugs, “Crazy old men,” and blushes before motioning covertly for my father to meet her in the parking lot.

Driving: “Look out!” “Look out for what, where?” my father says panicked, jerking the wheel aimlessly. “There, there. Stop sign!” my mother yells. “You're gonna get us all killed! I thought I was gonna hit a deer or something,” he yells back.

Five minutes later: “Oh shit! We're on the wrong side of the road!” my father says swerving. “Huh?” my mother says coming to from a passenger side nap. “It's a good thing one of us is awake!” he says. “Oh, it's my fault, you can't drive?” “You’re supposed to be the navigator. I can't drive and look at signs!” “I don't know how I've put up with this man for 40 years,” my mother says to the air, sighing the way she always does after a “this man” comment. “Careful Mom,” he says, before bringing out the usual comeback, “Or I'll trade you in for a 35-year-old.” “Yeah, like anyone else would put up with you,” my mom says undaunted. “I'm a saint!” “Don't make me come up there,” I say finally from the backseat, putting an end to the argument.

Afternoon Coffee: “Oh these kids,” my mother sighs looking across the table at my two older brothers and me—Bald, balder, and fast deteriorating; ages 32, 31, and 26 respectively. “Are we ever gonna see any grandchildren?” she says to nobody in particular, and blows on her coffee. “I was thinking I might sponsor a child,” Alex says regarding the TV commercial we had both just been napping by in the other room. His comment goes ignored. “We've given up on you two,” my father says to the sloppy pair next to me, “You're our last hope, Iris.”

“I could get knocked up, no problem. I mean I wasn’t planning on going out tonight, but if it’s that important to you…” I say blowing over my own cup. “Oh, now!” my mother cries out, waving her hand. “Don't talk like that. First you need to get married.” She takes a sip. “You're too fickle, all of you,” she says. “No one is ever good enough for you!” she complains. “I’m a twixter,” Alex sprightly offers as an all-purpose explanation for the 12th time that day. “You are not! I’m a twixter. You’re a Gen-Xer,” I go on restarting our argument from lunch.” “You’re both wrong,” Arthur breaks in. “You’re both idiots,” he offers up from where he’s holding his face in his hands staring fixedly into his coffee, ruminating on the latest “Drudge Report” and the plight of the Pygmies in the Congo.

“Huhh, these kids!” my mom sighs again. “Anyway, you need to hurry, Iris. You don't have forever, you know,” she says resuming her point. “I know, mom, my stock is going down. Once 29 hits it'll be black Tuesday all year round.” My dad reaches for Arthur Jr.’s cannoli. “Hey, what are you doing?” he yells roused from his cup. “You already had two!” “Tax,” my father explains smugly, holding it away from Arthur. “You can’t keep any food within a certain distance of him,” Arthur says to us outraged, “It’s like the event horizon; if anything gets within a certain proximity he just sucks it up like a black hole!” “God, you’re so mean to your old man. You know I’m not going to be around forever.”

Dinner: My brother is on the verge of purchasing a new apartment. We had all been to see it earlier that afternoon. “Of course, it doesn't have a dishwasher,” my mother says. “But you can put one in.” “Yeah, Alex, you'll definitely need a dishwasher,” I say thinking of my own mess waiting at home. “Or you can just get a girlfriend,” my father adds on thoughtfully, “Women are even better than machines.” My father begins a retching sound from the back of his throat, and pulls out a piece of bay leaf. “Your mother's trying to kill me,” he announces.

Ice Cream: I’ve just finished reading aloud to my father an excerpt from Speaking My Mind: Ronald Reagan’s Selected Speeches, my gift to him for last Father’s Day, and my mother’s calling my brothers back to the kitchen table to have dessert. “My hands are warm. Can I put them in your ice cream? Just for a second,” Alex says reaching toward my bowl. “Quit it!” “Just for a second!” “They act like children!” my mom sighs, “These kids. When are they going to grow up?”

The phone rings before my brother has a chance to explain again that he’s a twixter. We all look at each other, frightened by the possibility of it being any number of our insane relatives. “Should I answer it?” my mom says to my dad. He thinks a moment. “No, let the machine get it.” The ringing stops. There is a short period of silence and then the machine beeps. My great Aunt Agnes’ voice comes in over the speaker. “Arthur, Happy Birthday!” “No shit!” my father says surprised, “Is today my birthday?” The rest of us shrug. “I had no idea!” “Wow, happy birthday, dad. How old are you?” I say. “Uh, let me see… 69 I think.” “Weren’t you 69 last year?” “No, I think I was 68,” he says furrowing his brow. “Get me the calculator!”

My mom has picked up the phone and is talking. “Arthur, Agnes wants to talk to you,” she says bringing the phone to my father. My brothers and I retreat into the next room, careful to avoid any phone time ourselves. After 10 minutes my father walks in, interrupting us lying lazily on every available cushion of the wrap around couch, drool spilling loose as we watch a repeat of Doctor Who.

“I can’t believe it,” he says puffing his chest proudly as he enters the room. “I had lost count, but Agnes did the math. It turns out I’m only 67!” “Isn’t that something,” my mom says shaking her head, smiling in astonishment. “And for two years now you thought you were 69!”


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