The Gift of Gag
I'm Darren. But this is a story about my family, namely my sister. Forgive me for the lack of ingenuity in this introduction. I deem that with an unreservedly depressing subject matter such is this, it is better to jump right into it rather than try to glorify it with unrealistic fluff. My sister is a socially inept fussbudget who is expressively ruled by remarks still waiting to be uttered. When she is finished with one passed remark from the ash pit or grapevine, she is immediately poised for the next. People don't understand my sister Mary. She is someone we might describe as sociopathic, psychoneurotic, psychopathic or any of those other words crowned with some prefix, suffix or hyphenation typically used by self-supposed intellectuals to describe the socially retarded. This is not to imply any variety of ineptitude in my beloved sibling's level of reasonable acumen. She is a very bright woman. Open. Attentive. Curious. But when it comes to the emotional gauze necessary to withstand criticism, civilly negate insult, or properly apply good advice, she falls and tumbles glumly along the rock-strewn strait of severe timidity. She simply lacks the social bearings to decipher standing up for herself, from making a scene, from afflicting others with her effusive disease. Her heart is a lonesome little nosegay with plenty of petal room, but no flower would ever, or could ever, bloom next to her. She has never kept a boyfriend for more than three days. Three days.
These are all things that I’ve witnessed as her younger brother for twenty some odd years now, but let me start in a seafood restaurant in the corner of the country, northern Seattle Washington. And maybe this will be enough to end it there too. We're all from Omaha, visiting our west coast relatives we get to see on a relatively seldom basis. Aunt, Uncle and Grandma. The restaurant is large, dimly lit, expensive, swanky and right on the Harbor Island Marina. The people inside all seemed to be choked with their own manners. The men with pinkish ham-like heads stuffed into wrinkled suit jackets, the peevish uptight women in their sleeveless tops and the curly haired soup yokels slurping from their bowls, made up the continuous hum of argle-bargle and subtle silverware ruckus that was emblematic of quieter restaurants. The flimsy two-paged menu had a slim selection of lavish, hardly pronounceable marine life entrees, ranging from eighteen-dollar cupfuls of bouillabaisse to sixty-dollar plates of lemon-glazed escargot. I of course favor an idea to avoid the creatures that lurk in the contaminated, piss ridden sea. Silly me. I was limited to the three choices of delectable steak entrees, starting at thirty-two dollars for a 6oz nibbler and a few chopped vegetables sneezed on like an afterthought.
My family sat still and clamored about the ambiance of the place we were in, and the elaborate looking plates whisking past unto other parties. After diligently detailed albeit painfully touristy discussions of pike, halibut, salmon and everything else that we could splurge on without taking the guilt home with us in a see-thru doggie bag, everyone grasped a good idea of what they would order. Everyone except for my Mary, my sister, who still had her head dipped far into the limited two fold of menu with a puzzled expression. The waitress took our drink orders, informed us that she would come back, and wistfully severed herself from our table. We all sipped our wine and waited patiently for her to return, paying to mind to Mary who still struggled with her own rational workings and derangement. She began to grumble and remark about the lack of prices on the menu and the general elimination thereof on menus throughout the country.
“They think that people are going to think their crap is cheaper because they get to say the price out loud rather than let you read it for yourself.”
Everyone exchanged looks and shrugged. Why do they hide the prices?
"Will you just pick something?" ordered Mother. "You needn't worry about the face values; Grandma is picking up the tab."
Mary snorted and began listing all of the items she would be interested in had she not been so distracted by these missing prices. This was going to be another scenario. It was going to be one of those days. However, everyone failed to take their positions. Father didn’t excuse himself to the restroom for a five hour shit. Instead, he leaned back and rolled his eyes as mother began to placate and insult her. That was her position no matter what. : Talking to Sis as though they were holding guns on each other. Aunt and Uncle failed to strike up an impossibly random conversation to brighten the mood (at least amongst themselves) like they always did. Listen carefully to them you might start wondering what color is YOUR dental floss?! Nooo, they all started sharing restaurant experiences and suggesting plates to her. Grandma, bless her heart, couldn’t hear anything and just smiled at all of us. Naturally, this negative stimulus made Sis feel cornered and advanced her frustrations as shown by lack of ability to conceal her derisiveness for the fiftieth fucking time that day already.
I just wanted to excuse myself to feign a phone call and then maybe stall another five minutes in the pisser where I would chase ten aspirin with a swat from Derringer, the 2oz flask full of German whiskey that I kept in my inner breast pocket. Instead, I just sat there and took it like a good little boy who will eat his steak when it comes and wipe the mouth that better stay shut.
Finally, the server reappeared and recorded our orders, suspiciously taking Mary last and underdressed least.
“The lobster here.” sis said pointing down. “It isn’t priced.”
“It varies with the season,” the waitress answered delicately.
“Well how much is it?!” barked Mary, spreading her arms with her hands out.
“The half order is 24.99”
“Well how much is the full order?”
Miles and miles away, earth shattering thunderstorms startled people from their slumber, a kayak is tipped over by a family of four on vacation up in British Columbia. Another jalopy sedan exploded in Iraq.
“Daaaaaayyyyymmmmm!!!” roared my sticker stricken sister. The other patrons of the restaurant fell silent, their blood ran cold, their attention burned into the flushed faces of my poor family. I believe someone across the restaurant even dropped his or her fork. Time froze. A flight was delayed somewhere. Someone stole a Sunday newspaper. An oil drill stopped ticking. The clearly shaken server swallowed hard and asked if she should return in a few minutes. I raised my glass with what must have been a humorously acerbic expression. The waitress smiled and turned to leave.
"No, I mean...heh...may I have another?"
She swapped glances with several pairs of astute eyeballs bogging from my family (now irritated with me) before deciding that she should just follow all our orders to get through this as painlessly as possible. Taking sides would just be...yeah.
"Certainly." she stood there, frozen, puzzled, helpless, yet still managed to appear unfettered by the trifling folderol that was my family. What a dame.
"Mary. I swear to God. Will you just decide already?"
"Take it easy" Father cajoled.
"Just get the fish and chips...." suggested Uncle. Mary glared at him.
"...you know it's simple, fairly small chance of it not tasting well, all you can eat..."
Mary continued to glare at him for an awkward half minute before wounding him with a twitchy dismissive eye roll.
"JUST GIVE ME A MINUTE!" she snapped, most likely directed at mother, although she was looking at the server.
"Tone." said Mother. "People can hear us."
"I don't give a damn! Let them listen!"
"Mary..." croaked Father.
"Take your time, Sis." I said.
"GOD! WILL YOU ALL JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!"
That reminded me of the way she used to scream at me through my bedroom door to turn my radio down. Usually because her boyfriend of the weekends couldn't hear the wee hour 'fap fap fap' -ing over the phone, if you get my drift. That was how she got the boys to like her. She did dirty things, even over the phone. In restaurants as well, she is very clever in finding new ways to make virtual strangers despise her on the outside, but be completely amused on the inside. More Dixie cups for the water cooler if you know what I'm saying.
“Excuse me um...the fried ice cream? Could I possibly sample it?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“That good, huh?” I smirked.
Aunt curled her lips, folded her arms and bowed her head in defeat.
“No,” I said, “Just the wine, and her order when she is ready.” pointing over with a thumb.
“I’ll come back in a couple of minutes.”
“Him!” Mary gave me the finger. I watched as the server skulked back to the coffee corner of the restaurant where they bickered about their own lives and gossiped of others. Every restaurant, even this one, had such a corner. I’m sure she had to muscle in a little creativity to speak derogatorily of us.
"What?!" I barked, steadily revolving my gaze like a turret to face everyone.
“It’s a second glass of wine, not Armageddon!”
Before the server ever came back, a neatly dressed man came by with a tray of complimentary appetizers. They were these little cocktail dessert cups full of shrimp over some kind of white cream sauce. One was set in front of me.
"Oh...thank you..." I said, panicking on the inside but maintaining my table composure. The little pink shreds of squirmy little fish bits reminded me of maggots and animal intestines, sending bile racing up my throat and smoothing over the back of my tongue. Before the man could leave I called out for him.
"Thank you very much sir, do you think I could have another?" I politely asked with my glass raised. He turned around with an expression that wondered why I couldn’t have just waited for my own server. Had this bright young man looked closer, he would have realized that my existing glass was still entirely full. I seemed to have caught him at a bad time, the way he glossed over me was as if he were very busy and I was some kind of untimely bowel movement.
"Yes’ sir" he said anyway never to return, the degenerate bastard.
A new wave of silence diseased our table on a timetable impossible to recover as it was broken up with the revelation of the century.
"I think I know what I want." said Mary. "Where is she? What is taking so long?"
Uncle leaned forward, closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. My Aunt was applying eye drops! Grandma and Dad were picking at their cocktail cups and Mom was over there brooding about the behavior of her two children. Ohh, the antagonistic drip of Mother’s impatience, she was a wooden powder keg doused in kerosene.
Another moment’s pause.
"Can we smoke in here?" I asked to pierce the trifling uneasiness stemmed from we ham-fisting youngsters who presumably were born on a farm. Overreaction sevenfold if you asked me.
“No!” cried Sis, who began picking out various pieces of her...uh...fish thing. Everyone seemed to be enjoying theirs with tactful flicks of their forks and disgusting slurps and hard swallows.
Then the server came by with salads for everyone and took the final order. She ordered the lobster which made everyone gasp with folly and exasperation. Piss under the toilet and just step around it. And then a new ordeal was born. Mary had a few words to say about some of the fixings on her plate, claiming she liked the items, just not on her salad. Nuts, shrimp, and berries just don’t belong with lettuce, onion and tomato. She even took her butter knife and started carving out the stems of her romaine lettuce with a reckless handsaw type technique until she finally got the hang of it. Then with surgical precision, she performed the same operation on every remaining leaf until there was a small pile of stems in her little fish bowl slid far out of her reach. By this time the server was back to check up on us and our level of satisfaction.
“Would you like a different salad?” she asked, incredulously observing the untidy mash of leaf in the bowl.
“OH NOW you ask. WELL...” bellowed sis, “I already fixed the salad! I worked hard on this! I might as well EAT it!”
Finally, I thought, a sensible remark, a shame it was said in the tone we use with persistent telemarketers. My hand reactively grasped my glass and the waitress finally made her first unprofessional misstep of the evening, placing her hands up in surrender.
“I was just offering.”
“She is fine. Right Mary? We are all fine.” said Mother.
“Oooooooo K. I will be back in a while.”
“Sir, would you just like to purchase a bottle?!”
The entire family must have scootched a tad forward in their chairs to gore their fiery gawpings down my open, undecided mouth.
“No. Never mind. I’m fine.”
“Very well.” she smiled outlandishly and left.
Everyone stole all at sea looks from each other. And then...
“GOD! What is WRONG with her?!” asked Sis.
Thereafter was a decent moment of tranquility. However Sis felt discontented by all the conversations that were open table but left her out due strictly to topic. We were the youngest and let’s face it; old people are boring. She didn’t see the point in compromising herself to masquerade along the parade of putz or insinuate even the vaguest of interest. Instead, she grimaced and impolitely rested cheek on fist while wondering what she would be doing if she were back home. Chances are she would watching Jersey Shore while consuming a grocery bag of sugary and fatty sundries while lamenting about her life, or the life that she didn’t have. Nevertheless, this enjoyable elapse of reprieve was cut short by one absentminded slip of the lip. We all make mistakes and I understand that. Nevertheless, this careless, irretraceable gamble into snide commentary about her manners was simply inexcusable, giving away common sense for a new upheaval of inane commotion. Aunt made some kind of reference to proper use and functions of the butter knife with humorous intent. Seemingly dormant to the conversational proceedings at the table, any remark about Mary, or one that had the faintest potential to be indirectly related to her, would certainly not just hover in the air and fizzle out the way it was meant to. Sis would swoop down from the thundercloud of her emotional hostility and snatch it out of the air much akin to an osprey capturing a leaping fish.
Mary was ready to bolt and I had instinctively slid my chair back, toes down, perched and ready to go after her once had she decided to storm off and after a calm, tactical count to twenty. I had gotten my lines together, ready to stand outside of the lady’s crapper professing why old people just don’t ‘get’ us. I mean, if her own brother isn’t going to take her side, who is? Instead, Mary’s phone bleeped. She’d been exchanging dirty text notes with the fellow she was currently clapping laps with throughout the entire trip to Washington. She thumbed it open, stared into the bright white glow for a second and snapped it shut. A look of despair drew itself along her face. I noticed the ice from my water had melted and small ripples cascaded in two second intervals. Then over Mary's shoulder I noticed a ten legged blob of human mass burrowing for us in a fat pigeon's rocking sort of two step, squeezing through narrow passages made by occupied seats and the walls behind us. There was a hostess waiting for them at their table. Bringing up the massive rear end of this raving hungry family of plump bumpkins was a short, stout, beefy young man donning a tight fitting MMA Tapout tee and a headache-inducing amount of AXE, this body spray for men advertised to win the affection of women. To me the putrid odor was like a dress sock that stayed in the washer overnight. He moved past our table in a considerably delicate manner, carefully stepping behind one half of our circular table. My father on the left nonchalantly put his fork down and placed his fist over his nose. Mother next to him scooted her chair in further and swilled around her full glass of wine. Next was Grandma whose nostrils contracted and glasses fogged as she blinked her little eyelashes and smiled playfully at all of us. Then just as carefully, he passed behind Mary who could have easily portrayed her acute disgust with a pre-k frowny face, or a pubescent eye roll with one of her claws plastered to her abhorred temple. But no. That simply wasn't effective enough. She didn't care if we knew of her displeasure, she wanted the restaurant to know exactly what she was experiencing with this young man who was oblivious to his olfactory offense. I sucked back the rest of my Pinot Noir and waited.
And what is this? We're dry heaving now? Really? Is she suffocating? Did she need to be wheeled out on a stretcher? A gurney?
"EW! OH!! GAWD!"
Thus her disagreement was known. This poor sap who thought he would do everyone a small and mask the stench of his tempering testosterone took notice to this overactive spaz pageant and didn't quite know how to respond. But I could see the self-damning in his face, and the insult waiting in between his parted lips. I stared at him murderously and shook my head slowly. Just say one word, motherfucker. One word. The threat of my angry face would normally make a little leaguer laugh, so he must have mistaken it for disapproving empathy and embarrassment, as if my sister was some kind of windowsill sniffing retard. Perhaps he mistook my entire family for something far less than down to earth. Truth is I was too tipsy at this point to be embarrassed as the bullet in Derringer was already discharged. The kid kept moving and I sighed in relief. I'd already punched out a number of guys just like him on my Mary's behalf this year, and didn't exactly feel up to it this evening. The smell of fresh fish and my dysfunctional family was plenty enough for me to endure.
Our server came rushing over.
"Is everything alright? What happened?"
"Everything is fine," said Mother. "We just had a little disagreement and one of us got a little carried away."
"SHUT UP MOM!"
"See? She gets this way sometimes..."
"Irene..." Dad cut in.
"Excuse me?" my Aunt asked of the server.
"The geflite fish. Is it cooked in stock or tomato sauce?"
"I'm not sure. I'll check with the one of our chefs and find out for you."
"Where does it come from?" Aunt asked instead.
"I'll ask him that too."
Aunt blinked at the server.
"Yes? Is there anything else?"
"What can you tell me about the geflite fish?" she persisted.
The server looked at me in half disbelief, perhaps seeking guidance. I shrugged.
"I will be right back..." the waitress trailed off, completely befuddled that a family could be so...odd. I wanted to intervene and mediate the communication between the restaurant and this completely fucked up family. But I was a little too late to start planning a line of intervention. And now, nothing could mediate the relationship of Mary and the lobster that was now in front of her. Obviously, I’m fast-forwarding to the ‘good’ part. Grandma may have paid for the meals, but your reading pleasure was at the expense of my entire family.
Everyone was thoroughly enjoying the delectable portions on their respective plates. Father was gleefully stabbing his fork into pinkish pieces of salmon, tossing them into himself with a satisfying raise of his brow. Mother was leaned forward on the elbow of her fork hand, over-chewing a small bite and stealing glances from Sis. Grandma was neatly sawing her steak into identical bits to get that part over with as her ill-fitted dentures made the task between bites arduous enough. Aunt was staring blankly into space thinking about 'even-He-fathoms-not' while methodically chewing in a circular, cattle-like manner. Uncle was breaking apart bread and dusting the crumbs that he collected on his lap onto the floor. And Mary, she sat there. A fork sticking out from her left fist and insufficient butter knife in the other. I could see all of that pent up aggression and frustration from this evening as well as years past roiling inside of her like a hot, smoke filled cauldron of substances unknown. What could possibly be going on in those big liver brown incensed eyes of hers, or inside of that triple paned skull? Surly it wasn't the recent oil spill that was troubling her, or anything that would affect the health of the cuisine in this establishment, or anything rational at all for that matter. Mary, for Christ's sake, was staring down maliciously at the new foe that was sprawled on her plate. Every other minute or so the clank of her fork spanking the plate would startle us, costing her more unwanted measures of our discerning attention.
Eventually another volcanic eruption would come to pass. Mary rapidly rose from her seat flipping her chair on its back, and with a violent swoop of her arm, she knocked her plate (and the lobster) onto the floor where she fell to her knees and began stabbing it with the feverish malevolence of a passion crime. By the time we could fully bare witness, by the time the restaurant could notice the discombobulated vehemence, the lobster was already separated from its legs, pincers and anus. The carapace was crushed and the fins were severed, the lobster looked like shrapnel buried in young tender flesh. Mary then brought pieces of it to her face hurriedly like a cannibalistic apocalypse survivor. As everyone else was too stunned to react, I crawled down there with a napkin and began removing contents from the floor as quickly as I could before the server came back, yet careful to avoid skin contact with dead vermin. Suddenly two chubby, nylon encased legs were before me. I followed them to the angry, warted face of a woman dressed business-like in all black. I rose to my feet.
“I’m so careless sometimes.” I said. “Do you think I could have another glass of__”
“What is she doing?” asked the lady.
I looked down to find my sister with lobster remnants in her hands, twisting and pulling them apart, hissing and swearing, chest weaving. With that, I was ineffably paralyzed. Mother’s head emerged from the tabletop.
“Would you two idiots please return to your seats?” she barked like a disgruntled school hall monitor. And as if clutched by the scruffs of our necks, Mary and I complied. Mary even wiped her mouth. The lady that had rushed over disappeared for an instance and returned with the server who diffidently spoke up with her first and final demand.
“I’m going to have to ask that you people leave the premises.”
“That was the last incident. I promise you. Because if she acts up again I will personally strangle her.” said Mother with a smile.
“We’re about done here, right guys? Finish up and let’s beat it.” said I.
“Given the amount we‘ve actually consumed,” muttered Aunt. “we are liable only for less than half of our tab.”
“’You people‘?” Uncle cut in.
Father sat there looking about as aloof as a stuffed shirt.
“YOU CAN’T KICK US OUT OF HERE!” cried Mary at the woman who I presumed to be the restaurant manager.
“I’m sorry.” said the waitress. “But you are continuously disturbing our other guests.”
“The hell I can’t! Take her out of here at once!”
“What are you looking at me for?!” I cried.
“DO YOU WANNA FIGHT, BITCH?”
You get the idea. There is simply no need to go into more detail or explain how I had to drag Sis out of the establishment by the waist while she screamed incriminating threats at the warted face of that manager. Or how she deafeningly claimed that she learned everything about the business in her post-secondary restaurant management class from back in high school, or the way she sneered at and flicked off the baffled onlookers that sat there motionless in their seats while watching our departure. Or how the police were waiting in the lobby for her where she was cuffed and booked by the downtown Seattle police department and put on probation after being transferred back to our home in Omaha, Nebraska. Or about how her mental state was developed by the seclusion of our empty town and festered in her over twenty some odd years. The abject reaction of my poor Grandmother said it all.
“OH, BLOW IT OUT YOUR.__” she’d forgotten the rest.
Take from this what you will and while you’re at it, take this nasty fish thing away and get me another glass of some fucking wine. Hell, I’ll take a whole bottle.