I don’t do bean threads, egg noodles nor Ramen either. I know, such a political statement on pasta. But put a plate of your pick of noodles in front of me and just see. I’ll leave the table. I will fall to the ground. I will yack all over myself. Chin and chest covered in streams of slick saliva. Curdled two percent milk, soggy poppy-seeded-bagel slush and frothing acid all pooling in my lap. It is my constant reaction when proffered the damn food. This is why, mostly, my stomach contents remain the same: milk and bagel. Makes for a smoother retch should I be disgusted by something. Which I often am.
I could not even put-on when my mother-in-law to be spatulaed kugel onto my plate. The dish was close enough.
“It’s Jewish tradition. Hanukkah food!” she urged, smiling.
My fiancé shook his head at her, taking my plate and dropping his empty one onto my placemat. “No, Mom. She can’t eat that.”
“Whatchya mean! Can’t?” Her body snapped straight and she stood there blinking at me and flattening her apron with one hand, her other hand planted in her hip with the spatula sprouting out.
“Issue some respect, Mom. On the double.”
“Respect? I’m showing my future daughter-in-law tradition.”
I know about tradition. When I was younger my family and I had our own tradition. We would spend summers at my uncle’s house, across town. This was because my parents said the air there was better for my younger brother’s temperature sensitivities. We couldn’t afford to keep the AC on and Uncle could afford to keep a glacier straight because he allocated a large portion of my dead aunt’s money to the task each summer. “Florida,” he would say to me. “I won’t go down that way. Like some poor soul without the sense to know human beings can’t stand that sort of heat. Well, my people won’t suffer.” He meant us: me and my brother Ben.
But the spaghetti. I’ll tell you about the spaghetti.
My uncle would by those cheap noodles from the corner Vietnamese market. Twelve packages for a dollar. Five dollars equaled the all of us eating for a week. And so every Sunday afternoon, uncle would grab my hand to walk over to the market as Ben would read comics in the cool house. We were the only black people ever in the store and the owner’s daughter would put herself behind me and pull my braids to steer me toward certain items in the shop. I was her horse. “Eat lychees!” she would squeal pointing at a tub of individually foiled jellies. I did not speak Vietnamese and her English was almost pure nonsense.
On the way back Uncle would have me hold the shopping bag while he pelted pigeons with rocks.
“They’re no good. Diseased,” he’d mutter.
“Bloated and infested with parasites. They contaminate. We have to keep death away from us, girl. You could live to a hundred and twenty if you don’t blow it.”
“No way, Uncle. You are so crazy.”
“A hundred and fifty even. The right food. The right exercise. Taking advantage of the medical advancements of your generation. You could outlive three or four husbands to see if they discover mermaids in the depths of the now unexplored oceans. Care for your grandchildren’s children in aJetson house and have aliens over for a sit-down. You could see all of that. Just mind you stay away from illness and nasty.”
“Anything’s possible when you’re healthy.”
When I was eleven, the first Sunday of the summer there, I folded a dead pigeon into my overall pocket. He was checking on a neighbor, chatting with them about pill prices and whatnot. The bird was so sad. The left side and eye mashed from the stone Uncle had thrown. I did not think he’d seen me.
Back in the apartment, he took the brick of noodles out of the wrapping and dunked it in a bowl of tepid water.
“Dunk, dunk, pigeon girl,” he said smiling at me while pressing the noodle brick into the water. “Dunk, dunk.”
“Uncle, I don’t want any more of that mi-goi. I feel like barf.”
“It’s spaghetti, pigeon. It’s all spaghetti.”
“Uncle, I said staring at his gray teeth, “That little girl says it is mi-goi.”
“Spaghetti, pigeon, is the cornerstone of any nutritious diet.” He pressed his index into my forehead.
He turned to the counter and used the plastic cutlery spork to claw the softened noodles from the water into my plate, his plate, my brother’s plate and the dog’s bowl. My parent’s did not eat dinners with us as they spent most nights out at other people’s houses.
He looked at the plates, pleased as punch and he’d squeeze ketchup onto it, then sprinkle crushed up Flintstone vitamins on it saying “Abracadabra, children. All the more magical now. Look how healthy. Look how healthy.”
“Thanks, uncle,” I said. I was taught manners. I put my head down trying to figure how I could be rid of the heap without having to actually eat it.
“It is like I’m running a general sanitarium.”
“Yeah, thank you, Uncle,” my brother said pinching the noodles into his own mouth.
“Take the filth from your pocket and put it in your spaghetti.”
“What?” I asked. “I’m going to bury it proper. It’s so sad.”
“No, if you’re going to be filthy and touch on pigeons, then you need to be faithful to your filthiness. Acting like some grab-handing pickaninny. What do you want people to think? Put that filth on your plate.”
I took out the stiff bird and put it on my plate. Uncle plucked up my spork, clawing noodles onto the Pigeon. I cried.
I placed my hand over the bird, covering it so I couldn’t see it. My palm wet from the ketchup and now soggy Flintstone vitamins. I looked over at Uncle. “Please, Uncle?”
Uncle was looking at my brother and grinning. “Now, aren’t we the picture of health? Aren’t we the picture of health! Laugh at your sister. She ain’t ever going to be healthy!”
I tell you, I do not like spaghetti.
Mary Elizabeth Burroughs was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida.She currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi where she is a John and Renee Grisham Fellow in fiction in the University of Mississippi's MFA Program.