My brother Jackson was fourteen years old, and hungry.
“Dad, where’s the ham?” he asked, at three-fifteen in the afternoon on the first day of school. He’d been home for five minutes.
“In the fridge.” My dad didn’t look up from his book.
“I can’t find it.”
“If you don’t see any, then don’t you think it’s reasonable to conclude that we’re out?”
“I don’t think we are,” said my brother.
Dad just shrugged.
Jack huffed back to the kitchen.
That’s how it started: that same conversation, with minor variations and embellishments, repeated, every other day. Jackson had arrived at the time in a boy’s life when the eating begins. The real eating. I mean, honestly, I don’t understand how parents can manage to keep food in the house with teenage boys around. As for me, I was ten, and still a few years away from that time when my after school snack would be a box of Honey-Nut Cheerios and a half-gallon of milk in a mixing bowl. But Jack was right up in it: two bowls of Rice Crispies with table sugar on top for breakfast, a bag lunch at school, an eight-hundred-calorie “snack” after school, dinner at six with ice cream or cookies for dessert, and then a couple more bowls of cereal before bed. I think this was before he’d learned to mix peanut butter with Pillsbury chocolate fudge cake icing and eat it with a spoon.
“Hey,” Jackson stuck his head in my room, a couple weeks into September. “You gotta help me find the ham.”
I was on my bed, re-reading the comic book adaptation of Star Wars that I’d gotten the year before when I was in the hospital with appendicitis. “Dad says we’re out,” I said.
“We can’t be out.”
“I had a ham sandwich in my lunch yesterday, and there was no ham in the fridge last night. Then today, I got another ham sandwich!”
“So Mom bought some more.”
“When? On Tuesday night?”
He had a point. Mom shopped on weekends, bringing at least one conscripted kid to help.
“Maybe Dad just picked some up? You know, a quick stop,” I offered.
Dad was the early riser. He had the job of making sure we were all ready and out the door in the mornings. That job included packing us all lunches. Each morning there’d be a neat row of brown paper bags on the shelf in the front hall by the doorbell, above the 1968 Colliers Encyclopedia, each lunch labeled in black magic marker: EJ (that’s me), Jack, Iris, GPF (that was Dad).
“I don’t think so,” Jack replied. “I can’t find any today, either. Why would he shop in the middle of the week and only get enough for one day?”
“You think Dad’s lying? I find ham in there all the time. I just had a ham sandwich on Sunday. We’re just out.”
“Yeah, sometimes there’s like two slices in there, no more. Not enough to make eight or ten lunches a week, plus snacks, and weekend lunches. Where is it all? He’s not lying, but, he never really says we’re out. He just suggests that I should conclude we’re out.”
“Just have the turkey. There’s always turkey.”
“That stuff sucks. Mom won’t get the good kind. She says they inject it with sugar. You go look,” he said. “See if you can find the ham.”
“Why me? You look.”
“Mom’s already yelled at me twice for holding the fridge door open.”
“What do I get if I find it?”
“A ham sandwich, dickhead.”
The fridge was pretty full. I thought the ham might be in there somewhere, just really hard to see. I skipped the deli drawer — I was sure that Jack would have scoured it already — and started pulling stuff off the shelves and looking behind things. On the top shelf on the left were three gallons of milk. I looked behind them. There was nothing. The right side of the top shelf was crowded. Behind the daily miscellany, the pickle jars, the giant ketchup bottle, etc, was a collection of containers for leftovers, those opaque, bowl-shaped, plastic containers with the lids that burp out the air and seal up when you push down in the center. I opened them all: lentil soup, rigatoni with meat sauce, some baked beans, and a quart of washed, cut strawberries with sugar — I’d have to remember those for later.
I got down and peered into the lower, narrower shelves, pulling things out and examining them: butter in the butter dish, tubs of margarine, pickles, eggs, four or five different kinds of cheese, a block of Parmigiano-Reggiano that was older than me, wrapped in waxed paper, sealed inside a plastic bag, and tied with a twist-tie. On the bottom was the meat for the rest of the week’s suppers: a whole chicken cut up, a couple of pounds of ground beef, and some pork chops on the bone. I pulled them all out and looked behind them, but there was nothing.
The fruit drawer was full. Apples, oranges, grapes. I dug between them like a dog, looking for a hidden space where the ham could be stashed. No luck. It was the same in the other drawer: so crammed with lettuce, carrots, asparagus, broccoli — all the stuff I hated — that I could barely pull it out. But no ham.
The weight of the condiments and salad dressings on the door shelves gave the door momentum when it swung, but they left no hiding places where Dad might stash a pound of ham.
I shut the fridge. What the hell? I’d gotten ham sandwiches the last two days too. The more I thought about it, the less sense it made. It had to be here somewhere.
I went downstairs to check the basement fridge. Old but reliable, it had been in the house since before I was born. I found it unplugged and empty, the door propped open to let the air in, as it was for most of the year. Mom fired it up to hold the defrosting turkey in November, used it for supplies and leftovers through the holidays, then unplugged it in January.
I looked around the basement. Where was the picnic cooler? Could Dad be so desperate to keep the ham away from Jack that he would keep a cooler stocked with ice somewhere in the house? Now that I’d thought of it, I had to rule it out. I couldn’t see the cooler anywhere. It should be right there, on its side, propped open like the fridge to keep it from getting smelly inside. But it wasn’t. I looked in the corners, next to the old bookshelves, under the rack of old hanging clothes near the washer, under the utility basins, and in the dark, workshop-like area behind the furnace that existed only as a mysterious repository of seemingly useful and yet unused things. The cooler was not there.
The only place left was the coal cellar. No house in Pittsburgh had burned coal in forty years, but all the houses on our street had coal cellars under the porches. Previous owners had renovated our house in the fifties, and the steel coal hatch had been replaced by a window made from a dozen mortared glass blocks. This concession to modernity had done nothing to change the dungeon-like character of the two narrow, damp, unheated, concrete rooms beneath the porch.
I stood before the coal-cellar door, its single sheet of plywood hanging on two hinges with a brass gate-handle screwed right in the middle. The door was recessed deep in the thick foundation wall, in a dark corner of the space behind the furnace, and locked with a simple hook set high up, out of reach of small children’s hands. That room had for years concealed the darkest mysteries of the house from me. As a small child I had been forbidden to enter it — the rule repeated with stern warnings that the things inside were not safe for children. That door also concealed, I was sure, the place from which the long-legged brown centipedes, scutigera coleoptrata, emerged in the cold and dark of night to race through the upper floors of the house, the frantic undulations of their fifteen pairs of legs beating in time with the shudders up my spine.
By the age of ten I knew that the dangers behind the door were ordinary dangers: cans of paint, jugs of turpentine and paint thinner and household chemicals, some rusty cast-iron furniture and steel bed frames stacked awkwardly in the narrow space and prone to falling. Still, the dark aura of the doorway remained. (That and the centipedes.)
By the age of ten I was also tall enough to reach, on tiptoes, the hook at the top of the low doorway. I unhooked it and pulled the handle and the door swung toward me, drawing with it a cold, damp burst of air, the smell of mold and cobwebs. I stepped through. A weak, gray light filtered in from the glass-block window at the far end of the room to my right. I found the string tied to the pull-chain ahead of me and yanked it. Raw yellow light flooded the room from the bare bulb in the ceiling. Something small and brown darted across the wall and disappeared.
It was as I remembered it from few times I’d followed Dad inside, never going farther than the doorway: the white-painted concrete walls, grayed in the corners with mold and years of cobwebs, shelves with paint cans and plastic jugs and strange bottles with prominent warning labels. The space to my right was lined with the end of the long tail of the catalog of household items — things used too infrequently to be kept handy, but not useless enough to discard. To my left, through the narrow doorway that divided the space, an impenetrable, unrecognizable jumble of bulky items towered almost to the ceiling. This pile of stuff came right to edge of the doorway and receded into the darkness of the windowless end of the cellar.
Back to my right, halfway to the glass block window, on the shelf below the paint, the cooler was there, sure enough. Open and turned on its side, it sat empty. I looked around for some other hiding place, but there was nothing. The thought that my dad would store fresh food in this dank place was preposterous, even if the food was sealed safe in some container.
I yanked the string to kill the light and stepped out, smelling and feeling the last musty exhalation of the room as I pressed the door into the narrow opening of the unventilated space.
No luck then. I returned to the kitchen and stared into the fridge without a plan. I yanked open the deli drawer on the absurd theory that Jack hadn’t already torn it apart. Baby Swiss and American cheese slices, a block of mild cheddar, hot dogs, a pound of the dreaded turkey, but no ham.
The next day, after school, Jack intercepted me as I walked in the door, before I could even bellow “I’m home!”
“Dude, what’cha get in your lunch today?” he said, grinning.
“I didn’t take my lunch today. Fiestadas in the cafeteria.” Fiestadas were what my Western Pennsylvania school called hexagonal pizzas topped with oily yellow cheese, sausage, and a hint of Mexican spices. They were the single most delicious thing they served, and I tended to “forget” to take my lunch when they were on the menu.
“Go look,” Jack said, eyebrows raised.
When anyone in the family forgot their lunch, Mom would take the bag, and set it, unopened, in the fridge. The next morning, Dad would set it back out again. On any given day there might be a brown paper lunch sack standing on the top shelf of the fridge with someone’s name written on the front. We pulled mine out and I looked inside: A sandwich in a baggie, some grapes in a baggie, an orange, and a pair of Little Debbie chocolate-peanut-butter wafer bars in their clear plastic wrapping.
“Get the sandwich,” Jack said, grinning.
I didn’t have to open it, I could see it was ham.
“See? See?” Jack pointed at the sandwich. “Where did it come from?”
That Sunday, Jack volunteered to go shopping with Mom. When they got back, and we were all drafted to come out and help carry the bags in, Jack made a point of carrying the bag with the deli meat himself, and he made sure that Mom and Dad were both in the room when he unpacked it.
“E.J., put these in the fridge,” he said to me, and started handing me stuff, reading off the labels as he went. “A pound of swiss cheese, a pound of turkey, a pack of bologna, and two pounds of baked ham.”
He didn’t see the silent glance Mom and Dad exchanged behind him.
“Hey,” he said to me with a smug grin a half-hour later, starting the broiler in the oven, “Ham-n-swiss for lunch?”
Jack’s ham-and-swiss recipe was simple but delicious:
- A hamburger bun set out open-faced.
- A quarter pound of ham slices bridged across both halves of the bun.
- Two slices of swiss cheese laid across so that the edges of the ham stuck out a little all the way around.
- Broil open-faced in the oven until the cheese is bubbly and starting to brown and the exposed edges of the ham are in danger of burning.
- Remove from oven and fold closed so the two cheesy sides meet and meld in the middle forming a five-layer stack: bun-ham-cheese-ham-bun.
He made two for himself, and one for me. I couldn’t deny the delicious genius of the sandwich. Toasting by broiling, rather than baking, kept the buns soft and squishy, sheltered under a mass of ham and cheese. The outermost layers stayed cool while the middle got hot and melty.
Across the table from me, Jack’s eyes rolled back in his head as he chewed.
A third of the morning’s haul of ham was already gone. On Monday, I got a ham sandwich in my lunch. Then that same day after school I smelled the melting swiss cheese as soon as Jack got home. And that was it. The rest of the week it was turkey and PB&J. There was no ham in the fridge, and no ham in our lunches, and no mystery this time where it had gone.
The next Sunday the cycle started over again. When Jack asked me if I wanted a sandwich for lunch, though, I declined.
“No man. I want to save it for lunches.”
By Tuesday, the ham was gone anyway. After a few weeks I intercepted Jack on Sunday when the groceries came back. “Hey! Dude! Stop eating all the damn ham. I want some in my lunches during the week.”
“Hey, it’s not just me,” he spread his hands. “We’re all eating it.”
“No. We’re not all eating it, because you’re eating it all.”
“Whatever. Want one?”
The leaves turned. Fall came on. We carved jack-o-lanterns and roasted the pumpkin seeds in the oven. Halloween came and went. Then it was Thanksgiving and I was glad that in fifth grade we no longer had to make stupid pilgrims and turkeys out of construction paper in art class. In December, we made banners from cut felt pieces sewn onto backings of colored burlap. Mine was a tall evergreen tree on a red field trimmed in gold. It was supposed to be a coat-of-arms, inspired by the Lloyd Alexander and Tolkien books I liked. Mom hung it up in the house when I brought it home. She thought it was a Christmas tree.
After a while we started getting ham sandwiches in our lunches again, but there was never much ham in the fridge — a slice or two, tops. I didn’t care. I wasn’t that hungry, and if I was, I could eat a PB&J, or cereal. Jack never asked me to help him look for the ham again, but now and then I’d find him just standing there, staring into the open fridge with a hungry look in his eyes, like a coyote.
Then, one evening just before Valentine’s day, it happened. After dinner, I was lying on the living-room floor, trying and failing to cut a perfect heart out of red construction paper, while at the same time trying and failing to quell my terror at the prospect of giving the heart, perfect or not, to Amy Silverman. Dad was in his spindle-backed rocking chair, grading problem sets like he did every night, still dressed for work, in street shoes, slacks, and his beige corduroy blazer with the patches on the elbows. Mom was on the sofa, reading The Name of the Rose, her feet up on the ottoman. Jack was in the kitchen, rummaging in the fridge. Iris was wherever it is that sixteen-year-old girls go to escape their families on a school night.
Noise erupted from the kitchen.
“Whoo! Yes! Whoooo! Hah! Hahahah! I found it!”
There was the sound of sneakers bouncing on vinyl flooring. The floors shook a little each time his heels touched down.
“I fouuund it! I fouuund it!” he sang in the descending singsong tones kids use to taunt each other in the playground.
“What?” Mom asked, “What did you find?”
“I found Dad’s secret hiding place! I found the ham!” he shouted, “I fouuuund it. I fouuuund it!”
Mom and Dad looked at each other, unsmiling.
“Rats,” Dad said.
Mom smiled ever so slightly.
I jumped up, “Where was it?”
Jack danced into the living room. In one hand he waved a deli bag with at least two pounds of ham. In the other he held up a brown paper lunch bag with my dad’s initials on it in black marker.
“It was in here! It looks like a leftover lunch. But it’s not! It’s NOT!” Jack was gloating, but there was a note of admiration in his voice.
“Use it responsibly,” was all my dad said.
Jack didn’t. Things went back to how they had been: We’d get a couple of pounds of ham on Sunday and by Tuesday it’d be gone. Dad started rationing. There were weeks when I didn’t even get a ham sandwich in my lunch on Monday. We got some other things, like chicken salad, or tuna, for variety. It wasn’t the same.
After a while I gave in. I joined Jack, feasting on ham-n-swiss melts any time it was available. What choice did I have? Truth be told, they were better than a cold sandwich in my lunch, anyway.
On the first warm afternoon in May, one of those days where the birds all sing in harmony and all the girls are prettier than they were the day before, I got home and all the windows were open. The south wind blew through the house and out the screen door.
Inside, Dad sat in his shirtsleeves listening to classical music, his rocking chair pulled next to the record player. A short tumbler in his hand held some ice and a single finger of whiskey.
I dropped my books in the hall and went to the fridge and opened it. But I wasn’t hungry, just restless. I returned to the living room.
“Qué pasa, chico?” my dad said.
“What’s that mean?”
“What’s up, kid?”
“What are you listening to?” I asked.
He handed me the empty album cover, Beethoven’s Symphony №6, Pastorale. The cover had a painting of rolling fields stretching to the distance on a sunny summer day. A man tilled a field with a horse-drawn plow. Some people in old-time European peasant clothing strolled on a footpath.
“It’s a Sixth Symphony kind of day,” my dad said. The curtains of the back window billowed gently in response. We sat and listened. He sipped from his glass now and then. I could never explain to my friends why I liked Beethoven.
“Hey Dad?” I asked, when he flipped the record to start the third movement. “After Jack found your hiding place for the ham, why didn’t you just use your old hiding place?”
“What old hiding place?”
“The one you were using before, back in September. I tore the whole fridge apart one day and couldn’t find any ham. There wasn’t any leftover lunch in there then, but I know you were hiding some ham somewhere. We were getting it in our lunches.”
“Yeah. I got sloppy,” he said, smiling. “But why are you so sure that there wasn’t a lunch bag in there?”
“There wasn’t. If there had been I would have looked in it, I’m sure.”
“You’re sure? Tell me this: Have you looked in the fridge today?”
“Is there a lunch bag in there right now?” he asked.
“Yes. Wait, no. Uh… I’m not sure.” I couldn’t remember. I could see one in my mind’s eye, but I wasn’t sure that I’d seen it today.
“I’d bet you look in the fridge every day,” Dad replied. “Some days there’s a lunch. Other days not. If you can’t remember what was in there today, how can you be sure of what might or might not have been in there seven months ago? And if it had been there, how can you be sure you’d have even noticed it?”
I thought about this for a while. I tried to see the fridge as it was that day back in September. The lunch bag was both there and not there.
“So was it there?” I asked at last.
“Did you observe it in there?” my father asked.
“I can’t say that I did.”
“Did you observe that it wasn’t there?”
“I can’t say that either.”
“Okay. Let’s be quiet now. I want to listen to the music,” he said with a smile.
Copyright © 2019, JP Fosterson . All Rights Reserved.