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The Shock of the New, Cushioned by the Familiar, Wrapped
BEGAN SPENDING more and more time at the Glynns’, and my time with them
began to take on the rhythms of a welcome and happy routine. Every
Saturday morning, I would walk from my home in Babbington Heights to the
“five-way light” where five routes to different sections of Babbington
met or diverged, depending on one’s point of view. I would cross
that wide and dangerous intersection, walk more slowly along the narrow
and intriguing roads that led to the shell of the Nevsky mansion, stand
there in silent contemplation for a while, then go on to the Glynns’ house
and knock at the door. After a while I realized that the knock had
become an unnecessary ritual, and I wouldn’t wait for the knock to be answered,
but would open the door immediately after knocking and call out, “It’s
Peter,” and after another while I stopped waiting for them to respond with
“Come in, Peter,” and just walked in after announcing myself.
I felt quite at home.
I’d walk into the echoing entrance hall, across
the slate floor, past the huge fireplace, and toward the back of the house,
where, on the right, there was the kitchen, with its round table and set
of chairs in an extension that reached into the courtyard, like a conservatory.
That area of the house faced south and caught the sun so well that the
Glynns kept the windows open on most fall days, and even, occasionally,
in the winter. In my memory of those Saturday mornings the sun is
always shining. Margot and Martha, careless and leggy, with the coltish
awkwardness of girls at that stage of gracelessness that I suppose marks
the end of childhood, a stage attractive for its artlessness and freedom
from self-consciousness, are sitting there at the table. That’s not
quite accurate. They didn’t sit on their chairs, really. They
set themselves onto their chairs and then immediately found it impossible
to keep all the parts of themselves in the customary places. A leg
would fling itself outward or bend itself under the other leg, and then
the whole girl would have to be rearranged, the chair shifted, and then
the girl’s nates would find that they couldn’t fit themselves into the
two scoops in the wooden seat, and that meant more shifting, and the girl
might get up and give the chair a shake and set it down at a different
angle and try again. The inflexible chair and the flexible girl were
engaged in a struggle, with the chair bent on teaching her the necessity
of compromise, but the girl had a will and it was a will to win, to dominate,
and she meant to get the best of that chair, and while she was working
to do it she was a treat to watch, and watching was my part in the procedure.
Whenever I recall Rosetta now, I see her at that
kitchen table, but this is not because I associate her with cooking.
The kitchen table was where she did her work, but cooking wasn’t part of
it. She was an indifferent cook, though she was an enthusiastic eater.
In her house, everyone else cooked, including, after a while, me.
Every meal was an improvisational performance, and she was the audience
for it, the ideal audience, since she seemed really to marvel at the transformations
food could undergo in the presence of heat. Scrambled eggs were frequently
my contribution to meals at the Glynns’, since they were very nearly the
only thing that I knew how to cook. They were a miracle to her.
If I held a plate of scrambled eggs in front of her, her eyes would grow
wide, and she would smile while she ate them, as if the wonder of their
being simultaneously lumpy, yellow, hot, and edible induced too great a
pleasure to hide. If I had added a little onion, she would sigh,
and if I added bits of green pepper, she would giggle.
Andy was fearless in the kitchen. He would
start the preparation of a meal with no preconceived ideas about the result
whatsoever. He’d seek his inspiration in the larder and the fridge,
which Rosetta kept well stocked. She was fond of shopping and admired
the shapes of vegetables, the textures of meat, the packaging of prepared
foods and condiments. Andy seemed to create every recipe as he cooked,
not just as if he had never cooked what he was making, but as if no one
had ever cooked anything before. There were many failures, but every
meal had the spice of shared adventure, and, with the possible exception
of the meals I had in the home of my schoolmate Marvin Jones, I had never
eaten in such a lively and happy atmosphere before.
On one of the earliest of those Saturday mornings,
when I came into the kitchen, Rosetta was sitting at the table while Andy
rattled some pans on the stove. In front of her was a pile of snippets
of paper. She was playing with them. She would take one from
the pile, read it, and place it somewhere else on the table, where other
chosen slips lay in loose array. I assumed that she must be composing
a poem, because everyone in Babbington knew she was a poet. I said
She shook her head and smiled an enigmatic smile.
“No, no,” she said. “I’m not working on poems. You couldn’t
say that I’m working on poems. No, no, definitely not.” Then
a look of doubt crossed her face. She looked at the bits of paper
on the table. She raised an eyebrow, as if she had surprised herself
with some unexpected discovery about the way I might characterize her work.
“Or could you?” she asked herself. She regarded her work as if she’d
never seen it before. She tilted her head this way and that, in the
manner of a cat watching a beetle. “No, no, no,” she said again after
a while, “definitely not.” Then she added, “You can’t make big money
writing poems, you know,” thereby destroying an illusion of mine, induced
by a matchbook advertisement from the Past Masters Correspondence School,
the one that depicted a sunset under the words “Versify Me!” The
challenge inside the matchbook cover began with the words “You can make
big money writing poems if you’ve got what it takes,” and until that moment
I had felt fairly certain that I probably did and therefore could.
“I enter these contests,” she said. She indicated
a pile of pages torn from magazines. “They all ask you to do the
same thing. They want you to tell them, ‘in your own words,’ or ‘in
twenty-five words or less,’ why you like the thing they make, whatever
it is. Let’s see—suitcases, orange juice, padlocks, pineapple slices,
car wax, shoe polish, toilet cleaner—they go on and on. There are
more of them every week. I can hardly keep up with them.”
“Do you win a lot of things?”
“I’m starting to,” she said. “At first, I
didn’t win anything. Nothing at all.”
“Mm,” I said.
“I didn’t get it. I didn’t get how to do it.”
“But they send you the winners, if you ask them
to. Not the winners. What the winners wrote. The winning
“So I studied them. Very carefully.
And I learned the secrets. So now I win more and more often.
You can do it, too.”
“Yes, I think so. Let me show you what I do.”
She seemed to be about to tell me her secrets, and I leaned forward, the
better to hear them, but then she paused, pursed her lips, and with a twinkle
in her eyes she said, “Better yet—a vivid demonstration! You wait
She got up from the table and began rummaging in
“Have you ever been to India?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Good.” She took a couple of jars from the
cabinets and a roll from the bread box. She began making a sandwich.
“Have you ever been to England?”
“I’ve never been out of the United States,” I said.
“Good, good. This should work, then.”
She cut the sandwich and gave me half. “Take a bite,” she said.
I took a bite. I wasn’t sure what to make
of it. It seemed to be a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.
The peanut butter I was sure about, but there was something funny about
the jelly. It was odd, intriguing, tasty, but not quite like anything
I’d tasted before.
“How do you like it?” she asked.
“It’s good. It’s different.”
“Ah,” she said. “‘Different.’ What’s
“The jelly. It’s kind of—sharp—sour—”
She raised an eyebrow expectantly.
“That’s chutney,” she said.
“Ah!” I said. “Chutney.”
“Do you know what that is?”
“Well, for the purposes of our demonstration, it
represents the shock of the new.”
“The shock of the new,” I said, nodding. I
liked it. I knew I would use it often.
“And what else is in that sandwich?”
“You recognized that right away.”
“It was familiar.”
“The shock of the new—cushioned by the familiar.”
“Aha,” I said, as if I understood.
“And what else?”
I took another bite. I shrugged. “That’s
all,” I said.
She shook her head, but said nothing, just kept
her lips pursed, until I got it.
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “The roll. Hope.”
“The shock of the new, cushioned by the familiar,
wrapped in hope,” she said. “That’s what wins these contests.”