At Home with the Glynns
ALTHOUGH THE THREAT of atomic warfare hung over us constantly when I was a boy in Babbington, New York, clam capital of America, we didn’t think about annihilation all the time. Sometimes we worried about war and rumors of war, it’s true, but at other times we had other thoughts: we fell in love, pondered the meaning of life, and went about the mundane business of living it, and grown-ups tried to calm the fears of their children by living ordinary lives and doing ordinary things — going to work and dusting the furniture and making us eat our peas.
The peas favored in my family throughout my childhood and adolescence were the Troubled Titan brand, the same brand served in the cafeteria of the Purlieu Street School. They were gray-green, smoothly spherical‚ without the dimples or wrinkles of, say, raisins, and so uniform in size that they might have been an artificial foodstuff manufactured at the Troubled Titan’s factory — replicas of a single master, an archetypal pea — rather than something that sprang from dirt and formed in pods. They arrived at the school already cooked, in enormous cans, each can wrapped in a sleeve of silver paper, imprinted with a picture of the Troubled Titan. They were what was called a “heat ’n’ eat” type of food. Behind the scenes, in the kitchen of the cafeteria, someone opened the cans and poured the contents into one of the large rectangular warming trays that fitted into the steam table. Ready in a jiffy!
ONE DAY I was in the cafeteria at the new junior high school, making my way along the steam table in a line with the other scholars, collecting the various components of my lunch: half a pint of milk in a waxed cardboard container shaped like a cabin in the woods; two slices of white bread; a square pat of butter on a square of white cardboard with the edges bent up to make a little tray, with a square of thin translucent waxed paper stuck to the top; one slice of roast beef as thick as a nickel, marbled like a topographic map, gray as the sheet of cardboard around which Spotless Cleaners folded my father’s Sunday shirts, with gravy; mashed potatoes, also with gravy; and those Troubled Titan peas. A woman in a hair net dished the peas out onto my plate lukewarm and wet. The pea water, gray-green like the peas themselves, spread instantly, making an island of the mashed potatoes, mingling with the gravy.
Of the many things that puzzled me about school, one was that the common sense so prized in society at large in those days never seemed to penetrate the doors of the school building. Watching the pea water and the gravy interswirl, I wondered why the divided plates that my family used on picnics were not used here in the school cafeteria, where they were really needed. Finding myself wondering along those lines, I thought of suggesting the use of divided plates to one of the ladies in the hair nets, but I decided against it, because the time that I’m recalling was a time when young people generally kept their mouths shut.
(Years later, at Hargrove College, I walked into the Student Union for my first meal and saw there a stack of circular divided trays that combined the functions of tray and plate and kept the foods and sauces apart from one another. I smiled with secret satisfaction, because I knew now, for certain, that I was in the realm of the wise. I was less certain a moment later, when, making my way along a steam table larger than but otherwise terribly like the ones I had walked along in the Babbington public schools, I was offered some of the same peas, which I had hoped to have left behind forever.)
Occupied by my thoughts, I took a seat at a table that was otherwise unoccupied and set my tray on the table. I was observing the spread of the pea water when Margot and Martha Glynn arrived and sat on either side of me, Margot on my right and Martha on my left.
“Are you right- or left-handed, Peter?” asked Margot without preamble.
“Well,” I said, “I write with my right hand but I throw a ball with my left, so you could say I’m — ”
I paused slightly, because I enjoyed the word I was about to say and was proud of the skill it summarized.
“ — ambidextrous.”
“That’s good. Ambidextrous is good,” said Margot.
“But those are useless skills,” said Martha.
“Yes,” said Margot. “Let me see you pat your head and rub your stomach.”
I put my right hand on my head and my left on my stomach and made a first, tentative attempt, such a slight attempt that I didn’t think they would notice if I got it wrong. I was rubbing both my head and my stomach. I made the necessary correction and began patting my head with a simple up-and-down motion and rubbing my stomach, also in a simple up-and-down motion, the two movements exactly parallel. The girls exchanged glances.
“Rub your stomach back and forth instead of up and down,” said Martha.
I shifted to that pretty easily, but in shifting I began rubbing my head back and forth, too. It took me a moment to recover. When I was again rubbing and patting, Margot said quickly, “Now rub in a circular motion.”
It wasn’t easy. I got a little confused, but, after some fumbling, I got the pat-and-rub going again.
“Change hands,” said Margot.
This wasn’t easy at all, but I managed it, and I soon found that with practice the effort was becoming easier in general. Perhaps it is true of all skills, however minor or useless, that once we acquire some facility in them, we want to get past mere facility to something that can do us some good, something that might make us stand out from our peers, some showy display of skill, some flash. I began making changes on my own, without waiting for Margot or Martha to demand them: reversing the direction of my rubbing, patting in double time, switching hands at unpredictable moments.
“Okay, okay,” said Margot. “Quit showing off. What about rolling peas?”
“Rolling peas?” I had the feeling that a joke was coming.
“Try it,” said Martha. She picked a pea from her plate with the tip of her spoon and let it roll onto the table between us. Margot did the same with one of hers.
“Now rest your finger on that pea,” said Margot. “Martha’s, too.”
I put my index fingers on the peas.
“This one,” said Martha, taking the middle finger of my hand and placing it on her pea. Margot made the same change on her side.
“Just rest your finger there lightly,” Margot cautioned. “Don’t squash the little thing.”
I did as she said.
“The same over here,” said Martha.
“Good,” said Margot. “Now let’s see you roll the peas around a little.”
Cautiously, I began to move my fingers on the peas.
“Close your eyes,” said Martha.
I closed my eyes, and I found that that helped. The peas seemed larger, more easily manipulated. I had a better sensation of the feeling of each pea against the finger pad that rested on it. I seemed to acquire a sense of the difference between the skin of the pea and the mush it contained, to understand the tensile limits of the skin, the edge of the danger of rupturing it, and the resistant resilience of the ball of mush within. I became a little bolder, rolling the peas a little farther, a little faster — and the right one got away from me.
“Don’t get cocky,” said Margot. “Just move them around a little. Don’t try to impress us.”
“You’ve got to walk before you can fly,” said Martha. “Try again.” Humbled, I moved the peas gingerly, maintaining control, moving them ever so slightly, just keeping each pea on the central ridge of my finger pad, never rolling so far that the pea would slip away.
“Now move them from side to side,” said Margot. She had seen how conservative I was being. Carefully, I moved my fingers from side to side, paying close attention to the contact of pea and finger. I wasn’t going to let the little devils get away from me.
“Now up and back.”
I had, extrapolating from my recent pat-your-head-and-rub-your-stomach experience without being aware of it, expected something like this, anticipated that the girls would suddenly, at unpredictable moments, throw challenges like this one at me, so I was, somewhere below or beyond thought, ready for them, and I was able to shift to an up-and-back stroke without getting flustered.
“Concentrate, now,” said Margot. “Pay attention to what you’re doing.”
“It’s going to get tricky,” said Martha.
“Okay.” I did concentrate, and I was intrigued to find how much I felt when I concentrated, how well and fully I could feel the pea against the pad of my finger, sense the topography of my finger, the gross shape, with the elongated ridge, the sloping sides, the quarter sphere at the tip — dangerous territory, where the pea was likely to skitter away from me — but even more, to feel the ridges and furrows of my fingerprints against the smooth skin of the pea.
“You know,” I said, “I can actually feel — ”
“Faster over here,” said Margot.
“And slower over here,” said Martha, “but with longer strokes.”
“Okay, let me see. I — oops — I — ”
“He squashed mine,” said Martha. There was in her voice a note that I wouldn’t have expected. I might have expected her to be annoyed with me, or I might have expected her to be amused, but she was — and this was unmistakable — disappointed.
“What do you think?” she asked Margot.
“He can do it if he concentrates,” she said. “I really think he can.”
“I’m not too well coordinated,” I said, by way of excusing myself. I remembered my attempts to roller-skate, to play the piano with two hands, to juggle.
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Margot, and I could tell from her tone that she actually meant it.
“Nor would I,” said Martha.
“You just need to work on it.”
“Practice at home.”
“Practice at home?” I asked.
“You have peas at home, don’t you?”
“Sure, but — ” I had intended to say that I wasn’t allowed to play with my food, but when I looked into Margot’s doubting, inquisitive eyes, I saw that such an objection was inappropriate. I looked at Martha and saw the same thing in her eyes.
“But?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “Never mind. Sure. I’ll practice at home. But — ”
“Well — why?”
They looked at each other. They looked at me.
“Just to please us,” said Martha.