• July 19, 2024

MORE THAN A PORK CHOP – A Creative Nonfiction Short Story by Joe Forgue

Why the sadness? I was putting away the groceries–a few more, somehow, than what was on the list I was sent to the neighborhood A & P to buy. Of course, as a nine-year-old, I didn’t have a clue to give words to why my mom looked so sad. I probably did have some heartfelt sense, though. Later, my adult self would deal with the many mixed messages from our family interplay. But that’s another story.

Mr. Phil, as we called the grocer, did let me put the charge on our tab. He wrote something on what appeared to be a scrap of paper. As I look back now, I can’t imagine how he kept his books like that. I was puzzled when he also said: Jake, here’s the bag your mom forgot this morning when she was here. Be sure to take them with you. I scrunched my eyes and nose; I knew she had not been there. Again, a later lesson learned when I got older was Mr. Phil knew we were poor, had four children in the family, and needed the extra food.

When what I brought home was placed on the pantry shelves or in the fridge, I hustled outside to my sanctuary. In our back yard, such as the grassless, weeds-here-and-there. patch could be called there was a cherry tree. I climbed with ease to a limb I could sit on for hours. Blossoms had turned into plentiful, if a bit sour, snacks. The leaves gave me an aloft seclusion. What I didn’t know then, another adult lesson later revealed. I was free for a time from the dismal dysfunctions of my family of origin.

Sequestered in amid the branches, I was invisible to casual glances. A favorite aunt had given me a wonderful birthday present just a few weeks previously. A plastic bird whistle, which tweeted in realistic fashion when filled with water. I often took this treasure up in the tree with me. I was pleasantly surprised one day when the lady next door came out to check her garden. I tweeted away; she kept looking up to see where the songbird might be. I smiled at the deception yet knew the sounds had given her momentary pleasure.

We lived in a jerry-rigged apartment. Our family of five managed in about 600 square feet. A bedroom with two bunkbeds for the four of us kids, a kitchen, a living room with the sleeper couch for my folks, and a bathroom were fashioned into our living space. The Chicago after the great fire regs requiring front and rear exits were technically complied with. Off the living room, after unlocking a door, a stairwell would give access down to the landlord’s first floor hallway to the front of the building. Otherwise, we came and go-ed, as we put it, down the back stairs, off the enclosed back porch, to the backyard.

We had moved there from my grandmother’s house when my dad returned from his WWII stint in Persia. He saw no PTSD inducing action, but even prior to being deployed, alcohol addiction was his inner demon. Along with his gambling, the weekly drinking bouts were why we were poor. When he was home, he was a great dad. The three of his sons inherited a sense of humor that helped many, particularly grandkids, to come to learn to roll their eyes with a sparkle. When he had been drinking, or at the races, he simply stayed away.

My sister, Sally, called me out of the tree and back upstairs for supper. She was 15 months younger than I was; as we grew up, we bonded with an incredible closeness. A symbiotic togetherness has lasted through almost eight decades now. Our brothers came along as post-war consequences of our parents trying to fashion new lives together. Our brothers’ connectedness to the two of us older siblings never quite developed the same level of intensity shared by Sally and me. Early-on I did have to assume a fatherly role to compensate for the periodic being there but not being there of our dad.

As Sally and I climbed up the back stairs, a familiar yet not often experienced aroma came to the forefront. Mr. Phil the grocer had outdone himself with the extras he managed to pack for us in the morning. I closed my eyes as I walked up the last five steps or so, savoring in my imagination what the meal would be.

The foundational smell came from the end-cut pork chops simmering in the frying pan. Not so evident until on the plates before us was the steamed kernel corn with just the right touch of Blue Bonnet and salt. Topping it all off was my favorite: elbow macaroni covered with buttered breadcrumbs. A combo that became the heart of whatever the phrase comfort food still conjures up for me.

This night, like most, had only four settings in place. Mom always made sure we children had sufficient food at least once a day. How that happened was a childhood mystery. Some memories give me clues. Mr. Phil, the grocer; an aunt, herself married to a WWII vet with afflictions similar to my dad, would bring a sack of groceries every once in a while. Later I learned mom would sneak down to the landlord’s flat while he was a work bringing up (that is, stealing) some canned goods. He was single, so perhaps he never realized he missed some soup or vegetables from his pantry.

Why only four place settings? As I can picture with an uncanny clarity, my mom would not sit with us. Rather, she stood off to the side, with her plate in hand. No pork chops, no breaded elbow macs, no kernel corn. No! No, what she had many a night after night for her supper was a piece, sometime two, of Wonder Bread layered with Kayro syrup. For a few minutes, the sadness could take a vacation as her hunger felt satisfied.

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