Go Pickle Someone Your Own Size

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic


There had been tension in the house over these pickles, and of what would happen if the experiment went horribly wrong. My mother stomped from the kitchen and stormed upstairs and slammed the door.
All other lights in the basement were off except for the kitchen’s, and the kids watched him, peeking from darkened corners down there, as he worked with his silver hair frazzled and his wild
mad-scientist eyes, and somewhere, maybe back in the crawl space behind the stove, lightning struck and thunder clashed and he laughed uncontrollably as the pickles came to life.

Submitted: November 26, 2017

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Submitted: November 26, 2017

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I guess I must have been about 13 or 14 at the time. My dad, in a fit of culinary masturbation, started recording every gourmet cooking show that he could find on the 36 cable channels on the big floor model television set we had in our 80’s shag-carpet style living room. The idea was that if they could do it, why couldn’t he? After all, they made it look so easy on TV. Couple of pre-chopped peppers and onions, some sliced meats and already measured out half cups, a medium-high flame, a few flicks of the wrist, and a pinch of salt and there was a gourmet meal, ready for all the accolades that cooking a gourmet meal gets somebody.

After a month, he’d filled a couple of boxes with VCR tapes, none of which he’d watch, since he watched them all as he taped them. After a year, the closet was full. He’d had some successes, some failures. His Chicago style pizza was, and is still to this day, the best pizza I’ve had anywhere, at any time in my life. One time he tried making ketchup, gourmet ketchup, he insisted it was. It was not good.

Jimmy Jorgenson got a dose of the same thing when I watched him eat the arts-and-crafts paste in kindergarten class. The tomatoes my dad used smelled like they were rotten but I knew they weren’t. I had picked them the day before from at least fifty different tomato plants he had me plant earlier that year. Whatever turned the vibrant red tomato color the color of my neighbor's rusty bumper tasted like a sweat sock. He filled at least twenty of these translucent squeeze bottles to the top with it, so you couldn’t see the fine details of what you were ruining your food with, just that it was a muddy, blood-colored condiment that made you wonder if it hadn’t spoiled a while ago once you’ve tasted it.

A swing and a miss, it was. ‘Try over and get ‘em next time’, would have been a fine thing to say, and throw it away and start over again. But my father had this way about him that tyrants have. Like Caligula or Nero or Ivar the Boneless, people who get pleasure from torturing those whom they hold authority over. It was his decree, from the head of the dinner table, that we must not waste food, and so all four of us kids must finish the ketchup… all twenty bottles of it, before we were allowed to have Hunts, or any other real, honest, legitimate store-bought ketchup, for no other reason than because he could, and because he thought it was funny. It took us two years to finish it all.

He ate his burgers with good ketchup, hot dogs like they’re supposed to be eaten, and would comment between smacks of succulence and moans of delight, how the ketchup ‘really made the burger,’ and how we kids didn’t know what we were missing. The only real ketchup I had in those dark years was what my mom spread over the meatloaf before cooking it in the oven. That, and what scraps I could find on the streets. In lunchroom aisles and on restaurant tables, and those fast food packets horded away in my bedroom closet in the bottom of a shoebox. Eventually I just learned to eat without ketchup and used steak sauce instead. I don’t know if my father ever tried his own failed concoction… but he never let us see him do it if he had.

None of my friends would sleep over my house after the first few times they did, since my old man thought it was funny to make green eggs and ham for breakfast. They tasted the same as regular ham and eggs. Food coloring made them green, but they looked disgusting, and that’s all the mind of a child needs to make them taste that way. If they weren’t familiar with the Dr. Seuss story, he had the book on hand he would show them, smirking like an adult in a roomful of kids that didn’t care about getting the joke.

He was the inventor of Russian roulette pancakes: A stack of pancakes, maybe a dozen or so, one of which he had cooked several pickle slices into. And not the good dill-type, he used the nasty bread & butter sweet-pickles that would soak into the batter and spread through the pancake, making it soggy and sour inside. My brother and sisters and I each took a few pancakes, and inevitably, somebody got it. This game, my father saved for immediate family, since he’d never be able to set a timer and force my friends to sit at the table until they’d finished eating the whole thing. They would have just left if it came down to that. My father ate from his own stack of hotcakes… that went without saying. He had them with real butter and lots of warm syrup, and as the game unfolded, he watched the show as an emperor watches slaves get torn apart by lions in the coliseum.

 

It was after all of this that he came home one evening, untied his tie, sat at the head of the kitchen table, lit his pipe, which clouded up the room in a thick foul-smelling smoke just as we were about to eat, and said, casually, to me, from behind an open newspaper he read through a pair of half-glasses that he wore pushed down the bridge of his nose, “We’re going to have a lot of cucumbers this year. We’ve got to get rid of them. Saturday morning, directly after breakfast, I want you to go out there and pick every ripe cucumber you see. Not the yellow ones, only the ones that have fully greened. In the two big gardens… and don’t forget all those ones behind the fence too. Use the paper bags under the sink and have it done before you go over to any of your friend’s houses.”

I continued shoveling eggs into my mouth with my head down and with no objection to what he’d said. The way I looked at it, I was getting off easy. I had already worked a whole summer’s worth of ten-hour days, constructing four 4’x4’ gardens he saw on a gardening show on Public Broadcast which he recorded and never watched again. I cleared the ground for all four gardens on the side of our property, using four-foot railroad ties as boarders, installing pop-up sprinklers to each one, while tying it into the sprinkler system I’d already laid underground throughout the ten-foot-wide garden that ran the whole perimeter of the fence-line surrounding our property. I sweat my summers away turning over every inch of that dirt with a spade, and chopping it all into fine soil which I treated with nitrogen and vermiculite. I had planted the seeds and kept them alive as they grew. So, picking fifty square feet of cucumbers shouldn’t take more than a couple hours, I thought. That’s technically only a five-by-ten-foot area. We had a storage shed that was 5x10 and it was tiny, you could hardly store anything more than a bike and a lawn mower in it. I munched on a slice of bacon with my eyes on my plate like he hadn’t said anything that made any difference to anyone.

Then he added, “I’m going to try and make pickles.”

My mother and I stopped eating, and both of us looked up from our dinner. We exchanged glances with my two sisters and my foster brother. None of us said anything. He rustled the newspaper, turned a page and puffed on his pipe. Then he said, “Make sure you pick ‘em all.”

 

 

 

OOO

 

 

 

It took me all afternoon, digging my hand into the spiny vines with spiders and webs in places I couldn’t see. A shopping bag full of cucumbers is heavy, even for a back built by the shovel. I drug every one down to the second kitchen he built in the basement so that he could carry out his Nazi experimental gourmet cooking blunders. He went through the process of pickling all of those cucumbers in five-gallon buckets and camping coolers. I don’t know how he did it, I wasn’t allowed to watch, but I know it involved something called pickling brine, and lots and lots of vinegar.

There had been tension in the house over these pickles, and of what would happen if the experiment went horribly wrong. My mother stomped from the kitchen and stormed upstairs and slammed the door. All other lights in the basement were off except for the kitchen’s, and the kids watched him, peeking from darkened corners down there, as he worked with his silver hair frazzled and his wild mad-scientist eyes, and somewhere, maybe back in the crawl space, behind the stove, lightning struck and thunder clashed and he laughed uncontrollably as the pickles came to life.

He left them in the basement to age or whatever horrible thing happens that turns fresh young crispy cucumbers into bitter saturated old pickles. It was no surprise that they didn’t turn out well. They sat down there, in rows of 50-quart coolers, lined up like coffins in the dark place behind the furnace underneath the stairs, and soured. We all knew that day would come when he decided they were ready to try. My mother bought us all our own jar of full-sized Claussen dill pickles, and we ate them the way a man eats his last meal before voluntarily turning himself over to sit out a three-year prison sentence. It may have been that long before those awful things were gone.

I think my sister ate the first one, my father hovering over her, wringing his hands and grinning maniacally at the way she cowered from the pickle as it sat like a turd on her plate. I remember seeing her face after the first bite, knowing I was next. She recoiled in such disgust that she lurched up the already chewed bits.

“No throwing up!” My father demanded, and pounding his fist in his hand, he stood up from his throne at the head of the dinner table. “Don’t you dare throw up.” He shook his perpetually red face. “Swallow it… that’s right. Chew it up and swallow it. Good. Yes. Now… how is it?”

What a dick.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t a pickle. It was an abomination, a disaster. It was Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, a horrible mutation, blasphemous to nature, and there must have been a thousand of them soaking in those big plastic coolers in the basement. The first bite was always the worst. You could taste them behind your nose before your stomach realized it was about to get nauseous.

Same as with the ketchup, we had to finish the botched pickles before we could have any real ones. This was a game he’d play, amusing himself the way a 12-year-old kid rips the legs off of spiders or shoots birds with a BB gun. By the time we got down to the last cooler of them, I was in high school and I could drive, if I wanted to, and go get my own pickles. I would have just had to find a cold place to keep them.

Still, when the final pickle was eaten, my dad made a huge deal about it. I think he had anticipated a royal celebration with a jar of some name brand, Claussens or Vlasics, real monsters, and the kids would exclaim and be joyous, and confetti would drop from the ceiling and fanfares would announce the moment, or whatever it was he’d expected would happen. But by then I think the family was kind of pickled out. If there was a joke in it anywhere, it had long been lost behind years of watching him enjoy his food the way he liked it, while I was forced to mop up his mistakes… with my bread.

One day, maybe a couple of weeks later, I returned home from school and my mother was standing there in front of our suburban ranch-style house in a brown trench coat with sunglasses on. A grave seriousness on her face, her arms were folded across her chest and I remember her standing there in the driveway with the backdrop of brown and plowed-over corn stocks behind her, as our housing development was part of the expansion moving outward from the city center that devoured things like Ohio farmland.

“There’s something we need to do,” she said, and she led me inside, down the basement steps, into the kitchen, up into the crawl space behind the stove, which we had to climb up into then crouch down in to not hit our heads on the bare ceiling joists about four feet above where they dug the foundation out to. This crawl space was only dug half as deep as the rest of the basement, with a paved floor that made it perfect for storage, but high enough with a low enough ceiling that my father rarely went back there.

In a crevice on the far end of that crawl space, somewhere underneath the dining room at the eastern most corner of the estate, my mother and I stood, crouched down and illuminated by flashlight. She pushed several empty boxes off of something. Then she shone the flashlight on two of those big blue camping coolers. “They’re full,” she said, moving the light from one to the other.

“Of pickles?” I groaned, not expecting an answer. I knew what was in them.

“We are never going to speak of this,” she spoke, and we dragged both of the coolers to the mouth of the crawl space.

“Did you hide these in here? By yourself?”

My mother didn’t answer. We carried them, one at a time, up the stairs, out the door, to the back of the station wagon parked in the driveway. They were heavy lifting them into the trunk, and it felt like we were disposing of a couple dead bodies in the few hours of daylight we had left before my father came home from work.

We drove out to where an access road cuts the cornfield behind our house in half. It’s close enough that as we went up the gravel road, I could see the backs of the houses in our development, but even if I squinted my eyes, I could never see if anybody was standing in the back yards of any of them. We were far enough away from the back of our house that if anyone was watching out a window, we would only look like specks; too far even to recognize the two-tone blue station wagon as it pulled to the side of that narrow access road.

We got out and opened the back of the station wagon. A chill was in the air, and it bit the tips of my ears, and our breaths fogged in front of us as we pulled each cooler out and set them down by the side of the road. The crunch of gravel and shuffling feet met the grunts of heavy lifting. The satisfaction of watching those two hundred or so pickles splashing out into a ditch on the side of a road in the ass end of some remote field in Ohio, where’d they’d flop around like mutant fish choking on fresh air, dying horrible panicky deaths, wasn’t enough to atone for the years of pickle abuse we’d suffered… but it was a good start.

We left their corpses there in the ditch in the cold November evening, and in the puff of exhaust from our tail pipe as we drove off. Once we were on the main road, my mother turned to me and said, “You must never mention this to your father.”

“Of course not,” I said, and it was all I said the whole way home.

 

I stood in the back yard, spraying the coolers out with a hose, letting any evidence of our crimes drain into the grass. There, I looked out over the cornfield to determine about where the ghosts of all those pickles lie, but I couldn’t even tell where the road cut through. It was just dirt and broken corn stocks as far as I could see, and behind that lie the colorful autumn tree line that spanned the horizon behind the fields, a couple of miles away.

My mother took the garden hose from me and gently patted my shoulder. “I’ll handle it from here,” she said, sternly nodding to the house. “Go inside and get ready for dinner. Your father will be home soon.”

I turned and looked at the two coolers, lying there on their sides with their lids wide open, water pouring out like blood from a gunshot wound, and I looked away. I wondered what would become of them. Would they just disappear? Had it come down to an argument about how many coolers there had been in the first place? Or would they simply be put back into storage, but in the camping section this time, with the other empty ones, on the total opposite end of the crawl space?

That night, as I lie there trying to sleep, I pictured my mother dragging those heavy coolers full of liquid brine and Miracle-Grow-sized pickles. I wondered how she lifted them the five or so feet off the ground to get them into the mouth of the crawl space. I probably wouldn’t have been able to do that alone, and I was the stronger one of the two of us. Why hadn’t she asked me for help in hiding them?

I decided she must have needed me not to know, so, number one, that I wouldn’t be doing anything deceitful, but also so that I would act naturally as my father made his big presentation of the last of the pickles being eaten. I’m sure he tried to wrap some kind of lesson around it, like about appreciating what you have because his parents had lived on potatoes and shoe leather during the Depression. Or how life is going to fuck with you the way he just did and there won’t be anything you’ll be able to do about it but swallow the bullshit and move on… “And look,” he probably said. “Now you’ll appreciate the little things you have that you would have taken for granted, like pickles you actually want to eat.”

Whatever he said, I reacted appropriately to it, and it made me realize how premeditated this Mafia style pickle hit was, and how much my mother had sacrificed to make it happen. Only now did she choose to come forward to me to dispose of the evidence, once the affair was officially done and over with, and it was certain that she had gotten away with it.

My father was hard to live with. So are hangnails. He died in a hospital bed, shriveled to an eighth of his size, a skeleton with cancerous flesh and panicked eyes and Fetenyl patches and a morphine drip, and I wasn’t there when it happened, but from what I understand, it didn’t happen quick. I regretted nothing, and regarded his passing with a sort of numb apathy. I’d made my peace the night before, as my father writhed in a prolonged medicated convulsion, unconsciously struggling to escape the restraints they had him strapped to the bed with.

I had my mother clear the family from the hospital room and I knelt by his side and whispered what I had to say into the ear of a dying man as he convulsed on his deathbed. His eyes were shut tight but I know he was in there somewhere. I didn’t cry at his funeral, but I did have pickles and real ketchup on a burger that I ate at his wake. This pickle business is less than a tenth of a tenth of what I endured growing up with this man as my father… genius smart and tragically logical, both ahead and behind his own time, and although he was steeped in the denial of a combative ego, he was definitely and most assuredly the one in charge in the room.

He’d been a high school principal for ten years before they promoted him to county superintendent, where he had 72 principals under his jurisdiction. 72 people whose job it is to be an asshole, now it was my dad’s job to tell them what to do. No way to do that job without being at least part asshole yourself, if not the majority of your core being.

The man was certainly accustomed to people doing what he said at work… and he expected double that from us at home. After putting up with him for eighteen years, I know there is nothing that my friends or my boss or anyone else in this pitiless world can throw at me that I can't handle. I guess if there was anything I could thank my old man for, other than a decent set of morals and a strong work ethic, it would have to be that.


© Copyright 2018 H. B. Woodrose. All rights reserved.

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