I’ll publish here the second entry of the memoir excerpts in the order of when the scenes appear in Left of the Dial.
I’m 49 and The Night of the Seven Fishes has been going on since I was 7 years old: 42 years.
Christmas Eve was a sad and strange music, the ending of an era I was unable to let go. I felt beat up against myself, subliminally drawn to be who I was: a girl I fancied to be courageous, someone who went against the grain. How could I miss her when I still wanted to be her?
Dressed in black, I was pulled into the instinct to hibernate inside my body: I wore muddy eye shadow and brown lipstick.
The windows of my soul were closed; locked; shuttered. Only the smear of lipstick was a clue: like velvet in a panic.
With my grandfather gone my father now headed the table, where everyone bumped elbows. The old oak table in Aunt Rose’s dining room was long as a highway and with many stories along its worn surface. My Aunt Liz was here with my four cousins. Did they know I had been in a hospital? No one mentioned it.
One of the stories was Aunt Millie. She wore like a cloud her Jean Nate after-bath splash. We could set our clocks by the money cards she gave us at Christmas—in which we each received a crisp twenty dollar bill.
Tradition like this held us together, though this year my grandmother sat on a chair against the wall in the kitchen, watching as Aunt Rose and my mother took over the cooking. Always, for Christmas Eve, the seven fishes: lobster, shrimp, calamari, mussels, clams, crab, and scungilli. And forever, family: together clasping our hands as my father said grace.
Aunt Millie sat next to me, eating her food in careful bites, and sent fresh shrimp to my plate in not-so-covert operations.
“Eat, eat,” she nudged me.
Aunt Millie worked at the OTB—Off Track Betting—and loved horses. She lived on Lenox Road just off Flatbush, and had been in the first-floor studio for thirty years. Pictures of derby winners lined the walls. She was afraid to take the subway, and wouldn’t ride in elevators.
We used to visit Aunt Millie every Thanksgiving, when I was a child, in the years after her favorite brother, my Uncle Jerry, died. My mother and father would urge her, “Come, celebrate at your sister’s, and spend the holiday with family.” Though she was a great aunt, we called her, simply, aunt. I remembered the cart on which the liquor bottles preened. She was a good friend with Johnnie Walker.
Years later those bottles were indented in my brain, a curious memory. Each time we’d go there, Aunt Millie would make a fuss, and reluctantly bundle up in her one good coat, and get into the Impala—or not. Only sometimes. She dried up and came around slowly, until she wouldn’t ever miss her real family for the world. Here we were, feasting on fish and hearing the story we pretended we were hearing for the first time, our eyes shining intently.
“Hot dog wagons, that’s the ticket,” Aunt Millie said, pointing her fork in the air. “If I opened one up on the corner of DeKalb in 1957, I would be a millionaire now.”
“I coulda bought a race horse if I had the money.” She looked forlorn.
My grandmother was losing her moorings. Trying to make the coffee, she poured the grinds into the boiling water in the pot. My mother secretly replaced the contents when my grandmother went into the living room.
My grandmother and Aunt Millie were sisters from a family of nine children, some of whom weren’t here, others scattered far away.
My aunt, whose given name was Carmela, was thin as a rake handle. “How about some blackjack?” She always wanted to play card games. Aunt Rose went into the kitchen and came back with a deck.
I always lost, asking Aunt Millie to “hit me” until it hurt, and I went over twenty-one. It involved luck and skill I didn’t have. “Unlucky at cards, lucky at love” was the double bind because the reverse was true too. But I was willing to bet on love; I held out the hope that I’d find someone who’d take it slow and easy.
“Blackjack,” Marc called out. And we started again.
Aunt Rose folded after three rounds. My father won one game.
At nine o’clock, he drove us home. I was scared of the changes and endings, of losses and letting go. When I fell asleep, I dreamed of a horse out of Belmont named Aunt Millie: winner, by a nose, in the third.