The straying of a molecule

At the smorgasbord restaurant, in the banal flatlands where gangs and throaty V8s roared like the cleavage of the girls on the corner and the only swath of green was the cemetery behind its high gates — high because everyone was clamouring to get in — we stood in line for custard. Because it was my grandmother’s favorite. Because it was our afternoon out.

I liked going back for seconds on my own, back through the wasteland of cafeteria tables, across the hushed room, to the dessert line. The floor, against all odds, was carpeted because it was a fancy cafeteria and because my grandma knew the difference. If you went to a place where the floors were easy to clean linoleum it was because the owners expected the patrons to behave like pigs. And if you expected pigs, pigs is what you got. My grandma had seen her five daughters through the Depression all alone. She didn’t hang out with pigs.

Her daughters knew easier times, found better husbands who didn’t drink — or if they did, didn’t gamble away the mortgage money while doing so. Two were dashing aviators who died in heroic halos of fire and left their wives to deal with the touching tedium of reality and the raising of the children. Another married a police chief who drove her to drink; another a gentle insurance agent; while the last, my mother, tried two marriages then decided that the answer was to start over and go back to the arms of her high school sweetheart.

Why are all these things coming back to me? Why today? Is it nostalgia for times about whose memories I am hopelessly ambivalent? Or is it a certain chemical imbalance, a stray molecule that bounced casually against the neuron where these people – most long gone, all far away – were lodged? I do not know.

One night the dogs started barking wildly, inexplicably. I had not heard anything but they certainly had so I went out to investigate. I found a man cowering amid the garbage cans, dripping fear. At first, I could barely understand his story, but then as he calmed down I understood that he had been at the hamburger stand around the corner with some friends when someone had come up and pulled a gun on them. It wasn’t a robbery; it was just a territorial dispute. He and his friends ceded and ran. I had never seen someone so scared. I had to coax him out from his hiding place.

As they had run, the gunslinger – whether from anger that it had been so easy to send them scurrying or in triumph – fired. The bullet did not hit anyone, but rather, like some stray chemical impulse, lodged itself in a neuron, where it remains today.

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