An excerpt from a work-in-progress:
While almost every man wants to be like his father in some way, in confidence or competence, bravery or vitality, intellect or wisdom or insight, his father’s stinginess had always tormented Gabriel. It was exacting, relentless, and unsettlingly accurate. Anyone visiting the house could attest that there was a near-mystical quality to his ability to detect “extravagance”, an oracular gift, as if he were receiving the information from an otherworldly source, the revelations piped in like a ghostly ether.
Regardless of where Gabriel might be in the house, his father’s voice would find him, bursting out of neglected heating vents and tumbling down darkened staircases to reproach him for his excesses. “Door!” he would holler, and Gabriel would drop to his knees, pressing the folded-up bath towel against the crack to trap the heat. “Refrigerator!” and Gabriel was slamming the refrigerator door shut, empty-handed, or else with the wrong item snatched in haste (usually the yellow squeeze mustard bottle, the refrigerated equivalent of a panic button). “Lights!” “Heat!” “Water!” and Gabriel scurried off to dim the lights, to lower the thermostat, to turn off the faucet. According to Gabriel’s father, every action possessed its allotted time and energy, and exceeding them inspired indignation. Gabriel knew these time and energy signatures better than he knew his own heartbeat. Two seconds for the front door, three seconds for the refrigerator, five minutes for the shower, and a room temperature that crippled fertility. He still shuddered to recall the time when, at eight years old, he had imprudently attempted to blend a milkshake.
As for money itself, it was rarely ever seen in the household. The instant that cash entered their home it was counted by his father, sealed in a white business envelope, and labeled for a specific purpose: Heating, Telephone, Gas, Groceries, Car Insurance. As he was all too ready to remind his son—while their mother wandered out of the room with a freshly lit Virginia Slim—money couldn’t just float around doing whatever it wants. Money had a purpose. It had a job to do, like people.
“Do you think I like going to work every day? Do you think I wouldn’t rather stay home and watch cartoons with you?” his father would ask, conjuring a fantastic scene that even at the peak of his childish imagination, a time when stuffed animals talked and swinging tires hugged, Gabriel still couldn’t quite picture. His father on the couch watching cartoons with him! His father worked. He was in the restaurant from eight in the morning until eleven at night, seven days a week, coming home only during weekend afternoons and for the family meal at eight-fifteen—once the dinner rush had ended—and then returning again to close it down.
There was never an end to his father’s work. Every morning the pizza sauce had to be made: giant cans of crushed tomatoes bludgeoned with a can opener as long as a baseball bat and dumped into a waist-high pot that took up all four burners on the range, fistfuls of dried basil and oregano and garlic powder and black pepper and iodized salt poured in a stream so thick it threatened to defy assimilation. While the sauce boiled and popped, his father removed the dough from the walk-in refrigerator, sixty pounds of it mixed, cut, and rolled into lightly-oiled balls the night before, stored cool to keep from rising. He would turn on the dough-flattening machine, a series of mechanical rolling pins and a small conveyor belt that ran as noisy as a car factory, and dusting the balls of dough in flour to keep them from sticking, he would feed them through. They would reappear on the other side resembling oblong white tongues, and dropping them into greased circular pans he would stretch the dough to the edge with the indifferent delicacy of a tailor threading a needle. While rotating the pan on his hip to allow an even distribution, he would ladle sauce on the dough, followed by handfuls of mozzarella cheese, repeating until there were sixty large pizzas and another forty small pizzas stacked on the wide red counter in back. And all of this assembly and preparation was done before the restaurant had even opened.
Only afterwards did the customers come, the hurried lunch workers and the congenial farmhands stinking of sileage and the beleaguered families whose children watched with excitement as Gabriel’s father manned the six-hundred degree double-level oven, plunging the giant wooden spatula into its twin mouths as if beating back a hydra. Only afterwards came topping the hundred pizzas and slicing the hundred pizzas and boxing the hundred pizzas, not to mention the sixty or so grinders that were sold during the lunch and dinner rushes and all of the meats that needed to be sliced in the back at some point each afternoon to make them possible—ham, genoa salami, roast beef, pastrami, roast turkey, smoked turkey, pepperoni—and all of the cheeses that needed slicing and shredding—cheddar, provolone, mozarella, American—and all of the vegetables that needed cutting—the bell peppers, the iceberg lettuce, the crates of tomatoes, the pitted olives and the white mushrooms and the sacks of onions so bulky and potent that they could only be sliced in the middle of the day when the restaurant was empty or else customers at the tables would suddenly find themselves crying.
For Gabriel’s father, life was an unending succession of tasks that, once completed, were literally consumed in front of him, requiring them to be done again. Yet as hopeless and repetitive as this may have felt to his father sometimes, not once did Gabriel hear him complain. The restaurant was work, and work was respectable. It was necessary. Work was what men did. No, the only complaints his father ever voiced involved money. All of his discontent was directed at those sealed envelopes. They were the focus of any restlessness and dissatisfaction he permitted himself to express and, what’s more, the combustible source of his battles with Gabriel’s mother.
For years she was able to endure her husband’s stinginess, alternately obeying, ignoring, and teasing it, but when Gabriel’s father began to hide the envelopes from her, a quiet yet devastating war was declared. No longer could she take it upon herself to occasionally relabel Groceries and Car Insurance as Boiled Lobster and Chanel No. 5. Steaming open the envelopes with the tea kettle to extract a few twenties before resealing them with a glue stick—a simple, precise indulgence that, Gabriel believed, his father had turned a blind eye to out of marital wisdom—was suddenly off limits. With Gabriel fourteen, an expensive private school tuition to pay and four years of college looming, Gabriel’s father declared that now was not the time for even the smallest extravagances. His mother, who, according to his father, lacked discipline, could no longer be trusted to exercise the necessary financial control. (“Yes, because I bought some tulips for the kitchen I’m a spendthrift,” she would announce, mocking his father in her melodic Greek, so unlike the halting broken English that had only just begun to embarrass Gabriel. “Because for once in my life I want to eat a dinner in a restaurant that is not ours, I am compulsive and hysterical. Such intelligence! Such insight!”) She responded to his resolution by tracking down the hidden cash and leaving the gutted white envelopes on his pillow like the verminous capture of a housecat.
Naturally, things escalated.
His father brought the envelopes to the restaurant, along with the checkbook and the emergency credit card, leaving Gabriel’s mother without access to money. If she wanted anything, anything at all, she had to ask her husband for it. It was a humiliating turn of events, and his mother retaliated one fall day by swiping half of the cash from the register while his father was at the bakery picking up grinder rolls and refrigerated bricks of yeast. Following that summer’s trip to Greece, when she had visited relatives by herself for six weeks while Gabriel attended both sessions of sleepaway camp, she had yet to resume working at the pizzeria where she had previously spent her mornings and early afternoons. Responding both to the theft and to her labor walkout, Gabriel’s father forbade her entering the restaurant ever again. Even at the unforgiving age of fourteen, when nothing a parent does merits sympathy, let alone approval, Gabriel understood that his father had overstepped. To arrest all financial access, to strip her of the slightest economic authority, and to ban her from the family business was foolishly punitive, and perilously unkind.
She responded with two weeks of ostensible, unspoken contrition. Gabriel was surprised by the sudden compliance of his mother, a woman whose attraction had always lain in her ability to provoke at will, and to charm despite the provocation. Then one afternoon, her newly applied for Mastercard arrived and she spent $2,715 on shoes, a spectacular achievement considering that most residents of their little town in southern Vermont, if polled, would have answered that Manolo Blahnik was an Italian soccer player. When his father demanded that she return the shoes, she didn’t object. She had proven her point. There was no stopping her.
Within the month, she would prove it again, by leaving them for good.