Sunday, July 09, 2006

Say Cheese

Morty sat in the window booth closest to the door. The light was better here, he thought, easier to read the fine print of the classifieds. Carefully, he took his fork and poked the egg yolk, letting a little bit drip out. Taking a piece of toast, he sopped it up and nibbled on it as he scanned the paper.

He would start his day in Silverlake, at an estate sale high up in the hills overlooking the reservoir. From there he would work his way across Los Feliz to the Griffith Park area and then head down to Hollywood. Last week he’d been through Long Beach, Lakewood and Bell Gardens.

Morty picked through the hash browns, separating the dark crunchy pieces and ignoring the rest. These he consumed one at a time, savoring them. Refolding his paper napkin, he wiped his face, dabbing around his mouth in small circular motions.

Reaching over, he noticed his coffee cup felt cold. The non-dairy creamer floated in oily swirls on top of the tepid brown liquid. The service was slow here, even if you were a long time regular. He looked around for the waitress and couldn’t see her. Must be on break, he thought. He picked up the check and saw that it was the same as always. He left the same tip as always, gathered up his papers and left.

The first stop on his list was a wash. There was nothing there that interested him. A folding table on the front lawn was covered with bric a brac , old mismatched dishes, a single book end, paperback books, and a couple of beat up pots and pans. All had prices written on masking tape stuck to them. There were no personal items, nothing that told anything about the person who had owned them. Morty gave the table a quick glance and then looked over at the house.

“See anything you like?”

Morty turned toward a youngish man standing there wearing shorts and a t-shirt. His hair was long and pulled back into a ponytail.

“You have any photographs, albums, old family portraits?” Morty asked.

“Geez, I don’t think so”, he replied,” I think all of that stuff was thrown away. Didn’t figure anyone would want it. This was my great aunt’s place. I’m trying to clear it out so we can sell it. Got some nice furniture, though. If you are interested, I’ll take you inside for a look.”

“No thanks,” Morty replied. “I’m just looking for photos and family portraits.”

“Are you a collector?” the guy asked. “Is stuff like that worth any money?”

“Just a hobby”, Morty said and walked down the driveway to his car.

He had better luck at his next stop. The door of the house was open. Morty walked into the living room and looked around. Most of the furniture was gone. What remained was dark, heavy looking. All the windows were covered by thick velvet drapes, casting the room into long shadowed darkness. A small bird-like elderly woman sat at the dining room table, sorting through odd pieces of silverware. She turned and looked up at Morty, but didn’t speak. He nodded hello and walked down the hall to the first door. Inside was a bedroom with two twin beds, a dressing table and a mirror. The walls were covered with pictures. Some were religious scenes, others old family portraits.

Morty walked over and ran his hand absently across the ornate carving on one headboard while studying the picture hanging just above it. The old woman walked into the doorway and stood for a moment, waiting until Morty turned and noticed her.

“Well, what do you think?” she asked. “Did you want to see the rest of it first?”
“I beg your pardon”, Morty said. “The rest of what?”

“The furniture”, she replied. “Before you make an offer. Isn’t that what you called about?”

“That wasn’t me”, he said, smiling softly. “I am interested in the pictures, though. Do you have any others?”

“The pictures”, she asked, shrugging her shoulders. “Why not? Come with me. I have more over here.” She walked down the hall to another bedroom and went in. When Morty followed he saw that the room was filled with boxes of books, photo albums and small china figurines. He picked up an album and opened it. It was old, the heavy paper pages covered with scallop edged snapshots carefully held in place by small triangular corners. Most of the photos were black and white.

“You want it?” she asked. “Take them all.”

“I just want the pictures,” Morty replied. “These and the ones on the wall in the other room.”

“Take all of it”, she said. “Take it all for ten dollars.”

“I don’t want all of this”, he said, “Just the pictures.”

“Take it all,” she replied. “It’s all or nothing. I want to be finished with this. I want to get all of this stuff out of here already.”
“It’s a deal”, he said, handing her two five-dollar bills.

She watched as Morty carried the boxes out, one by one and loaded them into the trunk of his car. Looking back, Morty could see her still standing in the door way as he drove off. On his way home, he stopped at the Goodwill store and unloaded the boxes. Carefully sifting through them, he kept the pictures and photo album and left the rest.

Morty stood in front of the small apartment-sized stove and watched the pot of water come to a boil. He waited until the bubbles were really popping and threatening to boil over and then tore open the box of macaroni and cheese. He took out the silver pouch of cheese sauce and put it aside. He then poured the noodles into the pot and turned down the heat. He would wait seven minutes exactly. He liked the noodles to be firm, not overcooked. Stirring occasionally, he kept his eye on the clock and waited. At exactly seven minutes he lifted the pot off the stove. He held a plate over most of the top of the pot and drained the water, careful not to get too close to the steam. Damn, he thought, as he watched some noodles evade his trap and fall into the sink. Shaking the rest of the water out of the pot took a certain amount of skill. There was always a little water left at the bottom of the pot and that made the cheese sauce too soggy. Carefully, he shook it out and prepared the sauce. Out of the fridge came a half cube of margarine and a quart of milk. Morty eyeballed the necessary amount of each and added them to the pot. He tore open the cheese sauce packet and blended it in. Taking his time, he mixed it thoroughly, covering all the noodles with the orange powdered cheese. He worked to break up the lumps, to smooth it together with the milk and margarine.

He picked up the pot and carried over to the small Formica topped table that sat next to the window. There was not much furniture in the small studio apartment other than the unmade single bed that was pushed up against the wall. The room was quite unremarkable except for the photos and snapshots that covered the walls, some hung in ornate frames, others pinned to the wall with thumbtacks. Morty flipped open the album and went through it page by page, carefully, so as to not spill any of the macaroni and cheese on its pages. After going through the entire album he returned to the beginning and scrutinized each photo in turn. Mid to late Fifties, he thought, maybe early Sixties. This was good for it filled a void in his collection. The early years when he was just a young child approaching his teens, just the age of one child in the photos. This boy sat in the background, hiding behind the others, a chubby kid with a moon shaped face and unruly hair. A slightly disheveled appearance, not quite put together correctly. As painful as it was, he recognized himself in the child’s demeanor, though he was not the image of Morty’s fantasy about himself at that age.

There were no photos of Morty at that age to compare this one to, no photo albums, studio portraits, snapshots of birthday parties, baptisms, or wallet sized school portraits of a fresh faced child full of promise, smiling crookedly at the camera. He was a blank, growing up in a succession of good intentioned foster homes, always the extra place at the table, afraid to eat until the “real” members of the family had filled their plates.

Flipping back through, he stopped at a picture of the boy sitting with others in a canoe. All were smiling, their paddles dipped into the placid waters of a large lake. Closing his eyes, Morty imagined himself in the canoe. The sun felt warm on his shoulders, the bright light reflecting off the rippling water. He would put his paddle into the lake, feeling the pull of the stroke move the canoe in concert with his fellows. The canoe would gently rock, bob and weave through the waters as the young paddlers learned to coordinate their efforts. Later, an adult in shorts and a tee shirt would blow a whistle to summon them back to shore. They would splash the other kids as they attempted to dock alongside the old wooden pier. There would be a campfire, songs, marshmallows, and ghost stories later that night.

Carefully, Morty removed the picture from the album and searched the walls for a space. He scanned those already hung up: pictures of infants, toddlers, pre-schoolers, until he found just the right place next to a group shot of a junior high track team. This is about the right age, he thought, as he pinned another event onto the chronicle of his life.


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