When we were hungry and my mother was
abnormally irritated, they’d slide out the top-shelf
savings jar and we’d go Out to Dinner.
This happened once or twice a year.
Small towns like ours had two restaurants:
one you could afford, the other you went to
once, with grandparents who paid.
The Central was the one we could afford,
and we always dressed up to go there.
But why would you, when you’d be greeted
by a sour, pickle-nosed, washed-out mother
of someone in your sister’s grade
who seated you with an impatient flourish
of paper placemats and expired deodorant,
lights overhead screeching into the eyes,
the carpet patterned with the vintage glamor
of dusty red and beige diamond shapes
and shriveled bits of repasts past?
Why would you, when you’re going to splash
greasy red sauce on your new blouse every time
because the only permitted entree was spaghetti –
certainly not the chicken breast or Salisbury steak,
not even linguini alfredo or penne alla puttanesca,
which I remember always “in quotes” on the menu –
the sauce greasy yet thin, noodles cooked all the way
back to the slippery pulp they’d been wrung from,
impossible to get a purchase on when twirling.
But there was lumpy grated parmesan cheese,
admittedly a kind of elegance in that, and even though
it wouldn’t come out of the shaker it was there,
you could shake it.
By the time I was old enough for a job,
they had renamed the place Argiero’s – at least
an Italian-sounding name – and I grudgingly became
the one who bore those plates to homemade faces.
I became the one who casually (illegally) tossed
the stale bread remaining in their bread baskets
into tomorrow’s meatball box, I became the one
who inexpertly plunked down before the troubled freckles
and discount dresses and last-ditch efforts at dignity
the slippery greasy untwirlable disappointments
I figured they’d damn well better start getting used to.