Not for us the glory or strength of a dragon. Our paper placemats tell us: we’re rats and roosters, monkeys, sheep. Even once oil and soy sauce render the page translucent, we keep on reading our destinies.
Day six of a family vacation. From the backseat Janie and I see only a fractional sky: clouds and the occasional telephone wire. As Mom exclaimed at a decaying telegraph pole, we glimpsed broken bulbs atop a wooden shard. “That used to be the only way to stay in touch,” she said. “Just imagine.”
Dearborn’s Plum Garden is a change of pace after a string of Howard Johnsons. At most of our meals I have been warned not to make a scene – when the gristly chicken fried steak proved hard to swallow, or when I’d shoved too much of it into my mouth to manage. Each time, I feel like I’m drowning there in the turquoise vinyl booth.
Years later, I’ll remember this feeling – of struggling to breathe, my dad pounding my back, my mother pursing her lips and saying, “Christ, not this again.” I’ll have no memory of the art museums we marched through together, the historical display on Henry Ford, but I’ll remember the gasping, and the disappointment of having been born a sheep.
My mother is a rat: instinctive, adaptable, but stubborn and picky. Dad chuckles at this, and they both laugh at the placemat’s prophecy that rats and roosters make a bad match. “If they get together, expect endless quarrels.”
We share one hotel room, me and Dad sharing one double bed and Janie and Mom in the other. “Boys and girls,” my mom sing-songs. Only in college will I start to wonder whether, after Janie and I fell asleep, my parents talked, or agreed on a signal – the light honeyed gasp of a dreaming Janie – to meet up in the bathroom.
Two days into our drive, on a narrow road, we slid into the other lane to pass a slow-moving truck, and suddenly a car was rushing toward us. My mother’s tense intake of breath – my father piloting smoothly, using the shoulder to avert the crash, my heart racing with panic. Later, when he is teaching me to drive, I will remind him of his heroism, and he’ll insist this never happened. “You must have seen it in a movie, bud.”
Plum Garden serves lunch “family style” with platters on a lazy susan. We gorge ourselves on salty pork, gelatinous sauces, the puzzling but tasty baby corn. The manager brings a stubby pencil like the ones at the Putt-Putt course. The pencil is for the comment card, he says. To rate the food, the service, the décor.
My mother scratches at the card vengefully. I can see into the future, the kind man who has delivered our feast taking in her angry scrawls, shamed by her dissatisfaction.
At the Henry Ford museum we saw pictures of the great inventor standing proudly with his first prototype, and with his factory’s daily output of a thousand identical cars. My father admired the toolkit that came with every Model T, placed next to a Victrola playing a corny old song about a couple whose date is interrupted every time the boy has to get out and fix something on the car. My parents stood together for a moment, before Janie started crying and my mother pulled away to soothe her with sweets or snuggles.
Henry Ford, the walltext told us, more or less built the world we’re in now, built these roads and these towns full of his workers, with schools for their children, and churches for them to go sing in on Sundays, and the five-and-ten to provision their lives. He might as well have sculpted the golden lions guarding the entrance of the Plum Garden.
I can’t remember the last time my parents seemed happy with each other.
I cough and wheeze, my back heaves. It’s a bad one, as my episodes go, and when it’s over there’s a platter of orange wedges and our fortune cookies, and no one can locate the comment card. Janie says the man must’ve picked it up, the same balletic way he had refilled the teapot and our water almost without our noticing. Yes, my mother agrees, the service was really quite fine; and I can breathe.