1985: A Surprise Portrait

I lick the chocolate from a frosted cake donut while Dad and I walk around Lake George. He turns to me, exclaiming, “Boy you really love those chocolate covered donuts, huh kiddo? They’re okay. But not great like they used to be when Daddy was a kid. The chocolate was real back then. Not like this chemical shit they make today. And the bear claws! You should have seen them.”

He grips both hands into fists to approximate the size of the donuts. “Those bear claws were Daddy’s favorite for sure.” I stare at him. Is it bad to like the chocolate more than the bear claws? The frosting on those tastes gross.

He nods. “That’s okay. Poppa’s got a clean napkin when you’re done.

I lick each finger before taking Dad’s napkin. Yum. Why can’t we have donuts every day for breakfast?

When we arrive at George’s Restaurant, Dad buttons his chef’s coat over his shirt. I notice a faded ketchup stain on the cuff. Why do Dad’s pants have black and white squares? And why didn’t he put his chef’s hat on today?

“Jenny I want you to stay next to Daddy. He motions for me to come closer. “Right here. Good. Next to the chopping table. Remember when you used to sit on Daddy’s shoulders for hours while I worked?” I glance up at him. “Yes. Well you’re too big for that now. So Daddy’s going to teach you something very special today.”

He removes the long silver blade from its sheath. Dad explained last week that chefs, like him, call it a butcher knife.

Today he takes the sharpening blade out too. I watch mesmerized as he clashes the butcher knife against the spear. Top over bottom. Bottom over top. Over and over. The cadenced metallic clang alarms and soothes me at once.

When he finishes wiping the blade edge on a clean towel, Dad looks at me and asks, “How’d ya like that? Your Pop is one hell of a chef, right?” I shake my head, yes.

From his back pocket, he removes a tattered grey book. “You see this, Jenny? This was my Father’s book, and one day it will be yours. Because no one else in my family is ever going to give a rats ass.”

Dad opens the book to reveal a diagram. He points. “That’s a pig. This one is a cow. Every cut of meat is here in these two illustrations. Every chef has to be a butcher too. We have to know every cut by heart.”

He points to the uneven lines drawn over the outlined animals. “Not many people know what your Father knows and one day I’m going to teach it all to you. You might have been too young to remember, but Daddy took you along when I slaughtered some pigs. You were a good girl. Just stood there and didn’t cry.”

I stop listening to Dad for a moment to see if I can remember the pigs. There was that place with a fence and a barn, and Daddy was with another man. But I can’t recall the ‘slotter’ part. Does Daddy mean he killed the pigs? A chill runs down my back.

By the time I look up, he is waving for me to help carry lettuce from the cooler. Dad lines up twelve heads of iceberg on the chopping block.

“Daddy will teach you how to chop like a real chef today.” I shrink. Today?

He winks but doesn’t grin. “This is very serious business. Daddy doesn’t ever want you to be afraid of a knife. You can’t cut yourself. Did you hear me? You can’t ever cut yourself. Not if you chop like a I’m teaching you.” Daddy, can I just watch today?

He rolls a head of lettuce toward his knife. Dad quickly slices through the middle of the sphere, and places the flat side down. He rests his left knuckles against the rounded outer edge.

“Now look at your Father. This is the right way. You never hold your goddamn hand like this.”

He unfolds his fingers laying them out flat and brings the blade over them.

“See. You’d cut your goddamn finger off in a heartbeat trying to do it this way. And it would slow you down. Cooking is about expedience!”

Dad quickly rolls his fingers back under his palm. He chops briskly. The blade blurs. Dad purposely brings the knife against his hand. I wince. No! Don’t watch. “See. Did you watch? I told you. You can’t get hurt.” I exhale as Dad reveals his unscathed knuckles.

‘Tomorrow, I’m going to show you how to use the peeler. Always pull it toward you. Never away like these amateur morons. That way you have all the control. But for now, come here and put this butcher knife in your right hand.” My hand quivers as he places the blade’s handle in my grip. He pulls up a chair so I can reach the chopping block.

“Now what do you do with your left hand?” I curl my fingers under reluctantly. “Whoa! Hold it!” Dad flicks my thumb. Ow.

“What’s that doing out there? You want your thumb chopped off?” I shake my head, no! Dad shoves my hand closer to the lettuce.

“Uh. Wait a second. Hold the knife straight. Not on an angle! And not so tight. You’re gripping that handle too tight.” I watch as he flicks his wrist back and forth and then straightens it. It’s heavy, Dad.

My eyes gloss over as I begin my first few chops. Don’t cut yourself! He’ll scream and turn purple.

After a few minutes, I feel the blade slicing through lettuce with ease. You did it. Like a chef. Like Dad.

“Good girl. That’s enough for today. Daddy’s so proud of you! You’re my daughter for sure.”

I set the butcher knife down as George, the owner, walks into the kitchen. I pull Strawberry Shortcake toy out of my skirt pocket, and sniff her hair. Ahhh, I love you Strawberry Shortcake. We did it.

Dad’s raises his voice. He faces George head on. “Fuck you, George, you mother fucking bastard. This is my kitchen and I will instruct the waitresses to do as I see fit.”

George snaps, “Tom, this is my restaurant. I’m the owner, and if you want to work here, you’ll have to do things my way.”

“Oh no, you cock-sucker. Chefs run their own kitchen. You think I’m a dumb fucking Greek, huh?”

George shrinks slightly under Dad’s glare.

“See, that’s where you’re wrong. Because chef Tom knows you’ve been fucking some of these waitresses and unless you want me to drive a fucking bus through the front window of this place, you’ll give me control of this kitchen.”

I crouch behind a corner, gripping Strawberry Shortcake until my sweat coats her glossy skin.

“Tom, I think you better go home for the day. Nobody threatens me in my own restaurant.”

With one blow, Dad pops George in the nose. Even with my eyes closed, I feel Dad grip my hand and drag me out of the back door.

Dad keeps swearing as we walk. Mother fucking, cock sucking, no good piece of shit.

After a couple blocks, we reach my favorite shop on the strip, Tom Tom. Dad browses the pocket knives while I examine a pair of beaded pink moccasins. Dad catches me. “You like those?” I shake my head up and down. He smiles and says, “Good. We’ll take these in my her size.”

Outside the shop, a man sits on a metal stool next to a tall wooden frame. Dad walks up to the man. “Hi, my name is Tom and this is my daughter, Jenny.”

“Nice to meet you, Tom. My name is Ron. Ron Peer.”

“You a painter, Ron?”

“Yes. I paint portraits.”

“That’s perfect. I’ve always wanted a portrait done of my daughter. I’ve got the money. We’ll be your first customers today.”

“She’s very young. Can’t be more than four years old. It might be difficult for her to hold still. It takes quite a while for me to paint a portrait.”

“Nah. She’ll be fine. She does what Dad says, right honey?” I stare at Ron while he mixes oil paint on his palette.

“Okay, then. I’ll do my best, then.”

After a few minutes, I begin squirming on the stool. This is so boring. Why did Dad want to do this?

Ron instructs me, “Try to hold still, honey. I know it’s hard. But I’m working on your face and I have to get that right, okay?”

Dad glares at me. I wring my hands, nervously. When will the painter man be done?

Finally, Ron puts his brush down and shows the canvas to Dad.

“Wow. That’s fantastic work. But what about her arms and hands?”

“I’m sorry, sir. She was just fidgeting too much for me to do that part, but it’s a perfect likeness of her face.”

“I can’t argue with that. How much do I owe you?”

“It’ll be two hundred dollars, sir.”

Dad rolls out ten crisp twenty-dollar bills. And shakes Ron’s hand. “Well, I’m still disappointed that you couldn’t paint her hands, but I have to admit, you’re one hell of an artist.”

While we make our way back to the apartment, Dad turns the painting toward me, “You like it, baby girl?”

I nod.

“Daddy always wanted to have this done. You’ll have it forever, you know?”

I stare at the oil strokes that compose my face. So that’s what you really look like?

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