Food and Culture at Raven
A Prose Poem by
The oldest boy notices that the hymnals have these red covers with a cross on the front, and they smell like the church, sort of musty but of something graver, deeper, the smells of varnished oak pews, immersion in cold water, the wilted flowers for marriages and memorial services. But some of the boys in his Sunday school class are writing obscenities in them: crude pictures and words. He is shocked but does nothing. And then he thinks of Dad driving the car when suddenly the teacher asks him to read from the Bible, and he does it clearly and with expression like his mother, so that the words seem to talk off the page for him and not just lie there, dead, black squiggles. The teacher asks him if he will read the same passage in front of the whole congregation two Sundays from now, and of course he cannot refuse. And then there is the lesson -- the Sunday School teacher, eager, well-meaning, but hopelessly unaware of the boys drawing filthy pictures in the hymnals as they sit in the back pews and unaware that the boy has drifted away, thinking about the beer joint and the candy and the sodas Dad always buys them.
After Sunday school and the service, sitting in the back of the church
with his brothers and some of the other boys whose parents did not attend,
they walk forward to the side door so they don't have to shake hands with
the minister, overpowering in the black robe, his pink wide hand sticking
out of it, swallowing up smaller hands in its fleshy folds. Out into the
sunshine, 11:00 now and the fresh air waking up the boys but still the
question in his mind about dad and the beer joint and dreading the old
routine that he hopes with a child's hope will not be repeated. He briefly
basks in the congenial confusion of people visiting in the sunshine, men in
suits and ties, women in pastel dresses because it is spring, children in
their good clothes dashing around bushes and knees, adults shaking hands,
then chatting. The boys chat with friends who then melt away with parents,
and fathers start their cars with families packed inside until the three
boys stand at the edge of the almost empty lot, throwing small rocks freed
from the asphalt at a cat prowling on the other side.
The beer joint's parking lot is right out on the street so everyone going by can see them there, and one time the oldest was taunted on the school ground by two boys who said his father was a drunk, but he denied it. The joint has a dark wooden exterior, one small window near the top of the wall so no one can see in. In the window glows a Coors neon sign. On the shut front door a sign says "No one under 21 allowed." Before going in, the dad asks what kind of candy they would like, and even though they might want to refuse the bribe they don't because the candy is the one thing that makes the time at all bearable and, besides, refusing would humiliate him. It would make him see the truth, the way they really feel. So they make their choices, and it is never a candy bar like a Snickers although those are the best; they choose something that will last a long time like an Abba-Zabba which is so chewy that it takes forever to eat and by the time you're done your jaws are sore, or they select a Good and Plenty with its tubes of licorice flavored goo covered by a white or pink candy shell that has such a strong taste that they can't eat it fast, anyway, even if they wanted to, or most of the time they choose Necco Wafers, the best because of the different colors, powder coated, chalky flavors: chalky cocoa, chalky lemon, chalky raspberry and the snap of the brittle wafers as they crunch them and then the wait for the wafers to melt in their mouths. If they properly eat a package of Necco wafers, they've used up almost half an hour, although they usually don't have the patience to let them melt completely.
The boys deliberately work their way through the candy, sitting on the dusty cloth seats of the Chevy heated up by the sun. They can't play the radio because the of the old car's battery. They are thirsty now, but if they ask their dad for a pop it will mean that he will stay even longer and then they would have to pee and they don't like using the toilet in the bar because it stinks and you never know who you are going to find in there. So it is time for the big decision, the one they have to make each week, about whether or not to go into the bar to try and get their dad to come home now. Meaning they have to come from the bright sunshine into that dark, damp hole where they can't see much, smell the sour stench of beer, then face all of the drunks who have sat there on teetering stools from opening time Sunday morning, and have to listen to some old woman, lipstick smeared on her face, tell them what nice boys they are. And then the boy in the middle gets angry this time and says he is going to call Mom, but the eldest argues that surely Mom must know where they are. What can she imagine takes them so long each Sunday to get home? So then the middle boy, still angry, says he is going to start honking the horn to make the dad come out and then he is going to tell their mom what has been happening to them, but the other two boys tell him not to do anything, and none of them do — their love for the father, their shame for him, bigger than anger.