this is my body

eating and drinking at the end of the world
by Jonah james fontela
Old box fans and rotted boards balanced against the rock wall. I was visiting the neighborhood where I grew up and I slowed to a stop in front of a huge pile of trash. Years of useless garbage in front of a house where I played and ate, sometimes fought with fists, and set the small brush fires of youth. A woman lived in that house and she was the boss. She was in charge. The meals she made every day were magnificent and voluminous, especially on Sundays. Braciola. Tough cuts of beef pounded flat, rolled with slices of hardboiled egg and herbs and braised for hours. The meat drippings mingled with tomato and tasted faintly of metal. I remember the time a bread knife flew across the kitchen from the hand of one brother, aimed at the back of another. I remembered chaos and noise, a door that was always open in winter or in summer. I sat in my car and remembered how that small woman began to shrink. She hunched at the shoulders, struggling not to tip under the weight of her laundry basket. She finally started kicking it down the long hallway. I remembered years passing and the disease twisting her fingers and toes into knots. One day she couldn’t talk anymore. The woman was frozen like stone and looked like she was crying all the time. She’s laughing her children said, but it didn’t look like that to me. I remember especially the way her husband, dead now too, cared for her in those last years when she couldn’t get up from her hospital bed in a spare room off the kitchen. The sadness in his eyes at church where he prayed alone. I looked at that bed, tipped on its side and stripped down to metal links, rusting in the springtime thaw.  [Painting: Flood Plain by American painter Andrew Wyeth, 1986]

Old box fans and rotted boards balanced against the rock wall. I was visiting the neighborhood where I grew up and I slowed to a stop in front of a huge pile of trash. Years of useless garbage in front of a house where I played and ate, sometimes fought with fists, and set the small brush fires of youth. A woman lived in that house and she was the boss. She was in charge. The meals she made every day were magnificent and voluminous, especially on Sundays. Braciola. Tough cuts of beef pounded flat, rolled with slices of hardboiled egg and herbs and braised for hours. The meat drippings mingled with tomato and tasted faintly of metal. I remember the time a bread knife flew across the kitchen from the hand of one brother, aimed at the back of another. I remembered chaos and noise, a door that was always open in winter or in summer. I sat in my car and remembered how that small woman began to shrink. She hunched at the shoulders, struggling not to tip under the weight of her laundry basket. She finally started kicking it down the long hallway. I remembered years passing and the disease twisting her fingers and toes into knots. One day she couldn’t talk anymore. The woman was frozen like stone and looked like she was crying all the time. She’s laughing her children said, but it didn’t look like that to me. I remember especially the way her husband, dead now too, cared for her in those last years when she couldn’t get up from her hospital bed in a spare room off the kitchen. The sadness in his eyes at church where he prayed alone. I looked at that bed, tipped on its side and stripped down to metal links, rusting in the springtime thaw.

[Painting: Flood Plain by American painter Andrew Wyeth, 1986]

We wandered in Florence, our shoes slipping on the slick cobbles and splashing in the cold puddles of February. There was a hum in the workshops, full of hunks of plaster and pieces of statues stacked high in corners. Galleries thrust bright colors through windows to enliven the grey of the day. Men with beards screamed into cell phones, smoking cigarettes on the narrow walkways, teetering on curbs. I saw food, such food in a window. It took me away from my wanderings. I put my face to the glass. The food confused my mind and attacked my stomach. My mouth watered. It was too early for lunch, so we walked and we walked. But in my mind remained the images of bounty. A huge bowl of white beans soaking in an oil so virgin it was green. A frittata shining a brighter yellow than any sun of deep summer, and veal pounded flat and rolled with spinach. Onions roasted to a deep brown and drizzled with the night-black of balsamic vinegar. The memories of this food in this window grew quickly to mythology as I moved and turned down old roads, getting farther and farther away. Bowls and platters mingled with the thick legs of statue men and the women, queens in stone cloaks balancing on pedestals in the ancient squares. We moved on, sure to find another place to eat, back across the old bridge with its jewels and gold rings winking at us, toward the center of things where throngs of Japanese tourists and Chinese tourists. But there was no food for me after that food I saw in the window. That was what I wanted. I began to moan after 30 minutes of walking, of trudging through narrow corridors and up steep hills toward the gray sky. Now I was hungry, but there was so much distance and so many turns and such uncertainty between where we were and the window with the food. I felt defeated. Nina fixed that with her attitude, which she can do when mine rebels. We’ll walk back, she said. I protested. It’s stupid. We’ll never find it. It’s miles away across fifty rivers and up a million mountains. Let’s just eat some of this bullshit here in this place with these people. No. She insisted and we walked back. My mood lifted. I imagined how soft and warm those beans would be and the vinegar tang and thickness over the onions. We were there before long. A few wrong turns and we found our way. We sat, beside a huge kitchen. I grabbed two wine glasses from a shelf in the back and we opened our half bottle of Chianti. We waited for our food. There was nowhere else to be. [Photo: Forno in Florence by Jonah James Fontela, 2014]

We wandered in Florence, our shoes slipping on the slick cobbles and splashing in the cold puddles of February. There was a hum in the workshops, full of hunks of plaster and pieces of statues stacked high in corners. Galleries thrust bright colors through windows to enliven the grey of the day. Men with beards screamed into cell phones, smoking cigarettes on the narrow walkways, teetering on curbs. I saw food, such food in a window. It took me away from my wanderings. I put my face to the glass. The food confused my mind and attacked my stomach. My mouth watered. It was too early for lunch, so we walked and we walked. But in my mind remained the images of bounty. A huge bowl of white beans soaking in an oil so virgin it was green. A frittata shining a brighter yellow than any sun of deep summer, and veal pounded flat and rolled with spinach. Onions roasted to a deep brown and drizzled with the night-black of balsamic vinegar. The memories of this food in this window grew quickly to mythology as I moved and turned down old roads, getting farther and farther away. Bowls and platters mingled with the thick legs of statue men and the women, queens in stone cloaks balancing on pedestals in the ancient squares. We moved on, sure to find another place to eat, back across the old bridge with its jewels and gold rings winking at us, toward the center of things where throngs of Japanese tourists and Chinese tourists. But there was no food for me after that food I saw in the window. That was what I wanted. I began to moan after 30 minutes of walking, of trudging through narrow corridors and up steep hills toward the gray sky. Now I was hungry, but there was so much distance and so many turns and such uncertainty between where we were and the window with the food. I felt defeated. Nina fixed that with her attitude, which she can do when mine rebels. We’ll walk back, she said. I protested. It’s stupid. We’ll never find it. It’s miles away across fifty rivers and up a million mountains. Let’s just eat some of this bullshit here in this place with these people. No. She insisted and we walked back. My mood lifted. I imagined how soft and warm those beans would be and the vinegar tang and thickness over the onions. We were there before long. A few wrong turns and we found our way. We sat, beside a huge kitchen. I grabbed two wine glasses from a shelf in the back and we opened our half bottle of Chianti. We waited for our food. There was nowhere else to be.

[Photo: Forno in Florence by Jonah James Fontela, 2014]

The bartender returned, smiling like she had good news. We’re out of the fried clams, she said. But the chef’s put some fried smelts on the menu instead. I was caught in the lull of post-order relief so I agreed to the smelts by reflex. It was our second time to the restaurant.

Our first visit was delicious. We enjoyed that summer meal, early in the evening with the sun spilling through a large window. We returned for more. But the lamb ribs, so tender and chewy and charred the first time, were gristle and rubber. The fritters made of pig’s feat were a boring novelty. The smelts were dredged in flour and fried, served with wedges of lemon. They tasted fine, a nice mild white fish. But I wondered to myself if the price of these smelts were the same fourteen dollars as the fried Ipswich clams I ordered, and craved. The bartender with the insincere smile hadn’t brought up the price of the new fish. Couldn’t be I said to Nina as the bar filled to capacity, the three-deep throng of hungry hopefuls behind us breathing impatient heat on our necks. But the bill came, and there it was. That same fourteen dollars, for eight tiny fish – less than half a pound of fish plentiful in this area, not driven by wild demand, and retailing for about 3 dollars a pound.

Restaurants make me uncomfortable. Always have. Paying for a good meal, even overpaying for a very good meal, doesn’t bother me at all. But overpaying for a bad meal, for a lazy meal, makes my cheeks red and stokes an anger in my chest. It confirms what I feel about commerce and the true nature of exchange. The underlying swindle. We are sold the notion, everyday, that good food lives only in restaurants and chefs, like clergy, preside over the sacrament. We will not return to this restaurant, but we are buying smelts at the market regularly and frying them up in a big black iron pan in our kitchen, crunching through their delicate bones with our teeth. We feel content in the knowledge that sometimes it’s just a scam, and sometimes, especially when the con is so obvious, you don’t have to participate. We bought that lesson for fourteen dollars.

A pair of touring musicians spent the night on our living room floor a few years ago. I woke in the morning to find all my Oreos, and much of my whiskey, gone. Earlier this week a professional photographer slept in our spare room. I kept a close watch on the man, and our goods.  [Painting: The Thief on the Roof by Fernando Botero, 1980]

A pair of touring musicians spent the night on our living room floor a few years ago. I woke in the morning to find all my Oreos, and much of my whiskey, gone. Earlier this week a professional photographer slept in our spare room. I kept a close watch on the man, and our goods.

[Painting: The Thief on the Roof by Fernando Botero, 1980]

I leave the pieces of lettuce large when making salads. It irritates Nina. She makes most of the salads in our house, and keeps the lettuce uniform and small - the right size for stabbing with forks and cramming into mouths. I shrug off her objections not because I’m laid-back. I am certainly not. I don’t take criticism well. I shrug because it’s not by accident that I leave the lettuce in long and wide pieces, as close to whole as possible without becoming totally absurd. They dangle from the tip of a fork like a loose sail or a tarp in the back of a moving truck. It reminds me of a picnic table and lunches under fruit trees in the breezes of summer, when the lettuce was picked from a small garden and torn in half and thrown in a bright yellow bowl. I’m brought back to a time when the sun was warmer and when olive oil dripped from our chins. I see the rays of the sun through a bottle of red wine vinegar, bursting from the glass in a million new directions. [Image: Vegetarians Judge on sheetrock by Joseph McVetty III, date unknown]

I leave the pieces of lettuce large when making salads. It irritates Nina. She makes most of the salads in our house, and keeps the lettuce uniform and small - the right size for stabbing with forks and cramming into mouths. I shrug off her objections not because I’m laid-back. I am certainly not. I don’t take criticism well. I shrug because it’s not by accident that I leave the lettuce in long and wide pieces, as close to whole as possible without becoming totally absurd. They dangle from the tip of a fork like a loose sail or a tarp in the back of a moving truck. It reminds me of a picnic table and lunches under fruit trees in the breezes of summer, when the lettuce was picked from a small garden and torn in half and thrown in a bright yellow bowl. I’m brought back to a time when the sun was warmer and when olive oil dripped from our chins. I see the rays of the sun through a bottle of red wine vinegar, bursting from the glass in a million new directions.

[Image: Vegetarians Judge on sheetrock by Joseph McVetty III, date unknown]

Small crosses appeared in the darkened corners of our home. They arrived with early spring and its firm breezes. With the smell of the dirt through open windows. Green and yellow and smaller than your little finger, they were made from the palm fronds we pulled out of large baskets on the altar after Palm Sunday mass. My grandmother, a seamstress who spent her life bent over a sewing machine, tore thin ribbons, folding and weaving through a loop to conjure these perfect little crosses. She hid them in every dark nook, where the evil things hide. They protected us for the whole of the year. You bumped into them running your hand across the cool linen in a top drawer. A palm cross huddled alone in the dim at the base of a copper pot with a long spout. One was buried deep in the woodpile, and one in the fireplace too, among the ashes of winter. They were in with the knives in the kitchen and tucked away in a sleeve in a chest full of sweaters. One always in the bottom of the scratchy baskets woven from the split bark of olive trees by old ladies slumped in doorways.[Painting: A Palm Sunday Painting by German artist Kai Althoff, year unknown]

Small crosses appeared in the darkened corners of our home. They arrived with early spring and its firm breezes. With the smell of the dirt through open windows. Green and yellow and smaller than your little finger, they were made from the palm fronds we pulled out of large baskets on the altar after Palm Sunday mass. My grandmother, a seamstress who spent her life bent over a sewing machine, tore thin ribbons, folding and weaving through a loop to conjure these perfect little crosses. She hid them in every dark nook, where the evil things hide. They protected us for the whole of the year. You bumped into them running your hand across the cool linen in a top drawer. A palm cross huddled alone in the dim at the base of a copper pot with a long spout. One was buried deep in the woodpile, and one in the fireplace too, among the ashes of winter. They were in with the knives in the kitchen and tucked away in a sleeve in a chest full of sweaters. One always in the bottom of the scratchy baskets woven from the split bark of olive trees by old ladies slumped in doorways.

[Painting: A Palm Sunday Painting by German artist Kai Althoff, year unknown]

The only doctor my grandfather admitted to seeing was a fiction. Dr. Menanni. The name, in some loose Italian, means to take away or subtract years. “What did Dr. Menanni tell you this time, Bruno?” My father asked, egging him on from across the table. “He told me to have just one glass of red wine a day, but he never said how big a glass.” We laughed, no matter how many times we’d heard it before, and my Nonno sipped his cognac with big, wet mischief eyes blazing away.  I tried the joke out on my real doctor when she told me how too much booze can fuck up your heart rhythms and kill the muscle over time. She laughed, but I think she was just being polite.  [Painting: The Drinkers by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890]

The only doctor my grandfather admitted to seeing was a fiction. Dr. Menanni. The name, in some loose Italian, means to take away or subtract years. “What did Dr. Menanni tell you this time, Bruno?” My father asked, egging him on from across the table. “He told me to have just one glass of red wine a day, but he never said how big a glass.” We laughed, no matter how many times we’d heard it before, and my Nonno sipped his cognac with big, wet mischief eyes blazing away.

I tried the joke out on my real doctor when she told me how too much booze can fuck up your heart rhythms and kill the muscle over time. She laughed, but I think she was just being polite.

[Painting: The Drinkers by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890]

My Abuela’s house was small. A two-bedroom apartment on the fifth floor of a brick building in Queens. There were smells of fish and red peppers and the dark red chorizo sausages that you could only get in the city, in New York, and the sun-bright yellow of tortillas made of eggs and potatoes and onions.  

We rarely stayed the night. There wasn’t any room, so we left late, my father driving the hour and a half north and east on the two lanes of the Merritt Parkway. I drifted to sleep laying down in the backseat. My slumber delayed or silenced the noisy arguments that accompanied visits to New York. My mother upset; my father defensive. On the attack. I hallucinated in the rock and curve of the road wishing I could sleep forever in the cradle of the high walls and climbing banks of cement as we left the city. I sensed the familiar turns when we drew closer to home, my eyes pressed closed. I’d wake up in the morning in my bed, my pajamas on. No memory. Did I float up to my room through the window, as I feared the devil or the serial killers might?

I had a dream last night that I inherited that apartment in Queens where my grandparents lived for decades, the one my grandmother gave up a few weeks before she died. Where my Abuelo hanged himself in the back room, the one with the ancient exercise bicycle and the view of the playground five stories below. In the dream I was disappointed because the apartment was freshly painted, white and light blue. It was empty. No more yellow stepladder by the kitchen window with plants on it. The round table had changed color too. It was only unfamiliar walls, the smell of home and kitchen replaced with the astringent sting of fresh paint.

I woke up wondering about the yuppies who might live there now, and how much they must pay with the rent control washed away, and how they don’t know a man hanged himself in their baby’s room. How, if they look close, they can still see a little notch in the top of the door, where he fixed the cord.