Confessional: The Case of the Tuna Noodle Casserole
Whenever I run my finger along the depression of skin above the corner of my right eyebrow—it’s a scar, though barely a noticeable one—I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard the word “Bobbins.” I am not referring to the first time I read a Jonathan Bobbins story, though that is significant as well (college, first semester junior year, the 300-level literature course “Mimes and Mystics”), nor am I referring to this kid I had a high school drama class with, a kid who wrote a play starring a forest creature named “Bobbets” and, because of his lisp, pronounced it “Bobbins.” I am referring to one of the humid summer days of my childhood, which is worth writing about only because this project has necessitated an explanation of the root of my hatred for a writer whose work two of my co-editors slurp up with their tongues.
Even though I lived the first thirteen years of my life in a quiet section of a leafy Pittsburgh neighborhood, the brick houses on our street were close together, the space between them creating narrow alleyways, where garbage cans and strange lawn tools piled up, and all the children running around and getting into mischief formed a kind of chirping—the bouncing of balls on pavement, the squeaks of sneakers, the exaltations from games of tag—that carried through the alleyways and the open doors and windows and into the plotted backyards.
I spent many of my summer weekends in our backyard, using my parents’ garden as the sideline of a soccer field, stamping out their rhododendrons and flowerbeds, and berating my younger sisters for not sharing my athletic interests. When they would get tired of trying to steal the ball from me, I would push them into the hedges, and, depending on their mood, they would laugh or complain. Either way, these were my antics because I was an energetic and narcissistic child who would become highly irritated that everyone around me did not always care to indulge my craving for nonstop sports.
My best friend at the time was a kid named James. He lived a few streets away, and he and I had this system where he would walk up my front steps, stand at the gate to the side alley between my house and my neighbors’, and shout so that I would know he was ready to play sports. But he wouldn’t shout, “Hey, I’m here!” or any derivation of that normal-sounding sentence. He would free his vocal chords and scream like a lunatic, which produced a piercing sound that was terribly obnoxious.
One steamy Sunday afternoon, while waiting for that scream, I was in the backyard throwing a wiffle ball as hard as I could into a huge thicket of bushes in our neighbors’ yard and forcing my youngest sister, who was about six years-old, to fetch it, which she was doing with the giddiness of someone who had just downed at least three Pixy Stix and was on a massive sugar high, which happened to be the case for both of us. My parents never would have bought us the candy, but we had snuck off down the street to the Little Store and used our allowance, and now the sugar was making us sweat profusely and laugh irrationally. But after a few tosses and fetches, when I had started to become bored and wanted to push my sister into the hedges for no reason but to laugh more, I heard the scream. Buoyed by the plan that James and I had made the day before—to play basketball at the huge elementary school playground up the hill (my house was at the bottom of a steep hill)—I sprinted up our back porch stairs, slammed open the screen door, rushed into the kitchen . . .
But wait. Why did I go into the kitchen and not the alley? Because I was following the noise. The scream had come from my mother, who was in the kitchen baking tuna noodle casserole and humming along with a cassette of The Three Tenors. It was confusing; everything happened so quickly and in the following way:
The moment my mother had taken the casserole out of the oven, my father had walked into the kitchen holding a hardcover book in his hands. “New Bobbins,” he said. “What?” said my mother, unable to hear over Pavarotti.
My father raised his voice, “GOT THE NEW BOBBINS IN THE MAIL,” which impelled my mother to glance over her shoulder to see the cover, for, as she explained to me over the phone the other day, when I asked her to clarify a few details from this memory, “There was a time when a new Bobbins cover was as intriguing as the cover of The New Yorker.”
Unfortunately, her glance coincided with her placement of the dish on the counter. Her hand slipped, the glass dish fell and shattered, and the tuna noodle casserole oozed onto the linoleum floor. She screamed, and I, mistaking her scream for James’s, raced into the kitchen, slipped on the casserole, and started to fall forward. Because my father had, in an instinctive but ultimately tardy effort, tried to shut the oven door while rushing to assist my mother, the door never clicked shut. Instead, it fell back down and bounced up at the precise moment that I had begun falling. I remember that the smack of my forehead onto the corner of the oven door sounded like what (I imagined) someone squashing a grapefruit or orange with their boot heel would sound like.
And then I remember everything else quite vividly: my red Chicago Bulls T-shirt smeared in hot, creamy, noodly casserole, my forehead in hands, my hands covered in blood, the sobbing, the strange saltiness of tears mixed with blood and sweat that accidentally but kind of intentionally found its way into my mouth. My mother, who was by this point truly hysterical, gasped, found ice in the freezer, and pressed it against my head. It stung, and I cried harder, and suddenly I started to feel very, very sleepy. Those Pittsburgh summers . . . the heat and the humidity . . . the blood and the ice . . . the decline from the Pixy Stix high . . . My sisters in the kitchen and crying? . . . Another scream? . . . Yes, James had arrived . . .
Later that night, my father came into my room, sat on the side of my bed, and asked me how I felt.
“I guess funny.” I shrugged and touched the bandages on my forehead, which were tender.
“You’re tough,” he said. “And so is your mother, for that matter. It’s harder on her than on you.” This was one of those things my father said that I didn’t really understand. “And so are your sisters!”
Apparently. It had just so happened that my last wiffle ball throw had deeply penetrated the bushes (I always had a strong throwing arm), and so my youngest sister had recruited my other sister to help her retrieve it. Unfortunately, there’d been a bee’s nest in the bushes, which they’d stepped on, resulting in multiple stings each. They had run into the kitchen crying moments after I had fainted, and so the Saturday Night Schiller Family Outing was to the emergency room.
The doctor had given me a choice between stiches and massive white butterfly patches, and not wanting a permanent and visible head scar, I chose the latter, even if I’d have to spend the next week at soccer camp looking like Frankenstein. My sisters received antibiotics to help with the swelling.
On the drive home, we stopped at Aiello’s for our favorite pizza, and I was already back to antagonizing my sisters about their puffy faces. Now I was exhausted.
“Long day,” my father said, standing up from my bed. “Your mother and I need our sleep. Do you need anything else?”
“Uh-uh,” I nodded no. I shimmied under the covers, sat up, and said, “My arm’s getting really good. I bet I can throw the football halfway down the block. The small one, you know it.”
“That’s great,” and his face morphed into one of those closed mouth smiles where I wasn’t sure if he had even processed what I said. “Well,” he said, “I am loving this new book.”
“When Wind Becomes Water. It’s Jonathan Bobbins. Arrived today. It’s amazing, it’s already been short-listed for Book of the Year.” He pulled his copy from under his arm and flipped through the pages.
“You know,” he said, “if there was one benefit to having you all three of you in the emergency room at the same time, it was that I got some great reading time, ha-ha-ha. I’m already on the fourth chapter!”
“Who’s Jonathan Bobbins?” I said.
My father smiled again. Then he said another one of those parents things that children have no way of understanding. It was a thing that was, years later, when I discovered Bobbins in my “Mimes and Mystics” class, all I could think about. He said, “Bobbins? How ‘bout this. I’ll tell you when you’re older.”