As the new kid in our small-town 1930s neighborhood, I noticed an unexplained smell in the air at suppertime. It struck me as mysterious, but nobody spoke of it, and neither did I. Even now, in memory, the smell conjures up late summer afternoons of playing on the street after school; we neighbor kids sending our laughing shrieks into the sultry air. The skin of our faces, grainy with dust, sprouted freckles and burned pink as we bounced our balls back and forth across the street.
We played into twilight in those days, reluctant to exchange summer for the fourth grade. Change was in the air—a sudden cool brush of wind against our sweaty faces, shadows falling too soon across lawns flattened by our running feet—and we wanted to delay the future.
The suppertime smell wafting through the neighborhood related to no experience of mine. Not like the roast chicken, pot roast, or mushroom barley soup in my own house or my Aunt Naomi’s, where we often went for Sunday dinner, and her three teenage daughters played with me, their animated doll, putting makeup on me and styling my long hair.
While Aunt Naomi put the last touches to her savory brisket of beef and my mother washed lettuce for salad, my father and my uncle talked in the front room, their voices rising in Yiddish and accented English. Soon, my aunt, with a rat-a-tat flourish of her knife, would cut noodles from the rolled-out dough on the kitchen table and toss the wide strands into a pot of water boiling on the stove.
While the familiar odors of Aunt Naomi’s supper traveled through the house, my high-school cousins chattered about Jean Harlow, the “Blonde Bombshell,” her tweezed eyebrows, her blond hair. They wanted to buy peroxide to bleach their own dark-brown hair. My cousin Rachel would heat up her curling iron at the stove, until my aunt came flapping a kitchen towel at her to leave the kitchen. In the bathroom, my cousins singed their long brown hair and mine into smoky ringlets, left to dangle like charred loose springs.
In my neighborhood, names were O’Brien, Vega, Panicalli. From their homes came the unrecognized rich smell of the sweetish brown-fried-fatness lofting somehow alien above other supper smells. Not like anything in Aunt Naomi’s kitchen or my mother’s.
As shadows lengthened over the lawns and cut across the street into the flowerbed of my house, we finally gave up on ball and tree climbing. We chalked hopscotch on the sidewalk and dug out our markers from our pockets. I used a small link chain for mine.
We took turns hopping, teetering not to touch the hopscotch lines, while our fathers came home from work. Some lumbered from the streetcar stop at the corner, shirts wrinkled, shoulders hunched, lunch pails heavy in their hands. My own father maneuvered his car down our narrow driveway, leaning out of the car-door window to eye the narrow space between the frame of the garage door and our car’s shiny fender.
When the fathers climbed the porch steps to their front doors, house lights popped on and dogs barked. Patty’s father always called to her from the bottom of the steps and waved his hat, and her face lit up. My father would never call out to me while he was guiding his car into the garage.
The ritual of going home for supper began with the sun sliding behind the rooftops. Mothers with kitchen towels in their hands, aprons tied at the waist, called from windows and porches. Some called with rising tones sharp with impatience; some, like my mother, sang out our names. Their voices trailed down our street of one-story homes: “Ma—ry, Pat—ty, Ru—thie, O—liv—i—a, Ra—chel. Suppertime.” We looked toward our houses, pushed at each other to hurry up for another few hops on the sidewalk before we ran home.
The first day in the new neighborhood, I carried the smell from outside into my house, like a flavor I could taste without eating. My mother had already set a platter of stuffed cabbage on the table near a dish piled with thick slices of dark pumpernickel. The sauce of tomatoes and raisins glistened on the mounds of cabbage, hinting at the sweet-and-sour deliciousness that at first cut would trickle into the meat and rice stuffing inside the cabbage leaves. A bowl of steaming carrots sat on the table, with a large serving spoon at the side.
While my father ran the water in the bathroom washbasin, I washed up at the sink. When I thought of mentioning the smell from outside, my mother happened to ask me to bring a bottle of beer from the icebox to put at my father’s place, and she reminded me to get the bottle opener from the kitchen drawer. By the time I was at the table with the beer and the opener, I knew only of my own hunger, the twinges in my stomach, and the promising aroma of stuffed cabbage. Thoughts about outside faded. And over time I became so used to the particular smell of supper in our neighborhood that I no longer thought about it.
When I was a senior in high school and suppertime had become dinnertime, iceboxes were refrigerators, and front rooms were called living rooms, the matter of my birthday came up, along with the traditional plans for the celebration at a restaurant with my friends. The night of the birthday dinner, I sat at the head of the table, with four of my girlfriends on either side, each of us with a long, narrow menu embossed on the front with the restaurant’s name in gold. Everyone waited for me to make the first choice.
I searched the menu for the most sophisticated entrée. After careful scrutiny of the elaborate list, changing my mind three times, I decided on a food I had never tasted and gave the waiter my order. My friends gasped.
After we had our salads, I was the first to be served. One whiff . . . and time turned on its head—summer’s end, hopscotch, suppertime, the mysterious smell.
On the round white platter before me, attended by a red spiced crabapple, green beans shiny with butter, and roasted potatoes sprinkled with chopped parsley, lay the absolutely forbidden, the absolutely prohibited, the absolutely banned, defying my parents, the rabbi of our synagogue, the congregation, centuries of tradition, and getting right down to it—even God.
Before me, a sinful sizzling brown, fat with stuffing, tantalizing and alien in its aroma, daring in its presence, known to me only from books, lay a pork chop.
Anne Fox copyedits Write Angles, newsletter of the California Writers Club, Berkeley Branch. She co-copyedited the CWC Write On! story contest chapbook and copyedits for fiction and nonfiction writers. She’s been published in Able Muse; Tiny Lights; The Sun; West Winds Centennial anthology of the CWC; Hippocampus Magazine (December 2012); the anthology, Bacopa, A Literary Review, 2013; Flash in the Attic: 33 Very Short Stories; You, Me, & a Bit of We.