Fresh NoodlesBy Eric Berger
June 22, 2020
We met at the Family Forever Noodle House in Riverhead in 1983. Does the name ring a bell? Despite the suburban setting, in those days it was not actually a place for families, nor was it family-owned or owned by someone who had a family. A series of divorces and emancipations convinced the original owners to sell, and all communal feelings went with them. By our time it was the good-for-nothing sort of eatery, a shrug of a building, kept up without a semblance of pride, with walls once white turned gray-green from monthly fumigation. More ambitious and expanding establishments shouldered us from either side, and sometimes so aggressively I thought I could hear a voice behind the walls ordering others to push. I might have preferred to work in one of those places, with their handshakes and napkins and general rule of respect, but then who knows what that would have meant for me.
I worked behind the counter, U-shaped, if you remember, with a cold metallic surface in which one could find their reflection, at least where it was clean and not dented from customers reminding us of their absent meals. There were twelve stools around the counter, and most were put together so poorly by Mr. Davies—the cross-eyed owner who knew nothing about noodles, knew nothing about any cuisine, as far as I could tell, and who never had a family and bought the place so he could ruin it for everybody that did—that they consistently tipped one way or another when someone sat down. One was drilled into the floor a foot and a half from the counter, and whoever sat there had to count on themselves to balance their meals. It also happened to be in the direct path of the restroom. Of course, this was all to Mr. Davies’ liking, and not only did he refuse the simple work of unscrewing the stool from the floor and bringing it in, he even laughed at those who sat there and threatened not to serve them. But enough about Mr. Davies, the cross-eyed owner who never had a family and still has none.
As for myself, I was nineteen then, and I had long hair that was the envy of my family, seeing as they were all bald, including my mother and sisters. I wore it in a bun when I worked, for one because I thought it was appropriate, but also because Mr. Davies—so be it, I brought him up again—with his poor vision and bad attitude, had the habit of calling me Lindi, shouting it even, trying to impress the patrons with the name of a German woman he claimed to have bedded years ago, but who was actually the dark star of his life, having repudiated his love on numerous occasions. Anyway, the reason I bring up my long hair, its nutty color and occasional curls I will also emphasize, is that if you were to remember me, in all likelihood it would be the feature which holds me together. I can’t imagine you would remember anything else, as I had no other features at that time in my life. My nose had not come in yet, my eyes were vague and beady, and to others my smile produced no sign that I was happy. My mother claims it was from the stress of dealing with this that she went bald, but my sisters give no excuses. The girls are strong in that way.
I remember distinctly the moment you entered our little cafe. It was raining, and on the windows beside the door, currents were falling and joining together while carrying the colors of the street in the dreamiest manner. I was just about mesmerized, not to mention exhausted, as it was around eight in the evening and I had been working since seven in the morning, because Mr. Davies—yes, there’s no avoiding him—didn’t believe in labor laws and liked to make his point known by having his employees come in six hours before we opened, during which time we had to sit on the floor and watch him pantomime a firing squad. There was a chime on the door, and it sounded at the very same moment our chef, Hal, shouted, “Laguna!” I don’t believe it had any meaning, but I figure it may as well be mentioned, in case you recall being startled by the pronouncement of what I hear is an attractive area in Southern California when you came inside. Likely it doesn’t matter. You took a seat just to the left of the register, a detail which still haunts me, as the machine produced some of the most awful sounds I have heard in my life. Nervously I thought of all the ways I could quiet the contraption so you wouldn’t be disturbed, and what I came up with was to tell customers we would only be accepting payment the next day.
You seemed about my age, give or take a few years. You were leaning over the counter, studying our menu with total concentration, despite the fact that there was nothing but noodle soup, and I remember inching forward and searching the metallic counter in vain for the briefest reflection of your eyes. I got myself so worked up I just about shouted, “They’re green!” when you raised your head. Thankfully I kept myself cool and pretended to admire the ceiling. It may have been the single moment in my life I exhibited the steadiness which characterized my father, who was known around town as the rock of our family, for his personality and his weird bald head that was unfairly rumored to contain pyrite.
As it happened, you also wore glasses with thick square frames, studded on all sides with spectacular silver beads, very much in vogue at the time, and your dark bangs reached just over the lenses, as if they themselves were desperate to get a look at your eyes. Your sleeves were damp from the rain, and I offered to take your jacket, thinking it gallant even though we had no coat rack. I’m not sure if you heard me, but I was prepared to hold on to it for the rest of your stay. You asked me, “Are the noodles fresh here today?” and I laughed, I couldn’t help it, your voice had this feathery quality which tickled my ears, and, of course, the noodles were never fresh at the Family Forever Noodle House. Knowing Mr. Davies, they might have been twenty years old. But what could I tell you? That we would be serving you trash? I responded, “I’ll make sure of it,” and hurriedly traded away an hour’s pay to Hal so he would go to a store and pick up some real noodles.
Do you remember anything about that night? Does the stink of the broth still exist for you, or did it die then in 1983, despite my pleas for Hal to stop using the spices at random? Forgive me—Hal was only thirteen at the time; he was a local vagrant who had been repeatedly expelled from school for lighting garbage cans on fire, which Mr. Davies foolishly understood to mean he had experience operating a stove. That night Hal’s puberty had once more rendered him too moody to work, so I left the register and chopped the scallions, of which you ordered so many. Yes…you really emphasized the scallions. To this day I have never heard of a person enjoying them so much, and I remember when you dipped your spoon into the bowl it looked like you were clearing thousands of lily pads from a bog. That was what put me over the edge, I think. I couldn’t peel my eyes away from you, I even ignored the other patrons, to my detriment, I should mention, as Mr. Davies had just sat down to have a bite to eat himself. Somewhere in my heart I had this nagging feeling—and it was not the angina I would be diagnosed with a few years later—that you were also aware of me. The noodles were so long for your face, and when they hung over your chin and dripped the broth onto the counter you appeared to me a kind of slobbering sea creature. I drew you on a napkin, not just as you seemed then but as I imagined you emerging from the sea when after centuries of living underwater you finally realized your life was on shore.
I couldn’t stop drawing you, there always seemed to be more details I needed to add, but Mr. Davies, that loveless man, both hungry and jealous, launched over the counter and tore the portrait apart. When I recovered from shock and looked up, you were gone.
Years have passed since that night. This now being 1998 should make that clear. I can happily say the Family Forever Noodle House no longer exists. Hal accidentally burnt it down in 1987. I’m not sure what, if anything, now stands in its place, as I have not had the heart to visit. I do know Mr. Davies is still among us. His eyes are more crossed than ever, to the point that I can’t imagine what he sees. He runs a strawberry stand out east, in Cutchogue, and for a while I had it in mind to drive past and knock it over. That idea gave way, though, when I finally visited and saw the hand-painted sign that read, “Lindi’s Berries.” A few of the letters overlapped, but I couldn’t fault him there; the stand was not the dump I expected. I walked up and bought two pints, and the right side of his face began twitching, like it was struggling to lift a smile. This saddened me, because in all odds he couldn’t have told me apart from a thumbtack.
Which brings me to more pressing news. I shaved my head. I could no longer endure the envious expressions my sisters held when we would go out together, and for their birthdays one year I decided to give them everything I had. Rarely have I seen human beings so happy, and if there is anything that gets in the way of their buoyed souls, it is the lingering spite my parents carry for not being prioritized over my sisters. But I am not thinking of that now, nor am I thinking any longer of the changes I have personally experienced, which include the addition of a reddish goatee and tortoiseshell glasses to my face, and a middling career selling notebooks above a bakery in a nearby shopping center. You see, I have been going through my past, I am beginning to write about my life, and I have this idea you might play an important character. That might seem ridiculous, given our brief encounter, but I have an exciting imagination, and it seems wise to use it before its time passes. Or at least that’s what I was told by my father, whose head was rumored to be filled with pyrite but which an MRI proved to contain gold.
witty, pithy, evocative and to the point
Got some good groceries at the store this weekend, but other than that good work on the short story. Lol Keep them coming! Miss ya man. Hope all is well with you, family, and the rest of the friends in your group. Looking forward to seeing Ham on Rye!
Sincerely an old friend from our old neighborhood