Warn the Duke
By Emily Herzlin
My parents, my ten-year-old sister and I piled into the car to meet one of my dad’s friends for lunch in Bellport. Joe, a Broadway performer, was starring in the musical Ragtime at the Gateway Playhouse, a theatre in eastern Long Island a short drive from where we lived, and he invited us to see the show. I was fifteen, and knew the story of Ragtime well. Based on the book by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime is about a New York suburban family in 1902. The family, and the world, is on the brink of crisis and upheaval, but everyone pretends otherwise – until the Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated, the Morgan Library is taken hostage, and Mother runs off with an immigrant. The clairvoyant Little Boy runs around during the play trying to warn everyone by yelling, “Warn the Duke!” but nobody listens.
On the way to lunch, my dad started driving around looking for the water. Bellport was on the south shore, and the views were supposed to be pretty. My dad wanted us to see the water together. He drove down residential street after residential street, trying to find it. The turns and jerky stops began to make me feel queasy. My mom sucked on her teeth. I sensed the tension between them. I knew the divorce was coming: I’d heard the murmurings, the lawyers on the phone. I knew it was soon. But no one was moving. A month later, my sister would be diagnosed with cancer, and then no one would move for a year until she recovered. But for now we were on this rare family outing, this adventure in Bellport.
No water in sight, my dad gave up his search and we drove back towards town and rushed to the restaurant. “They’re supposed to have great seafood,” my dad reported enthusiastically, even though I thought I remembered him saying he didn’t like seafood.
We arrived at the restaurant, a place with a country-kitchen feel: unfinished panels of wood, blue, checkered curtains, baskets of plump rolls. Joe was already seated at a round table set for five. He was taller than my dad, with thick glasses that magnified his eyes, and tousled brown hair that was starting to gray. He greeted my dad with a handshake.
We sat down and I reached for a piece of bread. “Don’t fill up on rolls,” my mom cautioned me. I glanced at my dad, who gave a sympathetic smile. I took the roll, hoping my mom didn’t notice. She was always watching her weight, sweating away on the basement treadmill, her chestnut hair pulled up in a tight, high bun. I remembered an evening when I wanted a second serving of ice cream for dessert, and my dad had spooned it into my bowl from the carton.
“You’re teaching her bad eating habits!” my mom had said.
“It’s low fat!” he’d argued. “Take it easy!”
I’d already started eating the ice cream, but put the bowl down. I can’t remember if I finished it or not.
But in Bellport I buttered the bread and savored the creamy, cool smoothness as it reached the corners of my mouth.
The restaurant’s specialty was its seafood bisque, Joe told us, so that’s what we ordered. We all quietly spooned goopy chunks of potato and chewy clams into our mouths, except my dad. He chomped down on a burger and fries, extra well done and extra crispy. “Really, Mike?” Joe chided. I held out my spoon for my dad to try the bisque. He didn’t like the taste of warm seafood, he said. But I wanted him to try it so he could enjoy it like the rest of us. He was the only one with a non-seafood food. Even Joe was eating bisque. I insisted. Finally he gave in and tasted it. He made a face. I snatched up another piece of bread to sop up the rest of my soup.
Joe left us at the restaurant to go prepare for the show, and my dad took us to get ice cream before heading to the theatre. I was full from lunch but we were on an adventure in Bellport, and to refuse ice cream when on an adventure in Bellport would have been a crime. I inhaled a butter pecan cone as we walked to the theatre. My mom walked ahead of us. She said she was worried about the time. I asked my dad if we were going to be late. My dad smiled at my sister and me with his goofy, face-stretching smile and told us we were fine. He turned around and when he whirled back his wire-rimmed glasses were upside down on his face, half falling off. He looked ridiculous. This was a routine of his, and our response was part of it. My sister rolled her eyes, embarrassed. I laughed, even though I was embarrassed too. But it seemed more important at that moment to laugh.
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