When we were kids my sister and I had to share a bed. Space was limited so doubling up was essential. Sharing never bothered us because we were about the same age. We would climb into bed at night and make up stories to help us fall asleep.
Huddled under a tent of blankets we would create our nonsensical tales, with twists and turns that were totally ridiculous, leaving us in a fit of uncontrollable laughter until our bladders nearly exploded. These episodes usually ended abruptly when Ma hollered from the kitchen for us to be quiet and go to sleep; after which a long pause of dark buzzing silence would ensue until the sounds from the rest of the house found our ears again. A cigarette ad on Ma’s TV, “I’d rather fight than switch”, the radiator knocking out heat in random rhythms, the refrigerator humming like a happy worker trying to keep our food cold.
It was easy to tell when someone was in the fridge because our Guinea pig, “Snoopy,” squeaked loud enough to be heard three houses down every time that somebody opened the refrigerator door. This was his way of lobbying for a snack. If you were quick enough you could sneak into the fridge, toss him a treat, and get back out before he sounded his high pitched alarm. I swear I was conditioned to his squeals like a Pavlovian dog because whenever I heard them the hunger pains commenced.
My parents didn’t allow eating after bedtime. Money was scarce and meals were planned, so there usually wasn’t much extra stuff in the refrigerator to munch on. I can still see the meager provisions in there; a carton of milk, various condiments, some basic veggies, a few eggs, and sometimes large blocks of surplus cheese. The cabinets were pretty bare as well with a slim assortment of spices, a box of unsweetened cereal (for breakfast only,) peanut butter, sugar, and some random canned goods. If we had peanut butter, we were out of bread, or if there was cereal, there was no milk.
Choices were slim but I was resourceful. I acquired a taste for simple cuisine and was a master at making “poor man” sandwiches. Mustard on white without the crust, which I could vary with mayo or ketchup, and then there was the occasional margarine and sugar sandwich, which doubled as a meal or dessert. The condiment jars were glass and heavy, not like the plastic squirt bottles advertising low fat, or heart healthy choices that we have today. These were thick utilitarian glass jars with metal lids, and if you were unfortunate enough to drop one of them on your foot you were guaranteed a trip to the local ER.
Although we were not allowed to eat after bedtime, this never seemed to stop me. When my growling belly called I had to tame it with food or it would keep me awake all night. I recall one time lying in bed doing a mental inventory of available menu choices for a midnight snack before planning my usual assault. I had decided on a crunchy carrot with some vinegar for dipping and was impatiently listening for the noises in the house to die down, signaling the “all clear.”
Eventually the voices from my parent’s TV became muffled, which meant their bedroom door had finally been closed; this was my cue to tip-toe out into the kitchen and snag a quick snack. Carefully I slid out of bed then sock walked over to my bedroom door and cracked it open. Peeking out into the kitchen I could see the light from the moon shining through the kitchen curtains casting eerie shadows that looked like bears and giants standing guard in the darkness.
“Tic click tic click,” it was my dog “Chips” with her long toenails clicking on the linoleum floor like a secretary at the keyboard. Her head was low, her tail wagging, she knew the routine and was hoping for a handout. I brushed past my dog to collect a small bowl for the vinegar, leaving the cabinet door opened, and then made my way to the refrigerator, grabbing the solid metal handle and pulling it downward like a giant slot machine. I could feel the resistance, like suction, but as I applied more muscle the door quietly opened and a great slice of yellow light washed over me.
I snagged the small jar of vinegar at the back of the fridge and was aiming for the carrots in the produce drawer when I heard Snoopy stirring in his cage. I fumbled, trying to be quick, but I wasn’t quick enough. SQUEAK, SQUEAK, SQUEAK! Snoopy’s squeals pierced through the evening silence like a screaming police siren. Ma’s bedroom door flew open and I froze in the refrigerator’s light, holding firmly onto my carrot like a panic stricken rabbit being spotted by poachers.
Knowing Ma’s temper, Chips slunk away and cleverly found refuge under the kitchen table. I stood in terror. Ma marched headlong toward me, snatched away my midnight snack, and hissed at me through clenched teeth,”I thought I told you to go to bed?” Frantically searching for the right words to evoke sympathy I stuttered out a lame, “I was hungry.” But Ma wasn’t moved. She gave me a good stiff smack off the back of my head, tossed my carrot in with Snoopy, and then sent me back to bed.
It wasn’t the slap in the head that hurt (her smacks were more for show,) or knowing that Ma was mad at me, it was watching Ma toss my carrot to Snoopy that really ticked me off. Stupid Guinea Pig!!