SPILT MILK, A FRAGMENT

In 1959, amid the final narcoleptic fumes of Eisenhower’s second term, a glass milk bottle toppled from the refrigerated dairy case of our local supermarket. Or slipped from my mom’s hand as she clutched at it — who knew for sure? This was in the days just before beverages of all kinds, including quarts of milk, would be sold in soft cartons. (Indeed we were in the middle of what seemed a more anxious transition; whole neighborhoods stood passionately divided: should milk be delivered by truck to one’s door each week, in accord with custom, or, in the more modern way, fetched as needed from the market? My family joined the latter faction. For us, the future — then, anyway — was now.)

The bottle burst on the floor’s linoleum tiles only inches from where my mom was standing, one jagged piece of glass — about the size of a potato chip — ricocheting into her calf. She reached down and removed it, immediately causing blood to stream out. A swirly pinkish puddle, scarlet mingling with creamy white, formed around her Vivier heels. Although the gash was deep enough to require a trip to the emergency room for stitches, no serious longterm damage resulted. (She would claim in subsequent weeks, when retelling the story, that the wound site, now healed and faintly scarred with tiny suture dots, felt numb to the touch, which caused me to wonder how numbness could be “felt.” Then, it seemed like a question of epistemic, almost mystical importance; soon I would come to realize that our tenuous reality was threatened continually by many similar mysteries, hundreds of them, such as how dog written backwards spelled god and that Dr Pepper produced a pins-and-needles sensation when swished high up into one’s cheeks.)

But that afternoon, during those particular moments of trauma, clerks and stock boys hunkered over their injured customer with aghast sympathy, whispering. The store’s manager fussed and gesticulated. He wore a short-sleeve dress-shirt and clip-on tie. From below, you could see its plastic flanges entering the shirt’s collar. His neck — like Don Knotts’s neck, my dad had observed on another occasion — emerged from that collar without touching fabric. (Later, grown-ups suggested in hushed voices that all the manager was really worried about was a lawsuit.) Somebody said to call an ambulance. Her every comfort was attended to.
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Roger Vivier, for Dior

Big Lisa, my best friend at the time, had tagged along with us to the store. (Both of Big Lisa’s parents worked. It was said in the neighborhood that Barn, her dad, in addition to having a weird first name, was a poor provider; and that her mom, Alice, was for this reason forced to earn extra income as a secretary. In an office, I think. She often stayed late into the night to help her boss, sometimes returning only the following morning.) As my mom dealt with the distracting tumult of bleeding flesh, Big Lisa — who like me was five years old but one inch taller — announced, reassuringly, that she would keep an eye on me.

Was this my introduction to the power of rhetorical language? I grasped at once that Big Lisa’s eyeball would not literally be on me, pressed against my skin. She would be supervising me, watching me. But the image was unsettling, with, as I would note many decades afterward, a kind of Buñuelian precision. I was also fairly certain that Big Lisa had appropriated the expression from adult chitchat. That she had crossed over.


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