Iq'm not going anywhere they put the damn radishes in Jell-O," says my friend and employee, Celestine Duval, when I mention visiting her son, Norris.
Yet that very night my shop catches fire, and she is out of a job until the insurance comes through. It is December. The nearest hydrant was frozen when they put a wrench to it, but I am lucky. Because I have a thick sliding door between the shop and the back room where I live, the only damage to my living quarters was stains from a few gray plumes of smoke blown up the walls.
"They lend an atmosphere," Celestine tells me.
She talks like a restaurant because Norris has opened a steakhouse in Argus, North Dakota, where he lives among the Swedes. This has led to Celestine's objections to the radishes. She has got a bug up her nose about the Swedes and their customs involving food. She went down to help Norris at the grand opening not so long ago, but she could not stand their habit of slicing odd things into the Jell-O.
Now, since the fire payment won't arrive for a week or so and the workmen won't start on the interior, we decide to close the shop and take a trip. We must get our minds off this disaster. We decide to go to Argus and visit Norris, his wife, Adele, and their daughter with the terrible name.
Wallacette is named after Adele's father, who died in the ninth month of Adele's pregnancy and left his daughter's mind unhinged with grief. Nothing that Norris said could persuade Adele to name their daughter something halfway normal. Wallacette she became.
Like her mother, Wallacette is big and imposing, with a large-jawed grin full of teeth. At eleven years old she towers above the rest of the children in her class, and she is mainly interested in fiercely pursuing love. To get boyfriends, she knocks boys down and grinds their faces in the snowy grit. To get girls, she ties the string waistbands of their dresses to her own dress strings, and drags them around the playground until they promise to write her a note.
The nuns don't know what to do with Wallacette, nor do her parents, for she is strong-willed and determined to get her way. These same traits, however, make her a favorite with Celestine and myself, for we think that she has got spunk, and we always look forward to what surprises each visit with her brings. But to visit Wallacette we must also contend with Norris and, worse, grim Adele, who insists that we help her out in their steakhouse. The Poopdeck is the name of the place. I can't tell you why, except that this name was Adele's idea too.
The name does have to be an oceangoing kind of name, we admit. To save money on the renovations, Norris put in portholes rather than windows. Then he painted the outside white and blue, like a ship, and built a little captain's steering deck up top. He can't disguise the square shape of the building, though. It certainly doesn't look like it could sail anywhere.
After two hours of driving, we arrive in Argus. The Poopdeck's parking lot is jammed. Furry green plastic branches frame the portholes, decorations for the holidays. Within each porthole glows one red electric candle.
"Celestine," I say, "let's go somewhere else for lunch."
She is wearing a white turban on her head, and earrings that look like tiny red plungers. Christmas plungers. Her slanting eyes are sharp yellow, and the little purple spider veins in her cheeks have darkened like stitches.
"If we help out, they'll feed us afterward. All we can eat," she says.
But it's the helping I can do without.
It is Saturday, however, and we are pleased to see that Wallacette is behind the counter. Her job is to hand out paper boat flags and red and green Lifesavers to the children who eat at the Poopdeck. This she does with earnest enjoyment. Sometimes she forces the candy so eagerly on little children that they cry out in fear of her stony jaw and gleaming teeth.
She sees us. She ducks under the counter and hurls herself forward. I can hear the sharp oof! as the air is knocked out of Celestine's lungs. It is hard to think of Celestine as anyone's grandmother. But she seems right as Wallacette's. The girl's pale legs are brawny as a wrestler's. She wears dirty white anklets. A strange light shines in her face. Hunched in her black coat, under the turban with its blazing clip, Celestine looks strange too, and the same light glows within her eyes.
We join the cooks at the steam tables in the back. I am stationed at the deep-fryer, with wire baskets and bags of frozen products—fries, shrimp, onion rings, breaded fillets. The fish is always popular because of the boat theme, which is carried on in the menu.
"Old Tar Special," the waitress yells. "Clams Casanova! Fish Waikiki!"
Someone orders a Spinnaker Salad and a Lighthouse malt—a regular malt with a cherry "light."
I lower a basket of fantail shrimp into the popping grease. This is Wallacette's favorite item on the menu. I hear her voice through the cook's window, deep and loud.
"Sure you like candy. You do too. Take these."
A child's thin wail grows and is hushed. I peek out. The boy is hoisted into his mother's arms and carried out, staring over her shoulder, lip hanging. He doesn't know it, but his character has been strengthened by this encounter. Wallacette stands before another child. This time she is poking a striped paper flag through the child's buttonhole. The child stands stiffly, paralyzed, as if the slightest movement would cause the big girl to drive the tiny wooden pole into her heart.
"Don't be a sissy," she booms. "You like candy!"