September 15, 2011

The Gentleman at Table 21

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Nuru was cutting the chicken again. He always cut the chicken on Fridays, lopping off the extra fat from the raw breasts, legs and thighs, in preparation for Shabbat dinner at the old age home. I was peeling the onions and potatoes at my post by the dishwasher, where I usually worked until I changed into my white shirt and maroon vest at dinnertime to serve the food. Nuru’s cleaver would fall rhythmically on the cutting board, thwap, thwap, and I’d swipe my peeler in long strokes, and we’d talk politics, this 40-something Ghanaian and I, a 17-year-old kid.

He missed home, I knew, but like all the other Ghanaians in the kitchen he weathered the pain stoically, working long hours and saving his money carefully to send home. Nuru conserved his vacation time — the two weeks he was granted annually — and every few years flew back to Ghana to spend a month with his wife and children. After that, he would be back to knead the dough and layer the lasagna and fry the eggs, six days a week, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Sometimes I’d go visit him in the employee quarters, past the walk-in freezer and the maintenance closets, the smell of African cooking wafting up the basement hallway. Now and then he’d be praying, as he did five times a day, or often he’d be talking to his wife: how’s the baby, do you have enough money for schoolbooks, I love you. Six days a week, eight years, hundreds of phone cards, children growing up. And I never once heard Nuru complain, in the four years we spent bantering about the economy or religion or the Iraq War. How we talked.

Today, though, Nuru was quiet and contemplative, and the only sound in the kitchen was the cleaver separating the thighs from the legs of the cold white dead chickens. I went to replace the syrup bag in the dining room’s soda machine, and Joanne, the new hostess, whispered to me, “Go say something nice to Nuru. His baby daughter died this morning.” She was about a year old, his baby, and Nuru hadn’t met her yet. I glanced back at the kitchen where Nuru stood, in the same position over the cutting board where I had seen him hundreds of times. There is no time off for mourning.

A guy gets used to death when he works in an old age home; it hovers, abstract, in the air, and descends to reality with solemn regularity. The residents sometimes discuss it at dinner, referencing a lost spouse, or even contemplating their own mortality. And sometimes, setting the tables, I’d lay out one fewer placemat at table eight, or 16. Or mayhap it was the crabby gentleman at table 21 whom I wouldn’t serve tonight. The rooms of the deceased are vacated, and soon rented to new occupants, such that even newcomers are seen through the prism of death. She replaced Martha; he’s sitting in Nate’s old seat.

But those losses are expected; they are “O.K.,” somehow, when you can console yourself with phrases like “It was his time,” or “He led a long, fulfilling life.” Death was acceptable, understandable, even fair in such situations — so thought the 17-year-old, peeling the potatoes in the kitchen. “Behold her, single in the field,/ Yon solitary Highland Lass!/ Reaping and singing by herself;/ Stop here, or gently pass!”

But what Joanne had told me wasn’t “fair” at all. Death had overstepped its bounds, taking Nuru’s daughter from him. It wasn’t “her time” yet; you didn’t even give her a chance! No singing “Solitary Reaper” you, no; but Job’s Adversary, who declared, “I have been roaming all over the earth.” Roaming is random, unplanned, unforeseeable, a path along which one may meet Nate, age 98 — or a child, age one.

It could be that Nuru was pondering these things that afternoon in the kitchen, the wisdom of poets or prophets past. I wouldn’t know, because I didn’t ask, fearful of words of consolation that I couldn’t form, for a concept I couldn’t understand. Scrape, scrape went the potato peeler, and thwap, thwap went the cleaver as it fell, again and again, on the chicken. Other than that, silence in the kitchen of the old age home.

Jonathan Panter is a senior in the College of Arts  and Sciences. He may be reached at jpanter@cornellsun.com. The Storyteller appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Jonathan Panter