A Haunted and Horrific Halloween Dinner

Nonna Kate serves up a special treat (or was it a trick)?

The dismissal bell rang, and I ran out of the old Alameda High School science building onto Central Avenue and then to Oak Street, where I eagerly made my way to Ryder’s Burgers.

Alameda Post - the old burger shop in Alameda that Gil ate at before Halloween dinnerI was anxious to get home that day, because my radio shop teacher extraordinaire, Mr. David Lynch, had found for me a No. 47 vacuum tube so I could finish the restoration of a rare 1931 Model 90 Philco Cathedral radio. I had skipped lunch so that I could pore over the schematic diagram of the unit, also provided by Mr. Lynch, and I was famished. I craved a greasy Ryder’s chili size, so I entered the crowded dining area and headed for the counter. In 1968, I couldn’t possibly conceive that 50 years hence, this venerable gastronomic treasure would be replaced by a tall municipal parking garage.

Alameda Post - an old philco radioIris, the cashier, greeted me with her standard, “Howdy high and wide, want the usual?”  I nodded yes, and she placed the order.

“Order up! Flop one, sizey duecy, roll the dice and put a roof on it.” Four minutes later, Iris handed me my chili burger with a size two (half-cup) ladle of chili, smothered in diced yellow onions and topped with a bun. To my delight, the paper bag was soaked with orange grease, so I knew I was in for a treat.

I was carrying the treasures to my home on Fernside Boulevard, and had made it as far as the New Island Market—where Stanford Health Care is now—when I heard the “ah-ooga” horn of my Uncle Dante’s 1946 Chevy van. He drove into the market’s parking lot and beckoned me over.

“You headed home, kid?” he asked. “I’ll give you a lift, but I need a favor first.” As I really wanted to eat my burger, I reluctantly got in the van. Uncle Dante sniffed and crinkled his nose. “What do you have in that bag? It’s makin’ my eyes water!”

“A chili burger from Ryder’s, smothered in onions,” I answered. “You want to share?”

“Hell no!” Uncle Dante exclaimed. “I’d be drinkin’ bourbon and Maalox all night!”

I unwrapped my chili size and dug in. Uncle Dante watched, shook his head and rolled down the window to clear the onion fumes.

“So what’s the favor?” I inquired, orange grease dripping off my chin.

Uncle Dante explained his situation. “Your Nonna Kate wants to watch that new Liberace show, but it’s on past her bedtime, so I bought her a table model TV for her bedroom, but I can’t get the damn thing to work. I even bought a fancy rabbit ear antenna for it, but there’s still no picture, just a black screen.”

Alameda Post - a greasy chili burger“Yeah,” I replied, “Nonna can’t miss Liberace or Lawrence Welk. I remember when she said, ‘They can put their shoes under my bed any time.’ When I first heard that, I took it literally, and it made no sense. Then mom explained it metaphorically, and now I have an awful mental image that will haunt me forever. Anyway, let’s see what’s going on.”

We drove to Nonna’s Broadway Victorian, then walked through the back door and entered her kitchen. She greeted us. “Well, there they are, old rum-dum and Mr. Radio. I hope you got some gizmo to make that thing work, because tonight’s Liberace show is his ‘Salute To Halloween’ and he might play my favorite ‘Liberace’s Boogie Woogie.’”

“Well, you certainly can’t miss that!” I exclaimed. “Let’s have a look.”

Nonna led Uncle Dante and me to her bedroom, and I saw a large device sitting on her dresser, with a huge set of rabbit ear antennas on top. I examined it closely, in disbelief, intrigued by how Uncle Dante had connected the antennas.

I broke the news as delicately as possible. “Nonna, Uncle Dante, the reason you can’t get a picture is because this is a microwave oven.”

Alameda Post - Liberace
The one and only Liberace, performing for one of his many TV specials.

“So, no Liberace?” barked Nonna.

“Not unless he makes frozen dinners,” I quipped sarcastically.

“Ah marrone! (darn)”  Nonna roared as she stormed from the room.

“ Can you exchange it for a TV, Uncle Dante?” I asked.

“The truck it fell off of doesn’t take exchanges, right, old rum-dum?” Nonna yelled.

“Ah, what are you gonna do?” replied Uncle Dante, as he desperately turned knobs and adjusted the antennas, to no avail. Nonna came back into the room.

“So, Gil, what’s that thing good for?” she asked.

“All kinds of stuff,”  I answered. “It’s great for making popcorn, heating things up, defrosting.”

The mention of defrosting had Nonna sold. “Defrosting! Really? I’ve got 12 ducks in the freezer that Dante and Botch Bacigalupi shot down at the Hayward salt flats,” she said.

“Were they sober?” I inquired. Nonna laughed.

“The ducks were, but Botch and Dante were hammered.”

“Are you sure they’re ducks?” I questioned.

Nonna thought about that, then answered, “Well, tomorrow night’s my annual Halloween dinner, so we might have a treat or maybe a trick.”

Alameda Post - a microwave to cook Halloween dinnerI showed Nonna how the microwave worked, and she defrosted the ducks, right there in her bedroom.

On Halloween night, our family of eight met at Nonna’s kitchen table for Halloween dinner. Seven of us were seated, but my 17-year-old cousin Donna excused herself from the duck dinner by saying “Gag me, gross!” She stationed herself by the front door, feeding the trick-or -treaters.

We should have been warned about the Halloween dinner because Nonna’s kitchen smelled very fishy, and beside each white plate was a little cup.

“What are the cups for, Nonna?” I asked.

“That’s for you to spit out the birdshot,” she replied. I was stunned, but was hoping it  might be one of Nonna’s pranks.

Halloween dinner was served and Nonna announced, “Because it’s Halloween, we’re eatin’ American, so no antipasto, zuppa or vino. Just duckies, rice and peas country style, and little bottles of Coca-Cola.”

Alameda Post - Halloween dinner, a "ducky" The ducks were served and looked and smelled ghastly, like steaming, brown and black, bird-sized mounds that were oozing some sort of viscous liquid. Nonna picked up her duck like corn on the cob and took a big bite. Immediately, she leaned over her little cup and went “pshtoo-plink,” spitting out several birdshot. My mom, sister and I were aghast.

“A little fish-a-doon, these duckies, but tasty,” Nonna chortled.

While my mom and sister watched in horror, I took a bite of duck, then spit out the fishy, oily, mushy, slimy meat and several birdshot. I was feeling queasy, and rinsed the vile taste from my mouth with Coke.

I whispered to mom and sis, “Just eat the rice and peas. Those aren’t ducks, they’re seagulls.”

As Nonna and my step-family gleefully ate, the kitchen resonated with loud “pshtoo-plinks” as they each filled their cups with steaming birdshot. In a clumsy attempt to inject some levity into this surreal Halloween dinner scene, I tried to segue into Uncle Dante’s microwave fiasco.

“So, Nonna, were you able to watch Liberace after all?”

Her face brightened. She set down her half-devoured “duck,” spit out more birdshot, then  happily exclaimed, “I sure did! He was wonderful, and he played Liberace’s boogie-woogie. You should have seen me. I was shimmyin’ and shakin,’ cruisin’ and movin,’ glidin’ and slidin,’  twistin’ and shoutin’ and shakin’ my groove thang. Gil, your Nonna can still boogie!”

I blanched, covered my eyes, then gasped,“Thank you Nonna, for giving me another awful mental image that will haunt me forever.”

“My pleasure. Happy Halloween!” she said, followed by another pshtoo-plink.

Gil Michaels will never boogie at [email protected]. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Gil-Michaels

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