Strangers Will Stare

July 20, 2015

Posted By: Shaunescy

My wife’s had multiple surgeries on both wrists over the last couple years, first to address a Bible cyst then to begin to rebuild 40+ years of fallout from Madelung’s Deformity.  That’s resulted in casts, splints, physical therapy, a lot of temporarily diminished capabilities (in a day to day sort of way), and some questioning looks from strangers.  At The Old Hotel in Twin Bridges, I slid my bacon wrapped shrimp skewers aside to cut her steak.  At Barclay’s II in Anaconda, I pushed my steamed prawns toward my son (because I knew he’d never steal seafood from me but his sister likely would if prawns came within reaching distance) and snapped crab legs for Beth, pulling the sweet meat onto her plate and dumping the shells onto an empty spaghetti plate.  That Old Hotel dinner was for our 18th anniversary, while that dinner at Barclay’s was for my birthday.  Maybe my 43rd.

In these two moments (and a whole slew of other events), I learned two truths of the universe that I hadn’t noticed before:  First, I apparently eat a lot of seafood in restaurants.  Second, people both notice when one adult cuts food for another…and they find it odd.  Odd enough that conversation at nearby tables lags for a noticeable amount of time.  At a place like The Old Hotel, this can bring the volume level down in an entire dining area.

No one seems to realize that a woman in a cast or splint can’t effectively and efficiently use either a knife and fork or a crab cracker.

The repetition of this activity recently shook a memory loose.

I must have been ten or eleven at the time, roughly the same age my twins are right now; I’d guess it’s that correlation, more than the cutting, that brought this event bobbing to the surface in memory’s lake.  I was the only kid at a large table of family friends and relatives, all of them engaged in that type of grownup conversation that’s baffling to anyone under twenty.  I wasn’t paying attention, and I didn’t think anyone way paying attention to me.  It wasn’t a situation where I was looking to get up to some kind of trouble, though.  I was just busily cutting my steak, just as I always did:  cut the whole thing up and then move on to eating.

The woman next to me put her hand on my arm, stopping me.

“Don’t cut everything up at once.  You’re supposed to cut each bite as you eat it.  One piece at a time.  You’re doing it like a baby.”

At the time, I’m sure I must have been embarrassed.  No kid likes to be singled out suddenly—by another kid or by an adult—because he’s doing something stupid.  I probably nodded, said “Ok,” and cut my meat one piece at a time.  Actually, I still cut my meat this way, whether I’m eating in public or in private.

That’s a long-term effect caused by a single moment.  Thinking back on it, two things occur to me.  She was probably right, in terms of etiquette.  The rules of polite society likely call for food to be sliced one bite at a time, for the knife and fork to be wielded in a specific way.  But that’s pretty damn hoity-toity, considering we were eating in a restaurant where animal heads were mounted on the wall and beer was sold mostly by the pitcher.  It was a nice place, but only in a “Montana nice” sort of way that’s fully understood in places like Whitehall, Livingston, and Ennis.  Memory tells me there was a bowling team sitting at the table closest to us, even, but I bet that’s not true.  It’s just a trick of memory, taking a stupidly embarrassing moment and making it even more ridiculous.

I’ve thought about this memory a lot lately, not because it’s wildly important but because my twins have been staying with my parents for the last two weeks (a summer trip they love to take, although they’ll probably only do it for another couple years—their friends are, of course, becoming more and more important to them as they age).  The house is quiet.  So quiet that I can’t really concentrate.

I’ve mowed my lawn (a four-beer project, minimum).  I’ve made lists of chores that need to be done, like fixing the burner on my barbecue and repainting my deck.  They’re long lists, and doing these chores is surely a good way to pass the time.  I’ve skipped the “doing” part and just stuck with the planning, though.  My most recent book,  Mistakes Were Made , just published, and I seem to be following the same pattern set by the first ten books:  work like crazy in the weeks preceding publication and then go into a sort of mental hibernation as soon as I touch the physical product itself (but don’t actually read the book, since I’ll immediately find some spelling or grammar error that I missed).

This listing and mowing and hibernating has left me adrift, just reading some old Dean Koontz books and doing laundry—an aimless sort of drifting through the days that’s not exactly unproductive and is probably therapeutic.

With John and Sam gone, and this memory of cutting my meat “like a baby” rattling around in my thoughts, I’m struck by just how much my kids actually focus on the things I say to them, even things I only say once.

When Beth and I were in Salt Lake City for one of her wrist surgeries, my father-in-law stayed here in Dillon to watch the kids.  While he was here—bless him—he decided to fix the icemaker on my refrigerator (it’d blown a gasket, and I’d taken the lazy approach of turning off the water to the appliance…and not fixing anything).  He turned the fridge off, pulled it out, and began to work on it.  John and a friend came in from outside, I’m told, and asked if they could have some iced tea.  He said they could…and John just stood there.

I’d told my son, at some random point in the past when the power was out, that it’s best to leave a refrigerator closed when it’s not getting electricity for some reason (to save the perishables inside).  I only vaguely remember saying this to him.  We may have even still lived in Nevada at the time, which would mean he couldn’t have been more than six years old.

But he remembers what I said about electricity and refrigeration and takes instruction from it.

There’s no harm done.  John’s life isn’t impacted in any meaningful way.  I didn’t embarrass him, as that family friend embarrassed me three and a half decades ago.  It makes me wonder what other things he and Sam are packing around, though.

The twins come home tomorrow.  I might be able to get them to hang out with me for a few minutes before they’re off to see their friends.  Tonight, Beth and I will go to dinner to celebrate our 19th anniversary.  Her left arm is still in a brace, so I’ll cut her meat for her.

Strangers will stare.

Shane Borrowman  is a native of Anaconda, father of twins, and professor of English at The University of Montana Western.  He has published on a wide range of topics, including the development of boxing in Renaissance England, medieval Arabic philosophy, and American zombie films.  He is editor or co-editor of four writing textbooks and six collections of original scholarship.  Visit , home of Shane's blog, Kairotic Palaver.

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