Boxcars, hard chili and the long walk to forever

Angela made chili for dinner last night. Like everything she makes, it was delicious, but I noted to myself that the beans were a little al dente.  After dinner we were both moving around in the kitchen and Angela frowned slightly and said, “the chili was…”

She paused. Without thinking it over thoroughly I blurted out “hard”.

“Hard?” she asked. Her slight frown turned into an unslight frown. I saw instantly that that was not what she had been about to say.

I considered making use of that much-used-by-me piece of equipment, the backpedal. Then I just thought, what the hell. We’ve been married forever and we’re going to stay married forever. Might as well just run with it.

I gruffed up my voice to sound like Sam Elliot doing his “beef, it’s what’s for dinner” schtick and said as if to advertise it to cowboys, “Ang’s Hard Chili! Made with hard beans, the old-fashioned way.”

It struck her funny. She added “Hard to come by!” and “Hard to resist!”

“Hard to chew!” I tossed in.

So we put it all together and had a good laugh:

“Ang’s Hard Chili. Hard to come by. Hard to resist. Hard to chew. Made with hard beans, the old fashioned way! A hard chili for a hard ride.”

This reminds me of another food story, one that is responsible in a way for my being married. Before I knew Angela, I knew Kelley. I met Kelley contra dancing and because she was both a knucklehead and a good dancer, I took an instant liking to her. She too me. Turned out I lived just a couple blocks from where she and her husband Marc raised their smoke. Her husband didn’t dance but preferred to stay home and work on the addition he was building on their house, and because she wanted to share some of her new dancer friends with him, she started entreating me to come over on Thursday evenings and break bread with her and Marc, then she and I could drive to the Thursday-night dance together. Halve the gas use, double the fun. I have never been one to return a blank stare to someone offering me a free dinner, and I was a wolfishly hungry bachelor in those days. It became the Thursday routine.

One evening Kelley told me she’d invited another “dinner orphan” to join us, a woman named Angela who lived on the East Side and could never manage to fix herself anything to eat before setting out for the dance.

I frowned. I only knew one Angela, and while I thought she happened to be the most fetching woman in the folk-dancing community, and one of the best dancers, I had not had pleasant experiences with her. Or rather, my strong impression was that this Angela didn’t like dancing with me. The nature of contra dancing is such that if someone of the opposite sex is anywhere in the same contra line as you you will eventually swing them. I had swung Angela many times, and had managed to secure her as my partner a few times — she was always promised two or three dances out — and I knew that her swing was silky smooth. When she twirled, her yard-long black pony-tail, banded several times along its length, would swing out behind her, terminating the élan of other dancers within its radius. She was beautiful and light on her feet, but she always seemed to be eager to be out of my grasp. Angela hates it when I tell this, and usually interrupts about now to insist that when she first met me her mind made “an association” of my face with someone else’s whom she disliked.

I told Kelley I only knew one Angela and that dinner would certainly be interesting if it was she.

She it was. We sat on paint buckets for dinner because Marc was in the middle of blowing up the dining room, and Marc, as resourceful a man as you’d ever care to meet, had rigged us up a little table of some of the flotsam in the new addition. It was a bright evening and we had a good time, the four of us, in that bright new room. In person, and with food in my mouth, I found favor in Angela’s eyes. My wit and charm somehow came through with the aid of Kelley’s cooking and the ambiance of new beginning that Marc had created by remodeling their house.

The Thursday night dinner evolved into a full blown pre-dance feast, to which Kelley would invite some subset of the dancers she wanted to get to know better, a different guest-list every week. She experimented with seating known conservatives next to known liberals, shy persons next to windbags, just to see what would emerge. We would eat and make merry, and Marc would get to meet all Kelley’s friends, and then we’d all go off dancing. Angela and I were each grandfathered in and had standing invites to the table, and we came almost every week. The dinner became something of a legend for a while, and it was the aegis under which Angela and I embarked on a deep and enduring friendship, even as we each brought dates and significant others over the course of those years. Riffing on that Costner movie about the wolves, Kelley and Marc and I began referring to Angela as “Swings Her Hair and Many are Slain.”

Marc and Kelley, whom I bless forever, eventually took it on as a kind of project to get Angela and me together. It was obvious to them that we belonged together. It was not obvious to me until much later. It became obvious to Angela one night at Kelley’s table when I told the story of my grandparents and the biscuits and the boxcars. This was a story my mother had told me, and I told it one night to the full table when I happened to be seated at one end, we’ll say the foot, and Angela happened to be seated at the head. So it seemed to her as though I was telling the story down a long corridor of witnesses directly to her, witnesses to the rightness of what she was suddenly aware that she’d been feeling toward me for some time.

For me, it was just another gleeful moment among friends when my mouth was open and food was going in and some silliness was going out.

The story? Oh, it was just a little ditty. On the morning after my grandparents’ wedding day, my grandmother made biscuits for breakfast, hoping her culinary effort would please her new husband. But the biscuits were rock hard. This was during the Depression, and they didn’t have money to go anywhere, so they had risen and breakfasted in their own apartment, beside which there happened to run some train tracks. When my grandfather was unable to do any injury to the biscuits with his teeth, the two of them started laughing. Far from a marital catastrophe, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable memories of their lives, because they took the biscuits out onto their little balcony and threw them at a passing train. They sounded off the boxcars with a hollow metallic tong!

Angela sat at the other end of the table beaming at me. I still remember the look on her face, a softening, maybe a surrender, though at the time I’m sure I only imagined she was working on a burp. She has never been able to explain to me satisfactorily what it was about my telling that anecdote that sealed it for her, but it was something about how I valued the story and the image of my forebears in that small and beautiful moment, and my enjoyment of telling it. After that, she just never stopped being near me, like Catherine in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story The Long Walk to Forever, who keeps insisting to her old sweetheart that she has to prepare for her imminent wedding, but acquiesces to a walk with him even though she doesn’t exactly know why, and knowing somewhere in her heart that the walk will never end.

Well, I don’t expect you to fall in love with me just because I related this tale. It doesn’t surprise me that magic like that would only work once. But that’s fine with me, because once turned out to be enough.


8 Responses to “Boxcars, hard chili and the long walk to forever”

  1. 1 Kelley Knickerbocker January 18, 2012 at 09:19

    I enjoyed this sweet look back down the long, hard-packed trail. So long – nearly 15 years – since that life, that house, that kitchen, that table, paintbuckets for 10 or 12 on Thursdays. So much has changed, but love has endured: yours and Angela’s for each other, mine and Marc’s for each other, yours for a good story, Angela’s for a good dance, mine for good food, Marc’s for a good home improvement project, lol. Long live love and stories. Thanks for posting.

    • 2 Matt January 18, 2012 at 20:31

      Thanks for the comment, Kel, and so much else.

      [Kelley used to work at a desk looking at a computer monitor but got interested in tile mosaics and years later she’s a mosaicking expert who teaches classes and everything. Click her name above her comment to see what she does, or go to

  2. 3 Jana January 19, 2012 at 21:49

    The story and the way you tell it . . . yet another awesome post. And I do hope you have plans to to create a book for your girls to cherish. At the very least my sister once mentioned there are companies that can take your blog and plop it into a bound book for you – I haven’t looked into it but it sure seems like someone could make a pretty penny if they did this.

    • 4 Matt January 19, 2012 at 22:27

      Thanks again for you vocal support of my efforts here. I use Adobe InDesign at work and I’ve actually had success using that too and creating a PDF out of my Ohio posts, as a test. The next step is to adjust the settings so the output PDF is of the size that can be used by the Espresso Book Machine over at the University Book Store, and hey presto! I could produce books for my family on demand. I think you should look into it too. The bugger about making a book out of one’s blog is all the images. They won’t print well on regular paper, and nicer paper gets expensive.

  3. 7 leatherhead109 January 23, 2012 at 09:19

    Just catching up on the latest post and before I even read it, I knew what it would be about. Boxcars and biscuits. I’m not suprised you used the “grand tale” to woo. (even while unaware of the wooing). I can still hear the resounding “Boom” of the biscuits in my mind as the tale was told around our own table at home.
    Remember the book you and I dream of writing? We probably only spoke of it once, but to me the thrill of getting to write such thing with you made it seem like something we would actually do. I think the draft title was something like, “Tales of our Fathers” something like that. Including the poor bloke that blew himself up with dynamite while removing a stump, I’m sure it would have been a best seller.

    You’re still on my list of heroes!

    • 8 Matt January 23, 2012 at 12:14

      I don’t remember a story about someone blowing themself up. You’ll have to roll out that yarn next time you’re in the neighborhood, because it certainly seems like a story I need in my collection. Don’t know how I missed that one. I recall at least once joking about writing a book, but I think it is in fact being “written” in a diffused manner as we tell our stories to our children. Thanks for putting me on the h list. Certainly likewise.

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