(Issue 13, 1988)
My mother was a den mother, but she wasn’t fanatical about it. Unlike Mrs. Kerner—the scoutmaster’s wife and leader of our rival den—she didn’t own an official uniform, nor did she attempt to educate us in the finer points of scouting, stuff like knot-tying, fire-building, and secret hand shakes. She considered herself a glorified babysitter and pretty much let us do as we pleased at our meetings, just as long as we amused ourselves and kept out of her hair.
We had a den meeting the day the Wonderful Wiener Man came to town in his Frankmobile. When we expressed a unanimous desire to go down to Stop & Shop to meet him, my mother said it was fine with her, especially since she had some shopping to do anyway.
Before we left I ran upstairs and got my autograph book. My collection of signatures was getting impressive. Most of them came from obscure baseball players to whom I’d written fan letters, but a handful were from TV personalities who had recently visited Stop & Shop to promote their products. In the few months since the mini-mall’s Grand Opening, I had met the Pillsbury Doughboy, Mr. Clean, Cap’n Crunch, and Chef Boy-R Dee. I found it exciting to meet these characters in real life, just a few blocks from home. They were friendly, too. Baseball players at the stadium sometimes looked hurt or angry when you asked them to sign your scorecard, but the TV personalities were always delighted to chat, give autographs, and hand out free samples. I especially liked Mr. Clean, who let me squeeze his biceps and rub his bald shiny head.
I expected good things from the Wiener Man. He was driving his Frankmobile to supermarkets across America “to spread the wonderful word about Wonderful Wieners,” a new brand of hot dog. In the past few days there had been a blitz of radio commercials publicizing his visit to our town. The commercials promised free food and lots of fun surprises.
It was a warm October day. We marched in double file to the mini-mall, our feet crunching down on the red and yellow leaves carpeting the sidewalk. My mother led the way. Her partner was Harold “the Dork” Daggett, the newest member of the den. Harold had only been with us for a few weeks. He had just switched to public school from St. Agnes, and Mrs. Kerner had used that as an excuse to kick him out of the Catholic school den, where no one liked him anyway, and dump him on us. When we heard about the transfer we presented my mother with a petition saying Harold was a jerk and we didn’t want him. My mother ripped the petition into confetti; Harold joined us the following week. We got our revenge by ignoring him when she was around and ganging up on him when she wasn’t. She got her revenge, at least on me, by becoming good friends with him. She claimed that he was the smartest boy she’d ever met.
My partner was the den freak, Allen Falco. Allen had hair down to his shoulders and refused to wear the regulation cub scout uniform—he wore the shirt but substituted bell bottom dungarees for crisp blue trousers and tied the neckerchief around his head in an attempt to look like Jimi Hendrix. We were the last pair in line. I kept my eye on my mother as we walked. She kept smiling and touching Harold’s shoulder. I heard her say, “That’s fascinating, Harold.”
Then Allen dropped a bombshell: a few nights ago, when his Dad was out, he had seen his brother’s girlfriend with her shirt off. Allen’s brother was a hippie. He looked like Jesus and wore an army coat with a peace sign on the back. His girlfriend looked just like he did, minus the beard. Allen said that he got out of bed for a drink of water and she was just sitting there on the couch, watching TV with her tits hanging out. Allen was a good friend of mine, but I often had the feeling that our lives took place on different planets.
“So what happened?” I whispered.
“Nothing,” he said. “I got a drink of water.”
I walked straight into Billy Turcott, who bumped into Gary Zaleski in a chain reaction. My mother called a halt to our march.
“Harold has something he wants to share with us,” she announced.
Harold stood beside her looking worried, his pudgy body stiff at attention. He wore thick glasses and the left side of his shirt was decorated with merit badges and little gold stars. He had a squeaky voice.
“Even though we often think of hot dogs as an American food, they were actually invented way back in the Middle Ages in Frankfurt, West Germany. That’s why we sometimes call them frankfurters. Another popular American food, the ham burger, is named for the German city of Hamburg.”
Billy Turcott raised his hand. “Is there a German city called Dork?”
My mother frowned and Harold turned red. He looked like he wanted to cry but wasn’t going to give us the pleasure of watching.
The Frankmobile was parked in the far corner of the lot, where Stop & Shop meets Ye Olde Liquor Store. My heart sank when I saw it. I had taken the name seriously and expected to see a huge hot dog on wheels. But it was just a pink Winnebago.
My mother veered off from the group. “I’m going shopping,” she said. “I’ll meet you in front of the store in fifteen minutes.”
We crossed the parking lot and got our first glimpse of the Wiener Man. He looked like a human hot dog and kids were standing in line to shake his hand. Next to him, a woman from Stop & Shop stood behind a hot dog stand and passed out free Wonderful Wieners. The Wiener Man was taller than the yellow umbrella on the hot dog stand. We started walking faster.
The line formed between two rows of orange safety cones. There were about twenty kids ahead of us, most of them with their mothers. Not far from the Frankmobile, in front of Brite Boy Launderette, a bunch of tough-looking teenagers were slouched against a black GTO, smoking cigarettes and scowling at the Wiener Man like they knew him from somewhere and hated his guts.
While we waited, I tried to think up some good questions to ask him. I knew from experience that if you wanted to have a conversation with a celebrity, you had to get the ball rolling yourself. I made a mental list of the possibilities: How did you get your job? Who do you like better—Joe Frazier or Muhammad Ali? Do you own a motorcycle? What’s your favorite TV show? Were you ever in the service, and if so, what was your rank? Have you travelled to foreign countries? Do you know Chef Boy-R-Dee? What’s your favorite sport?
We were stuck in the middle of the line when Ricky Stoner, a kindergartener from our neighborhood, walked past us holding a Wonderful Wiener with both hands. He seemed to be concentrating deeply, like it was difficult to walk and carry a hot dog at the same time. Ricky got picked on a lot because something was wrong with his head—people said it was still soft, like a baby’s—and his mother made him wear a Little League batting helmet all the time for protection. We called him Kazoo, after the martian on The Flintstones, who also wore a funny helmet.
“Hey Kazoo,” Billy Turcott called out. “Wait up.”
Kazoo stopped. He tilted his head sideways like a dog to look at Billy.
“Whatcha got there?” Billy asked.
“Hot dog,” said Kazoo. “They’re free.”
Billy stepped out of line and put his hand on Kazoo’s shoulder, like the two of them were friends. “Can I have a bite?”
Kazoo glanced hopefully up at Billy and shook his head. Billy lifted his hand and slapped it down three times on the dome of Kazoo’s blue helmet. Kazoo just stood there with his eyes squeezed shut and took it.
“Kazoo,” Billy said thoughtfully, “do you want to be a cub scout next year?”
Kazoo nodded. He held the hot dog tightly to his chest.
There was a little smear of mustard on his sweatshirt.
“Then you better give me a bite. It’s your initiation.”
“That’s right,” said Freddy DiLeo. “We all get a bite.” Freddy was Billy’s best friend.
Kazoo looked down at his Wonderful Wiener and up at seven cub scouts. The hot dog was only four bites big.
“He’s lying!” Harold cried out. “There’s no such thing as initiation.”
“Shut up, Dork,” Billy said. He glared at Kazoo. “Hand it over. Or else.”
“Leave him alone, Billy,” I said. “There’s enough for every one.” I hadn’t planned on saying anything, but after Harold spoke up, things looked different to me.
Kazoo sensed his chance and trotted away. Billy didn’t chase after him. He got back in line and looked at me like I’d hurt his feelings. “What’s the matter with you? I wasn’t gonna take the little twerp’s wiener.”
“Oh yes you were,” Harold said. His voice was shaking. “You should pick on someone your own size.”
“Oh yeah?” Billy poked Harold in the chest. “You’re about my size, Dork.” He hauled off and socked Harold in the arm, right above the elbow. Just from the sound you could tell it hurt. Harold didn’t even say ouch; he just reached up and started rubbing. This time I kept my mouth shut.
Up close you could see that the Wiener Man was not as tall as he first appeared. His face was painted pink and stuck out of a hole in the middle of the hot dog suit. He wore a wiener-colored leotard shirt and wiener-colored gloves. Only his dirty white sneakers kept him from being uniformly pink.
We were next in line. In front of us the Wiener Man posed for a picture with a little blond-haired girl in a red and white checkered dress. The two of them stood perfectly still with smiles frozen on their faces.
“Say cheese,” said the girl’s mother.
Just as she snapped the picture, one of the tough guys by the GTO flicked his cigarette at the Wiener Man. It arced through the air, sailed past the little girl’s face and landed on the blacktop at the Wiener Man’s feet.
The tough guys laughed. There were four of them. The one who flicked the cigarette had long hair and a dirty peach-fuzz moustache. His faded dungaree jacket was covered with graffiti.
The Wiener Man gave the little girl back to her mother, then turned to the tough guys. He pointed to the cigarette. It was still lit; smoke curled up from it in a lazy S-shaped pattern.
“Does this belong to one of you gentlemen?” he asked.
“Maybe,” said the guy who flicked it. “Maybe not.” His friends laughed. They all had long hair parted in the middle, but the similarity ended there. One was chubby and red-faced. One reminded me of a rat. The third one looked confused.
The Wiener Man’s voice was calm. “Come over here and pick it up.”
The tough guys looked at each other. “Did you hear that?” the leader said. “Mr. Tube Steak here wants me to pick up that butt.”
The Rat touched his fly. “Yeah, I got a tube steak for him.” The woman from Stop & Shop stepped out from behind the cart and grabbed the Wiener Man’s hand. “I’ll go get the manager,” she said.
“Forget the manager,” he told her. “I can handle these guys myself.”
I glanced at Allen. His eyes were wide with wonder. There was going to be a fight. This was more than we could have hoped for in our wildest dreams.
The Wiener Man put his hands where his hips must have been. His arms looked stumpy because they only stuck out from the elbows down. “Are you gonna come over here, or am I gonna go over there?”
“I think you’re gonna have to come over here,” said the tough guy.
“Okay.” The Wiener Man walked slowly toward the GTO. The costume bunched up around his ankles, so he could only take tiny shuffling steps. Still, he looked imposing when he moved. The guy who flicked the cigarette put up his dukes and stepped forward. His friends stayed back by the car.
There was a momentary standoff. The Wiener Man towered over his opponent, but he didn’t seem eager to take the first punch.
“Come on, Weenie Man,” the tough guy sneered. “Put your money where your mouth is.”
It was a one-punch fight. The Wiener Man faked high with his left and came in low with his right, landing a solid gut shot that folded the tough guy right in half. When the punk was doubled over and gasping for air, the Wiener Man grabbed a hunk of his hair and led him over to the cigarette butt. When the tough guy picked it up, everyone cheered.
The Wiener Man called all seven of us up at once. After we introduced ourselves, he made a speech.
“Scouting’s a fine thing,” he said. “It’ll give you direction in life, teach you the right values, keep you off the street. What ever you do, don’t grow up to be wiseguys. Wiseguys don’t know it, but they’re going nowhere fast.”
He gave us a long, serious look, then turned to the woman behind the hot dog stand. “Lois, why don’t you give these fine young men a Wonderful Wiener on me. Boys, I’ll be frank with you”—he winked for those of us who caught the joke—”in the world of wieners, they’re the winners.”
“I’d be glad to,” said Lois. She took a roll out of the plastic bag and spread it apart on her palm with metal tongs.
The Wiener Man smiled when I asked for his autograph. “What’s your name, son?” He wrote his name with confidence and flair, then snapped the book shut with my pen marking the page. “There you go.” He handed it back to me.
He seemed friendly, so I decided to try one of my questions. “Sir,” I said, “have you ever met Chef Boy-R-Dee?”
But he didn’t hear me. He was gazing over my head at the doors of Stop & Shop. I turned and saw my mother standing in front of the store, hugging a grocery bag with both arms, looking around for her scouts.
“Pardon me.” The Wiener Man squeezed right between me and Allen. His suit was soft and spongy to the touch. He shuffled through the parking lot as best he could, on a beeline for my mother. He had to move fast to dodge a long train of shopping carts. The kid who was pushing them wasn’t paying attention.
“Ann,” he called out. “Is that you?”
Ann was my mother’s name.
My mother’s face scrunched up above the groceries jutting out of the bag. Then she smiled. She had a really pretty smile. “Mike?” She didn’t sound convinced.
The Wiener Man stuck out his little arms as he approached her. He hugged my mother right there in the parking lot. A can of tomato sauce spilled out of the bag and rolled toward Grand Avenue. I wanted to chase it, but my legs wouldn’t move. My mother reached around with one hand and clutched a fistful of the wiener suit. I felt like everyone at the mini-mall was staring straight at me, demanding an explanation.
I removed the groceries one by one from the bag and handed them to my mother. She ranged gracefully around the kitchen, opening and closing cabinets, rearranging things according to her private system.
In the parking lot she had introduced the Wiener Man as Mr. Something-or-Other, a friend of hers from high school. She held his wrist and blushed so deeply that her face was almost the same color as his.
He pointed to me. “This one must be yours, Ann. I recognize that mouth.”
My mother laid her hand on my head. ”This is Buddy. I’m very proud of him.”
The Wiener Man sighed. “It’s a small world, isn’t it?”
My mother put her hand over her mouth and giggled. “I’m sorry, Mike. You just look so silly.”
He nodded, his face moving independently inside the costume, and said he had to get back to work.
My mother opened the freezer door and stared for a long time at the jumble of ice cube trays and frozen meat. White vapors swirled around her head. If my father had been home, he would have yelled at her for wasting electricity.
“He was nice.”
My words startled her. She shut the door without taking anything from the freezer. “I’ve always thought so,” she said. She went to the table and plunged her arm into the empty bag. “Did you see a can of tomato sauce in here?”
“Darn,” she said. ”I’ll have to make the pork chops. Your father won’t be too thrilled about that.”
While my mother cooked, I sat on the living room couch and read Strange But True Football Stories, a book I’d just checked out of the library. The first one was about Jim Marshall, a defensive end on the Minnesota Vikings, who picked up a fumble and ran the wrong way for a touchdown, actually scoring a safety for the other team. I couldn’t make up my mind whether his mistake was funny or sad. He got spun around after picking up the loose ball and lost his bearings; the roar of the crowd drowned out his teammates’ desperate cries. Marshall was totally happy as he ran: it was every lineman’s dream, nothing but green grass between him and the end zone. He did a joyful touchdown dance and didn’t begin to understand his real situation until players from the other team swarmed all over him shouting congratulations. His own teammates clutched their helmets; the stadium echoed with laughter. Even the referee was smiling.
The phone rang in the kitchen. A few minutes later my mother came into the living room and asked if I was hungry. I told her I wasn’t; I’d eaten a Wonderful Wiener before we left the mini-mall.
“Good,” she said. “Mr. Amalfi wants us to drop by before he goes. I’ll just stick the pork chops in the oven. We can pick up your father at the store and all eat together for once.”
The mini-mall was almost deserted when we returned that evening. A few cars were clustered near the entrance of Stop & Shop. Beyond them, the Frankmobile stood alone in the corner of the lot. My mother squinted, as though it hurt her eyes to look at it.
“What a hideous color,” she said. “It looks like chewed-up bubble gum.”
She glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then knocked on the side door. It swung open and the Wiener Man helped us climb inside. Only he wasn’t the Wiener Man anymore. He was this normal-looking guy, just a little taller than my mother, wearing tan corduroy pants and a blue sweater. He had removed his gloves and scrubbed the makeup off his face. He was still wearing the beat-up sneakers.
The Frankmobile looked pretty big from outside, but inside it was close and cluttered, like someone had taken an entire house and squashed it into one room. The three of us stood huddled between the door and the sink that jutted out from the opposite wall. The carpeted floor sagged beneath our weight.
The Wiener Man smiled at my mother. He had dark curly hair and a boyish face. “Ann,” he said. “You look terrific. You haven’t changed a bit.”
“It’s a nice place you got here,” she said. She turned to get a better look and her purse swung into the side of my head.
“This is the kitchen,” he said. “I don’t use it much.” There were cabinets above the sink and a tiny refrigerator next to the door. A small wooden table folded down from one wall. An unplugged toaster sat on top of it, along with a stack of magazines and a houseplant in red clay pot.
“Let me give you the grand tour,” said the Wiener Man.
The trailer swayed gently, like a boat, as we followed him through a bead curtain into his bedroom. We stood single file between the wall and bed. There wasn’t much to look at, except for a portable TV—it had aluminum foil flags attached to the rabbit ears—plopped in the middle of the sunken mattress. My mother asked the Wiener Man about his parents.
“Pop passed away two years ago,” he said. “Cancer.”
“I wish I’d known,” she said. “I could’ve at least sent a card.”
“It was bad,” he said. “We weren’t even on speaking terms when he died. He never forgave me for not taking over the business.”
“How’s your mother?”
He frowned. “She’s a pain in the ass, as usual. All she does is complain. Like I don’t have enough problems of my own.”
He opened the bathroom door. My mother peeked inside and laughed. I couldn’t see what she was looking at.
I sat next to my mother on a padded bench behind the kitchen table and played a game called “Hi-Q” while she talked to the Wiener Man. It was a neat game, something like Chinese Checkers, but harder. The Wiener Man told me that he used to spend hours playing it on nights when he couldn’t sleep. After a while it got too easy for him, so he took up crossword puzzles. I listened to their conversation between jumps. Mostly it was about people I’d never heard of. Harvey owned an appliance store. Dolly finally got divorced from Phil. Someone named “Neemo” got transferred to Chicago. Angie had three beautiful daughters and a no-good husband. They both laughed when she told him that Louise had married a dentist, this little dumpy guy.
I didn’t get the joke, but I laughed anyway. I was really enjoying myself. I liked the coziness and dim light inside the Frankmobile, the feeling of being hidden from the world but not alone. It reminded me of a trip I’d taken with my parents the summer after kindergarten. We rented a pop-up camper—the kind that emerges magically from a box when you tum a crank and took it to Cooperstown, New York. It rained the whole time we were there, but we didn’t mind. We spent our days browsing through the Baseball Hall of Fame, touching old uniforms, buying souvenirs, talking to Babe Ruth on a special telephone. We couldn’t barbecue because of the weather, so we ate all our meals at this diner that had a revolving glass case filled with the biggest cakes and pies I’d ever seen. When we got back to the camper my father fell right asleep, but my mother and I stayed up late playing Go-Fish by flashlight, whispering our questions and answers over my father’s slow breathing and the steady patter of rain on the roof.
Staring at the Hi-Q board and listening to their voices, I let myself imagine we were a family. It seemed like a fun way to live, a permanent vacation, the three of us living inside the Frankmobile, playing games and eating out all the time. I saw us zooming down the highway, a pink blur passing through a landscape of cactus and snow-capped mountains on our way to the next supermarket. But I saw something else, too: my real father wandering through our house, checking in the closets and under the beds, wondering where we’d gone without him.
My mother touched my hand. “Buddy, Mr. Amalfi wants to know if we’re happy.”
I shrugged. “Sure. I guess so.”
She laughed and messed my hair, like I’d just done some thing cute. She pretended to count on her fingers. “I can’t believe it, Mike. I’ve been married for almost eight years now.”
“That’s a long time,” said the Wiener Man.
“I wish you could meet Jim,” she said. “I think you’d like him.”
The Wiener Man nodded. “Jim’s a lucky man.”
“What about you?” she asked. “Are you happy?”
He uncrossed his legs and sat up straight on top of his little woodgrain refrigerator. “Happy?” he repeated, as if he hadn’t understood the question. “I don’t know about that. This is a decent job. I like seeing the country and meeting the kids. But it gets lonely sometimes.”
“Why don’t you get married?” my mother said. “You’re still young.”
“I don’t feel so young,” said the Wiener Man.
There was a long lull in the conversation. They just looked at each other. My mother took the gray purse from her lap and set it on the table. She unclasped it and took out her wallet. I thought she was going to give some money to the Wiener Man but she looked at me instead.
“Buddy, could you do me a favor? Run into Stop & Shop and pick up a can of tomato sauce, okay? Contadina. The smaller can, not the big huge one. That’s in aisle six.” She pressed a crumpled dollar bill into my hand. “You can get a candy bar with the change.”
I glanced at the Hi-Q board. There was no way I could win. “Right now?” I asked.
She nodded. “Wait for me outside. I’ll only be a few more minutes.”
I stepped out from behind the table. The Wiener Man was staring glumly at his feet. I wanted to cheer him up.
“Tell her about that kid you pounded today,” I suggested.
The night had grown cooler. High up, the sky remained a deep daytime blue, but near the ground it was dark. All the lights were on in the parking lot. I went over to the front window of Stop & Shop and stood on tiptoe to peer inside the dazzling store. I couldn’t see any customers, just two check-out girls in green smocks talking across three empty counters.
I shoved the dollar into my pocket and hopped a ride on a nearby shopping cart. I glided toward Grand Avenue, gathering speed on the downward slope. I found the can of tomato sauce right where I thought it would be, lying against a concrete parking barrier. It wasn’t even dented.
I walked past the Frankmobile and sat down on the curb in front of the Launderette. I amused myself by tossing the can into the air with one hand and catching it with the other, enjoying the swift solid pull of gravity as it smacked into my palm. Across Grand Avenue, a chalky fingernail moon hung at a strange tilt over the jagged line of housetops.
The voice came from Harold Daggett. Like me, he was still wearing his uniform. He was also carrying a gym bag. “I saw you sitting here,” he explained. He sat down beside me and set the gym bag between his feet. “Thanks for sticking up for me today. I didn’t think you liked me.”
“You were right,” I said. “Billy was acting like a jerk.”
Harold looked at the Frankmobile. “Is he nice?”
“Yeah, pretty nice. My mom’s in there.”
“I want to go with him,” Harold said.
“You mean like running away?”
Harold nodded. “I hate it here,” he said. “Do you think he’ll take me with him?”
“I’m not sure,” I told him. “Probably.”
We didn’t talk for a while. The parking lot was flat and empty, almost like a lake, except for a few stray shopping carts that here and there gleamed silver in the artificial light.
“By the way,” I said, “It was interesting what you told us today. That stuff about hot dogs and hamburgers.”
“Oh that.” He shrugged. “It was in the encyclopedia.”
Seconds later, the door of the Frankmobile swung open. My mother stepped down onto the pavement.
“Buddy?” she called out.
I walked into the light, leaving Harold behind me, alone and invisible in the shadows.
“Over here,” I answered.
“We’re late,” my mother said. “We have to walk fast.”
My father was the assistant manager at a store called Lamp City. It was located just a few blocks from the mini-mall, on an otherwise deserted part of Grand Avenue. After dark you could see it from far away, a small solitary building surrounded by a smoky yellow halo.
There must have been a thousand lamps in there. They hung from the ceiling, stood on the floor, rested on shelves and tables. My father hated it. The glare hurt his eyes and gave him headaches. He tried wearing sunglasses for a while, but his boss got mad. When he got home at night he sat in his chair in the living room and ate dinner in the dark. Some nights his eyes were so sore he couldn’t bear to watch TV or read the paper.
He waited with his hands and face pressed against the front window. His expression changed when he saw us. He smiled and raised one finger, then disappeared in toward the rear of the store. When he hit the master switch, that whole galaxy of lamps went black. My mother turned to me in the sudden darkness and asked if I had done my homework.
Copyright 1988, Columbia Journal