TRIBES by Helen Rafferty

I was slouching through my junior year of high school when I first donned the black-and-white uniform of the catering class. My mother and father had held off on sending me out to work, hoping I would appreciate the opportunity to concentrate on my studies – they hoped in vain.

By the age of seventeen, I had completed my slow slide from A student to track kid; one of those lost souls who spent their high school years looking as un-athletic as possible while hanging around the athletic field. My sisters were picking up the slack, staying out of trouble and studying. That left the position of family ne’er-do-well wide open for me, and I was happy to fall into it.

But in our tribe, even the ne’er-do-well gig came with responsibilities; the first of which was the no matter how drunk one got on Friday night, one dragged what was left of one’s sorry ass into work on Saturday morning. My mother had gotten me a job at Mr. Fineman’s kosher catering hall in Rego Park, Queens. She and about a dozen other Irish ladies had an envied lock on the weekend events there. So, snarling and shaking, I’d crawl into the van when it picked us up and curl into a fetal ball while women who had already prayed the rosary, done two loads of laundry, and made breakfast for a family of seven or eight laughed at my sorry state.

“Sure, she’s green as a shamrock,” or “Ah, she’ll be right by the time we get there,” the women would offer amiably to my mother, who would look out the window and grind her back molars. They would be diamond-hard stumps by the time I left home, adding my mother’s dental woes to my karmic load. The drive from one end of the BQE to the other seemed endless. I’d hold my breath in a vain attempt to subdue my hangover by depriving it of oxygen.

Most people will admit that a wedding is a trial to all but the closest friends and relations of the newly minted couple. The reception is a burden to be borne with whatever support is at hand – a sense of humor, a love of duty, a gallon of cheap catering hall wine. The wedding guests I observed during my catering career relied on a combination of resignation and inebriation to shoulder the load. This made for a clientele who were, by turns, demanding and oblivious. So the terror I felt when I spilled a drink on an expensive dress or tripped a guest as he or she twirled around the edge of the parquet dance floor was quelled by the knowledge that such mistakes would be eclipsed by the family dramas to come. Some unacknowledged but inviolate code set the standard quota for wedding disasters. There had to be one psycho bridesmaid – inevitably found vomiting in the bathroom or screwing the limo driver – and at least three screaming, crying kids. And the new mothers-in-law were obligated to compete for the “Most Mournful Expression” award.

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Brooklyn born and bred, Helen Rafferty now resides in beautiful Mamaroneck, New York with her husband and three daughters. Her short stories have appeared in many journals, including Lynx Eye, Sanskrit and Studio One. Her essays chronicle the heinous crimes of her youth and her subsequent cruel banishment to the suburbs. This ability to see high drama in the most mundane circumstances has led to a reporting job for her local newspaper.

Helen is a recipient of the Gurfein Writing Fellowship at Sarah Lawrence College, an ordained minister, and a true believer in the future of e-books – even if she is not quite sure what they are.

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