CHAPTER ONE: THE RIDE TO THE BOTTOM
My official arrival at rock bottom occurred on May 7, 2002, the day of the annual Slip Melman Birthday Ride—something I invented five years earlier to honor my grandfather. On Slip's seventieth birthday, back in 1977, my father gave him a cutting-edge, fourth-generation, two-door, yellow Cadillac Coup de Ville. The yellow Caddy was the crème de la crème of cars, and Slip drove it until he could no longer drive.
The surrender of his license occurred around 1992, the same year I dropped out of medical school. I was floundering, so he loaned the car to me. When he died a few years later, he left it to me, along with a pile of illegally acquired cash. I've been driving it since then. And every year, on Slip's birthday, my niece, my nephew, and I bring a cake to the car, and I retell the Story of the Cadillac so we never forget who we are and from where we came. It's our tradition. Our personal Passover. But traditions, I suppose, are made to be broken, and it seemed my sister Marcy was looking to bring ours to an end.
The threats began as soon as I pulled up in front of her bakery last Sunday to collect Estie and Ryan. As usual, the bakery was bustling. On Sunday mornings, folks—mostly women from the various and sundry walks of Marcy's life—fill the bakery because Marcy offers the "Melman Special," a discount on the donuts of the day. After 9/11, Marcy said it was our duty to build community. "And if I can do it with discounted pastry, I will," she declared to anyone who would listen.
Apparently it was working, since when I honked that morning, the kids came running from a store teeming with women. Marcy, with apron on and hairnet in place, followed with the birthday cake. After handing me the cake, she told me, as always, to be careful and to not buy them any more presents.
Then the derailing began. Marcy turned her skinny neck toward the backseat and winked—a disturbing, mouth-opening, eye-scrunching gesture. The kids gave maniacal winks back at her. A cop could have positively identified them as her children on the winks alone.
"Subtle," I said.
"Enjoy the cake," Marcy answered. Then she slammed the door and ran back to the bakery.
"What was that all about?" I asked, looking into the rearview mirror.
"What?" Estie said. She glared at Ryan.
"I'm not going anywhere 'til someone spills it. I saw the winking. I wasn't born yesterday."
They both stared straight ahead, trying not to laugh.
I threw the car into park and pulled out my wallet. I waved a dollar in the air. Everyone in the Melman family except Marcy is genetically programmed to respond to money.
Ryan and Estie looked at each other and then at me. "We're good," Estie said.
I pulled out a five. They again looked at each other.
"Each?" Ryan asked.
"Whatever it takes," I told him.
"Done," he said.
Two fives floated into the backseat, and the news flowed forward that I was too old for the Ride.
"We don't think you're too old," Ryan clarified. "Mom does."
"Why am I too old?" I shouldn't have asked. I didn't want an answer. "You're thirty-five," Estie said as she folded her five-spot and tucked it into the light blue purse she started carrying this year.
"So what?" I answered.
"If you don't wake up and smell the coffee, you're going to die alone," Ryan explained.
"There you go again, listening to your mother. You know, you're not supposed to listen to her. We are all young enough for the Ride. Ten is young. Thirteen is young. Thirty-five is young."
"Thirty-five's not that young," Ryan said.