Thursday was hot dog night. Thursday was hot dog night because we were Jehovah’s Witnesses and Thursday was also book study night. Book study night was basically a book club except you only read the books the Witnesses themselves published and discussed all the signs evident in this rotten world that showed us all the end was nigh.
There were three weekly meetings we were obliged to attend but book study night was the only one that happened on a weeknight. Me and my brothers got home from school at about 3:45 which left me a tiny window in which to finish homework and set up a tape for The Simpsons because this was the only show on TV I could not miss and make sure I had a shirt and tie and pants to wear to the meeting. If I was feeling fancy I would wear a blazer I got at the Salvation Army. The sleeves were too short so my cuffs stuck out defiantly and I could not fasten any of the buttons without fear of popping them.
My mom got home from her job at the picture frame factory a little before 5 which left her even less time to feed us dinner before we had to leave. Hence hot dog night. I ate everything my mom cooked but my middle brother was a little pickier and my youngest brother was hard to please in the food department. Hot dogs were something everyone would eat. Hot dogs left no room for debate or complaint. Hot dogs could be wolfed down in a few short minutes yet leave you feeling full for the rest of the night so your stomach would not be growling midway through book study night.
Thursday was hot dog night when it was 15 degrees out and we had to wear longjohns to stay warm in the house. Thursday was hot dog night when it was near 100 and so humid you could chew the air. It was hot dog night when the sun had been down for hours and it was hot dog night when the sun was still up and we would’ve gone back outside after dinner and shot hoops or played Wiffleball in the front yard if we had the time. Thursday was always hot dog night.
The hot dogs were usually Ball Park brand. I assume these were the cheapest to be found at the Grand Union or Shop-Rite because price was the reason behind all food purchasing decisions. Ball Park boasted that they plumped when you cooked them but in reality they exploded. The skin suppurated to reveal hideous quivering hot dog flesh that looked like it had stepped on a landmine.
To be fair to the Ball Park people this may have resulted from my mother boiling the hot dogs instead of grilling them because I had an intense loathing of anything “burnt.” I had no other food issues unless you count eating anything you shoved in front of my face as an issue. “Burnt” was my one taboo and I had a pretty wide definition of “burnt.” Anything with grill marks that wasn’t a hamburger qualified.
So the hot dogs had to be boiled a la street cart dirty-water dogs. This was just as well because boiling was also the safest method that allowed my mom to get dressed and “cook” at the same time.
When the pot of Ball Parks was placed in the middle of the kitchen table the wounded hot dogs bobbed against each other like buoys in a grease-spotted lake. They slipped away from all attempts to fork them onto your plate.
The hot dogs were flanked by a bowl of Heinz pork & beans that were mostly for me even though I despised that gelatinous cube of “pork” they came with. I had to find that thing immediately and fish it out for fear of accidentally eating it. Once when my mom was in a gourmet mood she added a pat of butter to the beans and every hot dog night after that I asked if she could do it again because it was delicious. She usually said no which I could not understand because I wasn’t aware of cholesterol and also had no self control when it came to food. Exhibit B in this case was the innumerable times I’d burned my tongue beyond recognition while sampling food from pots still gurgling on the stove.
Mac & cheese was the other perpetual side dish for hot dog night. I was not yet aware of any kind of mac & cheese that did not originate from a cardboard box. Kraft was too rich for our blood. More often we were consigned to Shop-Rite store brand. Two boxes were needed to satisfy the mac & cheese lust of all three kids in the house. I liked to mash the beans and mac & cheese together. Sometimes I’d slice up a hot dog to add to the mix because the combination masked some of the hot dogs’ deficiencies. On their own the hot dogs tasted vaguely metallic and had the consistency of wet fleece but were improved vastly when sliced and integrated into a giant starchy yam-colored mound.
We only ever ate potato buns.
You were supposed to be dressed for the book study before you ate. If you weren’t dressed before dinner then you needed to get dressed the minute you were done eating. You could not dawdle. Sometimes one of us kids would drag our feet knowing that if it got too late mom wouldn’t go to the meeting because she was embarrassed to show up late. But if the delay was kid-caused then the kids were punished. No TV or Nintendo. Not to mention that my mom would be in a rotten mood for the rest of the night. Getting out of this obligation under such circumstances was a Pyrrhic victory at best. So it was best to hope for some sort of organic delay like a dead car battery or the flu or otherwise accept your fate.
The book study meeting was held at an elder’s house a good 40-minute drive away so we had to be out of the house by 6:15 come hell or high water. My mom’s car was like most of our clothes in that it was a hand-me-down. It was a Nissan Sentra acquired from an aunt who’d upgraded to a minivan. It had an aftermarket tape deck on a curious mount behind the gearshift. My mom filled that tape deck with Earth Wind & Fire or Steely Dan or Sting. Or she’d tune radio to CD101.9 and the car would fill with slap bass and wind chimes.
The music plus a stomach full of hot dogs and beans and mac & cheese lulled you to sleep but you had to be awake when we pulled up to the elder’s house. If you weren’t you would be woken up with an elbow or a shove and commanded to put your shoes back on and grab your book and gilt edged Bible and reminded that you needed to enter the elder’s house with the appropriate amount of decorum.
The elder’s house seemed very 1970s to me. It was a brown house with lots of wood paneling and avocado kitchen appliances. The living room was elevated slightly from the entrance by a few steps. Metal folding chairs were set up there for the meeting. Between the folding chairs and the couches that were usually set aside for women with small children the room could seat about 20 people.
The elder had a larger and newer TV than us. It was encased in the gray plastic that all electronics owned at the time. The elder had cable too. Don’t you like their house? my mom would ask. My mom liked everybody else’s house better than ours. She described our house with words like dump and sty and when I told her our place wasn’t a dump or a sty she’d say yes it is and that would be that.
I liked the book study meeting. I liked to read and underline things with a highlighter. I liked to raise my hand and answer questions. But sometimes I would sit there in the elder’s living room while someone read a paragraph aloud about Revelation and feel several metric tons of hot dog and beans and mac & cheese lay in my gut and wish I wasn’t there. I’d wish I was drawing or playing Tecmo Bowl or watching The Simpsons. I’d wish I had time of my own.
I believed very much in what I was taught in these meetings but I wanted a few minutes on a Thursday when I didn’t have to be there. To not believe in anything. Other kids at school didn’t seem to believe in anything. Not even the kids who got yanked out of school for holy days of obligation or who had giant confirmation parties. They did these things because that’s what you did. They didn’t believe. I didn’t quite want what they had. I wanted to believe. Just not all the time.
Sometimes all those hot dogs and beans and mac & cheese would force a trip to the bathroom or sometimes I’d play like they did and I would sit in the elder’s bathroom where there was nothing to read but old Watchtowers and Awake!s in a wicker basket and it smelled like Dixie cups and Renuzit and I’d hear the meeting going on down the hall and I would think that God would be okay with this because I needed one tiny break. I needed five minutes on hot dog night where I wasn’t eating or racing somewhere or wracking my brain to figure out what Jeremiah means to us today.
When the meeting was over the elder and his wife would make some coffee and bring out cookies. I would always have several cookies even if my stomach was still full of hot dogs because I found it impossible to not eat food if it was placed near me. My mom usually stayed long afterward to talk to her friends in the congregation. If any of us got antsy she would get annoyed because these were her only friends as far as I knew and these were her only opportunities to talk to people who weren’t her parents or one of three loud sons. This was all the fun her life allowed.
By the time we got home it would be bedtime and I wouldn’t even have a chance to check if the tape I’d set up for The Simpsons had worked. I had to go to bed worrying about it. I knew how to program a VCR but weird things happened with VCRs all the time. If it worked then we could all watch it after school tomorrow when the weekend began. If it didn’t then we’d all have to wait until the next hot dog night.