The rain pounded down as if would never stop. Hard enough to make one envision an Ark. They were inside this car while rain lashed against the windshield and roof. The noise so loud it drowned out conversation. The wind blew it sideways, if one were to open the window, the wind would slap you in the face. A hard slap. The car was hydroplaning.
Dinner was at a strip mall, at an Afghani restaurant. Ron concentrated on the road and tried to relax his hands as they tightly gripped the wheel. Claire remained quiet, staring intently at the GPS. He liked the fact that the GPS voice was that of a British female. She instructed their every move in crisp tones that did not leave a scintilla of doubt that she knew where she, and they, were going. Ron glanced at the car’s clock, brightly illuminated in the dark. He hated tardiness, he found it to be insulting. There were parts of the world, such as Manhattan, where lateness was an affectation of importance. Here, in New Jersey, it was simply rude.
Suddenly, the British voice announced, “You have reached your destination.” Claire and Ron looked at each other with a mixture of amusement and consternation. They determined this was the address, but they were in the middle of a residential street. Ron looked up and down the tree-lined, rain-soaked street and asked, “Do you think there was a restaurant here at one time?”
“We have to get this thing updated,” Claire announced, not for the first time. “I doubt there was ever a restaurant here.”
“Then, what good would updating the GPS do?”
Claire chose at this point to be quiet. She knew that his obsessive nature would bring about a side of him that she didn’t always like. He would be terse and sarcastic until they reached their destination. Of course, once they did arrive, his personality would quickly change in chameleon like fashion and no one would be the wiser to the long car ride and what she had endured.
He handed her their shared cell phone. “See if you can get a number for this place,” he stated almost as a command.
Inwardly, Claire grimaced, thinking here we go, “I didn’t bring my glasses.”
She knew this response would invoke his instant disapproval and with a clipped, “OK,” he pulled the car over and took over the task of dialing information.
A sense of relief washed over her and she let our her breath with long sigh when he said, “I had the wrong address.” She wanted to chide him. If the situation were in reverse, he would have exploded all over her. “April gave me Mountain Avenue, not Boulevard.” Of course she thought to herself, it is never your fault.
In spite of this, they arrived a mere five minutes late. Ron circled the parking lot. He was suspicious about restaurants in strip malls. He wasn’t sure why, but it always made him think of food courts and plastic eating utensils. This strip mall, however, had three restaurants: Greek, Japanese and Afghani, interesting. They walked to the restaurant, careful to keep beneath the overhangs that channeled runoff like a cascading wall of water.
Everyone was seated when they arrived. The electricity of happy recognition danced in the air between them. At the table, empty chairs were at diagonal corners. April had made sure that she was seated next to Claire, who she hadn’t seen in a long while. Ron kissed April on her lips, shook hands with her husband, Russ Crenshaw. He then smiled and made eye contact with Russ’s Dirk along with a warm hug from his wife, Sabrina.
Claire let the warmth of her feelings show in a smile towards everyone but April. She took April’s hands in a warm embrace, their affection clear to anyone who watched them. Claire had been nervous about tonight, about a dinner, about her voice since her illness. She was worried that talking loud enough to be heard and trying to eat simultaneously, might prove a difficult task. Ron also stood in back of April and said, “We’re sorry to be late.”
To this, April leaned her head back against him and turned her eyes up with a smile as Russ said, “The five-minute rule, you’re fine.” The two of them shared Ron’s concern for punctuality.
“April my dear, my sweet, we are just about as late as it takes to get from Mountain Avenue to Mountain Boulevard.”
“Oops,” April blushed and laughed. Dirk, too, laughed while saying, “That’s right, there are two.”
“My mistake,” April readily admitted, “I thought I copied it from the website. Obviously not.”
Claire watched, as she knew would happen, Ron turn what had been a moment of sheer hell for her into a table topic of conversation. He recounted the guidance of the GPS, the crisp British affirmation of location and had them all laughing uproariously. It was a knack he had, from sarcastic and sullen to laughter and lightness, all in 60 seconds. Claire was a patient woman.
The ambiance of the room was warm, cozy and a shelter from the outside rain. Over Ron’s head, April watched a large screen computer streaming various scenes of Afghanistan with no hint of a war torn country and its refugees and bombed out caves, Instead, it showed it as a land where beauty was a privilege of the young.
The tables were close together, but not too tightly packed, merely cozy. Russ told the story of how he had previously scouted out the place after it was recommended to them by friends. From that scouting, and a study of the menu, he thought it was worth a try.
Ron peered at the menu. The light was dim enough to make it difficult. While he was trying to make out words, Russ, directly across from him, started a conversation, “You talked about science fiction the last time we saw you. Who would you say is your favorite author?”
“Harlan Ellison,” Ron responded without a thought.
Russ grinned in agreement, “Mine as well.”
Suddenly, Ron felt out of his depth, unusual for him on a topic of literature. He truly liked Harlan Ellison and read Dangerous Visions and its sequel, but he hadn’t remembered, it hadn’t touched him deeply enough to remember. Not in the way Gene Roddenberry or Ray Bradbury did. He didn’t have a working knowledge of Ellison’s vast body of work and vaguely recalled Ellison had been an editor of a book containing stories from other authors of the genre. Ron was oblivious to the staggering number of works that Russ quoted. He tried to recover, but Russ understood. It was a single step above a name drop.
While still listening to Russ, Ron realized he could only partially make out the menu. He watched Claire remove her glasses from her bag and with no difficulty at all, perused the menu. He cast a sympathetic glance in her direction until he realized it wasn’t necessary.
The waiter was now at the table. People were ordering food. Russ took over the ordering of appetizers for the table and still, Ron could barely read the menu. Was it the light? The small print? His eyes? What?
Then, he heard April order Tilapia and since he had a preference for fish, he ordered the same. When asked what rice he wanted with it, he was again confronted with a vision problem. This time, Sabrina came to his rescue. Leaning in from his right, she said, “Here are the choices for rice.” To him, Sabrina felt like romantic energy without romance. He followed her finger, pointed at the menu and said, “saffron, please.” He was glad that was over.
Dirk had ordered first and noted that he liked the menu. Russ was having Black Angus, Sabrina wanted pork, and Claire ate lamb with orange rice. Everyone had a laugh at April’s expense when the “side salad” she had ordered with her Tilapia was HUGE. It was funny to those who knew of April’s lack of interest in food and generally meager appetite.
Everyone had a glass of champagne to belatedly toast Dirk’s birthday celebration that had been postponed due to Hurricane Sandy. Now, long past his birthday, Ron and Claire had become post storm additions to the guest list.
As the appetizers were arriving at the table, Ron said, looking right at April and then, the rest of the table, “I want to write an essay on Oral Sex.”
Claire inwardly cringed, knowing that there wasn’t anything Ron wouldn’t say, he had no boundaries. April blurted out, “Talk to Sabrina.” When April said this, Ron noticed that Dirk was so still, he was practically in a meditative state. Sabrina was squeezable ripeness. She almost involuntarily exuded fertility. Ron gave her a sidelong glance and saw that she wasn’t embarrassed, she wasn’t blushing. Her white teeth and ripe lips were just to his right. He snapped his gaze back to Russ who was saying, “I know what you mean. You want to write about the ways that people talk about it.” Ron felt the warmth of understanding that can only come from a friend, someone who gets you, or at least part of you.
“I’ll wind up having to read a lot more Victorian literature than I’m willing to do ever. I just can’t see George Sand in my future. The Mill on the Floss, so maybe not. Perhaps it’s best expressed in grunts and groans anyway.”
“I love George Sand,” said April defiantly. At the same time, Claire thought to herself, he just couldn’t or wouldn’t stop. He always needed the grunts and the groans. They were a necessity. There was always the next step. He was foolish enough to try to tell her that he was not manipulative. She knew better. She knew what he was doing. It was what he always did. He had to erase the lines of acceptable discourse. He did it on purpose. He knew it and she knew it.
Ron sensed Sabrina listening intently as Claire and April spoke together softly. Dirk was silent while Russ and Ron continued their conversation about science fiction. “I think Ellison wrote a bunch of Twilight Zone pieces, didn’t he?” said Ron, glad to now have recovered more information about Ellison as the conversation progressed.
“Yes, he did, absolutely,” said Russ with a nod of approval. He, too, felt that here he had found a friend who understood him as well, or pieces of him. All was good.
Emotionally, Ron thought Bradbury had written his favorite Sci-Fi book, Martian Chronicles. He cursed himself for choosing the more hip Ellison. Leftovers from the bullshit personality of Dr. Tuck, he thought. His taste in Science Fiction was pedestrian. He should just admit it and move on. While thinking this to himself, his ears were still tuned to Claire and April, across the table, still whispering, but the whispers had grown louder. Ron responded to their conversation at this point by announcing to the table, “These two are over there discussing my birthday.”
At this announcement, Claire and April looked like two co-conspirators, caught and flushed. Dirk grinned as he munched on one of the appetizers and Sabrina smiled. It seemed everyone had suddenly joined in the conspiracy of Ron’s birthday.
In order to divert the attention from their conversation and the humongous salad that she had inadvertently ordered, April looked over at Ron and said, “Where have you been that you are so tan?”
Russ too, easily diverted, agreed and added, “Your face is quite red.”
“I’ve been working outside, spreading gravel around the driveway. There was a pause before he added for veracity and effect, “Four tons of it.”
Dirk laughed, while Russ asked, “They didn’t do that for you?” as if that was unthinkable.
“They left it in a few piles,” said Ron.
While April had succeeded in changing the focus of the conversation from she and Claire back to Ron, Claire whispered, “It’s those teacher ears.” This was to warn her off of the conversation until a later time.
So, they all were turned back to Ron who continued his story about dirt and gravel and said, “I like to dig.”
April grinned when he said this and thought, oh you so do. Sabrina gazed at Ron’s face searching for the color that April had first mentioned while Dirk continued with his chicken. He then added, “I just hear things,” and gave her a huge dimpled smile.
The tilapia arrived perfectly fried in a sweet, crumbly crust. The inside was white and succulent. While dipping the fish in the sauce he said “This thing about cannibals is interesting. It was a theme in Cloud Atlas and The Hannibal TV series. I wonder why people have become fascinated with it.”
“What about the German man who advertised to have someone who was willing to come to his house and be eaten?” April asked. Russ speared a chunk of beef. Claire nodded to April.
“What guy?” said Ron.
“Armin Meiwis was his name. He placed an ad for someone who would willingly submit to being eaten, to help consume himself,” she responded.
“And people answered the ad,” said Claire, who had obviously heard the story.
“So, a man from Berlin came to his home,” April continued, “They sat down to dinner. They cut of his penis and then ate it together.”
“Did they cook it?” said Ron.
“I hope with onions,” added Claire.
Ron’s face formed an exaggerated O. “Claire,” he said with mock outrage. “With onions, that was a necessary addition to the story? Let’s bring Iron Chef America to cannibalism?”
He said this as he pictured the set of the show. The nimble chairman had summoned a challenger to face Iron Chef Hannibal Lecter. It was Claire. The chairman announced, “Today’s secret ingredient, the theme on which our chefs must prepare their succulent variations is…” Here, another of Ron’s dramatic pauses. The chairman lifted his outstretched hands as the lid was raised on the dais….”Penis.” There was an array of cocks varying in size, age, and ethnic coloration, circumcised and with foreskins. Ron looked at Claire in amazement as if to say, “And you think I push boundaries?”
April continued with her Armin story, “At first they tried him for assisted suicide, even the Germans don’t appear to have a law against cannibalism. But the outcry was so great that they tried him again for murder and gave him life in prison. All for culinary, sexual pleasure.”
Dirk, who found most people boring, was laughing. He never found this group boring, even if it did contain his father. Sabrina took things in, but never really seemed to react much one way or the other.
While they were still laughing and joking about cannibalism, Ron slipped out for a cigarette. He didn’t mind these little breaks that the laws regarding smoking afforded him. It gave him a chance to reflect. He could pop out of the room and then parachute back in. The rain was endless and torrential. There was a fountain in the middle of the courtyard and it was running and overflowing. Ron’s eyes flitted from the fountain to the sheets of water coming off the overhand. He needed to urinate.
Making his way back through the room, he found the sign for Rest Rooms without having to ask anyone. It was an unusual set up. The men’s room door was locked. He was standing in what was a work/storage/supply area. The back delivery door was open. The rain continued to pound the pavement. Ron shifted from foot to foot, a dance of desperation. The women’s room door was half open, it was empty. Ron considered, maybe? Right then, two women came through the door and he was sure they eyed him with suspicion. The bathrooms were one seaters, leaving one already suspicious woman in the hall waiting with him. The younger of the two convinced her partner that she could wait. Ron imagined the looks of disgust that would have been on their faces if he had followed his inclination to use the women’s rest room. He could imagine them calling the manager, declaring him a pervert lacking any sense of social graces. Ron kept his back to the waiting woman and stared out at the rain. The older woman slipped out and the younger took her place, a revolving door. Finally, the men’s room door opened and one of the employees came out smiling. Ron was greeted with an odor that staggered him. He was almost overcome, but finally, relief.
Returning to the table, the conversation bounced like a rubber ball with a desire for volley. It was convivial. The six of them basked proudly in their unconventionality. The arrangement for paying had been agreed to between Russ and Claire. They would pay one third of the bill, to Russ and April’s two thirds. Easy enough? Ron had brought extra cash to facilitate the exchange and was about to slip $70 to Russ when the check arrived. That was before Russ started explaining, in great detail, to the waitress how they wanted to split the bill.
Fractions were beyond the young girl. She was dressed in traditional garb and had a sweet round face with a cheerful smile that, at this point, seemed vacuous. Patiently, Russ again tried to explain the bill to her when another employee appeared over the girl’s shoulder and, a third explanation was repeated. Finally, there appeared to be an understanding. Ron decided that he might as well use
plastic, Claire’s preferred that way of dealing with such transactions. There were residual benefits she told him and, in that, she was right.
The wait staff returned with two bills. Ron and Russ casually slid their cards out of their wallets, as men are prone to do, but then had to scan the bills to see which belonged to whom. The light was no better on the bill than it had been on the menu, but Ron found his. He added a tip and signed off. However, when the cards were placed back on the tray, the girl fumbled and couldn’t tell which one was his and which belonged to Russ.
With that, Ron quipped, “Well we have pulled this off smoothly and without calling attention to ourselves.”
Everyone laughed while Russ replied, “I have no shame. When you’ve had to lie in a hospital bed with tubes in your bowels and a bag of brown gunk collected in back of you, and your wife walks in and says, “eww” you lose any pretense of dignity.”
“Well, on that high note, as always,” April responded as she stood up to leave. They all followed out, quick kisses all around, hugs and promises to talk soon. Then, the night ended with a mad dash through the rain to their respective cars. “Good night.” They all said as they ran.
As they drove home, Ron asked of Claire, “Did you have fun?”
“Yes,” she said. “Food was only mediocre though.””
“You know,” Ron said, “we may have missed April’s birthday. I saw on Facebook that someone wished her a happy birthday last Wednesday. I was sure her birthday was the 11th or 12th of June.
This concerned Claire. “That would really be a shame. I don’t want that. We have to check when we get home.”
Emailing when they got home, on both sides, seemed to have become their ritual. April sent off a note to Claire telling her how good it was to see them. Claire emailed the next day and found out that her birthday was on the 11th as Ron thought. April told her that it was her custom to stay in bed on the day of her birthday, sleep through the day, and wake up the next day as if it hadn’t happened. “It’s my small way of cheating Father Time, even though it doesn’t work,” she wrote.
Claire understood, but would have none of it. “Since we were away for so long, between the cruise and then coming home sick, we’ve really miss you guys. Maybe we could get together the day before and have your non-birthday celebration without ruining your ritual.”
So, it was agreed, pizza and drinks for a non-birthday. These plans were altered quickly when April was unable to get anyone to come and stay with her mother. April’s mother was 95 and was growing more and more infirm with each passing day. Also, an old friend of April’s was in town visiting his mother and she wanted Dan, a trauma surgeon, to meet Ron and Claire. Dirk and Sabrina said they wanted to join the non-birthday festivities as well and so, it was set for the Crenshaw’s house on Monday evening.
Again, it rained. Ron was beginning to think that they were trapped on the film set of Seven, where it always seemed to be raining. The Tucks lived an hour away. They were on a lake in rural Sussex County, while the Crenshaw’s had renovated an old home in one of the better sections of a battered city in western Union County. This time Claire drove.
Ron was a miserable passenger. He braked when she braked, cast sidelong glances at the speedometer, and sometimes grabbed for the overhead handle as if hanging on for dear life when she approached a curve in the road. Claire attempted to ignore him, but the weight of his overbearing nature was palpable and caused her to say, “I don’t like to drive when you are in the car.”
She did have a heavy foot, but why couldn’t he let anything go? She’d made the mistake once of telling him about one of her relatives from Italy who had been a Grand Prix racer. This was all that Ron needed. He made up nicknames for everything anyway. So, when they were in the car, he referred to her as Parnelli Claire. At times, she found him funny and had to laugh. Other times his incessant teasing was annoying. Claire got her revenge by getting into the right lane and following the slowest driver. This drove Ron crazy and she knew it. He was not a speed demon, but he was a lane changer. Claire was not. She didn’t have the confidence in her ability to use the mirrors that Ron did. He hated traffic with a passion that bordered on road rage. They were now two miles from the exit and she plodded along in the right lane behind an elderly man with his blinkers on. Cars sped past on their left. She smiled to herself, greatly satisfied.
When they arrived at the house, Russ met them at the door, helping them with umbrellas, taking wine from their hands and leading them into the living room. There was April’s friend, Dr. Dan Thomas. He was a tall, slender man with black rimmed glasses and conservatively cropped hair. When they shook hands, he did not introduce himself as “Doctor,” and Ron liked that. He hated when Claire used Dr. Tuck, mostly when making reservations. She believed that it got them a better level of service while Ron believed that they expected bigger tips. Claire always told him, in complete sincerity, that she was proud of what he had accomplished, how hard he had worked for this title, why shouldn’t he use it? It was, after all, his to use.
Dan walked into the dining room and sized up him and Claire. He took in Ron’s shoulder length hair and the scent of tobacco wafting around him. He could not help but be captivated by Claire’s warm greeting. Any friend of April’s would be a friend of hers. To Dan, these were April’s friends and long ago, he was April’s boyfriend, who knew her friends. They had mutual friends. Then, life intervened. That was decades ago and he wasn’t sure if April was the allure or if it was his youth that called to him. He wondered what April thought
From what Ron could grasp in his own sizing up of Dan, both Dan and April shared aging mothers and the problems that brings. For her birthday, he had sent her Keith Richard’s autobiography. Dan and April had seen the Stones together in 1972. April loved Mick and Keith was Dan’s guy. She was tender and receptive, but that was her way. Russ was cordial in a way that Ron could not help but respect, but he was certain that Dan wondered who are these people and why were they important to April?
Dan watched April and Ron kiss and took note of Claire’s urgent desire to go upstairs to see Margaret. He also took in how April’s eyes followed Ron, who was less than six feet tall, but combined a rough edge with a softness that Dan could not quite place. They were both at ease in the Crenshaw home and there was an ease in having them there.
Claire returned downstairs from visiting Margaret and handed April a gift bag. “Not a birthday,” April said.
“We have been wanting to give this to you,” Claire said, stripping the birthday connotation that could be attached to it. A wise woman was Claire.
April opened the bag and her hands felt soft silk inside the tissue paper in which it was wrapped. It was opaque, soft, she lifted it and it felt like a whisper. “I can sleep in this?” she said as if asking permission.
“We practically live in ours sometimes,” said Claire.
Ron told her, “You could also wear them over jeans and a t-shirt.”
April smiled, “But I can sleep in it as well.”
“Happy un-birthday,” said Claire with a kiss to April’s cheek.
“Coordinated colors for the t-shirt?” said Ron.
“No, bite your tongue.” Ron complied and bit his tongue.“Something completely contrasting,” said April.
With the un-birthday presents out of the way, Russ poured everyone a glass of wine and announced that he was about to order pizza. As he said this, the back door opened and Dirk and Sabrina arrived. Smiles all around. Ron could tell that Dan felt a bit left out, this was April’s family and friends and he didn’t know them. He’d met Russ before, but that was many, many years ago. Sabrina approached him, jerked a thumb in the direction of Dirk as she said, “I’m Sabrina, I’m married to him.”
“She is my daughter-in-law,” April informed.
While wine was being poured and pizzas ordered, Ron took his turn to go and see Margaret. He climbed the picture lined heavy wooden stairs hoping that when he reached the top he would find her looking well and healthy. He knew that Claire would have reverted to her nursing background and performed a surreptitious examination. It would have been a light squeeze that was both tender at the same time it was checking her muscle mass, a soft kiss that would have allowed her to check pupil regularity. She would then sweetly pepper her with questions that showed interest while measuring cognitive responses. If she was able to make Margaret laugh, she could measure the symmetry of her smile, check for signs of paralysis. Ron just wanted to talk to his friend Margaret. April had told him how much her mother adored both him and Val, her favorite couple she called them. He felt the same way about Margaret. It was mutual admiration.
When he entered her room, she was lying on her left side, propped up on a pile of pillows. She lit up at the sight of him. He always made her laugh and when she was strong enough to be downstairs, he always entertained her with stories that made her chuckle out loud. He remembered how she laughed when he told her about mistaking a building sign and believing it read Car Wash and Dental Center and thinking that it was an odd business venture.
They kissed and he sat on the bed. She deadened the sound on the loud TV.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “I’m just stuck in this room since January. A pretty small world”
“Well maybe now that the nicer weather is here,” he offered to her.
“I know that I can make it down the stairs, but coming back up would be a problem. So, maybe next month when my sons are here for my birthday, we can manage it. April isn’t very strong, you know,” she said with a conspiratorial grin.
At 95, Margaret’s mind was sharp and mostly clear. It was her body that was wearing out. She hailed from hearty stock and was impatient with what was once a gift. If she couldn’t get better, she just wanted it to be over. She wondered if God was keeping her alive because she was a pain in the ass and he didn’t want her around heaven all the time.
“Claire was pretty sick, wasn’t she?” she said to Ron.
“Yeah, two months. We were worried that she had done damage to her vocal cords.”
Margaret nodded, “I heard that she wasn’t allowed to talk.”
“Two weeks,” said Ron.
“Did you like that?” laughed Margaret.
“No, it was awful. She had a white board and she wrote things down and sometimes I tried to do both sides of the conversation for her, but we spend so much time together, it was miserable.”
“She seems better to me now,” said Margaret.
“She’s getting there,” said Ron.
Russ yelled upstairs that the appetizers were being served, so Ron took his leave from Margaret, giving her a kiss and hug and a promise to see her again soon.
Pizza at the Crenshaw’s was not exactly a slice served on Styrofoam. It began with appetizers that included clams casino, empanadas and cheese puffs. Russ explained that these, finally, were the last of the New Year’s Eve leftovers that he had frozen. He now pulled them from the oven and placed them on trivets. Their kitchen was a mixture of new and old with a center island, but an older sink, and a tin ceiling. They circled around the island, a dance with fingers and forks and food.
“I’ve been thinking more about the cannibal discussion,” said Ron. Smiles greeted the announcement. He hadn’t realized that Dan had not been part of the original discussion and April quickly brought him up to speed. “Do you think that there is a connection between them and the vampire craze? Is there really any difference between the two?”
To his surprise, April said, “I think there is.”
“I agree,” said Dan. “Vampires aren’t real.”
“But there are people who drink blood and since they aren’t immortal, aren’t they just cannibals?”
“I think there is a difference,” said April. “The idea of eating flesh was never high on my taste bud list.”
“But drinking blood is?” said Ron.
April held her hand in the back of her closely cropped brown hair and said, “Well, it is nourishment which we need to survive and doesn’t sucking blood seem somehow sensuous?” She delicately and deliberately, with a tiny fork, picked at the breaded stuffing of a clam on its shell. She popped it into her mouth. “Now, where’s the blood?” she asked.
At that moment, as if it was orchestrated, the appetizers disappeared and people wandered into the living room. Russ followed with two bowls of freshly peeled shrimp for the second course of pizza night at the Crenshaws.
As they sat down, April said, “My brother sent me an interesting book for a present a few years ago. I just came across it the other day and thought of you, Ron, in particular. It’s called How Far Will You Go. I think we’d have a great time playing it. I suggested it to Marielle when I first got it and she chickened out. “
Claire pointed at Ron, “You want to play that with him? Are you crazy? Have you totally lost your mind? We’re talking Ron here.” They both laughed.
April believed the game wouldn’t be fun with “safe” people. What would be the point of playing? She thought they were a perfect group for such an adventure.
While April and Claire were glancing over the book, Ron turned on his heel and headed for the front door. In 2013, it was unthinkable to ask anyone if they minded if you smoked. One just went outside. Claire, once upon a time, not very long ago, used to join him. He knew, after her illness, she wouldn’t be coming back. What he didn’t know was that April objected to having people sent outside in order to smoke. She had once been a heavy smoker and understood its addiction. As a reformed, or was it recovering smoker, she didn’t’ mind smokers at all, except in the close confines of a car. That she hated. This was always a point of contention between Russ and her, he hated smoking. End of story. He used to send his mother outside in the middle of winter to smoke her one cigarette a day. It infuriated her when he did that and she let him know it.
As Ron opened the front door on the rain and lit his cigarette, he glanced at the flag holder that had caused such merriment awhile back at the Crenshaws. He had both horrified and amused Russ by saying that it looked like a phallic symbol. The metal holder jutted out straight and strong. Ron inhaled on his cigarette and grinned as he exhaled the smoke into the night air. The last time he was here for pizza night, he had dubbed the delivery service “over-priced pizza” when two pies had cost $43 dollars. He thought it extravagant unless the pizza was stupendous. It was not. He had paid the tab much to Russ’s chagrin. He knew that Russ considered them guests and guests were not expected to pay for their dinner. When the car stopped outside, he thought, “I can’t be this lucky twice in a row,” but the delivery man stepped out of the car carrying the Over-priced Pizza. This time, Russ had ordered four pies. The tab was $65, Ron gleefully reached into his pocket and handed over $70. He had gotten one over on Russ, or so he thought.
“Do you want change?” said the delivery man.
Ron shook his head and said, “Nah.”
He walked back into the house, or parachuted in, four pies in hand. Russ jumped up and they met in the kitchen. “Where is the delivery guy?”
“No, no,” said Russell, “you are not going to pay for Over-priced pizza again.” He thrust $80 at Ron.
“I don’t have a $10,” said Ron. “I’ll have to owe you.
Russ liked this idea and Ron was amused by it. It was fun to play about the money because neither of them was stingy. This was something that had been right between all of them from the very start of their friendship. They had the same feelings about money, it was to be used for friends, and shared. It was never something to disagree about. They both liked it this way and found it another piece of each other that they understood.
During the pizza and salad course of the dinner, they moved into the dining room. Ron saw that the table was set with matching china plates, good plates from what he could tell and spun gold wine glasses from Italy with an interesting story attached to them. In true Ron fashion, he snuck over and found a stack of paper plates and swapped his china plate for the paper one. It was a Ron thing to do and passed without comment, for about 30 seconds, when April saw that her table was not quite right.
“Ronald,” she said in threatening tone of voice that April used only on him, “what are you doing?”
He looked up and feigned innocence. April frowned at Russ. “There weren’t enough plates?”
Russ seemed confused and stammered. “I was sure that I counted them out. I’ll get another.”
Before Russ could get up and go out to the kitchen Ron laughed and confessed. “It’s okay. I’m busted. I did it.”
Still, Russ was up and exchanging plates for April’s benefit. She relaxed now, knowing the table setting was casual, yet elegant. Ron felt a moment of guilt that he had caused what he discerned as tension in April when she noticed the mismatched place. He wondered to himself if she had known it was Ron’s doing all along, would she have been amused. When she thought it was Russ, she hadn’t found the humor in it. Married couples, the tension, like his ride in the car with Claire. Do we constantly test each other’s limits?
Now that they were sitting down at the dinner table, conversation was easier, flowing back and forth, to and fro. He asked Dirk if things got hectic at the theater at this time of the year.
Dirk nodded his shaved head glistening from the overhead chandelier. “Graduations, recitals. Lots of the local schools use the theater for various events.”
“Does it slow down afterwards?”
“Yes, in July and August it gets slow and I get to catch my breath, catch up on some reading and TV that I’ve missed.”
“Can I make a recommendation?” said Ron.
Hearing this, Russ leaned over to his son and said, “You know that he’s going to recommend some Communist liberal trash, right?” The three of them were laughing. Ron knew that April called her stepson with the greatest affection, “My favorite anarchist and had given him a Che Guevara t-shirt one year.”
Dirk shook his head. “No, I want something interesting to watch and read.”
Ron made eye contact with Russ and then turned to Dirk. “Have you seen any of the series Newsroom?”
“Never heard of it.”
“It’s horrible liberal propaganda,” said Russ. “And they pat themselves on the back.”
“The star of the show plays a Republican,” said Ron, “A thinking Republican which as we all know is a rarity.”
“We actually did see a couple of episodes and I like Jeff Daniels as an actor, but I’m not really a Republican,” said Russ with a puckish grin.
“I would agree,” said Claire, “I see you as more of a libertarian.”
Russ gives her a full-blown smile. They have forged a friendship. “That’s right,”he said.
Ron tossed his set up pitch to Claire. “Some people actually like my recommendations.”
Claire grinned. She didn’t and wouldn’t take the bait, but she knew that wasn’t going to stop him.
“Tell them how many books that I have recommended to you that you have actually read in the last three decades.”
“Not many, “said Claire.
“All the more reason to pass on the Newsroom debacle,” said Russ jokingly.
“It’s Alan Sorkin,” said Ron as if the name would carry some weight.
“Exactly” said Russ, “always writing the liberal fantasy land.”
To change the topic as a hostess is oblige to do on such occasions, April stated, “I’m reading a book that Ron recommended,”
Ron looked at Claire with a sincere, but teasing grin. “See, this is why I need a second wife.”
“What book?” asked Dan who until now had pretty much remained a silent observer. All understandable, but odd since he was usually a talker.
“Back to Blood,” said Ron. Was it coincidental that their kitchen conversation had been about blood?
Dan shook his head in a gesture of non-recognition. He had just recently told April that with surgery, kids, an isolated life in Southern Jersey, he had fallen way behind in what current reading material was out there. It wasn’t lack of interest so much as lack of time and isolation. She thought this was why he was quiet and observing the interactions of the group.
“It’s Tom Wolfe,” said Ron. “You know The Right Stuff, Bonfire of the Vanities, and A Man in Full.”
“I know who he is,” said Dan, with a tinge of defensive sarcasm, “I do read.”
Ron didn’t respond, but left it hanging in the air. He thought to himself, would I have asked the luscious Sabrina that question? And he knew he would not have put her on the spot as he had with Dan.
April was having none of this. He could sense it and instead she started telling a Ron story to the table at large. “One night at Claire and Ron’s house, Ron had, one of the very few times I’ve witnessed, a little too much to drink. He was talking about the horrors of Guantanamo and although she wasn’t convinced that soccer fields, prayer rugs and copies of the Koran and special foods was horrible torture, she agreed with him on the matter of closing it down. But Ron kept arguing the point as if he hadn’t noticed that they had reach agreement “And then, out of nowhere he said, “I do have a doctorate in Humanities, you know.”
Ron blushed as everyone at the table had a good laugh at his expense. “I really said that?” He looked to Claire who was nodding with a huge smile on her face.
“Which goes to prove that too much alcohol can make you into a pretentious asshole.” Everyone, including Dan, laughed at this. “I really said that?” said Ron again.
People ate with conviviality, relaxed in the Crenshaw home, relaxed with each other. Ron was driving home and stopped after the second glass of wine and drank glass after glass of ice water from one of the crystal pitchers set on the table.
Conversation continued on, “I think you’ll enjoy the Keith Richards autobiography,” said Dan to April.
“What’s the line?” said Claire. “Happy to be here, happy to be anywhere.”
“He’s really a very intelligent man,” said Dan.
Ron asked, “Does he write about getting his blood swapped out in Switzerland?”
“He writes honestly about being a drug addict,” said Dan. “He comes right out and admits it.”
“Would be kind of hard to deny it at this point, don’t ya think?” quipped Ron.
April, wondering what this male stuff was about at her table interjected, “Can they actually do that?” She wanted her friends to all get along, to love each other the way she loved each and every one of them. She knew that Ron was testing Dan and she didn’t know exactly why.
“Who knows what they do in Switzerland. I suppose they might hook him up to a dialysis machine and try to clean out his kidneys or something,” said Dan.
“Isn’t that what they do with rapid detox?” said Claire.
“It could be one of the things, yes,” said Dan.
“Claire was a nurse for twenty years,” said April, looking at Claire for confirmation of the fact.
To Ron, it didn’t appear that Dr. Dan acknowledged the statement. Ron, because of Claire, had been around a lot of doctors in social situations. It never ceased to amaze him that doctors oftentimes did not consider nurses to be colleagues. They thought of them more in the way that teachers look at the school janitor. They were there to clean up after the actual work was done.
Again, April felt Ron’s criticism towards Dan’s lack of response and again, shifted the discussion to more neutral ground.
“You really should bring your wife the next time you are up this way,” said April. “Do you think she’d be able to handle this group?”
Again, it didn’t appear that Dan responded. There were a few seconds of silence which was broken when Sabrina started asking when summer was finally going to arrive. This lack of warmth was killing her Caribbean blood as she called it. While the discussion continued in response to Sabrina’s statement, Dan stood up from the table and wandered into the living room. April slipped away and walked over to Dan. They talked quietly for a few more minutes and both returned to the dining room. “I’ve got to skedaddle,” Dan said to everyone seated. Dan wasn’t quite sure that he had been hear above the talking and repeated his “skedaddle” comment.
April laughed and asked, “Do you have a curfew?”
Dan explained to the table that he had a ninety-one year old mother with whom he was staying the night. April took him upstairs to see her mom for a few minutes and then walked him to the door and he was gone. When she returned to the table, April said, “I think Dan has been spending too much time in South Jersey.”
For a state as small as New Jersey, the disparity between north and south was pronounced. It might only take two and a half hours to journey from tip to toe, but the cultural disparities were enormous. It was also that way between eastern and western parts of the state. Each extreme seemed to have as much allegiance to the bordering state as it did to New Jersey itself. South Jersey was code for a certain lack of openness and sophistication. There was also a pronounced political conservatism that was far more popular in the south than in the central and northeastern parts of the state. It really was the country in microcosm. Horse farms and cows in the west. Appendages of New York City in the east, a connected spiral of suburbs branching out from the cities, the resort towns along the coast. Pine Barrens and swamps dotting the state. They were all New Jersey people. They had all endured the “what exit are you from?” jokes and the misconception that everyone from New Jersey knew at least one Soprano. Ron and Claire actually did. They had grown up in separate cities, but were born and raised around the people who had nicknames that made them seem like connected members of mafia families. Most of all the TV exposure of New Jersey in fiction was all about crime families. That’s what people thought of when they thought of New Jersey.
These were Ron’s thoughts as he drove home that night following April’s un-birthday. Again, they ended the evening at home with notes back and forth, letting April know they had arrived home safely and wishing her a now actual, “Happy Birthday.”
Just about one week later and it was time for another dinner with the Crenshaws, this time, a belated birthday celebration for Ron.
The monsoon began about thirty minutes before they got into the car. It poured so hard that the windshield wipers couldn’t keep up. Ron and Claire looked at each other in disbelief. It could not be raining again this hard. Dirk’s birthday, April’s un-birthday and now Ron’s after-birthday, each requiring a drive of over an hour and each accompanied by this torrential downpour that followed them like a shadow whenever they met up with Crenshaws.
Ron was driving and Claire was quiet, not for any particular reason, except that rain like this while in a car was frightening. She was glad that Ron was driving. Fear made her do rash things. Ron didn’t seem frightened, but he was deep in concentration mode. Claire’s theory of traffic accidents, occurring more often in the rain, probably had something to do with it.
There was flooding at the junction of interstates 80 and 287. Ron looked for a place where the asphalt crested. He could see cars that had gone through the water over their tires and had to pull over. He wondered if civil engineers accounted for flooding at exits the way they did on the main highway.
An hour later, the mixture of weather and the evening commute left them stranded, creeping block by block. “We’re going to be at least thirty minutes late,” said Ron. “Let’s try and call the restaurant.”
Claire reached for the phone, thinking to herself, oh no, not again, but instead said, “Dial 411?”
“And then press send,” said Ron.
“It says that you are out of money,” she said handing him the phone.
Since they were unable to get cell service at home, Ron had opted for a pay as you go plan that was much less expensive and carried with it no contract. The downside to this was that when your time was up or thirty days had passed, you were cut off until you fed them more money.
Claire couldn’t figure it out. “It just won’t do anything.” Technology frustrated her and her frustration angered Ron. She put the phone down on the console between them. She knew he would fix it.
It took about ten different clicks for Ron to add money from the existing credit card number that they had on file. He handed the phone back to Claire. “Did you write the phone number for the restaurant down when you copied the address?”
“No,” said Claire. She knew this would annoy him, but hoped he wouldn’t continue. They were going to be late. There was nothing that could be done about it. She knew that he was hoping for some kind of sea parting, but since that wasn’t going to happen, she hoped that things would not turn ugly between them.
“You have no idea how much I hate this,” said Ron.
Maybe she could try nursing him through. “I know exactly how much you hate it. It’s palpable.”
Information informed her that there was no such listing for the restaurant. Claire said, “You spoke to these people, right? This isn’t one of those websites for something that has gone of business, is it?”
“I spoke with George, the owner, last week.”
“Well, there’s no listing. You don’t have April’s cell number do you? She knew the question was a mistake as soon as the words left her mouth and she tried to swallow them back down.
“Don’t you think that if I had her number that we would have already called her?”
Claire considered, sarcastic, but not yet over the top. “Yes,” she replied.
After another ten minutes of crawling at less than five miles an hour with at least 10 miles to go, Ron suggested that maybe they should try information for April or Russ’ cell phone number. There was no listing for either of them. Ron was growing tenser by the second. He could envision his friends sitting at a table being asked for the third time if they were ready to order. The image made him cringe. They would never show annoyance, or actually be annoyed for that matter, the weather was horrible, but Ron still tormented himself for his poor planning. How could he have known that sky would open up? The fact that he couldn’t know didn’t matter.
Five minutes later the cell phone rang. It was April. They were having issues as well. They weren’t at the restaurant yet. Ron felt an ease cover him like his favorite silk sheets. They hadn’t inconvenienced anyone by their tardiness.
Ron and Claire were seated when the Crenshaws arrived. “Can you believe that it’s raining again?” said Claire.
April responded with a smile, “It must be a metaphor for something.”
Ron’s mind played Riders on the Storm, then Dylan’s Buckets of Rain, then Phil Collins’ I Wish it Would Rain Down. Mentally, he kicked Phil in his testicals. He obviously couldn’t do that to Jim Morrison and the revenge that Dylan would take on his mind for the thought was unthinkable, so Phil Collins got the brunt of his wrath.
“We had a rough day with Margaret,” said April.
Margaret was the reason that Ron had chosen this restaurant close to their house. Both he and Claire knew that it was difficult for April and Russ to leave her for long periods of time and seeing them was always worth the drive.
“So, I hear that you are going to tutor Claire,” Ron said to Russ.
For a second, Russ didn’t pick up on what Ron meant which made him wonder if April consulted him before volunteering his time.
“With the IPad,” said April.
“Oh, absolutely,” said Russ. “The next time we are together, just bring yours or I’ll have mine. We’ll have you up and running in no time at all.”
Claire and Russ began discussing appetizers while Ron and April exchanged a smile unique to them. As of that morning, they had exchanged 721 emails over the past two years. Ron grinned this best dimpled smile and said, “You hollered at me for being mean to Dr. Dan.” He knew that she was protective of her friends and loved her for it. Claire had him convinced that his social absurdities were always on the brink of getting him into trouble.
“I would never holler at you, unless of course you asked me to,” said Aril with a twinkle in her eye. “But think about it from his perspective. Here he was, seated at a table with good friends and family who have spent a lot of time with each other, know each other, share inside jokes with each other. He is like someone who had literally come in out of the rain. And I know for a fact that he respects nurses and janitors and goes out of his way to let them know that. He is a gentleman. So, yes, I thought you were harsh.”
Ron gazed at her perfectly oval face and for a brief instant remembered a time when they lay in a bed together, her boyfriend in the next room. He was emaciated and broken. She was lying there and stroking his face. He thought it might have been the first time they had met. April was clearly one of the loves of his life, but they had a relationship that redefined love. Love could be abstinence with a certain amount of shared sexual experience. The four of them had that now, with music and food and plays and films and tender conversation. Tensions can be filled with loyalty, deference, acceptance and an intimacy. A submission to the idea that they enjoyed each other enough to feel that pull that brings one willingly back time and again.
The appetizers were ordered. The conversation didn’t lag as they ate. Russ popped the bottle of champagne that he had brought with them. Ron said “Isn’t it strange how neither of us is usually late and then we both are at the same time? What are the odds on that?
“We’re just synchronized,” said Russ.
“Like swimmers,” said Claire.
Ron pictured them all upside down in a pool, legs extended in unison doing splits. Ron wondered if Russ’s hair looked thinner after it was wet. His did. Claire’s did. April didn’t have enough hair for it to make a difference.
The conversation naturally turned to Claire’s health. They had all been concerned. She had seen a pulmonologist that morning. He wanted to send her to a rheumatologist. This would make the third different specialist that she had seen, not counting her primary doctor. Her voice was still not quite right and now the tips of her fingers were beginning to split again. They had only improved while she was on steroids that she hated.
“This thing has really kicked my ass,” said Claire. “I can’t help but think that if I was twenty years younger that I would have been sick for two weeks, taken the meds, and it would be over.”
“They still haven’t figured out what is going on with your hands?” said April.
“Some kind of auto-immune thing. Who knows? They certainly don’t seem to. That’s the frustrating part.”
Ron wondered if talk of doctors and illnesses came with their age. April had recently had cataract surgery as had Russ. Ron had a lymph node cut out of the back of his neck not long ago. Was this what happened? Your doctor visits became so frequent that they were an ever growing aspect of your life and therefore made up a large part of your social conversations?
While he was thinking his thoughts, Claire continued, “He read the memory card and said that I am still having apnea even with the CPAP. Some of the breathing interruptions are lasting as long as one minute.”
“That’s a long time, “answered Russ who also used a CPAP.
Ron returned to the conversation by commenting, “Of course, Claire makes it feel as if the reason that she has to use it is that I can’t stand her snoring. I used to lie in bed at night and listen to her stop breathing and then wait for her to start again. That is not fun.” They all laughed. He had lightened the mood and talk of illness.
April joined in the joke by telling that Russ’ snoring was famous. “We had a former next door neighbor ask what that sound was that she heard in the middle of the night coming from our bedroom windows. I told her it was Russ and she couldn’t believe that it was a human sound. Frankly, neither could I some nights.”
“She said that?” said Ron. “She actually said that Russ didn’t sound human?”
Russ steepled his fingers in front of him and then interlaced them, “Indeed she did.”
“Isn’t that a tad rude?” said Ron.
“She was the Queen of Rude,” said April. “She was also a shameless self-promoter. She gave out a business card claiming to be an internationally renowned artist. All because her daughter married a man from Holland and she gave a painting to his parents. That made her an international artist. She invited Marielle and I to one of her shows and it was awful. It looked like something a child did in school and the parents put up on the refrigerator. Marielle leaned over to me while we walked around and said, “This is one time that I really wish you spoke another language.”
“So you could speak more freely?” asked Claire.
“Honestly is more like it,” said April. “She also used to flirt shamelessly with me all the time. She used to think it was chic. I told Russ, let her really try, I would love. I am so ready to call her bluff. She has no idea of who she is playing with. She treated me like a child.”
“Sex as a weapon?” grinned Ron. This was to his liking.
“Absolutely,” said April, knowing that he liked it.
Ron laughed, “Some things never change.”
April blushed and laughed, “And that’s not such a bad thing, is it?”
Tonight, in honor of Ron’s after birthday, Claire looked particularly beautiful. She was wearing a ribbon and linen embroidered, what she would call shabby chic, peasant style dress. It was a blue-grey hue that she set off with polka dot blue and white flats. April, having only seen her seated told her, “Your top is beautiful.”
“It’s a dress,” Claire said, and knowing how April loved shoes she said, “You have to look at my shoes.”
She got up and spread her lifted skirt to show her shoes and April smiled her approval. Ron watched her hips sway as she walked to the ladies room and the swish of her skirts. He stared at her from the rear whenever she walked away. April gazed as Russ smiled at her. There was definitely love at this table, a shared love.
Ron got up to have a cigarette. There was an awning and a wet street with flooded flower pots in fashionable, though colonial, Westfield.
As Ron inhaled he thought about his time in this very pretentious and yet provocative town. Before he’d been with Claire, his best friends had come from here. They exuded a certain confidence that they were born with and the place inspired. The exhale drew a sigh. It was now history.
Back inside, dessert was being served. The linguini and clam sauce, the crab cakes and the New England broil of shrimp, flounder, lobster and scallops had been removed. They were replaced with a frozen mango concoction. Russ and April shared a cappuccino mousse.
Ron now opened the gifts that they had brought him. There was a card he tarried over and three Firing Line dvd’s from 1969 which featured William F. Buckley with Noam Chomsky, Norman Mailer and Saul Alinsky. Ron longed for those days of cogent debate on topics of social importance. The days when they were discussed at a high level of linguistic acuity. April, he knew, had chosen these three carefully and with purposefulness. He liked that.
Claire and Russ divided the check without a hitch. As they left the restaurant, April said “Ronald, you’re going to get drenched.”
In reaction, Ron reached for one of the magnificently large table umbrellas that had been stashed against the wall. “I know it’s a little large,” he clowned.
Russ and April laughed, Claire was already out the door. Ron reached into the umbrella stand and pulled out the silver backed rain shield. It has stopped raining and the four of them crossed the street together. Synchronicity. They were parked next to each other. Russ and Ron shook hands. April and Claire embraced, then Ron and April kissed as Russ and Claire followed suit. April turned to Ron and kissed him again, whispered, “Happy Birthday,” in his ear and they got into their cars and drove off in opposite directions.