It was a dinner party game.
|"I hate red beet salad. And you know that," I said to my wife. "Why would you do that, knowing that I'll be sitting at the very same table as you and your Aunt Helen, telling you and everyone else that I'm not going to take any? Helen is going to insist. She'll say 'Oh, taste it, at least. Your wife made it especially for tonight.' What am I going to say?" Beatrice looked past me, at the mirror behind me, and adjusted her scarf and said nothing.
I knew she wouldn't; she never does when we argue like this. She just takes me as my wimpy self and forces me into conciliation by saying nothing and going ahead with whatever she wants to do or think or say. Tonight is her aunt's annual dinner to celebrate all the birthdays at one time. The only gifts allowed are food, which are usually assigned in our written invitations. And Beatrice was assigned the salad; actually, there was another salad required from her cousin, Bill, who last year brought something with avocado in it. She knows I also hate avocado. So does Bill.
It's the limelight of Bill's bashing: his long list of my fears, my hates, my failures, and, conversely, my love of classical music. He openly mocks me in front of my wife's family and the others sit and nod away. They are a cohesive group: always together on everything. Every election, every game—any kind of game—they somehow silently agree to root for the same team. One year they even came dressed in the team colors of the team they rooted for without talking to each other beforehand. Beatrice even bought her outfit in those colors the day she got her invitation and assignment.
And then they begin telling jokes. Every meal ends with a joke-telling session—the worst kind of jokes: jokes about fat policemen, jokes about Catholics, jokes about days of the week—and at the end of every joke they all laugh in unison. No—it's not a laugh; it's a guffaw! A raucous, window-rattling cackle that makes me wonder what the neighbors think. It's not a family, it's a fruit bowl of strange personalities.
Tonight, they passed Beatrice's beet salad around: first to Bill, who took a huge spoon of it and held it up so I could see it. Then he laughed and shoved the bowl down the table so that others could copy his stance. Maybe out of pity—maybe because it came to me last—the bowl was empty, the last few reddened lettuce leaves and chopped beets were plopped onto Beatrice's plate. She handed me bare bowl and pointed to a space on the table where I was to put it. I complied.
Just as in their games after dinner, they all raised their forks, all stabbed with lettuce and beet, and opened their craws and bared their teeth with all eyes on me. I waited, my arms folded across my chest, my face devoid of emotion or care or concern as they began their goat-like chewing.
First—thanks to the ever-loving God—it was Bill who began to cough, shredded beet spitting out of his mouth and staining the pristinely white tablecloth. And then it spread down the table and nearly got past Aunt Helen, but she, too, couldn't stifle an explosive burst. Bill's head fell back, and his whole body stiffened and slipped from his chair, piling under the table with a few of the others. Fifteen minutes later I was alone at the table. I reached for my dessert.