Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The March of the Gladiators: Chapter 2

By Richard Miranda, The Daily Bosco

With some relief I hear a car pull up (into the driveway). Betty leans back from her perch by the garage door to see who’s arrived. “Oh Nick and Michelle are here.” And then continues to converse with my wife about people I barely know and their ailments that I wish to know even less about.

Now wait a minute. She runs out to greet us like we’ve come home to Tara and yet waits almost indifferently as her eldest son and his spouse come in the door. It’s not a preference that she’s displaying. This is part of the order of battle. The first one’s here get the big greeting. Besides, she watches their two boys several times a week. Ann feels that Betty’s showing a little favoritism there for Nick’s kids. Maybe so, they do carry on the family name and our kids are over here a lot less. I don’t mind so much. Betty always seems nervous about them running around like they’re going to break something. My musing about this is interrupted by the loud thump of something hitting the house. No doubt it’s one of my kids throwing a ball against the wall or sliding glass door.

 “Rick would you go out there and tell the boys to be careful?” I get up and yell out the back door, “Hey you guys don’t throw that ball against the house. You’re making your grandmother nervous…. And watch out for those statues, Alex last time you almost knocked over St. Francis…And stay away from the pool, it’s almost ninety degrees out here and you might get wet.” The sarcasm is not lost on them, or my wife, unfortunately, who gives me one of those looks.

Nick and Michelle come in the door loaded with cargo similar to our own. Including whatever it is that Michelle is supposed to have brought for dinner. It looks like stuff to make salad. Good, Michelle’s the salad queen. It’s probably why she’s in the best shape of us all. That, plus a strange hunger for endorphins. Michelle is either training for a triathlon or recovering from some accident that is the result of same. I don’t know how (or why) she does it but it beats the vices that the rest of us seem to have accrued.

So long as she doesn’t hit her head. Her talents at tonight’s table go beyond the balsamic vinaigrette. Michelle and I have similar roles in tonight’s play, complimentary actually. We have both married into the family which gives us a bit of a different perspective on things. However, while I may be taking all this wonderful stuff down for posterity and only participating in the conversation on a peripheral level, I’ve noticed as Michelle’s cognizance of the drama has grown she’s taken on the role of agent provocateur. If the action is getting a little dull she’s the one that is likely to throw a new ball into play. Whether it be religion, politics or who was the man on the grassy knoll, she’ll toss something our there that has the right formula to get things going again. Actually the topics are a lot more volatile I’d explain more but that would spoil the fun.

What Michelle does for salads, Nick does for martinis. When we started coming over as a couple. Betty and Leonard, rest his soul, would start by pouring us all some asti-spumante, nice gesture but not to all of our likings. Way too sweet. Nick got practical and figured he’d just bring his own stuff to drink. Now we all bring the usual beverages like beer and coke but Nick wheels in a portable bar with vodka, gin or whatever he’s mixing tonight as well as the shaker, bitters, vermouth; the whole martini factory with enough for everybody. I’m kicking myself for not bringing enough diet cokes and he’s got his act dialed.

Greetings all around, hugs and kisses, their boys hook up with ours ready to do whatever cousins do at that age. Play ball, run around, make Betty nervous.

I check the time. It’s three-fifteen. If it starts at three then how come most everyone hasn’t even got here yet? I know that Betty likes to be prompt. We’ll actually she likes to be more than prompt. When Betty goes someplace she’s fashionably early. Even the Walkers are late and they’re staying here. I think she just tosses those times out arbitrarily to avoid delayed arrivals. No matter, someone’s always late.

The ladies re-start their conversation. Bringing Michelle up to speed on whatever they were taking about. I go and talk to Nick for a few minutes while he’s assembling the bar. Nick edits TV shows for a living. It’s interesting to find out what his latest project is. As of late he’s been doing reality shows. It’s funny to find out how much they sculpt people into the characters that they appear to be on television. You can cut a person’s expressions, their dialog and whatever else to create an on-screen persona to fit the drama that you want to present. When they have those little interview segments they put their name on the screen along with their occupation. They always have weird jobs; cheerleading instructor, singing waiter, and my personal favorite, life coach. Unfortunately, Nick is usually bound to secrecy regarding the details of these shows so he can’t tell us much about any of it.

At the moment he has to commute to Pasadena everyday. I don’t know how he does it. The way I hear it (from my wife) he makes this monster drive everyday and when he gets home he still has enough stamina to take the kids out to the park to give Michelle some “me” time. Then he comes home and cooks a three course meal or something. Somewhere along the way halting time to get the extra two or three hours a day in that the rest of us mortals need to get all this done. Honestly, I’m only buying a percentage of her version of this but still a daily drive to work like that is enough to make you want to take a hostage.

Ann and Betty hold the brothers in very high regard. According to them, Nick was potty trained at 10 months. He never cried, cleaned up after himself and taught his younger brother to do the same. The brothers never fought or yelled at each other. In school the nuns loved them and had nothing but praise for them and they never required a teacher conference. On road trips they just sat and colored or played spelling games (in Latin). In fact, they were perfect. They did slip and admit that Patrick had colic as a baby. To them this was tantamount to a neo-natal disability. I’m usually reminded of all of this when I try to explain any less than perfect behavior by our kids as just normal for their age.

Normally, one would resent this kind of perfection in anyone, perceived or actual. But with Nick and Patrick it’s kind of difficult. For one thing they don’t act that way or acknowledge it and for another they’re genuinely pretty nice guys. And come dinner time, their normalcy has a tendency to accentuate the aberrant behavior of other members of the family.

 “So how long before you can get back on the ice?” Michelle hurt herself again.
“Just two weeks.”
“You better be careful, shoulder injuries can come back to haunt you.”
“I know, my doctor keeps telling me to take it easy.”
“What’d you do this time?” I ask.
“I went to high stick someone and well, let’s just say I paid for it.”
“2 minutes for the stick and 2 weeks for the shoulder, shame on you.”
“Well she had it coming.”
After her last injury while training for a triathlon Michelle decided to refocus her efforts on a new sport. I didn’t even know that there was a women’s amateur hockey league in southern California.

 “Hello!” I hear from the door. It’s Ginny, dressed in summer wear. No doubt for the interior climate as much as the untimely weather. Ann rises to greet her sister. They make that whining crying noise that women make when they meet someone that they haven’t seen in a long time. More hugs and kisses ensue. Ginny’s followed by Steve also dressed in light yet stylish attire. When I see Steve he’s usually in casual wear but even dressing down he still seems a couple of notches above in the wardrobe department. I’m just glad that there are no stains on my shirt, so my perception about style is dubious at best. Then come the kids. I try to avoid the cliché about how fast they grow; I always hated it when I was a kid. But it is surprising how they mature when you’re not looking at them all the time. Andy’s already in college, some private university that meets with his parents’ approval. He’s majoring in chemical engineering and he’ll probably go on to get an MBA or something as well. Andy was always destined to be a super achiever. Rumor has it that when he was little his dad would read to him from the Wall Street Journal. I guess it beats the hell out of Dr. Seuss. Kayla has also grown into a nice young lady. I kind of hoped to hear a trace of an accent but neither she nor any of the Walkers has picked up so much as a drawl. Not even any quaint southern idioms in all the years they’ve lived in Tennessee. Their neighbors probably think they talk funny.

“Hi Rick!”
“Hi Ginny, it’s good to see you.”
“Me too. How ‘s the job search going?” Ugh! A touch, I do confess.
“Still looking.” I should have made a list of snappy, smart-ass comebacks to this question days before. I move on and shake hands with Steve, “Hey Steve.”
“Rick. How’s it going?” Our greetings seem terse but genuine. Steve always seems a bit stiff, probably from too many years of wearing a tie.
 “So how’s China?” Steve does a lot of business there. He used to be a strictly “Buy American” kind of conservative but since his former employer moved their operations offshore and he opened his own business he’s moved his capitalist philosophies further to the right by dumping nationalistic protectionism and embracing the whole international lazier-faire mentality.
“China’s all-right. Too many foreigner’s though.”
“Have you driven the 405 lately?”

 I for my part, consider myself a moderate. But then again most people do. The alternative would be to consider oneself a fanatic. In my own defense I try not to take politics too seriously. There’s just too much entertainment value in it. I have to admit that I am drifting to the right with age. I was a liberal Democrat in my twenties, then voted for Perot, and subsequently moved over to moderate Republican. I only hope I won’t end up a Nazi when I’m in my sixties.

Judging by the intonations in Ann’s voice she’s discovered a new piece of jewelry on Ginny.
“Rick, have you seen the watch that Steve bought Ginny?” I hope I don’t wince.
“It’s very nice.” I don’t think I’m that petty but last Christmas in addition to the buying “Mom’s” presents for the boys I bought Ann two presents, an official Angles baseball shirt with Garret Anderson’s name and number – she’s a die hard fan - and what I thought was a really nice sapphire bracelet that was just a bit above my price range. I thought I did good and relished in that glow for the five hours before we got here for dinner only to have Ann show me the 2-carat tennis bracelet on Ginny’s wrist, along with some comparative statement about her own bracelet masked as an attempt at humor. I told you it’s a tough crowd here. She denies any such comment to this day but I only remember seeing the Angels uniform since then. Perhaps I should rethink my gifting strategies.

At any rate, the Republicans have landed. Now the formula starts to simmer. Nick and Michelle are kind of to the liberal end of the spectrum. Steve and Ginny, well, let’s just say they think that Joe McCarthy was an alright guy. Mind you, politics is only one potential fuel source for tonight’s roundtable discussion but it certainly has the most potential for providing a target-rich environment. It’s like putting Ann Coulter and Al Franken in a big jar and shaking it to see if they fight. I do hope that everyone’s up on their current events.

 The combination of the bird in the oven, the new bodies, and the lack of ventilation is starting to overwhelm us so we all start to make our way out to the patio. Not that it’s much better. The Indian summer has the temperature in the 80’s. I can see Ann, Betty and Ginny doing something in the kitchen. There’s probably not a lot for them to do but the “chores” seem to facilitate conversation for them. Like guys working over a car. Nick and Michelle saunter out with apple martinis, Steve’s got a beer.

I take in the hilltop view of Orange County.
 “It’s too late in the year for this heat.” Steve retorts, “This is beautiful. It’s the only thing I miss about California. You would not believe what the weather is like right now in Memphis.”
“Cold?”
“Rainy and 38 degrees.”
“That’s not the picture of the South that I’d expect. I always visualize it as hot and humid. Too much William Faulkner I guess.”
 “No, that’s what it’s like in the summer.”
“So you must live for the Spring and Fall then.”
“Well, that and you don’t have all the congestion that you have here, or the crime.” Always with the crime. I don’t know about the congestion but the Walkers live in a suburb of Memphis which has the 13th highest crime rate in the country. The only city in California that beats that is Oakland which is like Detroit with fresh air.
“I don’t think I could handle the country music.”
“There’s R&B.”
“No Mexican food.”
“Well, none to speak of.”
“Probably because of very few Mexicans.”
“They’re easier to spot so they deport them faster.” Michelle gets up and leaves. Now knowing Michelle, this is not a retreat so much as a desire to engage at a later time. No doubt when we’re assembled on a proper field of battle; flat, level and over the Waldorf salad. I, for my part, enjoy the humor. Steve’s just trolling.
 “Yea, I can’t envision Bluegrass and Salsa mixing well.”
“Or, refries and grits.”
 “Nice touch.” Even Nick is laughing now.

I hear the squeak of the side gate opening. Nobody in this family uses the front door. If I hadn’t seen it open I’d think it’s a prop. It’s Malcolm. I’m not sure how old Malcolm is but I’d be inclined to say he looks older than his years. As I said, Malcolm is Betty’s half-brother. The short version is basically that due to maternal neglect, Betty was left to pretty much take care of Malcolm most of the time and when Betty and Leonard got married Malcolm was the dowry. Malcolm grew up a bit of a restless soul, getting into trouble, going to Vietnam, coming back and working for or with Leonard in his barber shop. Malcolm has two adult kids from a now defunct marriage, Beth whom he barely sees and whom we barely see, and his son Donagen, who is supposed to be here.

“Hi Malcolm, good to see you.” With Malcolm, one can never be sure.
“Hi Rick, Steve. Hi Nick.” Cordial enough for now but like a locomotive he’ll start slow and build momentum.
 “Hey Malcolm, good to see you.” Nick likes Malcolm the most. I think it was because he was around when the kids were young like an older sibling rather than an uncle.
 “I would’ve been here sooner but I had to drop in on some friends first. Where are all the ladies? I should go pay my respects.” When Malcolm talks to Betty respect doesn’t figure into the tone of the conversation. Like I said, I think he hates women, or at least doesn’t think very highly of them. I won’t analyze that one.

None the less, I’m compelled to venture back inside to get a drink. Not just because of the heat but I’ve got to see if Malcolm follows the usual pattern and starts to tell Betty how to cook the dinner again.

I walk into the kitchen only to hear Malcolm and Betty.

“Well how long has it been cooking for?”
“About four and a half hours.”
“Then it should be done.” Ann chimes in.
“No it needs another 45 minutes at least.”
“For a twenty pound bird you should be cooking it at 375 degrees for four to four and a half hours.” “Are you sure, Malcolm?” Betty again.
“Of course I’m sure.”
“No Malcolm, you cook a turkey at 325 degrees not 375. I don’t know where you got that from. Mom, don’t let him touch the stove.”
I ask Michelle, “Why don’t they just check the label or the internet or something?”
“What and spoil all the fun?”
“You’re right, sorry.”
“Well we still have to do the sweet potatoes.” Ginny’s turn. Hey! Sweet potatoes, I love sweet potatoes. They weren’t on the menu. Who cares, more carbs.
 “Mom, what time did you want to eat?”
“About 5:00 I guess.” Ginny checks her new Movado that Steve gave her,
“Well, we have three quarters of an hour more on the turkey. Another 30 to 45 minutes to cook everything else once the stove is available. And it’s 3:45 right now so about 5:15, is that okay?”
 “I guess so.”
“Good, so leave the temperature the way it is and we’ll take it out in 45 minutes.” The round goes to Ann as Malcolm sulks off to pour himself a drink.

I look around the house for some place to sit. Ann and Betty return to their seats at the kitchen table along with Michelle and Ginny. The wine has begun to flow as there’s a couple of bottles open already and their all sharing and sampling what’s been brought. It’s actually a small round table pushed against the wall so there’s only space for 3 or 4 seats. There’s the sofa that’s actually a loveseat next to the table. I usually sit there and listen to the conversation at the table when the temperature isn’t Saharan. 

Like most homes built in the seventies the kitchen area blends into the family room. They used to pass this off as an environment that would promote family unity when, in reality, it was just another way for the architects to save money by removing a wall from the floor plan. Someone has put on a video for the kids to watch. I don’t know who put in on or for whose kids. For an adult it’s slow torture as is most entertainment involving animals that talk.

 I move into the living room / dining room area. The older cousins Kayla, and my son, Jacob, are in there playing the piano, nice but loud. I get a preview of the dining room table though - the formal battleground. There never seems to be enough chairs. I don’t know and I refuse to count since it’s more fun to see what unfolds when we go to sit down anyway. With that many settings there’s no room for all the food. We should get her a bigger table. A side table has been set up for some of the food in front of, you guessed it, the front door.

 It’s too warm, anyway. I move back to the family room and sit down on the couch. The ceiling fan moves around at a deathly slow speed. What good is that speed anyway? Is it just for visual effect? It’s like something out of a Sydney Greenstreet picture. I expect to see iguanas on the screen door. I wonder if it’s an age thing. It’s as if the older you get the more sensitive you are to the cold. It would explain why so many people retire to Palm Springs or Boca Rotan. Now if we could just explain why they leave their left-turn signal on all the time.

I wish it wasn’t so late in the year that baseball season is over. At least then an Angels game might be on instead of this purple dinosaur. Don’t they know that Barney is evil?

Patrick and Stephanie come through door. I get up to greet them. A hug from Stephanie. A handshake from Patrick. With only five years of marriage Stephanie’s the newcomer to this group. I remember trying to read her reaction to her first dinner here and figuring if that didn’t scare her off she was in solid. She is by far, the hardest individual to read in this family. Far too normal, I keep expecting her to jump up one of these times and spring something on us that will surprise the hell out of everybody. These two are the youngest of the couples and seemingly resolved to remaining childless. Perhaps their wisdom exceeds their years on this.

Patrick breaks out a wine. “Hey we got this in Adelaide.” An Australian Chardonnay with a huge tree on the label. They’ve traveled extensively over the last few years. I don’t think they’ve covered Iceland yet but it’s probably on their itinerary. The pictures are interesting. He’s got this digital camera that was probably developed for the National Reconnaissance Office. And they go to places with a lot of local color. Their trek to Ireland should be patented and labeled the “Pub and Castle” tour. They took Betty on that one. I’m surprised since not a lot of women would be inclined to take their mother-in-law on a vacation. But Stephanie is really nice to Betty. It’s also surprising since Betty worries so much that she would even fly that far. But worrying is her hobby. I remember her last words to us as we left on our honeymoon were “Be careful.” No kidding.

Nick and Michelle used to travel a lot but I think kids have a way of curbing that kind of thing.Michelle is a talented graphic artist and would encapsulate their trips in a book. We’re not just talking a scrap book. Each page would have pictures, tickets and a narrative of each place of interest they had visited. These were documented, annotated volumes of their adventures suitable for any coffee table. To me it seemed like too much work to deal with on a vacation but I guess it’s a lot easier if you’re artistically inclined. All their stuff looks really professional like that. She makes greeting cards that look like they came from Hallmark. I remember once we had invited them to a party and Ann told me to just make up the invitations on our computer. You can’t believe how intimidating that can be when you know who’s going to be looking at your right-brain endeavors.

 In this part of the initial phase of the evening as family members began to arrive and greet each other they began the socialization process by discussing the seemingly innocuous. This includes, but is not limited to, discussing details of their various occupations. Patrick, like Nick, is an editor. Only he works in the film industry. Stephanie is a teacher at a private school in Palos Verdes. Ann teaches as well and Ginny used to teach before leaving the state and joining the rich, white, society of the genteel South. I remember that when I was growing up my dad and his four brothers and sisters all worked for the telephone company so you can imagine the nature of the conversation at our family fiestas. I resolved not to talk shop at parties but here everybody else does so I have a choice of subjects where I can display my ignorance.

The girls are back at the table. Ann and Stephanie are discussing the ed-biz using teacher speak riddled with so many acronyms that I have no idea as to their meaning. I thought that the defense industry was bad. How hard it is to keep up with testing, the constant flow of new students and the general ineptitude of their administrators. New theories on reading, “Hey, let’s teach the kids to read backwards so when they read in the right direction they’ll read like wild men!” Combined grade classes – why waste time, let’s just import the bullies into the class room and bypass the playground altogether. Oh that’s right, bullying is now a capital offense requiring mandatory suspension so if you push or hit another kid they’ll punish you by letting have the rest of the week off. In fact, no physical contact is allowed since we all know what grammar school kids have on their mind. As thoughtful and as well planned as the curriculum is in school these days how come these kids still screw up anything more than a three-item order at Burger King?

Nick and Patrick are discussing something about podcasting and something on their computers. They’re Mac owners though so any discussion I would have with them on this subject would be reduced to grunting noises in a matter of minutes.

Malcolm has Steve cornered; a rare occurrence. Being the consummate salesman, you can never tell if Steve’s enjoying the moment or would rather be waiting for his next prostate exam. They’re comparing notes on some of the better locations for bass fishing in the country. I didn’t think Steve liked fishing. I mean I knew he had a boat but I thought they just water skied or sunned themselves or whatever. Bass fishing with jigs seems like the pastime of the NASCAR set. When I think of rich white conservatives angling, I think of dry flies and salmon in Vancouver. I prefer trout myself and never ascribed to the whole catch and release thing. If I’m going to get up early and buy all that gear and travel any reasonable distance to pull something out of it’s natural environment I’m going to eat it. It’s unsophisticated, true, but practical nonetheless.

Betty and Michelle are up again tending to something in the kitchen. Oh, they made appetizers! That’s good since the women have surrounded the chips and dips table and I can’t get anywhere near it. By appetizers I mean their idea of appetizers which are wedges of baked potato with melted cheese and bacon bits on them. This is an Italian-Irish family so if it isn’t pasta, it’s potatoes. The wedges must’ve been under the turkey since this involved opening the stove and thus raising the ambient temperature even more. Malcolm has also picked up the scent of the bird and his attention briefly turns toward the open oven. Fortunately they quickly close the door before he can redirect his attentions entirely toward another food conflict.

Just when I thought we were all assembled another arrival comes through the door. It’s Donagen, Malcolm’s son. Donagen bounds into the family room shaking hands and hugging everyone along with a huge beaming grin. He’s always pleasant enough but there seems to be strain about it all. He reminds me of Eddie Haskell.
“Hi Rick, how’s it going?”
“Fine, it’s good to see you again Donagen.”
“Likewise, how’s the job hunt, did you find any …”
“No still at it.” Okay, they staged this, didn’t they? No, not everyone’s in on it but c’mon, dinner hasn’t even started yet. It’s been worse. When Ann and I first started dating, her family used to confuse me with her previous boyfriend. One night when we were all in the Jacuzzi, Steve even went so far as to ask what happened to the other guy.
“How about you? Weren’t you in North Carolina?” Donagen recently graduated from UCLA with a degree in philosophy. He then departed for Appalachia for three months to apply his education to the real estate market.
“Well that didn’t work out quite the way I expected.”
“Real estate is a tough market right now.”
“Yea, I’m thinking about going back to school. Maybe get an MBA or maybe law school.”
“Sounds like you’ve got options.”
“I’m looking into a job opportunity right now that’s in direct market advertising.”
“Really.”
“The earnings are effort based and you set your own work time. And it’s a growth industry.”
“How’d you hear about this?”
“I got a flyer in the mail.”

It’s 4:15. There’s at least another hour before the main event. A lot can happen in an hour. Who knows, I might even get another job.

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