Dinner

FICTION.DINNERby Dell Franklin

“I’m on my way,” Mel announces. “I’ll be there in half an hour.”

“Mel’s on his way, mom!” I announce, hanging up the phone, which mother has difficulty operating due to failing eyesight and arthritis.

“If he’s on his way, it means he’ll be here in two hours,” mother says from her plush rocker with a view. Mel lives 15 miles away in Long Beach. I have driven down 247 miles from a small beach town up north, where I live in a beach shack. Took me 4 ½ hours in my limping 20-year-old Toyota Tercel. It’s Saturday afternoon and my mother and I are going out to dinner with Mel, her companion, in San Pedro. He has already called four times to check on mother. Each time he’s asked if my sister, Jeannie, is coming over. I keep telling him she can’t make it because she’s busy with HER life, she being an involved citizen and college professor.

Mother has tubes in her nostrils from an oxygen tank. She’s still fragile from a near death battle with pneumonia. Jeannie and I need to organize her affairs and find a live-in caregiver. My sister has been driven nearly mad dealing with mother and Mel and is a bit miffed I have been up north and caught none of the stress. Now I am here to make myself useful. My sister lives in Palos Verdes with her retired husband who was a corporate executive. Their two boys are out of college with advanced degrees, and doing well in business. I drive a cab, am single, rent, play a lot of tennis, surf, read, drink.

“Jeannie should be here any minute,” mother comments.

“No, mom, she’ll be over tomorrow morning.”

“Oh yes. That’s right. But you’ll be here all week, won’t you, honey?”

“No, mom, I’ve got to get back to work tomorrow night.”

After a while I remove the twin tubes from her nostrils and turn off the oxygen tank. She has more color in her face. Jeannie calls and warns me not to let mother drive.

“You think I’m an idiot? She can hardly see, and she’s terrified of taking ten steps alone.”

“And don’t let her wear those red high heels.” She pauses when I don’t answer. “We’ve got to keep mother in a controlled environment.”

I hang up after telling my sister I’ll see her tomorrow. Mother is now reading the LA Times funnies. She used to read the entire paper and the New Yorker. She was a high school valedictorian and college honor student and educator who, in her eighties, took up Oriental painting and a short story class. I sit down across from her. She smiles at me. Her eyes suddenly come into focus and meet mine with the old yearning that could melt granite.

“I miss our going to the movies together,” she says. “And going to dinner afterwards and watching the people and talking about the movie, and books, and people. I miss you, honey.”

“I know. We’ll go again.”

“Jeannie doesn’t want me to. She doesn’t trust me.”

I don’t say anything. What can I say? I cease looking into her eyes. “The motha look,” my dad used to say, describing the way she looked at me—admiration, understanding, forgiveness, everything.

***

FICTION.DINNER.dancerMel shows up around 7, two hours after he said he’d be right over. His entrance, as always, is turbulent. He has a female Pomeranian that is demanding and spoiled. Mel has to make several trips from his car, toting packages for mother, toys for the dog. He needs a hip replacement and lurches along, his shoes never leaving the ground. I go out to help him with the strawberries, champagne, bananas, boiled chicken for the dog, shopping bags of food and sundries. He is in a huff about the dog darting into the street and getting run over.

Once settled in a chair beside mother, he asks how I’m doing at the bar I tended for 10 years, but which I haven’t worked in over a year, since I started hacking. I tell him business is good. He then leans toward me and whispers that mother had a stroke. The doctors say she did not have a stroke, but Mel knows everybody’s business better than they do. He once owned car dealerships and real estate, was a wheeler dealer, is well off. He’s been mother’s companion almost 25 years, and nearly cracked up when she was sick. He is a lifelong bachelor and claims my mother is the classiest lady he’s ever known. “So Jeannie’s on her way, coming to dinner, Rick?” he says. I tell him again that Jeannie can’t come and will be over tomorrow. Mother tells him I’ll be here all week. I tell them I’ve got to go back to work tomorrow while my black Lab, who is not allowed in the house for fear he’ll eat the Pomeranian, stares sadly at me through the sliding glass door on the patio.

“Your mother likes it when you come down,” Mel says. “She perks up. She’s never happier than when you come down for a visit.”

Tonight we are going to a swank establishment down on the harbor. I volunteer to drive, but Mel insists on taking his Lincoln Town Car. Mother wears a chic outfit and looks amazingly 10 years younger than her age while Mel has on a summer sports coat and silk shirt open at the throat. I wear thrift store shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. It doesn’t take mother long to get ready after their ritual champagne with strawberries, but then we must wait for Mel to break up the dog’s chicken into tiny bites and place it beside the bowl of bottled water. Then Mel dilly-dallies for what seems forever in the bathroom and mother’s room. I ask her what he’s doing and she says he dithers. There is no use saying anything to him, and when he finally emerges mom accuses him of taking half an hour, but he insists he was only five minutes. “Thirty minutes,” says mom.

Outside, I slacken my pace to a near crawl to stay abreast as we walk to Mel’s car. I help mother into the front seat and get in the back seat behind her. Mel’s head just does come up over the seat and steering wheel. The two little heads look like gourds. Mel flies down the hill just missing parked cars. But he knows the three-mile route. When he arrives at the harbor parking complex he slams into and bounces off a center divider on a turn, and just misses a pole.

“There’s no lighting down here,” he grouses after mother informs him he needs to fasten his seat belt, which he never does.

I don’t say a word. There’s no use saying anything to Mel about bouncing off center dividers and sending terrified pedestrians, dressed for Saturday night dinner in various restaurants, scurrying for cover. The Town car has amassed a few dents and smells of dog, like my heap. Mel makes a few turns around the vast lots searching for a disabled spot, finally settling for a spot that is a row of blue lines. Oh well.

I help mom out. It takes a while to corral and steer them up the walkway to the restaurant, which is comprised of two large banquet rooms between which are three adjoined sections for elegant dining with a view of the water and cargo stacks in LA harbor. Both of them have to go to the restroom, The hostess asks do I wish to wait for them up front, but no, I wish to be seated, and she leads me to a table at a window on the water. I pick up the menu, browse it, look at the water, then at the diners, and spot mother wandering into the restaurant, looking a bit catatonic. It is a good thing the hostess sat us in the front section. Mother is headed past the salad bar toward section two when I intercept and guide her to our table and sit her down across from me beside the window.

After mother is situated, Mel scuffs into the room. I get up to intercept him and lead him to our table, where he sits beside mother. They peer out at the water.

“There’s not many ships out there,” Mel says, concerned. “Last time we were here there were a million ships coming and going.”

“Maybe it’s 9/11,” mother says.

“We’ve been here since 9/11, Lilly,” Mel says.

“No we haven’t,” mother insists.

“Yes, we were here last month, Lilly.”

“No, we went to Sorrento’s. We’ve been to Madeo’s and the Four Seasons, but we haven’t been here for years, Mel.”

“Lilly, we were here last month,” he says, with patience.

They continue to joust while I gaze out the window at the placid water. It is July and still light out. A cargo ship cruises by like a mountain moving into view.

“What a lovely table,” mother says.

“There’s no traffic out there,” Mel says, tucking his napkin at his throat, studying the menu. “There’s got to be a reason for it. I’ll find out.”

The waiter alights. He is overweight, with wrinkled forehead and huge gaped teeth. He’s around 40 and his name tag reads, RAOUL.

“And how are WEEE tonight?”  He smiles at us like we are four year olds. A number of men in red coats and black pants and ties stand around or hustle about. They all have name tags. Both banquet rooms are packed with wedding parties. Salsa music filters into the crowded dining room to mix with the standard desultory Muzak. We each order a glass of wine. Meanwhile, mom and Mel go round and round trying to decide what to order. She asks me what I’m going to order and I tell her probably the prime rib. She asks Mel if the prime rib is good. Mel says they’re not “noted” for their prime rib. Everything is “okay.” This restaurant, though pricey, is known for its ambience, not the food. Mel, the ultimate authority on restaurants and food, has found ambience, but continues to complain about the lack of traffic in the harbor. There isn’t much to look at except the flat keys of stacked containers, cranes jutting above. Just glassy water and the occasional cargo ship headed in or out.

Raoul returns with our wine and mother surprises everybody by ordering the rack of lamb, but only after putting Raoul through an inquisition regarding sauces that might contribute to her cholesterol. Mel has the salmon special Raoul so tantalizingly described. I have the prime rib. I discourage them from going to the salad bar, and they order the soup de jour. Mel selects the red rose potatoes while mother and I have the baked. They begin eating bread while I go to the salad bar. When I return they are pointing to a Coast Guard ship.

“See,” mother says, “9/11. There was no Coast Guard here last time we were here.”

“The Coast Guard is always here,” Mel explains. “And the Harbor Patrol. This is the biggest port in the country.”

They joust a while about which port is the biggest in the country, naming New York, Seattle, etc., until the soup comes. They dig in. I eat my salad, which mother claims “looks very good.” I have the plate so full that food falls onto the white linen cloth. Whenever mother commented on how good the food on my father’s plate looked, he automatically gave it to her. I dish some over to mother. A cruise ship crawls by. Passengers line the railings drinking from champagne glasses and waving at people along the windows of the restaurant, and diners wave back, affecting enthusiasm. The ship is immense.

“I loved taking cruises with your father,” mother says.

“Soup’s not great,” Mel remarks.

“Rick, honey, I wonder where the ship is going. The one I took with your father went to Acapulco.”

“Probably goes to Mexico,” Mel tells her.

“Or Hawaii. We went there, too. We also went to Tahiti. A wonderful time. So beautiful. Such lovely people, the islanders.”

Mother smiles at me. Usually, when I come down here, if I can, I bring my on-again-off-again girl friend, Miranda. Though mother is fond of Miranda, she feels she’s not right for me. Three other serious flames over the years were brought home, and though mother adored them, too, they also were not right for me. When the eventual break-up with these fine ladies occurred, they all made it a point to visit my mother for lunches while going out of their way to avoid me. Mother loves Miranda. Miranda, after 16 years, is done with me. Mother does not know this.

Our food comes. When Mel sees our baked potatoes and then his own tiny red rose potatoes, he grabs Raoul by the arm and says he wants the baked too—go ahead and charge extra.

“Ok-eee, do-key!” Raoul simpers. “And would you like butter and sour cream on your potato, sir?”

“Yes, thank you, Raoul.”

When he waddles off, swishing his ass, mother says, “What an ugly man.”

The waiters at the restaurant always prepare a diner’s potato for them, but Mel will have none of that. Meanwhile, mother and I dig in. She claims her lamb is “pretty good.”

“So you’re staying a few days this time?” Mel says to me, not eating. “Your mother really likes it when you stay longer.”

“Going back tomorrow, Mel. I’ll be back in two weeks.”

“How’s the bar going?”

“Okay.”

“Still making good tips?”

“Enough to live on.”

He is perking up. “Back when I owned my jazz nightclub, a beer and a shot cost fifty cents. What are they charging these days?”

“A draft and a shot’s about six bucks. The good stuff’ll run you up to ten.”

“Been in any good fights lately?”

“Nah.” I neglect to tell either of them that I quit the bar after hospitalizing a guy in a fight. “I tamed that dive.”

“I always liked the dives.”

“I like all bars, Mel.”

He smiles. “Yes, I like all bars, too.”

His baked potato comes. He has not touched his salmon. Mother and I are half finished. Mel methodically slathers his potato. When this potato is as he likes it, he prepares to stick a fork in it and somehow knocks it off the table onto the carpet. I rise to retrieve it, but Mel motions me away and flags down Raoul, who scurries over and picks up the potato and promises to bring another. Raoul is busy with a table of four well-dressed, middle-aged Latino couples two tables over. It is getting dark out. Mel watches us eat.

“So how’s the lamb?” he asks mother.

“Just a little dry, Mel, but fine.” She sips her wine.

“Everything should be perfect for what they charge,” Mel says. “So your prime rib’s pretty good, Rick?”

“Just fine, Mel.”

“I don’t eat much meat these days,” Mel admits.

“Mel’s lost weight, Rick. Doesn’t he look young for his age?”

I nod. Mel does look good—no more than 75. He has a shock of white hair and a ruddy, smooth complexion. He had been a handsome guy in his prime. Everybody who knows Mel, says mom, likes him. He is into everybody’s business, is generous, helpful; understands finances. A former Republican, he’s turned Democrat since meeting my mother, who is an Eleanor Roosevelt liberal.

His new potato comes, Mel again slathers it methodically. He has still not touched his salmon. I am done. I help mother finish her plate. Mel picks up his wine glass, discovers it’s empty, waves down Raoul, who is now a bit hurried and flustered, and asks for another glass of wine. Raoul snares the glass and huffs off. Mel finally starts to eat. A slow eater, he likes his fish and potato, but they’re “not great.” Mel eats out frequently. At his condo, he only cooks pasta with the special sauce he learned from his old country mother who lived to be 102.

He becomes restless when his wine does not come right away. “Where is that waiter?” He peers around, agitated, flags down another waiter who comes right over and listens to Mel tell him he wants another Chardonnay. The waiter flags down Raoul, who stares at our table and then has a hissy-snit, arguing with the man before heading off toward the bar in an angry gait.

Meanwhile, Mel is not going to take another bite until his wine arrives. Finally, the wine comes, but Raoul places it out of Mel’s reach. While Mel strains unsuccessfully for the glass, I move it within his reach, and he picks it up and takes a sip.

“Wine’s good,” he concedes. “Can’t ruin good wine.”

“I like a little chardonnay,” mother says, looking and sounding catatonic, and I cannot look at her. “So did your father.”

While Mel eats, my plate is taken away by a busboy. Mel asks this person, who is actually an adult named ESTEBAN, why there is so little traffic out in the harbor. Esteban, though smiling and nodding, has no idea what Mel is talking about. So he goes and finds Raoul and whispers in his ear, and Raoul comes over and asks Mel if he needs anything, but Mel does not want to be bothered at this point, is busy eating, so Raoul goes off haughtily and then suddenly changes moods to fawn over his big festive Latino table that seems to be celebrating somebody’s birthday. Now Esteban is talking to one of the managers, who comes over instantly and asks Mel if everything is okay. ARTURO. Mel asks Arturo why there is so little traffic in the harbor. Arturo, who doesn’t speak great English himself, goes and finds another manager who is also Mexican but speaks fluent English without accent, and Mel asks HIM why there is so little traffic in the harbor, but ALBERT, after pausing to seriously consider this daunting question, shrugs and admits he does not know why there is so little traffic in the harbor. As an after-though, before leaving, he suggests that there seems to be the same amount of traffic as usual.

“I told you so!” mother exclaims with righteous fervor, no longer catatonic.

Mel wipes his mouth with his linen napkin. He’s just about done. “Last time we were here there was a million ships out there,” he contends. “The Coast Guard and Harbor Patrol’ve been prowling all night long. Something’s wrong.”

“Oh baloney,” mother states, rolling her eyes at me.

Raoul materializes, girds up, half bows. “Are we all done?” he asks, oozing sweetness, for Mel is a notoriously huge tipper. “Everything okay?”

Mel nods, sits back, removes his napkin from his throat.

“And would we like a little dessert?”

“I’ll have the decaf,” mother says.

“I’ll have the same,” says Mel.

“Double Stoli on the rocks,” I tell Raoul, and he winks at me.

FICTION.DINNER4When the coffee and vodka come, Mel takes care of the bill. The dining room is clearing out and the evening has turned dark; we’ve been here for hours, it seems. I have to get them melon from the salad bar for a belated dessert. The melon, they claim, is the best part of the dinner. We finally rise to leave. Both of them scuff off to the restrooms. I wait on the sofa in the little alcove up front beside the fire place across from the hostess station. The wedding parties in both banquet rooms are becoming more boisterous, and joyful young people in beautiful gowns and tuxes mill around in the hallways. Mother finally comes out of the restroom and sits beside me. She takes my hand, smiling, looking around, drifts out of her catatonic state.

“Aren’t the Latin people handsome?” she says. “Your father and I, when he jumped the big leagues to play baseball in Mexico, and in Cuba, we loved it so. We didn’t see each other for over two years while he was in the war, and then he came home alive, and you were two years old, and he just adored you, and at night we danced in all the little cantinas and nightclubs after his games, and there was always music, and it was the happiest time of our lives.” She squeezes my hand. “The Latin people, they could not get over how blue your eyes were, and my eyes, and they wanted to reach out and touch us, and your father, he was so protective, so proud of us, he just beamed…I miss him so….”

My father put up with a lot and accomplished a lot and gave back more than his share and died a debilitating, excruciatingly painful death he did not deserve at too young an age. Mother, nursing him, remained stoic and brave, their love genuine and heroic.

Mel still has not come out of the restroom. We wait. Normally, no person takes longer in a restroom than mother, so it’s my duty to go in there and check on Mel.

He’s not in the restroom. I walk outside to see nobody in the Town Car. I enter one of the wedding parties; packed, hot, noisy salsa music, Latinos, living it up. I spot Mel talking to two middle-aged men in tuxes at a table. He’s drinking champagne. I walk over and stand beside Mel. The men smile at me; offer champagne, ask if I am his son. I tell them I am not. Evidently, one of these men bought a Jaguar at one of Mel’s dealerships twenty years ago. I see a bottle of Stoli and fill a used plastic cup to the brim and drink half of it, listen briefly to their conversation, then go outside to check on my mother. She is gone.

I enter the other wedding party and look around; packed, hot, noisy salsa music. Mother is dancing with a young Latino man. She, like dad was, is a great dancer. I finish my drink, find the bar, take out a wad of bills, point to my cup and tell a pretty girl bartender wearing a Tux shirt and tie to hit it with Stoli, and offer her a twenty. She tells me it’s an open bar so I ask her to keep pouring and stuff the bill in her snifter and turn to watch my mother dance. She’s become the life of the party, the Latinos clapping their hands and saluting her as she whirls in the red high heels dad bought her in Italy. §

Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., and publishes his observations on sports, politics, and culture on his website, dellfranklin.com, where this article first appeared.

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