The Longest Dinner
A Holiday Saga Of Sibling
And The Power Of Music
Part One: Into The Abyss
"It's your own damn
fault, buckaroo. You let yourself get suckered into this, now you've got to get
Then the Ranger Lady shushed me. I hadn’t realized I was speaking out loud.
It was the
longest evening of my life. For the past
few hours -- maybe days -- we'd been stuck at a table in a stuffy room with stuffy people, hearing nothing but gossip about the local gentry,
bulletin after catty bulletin filled with names we
The guest of honor, a not-very-famous author, glowered crankily, but our hostess was glowing.
The Ranger Lady’s sister is the Sir Edmund Hilary of social climbers, and tonight she had just bagged herself a summit. The use of her table
to spread scandal was proof she’d gained major altitude. The atmosphere was so heady up there that she hadn't noticed
it was well past time for coffee-and-dessert.
I fiddled with my collar and gulped for air as I thought about the long drive that still awaited us. "We've got to get out
of here," I mouthed to the Ranger Lady.
“Behave yourself,” my wife whispered back, and fanned herself discreetly.
Outside the window, freezing rain was turning to snow.
It was the Christmas season, a long time ago.
“I got a phone call from The Countess today,” the Ranger Lady told me early that December. "She wants us to come to a dinner party while we’re up in New York.”
"You told her we’ll be feeding the homeless that night, right?”
“For one thing, I at least want to try nouvelle cuisine…”
“Whatever,” I thought.
“…. and actually, I think you might enjoy it this time."
I laughed. Visits with The Countess were a trial for the Ranger Lady and me both.
“She's also inviting John Stuyvesant Steele.”
“He’s an author- she said we’d know his name. I don’t, but you’re better at Trivial Pursuit than I am."
All right, I decided, be a sport. If there's someone I can talk books with, it might be a little more interesting than the usual session with The Countess.
It was looking like snow from my old bedroom window when time came to get ready. "I don't know about this weather," I said. "We've got a heck of a drive as it is, through the city and all."
"I just talked to The Countess," the Ranger Lady replied. "She says the roads are fine up by her, and there's no snow in the forecast."
"Well, okay, then."
It turns out I should have trusted my instincts. I didn't know it yet, but The Countess was fibbing.
"I’ve laid out your clothes,” the Ranger Lady continued.
There it all was-- jacket, tie, the works. Suddenly I realized I’d been ignoring the full implications of An Evening With The Countess: there were Standards of Decorum for us to meet.
I cleared my throat and launched into my classic "Neckties are barbaric!" oration. It's a real crowd-pleaser, with references to Patrick Henry, Judge Roy Bean, and John Brown's body.
"I feel just terrible for you," said the Ranger Lady, and reached into her suitcase. "Tell me all about it while I'm putting on my girdle."
I suddenly realized that I could not expect much sympathy over a mere necktie.
"Never mind," I mumbled, then shut up and cinched on the knot while the Ranger Lady climbed into her body armor. By the time she was properly packaged I was well-noosed, and the sky had darkened further.
We hadn’t driven far before we found
ourselves in a snowstorm, somewhere in Queens. "Do you want to turn around?" the Ranger Lady finally
asked. "I could call The Countess and explain things.”
That’s where I made that mistake I told you about. Not wanting
to intrude into a complicated Sister Situation, I hesitated. Besides, there was
The Author, and we could talk about books.
“Naw, I’d feel like a wimp.”
The snow stopped right after we crossed into the Bronx-- it
turned to freezing rain. Stuck in traffic, I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw a car sliding sideways toward us. "Brace yourself!" I hollered.
It missed, but hit the car in the next lane with a loud crunch. Several minutes later it happened again with another slider, and then once again after that- three near misses in all. We counted cars in the ditch for a while, but there were so many that we stopped counting before
we hit Westchester.
"What kind of nut would be out on the road on a night like this?" I wondered to myself. Then I remembered: that would be me.
“This is going to be a joy on the way home,” I predicted,
yanking at my tie.
“Maybe we could spend the night up there,” the Ranger Lady
mused, reaching beneath her hem.
“Yeah, maybe,” I replied. “That would be fun.”
When we arrived, I offered The Countess apologies, explaining that what with the
weather and all, we wouldn't be able to linger long. She barely acknowledged my words--
at least she didn't offer to put us up for the night. She did tell me one thing I hadn't figured
on – we were the only invited guests beside The Author and The Florist. How flattering!
As we waited for the august personage, I hung out with my niece
and nephew. They wouldn’t be joining us at the table-- they'd been told to stay
out of the way.
Finally, the big moment arrived and The Author entered with The Countess’s boss, The Florist.
After she settled him into the room's best chair, The Countess respectfully presented us
to the guest of honor.
"They’re both park rangers.”
“How nice,” he sniffed. “You must enjoy your job.”
“It has its moments,” I answered politely.
“It must be relaxing, living away from people, enjoying a
The Ranger Lady shot me a warning, but she needn’t have
bothered. We’re both used to that stuff.
Tact was harder when he started to lecture me on the
history of the park where I worked, but I managed. After he hit the important points- sort of- he turned away and yelled for The Florist. “Where did you go?”
in the kitchen helping The Countess!” answered The Florist. “There’s been an
accident with the mustard mousse.”
“Oh, God,” moaned The Author. He could not have made it plainer
that he was not interested in discussing books, or anything else, with me.
The Author gave every indication he’d just been handed an unripe durian fruit, The Florist's caffeinated chatter suggested he'd been hitting the hillside-grown
Kona since well before noon. My spirits raised– maybe there'd be some
interesting conversation after all.
Ahead to Part Two: Escape