Christmas with Strangers

When I spoke with my father the day before Christmas eve when I was to arrive for a visit, he told me that he and my mother had accepted an invitation for Christmas dinner from one of their neighbors.  He added quickly that we could decline if I didn’t want to go.  I said no.  It would be fine.  The neighbor in question lived only one floor down in their low rise condominium.  I could escape with a white lie if the occasion became tedious.  I could pretend to be tired or feign a headache.  I didn’t even have to be believable.  I come from polite society where white lies are acceptable.  It is better to spare someone’s feelings than tell an unnecessary truth. I didn’t have to stay longer than I wanted plus I believe in going with the flow.  When in Elder-ado do as the Elder-ado’s do.

We were invited to arrive at 4:30 and we walked down one flight of stairs to the condo directly under my parents’ condo with our drinks in our hands.  We were greeted at the door by our hostess, Dee, a small woman with a crooked smile and one shoulder higher than the other, and introduced to two guests whose arrival had proceeded ours, Bob and Pat.  Mother had dropped off a big bottle of Pinot Noir, our contribution, the day before because she had no room in her refrigerator (a white lie).  Dee had put it to chill in hers.  We were introduced to Bob and Pat who were not a couple and sat down in Dee’s living room which was much like that of my parents who lived directly a floor above.  Dee had appetizers on the table, cubes of cheese, olives and shrimp with a cocktail sauce she had made herself.  There were little Christmas trays that we could put our appetizers on.  Pat opened a bottle of Merlot that Bob had brought and asked him if she could have a glass of his good wine.  Bob said of course she could noting that she had opened it before asking him.  Bob was having a glass of Chivas Regal on the rocks, probably not his first.  Pat poured herself a glass of Bob’s good wine and she and Dee joined us as we passed the appetizers.

Mother asked Bob, a tall bald bespectacled fellow, what he had done for a living.  Bob answered that he had been in insurance.  Mother then told a story about a neighbor of ours in Nashville who had once sold us a homeowner’s policy.  Dad’s car had been broken into and his raincoat had been stolen.  When he called the neighbor/agent he was reassured that there was no need to file a claim.  A personal check was sent to cover the cost of the raincoat.  Mother continued that the neighbor had been discovered to be a fraud.  He collected insurance premiums but kept them all for himself.  He had gone to jail for his malfeasance.  Bob rattled the ice cubes in his glass and said that he could never have gotten away with such fraud because he was in commercial insurance.  He then regaled us with stories about his worst days in the insurance business including one where four race car drivers perished in a fireball at the Indianapolis 500 (Bob was from Indiana) and if that wasn’t enough, spectators sued for smoke inhalation.  Mother later told me Dee had told her that Bob was a millionaire so not all of his deals went bad.

At this point Larry arrived by himself.  He and his live-in girlfriend had been invited but as Larry explained, they had to call 911 the night before.  Everything was okay, he said.  She was just not feeling up to dinner.  He brought a dish with a low slung cheese ball studded with pecans.  The mound was surrounded by crackers and was sat on the table.  It was never passed around.  Larry ate a few of the crackers, half a cracker at a time, placing the other half back on the plate.  The cheese cubes and olives were at the other end of the coffee table and never circulated again.  This meant the shrimp and sauce were right in front of me and I could discreetly continue to eat them which I did.

Somehow the conversation turned to illegal drugs and several people said they would try marijuana if it was legal.  Bob, of course, had tried it because he had lived in a university town.  He also launched into a categorization of the three kinds of widows who live in their over 55 community, The Landings.  He said the first kind were meaner than three snakes.  He repeated this and made a face like he had bitten by one.  The second kind could cook and were, meh, he said meh like a sheep might say bah and put out a hand palm down and made the sign for iffy.  Pat interrupted and said she hoped she wasn’t that kind and asked him what kind of men there were at The Landings.  Bob said there were only three single men who lived at The Landings and over 500 widows.

At this point my father ventured into the conversation with a non sequitur about something that Donald Trump had said that might be true.  Dee changed the conversation by saying that the chef in the restaurant at The Landings had been asked to leave.  Larry perked up at this point and said that meatloaf should always be on the menu.  When Pat interrupted about how restaurants in condo communities should not be for profit Larry interrupted her saying that the nuns who taught him in school told him he should always finish the paragraph of whatever topic he was speaking about and so he did.  Meatloaf should be served with mashed potatoes and peas.  This was well known.  Who didn’t know this, he wondered as he meandered to the end of his paragraph.

A conversation ensued about how to run a property like The Landings.  Pat had been on the board of the condo association and so had an understanding about the intricate trade-off’s that were brokered between the manager and the membership.  Bob and Larry disagreed with several of her points.  Dad weighed in that the Old Testament should have never been a part of the Bible and Bob asked us if we knew how old he was.  82 he said adding that he had a 25 year old son from a trophy bride who had left him.  He then reared up in his chair and asked when were we going to eat.  He said he was hungry.

Dee arose from the couch and went into the kitchen.  There was the clank of pots and pans being rearranged and soon the sizzle of something frying.  A full hour had passed and I had not said a word.  Pat was the one to ask me what I did for a living.  I said I am a psychotherapist.  I knew, said Larry, I knew when I saw your beard you were a psychiatrist.  I did not correct him.  Bob said I could make a fortune at The Landings, I could set up an office in the Wheelroom.

The Wheelroom is the bar at The Landings.  Bob is a frequent patron where he buys drinks and pizzas for the ladies.  He is popular in the Wheelroom.  Larry, Pat and Dee all agree.  They are regulars.  My parents prefer their evening cocktail on their lanai overlooking the 8th hole.  They drink one watery drink and eat Pringles and raw vegetables with hummus dip. They do this at 5:30 every day.

The conversation soon returns to the folkways, mores and institutions of The Landings, a community of villages that share amenities:  golf, tennis, pools, boat docks, a club house . . . that forty years ago was a gladiolus farm not far from the Ford/Edison estates on the Edisto River that runs out of Ft. Myers into the Gulf of Mexico.  When you call The Landings the receptionist always says, It’s a beautiful day at The Landings and it often is especially during the Winter season when the weather is mild and the living is easy.  My parents have wintered there for the past 18 years.  Dee, our hostess, is a long-time resident too.  She arrived as a widow and caught an eligible widower, Ernie, whom she married after living with him for two years and extracting some promises (including his 401-k) before tying the knot.  Mother said Ernie was no prize and Dee earned everything she got after Ernie’s death when Dee had to go into mortal combat with his four daughters who, according to Mother, never came to visit and sold the condo he and Dee lived in which they inherited, for a song.  Dee is renting the condo she currently inhabits and hopes to buy another.  She is now assembling a buffet for us, creamed potatoes, sweet potatoes, well fried asparagus, an unfortunate assembly of baby carrots, cranberry sauce and feta cheese and, announced with emphasis on brand, a Boar’s Head sliced ham.  We load up our plates and sit and eat.  Dee has made a centerpiece of red carnations and felt poinsettias. Our glasses are filled with chilled Pinot Noir and we eat.

Pat has made desert, an apple pie.  I assist her in serving after surveying pie preferences:  with cool whip, with ice cream, with nothing.  Two ice creams, the rest nothing.  We eat pie and Bob says he has got to go home.  No explanation, not even a white lie, he shows his narcissistic Yankee stripes, and acts like he is five.  I later learn that he has paid for the food Dee cooked which explains some of his entitlement.  Poor Pat is his ride.  I wonder if perhaps she entertained fantasies of a possible liaison.  Pat is probably seventy.  She is a good looking woman, solid, blonde, perhaps a Swede.  I feel sorry for her, given the odds at The Landing, that she is not a lesbian.  I hope she gets out of the evening with nothing more than a mild case of disgust.

Larry has to leave too.  He is in his late seventies with a full head of white hair, piercing blue eyes and a thick Boston accent.  He would be unremarkable in Ireland where no doubt his family hailed from.  So it is just my parents and me and Dee and we have a little more wine before we ease out.  Dee mentioned earlier in the evening that she had worked as a beautician most of her life.  She came from nothing according to Mother who knew her story and worked for everything she had.  I got a sense of her unhappiness in her wistful references to relatives who were obviously not there.  Bob’s twenty-five year old son, local and a no-show, by the trophy bride who left him was also absent as was Larry’s girlfriend who was in her sick bed in a nearby unit.  My mother, my father and I said our goodbyes and Dee saw us to the door.  In a moment that was completely out of character she gave us each a hug and a kiss on the cheek.  I could tell it was heartfelt.  She had not had to spend this Christmas alone.  Nor had we.  We could all sigh a deep sigh of relief that the holiday had passed and that we had been in good company.


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