Potluck With The Dead…A Story…
Every year since ‘69.
A house in which to hold the Potluck is chosen every year, beforehand, and ten people attend…every year.
It’s always on the 8th of August just because it was Sharon’s idea to have these potluck dinners in the first place. She always loved having people over, cooking herself, trying new foods, having Jay bring the wine and over these last 44 years she has accepted the fact that this odd band of souls would be forever linked, so why not get to know one another, truly, was Sharon’s feeling. And through these Do’s, all ten have become very close, you know, bonding better than blood relatives ever would, over an inevitable coming-together of fated Moments In Time and, well, summer wouldn’t be summer if you didn’t have a get-together, at least once.
This year, Gary’s place was chosen. It’s never a big deal for the guys to host the party for they know Sharon, Gibby and Rosemary will help them in the food and party essentials department, how to buy, how to prepare, how to lay it all out for the shindig. This Do is never a stressful one, no, not for the food.
At about 7:30 p.m. people start to arrive, the time, roughly, when Sharon and her friends started to get ready for that long ago dinner at the el Coyote. One by one they would “materialize” in their respective cars, cars that have a distinctive ‘60’s era look and feel to them for everything is frozen in time, as it well should be. Up the hill they came. Darkness hadn’t yet enveloped Topanga but headlights were clearly visible as they made their way up Gary’s driveway.
First Jay’s Porsche (he gave a ride to Sharon for her Ferrari was in the mechanics garage), then Steve Parent’s Rambler, car-radio predictably blaring, followed by Leno’s Thunderbird with his dear wife, Rosemary, in the passenger seat, the T-Bird still hauling that ever-present speedboat. Then Gibby’s Camaro, hauling her ever-present, somewhat mooching sidekick, Voytek. Shorty Shea’s ‘62 Mercury was the last up the hill for he had the longest way to drive and really wasn’t known to “rush" in any instance. All were present and accounted for, cars and company. What was missing in the driveway were Gary’s VW microbus and Fiat station wagon, not surprising though, really, for we know they were taken by Bobby and the Girls.
Carrying various well-wrapped culinary goodies, they dutifully walked up Gary’s long wooden steps, Jay carrying a cardboard box filled with various Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs for he was always in charge of the drinks for this Do. Steve was the last up the steps for he forgot to get the board game and the Sony AM/FM clock-radio out of his car. Sharon had put him in charge of the after-dinner entertainment. Tonight’s game would be Mouse Trap and although he always attempted to set the correct time on his radio-alarm clock, that he used to provide the night’s musical entertainment, the numbers would always flip back to “11:45”. Oh well, no matter, it was the tunes they were interested in anyhow.
The line up was stalled some when it was Sharon’s turn to head up the stairs for she had that wicker bassinet, all lined in lovely white linen, a frilly mini bedding ensemble for wee Paul Richard, the soft tinkle of a baby rattle could be heard by all.
Hugs and kisses were exchanged all around. It was always so nice to see one another again even if it was a time-limited visit each year. Sharon, once she had found a nice place for Paul Richard, joined Rosemary and Gibby in Gary’s kitchen to prepare and re-heat all the buffet goodies. The men got together in the living room helping Jay uncork the bottles, everyone laughing and joking, room to room, exchanging pleasantries and small talk on how this last year had gone for them.
Alone, in the dark, deep within the earth, one surely thirsts for company by August.
Everyone was famished. You get like that not eating for so long.
Each dish was incredible, tasted so perfect, the wine was flowing brightly, big smiles on Jay as he became bar-keep and Shorty had everyone in stitches with his down-home ranch-hand humour. Leno was trading secrets on betting to Steve and Voytek was asking after Rosemary, trying to make her feel more at ease for it didn’t matter what year they had assembled since ‘69, she never quite relaxed, you know, always slowly wringing her hands. Rosemary would try and hide her nervous habit from everyone, especially from Leno, for he became so infuriated that she, for at least one night, wouldn’t settle down, relax and enjoy herself.
Around the table, the news from each was enthusiastically exchanged;
“I never lose anymore, you know. I’m at Santa Anita race track every day now and I always win! There’s no place to spend the money “Up Above” so I’m just piling it in paper bricks of $5,000 each and building walls with it to make convenience stores strategically placed “Up There”. A Place of Perfection or not, everyone gets the munchies no matter where you are!” was what Leno exclaimed to Steve, leaning far into the dinning table, hands well-in and full of expression, in between manly bites and gulps of roasted pork.
“Good for you, Leno! Me, well, I over-see the Geek Squad now at Best Buy, you know, the one in the Valley near my parents’ house. When those guys get stuck with either fixing a computer problem or assembling a component car or house stereo, I “assist”. They don’t know it’s me but I do get thrills knowing I helped. You should see the stereo components they have today, Leno, man! Wish I had stuff like that in ‘69, what systems I could have made!”, Steve responding, leaning well back in his chair, slowly rocking it back and forth on the two rear legs, Leno knowingly nodding his head in silence, almost Fatherly pride for Steve washing over this Father-For-Real. He always enjoyed his annual talks with Steve, nothing keeps you young like talking with the young.
“How’s the hair business going, Jay?, asked Shorty. “I don’t know allot about cutting hair but I know what I like and that’s SHORT hair, not that Hippie-Girlie look, had enough of that in ‘69 to do me a lifetime!”
Jay heartily laughed and replied, “Well, you know, Sebring International is still a going-concern but not how I envisioned it would be and after that fiasco of a movie ‘Hair’ with Warren Beatty - a take on MY life, seriously! - and after ‘helping’ Larry Geller get together with Elvis to cut his hair and seeing how screwed up Elvis’ thinking became under his ‘tutelage’, a bad taste got in my mouth about this whole business and I basically spend my time now palling around with McQueen. He and I ‘appear’ at Lemans every year and at the Twelve Hours of Sebring event and hit the Land Speed Racing at el Mirage in the Mojave, tool-up and race our own cars and bikes. And if we aren’t doin’ that, well, we’re ‘haunting’ Clint out in Monterey, playing pranks on the guy, you know,having pens drop or hiding stuff on the man, just messing with him enough to make his day a little bit less perfect out there in ‘Pacific Coast Heaven’, giving us chuckles in the process. Steve and I keep a close watch on his neighbour, Doris, too, just because we simply like her so much. Business stresses, well, I have left them all behind me now and I’m just enjoying myself these days. I never did enough of that when I was here, you know, always more or less trying to ‘escape’ Life. I’m not doing that now.”
“You still working with horses, Donald?” asked Jay of Shorty. “Yeah, mostly. I get my most peace from caring for those critters. I brush’em, feed and water’em and they like me for it. Simple. Can’t say the same for people” he offers, chuckling heartily, his face reddening as he did. “It doesn’t take much to make me content, Jay, honest. Never did. I was never any threat to anyone, you know, well, not really. Think people got the wrong idea about me, maybe because of my body build or that I would spout off before thinking, sometimes. Turns out spouting off can get you killed, Jay.”
They both looked at one another from across Gary’s dining table, eye-to-eye, then silence…rather slightly uncomfortable silence it must be said, only to be broken with Jay offering to fill Shorty’s glass with yet some more Napa vino. Shorty hated wine but he never told Jay that, just being who they were and in this rarefied company, everything since ‘69 tasted like a good old American beer to Shorty anyhow.
“Your place looks great, Gary. This must be such a retreat for you from all the hurry-scurry of UC Berkeley, huh?” asked Gibby of Gary.
“Yeah. it’s only here that I can think, you know, or write music, play the guitar, read, be myself. Luckily for Us we get to ‘see’ my house as it was in ‘69. I get that the new owners have ‘improved’ on it allot since then but you know, for me, how I had my home was and still is Home to me. I’m glad I can only ‘see’ to ‘69.”
“Yeah. You know what, Gary? I’m still reading that same paperback I had in bed with me, darned if I don’t turn to a new page and the next thing I know, it’s back to the last page I read that night!”, Gibby confessed, laughing and giggling, leisurely leaning back and forth in her chair, Gary laughing with her. Then a paralytic silence overtook them both.
Clearing her throat, Gibby added, “Have some more Ziti, Gary, Rosemary outdid herself with this dish tonight!”
“Don’t mind if I do.” replied Gary and the two of them gobbled down another helping, the act of eating, slowly washing away that last uncomfortable thought.
At the other end of the table, Voytek and Sharon were leaning in, quietly exchanging stories on being parents. “How is Bartek doing these days, V?”, asked Sharon.
“Amazingly well and you know what, he writes some, just for himself, you know, but I think he’s carrying on writing for the two of Us, memoir stuff mostly, right now, but who knows in the future. I am so proud of him, Shar, so very proud. He’s so responsible, mature, such a hard worker. He has done more with his life maybe because I didn’t, with mine. I’m maybe a lesson for my son. That’s good, right Shar, that’s good?”, Voytek offered, silently hoping she would agree.
“You bet, V, you bet! He’s as good as he is because of you and your life. Nothing is ever in vain you know. Here or not we influence our babies, affect in a positive way those who loved Us. I have no doubt that he is the man he is because of you. A published book or play wouldn’t have got you any further, made you any more valuable as a human being nor as a Father to Bartek, trust me.”
“Thank-you, Sharon, thank-you for your kindness towards me, I know I didn’t always deserve it but I never meant to harm either.”
Rubbing his left upper arm, “Hey, hey, I know that, V. We’re friends forever now and parents to boot!”, Sharon adds, knowing Voytek still carried guilt and regret. Being “Up There” doesn’t always wash away everything.
“I know, isn’t it wonderful. Your boy is looking well too, Shar, such a handsome fellow but why not? You’re a stunner and even with those ugly-dog looks of my pal, Roman, how could Paul Richard lose!”
The two burst out laughing, clinking their wine glasses and toasting Roman, their Man of the Hour.
Sensing utter quiet to her left, Sharon added, “Rosemary, how’s that dress store doing?”
“Oh, Sharon, so kind of you to ask. It’s going gang-busters, it is. So many pretty designs, such a lovely store decor, I’m so content when I’m there. Leno says it’s silly because it has no front door nor customers for real but you know I’m so happy. I moved it right on to Rodeo, don’t you know. I hit the Big time. I don’t care what Leno thinks. I think he’s jealous anyways, all my free time spent at the shop”, Rosemary offers, smiling for the first time this night.
“Hey, ignore Leno, Rosemary, you know him, if it’s not got four legs and doesn’t hit Win, Place or Show in the 4th, it just doesn’t count!”
Now, Voytek, Sharon and Rosemary were laughing, clinking glasses all three, sneaking glances at Leno who by now had a curious expression, wondering what all the laughter was about. Though, after that jovial moment passed, Rosemary went back to slowly wringing her hands again, under the table as before so no one would see.
In the corner of the living room, a tinkling could still be heard from a baby’s rattle, cooing in contented delight was heard as well.
The evening continued well beyond the ending of that lovely buffet. Gary’s dishes all washed and put away, Jay opening yet another set of bottles, this time from vineyards in Germany and Austria, the sun long since set, everyone moved to the living room to play Mouse Trap. It didn’t matter what year it was, Voytek always seemed to be the one to set off the trap and although everyone tried not to laugh at him, it was darn hard not to for he pounded his fists in an Eastern European way, in utter frustration, every time that plastic trap slammed down on his mouse. The sight was just too funny for words.
Slowly but surely as time wore on, the gang as a whole became less jovial and a little more ill at ease, not in a way that was disconcerting really, just a vibe you could pick up, if you were “there” with them. More awkward silences would spring up in between more stilted conversation. Light and breezy were the topics but somehow they didn’t defend against the evitable. No matter the house, each year the phone would ring at around ten o’ clock. It was always Gibby’s Mom asking if she were alright. Every year Gibby would say she was, of course; yet, every year her Mom would phone. By 11:45 p.m. Steve would make his phone call but, of course, no one ever answered the ring like they had done in ‘69. No matter, he made the call anyways, every year.
That last phone call made and the last wine drank were the signs that the Potluck get-together was winding down, the cardboard box Jay had brought, full of uncorked bottles, was now just holding empties. Slowly the women would pack up all the containers in which the food had arrived and gave them back to their respective owners. Without a formal announcement, when the clock struck midnight, all slowly and with sober resignation put on their wraps or coats and headed for Gary’s front door.
The women hugged tightly, this time, and kissed one another on the cheek. Hand shakes and pats on the backs of the men too. “’Til next year, right, same time, but hey, which place?” asked Shorty of them all.
“Right! Which place?”, asked Steve.
“How about my place next year. I am dying to go for another swim in my pool. I just never got enough time there, you know, and I’d like to splash and play with Paul Richard. How’s Cielo Drive for next year?”, Sharon offered.
Everyone nodded their heads in agreement, no audible Yes from All for they were trying to look away, forcing back tears, their throats thick with emotion..
“And what about a board game? Any suggestions?”, asked Steve, quickly able to clear his throat, his eyes still downcast so Sharon wouldn’t see his tears dropping to the carpet below.
With her head bowed a wee bit too and in a very quiet, almost whispery, wavering voice, Rosemary answered, “How about The Game of Life? Anyone for Life?”, her head rising to meet the faces of the group, sheepishly waiting for an answer.
A slow but determined raising of hands began. All nine of the adults voted Yes and another coo and rattle tinkle from Paul Richard was heard in affirmation.
All voted For Life.
That settled, this ill-fated group of ten slowly exited Gary’s front door, one by one down those long wooden steps they did go, Sharon first in line with Paul Richard’s bassinet, Jay steadying her as she went. Engines started, all sounding pretty darn good for being 44+ years old, headlights turned on and a slight dust-up was made as they reversed back out of Gary’s dirt and stone driveway. All, from their respective car windows, looked back up at Gary to wave Goodbye but his aura had already disintegrated. You see, the vapour that made up this group, well, each would de-materialize in the order in which they had died and, of course, Gary was long since dead, some thirteen days prior to the Potluck every year. Shorty would be the last to disintegrate and each in their fateful turn would “depart”, as they made their way down Topanga Canyon on this night. The pixels of divine light that made up each of them, would separate like tiny glittering stars, as would each of their cars.
The mist that was eventually All became a million points of light and effervescently wafted out into the Pacific, flying heavy and low over Topanga Canyon, out over Malibu Beach and finally out to sea. The clinking of that box full of empty wine bottles, the click-hum of Steve’s clock-radio forever stuck at 11:45 and the tiny coo and rattle tinkle from Paul Richard were the last remaining signs that this Potluck of the Dead had ever occurred.
Rest Well, All, ‘til next year…Rest Well.
Photos, in Order of Appearance: Potluck – barlowvincentchurchofchrist.com; Hinman House Stairs – Unknown Origin; Game of Life – timewarptoys.com; Topanga Canyon at Night – flickr.com/photos/renolauren