This is an excerpt from a chapter entitled “In Crowd Illusion.”
Rich Larsen is invited for a sleep-over and meal to one of the “in crowd.” He wants to be a part of it, but at this meal decides the cost is too great. What follows is the conversation at the meal table. This is little longer than my typical post, but it is an interesting exchange and humorous at times, as well as tragic.
At five-thirty we were called to wash up, supper was about to begin. At home it was ‘come and get it.’ Which was frankly a bit more inviting? The only time I ever washed for a meal was if I was elbow deep in grease and cow manure. I was not completely void of civility and social grace – I watched enough movies and I had relatives who were proper and educated. I knew enough not to belch or release gas at the table too. Although if properly timed that did raise a laugh or two at home, depending of course on the intensity and length of output as well as the lingering odor. If people pulled away from the table – you achieved greatness.
We sat at the table. Nobody made a move for the food. It soon became a bit uncomfortable.
“Where’s Mother?” Mr. Miles asked.
“She’s in her room.” Mrs. Miles said. “I’ll get her after we say grace. Would you like to say grace Rich?”
I was so flabbergasted that I merely moved my lips and nothing intelligible was uttered.
“Tom,” Mrs. Miles said. “I think I’ve embarrassed our guest. Would you mind saying grace?”
Mr. Miles appeared irritated, but bowed his head and said, “God we thank thee for thy bounty we are about to receive, amen.”
We all said “amen.”
Mrs. Miles excused herself and rose. “I’ll get mother.”
We waited until she returned with a small thin elderly woman dressed in a flowered dress. She was decrepit and moved slowly. Mrs. Miles was impatient with her and prodded her to move faster by nudging and gently pushing with her hands. Mrs. Miles pulled a chair out for her, but when she took too much time to settle back into the chair. Se said, “For God’s sake,” and shoved the chair into the back of her knees. I nearly said “amen” again. The old woman fell into the chair and nearly tipped over once she sat. “Tom, get her some food,” Mrs. Miles said abruptly.
Tom stood and slapped food onto her plate like it was a prison chow line. “This is Grandma,” he said as if she weren’t there.”
“Hi Grandma,” I said. “I’m Rich.”
She glanced up from her plate and smiled quickly.
“She’s lost her mind,” Mr. Miles said. “They say it’s hereditary. That’s what I’ll have to put up with in a few years.” He glanced at Mrs. Miles.
Mrs. Miles sat and the food began to be passed. The meal consisted of a small bowl of tomato soup, a tossed salad, stuffed pork chops, mashed potatoes, gravy, and green beans with slivers of almonds, and fresh lemonade.
“Where do you go to church?” Mrs. Miles asked.
Suddenly it came to me in a flash. Tom liked me and wanted to hang around me. His parents did not approve. This meal, this weekend, and these questions were designed to demonstrate to Tom as well as I that I was not of their ilk. One thing that I had learned in the last two years about competing with snobbery is to give them a show, strike back with sarcasm.
“We haven’t attended church since the family left England two hundred years ago. We worshipped at Stone Hinge. My Mother’s side was Druids, but we all converted to religion practiced by the Incas, mainly because of the human sacrifices.” I looked at everyone long enough to see the confusion change to a light hearted titter. “Actually we are Lutheran, but to be honest we seldom attend.”
“You should come to church with us some time,” Mr. Miles said.
“Sure, I don’t mind,” I said. “Tom says there’s some sharp looking girls that go there.”
“He did not,” Mrs. Miles insisted.
“When did I say that?” Tom said defensively.
“I’m just kidding,” I said.
“I should hope so,” Mrs. Miles said.
The mood changed with some forced smiles.
“I understand your Dad works for the state,” Mr. Miles said.
“That’s right,” I said and waited for him to ask what he should have asked to begin with.
“What does he do?” Mr. Miles asked.
“He works at the nut house, the state hospital,” I said.
“In what capacity?” Mr. Miles asked.
“He watches the nuts,” I said.
“That’s an odd way of putting it,” Mrs. Miles said as if mildly offended.
“It’s kind of like watching old people who have lost their minds,” I said and gestured with my fork at the Grandmother.
Mister and Misses Miles made eye contact. I did not know what the glance meant, because I had no way of knowing how they thought, but I had an idea.
“What does your mother do?” Mrs. Miles asked. “I understand she works outside the home.”
“Mom’s a cashier at the drug store in Northland Plaza,” I said.
“I think I’ve seen her there,” Mr. Miles said.
I wanted to say, ‘what are you doing checking out the chicks at the drug store?’ But too much sarcasm can quickly turn on you.
“Edna worked at a drug store when we were first married,” Mr. Miles said. “Didn’t pay much in those days. As soon as I moved up in the company I got her a job in personal. Now she practically runs the place.” He chuckled. “She gets more raises than I do.”
“That’s not so,” Mrs. Miles said. “You got three raises in the past two years and I only got one.”
“Yes dear,” Mr. Miles said. “But that one was as big as my three.”
I lost. I should have kept up with them, but now I was no longer the participant – I was the audience. The smug talk continued all artfully designed to inform all that neither I nor my family suited their realm.
“Do you plan on attending college?” Mrs. Miles asked.
“I would like to,” I said and tried to give them some insight into my insecurity. Perhaps, I thought, they might display some interest, “But I don’t think I’ll ever have the grades.”
“Nonsense,” Mr. Miles said. “You’re a bright lad. It’s not brains. Its fortitude and ambition.”
‘Now I get it,’ I thought. ‘I always thought I was dumb. I’m lazy and uninspired. I’m not as nearly bad off as I thought.’
“If you work hard you can achieve about anything.” Mrs. Miles added. “Tom wants to attend dental school at Ohio State University. How about you, what would you like to be?”
“Maybe I’ll be a minister,” I said. Mr. and Mrs. Miles’ mouths turned down with approval. “I know what you’re thinking. How can a kid that doesn’t go the church be a minister? I guess I’m kind of like the guy who always wanted to fly, but couldn’t afford it, so he became a pilot.”
I had no idea why I said that. I thought it was the ultimate calling and little discussion would follow.
“Dentistry is a really secure field,” Tom said.
“And God isn’t?” I said.
After the meal we helped clear the table. Mrs. Miles left Grandma seated. She placed a picture puzzle on the table in front or her.
Tom said, “Mom she’s just about done.”
“You know what to do,” Mrs. Miles said.
Tom walked over to the table and turned the puzzle upside down and scrambled all the pieces.
“No, no,” Grandma said in a weak voice. “Why did you do that Tom boy? I was about done.”
I was appalled and my face must have shown it for Tom looked at me sheepishly and said, “It’s actually good for her. It keeps her mind busy.”
Tom and I walked to Will Davis’ house after supper and played pool for a while. We returned to his home to a slice of apple pie topped with a scoop of ice cream. I sensed the verdict was in on me. My contact with Tom would be somewhat curtailed and thus my entrance into the ‘in crowd.’ Mr. and Mrs. Miles said little the rest of the evening.
Tom and I went to bed. We talked for a while. Something was on his mind. I was able to detect because he never responded to anything I said.
“You were rude and snotty with my parents,” he said and it sounded uncomfortable for him. It was as if his parents told him that I should be informed that they did not approve of my conduct.
“It’s better than treating old ladies like crap.” I paused. I was certain that I would be ask to leave or my invitation to the picnic might be revoked. “You should be ashamed,” I said.