Dinner Etiquette

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
A dinner party reminiscence.

Submitted: December 24, 2011

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Submitted: December 24, 2011

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I'm not very comfortable at dinner parties. I can never find exactly the right thing to say. Conversely, but no more fortunately, I unintentionally locate with jaw-dropping precision the the right time to say the wrong thing.  I've never really had to practice this penchant for putting my feet where they don't belong. It comes naturally, my gift for glob.

It's not as if I'm rude or abusive. I know exactly where to put my fork and knife when I am finished with my meal. I help the host carry dishes to and from the kitchen. Judging by my actions and the repeated invitations I receive, I am a perfectly acceptable guest. Nevertheless, after the requisite period of perfunctory pleasantries has passed, I sit alone at a crowded table.

It's not so bad, mind you. In fact, I have learned to use my silence to my advantage. Don't get the wrong idea that I'm some kind of a sneak or something. At dinner, though, I find myself rationalizing exactly why I should not alert my neighbors to the utter divinity of these spring rolls. How would I start it off? I would hate to be so uncouth as to directly compliment a dish. That would seem like I was just trying too hard. How could I begin, then? I could turn to my neighbor with a winning smile, "It's hard to make good spring rolls. The secret is in the fresh ingredients." Not bad, I thought. Topical, yet still trenchant, but I didn't dare interrupt.

They are busily enthralled in proper dinner conversation: one agrees with the first that the Japanese are a "different people" who hold "some strange ideas." Well now, that's a safe assumption, I think to myself, drawing close to their discussion like a remora latches to a shark, savoring detritus for nourishment.  As a dinner party veteran, I hold my fire, saving my aces in the hole, spring rolls, for a truly appropriate time. I can feel it  fast approaching. Besides I'm hungry, and the spring rolls really are actually pretty good.

"Yes, quite right," a platinum streaked woman states, as if her agreement was evidence enough to defend the previous assertion. She repeats, "Quite right, indeed. They have such out-dated ideas of honor." Across the table our hosts, Charles Burke-Nash and his wife Olivia Burke-Nash Lee consider global nuclear proliferation. I admire the way Olivia glibly slips in, "It's just not safe. Isn't that right, dearie? Chaz?"  while Charles has his mouth full. He holds a napkin in front of his face while he chews. What peerless grace, I think to myself. And so lucky to have a competent companion by his side.  After he had masticated the mush in his mouth to a more manageable state, he offers, "You are right, darling, radiation does terrible things to the body. You know, the first person to be affected by radiation ran a brothel. Madam Curie, they called her. Scary Marie," he blithely rhymes Marie as Mary," She performed all kinds of experiments. Who knows what they got up to. My father was a doctor, and he told me all about it."

This atomic talk sets the table in twitters. I firmly believe that at this moment not even a giant bird cage filled to capacity with the world's most erudite and learned canaries could create finer and more delightful conversation. Discreet conversations fragment into cross-table vocalizations. Now was my chance! Softly, so that no one would think my wit pretentious, I quip, "Man, I could spring for some more of those rolls! They are to die for!" I fervently hope that no one would call my bluff on this matter, and I am satisfied to some extent. I had apparently quipped too quietly, for the spring rolls failed to excite attention. After a short but necessary recovery period, I redouble my attempts. Passing the plate directly to my left, so that a reply was assured as a matter of decorum, I proudly state, "These spring rolls are delicious!"

Alas, during my tactical deliberations, I had unknowingly devoured each and every spring roll save one. This remaining corpus is a poorly wrapped roll, and it had fallen apart when I picked it up. Carrot stems jagged out of the wrap like broken bones and its noodle guts spilled onto the plate. I knew the story. No amount of surgery or even king's men for that matter could bring this baby back together again.

"Thanks," flash whitened teeth. It might have been just me, but the accompanying smile seems a just a little thankless. I make a note to avoid Madam Scary.

People around the table are itching and burning for radiation, which is a big surprise to me. Who knew that this bifurcate subject, diametrically constituted by utter destruction and inexhaustible productivity, could manifest itself as such accessible dinner conversation? Our gracious host, Charles Burke-Nash, astutely recognizes the common sentiment. His oratory prowess is senatorial.


"Tsutomu Yamaguchi," he began with a clearing of his throat. Somehow most people are able to discern a cough which clears a blocked passageway for speech from a cough which blocks passage for others' clear speech. I can not, so I offer Charles some water. Kindly not drawing too much attention to my own inattentiveness, he ignored my offer. Instead, he inspected the inside lapel of his dinner jacket with a deliberate casualness. Maybe he had planted notes there, I postulated with a twinge of jealousy. Good idea really.

Hearing a familiar name, Olivia jumps in."Yamagachi? I know those. Remember, honey, our kids had them. First one got one, then they all had to have them." She beams at her husband. “Just like Chicken Pox!”

"Yamaguchi, not Yamagachi, Chickapee." Charles is magnanimous. Could they have planned the interruption? It halted his speech so completely that they must have practiced it. "This Tsutomu Yamaguchi, knows more about radiation than all of us!" A silence followed this declaration. But who or what was this mysterious Japanese name?

"Tsutomu Yamaguchi is the only person to be officially recognized as having been nuked twice. Well, he was." Charles corrects himself, releasing his final payload. "He died last month. Stomach cancer. He was 93."

We were unsure of how to respond to this bombshell, and I am relieved when Charles continues.

"Apparently, he was an engineer on a business trip to Hiroshima when the Little Boy dropped. Then, when he was sent home to Nagasaki to recuperate, the Fat Man fell. He lost hearing in one ear and suffered acute leukemia his entire life." I thought to myself how I had always liked the names of those bombs. What beguilingly friendly names. They sound to me like a pair of mischievous cohorts, the Fat Man and the Little Boy: too rambunctious to be kept cooped up but too American to do any evil. And 'delivering' or 'dropping' the bomb sounds so much more pleasant and professional than 'detonate' and 'mushroom.' I always imagined the Fat Man as some sort of Farley-esque character with strange gloves on its arms and cowboy-booted legs gesticulating with wild abandon as it plummets to the earth below.

"Yes, after all, you know they dropped those bombs to save lives." Olivia returns. It's true, I knew the same thing. We dropped the bombs to save our boys. In a moment of misdirected clarity,  I applied this terrible logic in reverse for the Japanese. Could the Japanese have expected the twin cataclysms? Was the Bataan March a prognostication or an abomination? Were the bombs a sublime justification or a heinous recreation? Could they be both?

Suddenly, I know what to say. Here is my shining moment! I glance around the table rounding up attention like a sheep dog. With a solemn face, I declare, "Well, it may have been some tough times for our old Yamaguchi,  but I bet he got a pretty damned good story out of it!"

The table found this terribly funny, but I'm not sure I do any more.


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