Sunday, April 26, 2015

Stuffed Dates by Maui Holcomb

Maui Holcomb's touching tale of a pot-addled student who goes to dinner with friends of his parents in search of home-cooked food, and finds something more meaningful.

"These amazing stuffed dates for starters," I said. "Downed a bunch of those."

"Oh," said Pete, pointing at me, "and that bread."

"Oh, hell yeah, the garlic bread," actually rubbing my stomach. "Mmmm."

We were sitting in Stuart and Zeke's room afterward, bong on the floor, Floyd in the air. Zeke cross-legged on the floor, breaking up the bud, Stuart sulking in his desk chair, eyes hooded, smoking a Dunhill and still wearing his trench coat. He had walked into the dorm with a new bag and announced it was time for a "debriefing".

"Some sort of casserole for the main dish. Then cobbler."

"Cobbler?"

"Yeah," I nodded. "I mean, it was a real home-cooked meal, man."

He peered over his cigarette.

"Yes, I do recall it was to be a 'home-cooked meal'," he said, his air quotes scattering ash on the grungy floor.

He waved at Zeke.

"Meanwhile, those of us left out of your little dinner party went to Fletcher as usual."

Fletcher being the cafeteria serving three squares a day.

"What'd they have?"

"Enchiladas," said Zeke, looking up from the buds. "Not bad."

"They were ostrich feces fried in cheap salsa, smeared with cheese-whiz," said Stuart.

Zeke presented the bong, bursting with sparkling herb. I pulled half the tube and passed it to Pete.

"Couldn'a been" (cough) "that bad," I wheezed, the buzz mushrooming through my noggin.

"Yes. That bad. As bad as yesterday, and the day before that and, hmm, the day before that, too, I'd say."

Five months into our first year the dining hall had lost all novelty, especially now following three weeks of Mom-cooking over Winter break. We had learned to prize alternate grazing opportunities, whether Get-to-Know-the-Dean! pizza, theme meals at the international dorm, or restaurants with visiting relatives. Just before break, Pete's pop had taken the four of us to a cozy Italian place on Yale in The Village. Quiet, dark. Stuart held court at the table, flipping his hair back and going on about the eccentricities of his profs.

"...and today he starts reading out of 120 Days of Sodom! By the Marquis de Sade! Bondage! And crapping on people and stuff!" He shook his head like his mind was just BLOWN, Dude. "I mean, Dr. Demarkos, is this what college was like for you?"

Pete's father had just sipped his split pea and let us hang there in suspense.



Now, Stuart puckered his lips and blew smoke at the ceiling.

"All I know is that was two hours ago, and I'm starving again. The food here, it just - poof - disappears, and you are left with nothing."

Pete sparked the weed, tube swirling white. He sucked it clear and shot vapor trails of thick smoke through the haze, swirling and dipping towards the open window in what, I thought, was a striking animation of the paisley design on the tapestry draped from wall to ceiling below the fluorescents.

Like all eighteen year olds, we were the shit in those days, especially being at (nose in the air) an elite liberal arts college. Pep squads and cliques, curfews and parents had all been cast aside, and we were absolutely smarter than everyone else. We partied our weekends away (three, four days long); walked barefoot to class; and sneered at ROTC and the Young Republicans.

Stuart flicked his butt towards the trash.

"So, anyway, enough about pseudo-enchiladas and the rest of OUR scintillating evening. Continue, if you would."

Pete looked at me with sleepy, bloodshot eyes.

"Dude, those dates were amaaaazing. I was just remembering that."

He turned to Zeke.

"Is that a So-Cal thing or what?"

Zeke shrugged and offered the repacked bong to Stuart, who glared at him. The easygoing Redondo surfer was, as usual, not toeing the line.

"Describe," Stuart insisted before turning to the tube.

"Well..." I said, my head heavy. Roger Waters sang about pigs as I fell back into the Stuart-smell of the bed and remembered the luxurious aroma that hit us on stepping inside the Petersens' house. What did Stuart ask me again?



"When we first arrived in town the library was half its current size, you see," said Linda Petersen.

She placed the glistening tray of dates on the coffee table. They swam in some sort of syrup. Torpid steam rose like pot smoke to hover in the air above us. Pete couldn't take his eyes off them either.

With a spatula, Jerry Petersen filled two small plates.

"Linda stuffs them with, uh, what is it again, dear?"

"Cinnamon, goat cheese, and caramelized onions," she called from the kitchen.

"Mmmm," said Pete, biting into one.

Sweet, gooey, oozing down the throat. I concentrated on deliberate movements, wondering if they could tell we were baked cockeyed.



When the Petersens, old friends of the 'rents, invited me to dinner, Linda had said, "bring your roommate". Not "friends", I reminded Stuart. We were a tight group, but it was a relief to hang solo with rich, confident Pete. The kind of guy I had both admired and resented back home, and our friendship was evidence of my latest step up the social ladder, that I was fooling them all with my college reinvention.

Stuart took it personally and kept predicting what delicacies we would be putting away.

"Petersen? What is that, Swedish?" he had asked as we smoked our second pre-dinner fatty. "Lobster? Sturgeon? Tell me, are they a round couple? Well-fed?"

"They're not rich, I know that."

"Yeah, well I see how it is, eh Z?"

Zeke shrugged and indicated an unopened bottle of Captain Morgan on his desk. It was Saturday, after all, and parties remained in our future.

"For when you return."

Pete and I crossed campus in long sleeves and Dockers. Our eyes moist from Visine and crisp air, stomachs aching, we floated the four blocks into town to the Petersens' home. Linda worked at the campus library, and Jerry taught chemistry. They had been grad school classmates of my parents when I was a toddler, and in August they had exchanged irritating jokes and sly glances with my father.

"Keep an eye on this one!"

"They grow up so fast."

"You know, we may be getting old."

"This is an all-boys school, right?"



"Alright, that's everything," said Linda from the table while Jerry pointed out the then-sparsely-planted campus in a vintage photo on the wall. "Sit down, gentlemen."

Butter-topped vegetables, fruit salad melting in sweetness, parmesan-encrusted garlic bread. My salivary glands shifted into overdrive, the munchies growling and straining at the leash. Jerry began dishing and passing.

"Don't stand on ceremony, boys, just dig in," he said, and we obliged.

Linda returned to the tale of their early years in town.

"Within a year our former director had raised funds to expand, you see. It took five years, but we ended up with the magnificent building you see now. Really as fine a collection as anywhere. Nearly as many volumes as UCLA, though we've only about a third the enrollment."

"Mm-hmm," I said, mouth full.

"It all tastes wonderful, Mrs. Petersen," said Pete.

I concurred, thankful to Pete that he had thought of it. She nodded.

"Thank you Peter, and, please, Linda is fine."

"So," said Jerry in between lip smacks. "You boys had any time for fun this year, or is it all work work work?"



"And then, when the 'real home-cooked meal' was finished, what'd you do then?"

Stuart pouring shots of the Captain now.

Pete shrugged.

"We watched the Olympics."

"The Olympics?" he spurted, sloshing the bottle.

"Uh-huh. Skiing, skating, a little bobsled."

Stuart cocked an eyebrow.

"An all-American evening. How nice. Red, white and blue bunting on the walls?"

Pete and I exchanged a look.

"The Olympics," he repeated. "Over coffee?"

"Cocoa."

"Ah, cocoa."

"And the blackberry cobbler," I added with a smirk.

"Uh-huh."

"Yup," went Pete.

"Cobbler and cocoa and the Olympics."

He pulled another long drag and slammed the bottle down on the desk.

"Regular Norman fucking Rockwell!"



In those pre-Internet days, none of us with a TV, we'd gotten out of the habit of watching anything but football and the occasional rental on the set in the lounge. We were over things like the Olympics. A relic of childhood. And with steroids sprouting up everywhere, and not just in East German swimmers, who could you trust? We felt we were above all the nationalism and shoving-it-to-the-lesser-countries stuff, which seemed to echo the run up to the Persian Gulf War. Besides, it was the Winter Olympics. Not being rich or from some ice-encrusted Canadian town, hockey and downhill skiing were the only events I understood, and downhill came with the bitter tinge of the placid, popular rich kids from my hometown with their lift tickets hanging from their coat zippers till May.

But what else do you do with your parents' elderly acquaintances? Stuffed, we stepped into the sunken living room. An upright piano and a banjo on a stand occupied one side. Sliding glass doors looked out to grass and a pebbled porch. Class photos of a kid circa 1980, the kind with the second little three-quarter shot in the corner, hung on the dark paneled walls. My parents had said their son delivered the paper in our old neighborhood.

Jerry switched to NBC, and reggae music suddenly burst from the speakers. Ha! Perfect. A piece on the Jamaican bobsled team.

Pete choked a laugh and slowly wagged his head at me, slouched on the couch with his hands over his satisfied middle. Did I look that stoned?

"Have you boys attended any of the Distinguished Speaker series?" Linda asked.

I shook my head.

"I wanted to see, um, you know, uh, Desmond Tutu, but missed it for some reason when it happened."

Images flitted through my head: sweaty crowd in white-walled room; keg diving shirtless guy; girl with big droopy eyes, a jay and a smile.

"Ah, yes, that was a good one. Fascinating man," Linda said while pouring the cocoa, "and surprisingly humorous."

The NBC crew followed the Jamaicans, tossing snowballs and catching themselves on the ice. Then we were back to the race. They rocketed down the course, just four helmeted heads in a tube clunking around corners and swishing down straightaways. Finished well back in the pack, just thrilled to be there. That was the point, of course, the reason they had made it to primetime, the announcers tiptoeing on the edge of condescension, dripping schmaltzy about the Olympic Experience and the value of Participation. The Petersens ate it up, Pete rolled his eyes, and I felt the need to defecate.

Bathroom that way, I was told. Jerry began strumming his banjo as I left, in tune with the reggae.

I walked down the hall. Did my thing. Washing my hands, I glanced around the bathroom and enjoyed the brief moments of solitude. The window was cracked and a cool breeze wafted inside. I glanced at the door and pulled out my one-hitter. Packed it up and sparked it. Blew the smoke out the window as hard as I could. You know, to get it away from the house. Checked my eyes in the mirror - not red. Washed my hands again with lots of soap and found some toothpaste. Stepped outside, waited a beat, and stuck my head in again to test the air. All clear.

Okay. Re-doped, I started back towards the sound of banjo and television, but something shiny caught my eye. I glanced into a room decorated like a high-school boy's bedroom. Sports car posters, patterned bedspread on twin bed, row of paperbacks, a desk with alarm clock, photo of some chick with early-80s hair. Everything dated but dust-free. The shine came from polished trophies on a shelf and framed medals hanging on the wall, next to older portraits of the kid from the living room. In a wrestling singlet, a cap-and-gown, a military uniform. Underneath them hung a plaque with stylized font reading "Gregory Petersen - Gone but not Forgotten - Resting with the Angels". I looked closer at the medals. Purple Heart, Bronze Star. A distant bell pealed, something said when I wasn't really listening.

The living room looked different to me now, the light dimmer. I noticed an emptiness where there should have been evidence of grandchildren, the faded photographs missing modern next-generation counterparts. Linda's face appeared tired and resigned, and a melancholy lilt dripped from Jerry's lazy strumming. Preparing this meal, having a couple of kids over for the evening, students just getting started on their lives, this probably meant more to them than I had thought. I sank back onto the couch, forgetting to palm the one-hitter off to Pete, and tried to think of something to say.

Coverage had switched to an indoor rink with a small oval track. Skaters in form-fitting outfits stroked across the ice. The announcers filled us in on the sad history of American speed skater Dan Jansen, how his sister died shortly before this race four years ago, how he'd fallen then and come up short in every big race since. Old video ran of fans, hands to their mouths, watching Jansen slide into the wall; still pictures of sister and brother, of the young child now named in her honor, floated across the screen. The play-by-play guy intoned the lineup as the competitors shook out their legs and ran through their pre-race routine. Jansen, jaw tight, beside his closest rival, steely-eyed, in the blocks. I couldn't remember ever seeing speed skating. I mindlessly stuffed cobbler in my mouth to satisfy my newly wakened munchies, about which I now felt vaguely cruddy, and felt my heart beating hard.

With a BANG! the skaters flung themselves down the ice. We held our breath, hoping Jansen would stay on his feet. One turn, two, fingers skimming the surface, ice shavings flying in their wake, focused eyes and swinging arms, bunched together, bumping, jostling. Another lap and it was all over, and then Jansen was coasting around the track in triumph, someone handing him his daughter and Old Glory. As the tape-delayed coverage cut to his tear-streaked face on the medal stand, I felt something swell in my chest. Sitting there with a full belly and a stoned head among the aging family photos, the well-used furniture, the void left by the Petersens' hero, pride rolled over me as the anthem drifted out of the TV. Linda had fallen silent; Jerry sat forward with a lopsided grin, his banjo forgotten on his knee. I glanced through watery eyes at Pete's glowing face, and he slowly shook his stony grin. Stuart would say it was just the weed, but - meh - who cares?



As we said goodbye at the door, Linda hurried from the kitchen and handed me a warm Tupperware container covered with foil.

"Just a little something to share with your dorm-mates. I know everyone is probably missing home-cooking?"

"Oh, yeah," said Pete with his little laugh. "The dining hall gets old."

"Thanks for everything tonight," I said, trying to convey... something... to the now-childless couple with my eyes and handshake.

The cool, exhilarating night air woke us up after all the baking and eating, and I couldn't help thinking about the rush I'd gotten from Jansen's race. I guess Pete felt it, too, because, as we crossed the boulevard and entered campus, he snatched the container from me and shouted.

"Race you back, Butthead!"

I was on him in no time, the fat bastard, grabbed it back, and we sped across the quad and on to the dorm, trading Linda's Tupperware back and forth like a reverse hot potato. Zeke popped his head up as we careened past his open door and collapsed in our room to await Stuart's sulking return.



"Wait, what?" Stuart said. "What was that last part?"

Zeke was staring - something had just broken through the pot-addled haze.

Pete chuckled and pointed to the door.

"Desk."

Baggie dropped, trench coat billowing, Stuart and Zeke battled each other through the doorway and across the hall.

"Ah, you atholths!" called Stuart, his mouth already full. "Finally comin' frough!"

We joined them and their chipmunk cheeks as they mopped up the last of the dates. Poured a round. Without a word, I offered mine up to Greg Petersen, whose presence still permeated a small house down the street.

2 comments:

  1. The contrasts within the story and the poignancy of the eventual connections work well. The tangible delights of the food are well written and thread nicely through the piece.
    Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. As I read through the story a second time, I found I still struggled with my feelings toward the story's narrator and his buddies, as they partied their way through school. Even after the sparkle of reality strikes him, the poignant moment an emotional draw, and his eventual toast to the young man who lost his life, I couldn't let my feelings go. Then I realized that it was the excellent writing that triggered my reaction, and though the story is not something I would select for fireside reading (;-) it drags you in and takes an emotional toll. Hats off, Maui

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