Invitations to two Thanksgiving dinners in Orange County, California. One scheduled for the beige living room of a beige Huntington Beach tract home at 1:30 p.m., the other for the beige living room of a beige San Clemente tract condominium at 3:30 p.m.
Unable to decide, I accept both.
At 2:30 p.m., I arrive at the residence of Theodore and Laura Squaughan, both in their late 50s, both tenured professors of genetics at the university. Ripped and roaring, the Squaughans lead me by both hands to the dining table and introduce me to their “friend Tom,” a dead male turkey, and “friend Howard,” a dead female duck. Both appear recently beheaded, gutted and plucked, then roasted and basted and now languishing half-eaten at either end of the table. Between them: wine and yams and biscuits and gravy, mashed potatoes and gravy, mustard greens and green beans and even greener decaffeinated coffee. I’m then introduced to the more boisterous guests: Brian, a composer and part-time junior-college professor; Beatrice, an ex-nurse in her 80s; and my father, an ex–clinical psychologist in his 70s.
As I‘m squeezing into the child-size rocking chair that’s been wedged between Brian and Beatrice for me, my father, midconversation with one of the Squaughans, lets loose with a loud, malodorous pun. It is the same pun he lays once every four or five months, whenever he‘s exposed to the word boysenberry.
“Boysenberry?” my father exclaims quite thoroughly, as ever, then the little micropause, and then, “What about girlsenberry!”
Everyone reacts with “blehh” or “that’s awful” or “that‘s just terrible” or otherwise balks andor cringes. My father cringes, too, as if the pun had a will of its own, had demanded a manifestation and had chosen my father as its vessel.
Brian the composer, however, is not everyone. He does not blehh. Does not that’s awful or that‘s just terrible or otherwise balk andor cringe. Rather, halfway through a hearty swig of red wine, Brian performs a genuine spit-take, with full compression and torque, aimed, just in time, at his lap. And as Brian spits and spews and coughs, so does he flush red, arise and hightail it to the bathroom. To a fresh chorus of blehhs, that’s awfuls and that‘s just terribles, followed by quiet dabbings and wipings, soft tinklings of napkins in ice water.
I make a note to myself: Do not ask Brian the composer about his music. Then I decide to break the silence with a new topic. I say, “By the way, today’s Terry Gilliam‘s 61st birthday.”
“What’s that?” Beatrice asks.
“That‘s the guy who directed Brazil,” I reply. “One of the Pythons, the one who did the animations. The guy eating beans on the couch in ’The Most Awful Family in Britain‘ sketch, in the last episode, Episode 45, aired on December 5, 1974. That guy. Then he runs out of beans and starts yelling, ’I‘VE RUN OUT OF BEANS!’ and he can‘t get up off the couch and then it’s just, ‘BEEEEEEEEEEANS! BEEEEEEEEEEANS!’ Eric Idle‘s ironing teapots, remember, Graham Chapman’s in teenybopper drag and . . .”
“No,” Beatrice interrupts, “what is that?” And she pokes me in my secret-detective-style note pad, which I‘d just returned to my breast pocket.
“Oh, that that. That,” I explain, “is a reminder not to ask Brian about his music.”
“Oh, really?” says Beatrice. “May I see it?”
I’m not one to disappoint octogenarians on Thanksgiving, so, since Brian‘s still cleaning up in the bathroom, I show Beatrice the note, which she reads aloud, carefully, much as one might deliver instructions for bandaging a minor abrasion to a troop of Girl Scouts: “Boysenberry pun spit-take. Do not ask Brian the composer about his music.”
We hear Brian say “Fuck” and “God damn it” in the bathroom. Beatrice nods and returns my pad. Someone refills my glass of adequate red wine, for which I am severely thankful.
Friend Tom, a robust and well-basted cadaver, had grown up in Palmdale, on a farm owned and operated by the Keck Family. By chance I’d known the Kecks during my high school incarceration in the Antelope Valley, and had spent several afternoons and evenings in their frightening American home.
It was a large ranch house with what they called a “bonus room” — a single room upstairs, used for recreation. The bonus room had either black walls and red curtains, red wall-to-wall carpet and a red ceiling, or red walls and black curtains, black wall-to-wall carpet and a black ceiling. I can‘t remember. But the pool table, the bonus room’s centerpiece, was definitely upholstered in red felt. It was a ghastly room, a vampire‘s tract tomb, where John Keck and I played electric guitars and shot pool after school. Like shooting eight ball in a shallow casket. And beneath the bonus room, paintings of howling, tortured demons — twisted, hollow faces, vaguely rendered as if in walnut burl or by Edvard Munch — hung at the bottom of the stairs, in the kitchen and throughout the living room. Some kind of religious theme, I figured, but I was afraid to ask for details.
Having tanked up on green decaf and faux-graciously excused myself, I drive south 45 minutes to Deepest Orange County, San Clemente, Nixonville, arriving at the door of General Warren Moore (retired) and his expensively preserved wife, Patricia, at exactly 5:30 p.m., two hours late. Patricia, who insists on being called “Mrs. General” but is otherwise fairly levelheaded, hugs me and leads me into the living room. There, the General rises, shakes my hand and excuses himself, and Mrs. General introduces me to the other guests: There’s neighbor Tom, an engineer with a mustache; and daughter and son-in-law Denise and Howard, without.
A tree burns in the fireplace.
The birdless table is instead loaded end to end with chunks of cheese — all kinds of cheese in various conditions, from ravaged to gnawed to pristine. There‘s red Leicester, Gruyere, Emmental, Jarlsberg and thick-skinned smoked Gouda. Pungent slabs of Danish blue, Limburger, Gorgonzola and white Stilton. Half a round of tepid Camembert; dip-sticks of mozzarella and Wisconsin Cheddar; Derby, Edam, provolone, caerphilly, Port Salut, Wensleydale . . . More cheese than I’ve ever seen in a single-family home.
The General (once a Pentagon bigwig) returns from the toilet and invites me to dig in. I thank the General, paint a slab of Jarlsberg with some purplish mustard and welcome the glass of fine tawny port from Mrs. General. The Generals then take their seats and, together with Tom, Denise and Howard, sip their port and watch.
After I‘ve caught up — gut properly distended, brain lightly stewed — the General rises and commands our attention.
“Everyone — upstairs.”
I take up the rear of the single file that marches across the living room, up the stairs and into a large, dark studio space with Keck-red walls and matching drapes, flat black ceiling and shiny black floor. Lots of books and heavy red- and black-leather furniture. At the far end is the General’s desk, featuring one of those 22-inch flat-screen monitors that only retired generals can afford. Mr. and Mrs. General arrange foldup chairs in a crescent around the desk.
The General sits at the keyboard, opens a file named “Thanksgiving Idea.” The file turns out to be a nicely rendered 3-D animation, about a minute long, synced to Monty Python‘s cheese-shop sketch (Episode 33, November 30, 1972), about a cheese shop with no cheese.
“Isn’t that something?” says Mrs. General. “Warren found that file [www.daminator.comcheese_emporium.mpg] a few months back. Soon as we saw it, we had the same thought: Bingo — Thanksgiving.”
Mrs. General Warren Moore refills my glass of port wine. For which I am severely, utterly thankful.