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Dinner

Dinner at Rogers was always an adventure, running the gamut from full course meals to various buffets, oriental, Mexican, or Italian, for example.

Tonight's dinner was a lovely sit-down meal served family style. It would be a Southern banquet.

My seat was next to one end of the table reserved for Joel Rice, and across from his wife Rena. The seat beside me was empty, I was sorry to see. It had been reserved for Sally Westfield. Roger sat at the other end of the the table, flanked by Ruth Sparberger on his right and Margo Sawyer on his left. He really did prefer the company of women.

Fanz Wolfe sat next to Margo, on his right, and the empty seat next to me on his left. Peter Sterling and Ned Carpenter sat across from Margo and Franz.

Already on the table were baskets of huge hot biscuits and hush puppies, as well as various condiments, relishes, celery, various kinds of olives and pickles. The biscuits were so light, even dripping with butter, they literally melted in your mouth. The crisp hush puppies were just a bit spicy and delicious dipped in either the molasses or honey provided.

The huge white cotton napkins were certainly necessary.

While the biscuits and hush puppies were disappearing, the main dishes began to arrive: three roasts—ham, beef, and pork, mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, fresh green beans, black-eyed peas, pinto beans, collard greens, a mustard green and kale mixture, fried chicken, fried catfish, fried okra, beef gravy, pork gravy, and fresh home style bread.

The greens, peas, and beans were all done in a typical southern style with ham-hocks or fatback and a few herbs or spices that were surely somebody's secret.


I was delighted to see Sally Westfield arrive just before the last main dish was placed on the table. She walked over to Roger, whom she greeted with a kiss, then greeted the others briefly, said something to Ned, then with a smile that would have melted a glacier, and certainly did me, sat in the seat I had stood to hold for her.

"Lucky me," she said, the smile still in her eyes. "So glad Roger sat me beside you, Mark."

I knew Sally. Why did I always feel like a schoolboy on a date with the first pretty girl he'd ever seen whenever I was with her?

"I'm the lucky one Sally. So glad you were able to make it. I'm sure every man here, except Franz, is jealous of me."

Fanz, of course, was sitting on the other side of Sally, and was openly admiring her.

"Do you love her too, Fanz?" Margo asked loud enough for us all to hear.

"I must. Why else would I look so helpless?" Franz threw back at Margo.

"Why Fanz," Sally laughed. "I had no idea."

Roger suggested we begin eating, and no one needed to be asked twice.


I do not know why a dinner served like that is so enjoyable, unless it is the necessity of the interaction between the diners, asking for and passing food and condiments, with polite "pardon me"s and "would you like some"s.

Perhaps it is the casual nature of such a meal, the sheer pleasure of each individual enjoying their meal as they chose, but conscious of the pleasure of all the others.

Roger was complimented a number of times on various dishes to which he insisted he'd only picked them out but would pass the compliments on to his cooks.

"Roger, what is that?" Ruth asked pointing to the platter of catfish.

"It's fried catfish, Ruth. Do you like fresh-water fish?"

"I like trout."

"Then try just a little. You might like it."

Ruth tried a little and said it was "not bad" but that she definitely preferred trout. Then she tried the fried okra, which illicited an involuntary and very vocal, "yuck!"

Everyone laughed, especially Joel, who must have eaten half the catfish and most of the okra by himself.

"I know exactly what you mean, Ruth," Margo said. "Disgusting African jungle food unfit for human consumption. Belongs right along side the chitlins and sweetbreads."

"Yo, Roger." It was Peter Sterling. "Ahs gots sumpin to aks you. Hows come you ain't got no chitlins and sweetbreads. Is you'all prejudice or sumpin?"

Ruth was not a frequent guest at Rogers, and was obviously a little disturbed, maybe even offended, by what she took for racist remarks. She had not noticed Andrew who was just refilling Margo's wine glass nodding in total agreement with her, nor his convulsive strain to hide his laughter at Peter Sterling's mockery. Racism was not a concept ever discussed at Roger's because it just had no meaning for any one of his guests, ever.


"Say, Franz, where did you get that outfit? Are you going fox hunting?" Joel asked.

"Hmmm, what kind of fox did you have in mind, Joel?"

"The kind you shoot."

"Oh, politicians. No, I'm not hunting that kind of fox."

"I am," Ned said.

"So it was a politician that was shot," Peter said to Ruth, who laughed at their secret.

"What do you mean, 'who was shot?' Was somebody shot?" Ned asked.

"Beats me," Peter answered. "It's just hearsay. Never pay attention to hearsay."

"I don't." Ned said.

Both Peter and Ruth laughed again. Ned was obviously bewildered, but nothing bothered Ned. He no doubt put it down to some high-brow joke. He had no use for high-brows.


While Joel, Franz, Peter, and Ned were bantering, Sally laid her hand on my arm, which I was reluctant to recognize, afraid that she'd remove it. She obviously wanted to speak to me.

"Poor Ruth," she said softly. "She's a darling, but I'm afraid she's a bit shocked by this rowdy bunch."

I'm sure no one else could hear what we were saying. Perhaps they thought we were planning a tryst or something, an idea I rather relished. But alas, it was something quite different.

"She seems to be doing alright," I said. "She certainly got the joke about Ned."

"Yes, I noticed that. What was that all about?"

I remembered then she had not been here earlier to hear the original remark, and I explained the "murder" comment Peter had made to Ruth, obviously referring to Ned's well known profession.

"Well if I may borrow a Joel expression, 'Ned ain't never killed no one who ain't needed killin'.' Ned's done some ah... 'work' for me, by the way."

I'm sure my eyes widened and my eyebrows went up; I was certainly caught off guard. I didn't know what to say.

"I'll tell you about it sometime," She smiled.

"I'd really like that, Sally," was all I could say.

I wanted to say, "When?" and set up a date. I kicked myself for not doing just that for the rest of the dinner. Perhaps it was just conversation, but I don't think she says things like that casually, or without meaning it, as so many do.


Dessert, which included Sweet Potato Pie, Peach Cobbler, Pecan Pie, Hummingbird Cake, Mud Cake, Ice Cream, and Sherbet, as well as coffee, and after-dinner drinks, arrived shortly after the table was cleared. I was surprised to see almost everyone tried at least two of the desserts. I think Joel tried them all.

"Would you please pass me some of that stuff," Rena asked Peter, who picked up the dish of Mud Cake, handing it to Ned who passed it to Rena.

"How did you know what she wanted?" Ned asked Peter.

"Oh, I've studied Femilogia. I'm writing a book about it. How To Speak and Understand Femilogia."

"Femilogia? What's that?"

I expected this was one of Peter's hoaxes, but one could never be certain with Peter.

"Femilogia," Ned, "is the spoken language of women. They all speak and understand it, but most men do not, unless they've studied it as I have. It is distinguished primarily by a paucity of real nouns, which are replaced by substitute words, the meaning of which can only be guessed. It's the guessing that requires study.

"For example, a man says, 'put the package on the little table by the window.' A woman says, 'just put it over there,' and heaven help you if you don't know what 'it' is or guess wrong about just exactly where 'over there' is.

"When you ask a man, "how much longer are you going to be Joe?" Joe will answer, "Just ten minutes longer, Harry," and it will be ten minutes. When you ask a woman, "how much longer are you going to be, honey?" Honey will answer, "just a little bit longer, love," which might 10 minutes, 30 minutes, or all afternoon.

A man says, 'hand me the five-eighths crescent wrench from the tool box Bill,' and Bill does, because he knows what a toolbox is and what a five eighths crescent wrench is. A woman says, 'hand me one of those whatsits there, Mary,' and Mary does, but a man couldn't, because he would never know exactly where, 'there,' is or which of the twenty different items, 'there,' might be a whatsit.

"It's a difficult language to master, but I have. That's how I knew what Rena wanted," he said beaming a smile at Rena.

Rena laughed, and quite agreed. "It's true, we women really do have a different language. It sometimes drives Joel crazy. I have no idea how many times I've told him something he swears I never told him. Of course I did, he just did not understand my... what did you call it Peter?"

"Femilogia."

"Yes, that's it. Joel does not understand my Femilogia."

"That's right," Joel said. "I only understand plain English. Why don't women learn plain English."

"But Joel, they do know plain English, and can read and write it as well as you. Femilogia is only a spoken language. It would never work, even for women, if written.

"If you have trouble understanding a woman, get her to write everything down. If you want to talk to a woman, then you better learn Femilogia. If you're too lazy to do that, than you'll have to learn to live with being forever mystified by what your woman says."

"Roger, you know a lot of languages. Do you know Femilogia?" Margo asked him.

"I always understand you, don't I Margo?"

"Mmm, yes. Maybe too well."

"It's not a fair test, Roger," Peter chimed in. "Everyone understands Margo... well as much as she intends to be understood, that is. She's a writer. Women who write become accustomed to using plain English and seldom revert to Femilogia. That's why both Margo and Ruth are so easy to talk to.

"Peter, Rena and I aren't writers. Do you mean Rena and I aren't easy to talk to?" Sally asked.

It didn't happen often, but Peter was actually embarrassed.

"Well of course not. That's not what I meant ...."

But everyone was laughing by that time. Sally had caught him good.


After dinner, everyone drifted into Roger's living room, still talking about the dinner and continuing conversations started there.

I was surprised and very pleased when Sally came over to say she was leaving and had enjoyed my company. I thought I had been as dull as a rock. I knew what I had enjoyed, but couldn't imagine what she had.

"Mark, would you really be interested in what I mentioned at dinner, about Ned, I mean?"

She asked as though she really had some doubt about it. I had to be careful not to sound too enthusiastic, but wanted to ensure her I was definitely interested. Even if what she had to tell me was not really interesting, I was sure interested in spending more time with her.

"Of course I'm interested, Sally. You know I wouldn't have said it if I weren't."

"Oh, Mark, of course you wouldn't. I just didn't want it to sound as though I were looking for a date. I think what I have to tell you will be very interesting, Mark."

"Just for the record, will it be on the record or off the record?"

"If I tell you, Mark, it will be your knowledge. I have no right to tell you what to do with what you know. I'll leave what you do with it to your own judgment. I trust you, Mark. I'll tell you why when we get together."

"OK Sally. Is there any place in particular you'd like for us to meet?"

"Yes. My suite at the Regal Arms. We could talk there, if you like."

"I'd like that very much."

"Would tomorrow evening be too soon?" she asked.

Are you kidding, I thought to myself, but, "No, that would be quite convenient for me, Sally," is what I said. Something suddenly made me very bold, something in the way Sally was looking at me, and I added "... I was wondering if we might have dinner before we have our talk?"

"Why, Mark, I'd be delighted. Will you pick me up?"

Yes. Yes, I was really making a date with her. But what was I thinking. I'd take her out to dinner and wherever I took her, she probably owned the restaurant. I was going to pick her up in my old jalopy, and she was used to being chauffeured around in huge limousines.

"Of course. Would six be too early?" I finally blurted out.

"That would be perfect. I'll be in the lobby at six, Mark. I'm really looking forward to our evening. Then, almost like a schoolgirl, she kissed me quickly on the lips, hugged me, and ran out."

I don't remember much more of the evening.

—Mark Halpern