The Dinner Party
A short vignette by Kelvin "creeky" Hodges
As we finished our meal the men, mostly neighborhood friends, had exhausted talk of our new cars, the money we were making, the stock market rally, when my wife interrupted our bullshit session with the command to listen to what this hunched thing perched near the end of the table had to say.
She would find these creatures. Often poor, usually odiferous, to drag to our parties in the hope that their presence would provide some glamour to her reputation for cultivating an artistic temperament. Typically they were writers, unpublished, or artists, unshown. Dreary things.
This one had the tiny physique one gives a young boy. Malnourished as a child, no doubt. His pate was balding, some film of silver still clinging to the sides of his bulbous head. He had yellow teeth which he flashes in a buckle-toothed grin.
“Our daughter’s guest, Jim, has just returned from southern Italy,” says my wife.
“God, well he has enough money to travel,” I mutter in an aside to my friends and am rewarded with a quiet rumble of manly laughter. “But not enough for a toupee,” another comes back.
“Yes, southern Italy, on the coast, Bianco, a small town,” says the man.
“What were you doing there?” I ask, my resonant bass generously carrying the long table.
“Shagging sheep no doubt,” opines the well dressed man next to me. We men share another rumble.
“Research,” says the little man, his head rising from a plate containing smeared fragments of dessert.
“For a movie, father” chimes in my daughter. I remember that she is taking a film-writing course this summer.
“Starring anyone famous?” asks one of the wives.
The man nods his shiny head, “by contract I cannot say. A leading man, wiry build, not tall, but with,” the man pauses, “a pirates looks and a drunkards wit.”
The women titter and disconcerting amounts of hair are tossed, toothy smiles broaden.
“And what were you researching?
“Again, by contract I can say nothing, as the project seems to be going forward. It pertains to a historical era a century or so before Christ and, by my location, you may find a clue.”
A buzz rises around the table as ideas, based largely on foggy and incomplete remnants of university history courses, are cast forth. I can tell by the little monkey’s smile that we are well off the mark and that suits him. I begin to doubt his tale.
“Did you meet this leading man?” asks one of the women.
“Well,” he raises a final fork of chocolate foam to his mouth, paused, “I am only a researcher.” He shrugs his thin shoulders, “I had rented a house overlooking the Mediterranean. Marvelous place. You make your way by climbing a ridiculous number of steps. Each step cut from the very bone of the cliff and in total rising some hundreds of feet above the sea. One night I get a call that they need an extra room. For a man who wishes to travel incognito. To have, if only for a moment, the real experience of the place.
“The rental I had, it was owned by an older couple from town, I was only supposed to have a room or two, but given that it is midwinter, and the rest of the house is empty. They asked if the guest might stay with me.
“Of course, I had been writing and researching for two months, I was lonely,” he pauses and sighs with a gravel sound, “and bored. So I agree to play his host.
“I arrange a supper of antipasto, wine, bread. I have seafood sauce and pasta sent from the local restaurant. Sent up,” he laughs, “I carried each dish myself.
“We ate in the small courtyard before the house. Here was a table. There a narrow wall of rock keeps you from falling down to the red tile roof of a house many feet below.
“So for that one evening I did have the fortune to host this radiant one to a bottle of wine. He brought a bottle of some fancy Grappa.”
“Is he as mad as they say.”
“I cannot tell you. We did drink everything we had. After night had fallen, the sea was barely visible. He hits upon the idea to brighten the gloom and takes a printout of some of the research I was to give him, soaks it in grappa, holds it over a candle and as it lights he tosses the raging mass over the edge of the wall. The tumbrel of flame falls down towards the roofs below.
The misshapen thing pauses and the table is quiet.
“We hadn’t noticed, being protected in our little enclave, a breeze has come up from the sea and when it hits this wall of stone, it pushes towards us.” His eyebrows fly and his arms sweep into the air. A wine glass is clipped and rocks momentarily.
“So this great spawl of fire falls and we rush to the wall to see where it will land and what disaster we might laud. Horrified we are instead greeted with a great belch of flame, as if from the heart of Vesuvius, racing towards us. We leap back in fear for our lives.
The man pauses, savouring the moment.
“The fire hangs for a moment before our astounded faces. Then disintegrates into a few morsels of flame and black paper.
“Quite magical.” The man shakes his bowl shaped skull.
My daughter calls to him. “Are you ready?”
“Yes. Of course.” He replies with a wine warmed voice, bows slightly to my daughter. They stand away from the table.
“We have to go momma,” says my daughter, “Jim’s giving a reading to our class.”
I watch as the decrepit beggar takes my wife’s hand and thanks her for the supper. Then he catches the waist of my daughter and with his hand on her youthful form, turns to me and winks as they walk out of the room.
“Goodnight,” he calls.
To read the Sunshine Travels …