My father had a nasty habit of inviting people to our house for dinner on the spur of the moment. This really irked my mother. One time after this happened, Dad offered to get fried chicken, but Mother insisted on preparing the meal, although she was obviously put out. I was in high school at the time, and I remember thinking maybe she should have let Dad be responsible for dinner. Then, he might have realized how much trouble it was and stopped asking people over without checking with her first.
Years later when I became a writer, I reflected on this and got one of those what if moments. What would have happened if Mother had taken off and left Dad to prepare the meal and entertain the guests on his own? The following story is one scenario. This is the third and last in the trilogy of tales about Al Johnson. The other two have appeared in earlier posts. Enjoy!
DINNER WITH THE JOHNSONS
“Honey, I invited the Batemans over for dinner tonight,” Al said, as he strode through the kitchen door on a sunny Saturday morning in September.
“What?” asked his wife Ruth, as she looked up from her bowl of cereal.
“I ran into Diane at the market when I went to pick up the milk,” said Al, as he set a bag on the counter. “I asked her and Jim and their little girls Sarah and Ella over for dinner tonight.”
“Oh Al,” said Ruth. “I think it’s wonderful that you want to welcome that new lawyer in your firm, but tonight is not a good night. I’ll be busy all day at the health fair, and I won’t have time or energy to cook anything.”
“Honey, you’re an excellent cook,” Al said, as he stroked her shoulder. “You’ll think of something.”
Ruth stiffened and leapt to her feet, her chair making a scraping sound as she shoved it away from her. Al let his hand fall to his side and gaped at her. “No, you’ll think of something,” she said, as she hurried to the phone. She lifted the receiver and dialed a number. “Mother, Al has planned a night out with the guys so I thought I might take you to dinner and a movie. How does that sound?”
After a pause, she said, “Great. I should be done at the health fair at about six o’clock. I’ll pick you up then, okay? Bye.”
“I can’t believe you did that,” said Al, who stood dumb-founded, staring at Ruth.
“I can’t believe you keep inviting people over here without checking with me first,” said Ruth. “I keep telling you over and over again how inconvenient it is for me when you do that. You say you’re sorry, but then you do it again. I’m not putting up with it any longer. I’m late.” She snatched her purse from a nearby chair.
“Honey, I can’t cook.”
“That’s your problem, isn’t it?” said Ruth, as she headed for the back door. “You think I’m your maid who will cook and clean for you and anyone else you choose to invite over here. You can call these people and tell them you forgot we have another engagement, or there’s a Stouffer’s lasagna and a package of green beans in the freezer. You can heat those up for them. There should be plenty. I’ve made plans with my mother, and I’m not going to change them. It’s up to you.” She turned and stomped out the back door, slamming it behind her.
Al stood stunned for a moment. He considered calling the Batemans to reschedule the dinner but thought better of it. They’re young, and I’m getting on. If I tell them I forgot a previous engagement, they’ll think I have Alzheimer’s, and I can’t tell them my inflexible, headstrong wife abandoned me because I didn’t check with her before inviting them over, he thought.
It then occurred to him to call his daughter. Michelle often invited Al and Ruth for dinner with her and her boyfriend Rick. Al knew if he explained the situation, she would understand and be willing to help. As he dialed her number, it was as if a great weight were being lifted from his shoulders. He smiled, as he waited for her to answer the phone but when he heard her answering machine after a few rings, he slammed down the receiver, and his heart sank.
With a sigh, he resigned himself to fixing frozen lasagna and green beans for the Batemans. “It might not be so bad,” he told himself, as he walked to the refrigerator. The Batemans’ little girls were seven-year-old twins, as he recalled. If they were anything like his children were at that age, they would love the lasagna whether it was homemade or not. If he plied their parents with enough drinks before dinner, they wouldn’t know the difference. A quick glance at the directions on the back of the lasagna box told him it would take a little over an hour. The green beans wouldn’t take long to heat in the microwave.
“Okay, I can do this,” he said, as he closed the freezer door. “I told Diane we’d eat about six o’clock. I’ll put the lasagna in about five and when they get here, I’ll get their drinks and do the beans. I’ll just tell them that Ruth had to leave at the last minute. I’ll pick up rolls and dessert at Walmart. I also need to make a trip to the liquor store.”
At four o’clock that afternoon, Al was ready to leave his office. During the drive to Walmart, he began doubting his ability to host a successful dinner party on his own. When he and Ruth entertained guests, she timed things just right. When guests arrived, they could enjoy drinks for about half an hour. By then, dinner was on the table. “I’ve got to stop inviting people over like this,” he said.
In the ice cream section, his spirits lifted. When his daughter Kate was the same age as the Bateman twins, she adored chocolate ice cream. He found rolls and a chocolate pie. After paying for these purchases, he stopped at the liquor storeand bought all the ingredients for gin martinis and Shirley Temples and a bottle of wine for the adults to drink with dinner.
When he reached home, it was nearly five o’clock. With asigh of relief, he hurried into the kitchen. Soon, the lasagna was in the oven. As he set the timer, he decided to shower and change. That would keep his mind off his anxiety about the night ahead.
At six o’clock when the doorbell rang, Al was ready. “Hello,” he said to the couple who stood on the porch. “Where are the girls?” he asked, as he ushered them into the living room.
“They had a sleep-over tonight,” said Diane. “They prefer to spend the evening with kids their own age instead of with boring grown-ups.”
“I completely understand,” said Al with a smile. “My daughters were the same way when they were their age.”
“I’m assuming Ruth’s in the kitchen cooking up whatever that delicious smell is,” said Jim.
“Actually, Ruth had to leave at the last minute,” said Al. “She works at the women’s center, and she had to be with a rape victim tonight.”
“At six o’clock in the evening,” said Diane, raising her eyebrows. “I thought those things happened late at night.”
“They can happen any time a man gets the urge to do it,” said Al.
“He’s right, honey,” said Jim, putting an arm around his wife. “I get the urge to make love to you legally during the day as well as at night.” He planted a kiss on her cheek.
“Oh you,” said Diane with a laugh, punching him in the ribs.
“Ow,” said Jim. “Is there a center that helps men who are being abused by their wives?”
“I don’t know,” said Al. “I do know how to make a gin martini if anyone’s interested.”
“Uh, we’re Mormons,” said Diane. “We don’t drink.”
“Oh well, I’m a Catholic and I do,” said Al, as his face grew hot. “Perhaps some ice tea?”
“I’m afraid we don’t drink coffee or tea,” Jim said.
Al scratched his head in concentration. “Orange juice then?” he asked.
“That sounds great,” said Diane.
“Make that two,” Jim said.
As he hurried to the kitchen, Al wondered if the Batemans’ religion allowed them to eat lasagna. There’s only one way to find out, he thought, as he found orange juice and glasses. When he returned to the living room with their drinks on atray, Jim and Diane were seated together on the couch. “I just thought of something,” said Diane. “Ruth Johnson is your wife, isn’t she?”
“Yes,” said Al, as he handed them their drinks.
“I met her at the health fair today,” said Diane. “It’s too bad she couldn’t be here. She seems like such a nice person.”
If only she knew the truth, Al thought, as he settled himself inan arm chair across from them with his martini. How could she leave him like this? What if the Batemans couldn’t eat thelasagna, green beans, rolls, pie, or ice cream? Ruth would know how to handle such a situation. All he could do was hope for the best.
The timer in the kitchen dinged. “That’s the lasagna,” he said, rising to his feet.
Jim and Diane also stood. Diane asked, “Is there anything we can do to help?”
“Not at all,” Al said. “I’ve got it all under control. I still have to heat up the green beans and the rolls so it’ll be a few minutes yet. Make yourselves comfortable. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.”
In the kitchen, he removed the lasagna from the oven and set it aside to cool. He placed the rolls on a baking sheet and set them in the oven as he’d seen Ruth do. He found a metal pan Ruth used to cook vegetables on the stove. After putting the green beans into it and adding water, he placed it in the microwave. After turning it on, he went to the dining room to set the table.
As he retrieved napkins and silverware from the buffet, he heard the microwave shut itself off. He thought this odd since it hadn’t been that long since he’d started it. Turning, he noticed that the kitchen light was off. He tried the dining roomlight switch. Nothing happened.
Jim and Diane appeared in the doorway. “Is everything okay?” Jim asked.
“The power seems to have gone out,” Al said. “The lasagna’s done so we can start on that if you like. Hopefully, the electricity will be back on soon.”
“I wonder if there’s a problem with the circuit breaker,” Diane said.
“I don’t know,” Al said.
“Would you like me to take a look?” asked Jim.
“Be my guest,” said Al. “The circuit breaker’s in the kitchen to the right of the door.”
“I’ll help you set the table,” Diane said, as Jim stepped into the kitchen.
The front door opened and closed. “Dad!” Michelle called.
“In the dining room,” Al yelled in surprise. “That’s my daughter.”
Michelle and Rick appeared in the doorway. “Michelle Johnson!” said Diane. “I didn’t make the connection.”
“Johnson is a popular name,” Rick said with a grin.
“You two know each other?” asked Al.
“Diane is my boss at the nursing home,” Michelle said. “What’s going on? When Rick and I got home, my Caller ID indicated that you’d called but didn’t leave a message. When I tried to call you, I got a recording saying that your number was disconnected or no longer in service.”
“Well, now not only is the power out but the phone is dead,” said Al.
"I’ll see if I can reach someone at the phone company on my cell," said Rick, retrieving the device from his pocket and wandering into the living room.
“Where’s Ruth?” asked Michelle.
“I’m right here,” said Ruth from the kitchen doorway. “Thank goodness the house is still standing. Imagine my surprise to find the kitchen dark and a handsome young man fiddling with the circuit breaker.”
As the kitchen light came on, Diane stepped forward, extending a hand to Ruth. “Hi, I’m Diane Bateman. We met at the health fair this afternoon. How’s your rape victim?”
“Rape victim?” asked Ruth, as she broke into a broad grin. “That’s what Al told you.”
“What are you doing here?” asked Al, as Diane stared at him in astonishment.
“When I told Mother what happened this morning, she insisted I call to be sure you hadn’t burned the house down,” Ruth said. “When I did, I discovered that the phone was somehow disconnected. I left Mother and came straight here. You see, Diane, for years, Al has had this nasty habit of inviting people to the house for dinner at almost the last minute and expecting me to cook for them. I’m sorry you and your husband had to be caught in the middle like this, but I decided I’d had enough.”
“I understand,” Diane said. “If Jim ever did anything like that, I’d strangle him. Is there a center that helps men?”
Michelle burst into laughter, as Rick and Jim appeared. “Not if they’re dead,” Rick said.
“I think I found what caused the power outage,” said Jim. “Did you know you had a metal pan in the microwave?”
More laughter erupted, as Al hung his head. “I suppose that also caused the phone outage,” he said.
“I don’t think so,” said Rick. “The operator said the whole neighborhood’s out, but they’re working on it.”
“Well dear, I hope you learned your lesson,” said Ruth. “I’ll finish getting dinner on. Michelle, Rick, why don’t you stay? There’s plenty.”
Al slumped into his chair at the head of the table, as Diane finished setting it and other dinner preparations continued around him. Jim and Rick also sat at the table and chatted. In record time, Ruth and Michelle brought plates and platters containing the lasagna, green beans, and rolls.
When everyone was settled, Al took Ruth’s hand and said, “If you all don’t mind, I’ll say grace.” As the others joined hands, he said, “Dear Lord, we thank you for what we are about to receive. I also give thanks for my wife. I don’t think I really appreciated her until today.”
Abbie Johnson Taylor
Author of We Shall Overcome