Darryl was in his element. He had been given, due to some unknown process — the logic of which eluded him — the place at the head of the long table at the Irons’ Christmas brunch. Sid had insisted, as if Darryl were a visiting dignitary.
From tasting the first few morsels, Darryl understood that the lunch Beryl had prepared for them the day before had been merely an opening act for the featured show. This was that show. From flakey butter biscuits with both a tangy and sweet aftertaste, served with homemade huckleberry jam, and wild salmon mousse with fresh bagels, to huevos Benedict, melon squares wrapped in prosciutto, kiwi and grapefruit slices with a drizzle of grenadine. Mexican hot chocolate, and mimosas, for those who might want to start their celebration with a taste of champagne and fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Every bite was worthy of comment. Around the banquet table, the Emperor Norton’s guests oohed and aahed so much that soon the repetition set off ripples of giggling. At last one man, faking orneriness, said, “Come on, folks, nothing’s that good,” to which a woman retorted, “Oh, yes it is,” this joined by other laughing protests till he recanted his remark.
Another of the male guests had, while awaiting the first course, asked Darryl what his line of work was.
“I’m an astrophysicist.” His usual answer to this question did its predictable alchemy on the crowd, for the most part shaming the men into deferring to this intellectual alpha-dog among them.
But the man sitting to Darryl’s right, not too young but a long way from retirement, maybe mid- to late-40s, could not have been any more inward. He had been looking down at his shiny, empty plate, contributing nothing to the weather and traffic and sports discussions that buzzed above the crowd as their morning coffee took effect. But Darryl’s answer to the question drew him away from his introversion.
The younger man, Duane, began to ask the semi-celebrity, semi-retired professor a series of thoughtful questions. Darryl learned that Duane taught philosophy at a middling community college somewhere in Montana, near the Idaho border. (Or was it somewhere in Idaho, near the Montana border?)
His mind was incisive and his curiosity that of someone from a more elevated academic stratum. He had two PhDs. The first, in philosophy, was earned with a dissertation on the nature of certain plant-induced hallucinations that, under certain circumstances, expose the subject’s perception of society as a constructed reality. His subsequent doctorate was in literature. That dissertation was a study of the work of the author Philip K. Dick.
The younger professor projected enormous confidence, but he did not pontificate. Rather, he essentially invited Darryl to expound on his own views of the so-called “God Particle” supposedly “glimpsed” earlier that month at the Large Hadron Collider. Then he asked Darryl about parallel universes, the multiverse, the billions of earth-like planets in the Milky Way, the extraterrestrial hypothesis. What did Darryl think of people like Bernard Haisch, and proto-science in general?
At one point, Darryl realized that he had, in answering the man’s questions, perhaps talked a good deal too much. His food had gone cold. To catch a break, Darryl asked Duane about his own areas of knowledge. Was there something that he might find interesting from Duane’s own research?
In response, Duane told Darryl about the Sami, a semi-nomadic tribe of the Norwegian Arctic Circle, who had a shamanic tradition built around the fly agaric mushroom, a hallucinogen also known as amanita muscaria. In that culture, using this psychoactive fungus, practitioners had traditionally reported visions of a figure in a sleigh that, pulled by magical reindeer, rose up off the earth to travel through the winter sky.
Having overheard this, the man to Darryl’s left, he who had joked that nothing was as good as all the oohs and aahs warranted, raised his mimosa glass and said to Duane, “Well, that’s a helluva Christmas tale, if ever I heard one. Meet Old St. Nick, just a fantasy of some guy named Sammy stoned on ‘shrooms. What the hell. I’ll drink to that.” It was hard to tell if the man was drunk, stupid or both.
As Darryl sipped his half-decaf, half high-tech coffee, as the guests leaned back in their chairs, pleasantly defeated by the rich indulgences, he felt a pull.
On one end was the fact that this was fun. Not one of his daughters’ men knew enough to ask him the kinds of questions that came out of Duane, as fluidly as if he were talking about some recently invincible championship team that had fallen from glory. None of those men would have so relished Darryl’s reasoned, deliberate arguments in support of, or in challenge to, these hypotheses.
Darryl was also charged up by his foresight in having read that article about the “God Particle” during the trip north. That was fortuitous.
The pull, then, was that he was torn between staying at the Emperor Norton for another hour or two, dropping in on the Colfaxes when he was good and ready, and, on the other pole, that practical but crucial factor: San Francisco parking.
Scilla had told Francesca that they were expecting a crowd. There would likely be parking on Sanchez or Jersey. But on Regan Street? And close to the house? No guarantees.
The second spot in the garage already housed Flo and Hank’s van. Darryl had grooved the parking problem into his thinking from the moment he heard it from his wife.
He knew Dean and Scilla’s neighborhood, had been there often. He’d practically bought them the damned house. Regan was steeper than Jersey, though not as steep as Clipper. Did he want to walk up the hill toting two shopping bags, one holding bottles of wine and a dessert and the other heavy with gifts? Did he want to arrive in a sweat, red-faced, heart pounding?
Imagining this settled the debate for him. He caught Francesca’s eye, and they both rose from the table.
They hugged the Irons, with a special beam of affection directed to their daughter for the opus she had created, a handshake and a business card exchange with the community college philosopher, and Happy Holidays extended to the guests still seated at the table.
Then out to the rental car. It was 3:00 straight up. Sluggish from the satisfaction of having just consumed a rich meal, they stepped out the door and took in the cool fresh air. It was a lovely day. No rain in sight.
Darryl and Francesca arrived early enough to get a place just a few doors down from 667 Regan. Up the stairs. Doorbell. The greeting by Dean, then Scilla.
And there, standing in the hall, was the renegade daughter, looking, well, many things, all at once. Certainly nervous and shy, her eyes blinking. Maybe a look of contrition on her face. Maybe.
Dean led them in. He and Scilla took their shopping bags and listened to their explanations of the contents. Coats and scarves were shed, given to Dean to hang in the hall closet.
There she was, Flo, his second-born. Her hair was no longer in cornrows, nor in the dreadlocks that Francesca had described, when recently she told Darryl the details of the clandestine lunch they shared in Santa Rosa while he was recuperating from hernia surgery. Her nappy, reddish-brown bush was pulled back from her face and trimmed, sensibly, thought Darryl. He opened his arms. She stepped into the embrace.
Her use of this childhood term of affection for him, and the tone of her voice, regressed nearly to a whimper, caught him off guard and softened him in ways that surprised him.
This unexpected softness empowered him to say, his mouth against her ear as they embraced, “It’s OK, Flo, it’s OK. We’re all just human beings and it’s a tough game, a tough, tough game to be a good human. Aren’t we all trying?”
He felt tears threatening to run down his cheeks. He desperately needed to excuse himself. “Go on, give your mom a hug.”
He broke the embrace, stepped back and stood flat against the wall in the narrow hall. He smiled. Triumph fed his joy, a triumph piled up in several layers. One, he had not wept. Two, he had said something conciliatory, though it was not what Flo would have preferred, which he suspected would have been something like, Yes, damn me, Daughter, I went over to the dark side. I believed that Dick Cheney and Richard Perle were gods incarnate, and now I have seen my wicked ways. Please forgive me, for all that I have done to you and the other good people of our excellent republic.
Francesca did enough weeping for the two of them. As did Flo, once she got locked up with her mother, their arms petting each other’s backs while they sobbed. Even Dean had to turn away, blinking.
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
“It’s OK, it’s OK.”
After a few moments, Francesca held her daughter at arm’s length and said, “You look well.”
“Yeah, well. I have a man who’s deep into health maintenance.” She gestured toward Hank, waiting nearby.
Francesca hugged Hank, briefly. It was not nearly as emotional as her embrace of Flo, even bordered on business-like. All that hugging and stroking had redeemed Flo from the perp class. So it must have been Hank behind all of this ridiculous separation, was a thought that seemed to hover above their heads as they stood in the Colfax’s hall.
This was about as far from the truth as they could get, but Hank did not seem too worried about the tepid response from his woman’s mother.
The women went, then, one to each bathroom to tidy up from their tearful reunion.
Dean led the visitors to the living room, then circulated with a tray of glass mugs of mulled wine, passing them around to whomever wanted one. Harlan took one.
“Whoa. Not yet. A bit too young for that. Wait a year, till you’re 16 — you can have your first sip then.”
“So, uh, Dad, you think I have never had any alcohol?” Harlan’s face spread open with an impish grin as he returned the mug to the tray.
“Not in our house, you haven’t. Not with my knowledge, at any rate.”
Everyone who heard this father-son exchange laughed. Including Dean.
Now, look at that guy’s face, thought Darryl, while he studied Dean. He is one happy guy. He looks like the rare man who could stand happily mute if you were to ask him to name one thing in his life that is not working out to his total satisfaction.
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