Dog Days

Chapter 1

 

Hector and I arrived at the resort at about twelve-thirty after a quick stop for a diner lunch.  We were the first ones there, and were given a schedule of events along with our room keys.  Our rooms were in the same ‘cottage’, but not adjacent.  I’d be sharing with Dan Paynter and the three security people would have their own rooms.  My key opened the door to a gorgeous room with three big windows arranged like a giant bay window overlooking the front lawns.  There were two queen beds, plenty of space to move around and a fairly ornate bathroom.  The walls, ceilings, bedding and stuffed furniture were all white while the one-hundred-fifty year old woodwork was stained a cherry color and varnished to a high gloss.  There was no deck, but that was hardly an issue when the sky was threatening snow.

 

A guy came with my bags after I’d had time to hang up my coat and look around for a minute.  He hung my suit, still in its plastic, in the closet and set my bag down on a stool.  Then he showed me the amenities and oddities in the room.  He checked to make sure there were bottles of water and plenty of coffee makings, asked if I needed anything else, and left when I said I didn’t.

 

There was no pause for a tip or anything, which was a relief to me.  Mom had said everything was taken care of, but that doesn’t always mean much to people who work for tips.  Some will try for double if they think they can get it.

 

I emptied my suitcase and put my clothes in the closet and the dresser, my toiletries in the bathroom.  The bellman had left the television on, so I flopped down in a very comfortable chair and stretched my legs over the equally comfortable hassock and began flipping through channels.  There were a lot of pre-holiday college football shows, cartoons, ads, and some movies.  I flipped through the movies for a few seconds, and came across one with George Burns in it which I let play.  I knew I’d get some laughs from that guy, but I didn’t have time to figure out what it was about because there was a knock at my door.  When I opened it, Dana was there with a wide grin on his face, and he walked in.

 

“Whoa!  Nice room.  How do you rate?”

 

I said, “I have to share it.”

 

“Oh.  Yeah, well … okay then.  What do you have to eat?”

 

“Nothing.  We stopped at a diner up the road just before we got here.  Are you in this building?”

 

“Yeah, down the other end.  I think this is the place for unmarried men.  The girls won’t be here, dammit.”

 

“Do you know if Gretchen got in okay?”

 

Dana brightened even more, “Oh yeah, she called from Rhod’s car.  They’re somewhere in Connecticut, and Rhod thought about two hours from here, but that was a while ago.” 

 

“Good flight?” I asked.

 

“I guess.  She said she got on the plane, took a nap, and got off the plane.  That sounds like you.”

 

I said, “She’s better than me if she did that on a commercial flight.  You should try it sometime, you’ll see.”

 

Dana asked, “What’s the difference?”

 

“Oh, anything between a hundred-fifty and four hundred other people all jockeying for your space.  You get people who want to party in the aisle beside you and think it’s okay to sit on your arm and slop drinks on you.  You get smokers with withdrawal symptoms behind you, and they relieve them by kicking your seat.  The cabin crew goes through with their carts, and people who need the bathroom bunch up behind them.  It’s never quiet.  Never.”

 

Dana looked at me and asked, in all innocence, “I’m spoiled?”

 

I laughed and smacked his arm, “You’re not spoiled, Dana.  You are ruined.”

 

Dana looked worried, so I said, “You’ve had the best and never even seen the worst.”  Oh Lord, I shouldn’t have said that.  “I’m only talking about flying.  I know you’ve seen far worse than me in other things.”

 

“I know what you were talking about, and I won’t know if I really care before I try it.”

 

There was another tap at the door, and when I opened it Hector was there.  I stood back so he could come in and he looked around, “Hey, nice digs.  Is every room different here?”

 

I said, “I think I read that,” but by that time Hector had noticed Dana.  They were saying hello and Hector didn’t hear me, but that didn’t really matter.

 

I hadn’t asked Dana who he came with but he told Hector, “I came down with Mom and Dad.  Darius drove us.”

 

I asked, “What room are they in?”

 

Dana replied, “They’re in the castle, and it ain’t just a room.  It’s a castle inside a castle and it’s huge.  Your mother and Ally have the same thing across the hall, and I swear it’s a quarter of that building.”

 

I said, “I can’t wait to see.”

 

Hector prodded, “Look outside, Paul.  It’s snowing and I’d like to get on the road to pick up your friend.  I know it’s only ten miles, but I don’t know these roads and I haven’t driven that Jeep in anything slippery yet.  Do you mind?”

 

I said, “That’s fine.  Let’s go,” and asked Dana if he wanted to come along, but he wanted to eat.  I told him his best bet was probably room service. 

 

I pulled out my winter coat and a hat, followed Hector to his room where he did the same, and we went out to the back where the Jeep was parked.  Hec tried to scrape the windshield while it warmed up, but the snow must have started as freezing rain.  There was nothing to do but let the defroster take care of it.  Thankfully the Jeep was rigged out for the winter, so the hardtop had a heated rear window and the outside mirrors were also heated.  This weather was like Brattleboro.  Stockton is squarely in a snow belt, and we get plain old snow there most of the time.  Early snow and spring snow might be like this, but in the winter it’s quite a bit colder than Brattleboro and southward, so the snow tends to the light, fluffy stuff.  Heinrich told me once that he’d stepped on his cat’s tail, and the cat’s screech cleared his roof.

 

In five minutes the windshield was clear, so we headed out.  Not much snow had fallen yet, less than an inch for sure, and as Hector’s confidence in the Jeep’s traction grew, our speed increased.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we were going ten miles and hour when we reached the end of the resort’s two-mile long driveway, and the road outside had no snow at all.  There was snow along the sides but the rest was just wet.

 

I said, “Funny how that works, huh?”

 

Hector said, “So what if we’re early?  Have you ever been here before?”

 

“No.”

 

“I haven’t either, so let’s just enjoy the ride,”

 

I did.  This wasn’t a big storm, but it was the first real snow of the year for me.  We’d had a few flurries, but nothing that landed.  This snow was already making things pretty, sticking to the evergreens and other tree branches and making the ground white.  This was farmland, and cows were near the road turning white with snow just like the stick fences they peered over.

 

I took my phone out and snapped some pictures.  With a good camera they might have been postcards: a white farmhouse with a red barn and snow closing in, and at the next farm a red house with a white barn.  I love the snow and I love winter, but that’s me.  I was sure that a lot of the people on the way to that wedding were wishing they were headed toward the Equator instead.

 

We drove on and were at the train station twenty minutes early.  When Hector was turning in I noticed a coffee shop across the way.  I said, “I’m getting a coffee.  You want anything?”

 

“That sounds good, Amigo.  Colombian dark if they have it.  You know I like it black.”

 

I started out at a trot, but two steps told me I didn’t have any traction and I slowed to a careful walk.  I was back in a few minutes with two plastic cups of steaming Colombian dark, one without milk and one with.  I had resisted a huge temptation to get slices of caramel cheesecake, which had looked perfectly delicious.  I had a private dinner planned with Lisa that night at an ancient colonial restaurant in town, and I didn’t want to get there already stuffed.  The train pulled in minutes after we finished the coffees, and I dropped the empties in a trash bin on the platform while I watched for Dan.

 

He was the third person off, and I ran over and took his bag, which he seemed to be struggling with.  He looked at me and grinned, and I put the bag down and we hugged.  He said, “Man, it’s good to see you.  Is everything all set for the wedding?”

 

We backed out of the hug, and Dan was looking good.  I said, “I hope so.  Mom and Ally put a lot into this, and I hope it comes off.  What’s the matter with your arm?”

 

Dan frowned and said, “I was playing hockey yesterday and took a puck right off the stick into my bicep.  I’ll show you after, but it’s a mess and it’s really killing me.”

 

I picked up his bag and said, “We’re right on the other side of the building.  Did you see a doctor?”

 

Dan signed, “Yeah, you know my mom.  If I hiccup I see the doctor.  “Oh God!  Did you ever get over those things?”

 

I hefted his bag into the back of the Jeep, and sat in back with Dan.  We yakked all the way back to the resort and into our room. 

 

Dan looked around and said, “Nice.  Do I get a key?”

 

“Oh yeah, here,” I said as I pulled one out of my pocket.  “You can pick your bed.”

 

Suddenly the old, submissive version of Dan showed his face.  “No, you’re the boss.  You get first choice.”  He used to drive me crazy with that crap.

 

I said, “Dan, the beds are identical, so it’s either left or right, and the one who likes to smash alarm clocks has the best shot from the right.”

 

“So you want the left?”

 

It was hopeless still, after the years in between.  I said, “I’ll take the right,” and patted the mattress.  “This is my bed.  Which one do you want?”

 

Dan said, “I guess I’ll take the other one,” and burst out laughing.  “I had you going there, didn’t I?”

 

I eyed him and asked, “You were kidding?”

 

He nodded, “Yeah, I remembered how ticked off you got when I wavered all the time.”  He flopped down on the bed on the right and said, “I know you like the left.”

 

I stretched out on the other bed and we talked for half an hour.  It brought back some memories, because that’s what we did at Barent’s when we came back from breaks.  This was after a four year break, though, and it would take too many hours just to touch on the high and low points because at that point in life every day seems to have a lot of both.

 

The phone rang and it was Bernie Sutton.  “Where are you, Paul?  Alana is here and she’s very anxious to meet this knight in shining armor you described to me.”

 

I said, “We’re in our room, so the better question is where are you?”

 

“We’re in the castle right now.  Why don’t you bring your friend over to reception so we can be introduced?”

 

I said, “Sure.  We’ll be there in a few minutes.”

 

When Bernie hung up I said, “Come on, Dan, it’s time to meet your weekend date.”

 

He sat up and said, “Let me straighten up.  I’ll be right out,” and hustled into the bathroom.

 

That left me to use the mirror over the dresser.  My shirt was all wrinkled from the day, so I pulled a nice sweater on over it and waited for Dan to come out before I could wash my hands and face.  When he left the bathroom I went in and cleaned up, even brushed my teeth.  My hair didn’t look too awfully bad so I left it alone.

 

When I was ready I made sure I had my key, pulled my coat on, and we left.  It was a short walk to what everyone was calling the castle.  It was a really nice looking stone building, and no doubt very old, although not what I’d call a castle, but my opinion doesn’t matter in things like that.

 

It was still snowing, but very little had accumulated; there was only an inch if that.

 

We went into the lobby where Bernie and Alana were having what seemed to be a lively conversation, and I paused to look at Alana.  I pointed her out to Dan and his only comment was, “Hoo.”

 

When we approached, Bernie noticed and stood up with a wide smile on his face. He looked at me and said, “Hi, Paul.  We need to talk sometime this weekend, but introduce me to your friend.”

 

I said, “This is Dan Paynter.  We went to school together at Barents and quit for the same reason.”

 

While he and Dan chatted I approached Alana, who was standing beside Bernie.  “Hi, Alana.  Remember me?”

 

She looked me up and down and said, “I remember that hair,” and I liked her right away.  Mom had been right.  Her hair was nearly black and kind of unkempt, which may have been from the long ride, but she was a looker for sure.  Her skin was English-pale and unblemished, her eyes bright blue, clear and happy looking, and her smile was sincere.  When I looked down, I realized the unkempt look didn’t end with her hair.  It was pretty obvious that she had a nice shape under it all, but she was wearing a baggy, rust-colored sweater, faded jeans and muddy cowboy boots.  Cowgirl boots actually and they looked to be about worn out.

 

Her first question was, “You went to Barent’s?  Does that mean you’re a big snob now?”

 

I grinned, “I hope not.  I quit before they got that far with me.  So did Dan.  What do you know about Barent’s?”

 

She made a face and said, “There is a dance with the Barent’s boys every year.  Nobody wants to go after the first time, but we have to.  You really quit?  Would you swear to that?”

 

I said, “I’m a Junior at the Brattleboro public high school.  Doesn’t Miss Porter’s teach you to put on the snoot?”

 

She smiled and brushed her hands down the sides of her sweater, “They try, but I’m a hard case.”

 

Then Bernie was there to interrupt.  “Alana, I’d like to introduce you to Dan Paynter from Michigan.  Dan, this is my daughter, Alana Sutton.”

 

That was about it.  Alana lit up and charm spilled from Dan’s mouth nonstop, like puke when you have the grippe.  I looked at Bernie and said, “Now’s probably a good time to talk.”

 

We moved to a different sofa, and a waiter came over.  “Can I get you a snack, something from the bar?”

 

Bernie paused for a moment and said, “I think I’d like a dark rum with pineapple juice.  Do you have Myers?”

 

“Certainly, sir.”  He turned to me, “Something for you?”

 

I thought for a second and said, “Not now, thanks.”

 

Bernie asked, “How are things working out at home with the new people?”

 

I said, “It’s only been a few days, but good so far.  Gil’s okay, pretty quiet, and his mom’s a good cook.  There’s not much else I need.”

 

He looked at me and said, “This is a new freedom for you, Paul.  Don’t go crazy with it, okay?”

 

“Why would I?  I’m not a wild kid.”

 

“You’ve been on your own for a few days.  You’re making your own rules now, and I almost wish you could wear blinders to block your peripheral vision until you get used to that idea.  Do you have a spending limit?”

 

“I don’t know; nobody said anything.”

 

Bernie sighed, “Paul, nothing was said because you never asked.  The answer is no, not really.  There’s some limit on your credit card, but it’s up there.  Listen,” he said as he leaned close, “I’ve met a lot of your friends and they’re fine young people.  Let me ask something, okay?”

 

I nodded.

 

“Do any of your friends drink or use drugs?”

 

I said, “We all drink sometimes.  I’ve been drinking wine since I was about ten.”

 

Bernie said, “That’s not what I mean.  Having a little wine or a sip of beer with your family is one thing.  Do any of your friends go out to find a bottle and get drunk on it?”

 

“I know people who do, but they’re not my friends, really.”

 

“How about pot?  Have you ever tried it?”

 

I grimaced at the question and said, “Once.”

 

“In Brattleboro?”

 

I said, “No, that was in Boston just before we moved.  A lot of kids were smoking it.”

 

“What was your reaction to it?”

 

“I thought I’d die.  I started coughing and choking so much I puked in my lap.  Everyone was laughing at me, and that embarrassed me.  I felt sick and I ran home.  I was sick on the front steps and again in the elevator.”

 

Bernie chuckled, “So never again?”

 

“Never,” I said as emphatically as I could.

 

Bernie’s gaze found mine and he said, “Just be careful, Paul.  From now until you have wrinkles you’ll be making friends with users whether you know it or not.  When someone says something like ‘try it one time’, don’t.  If they’re insistent just walk away.  Some people get into drugs because of some inner need, but with most it’s peer pressure, which is no reason at all.  If someone you know says to try something, say no.  It doesn’t mean you can’t be friends; only that you don’t want to go that way.”

 

I thought that was good advice.  There were drinkers and pot smokers and possibly worse in school.  I knew who some were mostly because they’d already been in trouble, but there were undoubtedly others.  Pot was a problem at Barents, too, but nobody there had to become a pusher to support their own use.

 

The topic of drugs didn’t make me happy and I told Bernie, “Look, I don’t use any of that and I don’t want to.  I’ll take your advice to say no, but I live in an altered state already.  I don’t need it.”

 

Bernie smiled, “Describe your altered state.”

 

I said, “It’s money, Bernie.  I try to live like other people, but this mountain of money is always there, always pushing me to do things nobody else can.  When I think I’m away from it, I turn around and it’s there again.  It’s probably just like a drug.  It’s always there like, ‘spend me, spend me,’ and I don’t want to spend it on myself.  At the same time, who else could get a birthday present like me and Dana when Dad sent us skiing in Chile?”

 

Bernie looked across the lobby and said, “We’ll talk later.  Your girlfriend just got here and I have to speak with her father.”

 

I remembered and asked, “Are you mad that I gave him your number?”

 

Bernie grinned, “Absolutely not!  Send me all the businessmen with a plan like Mongillo’s that you run into.  I have him funded for the next ten years, and he’s gonna send a lot of kids beside his own to college.”

 

Bernie’s enthusiasm surprised and delighted me.  I thought that because Mr. Mongillo used my name, Bernie felt an obligation to look into his business.  That might be true, but he must have really liked what he saw, because he hurried over and had Lisa’s mother check in while he talked to her father, who suddenly seemed elated, and started shaking Bernie’s hand with both of his.

 

I waved to Lisa and she came over.  We had a quick kiss before I introduced her to Dan and Alana, just when Dana rushed in.  Dana said, “Gretchen’s almost here.  How do I look?””

 

Dana looked good.  He was dressed for outside with a dark blue, calf-length wool coat, like a modified Navy pea coat.  Under that he wore had a dark-red sweater over a white shirt and gray flannel slacks.  I said, “You look fine,” and over his shoulder I saw Rhod coming in the entrance with Gretchen.  “Guess who’s here?”

 

He turned around and waved wildly to Gretchen and started to go right, then changed to left.  I think he was trying to gauge the shortest distance to her where he wouldn’t have to jump over furniture.

 

The place got busy all of a sudden.  People started arriving from everywhere and the lobby was like a giant reception area, with luggage already piled high in the Bell Captain’s corner, and more people coming in every few minutes.  I hadn’t seen Dad or Elenora, and didn’t even know if Mom and Ally were there yet.  Gary and Joan came in with the Fournier sisters.  I knew Ally had hired a car service to bring them down.  I had to go and greet relatives as they came in, and promised that we’d have lots of time to get together the next day.  I recognized some of Elenora’s family and met them as well.  There were a lot of people I didn’t know, and the lobby was getting full.

 

There was no hold up, really.  Things were all prepaid and all people had to do was get their keys, but everyone seemed interested in socializing.  Then waiters started coming through with trays filled wine glasses, and they were soon on their way for more, while others came out with hot hors d’ouvres, which also disappeared before the waiters got very far.  In a short while, a small army or waiters came out with more of everything, and I took a few things to nibble on.  I also snagged a glass of red off the back of a tray carried by a waiter who hadn’t stopped to offer me one.

 

I made my way back to Lisa and was happy to see that she had managed some goodies for herself.  I said, “Hi,” as I put my glass down.  “Looks like everyone came at the same time.”  I picked up a battered shrimp and popped it in my mouth.  The batter had peanut sauce mixed in, and it was something else.  Next I had a fat scallop wrapped in bacon, which is one of my favorites, followed by a stuffed mushroom.  Then my napkin was empty so I picked up my wine glass and offered Lisa the first sip, which she took eagerly.

 

I asked, “How was the ride down?”

 

She said, “A little slow, but it was fine.”

 

I said, “I’m sorry about running around here, but till the parents show up I feel kind of like the host.”

 

She kissed my cheek and said, “You’re a good host.  Everyone seems to be having a good time.”

 

I said, “I have to say hi to Gary and Joan and the Fourniers.”

 

“I’ll go with you.”

 

They were busy greeting Dana and meeting Gretchen, so I talked to Alana first.  “What do you think about Dan?”

 

She was bubbly, “Oh, I like him.  There is a girl at school from Michigan.  She’s nice in her own way, but so boring she leaves people comatose.  Dan has been around, and I like that.  As we speak he’s trying to pull your trick to get a glass of wine.”

 

I looked around and said, “This sucks. Hold on a second.”

 

There were house phones here and there, and I slid out the card with the numbers from one, figured that catering was where I should call, and dialed.  When a lady answered I said, “This is Paul Dunn.  I’m hosting this party in the lobby, and I would like very much if you had your waiters pay some attention to the members of the wedding party itself.  They’re all young people and they’re gathered by the bay window to the left of the desk.  They’re here with their parents, and they all have permission to eat food and drink wine.  I’m not pleased that your waiters are ignoring them.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry, sir.  You say their parents are here?”

 

“That’s correct.”

 

“There will be someone there in no time at all.  I do apologize.”

 

I thanked her and hung up, and before I could get past the people to our little gathering I saw four waiters hurrying over.  I went back to Lisa and she asked, “What did you say?”

 

“Not a lot.  Want a glass of red, or do you like white?”

 

We turned to Alana and I saw Tom coming in with his parents.  I waved him over, and he was met first by Bridgette, who gave him a smooch and they talked for a moment.  Then they came over to us just when Dan arrived with two glasses of wine for Alana and himself.  Alana tactfully put the glass in her hand on a table and took Dan’s offering with great gratitude, which made Dan beam with pride.

 

I said, “Excuse me.  This is my best friend, Tom,” and introduced him to Dan and Alana.  Tom said, “So you’re Dan?  I’ve heard stories about you, like the time with the apple butter.  That’s classic, man.”

 

Dan laughed, “Yeah.  The best revenge is the stickiest revenge.  Nobody ever figured that one out.”

 

I laughed and said, “Tom makes UFOs and nobody has figured them out yet.”

 

That got Dan’s interest and he said, “We have to talk before the weekend’s over.  Why don’t you sit with us at dinner?”

 

Tom looked at me and asked, “Are we eating here?”

 

I suddenly felt bad.  I’d made plans for me and Lisa thinking everyone else would eat at the resort.  “You can.  I’m taking Lisa to this old place that’s been an inn since the seventeen-hundreds.”  I looked at Lisa, and her eyes told me to go ahead, so I asked, “Do you want to come with us?  I can call and try to change the reservation.”

 

Tom said, “It’s okay if you can’t, but give it a try.”

 

Dan added, “For us, too.”

 

Dana had his back to me, so I kicked his butt gently, and when he turned I asked, “We’re talking about going out to dinner somewhere else.  Want to join us?”

 

He looked at Gretchen who nodded, and turned back to me, “Sure.  What time?”

 

I said, “I have to see if I can change the reservation.  Ask Gary and Joanie if they want to go with us.”

 

I figured they would, and that if we were all going Shea would want to come with Cheri.  The lobby was really noisy by then, and I asked a passing waiter if there was a quiet place where I could make a call.

 

He said, “A cell phone call?” and I nodded.  He pointed to the main entrance and said, “That door to the left is a coat room.  It’s quiet in there with the door closed.”

 

I thanked him and took Lisa’s hand, “Come with me.”

 

We started to go and Bridgette grabbed Lisa’s other hand and said, “No, no, no!  I know what happens when you go to quiet places, and we’ll all be skin and bones on the floor before you come back.”

 

I had to laugh at the truth of that, and I kissed Lisa’s cheek.  “I guess you’re a hostage.  I won’t be long.”

 

I went to the coat room, and looked around for the light switch.  After I turned the light on I closed the heavy door, and it pretty much shut the party off.  I had to go through my recent calls list to find the number, and when I called the restaurant I explained that I had a seven o’clock reservation for two, but five other couples wanted to join us.  “Is that possible?”

 

The guy said, “Let me check,” but I was hopeful.  It was the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving and I hoped that would translate to not a lot of people in restaurants.

 

“You’re Mr. Dunn?” the voice came back.

 

I said, “Yes, that’s me.”

 

“If you can make it seven-thirty there won’t be a problem.  We have a busy early schedule.”

 

“Seven-thirty is fine.”

 

“Will that be six tables for two?”

 

I almost said yes, and thought about Dan and Tom.  “I think one table for four, the others for two.  We don’t have to be close together.”

 

He said, “I understand.  I look forward to seeing you at seven-thirty.”

 

I thanked him and left the coat room, coming out just after Shea and his parents went by.  I hurried to get Shea and managed to startle him when I grabbed his collar, but he smiled when I said, “Join us.  Cheri’s over this way.”

 

When we got over to our group he took his heavy coat off and dumped it on the pile of others.

 

Cheri came running over and they shared a cuddle and a kiss.  I interrupted them to say,   “We’re going out to eat.  I have to find rides, but we should leave around seven.”  I looked at Shea and asked, “Is it still snowing?”

 

He shrugged, “Flurries.  It’s white, but no big deal.”

 

I turned to Lisa and said, “I have to find rides to the restaurant.  Why don’t you mingle here and I’ll try to find Hector.”

 

I had barely turned around when my phone rang.  I opened it and I was Ally and I shouted, “I have to go somewhere quiet.  I’ll call you back in a minute.”

 

I closed the phone, put my head down, and hurried through the crowd to the unused coatroom where I called her back.

 

She asked, “Are all your friends in the wedding party here?  We need to get you fitted for your outfits.”

 

I said, “We’re going to dinner at seven-thirty, and I have to find rides.”

 

Ally said, “It’s just after five now, and we only need you for about half an hour, so don’t worry.  How many are going to dinner with you?”

 

“Twelve of us altogether.”

 

She said, “You get your friends here.  I’ll arrange a ride.  Where are you going?”

 

“It’s called the Old Stagecoach Inn.”

 

“Ooh, that’s a nice place.  We’ll be waiting for you here.”

 

“Are you gonna tell me where here is?”

 

“Oh yes, we’re in the spa.  Have the bell captain point the way.  You don’t even have to go outside.”

 

I said, “Okay.  Let me make sure everyone knows where their rooms are and we’ll be on our way.”

 

We ended the call and I went to round everyone up, but a few people had wandered off and I used Tom to look for them because he could see over a lot of the people there.  I made sure everyone had room keys, but very few people actually knew where their rooms were.  I looked at the luggage pile and it had gone down significantly, so we stopped to point out each person’s bags and tell the captain which rooms they were in.  We could ask later where those rooms were.

 

I don’t know who figured it out, but it looked like a good plan.  Tom, Shea and Lisa were staying in two-bedroom suites with their parents.  Dana and Gary had private rooms across the hall from each other in the building I was in.  Gretchen was staying with Cheri in a two-bedroom, while Joan, Bridgette and Alana had a three bedroom.  I had the double room with Dan, which was better than a two bedroom because we were used to talking into the night.

 

We went to get our outerwear and got directions to the spa, which was connected to most of the buildings by covered and heated walkways, and Ally was waiting eagerly at the spa entrance.  I introduced her to Dan, Gretchen and Alana, and she led us into a big, nearly empty room with kilts laid out on the floor already pleated, and a lady waiting to show us how to put them on.  Ally left with the girls, and the lady asked Shea, who was the smallest, to sit in the middle of the kilt nearest her, so his knees would be right over the hem.  There was a lot of cloth under him; it looked like enough to carpet a small room.

 

“Which one of you is Dana?” she asked, and Dana raised his hand.  She pointed to a big piece of blue tartan on the floor and said, “That one is for you … the Italian pattern.”

 

She went to Shea and had him drape the left side of the kilt over his legs, followed by the right side, which exposed a belt.  She told him to buckle the belt at his natural waist and stand up.  When he did, the rest of us followed suit, standing when we were ready.

 

When we were on our feet there was an awful lot of cloth dangling down and the lady said, “Let me show you some of the possibilities for using the upper portion.  First, there is the simple cape,” and she pulled all that cloth around to Shea’s back and draped it up over his shoulders. “Then there is the straight over the shoulder,” and she pulled the cloth up from the front and back over his left shoulder.  “This is the most common one,” she said while she pulled the cloth diagonally across Shea’s torso from the right waist to the left shoulder, where she loosened it so the cloth draped down over the belt in front, and fastened it in the back.

 

I said, “I like that one,” and we talked it over and agreed.

 

Shea complained, “I can’t see what it looks like.”

 

The lady said, “Oh, I’m sorry dear.  There’s a big mirror right over there,” she said pointing to the wall.

 

Shea went and looked and came back smiling.  “I guess I like it.  Do we wear anything underneath or just our regular shirts?”

 

The lady said, “Oh yes.  We have blouses, leggings, sporrans and sandals for you.  Let me show you the blouses, they’re very manly.”  She pulled one out and passed it around.  It was a long-sleeve pullover with baggy sleeves and an open neck that you laced up with rawhide.  It was nice.  The label said cotton but it was very heavy, almost like a canvas.

 

She showed us the leggings and sandals which were like simple shoes and complicated socks, and then passed around the sporran, a pouch you wear around the waist.  Ours were made of leather fronted with rabbit fur and had some fancy silver filigree fittings.

 

I wanted to see the whole package, so I found a blouse my size and replaced my sweater with it, and chose sandals that should fit. Everything else was one size, so I sat down and loosened my belt and the button on my pants, folded the kilt over me and pulled my pants off.  I pulled the kilt belt snug, buckled it and stood up.

 

The lady said, “Very good.  Let me fix your top and I’ll pin it.”  That took her about two seconds, and I brought the leggings and sandals to a chair so I could sit while I pulled the leggings on.  Lord, they were way too long.  She told me to fold them down in four-inch folds until they were just under my knees, which would also snug them up.  I found that more difficult than the kilt, but didn’t say anything.  The sandals were another thing.  They had long thongs on them that I had to criss-cross as I ran them up my legs, tying them just under the fold in my leggings.  Then I put the chain for the sporran around my waist, attached the sporran and I was the real deal.

 

I went to look in the mirror, and after I pulled the vee in my shirt together with the rawhide straps, I have to admit that the outfit looked pretty good, and nobody was going to mistake me for a girl.

 

The other guys had their kilts on over their clothes by then, and they looked at me admiringly when they saw the whole getup.

 

Ally poked her head in at a side door to the room and asked, “Is everyone decent?  Your maidens are here.”

 

The girls came in and they were something to behold.  Their gowns were cream-colored silk with frilly necklines that were cut kind of square, and had ruffled sleeves to their elbows.  Over those they wore the same tartan as us, kind of the opposite of a kilt.  There were straps over their shoulders like coverall straps, and the garment was laced together from the neck opening to above the waist, where it opened downward in an inverted vee, exposing a lot of the silk gown below it.

 

Lisa, who wore blue tartan like Dana’s, had let her ponytail free, and her hair was just brushed over her shoulders.  I loved it that way, but rarely saw it because it got in her way.

 

She came straight to me and gave me a quick kiss before she backed up for a good look.  “Wow.  Aren’t you the mister?”  She reached down to open the sporran and asked, “What’s in here?”

 

I blushed.  “Nothing yet.”

 

Ally came over and said, “Now cut that out.  Paul, the hotel shuttle bus will bring you to and from dinner.  They’ll have it warmed up in front of the main building at seven-fifteen.  It’s only a few minutes to your restaurant.  They’ll give you a number to call when you want to be picked up.”

 

I asked, “Do you think I should tip the driver?”

 

She said, “It’s all taken care of.  There’s one other thing.  Don’t you dare try to cadge wine at a public house.  You could get them shut down.”

 

I said, “We already had some, so don’t worry.”

 

She winked, “I won’t Mr. Dunn, host of the party.”

 

I said, “Hey, there was no one else there to welcome our guests,” but she was gone.

 

I looked back at Lisa and felt the material of her sleeve.  “You look really nice.”

 

She said, “You need a shave.  Otherwise you’re positively edible.”

 

I felt my chin and damn if that wasn’t something I’d forgotten.  I smiled and said, “If you go get my pants I’ll shave before we go out.  Do your folks even know that we’re going out to eat?”

 

She gave me a kiss and said, “They do, but I bet Tom and Shea haven’t said anything.”

 

I said, “I need my pants,” and we both laughed.  When I went to get them off the floor the other guys were sitting down, carefully removing their kilts.

 

Lisa left me with a smile, and the kilt lady seemed to have gone somewhere so, pants in hand, I sat to take the kilt off. I did that with no problem, but I realized I had to take the sandals and leggings off before I could put my pants on, so I put my pants across my lap while I did that.  Fortunately, those things came off easier than they went on, and I left them on the kilt so I wouldn’t have to do a repeat on Saturday.

 

When I was all back together I told the guys, “I have to go shave.  We have the hotel shuttle picking us up outside the lobby at seven-fifteen.  Tom and Shea, be sure to tell your parents you’re going out.  You should ask at the desk where your rooms are and get someone to bring you there.”  I looked at Gary and said, “You’re in the same building as us, so we can show you.  Is everybody ready?”

 

Gary asked, “What about Joanie?”

 

I said, “She’s in a mystery building with Bridgette and Alana.  You’ll have to get it out of her at dinner.”  I looked at Shea, “Cheri is hidden in the same place with Gretchen.  Use your powers of persuasion guys; one of them is sure to talk.”

 

Tom smacked my shoulder and said, “Shut up.”

 

I nodded, “Thanks for the reminder.”

 

We went back to the lobby, which was still active, where we split up.  Gary walked back to the building with us, and I followed Dana and him down the hall to see what rooms they were in, and made sure Gary’s bags had been delivered.

 

Then I hurried down to my room where I removed my shirt and sweater to shave.  I don’t shave anywhere near my collar, but I didn’t want to get shaving cream all over it.  When I was done I still had fifteen minutes, so I sat with Dan to watch CNN for a while and catch my breath.  We watched until the station break.  Dan went into the bathroom while I got my coat on, and when we left we went down to hall to Dana’s room, but he wasn’t there.  I knocked at Gary’s door, and he didn’t answer either.

 

When we went outside it was still snowing and the temperature had dropped quite a bit.  The snow wasn’t wet anymore, but had turned into the nice fluffy stuff that stays around until the weather warms up.  The shuttle bus was in front with the engine running.  Nobody was in it except the driver so we went back into the lobby, which had finally emptied out.  The trouble was that none of our friends were there either, so I called Tom’s phone.

 

When he picked up I said, “Chop, chop, man.  Do you know where everyone else is?”

 

Tom said, “Watch the door to the tunnel.  Three of us will be there before I can put my phone away, and he was indeed holstering it when he emerged with Lisa and Shea.  We were right there and I asked, “Where’s everyone else?”

 

“They’re coming from outside.”

 

I said, “Oh, let’s go then.  Do you know if Dana and Gary met up with them?”

 

“Probably,” Shea said.  “I know the guys found out where they are.  Cheri told me.”

 

I said, “I guess we can wait outside then.  It got colder out.”

 

They were coming up the path when we stepped outside, and the driver opened the door when Lisa and I got there.  When we sat down, the driver asked, “Is this all of you.”

 

I told him yes and he said, “Okay, Old Stagecoach Express is now in motion.”  He asked, “Have you been here before?”

 

We all said, “No.”

 

“Well, you’re in for a treat.  The place has been there for well over two hundred years, and the same family has run it since the nineteen-thirties.  The building has been restored and restored again many times, but other than electricity, central heat and indoor plumbing it’s still pretty much the original design.  You know, I settled up here in the late sixties when I came back from Vietnam, and we celebrate almost all our occasions there, and just head down for dinner now and again since I retired.”

 

I asked, “Is there anything special they cook?”

 

The driver said without hesitation, “Any and all of their soups.  Most are seasonal, like their creamed pumpkin and honey soup this time of year.  They usually have an oyster soup, and their French onion is perfect.  The regular menu is kind of standard fare, so read the specials board.  Don’t be afraid of anything; it’s all wonderful.”

 

I smiled to myself and said, “Thanks.  Now I’m glad I picked this place.”

 

In another thirty seconds the driver said, “The Stagecoach Express is now arriving.  My name is Stan Dynder, and I have a card with the number to call for a ride back for the first person who wants it.”

 

I stood and took the card, “Thanks Mr. Dynder.  I’m Paul Dunn.  How much notice do you need?”

 

“Oh, call when they bring the bill.  It’ll take me fifteen or twenty minutes to get here, and I won’t mind waiting if you linger for awhile.”

 

I said, “That’s great.  C’mon everyone, let’s eat.”

 

He had us right at the entrance, so it was only ten steps before we were inside.  The man at the desk looked at our ages, and then took in the way we were dressed.  He smiled genuinely, “Good evening.  Which of you is Mr. Dunn?”  I raised my hand and then held it out to shake his.

 

He took it and said, “I spoke with you earlier.  I’m Chris Powell, and I run this place with my wife Jocelyn.”  He pointed to my left and said, “Take a moment to look at our specials, and I’ll alert the staff that you’re here.”

 

The space was too small for all of us to see the menu at once, so I read the items off.  “Ok, I’ll read it.  The specials are Cream of Pumpkin and honey soup,” and I ended with the last of the desserts, a chocolate truffle torte with mango rum sauce.

 

Gary said, “Wow, do you know what all that is?” 

 

I admitted to not being too sure of what arugula was, but the rest made sense to me.

 

I looked at Lisa, who had her coat over her arm, and said, “What am I thinking?  There’s a coatroom right here.”  There wasn’t an attendant, so we went in and hung our own coats together in a corner of the room.  When we came out Chris Powell was waiting for us.

 

He said, “Everything is ready for you.  Please follow me.”

 

We followed him through wooden doors with leaded glass window panes … not big panes, but lots of little ones, into about the neatest room I’d ever seen in my life.  The ceiling was low enough that Tom kept ducking even though he had clearance.  One end of the room looked like a really huge hearth, and it did have a burning fireplace with two Dutch ovens, but I wondered at the original purpose of that long brick wall.

 

There were quite a few people already eating, and our tables weren’t all together.  When we got to the table for four I looked at Dan and said, “You wanted to sit with Tom, so this is yours.”

 

The owner said, “Your other tables are the ones that are set with lit candles and full water glasses.  The menus are there, so just choose ones you like.”

 

I nudged Lisa, and indicated a table away from everything, but close to the fireplace.  She nodded, so we sat there, catacornered with the fireplace so we could both see the flames, yet far enough away that it wasn’t particularly hot.

 

I had thought of a nice, romantic dinner with Lisa for a long time, and I don’t know where I could have found a better place for it.  We had a real candle on the table, and the room was awash with electric candles.  They weren’t bright, but there were enough of them that reading the menu wasn’t a problem.  All of the candles and candle holders, electric and otherwise, were pewter.  Our table had a white linen tablecloth over it, napkins in a harvesty rust color, heavy pewter utensils, crystal glassware, and china dishes that didn’t all match.

 

I looked at Lisa over the candle, and she was better than perfect in that light.  The reflections of candles glimmered in her eyes.  She still had her hair out and it framed her face perfectly.  She was wearing a really thin gold choker-chain that was sparkling enough that it reflected off the bottom of her chin and jaw.  I said, “I never saw that necklace before.”

 

She replied, “I got it for my twelfth birthday.  It was my first piece of real jewelry and I hardly ever wear it.  I don’t know what I’d do if I lost it.”

 

A waitress came over and asked, “Have you looked at our offerings yet?”

 

I jumped and said, “No, sorry.  Give us a few minutes.”

 

She smiled, “There’s no rush.”

 

I handed Lisa a menu and picked up my own.  I had my mind set on one of the specials, but that was going to be up to Lisa, because what I wanted was Chateaubriand for two.

 

The entrees weren’t anything special, steak done this way and that, lamb, pork chops, duck, salmon.  I found my eyes going back, and back again to that oyster soup.  It was made with oysters cooked in their own salty broth, thickened in heavy cream, and seasoned with a touch of cayenne, dressed with fresh parsley.

 

Pumpkins or no pumpkins, I had to try that.  Lisa wanted the pumpkin soup and I suggested the Chateaubriand for two.  I had to explain what it was, and I embellished my description as a combination of the ways I’d had it in France, Argentina, and Russia.

 

She asked, “So it’s like a rare steak?”

 

I said, “Oh, no.  This is roast beef like you’ve never had.  You don’t even have to chew; it just melts in your mouth.  And they serve it here with creamed onions, horseradish sauce, and mashed potatoes.  How’s this?  If you don’t love it, I’ll pay.”

 

Lisa smiled, “I don’t know.  The salmon sounds really good.”

 

I said, “So get a salmon, too.  We can split both of them.”

 

Lisa groaned and said, “I don’t know why I bothered to look at the menu.”

 

I said, “Salmon is on the wedding menu.  Chateaubriand sure isn’t.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Really, broiled or poached I think.  Here comes the waitress.”

 

The waitress looked at me and asked, “Are you ready to order?”

 

Lisa said, “Yes.  I want the pumpkin soup and Paul will have the oyster soup, and we’ll share the chateaubriand cooked ...” she looked at me desperately and I mouthed ‘rare’.

 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.”

 

“Rare, please,” Lisa said.

 

“Will there be anything else?  Something to drink?”

 

I said, “I don’t think so.  Show me where the water pitchers are so I can do the refills when you’re busy.”

 

When the waitress left with our orders I said, “I should see how everyone is doing.  Want to come with me?”

 

The nearest table was Tom and Bridgette, Dan and Alana.  Dan and Tommy were swapping tales while Bridgette and Alana did the same.  They didn’t need our interruption so we moved to Gary and Joan.

 

They probably didn’t want the interruption either, but they at least noticed us.  Gary said, “This is really a nice place.”

 

Joan gave him a look and said, “It’s more than nice.  There is history here, Gary.  When it really was a stagecoach stop, who knows who came here.”

 

I said, “I bet the owner can tell you when he comes around.  Yeah, this place opened just when the revolution got going.  You could be sitting in Washington’s chair, or Jefferson’s.  I hope you ordered something good.”

 

Gary said, “Joan ordered.  I wanted pork chops but I’m getting coucho something.”

 

Joan giggled, “He means chateaubriand.”

 

Lisa said, “We ordered the same thing.  Don’t worry, Gary.  Chateaubriand is roast beef like you’ve never had.  You don’t even have to chew; it just melts in your mouth.  And they serve it here with creamed onions, horseradish sauce, and mashed potatoes.”

 

I started giggling at Lisa’s ability to echo my words, and my mirth became obvious enough that Gary asked, “Something wrong?”

 

I had to run away to the men’s room.  I had tears in my eyes and snot dripping from my nose.  I washed my face and used about ten tissues to clear my nose, and then started in all over again.  I went through another dozen tissues and another washed face before I could leave.  I don’t know why I found that so funny, I just did.  When I came out Lisa was there, her arms folded.  She didn’t look angry, and asked, “Did you get it out?”

 

I could only nod.

 

She said, “I hope so.  They’re keeping our food warm.  Don’t start again because I’m hungry.”

 

I snickered, “Don’t say things like that and I won’t.”

 

She looked at me and asked, “You thought that was funny?”

 

I said, “I’m sorry.  Sometimes I just think funny things, and it makes everything funny.”

 

We sat at the table and the waitress immediately brought our soups, and the presentations were beautiful.  Lisa’s pumpkin thing was orange like you’d expect, and the honey was floating around the top in pools and strands.  My oyster soup was just as pretty, plump oysters floating in the cream broth.  We sampled each others’ and liked them both.

 

When we finished I said, “That was good.”

 

Lisa smiled, “You’re back on earth?”

 

“Yeah, I guess so.  Are you having a good time?”

 

She leaned close, “I am.  I love this place.  It’s so warm and cozy feeling, and I love you.”

 

Lisa was right about the place.  The wood and ancient bricks glowed warmly in the light of the fire and the dozens of candles.  The entire room had a rosy glow that extended to Lisa.  It lit up her complexion, gleamed and reflected from her hair, and her eyes were like still water reflecting moonlight. I leaned even closer and said, “You’re beautiful.”

 

I was glad that we weren’t being rushed.  Several minutes of quiet conversation passed before they brought the salads out.  The place didn’t offer a choice of salads, and this one was one of those all-green things that looked like the result of someone weeding their lawn.  I wouldn’t normally get anything like that, but this was served warm with a wonderful dressing.  I ground a little pepper on top and it was delicious.

 

There was a touch of French when they brought out little dishes of lemon sorbet before the entrée, and I was grateful when the waitress didn’t tell me it was to freshen the palate like so many pretentious places do.  When that happens I always ask if they can get me a left-handed spoon to eat it with.

 

I figured it was a good time to see if everyone was happy, so Lisa and I table-hopped until they started bringing the entrees out.

 

I was glad I did that, though, particularly because Gary and Joan seemed to feel a bit out of their element.  I didn’t confront that directly, but asked them what soups they’d ordered.  Joan said, “I had to try the lobster bisque, and I’m glad I did.  It sounded so good, and it was good.”

 

Gary said, “I got the root vegetable soup.  I liked it a lot.”

 

Lisa changed the subject tactfully.  “Isn’t this romantic here?  Everything is beautiful in this light, and every person is, too.”

 

Joan replied to Lisa, and Gary stared at Joan like he had just discovered her.  That’s when our waitress came over and said they were bringing the entrees out now, so we told Gary and Joan to enjoy and went back to our table.

 

They didn’t serve us first or last, just in the middle, and I liked that.  When something is urgent, special treatment can be nice, but nothing is urgent at dinner, and I don’t like to be treated differently just because I’m paying.  Shea and Cheri were served first, then Gary and Joan.  We got our meal next, followed by Dana and Gretchen, and finally the table of four.

 

The quality of light there extended to the food.  Our roast was on a wooden board in front of us, and the color was phenomenal.  The outside was charred almost black, and the red inside absolutely glowed.  A chef came out with a knife and fork and asked, “How would you like this sliced?  Thick or thin?”

 

I looked at Lisa and she stared back blankly, so I said, “Somewhere in between, thanks.”

 

He put his knife about a quarter-inch in and paused.  I said, “That looks good.”

 

That man wielded his knife like a Benihana guy, and that roast was on our plates in moments.

 

I told Lisa to try it, and she put a piece in her mouth and gave it a chew.  She was like a transformer, with a sudden dreamy look on her face, and when she swallowed it she just stared at me before saying, “Oh, that’s good.”  She went right back for more, and we both finished off the meat before giving the potatoes and onions much more than a taste, which was all we had room for.  I had dipped a few bites of the meat into the horseradish sauce and decided there was no sound reason to mask the beautiful flavor of the original.

 

I felt a little bloated and really wished I had some wine, but that was a no-no so I didn’t ask.

 

I looked at Lisa and grinned, “Did I tell you?”

 

“You told me, and I expected it to be good, but that roast was beyond good, beyond wonderful even.  It was out of this world.”

 

I smiled, “They did it just right – the crust on the outside, the doneness, everything.  This is a good place.”

 

We went to the other tables again, this time stopping first where Tom and Bridgette were sitting with Dan and Alana.  I asked, “Did you like the food?” and they all said yes.  Then Dan grinned, “I see why you like Tom so much.  He’s as crazy as you are.”

 

Tom said, “Now wait a minute here.”

 

I looked at Dan and asked, “You think that I, moi, am crazy?  Tell me, then, who it was that had the idea to put pollen on our stupid uniform hats to attract bees?  Who was that guy who put fresh paint on that bench in the locker room, where the big guys sat when they were all bareass after a game?  And …”

 

Dan laughed and held up his hand.  “Alright, you can stop there.  If you weren’t kind of crazy at Barent’s, there was something wrong with you.  The guys who liked it there are the real nuts.”

 

“Cream puffs,” I said, and we both laughed, and realized at the same time that it was a private joke.

 

Dan turned his attention to Alana, and we went to say hi to Dana and Gretchen, who were too much into it, so we left them alone and went to Shea’s table.  There wasn’t much difference there, and Shea looked at me like I might be a bus boy before he turned back to Cheri.

 

They seemed more amenable to company, though, so I pulled a couple of chairs over from an unoccupied table and we sat with them and had a good time.  We stayed right there through dessert, too, and I remembered to call Mr. Stan Dynder and tell him we were about to have our coffee, and to join us if we took too long, but we decided not to dawdle after our coffee.  I went to the reception desk and gave them my credit card, said to add a twenty percent tip, and sat back down like I’d gone to the bathroom.  I think everyone took a turn in the restrooms before we got our coats.

 

On the way out I thanked the owner, and the people who heard me came back to do the same.  I had planned to romance Lisa a bit, and we all ended up doing exactly that.

 

When we went outside we were surprised by the frigid air.  The temperature must have dropped another ten degrees.  The snow had stopped, but there was a lot more on the ground by then, probably three inches.  We hurried into the bus, and Stan asked, “Do I have everyone?” we assured him that we were all there and he could close the door.

 

Back at the resort I asked, “What’s everyone going to do?”

 

We were in the now-empty lobby, and Dana suggested, “Turn the lights off.  Start the fire.  Can we get some wine?”

 

Dana could be a genius sometimes.  I called the caterer’s number and asked the guy who answered if we could get some wood for the lobby fireplace and a few bottles of the red they served at reception.

 

The guy didn’t even ask who I was and said, “Certainly.  Will you need anything from the kitchen?”

 

I said, “No, just wine for twelve please.”

 

He said, “I’ll send someone right out with the wine and I can set your fire myself.”

 

“Great, thanks.”

 

I said, “Let’s just sit near the fireplace for now.  We can rearrange things once the fire’s going.”

 

When we sat Alana said, “I should let my father know we’re back.”

 

Lisa, Tom, Shea and I did the same thing.  While we were doing that, a uniformed man came out and constructed our fire, using logs and kindling from a compartment I hadn’t noticed.  When he had it set up, he took a pewter tankard off the mantel, extracted a metal handle with a dripping round ball on one end, and pushed the ball under the logs.  He lit that with a long match, and the ball glowed with a blue flame causing the tinder over it to flare up rapidly.  The man stood up and turned to us.  “I’ll have housekeeping bring some more logs in.  Your wine should be right out.  Will there be anything else?” 

 

I said, “No, thanks very much.”

 

He nodded and left and within a few minutes a guy came out with our wine.  He set the whole tray on a table and asked, “Would you like me to serve you, or would you rather be left alone?”

 

I said, “We can handle the wine, thanks.  How do we turn off the chandeliers?”

 

He said, “I can do that.  Would you like the wall sconces on?”

 

“That’ll be great.  Thanks a lot.”

 

We pulled some sofas and love seats around the fire with enough tables to be sure that everyone had one in reach.  I went to start pouring wine and asked if everyone wanted a glass.  Cheri said, “I don’t think so, not for me.  Don’t let that stop you.”

 

I chuckled at Dan and Alana’s eagerness.  Their private school heritage, like mine, had them accustomed to contraband hooch, though Miss Porter’s kind of surprised me.  I left Barent’s when I turned twelve, but had been in the habit of snitching a few bottles of wine on my visits home.  It was easier for Dan to swipe a bottle or two of gin.  It wasn’t so much that we wanted to drink the stuff, but smuggling it in and hiding it where it wouldn’t be found was very much a bad-boy thing to do, and it gave us trading capital when we wanted a few girlie books or someone old enough to get us into an R-rated movie.

 

I filled eleven glasses to just past the halfway point, and brought them two-at-a-time to everyone, went around once with napkins, and finally sat in a love seat with a glass of my own and Lisa’s.  I put the glasses down and kissed her cheek.  “I hope you’re having a good time.”

 

She leaned into me and said, “Oh, I am.  I don’t get to new places that often, and just being in a hotel like this is a dream.  I’m so glad you asked me.”

 

I smiled and said, “I’ll drink to that,” and picked up my glass while Lisa did the same.  We clinked our glasses together, took a sip, and put them back down so we could kiss.

 

It didn’t dawn on me right away, but in time I realized the only people still talking at all were Dan and Alana.  I suppose that made sense seeing they’d only met that afternoon.  They sure weren’t complaining.

 

After about twenty minutes, Gretchen said, “Oh, I have a funny story.”

 

The sound of breaking suction wasn’t loud, but it was there, and we all sat up to hear her.

 

Gretchen’s accent was easy to understand and it made her fun to listen to.  “When Mr. Daniels picked me up at the airport, he was wearing that hat he has … the one that hides his face.  When he saw me come out of customs into the baggage area he took it off until I saw him, and we waited for my bags to come out.  He’s not really known in Germany, but the American women there surrounded him just like at that restaurant in Florida and he was unprotected in the airport.  I think other people heard, because more came running.  The airport guards couldn’t see what was happening and a lot of them came to see what it was.”  She laughed, “I’m sure at first they thought the passengers had seen someone with a weapon or something and were trying to detain him, but they were taking pictures and holding things out to be autographed.”

 

Joan asked, “Who is it you’re talking about?”

 

I replied, “Rhod Daniels, the actor.  He’s an old friend of Dana’s mom, like they grew up together, and they ran into each other when we were in Florida last spring.”

 

Joan’s eyes widened, “Ooh.  Do you mean he’s here for the wedding?  Will you introduce me?”

 

Bridgette and Cheri echoed in one voice, “Me, too.”

 

“And me,” Alana chuckled.  “No offense, Dan, but every girl at Miss Porter’s is hooked on that show.  It comes on just when we’re back in our rooms after classes, and it’s addictive.”

 

I said, “Let Gretchen finish,” and everyone remembered their manners at once.  I looked at Gretchen and asked, “What happened next?”

 

“Oh, when the guards realized what was happening, they made the ladies go away, and stayed with Mr. Daniels until I had my bags.  I think people thought the wrong thing then, because they started taking pictures of the two of us, and some of just me when we were leaving.”

 

Tom laughed, “Oh, no!  I bet your pictures are on the front pages of the New York papers already, with like ninety-point headlines announcing Love Child or some crap like that.”

 

Gretchen looked stricken, “I don’t know what you mean.”

 

It was Alana who said softly, “It means you may be famous, Gretchen.  Not because you want to be, or anything you did; just because celebrity seems to mean more than anything in this country right now.  Wars?  Yes, we have wars.  Economic problems?  For sure.  Massive unemployment?  Yeah, that’s a problem, but we have our loony celebrities to smooth things over.  Where’s the news value in a war report when we have Charlie Sheen disintegrating in front of us.  Who cares about another molested kid when Justin Bieber just sneezed on a fan?”

 

Dan prodded her, “Go on.  What does it mean?”

 

Alana said, “My thought is that it means this is no longer a young country … a young society.  We’ve been here a long time now, and like Britain and France we want our entertainment.  We think, as a society, that we’ve earned it, and that our news outlets aren’t exempt from providing it.  There aren’t many big city papers you can open where celebrity activity doesn’t get as much space as news, and sports gets more than either.  The same is true with television news, and the national outlets on the internet often present the celebrity crap right up front.  That’s what it is: we’re front-end loaded with celebrity activity, some of them people we never heard of, and some who become celebrities just because they crash up an expensive car or some such thing.  We get sports for the men, and Hollywood for the women”

 

She smiled, “Rant off.  Sorry.”

 

I was smiling listening to Alana, and not only because I liked her viewpoint but rather because if I was my father’s son, she was definitely her father’s daughter.  I’d never heard Bernie talk about the celebrity culture, but he often talked about the misplaced priorities of the American public, and Alana only extended it.

 

I said, “Don’t be sorry, Alana.  You thought it out and you have it down, so there’s nothing to apologize for.” 

 

Dan said, “I agree.  Are you on your debate team?”

 

Alana replied, “No.  I would be, but with all the arguments going on under the guise of ‘discussions’ I’d feel sick if I joined in.  Where did that come from, anyhow?  Join the discussion is totally cynical when it means add your own venom to the mix.  There isn’t any discussion in that sense.  It’s too polarized to even listen to.  What we’re doing here, this is a discussion.  We’re just talking about things, sharing thoughts.  These so-called national discussions always end up the same way, with the conservatives calling the liberals socialists and communists, and the liberals calling the conservatives racists and worse.  It will become a discussion when the center finds its focus and starts to talk sense.”

 

To my utter surprise, Gary spoke up.  “You know, my father used to have an interest in politics, and these days he doesn’t want to hear it.  He says both sides are on a razor blade and nobody wants to slide down it.”

 

I don’t think everyone was paying attention, but I burst out laughing, as did Tommy, Dan and Alana.  I said, “That’s a good one, Gary.  Aah!  Sliding down the razor blade of politics!  You could copyright that.”

 

Tom said, “Yeah.  Nobody’s right anymore, not even a little bit.  My father calls it a kindergarten congress.”

 

Alana laughed, “Oh, I like that.  They’re trying to decide the fate of the world with lumps in their undies.”

 

Everybody got that one, and we all laughed. I said, “Let’s finish our wine and get out of here before we start really talking politics.  Did you all have a good time?”

 

The wine glasses came up and toasts were made.  A few glasses, like mine, were drained, but most were put down with more than a little left.

 

One by one, we stood up, found our coats, and spent some time saying goodnight to our dates.

 

Dana, Dan, Gary and I went out the front to go to our building.  It was really cold then, and again snowing lightly.  There was about another inch of accumulation.

 

I’m not sure what it is with me, but when it’s cold I feel it and defend against it, but when it’s really cold I kind of embrace it.  It had to be around five degrees out and though I could feel it on my hands and face it didn’t bother me as much as earlier, when it was probably twenty.  The other guys got ahead of me because I was dawdling.  Dan turned around to see where I was, and he waited while Dana and Gary hurried ahead.

 

Dan smiled, “I forgot that you like this weather.  I think I do, too.”

 

I said, “You like Alana.”

 

“Why wouldn’t I?  She’s like a jewel, you know?  Well, no you don’t because you live in a real society.  I don’t have a lot of chances to see what normal kids are like because I don’t live with them.  I’m glad I got out of Barent’s, and now I want to go to the local school.  I get the feeling that I’ve been bred for something I don’t want to be, and all the girls I get to meet have been bred for the same thing.  Boring is a weak word for it.  We all have the same things, do the same things, go the same places … God, I could scream!  And look at you.  You go to public school in a small town and have this big variety of friends.  They’re your friends, and still totally different than you and each other.”  He smirked, “Lisa is gorgeous, by the way.  You’re living the life I want for myself, Paul.  You really are.”

 

I realized that we’d stopped in the path and took a step.  When Dan followed I said, “Do it.  Your Dad let you out of Barent’s; he’ll let you out of wherever you’re going.  Isn’t your town all private school types?”

 

Dan said, “You’d think so where we live, but they have their own schools.  Not everybody is rich.”

 

I said, “You can say that again.  Does it ever embarrass you that you have so much?”

 

“Money?  It’s family money, not mine.  I don’t see car parts in my future, so I won’t be getting it.  It will see me through college and then I can make my own living.”

 

I said, “That wasn’t really my question.  You don’t find that money an embarrassment?”

 

“I should?”

 

“I didn’t say that.  I just don’t feel right having so much.  I’ve got Dad doing some good things, and we have a bigger thing planned, but it’s peanuts, really, not even spending the interest.”

 

Dan sounded aghast, “You want to touch your principle?”

 

I giggled, “You make that sound like I want to touch my prostate.  It’s simple, Dan.  We have way too much money, and we can never spend it.  I want to do things with it that are worth something to people, but not dump it into general charities.  I want to see what happens.”

 

Dan said, “We’re standing sill again, and I’m cold.” 

 

We started walking and Dan said, “You know, you sound kind of old fashioned, and I like that.  You have the money and can put it where you want and see how it works out.  If it’s good, you can do it again.  If not, you can try something else.  With your pile, that could be your whole future.”

 

When we got to our building we stopped talking and went down to our room.  We took turns in the bathroom, Dan first, and when I came out he was in bed.

 

I got my phone charger out and put the phone in it, pulled my clothes off and got in bed myself.  The only light on was the one between the beds and I asked, “Ready?”

 

“Bring on the night.”

 

“G’night, Dan.”

 

“Night, Paul.  Tell me, how did you hook up with a girl like Lisa?” 

 

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