Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Christmas Lunch

The lunch crowd met again, this time at a restaurant in a converted cotton warehouse along the river. It sits just a few doors away from my old office and the view we had that afternoon was the same one I had been fortunate enough to have "on loan" for many years. The retired judge was in attendance, as was the semi-retired lawyer and the fellow whose occupation has always been a little sketchy to me. I only know that he owns things - like buildings - and he leases them out and then goes to Europe (a lot). We were also joined by a delightful lady presumably the newest love interest of the Lessor. She heads a department - or runs something - at the famous art school and if pressed to describe her in one word I would say "butterfly." She reminded me of photographs of Isadora Duncan. I liked her very much and think she should be able to keep the Lessor on his toes for awhile. The room has its original brick walls and was decorated for Christmas with poinsettias and twinkle lights and a nice crackling fireplace - overall a very cheerful and cozy atmosphere.

Over the first round of martinis we talked about books, as usual, and the book festival coming in February, and Pat Conroy, and the Savannah Film Festival. Someone had suggested that, in the spirit of the season, we each tell a story about ourselves not previously told. So around the table we went. Four of us told goofy stories. (Mine was the time I apparently drank too much wine and ordered whatever it was that happened to be on QVC at that moment. When the box arrived, inside was a very long, skinny brush with a tapered pointy end. The shaft was bendable. I had no idea what it was or its purpose. One of my children suggested it was a tool to be used during a proctology exam. Another thought it could be used to clean ear wax from an elephant. Neither idea seemed plausible, but we fell on the floor laughing and gained a good memory out of it anyway.)

Finally, it was the retired judge's turn. I anticipated a story told from the bench, so certain was I that he has a wealth of them stored away. Instead, he said, "When I was a very young lawyer I had the opportunity to travel to New York City on a case. I had always wanted to see a play on Broadway and as luck would have it I was able to get a ticket - one single ticket - to the hottest show in impossible ticket to an always sold out play. Well, the big day came...I got all dressed up and stepped outside into a nasty driving rain storm. Cab after cab passed me by already filled. I must have looked a sorry sight. But then a taxi stopped and the passenger door opened and inside sat the prettiest girl I had ever laid eyes on. With a voice like cut crystal she asked me where I was going and if I wanted to share her taxi. It wouldn't have mattered to me if she had been going to the moon, I would have gotten in that cab no matter what. It took twenty minutes to get to the theater; it took five minutes to fall in love with her."

Being the sentimental type, I teared up and my throat felt as though I had swallowed a hot mitten. I reached for my glass. In truth I was a little disappointed we didn't hear some very clever and very funny story about how he eviscerated some pompous member of the (legal) bar. I love those kinds of stories. But the semi-retired lawyer jumped in and said, "Judge, you've told that story of how you met your wife before. Now see here, the deal was to tell us something you haven't told before."

Beneath those wildly untamed eyebrows...beyond those wise and cunning eyes...a knowing light of anticipation and drama winked and then blinked and then shot steady. "Ahh...but that was just the Prologue," he said in his best Charles Laughton voice.

Well, my friends, we all recognized that we were really in for something. Something delicious. Something as intoxicating, perhaps, as the lemon drop martinis. The Lessor signaled to the waiter by silently making a twirling sign with his index finger indicating another round was now in order as we settled in, leaning forward so as not to miss one..single..word.

"Chapter One. It was still pouring rain when we got to the theater. She had changed her plans just like that," he snapped his fingers, "and we walked up to the ticket booth. Sold Out. Big letters! No chance for the both of us to see the play, and I no longer cared to see it without her. All I wanted was to get her out of the rain, to sit in some quiet spot, and get to know everything about her. I reached into my overcoat and pulled out the ticket. A tall, sullen kid - 18 or 19 - was walking toward us. He must have been walking a long time, or through puddles, because his pant legs were wet half way to his knees. I shoved the ticket at him and said, 'Please use this. I can't and I don't want to waste it.' With that, my girl and I jumped into another cab and I never gave the kid another thought."

"Oh, what a sweet story," I was about to say, when he raised his hands to silence any interruption.

"Chapter Two. That girl and I got married and we were happily married for over 50 years. But about 15 or 20 years after I gave the ticket away, and we were living here, an incredible thing happened. A successful actor in a very successful play was appearing on stage in Atlanta. The local news did a piece on him and asked him how he got into his profession. I was sitting with my wife listening to the interview. The actor said that as a kid, he had no direction at all. Had dropped out of school, was hanging out with other kids who had no direction. One day when he was about 18 he was walking to meet some friends. As he passed a theater on Broadway, a perfect stranger stopped him in the street and gave him a ticket to the play. 'I had never even been in a library,' he told the interviewer. 'I was broke, and soaking wet, and hungry. At first I figured I would try to hawk the ticket. I didn't know anything about the theater, but I knew I wasn't dressed right to go in. But then I looked down at the ticket sitting in the palm of my hand. Then I looked up at the theater. And I made my choice. Seeing that play was the turning point of my life. I was baptized.' The fellow went on to say that after that night, he knew his life was going to be dedicated to the theater. He worked as a janitor at first, then a stage hand, saved enough money for acting lessons. Finally he got a break here and a break there and...well...that was that. The play, the theater, the year, the rain, his description of us left no room for doubt."

The semi-retired lawyer and the Lessor stared silently at their drinks...the butterfly dabbed the inside corner of an eye with a napkin...I gazed out the window just as a container ship slipped silently out to sea. Then he spoke again.

"Epilogue: As it turns out, when I stopped the young man on the street that cold, wet evening he was on his way to meet his friends. They made plans to rob a liquor store two blocks from the theater. He, of course, got side-tracked and never showed up. That didn't stop the other two, though. One of his friends was shot and killed that night. You see, the store owner had a gun too. The other went to prison. We all chose our destiny that evening. I feel there is a silent hand trying to guide us in the right direction, but in the end we all must choose our own way."

There really isn't much more to say than that. Except that it reminded me of something Clarence the angel without wings told George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life. Each person's life touches other lives in ways we never know or fully understand. It seemed a perfect message for a perfect Christmas lunch in a world where perfection is hard to find. Merry Christmas to one and all.