My dinner with Agnes

Something Blue, part 3
[Part 1]     [Part 2]

For some people, meeting a stranger for dinner at their house might be enjoyable, but I'm not 'some people'. I was nervous, and grumpy.

Remember 'social distancing' during the 2020 pandemic? Well, that wasn't much trouble for me. Social distancing is my desired distance, so this was very un-Tina behavior — walking crunch-crunch across a light layer of snow on the sidewalk, toward dinner with Raoul and his aunt I'd never met.

Their house was beige and ordinary and small, at the end of a quiet block. Small lawn, small chimney, small chance of a nice evening. Still on the sidewalk, I doublechecked the house number, and subtly stared through the front window, but I couldn't see much. I'm nearsighted.

The porch light was on, the floorboards squeaked, and the doorbell was a classic 'ca-gong' style ringer that sounded like it came from a castle. Cool, I thought, and I was still smiling when Agnes almost instantly opened the door.

Let me tell you, I have seen bedraggled women, unpleasant women, and women on the brink. My mother was an alcoholic who kept the company of other alcoholics, so I know that look. I have seen ratty women, drug-addicted women, women who've been beaten down, or simply beaten, and women utterly lost at life, but I saw none of that, nothing worrisome in Agnes Jackson.

She was about my age or a few years older. She wasn't white but I couldn't guess what — maybe a mix of black and Hispanic, or who-cares and it doesn't matter. She said pleasantly, "I'm Agnes, and it's nice to meet you," but she said it without a smile. I followed her in, wondering what the hell I was walking into, but what I was walking into looked like a typical American house.

Raoul was setting silverware on a rectangular table, in a room just off the kitchen. He waved and shouted at me, "Hey, Tina!" The table was large enough to seat six or eight people, but there were only three chairs and three plates. The plates were on a thick, slightly faded purple tablecloth, which I suspected was a blanket, just from its plumpness.

"Thank you for coming to dinner," Agnes said.

I was supposed to say 'You're welcome', or 'Thank you for inviting me', but instead I said, "I'm wondering why I was invited."

She looked at me like you'd look at a vase at a garage sale, if you weren't quite sure you wanted it. "All questions will be answered," she said, as if that answered the question, and then she added, "probably. And may I take your coat?"

I took it off and gave it to her, and with a wide right-handed wind-up she launched it through the air, onto the couch. She looked at the paper bag I was carrying. "I brought dessert," I said, and handed it to her.

She said "Thank you," took the bag, and said, "Dinner is almost ready" as she walked toward the kitchen.

My first impression? Agnes was not a warm, friendly lady, but she wasn't mean or scary. No smiles, but that's OK — women are taught and expected to be smiley at all times, and hooray for any woman who rejects that. She'd sidestepped my question, but I kinda liked her in spite of not wanting to.

Raoul pointed to a chair at end of the table, and I sat down. All the chairs were the same — wooden, possibly handmade and darkly varnished, with high backs and un-padded seats. As I'd suspected, the tablecloth was a blanket — thick, with a few loose stitches and slight stains. Food stains, not bedroom stains, I thought and hoped.

Raoul and I said a few sentences to each other, and I discreetly looked around. Their home was pleasant and tidy, with paintings on the walls, books on some shelves, and a calico cat in the corner eyeing me skeptically. The furniture was utilitarian, and none of it seemed either new or old, expensive or cheap. It was a comfortable house, but I wasn't yet comfortable in it.

Agnes emerged from the kitchen carrying a battered and splattered Dutch oven. "Pot roast," she announced, and put it on the table. She lifted the lid, and what was inside looked marvelous — a chunk of meat as big as my head, surrounded by juicy-looking potatoes and carrots and large chunks of onion. Raoul stepped into the kitchen, and returned with a two-liter bottle of root beer — my favorite and he knew it. He sat down between Agnes and I, halfway along the long side of the table.

"We don't say grace," Agnes said, sitting at the opposite end of the table from me, "and we're not big on decorum. Help yourself, and if you want seconds, help yourself again." Then she looked at Raoul and said, "Chow down."

"Chow down," Raoul echoed, perhaps something they said at every meal. As instructed, we helped ourselves. Agnes filled her plate and passed the pot to Raoul, who did the same and passed the pot to me. I filled my plate, and then, well, chowed down.

The conversation was awkward. With me, most conversations are awkward, and as the newcomer, all the questions were aimed at me.

"Where are you from?"

"I grew up right here, in Madison, Wisconsin." Agnes said she was also a local girl, and Raoul said that he'd been raised in Chicago.

"Did you attend the university here in town?"

"Nope, I never felt any itch for education after high school."

Agnes nodded and said, "I'm also uneducated and unashamed. A lot of smart kids go to college, and a lot of damned fools come out." Raoul said that he'd moved to Madison after high school, and taken some courses at the city's technical college ("like a damned fool," Agnes interjected) before being hired at our office.

The conversation was never relaxed, but it wasn't an interrogation, and the meal was delicious. I'd already helped myself to seconds, and was considering taking thirds when Agnes coughed theatrically, as if to announce: We are now going to talk about whatever the hell this is all about.

"Tina," she said, still without a smile. "I know you're wondering why you were invited to dinner —"

"I am wondering."

"I need to know you quickly, and I'd like you to know me, so I'll start by telling you the basics about myself." She turned to her nephew and added, "Some of this you may know, Raoul, and some you probably don't."

"When I was a young woman, I was 'troubled', as they say. For several years I lived in a commune, raised vegetables and listened to music and fucked men and smoked pot. I did many things I regret, and many things I do not regret. Then I spent two years in prison for selling LSD, and when I got out the commune was gone. I drifted around for a few years, and then my parents died, leaving me this house" — she waved her arms at the living room — "and an allowance from a trust fund, which pays the bills if I'm frugal. I am therefore frugal, and generally irresponsible. I don't work. I raise vegetables, listen to music, fuck men, and smoke pot. And I cook, because I love to cook, but Raoul does the dishes and all the other chores."

"In exchange for free rent!" Raoul said, happy like a puppy.

Agnes looked at him and said, "He's a good kid and I love him, but he's right. Raoul is here mostly to mop the floor and scrub the toilet." He smiled as she said it. She didn't.

"I cuss, drink, smoke, and play poker," she said. "I have eleven tattoos, and I don't believe in God. I'm a felon, so I can't vote, but I pay attention and don't trust the government. I don't believe the official story of 9/11, and they're lying about almost everything that's happened before and after. So that's me. If you find any of that offensive or unbearable, please tell me now."

Midway through this I'd begun smirking, and by the end I was stifling giggles. "Did you rehearse that speech?"

She smiled a little; the first smile I'd seen from her. "Yes, I rehearsed. I didn't want to forget to tell you something that might matter to you."

"Well, I'm not offended by any of it, or anyone's choices in life, unless it hurts someone else. Have you hurt people?"

She thought for a moment. "I didn't mean to, but I think I broke a man's heart."

"Uncle Glaucus," said Raoul.

"He was never your uncle," said Agnes. "Just a friend of mine." Then she looked at me and said, "Now I need to know what matters about you. Who are you, Tina?"

I sighed and looked at the ceiling. "I'm Tina McMurray. I'm 50, divorced, mother of one, and he's in prison for dealing drugs, so you and I have something in common. But I don't agree about 9/11 — it happened because the terrorists were crazy and determined; end of story. What else? Um, I'm Methodist, but I'm not religious about it. I, uh, don't have any tattoos. And I work with Raoul at the most boring office in the world."

It took me twice as long as Agnes to say half as much, but unlike her I hadn't prepared my speech in advance. Try telling a stranger everything that matters about yourself, and see if you don't sit there saying nothing between every sentence, like I did.

Agnes took a breath like she was about to speak, but I decided to say something more. "This all feels like I'm auditioning for something, and I don't know what. Why all the mystery? Just tell me why you invited me here."

We were still sitting at the table, lukewarm leftovers between us. Agnes looked at me and knitted her fingers together. "My apologies for the mystery, Tina. It's a mystery to me, too. I invited you because I want a second opinion on something strange, and I will show it to you if I believe I can trust you. Can I trust you?"

"Can you trust me?" I repeated, and sighed. "I don't know whether you can trust me, 'Aunt Agnes'." Whoops, getting a little sarcastic there, so I pulled back the attitude and continued in a more neutral voice.

"You want an opinion? In my opinion, you're a good cook but a little nuts. If you're looking for someone to help you rob a bank, that's not me. If you're wondering whether I'll rat you out to the cops, relax, I probably won't, unless you're doing horrible things to small children." Agnes and I briefly stared at each other, and there's something about that woman — when she stares, you want to look away, but I didn't.

"No children are being hurt," Agnes said, "and we're not robbing a bank, and I probably am a little nuts." She took a deep breath and loudly exhaled, all while giving me that stare again. "Before I show you what I have, I need your agreement — both of you — that we're not going to the authorities." When I raised my eyebrows, she added: "This is not negotiable."

I shook my head. "Sorry, I won't agree to that. If you show me something that merits a call to 9-1-1, guess what? I am going to call 9-1-1."

"Yeah, Aunt Aggie," said Raoul. "That's a lot to ask, without knowing what's up."

Agnes sighed and twisted her lips, like we'd thrown her an unexpected complication. "I don't think it's dangerous," she said, "or illegal, and nobody's been hurt. But it's something the men in black might want, and I'm not going to turn it over to some government agency to X-ray it and cut it in half." Her voice had grown louder toward the end. Not angry, but firm.

"Man," Raoul muttered. "What the hell secret have you been keeping from me?"

"I keep all the secrets from you," she said.

"If you show me something," I said, "and it's not dangerous, not illegal? Then of course, I won't call 9-1-1. You have my word."

"What she said," Raoul said, pointing at me.

"Then Raoul was right," Agnes said to me, again without a smile. "I believe you're someone we can trust, so I'm going to show you both something (pause) spectacular. Something I haven't shown to anyone else." She looked at me, then at Raoul, and said, "Top secret, right?"

"Right," we both said, and I said, "but this chair is wooden, and my rear is flesh and bone. Could we take this conversation to the couch?"

Agnes nodded, stood, and said, "I'd like some wine. Could I get you a glass?"

She'd been talking to me, but Raoul shouted, "Yes, please!"

"Not tonight," I said. "I need my head to be as clear as possible."

Next: Part 4

Republished 5/8/2024   

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