The dinner invitation was totally unexpected since Josiah Gorgas had not heard from his high school and college buddy Austin Ervin in well over a decade. They had always been somewhat unlikely friends. While Josiah was a popular athlete in high school, Austin excelled in the arts and was a standout performer on stage. Whereas Josiah majored in business in college, Austin pursued a degree in theater. Though good friends growing up, their lives diverged sharply after graduating from the local university when Austin went to New York City to try to break into Broadway. Two years later, with his big stage dreams dashed, he came home to earn an English degree before teaching at a high school out of state. Over the years Austin and Josiah gradually lost touch.
Upon getting his business degree, Josiah remained in town to work full-time at his father's department store, marry his college sweetheart Clarissa, and start a family that would produce two daughters and two sons. He had put in long hours at the family store and, at 38, was now making most of the decisions there since his father's semi-retirement.
Though Josiah's devoted wife Clarissa's college degree was in journalism, she soon grew tired of being a newspaper reporter and was eager to create a family. So she became a full-time housewife and mother looking after their four children and home-schooling two of them. She, Josiah, and the children enjoyed living in the comfortably middle class, pine tree-sheltered neighborhood of Leafy Meadows. Clarissa and Josiah's lives had long been defined by their family, his business, and their church.
Austin Ervin was absent from their tenth high school reunion where Clarissa and Josiah were stunned to hear he had recently lost his job after eloping with a student. The story was that school administrators learned Mr. Ervin had begun a romantic relationship with the girl while she was in his class and not yet 18. A couple years later Josiah heard Austin had gotten another teaching job up north but that was a long time ago. So it was a complete surprise when Josiah's boyhood buddy rang early one evening as the Gorgas family was cleaning up the dinner table and washing dishes.
"After so many years teaching high school, I want to teach college," Austin told Josiah over the phone. "I just long for more in-depth class discussions and not having to worry about some constipated, pushy parent complaining to the educrats about something supposedly said in class and typically totally distorted at that. So I've moved back to town to get a master's degree at the university and maybe a Ph D. We'll see. But I have to get at least a master's to teach college.
"Anyway, I want you and Clarissa to come over for dinner and see my new digs. It's been way too long since we last met and we've got a whole heap of catching up to do, my old friend."
While touched by the call and especially the invitation, Josiah could not recall when he and the wife had last gone out without the whole family in tow. He also dreaded having to find a baby-sitter for the four children aged thirteen, eleven, seven, and five.
But the eldest, Zoryana, insisted she was now old enough to baby sit – and be paid for it. So, upon getting the thumbs up sign and a big smile from Clarissa, along with cheers from the children, Josiah told Austin they would be delighted to come over for dinner that Friday.
When Friday arrived, Josiah went to the store extra early so he would hopefully not need to work late, and Clarissa sped up all her normal routines as well. Her day was a blur of getting everyone ready for school and work, teaching two children at home, running errands, grocery shopping, preparing supper for the children, and providing strict baby-sitting instructions to Zoryana while warning her three younger siblings to mind her authority while Momma and Daddy were out. Then Zoryana and the other daughter, eleven-year-old Adelia, enjoyed helping their mother choose just the right dress, jewelry, makeup, and shoes for the big dinner.
At last Mr. and Mrs. Gorgas drove to Mr. Ervin's home. Josiah was in his best Sunday suit and tie while Clarissa wore her most recently bought green dress, pearl necklace, and high heels. Though they loved their children dearly and were a little trepidatious about leaving them on their own for a few hours, both were enthused about their first evening out as a couple in a very long time.
"Now whatever we do, let's be sure and not say a word about his first teaching job that ended with Austin getting fired for marrying that gal," Clarissa cautioned as Josiah drove.
"Good Lord, no," Josiah agreed. "Gosh, that was really unfortunate. Remember how at our tenth-class reunion Lobelia Langtree said the gal's parents were so livid – understandably – that they were ready to sue the school if Austin wasn't fired?"
"And he was fired and they even got the marriage annulled," Clarissa noted with a sigh.
"Yeah, and I recall how Miss Lobelia wore a mighty big grin the whole time she shared all that too." Josiah looked at Clarissa and rolled his eyes.
"And proceeded to spread the news to everyone." Clarissa chuckled.
"In ever greater detail," her husband added.
"I 'spect she may have still been a little bit bitter about his dumping her in 10th grade for Dorena Tanner." Clarissa smiled.
"Right," confirmed Josiah. "And I recall the scuttlebutt was that he had already been dating Dorena on the sly."
"Regardless, if there had been a vote for class gossip, my money would have been on Miss Lobelia winning in a landslide." Clarissa laughed.
"She certainly woulda' got my vote." Josiah agreed. "A year or so after the reunion I heard Austin ended up teaching at some Yankee all-boys or all-girls school, but I can't rightly recollect which," Josiah replied.
"Hopefully all-boys," Clarissa remarked and they chuckled.
Both were glad their old classmate was back in town and hoped he had found happiness. They also looked forward to seeing him since Austin had always been kind, good humored, and fun. Each spouse smiled as many warm memories starring Austin scrolled through their minds.
When they arrived at the address Austin provided, Josiah double-checked it before parking the car. The home was in a neighborhood formerly dominated by middle class families but now mostly rental properties occupied by university students. The house appeared somewhat ramshackle, desperately needing a paint job and new roof. There were a few weather-beaten cars in the driveway as well as one in the front yard.
"Perhaps Austin invited several guests," Clarissa suggested as she surveyed Mr. Ervin's very tall grass swaying with the wind and imagined it wailing to be cut.
After carefully avoiding several dog deposits, they rang the front doorbell which immediately prompted loud barking from inside. Soon the door opened and they faced a barefoot, college-age girl wearing an old paisley red dress and a yellow flower in her long, straight brown hair.
"Hey! Y'all must be Josiah and Clarissa," she said with a warm smile. "I'm Sunrise, Austin's old lady, and this is Fidel." She laughed while restraining a big young dog eager to jump on Clarissa's dress.
"Fido?" Josiah asked.
"No, Fidel." Sunrise giggled as she ushered them into the living room.
Josiah wrinkled his brow trying to recognize the tall man entering the room from the other side wearing a long African robe and scandals who did and did not look familiar. Though Josiah knew the eyes, the thick beard and outfit were foreign. Austin Ervin extended his arms to envelop Clarissa and Josiah in a bear hug and kissed them both.
"Welcome, dear friends from long ago." Austin beamed. "What a genuinely jubilant joy to see y'all again after so many years."
They exchanged pleasantries and the Gorgases thanked Mr. Ervin for inviting them. All agreed how lovely it was to meet again.
Clarissa and Josiah experienced something of a sensory overload as they took in their surroundings. There was a strong scent of incense permeating the place and, amidst Fidel's loud barks, a quartet of cats came to inspect the new arrivals.
"Meet Kerouac, Coleridge, Le Guin, and Nin," Austin announced with a broad grin.
Josiah and Clarissa then looked around the living room to see several large posters on the walls. Though the identities of some escaped him, Josiah recognized images of China's Chairman Mao Zedong, Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh, and Cuba's Ernesto Guevara. Clarissa guessed a few others were rock stars, but could not be sure.
Seeing them observe the posters, a long-haired, gray-bearded, older fat man seated on the sofa wearing a beret and drinking wine looked up at them and pointed to all the posters.
"Have you joined the revolution?" he asked in a loud voice.
Josiah raised his eyebrows and sighed.
"No, sir. I don't believe I have. I'm far too busy running a business and a family."
"How about you?" He asked Clarissa.
"No sir, I've been pretty preoccupied birthing babies and trying to bring up four youngins," she replied with a smile.
"Meet the illustrious Dr. Obadiah Rant, professor of philosophy, poet, revolutionary, and Renaissance gentleman," Austin announced proudly.
"At your service." The professor stood, bowed, shook Josiah's hand, and kissed Clarissa's. "But y'all can just call me 'Che.'"
Clarissa and Josiah nodded with frozen smiles before glancing at each other and turning to Austin who led them all into the dining room where the men sat at the table and Clarissa joined Sunrise in the kitchen. The men were telling each other about their jobs when the ladies brought in several large pots of food.
"Well, I'd be happy to give you gals a hand," Obadiah announced. "But I don't pick up anything heavier than a pen or a twenty-dollar bill – not with this back anyway."
"Austin, please tell us what all you're up to these days," Clarissa asked eagerly.
"Well," Austin replied, "I scored a sweet gig as a teaching assistant in the university's English Department where I'm taking classes for my master's degree."
"And that's where he met me," a smiling Sunrise interjected.
Mr. and Mrs. Gorgas were careful to look at the young lady and not each other. Meanwhile Fidel had to be tied to a chair in the den to prevent him from jumping on the dinner table, but he continued to covet the food and occasionally bark.
"Hush, puppy," Sunrise would say every few minutes as she threw a hush puppy at Fidel who eagerly gobbled it up.
"This fish is terrific," Josiah exclaimed and hoped he did not sound too surprised.
"Yes, and I like how it's even got a little kick to it," Clarissa added. "These are some tasty spices."
"Splendid victuals, indeed, Miss Sunrise," Professor Rant volunteered to the beaming cook. "Yeah, Austin, I'm right relieved y'all didn't just pick up something from a restaurant. Most of what passes for food in this town's eateries puts the 'B' in all caps 'BLAND.' Speaking of bland, I heard the Fosters were joining us for dinner too."
"Well, they were," Austin answered. "At least Selwyn wanted to join us, but then Drunella called to cancel. She just said 'Some things have come up and we won't be able to make it.'"
"So I guess Miss Drunella must wear the pants." Sunrise giggled.
"And a strap-on," Dr. Rant added before taking a drink.
Clarissa quickly looked at her plate and Josiah took a drink of water. He was grateful Austin remembered they were teetotalers and served them water. Austin, Obadiah, and Sunrise were all drinking wine. Josiah looked at Sunrise and wondered whether she was 21 yet and legally of age to drink.
"Aw, don't be so hard on her, Doc," Sunrise spoke up, barely concealing a laugh. "I met Miss Drunella once and she was a real dear."
"Oh yeah, a real dear ball-buster," Obadiah observed.
"What a male chauvinist," Sunrise replied before bursting into a laugh.
"I merely recognize that Miss Drunella is part of the castration conspiracy," Professor Rant noted drily.
"Says the thrice-divorced gentleman at the table," Austin said in a low tone before winking at the Gorgases.
"Don't befog the issue," Obadiah stated as he poured himself another full glass of wine.
"Dr. Rant's not a sexist. He just has some … eccentric views concerning the fairer sex," Austin said with a teasing smile as Sunrise stifled a laugh.
"Alas, I'm not remotely rich enough to be 'eccentric.' I'm poor. So I'm just nuts," the professor pronounced.
"Well, I think Drunella's got a real big heart," Sunrise said, hoping to get another rise out of Obadiah.
"Oh, she's a real big ol' fat thing," observed the professor as Sunrise stifled another laugh.
"Actually, truth be told," Austin added, "I don't miss the Fosters' boy. That little fellow can get mighty loud and really aggressive with Fidel and the cats."
"Amen to that," Dr. Rant agreed with a raised glass. "What a relief to avoid that obnoxious excuse for a son they stubbornly claim."
Josiah and Clarissa glanced at each other as Austin steered the conversation to their old mutual friends and acquaintances. Sunrise was elated to hear stories of her beau's antics in high school and college as Clarissa and Josiah became much more relaxed regaling her and Obadiah with tales from long ago.
After his fourth glass of wine, Mr. and Mrs. Gorgas each perceived that the professor appeared to be slurring his speech a tad. As if intuiting their thoughts, Dr. Rant addressed them.
"Now I'm not drunk and my speech ain't slurred. I'm just speaking in cursive," he declared.
Sunrise giggled and winked at Josiah and Clarissa while Obadiah stood and asked to be excused to go to the bathroom.
"Didn't you go right before dinner?" she asked. "Are you okay?"
"My child, I have a sixty-four-year-old prostate gland," he answered as he tossed a hush puppy at Fidel on his way out of the room.
With dinner done, Austin insisted on showing his old classmates the backyard before it got dark. The yard was fairly large with a good-sized garden in the rear, and Mr. Ervin pointed out all the stumps where he had cut so many trees bordering the garden "so the plants would get plenty of sun," he explained.
"I also put up this fence … to keep the deer out," he added.
Josiah wondered why the fence was wooden instead of the typical chain link variety, as well as why it was higher than usual. He could not see any other yard at all.
Clarissa was especially impressed with all the garden's beans, basil, parsley, and sage.
"Sunrise, I reckon you used some of these herbs for that delicious dinner tonight," she speculated.
"Yes, ma'am, and some cucumbers and tomatoes too."
Clarissa had always enjoyed growing plants and enlisted all her children's help with the family garden. But after admiring and complimenting each of Austin and Sunrise's many healthy varieties of plants, she suddenly frowned. Among the tall sunflower and tomato plants in the back corner of the garden could be seen a great many large weeds.
"Oh, Austin. Look at all these weeds. Here, let me help you get rid of them," she remarked as she grabbed the big one nearest her.
"No, Clarissa! Let them live! Let all God's creatures grow! We don't disturb any!" Austin shouted as he ran toward her with his arms stretched toward the weeds.
"But Austin," she exclaimed. "These big ol' weeds are competing with your tomatoes and sunflowers. Here, let me help you pull 'em up. It won't take us but just a few minutes to get rid of all of 'em."
"Yeah, get after it, Clarissa. Pull up all those wild weeds," Obadiah declared in a loud voice while toasting her with his glass. Sunrise guffawed and clapped her hands as Austin shot her and Obadiah an exasperated look.
"No, no, Clarissa," Mr. Ervin said. "Thank you for your concern, dear, but the tomato plants and sunflowers are just fine. In this garden everyone gets along swell."
Confused, Mrs. Gorgas sighed and chalked it up as just another strange twist to a thoroughly unusual evening. Mr. Gorgas had long concluded the whole visit was akin to their having walked through a looking glass into some kind of bizarre wonderland where absurdity reigned.
At dusk, they returned to the house where Austin wanted them to "sit a spell" in the living room. But instead of visiting some more under the watchful eyes of Chairman Mao, the Gorgases begged off on account of needing to get back to their four young ones at home. They all said their thank yous and farewells, and Sunrise insisted on slipping Clarissa a to-go bag of fish and hush puppies for the children as she hugged Mr. and Mrs. Gorgas goodbye.
On the ride home, Clarissa and Josiah were silent for some time, each contemplating how best to characterize the evening. Everyone was friendly, including the pets, and the food had been excellent. The conversation was certainly lively and each reflected on how the experience had offered a significant element of unpredictability largely absent from their lives. They agreed it had been a worthwhile "interesting" visit and they were pleased Austin was teaching and earning another degree. But as sweet as Sunrise was, they hesitated to speculate on her age difference with Austin or precisely how they met. They were also majorly relieved the children had not joined them and decided to share only the most sanitized version of the dinner with them.
The visit struck both as a reminder of how differently lives can evolve, but they were moved that Austin had reached out to them and wanted to return the favor. Yet they seriously doubted the advisability of inviting him and Sunrise over to the house for dinner since they could all too easily imagine their inquisitive children asking if they lived together and whether they were married. Perhaps it would be better if they met at a restaurant, especially now that Zoryana was hopefully old enough to look after her younger siblings for a few hours. Neither mentioned inviting Dr. Obadiah Rant.
Life immediately returned to normal as soon as they entered their home to be greeted by a quartet of loud children excited to learn about Momma and Daddy's big night out -- and to sample the fish and hush puppies. In bed that night, Mr. and Mrs. Gorgas discussed the dinner date in more detail and were now comfortable enough to laugh at much of it. As they went to sleep, their adventure at Austin Ervin's house soon slipped ever further into their rearview mirrors, and dramatically so once the morning alarm ushered in a new day.
Their routine remained firmly grooved, like a needle plowing through a vinyl record, until the Sunday morning nine days after seeing Austin. Once the major production that was the family breakfast was finished and the children ran upstairs to brush their teeth before leaving for church, Josiah sat back down at the table to quickly glance at the morning newspaper that his younger son had retrieved from the driveway.
The lead headline above the fold dominating the front page screamed "Biggest Pot Bust in Longstreet County History." Since nothing else on the page grabbed his attention and he was intrigued by such a big headline, Josiah began to read the article.
"Sheriff Milledge Bonham announced the largest seizure of marijuana in the history of Longstreet County, along with the arrest of two subjects living at the residence where the illegal plants were discovered growing in a large backyard garden. Austin Ervin, 38, and Rebecca "Sunrise" O'Leary, 20, were taken into custody late yesterday afternoon as several sheriff's deputies raided the home at 420 Manassas Drive. A source close to the investigation said the property had been under police surveillance for several weeks."
"Josiah, don't you think you better get ready?" Clarissa asked as she put up the last plate in the cabinet. "It's 9:35. If we don't leave in the next few minutes, we'll be late for Sunday school."
Her husband's mouth had slowly dropped open as he crouched ever closer to the newspaper. His eyes and facial expression bore an intensity his wife had not seen him wear since the year before when their younger son briefly went missing in the woods behind the house.
"Josiah. Do you hear me? Josiah!"
Looking shell-shocked, he raised his head and then lifted the newspaper pointing to the headline.
"What?" she asked. "Can it not wait 'til after church?"
"Just read the lead article, babe, or at least the first paragraph."
She sighed, glanced at her watch, called for the children to go to the car, and picked up the newspaper as Josiah slumped back in his chair staring at the refrigerator.
"Oh, my Lord," Clarissa gasped and put a hand to her mouth. "Oh, Austin. Oh, poor Austin."
"Yeah, and oh, poor Sunrise too," Josiah added.
"All those weeds I tried to pull up!" Clarissa gasped again and looked at her husband with a start.
"If only Austin had let you get rid of them," Josiah observed with a sigh.
"Oh, my Lord, if the police were spying on the place, then they saw us there too," Clarissa exclaimed. "And in that very garden. Josiah, are we in trouble?"
"No, no." He stood up and put his hand on her shoulder. "As the Good Book says, 'Fear not.' I'm confident the cops could clearly see we had nothing to do with those weeds. In fact, I hardly think your trying to trash them struck Longstreet County's finest as the least bit incriminating – quite the contrary. I'm just relieved the article says the police had staked out the place for 'several weeks.' So Austin and Sunrise won't think we called the cops."
"Josiah, I had no idea that was marijuana," Clarissa declared.
"I know. I didn't either. I feel like an idiot. Actually, it's good we didn't know. That would have made an already awkward evening all the more uncomfortable."
They immediately agreed not to say a word about it to the children, and Clarissa quickly cut out and threw away the shocking article since the children knew Austin's name. She nervously straightened her husband's tie and loudly called the children to come downstairs since they were now definitely running late for Sunday school.
"I'll crank up the car," Josiah said.
But before he could get out the door, his wife called him.
"Do you think Obadiah Rant's okay?"