We were four. Me, Elroy, Martin, and Bert. Seniors at Bishop McDonnell HS, all from large families. Each of us had been accepted into college. We’d all been cut from the same HS teams, both basketball and baseball. Additionally, not one of us had a date for tonight’s Mardi Gras dance, which is a big deal at McDonnell HS, so we are driving across Key Bridge into Washington, DC, home of Emerson’s Restaurant, which advertises a free salad bar, the only one in the DC area, and “all the beer you can drink” with a meal, for as low $7.99, a good fit for our thin wallets. In DC the drinking age is 18, matching the age of the fake IDs we carry in our thin wallets.
The traffic lights in DC are on poles at street level, not suspended over interchanges like the suburbs. At eye level, the reds and greens are more vivid, more urgent. Bert keeps both hands on the wheel while we scout for an empty parking space, block after block, till we give up, find a parking garage. It all seems such an adult thing to do.
Walking to Emerson’s, we pass Franz’s Beerskeller, smell the exotic pungency of fresh dough and garlic and cured meats and hops from the beer they brew on premises. It says so on the hand lettered sign in front. On Sundays, Franz’s has smörgåsbord, which is carefully chalked in gold, authentic down to the umlaut above the O and the ring above the A.
At Emerson’s, we are seated in a booth that has a curtain! We have complete privacy, like we’re in the hospital in a private room. After a quick pitcher, I escape to the salad bar, a riot of color, bright orange carrots, iceberg lettuce, a vast array, and the line isn’t too bad, three women picking and poking through the vegetables. Their perfume smells sweet and agreeable and sparks my hunger, but I keep a polite distance, waiting them them to finish. When I return to the booth, steaks have been served and two pitchers are empty.
The steaks are tough. No matter how small I cut the pieces, it takes too long to chew, but eating soon takes second place to beer drinking. Quickly, we consume a third pitcher. Everything is great if somewhat blurry, but a very funny blurry, building up to a game of Forced Hilarity. The rules are simple: three people drink while one person shouts something guaranteed to make us laugh, forcing us to spit beer into our salad bowls, now a miserable mess of lettuce flecked with Thousand Island dressing and bacon bits.
Bert snorts, “The Heartbreak of psoriasis,” and we laugh like we’ve invented laughing.
I talk Swedish, over pronouncing the “V.” In SVeden, gas costs $3 a gallon, but all the women look like Inger Stevens and Anita Ekberg, so you got to trade something for something, that’s why we drive…
“Volvo,” sputtered Elroy, mispronouncing both “o’s” as “uh” sounds, which, during the fourth pitcher, is downright hilarious and original and side-splitting funny.
Martin asks, “How do you get to Ireland on a plane?”
We all shout “Aer Lingus,” which makes me guffaw so hard that I can feel bits of the meal coursing through me. I’m feeling a bit nauseous when Bert says “Smorgasbord.” He says it slowly and correctly, not easy to do because he has a green sprig of broccoli inserted in each nostril.
I need to get to the restroom, but have no idea where one is, and I end up in a narrow hallway, whose walls are covered with flowered wallpaper. The flower petals are fuzzy. They feel good on my palms, and I steady myself, feel the nap of softness, think about Elizabeth Wilson. I’d asked her to go to Mardi Gras with me. She said she’d already been asked, by a football player, but I’d detected some remorse on her part in telling me that. I wonder if she’s missing me at all, whether she and I would have had fun during our dinner, how she feels about broccoli sticks up nostrils, whether beer increases or decreases our chances in life of having happen what we want to have happen, and if it’s as fun to dance with an umlaut-ignorant football player.