Two couples hover over us, shifting their feet, blinking at the waitress, the women clutching their purses. Our waitress again sweeps her hand in an “L” across the table. Ten minutes earlier, we had been in their shoes, having walked in with our friends, Scotty and Diane. We, too had stood, questioning the waitress, looking over our shoulders at our friends being seated in a far corner of the cavernous room.
I returned to the task at hand, picking up the miniature golf-sized pencil, rolling it between my fingers, considering an answer to a one of the more challenging skit suggestion prompts. I choose my words, and press the soft point into the paper, looping my letters with bold strokes.
Only after the new arrivals strip off their coats and take that first sip of beer, do Bob and I initiate conversation. The older woman sitting across from me says she has lived here all her life, covering her mouth to hide a nervous giggle. Her eyes blaze like a dog inside a fence. “Wow,” I said, “I would love to learn what you know about Pittsboro.”
She moves her hand, revealing the bitter set of her lips, and I pick up my glass of water wishing I hadn’t said that. I think about the Confederate statue recently removed from the courthouse a hundred yards from our table, about the weekend flagger protests and the arrests. I fiddle with my pencil, at a loss to bridge the gap.
Our salads emerge. Mouthing a hard wedge of pale pink tomato, I bite hard into my upper lip and put down my fork. Bob orders a second cider. The man seated across from Bob volunteers that he lived in Buffalo for seven years. “My mother’s from here,” he says, helpfully stacking our salad plates.
Hoping Bob won’t mention Nicaragua, China, or Ghana, I scan the crowd in search of allies, realizing I look like a mustang trapped in a pen.
We are here for the Valentine Weekend Dinner Theater which will feature audience-suggestion comedy with a local improv troupe called The Poor Excuses. Bob has already been tapped for participation in a skit by his former colleague, Ellen, the troupe organizer.
“Promise you won’t back out.”
The Poor Excuses take the stage, and when they mention audience participation, the woman sitting across from me shoves her chair back from the table. “I won’t,” she says, and the younger woman sitting on my left echoes her sentiment.
“Seriously?” I ask.
“Oh yes, I’ll get up and walk out the door.”
The troupe asks for a volunteer to describe a memorable date, and Bob raises his hand. A few minutes later, I am watching the troupe play out one of our first dates, a hike up Bear Peak with a few creative features thrown in for fun. It’s uncanny watching actors portray us in one of the defining moments of our early dating life. “Bob” suggesting we take the back way down the mountain, an adventurous shortcut I’m not terribly keen about. Improbably, we run into Timothy Leary, and he gives us something to eat. Then we plunge down the backside of the mountain through the brambles. We end up in a horse pasture. Romance ensues and the room is awash in laughter, the ice broken.
Each skit is preceded by several requests: “I need a setting,” “I need something you might find in your purse,” “I need an embarrassing bodily function.” The diners wave their hands and shout, “A Zoo!” “Boat anchor!” “Flatulence!”
Long before the evening is over, I realize that all six of us are having a fabulous time, eating, and elbowing each other, and that the whole room is united in laughter. We are no longer natives and transplants, or southerners and northerners. And it occurs to me that what the world needs more of is fart jokes, plain and simple.