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DINNER WITH THE JOHNSONS

by ABBIE JOHNSON TAYLOR


"Honey, I invited the Batemans over for dinner tonight," Al Johnson announced as he strode through the kitchen door on a sunny Saturday morning in September.

"What?" cried his wife Ruth as she looked up from her bowl of cereal.

"I ran into Diane at the market when I went to pick up the milk," said Al as he set a bag on the counter. "I asked her and Jim and their little girls Sarah and Ella over for dinner tonight." "Oh Al," said Ruth with a note of irritation in her voice. "I think it's wonderful that you want to welcome that new lawyer in your firm. But tonight is not a good night. You know I'll be busy all day at the health fair and I won't have time or energy to cook anything."

"Honey, you're an excellent cook," Al crooned as he stroked his wife's shoulder. "You'll think of something."

Ruth stiffened and leapt to her feet, her chair making a loud scraping sound as she shoved it away from her. Al let his hand fall to his side and gaped at her in astonishment. "No, you'll think of something," she snapped as she hurried to the phone. She lifted the receiver and dialed a number. "Hi Mother," she said in her most cheerful voice. "Say, Al has planned a night out with the guys tonight so I thought I might take you to dinner and a movie. How does that sound?" After a pause, she said, "Great. I should be done at the health fair at about six o'clock. I'll pick you up then, okay? Bye."

"I can't believe you did that," said Al who stood dumb founded, staring at Ruth.

"Well, I can't believe that you keep inviting people over here without checking with me first," Ruth stormed. "I keep telling you over and over again how inconvenient it is for me when you do that. You say you're sorry but then you do it again. I'm not putting up with it any longer. Now, I'm late." She snatched her purse from a nearby chair.

"But honey, I can't cook," said Al with a note of desperation in his voice.

"Well, that's your problem, isn't it?" Ruth shot back as she headed for the back door. "You think I'm your maid who will cook and clean for you and anyone else you choose to invite over here. Well, you can either call these people and tell them you forgot we have another engagement tonight or there's a Stouffer's lasagna and a package of green beans in the freezer. You can heat those up for them. There should be plenty. Now, I've made plans with my mother tonight and I'm not going to change them. So it's up to you." She turned and flounced out the back door, slamming it behind her.

Al stood stunned for a moment. Perhaps he should call the Batemans and reschedule the dinner, he thought. But they were young and he was getting on, with two kids in college. If he told them he'd forgotten a previous engagement, they would think he'd contracted Alzheimer's disease. And he was too embarrassed to tell them that his inflexible, headstrong wife abandoned him while she took her mother to dinner and a movie. But what was he to do? The Batemans would expect a home cooked meal and would not be satisfied with frozen lasagna and green beans.

He then remembered Michelle, his daughter who lived in town and worked in a nursing home. Michelle was his illegitimate daughter by a girl he'd dated in high school. He'd refused to marry her mother because a wife and child would interfere with his plans to become a successful lawyer. For over twenty years, he denied Michelle's existence until December of the year before, when she appeared on his doorstep, penniless, her mother having died in a car accident. He and Ruth took her in and she became part of the family. She soon found an apartment and a job.

Michelle was an excellent cook. She often invited Al and Ruth for dinner with her and her boyfriend Rick. Al knew that if he explained the situation to her, she would understand and be willing to help. As he dialed her number, it was as if a great weight were being lifted from his shoulders. He smiled as he waited for her to answer the phone. But when he heard her answering machine after a few rings, he slammed the phone down in disgust.

With a sigh, Al resigned himself to fixing frozen lasagna and green beans for the Batemans. It might not be so bad, he told himself as he walked to the refrigerator. The Batemans' little girls were seven-year-old twins, as he recalled. If they were anything like his children were at that age, they would love the lasagna whether it was homemade or not. If he plied their parents with enough drinks before dinner, they wouldn't know the difference. A quick glance at the directions on the back of the lasagna box told him it would take a little over an hour. The green beans would only take about five minutes to heat in the microwave.

"Okay, I can do this," he said as he closed the freezer door. "I told Diane we'd eat about six o'clock. So I'll put the lasagna in about five and when they get here, I'll get their drinks and then do the beans. And I'll just tell them that Ruth had to leave at the last minute."

But there was no bread or desert. No problem,he thought. He could just pick up rolls, a pie, and some ice cream at Wal-Mart. He also needed liquor and something non-alcoholic for the girls to drink. When he was in college, he'd worked in a bar and he thought he could remember how to make a Shirley Temple. He could pick up everything he needed on his way home from the office.

At four o'clock that afternoon, Al was ready to leave his office. This was unusual for him since he often worked on court cases late into the night. But the plans for his dinner kept circling in his mind and he found it hard to concentrate. He breathed a sigh of relief as he walked out into the fresh air. During the drive to Wal-Mart, he began doubting his ability to host a successful dinner party on his own. When he and Ruth entertained guests, she timed things just right. When guests arrived, they could enjoy drinks for about half an hour and by then, dinner was on the table. "I've got to stop inviting people over like this," he said. "Ruth does this a lot better than I do."

In the ice cream section of the store, his spirits lifted. When his daughter Kate was the same age as the Bateman twins, she adored chocolate ice cream. He found rolls and a chocolate pie in the baked goods section. After paying for these purchases, he stopped at the liquor store and bought all the ingredients for gin martinis and Shirley Temples and a bottle of wine for the adults to drink with dinner.

When he reached home, it was nearly five o'clock. With a sigh of relief, he hurried into the kitchen. Soon, the lasagna was in the oven. As he set the timer, he decided to shower and change. That would keep his mind off his apprehension about the night ahead.

At six o'clock when the doorbell rang, Al was ready. "Hello," he greeted the couple who stood on the porch as he opened the door. "Where are the girls?" he asked as he ushered his guests into the living room.

"They had a sleep-over tonight," Diane explained. "And of course, they prefer to spend the evening with kids their own age instead of with boring grown-ups."

"I completely understand," replied Al with a smile. "My daughter was the same way when she was their age."

"I'm assuming Ruth's in the kitchen cooking up whatever that delicious smell is," Jim commented.

"Well actually, Ruth had to leave at the last minute," Al explained. "She works at the advocacy and resource center and she had to be with a rape victim tonight."

"At six o'clock in the evening," said Diane with a note of skepticism in her voice. "I thought those things happened late at night."

"They can happen any time a man gets the urge to do it," said Al, hoping he sounded truthful.

"He's right, honey," said Jim, putting an arm around his wife. "I get the urge to make love to you legally during the day as well as at night." He planted a kiss on her cheek.

"Oh you," said Diane with a laugh, punching him in the ribs.

"Ow!" cried Jim. "Hey Al, does this advocacy and resource center help men who are being abused by their wives?"

"I don't know about that," Al chuckled. "But I do know how to make a gin martini if anyone's interested."

"Uh, we're Mormons," said Diane with a note of uncertainty in her voice. "We don't drink."

"Oh well, I'm a Catholic and I do drink," Al babbled as his face grew hot with embarrassment. "Perhaps some ice tea then?"

"I'm afraid we don't drink coffee or tea," Jim apologized.

Al scratched his head in concentration. "Orange juice then?" he asked.

"That sounds great," said Diane.

"Make that two," Jim added.

As he hurried to the kitchen, Al wondered if the Batemans' religion allowed them to eat lasagna. Well, there was only one way to find out, he thought as he found orange juice and glasses.

When he returned to the living room with their drinks on a tray, Jim and Diane were seated together on the couch. "I just thought of something," said Diane. "Ruth Johnson is your wife, isn't she?"

"Yes," answered Al as he handed them their drinks.

"I met her at the health fair today," said Diane. "It's too bad she couldn't be here. She seems like such a nice person."

If only she knew the truth, Al mused as he settled himself in an arm chair across from them with his martini. How could she leave him like this? What if the Batemans couldn't eat the lasagna, green beans, rolls, pie, or ice cream? Ruth would know what to do in such a situation. All he could do was hope for the best. They chatted a while longer before Al heard the timer in the kitchen. "That's the lasagna," he said, rising to his feet.

Jim and Diane also stood and Diane asked, "Is there anything we can do to help?"

"Not at all," Al replied. "I've got it all under control. I still have to heat up the green beans and the rolls so it'll be a few minutes yet. Make yourselves comfortable. I'll let you know when it's ready."

In the kitchen, he removed the lasagna from the oven and set it aside to cool. He placed the rolls on a baking sheet and set them in the oven as he'd seen Ruth do. He found a metal pan which he knew Ruth used to cook vegetables on the stove. After putting the green beans into it and adding water, he placed it in the microwave. After turning it on, he went to the dining room to set the table.

As he retrieved napkins and silverware from the buffet, he heard the microwave shut itself off. That was odd, he thought. It hadn't been five minutes yet. Turning, he noticed that the kitchen light was off. It occurred to him that there must have been a power outage. To be certain, he tried the dining room light switch. Nothing happened.

Jim and Diane appeared in the doorway. "Is everything okay?" Jim asked.

"The power seems to have gone out," Al explained. "But the lasagna's done so we can start on that if you like. Hopefully, the electricity will be back on soon."

"I wonder if there's a problem with the circuit breaker," Diane suggested.

"I don't know," Al sighed. "I'm a lawyer, not an electrician."

"Well, I'm a lawyer but I also know something about circuit breakers," Jim offered. "Would you like me to take a look?"

"Be my guest," answered Al in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, resenting the implication that his new employee appeared more knowledgeable than himself. "The circuit breaker's in the kitchen to the right of the door," he said, pointing in the general direction.

"I'll help you set the table," Diane said as Jim stepped into the kitchen.

As Al and Diane worked together, the front door opened and closed. "Dad!" Michelle called.

"In the dining room!" Al yelled in surprise. "That's my daughter," he told Diane.

Michelle and her boyfriend Rick appeared in the doorway. "Michelle Johnson!" cried Diane. "I didn't make the connection before."

"Well, Johnson is a popular name," Rick commented with a grin.

"You two know each other?" asked Al in amazement.

"Diane is an RN at the nursing home," Michelle explained. "What's going on, anyway? When Rick and I got home, I noticed that my Caller ID indicated that you'd called but you didn't leave a message. When I tried to call you, I got a recording saying that your number was disconnected or no longer in service."

"Well, now not only is the power out but the phone is dead," muttered Al with a note of irritation in his voice.

"I've got my cell phone right here," said Rick, retrieving the device from his pocket. "I'll see if I can reach somebody at the phone company." He wandered into the living room as he dialed a number.

"Where's Ruth?" asked Michelle.

"I'm right here," answered Ruth from the kitchen doorway. "Thank goodness the house is still standing. And imagine my surprise to find the kitchen dark and a handsome young man fiddling with the circuit breaker."

As the kitchen light came on, Diane stepped forward, extending a hand to Ruth. "Hi, I'm Diane Bateman. We met at the health fair this afternoon. Is everything okay with your rape victim?"

"Rape victim?" asked Ruth, raising her eyebrows. As she broke into a broad grin, she said, "So that's what Al told you."

"What are you doing here?" asked Al with a note of annoyance in his voice as Diane stared at him in astonishment.

"When I told Mother what happened this morning, she insisted I call to be sure you hadn't burned the house down," Ruth explained. "When I did, I discovered that the phone was somehow disconnected. So I left Mother and came straight here. You see, Diane, for years, Al has had this nasty habit of inviting people to the house for dinner at almost the last minute and expecting me to cook for them. I'm sorry you and your husband had to be caught in the middle like this but I decided I'd had enough."

"I understand," Diane sympathized. "If Jim ever did anything like that, I'd strangle him. Does the advocacy and resource center also help men?"

Michelle burst into laughter as Rick and Jim appeared. "Not if they're dead," Rick chuckled.

"I think I found what caused the power outage," said Jim, also laughing. "Did you realize you had a metal pan in the microwave?"

Everyone laughed except Al, who hung his head in embarrassment. "I suppose that also caused the phone outage," he muttered.

"I don't think so," said Rick. "The woman at the phone company said the whole neighborhood's out but they're working on it."

"Well dear, I hope you learned your lesson," said Ruth. "Now, I'll finish getting dinner on. Michelle, Rick, why don't you two stay? There's plenty."

With a sigh of resignation, Al slumped into his chair at the head of the table as Diane finished setting it and other dinner preparations continued around him. Jim and Rick also seated themselves at the table and chatted among themselves. In record time, Ruth and Michelle brought plates and platters containing the lasagna, green beans, and rolls.

When everyone was settled, Al took Ruth's hand and said, "If you all don't mind, I'll say grace." As the others joined hands, he said, "Dear Lord, we thank you for what we are about to receive. And we also give thanks for my wife Ruth. I don't think I really appreciated her until today."

THE END