Every year, there’s a pot luck in the basement of the VFW. I think it was originally for a birthday, or the anniversary of something, but no one remembers any more. Now it’s just the pot luck.
It is exactly everything one would expect it to be. Thick-painted tables and fifteen-year-old party decorations tacked onto faux wood paneling. The food is always the same, always good. Simple, lead-brick heavy, and good.
The crowd never changes either. I swear, they’re the same old-folk attendees now as when I was a kid. Still there, still old. It was the best place in the world for me, and my first public event since my stint at Sparkling Waters. There was nothing sparkling about it. It was all vomit and night sweats and telling the cake-makeuped therapist all about my paranoia. What was her name? Billie? Bailey? Whatever. She smiled too hard and smelled like harsh sugar frosting. After sixteen weeks of that, the pot luck crowd was exactly what I needed.
I loaded up my plate with all the homemade delicacies I had so sorely missed and took a seat off to the side. I could hear the old church ladies congratulating my mother on how well I looked and ‘how nice it must be to have Johnny home again‘. All high and mighty in their forgiveness and understanding. Poor Mom, they probably made her a sympathy quilt.
Quietly, I enjoyed myself until, about half way through my mountain of potato-something-something, I had a visitor.
“Don’t you just love deviled eggs?” A man plopped down in the seat across from me, his plate entirely covered with them. He was the only man in the room wearing a suit, and hair so slicked back I was surprised it didn’t drip. He didn’t look at me. He looked at his horde with a sort of visceral pleasure.
“They are the most perfect food,” he said, “Trust me, I know about these kinds of things.”
I looked over at the buffet where blue permed Valkyries presided over the various configurations of carbs and mayonnaise. No one else seemed to notice the stranger sitting in front of me. No one seemed to notice me.
I watched the stranger eat one egg and another. He didn’t so much chew as feel the egg, reveling in it. And I lost my appetite. He caught my stare and smiled, bits of it sticking to his teeth.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “Do I know you?”
He swallowed the mash and spread his arms, presenting himself like a ring-leader. That was my cue for recognition, but none came. I smiled and shook my head. The fact that no one else seemed to notice this man started to worry me.
“Oh, come on Johnny,” he said with laughter, “Who am I?”
“I um….I don’t know,” I played along, “Who are you?”
“Johnny, Johnny, Johnny,” he had a smoky, uncle voice, “You really don’t recognize me?”
“Nope,” I said, “Really don’t.”
“Agch” he stuffed another egg in his mouth, “You did too many drugs.”
“Oh God,” my whole body went cold, of course. But the last thing I wanted was flashback – or an episode – in the middle of a pot luck for church ladies and veterans who lost the best years of their lives in the Pacific. I could feel the pounds of shame and disappointment looming over me, ready to crush my pathetic ‘fresh start’. Illogically, I gripped the sides of my head. As if that could stop it.
“Oh God,” I repeated.
“No, I’m not God,” the stranger said. The corner of his mouth twisted into a grin, “Guess again.”
“Shut up,” I hissed, “Shut up, shut up, shut up.”
“Shhh, Johnny. No need to make a scene.”
“Stop it! You’re just a -” What was the word the tart used? “-a bad reaction, an old trip. In a minute you’ll be gone.”
“No, I am not drugs,” he said, “Guess again.”
I looked at his plate. He had eaten at least six, but it was still full. He noticed my noticing and offered up the plate.
I shook my head, feeling sick. Even the thought of deviled eggs was disgusting.
“Suit yourself,” he shrugged, picking up another and shoving it his mouth.
“Leave me alone.” I took as many slow, deep breaths as I could, still holding the sides of my head and trying desperately to remember all the calming meditative crap the candy-coated therapist attempted to teach me. My heart was ready to beat right out of my chest.
“No, Johnny, I am not going anywhere,” he stole my napkin to wipe his fingers, “Until you come with me.”
“Shut up!” I said again, maybe too loud. At last, other people were starting to look.
“Good food, yes?” he nodded to my plate, “Good last meal. Are you finished?”
“What are you talking about?!” I blathered out. People were approaching now, but they all moved so slow, and they’re faces blurred together.
“Like I said, Johnny, you took too many drugs. Hurt your heart, your brain,” He stood and smiled, “So now you come with me.”
He considered his plate again.
“One for the road?” He offered.
“Fuck you!” I screamed, suddenly aware of being far too warm. The sweat crept out into my clothes. The stranger shrugged and took up another egg.
I would have continued shouting. I had a whole list of awful ready to launch. But chair slipped out from under me. Before I knew it, I was falling. And then the floor jumped on my head.
Three days later, I carefully made my way down the stairs on shaky legs. I scrabbled together an old pair of sweatpants and robe I hadn’t seen since I was twelve. Feeling every inch the prodigal son.
The dining room was full of get-well-soon balloons and grocery-store flowers. On the table lay a modest feast in an array of thirty year old crockery. The church ladies strike again.
Mom met me at the foot of the stairs. Glad I was feeling better. Terrible fright, everyone worried. Who brought what and what while I was ill. I nodded along, still too full of ache.
“And your friend stopped by,” she said.
“Who?” I bet myself a dollar it was the tart.
“Oh, I don’t remember the name,” she said all sunny, “But look, he even brought you deviled eggs.”