We had the whole room for the entire evening. It was all ours, and it was incredible. The wallpaper was gold. Not actual gold, but a very shiny facsimile. There was a pond in the middle. A pond! We were told there even had once been real fish in it.
If you have ever booked the Special Banquet Chamber at the Golden Dragon Palace out on Staynard and Highway 12, you will know what I’m talking about when I say this semi-enclosed dining area was a mind-blower.
The best part: when we first arrived, Uncle Troy took me aside and delivered these instructions: “Glenn-o, somebody you don’t know sticks his head in here, you look him in the eye and explain that this is a private party.”
I pretend-saluted him. “You can count on me, Uncle Troy.”
If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s telling people where they do and do not belong.
I make my living by categorizing classified ads, and you would be amazed at the far-out notions certain individuals have about what sections their precious third-hand sofa bed or expired coupon collection should be placed in.
Also, I’m a pretty big guy, so I often find myself appointed the unofficial bouncer on these sorts of occasions.
It was Dumpling Night. I know that because when I walked past the steam table, a teenage girl was there with tongs and she said, “Dumpling? ”
I said, “What kind? ”
She pointed to her apron, which was emblazoned with a cartoon creature resembling a giant, happy slug. “It’s Dumpling Night.” Which didn’t really answer my question, but at least I knew the score.
So I said, “Sure,” and she plucked a shiny, puffy dough ball from the steam table and deposited it on my plate.
I thanked her and proceeded to the salad bar for some salad items. I had already planned out what I was going to get: pickled beets, green olives, mini-corncobs, water chestnuts, and sunflower seeds, although I was still working on the layering order. An important part of the equation was the tendency of beet juice to stain everything in its path.
I like buffets partly because of all the choices, but mostly because there’s no waiting.
The other week I patronized a restaurant advertising a buy-one-get-one-half-price meat special—anything with meat in it, you could get two of, and pay half price for the least expensive dish. Intrigued by this attractive offer, I entered the establishment and settled myself into a booth.
I sat there unattended for at least ten minutes. I sat there feeling like an idiot, and all I wanted was a menu, to peruse the different types of available meat. And a beverage would’ve been nice. Who doesn’t want a beverage? Finally I went up to the bar myself and requested a Sprite personally.
When I returned to my booth, there was a menu on the table as if it had been magically delivered by sprites, by which I mean the elusive, supernatural elf or fairy kind, not what I was drinking, which wouldn’t make any sense at all.
Several more minutes later a waitress came by to take my order. She was pleasant enough, but I couldn’t look her in the eye due to my preoccupation with thinking about how she must have seen me sitting in my booth for so long with nobody coming over, including herself.
Then I sat and waited for my food, a tasty combination platter of chicken cordon bleu and beef masala, which took the normal amount of time to arrive. In the end, I left an O.K. tip but not a great tip, on account of the initial Sprite situation.
But back to the buffet, because that’s really what this story is about.
So I returned to our exclusive nook with my dumpling and my salad selections (having arranged the beets—of course—on the bottom), and I sat between Aunt Bernice and her daughter Ashley, who I guess technically should be my cousin. You’d think that, but not actually, seeing as Aunt Bernice is in fact a family friend and I only call her Aunt Bernice. Meaning she’s not a real aunt, but she is a close family friend. So the cousin thing doesn’t extend to her kids—they’re just Aunt Bernice’s kids. And Uncle Troy is Aunt Bernice’s ex-husband, but their divorce was amicable, so I still call him Uncle Troy because that’s always been his name.
I was invited to be the usher-slash-bouncer at Ashley’s wedding, last year, and it was open bar for family, cash bar for everybody else. The family all wore name tags, that’s how the bartenders could tell. So I didn’t have a name tag but I said to the bartender, “The bride’s mother is my Aunt Bernice.”
And the bartender said, “So the bride is your cousin? ”
I said, “No, she’s just Aunt Bernice’s kid.” And he said, “Four-fifty.”
Aunt Bernice had a major pile of fried rice on her plate. To make some friendly conversation, I said to her, “You like that fried rice, Aunt Bernice? ”
She pointed a chopstick at me and sort of twirled it in the air as if to make a delicate light painting.
“What do you think, Glenn? I went and served myself all this fried rice because I hate fried rice? Yeah, fried rice makes me want to puke, so I made sure to get a lot of it.”
I turned to Ashley on my other side and laughed, “Oh boy, that mother of yours!”
Ashley frowned. Her small features were concentrated in the middle of her face, so her frown had the effect of compressing them nearly into oblivion.
“What about her? ”
I said, “Nothing,” and cut open my dumpling. At which point I almost puked due to the pinkness inside, which was unexpected. I said to Aunt Bernice’s son-in-law across from me whose name I couldn’t remember, “Good thing I cut into it first—it’s pink! Move along, salmonella, I won’t be making your unpleasant acquaintance tonight.”
He said, “It’s shrimp. Shrimp’s supposed to be pink.”
I said, “Oh.”
That’s when this guy I didn’t recognize stuck his head around the decorative folding screen that was acting as a graceful and effective partition against the prying eyes of other diners.
I shouted, “Private party!” and the guy went away.
“Attaboy, Glenn-o!” Uncle Troy yelled from over by the stunning wall-mounted display of samurai swords entwined with plastic orchids.
I yelled back, “I’m your man, Uncle Troy!” And then I pretend-saluted him, which was our thing, then stood and made my way back to the food area because it was time for Round No. 2.
I visited the chow mein station and started scooping, and this guy on my left said, “Looks like it’s a private party for that chow mein.”
I glanced at him, kind of over my shoulder. “You got a problem, friend? ” That’s when I realized it was the same guy who’d stuck his head into our room a few minutes prior.
“I didn’t have any problems until I met you,” he said.
I said, “I don’t want any trouble here. It’s Dumpling Night.”
He asked me, “You tried the shrimp kind? ”
I shook my head. “I thought it was something else.”
“Shrimp’s like that,” he said. “Always masquerading.”
And I knew he was having a go at me right there because since when is a shrimp anything but a shrimp? Since never, that’s when.
By this time, a crowd had gathered. But not because they wanted to see a fight—more because they wanted chow mein.
“Are you going to stand there all day, or move, or what? ” grumbled a lady in the long lineup of patrons keen on getting some mouth-watering bean sprout hash before they expired from a bean sprout deficiency.
So I stepped aside and the guy stepped aside and the crowd progressed along the table, shovelling and scraping. Then the guy said to me, “I was looking in that room for my Aunt Bernice. You didn’t have to yell at me like that.”
“Your Aunt Bernice? ” I said. “I’ve got an Aunt Bernice!”
“Oh yeah? ” The guy squinted at my face. “You don’t look like you’re related.”
“She’s not my blood aunt,” I said. “She’s more like my aunt by my parents’ marriage. They’re friends.”
“Huh,” said the guy. “Well, she’s really my real, actual aunt.”
“So you’re Aunt Bernice’s nephew. How about that? ” I said. “And here I thought I’d met all the relations at Ashley’s wedding last year.”
“I had other plans. Who are you, again? ”
“A very close family friend.”
He nodded, and the two of us stood there for a moment, kind of mesmerized by each other is, I suppose, what the situation was.
Then the guy said, “I guess I’d better get in there.”
“Yep,” I said. “You’d better.”
As a gesture of our newfound fraternity, Aunt Bernice’s nephew tipped his plate in my direction, but only very slightly since there were a bunch of chicken balls rolling around on it. Then he walked over to that private room and disappeared into its glittery depths like a fish might fling itself into a beautiful ornamental pond.
I turned and headed back to the dumpling table, partly because I wanted more dumplings, but mostly because right then I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.