It was Thursday night, which meant the countdown had begun for a polite Saturday dinner party at which I’ll have to make small talk, an activity I’m ill-equipped to engage in by both nature and nurture.
“What a coincidence–I find it hard to talk to people too.”
“I don’t know why you find it so hard to talk about simple superficial subjects,” my wife says, laying into me with a string of sardonic sibiliants. “Can’t you turn off the high seriousness every now and then and just . . . you know . . . relate to people as people.”
“I wish I could,” I say, “but I drank too deeply at the bubbler of German philosophy in college. Schopenhauer, Neitzsche.”
“Nobody wants to talk about them.”
“And I was a morbid little chap to begin with,” I add, recalling a childhood in which I was dragooned into playing a corpse for the Future Undertakers Club in fifth grade.
“It’s getting to be a problem,” my wife says. “I leave you alone for a minute and when I come back with an asparagus stalk wrapped in philo dough everyone’s looking at their watch.”
“Everyone’s looking at his or her watch,” I say, and she pounces on me like a cat on a chipmunk.
“See–you are too capable of trivial conversation. It just has to be something that appeals to your extremely narrow range of interests.”
“Well, I’m not going to change in two days,” I said, hoping that would put the matter to rest.
“Why don’t you get a small talker?” she says.
“Sounds like a small countertop appliance.”
“No, it’s mobile, like one of those robots that vacuums.”
“And how would that solve my problem?”
“It would solve the problem by taking it out of your hands. You’re incapable of human interaction, so get a machine.”
When she put it that way, the proposition didn’t sound all that bad.
“Would it prompt me, or speak on my behalf?”
“I don’t know. I assume they come with a variety of accessory packages.”
“Howareya . . . howareya . . . howareya?”
I thought about it for a minute. “I suppose if I could get someone to chime in with prompts I could follow his lead.”
“Sure you could.”
“But what if it’s like Bizarro Superman, and uses its small-talking super-powers for evil rather than good?”
“Talking small talk is a victimless crime. Do it for me, would you? So I won’t be blamed for your lack of personality,” she said as she turned on Grey’s Anatomy.
It was a ninety-minute double episode, so I had to get to her before she entered full body-heaving sob mode. “Where in the hell am I going to find a small-talker in forty-eight hours?”
“We need a personality transplant, STAT!”
“Call the rental place down in Newton Lower Falls–they have everything.”
“Hmm–you’re probably right.”
“I’m always right. Now go away so I don’t have to listen to you rolling your eyelids during my show.”
I started to correct her, but somebody was already dying on TV, so I went into the den to look up the number. I called it and a guy at the other end picked up.
“Tyler Rental, Mike speaking.”
“Hi, uh, do you have any small talkers available for this weekend?”
“Male or female?”
“We got a guy named Bob.”
“Is he any good?”
“Good?,” Mike said with a tone of offended incredulity. “We charge him by setting him in front of The Weather Channel when he’s in the shop.”
“That’s the guy I want,” I said. “Can I reserve him?”
“I’ll need a major credit card number.”
“You got it,” I said, and I had my wallet out of my pocket before you could say “How’s the wife, how’s the kids, how ’bout those Patriots?”
“How did I get dragged into this stupid post?”
Saturday afternoon found me pulling into the parking lot, eager to meet my new wingman. “Are you Mike?” I asked the guy behind the counter.
“In living color,” he said.
“I’m the guy who called about the small talker.”
“Okay, let me check in the back.”
He disappeared into the storage room and emerged with a remarkably life-like male figure, average height like me, receding hairline, horn-rimmed bifocals–the works.
“This is Bob,” he said. “Two hundred dollars for two nights.”
“But I only need him for one.”
“That’s the minimum.”
“Hey, no problem, sounds like fun!” the small talker said. Apparently it’s a self-starting model.
“I’m getting you for a party. I don’t need somebody to make small talk to my wife when I’m home.”
“That’s not what she says,” he replied, a lame line that he laughed too loudly at. So that’s what I was in for over the coming two days.
“All right–two nights it is,” I said to Mike.
“What’s for dinner Sunday?” the small talker asked.
“We haven’t decided.”
“No problem,” he said. “I like everything!” he boomed as he headed out to my car.
I signed the paperwork and we drove home to see if Bob passed inspection.
“Honey, I’d like you to meet Bob,” I said.
“Nice to meet you,” he said in a voice that recalled the smarmy tone of Eddie Haskell complimenting June Cleaver on her fetching outfit. “Your husband couldn’t stop talking about you on the way over.”
“He has a remarkable capacity for invention,” she said defensively. “I can assure you I did not eat our young, they’re in college.”
“Ha ha ha,” Bob laughed politely in a well-modulated tone. He had his patter down pat.
“I have to go get ready,” she said to me. “Can you wear something besides that god-awful Brooks Brothers pullover sweater-shirt with the cat hair all over it?”
We were off to a flying start.
* * * * * *
As we made our way up the walkway to the Waltons, Bill and Stephanie, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of foreboding. “You can’t just talk to everybody–understand?” I asked Bob.
“Why not? I love to talk–and people love to talk to me!”
“Well, there will be some people here tonight who may be less ready to open up about the usual safe topics than others.”
“Well, the Darrows. Their house has been on the market for two years without a bite.”
“Ouch–bummer. Anybody else?”
“Jane and Andy Sandals are going through a rough patch.”
“What’s the matter?”
“He just got fired–can’t seem to hold a job. So don’t ask him how work’s going.”
“Everything happens for a reason!”
“Easy for you to say–you occupy a crepuscular nether world where nothing bad ever happens.”
“That’s not true at all. Whenever I hear about somebody dying, I am just sooooo sad to hear it–even if I didn’t know them!” he said, making a long face with downturned lips and sappy-sad eyes like a basset hound. He almost seemed sincere.
Our hostess opened the door and the wife and I entered to air-kisses from our hostess. “Stephanie, this is our friend Bob the Small Talker,” I said. “He’s staying with us for the weekend,”
“Nice to meet you, Bob,” Stephanie says pleasantly. “You didn’t bring your better half?”
“No, she’s having a girls night out,” Bob said. “For some reason she’d rather be with her friends than me!”
Ha-ha–self-deprecating humor. How can you not love the guy–if you’re not gagging. “Let me take your coats,” Stephanie said as she pointed us towards the kitchen.
The kitchen had recently been re-done at a cost in the high five-figures, where everyone congregates at these suburban shin-digs much to the dismay of the hostess. I wanted to get a beer, but the way was blocked by Jill and Todd Bishoff, two Harvard MBAs who wear their credentials like a coat of armor.
“See those two over there?” I asked my Small Talker.
“Seem like a nice couple.”
“We have to go through them to get any alcohol. Think you can handle it?”
“I’ll do my darndest.”
We headed into the narrow hall that separated the dining room from the kitchen, and the male half of the Dynamic Duo seized upon me like the long-lost friend that I wasn’t. When you’ve got his & hers attitudes like theirs, it’s not easy to get people to talk to you.
“Hey there!” Todd said, and Jill moved in for the obligatory party kiss.
“Folks, I’d like you to meet my friend Bob,” I said, and there was glad-handing all around.
“Say–is that a Harvard Business School tie you’re wearing there, Todd?” Bob asked, all wide-eyed wonder.
“Why yes it is,” Todd said in self-appreciation. “Funny you should notice. You know, those were probably the best two years of my life,” he began, and I checked my watch to set a time limit on the amount of verbiage I would allow myself to be stuffed with. Life’s too short to listen to this sort of homage to one’s self for more than five minutes.
“Now, are your kids going to follow in your footsteps?” Bob asked, hoping to flatter the Bishoffs with a crack about how intelligence is 80% inherited.
“Er, no,” Jill said, suddenly finding something fascinating in her chardonnay glass.
“Set ’em up–and keep ’em coming!”
A look crept over Todd’s face as if his bichon frise had just died. “It’s . . . not something that we’ve totally gotten over yet.”
“I’m sorry,” Bob said, sensing some personal tragedy that had scarred the two overachievers for life. “Did you have a child die?”
“Worse than that,” Jill said, a lump in her throat and her eyes tearing up.
“I am . . . soooo sorry!” Bob said.
“You couldn’t have known,” Todd said, comforting his wife. “Our little Lauren only got a 350 on her GMATs . . .”
“. . . and she’ll be attending–”
Here the distaff half of the couple was too choked up to continue, so her husband finished her sentence.
“A state school!”