It was a Wednesday. Dinner was dropped onto the table, eight identical plates of crispy fried chicken, a mound of mashed potatoes and short stacks of something greenish-gray. Savage steam had assaulted green beans from vegetable to mystery.
Conversation sparked up as soon as the waitresses hurried away as in a race to find the biscuits owed us. This looks great, someone said. This place does a wonderful job, chimed in another.
I did my best to keep an optimistic face on. I gave everything a fair chance, dousing with butter, gravy, and salt. Ultimately, however, I resorted to the technique wielded by small children of mashing food into new shapes to suggest that they ate enough to warrant dessert. I am not a picky eater, but this was the third fried dinner this week.
There were granola bars back in my hotel room. If I rationed them right, I’d make it easily through the next day until I got to fly home to crisp green vegetables.
The man sitting to my left was the vice president in charge of something sales and everyone else except for me worked for him. I worked for the company his boss hired to help fix their ailing company. He was digging into his meal with evident pleasure, asking for seconds from the hovering wait staff.
Over the past few weeks, I’d gotten to know a few of the people at the table. They were hard-working, earnest types, married with children who made them proud. Several times, I attempted to start conversations about children and sports, but they died when the VP asked a question or seemed to be listening to what they said. Even the oppressive weather wasn’t safe enough to muster much talk.
This happened a lot in my line of business. People were so afraid of losing their jobs that they wouldn’t relax enough to show their intelligence, charm, and creative spark. Senior managers complained about a lack of initiative, never seeming to recognize that their role in creating the situation.
I snuck a look at my watch. It was 6:30 and we had to wait until 7:30 until the planned events started.
I was bored. I was restless. It was my responsibility to change the dynamic at this table. There had to be something that I could do to stop the death spiral of this evening?
Before I could think about it, I turned to the vice president who was well into his second helping of chicken. I started with an easy question: kids? Yes, he mumbled, three. We’ve got two boys and a girl who rules the house. He looked at me closely as if suspicious that I was going to continue to interrogate him.
He was right. I continued: How old are your children? What do they like to do?
By now the table was listening to our conversation. Apparently, this kingly guy kept his private life separate from work. No one really knew this guy.
Encouraged by our audience and relieved that I wasn’t bored any longer, I kept on going. I am a big sister. I know how to get things out of people.
He was on a roll. His children participated in high-level, high-stakes sports teams with competitions across the country. They each played an instrument. He did his best to attend their games and recitals, but sometimes his job meant he was on the road for weeks at a time.
Oh, that must be hard, I sympathized and the heads around the table nodded. He agreed and looked down at his hands.
It’s hardest when I come home and can tell they’ve been eating peanut butter sandwiches in the den. They know that I’m allergic to peanuts and so they wait until I’m out of town. They gorge themselves on peanut butter the entire time that I’m gone. I come home. I smell it. I ask them not to eat peanut butter in the house. Everyone, my wife included, makes big eyes at me. But we love peanut butter, they say. Only my wife thinks to ask if my throat is closing up and she should get the epi pen. No, no, I say. I’m okay. I’m not going to die over it. I get it. You guys love peanut butter.
The next thing I knew, the entire table was bursting with questions, advice, and stories of their own. Our night was saved thanks to a bored woman convinced that every single person has a story to share – it might take a lot of digging, but it’s there.