I started writing this when thinking about what famous figures, dead or alive, I’d invite to a dinner party. Then I got thinking about what I’d ask them and how reticent I’d actually be if I had the opportunity. I’d watch.
The table is round and there’s a pile in the middle, muddled up. I pick one up and it’s an Ace. I hide my pack and look at the players, folded in their own concentration, trying hard to suppress a raise of the eyebrows, a crooked smile or a muted curse of misfortune. There’s a bowl of salt and vinegar chips, too. I figured it would be the easiest flavor when hosting. Everyone likes salt and vinegar, right?
The man to my right can’t linger on trying to hide. He’s not one to anyway. He was designed to wear his love and anger on his sleeve. He leans back in his seat and sighs heavily. It’s not on purpose – his luck has doubled over and is limping about for the guests to see and laugh at in their busy minds. His short, sharp moustache, aligned perfectly as if combed for an hour, twitches in frustration.
“I’m out,” he throws the cards on the table angrily and puts his hands over his eyes, making a stifling moan of irritation. He grabs some chips and munches angrily as if fueling his heart for another hour of bad luck.
The man across from me is smiling to himself, his head down. Polite and curious and humourous. He replaces a few cards and laughs quietly to the table. “Just when you think you’re down, things turn around.” It was true of his life, really. He kept fighting even though the cause seemed cemented. Purposeful.
The man on my other side lights another cigarette and drags for what seems like a minute before blowing out smoke rings. An ordered, comfortable persona. An ordered comfortable hold of his cards as if the world was giving him all the riding luck it could muster. “I’m in,” he shrugs, then eyes me momentarily before winking and looking away quickly. I can’t help but smile. He shuffles easily in his leather jacket, his collar popped up against his neck. His white shirt too bright. There’s something temperamental about his brows knitting together but a carelessness that makes him twitch a smile every so often.
I don’t know what I’m doing. I was never a card player and when the guests suggested it before the first course, I had to agree. Especially when Moustache had been the one who wanted a pot of luck. When he eyes you, there is a dread and an uncomfortable need for one to consent to his every wish. It wasn’t because he was surprisingly charming, it was because he was resolute and insistent – a figure that would lead masses to ideas that shouldn’t be designed. Do not follow-through. His hands are shaking .
“I’m in.” I say. The man across nods at me, the wrinkles around his eyes deepen. He seems so frail; but his soul when I look closely, shines of a youthful playfulness. He radiates astuteness. I wonder if he estimates the value of any man.
Moustache shuffles and watches. Smoke dangles his cigarette from his lips while dragging a hand through his youthful do.
“Let’s see then.” Moustache wants the game to move along so he can eat.
I lost, I think. Smoke wins and rubs his palms together, killing the cig. I think he’s used to this. I picture afternoon Hollywood getaways; celebrity poker games, cigar sharing and the odd dance with the jukebox.
Wrinkles shrugs it off and takes some chips, happily digging in. The table is quiet for a while as I pack the 52 away. Moustache’s gruff bubble of anger was a warning that the game had indeed come to an end.
“Mister, I can’t quite understand you…” chirps Wrinkles to Moustache who laughs on cue. A false, malicious laugh; a dagger throw.
“And why is that?”
“Your idea. It’s other world. It’s not what I chose.”
“I don’t care,” says Moustache as he eyes me quickly, “when’s dinner?”
“You’re defensive.” It’s Smoke. Wrinkles appreciates the support and starts smiling again. His smile hides his eyes.
“Wasn’t that the reason why I’m invited tonight?” Moustache asks as I leave the table to get the plates out. Everyone looks at me as I shuffle along with dinner.
“I guess that’s the only reason,” I say from the table that holds the plates, cutlery and a homemade pizza, “to figure you out.” It sounds odd when I say it. And honesty with the man is unsettling.
“What about us?” asks Smoke who leans back in his chair. It balances on its legs. The balance is circus-like, careless. Dreadfully cool.
“Admiration.” I say.
They seem amused with my response.
They seem bemused as to why they came.
Moustache gets up and runs a hand through his thin sleek hair then walks back and forth in the room, looking at my walls as if there was something interesting to see. I put the plates on the table, the pizza, the meticulous, clean cutlery. I remember washing everything twice in preparation.
Moustache eyes me; a coldness that reaches everyone. It’s uneasy – even Smoke looks away and grabs a slice with his hands, biting in greedily. Wrinkles nods my way in a special thank you and picks up a piece. I understood why Smoke ate with his hands but couldn’t grasp why Wrinkles did. It was built up in my mind that his servants would only give him gold-plated knives and sparkling spoons. With a mouth full, Wrinkles smiles at me. I quickly imagined him ordering takeaways at a drive-in. I imagined him eating Fruit Loops. I imagined him doing the mundane and it didn’t fit.
“Back in the day when I wasn’t doing my thing, when I wasn’t on a case, I’d grab small pizzas in downtown Jo’burg. Before boxing, too so I could work it off.”
I imagined the ordered punches, the long morning jogs, the sloppy pizzas and him working it all off to fit in his suit. All for the struggle.
“Sets got crazy, photo calls got crazy so road food it was…” says Smoke, adding to the conversation. It was a recipe I found and tested a few times before tonight. I had to make sure it was good enough.
Moustache finally sits down and eyes the pizza as if it were mocking him.
“I haven’t had-“
“You haven’t had pizza?” Smoke asks, his brows raised, his mouth lifting to his right cheek. Beauty.
“No” Moustache picks up a slice and bends it in his hands so he can bite without messing. He seems pleased. I am pleased. Moustache was the one I wanted to impress most. It was a morose fear. No sense of heightened approval.
“So?” Smoke eyes me at the wrong time. I drop salami off my slice and onto my lap. He seems to have that effect on me. Wrinkles chokes a giggle and grabs another slice. I guess it’s my time slot, an opportunity to ask them whatever I wanted to. But I can’t. There is something holding me back. Perhaps it’s the mystery that surrounds these characters – maybe I’m not supposed to know what they’re actually like in person. Mystery bolsters the myth.
“So what do you do?” Smoke asks me, attempting something from my side. He’s visibly comfortable in social situations.
“I’m a journalist.”
They all stop chewing, a little surprised. Maybe they don’t like journalists. Maybe I didn’t seem like one then. A journalist would be debating, questioning everything, wouldn’t they? Anybody would. I couldn’t. Perhaps I was more interested in what they did.
“Nonsense,” Moustache mumbles, “I once controlled them. Media men make up things for trophies.”
“They need freedom.” Wrinkles says. Smoke agrees and lights up.
“They should be able to say whatever they want,” Smoke eyes me again with that smoldering rebellion, a youthful heart.
So I ask one question. Mostly because I hate these silences. Mostly because I’ll regret not asking it.
“I want to ask each of you something,” I whisper and they close in, “any regrets?”
Smoke laughs immediately, drags and puts his hand on my forearm. It feels other-worldly, a dream. It’s a dangerous touch.
“No.” He says it like it was the easiest question he had ever been asked.
“Perhaps you’d be alive if you did.” Moustache laughs.
“I never regretted anything.” Wrinkles pipes up and shakes his head thinking of a distant memory and then comes back, looks at me with all the seriousness that I haven’t seen before, “you might live like him there if I regretted in my past and given up.” He eyes Moustache and looks away quickly.
There’s a deafening silence. I can’t look at Moustache but wait for him to say something. Anything. He picks up another slice and chews noisily.
“No. I really like this pizza.”
“You have no regrets?” I ask.
He looks like he’s studying the pizza then me. I concentrate because I want to hold his eyes.
“I wouldn’t be here if I regretted it, would I?”
“I guess not.”
“And you wouldn’t have known that I love salt and vinegar chips and pizza?”
Smoke and Wrinkles laugh nervously and finish off their slices. Moustache laughs too and I hide my face. Admiration, purpose and mystery of a slaughterer. Myths of our days remain that. Answers will never truly be answered.
There was nothing else. They kept eating their pizza.