"Geez, how come they let the waitresses here wear such short skirts? Don't they know it's hard to concentrate on eating when they're parading around like that?" The young man in the red polo shirt dabs a bead of perspiration off his forehead.
"You wouldn't be so distracted," says the man with the blue sweater, "if you didn't spend the entire meal watching them."
"But look at her. The redhead with the fishnet stockings. I've never seen a woman so beautiful. I'm in love."
The man in the black sports coat chuckles in the way only a married man can. "Yeah, sure. You can tell you're in love just by looking at her legs."
The young man in the red polo shirt turns his head back to his dinner companions. "I'm not exaggerating, fellas. She's the one for me. I'd drive her to Vegas tonight and get married if ..."
"If what?" asks the man in the blue sweater. "If you could only work up the guts to talk to her first? What a wuss!"
"Help me, please. I really mean it. Just looking at her makes my knees shaky. What should I do?"
"Get Borman here to introduce you. He's good with the ladies." Everyone at the table laughs. Everyone except the slightly older, slightly stouter, slightly balder man. He brings his napkin to his mouth to hide a smile. "Actually, gentlemen ..."
"Just walk over to her," says the man in the blue sweater to the young man in the red polo shirt. "Ask the poor wench if she'd like to have a drink with you after work. What's the worst that can happen?"
The young man in the red polo shirt lets his head drop into his hands. "I couldn't. I'm too nervous."
"Oh, for crying out loud," says the man in the black sports coat. "If it's that bad, let me give you one of my anxiety pills. Put it under your tongue and it'll work immediately. Maybe you should take two."
As the man in the black jacket reaches into his pocket, the slightly older, slightly balder man clears his throat. "I'm afraid that may be an injudicious medicament for amorous diffidence," he says.
"Dispensing a prescription medication without a license is not only illegal, it can have unexpected consequences."
"Christ!" says the man in the blue sweater. "Leave it to Warren to turn everything into a problem."
"It's just some chill pills," says the man in the black sports coat. Everybody takes them. In fact, ever since the day I got married ..."
"Be that as it may," says Warren. "It takes a trained medical professional to prescribe the proper dosage and regimen." He grabs the bottle from the man in the black sports coat. "In fact, if you will permit me to relate an edifying story ..."
"Here it comes," says the man in the blue sweater. "Another one of Borman's stories. If I've heard one, I've heard a million of them. It's always some bullshit that winds up with him getting a free drink or a free meal. They're all the same."
"I can assure you ..." says Warren, slipping the pill bottle under his napkin.
"Oh, yeah? Well, I can assure you something, pal. You're not getting anything out of any of us tonight. In fact, I think it's high time somebody got something back from you." The man in the blue sweater takes the pen provided by the dining establishment for signing credit card receipts and starts to write on his napkin. "Before you tell your story, Borman, I'm going to write down exactly what's going to happen. I'll hide it under this plate until you're done. If I'm wrong, I'll pay for everybody's dinner. But if I'm right, you'll not only pay all the tabs, you'll make sure our friend here gets a date with Miss Fishnet. Deal?"
Warren glances at the four checks on the table, his mouth moving as he tallies them. "Upon the unlikely chance of your losing this wager," he finally says to the man in the blue sweater, "will you also agree to be responsible for the matchmaking?"
"Hell, yeah," Borman. I'm so sure of myself, I'll even promise to make sure he gets laid."
Four pairs of eyes turn toward the young woman in the fishnet stockings as she crosses the room carrying an orange glacé cake, a bowl of fresh fruit, and two servings of Dark Chocolate, Plum and Chantilly Millefeuille.
The young man in the red polo shirt lets out a slight whimper. "I don't know, guys ..."
"Well, I do," says the man in the blue sweater.
"We shall see," says Warren.
No family is totally immune from the capriciousness of the genetic roulette wheel (says Warren) and in the Borman family it manifested itself in the form of my cousin Herman. Unlike the rest of our clan who are known far and wide for their gregariousness and charisma, poor Herman was voted Most Likely to Cower by his high school peers. Once, as children, Herman and I were accosted by a department store Santa who invited us to sit on his lap. Herman immediately broke out in a rash and fled home five miles through the snow where he pleaded with his parents to be allowed to convert to Judaism.
However, Nature being on the whole fair-minded, made it up to Herman by blessing him with a phenomenal intellect that he eventually turned toward science and chemistry. During his tenure in graduate school, Herman developed Borman's Booger No More, the enormously successful nasal decongestant, the residual sales of which permitted him to live the life of a recluse, ensconced in his home laboratory. His father, my Uncle Sherman, a former drill-sergeant and tent-revival preacher, worried incessantly about his son and eventually purchased Herman a Russian bride -- a charming but totally mute woman whose tongue had once frozen to the top her mouth during a particularly severe Siberian winter. Together, my cousin and his spouse lived the quietest of lives and were eventually blessed with arrival of a fine son named Thurman.
Over the years I lost touch with Herman, so it was a surprise when I received an invitation to his son's wedding festivities, including dinner the night prior and a bachelor party. Normally, there aren't enough able-bodied horses this side of the Mississippi River to drag me through such an ordeal. But there were two good reasons why I was eager to attend, even though it would require me to spend money on a present that would likely sit in a closet until sufficient time had passed that the couple could put it in a yard sale.
First, I had a fondness for young Thurman who took after his First-Cousin-Once-Removed Warren in good looks and amiable disposition. Secondly -- and this was the most compelling -- I was eager to see Herman make the speeches that wedding tradition required. I've never been the sort who slows down to gape at highway accidents in the hopes of catching a glimpse of a severed limb, but the prospect of Herman standing among a crowd of perhaps hundreds of people and having to say something, if not witty, at least marginally intelligible, was something I couldn't miss.
So, a month later, armed with a gaily-wrapped set of throw pillows embroidered with the portraits of nineteenth-century French literati, I arrived at the home of my cousin. Halfway up the walkway I heard an ear-shattering call that sounded remarkably like "HOWDEEEE!"
Looking up, I beheld Herman clad in riding breeches, a ten-gallon hat, and high-heeled snakeskin boots, standing on his roof twirling a rope. "Well, look what Bowser dragged in," he called down. "My fat, bald, misanthropic cousin Warren! Get down on all fours, pard'ner."
"What are you doing, man?" I said, squinting to make sure it was indeed Herman. "You're about to fall."
He did a quick shuffle with his feet and shouted. "Yee-haw! That's just the idea, cuz. I want to jump from here, mount my proud steed and ride out of town, only I'm one steed short. You'll have to do. Get down on all fours and run around the house. I'll pick my moment and jump."
"What in blazes is the matter with you, Herman? Come down from there! "
"If you won't co-operate," he said, hooking the lasso of his rope to his studded belt, "I'll simply consider you a proud steed that's rearing on two legs." And he jumped. His aim was perfect and he landed directly on top of me. If it weren't for my wedding gift, which ended up between us and the pavement, vital organs would have been in peril.
As it was, I brushed myself off and demanded the man give me an explanation. After all, we shared the same grandparents and had once been bathed together.
"Chill out, little buckeroo," he said. "Follow and all will be made clear -- even to you. You've always been thick-headed, Cousin Warren. I still remember the time you made yourself sick eating three packages of Whip 'n Chill pudding mix."
"I was barely four years old," I said, with not a little asperity.
"You bet. And I see you've been putting on the pounds ever since. Well, no matter. You'll probably die prematurely and the world will be a better, more pleasant place for your absence. Ah, here we are. Go ahead, see if you can squeeze your enormous posterior through the door."
He had led me around the back of his house to where a stairway -- far wider than my merely solid frame -- led down to a large basement. When Herman turned on the light I saw we were in a highly sophisticated science laboratory outfitted with beakers, Bunsen burners, a menagerie of small animals in cages, and what appeared to be a small nuclear particle accelerator.
"Good Lord," I said. "What have you been doing down here all these years?"
He tossed his hat onto the skull of a plastic skeleton. "Kind of you to ask, cuz, but I'm afraid most of it would go over your poor, balding head. Suffice it to say that, where others may have broken the genetic code, I've pieced it back together. Cigar?"
I was appalled. "Certainly not!"
"Have it your way," he said, settling into a chair and putting his feet up on a nearby electron microscope. He lit and blew a puff of Cuban smoke in my direction. "Here's the short of it, Shorty. I figured out a way to connect artificially altered genes to a fast-acting virus. Once in the system, this concoction completely alters the genetic code of every cell in the organism. In other words, I can change a creature completely."
"Hogwash. You've done no such thing. It's not possible."
Herman took a long puff on his cigar. "Look behind you, cuz. In that cage on the left. That's Guillermo, an iguana I fed the genes of a parrot. I've had to put a cover over him to stop him from demanding crackers. And next to him is Khalil, a five-year old orangutan. Too bad he's taking a nap. Poor fellow was up all night working on a PowerPoint."
"You're being ridiculous, Herman. But even if there were even a modicum of truth in what you say ..."
"It's the real deal, Schlemiel. For the last ten minutes you've been talking to living proof."
I was incredulous. The man before me seemed to be in every outer appearance -- disregarding the garish costume -- my cousin Herman. And yet it was undeniable that he had undergone a dramatic transformation.
"The moment my son and fruit of my loins,Thurman, announced he wanted to tie the matrimonial knot, I panicked. I quivered. I quaked. I knew that I would have to stand up and give a speech. It was absolutely the worst thing I could imagine having to endure. Then it occurred to me: why not find the gene for self-confidence and give myself a swallow? Took a couple of teaspoons yesterday and woke up this morning with an overwhelming desire to become a cowboy."
I watched as he stood up on his chair, beat his chest and crowed.
"But, Herman, are you certain all this is safe?"
"Safety is for jellyfish. I prefer living life on the edge. Oh, damn it, look at the time. I'm going to have to change clothes and drive to the restaurant. Too bad I don't have a rousty thoroughbred to ride. Well, I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to getting up and toasting my boy at dinner tonight. I'm going to take the opportunity to give his immanent in-laws a good tongue lashing. A couple of stains on the carpet of mankind, if you want to know. I can't see why both their own parents didn't stick them in bags filled with rocks and drop them in the river when they were young. I spent the afternoon compiling a list of their most repugnant characteristics, and I intend on elaborating each of them."
I was becoming concerned for his sanity. "Herman, are you sure that's wise? Think of Thurman. Won't it be awkward for him to sit there while you humiliate the parents of the woman he loves?"
"Just the opposite, pard. I'm sure he'll be grateful I'm straightening them out now, before he has to endure the agony of being related to them."
Before I could warn him that his son might not see things the same way, Herman bounded up the steps taking three at a time. I followed, turning off the lights as I left. After all, the orangutan was still napping.
I spent the brief drive to the hotel brooding heavily. I had originally anticipated the pleasure of witnessing a tongue-tied Cousin Herman stumble his way through a grueling public-speaking ordeal. Preparing to hear him insult, ridicule and otherwise abuse two perfectly innocent people in an inappropriate forum was a different feeling altogether.
When I arrived at the hotel I embraced young Thurman and shook the hand of his bride-to-be, a fine lass who was likely unable to help the fact she resembled a Shi Tzu. She greeted me with an affectionate hug, something I am always appreciative of receiving from females, even those who have markedly canine features. I welcomed her into the Borman family with the utmost sincerity and wished her every happiness, although I was beginning to worry if any girl, no matter how much in love, could stand to marry a man after hearing his father gut her parents like mackerel.
When at last I was introduced to Thurman's future in-laws, I was at a loss to understand why they inspired such loathing in my cousin. They appeared to be pleasant folk who sported mid-western accents and mild manners. The innocence of their demeanor when they filed into the special dinning room seemed unsettlingly like beef cattle herded toward a fast food destiny.
The casual observer might have found little remarkable in Herman's behavior at the table. Only someone who knew him intimately as I would have noticed it odd that he complained to the manager about the heat in the room, then about the draft; that the lighting was too harsh on his wife's complexion, and that a song being played by the pianist had been composed by someone with political views Herman found offensive.
When it was apparent most of the food that could be consumed had been, Herman rose and tapped at his water glass until it broke and cleared his throat.
"Ladies and gents," he began in a voice suited more to the arena of a professional hockey match. "I wish to take this auspicious occasion to offer a bit of constructive criticism to a few of the guests who've just stuffed themselves silly on this overpriced dinner which I was forced to pay for." He reached down under the table and extracted a pile of papers so thick I visibly shuddered.
"But first, I propose a toast to the happy couple. I'm hoping that in drinking to them, my obese cousin Warren here will observe some propriety and not guzzle down more than his share. I could tell you a thing or two about what a thoroughly disgusting child he was -- and I might yet, as the night is still young. But, speaking of young, let us leave for the moment the overweight and decrepit and turn to the young couple."
"Over the mouth and into the gums" he shouted. He raised a fully-loaded glass over his head and poured the contents down his throat. In the space of about five seconds, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve, belched, licked his lips with his tongue, looked up to the ceiling, rolled his eyes and collapsed in a heap.
"Oh my God," says the young man in the red polo shirt. "Was he dead?"
"Not even slightly," says Warren. "You see, in his haste to bring his theoretical science into practice, he hadn't considered any unexpected consequences. Much of the woes of the modern world can be attributed to just such impatience. As a side effect of his newly-found self-confidence, Herman had developed a complete intolerance for alcohol. He had fallen into a drunken slumber."
The man in the black sports coat scratches his cheek. "I don't get it," he says. "What's the point?"
"There is no point," whines the man in the blue sweater. "There never is a point. Borman just loves to hear himself talk. It's all bullshit, just like I said it would be."
Warren takes a sip of his coffee and leans back in his chair. "From your own impatience," he says, reaching under the tablecloth and loosening his belt, "you have assumed my story is finished."
"It's not?" asks the young man in red polo shirt.
"Not at all," says Warren. "And regarding the point of my narratives, I simply say, 'He who has ears, let him hear.'"
"God help us," says the man in the blue sweater.
"Can I have my anxiety pills back?" asks the man in the black sport coat.
Part One of Three