We weren't restaurantgoers. Smorgasbords were marginally acceptable for an uncivilized family of six, but oftentimes risky. We preferred drive-thrus. Mama always questioned whether they were invented just for us, or because of us.
In our old neck-of-the-woods, eating out wasn't such a challenge for the etiquette impaired. At one diner in Oklahoma, the waitress was so efficient she cleaned while you were still eating. She swept and stirred up dust and swatted flies. She then left to us the fly swatter while she sprayed glass cleaner on the window next to us, causing an overspray in our food. "Did yew git yer bellies full?" she had asked us--with a mouth full of chewing tobacco. Had she not come around to ask, the proper procedure would be to raid the kitchen for whatever we needed to fill our bellies or glasses.
Civilized behavior simply wasn't expected from customers at places like that.
"Remember, Morris," Mama said to my dad, "we're lookin' for take-out."
"I say we celebrate our new beginnings by going to a real sit-down restaurant," Daddy said, cruising through Ojai's business section dotted with trendy cafes, boutiques, and galleries.
It was 1973 and this was our seventh "new beginning" in five years since moving to California from Oklahoma.
"I say not," and then she muttered tight-lipped, "Eddie."
My brother Eddie was better left at home (or confined to a cave) where he could grunt, snort, and create all sorts of disturbances while devouring his food.
Daddy ignored her warning and continued his quest for a sit-down restaurant. "How ‘bout Wisteria Court?" he asked, slowing the car to a crawl.
"Too fancy," Mama declared, not even looking at it.
Traffic backed up behind us as Daddy scanned the options that sequestered the avenue.
"English Tea House?"
"E-d-d-i-e," she reminded.
"Curry House? Garden Party? Rainbow Trail?"
"No. No and No."
He happened upon a house-converted restaurant with a gravel parking lot called The Ranch House. The name implied we'd seat ourselves at a wooden picnic table draped with a red and white checkerboard tablecloth. A place where we'd order corn-on-the-cob, baked beans, root beer, and slabs of beef plucked off a barbecue pit, while listening to the foot stomping beat of bluegrass music.
Closer inspection revealed the danger of false assumptions, of judging a restaurant by its name, of ignoring Mama's request for take-out. "Upscale!" Mama retreated. "Let's go home!"
"Well, I'll be doggone." Daddy surveyed the place, hands on hips, nodding like he was considering buying it. He forged ahead through the entryway, which opened to patio dining. Beyond that was the entrance to indoor dining.
Vine-covered trellises streamed with swags of white lights engulfed the terrace like a rainforest of stars. Candlelight centerpieces illuminated tabletops already set with elegant tableware: fancy plates, dainty cups in saucers, clear glass goblets, more than necessary amounts of silverware, and white, fan shaped cloth napkins. It was so beautiful and un-hillbilly, I wanted to leave.
Daddy decided on a table outside. Good choice considering the negatives of indoor dining: confinement and acoustics.
Mama stared accusing rays at Eddie. "Make one bodily noise and you're sittin' in the car."
He nodded sheepishly and dropped the hand he had positioned under his shirt. The cock-ready hand had been about to conduct a flatulent symphony of armpit-fart music, which likely would have clashed with the bohemian-dressed Chilean flute player who happened to be performing under a gazebo of wisteria.
"How are you today?" asked our perky hostess.
"Fine as a frog hair," Daddy cheerfully replied. And then as if on cue to her fading smile, he added, "split four ways."
She seated us anyway.
A few of the lunch crowd glanced at us: Mama with her hair done in beehive, faux diamond-studded cat-eye glasses. Daddy, a Herman Munster-sized man, wearing a feathered fedora. Russ and Eddie dressed like scarecrows with Levis riding so high, skin showed between the hem and sock. Beth mimicked Mama's dress, a style unseen by Californians since the '50s. At least I fit in. Due to my aversion to pain and my general ambivalence to grooming, I hadn't brushed my long, curly blond hair since 1969, resulting in dreadlocks. A popular hairstyle for the arty townsfolk, complemented with the shabby chic wardrobe I coveted.
A crisply dressed waiter with "Shane" written on his nametag greeted us with a breadbasket and six waters with lemon wedges. Daddy, unused to being served, asked Shane if he needed any help in the kitchen.
"No, thank you, sir." He grinned and looked around, likely for the source of the practical joke, or suspecting he was on Candid Camera. "I appreciate your offer, though."
"Suit yourself then. We're new to this mighty fine town of Ojai. Moved yesterday. Name's Morris." He and Shane shook hands. "And this here's my beautiful wife, Reba." Her face reddened. She raised her hand like it was heavy and offered a weak wave. "And these four fine specimens is our kids. This giant one's the oldest, Russell." Russell acknowledged Shane with a nod. "Beth's second oldest." She gave an apologetic shrug. "Eddie here has won ever' eatin' contest he ever entered." Eddie didn't look up on account of he was vacuuming the bread basket with his face. "Youngest is Patty." I was vaguely aware of every head turned in our direction.
Shane stood with a stiff smile that left no doubt: Oh, My, God. This is for real. After a long exhale, he said, "okay," and excused himself to get menus.
Mama stared hate rays at Daddy until he felt the heat. "What now, woman?"
"I can't bring you anywhere, that's what. Do you think he really cares who we is? Do you? Why do you do that t'me? Don't talk. Just don't talk." She looked madder than an old wet hen and was about to hit him when Shane returned with the menus.
Eddie had already inhaled all the bread. "S'more please." He held up the empty basket. Our gracious waiter brought out a bigger basket of bread.
Mama yanked the menu. "Share this time, glutton!" she said to Eddie.
"I'm starving to death," he belched.
"You will be when I send you off to play on the train tracks while we eat." Her threats to abandon him on the train tracks or the freeway were hollow here, as there were neither in this tourist town of artist, liberals, and vegetarians. Up to then, the gods of natural beauty and perfection had favored the hamlet for the rich and famous. Call it a rotational orbit glitch, a celestial misalignment, or call it a city's fate gone astray, but the gods were looking the other way when we came calling. We were authentic hillbillies. The real deal.
Russell scanned the menu. His eyebrow rose all the way to his hairline. "Menu's in another language."
"Naw," Daddy said, "it's just fancy talk for ever'day food."
"Okay," Beth challenged. "What is Fire Roasted Duck Sausage with Portabellas and Polenta Gratin?" She pronounced it like an expert, which impressed me to no end.
"Uh . . . uh, it's barbecued duck bellies with grits," he replied with confidence.
"Alrighty then," Russell said. "What is Grilled Teriyaki Tofu?"
"Uh . . . fried toe and foot of a Yak." His smile broadened. "Ask me another."
"How ‘bout the Smoked Rosemary Chicken with Shitake (Beth mispronounced it shit-take and Mama pinched her) Mushroom Risotto?"
"Easy. A chicken named Rosemary smoking while sitting on the pot."
Sitting on the pot is Okie speak for sitting on the toilet, which surely the elegant waiter comprehended because he was standing right behind him for that last menu interpretation, stifling a laugh.
"And," Eddie chimed in, "maybe Rosemary was on shrooms and smoking pot, watching the chicken poop."
Since Daddy and Eddie were both born with built-in loudspeakers, they'd never uttered a sound less than ninety decibels. A hush fell over conversations from other tables. The flute player rested his instrument. Focus was then on us, the entertainment. The patrons gazed at us like we were a traveling road show. "Aw, look at the freaks, aren't they cute?"
"Do you have questions about any of the dishes, or are you ready to order?" Shane asked in polite amusement.
"We ain't ready yet," Mama replied.
"I shall return in a moment then," he said with a smile.
"Dishes?" Russell said, sarcastically. "What am I supposed to ask about, a plate?"
"Don't start," Mama warned.
"I thought we was here to eat," he continued with a straight face, "but never mind, let's talk about dishes. Okay, I have a question about dishes. Are they dem fancy ones from China, or was you just wanting me to worsh the dishes?"
Mama's reserve weakened and she covered her face with the menu, laughing. The smiling waiter--probably returned so not to miss anything--assured Russell he didn't have to wash the dishes.
I attempted death by butter knife.
Mama's eyes widened. "We can't eat here, Morris. Look," she whispered, pointing at the prices on the menu.
"E-Gads!" Daddy yelled. "That's a month's rent. And for a yak's foot."
Mama stood and grabbed her purse from behind the chair. "Let's go."
"Can't," Daddy bellowed. "Eddie just inhaled the third basket of bread."
I concentrated on being invisible by creating a menu fort. The fort wasn't concealing enough, so I pretended to drop something under the table. That worked. I wished I'd thought of it sooner. Long draping tablecloths are a beautiful thing. The missing detail was a position. Fetal. Better. All set.
In solitary isolation under the table, I stared at all the relaxed feet: ankles with tattoos of Indian symbols, painted toenails, and Jesus sandals. There was a commotion above with Mama ordering an iced tea. Apparently, in dialect confusion, it took three of the wait staff to figure out what "Ahs Taay" meant.
Someone kicked me.
"Get up; time to eat," Mama blurted.
I got up too fast, bumped my head, and then wiggled my way back to my seat where Beth said, "You have an imprint of the patio floor on your face."
They all admired my mosaic half-face.
"Where'd this come from?" I asked, pointing to the three platters of assorted appetizers.
"Well," Daddy said, "let me introduce you to this classy gentleman here who wanted to buy us appetizers on account of we're new and all, and to welcome us to the neighborhood."
As I reached out to shake his hand, Eddie belched loud enough to rattle teeth. Beth grabbed her fork and stabbed Eddie in the hand. Eddie howled. Russ flicked a tomato wedge at him. Mama bonked each of them with the menu, and I locked eyes with the man; the brief connection allowed me to see us through his eyes--savages--and I returned to my hideaway under the table.