Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Even Better Than Before: Calabash

Captain John's Deluxe Seafood Platter 
This morning, as Marilyn and I are driving to Ocean Isle, NC, I ask for continued prayers for our friend Lisa, whom we will miss tremendously while we are away! We're headed to a reunion with some of my very best and oldest friends. In the book I wrote earlier this year, Even Better Than Before, many of these friends were "parts" of the various characters (as was Lisa), and a reunion was the main plot of the story. So it seems appropriate to share another excerpt today. Especially this one, as I hope to see this meal play out in some form or fashion over the next few days. Enjoy!

It was just before 6 pm and the crowd was gathering on the first floor and preparing to leave for Calabash. Craig was hurrying people along. He was worried with a party their size that getting a table together was going to be tough on a Saturday night. And getting a table together was imperative. This was a family and they needed to sit together. Craig was a big believer in family. He was going to call ahead and at least let a restaurant know they were coming. “Captain John’s ok with everyone?” he shouted over the crowd noise, acting as if they had a choice in the matter. It was always Captain John’s. “I’m gonna’ call now.” Alicia grabbed Craig by the arm. “Relax. I already let them know we are coming. I told them a party of 20 just so we’d have extra room. And I told them to put tables together for us.” Craig gave her a big hug and a warm smile. “I tell ya what- get you away from the old ball and chain and you’re still a go-getter, Alicia Stanton.” Alicia lit up at hearing him use her maiden name. It took her back to when life seemed simpler. Craig started herding his friends out the door and into the vehicles, and 30 or so minutes later they arrived at Calabash and began to file in to one of their favorite places, Captain John’s Seafood House. Brent was positively ecstatic. There was a deluxe seafood platter and a basket of hushpuppies inside with his name all over them. Alicia went to the seating hostess and informed her that the party of 20 had arrived, and was told their table was waiting. The hostess walked them to a back room, opened a closed door, and there was the table. And something else that absolutely no one besides Alicia could have expected.

Standing to the right of the table, looking spiffy in a green sleeveless top and white shorts, was Kristen Hurley Fleener. Kristen had been a part of the original youth group that had given birth to this motley crew. It was Kristen that invited Keri and Alicia to come with her to church. She was the one who attracted Brent to a roller skating party because he had a crush on her. Throughout middle school and high school she was a part of the core. She and Craig had dated. She, Allyson, Keri and Alicia had been inseparable. Then she broke up with Craig, pulled away from everyone, went to college and got married at the end of her freshman year. Few of them had seen her since. But now…there she was. Stunned was too mild a word to describe the reaction. Flabbergasted might come close. “Surprise” she said meekly and smiled at the dumbfounded group. It was really more of a question than an exclamation. Alicia stepped forward and gave her a hug, then turned to explain her presence. “I had been begging Kristen to come this weekend for months and she kept saying no. Then last week I really poured on the guilt, telling her that everyone was coming and that she needed to be here too. I called her again as I drove down yesterday she finally caved. She couldn’t get to the house in time so we worked this out. I thought this weekend could use a little more mystery!” Everyone laughed and the greetings and introductions began in earnest. Soon they had all grabbed seats at the giant table and were getting serious about ordering food. Keri and Cassandra set across from one another, and Billy and Brent quickly joined them. Food and beverages were ordered and hushpuppies were delivered. As he popped a butter-covered puppy in his mouth, Brent cut lose with a nearly orgasmic moan, followed by “man that is good!” Those around him laughed, and Cassandra called for a hand check to make sure it was the hushpuppies that had him so excited. Both he and Keri blushed. The other end of the table was quieter and a bit tense. People were asking Kristen basic questions about life because quite frankly none of them knew much about her anymore. Craig looked very uncomfortable. Nancy seemed uncertain of what to say. And Allyson was not happy at all. Her last conversation with Kristen had been a shouting match almost 25 years previous, and she did not appear ready to kiss and make up. Fortunately, the presence of food solves many problems, and as the waitresses delivered the various platters of seafood the conversation all around the table died down. Brent, however, just kept right on chattering. He was giving a play-by-play to everyone as to what was on his deluxe platter and how wonderful it was. He was harassing Craig for only getting a large platter, saying “real men eat deviled crab” and calling him a wuss. He was trying to get Keri, who had ordered a small fried shrimp platter, to try one of everything on his plate. He was especially pushing the oysters, which he pointed out were well known aphrodisiacs. Keri gave him a sharp elbow in the ribcage and Cassie reminded him that it was raw oysters that supposedly had that effect on the hormones. Billy arose from his seat, banged his fork on the table to get everyone’s attention, and then asked “Did anyone order raw oysters? If so please pass them down. We need them---STAT!” There was uproarious laughter which got even louder when Sharon responded, “Billy we all know you’ve never needed any assistance with getting horny!” Meanwhile, Alicia, Dan and Stephanie were attempting to explain to Kristen who these people were. She barely knew Billy and Jeff and many of the others she had never met at all. And while Nina had come into the weekend knowing almost no one and had felt accepted and included right away, Kristen was feeling a bit of a cold wind. To the core of this group she had not just been their friend, she had been part of their family. That church youth group all those years before had been the single most important thing in their lives, and they would have done (and did!) pretty much anything for each other. That feeling of unconditional love had continued on into adulthood for most of them. But Kristen had left them. Once she met Brad, she was gone. Allyson, whom she had known since they were in diapers, was cut out of her wedding party. Brent and Keri never got invitations to the wedding…but Brent went anyway. She had made it clear through her actions and lack of communication that she no longer needed them in her life and over the years they had all accepted that. Now she was in Calabash, sitting at the “family” table. It was hard to pretend nothing had happened, that they had not been hurt and disappointed that someone so important in their lives had simply bailed on them. Brent looked down at the end of the table where Kristen was sitting and smiled. Had he not had a crush on her all those years before he might be the one not sitting at that table. He looked at Craig and thought that if Kristen hadn’t dumped his best bro he might never have moved on to Nancy. Things happen for a reason, and sometimes people have to get away from their comfort zone in order to discover who they really are. Brent himself had been this family’s prodigal son for a time and had been welcomed back with open arms. Didn’t Kristen deserve the same? As he finished his last bite of flounder he reached over and squeezed Keri’s knee. “What do you think, Grace? Should we go welcome home the prodigal daughter?” Keri gave him a look that said both “yes” and “I love you” and they got up and strolled to the other end of the room. Kristen watched them approach and said, “Hey Brent, hello Keri. How are you guys?” Brent reached down and grabbed her hand, pulled her out of her chair and said “Shut up and give me a hug!” That warm embrace was followed by a similar one with Keri, and you could feel the air around Kristen start to warm a bit. Stephanie asked her about Brad and her family and she lit up as she began to answer. She had found what she was looking for when she left them. Not everyone needs a group to sustain them.  ~ Carl Jones

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