“I thought the Comanches were out there trying to signal us,” McGuane says, doubled over with laughter, shielding his eyes from the smoke billowing from his grill. I was nervous to meet Tom but he was so sweet and easy going –easy to laugh and knee slap– that I felt at home quick.
The turkey did in fact catch fire. Bass’ Flamethrower Turkey – look for the recipe when the book hits shelves.
But the chili! At least there’d be chili and cornbread if the turkey couldn’t be saved. And chili cooked by a real Louisianan! “Why have one bad meal when you can have two!” joked Skip, stirring the elk chili.
We took over the McGuane’s kitchen much later than expected. I was in charge of the cornbread pudding and apple crumble. Because the stove was broken, both dishes had to bake in the countertop mini-stove which I feared would explode like an overworked Easy Bake Oven. Tom’s wife, Lorraine (fun fact – Jimmy Buffet’s sister) was a really good sport about letting us destroy their kitchen and almost setting their
house very flammable and historical log cabin and entire ranch on fire. She called us The Merry Pranksters.
We’d been prepping and cooking for hours but nothing was done when the guests started to arrive. Writers Greta Ehrlich and former NPR host Neal Conan, Toby Thompson, Walter Kirn and Amanda Fortini were among the guests. Suddenly there was a kitchen full of writers being unfairly witty and hilarious which was about the time I became mute and got cornbread pudding tunnel vision.
Tom is a real storyteller. For someone who claims he doesn’t go out, doesn’t entertain (“I was shocked he was having people here. What’s it been – two years?” teased neighbor/hunting buddy Brion, also in attendance) he has a stockpile of dinner party tales without that rehearsed tone. He’s funny. And engaging. And just really fucking funny.
It rained so we ate inside, in a circle in the living room lit with candles, with plates in our laps and McGuanes four dogs at our feet. Even the turkey came out and everyone had seconds, thirds of the chili and cornbread pudding.
Everyone had come in from different places — Greta & Neal from their macadamia farm in Hawaii, Walter & Amanda from LA — and everyone had stories to share. Walter (Thumbsucker and Up In the Air) is so smart and silly and tells us “I had a reading…” horror stories. Walter once read to a room of one (“I’m a professional god dammit!” he told himself) only to realize later it wasn’t a fan but a homeless man seeking shelter. McGuane has a similar story, signing books in an empty warehouse, only to have Lorraine’s entire family come to visit. “He really does have fans!” Lorraine told them. “Of course, Buffet puts out a book the same week and it’s a best seller!” he says, referring to his brother-in-law, “All the parrot heads line up for miles!”
Tom and Lorraine have this really sweet relationship where they call each other on their shit but it’s kind. Tom will say something devilish and she’ll warn, “Alright, Tom McGuane. That’s enough.” They reminisce about “the old days” in Key West, where Tom earned the nickname Captain Berserko. He scratched his head, “I used to be kind of subversive…but now I’m Grandpa. How the hell that happen?” he asks. “I mean, really, I used to have a gold star in my damn tooth!” It’s true, they talk more about their grandchildren (who Tom says are all so straight laced and smart and sane, “Must’ve skipped a generation.”) and their bird dogs than the old days.
Tom, a former Stegner fellow, tells us about Wallace Stegner himself. “Did you ever meet him? No, you’re too young, you wouldn’t have,” he says to Molly (a current Stegner fellow) and Skip (a former.) Once as a student, Tom found himself alone with his hero on an elevator. Having Stegner to himself, a nervous Tom asked, “What should I do with the money, Mr. Stegner?” And Stegner said something like, What do I care? Take the money and go to Hawaii.
I serve my apple crumble (don’t tell but the topping is Betty Crocker oatmeal cookie mix) and everyone stops storytelling for a few seconds to eat so all you hear is the clinking of forks against porcelain.
Maybe it was all the sugar but the conversation moves towards politics. Everyone looks to Neal and listens and nods like we’re huddled around a radio. “I wish you hadn’t reminded me you hosted Talk of the Nation,” jokes Walter, “your voice just cuts through everything. I can’t hear anything else.” But he means it as a compliment. I think I learn more in the 20 minute conversation about the election and who the republicans will run than I ever have actually watching the news. I’m all set with sound bytes until 2016.
Tom offers to make espresso and that’s when I finally get a moment with him almost to myself. He asks what I’m writing and how I met Rick and brags about his espresso machine. He’s proud of it. He gets the titles of Molly and Skip’s books so he can order them online.
No one wants to be the one to wind things down but the party ends when Lorraine and Tom realize it’s midnight and announce it’s way passed their bedtime. The four of us, the Merry Pranksters are staying just down the road from their house in the guest cabin. I sleep in a room with a window and a writing desk facing the river and though my mind is racing with stories from dinner and things I wish I’d said, I fall asleep to the sound of rushing water.