Column: When a dinner party takes a turn for the worse

06/07/2015 6:00 AM |

My husband and I rarely go to dinner parties. Most Saturday nights, I cook something, my husband does the dishes, we read a little and, if we’re feeling really frisky, we might stay up to watch the first 20 minutes of SNL. 

We’re not antisocial, so when one night in April a couple we like very much invited us to dinner along with another couple, we happily changed our routine. I even traded my T-shirt for a blouse, right in the middle of the weekend. I think my husband may have shaved.

We parked in front of the house at the same time as the other couple, introduced ourselves to each other and arrived en masse at our hosts’ door announcing, “The party is here!” as we crossed the threshold. But something was amiss.

Our attractive hostess, with a mane of soft, brown, curly hair, looked up at the sound of our voices across the kitchen, her eyewear askew and her apron coming untied. This was not like her. Our host greeted us the way a pilot doing a visual inspection of wing flaps might greet passengers in the exit row; a quick nod and he disappeared down the basement steps.

“We have a leak,” said our hostess. “It started a few minutes ago … we’ve had to turn off all the water.”

By now, our host had climbed back up the stairs to report that there was an inch of water in the basement.

It was 7:15 p.m., the night before Easter Sunday. “We called the plumber and he said he’d come right over,” our hostess said. Surely she was dreaming. What plumber would interrupt his holiday weekend to save the dinner for victims of corroded pipes?

The answer to my question, and the host and hostess’s prayers, rang the bell. The silhouette of a tall, handsome man in work clothes filled the door. “You have a leak?” he asked “Where am I going?”

As the host and the plumber descended to the basement, I saw a curtain of blue smoke escaping from the top and sides of the oven door, curling over the exhaust hood and flattening against the ceiling. “Is there something in the oven?” I ventured timidly.

The hostess opened the oven and the curtain of smoke thickened into a blue wave that cleared long enough to reveal two earthenware pots bubbling over, spilling their contents onto the red hot floor of the stove. She closed the oven door for a moment to strategize, just as the smoke alarm went off.

The wail of the smoke detector throbbed through the house, soon accompanied by the frantic, scrabbling sound of toenails against linoleum — clickety, clickety, click. It was the gentle, elderly spaniel of the house, trying to apprehend the feral creature he believed to be the source of the shrill bleat from underneath the refrigerator where he thought it hid.

Alas, the piercing noise was not a muskrat under the fridge. It was a fully charged alarm with its electronically generated warning of danger, and it was hanging about 15 feet up on a wall above us. It had to be stopped.

Hoping to be of some use, I waved a fan of folded newspaper in the direction of the alarm, while the others took turns swatting at it with a broomstick. It would not die.

With our hostess employing fire suppression techniques in the kitchen, the host appeared with a ladder, unfolded it below the shrieking alarm, mounted and armed with the broom, began grimly walloping the beige disk like a combatant in a death match. The male half of the other couple spelled our host on the ladder, taking a few choice licks with the broom handle, until the alarm was dislodged and the battery fell out.

The sudden silence was so unexpected and so welcome that the clickety-click of the dog’s toenails on the kitchen floor seemed musical by comparison. He stopped digging and took up a spot by the basement door, keeping a wary eye on the room lest the creature return.

Our hostess stabilized the conflagration in the oven, the plumber replaced a valve and turned the water on, and it was 7:45 — time for hors d’oeuvres.

In the aftermath, we all had a drink, even the two of us who did not usually touch the stuff.

The braised chicken that came out of those overflowing casseroles was delicious, thanks to the steely nerves — and the insulated potholders — of our hostess, who saved dinner from the fire.

The next day, I heard that these good people were able to dry the basement floor, air out the house and remove the singe marks from the cabinets. The smoke detector can be replaced, and even the dog may recover his equilibrium with some really good treats. But it’s hard to imagine our hosts will have another dinner party anytime soon. And who could blame them?

Charity Robey is a contributing writer for Times/Review Media Group. She lives on Shelter Island.

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