The Art of Conversation

When Sherry took me home to meet her family, I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition.[*]

Her parents weren't so bad. Her father David was a frustrated scholar with sesquipedalian tendencies. I got into his good graces by showing that I knew most of the words he used, while pretending not to know the others so that he could feel secure in his erudition. Her mother April was an underappreciated cook. Her I won over by praising her custard, not only for its more obvious qualities but for its subtle ones that I knew represented the most work.

Somehow I hadn't bargained on Sherry's aunt and uncle being present. When we'd visited my parents, nobody beyond the immediate family had intruded until after Mom & Dad had already sized her up, and pronounced her worthy, thank god. And even then, none of them were anything to be ashamed of.

Uncle Gil went beyond smarmy all the way into downright oleaginous. I took an instant dislike to him, and was reassured that Sherry seemed equally uncomfortable with his presence. She didn't seem surprised though, which made me slightly annoyed that she hadn't seen fit to warn me of him. The same went for Aunt Hanna, who was the chief inquisitor.

It wasn't mentioned, but I quickly deduced that she was April's sister, used to browbeating her from an early age. She had declared that the custard tasted burnt, which was pure bullshit, and April crumpled visibly. This was when I trotted out my own more discerning praise, earning a grateful smile from Sherry's mother and the narrowed eyes and enmity of her aunt. Which was fine with me, because I was already at the point where I didn't care if I got along with her or not. If Sherry and I got married--which was something neither of us had discussed yet, but which I, at least, was thinking about quite seriously--I hoped I'd be able to exclude Aunt Hanna from the festivities somehow. Through subterfuge if necessary.

After the dessert, at the point when my parents had taken us down to the den to play canasta, Aunt Hanna led us all into the parlor. This was one of those rooms full of overly-stiff furniture and smelling of disuse, and I could tell Sherry hated the place, probably from some disproportionate childhood punishment rendered for a heinous crime like getting a speck of dirt on the sofa, or letting a friend in to play there. And probably administered by Aunt Hanna, who surveyed the room with the unmistakeable pride of its undisputed mistress. This was her torture chamber, and doubtless the rest of her potential victims felt more relief that they were not to be chosen than pity that I was.

"So," Hanna said, opening things up, "I hear that you work with computers."

"Well, not quite yet," I said guardedly. "I've still got a few months left on my degree."

"Are you planning on going to graduate school?"

"Uhh--not at the moment, no."

Hanna furrowed her brow. "So you're not interested in the better career choices a graduate degree will doubtless afford you?"

"Well, I--"

"But then, computers are such a volatile field," she said, cutting me off. "I'm amazed anyone with any sense would enter the field, knowing that everything they know could be obsolete in a few years, and they'd be worse off than if they hadn't learned anything at all."

"Well, that's not quite true. They do provide us with a fair bit of theory, that we can apply in a number of different environments."

"Ah, I see. So they're afraid to teach you anything practical, and you end up coming out not even knowing how to use the programs that they have these days."

I floundered around for a few seconds trying to find some way of making myself sound like something less than an utter idiot, but she deftly turned the conversation onto my family. After a few more embarrasments, I began to realize how she worked. When I told her my parents were still married, she concluded that my mother was too weak to have any confidence in her individuality, and my father so insecure in himself that he'd trapped her into a situation where he could dominate her. I imagine if I'd said they were divorced, she'd have gone on about a lack of commitment.

But this was just to soften me up, get me off-balance and on the defensive so that she could extract those items of information that she was really after, in questions that seemed so innocuous compared to the double-barbed ones she had been asking earlier.

And through all of this Sherry just sat there helpless, as much under the spell of her aunt Hanna as her mother was. I began to realize why she'd been reluctant to return, and had only agreed to it when our visit was scheduled on very short notice, not on a long weekend or any recognized holiday. But apparently her tactics had been in vain.

I soon realized what she was after with her questioning, and, once I used this information to reinforce my composure, I found it easy to deflect her questions with misleading answers, and outright lies where Sherry couldn't catch me out. Aunt Hanna's brow furrowed, and once she stumbled in a question I knew I had her on the ropes.

In a momentary lull I turned to Uncle Gil and asked, "So what do you do for a living?"

Taken off guard from his obvious enjoyment of the inquisition, he stumbled and said, "Uh--I'm a salesman."

"Oh?" I replied blandly. "What do you sell?"

"He sells--"

"Pardon, Aunt Hanna, but I think Uncle Gil was trying to say something," I said. "You were saying?"

"Cellular phones," he said.

"But surely that market hasn't existed for very long. What did you sell before that?"

"I don't quite see--" Aunt Hanna spluttered.

"I'm sorry, Uncle Gil, what was that?" I cupped my ear exaggeratedly.

With a helpless look at his fuming wife, he said, "Uh, insurance."

"And is that all? Surely an independent-minded man like yourself wouldn't have limited himself to just one career. A good salesman can find a job anyplace, and leave it again if everything's not to his liking."

I could see Gil straightening up, visibly feeling more backbone. "I sold hot tubs for a year. But I knew that the market was going to fall out of them, and I got out in plenty of time. And I got into cells before anyone thought they'd amount to anything."

"How perspicacious," I said with a wink to Sherry's father. "But then, a resourceful man like you is never at a loss in these situations."

"Oh, by the way--" Aunt Hanna said, trying to start things up again, but she was so off-balance that Uncle Gil easily cut her off, listing a few more of his perspicacious decisions in the sales business. Eventually this led to me agreeing to look at some of his information on cell phones, and he led the way out of the parlor.

I stopped on the way out, to look back at Aunt Hanna, who was still sitting in the parlor, trying to regain her composure, and looking at me with undisguised, smoldering hatred now that there was no one else to catch her at it.

"I didn't know that she had a guardian," I whispered, knowing she would hear. "If I could dignify you with the term. Jailer is more like it. But now she is under my protection, do you hear? Or would you like me to free another one of your little prisoners?"

She snarled, having been driven back so far as to have lost verbalization. I turned and left, knowing she would be no further danger. I left knowing I had been lucky. It hadn't occurred to me that Sherry would have one of Us in her family--though, in retrospect, the signs were there--and I could easily have been bested, another slave.

She would have her hands full getting Gil back into line. I had no doubt she could--my deft influence of a few moments could not overcome years of her hamhanded conditioning. He'd still lose a little of his spinelessness in my presence, though, which would be a constant reminder if she chose to keep us company on future visits. I thought that perhaps she wouldn't, even if it meant losing her sister and brother-in-law. But maybe I overestimated myself. It might take a few more tries yet.

I looked forward to it. I was running the risk of getting out of practice.

[*] Don't anyone feel you need to follow this up pointing out the obvious reference. Somehow I couldn't get rid of it.

[Dave Hemming gave me the words:

Custard Inquisitor Oleaginous Sesquipedalian]

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