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Man of the House by Chris Erskine

Pour the wine and break the ice

Like his team, the party thrower is always flirting with disaster.

October 23, 2003|Chris Erskine

Secrets to a successful dinner party:

* Have the Democrats bring the wine.

* Have the pregnant women bring dessert.

* Limit the number of Twister participants to 10 or fewer.

* Keep the kids at one end of the house, where their rotten music and bad language won't intrude on the adult conversation.

This last item is the most difficult. In my experience, the children will usually gnaw through the duct tape by the second hour, then join you uninvited and over-fill their appetizer plates with the best brie. Before you know it, they are sipping your wine and regaling the guests with stories about the last time you and your wife had the flu.

"Back to your room!" you yell.

As usual, only the dog listens.

Which leaves us with the age-old question, "How much do you drink at your own dinner party?" In a situation like this, is too much enough?

"You can put the meat on now," my wife says.

"Thank God," I say, and head out into the moonlight.

We tend toward autumn and winter dinner parties, when there are great games on the tube that are invariably more interesting than anything I would ever have to say about politics, movies or religion, mine being the Church of the Chicago Cubs, a broken-down system of beliefs based on curses, frustration and an almost idiotic perseverance.

"Wait till we get some bullpen help," I say by way of a conversation starter, and you can almost hear the guests' pulse rates slow.

"Oh God, he's going to talk about the Cubs all night," they think.

My party, my conversation. That's what you get in return for holding a sophisticated soiree like this. First serve. First ups. First refills.

"More wine?" my wife asks.

"Sure," I say.

"I was talking to our guests," she explains.

"So was I," I say.

She is always busting into conversations like this with a wine bottle and a smile, with that pretty hair of hers, smelling of perfume and baked bread.

This is OK, of course, except that she always pours me last, giving me the dregs of the bottle, which spill to my glass like drops of blood. It's almost Shakespearean the way she pours it. Blood and wine. Wine and words. It's all intertwined. Take away any of it, and you have an early death.

"I'll open another bottle," I say.

"Allow me," says my buddy Bill.

Yes, we're having another dinner party, celebrating the autumnal equinox and the harvest just rendered, which sits in trucks and warehouses waiting for the grocery strike to end. Interesting times we have, filled with irony and striking workers. A new governor poised to begin. A presidential election looming like a cobra.

"So whaddya really think of Schwarzenegger?" someone asks, and the party is off and running.

Now, keep in mind, we have never had a particularly successful dinner party. Most times, they quickly devolve into fistfights and brawls, with women screaming and men spit-cursing, pointing fingers at each other and threatening to return next time with a gun. I'm not bragging. That's just the kind of parties we give.

And they don't just happen. They are the product of a lot of careful planning and rotten luck, which is sort of the recipe for our lives: careful planning and rotten luck mixed together like a bad $3 martini.

Invariably, in the hour before any party we give, the ice maker gives out and the tonic water goes flat. We discover we forgot to defrost the meat and that the dog got into the seven-layer dip and is wearing it like face cream. By the time the guests arrive, I am purple from last-minute preparations and my wife is panting heavily. At least, that's how we explain it to our friends.

"What'll you have?" I ask when they come laughing through the door.

"What are you having?" they ask.

"A stroke," I say.

"Um, I'll just have a glass of wine," they say.

Still, we continue to give them, these dinner parties, at which anything can happen and the wrong remark about Presbyterians or breast-feeding will set off a heated 45-minute debate. Just for kicks, I'll wander from group to group and ask, "How about that Hillary Clinton? Wouldn't she make a great pope?"

Maria Shriver. Hillary Clinton. Unions. The car tax. A great party host can work all hot-button issues into one extraordinary sentence. As in, "I was just telling my union-activist friend the other day that Maria Shriver is no Hillary Clinton, but I certainly agree with her on tripling the car tax."

Then stand back and watch the fallout and wait for that goddess of wine to arrive, the wandering mistress of Merlot, the real secret to surviving any dinner party.

"More wine here?" my wife asks.

"Sure," I say.

"I was talking to the guests," she says.

"So was I."

*

Chris Erskine can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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