This column first appeared in National Speed Sport News in December 2007. We offer it here to share a bit of Christmas joy with all our friends. Merry Christmas!
By Dave Argabright
The cars streamed past the old restaurant alongside the busy highway, their tires hissing in the rain as they hurried to finish their Christmas shopping. Just three days remained before the holiday, and in the midst of celebration two old men, frail and bent, arrived at the same time at the restaurant.
“We’re here for the banquet room,” said the first man, moving his wheelchair into the foyer, pausing to remove his tweed hat with a white, wrinkled hand. “It’s the group from Two Rivers Speedway.”
“Two Rivers Speedway??!!” the hostess answered in amazement, her smile drawing tiny lines around her eyes. “You’re kidding…why, that’s been closed for years! My father took me out there when I was a little girl!”
“Then you saw us race,” said the other man proudly. “We’re here for our Christmas party. Does Domici have the bottle?”
“Our bottle,” the first man insisted. “Go get him. He’ll know.”
“How many in your party?”
The two men looked at each other.
“Well…four, if you count my grandson here, and Izzie’s daughter. That’s four.”
“Four? Oh, but we can’t hold the banquet room for such a small party.”
“Yeah, you can…go get Domici. He’ll tell you.”
A plump, graying man walked into the foyer, smiling.
“Gentlemen,” he said, spreading his arms in a gesture of welcome. “So happy to see you again this year at Domici’s Restaurant. Is time for your Christmas luncheon, yes?”
“Mr. Domici, there must be a misunderstanding,” the hostess spoke up. “Their party is only four, and I explained that we can’t possibly seat them in the large banquet room…”
“Is all right,” Domici gently interrupted, his accent heavy. “Is a custom here, going back to my father, God rest his soul. I will seat them, Maria. Is all right.”
“Do you have our bottle?”
“Ah, yes! The bottle! Is in our wine cellar. I will go get, when you are seated!”
The taller old man gestured toward the man in the wheelchair and grinned mischievously.
“Willie is already seated,” he said.
“Dammit, Lazlow, don’t get me started!” barked Willie, his eyes twinkling. “You damned troublemaker…I’ll get out of this chair and pin your ears back!”
The two men laughed. Soon they were at the end of a long table, looking at a vintage bottle of wine that stood silently before them on the table. A young dark-haired man quietly seated himself next to the man in the wheelchair, nodding politely to the 50-ish woman seated next to the other man.
“It’s a shame about Tommy,” Lazlow began. “They said his heart gave out.”
“I thought he looked kind of puny last year,” agreed Willie. “I figured he’d be the next one to go. He didn’t last long after he lost his wife.”
“Now it’s just us,” said Lazlow. “You and me…and to think, our group used to fill up this whole room.”
“It was good then, wasn’t it? Old man Domici hosting us, and it was a great bunch of guys…but now it’s just us, you’re right. We have to keep the tradition going, the Christmas party and all.”
“What’s the bottle, grandpa?” the dark-haired young man asked.
“It’s a joke, is what it is,” Willie said, and both old men laughed. Willie reached out and touched the bottle, turning it on the table to look at the label.
“The race track had just closed, and a bunch of us got together for a party, a couple of days before Christmas. An excuse to get drunk and bench race is what it was. But one of the guys…”
He paused for a moment, confusion clouding his eyes. He hesitated, knitting his bushy eyebrows. “I’m not sure…was it Elmsford?”
“Yeah, Elmsford,” the other man agreed.
“Bobby Elmsford, from Springfield. Ran a DeSoto motor, if you can imagine that. At the very first party, he brought this bottle of nice wine, this very bottle right here, and told everybody, ‘All right boys, here’s the deal: We’re gonna have this party every year, see, and when we start dyin’ off, it’ll come down to the last man. That last man will crack open this wine and drink a toast to the old Two Rivers gang.’”
“No kidding! How long ago was that?”
“Oh…the late ‘50s, so that makes it, what, 50 years ago? Somethin’ like that.”
“That’s amazing,” said the young man. “That wine should be magnificent by now.”
“That’s what keeps me coming back,” grinned Lazlow, his teeth grey and old. “How you feelin’, Willie? You look a little pale!”
“They tell me I’ve got the heart of a 30-year-old man,” Willie boasted, puffing out his chest. “Never felt better!”
“Yeah, a sick 30-year-old, you old goat!”
“What about you, Lazlow…I heard your ticker ain’t so good. You were in the hospital last month, right? And you’re well past 80 now, so it could be any day, you know.”
“I’m three years younger than you,” Lazlow sniffed. “And I’ve never felt better, myself. That was just a tune-up. Face it, Willie…you know I’m gonna outlive you. That’s a fact. But don’t worry…I’ll drink a toast to ol’ Willie, I promise. A toast to you and all the other boys.”
Willie looked around the silent room, at the dark, aging paneling on the walls, and the dated décor that suddenly seemed tired and worn.
“I wish we had a list of the boys,” he said softly. “We might forget someone when the time comes to offer the toast.”
“We ain’t got a list,” said Lazlow. “But if we think about it, maybe we can come up with some names.”
“I’ve got a pen, daddy,” said the woman. “I can write the names on a napkin.”
Soon their food arrived, and as they picked at the meal they began reeling off names, laughing as they recalled each man, the memories flooding back, each sharing a story. An hour passed, and soon the flow of names dried up.
“I can’t think of anyone else,” said Willie, shaking his head. “Boy, we had a bunch, didn’t we?”
“A good bunch.”
“Remember the time you got mad at me at the Armory, and said I spun you out?”
“Like it was yesterday,” Willie chuckled. “I’ve been aiming to talk to you about that.”
“I’m sorry I slugged you, Lazlow…I don’t think you spun me out on purpose, and I ought not to have hit you so hard.”
“Aw, that’s all right…it didn’t hurt.”
“Didn’t hurt!!?? It knocked you down!”
“No it didn’t! I lost my balance and fell.”
“Hmmm. What was it you were wanting to tell me?”
Lazlow paused, and grinned sheepishly.
“Well, truth is, I spun you out on purpose. I feel bad about that.”
“Is that right?”
They were quiet for a moment. Finally Willie spoke.
“In that case, I’m not sorry I slugged you!”
“We ought to open that bottle today.”
“Can’t. You know the rules. Only the last one.”
“To hell with the rules! Rules were made to be broken!”
“Sure you’d say that. You were always such a damned cheater.”
“It ain’t cheating if you don’t get caught. Besides, you cheated as much as anybody.”
“Name one time when I cheated!”
“How about the time you lost a rear wheel and then drove back to the pits. How you do that without a locked rear end? How?”
“Well…other than that, I mean. Name one time when I cheated.”
“All right, how about that time at the season championship race and they found nitro in your fuel? That wasn’t cheating?”
“No, no! We didn’t put that in there. Somebody sabotaged our car.”
They looked at each other, and laughed.
“Let’s drink a beer.”
“Yeah! That’s a great idea!”
They beckoned to the waitress, who came over.
“Grandpa, you can’t have a beer,” the dark-haired young man quickly objected. “Grandma made me promise. Remember, because of your medicine.”
“Aw, to hell with my medicine!”
“Daddy, you can’t either,” said the lady. “You know you can’t.”
Their growls of protest soon subsided, and the waitress stood patiently at the end of the table, waiting.
“Bring me another Coke,” Willie frowned.
“Me, too,” said Lazlow. The woman at the table smiled softly, and patted her father on the back.
“It’s hell to get old,” he said. “I don’t recommend it.”
Soon the two soft drinks were sitting in front of the two old men. Willie watched as the tiny bubbles danced in his glass, and studied the ice as it settled. He reached forward and grasped the glass, his trembling hand slowly lifting it into the air.
“A toast,” he said.
Lazlow struggled to lean forward in his chair, and he clutched the glass and lifted it, his frail arm unsteady.
“To the boys,” Willie said, his voice breaking.
Lazlow blinked away the tears from his tired eyes, and gently tapped his glass against that of his friend. They held the toast for a moment, before their shaking hands slowly brought their glasses to their lips.
“Best damn bunch of friends ever,” Lazlow offered, tasting the sweet liquid as he swallowed.
They were quiet for a moment, and Willie looked across the table.
“Merry Christmas, Lazlow, you old dog,” he said softly. And then he smiled. “I hope I don’t open that bottle for a long, long time.”
“You? Open the bottle? I don’t think so,” Lazlow grinned, shaking his head. “Someday I’ll drink that wine, Willie. Wait and see. But I’m not ready just yet. Merry Christmas to you, too.”