It nearly broke his tooth, is what it did. Tilman swore and spit it into his hand. He probed his tooth with his tongue. It seemed to be intact, but still.
“Why is there a fucking rock in my food?”
Which brought the dinner to a sudden pause. Forks and spoons in mid air, everyone at the long table stared at him. He felt his cheeks flush and he froze. Tilman wasn’t one for getting embarrassed, but even he had his limits. Mr. Drew was the first to break the silence with a small chuckle.
Tilman grinned, and the whole table started to laugh, fifty people seated along an immense table nearly choking on their food. There had been something there between them, the walls of politeness and shyness among a group of mostly strangers. Tilman’s outburst was a release, and the laughter that followed was as much tension being released as humor.
Drew was a balding, bearded man with a smooth pink face. He could have been anywhere from forty to sixty and despite his finely tailored suit, he looked like he could do double duty as Santa Claus, his body all teddy bear plumpness. Indeed, there at the table, laughing, his belly looked like it might resemble a bowlful of jelly beneath the bespoke suit.
Which was at odds with what Tilman expected from a lawyer, who he usually pictured as slim vipers in dark suits and serious looks. As Tilman understood it, Drew took care of pretty much all the town business in Holly Falls, serving as the defacto town government. Amongst those duties was sponsoring, arrange and, for all Tilman knew, cooking, this dinner.
Holly Falls was a tiny town, barely a town at all with just over a thousand people, but prosperous for all that. The little town had one of the highest per capita incomes in the country, a town full of unassuming millionaires. Their prosperity did not fall on the ungrateful, and in addition to the town’s many charities, they also sponsored this dinner.
They didn’t advertise, but if you showed up in Holly Falls on New Year’s Day, Mr. Drew would invite you to this dinner, where all who showed were treated to the finest that the town could muster. No one was turned away, and all were welcome. Tilman was heading North anyway, chasing the work, and he figured that at the very worst, he could spend a night at a bed and breakfast, maybe drum up a few investors, even if the dinner proved to be bullshit.
It wasn’t. Tilman had wined and dined with the best of them, back in better days, and this meal was better. Different than the haute cuisine he wasted so much money, oh god SO much money on, but incredible still. The best of all was the stew, believe it or not. Or at least it had been right up until he had damn near busted his expensive dental work on what appeared to be a small black rock.
“May I?” asked Drew with a smile. He held out his thick hand, covered with a napkin for propriety and hygiene’s sake. Tilman dropped the tooth breaker into Drew’s palm. Mr. Drew looked at the thing, squinted and nodded.
“Your rock is a bean, albeit one cooked to the point of petrifaction.”
Tilman pushed the stew away. He needed all his teeth.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Tilman, you can finish your stew. There’s only one.”
“Now how exactly would you know that?”
“Because I put it there.”
“Are you trying to get sued?”
That last bit was louder than Tilman intended, and once again, all eyes were on him. Mr. Drew stood then, looking up and down the length of the table.
“Could you come with me, Mr. Tilman?”
“Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t…”
“Please,” Drew interrupted, his jolly face gone serious.
Tilman wiped his face and followed the man into the kitchen. Drew gave a glance at the anonymous cooks, and they found another place to be.
“Look, I didn’t mean any-“
“Mr. Tilman, I have to apologize. This dinner is important to the people here. We’ve been very, very lucky, and we realize that part of maintaining that luck is to give back. The dinner is just a symbol of that.”
Drew held up the bean, pinched between his fingers.
“And so is this. Tradition is important, Mr. Tilman. Even when it’s silly, and I realize this is. But tradition keeps us together, gives us unity. The reason things have gone so well for us here is because we have never lost sight of the principles that lead to our success. Because of these traditions, we’ve never forgotten how lucky we are. The bean, silly as it maybe is an important part of that tradition.”
Drew had the decency to look away, look embarrassed about the next part.
“And so is the Bean King.”