A firm knock is the lynchpin to success when meeting your fiancée’s parents. Knowing that, Stephen knocked, and a few moments later, he heard the rattle of a chain and the slide of a deadbolt. “Hello?” a voice challenged.

“Mr. Bloom?” Stephen asked hopefully.
“Stephen! It’s nice to finally meet you,” said Mr. Bloom.

“Oh, and you as well. I’ve been looking forward to having dinner with you.”

“Well, we’re out back, so why don’t you come in.”

Stephen followed Mr. Bloom through dimly lit hallways and a sliding glass door. Moonlight, a few candles, and the glow of a charcoal grill greeted him.

“Lauren’s getting changed. Have a seat. Let’s have a talk.” Mr. Bloom gestured towards two ornate chairs on the deck. Stephen took his pick.

“Well, I wish this weather would make up its mind,” said Mr. Bloom, wistfully.
“Yes, it’s cold one day, hot the next,” said Stephen.
“Lord knows when summer will finally, really hit. Y’know, I have some ATV’s. You ever ride one of those?”
“Actually yes. My parents in Lubbock owned a couple.”
“That’s living. Bet you had better land to ride on.”

Mr. Bloom got up to tend to the coals on the grill. Some kind of mask, balanced on a pole, caught Stephen’s eye – black, with shiny, pink feathers adorning the crest. It reminded him of something he’d seen on the History Channel.

“Do you follow much Russian history, Stephen?” asked Mr. Bloom, as he poked at the coals on the grill.

“Not really,” said Stephen.

“Well, it’s a strange place, particularly under Stalin and the Soviets. I’ve been reading a book lately – The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Do you know how terrified those people were of their own leader? You could be arrested without even speaking a word. And you get sent to horrible, horrible places…”

Mr. Bloom started stacking firewood around the empty chair. “Give me a hand, will you Stephen?”

“Solzhenitsyn wrote about the different arrests under Stalin. One in particular caught my eye. There was a communist convention, and at the end, the chairman called for a tribute to Stalin. Applause filled the auditorium, and it turned into a standing ovation. Well, nearly three minutes went by, and everyone was still clapping. Because, why stop? What would it look like to the secret police if you were the first to stop clapping? But eventually, you have to stop. There were many old men in the crowd – how long could they stand there exerting themselves until they collapsed? Ten minutes went by, and then finally, the owner of a paper mill sat down very business-like and stopped clapping. Then, everyone else stopped.

“Well, the secret police came by and arrested the paper mill owner later that evening. Typically, when convicts ask the Soviet secret police why they’re arrested, they don’t get an answer. But the interrogator said slyly, ‘You should know not to stop clapping first!’”

Stephen smiled nervously. His eyes were fixed on Mr. Bloom, who was spraying the two bundles of wood around each chair with lighter fluid.

Lauren came out, with her mother by her side. And while she was nearly pristine in her white dress, her face was streaked with mascara and tears. Her mother comforted her wordlessly, a grave expression across her face. Mr. Bloom held a burning torch in his hand, and gestured for his child and would-be son-in-law to each take a seat.

And nobody said a word.