Dinner with Henry
by Bruce Memblatt
part 1 of 2
It must have been the loneliest block in the city. Warehouse after warehouse hunched like anvils simmering miles above the white spray of neon that managed to snatch their walls. It was night. The traffic was gone.
Henry Wallace pulled up his raincoat and opened his umbrella. A job is a job, he thought as he crossed the street and carefully checked the faded number above the door. The address was correct: 64 Delancey Street. The Bowery was to the east and the Williamsburg Bridge to the south. Henry thought of the Brooklyn he had grown up in. How he’d cross the Williamsburg from Brooklyn into Manhattan nearly every day. Climbing the red railing. Scurrying through the junk heaps below the bridge.
The door seemed odd. It looked like a door, but an orange haze seemed to stream from its corners. There’s a reason for everything, he supposed. A silver band was wrapped tightly around its buzzer. Henry had noticed it before he looked up at the sky. Red bricks climbed forever. It made him dizzy.
He had two choices; he could ring the buzzer, or walk away. Neither prospect was enviable in the improbable design of life’s stingy fingers. This particular night reminded him of Gershwin, a rhapsody in strange. The moment after he rang the buzzer a voice crackled through a dangling intercom, “Come in.”
One bare light bulb lit the vestibule. A tall man, about fifty he guessed, with an air of English butler stood in the doorway, his hair graying around the temples, small moustache. “You look fine,” he said. “I guess you’ll do. You’re a little small, though we’ve seen smaller, but your eyes are quick and receptive. I can tell you’re confused, as almost everyone is who comes here at first. Follow me, please. The kitchen is to the right, but to the left is where we’ll go first. My office. Your name?”
“Henry, Henry Wallace,” he replied, thinking, Small? “What are the hours?” he asked. “And forgive me. Your name?”
“My name’s Simpson,” the man explained pointing to the door on the left of the long hall that stood before them. “Step into my office and we’ll talk about hours and go over the details. I’m sure you’ve guessed it’s not an ordinary job. In some ways that’s true. In other ways it’s quite ordinary.”
Henry ran the brief meeting with Simpson over in his mind on his way to the kitchen across the hall. He’d start out as a dishwasher; from there he’d learn how to prepare the special meals. “She” lived in a warehouse. Odd but he’d seen odder. It made sense. No doubt it afforded her a great deal of room. She’d have to spend a small fortune to get something with that much space in a residential neighborhood in Manhattan. But then again why did she need an arena? She liked to have guests now and then, but mostly the preparations would be for her and her niece. No doubt his working hours would be flexible.
Henry winced as he slid into the kitchen and his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. A sweet fragrance covered the air, very sweet, almost sickening. He tightened. A man, the spitting image of Pavarotti, maybe a few inches taller, stood over the stove. He was wearing a formal jacket and shirt as if he were at the Metropolitan Opera.
”Our kitchen is a beautiful place for nothing. But do nothing and you will become a toad. Welcome to our kitchen. Go away. I’m Andre.” Strange, unsettling notes poured from his throat as his dirge continued.
Henry turned a few steps back and eyed the door. He should leave before the next shoe fell. And then it did. As Andre drew nearer, a tall woman in a nurse’s uniform stormed through the kitchen past the stove. She marched up to the sink on the far wall. She marched back again. Her head bobbed and weaved like a dying cat’s.
As her head spun toward Henry, he cringed when his eyes met the hideous scar where her ear ought to be. This was a freak show: it wasn’t Gershwin, it was the Magical Mystery Tour.
The door. As he reached to turn the knob, a dwarf scurried under his arms. He was dressed in a striped shirt and a cap. The black hollow spaces where his eyes should have been stunned Henry. He was more than halfway out the door when Simpson quickly approached.
“I guess there’s a few things I should have mentioned,” Simpson said as he placed his hand in the pocket of his jacket. “We have a slightly unusual staff, as you may have noticed.”
“Um, yes,” Henry said as his eyes darted up, singed with sarcasm, “slightly.”
“I need to explain. If I may?” Simpson said calmly as he placed his hand on Henry’s shoulder, leading him back to the kitchen. “You see, she likes to hire people she thinks need the job most. In other words people on the fringe. People who have a tougher time than most finding employment. Think of it as a public service.”
“There’s fringe and then there’s fringe,” Henry stuttered. “ I understand the idea. It’s just.... well.... a nurse with one ear, a dwarf without any eyes, Pavarotti at the stove. And what about me? I’m pretty average.”
“We can hear you!” the dwarf cried. “My name is Shakespeare!”
“Mr. Wallace, you’re not average at all. I’m sure soon you’ll discover you all have something in common,” Simpson said in soothing tones as he sat Henry down on a small chair next to the counter. “All God’s creatures deserve a fair shake, don’t you suppose?”
“When you put it that way, it’s hard to disagree, Simpson.” Henry felt slightly uncomfortable with his assumptions. Of course Simpson was correct. But the disorder in the kitchen, like the nurse storming in out of nowhere, was puzzling. “What about Shakespeare? No offence, but how does he perform his tasks? He’s small. He can’t see?” Henry inquired, when he noticed Shakespeare stood inches away.
“You’re an enlightened one aren’tcha?” Shakespeare chimed, pointing his fingers in Henry’s direction.
“Shakespeare, let me talk to Mr. Wallace privately, please. Tend to the desserts,” Simpson said firmly as Shakespeare scampered to the back of the kitchen. “To answer your question, he prepares the desserts. There’s a small table in back. He knows each step from memory. It’s not all that difficult, Henry.”
“The smell in the air?” Henry said as he curled his nose.
“Yes, she has a sweet tooth.”
* * *
As the weeks passed Henry began to realize Simpson was right. They did have things in common. Henry liked Shakespeare the most because he always said exactly what was on his mind. There was no beating around the bush with Shakespeare. And he enjoyed to no end watching the tricks he’d play on Andre, sometimes stealing his spoons just to hear the songs he’d improvise. When Andre wasn’t singing, which wasn’t too often, he’d talk about philosophy.
And the nurse, her name was Diego. She had lost her ear fending off a patient wielding a knife one evening during dinner in the state hospital where she worked before she came to Delancey Street. Evidently there was a hearing in the matter and they found her culpable, but she didn’t like to talk much about the incident. In fact, she didn’t like to talk much at all, which was fine with Henry because he suspected Diego had actually been a patient at that hospital rather than an employee.
And there were more, some pretty gruesome: an old woman named Sincere who’d eat worms out of a small tin box she carried in her hands; and another who wore a wedding gown and ran through the kitchen screaming, every Friday at noon. Shakespeare tripped her one day. No one knew her name or her tale, but they referred to her as Alarm because of her punctuality. Henry often wondered if she’d been left at the altar on a Friday afternoon.
A few days after Henry arrived, Simpson offered him a room in the warehouse. The room faced the river. It made him think of inviting swamps. At first Henry was a little wary, but after considering the offer, he took it. His rent bills would vanish, saving him money on the small room he occupied on Eighth and Sixteenth Street. Times were hard; every penny counted. He’d save on subway fare as well and he’d have company when he chose. The offer looked good to Henry.
* * *
The topic that most conversations in the kitchen would inevitably turn to was their mysterious employer. None of them had ever seen her. They didn’t even know her name. She was she as in “She likes her food this way,” or “She’s having guests on Friday.” She was the ultimate “she.”
“Marx believed everything that man thinks, wishes, or wills is ultimately a result of his social needs,” Andre explained as he placed the lid on a pot of cream sauce on the stove.
The stove was fairly large. A thick steel pipe ran up the back of the stove to the ceiling. “But what about art? Music? Literature? Are they needs or desires?” he pondered, scratching his beard. “And of course there’s a difference between a need and a desire.”
“I don’t care what you call it,” Shakespeare piped. “Money in the pocket, that’s what it’s all about.”
“You are a pedestrian man with a brain of Spam!” Andre sang sprightly as he turned up his nose at Shakespeare.
Diego entered the kitchen at her usual pace, marching. “Does anyone have a cigarette?” she breathed in a throaty voice.
Sincere was in the back counting the sugar cubes.
“Smoking in my kitchen?” Andre steamed. “There will be no smoking in my kitchen!”
“Yeah, all the smoke in here comes out of your mouth,” Shakespeare snickered.
“You little worm!” Andre shouted as he turned away from the pot and pointed a spoon at Shakespeare.
“Why can’t I have a cigarette? ”
“Diego, please,” Andre sighed. “Where’s Henry?”
“Probably in his room whacking the weed,” Shakespeare guffawed. As he tuned around, Sincere threw a worm — splat — right in his face.
Ah, such bliss. Thank god she didn’t miss! Andre sang merrily as he tasted the sauce with his spoon. “But seriously Shakespeare, I’d wager She has an appreciation for the arts. She must. She hires us because we’re unique, out of the goodness of her heart. Anyone who does such a thing must have an appreciation for the arts!”
“I think She likes music,” Diego whispered. “Sometimes I hear music.”
“What kind of music?” Andre’s curiosity rose.
“Distant music, like a biting sound,” Diego said, tilting her white hat over her scar as she wistfully gazed at the door.
“Hmmm,” Andre sighed, confused.
Copyright © 2011 by Bruce Memblatt