The Caterer

Having the party catered was a mistake, she decides moments before the guests arrive.  The food smells great, but the caterer herself is nothing if not awkward.  Passive little digs about her kitchen layout have just about worked Vivien’s last nerve.  Still, the woman surprises her by offering, last minute, to stay and help serve at no charge.  The original agreement had been that she’d lay out a buffet and return in the morning for her dishes.

“I can keep the trays full and help you break things down quickly when things start to taper off.”

Vivien, busy checking the flowers and plumping up the pillows, pauses to soak in the suggestion.  She doesn’t want it to look like she’s got hired help.  It might seem pretentious.  She prides herself on cleaning her own house even when friends who make less than her have people in once a week to do it.  If anything, Vivien’s hypersensitive about coming off as elitist. Her formerly wealthy stepmother wove that into her character.  The tiny diamond tennis bracelets; the little digs at her father about his income.

The woman shrugs. “Well, I just thought it might be helpful.”

“Oh!” Vivien lets out a breath, says, “I appreciate it.  Yes, thanks.”

The caterer, whose name is Cassandra, laughs and nods.  “I can tell you’re distracted. Don’t worry. It’ll go off great.”

Vivien smiles.  “Thanks.”

Putting a finishing touch on a marble slab stacked high with salted caramel somethings, Cassandra says, “You got some funny gay guys on your party list?”

“What?”

“They’re a party must, in my humble opinion.”

Vivien isn’t sure how to answer.  She does have some funny gays coming.  Well, one really witty one and one who isn’t that funny but who says shocking things for laughs.  The former once described the latter as a ‘comedy ninja meets shock jock’.

“Everyone laughs when someone says ‘fucking cunt’ all out of the blue like that,” George said.  “It’s like screaming when you see a mouse.  But it isn’t really scary, is it?”

Then, tired of the sandwich he was eating at the time, he tossed it onto his plate heavily and said, “Anyway, Sheldon isn’t funny.  He’s just a fucking cunt.”

When she laughed involuntarily, he gave her a raised brow that seemed to say, ‘See what I mean?’

____________

A few minutes later, Cassandra disappears into the garage where her van is parked for unloading.  When she returns, she’s wearing a sparkling red tube dress and gold stilettos.  She is all peanut butter legs and sun-spotted shoulders.  Vivien turns her frown toward the empty living room; obviously Cassandra came prepared to stay.  Now at least her full makeup and hair makes sense.  This is the moment when she is sure it isn’t going to work out.

If anyone is to blame for the presence of the leggy blond in her house, it’s her hairdresser, who used to be named Jennifer and who now goes by Astra.

“It’s part of my personal ascension,” she explained loudly over the blow dryer a year ago. “I can’t be confined to the name my earth parents gave me anymore.”

“Sure,” Vivien said without glancing up from her magazine.  In situations like this, she prefers not to ask questions.  As a matter of fact, she takes a dark delight in withholding curiosity when she gets a needy vibe off someone.  Jennifer’s ascension notwithstanding, she really is a talented hairdresser.

Three weeks ago, as Vivien was unfolding herself from the styling chair and wondering if an ache in her ankle was an early warning sign of cancer, the bell on the salon door chimed as someone else arrived.  In a moment, Jennifer was making introductions.

“Vivien, this is Cassandra.  She’s pretty new to the area, but the best caterer in the world.  Oh my god, what were those things you brought to that thing at the black box opening?”

Cassandra laughed off the praise.  Dressed in jeans and a floppy t-shirt, she seemed pretty unassuming.  “I just finished working in my garden,” she said. “Sorry I look a mess.”

Vivien hates it when people deprecate themselves.  It always begs kindly reassurances that only make her feel awkward.  Jennifer filled the void in the conversation.

“Vivien’s a graphic artist.  She did my cards.”

This irritated Vivien for a split second.  In truth, she designed beautiful cards for Jennifer, but after a lot of back and forth and too many inexpert opinions, the style had been dumbed down so much, she hated to even look at them.  At that moment, she cast a glance down at Cassandra’s ugly white Crocs and decided it didn’t matter about the cards.  No one would be a harsher critic of her work than herself.

Jennifer said, “Vivien’s throwing a party in a couple of weeks to raise money for the local democrat.  O’Henry or something, right, Vivien?”

“Henry Dover,” Vivien said, fishing through her purse for her credit card.

“That’s right.  You should cater it for her, Cassandra. It would be the best networking.”

Vivien froze for a second, fingers curling around her wallet, but when she peered up through her bangs, she could see the caterer looked just as surprised and uncomfortable.  That relaxed her for a moment and somehow she’d walked out five minutes later with an agreement between them.

____________

Cassandra steps in front of the foyer mirror to reapply lip gloss just as the buzzer goes off on the oven.  Because she’s closest to the kitchen, Vivien rushes to take out a tray of bubbling bruschetta.  Then the doorbell rings and because she is closest to that, Cassandra answers it.

“Hi there!” she says. “Welcome.”

‘Like she owns the place’, Vivien thinks, peering out through the kitchen door.

Luckily, it’s George.  Giving the red sparkly tube dress a mild glance, he spies Vivien in the distance and throws her a wink.  Turning back to Cassandra, he says, “I think I’m at the wrong house.”

“Not in that fabulous outfit, you’re not,” Cassandra says.  “Come on in. Viv’s just getting something out of the oven.”

Rolling his eyes as he moves past her, George gives the house a once over.  He notices things like flower arrangements and new things, but his personal pet peeve is straight people saying words like ‘fabulous’ to him.  He explained it to Vivien once.

“It’s like talking loud to foreigners.”

She hadn’t needed more information.

“I get it.”

Dropping the cookie sheet on the island counter, she makes her way out to greet him just as the door bell chimes again.  Cassandra reaches out quickly with her speckled arm and Vivien starts to step forward, but George puts his hand on her elbow.

“Let her get stuck at the door,” he says.  She should have known he’d read the situation in a single beat.

“Do you know her?” she asks into his ear.

“She was at an art show downtown a week ago and pretty much installed herself.”

Vivien laughs. “Oh, hell.”

“Astra fob her off on you?”

“Jennifer? How’d you know?”

“Those two are thick as thieves,” he says.

It’s an older couple at the door, two donors that Vivien hardly knows.  The woman is elegant, wearing tiny pearls and sensible heels.  Already Cassandra is tapping the husband’s arm and throwing her hair off her shoulder.

George feigns a yawn. “Well, I hope Astra’s getting a commission. She’s hooked that thing up with everybody and her cousin recently.”

Vivien feels like she might have to go to the bathroom.

George laughs softly.

“Don’t poop yourself.  Just keep her away from the wine. I’ll help.”

____________

Despite their best efforts, the caterer manages to keep a constant stream of pinot running to her insides. George says it has something to do with her having more tentacles than they have hands.  Still, she does occasionally refresh the trays, as she had promised, and once the party is in full swing, she sort of blends into the fray.

About ten o’clock, Cassandra latches onto a handsome, silver-haired journalist who Vivien knows from her former, married life.  Cornering him on the sectional in the den, she folds her dark, golden legs up over the arm and lets her hair fan out on the pillows while he tells her about reporting from Kosovo back in the nineties.

As Vivien passes the doorway, she hears Cassandra’s breathless, “War is so intense, right?”

She wishes George were with her to share a giggle.

When the party begins to taper off around midnight – after all the toasts and speeches and when the oldest and wealthiest guests have trotted off home – Vivien decides it’s high time she find the caterer and have her help with the clean up.  That was definitely part of the deal and the buffet looks disgusting; shrimpy bits have fallen onto chocolate cakey bites; everything dairy is leering at the remaining revelers threateningly.

Cassandra and the widower are nowhere to be found.  They aren’t upstairs in her room or the thinly-furnished guest rooms she hardly ever uses.  They aren’t in the basement, where the unwanted pieces of her past life make only a small stack of boxes near the stairs.  When she comes back to the kitchen, she sees George standing with Sheldon at the door into the garage.

It must be later than she realizes, because the two men are getting along famously, something that only happens when the buzz is high and the party thin.  She slips up beside them to find out the mystery of their smothered laughter.

“Your catering monster and the reporter are getting it on in her van,” George says.

Vivien presses back a frown.  In truth, she always liked the journalist.  He was smart and funny and when his wife was dieing, he put his entire life on hold to nurse her through to the end.  Then a year of thinness and isolation before the slow climb back into the land of the living.  Now he’s out banging weird Cassandra with her freckled shoulders, the bleached teeth and the forced laughter.

Sheldon leans in and drapes a hand on her arm, “Where did you get that cunt?”

Vivien takes in a breath quickly.

“I don’t like that word,” she says.  She sounds preachy in her own head, but she’s thought about it a lot.  Unlike George, who’s so good with words, she takes longer to know how to talk about some things.  “I get that you think it’s just a campy thing to say, but it puts my teeth on edge.”

He looks surprised, but he’s too drunk to take much offense.  George is watching her with a secretive little smile.

“As a matter of fact,” she says. “I think it’s somehow more annoying to me coming from a gay guy.”

George raises a brow. “Is that because you think for a man to use the word, he ought to at least like to visit it now and again?”

“Yes, maybe.”

He shrugs, “I get it.”

She turns away with a grimace.  “Anyway, she may be out there screwing one of my guests, but I think smart people can find better ways to break a person down than just calling them that word.”

George sighs. “What if we agree that she seems self-centered and has no sense of timing?”

Turning back, she looks at him a long while.  He has a good face; he has kind, knowing eyes.  They ought to be closer friends, she thinks, and she leans against his arm.

Then Sheldon, swaying in the dim light of the mud room, says, “Or we can just agree that she’s a fucking cunt.”

And just as George had explained before, it surprises them, and they all laugh, richly, as the van bounces up and down before them.

Blind to Her Own Faults

The house the Hurley’s built was named Primrose.  Folks called it ironic because the Hurley girls were neither demure or pretty.  Alice was broad across the back, her mouth an angry pen stroke under a nose that begged a full pair of lips.  The older sister, Tansy, was as grey and crooked as a melting snowman.  Even in youth, when her grey was brown, she’d never had a bloom.  She had a laugh like a cat who lost its breath and she found things funny when no one else did.  They were inseparable, the Hurley girls, not that anyone had ever wanted to break the set.

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Tansy kept up the house while Alice earned their living looking after an estate up the road.  It was a job she fell into nice and easy.  The Washingtonian lawyer who owned the place was rarely out except a few weekends a year.  He got to talking to Alice one Sunday in the pub where she was manager.  The tall homely woman wasted no words and she asked good questions.  He’d been impressed with her manner for years, since she came on as a barmaid.  People said she was given the run of the pub because no one could stomach fish and chips from a woman with a pie hole that sour, but if they’d been fair, they’d have admitted she kept the place tight.

The lawyer offered her five dollars more a week than she was getting and she took the job at once.  When she hung up her long apron for the last time and walked down the pub garden to the street, someone said the dead lilac outside the kitchen bloomed again for the first time in twelve years. The folks in town loved ugly jokes about the Hurley sisters.

The favorite one was about the new preacher, who went to have tea at Primrose before he found out they wanted no god over or under their roof.  He said they served him out in the back yard under a battered sycamore that held up one end of the clothes line.  While they were sipping, the older one suddenly grabbed her arm and said, “Oh, Alice, a snake bit me.”

And the preacher said Miss Alice cried out, “Why, Tansy, he’s got me, too.”

The preacher looked down and saw the snake writhing on the ground.  He never had to sully his pious mouth with the punchline.  Instead he’d pause for affect and let someone else beat him to it. “You know them Hurley girls is mean enough to kill a snake.”

Alice hadn’t much to do out at that estate.  She toured the grounds each Monday to make sure the gardener did his work.  Every Wednesday, she walked the house through.  If it smelled like piss, she set mouse traps.  If it smelled like mold, she had a plumber check the pipes.  If the lawyer wired he was coming out, she hired in a few girls from Front Royal.   She liked the black girls best.  They worked the afternoons straight through and they were cheap enough she could skim some of the allowance.

They took all the dust covers off the furniture and the chandeliers, gave everything a good rub with beeswax, and sprinkled the rugs with lemon water after vacuuming them.  She never had Tansy out to help, though her sister was good at house work.  Just once, at the beginning, she let Tansy walk the house with her.  That decided it.

Alice knew they might quarrel about it, so she waited until Tansy made her supper before she broached it.  They were listening to jazz records and killing a bottle of moonshine on the back porch when she said it plain.  “I can’t have you in that lawyer’s house. You’re too embarrassing.”

“Oh, hang you.”

“Always picking things up and wondering how much they cost.  You ain’t got no pride, Tans, no pride at all.  You think he’d have offered me that job if I was always mooning over him out at the pub? Batting my eyelashes like an ignorant Smoot, saying I bet his sports car rides smooth?”

Tansy blinked at her sister, then got up to change the record.  Leaning on the side of the house to take the pressure off her longer leg, she rifled through the box of albums.  “What the hell are you on about, Al?”

“I’m just saying that man gave me the keys to his house because he knows I don’t give a rat’s ass about all that fancy old furniture.  You walking through there today, picking stuff up and saying things like, ‘Oh, I bet that’s from England.’ No, ma’am. I don’t need that around me, making me nervous.  Besides, you’re supposed to play it cool.”

Tansy rolled her eyes, dropped the needle.

“Who cares?” she asked the porch ceiling.  The chipped boards were silent. “The problem with you, Al, is you care too much about folks.  Whether they think you care, that’s what you’re always going on about.  ‘Don’t make so much noise about how much the cabbage costs, Tans! You want them to think we can’t afford it?’  Stuff like that.  Who cares?”

Alice got so mad she almost threw her drink in Tansy’s face.  Instead, she clamped her jaw closed for a moment, mulling over revenge.  At last she let out a little laugh, delighted with herself over the tack she’d chosen.  “Well, maybe you care some, too.  I see you putting on lipstick before the iceman comes.”

Tansy just threw her face heavenward and hissed out a good laugh.  She was hard to figure, the crooked thing, her hide thicker than her skull.  Alice ought to have known better.  When she recovered, Tansy gave her sister a leering glance, said, “Well, what you think, Alice? Ain’t you seen the arms on that man?”

Alice cast her eyes out over the yard, tempted to spit her booze on Tansy’s begonias.  Instead, she swallowed the lightning and burned on its fumes for a silent minute.  Her sister was laughing again.

Tansy caught her breath, picked up the topic again.

“The way that man walks, manly like, you know he’s in charge of his woman.”

“Tries to be, more like,” Alice said. “He’s not that manly.  You seen that wife of his?  Sickly little thing with a flat ass. Looks like the runt of the litter. But she’s got them big sad eyes, too.  I bet she’s got your man all trussed up; gives him those weepy cow eyes whenever he steps out of line.”

That made Tansy laugh some more.  “Well, you’re probably right, Al.  Still, I could look at that man all day long.”

Alice shook her head.  It crossed her mind to say, plain honest, that Tansy ought to throw out the lipstick and save herself the trouble.  She knew they weren’t the beauty queen types, but not Tansy.  Even when they overheard comments – and they’d overheard plenty  – Tansy shrugged them off.  It was like she was blind to her own faults.  Times aplenty Alice wanted to make her sister see things straight.  She always bit her tongue in the end.  Maybe they were all broken, herself and the whole world, too.  Maybe being handsome was something to do with being simple and happy with yourself.  Besides, as much as Tansy deserved it now and then, Alice would never side with the rest of them by holding up a mirror and trying to make her sister crack it.