Bucks County Writers Workshop
Vodka Grotesque by Mary Jane Aklonis
ianna ran her fingers over a baby eel, appreciative of the icy casing that masked its slime. The Henrys, for whom she had agreed to cater a fifteenth wedding anniversary party that night, wanted the latest in cocktail chic, and the snaky orange bodies were showing up in drinks at Manhattan's trendiest bars. The Times Style Section had featured a glass of vodka, club soda, and vermouth with three baby eels bobbing vertically in the mix, their black eyes staring through a wall of Waterford crystal. She shivered as she removed the corpses from a special Fed Ex container, hoping she could transplant all hundred of the creatures to a series of ice buckets before any of them thawed.
Mrs. Henry, who had a high pitched voice and slight Russian accent, laughed when Dianna had suggested the eels might repulse their party guests. "No, no," she dismissed the concern, "Eels are a delicacy in my country. You Americans are so squeamish."
Like some other Eastern Europeans Dianna had encountered, Olga sustained a slight haughtiness about old world traditions. Her pronouncements on issues ranging from politics to love affairs reminded her of actresses she'd seen in black and white foreign films. They seemed to have suffered all of the angst the world had to offer. Perhaps Olga had too, but she also had a fierce temper. Last New Year's Eve, when she saw her husband Nick licking Dianna's neck as she tried to circulate a tray of caviar, she threatened to fire her as their personal chef. Since Dianna had worked for the Henrys for over three years, she was able to convince Olga that her husband's lechery was merely a by-product of holiday excess. She didn't mention how the wealthy investment banker had tried repeatedly to get her to go to bed with him. She enjoyed the attention, but found his overheated body and mind too intense. Being a highly competitive, driven man, her rejection only fueled his desire. She heard the thump of his leg cast approaching as she inadvertently touched the eye ball of an eel.
"Mmm," he moaned, "your hair smells like the roses you tender in our courtyard."
She turned toward him and playfully pushed him away. "You suffer from spring fever, I suspect. My hands reek of fish, and I'm so busy prepping for tonight, I haven't had a chance to wash my hair yet."
"I love it when you're dirty, Dianna. When will you show me how dirty you can really be?"
"Stop this, please. Olga will hear you and assume the worst."
"Olga? She knows I crave you, and even said she'd accommodate you in our bed. MÈnage a trois, n'est ce pas?"
Dianna feared that Nick's lust would be her undoing. Living in Manhattan was an expensive proposition, and even though the Henrys paid her close to one hundred thousand a year for her culinary talent, her credit debt had climbed precipitously. She couldn't resist the fine apparel of SoHo boutiques. Expensive outfits made her feel more attractive, and socially acceptable. Since she lived in the basement apartment of the Henrys' Gramercy Park brownstone, she had few opportunities to socialize beyond the world of her employers, and she wanted them to treat her as an equal.
Nick had become increasingly problematic. Lately, when she attended a singles bar on her night off, she'd catch him staring at her from across the room. She deliberately flirted with any man nearby to discourage this attention, but he managed to stay in her line of vision anyway. Even his broken leg resulted from pursuing her. One day, Dianna was paring potatoes for the night's repast. She had stayed in her own apartment instead of traveling upstairs to the Henrys' surgically correct stainless steel kitchen. She loved the comfort of her cracked wood cabinets. They reminded her of the lives of the servants who worked the house in the grand old days of the Gilded Age. Sometimes she imagined wearing an ankle length muslin dress covered with a huge chintz apron, and warming herself by the hearth on a winter evening.
As she cut potatoes into thin wafers, she heard a crash on the stairway leading to her side entrance. The balding head of Nick with its swirl of long hair had banged against the French door before his feet made it, and she could see the six-footer writhing in pain as he held his shin.
"What happened?" She asked as if she didn't know.
"Oh God," he rubbed the blackening skin below his knee, "Get an ambulance. Jesus, I lost my balance running down the steps to see you."
Since the accident, Olga insisted that Dianna work in the main kitchen. "Such a child, my Nicholas: guud thingk I trust my friends, hmm?"
The anniversary party advanced to dessert. Some guests were dancing. Nick was moving back and forth with a middle aged blond who looked severely underweight. She seemed to enjoy the sweat oozing from his face onto her own.
Many still sipped from the vodka drinks allowing the baby eels to brush their lips. A rich man's version of living dangerously, Dianna thought. The stick-like specimens appeared to her as some biology assignment gone awry. Olga was dancing with the liquor distributor who was an immigrant himself. He had uttered a few Russian endearments when he delivered cases of vodka earlier in the day, and was promptly invited to the evening's celebration.
In the kitchen, Dianna placed delicate nasturtiums on a whipped cream cake. Among Olga's many stories of her youth, she said there was never enough milk. Whipped cream came closest to satisfying her insatiable need for dairy food, and it had made its way into almost every meal Dianna prepared. As she unfolded the petals for maximum effect, she began to feel hot. The swirls on the cake seemed to be softening as well, and she wondered if there was a problem with the air conditioning system. It was only May, but the weather seemed unusually warm. By the time she brought the confection to the living room, several guests were fanning themselves. One gray haired man had fished an eel from his glass and was holding the cool body against his forehead. Meanwhile, Olga stopped the music and insisted everyone gather around the melting cake. "Let's sing to us", she smiled. No one responded so she told Dianna to start a verse of "Happy Anniversary." "You know how eet goes, right Deanna?"
Dianna swallowed hard as everyone turned to her. Before she could utter the first note, she heard Nick's baritone singing, "You Are the Sunshine of my Life" from across the room. As he limped toward where she and Olga stood, the gray haired man cut ahead of him, and dangled his eel in Dianna's face. "Try this, cook, delicious". He attempted to drop the wormy body down her dress, but the creature slid from his hand and fell to the floor. Nick kept singing as he snatched an eel from his own drink, and placed it directly on her cleavage. Olga then grabbed it from her chest and threw it in Nick's face. He kept singing, imitating Stevie Wonder's familiar sway, and throwing his arm around Dianna's neck. She broke loose, and headed for the kitchen. He was so stoned from booze and marijuana; he kept his arm suspended in midair as if pantomiming a hug. I am, she thought, nothing more than the invisible hired help.
Alone in the courtyard, she reflected on an offer her fellow culinary institute graduate, Lucy, had proposed. "Why don't you come help me at my restaurant in Point Pleasant?" She asked. "You won't make as much money as your New York job, but hey, it's easy living. The only foods the shore people care to eat are scallops in butter, Jersey tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce."
"Iceberg lettuce? New Yorkers eat arugula, dear".
Lucy laughed. "Is there a romantic involvement that keeps you in that hell hole? Di, you're living the life of a modern day servant. You even live in the old servants' quarters."
Dianna reminded her that no turn of the century house cook ever received a hundred thousand dollars a year for their efforts. "I like the challenge the high maintenance set presents to me. Shellfish in grease is too mundane. There is no man in my life, either. It's just me holding me in place."
She wondered now what was holding her in place, as she admired the overflowing nasturtiums, so orange and cheery in their terra cotta pots. Maybe she should try a summer at the beach. She could return the three hundred dollar Versace skirt and use the money to hire a mover. That way, she wouldn't have to see the Henrys again No, why avoid reality? She returned to the living room where the temperature had reached an unhealthy degree. Nick, Olga, and the liquor distributor were dancing together, and kissing one to the other indiscriminately. A baby eel fight had broken out between the gray haired man and the petite blond. Dianna ran to the basement, checked her purse for cash, and the Penn Station schedule Lucy had sent her. If she hurried, she could catch the last train of the evening to Point Pleasant.
In the short cab ride to thirty-fourth and eighth, she admired the moon emerging from behind a cloud, and imagined it floating over the Atlantic. She would miss New York, but looked forward to working in a place where eels swimming in vodka might be mistaken for pet goldfish. She overpaid the taxi driver, ran the long staircase leading to gate five, and crossed the threshold from platform to train car. Passing beneath the Hudson River, she caught her reflection in the window, and smiled at the image of a woman successfully making her way through a long dark tunnel.