Porca Miseria! Pig of Misery!
(The Sorry State of Things)
All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.
A 7.1 tremor had been felt throughout the Southland that morning, the epicenter somewhere out in the hinterlands of Lancaster, unnerving residents, but the offices of Flask, Flask, Gardiner, Bulkington, Bartleby, and Peleg were seemingly immune. Ten floors up in the sybaritic conference room, the air conditioner purred; the air was filtered, ionized, and subtly scented of cedar. Ann looked out the plate glass windows at the expansive, gaseous hills of West Los Angeles as a contemplative might look out of her meditation temple. Smoke was pouring from a Spanish Colonial Revival house halfway up a nearby manicured hill, and as she watched, toylike, candy-colored fire engines curled up the narrow canyon roads to put it out. The glass was proofed; no siren sound reached them. They were protected from the ninety-degree heat outside, the fume-laden gridlock below, the merciless sunlight above that leeched color from the landscape.
"You drowned my twenty-year-old bonsai collection," Mrs. Peters accused the neighbor she was suing.
Her client was blowing it. Catlike, Ann leaned over and whispered in her ear. "Picture where you want to be a year from now."
The client, Mrs. Peters, the fourth wife of a major Hollywood producer, was not hearing no; her husband was a prime client of a senior partner at the firm, Bartleby, and he had told Ann to "nuke the nuisance suit" in arbitration.
Ann, junior partner, was smartly dressed in an expensive, Italian-cut skirt suit, low-heeled Blahnik pumps, and black-framed eyeglasses that she didn’t need but used for effect. The firm’s philosophy: Big fish eat little fish. The lesson to be derived? Make sure you are a big fish. She meant to exude big-fishness, but she had been mostly silent for the last fifteen minutes of the meeting, causing Mrs. Peters to think she had been handed down to the office dud.
The defendant’s attorney, obvious small fish Todd Bligh from his own one-man, eponymously named firm in Marina del Rey, was wearing jeans and flip-flops. He looked like he should be a bartender on a beach somewhere. For the last fifteen minutes, he had been droning on about soil erosion, mudslides, environmental degradation, and acts of God. Blah, blah, blah.
Ann ran a fingernail along the condensation ring of her water glass on the waxed Brazilian rosewood conference table. The endangered species table had been purchased illegally by the Flask brothers precisely because it was politically incorrect, proving how badass and above the law the firm held itself. Out the window, the Spanish Colonial was being delicately licked by flames.
"Acts of God," Ann said dreamily.
"Yes," said Bligh.
"I’ve been to your property, Mrs. Brenner. It’s stunning. So well groomed. Your gardener…"
Ann pretended to check a piece of paper, although she had the gardener’s name, immigration status, and driver’s license memorized. "Yes. Mr. Avelino Stamos is quite skilled."
Mrs. Brenner perceivably relaxed at this acknowledgment. "He’s been working for me for ten years. He’s invaluable."
"So skilled and experienced in fact that he advised you it would not be a good idea to remove the cinder block retaining wall that had been in place twenty years, reinforcing the hillside."
Silence in the room, and now Mrs. Peters was the one smiling, albeit tightly. She had insisted on going ahead with her scheduled preholiday chemical peel, and she exuded a bruised, melted beauty, like a middle-aged Barbie.
Ann sighed. "Mrs. Brenner, didn’t he also tell you it wasn’t a good idea to bring in two truckloads of topsoil, spreading it on top of a clay hillside to plant flowers for an outdoor party? That it would run off in a rain? Straight into my client’s patio, choking her prize, exotic plant-life. Yes?" Again, the faked note check. "A rare imperial, eight-handed bonsai imported directly from Takamatsu, Japan, replacement value in the five-figure range."
Todd Bligh now had beads of sweat rolling down his face despite the cool air blowing on him.
Ann did not mention the crucial and probable cause of the lawsuit—that her client had been snubbed and not invited to said party. "Just as an aside, when I looked into your tax records, I did not see withholdings for Mr. Stamos. Ten years, plus penalties. Also, in case this goes to trial and is reported in the press, can you confirm or deny your absence from the residence during the landscaping work while staying at Voyages Rehabilitation facility in Malibu for an OxyContin addiction?"
It was a dirty, shower-inducing job, but someone had to do it. No, correction, she was being paid to do it; it was her specialty, to land the eviscerating mortal thrust. As the settlement papers were drawn up in the firm’s favor, Bartleby dropped in and shook Mrs. Peters’s hand, effectively taking credit for the outcome. "Tell Jerry to call me for tennis this weekend." He gave Ann a terse nod and was gone.
When Todd Bligh left with his client, he refused to make eye contact with Ann. He appeared visibly shaken, smarting from the hardball she had just served. She heard the slapping sound of his defeated flip-flops as he walked down the hallway. He would be happier as a beach bartender.
After the others had all left the conference room, Ann closed the door, locked it, and turned off the punishing fluorescent lights. Rumor was senior partners from decades before had installed the lock in order to conduct liaisons—the only glass looked outward into the lozenge of golden, poisonous air. A design psychologist claimed that the fishbowl effect so popular in most conference rooms, suggesting openness and transparency, was detrimental in a city of entertainers, who when observed did what came naturally: they acted. Once the walls became concealing solid maple, settlements skyrocketed.
Ann threw off her pumps. She unbuttoned the back of her skirt and unzipped it a few inches, rolled down her control-top panties, freeing her bloated stomach. A small moan of relief like a burp escaped from her diaphragm. Sweat had broken out on her forehead. Bloating, pimples, swollen breasts and feet, and a fine moustache on her upper lip were the fun part.
After the clomiphene failed to induce pregnancy, the doctor switched her to hormone injections. The drive to the doctor’s office was too difficult with an eighty-hours-a-week work schedule, so Richard gave her the painful shots as she bent over the bathroom counter, fighting back tears. This was not what she was supposed to be doing with her husband while bent over the bathroom counter, but even though she must have been dropping eggs like a goose, the effect of the drugs made even the idea of sex horrific in her present crazed, engorged state. Its main effect was to hone her bloodlust at work, as she had just so ably demonstrated (the OxyContin bomb was a scorched earth tactic, but she was tired and wanted a quick kill). Only when she wrote out the monthly exorbitant checks to the fertility clinic, which was not covered by the firm’s cut-rate health insurance, did she feel like getting her money’s worth. Then Richard and she had sad, porno-inspired sex. Maybe they should have adopted.
Ann opened her briefcase and pulled out her stash of Mars bars, the only food she craved, even though she had promised Richard she would save herself for dinner. She ripped the wrappers off and dropped the bars into her mouth, opening another before she devoured the first, an obscene assembly line of gluttony. Only when her mouth was crammed full of chocolate did she at last feel a glorious calm descend. This was her true shame and infidelity: the sugary, waxy, acrid grocery-bin chocolate she was addicted to. In disgust, Richard threw them into the trash every time he found a stash. Food snobbery was the price to be paid for marrying a professional chef.
"How can you?" he’d say, his lips twisted as if forced to taste something fantastically bitter. He gave a tight nod—a tic that drove Ann up the wall—then stoically forgave her. "Sweetheart, you know that crap messes up your palate."
But Ann didn’t want his gourmet Felchlin Gastro 58% Rondo Dark Chocolate that puddled on the tongue like silk, that left an aftertaste of cassis. She wanted her nostalgie de la boue, love of the gutter, an attraction to what was unworthy. Exactly.
She rooted around in her briefcase and found the book she had stayed up late into the night reading, The Moon and Sixpence, the story of a Gauguin-like figure who runs off to Tahiti. She rewarded herself for tasks done by sneaking away to read a few pages. Today she deserved a chapter at least for settling the case. She unfastened the top buttons of her blouse to cool off. If only she could get her prickling, rashed skin dry for a second. Soon her blouse was off, and there she stood in her new mom-bra. The polished rosewood beckoned like the glassy face of an ocean. She lay down on it under the wash from the air-conditioning vent till the cold cedar air raised goose bumps on her arms. Her breasts ached, but she wouldn’t go so far as to unhook her bra. Her chest size had gone from flat A-cup to grapefruit-sized D-cup, and was just one more thing Richard wasn’t getting to enjoy.
Savagely, she ripped open another candy bar wrapper. One of the new age ideas was that failure to conceive was a proactive reaction to the body’s not being ready. The prospective mother developed a kind of allergy to the father. What she needed to do was visualize her future baby to make herself user-friendly. Although Ann had thought the idea abysmally simpleminded, she was surprised that this ended up being her favorite fertility activity: she pictured cute baby girls with blond hair and pink cheeks, boys with Richard’s brown eyes who bounced their chubby legs like puppies. The happiness she experienced in these fantasies gave her a wan assurance that she might make an okay mother someday.
Of course she wanted a child, but since it had not happened naturally, she was oppressed by the likelihood that she would have hormone-induced twins at the least, possibly triplets or quintuplets—what were they called when the number went even higher?—while she was daunted by the prospect of even one baby. A biological clock had gone off, but she wasn’t sure it was inside her; rather, it seemed outside, in everyone else. Newspapers, magazines, TV talk shows, her girlfriends, her mother, celebrity baby bumps on the covers of tabloids in the grocery store line. Even her gynecologist of twenty-years had joined in. Fertility was the new über-lucrative specialty compared with plain-vanilla gynecology or obstetrics. When Ann put her feet in the stirrups—in the early years worrying mostly about STDs, then about trying not to get pregnant—she now was assaulted by pictures stapled to the ceiling of babies dressed like cabbages. The Fertility-Industrial Complex, she joked with Richard until they found themselves inside of it, when it became distinctly less funny. Since when had procreation turned into a job?
A knocking on the conference door shook her out of her reverie. "Ann, are you in there?"
She said nothing, swinging her feet into a nearby leather swivel chair. Candy wrappers littered the table and floor like spent condoms.
She heard another voice. "Maybe she’s in there with someone."
"The Scorcher? She’s probably playing alone. After devouring her mate. The lady praying mantis. She’s ruthless. The Peters case was settled in an hour. The Brenner woman ran out of here crying. Dolan crushed."
"Have fun in there." The smirking voices moved off.
This was why she deserved partnership over the other junior partners—because unlike them, she knew that the seemingly solid, soundproof conference doors had been specially hollowed out so that private negotiations could be overheard. Yes, she’d won. Her consolation prize. But they were wrong. She wasn’t ruthless; she just was trying to be a big fish. Things would get better. They had to. Today was her thirty-eighth birthday.
Richard was determined to test-run a few new recipes before he baked Ann’s cake for dinner that night. It was his favorite time in the kitchen, before Javier and everyone else showed up, and he opened the back door onto the alley, enjoying the whiff of sea breeze. He put on Pavarotti’s Neapolitan songs, and set a pot of Yukon Golds to boil. When the phone rang, it was yet another credit collection agency asking for Javier. "He’s on vacation," Richard said and hung up. He needed to work on his potato-and-fennel au gratin—he still hadn’t gotten the right mix of creamy and sharp cheese. As a substitute for pedestrian Gruyère, he was thinking of maybe a Cantal or Reblochon? Or finding a source for a salty, buttery, earthy L’Etivaz?
The delivery buzzer rang, breaking Richard’s thoughts. He slapped at the intercom with floury fingers. It was UPS.
"Overnight from Lodi."
Shit. The rabbits. Richard and Javi’s brainchild. Hardly a restaurant in the LA basin served rabbit—just hole-in-the-wall ethnic places in the Valley—yet in Europe it was a well-respected staple. He would explain on the menu that rabbit was lower in fat and higher in protein than chicken. The challenge was overcoming the bad image. Richard’s solution was to substitute it in some well-known recipes. He would transform coq au vin to lapin au vin. Rabbit Abruzzi in a sauce of tomatoes, olive, and artichokes. Then he would feature one French classic such as lapin aux pruneaux, rabbit with prunes. But the delivery wasn’t supposed to be till tomorrow—a box of fryers for experimenting—, overnighted on dry ice from a free-range rabbit farm in Northern California. Should he dare try making a dish for tonight?
Richard took delivery and put the box on the counter, grabbing a pair of bone shears to cut the plastic binding. His palms were just the slightest bit sweaty. When he took off the lid of insulating dry ice, the sight that met his eyes set him back years. Not anonymous, cut-up fryer pieces sanitized in plastic but four whole, furry white bodies funereally laid out in the interior. Unskinned. Was this a joke? Was the supplier some kind of masochist? He put the Styrofoam lid back on, spinning away and stumbling over a chair, his shirt was soaked in flop sweat.
A throbbing engine stopped in the alley. Richard staggered toward the door to close it to keep the fumes out. It was Javi behind the wheel of a new silver Corvette convertible.
"What are you doing in that?"
"Almost the same as the Honda." Which in Javi-speak meant double what the Honda cost.
"Creditors have been calling all morning. Not about my gnocchi."
"Want to take a ride?"
Richard thought of the leporid sarcophagus and the unpleasant task ahead of him. "Give me a minute." He shoved the box in the walk-in refrigerator and fled.
It was way past noon by the time Richard and Javi made their way back to the restaurant, arms fraternally around each other. They’d gone up the coast highway, the day so spectacular they decided to continue all the way to Malibu, and once in Malibu they couldn’t not stop off for a quick seafood lunch of fritto misto and beer on the pier, and then they ran into a chef friend who staked them to a round of reposado tequila. The only blip in the afternoon occurred after Richard bought yet another round of drinks for the group and his card was declined, but he laughed it off as having overspent for the restaurant and paid in cash.
It was late by the time they returned, and he went to check messages in his office—electric company, credit card company, linen supplier, bank. The only call he returned was from the car dealership verifying Javi’s employment and a salary that was more wishful thinking than reality. When he arrived back in the kitchen, Javi had the box of rabbits out, butcher paper spread, with a splayed white body in the center.
"Looks like the Easter Bunny arrived early."
Richard forced himself to look at the matted fur. He lost it at the sight of the delicate, folded-back velvety ears. All the blood in his body sloshed down to his feet so that he had to hold onto the counter to keep from falling through the floor.
"Whoa, you okay, partner?" Javi asked.
"Not feeling so good."
"Why don’t you leave this to me? Start on Annie’s cake."
"I almost forgot." Richard went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face. What had happened to him? Unheard of—a chef with an aversion to cooking meat. The idea of stockyards made him faint. Boiling lobsters made him queasy. The easy acceptance of foie gras, roasted whole baby lamb, and, his own undoing, rabbit paralyzed him. He looked at his blotchy face in the mirror and considered googling "psychotic breakdown."
His shins itched to the point of him scratching himself raw; his doctor had diagnosed stress-related eczema. He had developed a tic under one eye that at random moments made him appear to be winking. Earlier that day in Malibu, it had happened in front of a toned young woman in spandex who, thinking he was being lewd, gave him the finger. Now he swallowed half a bottle of probiotics, washing it down with copious amounts of Pepto-Bismol in an attempt to curb the chronic indigestion, PUD (peptic ulcer disease), and irritable bowel syndrome that had started during the last few months and threatened to ruin the upcoming evening.
The enormous strain of trying to make the opening a success and at the same time cover for Javi’s threatened implosion was wearing him down. On top of that, he felt guilt over Ann’s working so hard and in good faith handing over all her money to him for the restaurant, some of which he had to hand over to Javi to keep various collection agencies off his back so he would concentrate on designing the menu. Now Richard had to tactfully broach the matter of new car payments that were out of the question.
The itching grown unbearable, his medicated cream at home, in despair Richard headed back to the kitchen for olive oil to slather on his raw skin. When in doubt, olive oil. Javi was on his cell phone, and when he saw Richard, he scowled and went outside for privacy. Often Richard wished he could invite Javi to live with them; just do away with the pretense that the man was a fully functioning adult and treat him like the willful, tantrum-prone-five-year-old Freudian id he was.
As Richard finished up Ann’s cake (Javi having mercifully taken over the "rabbit issue," creating a fricassee with cilantro and onions as an appetizer for that night), he had a stroke of inspiration and whipped up a bowl of crème Chantilly. He had not had time to buy a present, but what kind of present would it be anyway, with them both knowing it was Ann’s money that bought it? He went into his chaotic office, shoved whole stacks of paperwork out of sight, and spread a long tablecloth for ten on the sagging sofa, the ends puddling nicely. Standing back to assess the makeshift effect, he raided the supply cabinet for votives and set them on every surface: the room itself turned birthday cake. He placed a butane Iwatani brûlée torch at the ready to light them for Ann’s arrival.
Ann let herself in through the front entrance of the restaurant. The beauty of the dining room consoled her, despite the fact she was tired and had a stomachache from all the Mars bars. It was her baby, designed from scratch from notes she had taken from their favorite places over the years. Instead of the modern, antiseptic dining spaces then in vogue, theirs would have a rococo feel. The room had deep-red velvet walls with chocolate-brown wood accents and was hung with ornamental mirrors in heavy, gilded frames. On the center of each virginal white linen tablecloth stood a small crystal vase, which would be filled with choice blooms spotlit from a halogen light in the ceiling. The tables would not have candles, which were an inefficient use of limited table space, but hundreds of votives would be lit on shelves projecting from the walls. Ann wanted each customer to feel like a prized truffle nestled inside a Valentine box of sweets.
That was the future. Right now she wanted nothing more than to go home, put on a bathrobe, and hole up in bed with a thick novel, but there stood Richard, inexplicably winking at her. He took her hand and led her to his office, the fiery room fragrant with melted wax and burned sugar. A rubber bowl of whipped cream stood on his desk.
"Strip," he said softly, "my sexy thirty-eight-year-old goddess."
"I sent him for ice. An hour-long ice trip to be exact."
The lit candles heated the room more quickly than Richard would have thought possible. Stripped down to his undershirt and boxers, he suddenly realized that the room was a classic firetrap. As he led Ann to the sofa, he tried to recall exactly where the new box of fire extinguishers had been stored.
Meticulously Richard basted her arm in a coat of whipped cream that he then licked off. "No fair!" Ann laughed, and he fed her dollops off his fingertips. He couldn’t help himself—as much as he loved Ann, the whipped cream was making his throat so acidic he felt close to throwing up. He moved to another position, licked spoonfuls off her inner thighs, but the angle made his neck crick. He drove himself on, denying the pain, moaning to release some of the agony, which Ann mistook for passion, prompting her to grab his head and cant his neck at a forty-five-degree angle of torture as she kissed him. He buried his head in her cleavage to hide the tremoring like a Mexican jumping bean beneath his eye so she wouldn’t mistake it for winking.
They made love. It was nice. Friendly. Comfort sex. She had the sense that Richard was clenched inside; his mind seemed far away. Because he had seemed to enjoy it so much, she grabbed his head again and gave him another hard, bad-girl kiss. Afterward Ann felt a purring contentment as she got dressed, as well as a stickiness under her clothes that she couldn’t wait to go home and wash off. She was still wearing her good suit from the office—she had come straight there from another ten-hour day—but it seemed petty to complain when Richard was trying so hard. He was under such strain, she was surprised he even remembered her birthday. A dry cleaning bill and a potentially ruined wool skirt. Life could be worse than being desired by your husband under a mountain of whipped cream.
Copyright © 2015 by Tatjana Soli