Southampton, Long Island 2002
second-place winner of the “wicked Short” nonfiction Prize
I was in a van, waiting for waiters to arrive. My friend said, “I rescued a chicken that escaped from a slaughterhouse.” She was small and dark-haired. It was noon on a Saturday, and I was at the wheel. My friend was from Uruguay and had named the chicken Pepita. She said, “She’s following around my cats.” I said, “Do you still eat chicken?” She said, “Yes, just not this chicken.”
We headed to Southampton. I smelled the ocean before I saw it. At the event, we learned the client did not want us in her house for any reason. We were to use two, small outdoor toilets and wash our hands in the garage. The champagne bottles were not to be discarded so she could count them afterward. We were not to take flowers, although more than a hundred arrangements of roses, peonies, tulips, Casablanca lilies, and delphiniums sat on 25 tables.
Three tents were pitched on the lawn. One housed the kitchen. Another was for the reception, furnished with couches, silk cushions, carpets, and tables. The third tent was the dining room, vaulting up like a circus big top and lit with Japanese lanterns.
I folded napkins into origami nests and cut baguettes into slivers. I lit votive candles and filled water glasses. My job at dinner was to replenish stations of French and Asian food. At nine o’clock, 200 guests streamed into the dining tent, where waiters, poised with serving tongs, stood stationed before chafing dishes and platters. Short ribs were the size of fists, braised black outside and buttery within. On another platter was a medley of baby vegetables with morels and a puree of garlic potatoes. There were thick wedges of quiche, seafood ravioli, platters of fat green and white asparagus with an egg lemon sauce, and two kinds of cold soup: carrot ginger and five pea, garnished with procuitto lardons. On the Asian table were green papaya salad, Peking duck, sesame noodles, various stir-fries, pad thai, spring rolls, and steamed dumplings filled with chunks of lobster and shrimp. Dom Perignon and Cristal flowed.
For two hours the pace did not slow. The men wore loafers without socks. The women wore pointy stilettos that sunk into the grass when they stepped between tents. After the main course stations were cleared, the men smoked cigars, and we poured brandy. At eleven thirty, we served coffee and dessert, setting down individual warm chocolate soufflés, raspberry tarts filled with pastry cream, and chocolate mousse bombs shaped like plump mice with praline noses and curly chocolate tails. Each plate contained mini scoops of pistachio and passion fruit ice cream nestled in thin, ruffled cookies. Last we set down plates of petits fours and chocolate truffles.
I was about to leave the dining room to eat out of sight of the guests when I caught sight of a man I knew and with whom in the past I had had mean, secret sex. I turned in the smoky light to check if it was really him. He was wearing a maroon jacket wrong for the season, talking over his shoulder to a man in light-colored slacks and a navy blazer. What was my former friend, the former Marxist, doing at the party of a woman who searched our bags for stolen things? What was I doing here? The man’s hair was thinning, and he had developed a small paunch. I remembered him slender and naked. I had once bought him a shirt he wore until it was a rag. I didn’t want him to see me in a tux, although for this to happen I would have had to thrust my face directly into his. Guests do not look at waiters. If they had to pick you out of a lineup, you would beat the rap. The next time I swept the room, he was talking to a man with a ruddy complexion and pink pants. I bumped my nose on the metal corner of a table. I used a bathroom designated for the guests. I ate a chocolate mouse. He continued talking until the band stopped playing, and he drifted into the night.
Nine men and I stayed for the final breakdown. We had been moving for seven hours. It started to rain. There were bars to break down, tubs of ice to cart and dump, bottles of liquor to wipe dry and box, hundreds of glasses to slop and place in lugs, hundreds of plates to scrape and crate, dozens of tables to fold, wheel and stack, hundreds of chairs to bag and stack, dozens of cocktail tables to disassemble. Linens needed to be collected and bagged, kitchen equipment crated, and garbage hauled.
Our group included actors, dancers, and a photographer, all under thirty. I was fifty-four. The men came from Brazil, France, Spain, India, Afghanistan, and Greenwich, Connecticut. I knew where they had gone to school, who they were sending money to back home, who they were sleeping with. As the tasks grew messier, we called each other “sweetheart” and “darling.”
At two we were done. Before starting the van, I popped an Advil and drank a Diet Coke. One of the Brazilians ruffled my hair and stretched out on the back seat. An actor sat up front with me, and we talked while the others slept. He worked as a security guard at an apartment complex, wandering the grounds that overlooked the Hudson while memorizing monologues.
The rain quit after a while, and I sped along. Some of the guys had jobs the next day and would sleep only a few hours. A couple of them tumbled out groggily in Queens. The rest peeled off in Manhattan. At five, I rolled into the garage to return the van and felt a second wind. I walked uptown as the sky turned milky, feeling unsettled in a way that was familiar and that I would never get used to.
Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal, Stories: https://www.amazon.com/My-Life-Animal-Stories-Triquarterly/dp/0810134284. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and critic-at-large on Fresh Air. She won the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and two grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She has published numerous stories in such publications as N + 1, Tin House, Evergreen Review, Fence, Open City, Anderbo, The Collagist, Your impossible Voice, New Letters, TriQuarterly, Threepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction. In 2005, she participated in "Novel: An Installation," writing a book and living in a house designed by architects Salazar/Davis in the Flux Factory's gallery space. She has frequently collaborated with composer Gordon Beeferman in text/music works. The world premier of their piece “You, the Weather, a Wolf” was presented in the 2016 season of the St. Urbans concerts. She is at work on Postcards from the Thing that is Happening, a collage of hybrid narratives. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.