Originally appeared in North American Review
I CALL THE CATERERS on Monday. It is six months to the day that William left and I have to admit it is probably true, I will not have anyone to talk to at dinner again tonight. And when I decide I am tired of having dinner alone, I have had enough of eating in my kitchen standing at the counter with the radio turned up loud, I call the caterers. That is, I call their service and I say look, I want you to send me two of your caterers for a small party Tuesday of next week. And the service says yes all right and how many will we be serving madam and I say well one actually but if we count the caterers then three. So yes, three, I say, there will be three, please tell the caterers I want them to come for dinner. And the service says very good and will there be anything else and I say yes, please tell the caterers I would like them to talk. It would be very nice if they would tell a few stories.
And so on Tuesday when I get home from work I smell fresh garlic which is odd I cannot help thinking. So hello? I say and a fellow with dark hair and a center part leans out from the kitchen and oh hello, he says, and looks happy I am home.
Well I cannot leave it at that of course so I am going to ask can I help him, is there something he wants, and what is it he is doing in my kitchen? But already he is gone and from what sounds like the inside of my refrigerator he is calling do we have a lemon? We need a lemon.
Now I still want to know what he is doing in my house, I intend to be firm, but I am also pretty sure we have a lemon so I say try the tupperware, in the tupperware, in the back. When I reach the kitchen he has already found it, the lemon I mean, and he is opening top drawers looking for a knife. I help, as I am not sure where I saw one last. I find a grapefruit peeler mixed in with the stainless steel and ask will this do and he says yes, he thinks so and gives me a big smile like it’s ok I only have a grapefruit knife. And I think then maybe I should explain, I should tell him normally I have more, but William took all the good knives when he left, William was a fool for knives, he was always ordering them from catalogs. But I don’t say that. What I say is listen do I know you?
He looks surprised and a little hurt like I could have found some better way of putting it and I’m sorry then I asked although I don’t say that either. And he doesn’t say anything so it is quiet for a while. And then he hands me a small card, “Hall & Lish—Caterers” it says, and I remember then this is Tuesday.
So I think of course, I have caterers in my house, well that clears up some things. But I am wondering now which this is, Hall or Lish, and Lish, I decide to say to him, except then the toilet flushes and what must be the other one, a large bearded fellow with woolly hair, comes toward us down the hall. He’s still working with his fly and doesn’t see me at first, but then oh hello he says and smiles and I can tell he too is glad that I am home. And isn’t it nice, I can’t help thinking, to have someone happy you’ve come home—if not William, someone, although sometimes I still think it will be William, I will open the door and he will look up and see me and he will smile and smile.
But now the dark-haired caterer is pouring me a glass of wine and saying here, you sit here. So I take the wine and I have a seat and I think how they have gone all out, these caterers, we are using the linen napkins, my good china and I cannot help liking them for it. I am going to tell them just that I think and so Lish, I say to the woolly one, he looks like the Lish of the two. But I do not finish because just then the dark-haired caterer brings on the first course, a minestrone, the bowls are steaming and smell of basil and so let’s eat he says.
The woolly one does not hear me say Lish, he is excited now and says how they thought we should eat Italian tonight, seeing as my name’s Braccini, the service said it was Braccini. And then they both toast me, my Italian blood.
Actually I am Irish, English-Irish. It is William who is the Braccini, I only still have his name. But as I do not want to dampen anyone’s spirits here, I do not want to cancel anyone’s menu, I raise my wine. I try to think of something Italian to say. I decide it no longer matters which is Lish. What matters, I think, is William. But I do not say that, I just say well yes, let’s eat.
And then the dark-haired one is quiet, he is leaning forward over his soup and I can tell he has something to say. You see, he says, he used to sell shoes and that was all right but he can tell me one thing about catering for sure, it can be very educational.
I am glad to see we have something to discuss here, so Oh? I say. And the woolly one says yes, it can teach you about people.
I say oh? again and the woolly caterer says yes again, and for instance did I know you can tell a lot about a person by his kitchen?
I say no, but now that I think about it, that doesn’t surprise me a bit. And I say people are always telling a lot about other people by the way they organize closets or the paper they choose for their walls.
But the woolly one says no, as a caterer, you really can tell. You have no choice. You sauté mushrooms on their ranges, you serve their bridge group cracked crab, you can’t help it. You hear things, you see things.
I am wondering then what they already know of me, what character defects can they spot here in this dinette. And do they know then about William? But I don’t ask because I do not want to encourage them, already the topic depresses me. So I think I will change the subject, I will say there was a bombing today, La Guardia Airport, dissident Basque. I will bring up some current event, but it is too late, the dark-haired caterer is saying yes, you see things. And he nods and says like with the couple on Webster we catered for once.
I say well small world, I know people on Webster. But the caterer doesn’t ask who, he just says how the first time was when they catered a buffet for the woman. She was a harp player, he says, the party was to send her off, that’s all they talked about, her friends and the woman. How she was going to accompany Wayne Newton, a full symphony backup. It was going to be at Caesar’s Palace and it had gone to her head you could tell.
The woolly one says yes, he remembers. They served Lamb Moutarde and what a great showman that Wayne is, the harp player kept saying. It got on his nerves, the woolly one says, all through the broccoli and capers, the carrot timbales, Wayne Newton, Wayne Newton. And all the time the husband dead silent.
I realize here it is not the people on Webster I know, and for no particular reason I think then about William, how on summer nights we used to go out walking and William would sing to me, Land of the Gay Caballero mostly, though once it was an Irish song about love and William’s voice was fine and clear.
The dark-haired caterer says six months later we’re called back to the same address on Webster and no big surprise the man is having another party only this time they are all his friends. She is not there and we see the harp is gone and also the microwave oven. The man tells us she’s moved to Las Vegas, she plays the casinos.
I think then maybe I will give William a call. I will excuse myself and hello William, I’ll say, do you remember how you used to sing to me?
The woolly caterer says so there you are, things change. And the dark-haired one says yes, you wake up one morning and you’re out a microwave, she’s moved to Las Vegas.
I say well I suppose you learn those things. And though I think now we have covered the topic, the woolly one says yes, you do and I can tell he has another story.
There was this elderly couple we catered for, he says. The woman was too old to fix big family dinners and so whenever it got near Thanksgiving or Christmas, the old man would call the service and say how he was planning a surprise, how he wanted us to surprise Mother, he called his wife Mother, how he would like us to come and do a big turkey for the family that weekend.
The dark-haired one says how for three years the service sends someone to surprise Mother. And the great thing is, he says, she always is surprised, she always lets us take her by surprise. Oh Walter, she says every time, and touches the old guy on his cheek.
But last Christmas, the woolly one says, just about the time we’re expecting a call, we see in the paper the woman has died. And then we don’t hear from the old man, he just disappears and we think maybe someone in the family is cooking the turkey.
I ask so did he die too? Did they go together?
No, the woolly one says, because then Easter comes around and we get a call. It’s the old man and he says he wants us to come surprise Mother. Like she’d never died or anything.
The dark-haired one shrugs and says we’re booked that weekend, so we don’t go. And besides, he says, it’s sick. The woman’s dead.
And then the woolly one says they get another call at Thanksgiving, but he stops there because he remembers we have a main course. He jumps up and pretty soon he is back with veal scallopini, trenette con pesto. The dark-haired caterer takes the veal and passes it to me and says well, you just learn things is all. You spend time in people’s kitchens and you can see some things coming. And now he wants to tell about a couple on Franklin.
I do not know anyone on Franklin, I still want to know about the old man. And I think these caterers are costing me money, they should finish their stories.
But the dark-haired caterer is too quick for me. He is already on Franklin, the couple on Franklin. The woman’s husband was a big contractor he is saying, he built condominiums on the south side of town. And the woman used to call us every time her husband won a new contract, she used to throw a big party and we would come. And always she would tell us do the salmon mousse, a salmon mousse with slivered almonds on the top.
I try to think what I can add, what I can say on the topic of almonds. But there is nothing so I think about William again, how I could call him and say well but William do you remember, I sang to you too? And I think how we would sit in the middle of the bed late at night and eat cold cereal and milk, and I would sing all the fight songs I knew in college, all the big ten, every one to him. And when I had no more songs, he would tell about when he was in college, how he tried to get girls to sleep with him but they never would and he was afraid he’d end up an orthodontist. I laughed and said yes, tell me everything William. Let’s tell each other everything. I lay with my head on his chest and listened to him talk, I loved to feel the sound of him. And I thought then it would go on forever. If we just lay still like that we would go on forever.
But the dark-haired caterer is saying how when the interest rate went up and people stopped building condominiums, the service didn’t hear from the woman anymore until one day she called again and said would we come for one more party please and would we do the salmon mousse?
So we come, the woolly caterer says, and right in the middle of dinner, we are serving the leeks vinaigrette, the husband gets up from the table and says that to tell the truth, he has always hated the thought of salmon mousse. And we hear then by the grapevine in two days he is gone.
The bearded caterer shakes his head at that and the dark one gives a little laugh but I want to know why didn’t the builder say something, the woman could have ordered something else. He didn’t have to leave, I say.
The bearded caterer shakes his head like I haven’t been listening and says no. Things change.
He has a point of course, but then I remember the old man and what about the old man, I want to know. Finish the one about the old man.
The woolly caterer says oh well, like we said, everyone at the service knew the old guy was sick. Calling up and talking about Mother. Sick.
I think about that, but then no, I say. And I say maybe he just loved her. Maybe he thought she might still be coming back. And I say you don’t know. Maybe the old man was on to something.
The bearded one laughs and says well yes maybe he was because when we get this call at Thanksgiving, he would like us to come surprise Mother, we think what the hell, we go. We start the turkey and then the old man comes in and says he wants us to meet someone. And there is this tall brown-haired woman with her arm around him and he says to her Mother, these are the people who do our turkeys.
Mother, the woolly caterer says and laughs. The old guy called her Mother. He has a new woman, all the time we’re worrying, he has this new woman but he’s so used to the name, he just goes on calling her Mother. And he laughs and slaps his thigh and the dark-haired caterer laughs and I have to admit I laugh a little then too. And for the third time tonight I think I should call William, William would like that story, he would laugh too and hello William I say but then I can’t think why it is I’ve called and William isn’t talking.
So the caterers and I have a good laugh and I think how we must do this again, we must have dinner like this again sometime soon. How maybe I will call the service for next Tuesday, I could call the service every Tuesday, we could have dinner every week. And I think how after the caterers I could call a plumber, he could stay for dinner. And after the plumber there could be electricians, maybe a cable repairman, carpenters, someone from Roto Rooter. And they can all have dinner and tell me stories, there will be no end to the stories.
But I don’t say that to the caterers of course. I just shake my head and say how guess the joke’s on me, I thought it could go on forever.