Catering Job

By Eleanore Lee

trange I didn’t recognize the place. When we pulled the van into that driveway, I had no clue. We started unloading the long pallets filled with food. They’re heavy and it takes two people to carry them up the front stairs, careful not to tip and spill. The clients had ordered mixed appetizer trays for fifty, and then for later tri-tip to barbecue and serve with roast veggies. The clients were supposed to provide drinks and dessert. I was the one assigned to stay and serve. They only needed one server. It was our second job that weekend. An okay job but nothing special. The institutional jobs, like for the Elias T. Finney Democratic Club or the Chamber of Commerce—those are more interesting and have the promise of future connections.


Anyway, there I was, helping unload the heavy food trays from the van, then running ahead up the front porch steps to hold the doors open for Jerrie and Greg. I was really preoccupied, not thinking a lot about anything except the timing, about getting it all right and as usual about pleasing Jerrie—important for my hopes for a future in the business.


While I was closing and locking the van after they’d gone inside to unpack and set up, I realized I had a funny feeling. I stood still and looked around. I hadn’t noticed when we approached the house because I’d been busy talking with Greg, and Jerrie was the one who’d noted down the address and who drove. But now… Wait a minute. The block—and the house—were really familiar. The house with the looming old oak in front. Its tight row of first-floor windows lining the length of the porch like a set of glittery teeth. The two faux pillars. And yes, the bumpy cobblestone path heading around back. I paused for a minute, staring down at the cobblestones.


* * *


Long ago, the first time I came there, I stood on these cobblestones wondering if they were like the ones on Paris streets. I stood there frozen in fear, but also with excitement. Excitement about what lay ahead.


It was the same house, but now somehow larger and brighter. In my memories it always seemed to be grim and drizzling as if the house sat in the middle of its own dark cloud.


* * *


“Tanya!” Jerrie was calling.


I woke up suddenly. “Yes. Coming!”


“Come back here. The kitchen’s in back. This is where we’re doing the main setup. They can do the drinks and dessert in the little anteroom. That will keep it separate and be good for flow.”


Jerrie was always so aware of flow. And yes, I knew the kitchen was in back.


I didn’t say anything. I just came in the front door, past the family or TV room, down the long hall, and back to the kitchen where I belonged.


“Here. Unpack these.” Greg pointed to the boxed wineglasses. Greg had a lordly commanding manner, especially at the beginning of a job. But I didn’t let it bother me. There’s something to be said for clear instructions. He meant no harm.


I started pulling the glasses out, two by two, checking for dust specks, scraps of newspaper, then lining them up on the small table in the anteroom.


What was it called? “Storage?” “Pantry?” No. A pantry is smaller than that, isn’t it? No. Now I remembered. They actually called it “the maid’s room.” Can you believe it? Well fuck them I thought. It’s not the maid’s room anymore; it’s the anteroom. And I think, they’re gone and I’m here! I’m right here unpacking wineglasses.


I moved on to organizing the appetizer plates in the kitchen. We used big grand-looking fake crystal platters. I lined the three kinds of crackers in their neat long rows. After two or three people it gets all messed up. But the point of the practice is to have it elegantly lined up at the beginning. Greg believed an elegant layout was as important as the taste of the food, that clients always remembered and the image would be fixed—that this is one high-class caterer.


I started unwrapping the pâtés, cheeses, tapenade, and set them out invitingly. Simple. Graceful. That’s the way. I could do it in my sleep.


As I laid out and arranged the food, I glanced around me at the kitchen and tried to fight off the advancing feelings of creepiness. Yes, the same tall windows and high ceilings. But everything was a different color now. How was it different? Lighter. And that huge silver refrigerator, of the type that’s in style in all upscale kitchens these days. A Sub-Zero. But there, over there, was the cooktop, in the same place, but now shiny and silvery. A Wolf.


* * *


It certainly looked different back then. Darker, lonelier. A place I didn’t belong. Of course back then, she was there. She always seemed to be in the kitchen when we first came in. I could see her now, standing there, a wooden spoon in her hand, smiling that cold smile at me. What did she say? Every time? Oh yes: “Tanya. How good of you to stop by!” Can you believe it? As if I was somebody of significance. Someone making a formal call, no less. Of course she said it that way to be ironic. That’s how she was. Ironic.


It was then I learned that irony can be a fierce, sharp weapon.


After I’d gone through the required greeting ritual he’d come into the kitchen to get me. He’d grab my arm and pull me out toward the stairs. The stairs? Oh yes, that’s where they were, right by the front door. What would he say?… “Comeon, comeon!” Making it into one word like that. Now that I think about it, it should have been kind of obvious. But all I knew was I was needed. I was the focus of intense attention. I was tasty snack. I was supper.


* * *


“Hey Tanya. Wake up! Would you start setting up the grill? We were thinking next to the cooktop.”


“Sure. Hey, who are the clients? I don’t think I heard their name.”


“Becker, Beckwith. Something like that. It’s on the contract in the file in the front of my pack. I did hear the guy has something to do with finance.”


I unfolded the portable broiler and set it up on the counter. Surrounded it with the heatproof drop cloth. Plugged it in.


The counters were now sleek granite. There were a couple of huge abstract paintings/collages glowing on two of the high kitchen walls. One had orange stringlike objects hanging from it. I wondered if it was difficult to keep clean. They—the previous owners, him and his mom, they would have hated the way the kitchen was looking now. They judged all the time. Some things were “cheap.” Some things were “tacky.” And some people.


* * *


I kept wishing if only I could sneak away for a minute and go upstairs to look around. The stairs. I remembered the cold slippery feel of the oiled wood. They weren’t carpeted. He’d pull me upstairs, then across the landing, then down the shadowy hall, past the closed bedroom doors. All those bedroom doors were closed, like living in a hotel. He’d drag me into his room and kick the door shut. A big sigh, then he’d push me down onto the bed and flop down hard on me. That’s how it was: Hard and fast. Often we wouldn’t even get the clothes off. His fingers digging and burning into my shoulders as he pushed. Eyes closed.


No. Don’t think of it anymore. How in hell did I end up here again?


* * *


Now Jerrie was near me. She put her hand on my shoulder. She was checking her watch. “The family’s supposed to get back in ten minutes. Then the guests will start arriving in a half hour. Greg and I’ll stay here with you for another couple of minutes or so to get you going, then we’ll leave.”


“Do you know if this is some sort of special event? A reception or something?”


“Graduation party for their daughter. I don’t know any details. But that’s what the lady—Mrs. Becker, said. They said they were bringing some kind of special cake. Remember to set it up in the anteroom.”


“I won’t forget.”


* * *


I heard footsteps and voices coming from the front porch. The door opened, and they came in, the family, the Beckers. Back from wherever they’d been, the couple with their lovely successful graduating daughter.


Mrs. Becker came back into the kitchen. The other two went right upstairs. She was carrying a large cake box. She smiled at me and at the platters arrayed on the kitchen counters and table. “It looks good. I’ve always heard that you folks do a great job.” I took the cake box from her and deposited it on the table in the anteroom.


She was slender, with perfectly done short blond hair and a pretty, unlined face. What you’d expect of a wife of high finance. She seemed nice enough. She was looking me over. What was she wondering? Like, was this an appropriate person to be their server?


* * *


It was more than ten years ago when I first came to this place, when I was first subject to critical appraisal—in this very kitchen. We were both seniors. He was in my AP American history class. His name was Hud, like the movie. It was short for Hudson. He was tall and graceful and what I imagined to be upper class. Upper class in the old-money way, I mean. I had a romantic idea of what this was—perhaps from novels like The Great Gatsby that I used to read hungrily back then. What was there about him? A kind of ease. An aura of the big world—even though he was in my same school and was my same age. He was someone who’d been places; he’d spent a summer with a family in France. He was on the lacrosse team. I somehow was given to believe that celebrities and politicians visited his home. That mattered to me. It was a glimpse of a wider world through a half-opened window. At that point in my growing up I definitely wanted out of my own world one way or another. My mom and I lived in a series of cheap studios in the industrial part of town. It seemed like no one ever visited and the phone hardly ever rang—except for the occasional call from a collection agency—until we got rid of the landline altogether.


He was applying early decision to Princeton.


One afternoon, at the end of history class, he unexpectedly invited me to come home with him after school. Would I come to his place to “study”? We’d been sharing a text during the class because he’d forgotten his (he said). He had to pull up his chair close to mine to see my book. I was very aware of his big blond frame, his closeness. I wanted more.


I was supposed to go to work that afternoon to my job as hostess at the deli, but I called in sick. I didn’t know if I’d get another chance with him.


His house impressed me as big and old and grand. But different from how it looks now—less slick and polished. Expensive, yes, but with a slight air of seediness. Some of the paint on the front porch was peeling. The flower garden in front was weedy and a bit unkempt.


He held the screen door open for me and pointed down the hall. “Yeah, she’s home. I have to introduce you. But it’s okay.”


We went through the front hall. It had high arched ceilings and walls lined with oil paintings. Old ones that were real—yellowed landscapes. There were pictures of birds hovering over water, roses climbing up trellises, snowy mountains. They made me think of the illustrated children’s books I used to get from the library, The Secret Garden, Heidi.


He pulled at my arm. “This way.” Then, as we stood at the kitchen door, “Mom?”


She was leaning over the cooktop stirring something, sipping what appeared to be wine out of a tall jelly glass. She looked up surprised.


“Mom, this is Tanya. She’s in my AP American history class. We’re going to study.”


She raised an eyebrow slightly. She looked me up and down. She looked me over hard. Was she wondering if he’d catch anything? Was I the first “study date” he’d brought home? Or did he do this all the time?


I looked her over back. She had long straight graying hair and bangs and was just a little frumpy. Glasses. Her cheeks somewhat flushed. Someone who never got over the ’60s. Maybe a college professor who never got tenure. I already knew something about the world. I had to.


After that, I went there often during the rest of the school year. I got our day changed to Wednesdays to fit with my work schedule. I was there reliably every week.


I can still see his room, the ribbons for something athletic mounted on the wall, the trophy cups of some sort, the big complicated-looking stereo, the piles of CDs, the unmade bed. It always seemed cold in that room. As if having a warm room was for lowlifes or the overly fussy.


We developed a regular routine. Always the greeting with Mom as she cooked and drank her wine in the kitchen, always the rush upstairs. Then always the hurried and breathless pushing and thrusting on the bed. I suppose we sometimes did study for a while. But more often, after, he’d quietly turn his face to the wall and fall asleep. I sometimes slipped out of the house then. There was certainly no sign that I’d ever be invited to stay for dinner. Not me. Not by them. By now the mother would usually have moved to the television room near the front door and be staring blankly at some fake English cultural public television show, stretched out on the couch with her never-empty glass by her side. She wouldn’t even look up as I passed by.


I never saw any sign of the father—although once or twice Hud mentioned that “Dad was out of the state on business.” Dad did important work. His trips were often to New York City or Washington. Dad had gone to Princeton. Hud told me that one of those closed doors upstairs was the door to “Dad’s room.”


* * *


The guests were starting to arrive. They were cheerful. Some young, the daughter’s age, some the parents’ age. The daughter, when she came downstairs, was shy and sort of sweet. The party ground on. Champagne toasts were made to the girl’s health—Mona, was her name. To her future. “Salut!” She embarrassedly acknowledged the toasts. She thanked her parents. The parents were beaming. I served.


I was busy now. I no longer had time to think or to remember. There was a rhythm and an ease. Now it was just another catering experience: Laying out the plates. Refilling the platters when needed. Picking up trash and stuffing it into trash bags. Mopping up the occasional spill. Explaining to one worried woman about the ingredients in the chicken turnovers. No, no dairy. Indeed. And no gluten. Yes, tomatoes. Yes, later, we’ll be serving tri-tip along with the vegan alternative. No gluten with that either. Right.


The doorbell rang; more people arrived. We were running short of the cheese plate and I began to worry, but then a bunch of people left, so we were fine.


“Thank you thank you thank you.” They always thanked. Those people remember that kind of thing. They thanked—at least they thanked people like me.


Finally, the steak was all served to the meat eaters; the cake was cut and parceled out to the gluten-devouring cake eaters. The champagne toasts had been executed. The graduating daughter, Mona, wandered off to the family room and collapsed exhausted on the couch as the crowd in the living room began to thin. I checked my watch. Greg and Jerrie would be back in about twenty minutes to help with the final clearing up and to load up our stuff. The bill would be paid. Would I get a generous tip? Likely. They seemed like the tipping kind. Not like the previous occupants.


I mopped off counters, packed away leftover food. And started remembering again.


* * *


He didn’t get into Princeton early admission. Later he got accepted by Duke—which was evidently an acceptable choice in their view. (He said they had family back there in North Carolina.) I continued to see him that summer before college, but less often. I was going to go to community college with the idea of transferring later to a four-year school. I was beginning to think about going into something like hospitality, or culinary arts. Of course I loved those liberal-artsy kinds of areas, but I was determined to go into a field where I could actually make a living. I figured I could read plenty of deep books in my spare time, if I could pay the rent.


We had a one last evening together that was really pretty much the same as all the other times. He did say, “I’ll write.”


I didn’t believe it.


Oh, and yes, he gave me a bottle of champagne. He held it out to me saying earnestly, “I’d like you to have this.” I remember thinking it was sort of strange. We didn’t open it or drink then. He just gave it to me. But now I suddenly saw it a new way. Could it have been a leftover item from his graduation party? That I wasn’t invited to?


No. He didn’t write me. (You’ve probably heard this story, no?) I wasn’t counting on it and I did have a lot of other stuff on my mind what with starting school and getting some new responsibilities in my deli job. I did drive by the house a couple of times. It seemed kind of grim and lonely—even more than before—even with the glittering window teeth on the front porch and the old oak tree by the curb. I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination, but it seemed that the front lawn was beginning to look more openly unkempt, sprouting dandelions, oxalis, and even some empty plastic bottles.


After a while I simply put him out of my mind. I had a new boyfriend. A real one. And of course I was very busy those days. Did I wonder why he never called me? On vacations or anything? Maybe. I don’t remember. Not remembering made me happier.


* * *




Someone wanted me.




It was her; it was Mrs. Becker. She was smiling sweetly and clasping an envelope. No, two envelopes. “Here’s the check for the catering. Tell your people we were delighted with the food and we’ll definitely use your services again. We sometimes do business events as well as the family ones like this.” Then she held out the other envelope. “And here’s a little something extra for you.”


“Oh, thank you so much!” I took it and slipped it into my pocket. I knew not to open it in front of her (it would be tacky) but to wait until I was safely in the van to look at it. “I think I’ve packed up everything. The extra food is in containers in the refrigerator. The van should be here in a couple of minutes and we’ll be loading up.”


“Wonderful!” She smiled. She didn’t move away.


I took this as an opening. “I was wondering…. I think I may have been in this house once years ago. It looked very different though. Have you lived here long?”


“We moved here about ten years ago. From Denver. My husband was transferred. We had to do a ton of work on the house. You wouldn’t believe the shape we found it in. It was definitely a fixer-upper.” She paused. “It’s a little embarrassing. Especially these days. But actually, it was a foreclosure.” She gave me an intimate we’re-in-this-together little smile then asked, “Do you remember the circumstances back when you saw it? Did you know the people?”


“Oh, no,” I said quickly. “It was probably one of my early catering jobs.”


“Well I didn’t ever meet them, of course. They were long gone by the time we got the house. I forget their name. But people were saying they’d been living beyond their means for a long time. They had one child. A son. He got into some kind of trouble later on, I heard. Something scary like stalking or rape. But…sorry! I shouldn’t be passing stories.” A pause. “Oh, I think I hear your van!”




Eleanore Lee has been writing fiction and poetry for many years in addition toher regular job as a legislative analyst for the University of California system. She has a BA from Barnard College in English. She has also worked as an editor at Columbia Teachers College and as a stringer for Time Inc. Her work has appeared in several journals, including Atlanta Review, CQ (California Quarterly), Clackamas Literary Review, Compass Rose, The Distillery, Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, The Portland Review, The Rambler, and River Oak Review. She was selected as an International Merit Award Winner in Atlanta Review’s 2008 International Poetry Competition.

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