His umbrella opened. It must have been the loneliest block in the city. Warehouse after warehouse hunched like anvils simmering miles above the white spray of neon that managed to snatch their walls. It was night. The traffic was gone. Henry Wallace pulled up his raincoat. A job is a job, he thought as he crossed the street and carefully checked the faded number above the door. The address was correct: Sixty-Four Delancey Street. The Bowery was to the east and the Williamsburg Bridge was south. Henry thought of the Brooklyn he grew up in. How he'd cross the Williamsburg from Brooklyn into Manhattan nearly every day. Climbing the red railing, scurrying through the junk heaps below the bridge.
The door seemed odd; it looked like a door looks, but an orange haze seemed to stream from its corners. There's a reason for everything, he supposed. A silver band wrapped tightly around its buzzer. Henry noticed it before he looked up at the sky. Red bricks climbed forever. It made him dizzy. He had two choices; he could ring the buzzer, or walk away. Neither prospect was enviable in the improbable design of life's stingy fingers. This particular night reminded him of Gershwin, a rhapsody in strange. The moment after he rang the buzzer a voice crackled through a dangling intercom, "Come in."
One bare light bulb lit the vestibule. A tall man, about fifty, Henry guessed, with an air of English butler about him, stood in the doorway.
His hair grayed around the temples, small moustache pip-pip tally-ho. "You look fine, I guess you'll do," he said. "You're a little small, though we've seen smaller, but your eyes are quick and receptive. I can tell you're confused, as almost everyone is who comes here at first. Follow me, please. The kitchen is to the right, but to the left is where we'll go first. My office. Your name?"
"Henry, Henry Wallace," he replied, thinking, small? "What are the hours?" he forgot to ask. "Forgive me, your name?"
"My name's Simpson." He explained, pointing to the door on the left of the long hall that stood before them. "Step into my office and we'll talk about hours and go over the details. I'm sure you've guessed it's not an ordinary job. It some ways that's true. In other ways it's quite ordinary."
Henry ran the brief meeting with Simpson over in his mind on his way to the kitchen across the hall. He'd start out as a dishwasher; from there he'd learn how to prepare the special meals. She lived in a warehouse. Odd, but he'd seen odder. It made sense. No doubt it afforded her a great deal of room. She'd have to spend a small fortune to get something with that much space in a residential neighborhood in Manhattan. But then again, why did she need an arena? She liked to have guests now and then, but mostly the preparations would be for her and her niece. He forgot to ask about the hours again; no doubt they'd be flexible.
Henry winced as he slid into the kitchen and his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. A sweet fragrance covered the air, very sweet, almost sickening. As his eyes journeyed, they discovered the weirdest thing. He tightened. A man, the spitting image of Pavarotti, maybe a few inches taller, stood over the stove and he wore a formal jacket and shirt as if he were at the Met ...
Our kitchen is a beautiful place for nothing.
But do nothing and you will become a toad.
Welcome to our kitchen.
Strange unsettling notes poured from his throat as his dirge continued. Henry tuned a few steps back and eyed the door. He should leave before the next shoe fell and then it did. As Andre drew nearer, a tall woman in a nurse's uniform stormed through the kitchen past the stove. She marched up to the sink on the far wall. She marched back again. Her head bobbed and weaved like a dying cat. As her head spun toward Henry he cringed when his eyes met the hideous scar where her ear ought to be. It was a freak show. This wasn't Gershwin. This was the Magical Mystery Tour. The door. As he reached to turn the knob a midget scurried under his arms. Dressed in a striped shirt and a cap, the black hollow spaces where his eyes should be stunned Henry. He was more than halfway out the door when Simpson quickly approached.
"I guess there are a few things I should have mentioned," Simpson said as he placed his hand in the pocket of his jacket. "We have a slightly unusual staff, as you might have noticed."
"Um yes," Henry said as his eyes darted up in a way that singed with sarcasm, "slightly."
"I need to explain, if I may?" He said calmly as he placed his hand on Henry's shoulder, leading him back to the kitchen. "You see, she likes to hire people she thinks need the job most. In other words, people on the fringe. People who have a tougher time than most finding employment. Think of it as a public service."
"There's fringe and then there's fringe," Henry sputtered, "I understand the idea it's just ... well ... a nurse with one ear, a midget without any eyes, Pavarotti at the stove. And what about me? I'm pretty average."
"We can hear you!" The midget cried. "My name is Shakespeare!"
"Mr. Wallace, you're not average at all. I'm sure soon you'll discover you all have something in common," Simpson said in soothing tones as he sat Henry down on a small chair next to the counter. "All God's creatures deserve a fair shake, don't you suppose?"
"When you put it that way it's hard to disagree, Simpson." Henry felt slightly uncomfortable with his assumptions; of course, Simpson was correct and Henry should know best. But the disorder in the kitchen like the nurse storming in out of nowhere was puzzling.
"What about Shakespeare? No offence, but how does he perform his tasks? He's small, he can't see," Henry inquired, when he noticed Shakespeare stood inches away.
"You're an enlightened one, aren'tcha?" Shakespeare chimed, pointing his fingers in Henry's direction.
"Shakespeare, let me talk to Mr. Wallace privately, please. Tend to the desserts," Simpson said firmly as Shakespeare slowly scampered to the back of the kitchen.
"To answer your question, he prepares the desserts. There's a small table in back. He knows each step from memory. It's not all that difficult, Henry."
"The smell in the air?" Henry said as he curled his nose.
"Yes, she has a sweet tooth."
As the weeks passed, Henry began to realize Simpson was right: they did have things in common. Henry liked Shakespeare the most, because he always said exactly what was on his mind. There was no beating around the bush with Shakespeare. And he enjoyed to no end watching the tricks he'd play on Andre. Sometimes stealing his spoons just to hear the songs he'd improvise. When Andre wasn't singing, which wasn't too often, he'd talk about philosophy. And the nurse, her name was Diego. She lost her ear fending off a patient wielding a knife one evening during dinner in the state hospital where she worked before she came to Delancey Street. Evidently there was a hearing in the matter and they found her culpable, but she didn't like to talk much about the incident. In fact, she didn't like to talk much at all, which was fine with Henry because he suspected Diego had actually been a patient at that hospital, rather than an employee. And there were more, some pretty gruesome; an old woman named Sincere who'd eat worms out of a small tin box she carried in her hands, and another who wore a wedding gown and ran through the kitchen screaming every Friday at noon. Shakespeare tripped her one day. No one knew her name, or her tale but they referred to her as Alarm because of her punctuality. Henry often wondered if she'd been left at the altar on a Friday afternoon.
A few days after Henry arrived, Simpson offered him a room in the warehouse. At first Henry was a little wary, but after considering the offer he took it. His rent bills would vanish, saving him money on the small room he occupied on Eighth and Sixteenth street. Times were hard; every penny counted. He'd save on subway fare as well and he'd have company when he chose. The offer looked good to Henry. The room faced the river; it made him think of inviting swamps. But the topic that most conversations in the kitchen would inevitably turn to was their mysterious employer. None of them had ever seen her. They didn't even know her name. She was She as in "She likes her food this way," or" She's having guests on Friday. She was the ultimate She.
"Marx believed everything that man thinks, wishes, or wills is ultimately a result of his social needs," Andre explained as he placed the lid on a pot of cream sauce on the stove. The stove was fairly large. A thick steel pipe ran up the back of the stove to the ceiling. "But what about art? Music? Literature? Are they needs, or desires?" He pondered, scratching his beard." And of course there's a difference between a need and a desire."
"I don't care what you call it," Shakespeare piped. "Money in the pocket, that's what it's all about."
"You are a pedestrian man with a brain of Spam!" Andre sprightly sung while he turned up his nose at Shakespeare.
Diego entered the kitchen at her usual pace, marching. "Does anyone have a cigarette?" she breathed in a throaty voice. Sincere was in the back counting the sugar cubes.
"Smoking in my kitchen?" Andre steamed, "There will be no smoking in my kitchen!"
"Yeah all the smoke in here comes out of your mouth," Shakespeare snickered.
"You little worm!" Andre shouted as he turned away from the pot and pointed a spoon at Shakespeare.
"Why can't I have a cigarette?"
"Diego, please," Andre sighed. "Where's Henry?"
"Probably in his room whacking the weed," Shakespeare guffawed. As he tuned around Sincere threw a worm splat right in his face.
"Ah such bliss. Thank god she didn't miss!" Andre sang merrily as he tasted the sauce with his spoon. "But seriously, Shakespeare, I'd wager She has an appreciation for the arts. She must. She hires us because we're unique, out of the goodness of her heart. Anyone who does such a thing must have an appreciation for the arts!"
"I think She likes music," Diego whispered, "sometimes I hear music."
"What kind of music?" Andre's curiosity rose.
"Distant music like a biting sound," Diego said, tilting her white hat over her scar as she wistfully gazed at the door.
"Hmmm," Andre sighed, confused.
"Forget the arts," Shakespeare said as he picked a spoon from the floor. "She hires us because we're cheap labor who won't gripe about her peccadilloes." He pointed the spoon at Andre. "And you can take that to the bank."
"Cheap! I am not cheap! You shoe, you ugly shoe. Soon you'll be stew!"
"Hey, Henry where were you?" Shakespeare called as Henry entered the kitchen carrying several shopping bags.
"Simpson sent me out for a few things," Henry said as he hopped over to the large freezer, "I had to walk blocks and blocks to find the right store in this neighborhood," he continued breathlessly as he opened the freezer door. Henry still needed time to adjust to Shakespeare's eyeless face whenever he returned from an errand. There were some moments he felt like grabbing his belongings and running out the door, but the irrepressible cast always drew him back.
"Henry!" Andre exclaimed, "Do you enjoy art?"
"I do, but who has the time for art?" Henry said as he placed a brown paper wrapped package in the freezer. "Art is for those who can afford it," Henry smiled. He was proud of his answer. He imagined it was even profound.
"Ah Henry," so practical," Andre said as his face grew pensive, "but you don't need money to draw a picture, or sing a song."
"Ever think of drawing something," Shakespeare grinned, "because your voice is killing me!" he cracked as he scooted behind Andre and pinched him in the rear.
"Now I will just sing more, you tiny little bore! But Henry, you have a point -- we deserve a raise." Andre said as he kicked Shakespeare playfully. "We haven't gotten an increase in ages."
"Simpson won't give us a raise, that penny pincher," Shakespeare piped as he drew close to Henry. "He even reuses the soap. Let me help you with that, Henry," Shakespeare said as he pulled the freezer doors open wider.
"Reuses the soap," Diego said dreamily as she paced to the back of the kitchen.
"We should ask Her," Andre said, surprised by his own suggestion. "Well why not, but how?" He turned while he opened a package of butter.
"Why not get Henry to do it?" Diego cried from the back of the kitchen as she separated eggs into a small black bowl.
"Me? I'm new here, why me?" Surprised, he didn't want to rock the boat and what about Simpson? Henry could lose his job. "Why not you, Andre, or Shakespeare?"
"Shakespeare?" Andre laughed, "Well he's hardly a diplomat and I could get nervous and break into song!"
Diego stood up off her chair, "Henry, face it -- you're the most average person here," she stammered. While she stood, eggs fell to the floor popping as they broke.
"When did you become so communicative?" Henry sneered as he faced Diego. His eyes caught a close glimpse of her scar and he winced. No matter how many times he'd seen the aberrations he didn't think he'd ever get entirely used to their stark surprise.
"She's right, though, Henry," Shakespeare cried as he stirred the chocolate sauce. "You're the only one who can do it, but how to get past Simpson and how to get to her?" He tasted the sauce and added a drop of milk. "Simpson always leaves his door open."
"I didn't say I would do it," Henry smiled as he placed a dish in the sink, "why not tell Simpson we're just going straight to Her? How could he stop us?"
"He watches over her like a hawk," Shakespeare warned, "He'd sooner get rid of all of us than let that happen and unfortunately we may be cute, but we're all too expendable."
"Oh come on, Henry!" Andre pleaded.
"We would be so grateful to you
and think of all the fine things we could do!
I'll take you to the theatre.
You'll take me too the zoo!"
"The zoo?" Shakespeare laughed uncontrollably. "I have a plan, how to get past Simpson, but
we'll have to do something kind of lousy."
The plan was set for Friday afternoon right before Alarm made her regularly scheduled appearance at noon. The night before, while Henry was getting ready for bed he agreed, Andre was right about one thing. He turned on his small transistor radio. There was a station he listened to whenever he could. They played all Sinatra every evening for three heavenly hours. It would take him back to the past, to Brooklyn. He glowed to the crooning that came over the air. They were playing "High Hopes," the one with the bit about the rubber tree plant and the ant. He perched on his bed carefully, not to disturb his wing and grinned as it played. Maybe things could get better. Then he thought about the next afternoon's possibilities and he wasn't so certain. Life's curious swamps could get muddy.
It was just about noon when Andre was watching the clock above the sink as he prepared a meringue. Shakespeare was attentively standing near the door next to Henry while Diego was ambling by the refrigerator looking for her shoe. As the clock struck twelve, Alarm's familiar scream filled the kitchen like a siren gone mad. Shakespeare leapt and stood several feet in front of Alarm as she made her way quickly through the kitchen. "Wait, please, wait, it's' important!" Shakespeare cried as he waved his arms, shouting to Alarm. But her scream only grew as she sped briskly towards Shakespeare, red hair and wedding gown flowing in her wake.
Suddenly Andre darted out from the side of the stove and grabbed Alarm from behind. "Listen please." he cried loudly, covering her mouth with his hands "Your fiancé -- he's here!" Alarm quickly became silent. "He's in the office down the hall, please follow us." She began to scream wildly again as she followed Shakespeare and Andre down the hall towards Simpson's office.
As they drew closer Simpson heard the commotion and scrambled into the hall. "What is going on now? Dear Lord, you're madder than I thought," Simpson shrieked. He grabbed Alarm's arm and pulled her into his office. Alarm suddenly became silent. Simpson slammed the office door quickly behind them.
"Henry, run!" Andre roared, waving at Henry. Wasting no time, Henry fled past Simpson's office and down the long hall up to Her door.
The door. Henry was surprised by its average appearance, for such a secretive She should have an elaborate door with tight security. Security guards carrying machine guns like some Mexican police force. But it was just a steel door and it wasn't even locked. But then again why lock it? Surely no one was going to rob her. Henry knocked before he pushed the door open and then he saw it, amazing. The ceiling was glass. It was expansive, huge. The sun streamed in. It was a green house. Plants and ivy grew up the walls. It was like stepping into a forest but they were on Delancey street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Suddenly, strange sounds like thistle bristling and something large walking on brush. Insect legs stood high above, narrow and long, enormous, walking with a heavy tripedal gait. Had he finally lost his mind?
Henry scampered between the scaly legs as they drew closer. Then the head appeared, stern, black eyes popping.
"Oh my god! It is you, Mother!" Henry was stunned -- he hadn't seen his mother since he left Brooklyn. So many years had past, and to think she was here of all places. She was She.
"Henry?" She buzzed in a high piercing sound that beamed into his brain. "Still half-man, half-insect." Her black eyes dangled from above as her furry head jutted from side to side. "Like I told you years ago, half-bug won't do. Go away and don't return until you're all bug," she spat.
"But Mother, I don't know how to change," Henry cried as he leaned against one of her legs.
"Henry, go. You're half-human and tiny," his mother's voice stung, "go before I have to eat you."
Henry stormed towards the door as her legs lifted and she mechanically crawled into another room.
As Henry walked back to the kitchen he bristled, If she only were a little human. She hadn't even gotten word to him that she'd been moved. How was he supposed to change, why should he? Impossible. This situation is impossible, he thought as he opened the door.
"Henry, there's a sink full of dishes!" Andre shouted.
"I can't see the sun," Diego cried as she stormed to the back of the kitchen.
"Dante said the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality." Andre pondered as he stirred the beginnings of a cream sauce.
"Hey guys, you're not going to believe this," Henry called.
"Dante had never eaten your food!" Shakespeare snapped as he ran behind the stove.
Henry sighed. No one was paying attention; the subject had changed.
"I will cook you a goose that will turn your head chartreuse!"
"Does anyone have a curling iron?" Diego breathed ...