After 20 years as a restaurant critic, Maurinette Meede planned her days to keep her appetite sharp: only amateurs judged things they didn't desire. One clammy November Saturday, Maurinette planned to test an authentic-looking new trattoria with a late lunch. She stayed between her mint-colored sheets till noon, then took to the couch with a cup of cafe au lait, two cigarettes, and a catalog of Erte prints.
At three she dressed, polished her black cat's-eye glasses, and forced herself out of the warm high-rise; she bought the new issue of Chiculture Monthly from her favorite little Pakistani fellow as she slithered down the street, hoping the magazine had run some less-than-revolting photos with her December contribution.
When she got to the restaurant the door was locked. It was five minutes past the posted opening hour, but the too-handsome man pushing a broom around the window tables matched her glare. "Idiots," Maurinette growled.
As she stood on the empty patio, frozen and smoking, her equilibrium already on the run, she paged through the magazine to find her article: Outrage! What they'd done to it was madness. Nothing like fighting on an empty stomach. Wishing she'd had espresso for breakfast, Maurinette made her way to the magazine's offices, ground out her Gitane on the wall in the foyer, walked to the desk, threw her head back, and sang: "RAAAAAAAPE!"
"Er, no thank you," said the receptionist. "I just had some."
"Where's the editor, dear?" said Maurinette. Thank God for E-mail--she'd never set foot in the place.
"The one in charge of tearing sentences into little pieces, I suppose. I'm Maurinette Meede, the critic. Don't you know who edits me?"
"Sacre coeur!" said Maurinette, and slammed her copy of Chiculture on the counter.
"Look, they all work on the second floor. Why don't you go up and see if anything looks familiar."
"Well, thank you for your kind and attentive help, Miss Sphinx." Maurinette hopped in the elevator, revived by her own wit.
As the door opened on the second floor, Maurinette got winged in the head with a rubber football.
"Sorry," said a whiskey-scented girl who ran into the elevator after her missile, then shot out again and around the corner. Footfalls, a crash, a young man's voice: "That was in! That was--fuck you, Dombrowski, I'm going home!"--followed by the brief appearance of the young man, also whiskey scented, as he darted around Maurinette into the elevator. After an eerie silence, an unnervingly tall man around Maurinette's age, in trim black pants, a brown shirt buttoned to the collar, and red socks (no shoes), went gliding down a row of shallow, scum green cubicles to Maurinette's right. He released the tiniest wheeze. Then he too disappeared, and the only signs of habitation were the clank of ventilation ducts and a faint nose of day-old Chinese.
"Never be timid, it's merely annoying!" Maurinette's mother had always told her. She stamped among the smelly hutches, then spied the red-sock creature through the glass door of an office. His back was to the door and he was wearing headphones, viewing and reviewing the same ten seconds of the forest-fire scene from Bambi on a small black-and-white screen. His legs, which rather resembled Bambi's, were propped up on a stack of unopened UPS packages. He smoothed his combover with one hand and worried the buttons of the VCR remote with the other. Maurinette raised her fist to knock but then heard a clink behind her--as of scotch bottle on snifter.
She followed the sound to a cubicle carpeted with takeout bags and crumpled pornography. Ugh. The football-tossing female sat inside swearing at a computer game. A roll of flesh flopped ostentatiously between her jeans and a cutoff Doctor Who T-shirt. There were children even public television couldn't save.
The girl pointed at a bourbon-filled jelly jar. "I'm not on the clock."
"Are you an editor?"
"No, I'm a copy editor--the editors are probably in bed. Are you from advertising?"
"In bed? It's four!"
"You obviously don't work here. Who are you and who let you in?"
"I am Maurinette Meede."
"Oh." The girl finished her drink and poured another. "I'm Pill Dombrowski."
"I'm here about what you did to my fondue retrospective. I am fed up with you people! That is the last word I will ever write for this--"
"That's what you said the last five times. I thought we did all right by that thing, considering..."
"Look, right here. My original sentence had sense, had structure, had--"
"Lessee...yeah, right there we had to take out 'ineffable.' We were pretty sure you meant to say 'ineffaceable,' but you weren't answering your phone. So we axed it to be on the safe side."
"I said exactly what I meant to say! Listen to the rhythm: "'Retro Palace makes an ineffable statement of privilege and grace'!"
Pill snorted. "Yes, and you had just described it for several hundred words, so we were pretty sure it could be done." Maurinette strove to express towering rage by popping out her eyes. Pill sprawled back into a pile of comic books. "Lady. Look." She flipped through the dictionary, then pushed the mustard-stained tome at Maurinette's face.
"Just tell that literal-minded subnormal she can keep abreast of the restaurant scene herself!"
"You'd better not be lying this time."
"Give me a piece of stationery!" Maurinette commanded. Pill gave her a Wendy's napkin. "With all due respect"--Maurinette's brow furrowed slightly as she worked the Bic through the grease--"I resign, you MANIAC!" She signed the document and dropped it on the desk. "Get this to appropriate party."
Pill taped the napkin to the nearest office door and returned to her computer game.
Humph Moray turned off Bambi, turned on Beethoven, and picked up the work of a new Mexican novelist. Corona was sponsoring a special pullout section on new Latino fiction for the March issue, and Humph planned to use the cartoon's imperialist assumptions to argue the merit of the book. He'd barely cracked it, however, when he was distracted by his stomach's announcement: "It is well past the hour of lunch, doughty laborer of culture! Your duties will wait." It had a point.
"OK, OK," he muttered. "Pabulum ahoy." He habitually lunched at the Wendy's across the street. This particular hamburger would probably be his last for a while; he was going to Paris for a month, and he realized he was going to miss the revolting things.
"Hellooo!" he called out his office door. "Anybody here?" Nobody answered, though he heard scuffling. He ventured into the warren and found Pill trying to hide amid the trash under her desk. She sighed and hauled her troubles back into her chair.
"What is it, Humph?" He stared at her jarful of peace. "I'm not on the clock, and this is my dayyyyyy offffff," Pill growled. "I can drink gasoline if I want to."
"Um--but--I was hoping Judy would be here. You see there's a conference in Paris this month but I wanted an extra week there to, eh, do research for it and I was hoping somebody could finish whatever you do with my January piece because I already rescheduled the plane so it's leaving tonight, and I know I can't trust the staff not to change things that are i-important, and if I don't get the text finalized before I leave, you know, I can't concentrate when I travel if my last piece is still up in the, um, er, air and--"
"Oh Jesus, you've ruined my day off anyway. I'll go punch in."
"But..." She ignored him and went over to stare at the rack of time cards on the wall. Humph sighed, paused, and lurched into the elevator, hoping for the best. Of course by "research" he meant sight-seeing, but for Humph looking at Paris was research.
Maurinette had stumbled reflexively into Wendy's--a dining choice she made oftener than she cared to admit to others. In her own company she was frank: she ate there to generate bottom-rung criteria for comfort food. A mom-and-pop joint with amusing decor and cuisine that equaled Wendy's could get quite a positive review. "One must descend from the mountaintop sometimes!" she thought, munching avidly.
Meanwhile Humph successfully breached the restaurant's double-door airlock and proceeded to the ordering counter, where a dusky face of the working class confronted him untheoretically. He was dimly aware of something sharp digging rhythmically at his spine.
"Dalayziheadyoo," said the cashier.
"Mmm, hexcuse me?" said Humph.
"Dat lady is in head of you!"
"Mmmm..." Humph stumbled in a circle, unable to detect the woman since she'd stopped poking him.
"Iyyy'm in headayoo," said a voice near his waist. He looked down and made out a platinum coif suspended above a wide pink windbreaker and a swarm of dishwater blond toddlers.
"Mmmm? How so?"
"'Cause I was in line first and you just walked in front of me, dumbshit."
"Uh, awell, madame, if you wouldn't mind, you seem to have several little ones to feed," he said, feeling dizzy. "And wouldn't it be customary for someone anticipating a lengthy order to let someone obviously on his lunch hour, who has to get back to his job, avoid the--"
"What would you like to order, ma'am?" said the employee.
Humph clamped his mouth shut miserably, and the woman in pink screamed across the dining room to the table where several of her miniatures were in fisticuffs over a chair.
"PRINCESS! PRINCESS, TELL JUDAS AND ALICE THEY GOTTA DECIDE WHAT THEY WANNA EAT!"
"This new Bucktown entry is the first solo effort from former Bop Room chefatrix Tiggy Emprey," Maurinette wrote. "Sweden-born but with a pert personality percolated in London thanks to her parents' having followed their fortunes yon when she was eight, Emprey has felt the call to join the culinary festival that is our fair city, importing a fantastic new conceit from her second homeland: a limey's-eye version of the American upscale supper club. Finally!"
She drummed her pen and packed french fries between her lips, fishing for a way to convey more enthusiasm than she felt. The UK was paying attention to upscale American--and the place just throbbed with opulence--but she'd already used the phrase "palace of delights" in five reviews that week. Wholesomely decadent? Exotic yet familiar? Scratch, scratch, scratch. Perhaps some nice details? "When we sank our lips into the angels masquerading as an appetizer--twin medallions of fabled Texan Angus boeuf sharing a duvet of duck sauce--my companion and I considered ourselves denizens of the great lingonberry ranch in the sky. But keep your fork up, I advised my chum: next a Cali salad with fortuitous pan-Asian accents tripped toward us over the fine parquet fl--" The parquet floors! That was the real lead! Well, she could let the editor figure out how to move it to the top. Just concentrate: "In contrast to typical--" She yelped and threw down her pen. The editors had obviously ruined her. Only the most terrible kind of hack would write "In contrast to typical, dull American restaurants"! She dug in her bag for her well-worn thesaurus, then absently dropped the bag into the aisle, inspired: "In contradistinction to typical, dull..."
Humph--hard-won tray clutched in trembling fingers--stumbled over Maurinette's bag, his dance of recovery not enough to keep his baconburger from plopping directly onto her manuscript. She reared indignantly and slapped him. "MADAM!" he shrieked, rubbing an eye. It didn't hurt much--the Moray family brow structure, Humph's father always said, is as near to the cave as the mind is removed--but Humph checked for blood with one hand as he frantically scraped his food away from her review with the other. Maurinette trusted in what she considered a photographic memory to rescue the work, but feigned despair--being wary of her attacker didn't dent the timeless pleasure of being fussed over by a male.
"So sorry, madam, so sorry, so sorry--oh, look at your poor manuscript. You can't have any idea how it pains a man like me to--sorry, sorry, sorry. Are you a writer or a dilettante, by the way?" he said, blowing his combover out of his eyes.
The combover, Maurinette noted, looked absurdly fetching on him. "What self-respecting dilettante keeps her diary at a Wendy's?" she said scornfully and, she hoped, a bit intriguingly. "I'm a writer, of course. But enough about genius. What do you do for a living?"
"I'm employed by Chiculture Monthly, actually. It's across the street, that's why I'm eating in--"
"What a lovely coincidence." Potentially. "Until five minutes ago I was that same journal's premiere dining writer. Maurinette Meede." Might this be leverage? "Are you a man of the plume? Or an editor?"
"An editor? Do I look like Caligula?"
"Slightly." She smiled, lifting a fan of fingers--long, thick-boned, and thin-skinned--to her mouth to hide the meat stuck between her teeth. "So you write?"
"Byline: Humph Moray."
"You like all those disgruntled jungle novelists, don't you?" To irritate him, she fingered her long string of pearls. "Hmm. Is that all you do for a living?"
"What other vocation is worthwhile?"
"In my experience, most publications do not pay writers enough to make the rest of our lives worth anything! I can't imagine you eat, drink, or decorate decently on that income. Are you a gigolo?"
"You could be."
"You must have inherited wealth, then. Who else do you freelance for?"
"I'm certainly not wealthy and no freelancer, madame," he said, sneering in a way he considered uncharacteristic. "I am a key node of the salaried staff."
"Oh. I know how much staff writers make at Chiculture. I was asked to let them employ me, but the extra money wasn't worth the administrative duties. I'd have come out behind losing outside work."
"Having an office is nice," he blurted.
Maurinette wrinkled her nose and bit her hamburger. "Would you like to sit down and share my fries? You look a bit queasy."
He took a seat and fixed his deficit, though the moment the hunger pangs ended the grease turned his stomach. "Beuah," he gasped.
"That sounded French," she said. "Do you speak French? How annoying. So do I."
"Beuh," he said, less genuinely. He sipped her Coke without asking and recovered. "If you don't mind my asking, how do you get by, then?"
"I'm fortunate to be in such demand that I can pick and choose and negotiate," she said airily, reclaiming the pop and recrossing her legs. "Oh, and I do happen to be a bit of an heiress."
"Well then! Small wonder you're prowling for a gigolo." He sneered again. "If they really did offer you a staff post I can't believe a woman like you wouldn't find it appealing. What about prestige?"
"The natural aristocrat needs not prestige."
"The moneyed one is a different creature." She pretended to not understand. "Why don't you write anything besides restaurant criticism?"
"So writing of the staff of life is a lower calling than scribbling nasty reviews of fiction. Of which I believe you don't produce any yourself? Haven't heard of any books of yours save critical ones."
She's heard of my books! he thought. He said, "Have you ever written any fiction? Can you?"
"No, and you can't, either. You don't even write enough criticism to account for your time. And if you were living in a garret, no matter how little talent you had, you'd be bored enough to spit out some kind of novel. So about that inheritance: am I correct?"
"Mine is a small one!" A few tenacious french fry remnants burst from his mouth.
"And mine is small as well, so there you have it: we've loads in common."
That did him in for a moment. "Being a freelancer you must feel a certain pressure to produce, not to mention a certain amount of envy."
"Having a staff position, you must not feel much pressure to write at all." The insult was deliberately weak. She pretended to consider an intention to decamp, then changed the subject: "I've got a confession. I've always hated your work for ideological reasons, but I can't help but love it for aesthetic ones."
"That's awful! I choose each word to illuminate each nuance of thought, each subtlety of textual interpretation. Of course, in the end the product is reduced and coarsened by the editorial 'process,' as they call it."
"Oh," Maurinette said. "Yes, I'd probably like you better before the boulangerie, eh?"
"Er? Oh, you mean boucherisme. That's the word for butchery."
"That's not what I meant, I meant--"
"Yes, they bake all that populist nonsense into what I'm guessing is a pure analysis of soul, no?"
"Um, yes. I hate the bakery."
"Can I see some of your prebaked work? By the way, you have a distinctively American accent when you speak French. I'm surprised you like the French so much; they must be terrible about it."
"The word is 'distinctly,' and actually, no, they aren't. They're a wonderfully forgiving people."
"Really. I must see them through your eyes sometime. I've avoided Paris for no particular reason all my life."
Oh dear, thought Humph. This cryptofascist has horribly pretty nostrils. So far he'd been having trouble keeping his eyes from jumping between her persimmon-shaped breasts and perfect legs, coated in ruby lamb's wool and argyle stockings respectively. If I were a gigolo, he thought, I'd be up for the job. He shivered in disgust at himself. Another idea surfaced: what a fruitful day. "But certainly you don't mean to give up your income from Chiculture. How foolish!"
"The free lance renders me a knightess of independent thought," Maurinette informed him. "I can follow inspiration most pure. Meaning I don't need them."
"Let them eat cake!"
She laughed. "What does that have to do with anything, you phrase-waving leftist? I'll pretend I don't understand you: Ahem, perhaps I'm not a queen, but I am refined for a bourgeois philistine, sir. But...you're all right," she said, and eyed his groin; that always made them nervous. "I've never had an ally in the office before. This might be felicitous."
"You did quit, however."
"I've quit before."
His eyebrows went up. "Was that a profitable move?"
"Always." She folded her hands and looked into his eyes. "Look Humph," she said, and went for the kill: "I'm very sorry I said you were incapable of producing fiction. I'm sure someday you'll find your, er, your imaginary voice."
He sat back, unmanned and stammering. "Um, um...look Maurinette, er, would you like me to go up and demand they reinstate you?" He took a deep breath. Then his eyes popped open: yet another idea! "Wait! Wait here!"
"Uh, wait in the hotel bar next door then. You'll find it very civilized. What do you think of dining in Paris?"
"Magni...fique?" she said.
"Wait for me! Start drinking!" he said. He turned on his heel, then stopped short. "Who's your editor?"
"Ah...Julianne, I think?"
"Juli--? Oh, you mean Judy! Bah! Of course! Poor creature!" And he dashed out of the restaurant.
Judy had come in to the office on her day off because she knew Humph never worked up the nerve to ask for sight-seeing time until he was ready to jump on the plane. Pill watched Humph run from the elevator to Judy's office and giggled into her own fresh bag of Wendy's as the door slammed behind him. Minutes later Humph flew out as on the wings of a dove and leapt into the elevator.
Pill hurried into Judy's office to find out the score. A chesty, wasp-waisted woman who mixed vertical stripes with horizontal ones, the editor had a shellacked flame-red bouffant that looked frightening with her ludicrously good Polish cheekbones and Irish freckles. Pill often asked Judy whether her parents had met while one was taking the other to jail or to detox.
"What was that all about?"
Judy grunted. "Oh, he said something I couldn't understand about an undignified dismissal--or digression, or something or other, who cares--and then he asked me whether I could 'finalize permission for the, em, er, um, ongoing project Miss Maurinette Meede,' of all people, 'has piloted in order to provide ebbb errrr eeeeeeh dining information f-f-f-for local gourmands wishing to t-t-travel to Paree,' which I understood as 'Can I take Meede to Paris with me at the company's expense for an obvious and sickening reason?' Corny sack of shit."
"Well, you're not going to let him, are you?"
"Of course I am. Good God, they'll both be out of our hair for almost a month. And they'll finally get laid--just think, no more tender sonnets to every 'skewered kabob' on the menu."
"What makes you think she won't invent something worse? 'The creamy epiphany of the Euroscum-delite, topped with a wiry tangle of nouilles de porc...' She'll be ungodly. We'll have references to every shitty bistro on the Incontinent. I can't take it. And we're going to pay for her to go? On top of Humph? They won't give me a raise till after I'm dead!"
"Oh, quit whining," said Judy.
"I'm starving!" said Pill. Judy raised an eyebrow at Pill's burger. "This isn't food! I hate this goddamn job!"
"Go be a stripper then."
Pill grunted and tried to spin on her heel, but she hit the doorjamb with her head and dropped her lunch in the hallway. "FUCK, now I gotta go dig through my desk for change again!"
"Drunk on the job?"
"I was drunk on my own time till Humph got here!"
"You're not going to leave that there, are you?"
"I don't get paid enough to pick it up."
"I don't get paid enough to pick up after you."
"You can't leave it there."
"You can." Pill returned to her cube and rifled through her drawers.
"You just don't want them to leave because you'll miss them," Judy called after her.
"Ho ho ho!"
"I hear you laughing while you work."
"I'm thinking of killing you all," said Pill.
Maurinette, sipping her third margarita, politely hid her elation. "To Paris? Tonight?"
"I convinced Judy she's always wanted to do a travel dining guide. Got you on the same flight."
"But Paris, isn't that a bit... trite?"
"Aren't you going to thank me for getting your job back?" he snapped.
"You didn't do something stupid like apologize for me, I hope."
"Oh, God! I never apologize!"
"You apologized to me! Y-you said you were sorry that you said I c-couldn't write--"
"You're a man, that's different!" Maurinette was panting. Humph was terrified. But Maurinette was "impossibly ecstatic" (as she narrated it in her head): she saw their affair stretch out before her. She pretended to calm down, and smiled weakly. "I'm sorry," she said. "No, you might have done me a favor: we'll let Judy consider this a small victory till we return, then surprise her." She took Humph's hand; he panicked. "What time do we leave, by the way?"
"Oh God!" Humph said, looking at his watch. "We have two hours to get to the airport. If those imbeciles have any edits to suggest they'll just have to take no, no, and no for an answer! Stay here, Maurinette!"
"I haven't even packed. How romantic."
"I'll buy you anything you need! Throw those clothes out when we get to the hotel! You'll be every inch a Parisite!" He tore out of the hotel, legs spinning alarmingly.
Pill was listening to Dr. Demento on her headphones, but she felt the floor shake and ran to investigate the commotion. When she saw Humph lying on the floor, his foot at the end of a greasy skid mark of cold hamburger, one leg splayed to the side, she began to laugh convulsively. Judy stared at her in horror. "Pill, you'll never amount to anything."
"I h-h-have to get to P-P-Paris. I have to...oh God, I think it's broken, oh God oh God..."
Pill turned scarlet and slunk to her desk, uncomfortably close to feeling guilt, while Judy examined the leg, got Humph to his feet, and told him she was sure it was no worse than a sprain. "B-b-but oh no, we'll never get to the, to the, er, will the magazine pay for me to change the flight schedule again?"
Pill hunched in her chair. "Never amount to anything?" she hissed. She sipped a bit of whiskey and went back to the text. "As an intellectually curious adolescent, placed disadvantageously in rural Minnesota, I found reading the novels of Dostoyevsky the only efficacious escape from the cruelly ignorant..." That's old Humph, Pill thought, working a wet napkin into a ketchup stain in her lap. His leg might hurt for a few days, but at least he'll be inconvenienced.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Laura Park.