“I don’ think I leave this place so big open wit’ so many kaboodle around,” says Cookie, pointing at the oil paintings on the walls, the crystal chandeliers, the heavy silverware. Cookie said it was his understanding there would be no locks on the doors, and there weren’t. The street door was open, no concierge, a sign at the elevator, pointing everybody up here to the penthouse, which was wide open. “Rich guys don’t care,” the woman says.
“Maybe it’s all fake,” I say, though I’m thinking about lifting a few choice items. That saucy little jade statuette, for example, with the knuckled ass and pointy tits. She must be worth a bundle. Cookie, as the woman calls him—her pimp maybe—has been hired to cater a party, and the three of us are up here early to set it up. The cook on his crutches prepares the eats, the woman moves them to chafers and will pass the bite-sized around on silver platters, I mix and serve the drinks. Big crowd expected, so no sit-down service. Too bad. Sit-downs follow rules, stick to timetables, keep drunks in their places. When they can go where they want, they all end up jostling each other at my station. Things break. Spill. Tempers can flare. Mine, for example.
I must have driven past this towering pile hundreds of times without noticing it. Over a hundred floors of swank condos with this penthouse sugar-frosting the top. Don’t know why I decided to swing by tonight, but lucky I did. Though I never worked this space before, everything is where I somehow knew it’d be—the professional-grade equipment, the silent exhaust fans, the cooler and ice machine under the bar—everything where it ought to be, and spotless, gleaming like brand new. The other two had brought along a vanload of folding chairs and serving tables, boxes of plastic cups and paper napkins, and we humped it all up on the service elevator, but there were heavy mahogany tables already in place, laid with thick white linens, porcelain, crystal and silver, so we’ve had to stow all their shit in a back room. It was Cookie who first got wind of the job, but he’s a dumb foreigner and clearly doesn’t know what the fuck is going on. No need to go back for their cheap food and booze either. The industrial fridge is loaded, the wine racks, nothing but the best. Good thing, too. If I had to go down to the street again, I probably wouldn’t have the nerve to come back up. Heights freak me out. It’s the one thing wrong with this pad. As soon as she got here, the fat serving woman walked out onto the roof terrace and leaned over. Shouted that she couldn’t make out a damn thing. “Come out here and see!” Was she kidding? I raised the first-growth wine magnum I was uncorking and shook my head, staying cool, but, Christ, I nearly shat my pants!
Cookie has found a starched white toque on a counter in the food preparation area, and crowned himself with it. Goes great with his grimy sweat-stained undershirt. He and the woman set out a row of silver chafing dishes on the dining table and light the burners under each, while I, in my new leather apron, uncap the hard stuff in the family bar area and mix some cocktails in the iced pitchers waiting for me in the big fridge. Memory’s mostly fucked, but I do remember all the cocktail recipes. Backs are turned and the owners aren’t here yet, so I treat myself to a swallow of aged sourmash. Straight from the bottle. And then another. So smooth. Had a few tokes on the street, and they loosened me up, but this works faster and is easier on the throat. Liquid velvet. Keeps me sane, gets my mind off how high up I am. So, OK, a third. My lucky number. Or maybe four is. Yeah, definitely is now.
Grandma had a thing for lucky numbers. Three was one of them, four another, but she had a different one every day. I got dumped on her when my parents went on the road, and her lucky number that day was nine, which was how old I was, proof for her I’d bring her luck. Silly old twat, but she was good to me and I dug her in my little-kid way. Mom and Dad never came back, but Grandma hated her daughter, liked her dumbass son-in-law even less, said it was a blessing to be rid of the goddamn moochers, and I agreed. We moved house a couple of times, Grandma saying it would make it harder for them to find us, if they did come back, though probably the real reason was she was always behind in the rent.
Grandma was an experienced shoplifter and taught me all the tricks. We even worked up a team act: I’d go in first, looking innocent, grab something, and stroll out with it like I thought it was freebie day in the supermarket, setting off a ruckus that usually involved giving me a piece of candy to retrieve the goods, while Grandma kept busy behind their backs, checking off her grocery list. It was how we put dinner on the table, until we ran out of supermarkets and big delis with their strategic aisles. It was bad luck to hit the same address twice, as Grandma used to say, two being mostly an unlucky number in her scheme of things. So, we moved on to drug stores and then to department stores, which were best of all. Sometimes the clerks seemed almost to help us, turning their backs at just the right moment, even suggesting, under the guise of a sales pitch, items we should include in our loot. They probably hated their jobs, were getting back at their skinflint owners. Snagged my favorite Mad Monsters tee that way. Doesn’t fit anymore, but it’s still in my dirty socks bag.
When I was little, Grandma rocked me in her rocking chair and played with my weewee, as she called it. Said she was casting a spell on it to make it grow big. Probably not a proper thing to do, but it felt good. A little like getting your bare back scratched when it’s itchy. Climbed up on her lap long after I was too big to do that. Not anymore. I came home one day to find her sitting up stiff in her rocker, starting to go off, eyes crossed, and jaw hang- ing open like she’d croaked of a last heehaw. I thought she was playing a nasty trick on me. Felt resentful. Haven’t completely gotten over it.
Cookie, black cigarette dangling off his lower lip, fires up the oven. He’s clumsily unwrapping and heating up the first pass- arounds by the time a trio of musicians arrives, led by an ugly fat man carrying a beat-up tenor sax case. The other two zone in on a stand-up bass and a glossy fancyass piano with a lyre on its nameplate in the den next door. Nice piece of gear, I noticed it as soon as we arrived, though I wondered at the time how they got it up here. And in here. Did they have to take it apart and rebuild it, or did they build this penthouse around it? Too big to pocket, but I appreciate quality when I see it. Probably even the nameplate can be hocked.
The sax player comes over to cadge a drink while I’m still laying things out, saying he needs to moisten the reeds, and I ask him what he’s getting paid. “No idea, man, but not enough,” he wheezes. “Anyways, no real music tonight, just fucken room- fill with a coupla goofballs I never seen before. So, craft me something potent, boy, to help me hack through it.” The bar- man shrugs and twists the cap off a whiskey bottle, pours me one over ice. Scrawny punk, hiding it behind a goatee and side- burns, a surly cool. Probably digs nothing but loud noise, the big beat. Which I can do, but only as a table-setter. Storm before the calm.
From Open House by Robert Coover. Reproduced with permission of Evergreen Review Books/OR Books. Copyright © 2023 by Robert Coover.