In the Kingdom of the Complaint – a short story by Marie Chambers

In the Kingdom of Complaint

It’s a business lunch at Angelini’s. Kitchen noises marry sotto voce conversations in a restaurant the size of a small fishing boat.  All the waiters speak Italian.  With crooked teeth and the beginnings of a paunch, these men are clearly not in pursuit of the ubiquitous movie career.  They are career waiters, magicians of sanity amidst the illusory drama of a lunch meeting in LA.

There are four of us: the soon to be exhibited artist, my art dealer dealmaker boss, his girlfriend and me.  As my boss is a demi-regular, we’re seated pronto at a four-top near the window.  Pleasantries are exchanged.  Water arrives.  Scorecards come out.

“Nice place.”
“Yeah, reminds of me of Italy. We spent a summer there.”
“Oh which part?”
“Tuscany, you know that area?”

Phrases bump and grind their way out of the mouths of the players.  The artist’s pitch begins.  Then the girlfriend swings into action.  Sun is in her eyes.  Terrible.  Let’s all re-position our chairs, squeeze together to the left of the light.  Oh dear.  Still not right.  Let’s try another arrangement.

She hoists her palm towards her forehead to block the sun.  The blue of her eyes glistens. Her face is wide and pale as the moon and she apologizes with such delicacy, we scurry to nudge our chairs towards the corners of the table, attend to her needs as a roomful of fellow travelers pretend not to be inconvenienced by this myriad of rearrangements.

I realize I am here on false pretenses. My queries regarding process and transport of the artist’s large-scale panel paintings garner little attention from the dealmaker.  No exhibition specifics (my area of expertise) will be addressed.  The conversation stays rooted in memories of meals eaten in Italy and the New York art scene of the 1980s and 90s.  Smiles are exchanged in rapid-fire sequences, red wine – a wonderful bottle, yes I’ll have another glass – and sparkling water flowing as freely as their recollections of a more desirable past.

Despite all the pro-forma civility, I understand yet again, sadly yet again, I am not here to participate in this discussion; I am used as ornament.  I order an arugula salad and listen.

The dealmaker’s girlfriend is the widow of an artist, a very New York artist, an artist revered – His colors, man, I love that – by this living artist at table.  She spends her days providing care and maintenance for her husband’s paintings. Though eulogized and buried, acknowledged as officially deceased by all the banks, credit card companies and medical facilities that devoured the last years of his life, her former husband continues to weave his needs into her present.  She lives in the truly swell flat he purchased for them in the 1980s.  The sale of his work continues to pay her bills.  I feel confident the ‘sun’ that blinded her moments ago is yet another incarnation of his shadow, once again attempting to hypnotize her.

My dealmaker boss orders more wine and holds forth as to the status of wine making in the States.  When the bottle arrives, he insists on subjecting the test glass to a series of whiplash motions along the tabletop. Though he explains the necessity for this seeming violence, it feels excessive to me. As he sniffs at the decidedly ‘shaken and not stirred’ wine and contemplates what I can only imagine are memories of wines past, he launches into a story about a tour of the ‘fields’ with the ‘most important vintner in France.’  With every additional detail, he safeguards himself from interruption by increasing his volume.  By the time the specifics of bottle year and bouquet come tumbling forth, his approval of the wine choice secured, there is nothing for us to do but murmur appreciative non-sequiturs and re-read the menu again.

The artist’s eyes dart furtively from speaker to speaker.  I wonder if he has noted, forty-five minutes into the meeting we still have not mentioned his upcoming exhibit.  Nor have we actually spoken about his artwork.

Behind me, the front door swooshes open and then clangs shut.  The bustle of fresh-faced hipsters, loafer-wearing elders and women of a certain age with the bust-lines of a twenty-something continues.  Food orders are placed.  The waiters are patient – Can I get that without tomatoes?  Is it vegan?  No sea bass? Business as usual I suppose. Past tense reveries and disappointment seem to rule the day.

Yet outside the sky remains so very cheerfully blue.

I head for the ladies room where I am greeted by a bowl of orange tulips, yellow edged with black centers.  They’re placed near a designer sink barely large enough for hand washing but are splayed open with such carefree excess I forget about the trio back at the table.  Beauty might yet win the day.  I resolve to emulate these flowers during the remainder of this meeting.

I check my lipstick and look myself in the eye. You are not this business, I whisper to my reflection.  This phrase gives me such pleasure I repeat it several times.  You are not this business.  You are not this business.  No matter how I inflect it, every time I say it, relief floods my limbs like medicine.

It’s really no wonder she keeps company with the dealmaker.  Though I have come to understand him as a man who honors the size of the check above all else and conjures insult when a hotel’s turn-down service fails to deliver (I have written many a letter of complaint for him), perhaps she’s lonely or weary and he’s noisy; he’s a distraction from some larger grief and perhaps that feels like kindness.

Throughout the meal, between bites, they complain sympathetically.  Joyfully.  Knowing glances arrive as punctuation to choreographed expressions of dismay.  The horror of undercooked veal. The reliable inefficiency of parking attendants.  What a time we live in, eh?  The daily assault on a refined sensibility astonishes.  It’s a grievance driven life and they are intimates in this distress.  But, a silver lining does exist, as he desires attention but no real involvement and she remains essentially married to her deceased husband, they are perfect for each other. They can shop for pillows, discuss the best kind of olive oil and where to order it, sigh in unison about the sorrows of his adult children and her mother ‘s illnesses and never breathe their secrets.

The artist has now ordered his third glass of wine.  I surrender all hope of discussion regarding his exhibition.  Everyone has a spoonful –Wow is that good.  Yes, but not as good as what you can get anywhere in Italy – of sorbet.

But the great rogue I know as happiness is elsewhere.  He’s exited this four-top and pitched his tent with the valet parking guys, the ones whose voices bounce back and forth like a song, the ones smiling at the traffic on Melrose, enjoying their time amidst the cacophony of Southern California.

As I watch my boss and his girlfriend evaluate their gluten free biscotti, sunlight strips the features from their faces.  They ooze contentment and I have no wish to begrudge them their pleasure.  But I can no longer un-see my dismay with the tone of this chatter, this entire enterprise.  My days as a hired hand in the kingdom of complaint are numbered.

I lean my face away from the glare and imagine an orange tulip behind my ear. SLQ

Marie Chambers

Marie Chambers

Marie Chambers received an MFA from the Professional Writing Seminars at Bennington College.  Her work has appeared in The LA Review of Books. The Atlanta Review, Talking Writing, The Quotable, The Ilanot Review, Printer’s Devil Review, the Seven Hills Review, Ironhorse Literary Review, the California Poetry Society and (coming in the fall) Bookwoman, a publication of the National Women’s Book Association. She was a winner of the 2015 ARTlines2 Ekphrastic Poetry Contest for work inspired by a piece of art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (judged by Robert Pinsky and published by Public Poetry September 2015.)

In the Kingdom of Complaint by Marie Chambers was highly commended in the Sentinel Annual Short Story Competition 2015 judged by Alex Keegan.