by Steve Wechselblatt
Grimsby’s eyes follow the building, which stretches up sixty stories or more. Made of some shiny space-age steel and platinum alloy, the structure arches heavenward with an oddly-angled roof that looks like a beret. As he enters, Grimsby’s footsteps sound hollow on the pink marble floor. Recently shined, it makes for treacherous walking, especially in wingtips with new leather soles, so he shuffles with tiny, duck-like steps toward the round glass elevator bank on the other side of the atrium. He remembers what Dunhill said.
“You can either take the elevator from the lobby, or you can disappear up what looks like a big white cocoon into a tight spiral staircase. The entrance is on the fifth floor near the elevator bank. Be careful when you arrive. Burning candles in glass lanterns flank the floor along the entranceway. Make sure you watch your step. Otherwise you won’t notice them until it’s too late and kick one over.”
Although he had been warned, Grimsby stumbles into a lantern, distracted by the young hostess who was nude except for a pair of black slippers with silver tassels. She has a beautiful, rounded ass, and every man coming up the stairs, and some of the women, are busy checking her out.
“Don’t worry, it happens all the time,” she says, not all that reassuringly. She leads Grimsby past the billiards table upholstered in felt the color of grape jelly and into the bar, where Dunhill and Wentworth wait, a bottle of Laphraog standing between them like a golden sentinel. Dunhill is fit, tan as a berry; but Wentworth’s round white stomach, partly obscured by thick brown hair, spills down to his upper thighs. Neither of them wears a stitch of clothing, but both seem comfortable in their skin, the way old men often do and young men can envy, but not emulate. Grimsby notices the men and women all tend to be at least middle-aged. A conspiratorial hush, a murmuring just beneath the conscious listening of the guests, pervades the room. Only the discrete movements of nubile waitresses and silent busboys attest to the lengths the restaurant will go to pleasure its patrons.
“Dunhill gestures toward a small room to their right. “The lockers are over there. Take off your clothes. We’ll wait here,” he says, caressing the bottle with his thumb.
* * *
Grimsby had been surprised and elated when Dunhill and Wentworth had sponsored his admission to their exclusive private club, Raw. He’d never expected to be let in, and he wondered if this were an indication that he might become the firm’s youngest partner. He knew he was a first-rate actuary, but he had neither the experience nor the polish of his seniors. He had only been out of the country once, and then only to Calais.
Grimsby’s hands shake as he removes his clothes—now he knows why the club was named Raw! He looks around, noticing there are three small, connected dining rooms. His has a dark green marble fireplace big enough to roast a goat, although no meat is served. Above the wainscoting of burl and below the wedding-cake crown moldings, original fixtures ordered up by some long-dead architect, hang framed photographs in black and white, one above another, gallery style. They show celebrities from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, dozens and dozens of them. When Grimsby asks about them, a server brings him an explanatory booklet printed on heavy paper stock. Dunhill and Wentworth look on, amused.
Their waiter seems eager to talk about the menu. Seafood is listed under Seafood and salads under Salads. Grimsby nods. The three men order. They receive a small round loaf of bread, cut in quarters, steaming. “India Pale Ale-rye sourdough with buttermilk and butter.” The crust shatters on impact; the crumb has a prickle of tartness. In five minutes, the loaf is gone and Grimsby feels utterly bereft.
When the seafood-under-Seafood arrives, he understands the bread was a preview of what’s in store. There’s citrus-marinated shaved fennel, so bright that it tingles, over the chilled lobster salad served in its shell. A sweet king crab leg with cucumber-pickle curls and dashi jelly rides high on chipped ice spread out over a silver pedestal. Cubes of raw scallop and hamachi are spread over a chunky pesto.
“Holy shit,” Grimsby says. This chef can really cook. Who is he, anyway?”
Wentworth dabbles sauce from his dimpled double chin. “Arnaud Ambrosio. Amazing, isn’t it? And everything is made without frying or roasting. It’s all done through soaking, sprouting, blending and dehydrating. Take this buttery cashew cheese, for instance,” he says, holding out a spoonful for Grimsby to taste, “It’s made with sage, balsamic syrup and pink peppercorn. Nothing short of culinary alchemy.”
Grimsby tastes. His eyes widened, taste buds frenzied joyfully. “My God!” he manages.
Dunhill bursts out laughing. “I think Grimsby’s in love.” He calls out to the waiter. “Can Arnaud come to the table?”
The waiter nods, “I will ask.” A nimbus of soft black hairs surrounds his pale pink nipples. It’s the only hair visible on his body, aside from the long hair on his head that curls down toward his neck.
A few minutes later Arnaud comes out. He has long blonde hair, fair skin and large brown eyes, which look even larger since he wears extremely thick glasses. It is as though he belongs neither to the world of the sighted nor the blind, and has been given the extraordinary gift of perfect taste buds to compensate.
Grimsby gestures, his mouth and heart unable to convey the full measure of his gratitude. Arnaud smiles as if he’s seen this before from many men and women and knows just what to say.
“I am a chef. This is what I do. Not for you. Not even for all my patrons. I create fantasy dishes solely for my own pleasure. Your feelings do not matter one iota. As long as you pay your bill, or my friends Dunhill or Wentworth pay for you, I am content that you enjoy these perfect, exquisite moments I have made.”
Grimsby watches Arnaud’s thin lips move among the clatter of plates being lifted and taken away. He thinks for a moment that things could have ended differently, but realizes they cannot.
Dunhill’s closed lips tighten into a smirk. “You know why you’re here, don’t you?”
Grimsby clears his throat. He picks up his glass and sips water slowly, searching for the right answer. “A test?”
But Dunhill shoots back at him. “What kind of test?”
Grimsby suddenly feels sick to his stomach. He thinks of his grandfather, who rebuilt his pub in the East End after the blitz with his own hands. His father, who died at Dunkirk to preserve this land. For the middle-aged sybarites who sat across from him? “To see if I was worthy of being a partner, I suppose. And I acted like a child.”
Dunhill looks at him with something approaching approval. “You’re right… But at least you didn’t chicken out. You’re sitting here with your pecker hanging out just like the rest of us.
Wentworth continues. “We invited Liz, you know. Somehow, she’d heard about the place and begged off. Reluctant to show her goodies. I get it. But it’s not as if we care one way or the other. We could buy and sell women better-looking than Liz. We wanted to see if she had balls, so to speak. And you? You showed up. She didn’t. That’s it. Game, set, and match, Grimsby. Bye-bye Liz.”
“You mean…” Grimsby pauses.
“Up or out,” Dunhill says. “She wanted the partnership. All she had to do was change some thoughts and release some beliefs.”
Grimsby’s mouth opens but Dunhill talks over him. “I know what you’re thinking. It sounds simple enough. But it’s not always easy. And the changes you most resist are exactly the areas you need to change the most.”
Grimsby likes Liz. He knows he should defend her. But he doesn’t know what to say. It’s harder for women, he thinks, but maybe this is the way the universe is supposed to work.
◊ ◊ ◊
Steve Wechselblatt retired from a moderately satisfying career in strategic communications and moved to the creative mountain community of Asheville, North Carolina. He started writing fiction about three years ago. At the moment, he’s taking a breather from his first novel by writing outrageous short stories for upper middlebrow readers.