Dirty Mattress

Christmas 2015. Another holiday season in full swing. This year I found myself alone in LA on a shoestring budget. A recent catastrophic breakup had left me in a bad way, both emotionally & financially. Operating on autopilot, I felt I had hit an all time low. A last minute call to cater a private party on Christmas Day came in, and of course I had to accept the job. At least I would leave with cash in pocket, and what better distraction is there than to busy yourself with work.

Driving up the curving streets, into the hills above Hollywood, the homes got bigger and the streets narrowed. Finally in front of the location, I glanced up to see the multi-tiered home looming precariously above. Heading up the steps to the door, I adjusted my black ruffled shirt and smoothed my hair back. After what seemed like an eternity, I stood before the massive entrance. Taking a deep breath, I rang the bell. I had arrived 30 minutes early as requested, and the host answered the door promptly. He was an older gentleman, wearing a tuxedo, and an expression of disdain. He swiftly ushered me in, and pointed to the closet where I was to put my personal belongings. A bearded man passed by covering his mouth to muffle a nasty cough. I turned my head to avoid contamination. “Oh, that’s my son George, he has a terrific flu.” I just feigned a weak smile. I followed him down the hallway towards the heart of the residence, adjusting my apron along the way.

He turned and barked at me in a stressed staccato tone, “Where is the other server? I need to go over the menu. Are you the lead?” Actually, I had never catered a private party before, so I just told him that I was to meet the lead server, and that as soon as he got there, we could go over the menu together. He opened a swinging door into the brightly lit, steamy kitchen. This room needed a serious remodel. The drop ceilings with fluorescent panels, and cabinets were definitely circa 1986. It was painted a color that I recall being all the rage during the Reagan years. The smell of cooking overwhelmed me, and I saw a large blonde woman stirring a pot of rice on the stove at the center island. She had wild curly hair, and her crimson flushed face glistened with beads of perspiration. He introduced me to his daughter, and informed me that she had been a professional chef and would be preparing the food for the party. She rudely interrupted him to let me know that she had made a drastic career change over the past two years, and was now a renowned psychic to the stars. She was a medium and could channel spirits. Interesting.

Next, I met Anna. Apparently, Anna had been the housekeeper for 35 years, and it showed. This lady looked ancient as she stood over the sink, washing dishes. Naively, I offered her the rubber gloves I had brought along, but she just laughed and told me in broken English, that she couldn’t work with gloved hands. Her expression spoke volumes. For a fleeting moment I had the urge to whisk her away so she could relax, but then again, I wasn’t that far behind in the current scheme of things.

Finally, at 5, the doorbell rang and it was the other server. The host brought him into the kitchen, where I stood pretending to study the menu. I quickly placed the menu on the counter, and readjusted the ruffles on my apron once more. I had dressed as nice as possible within the confines of the catering uniform, because it was the holiday after all. My outfit was as flattering as possible, and my makeup and hair was perfect. At least the fake diamond earrings coupled with the ruffled apron made me feel a little more “french maid”, rather than just a “server”.

He quickly introduced himself with a proper accent, “Shawn”, and turned right away to the host. “Sir, let’s go over the menu if you are ready sir.” Something didn’t correlate to me, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint anything. Shawn wore the standard white button down shirt, tie and black pants of a caterer. I noticed the shirt seemed just slightly dingy around the edges. As we reviewed the menu with the host, he nodded and threw in a “yes, sir, okay sir, how would you like the items plated, sir?” “first or last, sir…etc…” It all seemed a bit over the top, but I figured maybe this was to be expected. Again, this was all new to me, so I just went along with it. The dinner was a sit down, French style service. We were to bring in the dishes in order, and above all, remain discreet. The table had been set already, and at each place sat a tiny box wrapped in tiffany blue and tied with a silver bow. First thing would be champagne, while the 10 guests opened their gift. It was, apparently, a Tiffany silver spoon. We were advised to promptly remove the wrappings, after the guests were done with the ceremony. Following this, we would need to keep on time with the dish removal, and setting up for each next course. We were also expected to keep the wine flowing throughout the entire evening.

As we stood in the kitchen waiting to begin the service, the host went out to the bar area to round us his guests. Shawn, Anna and I waited in awkward silence. Finally, they were all corralled into the dining room, which was through a swinging door from the kitchen. Shawn looked at me and rolled his eyes. “Merry Fucking Christmas” he said, with a heavy Boston accent. I laughed. Gone was the proper waiter with the “yes sir, okay sir.” He swiftly turned on his heel and walked away, disappearing out the back exit. He returned a few minutes later, smelling of cigarette smoke. He asked me if I had worked for this company before, and I let him know it was really my first time doing private catering. He told me not to worry, I simply had to follow his lead. I felt a slight sense of relief.

As we stood there, he looked at me for a moment and started to tell me the story of his recent break up. I shared that I had gone through the same thing around the same time. We laughed and sort of bonded over that fact. Then he told me that the reason he was late was that his motorcycle had been stolen, and he had taxied over. In addition, he wasn’t able to get to the bank to get cash to pay me at the end of the shift. The lead caterer was responsible to handle the payout. How convenient, I thought to myself. Of course, I offered to take him to the bank on the way out, because I would be damned if I didn’t get my money after all of this!

The host came into the kitchen, and silently motioned to us that it was time to pick up the wrapping paper and begin the service. So it went. We moved in and out of the kitchen, passing plates, picking up, pouring wine, giving Anna more dirty dishes and so on. The host’s son with the violent cold kept coughing and covering his face with a cloth napkin. I tried my best to avoid his plates, and let Shawn deal with it. Getting sick was not what I had signed up for.

Anyhow, the night went by smoothly and the host was very pleased. At the end of the affair, he met with us in the kitchen to give Shawn a check and to tip us for our labors. I assumed, since it was Christmas, and since the host was raving about our service, well, I assumed we would be generously tipped. The guests each got a Tiffany spoon. Well, we each got an envelope with 60 dollars. Merry Christmas indeed.

Finally, we were dismissed, and Shawn and I walked out the front door into the night air onto the landing. From the top of the stairs we paused for a few moments to look out at the view. Under a clear starry sky, the sparkling lights of Los Angeles extended for miles below. As we walked down the steps together, I felt a strong kinship between us. At the bottom of the stairs I pointed across to my car. Shawn wanted to smoke a cigarette, so we walked around the corner, and up the side street as he got his nicotine fix. It was dark and we both laughed about the night. We commiserated about the shitty tip, and he asked me what I was going to do the rest of the night. I told him I would probably go home and drink wine. He said he was going to do the same thing, so if I wanted to I was welcome to go over to his place and we could hang out. He said he was still so upset about his ex, and he didn’t intend anything other than hanging out. I said okay, and we headed back to my car. Driving across town, we stopped at the bank so he could get my payout. Then we headed over towards his place. He told me it was a huge apartment and in a great location. We stopped at a 7-11 on the way. Christmas night, 7-11, Venice Beach. Need I say more? A few homeless people lingered in the lot as we pulled up. I expected it to be empty, but the place was buzzing with action. The store was full of random characters, including us. We were still in our catering garb, although mine was now disheveled, and the hair was out from the bun. I hadn’t touched up my makeup, so it was likely smeared around the eyes, and there was a high probability of a lingering outline around my lips. Shawn perked up, saying hello to everyone, and shouting out ”Merry Christmas!” He grabbed a case of beer and some chips. I picked out a bottle of wine. I told him I wanted to get us Christmas gifts, and bought a few lotto tickets and some scratchers, along with the wine. It was that kind of a night.

Back in my car, we headed further west. He guided me towards a large modern, but somewhat desolate looking building, and I drove down a ramp into the lower level of a vast parking lot. We took an elevator up and walked down a maze like hallway. At this point, I was so tired I just followed along, looking forward to a glass of wine. As he unlocked the door, I had a moment of trepidation, because now I realized, I was basically with a perfect stranger. A false sense of familiarity had been established, via our catering bond. In reality, I had no idea who this man was. And, now I was entering into his apartment. “What an idiot. I watch Forensic Files”, I thought to myself.

He switched on the lights, and immediately, I noticed a giant bare mattress to the right of the door. He saw me looking at it, and quickly told me that his neighbor had died, and he inherited some of her items, including the mattress. I didn’t really know what to say. There was a brand new surf board leaning on the wall wrapped in a giant red bow. He pointed to it, telling me it was a Christmas gift for his girlfriend. He still planned to give it to her. There was a photo of a female silhouette over the fireplace, as well as a few photos of the same girl sprinkled around the room. Otherwise, the place was a kind of messy, average one-bedroom apartment. He told me to check the rest of it out and I followed him through the small hallway. He switched on a light, and I looked into the bedroom to see a pile of camofluage clothes, and a military backpack in a heap on the floor. On the bed laid a rifle. He said “I was just cleaning my rifle earlier, gotta put it away.” Then he explained to me that he was an Army Veteran. He started rambling on about how he was on disability, and that is how he was able to afford this apartment in the luxury highrise. Back in the living room, he switched on the tv , and shuffled into the kitchenette to open the wine. I heard him tear open a bag of chips and pour them into a bowl. As soon as I sat down on the sofa, a scruffy cat came over and jumped up onto my lap. Shawn laid out a spread of tortilla chips, beer and wine, along with some dubious looking premade salsa. He then grabbed a giant bong, lit it, and proceeded to get stoned. I sipped on my wine, declining the bong hits. He flipped channels incessantly. Finally landing on the burning log channel, which featured holiday songs with the lyrics superimposed. At that point I was getting tipsy and we started to sing Christmas songs. This continued for what seemed like hours. Soon I was drunk, and I needed to lie down. He got up, bong in hand, and told me I could sleep on the mattress, pointing to it, as he walked towards his room, and shut the door. I placed my coat down and kept my clothes on, lying on the mattress. Sleeping with one eye open, I tried to get some rest. I did doze off, and woke to a breeze blowing through the open sliding door. The smell of stale smoke permeated the room. A cat was sitting on my chest. I sat up and Shawn stumbled out of his room. He offered me some instant coffee. I sat in the dead woman’s bed, and sipped on the bitter brew. He was acting odd, and started putting on different shirts and telling me how he got them from someone who left him a bag of clothes. He paraded around in various “looks”. Suddenly, I felt the urgency to leave, and told him I needed to be somewhere. As we walked down the matrix towards an elevator, he told me he was happy I came over and that if I hadn’t, he might have really lost it. I said the same went for me. I got in my car, and exited the parking garage into the bright morning light. Looking into the rear view mirror, I half expected to see a different person. But all I saw were my smudgy eyes, looking somewhat bleary and sad. My coat was covered in cat hair, and I could smell the smoke that had infiltrated my hair and clothing. I got home, threw all of the clothes into the laundry basket, and took a long hot shower.

Lying down on my bed, a text came in. I looked at the phone. It said “Merry Fucking Christmas”. I responded in kind.


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