August 4, 2019

Smörgåsbord by F.J. Bergmann

In keeping with the Grecian theme of the hotel,
on each of the eight walls there were
hand-painted murals of the Cyclades
and the beautiful Aegean Sea...
The jovial, white-robed chef behind the buffet carved an enormous leg of mutton, its red juice dripping into the chrome gutters. Below his rolled-up sleeves, the fuzz on his arms glittered like copper filigree beneath the incandescent heat lamps. He was flanked by his acolytes, a shriveled spinster with an expression sour enough to serve as vinaigrette for the salads she constantly replenished (Hecate May I Help You? said her name tag) and a muscular, blond Apollo, also sporting an expression of willingness to render assistance, who dexterously folded omelettes around gruyère, boysenberry compote, porcini mushrooms, and habanero chutney (Made to Order, While You Watch With Filling’s of Your Choice!). 

Profligate riots of fruit wedges, crudités, sliced sausages, chunks of cheese, quivering globs of macédoined Jell-O, and pastries in seemingly unlimited selection propagated themselves to the limits of the tablecloth. A vapid teenager with rainbow-dyed hair (Hi! I’m Iris!) presided over the dessert cart, offering to add whipped cream to all items regardless of their composition, most of which appeared to contain food coloring as the main ingredient.

In keeping with the Grecian theme of the hotel (we were in the Olympian Dining Room, adjacent to the Spartan Luxury Lounge), on each of the eight walls there were hand-painted murals of the Cyclades and the beautiful Aegean Sea (or so we gathered from their P.R. brochure: Artistic Landscapes of Sunny, Greek Islands Surround Your Total Dining Pleasure!). While skillfully executed, some of the paintings were difficult to understand, and not in the best of taste. Above all the murals, an acanthus-leaf border circumscribed a domed ceiling supported by nine statues depicting singing, dancing, and musical-instrument-playing young women in rather clingy robes, whose benevolent smiles gave them the air of occupational therapists.

On the first wall to our right (the entrance, flanked by two of the simpering marble maidens, occupied the north-northeast corner) was painted an grove of trees bearing yellow apples—they looked like Golden Delicious to me, although another diner claimed those were not authentically Hellene. The trees were silhouetted on the crest of a hill against a distance-blurred vista. Glittery with sea-water from a frolic in the surf, a herd of white horses was emerging at a gallop from the waves onto the beach below the apple orchard.

Moving along widdershins, the second mural depicted what I would have technically called an interior scene, rather than a landscape. A seductively plump young lady lay asleep on a futon in a corner of a stone-walled room. The rays of sunlight descending from a high window glowed golden on her skin and extremely scanty lingerie. She was smiling in her sleep.

The third wall showed a view of a village surmounting vineyard-covered hills. It was desolate except for striped cats sunning themselves on each of its turquoise- and saffron-hued doorsteps and windowsills. But in the central square, a handsome young man in a tuxedo, tossing an apple (yet another Golden Delicious) from hand to hand, confronted three women who all glared angrily at each other.

On the fourth wall a russet-coated stag grazed peacefully in a woodland glade. An observant viewer might have noticed the hounds and mounted huntsmen, accompanied by one riderless horse, stalking its track in the shadowy background. The waiter (I am Mr. Bacchus, Your Sommelier) who had said he would be right back to take our drink order was nowhere to be seen, so we had plenty of time to look at the murals.

In the fifth painting, spelunkers emerged from a cave in a rocky mountainside, headlamps still lit. The leader, oddly loaded with a guitar case as well as his backpack, was starting to turn his head toward the pale, tired-looking young woman still negotiating the dark slope behind him—it is so easy to forget that coming back up is generally more difficult than the descent.

The sixth wall contained an image of a flowery meadow, where a muscular white bull pawed the ground as a woman in a poppy-red Chanel suit and matching high-heeled pumps stroked his arched neck. Leaning languidly against his side, her liquid eyes held a languorous, expectant look. Behind them the sea was like cobalt glass under a pale sky.

On the seventh wall a small fishing boat pitched, rolling in brilliant blue waves. A name in Greek letters was painted on its bow. The crew passed a jug from hand to hand (I tried ouzo once, and found it to be quite nasty—retsina isn’t any better), watching anxiously as one of their number struggled with the engine crankshaft. A volcano smoldered on the horizon. A woman with a yellowish sheepskin flung over her shoulders stood watching from the stern, perhaps hoping for assistance, as another vessel steamed toward them. She held a child by the arm and a filleting knife in the other hand.

The eighth scene was the most dramatic: a cliff towered menacingly over a raging sea, under gloomy storm clouds. Only the most attentive and farsighted eye could have discerned the shape of a woman, wet and bedraggled, the chains tethering her to the rocks at the high-tide mark indicating that she had apparently not come there willingly; for in the foreground the viewer’s gaze was riveted upon the enormous, fanged monster rising from the ocean, drooling slime. Most unpleasant, and not at all appetizing.

We had arrived at the earliest possible hour for brunch, unostentatiously sidling through the convocation of guests into the closest proximity to the glass entrance doors. Somehow, we had ended up first in line by the time famished would-be diners were finally allowed to enter. Thus, we were able to select a table where we could sit with our backs against the atrocious sea-monster mural and admire the more comfortable pictures in the rest of the room. We had been enjoying our meal for quite some time when we were perturbed by the bullish behavior of a gentleman in some kind of odd, skirted costume. Red-haired, bearded, and carrying an implement resembling a machete, he thrust himself arrogantly to the front of the queue. Munching on a small wheel of Brie and a bunch of grapes which he snatched unceremoniously from the buffet, he strode over to our table, and, without even asking if someone was sitting there, he yanked out one of the chairs, set it against the wall behind us, and climbed up and over the edge of the picture.

We heard a lot of splashing, clanging, and shouting of words that nobody understood, and when the water began to slosh over the edge of the frame, we asked another waiter (Ganymede at Your Service) if we could move to a different table, which was just as well, because the next wave was full of reeking, fishy blood and did quite a bit of damage to the carpeting, drapes, and tablecloths. By the time the splashing and bellowing stopped and the salt mist cleared, most of the diners had left without finishing their meals. The chains were dangling empty, and the woman and the bearded man were nowhere to be seen. The monster sprawled at the base of the cliff, hacked with gaping wounds, lifeless, and stinking to high heaven.

Along with profuse apologies (the maitre d’ tore up the bill himself), we were offered coupons to return for a complimentary dinner on another occasion. What we had been able to consume before the ruckus started had been quite tasty, so we decided to give them another chance a few weeks later. We were glad to see that the offending mural had been replaced by a much nicer one, a picture of a pretty white horse, with wings, drinking from a fountain.

My friend Mrs. Gordon was at the hotel last month for a Businesswomen’s Lunch, where she said that something outrageous involving a swan was taking place in one of the murals. She refused to elaborate, to our disappointment. It must have been quite interesting, judging by the dark crimson shade her face had turned. At any rate, I saw no swans the last time we ate there (although the food was, as usual, divine).
F. J. Bergmann edits poetry for Mobius: The Journal of Social Change (mobiusmagazine.com), and imagines tragedies on or near exoplanets. She has competed at National Poetry Slam as a member of the Madison, WI, Urban Spoken Word team. Her work appears irregularly in Abyss & Apex, Analog, Asimov's SF, and elsewhere in the alphabet. A Catalogue of the Further Suns won the 2017 Gold Line Press poetry chapbook contest and the 2018 SFPA Elgin Chapbook Award.
fjbergmann.com, https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=619735904, @FJBergmann


Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff

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