The Geeks Ball

Anthony Michael Morena

In the morning, while it was still dark outside, the diners would begin to arrive, first in small numbers, but then in much larger groups. They were all happy to come inside, to escape the cold and enter the light, jumping over the threshold clapping hands and bowing, hello, rosy-cheeked in smiles. They stopped to see each other, to note people they could only guess at in the dark, friends, acquaintances, faces they knew and faces they didn’t, greeting each other and their shadows, the maître d’, in his time, being patient. The bouncers were taxed with nudging the confluence further inside to keep the entryway clear for still-arriving guests. People were hungry.

        At coat check, in the bustle of removing hats and outerwear, there would be a headcount. Inevitably, it would be a few guests short. These things happened. As ordinary as this was, it could still be quite alarming for guests to find that party members were missing. They would insist that their friends had been with them outside, they were sure of it, they had looked them right in the eye. To avoid a panic, the substitutes appeared almost as if they had been in the crowd all along, lagging in the back, peripheral. They had been there, hadn’t they, and in this light, it was uncanny, their faces could almost be mistaken for the faces of missing people. The missing diners had been called away at the last minute on urgent business, the substitutes would explain, they asked to send word that all was well. The guests would nod, understanding. Unavoidable, they would say and, couldn’t be helped. The substitutes mingled, but mainly kept out of sight. They were only allowed several rehearsed topics for conversation; if they spoke too much they might exhaust all of their subjects and be forced to repeat themselves.

        At dawn, guests would be led to their tables. Each table was set with a pair of trays. On the first tray would be a pile of raw red meat. There would be some sirloin, some steak, brisket, but for the most part the meat would be of no discernable cut, still attached to the bone, and the bones broken, inexpertly chopped as if by a lumberjack and not a butcher. The second tray would be arrayed with specie, globes, necklaces and sundry other baubles. As diners approached their tables, they would feign indecision over which of these two trays they would choose—a pretense, as the meats were invariably selected. The trinkets would be cleared away to make room as the diners sat. In affected shows of virility, diners used their teeth to clean the meat. The bones and fat they dropped back down into the trays. The meat was never swallowed; it was instead deposited in the spittoons provided next to the diners’ chairs. Spittoons were cleaned in alternating ten- and fifteen-minute intervals by the wait staff. Gleaned meats were brought back to the kitchen to be used, at the chefs’ discretion, for later. When the diners were finished, the trays containing the fat, gristle, and discard were also taken into the kitchen.

        For the breakfast course, there was a quinoa muesli cereal with capers and hot lye, buttered buns sprinkled with cinnamon and sawdust, breaded cherries, and sliced avocado and lychee nut banana peel wraps. Jalapeño pepper pancakes were served with bacalhau muffins. A morning salad contained sunflower petals, starfruit and French toast croutons in a dark pine tar dressing. Each plate was served with a pomegranate juice blended with juniper berry, bay leaves, ginger and acetate for pungency. To make things easier, coffee and tea were served in the same cup, and could be refilled at a central samovar, which towered above the tables at the center of the room. The meal was eaten in a standing position. Dirty dishes were cleared away. The refuse was not reused, but washed down the drains, forever.

        When breakfast finished, the waiters would inform diners of their dinner choices. The chefs had been hard at work in the kitchen. The contents of the spittoons had been emptied and separated. Special care was taken to remain true to the meat principle. Jockeying for the best cuts was common, and infighting could be brutal. A chef with particularly good meat might be able to barter some or all of it for a return on later vegetables, a strategy that was considered wise as these would be in short supply come evening. A chef with poor meat was seen as being at a disadvantage for the day. Word of a chef’s unattractive portion routinely spread to the front of the restaurant, where diners eager for information about the coming meal would offer substantial favors to waiters and busboys willing to divulge the results of meat selection. Many a waiter’s career advanced on a well-negotiated meat report. Orders would begin to come into the kitchen heavily favoring one chef or another. Slighted chefs might try to counteract a trend by bribing the waiters to spread false information among the diners. If successful, the bribes would ensure no meal could be ordered with any certainty.

        Brunch was a simple coconut rind and grape skin canapé placed on the upper lip and rolled into the mouth. A plum wine and sesame seed oil dressing could be added upon request. Diners were asked to bus their own tables, for a change. After brunch, there were rains. Diners were expected to go to the windows, stretch out their arms, and collect rainwater in their cupped-together palms. They would hold their hands up to each other’s mouths and drink from the spouts formed by the tips of their fingers. Natural rain was preferred, but in times of drought a sprinkler system attached to the exterior of the building was used. Either that, or a busboy would stand on the roof with a hose. Lunch would not begin until either the rain stopped or until everyone was refreshed, whichever came first.

        Drinks, naturally, would only begin to be served at noon. The ceremonial role of bartender was in some part also fortune teller, as diners would not order drinks but have their drinks selected for them. It was the bartender’s job to pair guests with the drinks that best suited their personalities. Good-natured guests were served bocks. Adult infants were offered champagne. Mixed-drinks were served to perpetual liars. A careless bartender might make assumptions based on physical traits, giving the fat lagers, the thin whiskey. This was an error, and a mark of inexperience. The tradition of staffing each bar with a very old bartender and a young apprentice was meant to correct this: while the latter learned from making mistakes, the former made sure not all diners sat down at their tables with false notions about themselves.

        At lunch, frankincense-smoked tofu and peas would arrive at the tables, along with wheat leaves, stuffed roses, and a broth celery soup served in corn husks or acorn bowls. At the center of each table a roasted peahen drizzled with tea tree oil was served on a bed of bleached sea coral. The cooked bird was stuffed with soft-boiled eggs of quail. A traditional utensil known as a flange—also called a plectrum spoon despite its hammer-like appearance—was used to gouge the bird until yolk oozed out across the skin. This action could shatter the bird, which was a shame. The confusing slurry of meat and bones and eggshells might be considered inedible at this point, but the yolk could be sopped up with the flange’s sponge-end and sucked out by the diners. The garnish could also be cleaned off and kept as a souvenir, for a fee. Diners interested in such collectibles were asked to note that the runners at their tables were available for purchase at the bar, as well as commemorative dolls and t-shirts.

        The rest of the day before dinner would be left open. Diners would amuse themselves, more or less. Music was played, there could be dancing. Some would sit by the windows and watch the refuse wash away from the building into the stream below, like a rainbow tide, greasy on the surface, glinting with silverware that had been accidentally thrown away with the trash. It was ordinary not to know what to do, and this itself would lead to a deeper introspection. For lack of anything else to talk about, diners asked each other if they thought dinner would be any good. Well, how do you call it? Is that so? Better than last time, I should hope. Says he’s only going for it with his teeth again, and at his age. This could go on for hours. The chefs themselves might make an appearance to describe the techniques they would be using in the preparation of the meal that night. An occasional porter animal might make an appearance, doing tricks or growling at the diners, for a laugh. Cabaret was possible. The waiters would bring around an amuse-bouche of a casaba melon and taffeta. Somewhere along the edge of the crowded tables, the bouncers were always moving.

        By evening, the chairs and tables would be cleared from the dining hall to make room for the stalls. When the stalls—pens, really—were in place, it would be time for dinner. Time to eat. The substitutes would slyly remove to a side room where they would chat together, have a smoke, and buy something from the candy machine. Their absence would not be noticed by the diners, who were frantic to find their stalls and to fiddle with the straps. The harnesses inside each stall would hold the diners’ bodies at the necessary incline. Diners were strapped in by the waiters at a 45˚ angle with their heads at the angle of incidence. Their arms were left free, both for eating and for locomotion, as there were wheels on the feet of the stalls that allowed movement. The stalls had screens located to the left and the right to extend the diners’ peripheral vision. They would need it. Dinner was on its way.

        With a bell, the waiters would begin to roll out the cages from the kitchen. The bars were wrought iron, but they were decorated in the organic style, and served as a skeleton. The trinkets of the rejected trays from the early morning were tied and bound to the cage bars with ligatures, tendons, and straps of fat that had been cleaned away from the meat by the diners themselves. The cages were made in the shape of an animal’s body: thickset and four-legged, as easily a cow as it could have been a sheep or tapir. With the decorations, the cages resembled a beast that had been stripped of its skin to reveal a bejeweled skeleton held together by offal. Anticipation was hot. Wheels would begin to squeak. Instead of clapping their hands, diners would slap the ground as the cages appeared. The waiters would position the meals in front of the guests’ stalls. Diners swung inside their stalls, waiting, trying to see through the ornamented bars. The waiters waited until all were served, at which point the latches at the bottom of the cages were lifted and the doors at the feet swung open.

        For the most part, animals would run directly out of their cages, a piece of cooked meat wobbling on each of their backs. For diners troubled by animals that did not want to run, the waiters were armed with staves. A cowering animal would be prodded or its cage bars banged until it panicked and fled, though most animals ran without provocation. Their mouths were muzzled, and they were fitted with contrived diapers to prevent the meal from being spoiled. Species diversity depended on the chefs. Many chefs had signature animals they liked to work with. Some preferred iguanas for their speed and stubbornness; others opted for the intelligence and agility of rats. Some chefs were more sympathetic to the diners and made sure that the animals they choose were not great runners: tortoises, lungfish, newborn kittens, slugs. Earlier, waiters would have recommended these dishes for the elderly guests, or the impaired. But most diners preferred a chase. Wheels spun around in the dining hall as diners maneuvered their stalls after meals. It was possible to corner animals within the stalls themselves, trapping them, but an animal that maneuvered to the rear, near the diners’ feet, could be a problem. The best strategy was to grab a hold of the meat as soon as the animal cleared the fleshy bars of its cage. Purists would go after dinner using only their teeth, but there was no shame in using hands to grab either the meat or the animal itself. It was no longer the practice to eat the porter animal; they were taken away by the waiters, who had cloth sacks that were attached to their belts. A door in the kitchen led to the short path to the dumpsters outside.

        The chefs showed a wide range of styles. Meat could be grilled, roasted, starched, stewed, caulked, flame-broiled, blown, poached or pan-seared. Once an entrée was retrieved it could be plated—waiters manned a station at the center of the room—or eaten in situ. Each stall was equipped with a pocket that contained a knife and fork. Other compartments stored garnish and side, ready for whenever the diners managed to retrieve the meat from their animals. Some more modern stalls even contained bins for rubbish.

        The hectic nature of the meal could prove difficult. Diners frustrated with catching what they had ordered might go after another animal that was easier to catch, a meal that belonged to some other guest. It was considered very rude, as apologies would have to be made to the diner without a meal and to the chef, but it inevitably happened. The angle at which the diners were suspended within their stalls could also be problematic. Food might be hard to keep down, especially if the bartender found a diner’s personality called for strong drink. Some porter animals scratched. Crashes took place, but the stall exteriors were heavily padded to make this a safe, even an enjoyable experience for diners. Only a very severe, aimed collision could tip a diner’s stall, but this risked the bouncers. Generally, despite the hiccups, all would have a good time. The sound of thudding stalls, laughter, and the squeals of escaping animals would fill the dining room. Plates were full. People ate.

        With sighs the harnesses would be unlatched as the diners took their first awkward steps back on their feet. Emerging from the stalls, they would be surprised to find that the room radically changed. Whole portions of the walls would be missing, and with the sun set there was nothing to stop the cold from floating in on the breeze. The tables and chairs had not returned, but in their place would be a long settee in the middle of the room, surrounded by torches. The diners huddled here for warmth and dessert. Port wine was mixed with Ovaltine in a sizable tumbler. Hot butter might be added, to taste. Rolling trays coming from the kitchen would bring cakes and anti-cakes. Raspberry spreads of gelatin cream fixed in gelato bowls. It was too cold for them to melt. Gold flakes were served in snuff boxes, and a pinch could be added to this or to that. It crunched in their mouths and stuck to the corner of their mouths. Fires reflected in the eyes of the diners. There was still a chance for the world, the flames seemed to prove. The diners would feel safe. Sated. Full. Each torch had a wick that was a little bit longer than the last. And as each light burned out the diners moved closer to one that was still glowing, until they all were standing together. Take the last bite, they would say to each other. No, I insist, they would say, it must be you. Of course, eventually, even this light faded, and it was time to go home.

        Again, as it happened every time, a few guests would never make it back to coat check. Their dangled jackets swung from the hangers, unclaimed. No substitutes, no one to take their place and to make the long walk back home for them, out into the impossible air. Goodnight, the guests would cry to one another. I have missed you! I have always missed you! Tip jars overflowed. Chairs, piled higher than anyone imagined the ceiling could be, in fact acted to support the roof, fast imploding. And one by one, guests scuttled out alone. Home. They were going to the final meal, to be chewed by their doorways and beds, or else to lose their way, to be mouthed by the night and swallowed.


Anthony Michael Morena is a student at Bar-Ilan University. His work has previously appeared in Ripped Magazine and Israel Short Stories. He lives in Neve Tzedek with his wife.


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