A stranger appeared at 23 Bank Street and rang the bell. With his hair cropped short, sporting a pencil-thin moustache, in his left hand he carried a black leather case, as if of some importance. This is what happened.
Two men answered the door, one taller than the other, one blonde, the other brunette. They were both good-looking, one more good-looking than the other, one black, one white. John and John (they both happened to have the same names, and, incredibly, their last names were the same too). John Jones and John Jones. So when they got married one bright summer afternoon at city hall it was John Jones marrying John Jones. The ceremony was a tearful, joyful occasion and no one cried more than the parents of both. Though the two were as different as night and day, no one could ever figure out which one was which, but that was mostly because of their names. Eventually to make things easier for everyone they came to be called Big John and Little John.
Big John and Little John at once saw the man on their veranda. He was funny-looking – thin lips, long, hawk-like nose, thick black brows as if painted on. On his left wrist he wore a big stainless steel watch with fake diamonds and there was a gold chain around his neck. The leather case the size of a small valise was now tucked under his arm and he held it there afraid of dropping it. There was a big smile upon his face as if a long-lost friend. But his voice was phony.
“Hello there, gentlemen. What a beautiful morning. What a lovely garden you have, and such a lovely house. A mid-Victorian, I would say?”
Little John was quick to respond but in a polite way, “Yes, you’re quite right, a mid-Victorian.”
The man continued to talk but now very exaggerated, “And such beautiful geraniums, so many pansies too, and your perennials are amazing. The scent is exquisite if I may say so.”
Big John looked the man over, he became suspicious immediately. He narrowed his eyes. He asked himself. What perfect stranger comes around talking like that, and why is he being so overly friendly? Then it struck him. In an agitated voice he said to Little John but in such a way the man couldn’t hear:
“Dammit, he’s a salesman!”
But to Little John it didn’t matter; rather, he was intrigued, even excited at the prospect. He whispered back, “A door-to-door salesman! Why it’s been years since we’ve had one of those come round! How amusing! What a relic!”
The salesman moved forward, placing one foot forward and his free hand on the brick wall by the door. It was a calculated stance. He was indeed selling something and whatever it was, it was in his leather case. He was obviously working himself up for the pitch.
Big John couldn’t help show condescension. He wanted to close the door on the man and have him be gone, but Little John was feeling generous. Truth be told, he felt sorry for him; after all, not only did he have one of the shittiest jobs around, but then there were his sartorial choices – a cheap-looking much too small suit, patent leather shoes, and that slicked back hair! Oh!
Nudging Big John slightly in the arm and signaling with his head, Little John made it clear to him he had every intention of allowing the salesman to stay.
Picking up on his good fortune, the salesman had not a minute to lose. Extending his hand, he introduced himself in a most pleasant manner, “Clyde O’Malley is my name, nice to meet you, gentlemen.”
He got right down to business, and he couldn’t have been smoother about it, “Today, gentlemen, is your lucky day. Do I have a deal for you; yes, look no further because it’s right here in my case. But the offer ends today, so don’t even think of putting it off. What’s in my case, you ask? It’s a beautiful three-piece set of kitchen knives, German made, of course, the best there is. Messermeister is the brand.”
Then with his attention on Little John, looking at his hands, he knew exactly what to say next, “I can tell by your long, lean fingers that you are the chef of the family. Yes? Well, then, you absolutely must try out these Messermeisters because when you do you will never go back to anything else again.”
Craning his neck, on his tiptoes, Clyde tried peering over the shoulders of John and John. His next aim was to somehow get himself into the house. It would better his chances of making a sale. He said craftily:
“Please, allow me to display the knives for you. On your kitchen table perhaps, if it’s not too much of a bother?”
And so he was invited in, but only by Little John. Big John, though trying to be polite, had absolutely no interest in further hearing the man out. He decided instead to leash up their little pug-dog Maxi and go for a walk in the park. On his way out he cautioned Little John:
“These salesmen are a sneaky bunch. Just don’t let him take you for a ride.”
Maxi barked and growled and his hair stood on end.
But where Clyde was concerned he couldn’t have felt luckier. With Big John out of the picture, he had Little John all to himself. It would be a piece of cake.
Looking round, he saw the house was immaculate and had been renovated from top to bottom, in keeping with the Victorian style, of which he knew a bit about. There were refurbished baseboards, meticulously restored crown moldings, refinished oak paneling. Looking at the doors, he knew exactly what to say:
“Oh my, I see you’ve even brought the brass key hole covers back to their natural beauty. I know for a fact you can’t get those anymore anywhere. And such a brilliant shine to them!”
When he looked down at the floor he let out an exclamation, “And your floors have been sanded and polished to perfection! The rich dark oak certainly gives them that original Victorian feel, and not only that but it helps them keep their captivating earthy look.”
Little John couldn’t help but beam, as it was the floors he was proudest of. He said, “I have to admit, it was quite the job getting all the paint off and replacing some of the damaged boards. I took on the floors as a labor of love; yes, I made it my own very special project. I wanted to bring out the beautiful knots and marks, not to mention the fabulous grain. I sealed all the floors about a month ago with top quality sealer for extra durability. So now, I’m happy to say, they should be fully hardened, and just in time for a little event John and I are planning for tomorrow night.”
Careful so as not to mark or scratch the floor, Clyde slipped off his shoes, and in his stockinged feet, followed Little John into the kitchen. Along the way he refrained from touching anything as he was afraid of breaking something accidentally.
Clyde was already standing over the table, laying out the knives: one eight-inch chef’s knife; a six-inch utility knife; and a three and a half-inch paring knife.
Like an actor about to give a performance, he started in on his spiel. He was very good at it and had it memorized word for word:
“These are the three most used knives in the kitchen, and if you consider yourself even half a cook, then you absolutely cannot be caught without them. Messermeister is a premium brand of authentic German knives, all handcrafted from the finest quality carbon steel alloy. The handles are made of olive wood and are of industrial strength. Allow me to demonstrate by slicing into this orange. Ah, you see! Clean, effortless – pure heaven! The value of these knives far outweighs their cost.”
Seeing he had Little John’s undivided attention, about to disclose the price, Clyde kept calm, cool and collected. He waited for a second, maybe two, and then it came, “These Messermeisters can be yours for only three hundred and fifty dollars!”
A kind of strained silence followed and it lasted a few seconds.
“Three hundred and fifty dollars!” Little John exploded at last. He couldn’t believe the sum. There was no way he would pay that much. Absolutely not!
However, no sooner had he thought this thought when he found himself faced with a serious dilemma. Truth be told, he had taken quite a liking to the knives, and they certainly were handsome-looking, definitely not your run-of-the-mill hardware store variety. Suddenly he was eager to try them out for himself. Taking hold of the smallest one, he cut into a dinner roll, then a cucumber. The knife couldn’t have handled better. He then picked up the largest one. It worked just as impressively. He became conflicted. More than anything he wanted those knives, but three hundred and fifty dollars!
Clyde knew he had to step things up and fast. Just a little more and he would have Little John right where he wanted him. What should he do? He thought a moment. But of course, he would use the oldest trick in the book! He would create a need for urgency and make him see that buying the knives was the most sensible thing in the world. Careful not to push too hard, he went about it in a roundabout way.
“Er …I hope I’m not interfering too much but I overheard you mention to your partner that you were hosting a dinner party tomorrow night, a celebration of your second wedding anniversary, I believe. How wonderful! And I imagine you’ll be doing all the cooking? Yes? Well, then it’s a good thing I landed on your doorstep when I did. These knives will do a knock-out job slicing all your fruits and vegetables, not to mention carving up your roasts. At the dinner table, absolutely everybody will be talking about your Messermeisters, that’s the kind of effect these knives have on people.”
Watching Little John from the corner of his eye, Clyde determined now was the right time to hit him up with some kind of deal. He said, trying to sound sincere:
“I’ll tell you what, I can see you’ve taken a fancy to these knives. I’ll do something for you I’ve never done for anyone – I’ll sell the knives to you at a reduced price and cut into my commission: for you, the whole set for only three hundred dollars.”
Little John raised his brows. He liked the sound of that. Fifty dollars off was considerable. But still the price seemed high, and there were the taxes to consider.
It was as if Clyde could see inside Little John’s mind. He was quick to further sweeten the deal, “All right then, for you, I’ll make it even more attractive – if you give me cash, then I’ll knock off the taxes.”
Little John did some mental math. “No taxes?” he thought, scratching the back of his head. “That’s not a bad proposition, not a bad proposition at all, especially with the already fifty dollars off. Hmm, what should I do? I’d be crazy to pass it up.” Then seeing Clyde standing there looking so natural and above-board, suddenly he felt assured there was only one decision for him to make, and that was to buy the knives. He said with conviction:
“Okay then, you’ve got yourself a deal! Three hundred dollars it is!”
Disappearing into another room for several minutes, Little John came back with the cash.
Counting the bills once, then twice, Clyde made sure the money was all there. A smile strayed on his face. He was more than pleased how his day was turning out, and it was still only morning! Quickly packing up and hurrying his departure before there was a change of mind, he called out to Little John from the hallway, “Enjoy your Messermeisters and have fun with them tomorrow night. You just made a deal of a lifetime; yes, a deal of a lifetime. Have a good day!”
Within seconds he was gone. Already half way down the street, reaching his car, which happened to be an older model blue sedan, he jumped in and drove off.
When Big John returned from the park with Maxi, the first thing he saw were the knives on the table. He threw back his head ironically, “Oh, no! Tell me you didn’t. How much?”
Little John couldn’t have been more pleased, and he was only too ready to boast about it, “I got an amazing deal, you wouldn’t believe. Three hundred dollars, and no tax!”
Big John raised his brows. His suspicions only redoubled. Making for his laptop which was in the den, turning it on, he started typing:
“Now let’s see, Messermeisters, you say? Made from quality steel alloy? Yes? Handles made of olive wood? Yes? Oh, here it is, the exact same set, and just as I thought – one hundred and ninety-nine dollars, taxes included, and free shipping. How much was it you said you paid? Hah, hah, hah! Three hundred dollars? Well, it looks like you’ve been had.”
Little John’s face colored. He felt greatly embarrassed and he brooded several minutes. Damn Big John, he wasn’t about to let him dampen his spirits. He put on a happy face as though nothing had happened. On the point of going to the refrigerator to start chopping up some vegetables for lunch, suddenly he had a change of mind. He turned irately to Big John, who was still laughing.
“Laugh all you want, even if I overpaid by a thousand dollars, I don’t care. Tomorrow’s meal will be like no other. With those knives I’ll chop, slice, carve everything up not like a chef but an artist, a true artist. I’ll show you.”
The rooms were specially decorated and they gleamed and glistened – the furniture, the walls, the doors. A huge colorful banner ran from one end of the living room to the other reading, “Happy Anniversary, John and John!” But undeniably it was the floors that really stood out and gave the house that unique ambiance – they had such a natural richness to them not to mention an extraordinary depth of color and texture. Little John had done a fine job indeed.
The house could not have been more ready for a party!
It was not long before there came full of noise and activity. There were guests in the dining room and living room and more kept coming. It was a very diverse bunch and they were all in a good mood. There was Morris, the accountant, with his hair colored and waved, and two or three business types with hair just like his. An artist in a plaid shirt and blue jeans; a corpulent man with an irritable expression; a very tall woman, thin, who obviously had great confidence in her fine looks. There was a young law student; a self-indulgent poet. Two women stood whispering in the doorway but did not venture to come in.
A twenty-something woman by the name of Bernadette was sitting on the sofa sipping wine, and she was laughing, gesticulating, talking to a small group about her life as a dancer. She had flaming red hair with a dress to match, and with her ample bosom and bare shoulders, she was quite vivacious. When she had first arrived at the party, coming through the front door, unlike the other guests, the please take off your shoes due to new floors sign completely eluded her. As a result, she was the only one with shoes on her feet – and not just any shoes, but bright red four-inch stilettos! Due to the lights being turned down low, no one seemed to notice.
The guests, lingering in all the rooms, sipped wine and made boozy conversation; they went on about politics, work, their likes and dislikes. Bernadette continued about her life as a dancer to her small group.
The food came out and soon the dining room table filled. There were trays of small juicy oysters with caviar, roasts with the exquisite scent of rosemary and olive oil, roasted cauliflower with pesto sauce; toasty brown potatoes, foie gras, poached pears, prosciutto, Norwegian smoked salmon, gnocchi and more. The aroma spread throughout the house. The guests couldn’t believe what they saw – not only was there a ton of food but intermixed was an amazing display of Thai food carvings. Cut apples looking like leaves, cucumbers like lotus flowers, birds and swans out of cantaloupe, butterflies out of Camembert, cherry blossoms out of radishes. Everyone agreed, it was a presentation of high sophistication, a culinary triumph. John was quite the connoisseur.
The thin woman with fine looks got up and made a toast, “Here, here, to John and John, on their second anniversary!”
Everyone clapped and cheered, a few whistled.
Morris said, “I’m starving. But how can we possibly dig into such a lavish display, especially these Thai carvings? They’re veritable masterpieces, works of art, each and every one of them. Extraordinary!”
The poet chimed in, “Yes, I agree, poetry, pure poetry.”
The corpulent man with the irritable expression wanted to know, “But John, tell us, how did you do it? You must have spent hours on those tomatoes to make them look like roses, and that cheese, oh, my, it’s as if it was cut by a Frenchman!”
John’s chest inflated with pomposity. He listened to what the guests were saying and he was quite happy. Peering sardonically at Big John from the corner of his eye, he began:
“I’ve been practicing Thai fruit and vegetable carving for quite some time now. As most of you know, it’s a respected art form that’s been around for centuries. It requires neatness, precision, and meditation. But now I’ve got the precision part down pat, thanks to a set of knives I bought the other day, and quite by chance – Messermeister is the brand. It’s because of the Messermeisters I was able to accomplish all of this. Why, those Messermeisters are so amazing, they practically cut by themselves!”
The corpulent man dared to take a bite of a tomato. Detecting a faint creamy spearmint, it was light and fluffy to the center. He marveled at the flavor, “Oh, how utterly divine! And the carving gives it that special punch. You say the knife brand you used is Messermeister? I definitely must look them up.”
The poet sank his teeth into a chunk of watermelon cut to look like a toad. He closed his eyes to relish the flavor, “Yum. The cut on this melon is the perfect thickness – it makes the flavor even more delectable – it literally lingers on the tongue. Messermeisters, you say? Hmm…”
Little John glanced over at Big John with an extended look.
The guests ate heartily. Everything tasted so delicious, so tender. Then Little John, with the help of Big John, brought out the desserts – white chocolate raspberry cheesecake, baklava, French meringues, cappuccino mousse cake, pecan tarts, a big bowl of whip cream, and that was just for starters – there was no end to the extravaganza.
The law student patted Big John on the shoulder, “You’re a lucky man to have a chef for a husband, and those knives of his – what were they called again? Oh, yes Messermeisters. There’s no telling how far they will take him.”
Meanwhile, Bernadette, who had a sweet tooth with a predilection for cheesecake, had not one, not two, but three pieces of the white chocolate raspberry cheesecake. Overhearing the law student, she said with her mouth full, “Yes, yes, with those Messermeisters Little John’s possibilities are limitless! This cake is so finely cut it’s truly amazing, and there’s even no crumbling! I’ve never seen anything like it!”
The guests couldn’t help but agree that it was the Messermeisters that really made the party what it was.
Then Bernadette again started up on her life as a dancer, but this time she held the attention of the entire company. She went on about her warm-up exercises which she did religiously, about some dance troupe she was with, about her stilettos that were really very expensive dance shoes. By the bored looks on everyone’s faces, it was clear they were having trouble taking it all in; and then things got worse when she started repeating herself, “Yes, as I was saying, about my dancing, I’ve applied for an art’s grant to Rio …”
The artist, in an attempt to shut her up, tried to change the subject.
The poet pushed a bottle of wine in front of her, as if that would help.
The man with the irritable expression lost all hope and simply dropped his head and began to snore.
Not knowing what else to do, not wanting to see his guests further compromised, in an act of desperation Big John grabbed a cd from his cd pile and cranked it up, hoping it would drown her out. It happened to be ‘The Girl from Ipanema’.
Bernadette became thrilled at once, “Oh, how I love bossa nova!”
She started to snap her fingers and sway in her seat, even sing along. She became so completely overwhelmed with the urge to dance, she forgot all about what she had been talking about. Getting up she started sashaying across the room. Her eyes shone and a light, barely perceptible tremor of joy passed over her face.
The very much relieved guests all turned to Big John as if to give thanks, and then their eyes fell on Bernadette.
She had now made her way into the living room, swaying her hips, clapping, making time with her heels. She invested such intensity and brilliance into her every move, each step she took, she took with power and understanding. She made spins, sharp movements, crisp turns, along with some very sultry samba and tango moves. So energized was she there was no stopping her.
The guests watched on attentively, and the sight of her movements created an extraordinary impression on them. Little John and Big John weren’t there, having long since disappeared into the kitchen to prepare midnight snacks.
With the music blaring, Bernadette’s feet now struck the floor with even greater power, her red heels as if a hammer pounding the ground beneath her. She moved from the dining room to the living room, and then back again, clapping and laughing – one, two, three step; one, two, three step.
She called out to everyone, “What better way to burn all those nasty cheesecake calories! Come on everyone, join in!”
A man by the name of Cooper, a dancer himself, got up. Taking her by the hand, they started to swing. Cooper in his bare feet and Bernadette in her four-inch stilettos moved across the rooms doing the cha-cha.
Half an hour had passed since Bernadette had taken to the floor, and now she seemed to be slowing down, and Cooper too. She paused to quench her thirst.
“Ah,” she declared aloud, “I’m so pooped!”
Plopping herself down on the sofa, fanning her face, she kicked off her shoes and sent them flying across the room. They landed next to Little John, who happened to be coming in from the kitchen with a tray of espressos; one practically hit him in the head.
“What the hell!” he proclaimed as he saw something come flying at him.
When he saw what it was, he froze. They were shoes! And not just any shoes but four-inch stilettos! He turned red as a lobster. “Shoes!” he screamed at the top of his voice. “Shoes in my house? What the hell? I specifically said NO SHOES, and I even left a sign by the front door!”
Afraid to look down, he simply closed his eyes and held his breath for maybe a minute. When he finally dared a peek, he went as if into anaphylactic shock. Indignation boiled inside him, “Oh, my God, my floors! My floors! They’re ruined!”
And indeed, his beautiful restored hardwood floors were now punctured as if with a million potholes – in the living room, in the dining room, everywhere. What a horror! What a disgrace! He started hyper-ventilating. Looking round at the whole company with flashing eyes and a fierce expression, he was searching for the culprit who by now he knew was Bernadette. There she was sprawled out on the sofa, chatting away with the poet as if nothing. With an impulse to pounce on her right then and there, to choke her, even kill her, any consequences were the furthest thing from his mind. But instead of going at her he swung round and started for the kitchen. He was going for his Messermeisters, and in a second flat, he returned with the biggest one.
The guests watched in horror. Never before had Little John assumed such a violent form. The fatal situation at hand completely changed his character and he was no longer the self-composed individual all knew him to be. He was a raving maniac, waving the Messermeister around as if a Samurai sword swinger.
Everyone fell into a panic.
Little John then drilled his eyes into Bernadette with a frenzied malice. He couldn’t stop growling and muttering through his teeth. He said to her, “You bitch! You bitch! My floors! Look what you did to my floors!”
Bernadette became pale and there came an expression of such fear on her distorted face, she couldn’t help but scream. She started to shake. At once, she became fully aware of the great damage she had done.
“Shit,” she exclaimed, looking down, “did I really do that?”
Little John started toward her in full force, he was in such a state of excitement he could hardly breathe. With his Messermeister still in hand, half way across the floor he stumbled over something and almost fell. It was her stilettos. When he saw the shoes, bright red, pointy in the toes, the heels sharp as knives, he went completely ballistic. He dropped to the ground and began to laugh the laugh of a madman. Picking one up, then the other, with his Messermeister he began to hack at the heels, gash them, slice them, all the while howling and trembling with rage.
The guests watched pinned to their seats; it was impossible for them to guess to what point the hacking would go on. Those Messermeisters were really doing a number on those shoes. Little John kept at it until both heels were off, and then he flung them straight at Bernadette.
Bernadette ducked, and one of the heels, upon landing, went straight through the floor.
“My dance shoes!” she gasped in disbelief, “You didn’t have to go and destroy my expensive dance shoes! Now I have to get new ones.”
When it looked as if Little John was about to go at her, not taking any chances, she picked up as fast as she could and escaped out the front door. The poet, the corpulent man, and some of the other guests fearing Little John’s state of mind followed close behind.
But the fact of the matter was Little John was no longer interested in Bernadette or the shoes, or so it seemed. He sat there on the floor, talking in disconnected phrases, crying, rocking back and forth, all the while not letting go of his Messermeister.
“My floors! My floors,” he mumbled.
Big John moved toward him in alarm and he understood it all. Rubbing his partner’s back, trying to calm him, he said quietly into his ear:
“Hey, Little John, I brought you an espresso – looks like you can use one about now.”
Setting it on the floor next to him, being the attentive host that he was, he then went to tend to the remaining guests.
Erma Odrach is an author and literary translator living in Canada. Her stories and translations have appeared in many magazines. Alaska or Bust and Other Stories is published by Crimson Cloak Publishing and her translation of novel Wave of Terror (by her late father, Theodore Odrach – dealing with the Stalinist occupation, WWII) is published by Chicago Review Press. At present she is working on a book of fiction about life in an inner-city neighborhood.
If you enjoyed Messermeisters, leave a comment and let Erma know.
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