By William Haryanto
Nobody in Hartford was awake to meet the great Oscar Wilde. Except Gregory the Waiter. Henry who had looked forward to meeting the Artist had fallen ill while everyone else said that they couldn’t stay up too late. Wilde looked disappointed from the lack of reception after he stepped off the coupe. His agent stretched his neck after exiting with a briefcase and looked at the distinctive second-story porch that told everyone that this was the United States Hotel.
Wilde entered the lobby and smiled when Gregory stood there like a pillar. He slouched as he walked and only straightened his back when he shook Gregory’s hands. But he seemed aware and almost proud of the way he walked. Could such an arrogant human really exist? Gregory took a good look at Wilde’s fur jacket. Gregory looked plain — at least compared to the Apostle — for he only wore a suit that was handed down by his father. If Henry was here, he would iron his suit (or maybe buy a new one) before Wilde’s arrival. Henry might even quote a poem Wilde had written to greet the Artist, but Gregory met Wilde with a large yawn. Wilde introduced himself as Oscar Wilde, Apostle of Beauty or Esthete, whatever you may call him. Gregory, while carrying his luggage, glanced at Wilde. The Apostle was watching the coupe sleigh that drove him here go away into the darkness without saying a goodbye.
It was a small climb to Wilde’s room on the second floor. Gregory heard the clock finally strike midnight. By this time, he would have been at home rereading Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon, told bedtime stories inspired from Treasure Island, kissed his children’s cheeks, said goodnight to his wife, and went to bed. Then, it would be another ordinary Thursday for him when his wife woke him up from his slumber at six in the morning and off to the United States Hotel again. But alas, it was unfortunate that a man of prestige like Oscar Wilde came and for Gregory, work came first before family. Just like his father when he worked in this very same hotel.
“I’d like a pot of tea,” Wilde declared after throwing himself onto the bed. He was still wearing his bottle-green ulster with epaulets of fur. His fur hat (probably of the same fur) fell off from his head and landed on the pillows. The Apostle sprawled on the bed like a rotting corpse. Wilde’s agent, on the other hand, still stood and admired the oil paintings on the pastel-colored walls.
“What type of tea would you like, sirs?” Gregory had inspected the room like a detective before meeting with Wilde and everything looked like it was set in order. Wilde’s agent was pleased with the room himself and began unpacking the suitcase. He had said water was fine. Wilde’s words were muffled because his face was squished onto the pillows, but Gregory had heard something like “Any type of tea would do.” Gregory looked at the clock above the bed and it was five to one. He wondered if his children were asleep as they liked to stay up late if he was away.
When Gregory returned with a tray, Wilde was sitting by the desk, his chin resting on his hands. Lecture notes about the English Renaissance laid spread naked, but Wilde was staring at the printed announcement. It was an orange card. Gregory put the tray on the small free space that was available and accidentally peeped at the card, which read: “Mr. R. D’Olyl Cartie has the honour to announce that OSCAR WILDE will deliver an address at the Opera House, on the evening of February 2d at 8 o’clock.”
Gregory assumed that Wilde was going to lecture at the famous Roberts Opera House on 395 Main Street today; he remembered the tower sticking out of it as if it was a castle. Inside, there was a large stage and the seating arrangement was shaped like an amphitheater’s. Three stories of seats. Unbelievable. Ever since Jennings & Graves took over the establishment, the opera house had been beautiful. A long time ago (was it ten years ago?), Gregory had the privilege of attending a Don Giovanni opera when a loyal customer of his sent him some tickets. He heard the sopranos’ voices resonate so clearly that he felt like he could hum it whenever he felt like it. From that day on, the opera house was Gregory’s number one recommendation. When people ask about the history of the opera house after they visited, he replied that it was in this opera house that Henry Ward Beecher once stood on October 28, 1869, for a suffrage convention. This fact made Gregory shiver. Was this man, this Oscar Wilde, going to stand on this same stage as Beecher? But as a professional waiter, he did not let the discomfort of serving Wilde slip.
A cigarette was situated between Wilde’s lips. He let out a puff of smoke when Gregory asked him if he wanted any supper and read him the bill of fare. Gregory boasted that the Honnis Oyster House, the United States Hotel’s very own restaurant, had the cuisine that would pleasure the taste buds of a man so respected and revered as Wilde himself.
“None of these things,” Wilde said, pushing the cigar down onto the ashtray, “do please me.” He turned toward Gregory and shook his head like a critic. Gregory wanted to grind his teeth. What a finicky man. It was as if he was born to be disliked. What did Henry see in this man? Gregory would be surprised if there was something human about this vile creature.
Wilde said, “Are there any burrds to be had?”
“What?” Gregory saw Wilde’s lips twitched as if he was not cultured enough to understand what Wilde was saying. “Burrds…” Gregory tried muttering the word again, but no image developed in his mind.
“Birds,” Wilde’s agent said, “Wilde is asking if you have any birds.”
“Oh, yes.” Gregory almost laughed at the bumbling fool named Oscar Wilde, but he recollected himself and cleared his throat. “Why, of course. We have plenty of them in Hartford. Honnis Oyster House would be pleasured –”
“Good,” Oscar Wilde said as if he was reading off a script in a monotone voice, “then I’d like the following: Stony Creek oysters on the half shell, a partridge on toast, with jelly, boiled potatoes (with the skin on, mind you), Lyonaise potatoes, and English fried potatoes.”
“Would you please repeat that?” The waiter was taken aback by the voluminous amount of food. And it seemed that Wilde wanted potatoes. Many types of potatoes. Wilde repeated it mechanically again and Gregory noted everything down and then said, “But if I may ask, what are English fried potatoes?”
“Mashed potatoes,” Wilde’s agent said, amused by the demands, “but rolled into tiny balls. A delicacy in England from what I understand.” He was chuckling under his breath.
“I have forgotten to ask this,” Gregory said, “but will you like some tea or coffee to go with your supper?”
Wilde’s agent said, “Coffee for me.”
And Wilde said, “Give me the wine list.”
Gregory hurried down and grabbed the list from the Oyster House. He returned to the room out of breath, handed it to Wilde who scanned the list and stared at one item in particular: the Piper Heidsick champagne. It costed $1.50 for a pint and $3 for a quart.
“A bottle of Piper Heidsick.”
“I will do my best.” Gregory bowed before leaving the room. After he had went down the stairs, he cursed everyone, especially Henry.
Henry had followed the news trail Oscar Wilde had left ever since the Apostle of Beauty arrived in America. “One of us, Gregory,” Henry said a few hours earlier before he fell ill, his hands flailing around, “might serve the Apostle of Beauty! Imagine that: To serve one of the most distinguished gentleman from the Old World! I could tell he was an Artist by the way he talks to interviewers. Can you imagine the riveting stories one can have if one has the pleasure of serving Oscar Wilde supper? This is the type of story I’d like to hand down to my grandchildren, my grandchildren’s grandchildren, and so on.”
But it was not Henry that was called upon; the misfortune fell onto Gregory. Maybe, Gregory thought while he pleaded with the overworked chefs to satisfy Wilde’s epicurean demands, Henry would appreciate the Apostle more. All this attention to detail, all this fussiness that was so un-American. It was something Gregory couldn’t understand. All he cared were the United States Hotel’s reputation and his family.
Gregory knew he was a simple pragmatist and didn’t understand Wilde’s talk in the papers about Sensibilities and Art. But the food Wilde ordered seemed to show something about the Apostle himself: that while his ideas were complex and his personality atrocious, he was homesick. Terribly so. He missed Ireland, the country of potatoes, too dearly. This was the only aspect where Gregory and Wilde could connect on a human level: they’d rather be at home than at work now. But it seemed that both believed that work came before home too. Gregory almost sighed when he brought the tray of potatoes and whatnot to Wilde. To see a person who mirrors you, especially if it was Wilde, was depressing.
Indeed, Gregory thought as he watched Wilde gorged on potatoes, if there was a story worth telling to your grandchildren and grandchildren’s grandchildren just as Henry said … it would be to show the world that Oscar Wilde, the Apostle of Beauty, the Artist, the Esthete, was merely a brutish man who loved potatoes and missed his home.
William Haryanto is a Columbia College Chicago student majoring in fiction writing for his bachelor’s. He was born in Singapore and had studied in Singapore American School.