Christopher Gonzalez


Christopher Gonzalez is a Cleveland-raised, Brooklyn-based writer of fiction and essays. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Split Lip MagazinePithead ChapelHobartChicago Literati, and elsewhere. A graduate of Vassar College, he is the recipient of the 2015 Ann E. Imbrie Prize for Excellence in Fiction Writing. Currently, he works in book publishing and serves as an assistant fiction editor for Barrelhouse magazine.


Twitter: @livesinpages

The Other Half

On his hour drive from Oberlin to Shaker Heights, Artie almost regrets lying to Mrs. Whittle. Over the phone she had responded so enthusiastically to his fib—“Yes, I have experience. I wait two private dinners a month, sometimes more.”—that she agreed to his rate of forty dollars an hour, with a “Splendid! See you this Friday night, Arturo.” He did not pushback against her use of a name that was not his. He smiled, dumbly, with the phone pressed to his ear, nodding a yes as if she could see him. In truth, his work experience was limited to sorting student mail at school, but he hoped he could pretend otherwise for one night.

He arrives fifteen minutes early and parks a block away from the house, as instructed. While walking, he pinches the crease of his shirt collar and takes in the neighborhood: lush July trees; an even sidewalk beneath his feet, no unnatural cracks or splits through the concrete.

Closer to Mrs. Whittle’s home, he spots seven men with skin brown like his. They wear white jumpsuits and each one holds a giant sky lantern; in a uniformed line they weave along Mrs. Whittle’s winding driveway and cut around the house’s side, into her backyard. Artie studies their movements, how the men calculate each step and walk with their elbows locked tight. Can’t risk being loose around here, Artie thinks, and then he looks down at his own outfit, which is frumpy and requires he spend three minutes out on the curb, re-tucking and re-tying, until he is satisfied nothing about him is out of place.

Artie expects Mrs. Whittle to be old—over the phone, her voice had reminded him of pork skin crackling in a hot oven—and a bit jowly, with pearls strung around her neck like festive tinsel. All of this proves true when she greets him at at the door. He does not, however, anticipate finding kindness in her eyes, verdant and wet like lily pads. She smiles at him for the duration of a handshake, and once they separate, her lips flatline.

“Now, now, it is awfully hot, please do come in, Arturo,” she says, and waves him in over the threshold.

Mrs. Whittle gives Artie a quick tour of the kitchen. She informs him of one guest’s allergy to stone fruits and another’s vegetarian diet, and she shows him the liquor cabinet where the best gin is stored. They run through each of the nine courses in detail: there will be soups, salads, a fish entree, a steak, seasonal vegetables, and two desserts, which Artie will plate. Last night, Artie had watched seven hours of fine dining tutorials online: he feels like a pro. Tonight should be easy.

He is in the process of uncorking a bottle of red wine when Mrs. Whittle says, “Oh, before I forget.” She opens a drawer near the stove and pulls from it a tiny, ornate bell. “Once the guests and I are seated, I will ring this.” She flicks her wrist, and the bell peals gleefully in her hand. It’s loud and tinny and Artie hates it. He tries laughing off his annoyance, but Mrs. Whittle doesn’t break with him. “Hear this,” she says, her brow now scrunched, “and you come to the table.”


The bell first chimes exactly at 7 p.m. when the guests are seated. Ring: quickly, Artie serves gazpacho from the right. Ring: he clears bowls from the left. Ring: carrying a tray of salmon, he orbits around the table, completing ten revolutions until all of Mrs. Whittle’s guests have flaked the fish down to its wiry corpse. Ring: he brings out the side dishes. Ring, ring, ring: more side dishes—and black pepper, which he cracks with a mill until his forearms burn. Ring, ring: he refills glasses of red and white wine, heaving the chilled white so close to his chest that the condensation soaks through his breast pocket.

On it goes—ring, ring, ring, ring ring, ring—again and again, for five hours.

After Artie clears the final coffee cup and saucer from the table, he bends over the kitchen sink, splashing cool tap water into his mouth. He can’t seem to drink enough, and soon wet spots expand across his shirt like a shadow. He is leaning on his forearms, sweat and water running down his face, when he jumps from the touch of a hand on his shoulder.

“My dear, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” Mrs. Whittle says. Artie turns and searches for the kindness in her eyes, but any trace of what once existed had evaporated over dinner. “I’ve come to relieve you of your duties. You’ve done a fine job this evening.” She takes his hand, her skin loose and cold against his, and she places two 20-dollar bills in his palm. “Thank you, Arturo,” she says, and then she slips out through the patio door. In her absence, the fake accent leaves behind a whisper of gin in the air.

Artie wants to cry: the flimsy green paper mocks him. Had she misheard him on the phone? He was clear, he would never be unclear when talking about money—too many people lose their lives over it. Forty dollars could fill his car with gas, maybe. It would not, however, replace the money he spent on the white shirt and slacks he bought for tonight. It would not buy a textbook for the coming semester or pay off his phone bill or purchase the groceries he foolishly hoped might be waiting for him on the other side of this dinner. There would be no peace of mind for him this week. Artie had always wondered how the other half lives. Well, now he knew: on the backs and small hopes of those just trying to live.

He clenches the two bills in his hand and rushes outside. He pushes through and past her guests, ignoring the exhaustion in his arms, the stiffness in his neck. The guests appear so much taller, richer, whiter than him, now. He noticed the differences before, he always does, but suddenly it seems like the world is presented to him through a magnifying glass. He sees the full picture, so clearly, so detailed, his rage could start a fire.

The guests are gathering in pairs and trios around him. Each group holds a sky lantern, preparing it for release. At the edge of the yard, Mrs. Whittle turns; the smile on her face sours when her eyes land on Artie. She scowls: he is not supposed to be here anymore. And yet, he is. He sees her from afar and is delighted by the fact that his presence, his very existence, could destroy her. I should demand more from Mrs. Whittle, he thinks. And he certainly will demand more from others in the future, but, for now, he could survive for days, possibly weeks, off this feeling. Perhaps this is what compels him to grab at the nearest lantern, rip it from the hands of another man who let’s it go and jerks backward to avoid a nasty burn. The paper crinkles under Artie’s touch; he feels the heat from its flame near his belly. He opens his hand and feeds the cash into the fire. It burns gloriously, and when all the lanterns fly up together, he follows his orange dot rising high against the twilight. He stands, watching until he can’t tell it apart from the dozen other lanterns in the sky.

© The Acentos Review 2017