by Brian Kerstetter
Onion Soup with Marlene
O. and I travelled by red choo-choo train to the Swiss village of Appenzell, a remote locale notable for not allowing women to vote until 1991. A tireless promoter of women’s rights, O. hoped to further their cause by engaging three Romanian strippers to film a scene for his new movie Home 2. An equally ardent booster of Swiss culture, he outfitted them in the traditional yellow and red costumes of the Appenzell peasantry for their performance.
O. found the strippers on a Swiss website called Apples on Wheels, run by someone calling herself Marlene. The site’s headline read “Probably the sweetest apples in Switzerland,” and featured a woman’s mouth devouring a line of apples, Pac-Man-style, accompanied by the same wonka wonka sound track.
To avoid suspicion in the hotel where we planned to film, Marlene suggested meeting in the Café Conditorei on the main square. The café resembled a publicity shoot for the Swiss tourist authority—
a picture postcard of fathers in starched overalls, mothers in frocks, blond kids drinking hot chocolate and nibbling gingerbread. But the postcard was about to be torn to shreds.
O. and I waited for Marlene and her “girls” at a long communal table next to a family of six. We experienced Marlene before we actually saw her—the father at our table raised his eyes and his mouth dropped open like a farmer seeing his first skyscraper. There she stood—an agglomeration of lipstick, blush, and eyeliner, roughly six feet and four inches above the ground. Marlene cast a shadow not only over O. but over three of the four children at our table.
Squeezed into an Yves Saint Laurent evening gown on a Sunday in the mountains, Marlene resembled a displaced Hollywood starlet—or a Merguez sausage about to burst from its casing. Her feet, against all odds, were stuffed into four inch Louboutins, causing her to wobble against the table, sloshing the kids’ hot chocolates around in their mugs. Spotting O., Marlene blew him a kiss so sensual it made his hair, and probably something else, point to the Matterhorn. A blonde girl at our table looked at Marlene like Marilyn Monroe had materialized before her eyes.
Marlene installed herself at the head of the table, crossing her legs to display their full length. I recalled what was written in fractured English on her website:
“You fancy Frankfurt’s probably longest legs? Then let ensnare you by it. I am a lady 35 years of age who has been living her femininity for two years only. But this with passion and to the fullest.”
No amount of nipping and tucking could have returned her to 35-years-old. But her legs, I concede, could have been the longest in Frankfurt.
O. was visibly shaken. He had planned to have a quick drink, pay Marlene, and get the hell up to the room to film the scene. Marlene, bless her, had other ideas. She requested a menu and consulted it with the meticulousness of a restaurant critic for the Times. She would be settling in for a leisurely Sunday lunch of onion soup, foie gras with Melba toast, and a glass of Chablis. Seeing O.’s exasperation, I warmed to Marlene immediately.
Mid-way through her soup, Marlene’s cell phone rang. She answered
with the gravity of a Fortune 500 CEO, articulated the café’s address, and hung up. A few minutes later, more ringing came from below the table. Marlene removed five cell phones from her purse and lined them up before her. Each phone had its own ring tone and each was a different color—red, pink, green, gold, and one encrusted with fake diamonds. She finally answered the pink one.
“On the terrace … yes … in front of the hotel,” she said, closing her eyes, martyr-style. “They’re killing me,” she said to O.. “I love my girls, but they’re killing me.”
O. sat mesmerized before the multicolored phone exhibit, as did the adjoining family. “Mommy, why …” a boy started to ask but was immediately hushed by a raised finger.
“As an entrepreneur—an international entrepreneur,” Marlene corrected herself, “my business requires … dis-cre-tion.”
O. hung on her every word as she explained her system of color-
“Red is for German clients, pink is France, green is …”
“All with the same number?” O. blurted out naively, like an intern trying to figure out the Xerox machine.
“Dah-ling, no,” Marlene responded condescendingly. “Green covers Austria, and gold, ha ha, gold is for my Zurich clientele!”
Seeing O.’s confusion, she added, “Gold bars—you know, the gold in the banks in Zurich!”
“Oh, and that one?” O. pointed to the phone covered in diamonds.
Marlene blushed. “My clients, dah-ling. My babies.”
O. swallowed heavily, clearly indulging himself in a few scenarios from his sordid imagination.
The moment came to compensate Marlene for her services. O. extracted a wad of cash that would have made Al Capone proud. Just as Marlene’s three protégés arrived looking a lot like, well, prostitutes, O. peeled off a series of 100 Swiss franc notes. In an attempt to conceal the transaction from the other diners, he had formed a protective ledge with his menu and counted the money on his lap. This, of course, only attracted more attention.
O. hid the cash inside the menu and slid it to Marlene, James Bond-style. She winked, flipped open the menu, and unfurled the cash at eye-level, fanning it out like Monopoly money. As she counted the cash, she snapped each bill between her thumb and forefinger until there was not a patron on the terrace, including the four kids, who could not have quoted the going rate for three strippers on a Sunday afternoon. O. stared into his coffee cup, wincing with each crisp snap of his national currency. If I initially liked Marlene, I now revered her. Finally satisfied with the transaction, Marlene deposited the money in her purse and piled the candy-colored phones on top.
“Shall we?” She said, extending her arm to O..
When we reached the hotel lobby, O. attempted to avoid detection from the desk clerk by walking in unison on the opposite side of Marlene. I acted equally cowardly, sprinting up the staircase and leaving the girls alone at the elevator. In the end, O. crossed the lobby looking like what he was: a sweaty artist on the arm of an East German transsexual followed by a pack of strippers.
You may wonder how the Appenzell stripper scene turned out? As they say in Hollywood: go see the film. What I can say is it concludes frustratingly—me sitting half-naked on a hotel bed, Swiss cowbell around my neck, TV remote in hand, annoyed that three naked girls are blocking my view of the CNN evening news.