Have you ever had to work for someone who was so entitled they thought you should sweep the sidewalk in front of them? A friend of mine did when life was falling down around her. She wouldn’t take money from me, so I wrote this story to boost her spirits (and she managed to leave her alcoholic husband, finish her accounting degree and raise her two children in comfort, so sometimes there are happy endings.)
The princess was grateful. She was no longer fully flexible, or completely sober, but she inclined her head and gave her most glittering smile. We don’t need flashbulbs when we photograph you, sweet Irving Radovich said when he covered her arrival at the Marine Ball. That smile lights the room. Or had it been when dear Princess Diana visited? So many fabulous parties, they all blurred into one colossal ballroom opening onto a wide veranda with a scintillating naval attaché supporting one down wide steps that led to a manicured lawn ending in a lake.
“I need to be paid,. Two hundred thirteen dollars and seventy-eight cents.”
The princess blinked. The scintillating naval attaché was replaced by Rachel, stolid, lumpy Rachel in her t-shirt and jeans.
“I thanked you,” the princess said.
“And you owe me money, Danielle. I brought your goldfish all the way from Chicago.”
“”It’s Princess Vladimirovna when you speak to me, Rachel! Besides, you were coming here anyway,” the princess said, tone sharp.
It was useless being gracious with peasants. They only understood the knout. Her mother-in-law, whose grandfather had been a grand duke – minor royalty, but still royalty! – had often mourned the loss of the knout in treating the insolent servants and shopkeepers who now peopled all their lives. And grand duke was a mistranslation, as every Russian scholar knew. Grand prince, it should be, which made her a princess.
“I was going to Boston,” Rachel said. “Driving up here to you in Vermont is a hundred seven miles out of my way. Two hundred fourteen miles round-trip at fifty-five cents a mile, plus food et cetera for your fish for two weeks. I’m only asking you to pay for the extra travel, not the whole trip.”
“I looked after your fat stupid daughter over the Christmas holidays to save you the cost of her airfare home,” the princess said, her voice going up half an octave. “If we’re going to have brains like accountants, then let me present you with a bill for Letitia’s room and board. Four weeks times four years.”
“Letitia did all your cooking and cleaning for you so that you didn’t have to pay a housekeeper for those sixteen weeks.” Rachel’s face reddened. “And I don’t know why you think she’s stupid. She’s graduating from college, which is more than your daughter ever did, and she has a job, instead of embezzling my money so that I had to sell one of my houses.”
It was the princess’s daughter who’d embezzled from her mother’s bank accounts. Rachel didn’t have multiple houses. She didn’t have one house, just an apartment over a bar, where the cheap rent helped her save money for daughter’s education.
“How dare you talk to me like that?” The princess looked around wildly for something to throw, and when she didn’t see anything close at hand, yanked a ring from one of her fingers and hurled it toward Rachel. It hit the goldfish bowl and fell at Rachel’s feet. The fish continued to circle the bowl, unfrightened by the ping the ring made when it hit the glass.
“Ladies, ladies, what’s going on here?” Sanford Marwood came around the corner of the house. He was the princess’s current escort. She hadn’t married when her first husband died – she would have had to relinquish her title – but there had been a steady stream of escorts to take his place.
“It’s the goldfish.” The princess held her hands out appealingly. “You know Beady adores him, and so Rachel drove him from Chicago; we couldn’t trust him to the movers. Now she thinks I ought to pay her.”
Beady was the grandson, five years old, with the kind of nickname people in the princess’s circle considered cute. Beady’s birth name was Logan Pavel Vladimirovich IV. He lived with his grandmother. His mother – the princess’s daughter – had signed away her maternal rights in exchange for the princess not prosecuting her over the embezzlement.
“Be a good sport, Rachel.” Sanford smiled, showing all his teeth. They looked like horse’s teeth, square, yellow.
“I was a good sport to drive three hours to get here. I need to get back to Boston. We’re having a dinner to celebrate Letitia’s graduation. If Danielle can’t pay me, I’ll take the fish with me. I can release it into the New England Conservatory koi pond.”
She turned around and started for her car. The princess shrieked at her to stop, come back, don’t steal Beady’s fish!
“How much does she want?” Sanford asked.
“Two hundred thirteen dollars and thirty-eight cents,” Rachel said.
“Buy the boy another goldfish. He won’t notice the difference,” Sanford said.
“I’ll notice that the bowl is missing,” the princess said. “It’s a family heirloom. Baccarat crystal made for my great-grandmother’s wedding. The Prince of Wales came to that; Queen Victoria was ailing at the time. If you don’t put the bowl down right now, I’m calling the police.”
“That’s a good idea,” Rachel said. “You can act all princessy with them and they can write me up a ticket for driving 1300 miles to give you a goldfish you were too high-and-mighty to bring with you. Or you were too scatterbrained. I’ll call Letitia so she can be ready with a story for her blog, in case your pet cops put me in jail.”
“Stay where you are, Rachel, there’s a good girl.” Sanford disappeared into the house. He came back a few minutes later with a check. “It’s all filled out, Princess: you just have to sign it and we can be done with this little problem.”
He held out the check with a pen. The princess scowled but signed and Sanford presented Rachel with the check. She looked at it, shrugged, and put the fishbowl under one arm while she tucked the check into her pocket. When the check was safe she handed the bowl to Sanford.
She was getting back into her car when Beady came running up to the house, his nanny behind him.
“Rachel! Are you working for us here?” he piped in his high child’s voice.
“Just dropping off your goldfish.” She gestured toward the bowl. “Your nana says you loved this goldfish.”
“Granny,” the princess said. “Only peasants call their grandmothers ‘nana.’”
“Goldfish? I hate the goldfish!” Beady screamed at his grandmother. “I want a puppy. I told you, I want a puppy!”
“Just this once, Beady, to please me, try to like the goldfish,” the princess said in her most plaintive voice.
Beady yanked the bowl from Sanford’s hands and dropped it onto the paving stones.
Rachel poured coffee out of her travel mug and poured in water from a bottle. She scooped the fish into the cup and drove off. The princess paid no heed; she was standing over the broken bowl weeping in tune with her howling grandson.