Reading Time: 33 minutes
Photo Credit: Flickr /ABD Basith
“You the som?” a white-coated woman asks from the doorway. She wipes her hands on a towel and appraises me up and down.
“Yes,” I say. “Jacoby Willis, the sommelier.”
The Captain had joked I should pronounce the name like ‘jack-a-bee’, but I pronounce it the usual way. He had laughed over the job title also, pronouncing it ‘some-all-ear’ before being corrected by Clara, another detective who frequents places like this.
‘Some-all-ee-ay’ is the right way. I’d practiced in front of a mirror with my wife grinning on.
The woman nods and gestures for me to follow.
I’ve always pictured gourmet kitchens to be quiet and dim – the chefs like alchemists performing experiments around a cauldron or maybe like a bunch of English blokes meandering about quipping ‘do pass the saffron’. But the kitchen is quiet and orderly. White-clad men and women hover around pots and cutting boards. A few of them look up at me and nod but most remain focused.
In the pictures, chef Jamie Preston is always made up like a fashion model – curly brown hair, dark makeup around her eyes. In person, her hair is drawn into a tail and not so curly and I don’t think she is wearing makeup at all. Her smile is strangely intimate, like she knows me, like she sees me down to the bone and is happy to see me anyway.
I tug at the collar of my shirt. They train us to infiltrate drug rings and gangs, but not for this. This is like visiting another planet and pretending you can speak the language when you land.
Clara had given me some pointers and even made me an appointment at a tailor for a new suit, suggesting navy with oxblood loafers. When I’d asked what kind of shoes are made out of oxblood she’d rolled her eyes and explained that it was a color. Instead of driving all the way to the city, I’d stopped at the Men’s Warehouse by the mall. They had plenty of oxblood loafers and I found a pair that was only slightly uncomfortable.
Only now I wish I’d taken the advice. I am going to roast in this sandpaper shirt.
The chef that answered the door is talking, and I snap my attention back to her, “… from Barrington is in the front. Alison usually handles the reps but since she’s not here, do you mind? You are used to reps right?” She gestures to a doorway on the other side of the kitchen.
I nod and walk in the indicated direction through the kitchen. I sneak a glance back at the famous chef in the corner and she meets my eyes and smiles again. I look away quickly. She is so simple looking, so calm and solid, nothing at all like the celebrities on tv with their blustery one-liners. She is focused and alert but clearly happy and maybe even carefree.
The disappearances started six months ago. A woman had kissed her husband goodbye and never shown up at work. I’d been assigned the case a few days later and the disappearances had continued, one every week or so. There wasn’t any direct evidence implicating the chef, but the deeper I’d looked the more strange connections I’d found. One of the victims had played tennis with Chef Preston a few years back. Another had given piano lessons to her niece. Finding info about the chef herself had proven challenging. She lived alone, only leaving her apartment to go to work. She didn’t really have friends, she didn’t have anything interesting in her past, just culinary school and then working her way up through the kitchen.
The operation had been Clara’s idea, only she couldn’t go herself because she was known. Her cousin owns a fancy restaurant called L’alsace in LA and she arranged for a sommelier swap for the week. It was a shaky story but it didn’t need to hold long. All a sommelier does is pour wine, so the cover was perfect. I wouldn’t need any specialized knowledge and could just pour a glass here and there, with plenty of free time to wander the restaurant, going where the public could not.
As I approach the wide doorway between the kitchen and the dining room I pass a counter set with a dozen plates. The plates are topped with colorful statutes, intricately shaped or carved or molded. I realize with some shock that it must be the food they serve. It is…beautiful, but beautiful and food are not words that go together – like calling a tree ‘fast’ or a building ‘sticky’. But that’s what it is. Or maybe these are centerpieces and not food after all? Perhaps they are plastic models made up for photographs.
In the center of a dark platter rests a bit of red with a dollop of green next to it. My eyes lock on it, it is so simple, so stark and intriguing. I find myself reaching for it and then lifting the slippery morsel between thumb and forefinger. I bite into it and only then realize what I’m doing.
It is meat, at least I think it is. It is not exactly tender, not like a good steak or anything. It is more like pudding, only a pudding that doesn’t want to yield its shape. It struggles against my teeth but not really – it pretends to struggle while sending spiky shivers of encouragement through my body. I chew and the meat yields. I think it is delicious, only it is so unlike any food I’ve had that it seems wrong to name it such, like living your life without color and then one day you finally see green and blue and you say, ‘well those are some nice shades of gray.’
“It’s Jacoby right?” a voice behind me asks.
I turn and my eyes trace over the name ‘Jamie Preston’ embroidered onto a white coat. The chef’s arms are crossed in front of her and she raises an eyebrow at me.
“Chef, it’s an honor.” I hold out my hand and she shakes, babbling some greeting of her own, but her eyes don’t leave mine and I get the feeling that she wants something.
“What do you think about color?” She cocks her head and raises an eyebrow.
“About color?” I ask.
“Do you think it is real?”
“Like green and blue?” She must mean about wine, ‘color’ must be some secret wine term.
“I don’t follow…” I squint at the floor, shuffling in my oxblood shoes. My mind races for something interesting to say only it’s just color and what is there interesting about it?
My eyes flick up to her. She is waiting for any answer, watching me like a tiger watches a zookeeper at meal time. I open my mouth and then close it again.
“Is color something that exists, or did someone just make it up one day and trick the rest of the world?”
“Trick the…But we see color all the time. My suit is blue and your coat is white, is that what you mean?”
She shrugs and steps closer to brush the lapel of my suit with her fingertips. “Perhaps the color I see here is what you would name green, only you can not see through my eyes so we have no way of knowing.”
“But, we have the same basic eye…chemistry or whatever, don’t we?”
“But all the things you’ve seen – no one has ever seen those exact things before and no one will again. Your color is uniquely yours and only you will ever know it.”
“That’s an interesting point.” I am not sure what she wants me to say. I’d prepared for questions on my background – questions about L’alsace’s history – but this…?
My wandering eyes fall upon the half-eaten morsel, still in my fingers. What had I been thinking? These plates were probably examples set out for other chefs to emulate and she had come over to reprimand me and she’s going about it in some artsy manner.
“So color is entirely relative, you think?” I say, hoping to keep her mind away from my fingers.
“Everything is relative.” She says with a shrug. “Color is part of everything. That’s called ‘chased’, by the way.”
‘The thing you’re eating.” She grins.
I nod and try to look casual. “Oh.”
I search for a compliment, maybe tell her it is delicious only I’m sure she knows that so it would sound amateurish. I need something meaningful to say, maybe offer a critique to show her I’m no pushover.
“‘Chased’ like a dog after a cat or ‘chaste’ like … a nun?” I ask.
“Good question,” she winks. “And don’t have to blush, these are set out for you. Have to know the flavors don’t you?”
“I do,” I exhale, clinging to expected ground. “I have to know what wines to suggest.” I’d read a few blogs about wine pairings. These foodie types liked to think that some wines went better with some dinners, but it is all rubbish and I plan to just suggest things that were a little bit expensive but not the most expensive.
“Most would have asked first, though.” She elbows me in the ribs with a wink and I feel my face redden.
“Sorry, I just walked by and it was so…” I gesture to the counter as if the plates will defend me.
“No, no, I admire your boldness, just seeing something you want and … ” She closes her fingers into a fist. “… taking it. That will serve you well, especially in your line of work. But, don’t let me keep you, try them all and we can compare notes.” She gestures to the table and I smile and bow my head as she walks away.
The words ‘in your line of work’ echo as she departs. Does she know who I am? Or did she mean wine? I take a deep breath and the rest of her words sink in. The food is for me. These beautiful statues of flesh and vegetable – they are for me.
Something is wrong here. I feel like Odysseus standing before the sirens, terrified of their beauty but unable to prevent the craving. All I can do is stuff my ears with rags but why would I? The food is for me. This beautiful food is for me.
I grab a leaf of romaine lettuce and bite off the tip of it only it’s not lettuce at all, or at least if it is it has been coated in a sweet crunchy something. I smirk and take another bite but then set it down to move on.
I slurp a white liquid out of a small, edible looking bowl. It tastes like beans or maybe potatoes, only muskier, saltier. It settles into crevices in my tongue I never knew were there, I giggle and shake my head in amazement.
I pop a perfect cube of whitish meat into my mouth and when I bite down it explodes with salty gravy and I close my eyes to savor it.
I don’t have words for this. It’s like walking out my door and realizing that gravity had been in my head all along and the cars are all bouncing through the sky and no one else thinks that’s odd. It’s like the food I’ve eaten all my life was wearing a condom and now I’m going in bareback.
The last dish is a bowl of cherries that are just cherries and I keep expecting them to leap out and surprise me but they are just cherries and somehow that is also a surprise that I can’t quite comprehend.
I scowl down at the empty plates below and the chopping and chattering and yes cheffing around me is turned up like the volume on a stereo.
“Jacoby?” Someone is saying and I remember that it’s my name and snap my eyes to find the source. “Barrington rep remember? Table 10.” The chef who had answered my knock earlier gestures toward the dining room. I nod and hurry to the lobby, my head still spinning.
A man in a black suit sits at a table poking at his smartphone. No one else is around so he must be the man I’m supposed to meet. On the table in front of him is a leather satchel. As I look away from it, the satchel blinks at me and I do a double take but it is just a satchel and I roll my eyes at my foolishness. Jumping at shadows.
“Hi, I’m Jacoby Willis,” I interrupt his tapping. “I’m the guest sommelier tonight.”
“Great to meet you, Jacoby. Erik Shepherd.” He extends his hand and I take it. He has a five o’clock shadow and his tie is slightly disheveled. I like him immediately.
“I supply most of the French and a few of the Italian. I’ve got some stellar bottles, just stellar – not available anywhere else in the city, exclusively yours if you want them, and I’m sure you will.”
“I’m sure I will too!” I tell him.
He takes a few high shouldered bottles out of the satchel and spouts off some stuff about grapes and something about a crew. I don’t really understand so I just nod and make appreciative sounds. I’d spent a few hours reading about wine online and concluded that this was all rubbish, some kind of elite circle jerk. I’d even found one article where some wine expert hadn’t been able to tell white from red – it’s all just theater, just marketing. The rep’s gibberish lasts a few minutes and he asks if I have any questions. When I don’t he shakes my hand again and leaves.
I wander back into the kitchen, “The rep left some bottles…” I say to no one in particular and no one in particular seems to notice.
Chef Preston is stirring something and appraising the general state of the kitchen. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do so I just watch for a moment. There is surprisingly little talking – it’s just an assembly line, each worker going about their task with quiet efficiency.
What am I doing, watching the chefs? This is my chance. I wander to the back of the kitchen to where I’d expect an office to be. I find a shelf of plastic containers, but no doors, no offices. I turn and find the chef standing a few feet behind me.
“What about oxygen?” Jamie asks with her arms crossed. She must have been watching me, wondering where I was wandering off too. I should abort. I will spook her. Only maybe she is just odd and I can play her game and buy some more time.
“About… oxygen?” I try to act casual.
“Yeah. Do you think it’s real – breathing and whatnot?”
I laugh nervously but falter at the serious expression she wears… “I don’t understand.”
She sighs and waves her hand impatiently, “You’ve heard that you need it, but what proof is there? Oxygen could be completely made up, a trick that the rest of the world is playing on you. We go to school and some man with a ruler says that there’s this stuff around that you can’t feel or see and it’s the only thing keeping you alive. Do you think that’s true?”
“I’ve never considered it.”
I take a deep breath. She is playing with me. I have to get a hold of this situation.
“If I don’t take a breath for a while I feel an urge to breathe that is impossible to resist.”
“The smoker feels a similar urge. Perhaps breathing is an addiction?”
“I never decided to start breathing, though.”
“What if you decided to stop?” She tilts her head down and her eyebrows cast a shadow over her eyes. I tug at the sweaty itch at my neck. The sounds and smells of the kitchen fade. I look at her and she looks back with insistent curiosity, almost a hunger. I wonder what question she is asking me.
“Anyway,” Jamie says and time snaps back to full speed, the sounds and smells rush back and Jamie is smiling her piercing, intoxicating smile. She is teasing me – some kitchen hazing ritual. I exhale and laugh softly at myself for taking her seriously.
“What do you think?” She gestures back toward the front of the kitchen and I realize she means the food. She walks, expecting me to follow and I do.
“Oh – really good! Well, not good exactly – more than good, or rather it’s not something that good makes…” I take a sharp breath and try to stop my mind, “I really liked it.” I finish weakly with a frown.
She smiles, clearly pleased, but shakes her head, “No, I mean, what do you want to pour? Amy said you’d create pairings…that they would be unlike anything we’d ever seen.” She pauses, she is expecting me to say something but I’m not sure what.
“Of course, that’s the plan.” I nod.
“So what wines are you thinking? Wow me.” She seems so kind, so honest. I can’t believe her capable of murder. She pauses to give me her full attention.
My mind races for the fancy words I’d read – I just need to pull out a few things to show her I know what I’m doing and she will leave me alone.
“I was thinking the soup – bean with the…”
“Truffles?” She suggests and I nod vigorously.
“Truffles, yes! That would go really well with a … chardonnay. Something dry.” Dry is when a wine is really sweet. Or maybe it’s when a wine isn’t sweet at all. Whatever, it doesn’t matter.
She shrugs and nods. “We have a few cases of a Pouilly Fumé that could be fun.”
“I’m sure it would, but could I maybe try it?” I take out a journal and write down ‘Pooeefoomay (sp?)’. It was a good word, I wanted to pull that one out later.
“Yeah, let me show you the cellar.” She turns back toward the dining room. I follow her through the kitchen and down some stairs to a dark landing and a heavy oak door. As she opens it a puff of cool air washes over me.
The perimeter of the cellar is lit by track lighting around the ceiling but it is dark otherwise.
“How cold do you keep it down here?”
“65 for the reds.” She flips a switch and a few pendant lights flicker on in a line down the center. The room looks like a library built into a subway tunnel. Racks of wine extend away from me for a hundred feet. The room is broken into partitions separated by glass walls.
I stammer something about how impressive the place is and she smiles.
“Wine is kind of a hobby,” she says and then gestures to the room. “Full reds, lighter reds are through the first glass door, keep going for the whites. We need to keep under a hundred a bottle for the pairings. Pre-service is in twenty. I’ll introduce you and you can say a few words about yourself.” She raises her eyebrows and when I don’t say anything she continues, “I’ll leave you to it. Oh, here is the menu.”
She offers me a paper and I take it. I watch her climb the stairs and then turn back to the strange room. I am alone with the whirring of the air conditioner and the racks upon racks of bottles. Shadows lilt with the gentle rocking of the pendant lights above. I feel like a trespasser in the tomb of some long dead god.
My last undercover job was busting a meth ring. This place is a lot cleaner, but the people aren’t so different really. All of us are just products of our environment seeking a fix from our drug of choice. The meth heads like power, money, but these people are different. They have power and money, so what do they want? What is their drug?
I look over the paper Jamie had given me. The dishes have ridiculous names like ‘light’ and ‘purple’ and ‘sigh’, but thankfully they contain a modest description and I can piece together which was which. ‘Chased’ is half way down the list. Below the name is printed ‘meat, sage, roe’.
I hurry through the shelves, jotting down names I can pronounce and googling what kind of food they should be served with. It is like one of those worksheets from grade school with words on the left and definitions on the right out of order and I have to draw a line to connect them. I hadn’t expected anything so menial as this, but at least it isn’t hard.
“Pre-service.” Someone calls from the top of the stairs and I look up. There is a crash of shattering glass and I leap away from the rack instinctively. A dozen crimson labeled bottles have fallen from their racks and shattered on the tile ground where I had just been standing. I gape in confused horror. I hadn’t touched that rack, had I? My heart is pounding. Red wine spreads in a pool around my new shoes and I leap away to protect them. I massage my temples. Someone will see and they will demand I pay for it.
I can clean it up – maybe they won’t notice. What is a dozen bottles among the rest? Only they are expecting me upstairs. I’ll have to keep anyone from coming down here until I can come back. I can claim some sommelier privilege, some solitary ritual with the cellar until…whatever. I take the stairs three at a time and flip off the light switch. I open the door and nearly crash into a balding man in his thirties. He smiles and nods and I realize he is waiting to go down the stairs.
“I think we need to go the preservice meeting,” I tell him and he nods impatiently. I move out of the way and he hurries down the stairs. I follow him down, reaching for an explanation, an apology, a denial-
There is no sign of broken bottles. The floor is clean. The shelf is stocked.
The man walks through a few doors to the far end and I hurry back up the stairs, my head spinning. I couldn’t have imagined it. The wine had sprayed onto my beautiful oxblood shoes. But they are pure and unblemished. The dirty fruit smell of wine is still in my nostrils. I hadn’t imagined it. But I must have imagined it. I feel like Atlas has shrugged and the world has shifted a few degrees only I can’t say for sure because I’ve shifted with it.
Upstairs in the dining room, there is a woman with a British accent talking to a room of well-dressed people. I shuffle to the outside wall but Jamie sees me and waves at the speaking woman.
“This is Jacoby, our guest som for the week from L’alsace. He has some special pairings for tonight.” Jamie says and everyone turns to look at me.
I look at my menu, trying to blink away the sight of wine creeping along the floor like primordial ooze. Perhaps it evolved – grew legs and walked away to find some other adventure.
“Thank you, chef,” I say and clear my throat. “I’m Jacoby Willis, from L’alsace. I’d like to thank you for having me, I’m really looking forward to the opportunity. There are few places on earth like this and I hope I can bring you something special tonight.”
The lights in the room are getting brighter or maybe dimmer, they are definitely changing, oscillating maybe. The tang of unspilled wine still colors every indrawn breath. The room is still watching me, they want me to say more.
“Tonight I’m going to start with white wines and progress to fuller bodied reds as the meal progresses.” I look up over my notes and catch a few incredulous looks. “Ending with a port or maybe a…” I squint but can’t make out the scribble I’d made next to the desert course. “…A port for sure. You have port?” I look up and a catch a few smirks.
“Perfect.” I try to sound haughty but I sound more juvenile than anything. I need to win their trust, I need to say something bold, something unexpected. “I think that chased will go nicely with a pinot noir. The Alabaster, I think.” A few people nod disinterestedly.
“With the soup, I think a…” I’d written down zinfandel, but wasn’t that the pink stuff in the wine cooler aisle? I have to think of something else to say or I’ll sound like an idiot. “… a bouillabaisse would be nice. I mean … a bourguignon.”
“A burgundy?” A man in black suggests.
“Yes, a burgundy, exactly. Thank you, sorry, something in my throat.” I cough. Jamie is frowning. A few people are whispering. I can’t stop picturing the shattered glass at my feet, the blood-red wine seeping around my shoes.
“Some of you may find my style…unconventional,” I snap and the muttering trails off. “I do not put in much for the classical methods of….” I almost say sommeliering but I’m pretty sure that isn’t a word so I let the sentence drop. “But I am not here to pour wine.” I feel their attention refocus like the warmth of a spotlight.
“I am here to imagine.” A few people nod and I give myself a mental high five.
“Anyone can pour wine, it’s actually really easy once you get the stupid corks out.” I shake my head and a few people laugh. “But I want to experience something – to take this bottled…history and make it something new.” I finish with a vocal flourish and I force a tight-lipped frown to keep from grinning.
After a pause the British woman starts talking again, something about napkins and silverware and my smile-flushed mind wanders back over my speech. I should have added something about the food. Something like ‘such food deserves better than the same old wines.’ What was it Jesus had said about wine, something about being his blood? Would be good to look that up for next time. Maybe I could-
“A burgundy with the soup?” Jamie stands before me, the meeting is over and the servers are setting out silverware and folding napkins.
“Yes, well, like I said…”
“Something new – yeah…I think I like you,” she winks and turns back to the kitchen without waiting for me to reply. My stomach knots as she walks away. She is so gentle, so honest and tangible.
“Hi, Engles Standbrush.” The balding man that had gone into the cellar after me offers his hand and I shake it. I watch him for any sign of accusation but there is nothing. “I’m the floor captain, wanted to go over everything, make sure we are on the same page.” He has a high voice, kind of like a muppet only I’m sure he wouldn’t even know what a muppet is.
“Great!” I reply, blinking back the crashing of glass. I must have just imagined it.
“I will greet people at their tables with a glass of bubbles.” He gestures to the case he has brought from the cellar. “You can follow me and give a few tasting notes. We do four-ounce pours for each course. When the glasses get low, you can drop off the first pairing and proceed from there. It’s usually 4-6 minutes between courses, accelerating a bit in the middle and slowing back down toward the end. If you get backed up feel free to ask someone else to drop the pairings but try to do as many as you can yourself.”
“Good, good,” I tell him, not having heard anything after the first bit, “but what do you mean tasting notes?”
He frowns, “You know, what they are drinking, flavor profiles, basic history.” My face must be blank because he narrows his eyebrows at me, “didn’t you do tasting notes at L’Alsace?”
“Our wine program is a bit different actually. We mostly just…” I trail off.
“Bottle service?” He scratches his cheek.
“Yes exactly, we just do bottle service, so, you know…” I busy my hands in my pockets. The tag from Men’s Warehouse is still there and I make a note to throw it away when I come across a trash can.
Eagles grunts through pursed lips and then shrugs, “Well, we like to give people a description, you know – why the wine pairs with the dish. We want to help the diner along on their journey. To give them something to experience.” He grins.
“Of course, makes perfect sense.” I nod and give him my best reassuring smile.
“Won’t be a problem, will it?” Eagles asks and I shake my head with a fat-lipped frown.
“No…no problem.” I duck into a hallway. I find a wine website on my phone and read a few descriptions. They are filled with nonsense words like moon fruit and terroir and barnyard. I break out in a light sweat.
“Doors.” Someone calls and a moment later a middle-aged couple wearing nicer clothes than mine are escorted to a table. They sit and Engles glides past me to offer them glasses half filled with something yellow and bubbling. He gestures to me with a smile and the couple both look. I walk over, clenching my stomach against the beautiful food that wants to erupt from my belly.
Engles nods to me and bows away from the table. The couple stares at me and I open and close my mouth.
“This is a lovely…champagne…from France, I think… notice the lovely…bubbles and the yellow… moon fruit…with the acidity and some lovely terror. Enjoy.”
I flee before they can ask questions.
“Bathroom?” I ask and a server points me down the hallway.
I splash some water on my face and meet my eyes in the mirror. I tell my reflection that he can do this – he has gotten out of worse. I’m not sure he believes me because he shakes his head and the color drains from his skin.
“No one cares who you are, or who you were.” A voice says from the bathroom stall next to the sink and I leap back in surprise. I look under the wall but there are no feet. I push open the door and find the stall empty. I shake my head again and wipe my brow with a towel.
“I’m trying,” I say to no one.
“They only care about what you do – what you say.” No one replies and I close my eyes. I need a vacation. It’s this investigation – it is pushing me to the brink.
“It’s all just acting.” No one says and I tell no one to be quiet already.
I step out of the bathroom with some semblance of determination. Another table has been sat, three women with white hair. Like that tv show from the nineties. Or was that four women? I can’t remember but Engles is placing their champagne in front of them so I don’t have time to think about it.
“Good evening,” I say and twist the glass as if Engles has placed it a few degrees from true. “Another glass please, Engles?” I ask and he cocks his head curiously as he hands it over. I fill it with a few inches of the bubbling gold.
“We are starting you off tonight with a lovely champagne. Take a sip, go ahead right now, don’t let the bubbles get away.”
I try to sound mischievous and it must be working because the women giggle and exchange glances. As they take dainty sips I shoot back the glass I’d poured for myself. The liquid slams into my tongue and expands behind my teeth. I swallow it too quickly and have to resist coughing.
I smile at them, “Notice how your eyes water, just a touch, notice the tickling sensation in the back of your throat.” They nod appreciatively. “Notice the flavors of lemon and yellow – and just… just a touch of strawberry – just delightful. Enjoy.”
I step away from the table. I hear one of the women agree with me about the strawberry but another says she can’t taste it.
Chef Preston is leaning against the doorway to the kitchen with her arms crossed, watching me as I exit the dining room. She waves me over with a nod of her head.
She probably heard the bit about moon fruit, but I can explain. I can convince her – I just need a bit more time.
“What about the sun?” she asks.
“The sun?” I repeat, confused.
“The sun,” she nods.
“What about it?”
“Do you think it’s like the astronomers say – that despite all appearances, the earth moves to make the years and spins to make the days? Do you think that the universe really goes outward for incalculable distances, that our star is just one among countless others?”
“Well….yeah. I mean…” I realize with a shock that I’m not actually sure. “Well, maybe not,” I nod as the thoughts spin through my brain like a carousel off its track. “It is all just stories after all. The sun could just be a big light in the sky, or maybe the sky is a trick as well. Maybe the stars are just diamonds stuck into a black cloth and the world is actually flat. I mean, how do we know it’s round?”
Jamie cocks her head and bites her lower lip. “Science? Galileo and Copernicus? The moon landing?”
I shrug. “It could be real. They could be telling the truth. But they also might be lying – or just misinformed.” I shake my head, trying to clear it. It was ridiculous, of course they are telling the truth.
But what if they aren’t? Or what if they were questioners cast out from heaven by well-meaning gods – only now they amuse themselves by corrupting us all with their measuring and their sureness.
Jamie squeezes my shoulder with a pensive nod and flits away, back to her factory foreman duties. I look back over the dining room. The encounter leaves my heart beating a little faster. I think she liked my answer – I think it was the right one.
The well-dressed couple has finished their champagne so I have to pour something for them. A new table has been sat but it doesn’t look like they are expecting me. Engles probably saw me talking to chef and handled the champagne himself.
I jog to the cellar and grab a bottle printed with Pinot Gris in big letters. I hurry back up the stairs and grab two glasses from a shelf. I take a deep breath and walk assertively through the dining room. I picture myself like Marco Polo forging his way through the Florida swamps searching for the fountain of youth. Or was that Amerigo Vespucci? Either way, I set the glasses down like an explorer and take out the rabbit wine opener I’d brought from home.
It cuts the foil perfectly but it takes a few moments and I clear my throat to fill the silence. I slide the rabbit around the neck and press the down button. It makes a whining sound and the cork gradually lifts free. The man watches me with a raised eyebrow.
“For your first pairing, we have a delightful Pinot Gris.” I fill the two glasses to the brim and the man smirks and slides it gingerly to the edge of the table to avoid spilling. Too late, I remember that I am supposed to only fill it like a quarter of the way. Jamie is probably watching and shaking her head. I take a deep breath and interrupt their snickers. I fill with a flushed determination and I say the first thing that comes to my mind.
“This wine is a question,” I say louder than was necessary.
They stop and lean away from their glasses.
I speak slowly and quietly, “I won’t tell you what the question is, but consider the nature of emptiness – of absence.”
The man squints at me and then the wine glass. The woman rolls her eyes.
“What is in your glass? What is not in it?”
My mind catches up with my tongue and a bolt of realization courses through like a tidal wave crashing over a skyscraper.
They aren’t here for the wine – nor even the food!
They are here for me. The wine is just the patter – the playdough for craft time. The magician though – the preschool teacher – that is what they pay for. These people – they are here for the one thing that this restaurant has that nowhere else does – me.
I smile, my jaw setting into something like confidence. “Now, slurp it. That’s right, slurp it. It’s fine. I know this is a fancy place, but I insist. That’s right, just lean forward and slurp the wine – loud as you can. If you close your eyes, great, yes, close your eyes and slurp again. This wine is from Oregon. Can you taste the mountains? Can you smell the sea?”
I am out of sight by the time they open their eyes. I watch them from behind the corner. They glance at each other nervously, bemused and a little bit uncomfortable. My heart pounds like Zeus casting the titans out of heaven. They are here for me.
I look around for Jamie, hoping she saw me, hoping she heard. I want to find her only there’s another table being sat, and they are sniffing and swirling their champagne. I can find Jamie later.
“The champagne is spicy, but not spicy like pepper. It is spicy like latin music and raw garlic – the kind of spicy that makes you want more immediately.” I tell them and wink. They murmur appreciatively and sip. I duck back and see that the first table is on to the third course. I look back at my notes and grab a Pouilly Fumé and open it on the way to their table. I am Achilles with Hector at my feet. They are here for me!
“Go ahead and swirl it, smell it, taste it. It’s like a call from your secret crush in high school after you’ve given up hope that they would ever be interested. That’s this wine. It’s the jumper cable you leave in your garage on the one day your battery dies, only there isn’t anyone else around to jump it so the jumper cable would have been worthless.”
The second table needs their pinot gris so I exchange the Pouilly Fumé from the cooler.
“It is like pouring a pot of boiling kool aid on a block of lemon scented dry ice. Take a sniff. Do you notice the lilacs? The lavender? Don’t pay attention to the flowers – they are trying to distract you!”
A server nods to me as I pass her. I nod back. My footsteps leave impressions on the carpet as I walk upon it and they don’t fade, but rather deepen and darken, remembering where I’ve been and predicting where I have yet to go. I can feel the in and out of warm breath around me, the room is the mouth of some primordial beast. The people are shadows and I am the flame.
I hurry from table to table, pouring wine and laughing and growing serious and occasionally raising my voice when the mood takes me.
“This wine is a strawberry smoothie made in a blender of rose bushes.”
“No! Don’t drink the wine yet. Only wait, wait like you would wait for your lover to return from leaving their spouse. Wait like a child who starves themselves until thanksgiving dinner. Wait and wonder at the flavors that will come – or perhaps won’t.”
“This wine is what would happen if you took off your wedding tux, boutonniere still attached, and threw it in a dryer with a few cats.”
The first table is ready for ‘Chased’. I grab the pinot noir.
I pass the shiny morsels pending delivery. The memory of that first bite fills me with such water-mouthed longing, such souls-squeezed dread. It is an impossibility, that morsel – that mirror into wonderland.
“Your next course is special.” I sigh. “This wine is …” I scowl, “rubbish. I won’t let you drink it. Not in the company of such food. Too great is the context, too broad the shadow.”
I carry the bottle back, it’s oaky scent leaking all over. I put the bottle on a counter and stare at it. It stares back and I feel like I’ve done the right thing.
I leave the bottle on the counter, in plain view of the dining room, never pouring it. I pour other wines, though. And I speak, the words flowing like blood from a sacrificed goat. I give them their fix and I am washed in the adulation of the seekers with their credit cards. I am Prometheus in bloody shoes and a blue suit. I am Noah building my arc because I decide I am and who will stop me.
Occasionally, thoughts of my mission buzz around my ears but they seem so distant, so unimportant. The room waxes and wanes under my guidance. The smells warp into living creatures that dine along with my guests. The shadows are chased and dyed and overwhelmed and enraged and humbled and I am their puppet master. I am the unmoved mover coaxing life from one bottle at a time.
“That was…as advertised.” Chef Preston tells me as the final guests walk out the door.
I nod to her. The night is drawing to an end. The thought catches in my throat. Who will I be when I leave this place? Will any of it have mattered? I remember no one telling me that it’s all just acting and I wonder which me they were talking about.
“I overheard a few of your notes.” A server with brown hair and a black dress shuffles in front of me. “I..I think you might be the best som I’ve ever worked with and I just wanted to say it has been an honor, and wondering – I was wondering that is – if you might do a class tomorrow before service? Taste a few wines with us?”
I shrug, “Sure, if it’s ok with chef.”
Jamie nods and the server hurries away. Tomorrow is something I can hold onto. I can get though the barbarism of today if there is maybe a tomorrow afterward.
Jamie takes a deep breath and I can tell she is going to ask me something and my pulse quickens.
“Have you ever thought that maybe this whole world is just pretend and you’re the only one not in on it? That everything was created just for you, to teach you or study you and one day balloons will fall from the false sky and your parents will shake hands and go on to their next gig?”
I suck in a quick breath, the question pulls at me, tugging at a terror I had never seen but always felt. “Of course!” I beam at her, realization bathing me like sunlight. “That is the only thing that makes sense! Things are just so…contrived. The way people talk – they way they act!” My mind races over my life – the force with its crimes and hierarchy – my wife with her interior decorating job – my kids with their acne and drivers licenses.
They aren’t real. Everything settles into place. I grab at it like a whale at the surface after years of swimming. Nothing outside of this place can be real, they are painted in too few colors with too few sounds. Nothing out there is real except me. I am the only thing.
“But everyone must feel that way.” Jamie points out.
“And they are all right,” I tell her. I was to kiss her. I want to tear her whites off and dig my fingers into her back. I need her in a way I’ve never needed anything. I need to understand her, I need her to understand me.
“Are you hungry?” She bites her lip. She can read my eyes, she knows my hunger. I shake my head, meaning I couldn’t possibly say no and she understands.
She tosses her head toward the kitchen and I follow her. The chefs are wiping off counters and sealing up sauces. They stop to watch as we pass. A few whisper about dryers and rose bushes and terroir. A few sharpen smile-bladed knives in rhythmic sweeps.
I’m not surprised to see the man dangling from the ceiling of the walk-in by his feet. I knew it the second I walked in. I could read it in the crinkles of Jamie’s eyes. I could smell it on her words.
He is middle-aged from what I can tell. The skin has been removed and sections of muscle are missing. My breath puffs into mist as I exhale.
“What do you think about flavor?” She asks, watching my eyes trace the red lines of flesh.
“Flavor,” I repeat and puzzle at the man without skin. Some distant part of my brain instructs my hand to reach for the handcuffs but I belay the order. Murderer, the word pops into my head like a distant relative you distinctly remember not inviting to Christmas. I scoff at the thought. Murderer? The border between life and death is not so rigid as all that. Killing is just another trick, wool stretched over the eyes of the foolish. Killing is what the marketers call it, what your friends rage about before Yahweh comes down to straighten things out.
This bit of meat used to be a person. It used to have context and struggles. But what context it has now! What soil it has grown into! Now he is free of the choke-binding of his skin, free of the limits of gravity, of imagination. I want to tear off my skin and join him. How have I lived fifty years but never savored my own struggles? What would be the flavor of my pain?
“Flavor…” I muse, moving closer to the body hanging before me. “… is real. It is the only thing that is real.”
A flower blooms in her eyes and she reaches for a knife. The blade sings as it parts with the metal countertop. The room is silent. The world has stopped spinning and I turn my head to take it all in.
I know myself. I know color and sound and so, so many things.
Jamie approaches the dangling sacrifice and lifts her knife. She looks at me with sparkle-jade eyes and exhales a tiny cloud. The knife makes a sucking sound and two bits of flesh fall into a metal bowl. She takes me by the hand and tugs me out of the walk in. She leads me to the stove and drops the meat into a frying pan. The bits of flesh hiss and sear to brown-black and Jamie slides them onto a plate, adding a dollop of green and a spoonful of black.
I grab at the plate with clumsy fingers, not caring about forks or napkins. I need to be in that beautiful place where the food is like snowflakes – where the rain goes sideways and the rivers are red and tannic.
Blood spurts over my lips and I lick it off, nodding and smiling and mourning the years spent without wisdom.
I chew the meat slowly, really considering it. It is a story that I get to tell. I am Perseus returning with a head of a beast and wondering if people will believe the truth of my adventure.
Skipping that pinot noir had been the right choice. No wine could accompany such a story. Absence, though, perhaps absence was exactly the right flavor.
I swallow and sigh and bow to the maestro with a bloody-toothed smile.
“So…” I look around and slide my hands into my pockets. My fingers find that stupid tag and I look around for a trash can.
Jamie raises her eyebrows. “So..” She echoes.
I shrug. “Same time tomorrow?”
© 2020, Aaron Zimmerman. All rights reserved.