Dante wears a crisp gray suit with the top button undone and his hair tousled, either in roguish indifference or meticulously sculpted to appear so. He has a drink already, something clear with ice and a lime wedge. He stirs it absently as I approach. He stares into the crowded restaurant dining room until he notices me. His eyes focus and he greets me with a lopsided smile and a handshake. He sits back down and gestures to the chair across the table.
It is a nice place – large chairs and white tablecloths and whatnot. The kind of place that seems to swallow you within it. A place that makes you richer for being inside, happier for sitting on the spongy velvet, more content with your life with such a wine list.
“An aperitif, sir?” A man in a white tuxedo raises his eyebrows, bowing just slightly as I sit.
“No, that’s ok,” I begin but Dante cuts me off.
“Oh don’t be a fucknut, of course he’ll have a drink,” Dante snickers. “Bring him one of these. The best god damn gin and tonic you’ve ever had” He holds up his glass expectantly and the waiter looked awkwardly between us until I gave a slight nod, embarrassed.
“A curious choice of words,” I say to fill the silence left by the waiters departure.
“Ha!” He cackles. “Yes, well…I amuse myself.”
The silence returns and I tap on the table. He’s not exactly what I expected. He is a bit too solid, too colorful. He looks like a guy in a restaurant in a suit. I expected to see him and know him. To tremble.
“So,” I say, desperate to say something.
Dante smiles, perhaps at my discomfort. “So.” He responds.
“I suppose-“ I start.
“Are you a baseball fan?” He breaks in smoothly. His voice is melodious and just a bit nasal. He speaks a bit louder than propriety would suggest, but he is Dante. He does what he wants.
“What? I…Sure baseball. Yeah,” I respond.
“What is your team?” Dante twirls the straw around the glass. The ice clinks, just so.
“The Cubs, I’m sad to say.”
“I knew it,” Dante says loudly and the woman at the table next to us sends him a scathing look. “I knew you were a Cubs fan. You have this delicious aura of hope and resignation about you.” His grin reminds me of a cat for some reason.
I shrug. “So about hell-“
“Do you make it to many games?” He asks. I can’t tell if he is genuinely interested or just being insufferable. Better to err on the side of not pissing him off though.
“Now and then,” I say. “I’m really not *that* big a fan, being honest. Casual.”
“A casual fan.” The words are spoken simply, but I hear the rebuke behind them. He defames with such simple grace, such belligerent elegance.
“Well,” I scramble. “I maybe wouldn’t use the word ‘casual’.” My mind races. “I give my allegiance wholeheartedly, but only after careful consideration. I am a *considered* fan, that is more what I mean.”
“Considered?” He gives me a chance to backtrack, but I don’t take it.
“Yeah, definitely considered.”
He tastes that, rolling it around behind his eyes before giving a small nod. “I’ve found, and I’m sure you’ll agree, that baseball is monumentally stupid. A bunch of men throwing around a little ball and waving sticks about. Comical, really, if you add some context around it.”
My face falls at his admonishment, but he holds up his hands placating.
“No no, you mistake me, it is decisively asinine, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of …consideration, as you put it. Most things are. Stupid I mean.” He sets his glass down and brings his eyes to bear upon mine. “But it is only by investing in stupid things that you can become a person.”
I frown and we fall silent. I take a deep breath.
The waiter returns with a glass on a silver platter. He lifts it with a white-gloved hand and sets it on the table in front of me and turns away. He is like a ghost, flitting in and out and leaving shadows of alcohol behind.
Dante nods to the drink, his eyebrows raise excitedly.
“I’m serious, it’s an absolute knock-you-on-your-ass of a drink.”
I lift it to my lips and the ice clinks against my teeth. It is cold and sweet and spicy, and pretty good. But really, Dante is a bit overselling it.
“Ah, shit, I oversold it didn’t I.” Dante shakes his head.
“No, no, not at all.” I shake my head, “It’s amazing, a real knock you on your socks kind of experience.”
Shit, that was not the right expression. Knock your socks off, that’s what I meant. Crap darn frack balls!
“I always do that, oversell things. I get people all excited and then the reality never lives up.” He shakes his head sadly. “I just really get into things, I put myself out there, and experience. Really taking risks. Really putting myself out there.”
I nod along with him.
He continues, gesturing broadly, “And then – how to put that in words? You have this amazing, religious experience or something. Something small, doesn’t have to be cosmic, right, just this thing you did and you really were into it and then you come out and tell people about it and they shrug like, ‘what the fuck are you going on about?’.”
He deflates back into his chair. “These tiny words are just so insufficient to relate living.”
“I totally agree,” I tell him, head bobbing. “Words are utter bullshit.”
“But words can have power too,” he continues.
“Oh, certainly,” I agree, nodding still deeper.
“Tremendous power,” He trails of.
“But!” He turns back to me. “We’re not here to talk about words are we. Well, at least not directly, eh? I love that word, by the way. It makes every sentence seem so delightedly folksy. Try it. Try it.”
He gestures for me to try it.
“Try what?” I furrow my brow.
“The word ‘eh’, it always works, after any sentence. Try it!” He grins.
My mind races. “I’m not sure what to say, eh?”
He frowns. “Nope. I was wrong, don’t ever say that again, sounds like an inbred Mountie.”
I deflate. This is going badly.
A woman in a long dark blue dress glides to our table and lowers a plate in front of me.
“Amuse Bouche.” Her voice is soft and high with a hint of french accent. “Catfish poached in coconut milk, seared with chilis and finished with lemongrass reduction.”
There are four tiny white pieces of flesh on the enormous plate. The top of each is translucent and soft but the bottom is firm, reddish, and caramelized.
Dante rubs his hands together. “God, I fucking love this place. Isn’t it amazing? The things they think of. Catfish! How wonderfully pedantic. And yet… not.” He skewers one of his four morsels and raises to his mouth.
“And what kind of a word is ‘amuse bouche’ anyway?” I try to look conspiratorial. “Amuse mouth? I don’t know about you, but my mouth doesn’t need to be amused.” I take my fork and slide it into the slippery white fish. Crap, I should have thrown a ‘fucking’ in there or something.
Dante considers, “Then what part of you does need amusement, would you say?”
Maybe not the clearest opening, but I’ll take it, a chance to make my-
Dante ignores me, “The mouth is a portal. It is a gateway between life and death. It is the mother of thoughts and the chewer of life. It is the offering of love and pleasure, the satiation of the soul. It is the boundary at which the abstract becomes tangible. If you would not amuse such an organ, then what need have you of amusement. You look down at the fish and you scoff. You name it silly, exorbitant, unnecessary. How little you see, my mortal friend. How you cram your mouth with lies and french fries and believe yourself satisfied. Rather, I think you have never known sustenance. An apple forever is not a life of simplicity, responsibility, nor thriftiness. It is death by starvation of the senses.”
I hold the fish at my lips, eyes widening at his spite. I set the fish down as he finishes, untasted. How can I taste it now? It would seem like I’m only doing it because he says I should, but what else am I supposed to do?
I recover the fork and claim its morsel. It is tender and sweet and spicy and delicate.
“Wow, that is really good,” I tell him, moving on, always on.
He sighs and nods, eating another bite from his portion.
“The green stuff – lemongrass did she say? That’s really interesting, spicy and almost sour.” I continue. I need more things to say. I can’t say much more about this stupid fish.
“And the chilis add a nice spiciness, balancing out the sweet milk. Really great, really, really great dish.” I run out of words, just like that. My mouth closes and I bite my lip awkwardly. I take another bite.
“Really good,” I echo.
Dante is looking at me. His dark eyes bore into me like spotlights. It isn’t an angry look, it is penetrating, disarming, knowing.
“Hell is not what you think it is. It is not a bacchanal. There are no virgins waiting for you, no rewards.”
I exhale. Finally. I nod, encouraging him to continue.
“It is opportunity. But it is work. It is hard.” He speaks that last with finality, the word resounds like a gong.
“I…I know that. I don’t expect-“ I stammer.
“What is it you do expect then?” He asks, eating his final bit of fish.
“I…I don’t know, I just.”
“You mortals are complete dick bags. You hear some tale of hell and it’s ‘Take my soul, oh lucifer.’. You have no idea what you are doing, do you?”
“No!” I slam my hand down on the table and the room stills awkwardly. Inquisitive glances pour over us before they lose interest and return to their own concerns.
“No,” I repeat softer. “I am not some fly by night adolescent drawing pentagrams. I know what I want. I want freedom. I want power and potential and beauty. I want more than this place.” I gesture around me. “Well, not more than this place, this place is amazing.” I hurriedly add, “I mean this place. This body and this blood do not satisfy.”
“That much is clear.” Dante sighs, licking a dabble of the yellow sauce off a finger.
“No, I mean. Are you always this infuriating?” I collapse into my chair. Clearly this was a disaster. No reason to futz around the obvious.
He raises an eyebrow. “You have a point, my apologies. I am bating you, and it is not dignified. It’s just this place. The smell of this realm. It is sour and squishy. Even the best is so…small.” He sighs and shakes his head. He takes the final sip from his cocktail.
He leans closer to me. “When I broke into hell, I was a child. I had no idea what I was getting into. I was a man, a sinner. I believed myself evil, intrinsically. That’s the whole gig, right? You’re pretty much fucked just for being alive. You get a nice ‘evil bastard’ sticker for your forehead along with your first breath.”
“But beyond the gates of hell I found…. It is like turning a corner and discovering you have another mind, another self that is separate, but not separate. It is like your normal mind, your day-to-day thoughts, they are a seed, and the self that I discovered, that self was the tree that had grown from it. I knew myself. I was a beam of light, a long knower, and a true seer. But none of those things really, that was all rubbish.” He shakes his head, clearing it.
“But why the nine circles then? Why the account of horrors?”
He shakes his head testily. “Virgil, the prat. Not that he is wrong, not exactly. Suffering is certainly an aspect of hell. But Virgil’s self was…shapeless and… polluted. It drove him mad and he fled, spewing obscenities and terrors that were claimed by history. We could have stopped him, but why bother? Abaddon has kept us apart for millions of years.” He waves his hands. “Except not really years because time is not really a thing, so you know, forever or whatever-the-fuck.”
A man approaches with a dusty bottle of wine in his gloved fingers.
“1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, an impeccable wine. My compliments, sir.” He trims the foil with a small black knife and pulls a crumbling cork. A glass wide bottomed decanter is placed on the table and the red liquid spills into it making red tracks down the glass walls. Tiny bubbles form. The wine is deep red, almost brown.
The man sets the emptied bottle on the table for us to admire. The smell of the restaurant had been dust, lemon, and pepper. But the wine replaces that with musk, decay, and overripe fruit.
The waiter leaves and I reach for the decanter.
“Give it a minute,” Dante suggests and I withdraw my hands.
“Quite a bottle,” I say, focusing on the label. It is a yellowing scene of trees and a river. “It’s practically older than I am. I wonder what stories it could tell, how the world was different when it was but grapes on a vine.”
“What stories indeed,” Dante nods and then begins to speak slowly, growing more distant as he builds momentum. “I hid for years in the dark, stewing secrets of sweetness and terroir. I lay sleeping against time, against economics. And then, I was awoken and ushered back to the light among hushed exclamations of excitement. A handful of dipshits in strange clothes watched as my purpose spilled from me in waves of scent and sloshy sound. I sat on display for an hour while people admire my emptiness. My skin was peeled and framed and my body lay empty, no longer distinguishable from common glass.”
He falls silent and I chew on the inside of my lips.
“So, do we order or something?” I ask Dante. There doesn’t seem to be a menu anywhere that I can see.
“No, you do not order,” He says, eyes still distant. “You take what you are given.”
“Ah,” I say. “That takes some of the pressure off, eh?” I smile and he rolls his eyes.
“No, really,” I continue. “I mean, I’m always looking at a menu and how can I pick – it all sounds good – fine – it all seems like the right choice. I don’t know what to do, and so I just stress out about it and order a burger.”
The waiter is back with two wine glasses and he places them in front of us. He pours straw-colored wine into each and backs away silently. Two additional waiters appear in his wake and place a shallow bowl resting on an oversized plate in front of each of us. The bowls are filled red soup.
One of the waiters gestures to the bowl, “A sweet pepper gazpacho with anchovy-horseradish croutons. Enjoy.” She nods and fades away from our table.
“Christ but these guys are efficient,” Dante says. “Everyone knows their place, everyone does their job.” He shakes his head. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
The soup is tangy and rich. The croutons are tiny, whole fish. I grimace slightly at the prospect, but they are salty, crunchy satisfaction. I shake my head in wonder at the contrast of flavor, at the utter perfection soup can carry. We each mind our bowls for a few spoonfuls.
“You were telling me about the inferno,” I prompt him and he nods.
“Fuck the inferno,” Dante says. He shakes his head gently and stares into the air.
He looks back to me suddenly and sputters, “You know what, It’s a good thing. It’s good that people, you I mean, people,” he gestures around the room. “You all think hell is this actual physical place. Like it’s this apartment complex built inside a volcano or something. It’s good. Because it keeps you from thinking, from really thinking. You all eat your burgers and make your powerpoint presentations and go about your lawn mowing, kept in line by this nonsensical belief that if you have sex with the wrong person you will end up retiring to some lava-side resort.”
“Not all of us,” I say quietly.
“No,” he nods. “Not all of you.”
“How many have there been?”
He smirks. “Less than you would think. Or maybe not, I’m not sure how many you would think. Less than *I* would have thought anyway.”
The conversation is degrading, I feel him tiring of it and me.
“What of the church?” I burst out impatiently. “Does the Vatican know…about you?”
“The church! Let’s not discuss those miscreants. I’ll lose my appetite, and this soup is lovely.” Dante waves his hands in dismissal.
I nod absently, disappointed at his answer. But there would be another chance.
My soup is gone and the wine is slipping away, swallows at a time. It is acidic and pleasantly tart, though my eyes wander to the waiting red, to the main event, the true headliner of such a dinner.
“I want in,” I tell him, leaning in. “I’ll do whatever it takes.” I place my spoon in the empty bowl and it is gone before I even realize a server has come to take it.
He takes a spoonful of his still mostly full bowl. “Whatever it takes, he says.” Dante raises an eyebrow. “We care little for what you will do. More to the point is what you have *already* done.”
“I’m sure you are aware of my deeds already,” I venture.
“Regale me anyway,” he prompts.
“I have…I am…. I am the owner of my life. I am not bound by the morality of the wretches around me. I am a taker.”
“And what have you taken, mortal?” he stresses the designation, making it an insult.
“I created a charity and from it embezzled millions of dollars intended for cancer research. I created a vodka label that re-bottles rot gut as ultra premium. I set up a Ponzi scheme using girl scout cookies.”
“A Ponzi scheme?” he scowls.
“Oh yes, it was brilliant – You see, everyone loves these cardboard cookies for some reason and I realized-”
“You call me here and pitch me with a Ponzi scheme? Do you have any – fucking – idea – who I am?” He slams his arms on the table to either side of his bowl.”
“You are third in command of hell. Behind only Abbadon and the Accuser himself.”
He glares at me. “Hell is not a place for you to exercise your wanton desires. We suffer no such liquid fantasies. We are the damned! We are the makers. It’s not that we violate your insufferable morality. It’s that we transcend it. I’ve heard enough of your taking and talking, please depart that I may finish my meal without such offensive company.” He stands politely, despite his words and my mind races. I can’t give up. It is too important, I have to push, just a little further.
“I killed a man,” I burst out and he raises his eyes to look at me. His eyes narrow and he slowly retakes his seat.
“It was a year ago. He started talking to me in a bar, asking me all kind of questions, desperate for companionship and conversation. I kept trying to politely get him to piss off, but he seemed irrevocably interested in me for some reason. I eventually left and he followed, inviting me to this or that, I don’t remember really. But eventually we were walking across a bridge and I just pushed him. Without thought or intent. I wanted him gone and so he toppled over the edge without a sound. I watched him splash into the river, some few hundred feet below. He bobbed back up, twenty seconds later. He was still. He was face down.”
Dante eyes me cautiously.
I keep talking. “I don’t even know his name. He was just…an inconvenience. And I eliminated him. That’s what I am. I am ready to go under. I am ready to abandon all hope.”
“Perhaps,” Dante says. His eyes have changed from irritated to curious, and now…hunger?
His bowl is removed and in its place are two new plates. Some kind of meat, though I miss the explanation. It is small and insignificant in the general clatter of my existence. I eat it and it is delicious and it is gone. The plate is taken, another plate presented, another delicious morsel that I eat that too. So it goes with dinners.
“What do you know about Bordeaux?” He looks from the decanter to me.
I shrug, “Nothing really.”
He nods and meets my eyes. “They are the oldest, most storied wines in the world. They are the wines that you age for decades before opening. They are the blood of old vines, older than life. To make such a wine, there are rules to follow and there are classifications awarded. New vineyards have to prove themselves, they are called just “Bordeaux”. But perhaps with work and time, they can claim their plot of land as special and name it on their bottles. And perhaps, they gain official rank – the fifth rank at first. They keep working and gradually move up to fourth rank, third rank, all the way to first, to the premier crus. But make no mistake, it is a hard and winding road. The promising winemakers do not complain because the system is older than time, because the system works. Do you understand?”
I nod solemnly.
“Say that you understand.” Dante leans closer to me.
“I understand,” I gasp.
Dante reaches for the decanter of red, pouring it lovingly into my glass and then his own. He raises his in salute.
“To new friends, to new possibilities.”
“To hell,” I reply and we drink.
The thick crimson liquid sloshes around my teeth. It is viscous and thick, almost chewy. It is not exactly good, not in the way of a friend or a book. It is important. It is necessary. It forces my eyes closed with will and unrelenting history.
“Pretty good.” Dante nods down at his glass. I nod back, not having any specific words to add.
“You asked about the church.” He says with a hint of hesitation, staring into the swirling liquid. “I guess we should talk about that. It is somewhat important.”
I nod, though my heart beats a little faster. Relax. Just relax.
“The church… The thing is…” He leans in conspiratorially. “They work for us.”
He leans back with his infuriating grin.
“How do you mean?” I ask.
“The bible, the Pope, etcetera. Even the bloody crucifixion. It was all arranged by us.”
“But…why? I thought they were your enemies?”
He shrugs, “We have to maintain balance. It’s taken a turn for the bizarre lately. But still, there is a place for the church. There is a place for God. You’ll see. A lot of the jobs you’ll have will be church related. It can be tedious, but I assure you, it’s necessary. The church will always have a role to play in our little venture.”
“But do they realize it? Do they know about you? Do they know … of hell?” I ask, breath held against the pounding of my heart. He will hear it! He will flee!
Dante just smiles. “They are fools, they know nothing. The church is a puppet show put on by our agents. They have no knowledge of hell, of truth.”
“Are you worried that they may discover, that they might fight back?” I ask him, focusing on the swirling currents in my glass.
Dante takes a moment to consider. “They can’t. They are livestock. They munch on their grass and swat the flies off their back. If they did somehow learn of hell, they could not help but seek to join, as you have. That’s how it is with hell, it is the knowing. If a cow discovered algebra, it would no longer be a cow.”
I nod, considering.
“That is such a relief.” I exhale, the relieved tension of a duplicitous hour pouring through my words.
He frowns and his eyes flash up at me. But it is too late. My knife finds his throat before he has a chance to react. Blood courses out of the wound and over my hand. He shoots to his feet, gurgling and wheezing. The table is knocked aside in his desperation. The half spent decanter launches into the air and spins, flinging a line of red droplets. The decanter lands on the black marble tiles and shatters. The wine settles around the broken glass and seeps into the pores of stone.
I pull the blade out and plant it in his chest. People scream and scatter. I ignore them, focusing on Dante, The great agent of hell himself, bleeding under me. I snicker down at him. Not entirely immortal, if you have the right sort of weapon.
“This is where the power lies,” I whisper into his ear and pull back to stab him again in the chest. He bellows a curse or a cry or a prayer. He dies as he lived and the room falls strangely still around us.
I cradle his head in my hands and there are suddenly tears welling in my eyes. I weep for the blanket of sins around my shoulders. I weep for the relief and emptiness of a purpose fulfilled. I weep for the lives lost, to the pollution of thought corrupting the world that I love. But it is over and hell does not know. We can sleep easily with our secrets, with our future.
I stand and wipe blood from my hands with a napkin. It pools at my feet, or maybe that’s the wine. I grimace at the shattered green glass about the floor. It’s a shame to waste such agedness, such beauty. But so it goes with killing.
I walk to the door calmly. The host and two of the waiters cower behind the host stand.
I nod to them as I depart.
“Thanks for the meal,” I tell them as I step out into the twilight. “He’ll get the check.”
Photo Credit: flickr/Derek Gavey
Contains Strong Language
© 2016 – 2021, Aaron Zimmerman. All rights reserved.