Rhapsody

You tell me about the elasticity of mourning, and I still don’t think you know what that means. Laurel, am I supposed to shoetree this, fit it into something comfortable for you? How do you carry it, all this anger, and more; do you expect me to carry it for you?

So. Here it is. Not quite my definitive image of him, but it’s probably the one you expect. It’s simple, but not unexamined.

Him, 

leaning over me as I squirm on the floor, belt coiled around his fist, staccato of leather busting me open like a pomegranate. Oh, and the buckle makes a jangly tambourine noise, did I tell you that? How it crashes against my bare ass, bloodies it, pulps me into low-grade meat? I don’t know if you still remember him as he was back then, slender and wiry. Without that belt cinched around his waist, his pants begin to slide. He’s forced to tug on them with his free hand, and that changes the arc of his swing. He hits thigh meat for a few smacks, his accuracy noticeably off. This makes him angrier. I try to roll, and, for a moment I can see the band of his underpants, which are robin’s-egg blue. This is a surprise, because I can’t understand how a man who would wear such colorful underwear could strike me with such ferocity. 

No.

No.

That isn’t the image — not the main one — I want to carry, but it’s the one that muscles in whenever I think of him. 

Ha, listen to me: whenever I think of him. Almost fifty years later, and there it is, waiting for me. The belt, the buckle, the blood. 

You were off at Northeastern, your first year, and you were nervous about everything, so you didn’t know how bad it could get. I was never one to come crying to you. 

Laurel, I remember every angle, every discoloration on those yellow kitchen walls, every grunt he made, every squeak from his heels on that old linoleum. Hell, I can’t remember my own phone number some days, but I can remember that. It’s kind of remarkable, isn’t it, the terrible things we force ourselves to examine? The cancer of memory, the curse of a forebrain, the meat function of the amygdala. We learn fear, but we can’t unlearn childhood. And that’s what’s really pathetic. We can’t unlearn who we were, or how we were tempered.

Listen: 

Sweaty white undershirt, green twill trousers, zipper not completely zipped. Brown penny loafers, gravel-scuffed toes and insteps. Bit of shaving cream on the left earlobe, a torn square of bloodied toilet paper on his chin. Mid-morning sunlight pulling through those grimy lace curtains — remember them, stained by all those wet, humid summers? — and the entire downstairs smells like boiled onions and Pabst Blue Ribbon. I wore my favorite brown corduroys, washed the day before, and of course they were ruined by lunchtime. And the floor still had small Cheez Whiz blots from the previous weekend, when we cooked up a big pot of macaroni-and. My blood was wiped up quick enough, but that Cheez Whiz is probably still stained on that goddamn beige flooring.

“Don’t. You. EVER. Steal. AGAIN!” 

I could hear him, Laurel, inside each one of my howls, I could still hear him. He may have even just mouthed those words to me, in between wallops. I don’t know.

That was all he said. Those five words. He didn’t ask me to explain, or offer an apology when he threw down rags for me to clean myself. He didn’t speak to me again for days, not until you came home for Thanksgiving. I guess he assumed I learned my lesson and would never steal again. 

And I haven’t. I won’t even park in a spot where there’s still time left on the meter. If I didn’t pay for it, it’s not mine. Pretty simple, right? He made me an honest boy. I must be one of God’s chosen, despite, you know, all the boozing that came later.

Don’t look at me like that. I know.

 I know. 

Three divorces and two kids who won’t talk to me anymore. Look at me, I am one of God’s chosen. Ha. There are all those innocent bystanders to consider, standing in front of the wreckage I became. I know that, Laurel, I truly do.

Yeah, sorry, there is a point, and I’m still digging for it. 

Such moments of clarity pay a steep price. It’s in the simplicity of it, that sparkling blink of purity I saw it in him, once. You asked me for my definitive image of him? It wasn’t in that beating. There was a moment when I got to see him cleanly and clearly.

Maybe this will help, it’s all I’ve got:

Early May, the year I turned 17, the year I finally moved out. You were still dating that Paul guy, the one with the Corvair and the platform shoes. The guy who turned out to be a real asshole to you? Anyway, me and the old man were still swimming together in that house, and everything about us felt like drowning. We weren’t even trying to tread water. There was community college for me in the fall, and he was still working as a security guard at that Five and Dime over on Rochester Street — Jesus, how long ago was that? We had our meal times together, four or five nights a week, and we watched a few ball games on the tube if there was nothing else to do. You know, quality time.

One morning, he decides he’s going to mow the front yard. That was usually my job, but he surprised me. The sky was practically varnished with turquoise, and the sun poured down this honey-colored light that washed over everything. So he puts on an old undershirt and holey pair of jeans, and he pushes that old mower across our 30-by-30 front yard, maneuvering around the half-dead hedges beside the driveway, and he whistles a tune I never heard before, something simple, not too showy. It was… elegant, you know? I see the sweat on his shoulders and chest, around his eyes. Laurel, he looked like a younger man, his dark hair shiny with sweat and all that honey-bearing light.

He calls me over, and he puts his arm around my shoulders, pulls me in for a hug. I can smell his perspiration, the Brylcreem, the crumbles of tobacco inside his pockets. It was all him, a very large and real him, and his half-hug is warm and masculine and kind, and I think he means to kiss the top of my head, but then the garbage truck rumbles from down the block, right in front of Jerry Redman’s place, with all those noisy trash cans they used to put out.

The sky turns back to being ordinary blue, and the sun, an ordinary sun, and he smells like just another sweaty guy standing in his yard. He pushes me away gently, then lights up a smoke. He exhales for a long time. I go back inside and turn on the radio, turn it up loud. I can see him from the living room window, and he looks lost, like a boy. Like an innocent boy, smoking his first cigarette. And I am lost again. I think that was the last time I ever cried.

So this is how I carry it, Laurel. This is what I carry instead of the anger. I know you see ruination before you, a great self-inflicted loss in me, but I’m doing okay. I’ll stand by that grave site today, and I’ll be still. I don’t think I’ll cry — I still don’t know how to fake tears, not after all these years — but I will honestly grieve. I’ve had years of practice, you know? And I think you have, too.

How do you expect to carry it all, Laurel? When this is all done, I hope you’ll want to come over to the house. But come alone. You know you’re always welcome, and there will always be fresh coffee in the pot. Then you can tell me how you’re really doing. You can tell me how you want to tote this thing. I know it’s a hard thing to do by yourself, but I think I’ve finally figured it out.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

The Leaver

impermanence_by_smbaird-d7xk1pk

Knowing Joe Kellogg, he’s probably wandering around the great wastelands of Minnesota, looking for a place to set down his boots. He oftentimes threatened to do just that: reach out for the Great American Dream and stroke her hair. Sometimes he said he’d go one better and join up with a cult of Canadian organic farmers and spend the rest of his days adoring free range chickens, though, more than likely, he’d be adoring the young daughter of one of the stoned-to-the-parka farmers, wallowing naked around a loose-leaf bundle of smoldering marijuana leaves.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Joe. We had a lot of good times together, him and me, if you don’t count that stint in a Peyote, New Mexico jail cell, and even that wasn’t too bad. But Joe’s always had a habit of getting out while the getting was good, and sometimes when it wasn’t so good. Married four times, left five times, his women all scratching their heads at the end of the day wondering what the hell happened. But he charmed, them, brother; he charmed them like no other.
Got a call from Joe’s oldest, Mike I think it is, or Mitch, a moody little two-by-four of a fella, about a month-and-a-half ago, asking me if I knew where Joe was this time. Seems Joe bought a bus ticket in Reno for someplace unknown, scratched the message off his answering machine, and left no forwarding. That ain’t unusual. What makes it strange is that no one remembers seeing him board a Greyhound, and he’s always had a way of getting folks to remember him. That was almost two weeks ago.
Joe’s never been one to stay in touch if he didn’t have to. He’d go on his journeys and it’d be rare to hear from him for two or three months at a stretch. Such is Joe. And Mike-or-Mitch knows that. Two weeks ain’t much time to be ringing the bell for him to crawl on home. But he always left a message on the kitchen table whenever his leaving boots started bumping together. Not a Dear Jane, exactly; more like an affectionate fare-thee-well: “I left a hundred dollars in the pantry for you to buy groceries for the week, I’ll keep in touch as soon as I get settled.” That kind of thing. You either have to admire him for his moxie or curse the man for being so ill-suited for any kind of female companionship.
And Jilly, his latest, was a cutie. Not so much in the brains department, but Joe never wasted his time looking at a girl’s I.Q. sheet. But she was sweet. Now, an outsider isn’t always privy to the blueprints of someone else’s marriage. I only saw them together four or five times, but they seemed compatible to me: he had the charm, she had the D-cups. To give him credit, he was with her for longer than the odds-makers gave them… almost four years this time. Why he left her – why he ever left anyone but his second – is a genuine mystery. Some men, I guess, are born leavers. They leave when things look like there’s no other choice. A few men carry that gene, but Joe Kellogg seemed to keep a vial of the stuff in his shirt pocket.
Me and Joe go back a ways. It’s hard to recall a time when we didn’t know each other… way back to when the Cowsills were popular and “Hair” was practically our mantra. I never understood the leaving part of his nature. It was, as always, just Joe being Joe. He never lied about it, far as I know, but it was always hard to watch. Cruel, even, in a way that that word can be separated from just plain meanness. Still, though, people have to pay for the pain they create.

We are the Cheryl Crows

turkey_vulture_by_smbaird-d7ohvga

This was a short story I wrote early last year for a competition. I didn’t win, but I was commended for my strange imagination.

All right, I admit it. When Dwayne first suggested the hike, I dove right in. The invitation was both touching and absurd. Listen, he said: brand new Salomon hiking boots (Kiwi Green), $250; bottled Norwegian ijsberg water, $5 a pop; spending the day with your boy: priceless. I said yes before I even thought about it.
The warm and fuzzies didn’t last long. Even before he hung up I started thinking about the logistics. I really wasn’t prepared to handle a hike of any distance. Sure, even five years ago, I might have considered it. But I was seeing the crispy side of sixty and…
“Come on, Bim, it’ll be good for you,” he said. “You need to stop doing old-man stuff and start spending time with your kid.”
“And hiking’s the best thing you could come up with? What’s wrong with –?”
“Too late, you’ve committed,” he said, and hung up. Just like that.
He didn’t even tell me when this alleged adventure was going to take place, so I figured he’d forget about it, or get so caught up in his research at the university that he’d put me on the backburner again. Stuff happens. That was one of the reasons we hadn’t seen each other for almost two years. Stuff happens. Though it might kill me, backing out really wasn’t an option for me. The old man needed to spend some time with his son. Dwayne made that abundantly clear. It was either hike or give up.
Dwayne was always full of piss and swagger, even as a boy. He did little-kid things when he was young, but he always did them with attitude. Bravado, even. When he got old enough, he started calling me Bim instead of Dad. It was grating the first few times, but it came to fit us both after awhile. It suggested a closeness that really wasn’t there.
So when he followed through a couple days later, I was surprised. I was on the verge of forgetting about it. Stuff happens.
“In the mood for a hike, Bim?” he asked. No intro, just jump right in, that’s my boy.
“What? When… you don’t mean today, do you? Jeeze, Dwayne, a little heads-up?”
“It’s not far,” he said. “I’ll pick you up in an hour.”
“I—“ And he hung up. Just like that.
As promised, he brought me hiking boots. They really were kiwi green, and they really were ugly. Nothing you’d want to be seen wearing anywhere other than the great outdoors. What must the forest animals think, and would they laugh? Probably. I wanted to balk, but Dwayne looked harried, like he was about to be audited. There was no warm hello-hug, no arm’s-length examination of how much we’d changed over the past couple of years. He just shoved the shoebox in my hands when I opened the door.
He saw I was wearing my favorite worn-out jeans, and shook his head like I just straggled out of transvestite bar. “Nothing fancy, Bim,” he said. “Get as comfortable as you can. Could be a long trip.” He smiled in a way that made him look like a complete stranger.
I never considered my old Levis fancy, but shrugged it off. Hiking, apparently, had become nouveau and I didn’t have the fashion sense of a… well, a kiwi. “Your sweat pants will be fine,” he said, exasperated with me for no good reason. “Sweat pants and an old tee.” Hiking, I suppose, had changed a lot since I was a kid.
***
How could a kid as smart as Dwayne not know the difference between west and east? My boy is smart in every other way. Did I ever know that, or had I forgotten?
I don’t remember the drive to… wherever. I remember lacing up those hideous boots and then… well, then, we were at the edge of a forest. Only it didn’t look like a regular forest. It looked like some garish Disney wilderness, with old Walt done up on Jack and blow, trying to color between the blurred lines. It was just a little too… beautifully weird.
“I’ll meet you west of that hanging rock,” said Dwayne. “Or maybe east.” I heard him, but didn’t see him, and I had no idea what hanging rock he was talking about. I didn’t even know what a hanging rock was, other than a place where they might string up horse thieves in old Westerns.
“I thought we were going to spend time together,” I said. “Where are you going?”
“West,” he said. “Or east. You’ll know it when you find it.”
“Find what? Dwayne, where are we?”
“Admire the scenery, Bim,” he said, and disappeared. Literally. Just faded like a shadow in a dark room.
I saw a path uncoil towards the woods ahead. As I walked closer to the forest, I noticed the trees. I have never seen breezes in trees such as these, thought my inner Seuss. Towering, spiral, translucent, fragile. And as real as rain. I rapped my knuckles against a seedling that was at least twice my height and girth. I could feel the rough bark scrape the back of my fingers.
“Dwayne?”
“I’m here,” he said, and now I was the one who didn’t know his east from west. The sound carried long, and he could have been behind me or ten miles ahead.
“I can’t see you. Where are you?” I tried to rein in my panic. I was afraid of being in such a strange place without him.
“Keep looking,” he said. “Just keep looking, Bim.”
I looked down and saw I wasn’t wearing any pants.
“Dwayne? Where are you? I think one of us is lost, and I think it’s me. Or I mixed my meds and I’m floating around in Butt Nibble Forest, naked and alone, and don’t have the sense to wake up.”
“You’re not lost,” he said, and I looked behind and noticed the owl. It was speaking with Dwayne’s voice. “Touch the leaves,” said Dwayne/Owl.
Obediently, I stretched my arms and tugged at the low-lying tree limbs, grabbing fistfuls of leaves. Yep, they were real. Oak and maple and others I couldn’t identify. But real. I felt them. I could smell them: earthy and damp, the smell of greenness and fertility.
“Where are we? Where are you?” I studied the owl, hoping for an answer, but the owl had apparently gone mute. “Where are you, son?”
“I’m right here,” he said. I looked down again and saw that not only was I still not wearing pants, I was no longer wearing any legs. And it wasn’t as disturbing as you might think. Dwayne was looking up at me from the ground, his face a perfect circle that was bordered by orange daisies.
“This is weird, kid,” I said.
He laughed, and it was the most genuine gesture I’d seen from him in… well, a couple of years. “Yeah, daddy-o,” he said.
“Where are we, Dwayne?”
“Does it matter? We’re spending time together, Bim.”
“Why aren’t I wearing my legs?”
“Of all the things you see, you’re worried about your legs?”
“Well, yeah, kind of.”
“My face is a shape on the ground and it’s surrounded by daisies, and that doesn’t bother you?”
“A little, yeah.”
“And you’re naked from the waist down.”
“If I had a waist.”
“You do, it’s just not here at the moment. Look again.”
I did, and I was back intact.
“Were we killed in a car crash on the way to the hike?” I asked. “Is this, you know, heaven? Or hell? Either one, it ain’t what I expected.”
“Even better. We’re inside your shoes.”
And with that, I shut up.
Dwayne let me think things through, and I admit I had to plod my way through the dense underbrush that contained my thoughts. I reached down and cupped my hands around my calves. Okay, they were real. I could feel the flabby old muscles beneath the skin and it was all me, right down to the old dimples and scars. I looked at my feet and saw I wasn’t even wearing the shoes. My legs and feet were bare. And, much more distressing, I no longer had any genitals.
“You don’t need that equipment here, Bim,” said Dwayne as if reading my mind. “And really, I don’t need to see your junk.”
“My junk?”
A trio of black crows flew overhead, and all of them had Dwayne’s face on them.
“We are the Counting Crows….”
“The Sheryl Crows….”
“The Texas Rose….”
“Okay, Dwayne. This is getting stranger than your mother. Where are you?”
He laughed again, and he was standing right next to me, smiling his sunny, open smile. His hand fell on my shoulder.
“I’m right here, Bim. The whole time.”
“’We are the Sheryl Crows’? What the hell, son?”
“You needed to get shook up, that’s all.”
“Shook up?”
“Like a soda pop, Pop. So I brought you the shoes. For the hike. Get it?”
“For the hike,” I said.
“I wasn’t sure they’d work.”
“And they do, right? They work?”
“Yes sir, they sure do. Man, trying to get you to do anything with me anymore is like pulling the skin off a crocodile. You’re so planted in your ways. You were busy getting old even when I was a kid. I figured a hike was what you needed. A good old-fashioned kick—“
“— in the junk?”
He laughed. It was good to hear my boy laugh. It had been such a long time. Always excuses, always other things going on. I didn’t realize how much of it was my doing.
“We gotta laugh, old man. From time to time, we gotta laugh.”
“So can I please have my legs back? And my, you know, equipment? Feels kind of strange not, uh, having any.”
And then we were back in my apartment, standing in front of the doorway, as if we hadn’t traveled at all. Dwayne still had the shoebox in his hands. He didn’t look so harried.
“Was that real?” I asked. “What just happened?”
“As real as trees.”
“Were we really there?”
He rubbed his forehead, and I noticed for the first time how far his hairline was receding. He really did take after his mother in that regard. “We were somewhere,” he said, a little elusively.
“Was it the shoes?”
He smiled and, for the first time, I realized my boy was getting older. I could see the fine mesh of lines around his eyes as he tried to clarify his thoughts.
“Sometimes, you know, a good pair of shoes will take you places your feet can’t go.” He shook his head, dissatisfied. “I know that doesn’t make sense, but that’s the best I can do. For now.”
I held out my hands. “Do I get to keep them?”
“If you want. If you think you need them.”
“Do I?” I thought about it, and, though only a few seconds had passed, it felt like I had considered the question for a long time. “Is that what it’s going to take? You know, for us to spend time together? A pair of ugly shoes?”
He shrugged. “Maybe we both need a pair,” he said. “But they’re so damned expensive.”
All right, I admit it. When Dwayne first suggested the shoes, I hesitated. The offer was both touching and genuine. Listen, he said: brand new Salomon hiking boots (Kiwi Green), $250; bottled Norwegian ijsberg water, $5 a pop; spending the day with your boy: priceless.
Neither of us really needed those shoes, ugly as they were. And really, it was never about the shoes.

RIP October

november

October was such a strange month for me. Many changes and much stress.

I was “promoted” at my job (and promotion is very much up to interpretation)… more work, more responsibilities, more co-ordination between departments. More pay? We’ll see). It required me to be in LaGrange, Georgia for three days for training, and there’s nothing more depressing than being stuck in hotel, alone, two States away from home.

And the weather has abruptly changed, from lackluster October to what-the-hell-is-this-stuff cold November. Half an inch of snow on the ground Saturday morning. The older I get, the less prepared I am to handle it. But of course I will. I’m a born and raised Canadian, so it’s not like it’s a foreign substance. Just the circle of freaking life, eh?

And then yesterday I finally launched my first ebook on Amazon… the culmination of a lot of hard work, sweat, cursing and anxiety. I swear the writing was the easiest part of the whole process. Editing, sculpting, tossing, re-writing, editing, polishing, editing. And then formatting for a decent presentation. And now promoting. Promotion is not my strong suit, but I push onward because I don’t want “Ordinary Handsome” to die on the vine. It’s been a large part of my life and, regardless of its success, I’m proud of it. It’s good. I hope. I think. Or am I one of those “American Idol” wannabes who steps on stage who think they sound like Sinatra and… well, the grinding screech of a braking train carries a better melody? It’s all subjective. God bless ’em, some people were meant to be shower-singers, and some people were meant to be “maybe my grandma might like this” kind of writers. I hope I’m not the latter, but I don’t know. Because writing is so subjective (as is all art) that I just don’t know. Self-doubt, I think, is part of the genetics of a writer.

But now it’s there. It’s done. It’s waiting to be read.

And now it’s November. A few small creative ideas are flickering around my imagination, but nothing hard and shiny yet. Dust mites. And I don’t want to rest. I’m waiting for that big kaboom idea. I know it’s there, and I’m looking for it. And then I’ll start the whole process over again. And man, I can’t wait!

You got your cow tongue, a little oregano

When you’ve got a pile of horse plop riding shotgun instead of your best girl, you know it was bad. Worse than bad. It was like cutting into a New York strip and seeing maggots slide off the knife.

Okay, so it was bad. Caroline was probably not going to be the next Mrs. Horace D. Lennox. And it started out so sweet.

If you knew the difference between the brake and accelerator, things might have worked. Instead of running over her cat and skidding through her horse barn, you might have been offered a warm kiss.

Think, Horace, think. What went wrong?

Idiot brother-in-law, that’s what. Thought he could teach you to drive in one lesson. Maybe, if his brain were bigger than a deer tick and he wasn’t half-loaded most days. Maybe, if he knew how important it was to you.

Okay, so you’re a butcher, and a damned fine one. Could have run for mayor back in ’08 and won, that’s how respected you are. Folks trust you to sell them the best cuts, even if the cow isn’t decent stock. You’ve prepared pigs and deer and once even a goat, and no one’s complained. But drive a Mitsubishi through a parking lot without getting a belly ache? Nope, wasn’t going to happen.

You own a nice house within walking distance of your shop, a summer lawn so green it could pop your eyes out. You’re a friend indeed to the neighbors. Who needs to drive when everything is a sidewalk away from where you lay your head?

Once word gets out that you’re a fool behind the wheel, you’re done. You’ll be the town chump. A man who doesn’t know the difference between his left foot and right can’t be trusted with carving the meat for folks’ supper tables.

Or you could blame Caroline. She’s the one with a taste for cow tongue. That’s why she came to your shop. A fresh tongue is not a thing you can pick up at the A&P or Save-A-Lot. And, oh, you could go on for hours about recipes and preparations and spices. And when she told you her favorite meal was cow tongue with a little oregano and a few peppercorns….

So go ahead, Horace. Go ahead and blame it all on the woman you wanted to marry.

“So you like her?” asked Bobby.

“Yep.”

“Because you’ve never shown no interest in driving before.”

“I like her.”

“She’s a fine looking woman. Could stand to lose a few pounds, but hey, I hope it works.”

“I like her.”

So many things to remember. Adjust your seat. Check the mirrors. Remember, it’s not the cockpit of a Boeing, just a rusty ’98 sedan. Give it gas with the right foot, brake with the left, and watch the road. Steer, don’t aim. Watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been, but make sure you check your mirrors, and watch your blind spot. If you’re going to play the radio, make sure it’s honky tonk or oldies rock-and-roll, not fancy-ass jazz or worse, New Age crap, that stuff will put you to sleep. And relax, Horace. It ain’t rocket science, it’s just a car, and it’ll take you from here to there, no problem. And it ain’t even a stick, so you don’t have to think hard about it. Look here, you don’t even have your seatbelt on straight.

Took Caroline three visits before you had the nerve to ask her out. She always ordered the same thing: three pounds of ground round, six butterfly chops, and a fresh cow tongue. Not even embarrassed about it. You order tongue, most people think you’re strange. They don’t know how to prepare it and they look at you curious if you tell them it can be as tender as a good brisket. Truth is, she was the one who asked you to cook for her. Shyness was not one of Caroline’s qualities.

“I’ll bet you cook up a nice tongue,” she said.

“I have prepared a few.”

“My former husband, Mr. Pollard, couldn’t abide by it. He said he didn’t want to taste anything that could taste him back. The best thing about his passing is that I can now enjoy a good tongue whenever I want.”

Do you remember how you blushed?

“I usually prepare it for Saturday night supper,” she said. “Maybe we could sit down together and enjoy a plate. If you’re free.”

You said you were. All you had to do was learn how to drive in three days.

“That cow ain’t necessarily going to move just because you’re coming at it,” said Bobby. “You might want to slow down. I prefer my steaks not to have Goodyear treads running through them.”

Caroline lived three miles out of town, down a narrow stretch of road called the Old 89. Bobby said a frog with bad eyesight could drive that road without problem. “You watch for deer and uncareful animals, and you’re set. And try not to slide into a tree. Uh, you might want to go easy on the gas, there, Horace. That fence might not care, but the tractor beside it might.”

You packed the tongue in an ice cooler and checked the tires, like Bobby said. You didn’t see the point, it was only three miles, and you timed it so there’d be nobody else on the road. You dropped off a bottle of Jim Beam at Bobby’s house and he watched you adjust your mirror (for the third time) and straighten your safety belt. He knuckled the side of the door as you drove off a steady five miles per.

“First rule of driving is to trust nobody,” said Bobby. “You might be the best driver in the world, but if the other guy thinks he’s Dale Earnhardt, you’re gonna be run off. It’s all about attitude. Treat the other guy like an idiot and you’ll be okay.”

Probably made sense, but what if the other guy was a raccoon and didn’t care how you drove? Or a pony grazing the side of the road?

“Steady, Horace, steady,” Bobby would say. “Worry when there’s cause.”

So you drove slow. Even started to get a feel for it. You had a pound-and-a-half of fresh cow tongue on ice, a full tank of gas, and the world was an open road scudding by.

Caroline’s place was a quarter mile off a four-way stop, big old farm house on the left. You could tell it was hers by the yellow barn and the scar-tissue lawn. She said it was scorched from too much fertilizer and she never could get the proper color back.

She didn’t mention she had cats. Lots of cats. As many stars there were in the sky, that’s how many cats were roving her driveway. Or maybe there were four. But they all seemed to have an appetite for raw Mitsubishi. Pillaging and plundering, they advanced, and your flimsy confidence peeled away.

What kind of woman chemically burns her front lawn, you wondered. And has guard cats soldiering the driveway? What kind of–

One of the cats ignored your fluttering hand signals and zigged not ten feet away. In your head, you touched the brakes lightly. In reality, you slammed the pedal like it was growing spider legs. Though you were safely harnessed, your cooler was not. It toppled forward, distributing ice and twelve inches of cow tongue onto the floor. Some of the ice became lodged under the brake pedal. You were not aware of this.

For one horrifying moment, you thought one of the cats had somehow grown into a horse – a full-sized Belgian, pretty color, maybe even purebred – and you and common sense parted ways.

You hit the brake in earnest, pounded it like a flank steak, but to no effect. You thought it was the wrong pedal, so you thumped the other one. You had a brief moment of clarity when your peripheral vision became blurry. The horse barn eclipsed the driveway. You went back to the brake pedal, crushed some ice, and the car slid sideways, barely missing the hind end of Mister Horse, who showed his appreciation by defecating in the open passenger window. You thought you could hear a weak “meow” under your bumper.

“Remember to use your turn signals,” said Bobby. “Nobody else does, but the cops will pull you over if they catch you making a turn without ’em. And don’t be afraid to use your horn. That’s what it’s there for, to let ’em know you mean business.”

You tooted the horn, in case no one noticed your entrance. It was a silly thing, really, but you were preoccupied running down the list of things you could have done, should have done, but didn’t do. You couldn’t recall Bobby telling you, “if a horse takes a dump in the seat beside you, honk your horn. That’s what it’s there for, to let him know you mean business.”

And so you just sat there, the heel of your hand on the horn, while a large draft horse rubbed his flank against the passenger door. You should have been upset, but you couldn’t really blame him.

And so…

When you’re chased out of barn by a woman brandishing a pitchfork and yelling in octaves you didn’t know were audible outside the canine family, you consider it a done deal. You could have offered her the cow tongue as a parting gift, as a “can we still be friends” gift, but that didn’t seem right. It was spattered with horse manure, anyway. You offered to pay for damages to her barn. If you threw in a kitten or two, it might have made a difference.

Instead, you put the car in reverse. Or what you thought was reverse. It wasn’t reverse. It was neutral. And when you accelerated….

It’s best to put that out of your mind.

So rather than a robust meal with the future missus, the night ended with a can of unnaturally orange ravioli over the kitchen sink, Manilow in the background.

That was last summer, and you haven’t been laughed out of town. No one has dropped by to offer you the job as mayor, and probably no one ever will. You know folks laugh behind your back, and sometimes not behind it. But you’re still a damned fine butcher and folks respect a man for his talents. You’ve lost no custom that you’re aware of. Probably helped business in the long term, what with the gossipers and idly curious.

A woman came into the shop yesterday afternoon. She’s new to town and probably hasn’t heard about you in the coffee shop or supermarket. Pretty woman, with kind, sparkly eyes and dimples that light up her face.

She asked if you sold Cornish game hens. Fresh ones were impossible to find, and she had a powerful taste for them.

You told her you could get them for her at a reasonable price, probably within two or three days. She smiled like a bird-eating angel. She just bought a small farm house she shared with her daughter, you probably know the place, just five miles out Dumphrey Road, right next to the old Methodist church. It was an easy drive, she said. She rested her hand on yours for a moment.

“Do you enjoy a good hen, Mr. Lennox?” she asked.

The Ninety-Four Percent Chef

Statistically, if you hired Chef Henri Brasseur, there was a six percent chance you were going to be poisoned. Hell, he even put it up on his website. He called himself the Ninety-Four Percent Chef.

Even by his competitors’ standards, his food was recherché, which is French for very good. His restaurant, Urbane, boasted three Michelin stars for excellence, and yes, you had to sign a waiver when you hired him.

There were rumors that Chef Henri was born without a sense of smell. He was a hired gun who relied on his sous chef to affirm that neither fish nor fowl were corrupt. But his assistant had a malignant sense of humor and sometimes let the bad meats slide through. Whether it was Sukhothai Pad Thai, or his specialty, Sesame Crusted Mahi Mahi, your guts had the final say.

I hired Chef Henri because I wanted the best for my girl’s wedding reception. I spared Judy the gristly details; she was already on warp drive. And, if things worked out, only her new hubby Wayne-O would spend their honeymoon praying for a working toilet.

Of course, Chef Henri wasn’t cheap. At sixty-eight bucks a plate, and at a hundred and thirty-two guests and counting, I was bleeding dollars. But it was my only real contribution (other than my checkbook); my wife Dianna was elbow-deep in the planning, and even Wayne-O took care of the music: some neo-punk band called Dank Skwirls. I figured a nice meal was the least I could do.

“Falafel and cucumber sauce?” I asked. “What’s that?”

Chef Henri wasn’t as mythical close-up. He was shorter than his Escalade and spoke with a light Texas drawl. He looked like he would fit right in at a cowboy camp, stirring beans. “It’s a Middle Eastern dish,” he said. “Mostly chickpeas and onion and spices fried up and stuffed into pita bread.”

“No meat?”

“No meat.”

“What else?”

“I do up a nice Indian butter chicken.”

“What’s in that?”

“Maybe,” he said, “you’d like to try some samples from my kitchen.”

“Are they free?”

Of course they weren’t.

I decided on the grilled swordfish with rosemary. My taste buds were still rejoicing when I arrived home. Dianna kissed me hard when I told her I’d found our caterer. She said she was proud of me; normally, I didn’t pay much attention to fussy details. I didn’t tell her about the six percent chance we’d end our daughter’s wedding day having our stomachs hosed out.

There was a last minute change in the menu. By last minute, I mean the day before the wedding. Only half of Chef Henri’s swordfish delivery came through, and he’d have to improvise. Would wild salmon and pearl couscous work for me?

I told him that was fine. He even knocked the price down to fifty-eight dollars a plate for the inconvenience. I told him that was even better.

I was due for a last minute tuxedo adjustment and promptly forgot about the new menu. I didn’t think that, with two main courses, the odds of being poisoning had just doubled.

The wedding went off perfectly. I know that’s a little like saying, “the bomb went off quietly”, but that’s how I felt. It was a beautiful ceremony, even though my new son-in-law was a tool. When I congratulated him by the church steps, I wanted to simultaneously shake his hand and rattle the monkey cage that was his head. But I resisted. I think Wayne-O actually shed a tear.

Judy was lovely, of course. She was radiant. I know that’s a dad-thing to say, but it’s true. If she was happy with the corkscrew she married, I would learn to live with it.

The reception hall was only ten minutes away from the church. I drove on ahead to make sure Chef Henri had things in order. I admit, I was a little nervous, but the wedding had left me in such good spirits that all anxiety was dialed way down.

The hall was festooned with black and orange streamers (Halloween, anyone?) and bright pink balloons that physically hurt my eyes. When things got into high gear, there would be black-lights, strobes, and probably more than one seizure.

Chef Henri was already there, of course, wearing his chef whites and supervising the chaos. I didn’t want to hinder him, so I simply nodded. He nodded back, distracted, and continued coordinating the final preparations.

I noticed a man who shadowed Chef Henri’s every move. He followed Henri like a sour teenager. He was much older than his boss, and walked with a permanent stoop. His eyes were shiny, and his hair was raven-black. He looked exhausted. He saw me looking at him and grinned, not unpleasantly. The sous chef, I assumed.

When the guests began to arrive, I took my place beside my family. Judy came over to me and kissed my cheek. Her face was quite pink and she looked very happy.

“Thank you for everything,” she said.

“You’re welcome, honey.”

“Mom told me you even arranged the catering. That’s just so… awesome. I know how you don’t like detail work.”

“It was easy. Next time you get married, I’ll be even more prepared.”

She laughed.

There was much mingling for the next forty-five minutes. I didn’t know half of the guests. Dank Skwirls were on stage, tuning their instruments, or maybe playing them, but they kept it reasonably quiet. I can’t say it was background music, because I heard the words “sugar whore baby” and “bang the patsies”, but no one seemed to mind.

When it came time for the meal, everyone faced me and applauded. It felt like a pleasant conspiracy.

The first appetizer was bacon-wrapped apricots dipped in plum sauce, followed by chicken cilantro bites. Conversations grew as I heard appreciative comments.

“Wherever you found this dude, you’re not paying him enough,” said one of Wayne-O’s friends, a bedraggled young man with bleached orange hair and multiple eyebrow piercings. “Food is awesome-tastic.”

Next up was a sautéed garlic and spinach salad that tasted like it was just been plucked from the earth. I’ve never tasted spinach so crisp, and I wondered if Chef Henri grew it in the back of his van.

Conversations became more animated as the wine flowed downhill. And I waited. I heard a deep moan a few tables behind me, but then laughter. Everyone was relaxed and ready for the main course.

I excused myself and went to the men’s room; too many Kirin’s and a nervous stomach had set me on edge.

The sous chef was the only other person in there, washing his hands like a surgeon. He smelled like fried peppers and lemons.

“Things are going well,” he said.

“I suppose,” I said. “Is it going to end well?”

“They always do.”

I cleared my throat. “Do they? I mean, will they tonight?”

He shrugged. “They always do. For someone, anyway.” He walked up to me, his back curled like a cursive letter. I could smell the garlic that probably stained all his pores. “It doesn’t happen all at once,” he whispered.

“What doesn’t?”

He shrugged again. “You know. Sometimes it takes a day, sometimes a week. You might go home tonight and still not be sure.”

“But you are. You’re sure.”

“Chef Henri needs me for the main course,” he said, walking to the door. He paused. “Did you know that’s not his real name? It’s Billy Knotts. He’s just a hayseed. He wouldn’t know a bean sprout from a calico bean. Enjoy your meal, sir.” He grinned. “Ninety-four per cent is a lot, you know.”

Chef Henri didn’t present his main courses with any flourish. A handful of waiters methodically began setting down plates to each table. Chardonnay bottles were emptied and replenished. I ended up with the swordfish while the rest of the wedding party received the salmon. I don’t know if that was intentional. There was much oohing as the meals arrived.

“Which fork do I use?” asked Wayne-O, and everyone dug in.

I took my time with the meal, savoring every bite, but my mind painted an ugly picture of all the guests vying for the porcelain within the next twelve hours.

The swordfish was extraordinary. It was as though Chef Henri had reeled it in himself and bathed it in complex herbs. There was a hint of something smoky and dark in the aftertaste.

There were no complaints. For the next fifteen minutes, the only sounds I heard were forks scraping bone china and wine pouring into glasses.

The party started to rip after the speeches and post-meal conversation. Several people came over and thanked me, as if I had anything to do with it. Dank Skwirls tore into their set like their guitars were on fire, and the dancers moved as if they were trying to put out the flames. I stood in the corner furthest from the amps. It wasn’t my kind of music, but the kids were enjoying it, and Judy was jumping the most enthusiastically.

Dianna leaned up against me, smiling. We didn’t say anything – we couldn’t, the music was too loud – but it was nice.

The first kid to puke was a cousin of the groom. His name was Dotty and he had the frizziest blue hair I’d seen since my grandmother. He threw up after the third song — something called “My Chained Bunny” — just a couple of feet away from the punch bowl. Too much booze and jumping, I hoped.

Another kid tossed his dinner out of sympathy to Dotty, and it looked like a goblin had sprung from his throat.

The Skwirls cut their set after that, and offered to take pictures for their blog.

The third kid – really, more of the uncle-type if you dismissed the piercings and eyeliner – hurled on his expensive-looking spats.

“Lord, I hope it wasn’t something they ate,” said Dianna.

“Booze and shaking like a soda can,” I said. I walked to the kitchen area, hoping to catch Chef Henri.

But he was already gone. Some of the kitchen help was still there, washing dishes and packing cutlery. The sous chef was smoking near the counter, watching.

“It’s started, hasn’t it?” I asked him.

“You have good liquor,” he said. “That could be it.”

“But that isn’t the reason.”

“A lot of excited, happy people out there. Adrenalin does funny things.” He grinned. “When you get back home, read the fine print. I mean the fine-fine print.” And then he winked.

I went back to the party to assess the damage. I was tired of the coyness.

Three more people were heaving in front of the stage. It was starting to reek. One of the Skwirls used his iPhone to take pictures.

Wayne-O approached me, his face a study in misery. I actually felt bad for him.

“Sorry about the puking,” he said. “Someone in the band spiked the punch. I mean hyper-spiked it.”

I noticed that all the sickness involved the younger people, those with little experience with high-octane booze. The older folks were busy averting their eyes while they drank their scotch.

“That’s why everyone’s sick?” I felt better. Disgusted, but better.

“Yeah, I’m sorry. I didn’t know they’d do that.” Wayne-O looked like a kicked puppy.

“Not your fault,” I said. “Thanks for letting me know.” I almost tousled his hair but stopped myself. There was enough gel on his scalp to be flammable.

“No problem,” he said, and wandered off to attend to his friends.

Dianne: “Everything okay? It’s not the food, is it?”

“No. Too much booze, too little time.”

She sighed. “Kids,” she said, and left it at that.

The party lasted until just after one. A couple more kids were sick, but it was understandable with all the liquor available.

We saw Judy and Wayne off. They climbed into his van, looking exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. Judy and Dianne exchanged hugs while father and son-in-law exchanged handshakes and an awkward fist bump.

It was almost the end of a very long day.

Neither of us said much on the way home; we were dog-tired. I started the day apprehensive, but I felt relaxed now that it was over. Yes, we had a mess to clean at the hall, but nothing that couldn’t wait until morning.

Dianne suited up for bed, her eyes casting a come-hither-you-magnificent-bastard glance upon me.

“In a sec,” I said. I wanted to check out Chef Henri’s website one last time. Did I read the fine-fine print? I was sure I had. But I wasn’t a detail man.

I felt a ping in my gut as I scrolled down Urbane‘s home page. The site overflowed with bright, primary colors and gifs of Henri’s most famous dishes.

And at the bottom, in a tiny typeface that I either misread or didn’t notice: “Chef Henri, world-renowned chef and restaurateur, acknowledges that, while his meals are exquisitely prepared, there is a ninety-four percent chance the preparations may not meet basic culinary standards. Experience the dangerous excitement of one of Chef’s Henri’s creations today! Caveat emptor.”

I barely made it to the toilet the next morning.