I saw a girl standing on the corner, across from Noble’s Department Store. She was wearing apron whites over a beige dress. Her hair was done up in a bun and she was staring at the flames. Her face was pale and it shone from the waves of heat coming from the hotel. She didn’t look anxious or afraid. I may have been the only one on Texas Street who wasn’t watching the fire. She stood isolated from the crowd, and the night lay behind her like a piece of black felt. She tapped one foot, like she was waiting for her shift to begin. And then she walked around the corner and was gone. A smart man would have followed her, but that wasn’t me. I asked around about her the next day.
Is it possible to fall asleep while you’re digging a hole? I guess it is. I heard the sharp click of a Zippo lighter and I came back to the now.
Kincaid was leaning against a pine tree, firing up a smoke. The glow of the flame shone on his face and it was a wet mess. His hair was matted to his head like he’d just been caught in a heavy rain. I was about to call him out for being lazy, until I saw his eyes. They looked like melting wax.
He dug about a third of what I’d finished, and I noticed a lot of the dirt he pulled out had sifted back into the hole. Before he snapped the lighter shut, I saw his throat was caked with mud.
I don’t know if I can finish this, Henry, he said. Lord, the amount of dirt it takes to bury a man.
I leaned on my shovel. I didn’t know what to say. You never think a thing is going to be so hard until you start doing it. Then, it just gets harder. I looked at my watch and saw it was twenty to four. It felt like time was sliding by like grease down a drain. We couldn’t afford to take too many breaks, but of course we had to. We were men, not machines, though I wondered about Kincaid. I couldn’t read anything on his face other than exhaustion.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
The smell coming from the body was awful. There’s no other word. It reminded me of cellar potatoes gone over, or a fly-blown carcass lying under a woodpile. It was the smell of maggot-scoured meat. The corpse had been in Kincaid’s shed all day, closed off from fresh air, torn apart and slopping out his damp guts like raw honey. Of course he stank, and it made me feel sick. It hit home what I was doing, and I wondered if The Handsome was worth the sickness I felt.
I once saw men digging a hole for a pig, said Kincaid. Took them all morning. They covered the pig with hot stones and buried it for the whole day.
That ain’t burying a man, I said.
I just meant that it took six good-sized men to dig a hole wide enough–
It ain’t the same, I said. We ain’t cooking this fella, we’re putting him to rest. His family and friends will never know. Whatever we do here, we do out of respect. It’s a solemn thing, not a barbecue.
I was just….
And it don’t have to be wide, it has to be deep. Real deep. Deep enough to stay put no matter what the weather, rain or tornado or earthquake, he has to stay put.
Vern Kincaid smiled. At least that was how it looked to me.
It’s still dark, and there’s still a dead body in the back of the pickup. We have to do something before sunup, and time’s running out. Time is greasy and melting like candle wax. The lines on the road are skewed, faded and wildly uneven. The sky is a thunderous canopy, blackened and bruised and moving like smoke. The wind smells sour and wet, and the road looks hand-drawn. Tree branches are too close and too low to the truck, and they scrape against the sides, sounding like scratched tinfoil.
I don’t see anything clearly in the truck bed, just heaps of old branches and the shape of a man wrapped in a dirty robe, his face obscured by deep shadows.
I have someone coming to take a look at it, he said. I turn my head, but there’s no one with me; voices sliding through the night.
And then the dead man sat up, and Vernon Kincaid planted a shovel into his rotting leg, and the sound was a screech, metal against dead bone.