Missing spoons

Author’s note: This is an excerpt from a work in progress. It did not happen. Except for the part about a missing prostitute, a corrupt police department, and an inexplicable disparity between my forks and spoons (forks: 24, spoons: 3). Did I just not notice losing the spoons? What the fuck?


What happened?

I sit on the edge of the bed, staring at my hands. There used to be a thick callous, the size of a dime, at the base of my right index finger. Now it’s gone.

All the scrapes and cuts, the grease under my fingernails, burns on my wrists and forearms — all gone.

On the dresser, a clean pair of pants, a polo shirt (a fucking polo shirt?) and socks, solid black without a single pale-orange bleach spot.

My knife-bag is gone from the door. Instead, there’s a laptop case. There’s a stack of files – city contracts and FOIA requests – and three slim notebooks full of names and places, quotes with dates and initials.

One blessed note of familiarity: I’m hung over. So there’s that.

Also, a bizarre quirk: in the silverware drawer, a good half of the spoons are missing and there are twice as many forks as any two-person household could conceivably use.

Maybe that’s why I’ve put on twenty pounds — too many goddamn forks.

*

I’m sitting in a bottle shop downtown and there’s a young guy sitting across from me. He’s wearing a boxy suit, the kind people buy when they’re only going to wear it three times a year: weddings, funerals, and court. Today it’s court.

It’s ten-thirty in the morning, most restaurants aren’t open yet and the dives won’t open until the evening. But the bottle-shop opens early, so cops come here for a morning nightcap before they head home, pull the shades against the sun, and try to sleep. Third-shift beat cops, vice and narcotics detectives, overnight dispatch.

He holds up his pint glass, a dark ESB.

“I’m so tired of IPAs. It’s like everyone is going eight or nine fucking percent,” he says. “I drink one and I’m half drunk and I feel bloated.”

He takes a swig and sets his glass town.

“Plus I read an article, they give you man tits.”

I sigh.

“I think I read the same thing.”

This is what we talk about — craft beer culture, the threat of man tits, the weather – while we drink a beer together, and then another. He’s got to be in court in an hour. I’m technically off today, but I’m working.

Working, but not getting anywhere.

The young man wants to tell me something. It has to do with a human trafficking case that went sideways a few years ago. A prostitute went missing, a cop got shot, a police van got vandalized – lit on fire one spring morning. A lot of people got reassigned, a couple of detectives had to ride out their last years behind desks. But that was the extent of it. TV did their sixty seconds, but it didn’t have legs. It never went viral so, really, it never happened.

“No one knows how bad it was,” he says, looking at his phone, not at me.

It catches me off guard.

“How bad was it?” I ask after a moment.

“Bad,” he says. “That’s why they torched the van. Too messy to clean up.”

“They?”

He just stares into his beer. The paper I work for, it doesn’t use anonymous sources. We both know he’s not going to go on the record. We both know what that would mean for him. Worse than getting stuck with desk duty.

“I can never sleep when I go home,” he says, “unless I’ve had a few. If I sleep too long, I wake up confused, like I can’t remember what day it is. Like I’m someone else. Like I woke up in some other poor shit’s life.”

He says it like it’s a joke, but he does’t laugh.

“Go to the Times,” I tell him.

“They won’t touch it,” he says. “They don’t want to dig up old shit.”

“Why not?”

He looks at me, just shy of baleful.

So that’s it. We finish our beers. He goes to court in his boxy suit. I wash my face in the bottle shop bathroom and take a walk before driving back to the office, empty handed.

*

Some other poor shit’s life.

I think about those early mornings in the kitchen, alone. The first pot of batch of coffee percolating, the radio blaring. Peeling, dicing, julienning. Burning the inside of my forearm pulling an over-laden sheet tray out of the lower oven. Knicking off the corner  of my thumbnail with a cleaver.

At noon, I’d step out back, walk into the wooded area behind the restaurant, smoke a joint, drink a mason jar of the beer I was using to braise pork-belly or short ribs.

At night, too wired to sleep, I’d sit up and write. Passable fictions, I thought. Made up stories about hard luck losers who occasionally got it right, or at least occasionally got away with it. I’d occasionally apply for other jobs, writing gigs, teaching gigs, something respectable so I could call the folks and brag a little.

I’d get my hopes up, get ’em dashed. Truth was, I was good in the kitchen, and it was starting to feel like where I was meant to be. Where I’d spend the rest of my life.

Then one day I came home, passed out on top of the covers with my greasy chef’s coat half-unbuttoned.

I woke up a year later in clean clothes, holding a reporter’s notepad to my chest.

That’s how it goes. A year passes, you don’t even recognize yourself in the mirror, but you can’t remember how it happened, when it changed.

I think about the missing girl. The years slipping away. A Ziploc bag with a bloody clump of skin and hair, in the basement of the county building. A charred police van. A defective memory card from a body cam. A strangled cry, a dull echo in the woods where no one who didn’t want to would hear it.

The fuck did I know about hard luck, or getting away with it.

*

I pull myself together, write up a local restaurant opening. I still know a lot of the local chefs, it just took a text message. Easy piece – the same old ‘farm to table’ shuck and jive, some tasteful food porn, a couple of quirky quotes from the owner.

The piece will sit nicely in the newsletter. People can only read so much crime, there’s a saturation point. But a new taco place? They’ll read it every day.

I must look like shit, because no one talks to me. I don’t mind. I file my story in peace and close my laptop.

“How’d your meeting go?” My editor asks as I’m packing up.

“It went fine.”

“He won’t talk? Or he’s full of shit?”

“One or the other.  Maybe both.”

My editor nods.

“Was worth a shot,” he says. “Shame. It’d be nice to bury them.”

I shrug, pick up my laptop bag, and walk out.

Bury them. His go-to euphemism, but an odd choice when you think about it. What – in this goddamn town – wasn’t already buried?

*

My wife is drifting off to sleep but I’m still tweaking the headlines newsletter for tomorrow. She doesn’t care if I’m a line cook or an editor, she says. I believe her. I think if we’re not homeless, and I’m happy, she’ll be happy.

That’s a hell of a thing.

She rolls over.

“Are you happy?”

Who gets to be happy? is what I want to say. Maybe stoned line cooks who are working too hard, too many hours a day, to run the risk of caring about what’s going on in the city around them. Was I happy, when that was me. I take a long drink of bourbon. I can’t remember. Maybe I was.

I set the glass down with a thud. She looks at the glass, at me.

“We can leave, get away from this. We could leave tomorrow. Go to the mountains. We could sell the car. Move to Iceland,” she says. “What do we really need? You and me.”

I lean over and kiss her.

“I’m serious. I’ll follow you anywhere, “she says.

She rolls over, turns off the lamp on her side of the bed. I stare at the newsletter layout, willing the typos and dead links to show themselves. They don’t. Instead, the screen starts to swim. Too much to drink. I set my alarm for six; I’ll fix it in the morning.

I turn off my lamp, try to tuck my body tightly against my wife’s. She takes my arm and holds it against her.

She knows we can’t leave. Or, rather, she knows I won’t leave. But she doesn’t say it. She kisses the knuckles on my hand and laughs quietly.

“I wish I knew what happened to our fucking spoons,” she says quietly.

 

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The Olive Garden, Live in Concert

Author’s note: This story is fiction. It is a made-up story about a fictional version of a real fake version of a real band. Any similarities between this fiction and reality, or any of the iterations of fakeness, replication or simulacra in between fiction and reality, are purely coincidental. Olive Garden, on the other hand, is both real and fake, so good luck sorting that out.

“Christ on fire it’s hot,” Fake Bon Jovi says, more or less to himself.

The sun hangs low in the sky, the air over the parking lot blacktop waves like cartoon squiggles.

Fake Bon Jovi hangs back, leaving his band to soundcheck, adjusting spiny frosted-tip spears of hair around his balding crown. He removes his sunglasses, quickly and cautiously, and checks his make-up. His cheeks are sallow, bags hanging in overlapping folds beneath his bloodshot eyes.

Slippery When Wet – the ‘premier’ Bon Jovi cover band – has just wrapped up a fortnight at sea, a residency on Royal Caribbean Pearl of the Seas. Fake Bon Jovi is barely holding it together: it’s a thick, still, sopping wet hot outside, and he’s recovering from the bowel-rending ravages of some nautical disaster: Noro or E. Coli, the ultimate result of cramming that many people together on a floating shopping mall.

Now he’s trying to get his land-legs back (the platform heels and skin-tight pleather are not helping), and on top of that Jason – yes, that’s the real name of Fake John Francis Bongiovi – has already had too many luke-warm Landsharks from the Igloo cooler behind the stage.

Huddled around the cooler, a local band attacks the free beer with the gusto of people unaccustomed to free booze. They’re scraggly, harried, showing up with girlfriends and wives who help them carry their own gear. Fake Richie Sambora is taking nips from a bottle of rotgut bourbon with the local band’s guitarist, who looks like the kind of guy who would perpetually have a bottle of cheap liquor within reach. Fake Richie Sambora holds up his guitar, presents it for inspection like some fearsome Scottish Claymore. The local guy laughs, shakes his head, picks up the guitar, smiles.

Fake Bon Jovi doesn’t approve, wishes the Slippery When Wet guys would stay in character. Take their drummer, Fake Tico Torres; his soul patch is a sloppy rhombus of hair, not like Real Tico’s flawless Clovis Point. And Fake Tico put on like fifteen pounds on the cruise. Who gets fat eating sushi? Fake Fucking Tico.

Fake Bon Jovi spits out a mouthful of warm beer. And hamming it up with the local guys, Jesus. These dirtbags barely have one set of gear between them, cabinets all torn up, showing up in work clothes. Jesus. Fake Sambora is busting out the talk box. The local guys are howling. Worse than mockery, they’re actually into it. Fake Sambora is trying to show him up; he’s trying to pull a Real Sambora. But Bon Jovi isn’t a rock’n’roll band, it’s the Jon Bon Jovi show. Any Sambora knows that. Jesus.

Now the local band’s singer comes over to Fake Bon Jovi, smiling nervously.

“Thanks, man, for – uh – having us, I guess. We’re really excited to play. So, thanks.”

Fake Bon Jovi keeps his hands tucked in his armpits, sweat already soaking through his denim jacket. Why does Fake Sambora get to play in a sleeveless T? Mindy, their costume designer. That’s why. Frigid bitch. Fake Bon Jovi lets it drop. He looks past the local singer, sighing, and says:

“Yeah. Well, this was an unplanned stop. Kind of shit venue.”

The local singer glances at the stage, the rows of monitors, the heavy PA speakers, and looks back at Fake Bon Jovi.

“It’s a nice set-up, good sound,” the local guy says.

“Our drummer’s from here,” Fake Bon Jovi says, “so he wanted to play here. Stupid. We’re playing in Germany next.”

“That’s fucking cool,” says the local singer.

“Yeah,” Fake Bon Jovi rolls his eyes. “Cool. We’re a big deal in Germany.”

The local singer nods, takes his cue, and walks away. Fake Bon Jovi looks at his watch. Ten minutes to vocal check. Then he can finally get out of this fucking Apocalypse Now swelter and back to the hotel, maybe get a blowjob from the escort girl. Maybe not. She’ll probably want some of his coke, but Fake Bon Jovi has already torn through the eightball he scored at Myrtle Beach. Fake Tico was supposed to score some from one of his idiot hometown buddies. Fat chance. Real Tico would have had Real Bon Jovi hip-deep in blow, stat, no questions asked.

The sound guy shouts to Fake Bon Jovi and nods; Fake Bon Jovi pushes quickly through the crowd in the VIP area and jumps up on stage.

“Just fucking use the levels from last time, it’s the same — ” Fake Bon Jovi gets cut off, the sound guy winces and holds up an Apple tablet, shrugging. Fake Tico’s playing the whole kit behind him, like he’s fucking Fake Neil Peart. Oh, and now Fake Sambora’s got his goddamned talk-box going. Woaow-woaow! Whoa-whoa-whoa! The fucking noise eats up the whole bandwidth, it’s all you can hear. Fake Sambora has to blow the vowel-sounds into a tube next to his backing-vocal mic, and then it feeds into one of his little guitar pedals. He’s way too into it, Fake Bon Jovi thinks, it’s gross. Like he’s almost sucking on it. God. Can’t he just use a wah-wah pedal?

Finally, full band check with vocals. Fake Bon Jovi clears his throat and belts it out, looking out across the empty parking lot and up at the restaurants and bars, the patios and porches of apartment buildings down the block. He swings for the fences. From three blocks away you can hear people sing along, cheering, screaming. The band stops, already a crowd starts to gather.

“We’ll see you in a few hours folks,” Fake Bon Jovi says, speaking up over the small crowd that’s gathered. The crowd stays, curious. It’s a free show, and it’s too early to start drinking full on.

The sound guy nods to the local band and they start lugging their equipment on stage, laughing and joking. Amateurs.

“Sounded good,” the local singer says as he passes Fake Bon Jovi.

“Yeah,” Fake Bon Jovi says, nodding at the crowd, “they’re here for us.”

As Fake Bon Jovi heads for the enveloping cool of the hotel lobby bar, he hears the local band start to play. Some song no one’s ever heard before, one most won’t ever hear again. It’s not what people want, Fake Bon Jovi thinks. They want what they know, a chorus they can sing along to. This band, too herky-jerky. Some weird key, too much noodling, feedback. Amateurish or experimental, it doesn’t matter.

People don’t want that shit. They want Olive Garden, nothing weird, nothing unexpected.

But then he hears it. Fake Bon Jovi stops, turns slightly.

There’s actually a small crowd, gathered in front of the stage. They’re singing along. All the Whos down in Whoville, they’re actually fucking singing.

Something tugs at Fake Bon Jovi. He was young, once, a kid named Jason from a small town with a girlfriend he’d known since high school. He’d been in a band, played local bars — played his heart out for a dozen people. Loved every second of it.

But it didn’t matter; it didn’t pay.

Fake Bon Jovi remembers he tucked a bump away in the toe of his other pair of boots. He glances one more time at the locals, soaked in sweat, dancing to strange songs.

“Fuck this town,” Fake Bon Jovi says.

 

 

Brothers and Sisters: Sketches of Imaginary People I Once Knew

A bone once broken heals stronger, not so the mind.

No, brothers and sisters: when it breaks, it breaks hard, it shatters.

Just a warning.

*

A friend of mine recently posted some lyrics to a song he sang years ago – a song he still sings – when I was in a band with him. I can see him, to my left, over the headstock of my bass: half bent at the waist with the effort, microphone cord around his neck, tendons shredding out of his skin. Through the drugs and the liquor I can just make out that his eyes are closed. Out in the audience, the eyes are open in astonishment.

I had the lyrics wrong, all these years. And maybe we didn’t know each other very well at all. My hell, his hell, not different rungs on some inverted ladder, but different mansions in our father’s house. A book jacket glance at each other, a motel room with the mirror ripped off the wall and laid on the bed, spilling guts, swapping stories. Two things are true: I know him better than I know most people; I don’t know him at all.

But a man doesn’t scream those things – the things I thought he’d screamed, the things he was actually trying to say, things in between – and not like that, not for fun. He seems better these days. I’m sure I do too.

The doctors left the bullet in you, too close to all those vitals, all that precious wiring. It sings when you’re standing under the high tension wires. It sings all the time.

*

And the preacher’s oldest son, out there like a country song, a different dive bar every night. He’s quit more jobs than I’ve had, and he’s been better than me at every one of them. Same with women, more than likely. Most men lay awake praying – to someone, to everyone – that their house won’t burn down, that the sky stays sealed up for one more day. He’s burnt his own house down, with his head high and his heart full of song, and he’s done it more than once. He makes it look honorable, glorious, like a good fucking time.

It isn’t, it’s hard work. But prodigality ain’t a weekend in Vegas, now is it? You can’t simply drink yourself down onto your knees, crawl into the nearest marsh and die. No. An inheritance isn’t something you can smash with a hammer, not something you can burn down with a Molotov cocktail or two. You’ve got to be disciplined about it. You’ve got to take it apart brick by brick.

Your father, my father. In a way they understand, as all fathers understand. We get some of the very best of what our fathers are. We get some of the best and all of the worst.

*

Then there’s her, eyes on the window, the door, any and every exit, ready to OD again on wanderlust.

By the time you’re good at something you’re taken for granted, you’re machinery, you’re fucking furniture. By the time you’re good at something, it’s boring. And boredom is what death feels like, and there’ll be plenty of time for that, soon enough.

But it’s not as simple as that, because she hates to leave, agonizes over it every time. On travel shows, where the world-weary, jetlagged, hung-over host limps through another exotic city, stopping briefly and mournfully to share a bite to eat with some village chef, making beautiful food – simple and pure – there is a moment, the host and the chef, standing side by side. The chef spends his life over some little cast-iron range, the host forever on stand-by at the airport, in buses and trains and cabs. The chef can name every person who eats at his restaurant, except the host, who can’t remember anyone’s name.

And, watching this, her heart goes out – pours out – not to the host, who is kind of a prick anyway, but to the chef. The person who stays, who could not be compelled to leave, who in the ashcan of history makes a home, a home just the same. A beautiful thing in a bloody world miserably lacking in beauty.

Parents want their children to grow up and explore the world, and they want them safe at home. They want both, they can stand neither. We pull up anchor, hands off the rudder, let the sails fill, let the tides decide, let the wind be our answer, let fate obey itself.

You cry, a little, and then change the channel, finish packing your bags.

*

And then there’s Pilot. The space cadet. He looks like you, looks like me. But he does the thing we didn’t do – the things that were right, the things that were wrong – a test pilot, a fistful of drugs and a pint of liquor, up there at Yeager altitude, head on fire, falling through the sky, to see if its possible.

He hits the ground, mangled, burnt, and walks away.

It’s possible.

Our father is the sky, all we can do is fall away from it. All we can do is climb back up towards it.

*

They’re out there, years after I dreamed them, sketches that only mocked me: timid, near-sighted, young. There’s more to them than there is to me, my brothers and sisters. I can’t remember, sometimes, what is real and what isn’t. But I know they’re out there.

Hang in there, hold on to yourselves. Bend if you must, but don’t break. Your time is coming,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ballad of Tobin McAfee*

It’s been a month or more since I’ve posted here, so I apologize for the radio silence (hopefully no one was deeply concerned). Good news, I haven’t just been sitting on my ass. I’ve got a number of short stories coming out – one, in print, from the UK, and two online (check out the Short Work page for details and links) – and my band is in the process of recording our first EP (stay tuned for release information and clips).

But today, more than shamelessly plugging my authorial or musical endeavors, I want to tell you a short story – nonfiction, for a change – about the last month. One day, no doubt, the events on the last five weeks will show up in my fiction, a minor character, perhaps, but probably something more. There’s an epic poem to be written, the Aeneid of the kitchen world, heroes and heroines struggling against gods and nature and – most of all – the petty, slovenly evil of mortal men. Great works need great villains, and for the last month I have seen the great villainy, the very incarnation of sloth, indifference, gluttony, and deception.

Okay, a bit much, but just a bit.

In early October, the restaurant where I work hired a drug-addled scam-artist who boasted that he – amongst other things – spoke four languages, was close personal friends with several NFL coaches, bested the US Pastry Team by himself, held the position of chef de cuisine for the Hilton in NYC’s financial district in 2002 (when the restaurant was closed after 9/11), could break down a beef tenderloin in three minutes with 0% percent waste, and could get everyone in the restaurant – including the dish-washers – hefty raises during a recession, even though he was there to cut labor costs. These were all gross misrepresentations, which is to say, these were bald-faced lies. He could not cook (he set fire to every sauté pan I ever saw him touch), he had no original culinary ideas (and plenty of bad ones he borrowed, mostly from the 80s), his budgetary math was the product of coke-fueled hallucinations. He could not even run the salad station – he went down in flames and nearly took the rest of the line with him. He may have once been a passable cook – maybe even a human being – which is a sad thought, because by the time he came to us he was the apotheosis of every joke about kitchen nightmares, a myth made flesh, the worst boss I’ve ever had, a fucking clown. His name was Tobin McAfee, and if he comes to your restaurant in his shiny red VW Beetle, waste no time: kick him in the gut and throw him out.

The good news is that Tobin was brilliant material, a horrowshow of a human being, but further proof that real life can and will exceed satire, that those spectacular failures of reality TV fame are not always the products of scripts and clever editing. I’ll be dining out on stories of just how unbelievably awful this guy was, for months, if not years. He was a walking, talking, shit-packed novel of terribleness, and for that, I thank him. And, it’s worth pointing out, that Tobin brought some light with his darkness. The staff of the restaurant bonded together in ways I hadn’t expected, in the presence of Tobin’s inhuman and inhumane shittiness, we saw and treated each other as human being. We aspired to be better, in every way, in our every thought and deed; we found ourselves turning to Tobin as our negative Savior: what would Tobin not do? Tobin wouldn’t recook that burnt pizza, so we would. Tobin wouldn’t stay late to help the dishwasher close, so we would. Tobin wouldn’t work hard, tell the truth, or treat people decently. So we did. And, as our real chef struggled – to keep from murdering Tobin, to keep the food from suffering, to keep us all from quitting or drinking ourselves to death – we rallied around him. Outside of a platoon of soldiers or a brigade of firefighters, I’m not sure there is anything quite like a kitchen, like our kitchen, a family at war with a world of stupidity, laziness, and crass, generic, mediocrity.

It was enough – for a moment or two – to make me believe in mankind again, and it was worth suffering a month of Tobin for that.

 

*Yeah, that’s the motherfucker’s real name.

 

 

 

 

Homecoming

Mayfly started as short stories, ten years ago, in Wilmington, North Carolina.

I wrote the first one – strung out, hung over, and nursing a nasty grease-burn – while hiding in the manager’s office of the restaurant I was working in at the time. I showed it to this girl I knew: too cool for me, tattoos and funky hair, friends with all the bands in town. She liked it – it was less juvenile than the parodic crap I’d been writing in college. I wasn’t trying to be smart when I wrote it, or really ‘going’ for anything.  It was just how I felt at the time. It felt right. She told me to keep it up.

Fast forward: we move in together, get a dog, get married, split town, move to NYC, make more money than we’d ever dreamed of (keep in mind, we are poor by NYC standards, but wealthy beyond reason by gutter-punk standards). I struggle to juggle catering and cooking jobs alongside school; my wife gets a real job. It keeps the roof over our head, it provides healthcare, it is a soul-sucking corporate abyss. It takes a little bit of her everyday, like trench warfare. I try and help her stay sane, stay human. I write her stories while I’m in class, pretending to take notes. I email them to her. Her job is still a bureaucratic pig-fuck, but the stories help, a little. She tells me to keep it up.

After a while, the same characters start to show up, something of a narrative starts to congeal. The stories now add up to some five-hundred pages that I think of – in a heady, grad-school state of mind – as a late-modernist collage, a punk-rock Ulysses. It’s a barely-readable monster. But I trick myself into thinking it is a novel  and I show it to my sister, my wife, and a few friends. They fall into two categories: (1) people who actually kind of like it, or like me too much to hurt my sensitive-artist feelings, and who tell me I should try and get it published, and (2) people who know nothing about the publishing industry.

I’m just kidding. There’s only one category.

Still, I manage to get it to a literary agent who will actually read it. The reading takes over a year. I hear back. It is a rejection, of course, but what I will learn later is an incredibly kind and thoughtful rejection. The agent tells me the prose is good, sometimes truly great, and that my work is completely and thoroughly unpublishable. I think ‘that’s it,’ but of course that’s just Day One. My wife smiles, and you can guess what she tells me.

Fast forward: five years pass, we leave NYC (relieved and heartbroken, the only way people ever do), and return to the southern coastal town where we met, meet up with our old friends, the old dives, the old bands. I make new friends, but – in this town – they feel like the old ones. The cooks and tattoo artists, the punks and the musicians, my ersatz family: they welcome us back. It feels right. They know something in this town. Hard to put it in words, unless you write a whole novel. Or rather, unless you write fifty short stories about it and then rewrite them into something that’s almost a novel, and then rewrite that another five or six times. (By the way, if you’re a writer, and you don’t already know this, learn from me: this is the shittiest possible strategy for novel writing).

So, here I am, a decade later, not even close to the end of the long game, back in the town where I started writing. Still, now I have a little momentum, a few friends out there in the literary world, a wonderful agent, and – of course – my wife, who is still too cool for me, but who sticks it out with me anyway, and tells me, as always, to keep it up. She says moving back to this town is a re-do, a chance to do the things we used to do, but to do them better, to do them right. A revision, probably not the last, but the best yet.