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Spring/Summer 2004, Volume 21.3

Fiction

 

Jeff Richards

The CookPhoto of Jeff Richards.

 

Jeff Richards' fiction and essays have appeared in more than a dozen publications including Gargoyle, Aethlon, Radio Void, and The Houston Chronicle. Most recently he has published essays in Tales Out of School (Beacon Press) and Letters to Salinger (University of Wisconsin Press). He was the past fiction editor of the Washington Review and teaches in the English Department at George Washington University.

 

 

"One thing I can't stand's someone who's got what I want," says Carl, the cook. Howard Wilson doesn't know what the cook is talking about since this is the first time he met the guy.

Carl tells him his job in the kitchen is to scrape the garbage through a hole in the counter that leads to a garbage can, rinse the dishes until there's not a speck of scum left, stack them in the tray in the washer, pull them out when they're through, and stack them on the shelf behind the stove. He shows him how to do silverware and glasses.

"I don't want you to drink the leftover wine out of the glasses like the last guy."

Carl tells him in the evening after the kitchen closes, he's to sweep the floor and mop it and once a week clean the walls and under the hood over the stove where all the grease's trapped.

"Even a monkey could do your job."

Carl's fat and uglier than sin, neckless, triple-chinned with black pig eyes and blue pouches underneath, though he looks strong. His arms are as big as Howard's legs.

"Now, my job," he says, "is the most important job in the whole lodge. I'm no monkey."

 

Howard found his position through his father's business friend, the Mayor of Lubbock, who owns the lion's share of the lodge, which is on a hill overlooking Conchas Lake, 30 miles west of Tucumcari. It is modest, a motel with two wings attached to a central area where the reservation desk is located, a cathedral-ceilinged sitting room with trophies on the wall, off of which is the bar, the dining room, and the kitchen. Around the motel is rangeland but what looks to Howard more like desert, mesquite, brush, an occasional twisted juniper tree, or near the water, cottonwoods. In the distance are the mesas.

Howard can't imagine a more desolate spot, which pleases him because it's the opposite of where he comes from, 2,000 miles to the east. His parents offered him three choices: either attend summer school to fulfill a senior requirement so he can concentrate on studying for the SATs in the fall, fly with them to Europe to visit his recently married sister and her Belgian husband, or take this job at Conchas Lake, the best choice because Howard wants to be a man.

After the supper rush on the first day when they sit at a table in the screened-in porch, soaked in sweat from the hot kitchen, the fan blowing full force in their faces, Carl says once again, "I'm no monkey."

Howard chews on meat loaf, smothered in white gravy, and green beans cooked in bacon grease, not the most healthful food but undeniably delicious.

"You hear me," Carl yells. He sips from a gallon jug of ice water he has carried with him all day. Even now in the cooler air, the sweat pours off his forehead. He chews on an apple.

"Yes, I hear you."

"No one realizes that I'm the most important person here," Carl says. "If it wasn't for me, there wouldn't be this many customers."

Carl names the employees: Ed, the manager; Peggy, his young wife, who waits tables—Carl lusts after her. Ed and Peggy live in a two-bedroom apartment behind the reservation desk. Raymond, who does all the odd jobs, drives the people from the airstrip, shops for food in town and that pimply-faced nag, his wife, the waitress, Missy, live in a room in the old wing of the motel as does one of the two women who clean up the rooms—that's not even a full-time job. The other lives in a trailer in Hooverville below the dam.

"Where do you live?"

"Down there." Carl points to the floor. "In the stinkhole below the kitchen where the air doesn't circulate. I was next in line for your room before I even knew there was a you."

In the evening after the dining room closes at nine, the bar fills up, the country music from the jukebox drifts in the kitchen where Howard finishes the sweeping and mopping—Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Garth Brooks. But one song sticks in his mind, the theme song of the summer, an instrumental, "Westphalia Waltz." It has the one-two-three beat of the waltz with the country twang. It makes him want to dance with the ladies, belly up to the bar with the men, but he's a youngster without the proper identification.

Carl invites him to the stinkhole, a low-ceilinged room lit by a swag lamp against which Howard knocks his head, nearly shattering the globe. He sits down on a red plastic banquette and stares at a mushroom that grows out of the cinder-block wall. The only other lamp is in the corner next to the bed and the furnace that heats the central area of the lodge. The lamp, the base of which is a rearing horse with a broken-off snout, doesn't have a lampshade, nor the bed a box spring, though it does have a wafer-thin mattress that reminds him of a camp bed. Carl hands him a Coors from a cooler behind the furnace.

"Would you stand for treatment like this, rich boy?" he asks.

The stench of the stinkhole is elusive, moist, unlike the desert outside, like a root cellar gone to seed. The smells in the kitchen settle down here. A thin layer of grease sticks to the walls and floor.

"When I was your age, I joined the Navy," says Carl, "to see the world. I saw the galley instead. Rose from the bottom ranks to chef —Chief chef. They wanted me in submarine service, where they serve the best food. But I didn't want to be closed in. I liked the nights after dinner on the fantail when I felt the salt air soak through my pores and enjoyed all the colors of the sunset. I liked shore leave. Back then I was lean, muscular, hot-looking. One time, out in San Diego, I banged a captain. She was late back to duty but could've cared less. I should've stayed in the service."

Howard can tell that no one at the lodge cares for Carl, especially Ed. "I have to deal with his constant demands, either he wants a raise or to move up with us. Since the Mayor brought me here four years ago, the cook has always slept in the basement. He's the best one we've had, attracts plenty of business, but in the end, he creates too much conflict."

Peggy doesn't like the way Carl eyes her from the swinging door to the kitchen. He makes lewd remarks to her as she passes by. He either ignores Missy or, when she gets an order wrong, curses her out until she seems ready to throw a plate at him, which one time she did. Carl ducked and it shattered against the shelf behind the stove, nearly toppling a row of freshly washed plates. Raymond hates Carl because his wife carries her work problems home with her each night. The others don't see much of him.

Howard senses that Carl feels isolated in the basement while the others are far off in a more desirable part of the lodge. He senses that Carl wants to enlist him as an ally, which doesn't really work. He's more of a go-between.

On his first day off, Raymond takes Howard to a ranch run by a friend of his. They ride all day long, up and down mesas, through miles of flatland covered with mesquite with the hot sun beating down on them. They herd cattle to a water hole.

On his second day off, Ed takes Howard to Taos, where he once worked as a radio station manager for the Mayor. They see a parade, visit the art galleries, and meet Ed's old friends. They go to a party at a hacienda built in the 18th century that's being renovated. It doesn't bother Howard that there's a reason that he's treated so well, that Raymond complains about how the lodge is run, that he claims that he could do a better job if given the chance, nor that Ed complains not only about Carl but Raymond, about how hard it is isolated out here with ungrateful employees, about how difficult it is to attract customers.

"We're only one of a thousand places to visit in this state, and most are in more pleasant surroundings. Considering, I think I do a good job," Ed says. Howard knows that this information is to get back to the Mayor. He senses that they think he's here to spy on them, which isn't true. He's just grateful for the experience, to feel at home with people who come from what he considers an exotic place, to sit out on the veranda at the back of the lodge and look at the wide-open spaces which he'd only seen before in cowboy shows.

His third day off he spends in his room writing letters to his friends at home, then wanders down the steep hill to the lake, which he walks around for a few hours, watches the speedboats pull skiers, the houseboats full of families cruise up and down the shore, the swimmers in a roped-off area. Under a cottonwood tree by the bank, he finds Carl fishing, nursing a bottle of whiskey, which he shares with him. Carl tells him about how, when he was on shore leave in New Caledonia in the South Pacific, he fell in love with a native girl. He knew the mother of the girl had ideas, because she arranged for an outrigger to take them to a deserted island in the bay, and to leave them there for several days at a hut next to a waterfall that spilled into a pool you could swim in. "The native girl was my age, dark-skinned, well-endowed, but didn't speak a word of English. All we did was swim, eat, make love, and drink this native wine that made my head spin."

After his third nip from the whiskey, Howard feels his head also spin. He pictures the scene that Carl paints perfectly in front of him, and somehow it seems familiar.

"We made love under the waterfall, on the ground on top of palm leaves, in a hammock outside the hut, which isn't easy, and the last time on a hill overlooking the battleships and cruisers in the harbor. Her mother wanted me to marry her, even arranged a dowry and native wedding, but I refused. I returned to my ship late. They tossed me in the brig for a week, but like the captain in San Diego, I felt it was all worthwhile. As a matter of fact, I should've married that native lady."

Howard Wilson feels sick. He excuses himself and rushes back to his room, where he collapses on his bed in a leaden sleep from which he doesn't awake until the morning.

"How do you feel?" asks Carl.

"Horrible, my head aches."

"So does mine."

Ed is mad at both of them because they're late for work. Carl and Howard are forced to do the prep work that Carl usually completes by six a.m. The dishes pile up on the counter, so Peggy gives a hand. Missy's overburdened with too many tables. She screeches her orders to Carl, who covers his ears.

"I can read your scribble," Carl growls back.

When things calm down, Ed and Peggy leave but not without a parting shot. "I don't care what you do on your day off," says Ed, "just don't let it affect your work."

"You give me what I deserve," says Carl; "then we'll both be happy."

Howard notices that Carl no longer cares about his cooking. Before, he offered his blue plate special, which changed every three days: Coq au Vin, Barbecued Ribs Texas Style, Paella with Black Bean Soup, London Broil with Yorkshire Pudding, to name a few. Now he offers only the standard fare: fried chicken and mashed potatoes, steak and baked potato, hamburger and fries—under or over-cooked, depending on his whim.

One night while Howard mops up after dinner, he hears Ed and Carl argue from the empty bar.

"Business is slack," Ed insists, "because of your lack of enthusiasm in the kitchen."

"You treat me right, the food'll get better, and the people'll return."

"Don't threaten me," says Ed. "I do the best that I can. You should too."

"I will once I get what I deserve—a room upstairs or more money! Hardship pay for living in that dungeon which isn't fit for human habitation!"

"We've gone over this a thousand times. We have limited funds and limited space."

"Then you must sacrifice. Move someone else down there."

"I can't do that."

A customer comes in the bar and Howard feels like less of a go-between. "You can share my room."

"No, thanks. I like my privacy."

Ed turns his back to serve the customer. Carl sneaks a six-pack of Coors out of the cooler and beckons for Howard to follow him. They sneak off to the old wing, Howard's room, the furthest room away from the central lodge area with its own private entrance, own bathroom and closet, three large windows, metal furniture, except for one fur-upholstered easy chair, and a double bed.

"This is a nice room," says Carl in the chair, the blue pouches underneath his eyes accented by the overhead light. He offers Howard a Coors and takes one for himself. "You can invite a lady to visit."

Carl shakes his head and laughs as though he's deep in his thoughts. "When I was your age," he says, "nobody bothered me. I remember after the service the first job I found was in New Orleans, where I had a run-in with a maitre d' over a lady, a Creole woman with smoky eyes and a nice figure. She dated the guy, but soon as she saw me that was it. She hung around until she got my attention. The maitre d' was so upset he told the boss I couldn't cook Creole, our specialty, or nothing else. They fired me, and all I could find was a position at a hash house up north on Gentilly.

"I was out with this lady six months later, we run across the guy, and he tells her what a creep I am, how I'm no good at work, and if she stays with me, she'll end up in the trash heap. So I have to challenge him to a fight. He's no punk, outweighs me by thirty pounds. But I'm like Rocky Marciano, hard as granite. He delivers one blow after another, I stand my ground until he fags out, lets down his guard. Then it's my turn. I knock him to the ropes in matter of seconds.

"You know what? I helped him up off the ground. The guy says he's sorry for his lies. I say I am, too, that we needed to fight. He hires me back. We're best friends. I don't know what happened to the lady, but right now if I wanted to go down there, he'd give me a job just like that." Carl snaps his fingers. "He owns that restaurant where he was maitre d'. Maybe if I'd stayed there, I'd be his partner."

 

It's late in the summer and the weather has turned cool, in the low eighties, 10 to 15 degrees below the normal temperature. Carl says he's cold all the time in his basement room. Every day off, it seems, he goes down to Hooverville, buys a fifth, some bait, and heads off to a fishing hole under a cottonwood and drinks himself into oblivion. He causes all kinds of havoc the morning after, and he tells everyone he doesn't care. If they find him so undesirable, then Ed should fire him. But Ed does nothing. He tells Howard in confidence that he's been searching, but he can't find a replacement, that even Carl in this condition is better than nothing.

A few weeks before Howard leaves for school back east, he arrives in the kitchen 10 minutes early for the morning meal, but he can't find Carl. He hears a weak voice far off in the stinkhole that begs for help. He feels his way down the greasy cement stairs, trips over a body at the bottom, and sprawls to the floor in a pile of smelly clothes. The voice, still weak, curses him. He switches on the swag lamp.

"I twisted my ankle," whispers Carl. He lies on his back, rocking from side to side, his black eyes lost in animal pain. He grits his teeth. "I been here all night."

It takes all of Howard's strength to sit him up, drag him over to the banquette, and lift him so he's relatively comfortable. He props the damaged ankle on a pillow and finds Carl the gallon jug of ice water, which he drains and asks for another. "You go get Ed quick as you can."

"How would this make you feel?" Carl asks Ed when they return. He tells Ed that in the middle of the night he fell down the stairs in the pitch dark, sprained his ankle and back so badly he couldn't get up. So he yelled at the top his lungs, but since everyone's on the other side of the lodge in their plush rooms, he can't be heard. "You're lucky I have a strong constitution."

"This wouldn't happen if you were sober," says Ed.

"It's my right to do what I want on my day off. If I lived upstairs like everyone else, this wouldn't have happened. We'd both be happy."

Howard drives Carl to a clinic in Tucumcari, and when they return, Carl's ankle wrapped, his back in a brace, he's given a room next to the bar, but it has only one window, no bathroom, and the noise seeps through the walls all night so he can't sleep. He quits the job.

 

Howard helps Carl pack his ancient Ford Fairlane station wagon.

"Maybe you should stay longer," Howard says as he notices the difficulty Carl has getting in the car.

"Not on your life—the sooner I'm out, the better I'll feel."

Ed gives him his last paycheck along with severance pay in cash, the way Carl requested it.

"Changed your tune, huh? Afraid that I'll sue you?"

Ed leaves without saying a word, though Howard can tell the way he retreats, hunch-shouldered, that's exactly what he's afraid of.

"Where you going?" asks Howard.

"To my buddy in New Orleans. He'll take care of me until I'm on my feet. Then I'll help him out until next summer when I'll visit a friend who runs a lodge in the Ozarks. A big place with a lake, two swimming pools, and all the other conveniences, not like this hole. He'll make me head cook, give me a nice place to live, and plenty of free time. He knows a gold mine when he sees one. Or maybe I'll hire on to one of the rigs in the Gulf. I've done that before. It's like being in the Navy, surrounded by water and those pretty sunsets. Nobody'll bother me as long as I do my job. And you know what, you get a week off after two weeks of work. I'll head to shore and raise Cain in some small Creole town. Maybe I'll get some whore pregnant." He laughs at this, but Howard can tell by the tone of his voice that he's only half serious.

They shake hands. "You're a good friend," says Carl, leaning close so no one could overhear, though there wasn't anyone within hearing distance—anyone but Howard Wilson to say good-bye. "I left some beers in the walk-in for you."

"Thanks, Carl. I wish I'd done something for you."

"Don't worry, kid. You've done what you could." He pats Howard on the hand, tells him not to take any wooden nickels, slaps the Ford in gear, and takes off.

 

It's midnight when Howard finishes mopping the kitchen. "Westphalia Waltz" drifts in from the jukebox, but it doesn't make him want to dance with the ladies or belly up to the bar with the men. He checks around to see if anyone is watching and then heads out to the screened porch to the walk-in, where he finds a couple of beers hidden behind a box of T-bones. He takes one, slides it into his pocket, and sneaks around the back way to his room. He drags a chair out of the room to the shadows near a cottonwood where he can't be seen, and sits down. He pops open the tab and takes a long sip.

The moon is past full. It seems to drift along with a long, luminescent line of clouds. Out of one of these clouds, a shooting star appears. He can see the long, smoky trail, the bright light of a dust particle that's burning up in the atmosphere. He feels like he lives within the realm of possibility.

Before him he can see the moonbeams dancing off the water in Conchas Lake, and beyond that the dark land that stretches out like a vista to the mesas on the horizon. In a few weeks, he will return to Washington. His parents will be there with stories about his sister and her wonderful new Belgian husband. They are partners in a start-up company in Budapest. He will start his senior year in school. He will take the SATs, though he will not have as much time to study for them. He will apply to colleges, ask out a date to the senior prom, and then, like his sister, he will leave home.

He stares at the vista before him and thinks of Carl. He's probably in Texas in a motel by the highway, his leg propped up on a pillow, watching TV. He can see the blue light reflect off his face. Poor Carl. Howard Wilson wonders what it would feel like to be 30 years older like Carl. He wonders why he thought coming out here would make him feel more like a man when, actually, he is not sure now what men are supposed to feel like.


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