“Cafe Misfit” by Dave Zoby
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. The TMR staff wishes you a happy week. Dave Zoby’s 2013 Jeffrey E. Smith Prize-winning essay “Cafe Misfit” is today’s piece, which evokes the insular community of workplace relationships with more than a touch of humor.
By Dave Zoby
Beauty is the sole ambition, the exclusive goal of Taste.
Suddenly one summer Joe and Oscar appeared in the Fan neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with the idea that they could open a bistro on the ground floor of the old Windsor Building, an aged apartment building situated mere yards from the humanities compound at Virginia Commonwealth University. Oscar and Joe believed they could attract wealthy academics, administrators with refined palates and deep pockets, visiting professors of modern art. They hired a fleet of waitresses and released colored balloons for their grand opening. They hired a chef of reputation and a passable sommelier fluent in Portuguese. They had thought of almost everything. But what they didn’t know was that professors are the worst kind of customers in the world, the very bottom. They don’t tip for squat, and they don’t socialize as much as you think.
They called their bistro Old Virginia Café. (Oscar, already betraying a vision conflicting with Joe’s, campaigned for Black Stocking Café, or Zingers.) But Joe had more money invested, and he insisted on the understated Old Virginia. They were Italians from Philly; there was no hiding it. They drove imposing black sedans with tinted windows. They wore the tight mustaches of card dealers and circus barkers. Even their shirts, silk and buttoned low enough to let their wiry chest hair escape, told a story of strange migration. One of the first things they did was to stroll with their lady friends along Monument Avenue to take pictures of the old Southern generals. I saw them halted under the gaze of Jefferson Davis, snapping photos like mad of a statue aged by passing traffic.
No one knew how they had decided on Richmond. They had run several lucrative businesses up north. There was mention of a limousine service, a dry cleaning supply business. Joe owned a Cessna and taught private lessons. Oscar co-owned a concrete outfit. Out of thin air, with no prior experience, they had decided to open a restaurant. Ripening in their late fifties, they said they had always wanted to have their own place. They loved to cook and drink, so the obvious next step was to open a restaurant. But they didn’t need a restaurant, and that would prove to be a problem. The only good restaurateur is a desperate one.
I kept my eye on Old Virginia for a year without going in. I locked my bike up to the rack across the street on my way to literature classes. Frequently, I spotted Joe placing menu boards on the sidewalk, advertising the daily specials: fried shad roe, calamari salad, ribeye sandwiches. His café was empty save for a few pairs of lunching ladies and a disquieting number of ferns he had spread around the windows for charm. Ferns like that, they won’t survive the winter, I wanted to say. And your prices are too high. No one is going to pay $10.95 for a stuffed flounder.
But I didn’t say anything; I just watched, expecting any day to see him close down like the ones before him.
The Fan, in 1993, was in ruins. Bricks were loose and falling from buildings. Roots buckled the sidewalks from underneath. Warehouses were shuttered. Over on Grace Street, where I lived, roofs were water-damaged and leavened. There was a handful of underemployed prostitutes who worked the corner of Broad Street and Boulevard. Rude bands played in some of the old bars that still thrummed with life. But on most nights, as I pedaled my bike back toward my rented room, the Fan seemed permanently vacant, a failed experiment, an apology.
How Joe and Oscar thought they could waltz down South and take our money I never fully grasped. I was infuriated to see Joe emerge one spring with his menu board: Virginia ham with peanut gravy; beer-battered rockfish nuggets, braised split quail and spring greens. I’d thought the last ice storm had cleared him out. I had not spied Oscar’s black Cadillac for months. I had just received the overwhelming good news that I had won a teaching assistantship. My tuition would be waived. And I would earn over three thousand dollars a semester, a staggering amount of money at the time. I swaggered into the café and sat at the huge horseshoe bar. Joe came out and offered me a menu. I ordered a German beer off the tap and settled on the burger, which was “hand-shaped” and came with fresh-cut “Virginia fries.”
Nearly thirty minutes later, Joe returned with my burger. He had spared no expense or labor. The roll it rested on had come from one of the local bakeries. He had even pounded out his own homemade horseradish as a bonus. The burger bled weakly on my plate while Joe poured himself a beer, leaned back against his beer coolers and asked me why I was studying literature.
“I love all of those guys—Shakespeare, Keats, Byron—but I don’t see how you can make a career of it,” he said.
“This is the best fucking burger I have ever eaten,” I said.
“I know it,” he said. “But how much does a professor make, anyways?”
My mind was elsewhere. I noticed that Joe’s dishwasher, Scott Black, had stepped onto the back porch, apparently, to smoke. But what he was really doing was looking for his dealer, Ramon. Joe’s chef, Freddy Macintyre, came in as I was finishing my meal. I had seen him many, many times in the grottoes of the Village Café, where he ran an all-men’s AA meeting. Freddy, a former chef for D.C. ambassadors and various diplomats, had lived the tumultuous life of a celebrity cook. These days he was clean, but he shook uncontrollably at the slightest crisis. He was distraught already because he had ordered crayfish and they had not been delivered. He was fretting and looking out the window for the deliveryman. I noticed things. And, most importantly, I noticed a gaping absence at the corner of the bar where Oscar used to lean.
Joe gave me my bill and went back to work on a cheesecake. He took a beer with him. With the bill in my hand, I rounded the horseshoe bar and looked into the kitchen through the tiny pane of glass. Joe stood at a huge stainless steel prep table. I pushed open the door and entered a cathedral of sunlight on metal. There was a nearly new Hobart dishwasher that belched and hummed through a cycle, its gills rows of fresh white plates. It breathed the sweet breath of bleach and steam. There was a rotisserie with ceramic bricks, two convection ovens, fryers large enough to bathe in, various pestles and their corresponding mortars and a grill to keep two chefs busy. Steel mixing bowls, iron stock pots, milky white ramekins, room-sized walk-in coolers, refrigerators that reflected my image like a fun house mirror: it was as if Joe and Oscar had imagined the most expensive kitchen they could think of and decided to improve upon it. Joe must be terribly underwater. Or, it occurred to me, he must have been rich to begin with.
Joe looked up from a dozen yolks he was whipping. He grinned.
“Do you need a bar manager?” I said.
We agreed on a small salary. I would work Thursday through Saturday nights and order the liquor for the restaurant. He gave me a key—I wouldn’t have given me a key. And then he said there would be no W2s; we would “work something else out.” Before I left, I refilled his beer and brought it to him.
“You’ll like it here,” he said. “We have all kinds of things planned for the menu.”
As I was leaving I bumped into his waitress, hurrying to make her shift. She had fresh bruises on the nape of her neck. Her blue eyes were wrecked with signs of alcohol poisoning. She had short red hair and deep charcoal stains on her fingertips: the telltale signs of an art student. “Joe is going to kill me,” she said—to me?—in a rough voice. But I had never spoken to her in my life, so she must have been talking to herself or to that arbitrator we all talk to when we are ashamed.
Why offer fried cod on your menu when you can go to pains to acquire blue catfish from a dealer near Yorktown and then drive out there to pick it up yourself, the white flesh in loaves, still smelling definitely of the river, of brackishness, a wet copy of The Richmond Times-Dispatch serving as a cover? Or maybe you don’t drive out there yourself, but you send one of your lackeys or Chef Freddy himself, with orders to stop by LaPrell Nursery for several trays of fresh herbs, chives and cilantro specifically. Freddy, if you forget the goddamn cilantro don’t even bother coming back. Just keep driving to Utah, Joe might say. And Freddy would fall apart with the shakes, not knowing whether it was a joke or not. Why serve your shad roe on toast when you can spend the morning driving around Richmond to the various bakeries until you settle on the white baguettes from Mechlers? And for God’s sake, don’t use store-bought bacon with your roe; call a farmer in Culpeper and have him slaughter a young hog for that purpose specifically. Go there and stand in the smokehouse, ruining your clothes forever. And your sauces: Are you going to make them all at once like some hack, or are you going to take down the copper saucepans which came from the French countryside of Flaubert and make each sauce upon order? Why would you do it any other way? These were some of the questions Joe sought to answer about the Old Virginia. The customers, confused by the length of time it took to get their orders of lamb meatloaf (he ground it himself) served in a red wine and rosemary reduction, looked at Joe with something related to pity. I served them a glass of wine on the house to apologize for the forty-five minutes they had sat there by the windows overlooking the skateboarders enjoying a session on the nearly vacant campus across the street. In June, I was giving away more booze than I was selling. Scott Black, the implacable dishwasher, would come out and sit at the bar and stare. He didn’t cringe at the long spans of time it took Joe and Freddy to serve a meal. Scott Black would ask for his shift drink—usually an expensive whiskey he liked to order just to say the name. The customers, meanwhile, looked at their watches and sighed.
“Joe,” I said one night as he was unwinding from a burst of late orders of cheese fries (a dish he loathed, a remnant of Oscar’s uninspired vision) “People are calling your place the ‘the old vagina.’ The food takes too long.”
He sighed heavily.
“I didn’t want to tell you, but it’s the truth. And Annie said she’s not coming back. She’s gone back to dancing.”
“Who is Annie?”
Joe got up from his chair and came behind the bar where I was refilling the sink with hot, sudsy water. He poured himself a shot of Basil Hayden and dropped in an ice cube. There was a thunderstorm swaying the trees along the avenue. He seemed dazed by the rain coming in sheets.
“Why don’t the professors come over? I always thought we’d get more business from those fucks. I don’t understand it.”
Joe sat and began to tell me some of the challenges he was facing with the restaurant. “Oscar’s loopy. He’s crazy as hell,” said Joe. “To tell you the truth, I am glad he’s gone. All he did was drive the waitresses away.” Then there was a problem, in Joe’s mind, with getting quality meat in Virginia. He wanted to age it himself, and nothing he could find was quite right. He had been flying his Cessna back and forth between Philly and Richmond with loads of prime beef, sausages, pork butts, which Freddy would drape obscenely in the walk-in. He was outraged at what passed for charcuterie in Richmond. And there was another issue: the Cessna needed an inspection, and no one out at Byrd Airport could do it. He didn’t want to fly it down to Atlanta just for an inspection, but he would if push came to shove. And good help was hard to get in Richmond, Joe complained. But what vexed Joe the most was the cold shoulder he was getting from the faculty at VCU.
“Is there some way I could get my place reviewed? Could you get someone from the English Department to come over?” he whined.
“Joe, you don’t want that.”
He poured another drink.
“I went to a place in South Richmond called Red’s this weekend, and they were eating goddamn gravy with coffee in it. The blueberries were artificial. The syrup was fake. And the place was full, packed with well-dressed people, the kind of people I want in here.”
Finally, Joe was learning something about the South.
My tenure as the bar manager at the Old Virginia Café was an innocent one. Perhaps I was not experienced enough to face the world. I was shocked when one of the waitresses took me to her apartment and popped in a sex tape before she poured me a glass of wine. Money was always a problem for me, even with the teaching position. I worked nights while my fellow students went to readings and art shows. I reveled in the unfairness of it all. Depressed for days when I learned the dean of Humanities was sleeping with one of my fellow grad students, I went into the Carriage House Book Store and approached the clerk with a copy of Baudelaire. “Kid, you don’t really want that,” he said. And it was true. So I put it back on the shelves. Riding my bike along Monument Avenue, the odor of hot pavement thick in the air, I marveled at the white statues of Civil War generals and a culture that revered their swords, their bad shoulders, their bladders cast in stone. I would often sit on the stoop beside the restaurant reading my graduate-school texts, and between the scurrying pigeons and the strolling pairs of academics, I would be approached by the same drug dealer day after day. He wore a navy blue skullcap through the blaze of summer.
“Need anything?” he’d say.
Was it that obvious?
“Get yourself laid,” Joe would hiss, and he’d give me a fifty under the table. But that was the problem with Joe: he was too invested in the visceral pleasures, the petty venalities of the world. He roared too much about “free-market capitalism.” He had no intellectual ambitions, as I had, unless you counted his desire to impress college faculty with his tricky cuisine. He went on and on about making love to various women. Dipping his Cessna over the fall foliage, he once told me, was like an extended orgasm. He never invited me along. He took waitresses up for short flights, and they would come back red-faced, giddy, as if they had witnessed a rare bird. He took them all up as a sort of application process.
Meanwhile, I plodded along with my bar rag in my pocket and a poem in my head. Late nights, I would try to tell Joe about the existential pitfalls of being midtwenties and studying literature. He didn’t want to hear it. “You’re doing it all wrong,” he’d say when he discovered me reading Leaves of Grass. “Why don’t you go out and fuck someone?” When I told him I wanted to write, he frowned a bit, shook his head. “Jesus Christ, can’t you do both?” Then he went back into the kitchen to check on his cheesecakes.
Joe, over the late summer, spent a great deal of time with his friends at the bar. Buzzed, they wandered down to the farmer’s market. Outside of town, the crops were ripening and the outdoor markets were resplendent with obscene eggplants, carrots the hue of sunsets, huge heads of white cauliflower and broad-leaved cabbages stacked like cannon balls. Joe, stumbling along the stalls of sweet corn, stood no chance. He bought everything in reach and let his lackeys tote it along, especially bags of sweet onions with clods of Spotsylvania County dirt still clinging to the roots. Fish mongers offered fat flounders from Knott’s Island. Tilefish? Littlenecks? Are you serious? The oystermen shucked their huge shellfish into Joe’s cupped hands, allowing great flows of milt to overflow and spill upon the ground. Joe stood no chance. When he returned to the restaurant, he was woozy, accompanied by a troop of new friends, each carrying a sack of food. They would all enter the kitchen, a dozen men, and within minutes, Chef Freddy, pissed off and intruded upon, would clock out and leave. Patrons at the bar would take note of the incredible volumes of beer and liquor and, always, laughter flowing from the kitchen and the outbursts that rose up from there. I discouraged paying customers from wandering back there, for once they met Joe, they became one of his friends and never paid for another drink, though their lives improved radically.
Around this same time Joe traded in his black sedan for a pickup. He bought one with an extended cab, so he could sleep there when he came back from his adventures in the countryside. I often saw him silhouetted in the truck, his neck cranked back, his mouth sadly agape, and I would feel sorry for him. I brought him cups of water and aspirin. But he was out of it, unable to say much. Hours later he would startle awake, start the truck, allow it to idle for twenty minutes while he regained his bearings and drive away, back into the Virginia countryside in search of adventure, or something related to it.
Joe kept land notices around the bar, and I often found him reading about upcoming auctions. He and the beer distributor would go out on Smith Mountain Lake to fish a bass tournament, or he would go to the cheese monger’s Blue Ridge cabin to throw hatchets and drink homemade whiskey that landed him in the hospital for three days. He’d flirt with the true nature of Southernness, then scare himself and buzz back to his wife and daughter in Pennsylvania. And the more he left, the more I found myself running the Old Virginia Café. The key burned in my hand, and I sometimes found myself there in the dark restaurant with nothing but the ferns to keep me company and the sound of the walk-in freezer doing its thing.
On one of Joe’s prolonged absences I fired Scott Black. He was two hours late and stoned. I said, “My only regret is that I can’t fire you twice.”
“Joe will hire me back,” said Scott, and he shook off his apron and flung it at me. It was incredibly clean, dry, hardly used. He pounded the Hobart with his small fists on his way out; the dishwashing machine seemed his only friend, yet he had punched it in the face.
With one phone call I hired a fellow poet and grad student supreme, John Venable, and within hours he was pumping the Hobart, steaming his hair into a pile of fibers. His skin turned pink, and I could see by his expression that he would not last long. He brought with him a radio/tape player, and he played rude Lou Reed concerts, bootlegged editions no one else could get or wanted. Immediately, he asked about vacations and sick leave. “I do bring a lot of experience to this position,” he said. He even had the nerve to ask about his shift drink, this within hours of being hired. I wanted to fire him, too, but I was already shorthanded. And in the restaurant business no one fucks with the dishwasher, or at least they begin with a certain patina of holiness, and it erodes from there. Besides, Chef Freddy was in another one of his moods, complaining about late orders and trying to close the kitchen at 9:00 PM.
“Freddy, goddamn it, you know we serve a late menu.”
But with Joe gone, the chef felt he could do as he wanted. He walked out. Luckily, one of Joe’s new friends, Gary, was seated at the bar. He was pretending to read a three-day-old copy of the Times-Dispatch, a crumpled pane of it in one hand. His bar tab was already becoming symbolic in nature.
“Sheeeet, I could do that man’s job twice as well,” said Gary. I was slightly disappointed that Joe was missing this display of outward Southern confidence, a fault of ours. Joe could learn a lot from Gary.
“Gary, tell me what do you know about cooking,” I said, playing along.
“After Vietnam I lived in Paris for five years, walking distance to the Bastille. I worked them tiny kitchens. I can cook like a motherfucker, stocks, breads, cassoulets. Shit, man, I can show you some stuff round here,” he said, and he stood, wobbly. I saw this as a grand opportunity to recover some of his outstanding debts. He was hired on the spot. But I had to pay him cash out of the register, one hundred bucks a night, because he didn’t want his old lady to know he had a job.
Gary fell into his duties and began to crank out homestyle Southern food with a touch of French. He baked Cornish hens and served them with a bed of mustard greens and collards. He made little pizzas christened with dollops of barbecued beef. He made a cassoulet of white beans and pork butt. He said, “People don’t want to be confused by the food they eat; the world is confusing enough for damn sure,” and he drank prodigious amounts of beer. You must remember that this was back in the early ’90s, before the proliferation of food shows—whole channels devoted to people stuffing their pie holes and making culinary postulations, before the widespread celebrity of Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck and the rest of them. One day, as I was wiping the bar, I heard Gary order a new keg of Miller. “That German stuff ain’t selling for shit,” he said to Arnie, the distributor. He poured himself an inaugural glass of Miller and took it in like smoke; here was a doer, a leader, the assistant manager I had longed for. I had a key made for him immediately, and when Scott Black came around looking for Joe, I told him to talk to Gary.
“This place still owes me a shift drink,” he said on his way out.
Of course Joe, upon returning with a crate of Maine lobsters and cases of white burgundy, immediately undid all my moves. Freddy came back, sanguine and aloof as always. He had discovered photography in his brief romance with unemployment and asked Joe for an eight-hundred-dollar cash advance to buy a lens. And Scott Black, in the dusty, wee hours of the previous night, had snuck in and regained his old position at the Hobart. There were not enough dishes for one dishwasher on most nights, but both John and Scott stood around in the steam and took frequent breaks where they drank Miller on the stoop and spoke with the drug dealers and history professors who wandered by. They began to drink so much keg beer that I offered to run a line back to the kitchen so they could pour it themselves. Joe, not knowing I was joking, said he would call Arnie and look into it.
Freddy was smug when I tried to apologize. I found him one September afternoon playing with two live river eels he was going to cook in a strawberry and champagne sauce, Joe’s dinner. He was tormenting the pair of fish, grabbing them so that they panicked and wrapped their jade-colored bodies around his forearm like bracelets. I told him that I had only fired him because he had done the unforgivable—walked out on a shift. This is the rule in restaurants from Baltimore to Shanghai: if you walk out on a shift, keep walking, man, and don’t even look back.
“It’s the rules,” I said to Freddy. He held a cleaver in his hand, and he cudgeled the first eel but only stunned it.
“I’ve been in kitchens longer than you’ve been alive,” he said. He struck again. This time he killed the eel, and it spewed a shock of orange roe onto the cutting table. “Don’t tell me about rules.”
A flat of soft-shelled crabs arrived the next morning, alive and weakly protesting. They were in neat rows like soldiers, and they were strung with wet seaweed to keep them alive. Gary breaded one and fried it for Joe’s breakfast. The two men were terribly hung over. Seafood seemed to pick them up some. Venable wandered in with love bruises on his neck. Gary fried him a crab too, its legs kicking as it went into the butter.
“Joe, why don’t you just fire Freddy?” I asked.
“Fire Freddy? Have you ever tasted his bouillabaisse? The man’s a genius, a saint!”
“Well, seems like people like what Gary cooks—”
Gary seemed embarrassed.
“So I will keep them both. What’s it to you?”
“Well you gave him eight hundred bucks for a lens. I don’t see how he’ll ever pay you back.”
“When you get your own place, you can do whatever you goddamn well please.”
I was hurt by Joe’s directness. He was right; the Old Virginia was his place, not mine. I went back out to the bar and wiped the bottles down, the odd liquors that nobody ever orders, the Pernod, the Drambuie, the Galliano. A few minutes later, Scott Black came in and punched his time card. And why did I care? In one year I was going to graduate and move to Colorado or some other mountain state.
But I was hurt. I avoided Joe for weeks. Finally one night, he sat at the bar as I closed the place. He told me that he trusted me.
“Well, you should back me up when I get rid of these folks.”
“But where would they go? Freddy is a mess. Scott—he’s a child.”
“Even if they cost you money?”
“It’s all they have,” he said. He finished his drink and went back into the office to count the drawers.
I had never thought about it before, but it was true. The Old Virginia was not a restaurant but a place for lost souls who needed the dignity of a job, even a symbolic job, to tether them to the world. I pedaled my bike over wet leaves toward my apartment on Grace Street and thought about this revelation. There was a new waitress, Stephanie, a single mother, who told her customers all the details of her ugly divorce. There was Venable, who was so distraught over a recent breakup that I wondered if one day he would not show up at all and I would have to go downtown to identify his body. And the men who sat around the horseshoe bar, they were all destroyed and broken in various ways: window salesmen, realtors, plumbers with six-pack-an-hour habits. They were cheats and scoundrels, braggarts and bastards. And what about me? If Joe was in the business of collecting the truly miserable and giving them jobs, wasn’t I cast among them? Joe had come to Virginia to gather and study us losers.
Recently, I had been snooping in the books. I had discovered that there were names of people on the payroll who did not exist, folks I had never met. Oscar was still being paid a ridiculous sum. There were inflated salaries (47K for Freddy and 45K for Gary). I saw lists of cases of wine and booze that never arrived at the café. Fuel costs and maintenance for the Cessna were included in Joe’s accounting. And there, in the bottom columns of the ledger, I saw that the expenses far exceeded the profits. The Old Virginia Café, I realized, was meant to lose money. Sometime, I am not sure when, the restaurant had become something intended to fail. I had a suspicion that there was a twin restaurant in Philly where the cases of wine and liquor were going. There were parties there that I would never attend. The Old Virginia was a ruse and always had been, an illusion like Joe’s oddball reflection in the refrigerator doors, like my kiss-ass overtures toward high-minded literature and the balding, old professors of English who seemed permanently out of breath.
I pedaled down Grace Street and stopped at Annie’s apartment. She was home, fresh from a shift at the Red Light. She was washing the ridiculous makeup from her face. One of her roommates was watching movies, so we went into Annie’s room. It was cluttered with canvasses and frames, squirts of paint on her bureau. She said she was disappointed with her portfolio, that she was thinking of moving back to Virginia Beach and working at her father’s car dealership. She asked about the café, if things had gotten better for me there. We crawled into bed with little fanfare. She said to be careful with her knees because they were bruised.
“You know,” she said afterward, “those same guys who come into the Old Virginia also come into the Red Light. Joe tips like a fool.”
She showed me some of her charcoal drawings. There was Chef Freddy with a venison sauerbraten, Gary smoking one of his cigarillos, Joe standing by his Cessna (I realized he must have taken her for a flight, which probably meant she had screwed him.) and a few of me behind the bar. I was dark, brooding, and she had captured something about me that was unsettling. There were too many of me.
“I look so unhappy,” I said.
For a few weeks after our rendezvous, Annie came in and sat at the bar by herself. She drank the same thing, expensive tequila on the rocks. I never charged her. “She’s a good girl,” Joe said, “you should go with her.” I stayed as far away from her as possible and spent my time cleaning bottle necks and scooping buckets of ice. And after her one drink she’d say, “Stop by after work,” but I never did because I was working feverishly on a backpacking memoir, a real piece of shit that would never see the light of day. Joe and Gary were out looking at land. They had been AWOL for weeks, and the spring was becoming possible, and after that, graduation, and the rest of my life, whatever that meant. The old professors loved my latest work and said it was “illuminating and moving.” They told me that I was at the height of my power. Gary bought me a book about Colorado from the Carriage House and left it behind the bar wrapped in simple brown paper.
One day, just as Annie was leaving, John Venable came out of the kitchen and watched her go. He poured himself his shift drink and popped a cigarette in his mouth. I was days away from leaving Virginia forever. I asked him if all the dishes were done and the silverware sorted. He looked at me in surprise.
“What happened to you, man?” he said, and he kept looking at me until I had to turn away. See, John had bought the Baudelaire.
I have lost all of them. Only John takes it upon himself to call me and inform me of the relevant tragedies. He called recently from Pittsburgh to tell me that Joe was dead, that the Old Virginia had become academic offices. Stomach cancer is what got Joe. When they buried him, Venable says, there was virtually no one from the café there, none of the old buddies, and the food at the reception was nothing Joe would have accepted. But Oscar was there, tall and gray-headed, stoic in a long black jacket.
We cried on the phone for a few minutes. Then we hung up.
And all I could think about was that time in the spring when Joe had asked me to come and look at some land. He had never taken me along before. I drove Gary’s truck with a john boat in the bed. I drove all night through southern Virginia, past battlefields and bights of dark, abandoned land and arrived just in time to pick up Joe and Gary at a rural airstrip. We drove through stands of timber to a small lake where Gary sculled us along all day and we caught tremendous large-mouthed bass.
“I think I will buy this place,” said Joe, threading a fish on the stringer, “Or I won’t. What’s the fucking difference?”
Joe and I left in the Cessna. Gary waved to us from the tarmac. And then we were up above the blue tree line, and I could soon see Richmond rising in the distant haze, the Blue Ridge to the west. As we flew over the city, I could see the Fan, water trapped on the tops of apartment buildings in pools, the James River brown with spring rains. It was too loud to talk in the cockpit. Still, I tried to get Joe’s attention to show him the huge amount of water tumbling over the falls. But he had something else on his mind. He drove the throttle down and pointed the small plane toward the trees. The Cessna began to tremble, and the trees were roaring up at us, blurring from the vibration. Papers began to stir and float around our faces. The bass slid around at my feet. We were seconds from death. We both smiled wickedly as the plane fell from the sky. But I wasn’t afraid. I had a shift that night. There were bottles of white wine specifically for this occasion, and the sea salt and spices stood in cones, ready for the touch of a chef’s hands.
Dave Zoby was born in Norfolk, Virginia. At VCU he earned an MFA in poetry. Dave has published poems in 64 Magazine, the Southern Poetry Review, Georgia State Review, Blackbird, the South Dakota Review and others. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Ninth Letter, the Sun Magazine, Gray’s and the Missouri Review. Fire on the Beach (2001) was published by Scribner. This work of nonfiction tells the previously untold story of Richard Etheridge, an African-American coastal hero who led daring rescues of shipwrecked mariners along North Carolina’s storm-swept coast. His latest book is an essay collection, Fish Like You Mean It.
“The blood was the mountain and the mountain was the bear” by Rachel Yoder
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. We at TMR hope that you are all safe. Winner of the 2012 Editors’ Prize in fiction, “The blood was the mountain and the mountain was the bear” by Rachel Yoder delves into the insanity of generational patterns, and the difficult undertaking of trying not to repeat the past; it is also today’s selection.
The blood was the mountain and the mountain was the bear
By Rachel Yoder
Eliot had wanted to hike in deep, but the trails were all closed that day and clouds were blowing in fast from the west, whole countries of weather that slid over Whitefish and roiled there in the sky. Even the mountains felt small.
He was hungry. It had been weeks of beef jerky and trail mix from the panniers on his bicycle. His legs had stretched out taut and ropy from the miles of pedaling through the Montana mountains, and then the early spring prairies filled with pink flowers, past a river jammed with logs, on that stretch of road where it seemed as though his bike would nose up from the pavement and fly him over the meadows and mountains and, further south, to the red soil of the canyon lands. He carried with him a pinecone big as his foot and a smooth white rock he’d pried from the mud at the edge of a clear lake. He carried with him the space of big sky country. He had taken it into his body. But come Whitefish, come the national park signs and printed regulations and asphalt, come the Ponderosas spiking up into the expanse of blue, he had, against his will, shrunk back down to the size of a common man. By the time he reached Osha on the porch of the visitors’ center, he fit perfectly inside a familiar idea of himself.
“Can’t believe you didn’t read about it, hear someone talking, something,” Osha had said as they stood there on the porch of the visitors’ center looking out over the near-deserted parking lot. “Took the hand of one hiker and the thigh muscle of another. Protecting its cubs, they think. They got it today but still have to confirm it’s the right one. A team is coming over from the university in Bozeman for the dissection.”
“Can I see it?” Eliot asked. Osha laughed a little. He squinted at the sky.
“Yeah, but we should go now. Before they get here,” he said. They walked around the building and then down the back stairs to a service road that cut through the trees and further back into the woods.
Eliot hadn’t seen Osha in ten years, not since college. He’d only heard updates from time to time, Scandinavia at a Norse shipbuilding school. Traveling with sherpas to the Tibetan interior. A month-long hike through the Chilean rainforest for a single day with some neural science guru. He ran the ecopsychology program now at the park, dressed in cleanly pressed government-issue beige-on-green.
“Never thought I’d see you in a uniform,” Eliot said.
“Right?” Osha said, laughing and touching the metal on his chest. “I get a badge.”
Eliot tried to run his hand through his hair, which had clumped in dark, greasy hanks. Stubble sanded his neck and sunken cheeks, and it was almost as if he could feel his skin wrapping around the contours of his ribs and the ropes of sinew running through his legs. As if he’d been shrink-wrapped. As if all the air was being sucked from him by an invisible machine. He could smell himself. He knew there was an insanity to the way he appeared. His thoughts that day had been of blood and damage.
“So you started in Idaho, man?” Osha asked. “How long have you been riding? And why? I mean, just for fun?”
Eliot made a laughing sound. They walked in silence, watching the long legs of light stretch between the boughs.
Before the bike trip, he’d been on vacation with Becca. Idaho, at his dad’s cabin. A last go of things. One more honest attempt. Canoeing and long afternoon walks, lovemaking in and out of sleep, late breakfasts with small white cups of strong coffee and runny eggs. But it hadn’t worked, hadn’t even been meant to work if Eliot was being honest with himself. More like leave things on a high note. More like Eliot had been hopeful, but he just couldn’t anymore.
She had gotten on a plane back to Arizona, silent as he hugged her in the airport. She wouldn’t look at him and turned, stripping herself of her belongings, sliding her belt out of the loops with one hard pull. Her long hair swung blackly as she walked away.
He rode over a hundred miles that day and then stepped off his bike to feel his knees bend, muscles voided of strength. There was a soft give to the earth as he landed and stayed that way for some time, unable to rise.
“I’ve been planning it for a while, but then Becca and I broke up, and I extended it,” Eliot said. He rubbed his palms over his eyes and felt the grease on his face. Osha leaned back and turned his face to the sky, letting out a ribbon of breath.
“What was it, ten years?”
Osha nodded. They walked in silence. The day was sunny but held an undertone of coldness left over from the long winter. “I don’t know where I’m going. I just know I’m headed south. Is that crazy?”
“Sure,” Eliot said. The sounds of birds rang like bells far above them, and in the darkness beneath the trees, the way the clean light sliced and flickered in blinding lines held the feeling of water, of a cold church.
Osha unlocked the door and swung it wide for Eliot as he entered.
Eliot had ridden all the way out to the park because he wanted high, thin air, to hike up to the edge of a cliff and then have one of those moments where you find yourself stunned by what’s spreading out for miles and miles all around. An unplanned moment. Proof of grace. He had needed to feel the acid burning in his muscles and to walk beyond it, to keep going until all that mattered was breath and a rhythmic thud, until his thoughts became soft and muted, summer clouds suspended far out at the horizon.
What he got, though, was a musty little outbuilding, fluorescent lights, a metal table pulled in from the staff kitchen, the pungent smell of hair and oil and something more, something sweet and rotten. A blue tarp barely covered the body.
Its hind paw slipped from beneath the tarp, and Eliot paused. The pads were calloused and dirty and black like worn shoes. Its claws had the look of something prehistoric, something made more of rock and ore than of flesh and blood. This was a creature forged from the remains of other animals, from beaks and teeth and hides. It could not have not been born.
“So in Scandinavian folklore, they think people can turn into bears,” Osha said, standing at the head of the covered pile, motioning to Eliot. He raised the tarp to show him the bear’s face. “They used to have these ceremonies after a bear was killed where the fur was treated with herbs and oils and then given to warriors. It was supposed to make them able to chew through shields, stuff like that. That’s all I can think about when I see something like this. Such a shame.”
Eliot turned to the body as if in a dream. Its head rested on a pile of dirty towels seeping gore, the fading edges of which formed a pink corona around the animal’s skull. A clean hole broke through the head just beneath the ear in layers of dark fur and bright bone and, further in, shades of red and gray and beige. The fur covered it, shiny and thick and soft like a toy. The bear looked nothing like the idea of a bear.
“Could you imagine if this were a person?” Osha said. “Imagine.”
Eliot nodded. The claws. They could go straight in your arm and out the other side.
“It doesn’t really seem . . .” Here Eliot paused. Could a mountain die? Could gold? “It doesn’t really seem dead, in a way.”
Osha looked at him, then took the tarp in silence and raised it higher to reveal the trunk of the animal.
“They’ll cut into it and try to find the remains,” Osha said. “But the body has to be under lock and key, you know, since there’s such a demand for black market gall bladders. Like any of us would do such a thing.”
Black teats peeked through the fur. Eliot took a step back.
“What about the cubs?” he asked. Osha winced.
“They’ll fend for themselves as best they can, I suppose. Worst case scenario a male finds them and eats them. But that’s worst case.”
“Jesus,” Eliot said, staring at the animal’s coat, which shone almost red in the downing sun. The luxury of its colors and furs and snout and tongue all descended on Eliot at once, and quite suddenly it was as if the queen herself had been laid out here before him in her heavy pomp. It was the end of everything. The kingdom was set to storm, or at the very least turn dark and strange.
This. All this. And somewhere in Arizona, Becca was bleeding on a couch. “Pregnant,” she had said in the message that morning as he held the grimy pay-phone receiver away from his face. He listened to their old answering machine play her voice with all the resonant emptiness of a woman calling from the bottom of a dark well. “Abortion” reverberated toward him, the sound waves almost visible. “Two pills and then it’s done. Come now. I’m fucking serious.”
Osha insisted he stay the night, but Eliot wouldn’t.
“Beer,” he said to Osha, who nodded.
“But before you go . . .” He motioned to the cluster of cabins set back in the woods as he locked the shed door. “I actually can’t believe I still have it, this letter I wrote you when I was in India. I didn’t have a mailing address—I think you had just moved or were going to, something. It’s a good letter, man.”
Of course he had an old letter. Osha of the late-night stories and wrinkled letters from around the world. Eliot waited outside as he rustled around in his cabin. Early season birds called to each other. Through the trees, the cabin with the bear pulsed with a sickening gravity.
Osha emerged with an envelope in hand, striped blue and red around the edges.
“This,” he said, holding it up in the air with one hand. “I’ve been carrying it for, what, six years? Not until this very moment was it supposed to reach you. That’s how things work.”
Eliot took the letter and grabbed his hand, pulling Osha to him and slapping his back.
“You are a goddamn hippie,” he said. They laughed, and Eliot thanked him, thanked him for showing him the bear and thanks but he needed to go, he needed to be gone, and he went as quickly as his legs could manage, back to his bike and then pedaling on the hard asphalt, away from the park and the bear and out into the cold, clear air where he could finally breathe again. He had been holding his breath for what seemed a very long time so as not to awaken whatever it was that was sleeping, and now he breathed and pumped and breathed and breathed and breathed.
He was overcome by his hunger. Even though he couldn’t afford it, he wanted a steak, purple rare, with cheap beer he could buy by the can. Back in Whitefish, he wound up at the Moosehead, where a jukebox played songs about sangria and perfection over and over again as he folded himself into a booth.
He ordered from a burnt blonde with a long braid down her back.
“Rare,” he said.
A few minutes later she put a beer down in front of him.
“First one’s free,” she said without smiling, then turned and, as she walked away, moved her ass in a manner so as to suggest she knew he was watching.
He sat and he drank. Two dusty cowboys murmured at the bar as a young, freshly-washed couple in expensive belts and ugly ergonomic shoes politely examined photos on the walls, then the cowboys and the longhorn skull behind the bar. They sat with their hands clasped in front of them on the table and held themselves in deliberate postures.
Somehow all this—the day and Becca and those clean, happy people—he blamed on his father. Actually, it wasn’t the day exactly that he blamed on him, but what he would do next, go to Arizona and be with Becca, even though the bike trip and the distance had all been to finally get away from her, make the break, end the hulking thing that had been their relationship, a thing they had both counted on as being forever but which had finally turned heavy and dark.
He wasn’t like his father. His father had left his mother with five kids and a teetering house at the ocean’s edge in the cold and the wet of Washington state winter. His father was a cliché, off with the legal secretary to leave Eliot, the youngest child, the only one to listen as his mother rambled to herself behind her bedroom door night after night. All the others were off at college or married. Eliot had been the mistake and remained the mistake, the awkward giraffe of a boy who watched silently as his mother folded and unfolded cloth napkins at the kitchen table for hours.
“Mom,” he would try.
“I had no idea I’d be this busy,” she would say.
He switched to whiskey. The steak tasted of blood and he ate.
Some places, people could really respect a piss shit of a mood on a man. Some places, a man could actually feel like a man instead of the memory of one, where the meat was cooked right, which was nearly not at all, and beer was cold and shitty and canned and you could open a door and walk outside and everything spread away from you like a beautiful goddamn kingdom.
When he was done, he pulled the crumpled letter from his pocket with a wave of nostalgia and warmth and brotherly love. He should have stayed at the park with Osha, should have stayed with him and shot the shit, played cards, listened to his stories about bear men. The light of the bar had turned golden, and the blonde moved silently among the tables, bending across the wide planks of wood to move a cloth slowly against the grain, her long braid rubbing against her back and falling over her shoulder in a choreography that made something deep in Eliot move and stretch.
Trails of blood pooled in the ring of his plate, swirling with grease. His focus sharpened and blurred, sharpened and blurred, until the blonde was there and smiling, can I take your plate? He wanted more whiskey, and she brought him one along with a tall glass of cold water. He looked down, and the letter was still in his hand.
Osha’s longhand was elegant and faded, and Eliot blinked and then blinked again to focus on it. Eliot, he wrote. I have to tell you what just happened.
He said he was in India, on his way home after a year studying at a monastery. He had been on retreat, translating Sanskrit texts. He’d lost his confidence in the modern world, in the idea of personal agency, in technology, in free will and family. I don’t even know how to think about love, he wrote. But the translating hadn’t really worked. He was still miserable, way out in the western hills of India. Cosmic darkness he scrawled at the bottom of the first page.
Over the mountain in the next valley, there was this tribe of wild monks and they were, you know, dirty and naked and had these unbelievable dreads. I never actually saw the monks, but I heard enough about them. They were devoted to overcoming disgust. That was their pursuit, to not be disgusted by anything, and they spent their whole lives doing this. The main way they practiced was by eating human flesh. Acolytes would walk for hundreds of miles to get there and be sacrificed. I saw a few of these guys walking past the monastery on the road that ran over the mountain.
So I’ve been silent for three months and watching these guys walking to get sacrificed and trying to dig out from this feeling of being buried, and then I come to Delhi for a week before going home (tomorrow), and in the market tonight, with all these smells and the lights. How can I explain? There was no comfort there. And I’m walking back to this shitty room I’ve rented on a narrow, dark street—I’m sure I’m going to get killed—and I just happen to look down through a bright basement window. Inside there’s a woman who’s naked and bathing. She was washing her hair, I think, with her back turned to the window. I stopped and stared at her, because it was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a year, in my whole life. She brought me back. This just happened moments ago.
He lowered the letter to the table with an unsteady hand.
He’d caught a fish. It was in Idaho. A silver flash of scale and sunlight breaking through a cold stream. But it wasn’t the fish. It was air becoming water then movement then scales then light. Alchemy, he had thought. And now he knew there was not some sort of separation, that estrangement was not essential. He could nearly touch this thought, so palpable and plain. He would never be able to explain it to anyone else.
He wondered if he was too drunk. He decided that he simply couldn’t be. Everything was at it was, as it should be. And the blonde. He was certain she wanted to fuck him.
She watched him from behind the bar, drying pint glasses with a dirty towel.
“All good?” she asked, approaching the table to take his plate. “Another drink?”
“What are you doing tonight?” he said.
“Oh, you know.” She glanced at the front door.
“I’m on a bike trip,” he said. “A long one.”
“Sounds fun,” she said.
“My body is eating itself,” Eliot said, clutching his hands to his chest. He meant this as a joke or banter, as lightness. “I can feel it eating everything away.”
She shifted her weight to one hip and pointed again to his empty glass.
“You know, my friend, he used to live in India, and one night he saw this beautiful naked woman through a window, and it restored him. I mean it was this miraculous experience. She was so beautiful.” He held the letter out to her.
She tipped her head to one side. “You’re saying your friend was leering at some naked chick through a window?”
“Well, yeah,” he said, drawing the paper back to himself. “I mean, no.”
She tilted her head back. She laughed.
“You don’t get it,” he said.
“Dave,” she said, turning to the bartender, and it was over then.
Outside, he stared at the pay phone across the street with the wavering concentration of profound drunkenness. Chin tucked, breathing through his mouth, he swayed like a white aspen in a high wind. He could hear his mother. Not his fault—no one’s fault really—but definitely his responsibility. She had always been his responsibility.
And then he was on his bike. The air was cold and awoke in him another person. He tried to think but soon forgot the question. Soon, all that mattered was speed and darkness. He pedaled blankly. At some point he became chilled and began shivering. He had to piss, so he did. It coursed hotly down his white legs.
It was late and the moon was nearly full when he stopped by a sloping tallgrass meadow. He bent in the ditch and vomited.
“Fuck,” he said, running a hand through his oily hair.
The ride had not done him well, especially the last sobering leg of it, as Becca edged her way back into his mind, their final year together living in an Arizona hotel her father owned, an Old West place that perched on the very top of a mountain in a tiny, defunct mining town-turned-tourist trap. One narrow road wound through the galleries and knickknack shops and biker bars crowded on the narrow, tilted skid of rock. Eliot had thought this would work. Becca could make her jewelry to sell to tourists and work part-time at the one diner in town, a precarious place built on a wedge of land.
It had started off fine, with Eliot driving down the steep switchbacks each day to any number of odd jobs, temporary construction or lawn care, whatever he could find, Becca making shimmering necklaces and coming home with a pocket full of tips. But soon enough, she couldn’t leave the hotel without him.
“This is the kind of town you can fall off of,” she had said, ripping at her nails and cuticles, her face wet from crying.
“Stop,” he had said, putting his hands on hers to calm them. “Just stop.”
The steep stairs, the supposedly haunted houses propped on the side of the mountain, the road that threatened long, arcing descents at every turn. It would be so easy to just keep your foot on the gas and launch, a slowly turning body against a wide swath of blue. She was in bed when he left in the morning, and she was in bed when he returned in the afternoon. The velvet curtains stayed drawn. She became the very idea of weight, a statue of a woman, something too heavy to live in such a high place.
“You need to imagine you’re a cloud,” he would tell her, stroking her head as she leaned into him. “A bird.”
He was responsible. For the good days, the bad, and she did not disabuse him of this thought that yes, he was responsible, for everything, always. “Eliot, I mean it,” she would say, pleading with him from bed, her hair mussed and T-shirt falling from one shoulder. Pleading don’t go and stay and I’ll make you breakfast, then jumping from bed and pulling eggs from the mini fridge, turning the dial on the hot plate. Just stay with me and stay and stay. . . .
It all came back to him with a moment of thought, a moment of lapsed discipline, and then he could feel the pall of it enshroud him. He loved her.
The light from the moon cut deep shadows in the ground around him. He pitched his small tent there in the grasses and, inside, sipped water from a bottle that smelled of citrus. He had no strength.
On the ground he turned and turned and fought his way into a restless, half-drunk sleep. In the twilight between the night outside himself and the night within, a picture materialized of a pale acolyte, barefoot, walking a dusty road through green hills that rolled and extended inside a lushness that made him want to cry out. He understood the desire, pulsing and horrible, a near-sexual urge to be consumed for the sake of something outside yourself, for this wisp of color and light. Against the darkness of half sleep, the wisp moved like breath.
When he finally fell away, he dreamed he was riding his bike back and forth between two distant dark canyons. He kept leaving behind his food, and he’d have to turn around to go get it only to realize it was ahead of him, so he’d turn back around and try again. All the while he felt his body shrinking and worried he would become desiccated before he ever found something to eat. He pedaled harder, but the shrinking only sped up. And then his mother was serving him oatmeal with no taste in a chipped bowl, and he was back in the cliff-top house in Washington, and she told him about the placenta that came out after him. It looked like a tree, she said. It was thick and deep red, laced through with veins. She held both her hands up in front of his face with her fingers spread: a tree, Eliot. A beautiful tree.
He awoke cold, in the deepest part of the night. He watched his breath billow in the full moon light filtering through the thin tent, trying to will the urge away. His head was thick and eyes smeared with the dregs of drink. He felt his way to the tent opening, crawled out with his eyes closed, a hard thunder of pain swelling in his head. He stood and pressed his palms to his temples. Gently, he opened his eyes, then froze with the ice of adrenaline.
There, so close he could see its filmy breath, an elk, steaming in the moonlight, its black eyes reflecting lakes of mirrored ice. It stood even stiller than the night around it. A calf moved between its legs, bucking its head against the underbelly.
In the meadow behind it, an entire herd, lit with the light of the full moon in a tableau otherworldly and terrifying, so beautiful for its strangeness he wondered if it was possible this was some hallucination: a message or a sign. The hundred elk had been feeding, all of them now perfectly still in the sloping meadow. A massive bull stood at the edge of the herd, its rack spread above its head like giant hands. His skin rippled, and the muscles between his front legs tensed.
But it was the mother that made the wave of cold roll through Eliot. Beads of sweat bloomed on his forehead and lip. He’d heard stories of springtime mothers charging and trampling men trying to take photographs, brash men who had edged too close without understanding the danger.
He did not move, nor did the mother. The calf suckled beneath it, nosing its face into the musky warmth there, then turning to look at him. He could see the foggy breath of the beast moving around its nostrils, could see the contained chaos in its eyes, its head turned just so, ready to run at him, or away.
But it wasn’t the mother. It was the bull. The animal took off in a moment so swift and wild it was as if the entire world around Eliot was pulled up by the roots and launched into the sky. The herd lumbered away from him, the sound of them hitting deep inside his chest. They disappeared into the pale trees, the beat of their canter growing soft, until Eliot was alone again in the meadow, shivering, cold with sweat.
Eliot awoke with one thought that started softly as he sat up and remembered the elk, then grew rapidly, like cells multiplying in the air. A flight to Arizona would more than max out his credit card. He had no money for an abortion. He had already borrowed money from everyone else, owed more than he’d ever be able to repay. Christ. He was going to have to call his dad.
He unzipped the tent and stretched his legs in the grasses of cold dew. His head balanced heavily on his body, and the coldness of the morning stung his eyes. A train would be cheaper. Slower, but cheaper. And maybe deliberateness was what he needed. A purposeful movement with a sense of an ultimate direction. He would need to call Becca, pack up his bike, get a ticket, figure out the train schedules, find the goddamn depot itself. He had a sense of the right direction, so that’s where he went.
Smokestacks rose in the distance against a pink early morning sky painted with still, white clouds masquerading as mountains, what looked like a faraway range brought into being as if by a giant, long-felt yearning. A chill breath of vertigo swung through him: this false range of mountains, a sense of distant protection that, all at once, became nothing more than a beautiful illusion. He pedaled toward it, toward Becca and the blood.
As he pedaled, though, his thoughts turned not to Becca but again to his father, a father who had not wanted to be with Eliot’s mother, and still he’d stayed. She’d gotten pregnant and then they had Eliot and his father stayed, for thirteen unlucky years he stayed. Eliot closed his eyes and felt the wind. You have to imagine you’re a bird. He pedaled and breathed and thought and couldn’t place what it was, the feeling he had, something about his father. It kept rushing away from him.
Rachel Yoder grew up in a Mennonite community in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Ohio. She now lives in Iowa City with her husband and son and is a senior agent at The Tuesday Agency. Rachel earned an MFA in Fiction from the University of Arizona and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Iowa, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow. She currently serves as the Literary Programming Director for Mission Creek Festival as well as a board member for the UNESCO City of Literature. She is a founding editor of draft: the journal of process, which features first and final drafts of stories, poems, and essays, along with author interviews about the creative process. Her work has been awarded with The Editors’ Prize in Fiction by The Missouri Review and with notable distinctions in Best American Short Stories and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Rachel’s short story “On Innocence” was a runner-up for The Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award.