Each Friday, the Heavy Table presents a new installment of Knife Skills, a culinary novel presented piece by piece as it’s written. If you’re uncomfortable with salty language, please be aware that characters regularly use words and phrases unacceptable in polite conversation. In the author’s imagination, some members of the food service industry have a tendency to swear. For previous and subsequent installments, visit the Heavy Table’s Fiction directory.
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “So, you want me to approve of this? Or to talk you out of it?” Emily was irritated, the annoyance in her voice jumping across the soundwaves like static.
“Well, I don’t know,” said Robertson, cellphone cradled to shoulder as he used tongs to turn a pork shoulder in a cast iron pan. He was cooking at work, for himself, after hours, and the smell of searing pork was comforting to him. It was 3am in New Amsterdam, 2am in Minnesota, but he and Emily were both up. He has finished a shift; she was preparing for one. “I didn’t know you went in for literal morality as interpreted by the Bible.”
“Fuck you,” said Emily, cheerfully. “There’s a difference between being a moralizing ass and an amoral asshole, and I thought I had you pegged as safely residing on the middle ground. Now I’m not so sure.”
“Well, are they separated? Is he an alcoholic? Does he beat her?”
“Worse,” he said. “He’s a doctor.”
“Ha!” laughed Emily.
“I know,” said Robertson, turning the pork shoulder, searing another side. “Total dick. She’s really sweet, and funny. Good writer.”
“What makes you think you can bust up their marriage, Mr. Romeo? Any evidence beyond, you know, how great you think you are?”
“I guess not,” said Robertson. “We’ve got… you know, we’ve got a connection. I see her a lot, she’s in my restaurant every night as part of this whole Italian PR thing we’re doing here. She seems like she could use a change.”
“So, what, you ask her to stay over late, slip her some foie gras, and tell her to open her mouth for an unexpected surprise, and then wham, you’ve shattered the holy vows of matrimony? I never took you for being such a jerk.”
“Wouldn’t she be the jerk?” asked Robertson. “If she… no, you’ve got a point.”
“Of course I’ve got a point,” said Emily. “Keep it in your pants. God.”
“Fuck,” said Robertson.
“What?” Emily asked.
“It just occurred to me that I’ll probably have to cook this fucking pork shoulder for 2 hours before it gets to where I want it.”
“Then do it another way,” Emily said.
“No, it’s gotta be this way… I’ve got plans, I’m working on something. Fucking A. Well, I’ll just stick around until morning and get ahead on prep.”
“You psychopath!” Emily laughed. “You’re making me look downright reasonable in terms of hours.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Robertson.
“No, not really,” said Robertson. “I was dating a restaurant owner for a while, kind of a high roller, but it didn’t really work out that well.”
“Why not?” asked Emily. “You too crazy for her?”
“Vice versa, which was a nice surprise,” said Robertson. “I think about giving it another shot sometimes, and it sounds like a ton of fun, other than the total batshit insanity of it. She’s jealous, she uses her money like a club, she’s impulsive to the point of being a psychopath…”
“Sounds like fun,” said Emily, darkly.
“Bunch of fun,” said Robertson, cheerfully. “There was this one time in Tokyo…”
“Stuff it,” said Emily, “This conversation is losing its allure.”
“Aww, I’m sorry,” said Robertson. “I miss you. How’s it working out with What’s His Face?”
“What’s His Face reconnected with a college sweetheart on Facebook and wrote himself out of the picture,” said Emily. “I’m not really heartbroken, the whole thing was getting pretty boring.”
“Isn’t that the point?” asked Robertson.
“Ha!” said Emily. “No. I don’t think so. My parents seem to still find each other really damned amusing, and it’s been thirty-five years. So, chemistry can hold up.”
“Yeah, I guess it can…” said Robertson. There was a long pause on the phone.
“Ah, showers,” said Robertson.
“Stop it,” said Emily, mock stern. “Stop it. I’ll talk to you later. Thanks for calling. I can never believe it when you actually call me out of the blue, but I always like it. It’s like a natural miracle, like seeing a rainbow or something. It’s like a freakin’ blue moon.”
“Thanks, great talking to you, too,” said Robertson, rubbing down the pork shoulder with preserves, black peppercorns, and ginger sauce.
“Hey, would you ever consider moving back to the Midwest?” said Emily.
“Uhm, uh, I don’t know,” said Robertson. “Shit, I don’t think so. I don’t know.”
“New Amsterdam just that much fun? You and your infinite workload and no good women and huge paychecks?”
“Giant paychecks,” said Robertson. “You and your doctor friends would just freak out. I’ve almost got enough to afford an apartment with a window and a second room. It’s fantastic.”
“Seriously, though. Don’t you ever miss it back here?”
“Eh,” said Robertson. “I don’t know. The scene back home is kind of — well, chump change. You don’t have the same customers. You don’t have people who will put piles of money into something interesting. If you ever succeed, God forbid you ever change your approach. You sit on the same menu for 40 years until you molder and die on it.”
“That’s a pretty dark read on it,” said Emily. “I thought you weren’t going to move out East and become a total asshole like everyone else who goes out East. Wasn’t that part of the original plan?”
“Was there ever a plan?” asked Robertson. “Fuck if I can recall it.” He put the covered cast iron pot with the pork shoulder in it into the oven. “I don’t know, it just seems like possibilities are endless here. You could meet anyone.”
“You could FUCK anyone!” said Emily, brightly. “Even crazy rich people!”
There was a stony silence.
“Come on,” she said. “Look, don’t take it that way. I’m just saying, yes, you’ve got a lot of possibilities where you are, but is that the way to be happy? Just wallowing around in a thousand million what ifs?”
“Who said I wanted to be happy?” asked Robertson, defensively.
“Ooh, I’m sorry,” said Emily. “I forgot, you’re dark and brooding and dedicated to your art. All you want to do is carve the perfect piece of sashimi or something and then cut your guts out with your cooking knife — hello? hello?”
Robertson was gone.