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.
Retrospectively, after he’d finished his time on the farm and headed back to New Amsterdam, Robertson had about nine coherent thoughts about the experience. The first six he would volunteer in conversation with interested parties; the last three he kept to himself.
The first thought was that a phone is a powerful thing. Robertson was about two hours north of New Amsterdam before he remembered that he’d left his phone back at his apartment, buried under a stack of mostly Chinese takeout menus he’d been half-heartedly sorting through. He swore for a moment, fervently pounding the wheel of his newly bought 1986 Ford F150. “God-fucking dammit,” he yelled, drowning out the Leonard Cohen track that was playing on the tape deck. “Fucking fucking fuck shit. Shit-cock.” The music droned on melancholically, as did the driving, and the slowly falling fat flakes of early March snow, which smashed themselves suicidally against the windshield — first as individuals, then as brigades, then as swarms, then as waves of white death battering themselves against the glass.
Robertson pulled off the highway and parked at a BP gas station, watching the snow pour out of the gray sky, pondering a return to the city. Without the phone, there was no Emily, there was no way to call his parents, to check what was going on with restaurants, to field job offers, to stay in touch.
He flipped the tape over. By happy accident, the first track was Pressure Drop. He hauled the truck back onto the road and continued north, rhythmically bopping his hands on the wheel as he went. The snow relaxed a bit, and he arrived on time, more or less.
The second thought was that you don’t understand weather and the earth until you farm. You hate the sky, then you love it. You get angry at particular patches of dirt, blaming them viciously and in personal terms for their stubborn refusal to nurture that which they should be supporting. You can cheer for rain, view the sun itself with hostile suspicion, and be driven into depression when the temperature is 10 or 15 degrees above or below where it belongs — according to your arbitrary human needs, whatever those might be.
Third on the list: It can be empowering to work for a semi-functional alcoholic. You find yourself entrusted to tasks beyond your knowledge and quite possibly beyond your own abilities by simple virtue of the fact that the man who should be supervising the job at hand is on his fifth plastic cup of bottom-shelf vodka of the day and is supine on the floor of his bedroom, door locked, entreaties ignored.
The fourth thought he had was that it’s harder to drive a tractor than it looks.
Number five was this: It’s good to eat that which you grow. Stupidly obvious in theory, but vividly tangible in practice. The absurd thing is that prejudice is a gorilla in the knick-knack shop of perception; tell someone they’re drinking $70 a bottle French wine and they’ll ooh and ahh over its subtleties; tell them instead that it’s a $5 bottle produced in Idaho and they’ll point out its flaws. Grow an organic carrot for yourself and the subtle wholesome sweetness will just about make you want to cry. Perhaps it’s just that much better, Robertson considered. Or perhaps it’s the taste of your own sweat. Whatever.
The sixth thought was that when he died, he thought he would want to be buried in a garden or in cropland. Various municipal codes would object, of course. But there was something about black earth that was more appropriate to death than manicured lawns and marble — it was a better expression of being reduced to one’s constituent elements, gracefully and productively. It was free of human vanity.
The seventh thought he had was that Mike reminded him of his father. The drinking — the melancholy — the unexpressed anger. Robertson’s father was funny, hilarious, voluble; Mike was quiet and thoughtfully rageful. But both ultimately infuriated Robertson. Neither would ever quite get to the point. Both seemed to be constantly disappointed, and were therefore constantly disappointing. “A younger me would’ve eaten that shit up,” thought Robertson, on the drive back home. “Did, in fact, eat that shit up,” he added.
The eighth thought was that he thought about Emily almost every day, wondering what she was doing, wondering what she was thinking about, wondering whether she’d been trying to call him. The thoughts became less insistent as the time went on, and by the end of the stay there were two and three day stretches where she ceased to be for him. But when she popped back into his head, she was both urgently real as an idea and fuzzily abstract as a person. He tried to remember what her face looked like, what her body looked like — the precise color of her eyes, the shape of her nose, the contours of her breasts, the curvature of her hips, the texture of her hair. The memories were there, more or less, but were wrapped in that god-awful foggy gauze that covers everything beyond immediate sight.
The ninth thought he had was that, somewhere in June when the passive hostility had gotten to its apex, he’d wanted to die on the farm. Just lie down in a ditch, cover himself with dirt, and stop breathing. Not to show anything anything, or to prove anything to anyone. Just to be able to completely shut down and let things fade to a dark silent black. The thought was appealing enough and happy enough to be truly terrifying.
The skyscrapers of New Amsterdam came as a palpable relief as he drove back into town.