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.
When he opened the door to his apartment, he realized that he hadn’t cleaned his refrigerator very well — it smelled like death, despite the fact there hadn’t been more than a half dozen seemingly unperishable condiments in there. Ah, he thought. Half and half. OK.
His phone was dead, so he plugged it in, and turned the TV on. He could stand about 30 seconds of it before he shut it off. His hands were trembling, in need, he thought, of a hoe or a frying pan. Instead, he looked through his liquor collection and tried to figure out whether he missed the stuff enough to have a drink. He thought of Mike, and put the glass away, swearing under his breath. Upstairs, the neighbors were fucking — grunt grunt squeak squeak SQUEAL grunt grunt bang bang bang. He didn’t need this. He took a walk. The streets were busy, as always, as he made his way down to the Square, where the idiot tourists milled around looking for the New Amsterdam outlet of Olive Garden so that they could be on vacation and still enjoy their faux-hospitaliano. The masses of idiot tourists somehow cheered him up, and he went wandering to Little Sicily in search of a pistachio cannoli. There was a crowd of idiot tourists milling around, trying to find the nonexistent line. Robertson elbowed his way to the counter. “Two pistachio,” he said authoritatively to the guy behind the counter. The guy nodded, and the cannoli were produced in no time, put in a white cardboard box, tied up in a blue and white length of string dispensed from a ceiling mounted device designed expressly for the purpose. Robertson paid his five bucks and hit the pavement.
By the time he was back at his apartment, the fucking had stopped, and his phone had recovered from his long absence. 20 messages. Huh. From oldest to newest:
“Hi Mom,” said Robertson. “What’s up?”
“Where have you been?” she asked. He could hear the death in her voice.
“What — uh, what’s going on?”
“Your step-father,” she said. “He’s in the hospital. They don’t think he’s going to make it.”
“Oh, Christ. Oh, Mom. I’m sorry — what…”
“Drinking, again,” she said. There was disgust and desperation in her voice. Robertson cringed, wanting to put the phone down. Mom was truly 0 for 2 on the husband front. Two drunks, and, if things proceeded apace, two corpses.
“Uh, I’m so sorry. How much time… do they…”
“We don’t know. It could be tomorrow. It could be two weeks from now. Can you come home?”
“Yeah,” said Robertson. “Sure. I’ll fly out tonight.”
Robertson hung up. Back to Stillwater, Minnesota.
He deleted Emily’s messages, unlistened to, and called her.
“Hey,” he said.
“You!” she said, angry and excited. “What the fuck!”
“I was on an organic farm for a few months,” he said. “Working the earth, etc.”
“And they don’t have phones there? No cell signal? What the hell?”
“I don’t know,” Robertson said. “I just… ah, fuck it. What’s going on? I’ll be back in Minnesota tomorrow. Step-dad is dying.”
“Uh,” said Robertson.
“No, of course you didn’t, you asshole,” said Emily. “The first couple were because I was out in New Amsterdam and wanted to look you up. Way to hurt my feelings without even trying.”
“It’s OK,” said Emily. “I pieced it together by visiting your apartment and seeing the pile of junk mail stacked up. Not the farm part, but the ‘disappeared’ part. I worried about your well being for about five minutes and then figured that if someone had kidnapped you, they probably would regret it enough to either let you go or kill you. Either way, out of my hands.”
“Thanks,” said Robertson.
“Anyway, I’m engaged,” said Emily. “I thought you’d want to know…”
“What,” said Robertson, visibly starting. His heart pounded like a machine gun. “Great!” he said, a bit tremulous.
“Are you OK?” asked Emily, skeptically. “If you’re getting all weepy over this, let me tell you something — this ship sailed a long time ago. You’re a big time chef cross country, right? A little too cool for home or whatever? Anyway, he’s great — he’s a surgeon, a little intense, but a great guy.”
“Great,” said Robertson. “You guys will have an awesome house.”
“Not that we’ll ever be home,” she said. “But, sure. I’ll take that as an official vote of congratulations.”
“Yeah, sure,” said Robertson.
“Goddammit, you are fucked up,” said Emily. “I don’t normally swear like this, you know? I save it for you, because you are such a stupid asshole. Aaugh!”
“WHAT?” asked Robertson. “What the hell? What did I…”
“All this drama! Oh boo hoo I’m stoically devastated by the fact that my ex-girlfriend is, after several years, making a concrete step toward putting her life back on something like a normal track. Boo hoo! What the hell! If you have feelings for me…”
“Fuuuuuuuck,” said Robertson. “I gotta go.”
“Cool!” said Emily. “That’s a great way to handle it. Just hang up. Maybe you can go out to another farm or monastery and random patch of woods or whatever and commune with your stupid lack of feelings out among the stars and get your head out of your ass and figure out what you’re actually doing with your life!”
Robertson laughed. “Fuck,” he said. “Fair enough. Can I see you when I’m back? Want to come up and grab pizza at the Roman Market, or something?”
“You asshole,” said Emily. “When is the last time that I told you that I hate you?”
“Probably somewhere in those deleted messages, right?” asked Robertson.
“Yes, somewhere in there,” she said dryly. “Fuck you, yes, see you at the Roman Market. Friday night? I actually have some time off due to a clerical error. Hopefully it’ll stay erroneous.”
“Hopefully,” said Robertson. “See you then.”