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.
On the plane ride to Minneapolis, Robertson was too tired to sleep. He popped open his backpack to see what kind of reading material he’d thought to bring. There was a copy of the Art of Eating; the cover story was “The Fair of the Fattened Ox in Carru.” Too heavy for 8:15 in the morning after no sleep. He had a copy of James Clavell’s Shogun; Toranaga was just starting to turn things around, to delay his enemies and split them off from one another. He gave it a shot, but it was a cheap paperback with small print, and he couldn’t focus. He tried to drink his airplane-issue coffee and failed.
“Fuck,” he said quietly under his breath. The well-groomed middle-aged mom to his left shot him a look. He winked at her and went back to digging around in his bag.
Ah, he thought. Mail. Bill. Bill. Overdue Christmas card from random school friend. Bill. Then a black envelope with a white rectangle on the front containing his name, hand written with impeccable precision, so neat that it bordered on font-like. He popped it open. Inside was a piece of stationery that looked from the weight and grain as though it was handmade paper. At the top was a woodblock stamp of a Viking longboat, eight shields on the side, two ravens flying ahead of it. “Wednesday,” it said under the boat, the letters blending in with the waves.
“Mr. Robertson,” it began, “I had the pleasure of drinking with you many months ago. I have followed your career with interest in the meantime, and would be pleased to talk with you about retaining your professional services. I am not interested in something particularly commercial, although I would not be adverse to making money together. I am more interested in putting your knowledge and drive to work in less obvious ways. I am entrusting you with my personal cell phone number. When it is convenient to you, call me and we’ll get togther and talk. You name the bottle, and we’ll drink from it. This is a challenge. I want to drink something interesting, and price is not really an object. (I will be disappointed if you choose a $25,000 dollar bottle of wine simply for the shock value, but I will understand, and humor you nonetheless.) I hope to speak with you soon.
The signature was followed by a phone number. “Huh,” said Robertson. “I’ll be damned.”
The woman glared at him harder.
“Come ON,” said Robertson. “Ugh.” He put his head down on his tray and conked out for the duration of the flight.
His mom was waiting at the baggage claim.
“Hi,” she said, looking sad and tired. Once upon a time she was tall, healthy, and blonde, but now she looked bent, spent, and skinny, her hair fried and face lined. He hugged her tightly.
“What’s the situation?” he asked.
“You’re right in time for the funeral,” his mom said quietly. “Later this afternoon. I was going to call you, but I figured, why bother. You were never a big fan.”
“I… Mom, I’m so sorry.”
She’d already started walking toward the car. He grabbed his luggage and hustled after her, cutting through the crowd. She was moving with unnerving speed and focus.
“So,” she said once they’d piled into the beaten-up old Mazda sub-compact. “What was it that kept you so long?”
“Uh huh,” she said.
“You’re not even angry at me for lying.”
“No,” she said. “I’m just tired. Really tired.”
“Mom,” he began. He trailed off. She said nothing to him for the duration of the drive home.
They attended the funeral, which was sparsely attended, quiet, and exceedingly religious. On the way out, Robertson’s mom reprimanded him. “You were rolling your eyes every time he mentioned ‘heaven,'” she said. “What… what is your problem? Why are you like this?”
“Like what?” said Robertson. “Rational?” he said, instantly regretting it. They’d gotten back into the car, but she wasn’t starting it up now.
“What do you mean, rational?” said his mom. “Does that mean I’m irrational, because I have faith? Faith and reason don’t negate each other. They are two sides of the same coin.”
“OK, Mom.” Robertson tried shutting down.
“I want to hear this,” she said. “My husband is dead, again. I want to hear what my son thinks about where he is.”
“I mean, he’s right where we last saw him. How about we drive home and then think about some dinner. I can cook something… there was the mushroom-walnut pie I used to do from the Silver Spoon that you’d really like…”
“Where we last saw him how?” she asked. “Enlighten me. Tell me about your empty, meaningless view of the universe.”
“I don’t think it’s empty at all,” said Robertson, getting angry. “Watch Carl Sagan. Read David Attenborough. You can’t throw a rock without hitting something… something profound about evolution and geology. It just takes a little work. It’s… why do we bother inventing this whole other invisible universe without even bothering to understand the one we’ve been handed, first? You want to know what it’s like after you’re dead? What was it like before you were born? How was that? It was pretty quiet and was over pretty quickly, that’s how it was.”
“I just don’t understand why you don’t have any faith… why you’d want to do that to him after he was dead…” her voice started trailing off.
“Godammit, Mom, no. I just don’t like fairy tales, I don’t care how well intentioned they are… what are you doing? Why now? Why this fight? What the fuck?”
His mom began to cry. Not loudly, not theatrically — mostly just tears running down her gray and weary face.
“Goddammit, Mom,” said Robertson. “Don’t do that… I’m not…”
She turned away, and started the car. They drove back to her small old home in silence.