20 August 2013

Tripped Up by Catfish - A Fable of Accidents

"You a food blogger?"

The question came at me like a bolt of lightning. It stunned me like one, too. That is not the sort of question I ever expected to hear, even though at that moment I was standing at the counter in a local seafood shack. I was wearing a fedora, casual batik shirt and shorts. My trusty Nikon film camera was slung over my shoulder. The fellow that asked the question was looking at my hat and at the camera.

"I see you got one of those old-school cameras there."

I sputtered, I stammered a bit, feeling terribly self-conscious. I managed a weak-sounding "No, no, I just have the camera in case I see something interesting, and I'm just out for lunch, heard you guys have really good fried catfish sandwiches."

The man smiled and went back to the kitchen. I placed my order---a "Po' Jack" sandwich with a side of fried okra---and went to get my drink. My ears were burning with low-grade embarrassment and confusion. Here was a golden opportunity to declare myself, announce some intention, open up some new writing territory...and I sort of flubbed it.

Long-time readers, and probably many other folks, know that I write about food frequently here. It is a topic never far from my mind, it never seems to get old and it is a subject with infinite possibility. I suppose if I had more confidence in myself, I would have responded loud and clear "Yes, sir, I am. I'm here to learn the ways of the fried fish sammitch, show me what you got!" I could have easily made a new friend and possibly gotten a kitchen tour, or at least a sample.

Instead, I got confused and anxious and did no such thing. I took my drink to the table to await my order, turning his question over and over in my mind. It bothered me, but why?

The answer, or at least the start of one, came to me as I was tucking in to the sandwich. It bothered me because I was momentarily flustered in public---anathema to me---and it made me ask the deeper question of: If am I not a food blogger, then what kind of blogger am I?

I write about Stuff and Things (of which Food is a subset), even the Fiction and the Poetry. I've written about death and depression and light and love. I can barely begin to answer the "What?" question. And that begs a different, deeper question: What kind of writer am I?

That question sat firmly on top of my head while I ate, like a monkey that decided it wanted to be my hat. It kept picking at me, and thwacking my skull with bony little fingers. I knew I wasn't going to answer that question during lunch, so I accepted the thwacking and concentrated on enjoying the sandwich.

The sandwich, ladies and gentlemen, was excellent. Top notch. World-class, I might say. It was simple, it was crispy-tasty, it was served right. It was, in fact, the best damn fried catfish sandwich I have had in what seems like decades. The counter lady and the fellow who questioned me---turns out he was the manager/head chef/fish guru, name of Walter---both asked me if I enjoyed the meal.

I did. Very much. I told them in no uncertain terms what I thought. I ended up having a nice chat with Walter, and told them I would be back. He let me know about some of the other specialties they make and told me a little bit about what they do, where they get their fish. They seemed pleased that I was interested, and I could hear some pride in his voice when he talked about it. We shook hands, and I left to go about the rest of my day.

I still hadn't figured out a way to let them know that I do write about food, and their food was such that I would love to write about it. Which, of course, I just did. And I will go back. At least now they know me, and maybe we can have some more good conversations, talk some shop.

Now, if I could just figure out what kind of writer I am...

19 August 2013

New York Texas Toast Blues

Seamus couldn't fucking believe it. "This is what my life has come to?" he croaked. "Frozen Texas toast? From New York?" The last said with a lilting inflection of utter disbelief. What the hell did New York know about making Texas toast? he thought. There it was, big as day, the garish box sitting on the shelf at eye level with the label blaring "NEW YORK TEXAS TOAST - 5 CHEESE".

His stomach lurched. The cool air of the freezer cascaded down his bare legs dangling below the rumpled boxers that barely clung to his bony hips. Coils of ghostly smoke snaked across his vision, the cigarette dangling from lips glossed by whiskey. Seamus sighed, coughed, brushed absent-mindedly at the smattering of ashes on his stained undershirt.

He stood confused, wondering just when it was he had bought the toast. Even in his most desperate days, and there were many, he had always kept his distance from that particular abomination. Especially if it had that spread that looked like uncooked batter on it. It was supposed to be "butter", he knew, but it tasted like burned garlic mixed with stale movie popcorn oil.

He hated that shit. Yet there it was, in his freezer. A whiskey-tinged belch made its way up from his rumbling belly. He was hungry in spite of the booze, the fridge was mostly empty and there was exactly a dollar fifty-three in change sitting on the table in the dining nook. The table was barely standing, battered, and to his mind it made the whole place look smaller than an efficiency ought to be. The walls bulged in, he swore they were moving.

Seamus slammed the door shut. Shaking, he surprised himself by starting to cry. Memories rushed in of his step-mother's awful dinners, where that kind of toast showed up so often his older brother joked that she must have been banging the route driver for the bakery. He and Aidan had no options growing up, they ate it because it was that or nothing. Most nights, it seemed.

He swiped at his running nose with the back of a grimy hand. He shuffled over to the table, pushing aside the pistol. The slick black barrel clanked against the plastic highball glass next to it, slopping cheap scotch over the rim. The liquid beaded up on the torn note stuck under the glass. A black, spidery scrawl of ink across the brown kraft paper showed a name and address. Both started to blur as the whiskey soaked into the paper.

"Shit. Shit. Shit." He needed the money, but now he was feeling weak-kneed and hopeless. The thought that it was a job he could no longer finish burst bright in his head, he just knew, but he needed the cash so fuckin' bad and this shithole apartment is going to cave in on me, no way, no way, man, I can't eat another slice of that trash but I don't know what to do!

Seamus slammed his hands down on the table. Pistol and glass jumped. He grabbed the cigarette from his lips and dunked it hard into the glass. There was a faint hiss as the butt went out, bobbing in the whiskey like a bizarre canoe. "Changes, man, gotta make changes." Trembling hands cradled his aching head. "Cut out the booze, get out of the life, yeah, that's what I need." His rasping voice fell flat into the cramped, stale air of the apartment. "Gotta get help. Maybe Father Mancuso over at St. Ann's could do it, yeah, maybe so."

He sat up straight. He'd get dressed, that's what he would do. Put on the black shoes, the pair with only one hole in the sole. He'd walk the few blocks down to the old neighborhood, beg Mancuso to take him in. God loves a sinner, right? The good Father could take him in, clean him up, get him out of the life. A smile creased his mouth at the thought that he would never pull the trigger again. And if he was really lucky, he'd never again eat that goddamned toast.

It was just too close to the bone.

16 August 2013

Mangoes Before Heaven

Simon gasped, ragged breath a countdown to what he was sure would soon be his last. The sickly vapors wafting from his gangrenous legs combined with the fetid reek of the riverbank in an unholy miasma that near to choked him. He chuckled, tight and grim, wondering if it would be disease or animals that snuffed the candle for him.

The flies had already found their mark. They formed a gauzy haze that shuffled and coagulated repeatedly as he feebly waved them away from his torn body. He lay about halfway up the bank, as far as he had dragged himself before passing out under the onslaught of the Kalimantan sun. The track of his body was already drying up. So far, other than watching his legs swell and blacken, nothing had bothered him. Nothing big, anyway. He wondered again if the python stories the Dayak had told him were true. Big snakes held no particular terror for him, but forty feet long? Possessed of spirit magic? Christ, who thinks up such things?

He slept, for how long he could not tell. The sun appeared to have moved little when his swollen eyes fluttered open. His legs hurt, felt afire, yet his feet were numb. More flies formed a shroud around his head and shoulders. Weak swats at them only served as momentary respite. He rolled onto his side, the effort making his vision dim. There seemed to be a large, twisted log laying down by the waterline. It hadn't been there before, but the rivers here had their own way of confounding memory. Behind the log, he could see the river moving on, slow and syrupy.Water. He was so thirsty.

To his surprise, he was hungry. But what he wanted was a mango, ripe and fragrantly sweet. He had never tasted such voluptuousness before being posted to this green hell. The scent, the shape, even the taste all reminded him of a woman. He had taken to eating mangoes every chance he could get, along with a taste for the carnal delights of the prostitutes frequenting the trading post down at the river mouth.

"Mango..." he whispered hoarsely. His vision began to blur. The log on the riverbank twitched, caught on a sudden surge of current, he thought. But it began to move uphill. Simon croaked a sigh of disbelief, then passed out.

The log uncoiled further, resolving itself into the shape of a huge, mottled python. It lifted its snout, testing the heavy air with a surprisingly delicate tongue. It oozed up the bank.

He dreamed. He was back downriver, somewhere in the warren of hovels and ramshackle wharves that fingered the river where it disgorged itself into the sea. He was in a shack on pilings over the water, lying on his back in a rough, low-slung bed composed of copra and cast-off teak. His body, and the body of his companion, were sheened with sweat. A slight post-coital shudder coursed through his frame as the sloe-eyed beauty next to him breathed softly into his ear. She asked him in the pidgin English that served as their language of trade if he wanted mango.

He smiled. "Yes, yes" Simon answered excitedly. She smiled back, black pearls of her eyes drawing him in. Despite his recent exertions, he felt stirrings in his groin. This place, he thought, is swallowing me up. The woman got up, moving to a low chest that doubled as a table. There was a pair of mangoes on top, along with a small machete. He lay on his side and watched as she deftly carved the peel off the fruit. The sight excited and disturbed him.

The python had made its way up the bank, and was near to Simon's sleeping body. The snake paused. Another feathery whip of the tongue, as if assuring itself of its hunger. It looped its body closer.

She turned back to him. Lamp light gleamed on her skin. She held in her hands the halves of a mango. Juice dripped slowly down her wrists. Smiling, she approached the bed, kneeling down to him. A small, tan hand held the mango half inches from his nose. The scent near to made him swoon. Her dark beauty coiled around his heart and loins. "You want?" she asked. "Of course!" he half spoke, half groaned. He reached out to take the fruit. The woman climbed back in bed, managing to simultaneously eat her mango while spooning him.

The python hesitated when it crept close enough to touch the prostrate man. In his fevered sleep, his hand had clasped the head of the snake, caressing it. The snake paused, confused. It had never encountered such a thing in all its days of catching prey. The hand gently tugged the head of the snake down and to the man's lips. He kissed the reptile. The python responded by slowly wrapping its coils around the dying man.

Simon almost failed to notice how strong she was clutching him, he was so taken with the fruit. Lust, power, satiety, all suddenly condensed to the pale orange flesh he ate. He felt her grasp getting stronger, almost painful. But he could not bring himself to stop eating the mango. His vision begin to dim, she was saying something to him in a sibilant, sing-song voice but he could not understand her. He had a vague notion she was comforting him, saying it would be good for him to go. As her hard embrace transformed itself into a fierce pressure, his vision turned to black, and he felt his heart stop. He knew then that he would not leave Kalimantan alive. He told himself that he would not be afraid to die, though, as long as he could eat mangoes before Heaven.

15 August 2013


July 14, 2013. 10:54 PM.
We ripen in different fields yet there is no mistaking of the lineage. The wind blows on she and I together. We deflect with indignation that the universe would dare impose on us so. That she frequently interjects is all the proof I need.

Apples and trees, to borrow from the old saying. She fell not far from me. I pray that she fell far enough.
It's funny, the notes I leave myself. Often in obvious places but upon rediscovering them I almost invariably surprised. Also, by funny, I mean 'peculiar' not laugh-inducing. Okay, perhaps a chuckle or two. It can be rather silly.

Ah, I digress.

"We ripen..." I wrote that late in the evening, long after Wee Lass had been put to bed, with her words ringing in my ears. Not discouraging words, mind you. Far from it. Our nightie-night conversations range from dead serious to thoughtful to slapstick. Such variations are further earmarks of my legacy.

I do not recall in specific what we talked about that night. I do know that it must have affected me deeply, to compel me to tap out a quick note on my smart phone before I attempted another descent into the Challenger Deep that is my sleep time.

Gahhh. She sounds like me sometimes, and that is a two-edged blade. There are no easy answers here, being a father without (mostly) a clue. The incentive to do the best, be the best I can be, is right there in front of me. She said goodnight.

"Goodnight. I love you, daddy."

Yes, she does. She did not fall too far, this I know.

08 August 2013

Beseech the Stars

Aislinge sat still as stone while the gale blew itself out around him. Waves pounded the dark basalt at the base of high cliff, liquid iron hammering out the fury of Manannán. The cold and the wet troubled Aislinge little. It was the vision dissolving into foggy memory that concerned him. Never in his life had he conceived of something so terrible as what had woken him up, crying out. He leaned slightly into the wind, wondering at what had brought him here to pray for starlight.

He had sat upright, leaping like a stag and yelping. Sweat runneled his face, mixing with the cool rain that was seeping in through the tiny opening in the wall that served as window. The weather beaten board that was meant to cover the hole at night had fallen out, blown away by the violence of the wind. Aislinge had bellowed an oath wrought by fear and his pounding heart. The dream-vision still blazed in his mind, filling him with sadness and dread. He had been walking by the sea watching the sun dip to the horizon.

Then the stars went out, one by one. Candles in the wind gone swiftly. The sky had gone deep blue, then black, leaving him stranded amongst the gorse. His limbs were locked in fear brought on by his inability to see anything except a faint glow where the sun might have gone down. He marveled at the black, shaking with terror yet unable to move.

Move he must, the shaman told himself. Wind was blowing strong from the sea. Its howl was unearthly, overlaid with what Aislinge's panic stricken mind took to be the doleful moan of banshees or dire wolves. The sound turned his bowels to ice water, and he forced his limbs to move. He turned into the wind with its mineral tang filling his lungs. He reckoned if he could make it to the sea, he could follow the cliff back to his stone hut to await the morning.

The wolf-wind raised its pitch, bringing with it stinging rain that felt like pebbles on his skin. The blackness wrapped itself around him. He could not shake the feeling that the night had replaced the tattered cloak he wore. The sodden fabric was gelatinous on his leaden limbs. The sound of the waves reached his ears while the salt aroma intensified. He reckoned it would not be far now.

Howls. The hiss of rain and breakers. Aislinge imagined he saw a glimmer of phosphorescence where the sea should be. He smiled, a bolus of hope bubbling up in his heart. There it was, he just knew it. He moved forward with a prayer of thanks on his lips, and stepped out into nothingness. Plummeting through the wet obsidian night, at first he was too shocked to scream. But he sensed the wet rocks below, and the knowledge of what was surely violent death flayed open his throat with a scream that pierced the earth.

Aislinge sat upright on the side of the slab he called a bed. The memory of impact was bleeding away. He looked about the hut. The storm cursed and growled still. By the light of dying embers, he could see that the board was missing from his window. The hole itself a darker black smudge in the stone wall, through which no light could be seen. He gasped. Surely his dream could not be true The stars, they could not have gone out. This could not be.

Still, he knew what he must do. He fumbled about in the dim hut, finding a small clay lantern and his walking stick. He filled the lantern with warmstone and the greenish fungus he had discovered, the kind that gave light but no warmth. He decided to leave his fire box behind. It would not last long and its meager warmth would be no match for the force of the gale. Wrapping his cloak up tight, he stepped from the hut with a deep breath to scent the sea. The wind seemed to lessen its force, perhaps a good sign as he walked.

The sound of breakers. Sea spray he could taste. The wind curled about him, caressing and cajoling. To his tortured imagination the hiss and groan of the waves sounded like selkies calling out from the water. The voices and the waves grew louder as he neared the cliff edge. This time he would not fall.

One step. Two steps. Three steps, his aching foot hovering over a blackness that differed in texture from the sod over which had walked. Ailsinge stopped and knelt down. He could feel a hard edge of stone where the cliff met the sky. The sky itself appeared to be mottled black. The rain had slowed to almost nothing, and even the wind seemed to be cooperating. Below, the waves continued their assault on the rocks. In his mind's eye he could see the breakers curl to fling up their manes of spray. He smiled at the memory.

Aislinge pulled himself forward to the cliff edge. The wet stone prodded him hard in the haunches even through the wool. The lantern he set down carefully. It cast a small pool of greenish light, feeble against the night, but giving him a measure of hope as he began his vigil. He looked up at the sky and emptied his mind to wait.

The stars, they would come back. He would wait for their glow.

In memory of the Bear and the Butterfly

05 August 2013

Medicine Man (Heal Thyself)

If the saying "You are what you eat" has any certitude to it, then I am a walking antidote. A bulwark of mental insulation, wearing a flak jacket made of things that seduce my gullet. Ladies and gentlemen, in the past week I have had privilege and pleasure of playing chef to appreciative family and friends. Twice in that time I bestirred myself to arise from my semi-slothful existence and cook good things that we shared at the table. Twice I was honored with praise for my efforts, and by the ultimate compliment to any cook: those who ate wanted more.

Such words and a clean plate might give any human the notion that they could be more than amateur at the art of feeding people. Compliments and kind words have a tendency, at least in my case, to make me expansive. I get those urges to create a cookbook, write a food column (which I confess, I'd love to do) or even "can that stuff". There is a little whiff of that aggressive need, glossed with love,---which I suspect fuels more than one star chef ego in this world---to not just feed someone but to make them want to be fed by me. I find this stroking of ego to be energizing and disturbing.

It is a fire that I rapidly bank. I do this in part because I know that being a professional chef is not in the cards for my life. There is a learning curve and investment of effort that circumstances disallow at this time. Plus, I have been led astray more than once in my professional life by ignoring some blind spots in my career vision. I am diligent to avoid repeating past mistakes.

Eating should not be an act of coercion, I believe. Nor should it be method to shore up ones' flagging self-esteem by obligating others to give you praise. Hopefully, I have avoided and will continue to avoid that particular trap. I do like to cook, for myself and for the enjoyment of others, but the real reward should be be in the act itself.

This is my hope. I also confess that my enjoyment, rather, my need to cook is not altogether selfless. This was driven home today upon looking up at the clock with the realization that I had spent almost five hours straight in the kitchen. Five hours, that is, with no worries or anxieties beyond the immediacy of dealing with sharp knives, hot pans and the anticipation of "Will this be good?"

Watching my companions dish up, I knew with honed clarity this simple truth: my cooking in and of itself had been a source of sustenance far beyond the calories it would place in my belly. Chopping, measuring, mixing, stirring...playing with fire in a perfectly acceptable manner...having an idea and following the thread uninterrupted...ah, such joy! To finish the thought and then eat it is a marvelous gift, one that lifts me up from some dark, scary places.

That is, dear readers, my no-so-secret secret. I do enjoy cooking for the delight and company of others. But the deeper reality is that, some days, maybe even most days when I cook...I'm cooking to restore myself. I cook because it is good medicine, for me and for those I love.