Something about Blix is gravely disturbing. His eyes are very severe, and reluctant to make contact. I don’t trust him as far as I can spit. In the elevator down he delivers the following confession:
“On a lark we called your wife and told her you were here.”
“Oh.” And how did you get my telephone number?
“She seemed quite distressed. ‘He left at twelve,’ she said. ‘All he said was, I’ll be leaving for awhile…’ Really, you should talk to her, Mr. J. I think the state of marriages in this country is deplorable. You really should talk to her, tell her how you feel. Not everyone is perfect all the time. We have our wants. We can’t be like statues. No. No, the human condition is far too inconstant for that. What we require is understanding and compassion, don’t you think?” He says, putting his arm around me as the elevator door opens. “Yes, understanding and compassion, these two things are paramount.”
His presumptuousness leaves me stupefied. We cross the hall of the lobby without a word. In addition to being a scary old crow he is a marriage counselor! How fitting…
At the door of the dining hall, Blix stops me, turning me face forward to him and says in warm magnanimous tones, “Now I want you to trust me, Mr. J. Feel free to come to me with whatever is on your mind. I will help you in all ways. You can count on me.”
He opens the door and lets me through with a prayerful nod of his balding head. His eyes shut, transformed by heavily etched lines telling revealing an ability to detect the microscopic. His hooked nose takes on the appearance of a nail. I walk past him, aghast at the fatherly change in his tone towards me. Of course it’s all suspect. I don’t believe a word of it.
“Have a nice dinner, Mr. J.”
I turn my attention to the grand hall, a large stately affair. Long rows of tables canvassed white and sparkling with crystal vases and flower arrangements, days old, picked through, now not so astonishing, echo from one end of the hall to the other. In the center a large Egyptian styled column rises and fans out over the room. A light cascades from the top and swaths the entire room in a gentle glow. A bank of very tall arched windows breaks the far wall.
The room is quiet, and from its appearance dinner has long passed. Sounds from the kitchen tell of rushing water, clinking dishes and silverware, and the prep for the next meal, altogether cozy and inviting. I feel as though I have the entire room to myself, a relief but for one small exception; a lone straggler remains. Pudgy and greasy, with a full head of dark silver streaked hair, beard and mustache, he wears a tuxedo with stains on the breast of his shirt, his bow tie coming undone off the left of his neck. His disheveled appearance is marked by a rabid hunger in his eyes. As his sticky fingers bring the bony carcass of a roasted half chicken to his lips, his eyes flare unnaturally so that the entire white shows and his blue irises shimmer like waves in a pool with refracted light. His teeth come forward as his face curls up around his eyes, and his whole body lunges into the effort of stripping the meat from the bones. Some bit of skin wiggles from his lips as he chews, and he slurps the thing down. Then he sees me. The chicken goes slamming down onto the plate and chicken juice splatters all over, fragments of some dark cabbage, and what looks like the remains of a brussel sprout. His eyes lock onto me. His hands freeze in their chicken holding position. His whole expression goes stark and motionless so that I feel I’ve been spotted by one of a species of wild cats.
I evade his glare completely, looking instead to the kitchen in hope that a waiter will arrive. The kitchen prep continues. I wonder briefly if too much time has passed. Perhaps I should just leave. There comes a point when one is too late, after all. I don’t want to draw the ire of anyone, least of all this chap who appears to be a member of the wait staff on his break. I check the door, but Blix is still standing by waiting to make sure I am served properly. Good boy, Blix, ever dutiful. Host rule #3: a full guest is a happy guest. I decide to get this over with and take a chair at the end of the closest table, and compose myself, hands folded in my lap, with complete lack of ease. I’m being watched from the doorway and my chicken eating neighbor with painful scrutiny. I feel exposed, and want to run shrieking from the room. My blood is starting to boil. What kind of hospitality is this?
I look at Blix, and my expression impresses him enough so that he turns from his watch and disappears. In my relief I hear dishes moving off to my left and turn my head slightly for a look. The spook at the table is gathering his dishes. The napkin is draped over his elbow. Spoon, fork, and knife go crashing on top of the splintered chicken carcass; a salad plate with withering remnants balances on one side of the plate, along with a butter dish and a half eaten dinner roll. On the other side of the plate, in a trick of manual dexterity heretofore unknown in the annals of manual dexterity, a half full carafe of Chianti gets balanced, oh so carefully, on the right rim of the plate. The wine glass rests forked in the fingers of his left hand. He eases up carefully with the entire assemblage and makes his way toward me, never for one second removing his eyes from the side of my head. He expects me to welcome him with a look, but I don’t dare. I really just don’t want him around. But come he does, and sets everything down in reverse order hastily, so that the once pristine cloth is now, in a breath, a mess, splattered with Chianti and chicken grease.
He is crocked to the gills from the smell of him, his face completely engorged, and his ruddy chicken smeared cheeks wobble as he tries to recover his breath while his eyes glare at me like some starving reptile. This crossing has been an extreme effort for him. And I wonder why this obscene carnivore, so recently full on greasy roasted foul has chosen me as his next kill. He tries to structure himself with some dignity, and his eyes look kindly at me. It’s impossible for me to ignore him anymore. And not being an English Royal or even a guard at Buckingham palace, my eyes drift casually toward his. And it is there we meet.
He smiles at me. I see now he is not a reptile, but some scavenger, perhaps a vulture, or a hyena better yet. With one hand he raises the dinner roll to his mouth. In the same motion, he offers me the other. Chewing vociferously on the bread, he says –
“Hi. I’m Jeoff.”
His manners are unfathomable. But desiring to remain a human being I shake his hand and muster a polite grin.
“You look new. I haven’t seen you around here before.”
That explains some of his demeanor.
“A lot of regulars here at the hotel?”
“We’re all residents.” He picks up his fork and knife with the greasy ends of his fingers and goes after the chicken again.
“Oh really? I didn’t know.”
Jeoff looks up at me with an excited sparkle and says, “Maybe you’d like to be a resident!”
“No,” how absurd, “I have a family. I just came for a little R&R.”
“Oh,” he says, smacking, “I was noticing that.” And he points to my wedding ring. “Havin’ a little spat with the wife, are you?”
“No… just… needed a change of scenery.”
“Ah, change of scenery, right. I know what you mean, my friend. I know exactly what you mean,” and he nudges me with his elbow. “I came here for a ‘change of scenery’ a year ago.”
“Liked it that much, did you?”
“Oh, it’s hard to get away from here darling, it was saving grace for me. I was having excruciating bouts with depression. You can’t imagine. But now I’m completely cured!”
“So why don’t you go back?”
“What, go home? Oh no, it’s impossible,” he says shaking his head nervously, “I just couldn’t.” His eyes shift toward mine to gauge my seriousness. “What?” he asks incredulously, his arms gesturing about the hall, “actually leave here? You must be daft!”
He turns his attention completely to the chicken carcass and shakes his head, and begins carving up the remaining flesh. I wonder at his vehemence. I think he should leave the hotel. Doesn’t he want to get back to his life? But I guess some people are not comfortable in the world. Perhaps I’m not. Perhaps that’s why I’m here. I drop these thoughts like a pot of steaming wet noodles. I’m not like this guy – not this hyena.
From the kitchen door behind me to my right, a short trim waiter arrives with a silver tray bearing food. He has dark circles under his eyes and greasy tousled black hair. His face is long and emaciated. His cheeks sag, the bones of his lower nasal region protrude. He is wearing a dark tuxedo suit, which is smeared here and there with mustard, a bit of hollandaise, and tiny bits and pieces of food. I take it he has been busy. Moist heat rushes off of him carrying with it the rugged odor of detergent and garbage.
“Ah, here’s Sledge.” Jeoff acknowledges with a special gleam in his eye. Sledge nods toward Jeoff then looks at me with some hesitancy.
“Good evening, Monsieur.” He says to me in somewhat clipped tones. And he sets the tray down so that it bangs against the table and removes the domed lid. An acrid smell fumes its way toward me immediately. A flash of silver reveals a round platter with an assemblage of what looks like kimchi with some unidentifiable scraps of what could be the entrails and exoskeletal remains of some very large insect, “your appetizer.”
Sledge stoops dramatically, reaching under the table, and produces a large bottle marked MURIATIC ACID, and sets the bottle on the table. Then producing a pair of white latex gloves from his jacket, he puts them on with a rubbery snappy flourish, opens the bottle and proceeds to make a puddle of it on my plate. The liquid splashes over the fermented cabbage, and the fleshy scraps sink down into the mix, and the whole assemblage starts fuming like a gas chamber reaction. Sulfur colored smoke rises off the detritus and gives rise to a sickening gag inducing odor. My stomach begins convulsing in the pit of my bowels. My salivary glands overreact until my mouth is drooling and full of the taste of the toxic residue. The whole thing is too much, so I bend over the right side of the chair overcome with the foulness.
“Oh my,” what are you trying to do, kill me? You can’t possibly expect me to eat that stuff.
“Protein,” Sledge proclaims. His voice is soft spoken yet proud, and he stands up straight as if I am to compose an impromptu psalm in his honor. One look at Jeoff confirms my worst fear – I must eat. The spectacle of the toxic cabbage has sparked renewed Jeoff’s interest in his chicken carcass. His eyes sparkle, and his mouth is curled in utter glee, and his fork plows through the remains on his plate and back hoes them down his gorge.
“Yumm, yummy!” He croons with his eyes closed, hand rubbing his tummy, his face a composition of placid ecstasy.
By this time I haven’t made a motion with my fork. I’ve given no indication of any intent whatsoever to eat this mess that would surely bring a deficit to my whole being. Sledge tries, but can’t hide his disappointment in me. With a nearly inaudible indignant huff, he removes the silver dome, turns heel, bottle of muriatic acid in tow, and bolts for the kitchen. Despite the fact I have offended him, I stay my position and change the subject entirely.
“So I see you’re late for dinner, too.” I say to the human waste disposal.
Jeoff looks up tenderly with a mouth full of food. “I couldn’t’ let you eat all alone!” He says, “No, I just ordered another plate… can’t make the banquet without ordering another plate!”
“Oh,” I say, “is that after the party?”
Jeoff breathes in and rolls his eyes like is-it-ever, and comes back with, “Oh yeah, the banquet is… The banquet is huge, Mate. You might have to wait though. It’s kind of an exclusive thing. Only the best get to go to the banquet first… Sooner or later, though, everybody gets an invitation.”
He goes on digging, picking the bones, and shoveling the very last specs down, moaning and crooning like some warbling love struck bird.
“Well?” He looks up at me expectantly. “What’s the matter? Well, go on… Eat!”
I look at him placidly, hands folded in my lap, knowing full well he’s in on the joke with the entire kitchen staff and Blix to boot. “I’m not hungry,” I say.
Jeoff gets a wild look in his eye, like a gunman who’s run out of bullets. His face becomes flushed and grabbing his napkin with a bone knuckle grip, he looks cautiously around the room, grabs my shoulder and leans toward me for a private chat.
“Not hungry?! Now you listen to me, Mr. J. That food’s for guests, and you’re a guest! Now you eat that before the shit hits the – Oh shit, ooops! Oh Jeez.”
Jeoff dives beneath his hand in a vain attempt to hide his oversized head from Sledge who has just returned.
“Is there a problem, Monsieur?”
“No. I’m just not hungry, thanks.”
“Is it the food?”
“No, no really, I’m fine. Could I just have a glass of water?”
“Coming up right away, Monsieur!” And he rushes off to get it.
I look at Jeoff who is still hiding beneath his two arms waiting for the roof to cave in. What a silly man, this Jeoff. I wonder about him, and wish silently once more that he would go away. I wait for interminable minutes while Jeoff gathers his composure and returns to sifting casually for the last remaining scraps of chicken meat.
“The bones can be quite wonderful too,” he muses, “if the chicken is fried.”
“You like fried chicken, do you?”
“Oh yes.” And he smiles beneficently while his front incisors gnaw on the rib cage.
“They say it’s bad for your heart.”
“My friend, few things in this life are good for the heart. The very best things come but once or twice in a lifetime. From then on, you might as well do what ever will ease your suffering. Take my grandfather, for instance… raised from the womb on dairy and sausages. He ate German schmaltz with every meal. Every piece of bread and cracker was slathered in it… smoked five packs of cigarettes a day. He lived till he was eighty-two. Imagine that. And what do you think killed him?”
“No, Silly!” he lisps indifferently before leaning towards me eyes straight into mine and whispers seriously, “a bus!”
“With habits like that you’d think he was cast iron.”
“Yes, well they carried him off in buckets.” He chortles mischievously gnawing on the chicken bones once again. “He could handle anything but hard liquor.”
In the kitchen a pot crashes to the floor, followed by kitchen utensils and the sound of breaking china. A loud rumble roars to life, a voice shouting in French. Sledge, the waiter, is pleading. My back breaks out in goose pimples. The fine hairs lurch straight up the back of my neck. All of the color drains from Jeoff’s face. His horrified expression is enough to make me think he’s not a part of any conspiracy against me. He looks at the kitchen doorway, and then at me with a look that is sorrowful and steeped in dread.
“He’s coming.” Jeoff whispers.
The kitchen erupts again with more crashes and things hitting the floor and walls. A heavy pot hits the kitchen door. I can hear as it swings open. But I don’t dare look.. A heavy presence enters the room. I can tell by the terror on Jeoff’s face.
Leather clad feet clap coldly against the tile work sounding out a military funeral march. Each step sounds louder and louder. But I don’t move. There’s nothing to be afraid of, I tell myself. We’re all reasoning adults. I’m sure we can talk this out. Besides I’m a guest in this hotel, and the customer is always right. If need be, I can march right out of here and leave. I don’t even have to pay. I’ll tell Blix I’ve had a miserable time with poor air circulation, unfurnished rooms, voodoo monsters, hyena guests, and now a temperamental chef. My complaints are all reasonable and accurate, I tell myself. But something tells me I’ve moved beyond reason into the realm of sheer terror. My fingers clamp down around my knees. My eyes dart forward and perch unwavering on a spot on the wall opposite me where nothing can disrupt my concentration. I listen to my breathing and try to still the growing shudders I feel warping up and down my spine.
I feel a large presence over my left shoulder, and looking to Jeoff to ensure I have triangulated the right position, I slowly turn my head and look up at a red faced horror, with bushy eyebrows and a greased mustache, a bulbous nose and beady eyes that speak of maniacal brilliance and a fuse shorter than an eyelash. The chef, in his greasy overalls and apron raises the plate of detritus swimming in the puddle of acid, and after scrutinizing it with every one of his senses, drops it again on the table so that it splatters with a resounding rattle.
He bends down, arms akimbo, and his eyes pierce my soul with their raging. “Your dinner, Monsieur…”
Damn my hide. “I’m not hungry, thanks.”
Jeoff intercedes, “Chef Black, if you’ll let me explain.”
“Quiet, you!” The chef growls, and turns his dagger gaze back to me. His eyes are puffy and dark with blood. They look like two balloons at their maximum surface tension.
The chef makes a singular movement of his hand. His finger traces the air and points directly at the plate in front of me. A slow inward breath confounds the chef’s sinuses, which are sticky and blocked by a strained mucous flow, probably from cutting onions with a very sharp knife, as his odor attests. As his lungs fill his thick lips smack open and his mouth draws out a word, and as he speaks the promise of all the onions pours out of him in vapors that would keep the meanest spirit from crossing his threshold.
“I slave all afternoon to prepare for you, Monsieur, this delicious, delicate, gastronomical masterpiece… I do it at Mr. Blix’s request. ‘We have a new man in the house,’ he says to me, ‘Gaston, prepare something special for him. I want him to feel at home.’ and then you are late. I wait. I slave. But you never show up. And now you refuse me? Saboteur! My heart is broken. Cannot an artist fine even one milligram of compassion from this American Imperialist?”
He brings his red, hot, sweat smeared face to within an inch of mine. His beady dark eyes dagger at me from their sockets. His teeth are white, and the cavern of his mouth is black. And his tongue wiggles as it works with his lips and his breath to form trance-inducing whispers:
“Please, Monsieur, indulge me. I am not a pretty sight when I beg. If you try this, you will be rewarded, I assure you. I have never failed a customer. I am faithful to your tummy. Mmm? What do you say?”
His voice trails melodically over my swimming consciousness, lulling me into a consideration of this proposal. Should I yield to the pleas of such a man, it must be a test of my mercies. How should I trust him, this despot who calls himself an artist? He leans heavily over me. His dubious intentions descend like a cloud to convince me that I must take what is offered no matter the content. I must eat this plate of rotten cabbage and indefinable entrails and muriatic acid. I should take it into my body and make it a part of me. I must do it to assuage the gastro-intestinal gods. I must offer myself to them and the inevitable transformation that will result. And though I cannot see what will positively transpire as a result of my participation in this quasi-religious death defying scheme, some profit must come of it, I hope, I want from the depths of my soul. I imagine the children and Helen are watching me somewhere on a hidden camera. They’re sitting at home watching TV, waiting for me to make this decision to cross this hurtle. They’re waiting for me to exclaim, “More Packers Fish Chips, please!” To win the grand prize and bring it home. Perhaps in so doing, I will become a better man. Sledge looks hopefully at me over the chef’s shoulder. Jeoff urges me wordlessly to accept the offering. The chef’s eyes implore me. He is waiting for me to make up my mind. Yes, I see a certain sincerity. He seems very positive. Perhaps this is just nothing. Perhaps I’ve made it all up in my mind. Perhaps this is the thing I most fear. Perhaps that’s not rotten cabbage and bug guts and acid at all. Maybe it’s medicinal – the cure I’ve been looking for. It’s probably even delicious. Yes, I think I’ll taste it. Just a taste. Maybe I will wake up and all the other dreams will be over. Then I can finally move on.
One more check with the chef, whose sincere red bulging eyes milk into sweetness as he sees I have come around. He gently eases the still fuming cabbage toward me. I will my hand into motion around the fork on the table and pick through the ruckus. Bits are floating in the now inert acid, and I wonder if it is safe. The chef and the waiter and Jeoff assure me it is. So I count one, two, three, and close my eyes and lift a bit of the stuff toward my mouth.
“Tk, tk, tk,” says the chef waving a finger.
My left eye opens and looks at the chef and then at the stuff on the fork. He wants me to take more, so I send the fork down for a bigger bite, once again counting, once again feeling tremors wobble up and down my arm. I part my lips, open my teeth, extend my tongue and lay the fork down on it. A sour vinegar taste hits me, and an extremely salty flavor assaults the edges of my tongue and spreads wild fire fashion over the entire organ. My salivary glands kick out gobs of fluid and my eyes water. The acid hits me, strong, first as a vapor, then as a full gale force sharp tang that ruptures into a deluge of forbidden acridity. A toxic veil rips through my senses and instantly churns my stomach. I chew. The cabbage pieces go crunch and the soft tissues of the unidentified bug matter slithers across my tongue toward my throat with sharp barbs and tiny prickly hairs. Suddenly every material in my being wretches uncontrollably and I bring the stuff up in a violent lurching maneuver onto the floor near Jeoff’s well shined black shoes.
The chef smacks the side of his face, and peers down at me with a look of utter horror and disdain. In an effort to control himself he raises his fists and shakes them at the air, while his head swells crimson and the veins protrude on his neck and forehead. Sledge reaches around him in a tearful panic that he might become violent and removes the plate before it winds up on my lap or in my hair or splattered over the walls. He runs off with it toward the kitchen.
Meanwhile Chef Black settles from his histrionics. He bends over me arms spread against the table and the chair to prevent my unlikely escape, and he leers at me. His chubby face rattling with rage he can barely contain. Every pore of his face is open and black and exuding blast furnace heat. He looks as if he is about to burst.
“You are a most vicious bastard.” He says, voice trembling. And he turns away, stomping maniacally into the kitchen where the doors give way to a cataclysm of shouting, cursing, and crashing hardware.
Jeoff looks at me piteously and touches my shoulder. “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it.”
Not if it tastes like kangaroo dung on fire, I say to myself.
The doors swing open again and Sledge reappears with a piece of paper. He crosses hurriedly, and slams the paper down in front of me. I look down at it. “What is this?” I ask him.
“Your check, Monsieur.”
There must be some misunderstanding. “But I haven’t eaten anything.”
Sledge waves the check in my face contemptuously. “All meals are charged, Monsieur, whether you eat them or not.”
Ridiculous! I throw my napkin down on the table and take the paper from his hand. The check is blank except for the letters I and N. How absurd!
“What am I supposed to do with this?”
“You must read it, of course!”
What kind of fool am I being taken for? Read a check? Preposterous! Charge me. Ask me for my credit card, or demand cash. But read? Absurd!
I look at the paper. I read. “In,” I say.
Sledge smiles. “Very good, Monsieur.” He turns on his heel and speeds back into the kitchen for the final time this evening. The poor cook is still howling.
Jeoff looks at me preposterously, and grinning stuffs the last bit of food from his plate into his mouth.
“That was delicious.” He proclaims, wiping a trail of chicken grease off his chin. He traces a line under his face with the napkin and tosses the cloth onto the table, and looks up at me, satisfied.
“Shall we go to the party?” He asks.
I sit staring dumfounded at him for what must be a few moments. I don’t understand. The food, Jeoff, this mess, the angry chef still exorcising his monstrous ego from the bowels of the kitchen… I feel as if some cruel joke has been played on me. And I wonder at them all, Blix, Jeoff, the chef, and Sledge; all on a quiet crusade to subvert my sanity.
But for now there seems to be little else to do but follow Jeoff on his odd crusade.