My wife May is in her studio, painting with roofing tar and a fork, when her brother Eric calls from the interstate. She puts him on speaker-phone. I am reconstituting mushrooms in the kitchen, but I can hear the blast of highway noise across the house. He yells. She yells back. He can’t understand anything until he finally rolls to a stop at the first red light.
Eric’s hair has turned almost platinum over the summer, and his nose is patterned like a scorched red pepper. He has drugs for the weekend, which May takes inventory of while he stands behind her, lifting up the back of her shirt to see her new tattoo.
“Smells like Christmas,“ she says.
“Better living through chemistry,” he says.
She sticks the fork into the tar painting - it’s done - and takes it down from the easel, tacking up a clean sheet of paper in its place. We watch slides of our visits to Eric while he was in college. The graduation pictures are funny, but Eric stops laughing when May changes the carousel to the older pictures, from two years ago.
Eric’s college girlfriend, Celia, had agreed to let May document her recovery from the removal of her wisdom teeth. In the middle of the carousel is a series of images of Eric placing Celia in the bathtub in her underwear, washing the clotted blood out of her hair, changing her gauze. The water around her swollen face gets darker in each subsequent picture. Her belly and thighs, photographed in extreme close-up, are fanned with stretch marks.
“I love her textures,” says May.
“Aw, she’s fat,” says Eric. May starts tracing an image of Celia’s drugged, vacant eyes onto the paper with an eyeliner pencil.
I go back to the kitchen to check on the mushrooms. Before he took her to the dentist that morning, Eric had showed us pictures of their big trip to South America to visit her family: Eric and Celia smiling on a black-sand beach; Celia posing in the kitchen with her stout, high-cheek boned aunts; Eric pulling chicken from the bone and feeding it to Celia’s little daughter with his hands, his pinched-together thumb and forefinger deep in her too-open mouth, his own mouth open in sympathy. I drain the mushrooms, reserving the water to use later, for soup.
Eric and May are smoking up. The studio smells like conifers and sausage. May is shading an image of Celia’s torso, applying lipstick to the paper with a toothbrush. She makes the wide Caesarian scar dark, almost purple.
“That’s gross,” says Eric.
“It’s not gross, it’s beautiful,” says May. She has tar and lipstick on her wrists.
Eric gets up and switches off the lamp in the slide projector. The room goes dark and the projector fan gets loud.
“What’s the matter with you?” says May.
“I’m hungry and you’re filthy,” he says. “We’re meeting Clay and Tara at seven, so get cleaned up.” In the dark, May drops her toothbrush and makes a growling noise.
Eric and I compare scars while May is in the shower. We both have linear burn marks on our forearms from industrial ovens, but mine are older and I have more cuts on my hands. May comes out of the bathroom naked, toweling her hair.
“Yikes,” says Eric, shielding his eyes. “Put that thing away.”
We drive to Raw Power, the restaurant in Buckhead where I work. This is the first and last time I will ever eat there as a customer. Last month, the owners announced their decision to sell-out to a franchise called The Park Bench.
Chef Thanh brings us a flight of exotic reds and sits down, talking non-stop as he always does, telling us every detail. He shows Eric how to swirl, check the legs, the whole routine. The wines are especially pulpy and luxurious.
“Are these, like, dirty?” asks Eric.
“No, they are exactly the opposite of dirty,” says Thanh. “Unfiltered, Unfined. Chunk style. Usually they filter a wine and then ‘fine’ it by adding a positively-charged substance that attracts all the small, suspended particles like a magnet.”
“You mean, like, a precipitant,” says Eric.
“Eric has a degree in biochemistry,” says May, her whole face stuck down into the big balloon glass, making her voice sound compressed.
“Exactly. A precipitant,” says Thanh. “They use blood, egg whites, the swim bladders of fish, all kinds of filthy stuff.”
“Blood? Whose blood do they use?” asks Eric.
“I don’t know,” says Thanh. “Pigs, probably. Goats. Whatever has lots of inexpensive, conveniently available blood.”
“That’s kind of wild,” says May. “Couldn’t you get trichinosis or something?”
“Well, blood is an old-fashioned, Third World thing to use. Most modern wineries use diatomaceous earth, which is composed of the fossilized shells of microscopic sea animals. It’s dirt. Special dirt. Doubles as an insecticide.”
Thanh looks into the glass for a long moment, at the purple silt crawling down the sides of the crystal, and clears his throat.
“It makes for a cleaner-looking, more stable wine, but you lose a lot of the real flavor,” he says, his voice thick. “Here, tonight, in your hands and in your mouths, is a whole, pure, unmitigated year of sun and rain and soil on one precious little spot of this earth.”
Eric and May look at each other, then at me.
“So,” I say, “what little spot of the earth is this from, Chef?”
“A hill in a valley south of Santiago, Chile.”
Eric’s face, his whole body, closes a little.
“Oh, Eric’s been to Santiago!” says May. “He dated a Chilean girl in college.”
I take Eric into the back to introduce him to my amigos. He speaks
to them in Kitchen Spanish, saying dirty things about me. Esteban
and Steve, the dishwashers, are jealous that Eric has tickets to see some
jam-band with his friends tomorrow night. They have to work.
When we come back out onto the floor, May has finished all the wine and Chef Thanh is opening a new bottle for her. Eric goes up to the host-stand to see if he can find his friends, Clay and Tara, who are late. I walk up close to Thanh and put my arm around his shoulder.
“I really appreciate you giving me the night off,” I say. Up next to him like this, breathing his air, I realize he is drunk. He gives me a look, a big, wine-stained smile, and puts both hands on my throat.
“You can have anything you want,” he says, mock-throttling me. “This is your last meal.”
Eric is making noise at the host stand. Clay and Tara are here. At the sight of them, Thanh flees the table and May says, “Oh my God.” Clay is the most stereotypical spring-break frat-guy I’ve ever seen, complete with a white baseball cap. Tara is decked out like a Vegas call girl, too-tan and heavily invested in her chest. I can see May sharpening the knives in her head. I lean down, kiss her, and whisper, “Please, honey. Just try.”
Tara is more than happy to participate in May’s anthropological interview. Clay isn’t much of a talker – he’s extremely stoned – but he and Eric keep a quiet conversation going while I play the waiter, getting our food and drinks and keeping the table clear. From the little bit of conversation I can make out, Tara works at a strip club, while Clay has been on Hilton Head all summer, eating ecstasy and hosting parties at his step-dad’s summerhouse in Palmetto Dunes. Clay lives in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, but this weekend he has rented a suite in one of the fancy Buckhead hotels around the corner for “the shows.” That’s what these drug-addled Republican kids call a series of concerts by the jammy-bands. The Shows. No other explanation necessary. Party party.
I take Chef Thanh’s offer to have anything I want quite seriously, plundering the kitchen and the bar. I shave a whole black truffle onto a big risotto for the table, but Clay won’t touch it, and he won’t eat anything raw. He is the ideal client for The Park Bench. I can see him sitting in this very spot a few months from now, eating chili-cheese fries and ignoring Tara, zoned out on ESPN. He hides behind that raggedy white ball cap, only the bottoms of his eyelids visible when he glances over at May occasionally, trying to look at her tattoos without actually acknowledging her.
At the end of the phenomenal meal, while May and I are having a glass of muscat with Thanh and thanking him profusely, I see Eric, Clay, and Tara pop something into their mouths. We all leave the restaurant and walk down the street to the bars. The girls insist on going into the 70’s disco place. When “Do The Hustle” comes on, Eric and May go out in the middle of the floor and do a perfectly synchronized Hustle with unique variations, something they learned as kids for a talent show or something. Everyone in the club applauds when they’re done. Clay faces the television, drinking a longneck. His mouth shapes the word “fag” when Eric gets back up to the bar.
I see Eric’s pupils and realize their evening is taking a different direction than ours.
“Y’all want some rolls?” he asks us.
“I think we’ll just roll home,” says May. “We’re old and married. You guys go dance and have fun.”
“Clay’s got a suite at the Hyatt. I’ll just crash there,” he says.
“I’ve got prep in the morning,” I say. “Just go around the back
of Raw Power and bang on the service door when you get up.”
I’m cutting radishes into roses when he finally shows up at the restaurant the next day, around noon, looking like shit. I make lunch and we eat at the bar.
“You want a little hair of the dog?” I ask.
“What do you mean?”
“You know, a drink. The hair of the dog that bit you. You never heard of that?”
“I’ll take a beer,” he says. I pull out two big bottles of wheat beer and roll them on the bar to loosen the yeast. Then I cut up a lemon and an orange, pour the beers, and squeeze the fruit into the tall, dense heads.
“This tastes like the milk after Froot Loops,” he says.
“It’s wheat beer. Kind of like that wine last night, unfiltered. The beer is positively charged and the acid in the fruit is negatively charged, so they balance each other out.”
“Mmm, chemistry,” he says, and squints out at the empty restaurant. Then he looks back at me. “Me and Clay took turns with Tara last night. Like, right out of a porno.”
“Well, shit,” I say.
“It’s the first time I’ve had sex since I broke up with Celia.” He shakes his head. “Fucked up. Fuuucked uuup.”
“No kidding,” I say. “Don’t you think it’s going to be awkward when you see them for the concert later, and y’all doing all those drugs. It’s going to mess with your head.”
“Oh, Tara’s not going tonight. She’s got to work. I told you. It’s fucked up. There’s another Tara, from Hilton Head. She’s coming in, driving up today.”
“Same name. Clay’s little summer girlfriend. He’s going to break it off with her after the shows. That’s the plan.”
I finish my beer.
“You know, May’s going to freak out about this,” I say. “You better
tell her the second we walk in the door. If you don’t, I have to. She’s
After the fight and the reconciliation that takes all afternoon, May and Eric request a pitcher of my famous margaritas while we wait for his friends. The secret to my margaritas, and possibly to the duration of my marriage, is white wine in place of half the tequila. Even so, May is lit, jumping on the furniture, by the time the doorbell rings.
Clay walks in without saying anything, the bill of his cap pulled down low. Tara Number Two, his date, is a nervous nineteen-year-old with a fake tan. They won't sit down. Tara points at one of May’s paintings, a triptych of bleeding nudes, and whispers something to Clay. He says something that I don’t catch, but May does. I see her smile change.
May gets up and goes over to them, explaining the paintings and doing a little show-and-tell with some of the grisly shit she has around the house. She hands them both little apothecary’s jars filled with dogs’ baby teeth.
“Y’all like to party, right?” she says. “Eat these. They’ll really fuck you up.”
Eric makes a move to save his friends from his sister, but she pulls out another little apothecary’s jar and sticks it in his face. In it are Celia’s wisdom teeth.
“This is the good shit,” she says.
“Why don’t you guys go on ahead to the Jamaican place and get us a table,” I say.
Eric escapes with his friends. They drive together, even though it’s just up the hill to Little Five Points, since they are leaving for the concert straight from the restaurant. May and I walk.
“You’re already too drunk to be doing this,” I tell her. She says she loves her brother, and this is the last night of his visit, so she really wants to have a nice dinner with him.
“I’ll be good, I promise promise promise,” she says.
The Jamaican place is slammed, noisy and filled with colorful people. Clay and Tara Two whisper and giggle in their corner of the booth, making fun of everyone that passes by. May kisses me drunkenly and whispers loving, disgusting things, smiling an animal smile.
When we ask for the check, Clay and Tara begin to whisper furiously. Then Tara says, “Hey, Eric. Why don't we just go to Buckhead instead?”
“Instead of the concert.”
“What?” says Eric.
Clay says, “Listen, dude; let’s just sell the tickets, take some rolls, and go out to the bars.”
“Why?” asks Eric. “I drove all the way to Atlanta for this show. Why don't you want to go?”
Clay won't answer, so Tara says, “It’s just, Clay doesn't want to be around so many people with, like, purple hair.”
May stiffens like she's being electrocuted. “Purple hair?” she says, leaning across the table, “What’s wrong with purple hair, Clay?”
This is it. Eric knows, too. There’s nothing we can do now.
“How about,” May says, climbing up in the seat, “If you take a bunch of your white baseball caps and pass them out to all the freaks with purple hair? Would that make you feel safer?” She reaches over and smacks Clay’s hat backward off his head. He is going bald.
Eric stands up, trying to get the waiter’s attention, but there’s no need. May has climbed up on the table. She has the entire restaurant’s attention. Tara jumps out of her seat. Clay is trapped in the corner.
“I’ll show you purple hair, you redneck motherfucker,” May says. She yanks her skirt up with one hand and pulls her panties down with the other. The bright patch of fuchsia pubic hair blings like a stoplight.
The whole place explodes. People scream, glass breaks. A group of black girls collapse on the floor, laughing, gasping for air. Some lesbians in golf attire give her a standing ovation. I pick her up off the table, sling her over my shoulder like a fireman, and carry her out of the restaurant. She rides out blowing kisses to the rioting diners, screaming to her brother that she loves him, to have fun at the concert.
I drag her to the house, fighting all the way, but she passes out before I even get her boots off. On the drive to work I call Eric. He's pissed, but he seems more upset about not seeing the band than the episode with May.
“We all know she's crazy,” I say, “And that's what makes us love her, right? She just shouldn’t drink tequila on an empty stomach like that.”
“Yeah,” he says, laughing a little, “She's definitely crazy.”
“Look,” I say, “If you do end up in Buckhead, I'm closing the restaurant
and we'll be there pretty late, so come by if you want. Bring your
Esteban and Steve are fried when I walk in the door. My amigos in the kitchen are drunk, singing together. I try to keep up with them, making up semi-Spanish words and hollering, “Amen!” and, “Hallelujah!”
When it slows down, I go out on the floor to see Chef Thanh, who is discreetly trashed and giving things away to the customers. We all have the opportunity to reapply for our jobs, but most of our staff are illegals and will not be hired by a corporate outfit. Thanh and I will work for The Park Bench, at least for a little while, even though it's a step down. We make a joke about stepping down off The Park Bench to hang ourselves, then another joke about going to the gallows, Ernest and Julio. I picture Thanh, who trained in Tokyo and Paris, flipping burgers for Clay and Tara.
I manage to stay fairly sober until we've broken the kitchen down and most of the guys have gone home. Thanh sorts the clean silverware with Esteban and Steve and lectures us, swaying slightly.
"They always show you that map of your tongue, and how you can only taste one flavor on each little section, but it’s a lie! Every taste bud, every cell, can taste every flavor! It's true! There's scientific studies and everything!” He is gesturing wildly, arguing for his life.
“But the biggest lie is that there are just four flavors: salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. The fifth flavor is called Umami, a Japanese word. Umami is the rich, savory flavor of protein, meat and mushrooms, parmesan cheese, that chewy, earthy flavor we love so much in Western cuisine, but we don’t even have a word for it. It took somebody in Asia to figure this out because we're too coarse over here, you know? All we know is what’s cheap and right there on the surface. Fuckin’ makes me sick."
He goes on like this, holding forth and putting away dishes until there’s nothing left for us to do but take out the trash. We go out back and pitch the big bags into the dumpster. Esteban and Steve stay out in the alley to sort the bottles. Thanh and I go into the walk-in freezer to smoke a bowl. It's nice in there, dim and insulated and quiet, every molecule slowed down. The smoke comes out in thick, sluggish columns. The fluorescent lights make everything blue.
I hear the service door open and the sound of breaking glass outside. In a second, Steve opens the freezer and pokes his head in. “Dude, your brother-in-law is here,” he says. “He just came walking down the alley. He's out there smashing the bottles.” Behind him, I can hear Esteban leading Eric into the bus room, talking him down, “It's OK Bro, you’re cool. Everything's cool.”
I open the freezer door and push aside the thick plastic curtains. Eric is bright red, crying, utterly wasted. He sees me and holds out his hand. I take it and pull him up into the freezer. His irises are gone. I see myself reflected in his huge black pupils. I sit him down on a bucket of lemons and ask somebody to bring him a glass of water.
“No,” my brother says, “That wine. That dirty red one.” He steams in the blue light, his lips and cheeks purple. “Oh,” he says, breathing in the cool air, “Oh.” He stares past me, recognizing something only he can see.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/kennerly.html]
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