It was 4 o’clock in the morning. Charles groaned, rolled his legs out of bed, and scrambled into the bathroom – pissed off. He threw open the medicine cabinet and knocked aside his toothbrush, dumping it into the dirty little sink with a twist of the sash on his bathrobe. He opened up a bottle of sleeping pills (with aspirin!). He took a handful and then crawled back into his cold bed, convinced he could already feel prickles behind his eyes.
Charles still hadn’t slept when the alarm went off at 11 AM. In fact, he had fought sleep with such grand intensity that he was more exhausted than he would have been otherwise.
The first thing he did was chunk the bottle of pills in the trash. Then he put on his chef’s whites – not even bothering to check if they were clean – and swam through waves of shimmering anger to his car. Fuck you, porch steps. Fuck you, lawn. Fuck you, driveway. Fuck you, neighbors.
His hands shook at his side when he tried to imagine what Marlene was doing right now.
It could be anything, with anyone. She didn’t have shit to do – no job, no problems. She wouldn’t have to suffer like this, at least.
He tried very hard to kill pedestrians on his drive to work, but he did not succeed. The joggers kept to the sidewalk, and there weren’t any random standouts roaming the highway.
Charles pulled into his space in the back lot of The Goat and Gravy. Fuck you, Goat and Gravy. He had been head of soups and sauces for four years now, and he was thinking about snapping tether and moving on to someplace with a future. The Goat and Gravy had a good reputation -- but it was slipping. The management was starting to get sloppy, and most of the money steam that burned from the hearts of pretty privileged children had been sucked south as new, hipper restaurants opened up across the train tracks.
He poked his head through the side door to get a peek at the pre-lunch crowd.
The Goat and Gravy was always at least half full, despite being as big as a tank dock. The specialty at The G&G was early Soviet rack-cooking, which meant tremendous slabs of meat roasted on open pits for the “besotted bemusement of bespectacled businessmen,” as it said in the menu. Charles had put together a rotating soup menu that served as the vegetarian alternative for secretaries, mistresses, and the odd liberal functionary dragged along by his or her boss to The G&G for laughs.
It was good to have options.
Charles also hand-made all of the barbecue sauces, teriyaki, and marinades for the other cooks, relying upon his years of servitude in five different Alabama hotel kitchens to pull him through. He didn’t have any actual culinary training, but he had an excellent palate and two decades of experience.
Charles let the door close. He saw what he needed to see. The furniture in the restaurant had been rearranged into three columns. There were buffer tables to keep the diners out of each other’s laps. This meant there was a wedding rehearsal dinner tonight – which meant he had to cook a full fresh soup course with at least three options.
Which meant he’d better get started if he wanted a break between lunch and dinner.
His mind turning as he planned, Charles let himself into the back door of The G&G and started pulling vegetables out of the refrigerator.
As soon as he started chopping, though, he started thinking about Marlene. One night without her was enough. Should he apologize?
Could he apologize?
He looked at the clock. She wouldn’t even be up by now, probably. His eyes focused on a boiling pot as he added a knife full of peppers to a bubbling vat of grape currant. Servers and busers spun in and out of the kitchen doors, swirling their trays full of drinks and fried beet curls around one another like carnival cars. The customers were still eating yesterday’s batch of consommé and mulligatawny, so there was no rush on soup yet. He decided to duck out for a quick smoke before he really got going.
He found Lamont propped against the wall next to a dumpster, evidently struck by the same idea.
“Heya, ChaarLEE,” said Lamont. “You are looking like shit.” Lamont was the general manager up front. He tried to work as little as possible, making sure to hire a wait staff with a genuine (sort of sick) desire to please. All Lamont had to do was quietly make suggestions, and his boys and girls hopped like peanuts in hot oil.
“Yeah, I’m not sleeping so well,” said Charlie.
“Is it still that Marlene chick?” asked Lamont. “She was pretty hot.”
Not what he needed to hear.
“Yeah, looks like we’re all broken up,” said Charlie.
“Rough, man, rough. Lots of girls here, though. Lots of girls around ALL OVER. You are younger than me. Wake up; get busy.”
“Yeah,” said Charlie. “It takes me awhile, though. I’ll be okay eventually.”
“Sure,” said Lamont. “Big wedding rehearsal tonight. Good place to meet people.”
“Not if you are the bitch in the back putting cheese on crackers,” said Charles.
“I guess I’d better get back to work,” said Charles. “I can’t seem to get my act together today.”
“You’ll be fine,” said Lamont. “You’re already smiling.”
It was true. Charles gave Lamont a pat on the shoulder and went inside.
Charles made a simple cream of mushroom soup for the first dish, and then he put something fragrant together out of tomatoes and turmeric for the second soup. His third option was his famous “Hot Jelly” Tarator.
The mushroom soup had a strange consistency to it that Charles couldn’t put his finger on. Much too thick. But he barely noticed or cared. He was taking the day off, essentially – at least in his head. As he stirred and cooked, visions of the past month boiled up out of the muck, nauseating him – making him feel wretched. But Lamont was right – the sooner he could move forward, the better off he’d be.
Lunch went easy enough. No surprises. It was actually kind of slow for a Saturday. Afterward, he went back to the wall and just sat there for an hour, composing his ego, trying not to feel unloved and unlovable. Finally, he felt good enough to hit some kind of stride. He went back inside. He chatted; he cleaned; he knocked out each item on his list of duties in the company of the other chefs.
Around sundown, the kitchen went into full swing as the first guests began to trickle in.
Charles had already done everything he was supposed to do, but he pitched in anyway and basted meat, prepared sides, and helped fit huge animal carcasses into mobile aluminum spits – lightweight, modular contraptions that belonged to science fiction.
It felt good to work a little bit too hard. His chef’s whites turned bloodier and bloodier with raw meat stains, but it didn’t matter. The guests would never see him. In fact, he expected to cut loose early as soon as Lamont called the night officially dead.
The guests were evenly split as far as ordering the cream of mushroom against the tomato and the Tarator. There was plenty of everything to go around. He had planned well. Bored, Charles slouched between the stoves and looked out through a vent at the wedding festivities.
It was a young wedding. The groom was in his mid twenties, and the bride looked fresh out of high school. Evidently, she had money – although she was also very pretty, and seemed well-adjusted. It would be difficult not to look well-adjusted in a wedding dress, though. Maybe if it was made of white leather and spattered with goat blood like his own apron.
Charles could see love in their eyes. He smiled and wished them well. The best man was telling stories about all the crazy crap he and the groom used to do when they were kids – lighting things on fire, stealing things from convenience stores, breaking hearts, breaking wind, breaking glass, breaking bones. The groom’s half of the family roared with giddy laughter after each one of these piquant tales, while the bride’s side exchanged weighty looks with one another and looked vaguely ill.
A wild tribe of well-dressed children ducked under tables and made messes, shrieking and cackling, hiding under the legs of grandparents when parental authority half-heartedly asserted itself.
Charles went into the freezer and pulled out a bag of today’s cream of mushroom. If he was going to eavesdrop, he might as well join in. He heated the soup up on the stove and carried it back over to the vent. He blew on a spoonful to cool it and then took a bite.
His eyes dilated.
The milk he had used for the cream of mushroom soup was spoiled.
He ran into the back and checked the dumpster. He pulled out the empty milk jugs.
They had all turned two weeks ago. That was a really fucking long time.
He hadn’t even looked. He should have smelled it automatically. But he had been too preoccupied.
But he HAD noticed something wrong, now that he thought about it. The soup had been much thicker than it should have been. Thick with rot. He had noticed, and he simply hadn’t cared.
“FUCK,” he shouted.
He ran back inside -- wild-eyed, heart racing. The smell of clotted milk overwhelmed him; filling his nostrils as he paced around and around the kitchen. Banging pans. Banging his head with the palm of his hand.
He stopped. He wondered. Why hadn’t anybody complained yet?
He had another spoonful of soup. The taste was subtle. Very subtle. He could parse it, but he doubted that your average human had the ability to tease out the raw flavor of spoiled dairy in a soup with such strong mushroom accents. They would just think the soup was extraordinarily rich.
He had to tell them. He walked into the restaurant proper and then stopped -- his back against the swinging door. What the hell was he going to say? He pushed back inside the kitchen, his face a mask. Had anyone seen him? He didn’t think so.
He had just served spoiled milk in one of his famous signature soups to an entire restaurant. A full wedding party. The thought made him dizzy.
They were all going to get sick, if they weren’t already. He had violated health codes. He had been remarkably negligent, and he knew exactly why. He had been too broken up about Marlene to focus on his job. A job he was about to lose.
What could he blame? What could he do?
He looked over at Lamont, who was doing a crossword puzzle in the corner. Lamont smiled and nodded.
What was old milk doing in the refrigerator, anyway? Who had put it there? It was a management problem -- not his responsibility. The milk should have been thrown out the day before it expired. This was precisely the sort of thing that made him want to leave in the first place. There were a few really hard workers at The G&G, and then some people who didn’t bother doing their job at all. You simply couldn’t run a restaurant that way.
But it WAS his responsibility.
He was a chef – not some pot scrubbing chain-kitchen lackey.
He was supposed to taste everything he sent out. He hadn’t even bothered. The recipe was automatic. He had let it go, hoping to get it done as quickly and easily as possible so that he could spend more time ruminating over things he couldn’t do a goddman thing about. Marlene. His stupid problems.
“I think there’s something wrong with the soup,” he told Lamont.
“I think the milk is spoiled.”
“Jesus, you sure about that?”
“Pretty sure,” said Charles.
“We’ve got to say something, then,” said Lamont, standing up and putting the crossword down. He looked at Charles. He coughed. “I mean, don’t we?”
“It’s too late to stop them,” said Charles. “They are already on coffee and dessert.”
“How spoiled?” said Lamont. “Nobody said anything. Maybe we got lucky.”
“Two weeks,” said Charles.
“That could be dangerous,” said Lamont, narrowing his eyes. “Somebody has to say something immediately.”
No one moved. A few of the other chefs had overheard and stopped what they were doing, looking at Charles in utter amazement.
“I’ll do it,” said Charles, surprising himself.
Before Lamont could stop him, he was back inside the restaurant, gazing at the wedding party. Looking at all those empty bowls. All those happy faces. The wedding was tomorrow. How many people wouldn’t be able to make it now? How many people would be nursing children in the hospital?
“You’d better come visit us all the time, is all I’m saying,” said the father-of-the-bride, his nose red and his cheeks flushed. “If you take my daughter away forever, I’ll come hunt you both down. You’ve heard about shotgun weddings – you might find yourself in a shotgun divorce.”
“Oh daddy,” said the bride, blushing.
“Seriously,” said the father, chuckling. “I’m heartbroken.”
Charles’ throat tightened and ice coiled around his heart like a frozen inner-tube.
“Excuse me,” said Charles. “Excuse me, everyone.”
The wedding party turned and looked at him. He was covered in gore. His eyes were raw and bloodshot from being up for so long. He was jittery -- out-of-sorts. He looked like an ax-murderer turning himself into the cops after a weekend’s worth of non-stop killing.
“There is a problem with the soup,” said Charles. “The milk was very spoiled and some of you might have food poisoning.”
“WHAT?” said one of the bridesmaids.
“Which soup?” asked the father-of-the-bride.
“The cream of mushroom,” said Charles. “It was entirely my fault. I am the chef in charge of soups, and I didn’t do my job. I want to warn you in case you feel that you need emergency attention.”
Lamont was suddenly by his side.
“The Goat and Gravy will pay any medical bills, of course,” he said through clenched teeth.
“What’s wrong? Are we all gonna get sick?” asked a little girl.
“Are we?” asked the father-of-the-bride.
“Maybe,” said Charles. “I used all the milk, so I can’t say how rotten it was. It blends in with the mushrooms very well, unfortunately.”
Around the tables, people were starting to turn green.
“It’s possible you will all be fine,” said Charles. “I needed to tell you, however.”
He stepped backwards through the doors of the kitchen. The other chefs were gathered around, looking at him. Some looked sad; others smirked.
“I guess I’ll see you later,” said Charles, head heavy.
“Probably not,” said Lamont, at his shoulder again.