Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 111
All She Wrote
Naturally, before any of it happened, we were just innocently walking through the
woods. And by ”we” I mean my dying friend, Clay, and two of my oldest buddies, Gerard and Thomas. We’ve all been together since middle school and were all freshly done with our forties. Which is not old. But if you happened to see us, humping it through the woods, we’d surely strike you as the shot up, limping survivors of some fifty-years war.
You’d also get it from the way we half-tripped, half-fell down that leafy, rocky, watery trail, really more creek than trail because of a recent 500-year rain. It was the Missouri woods on a Friday, early Fall, and we a sight right between odd and arresting in our incorrect clothes.
Making a cautious march. With lots of pauses to check the wind, discuss a smell or sound. We stopped frequently to look ALL around ourselves, front, back, side, side. Because we’d all been jumped before, having come through the public schools. We’d been beaten and terrorized for no good reason. We’d been the fodder of nascent sadists/rapists. Also, one of us had done a tour in the army, Panama. Also, one of us had cancer.
It was a fishing trip, sort of, though none of us really knew how. What we
did know was how to worry. And because we were not sure what we were doing, or why, we did it with painful care. We didn’t expect to meet women. It wasn’t impossible, but it would be awkward. We were all married, or recently separated, or divorced and remarried. Also, one of us was so newly off chemo, his immune system was shredded. He needed extra O2 just to fall down a hill.
One friend was Gerard—Jer— with whom I had suffered some shit. He was the Godly one, though not preachy. I’d kept up with Jer as he’d bounced from one institute to another in a non-stop search for his marbles. And he’d come through at last because he found a doctor who wasn’t afraid to go old school, i.e. electroshock.
Then there was Thomas, whose name should always be said Toe-mas, the way his gramma did. But his folks made everybody say it the white way, Tah-mas, even Thomas himself. Thomas was the tight one, a guy who could not truly relax or feel safe, even among friends. And Thomas and I had definitely been through shit.
Anyway, I was happy to be with them but glum, too, because we were at last at that age when some of us were starting to wear out and drop.
Which brings me to Clay, whose breathing as we marched was louder than seemed possible. It sounded like a joke, but was not.
They castrated him. I mean, they did it to save his life, but the tumors were already in his lungs, they found out later, so the gelding was pointless.
He was the one humping a portable O2 rig just ahead of me, cannula up his nose. Clay the Handsome, Clay the lady killer. Except now he was bald and went one hundred thirty soaking wet. And his gait was a lurch, a campaign for uprightness, 02 at the shoulder like an old kit bag. Plus his brand new rod and reel combo shrink-wrapped to a square of cardboard that he used like a cane. But even deathly ill, he looked pretty okay.
And me, I was just me, just Dale, that’s all. I had not fished this lake in my life, but I was the only one with a rod, one I’d been given by my dad. So that somehow made this trip my idea and my fault if it went south.
But why had we come? It was strange. It was like some historic reenactment of the way guys used to all go fishing together. We were doing it for Clay.
And we were trucking along, and I was wondering a thing I didn’t even want to know I was: I was wondering where they went. Meaning that I wanted to know where they put them after. Where did they wind up? Was there a burial? Had Clay asked? I would ask.
Eventually, we arrived. Call us the detachment of leaderless men. The leaderless Somethings. We’d finished our unsteady wandering and stood for a moment, each of us estranged from the others, each of us alone. But momentarily free of this thing that has dogged us all our days, letting it catch up.
Still, we had gotten here. We’d driven a long way and escaped the grip of all cities. Just to make the trip, Clay had bought this half-size O2 rig. And on the day he finished chemo, he finally told his wife, Jamie, where he was heading the next morning. And apparently, she broke a whole lot of dishes.
To be honest, I got scared when he told me, because I always hate to hear that one of them—you know: today’s woman—has gotten that mad for any reason.
As for Jer’s home life, he was newly divorced but already seriously dating a lady who he would marry. And Thomas was just married for the third time. And I was thinking how women probably didn’t know what to make of us anymore, with our breakdowns and shrinks and 2 a.m. visits to the ER for sedation. Probably we were an affront to the very words they used to describe us, words like boyfriend, husband and fiancé.
Sometimes I just had to laugh. But when I saw Clay, I wasn’t laughing. Other people may’ve looked at him and seen a cancer patient, but to me he was quite obviously much more. He was the first of us to fall in this war we began losing as boys and simply kept on losing year after year after year. It was a war we were predestined to lose, set up to lose even, back in that garden. By Eve.
And so there we were, after a time. Fishing.
A few minutes later, Jer was digging a hook out of my thumb, or most of one. Unlike how guys are in movies, always trash talking, we were mostly quiet and that was mostly because nobody ever showed us how to talk trash.
As for Nature, I was gazing straight at Her, but it was the same old story: She would not look back and kept Herself closed to me, like wallpaper. And Thomas was next to me, reeling his new spinning outfit backward and upside-down. Fishing in a three-piece without the jacket, his sleeves and pants rolled up, barefoot.
Early on in our life’s journey, I had met all my friends’ fathers. And was mostly of the opinion that they were assholes. Meaning they were typical of the time, when a man was required to be a difficult, know-it-all bully. Men from back then had been hard to take and often left you wanting to cry. I guess it was a generational thing.
As for what was happening to Clay, it was, of course, entirely wrong. I mean, Clay had been our good looks. And our height. And our mystery. He scared up the quail and we got to pick them off.
I was thinking these things while drinking a massive margarita in a huge to-go cup.
And hearing a hiss of air escaping from the scene. And picturing Clay’s wife at home ”furious” over this ”little stunt.” But he would have the last word. (He would die.)
Of course, 1971 was when it all changed, the year that magazine hit the stands.
I was thinking this and watching Thomas cross-legged on the dock, biting a nail, behaving exactly like a nail biter and awaiting another of the racial incidents that managed to find him no matter where he was.
Just then, Clay broke into this choking routine. So I went over to pound his back. And when I did, I discovered that he was wet. I don’t mean damp. I mean he was like a wet skeleton in a track suit. Soaked. The sweat actually splashed me, like that of somebody running a high fever.
Anyway, right about then, a door opened across the cove and a girl—or maybe a woman—came strolling out.
With rod in hand and dragging a big iron lounger and bearing straight down on us, exactly like a person who was free to do whatever the hell she wanted. It was almost as if she too had paid good money to rent a fishing cabin here for the weekend.
She was a healthy-looking, black-headed woman, not unattractive. And kind of cross-fit buff in her muscle shirt and jeans and oversized man’s slicker going down past her butt. She came closer.
Ten feet from us, she dumped the chair and flopped down on it, made a cast.
It stunned me, and for a lot of reasons.
For one, I had asked the ranger if the other cabin was occupied this weekend. I had even offered to pay double to avoid ”surprises.” But he had assured me not to worry. I was given assurances.
So that may be why—in part.
I don’t remember the whole thing. I know that my face twisted into a deadly-poison primal mask of pure, uncut hate. And I began jabbering. The only other such incident I can recall is this time I tried to murder a kid who had torn a picture I drew for my mom. I tried to stone the bastard to death. I was five.
But that feeling was not unlike this one. In fact, I was shaking with it.
As for Clay, he simply crinkled his eyes toward her sudden yellow form and went on hacking up a lung. After that he was okay.
She looked at all of us, but most of all at me, and her red smile gave me the finger.
”A’ight if I fish here?” she said. Gazing next at Clay.
”Yeah, you can fish here,” Clay said, ”no sweat.” But that’s how he always was with girls, all his life. It seemed he would go out the same way he came in.
”Thanks!” she said, with irony. ”Not sure why I asked. Just my polite nature, I guess.”
That was when I started jabbering. Or maybe sputtering. It sounded like,
”Hey . . . hey . . . now. NOW. Hey, listen. Hey, you just wait . . . hey, now you wait just a goddamned minute, you—!”
Naturally, it was Clay who had to get up and cry, ”Whoa, Dale! DALE! Cool it. There is nothing wrong here. Not a thing. This is all absolutely fine.” Face red from raising his voice. Sweat off the end of his nose.
”I’m Doreen,” she said, calmly making another cast.
They told thejr names. I went to stand where she couldn’t see my face.
”So what brings you all out here?” she asked, of Clay. All his life, women of all races and ages have been gawking at Clay without any regard for their dignity. I’d seen women fall flat just because they happened to see Clay while also navigating a curb.
”Me,” he says. ”All my fault. Might not happen again, all four of us on one trip. Never know.”
”No, you just never know, do ya?” she sighed, gawking.
I tried to keep my head bent away. What is it they say about best-laid plans?
Thomas seemed to feel the same as I did and dropped down cross-legged and glum and full of scorn for this cove, the falling light, his snarling reel. And Jer was hunched over in his chair reeling, casting, reeling, casting and couldn’t leave the bait alone.
And I simply felt how you do by a certain age, that lots of things you thought might be coming for you one day were just not. Life’s promise was broken and this was how it broke, with Clay wheezing and sweating and unable to catch a full breath.
Of course, all this had happened to our dads, and to their dads, too.
But somehow they managed not to be chickenshit about it like us. They fought back. Formed a resistance. Though it couldn’t stop the inevitable and eventually they got tossed, arrested, served and sued. Restraining orders got issued and pretty quick they’d lost everything: houses, wives, kids, furniture. And any sense of belonging anywhere on the face of the earth.
They landed in crummy apartments way across town and were made an example. And we watched it all happen, and we learned. Boy, did we learn.
So now flash forward nine hours: I am fist-fighting Doreen and we are rolling ass over tea-kettle through the brush and down a slope over rocks and small stumps and deadfall, grunting and punching and bashing each other in the teeth and nose with clenched fists. There is blood and she is shrieking, and I am cursing and getting my wind knocked farther out of me with each revolution. Doreen only has one good leg, so I should be winning. But the other is stainless steel, with a prosthetic from knee to ankle. It’s a truncheon, basically, that I am trying to trap with my free leg. She keeps missing each time she lashes out, making explosions of dirt and pine needles. But she will catch me with it, finally, I’m sure, and that will be all she wrote. Meanwhile, her thumbs are in my eyes and I am digging crazily every which way for her sidearm which is tumbling under and ahead and behind us as we plunge toward the water. I keep landing on it, of course, in my back, knee cap, coccyx, shin, but never coming up with it. And she is screaming ”YOU fucker, I have finally had enough of your shit, Dale, you little rat-faced bastard. Guess I’ll just have to kill you, you fucker, just have to mash your goddamned eyes in, you stupid prick! . . . ”
Whose fault? I blame the park service. Doreen never would have come out of her cabin in the first place if Ranger Rick hadn’t ASSURED me that such a thing was impossible.
But this is getting out of order.
Let’s go back to when she first appeared. After she fished by us for a while, I guess she decided it was safe to remove the slicker and show me how extremely tatted out she was. She had two full sleeves, and they continued up onto her neck and sort of met across her throat. Some of it looked military. I whispered to Jer, ”Hey, check that.” He didn’t even look up. ”That’s some Marine, Parris Island sort of shit there. Probably got Semper Fi branded on her. They like to put it someplace sensitive.”
Jer, with his long greavy mustaches and bug-eye glasses, just barely made specialist second-class. His war name was Super Geek because of the buzz cut and goofy twist to his mouth. But they had to let him out early for these near-catatonic depressions he’d been falling into and crawling out of since ninth grade.
When I was younger, I used to think how rough it would be to be Jer. I miss those days.
Anyway, Doreen kept fishing.
She fished that dock like it was won for her by Johnny Cochran. I hunkered down on one knee and just tried to ignore her. I mean, we paid too, so the cove was half ours. But for some reason it didn’t feel that way. I tried but could not feel that the growing darkness, cicadas, frogs, trees, mosquitoes and attendant funk were truly mine.
Meanwhile Thomas, dejected about everything, had snagged a log and was whipping his rod side to side, slashing Jer with water on the right and Doreen with muck on the left.
”Hey, quit screwin’ around!” she said, covering her head with her hood but otherwise giving no ground. Thomas threw the rod down, blobs of gook on a hand-made hot pink shirt. And if there was one thing Thomas could not abide, it was getting a spot anywhere on him.
So then I was afraid. No, I was TERRIFIED. Because he might get really mad and call her Honky and distract us from the real problem.
Luckily, Doreen broke away to crack a third beer from out of her cooler, and to guzzle and sigh and belch very loudly. That was apparently for Clay’s amusement, because he was the only one laughing.
Then she shot me a look to remind me: she was here to stay and not going anywhere.
I squatted on my heels, line slack, bobber drifting on the wind. And I was thinking how, throughout every guy’s life, things were so inescapably simple. If you handled trouble one way, you were your rotten father all over again. Handle it the other, you were your mom.
We turned in early.
I lay drunk and fishless, with thumb throbbing, in the bunk. And could hear Doreen out there all by herself, also drunk. I knew she was because I could hear her fall down now and then, and giggle. Then she’d get back up and go on feeding her fire with her firewood and gazing at her stars above her cove.
I went out. She waved to me and held up two beers by the ring, the universal sign of peace. Christ. Why did I go? Because none of us can say no to one of them. Raised by single mothers, we all got broken at a young age to helping the lone woman any and every place we find her.
Still, I had the weird sensation that night of really hating Doreen, really wanting her dead—but at the same time being totally at her mercy and about to go drink the kool-aid.
My one consolation was that she hated me too.
I took the beer and we cracked them and sucked. She smiled at me with her eyes in shadow under her hood, nose and lips in the light. Her breasts rose and fell powerfully with her breathing. ”Oh man, Dale. You know I served with a ton of you guys,” she grinned. ”Didn’t really finish high school and all, but I’ve totally got your number, dude.”
I thought hard for a moment about my wife, my girls, my folks, and what was expected from me at this moment.
But it just seemed I’d waited all my life to arrive at this realization. I sat there with no sense of fulfillment, no feeling of arrival. And not for lack of trying. I’d put my whole heart into it, with the bypass scar to prove it.
What went wrong?
I blame it on Georgia Brandt. My company hired her last year—this big woman in a mumu and wedge heels. She’s one of these right-sizing gurus, supposed to sweep in and fix us, save us from ourselves. First thing she did was wade in and fire my boss. Then she fired his boss. By lunchtime, two of the great advertising icons of the Midwest —my heroes—were history. Gone. By the end of that first week, she told about forty-three more to hit the road and all but two of them identified as male. All but two. Pretty soon, I took a look around and noticed that I was the only guy—only male—left in my department. Next, she dangled early retirement and I saw the writing on the wall.
But this is not news. It’s been happening all over, and not just to me but also to Jer’s company and to Thomas’s.
Though for me, I guess the shock was greater because I’d truly believed. I thought she would see my good deeds and realize I was different. But I guess after all her time on the bottom, she was done holding back.
Anyhow, there I was sitting in the dark, having a beer with Doreen.
And she knew what was up, all right, and sat across from me just smiling—and knowing. Knowing everything about me on some level. Looking more than a little like old Georgia B.
”So who will notice when you don’t come home?” I said.
She laughed. ”That your idea of a threat? Listen, Dale, I think I know when to worry. I ain’t worried.”
I saw I’d gotten her age wrong. She’d been pretty about a decade back, at thirty-five, and was now no longer that, but still handsome. I was shifting on my tight, painful lower spine, staying poised and getting ready.
She threw her head back to drain the beer and her hood slid off. Then she belched as loud as she could. Then pulled out a smoke and squinted at me. She’d been knocking them back for hours now—we both had. ”Years now, I been coming out here all by myself. Out here I can drink and fish and just say fuck you to everyone and everything. I can go butt naked if nobody’s around. And if you’ve got a problem with it, Dale, well —you can talk to the Glock.” With a nod at the woodbox.
Then she sighed. ”Oh, nevermind, Dale,” she said. ”I get you, I really do. You’re bitter over the rough hand dealt to your friend. He got a raw deal and that really is a shame. But you’re lookin’ at me like it’s my fault and I can’t see that.”
She crossed her foot over her knee. I suddenly noted that it was a metal mannequin foot, smooth and black, with a gleaming steel ankle. ”Hey, it happened,” she said. ”I didn’t feel nothing. Just looked over and thought, ’Okay, there’s my boot over yonder,’ couple meters away. My second thought was, ’Hey, some bastard just knocked off my boot.’”
The foot was polished, shining and black as a hole.
”Maybe it’ll actually make you feel better, Dale,” she said.
Then she gimped on it, shoeless, and it went PING! PING! PING! over to her cooler, like how three homers sound climbing off the end of an aluminum bat. She pulled out two more beers and stumped her way back. ”Maybe now you’ll call us even. Though that does not help Clay, I realize.”
It made me sad, I guess, because I knew I was about to be a complete asshole and I also knew there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. It washed through me in waves as she pulled her shoe onto the foot and dragged down her pantleg. ”I’ve got a wooden one, too, but this I got from the VA. It’s graphite. Had to wait like a year.”
”I don’t care about that,” I said. ”I mean, thanks for your service and all, but why should I care?” I guess I said it because it wasn’t Clay’s feet they had cut off.
I then observed the relative crappiness of the sentiment, and said, ”I mean, I might try to, one day, Doreen, but right now I just don’t.”
”No need to soften it, Dale,” she said. ”I get you, I really do. You’re upset about your friend. Tonight is last call for you guys. And then here I come to mess everything up.”
”It’s not just that and you know it,” I said, a little distracted by a question forming in my mind about how this was going to replay at home. Would I try to spin it in some gutless way or just let the chips fall?
”I can see that, I guess,” she sighed and settled her broad shoulders over her elbows and leaned closer to the fire. ”But I have had a lifetime of your kind, Dale, I really have. I have had a butt-load of it to last me for a life-time. It just sort of wears you out some days, you know? But you don’t know, do you, Dale? Not really.”
”No, DOREEN, I do,” I returned. ”And you don’t have to tell me about TIRED, okay? I’m tired.” Just then, a falling star fell, a streak of light without a sound. ”I was already tired at TWENTY, Doreen. That’s a lot of tired. And I have to go home after this, and I am wondering what I will say. How will I portray my behavior toward you?”
She laughed heartily at that. ”Tell her you and me had a couple of beers, Dale. Are you scared of her? Does she hit you?”
”No. I mean. No. I’m just saying. Remember earlier? When I first saw you, when you first walked out. How I reacted?”
I now looked down at the beer in my hands. It had a strange taste and had come from the cooler of my enemy.
”Oh shit, Dale, I’m USED to that,” she said. ”It don’t even faze me anymore.” She shrugged and looked up, gazed deep into her purple-black sky. We were overtopped by actual clouds of her actual stars, all pitched at impossible distances from each other and us.
At some point, later that night, Doreen and I would collide head to head.
And I don’t know why, but the impact knocked her foot off so I grabbed it. Then, quick as a flash, she had her gun from the woodbox and I was streaking away from her into the woods clutching the foot.
I don’t know how many we’d had by then but—safe to say— we were all the way in the bag. And I’d just pointed my finger in Doreen’s face and said, ”Look, I di’n’t want to say this but now you leave me no choice. There shoon’t be ANY of our guys dying in this war at all. None at all. Nine-eleven’s never been about MEN anyway. You wanna know why? Because nine-eleven is all about you, Doreen. Why, Oh, You. Those goddamned airplanes were never even aimed at me, Doreen, you hear what I’m saying? They were aiming at you. You hear what I just said, Doreen? To your face? That shit was never anything to do with me. That was for you. Those bastards were here lookin’ for you! And now ’bout eight thousand of our people are DEAD along with about a million of theirs and the whole thing’s your fault, Doreen. You did that.”
”You’re drunk, Dale,” she said.
”No. No—I’ve just had it, is all.” I stood up and wobbled toward her. ”That’s all this is, Doreen. And now I fin’lly had it with you and all your wounded war hero bullshit,” I said, waving my hands around in a threatening manner.
”Okay, you better back up off me, dude,” she said.
”Whattsa matta, Doreen?” I said. ”Am I threatening your fragile new existence and what you represent, Doreen? Huh, am I?”
”Just watch it, Dale,” she said, rising up to shift a log and add one to the fire. ”Watch your step. Don’t bite off too much.”
”Why, Doreen? Why’d’ja hav’ta pick on Clay, of all people? I’ll tell ya why. So YOU could happen, tha’s why, Dor. So you could EMERGE from your chrysalis at last, fully formed. And now here you are, aren’t you? Here you fucking well are.”
”Just back the fuck up, dude, and sit down,” she said. ”What did you think was going to happen, huh? Was I s’posed to just crawl back in my spider hole and not come out for another ten thousand years? No thanks.”
”I’m just saying. I got my reasons, too,” I said. ”I’m just asking you, Doreen. I’m asking you nice or maybe not so nice: Can you ’preciate all that has happened on your behalf and what you and all your confederates have caused? Have you truly come to ’preciate your very central role in all this pain?”
”In all what again, Dale? I think you lost me.”
I was getting worked up.
And yet a tickling worry was starting to turn to a dread. It now seemed to me that I would be made to pay and pay for this outburst. ”Dor, your sword of Damocles has hung above my head for’s long as I remember. And don’t say you don’t know nothin’ ’bout no sword or that you didn’t put it there. Who else put it there? That was you, Dor.”
”Dale, is there something wrong with my beer?” she asked. ”Is my FREE beer suddenly not to your liking?”
”It jus’ strikes me that my dad was never in a situation like this one,” I said, ”nor could he have predicted you, Doreen. But I did. I always knew, Dor, that you were coming. I been expecting you. It just took you a while. And now your moment is here and whoop de fucking do.” I twirled my finger.
She looked toward the wood box.
”Can you almost see it, Dor, what one of these used to be,” I said and thumped my chest. ”This used to be something pretty fucking wunnerful, Doreen. But how would I even know that, right? Because I never got to even find out what I coulda been, did I? No, you fixed that, didn’t you? You made sure I never found out what being one-a these even USED to be. Now what am I? Look at me. What am I? I coulda been this great thing like my dad got to be, this thing that used to be real and simple and good. It made sense. It had beauty. But then what happened? You went and outlawed the whole thing, di’nt you? You came along. And alla sudden—overnight!—bein’ this went from somethin’ pretty great to a bloody crime and it happ’ned just LIKE THAT. So now what am I? Tonight I defy you to tell me: What the fuck am I? And don’t you dare use THAT word. In fact, I better not hear that word even once. Because that isn’t even a thing anymore, thanks to you.”
”Oh, boo hoo,” she said, standing, pants rolled to the knee, displaying her real right foot and her robot left foot. ”So you miss the old days, is that what you’re sitting there telling me, Dale? You want back on top?”
”I just want to be somewhere, Dor,” I said, waving my hands around like a lunatic. ”I want to exist. I want a life. Can’t you see you’ve left me and all my kind exactly nowhere? We don’t even fit here anymore. This is a fucking no-man’s land. And it’s where you left us cuz it’s right where you fucking want us. We were once two different things, Dor, you ’n’ me. But now we all gotta be the same. Now we all gotta be you!”
Finally, if you will, picture me curled like a baby in the black southern Missouri underbrush. I’m being hunted and the huntress is Doreen, former Marine infantry grunt from way back. Desert Storm. And I’m on my belly beneath a log and can hear her blundering through the woods, pretty drunk, bellowing my name. I’m scared. Doreen is the real deal, after all, and I guess I never dreamed I’d ever meet one in the flesh. She’s stumbling and falling, too, because she’s missing her screw-on steel right foot. And I’m getting devoured by chiggers in the skunky weeds that poke and scrape and inflame every bit of my bare skin.
Also, I’m trying to smother a wild giggle that is fizzing up under my nose and growing bigger each second. If she catches me, I’m guessing she kills me. And it’s this thought, above all—that I will DIE tonight at Doreen’s hands—that at last causes the eruption, the scream of laughter. Next, I hear her thundering down the hill straight at my position—THUMP STUMP, THUMP STUMP, THUMP STUMP—as she unleashes a mad war cry of her own.
Copyright © 2018 by Michael Pritchett.
About the Author
Michael Pritchett is the author of The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis (Unbridled Books, 2007) and The Venus Tree, winner of an Iowa Short Fiction Award (the John Simmons Short Fiction Award) in 1988 and published by the University of Iowa Press. He is the winner of the 2000 Dana Award for a novel-in-progress for his novel, The Final Effort of the Archer. The title story from his collection appeared in the anthology The Iowa Award: The Best Stories from 20 Years (University of Iowa Press, 1990). He received a 2017 Pushcart Prize nomination from New Letters magazine for his historical novel excerpt, “A Sort of Woman,” and his stories have appeared in Slippery Elm, New Letters and Natural Bridge among others.
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 111
Sanctuary of the Absurd
The Boss, bum knee and enormous bulk, hobbles across the compound. Between the pre-dawn light and the halogen wash that floods down from giant lamps on a pole one hundred feet in the sky, we’re able to make out his silhouette. “Papa!“ cries Wes in mock longing for our patriarchal mentor and role model, our fearless Scandinavian leader and descendant of Vikings whose long-ago ancestor was once an executioner for a Danish king.
We stand, 18 of us in all—12 novices and six adepts—in our white garments of purity, beneath the awning of the temple doors. Promise and refuge await us inside.
We are an exclusive cult, a select few, hand-picked from a notoriously antisocial American subculture. Here, we are unbound by conventional rules of etiquette, exempt from political correction. We are about to enter a vacuous realm where everything sacred is presented on the altar of the absurd as a means of coping with the harsh realities of prison life.
We are sexually repressed men. We are vulgar, sophomoric homophobes, a melting pot of mentally unstable bigots and fanatics of all shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds. We are religious zealots and first ranked enemies of the public. And here, I am their epicurean high priest.
The Boss is a demagogue ruling with passive-aggressive “Minnesota nice“ and heavy handed political prejudice. He stops at the door and turns to Abdullah who we refer to as the Angry Muslim, the Boss’ bulldog.
Abdullah’s arms are crossed, resting under a full beard on top of a massive chest that bench presses nearly 500 pounds. His trademark scowl zeroes in on the Boss who asks, “What’s up with all you Muslims? You get to change your names to Abdullah, Rashid, Hussein, and Malik. I’m gonna start my own religion and call myself Big Dick Bob.“
Nervous laughter erupts all around, but the Angry Muslim doesn’t flinch. The Boss unlocks the door and we enter the sanctuary of the absurd, ready to begin another day in the culinary arts program at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sandstone, Minnesota.
* * *
Food is sex. And death. And rebirth. This is why we are what we eat. This absurd cycle of non-beginning and non-ending is like a mental illness, a neurotic compulsion, a condemnation by the g-ds. We must consume; we are consumed. At once meaningless yet all important, a paradox. An oxymoron, food.
I often feel like Sisyphus. Myself condemned by the g-ds for impropriety, I roll my boulder, every six months, to the top of my hill in Hades. I train a new class of impatient, egomaniacal, and petulant inmates how to cook professionally. My boulder rolls back down the hill when a new class takes their place. Most of the time the guys know absolutely nothing about food (let alone sex, death, or rebirth), cooking, or working in a professional kitchen—and circus culinarius begins anew. It’s a Sisyphean nightmare par excellence, and I’ve been reborn into it well over a dozen times and counting.
I often feel like I’m searching, hopelessly, for meaning when none can be found. Hope seems overrated at best. More likely, though, it’s all meaningless. This leaves me with only three options: suicide, religion, or acceptance.
There’s a certain contradiction in training prisoners to be cooks. It’s like teaching children how to play with fire—literally and figuratively. More to the point, though, the food service industry is saturated in sex, drugs, and alcohol; all of these are catalysts of incarceration. This is to say nothing of the mental and emotional instability that plagues so many of those who work in professional kitchens. This is gospel truth in the culinary world.
At 28, when I first came to prison, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what life—and food—was all about. I’d been a sous chef at Baikal in Acapulco and the Blackwood in Mexico City. Before that, I was the executive chef at Mangos in Acapulco. In the States, most of my experience was on the line in casual and fine dining restaurants in the Midwest.
Then I found G-d and vowed to change my ways. I saw cooking as a slippery slope that would lead me back to destruction and debauchery. I was certain I’d never return to the industry. Besides, I was burned out and ready for a career change.
After my first seven years in prison, however, I slowly lost grip on the religious ideals that had anchored me for a time. My beliefs began to evolve. When I transferred to Sandstone, I was offered a job in the prison’s culinary arts program, and I couldn’t turn it down. Somehow, I’ve managed to escape both religion and suicide, and I’ve come to accept sex, death, and rebirth as a way of life.
The dining room of the officer’s mess is decorated like a 50’s diner with checkerboard floor tiles and framed reprints of broadside ads for sodas, aspirin, and burgers that adorn the walls. Two flat screen TVs flank an art deco Coca-Cola clock that reads 6:10 AM.
The Boss walks towards the back where a steam table with heat lamps and a cold bar hold and display the day’s soups, salads, hors d’oeuvres, and pastries—all made fresh, in house, from scratch. A couple of guys snag leftover eclairs and caramel rolls from the day before in spite of the fact that the Boss might flip out and call them lazy bitches, or something worse. Today, the Boss ignores it as he stands before the fountain machine and fills a glass with Diet Mountain Dew. Breakfast of champions.
Most of the guys take a seat as I begin wiping down the white board. I erase the creative designs and ornate lettering drawn by the front of the house guy. I erase the student chef’s name along with a caricature of a short, fat little cross-eyed chef with spectacles, a crooked toque, and creepy smile. I erase the heart healthy alternative, along with its accompanying starch and vegetable; and the day’s bread and desert—all of which are from yesterday’s menu.
After the guys settle down, I begin to conduct the daily ritual of our morning enclave. We come up with a game plan for the execution of today’s menu and flesh out the details of our pull and prep lists. This is our culinary shop talk. Gil, my sous chef is ready to take copious notes—bless his little heart. As for the student chef and sous chef, they’re attentive, albeit oblivious.
This is a new class. It’s their second day in the kitchen. They’ve spent the last six months in the classroom—here in the dining room—from 7:30—9:30 AM. They’ve studied a rigorous curriculum rooted in the fundamental teachings of our nation’s crème de la crème of cooking schools, the Culinary Institute of America. Upon completion of our award-winning program—after six months in the classroom and six months in the kitchen—each student is awarded a diploma in culinary arts, conferred in consortium with Century College in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.
We train each student in the proper preparation of casual and fine dining cuisine. They are ServeSafe certified in accordance with federal and state food safety and sanitation regulations. After they complete the classroom component, the students are immersed in hands-on kitchen experience where they learn to plan, develop, and implement a daily changing menu. Occasionally, this includes banquets and catered events for VIPs and volunteers.
Every week, each student rotates from one position to another, from chef to sous chef, from salads, soups, and appetizers to heart healthy, baker’s assistant and front of the house. There are 12 positions in all, including the dishwasher, detail, prep cook, and sanitation. However, over the course of six months in the kitchen, several of these positions are inevitably eliminated. Some guys quit out of general kitchen stress while others are fired for stealing—usually for attempting to truck food back to their housing units to sell on the black market for beat up postage stamps (that may or may not have already been used), the prison’s currency.
Six of us work as tutors and shadow the students. In addition to teaching and training, we ensure that the food is safe and ready for service which begins at 10:30 AM.
The sheer amount of food we produce between 6:00 and 10:30 AM is truly astonishing. Moreover, the quality is superb and, if all were accounted for, would easily amount to a $40 lunch by modest standards. The prison staff, however, eat for a $2 co-pay and still have the audacity to complain, mostly out of gastronomic ignorance. If they had their way, most would prefer to eat burgers and fried food on a daily basis. Sometimes, I can’t help but ask myself, “What’s the point?“
“Meaningless! Meaningless!“ says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!“ This has always been my favorite passage from the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures.
There was a time when I actually believed in the Teacher’s conclusion at the end of this book (actually a scroll called Kohelet, better known in the Christian world as Ecclesiastes). I believed it was my duty that my entire purpose in life was to fear G-d and keep her commandments; everything else was meaningless just as the Teacher had exclaimed. However, belief demands obedience to the conception of G-d as lawgiver.
I increasingly began to understand that significant linguistic and cultural discrepancies, influenced by an obsolete patriarchy and a western, Greco-Roman ideology, undermined the doctrinal integrity of this religious system. Unmoored, my beliefs continue to evolve, and today there seem to be no conclusion to the Teacher’s meaninglessness.
I am naked, yet I no longer feel the need to cover my “shame“ with fig leaves, nor place the supposed sins of the world upon the shoulders of Eve, some archetypal first mother—or women as a whole. It’s an absurd paradox, especially since I still believe, perhaps naively, in the possibility there is meaning to be found in all of this.
For seven years, I ate kosher. I ate neither pork nor crustaceans. Today, I view this abstinence—and blind obedience to any religion as a whole—as a kind of unremitting loss of beauty and pleasure that can never be regained, akin to the innocence lost with the realization that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny aren’t real. Or, more to the point, that Christmas and Easter are rooted in fertility cults and sun worship, that is, sex, death, and rebirth!
Such is the absurd. It’s like the biblical Adam trying to vicariously settle the score for a “sin“ that never required expiation in the first place, perpetuated by a patriarchal worldview that ultimately subjugates and scapegoats women forevermore. To me, this is shallow, pointless, and vindictive.
Woe! That sinful piece of fruit! Indeed, it all begins with food—sex, death, and rebirth. (Then I became a Buddhist and damned myself to a hell that I no longer believe in—but that’s a completely different story). On the one hand, I am paradox; I am nothing. Empty, I am not that I am. On the other hand, I like to believe there’s a point to rolling my boulder to the top of my hill in this hell that I have no choice but to believe in.
“The absurd is [re]born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world,“ writes Albert Camus in his famous essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus.“ “A man who is conscious of the absurd is forever bound to it.“
So why expound upon it? That’s absurd! Pointless, shallow, and vindictive! So too are Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but I digress.
The class had a difficult first day. The floor drains backed up and created a biohazardous mess. We called the plumbers in to snake the drains, and when the “poop juice“ receded, everything was cleaned and sanitized. So today, the guys are a little anxious and perturbed as a result.
I think a little levity is in order. As a joke, under my list of leftovers to be used in salads, appetizers, or anything else, I add “poop juice“ to the list. This garners a few snickers, perhaps lightening the mood some. Then Shabbani, our heart healthy tutor, walks in late, which is pretty normal for him.
Barrat Shabbani has a strong spirit. As an ethnic Albanian refugee from Macedonia, he was granted asylum here in the States when he was a teenager. He’s short and wears a closely cropped beard in adherence to more liberal Muslim standards.
“Put a beard guard on before I fire your ass!“ The Boss screams this at him once or twice per week. Invariably, Shabbani scampers in exaggerated fear and respect to pull the beard guard from around his neck, from above the “taco meat“ that hangs out from his half-unbuttoned cook’s shirt.
Shabbani’s English is broken with a heavy Baltic accent. While he has a solid grounding in Italian and Greek food, he can’t read or follow a recipe to save his life. His attention span is shorter than he is tall, and his pride tends to get in the way of any possibility of correction or instruction. He’s bullheaded but richly entertaining—in a foreign sort of way. His tenuous grasp on the English language is cause for countless culinary catastrophes that range from the hilarious to the infuriating.
One time I asked him to put a hotel pan of cooked, chicken adobo into an improvised bain-marie, a hot water bath meant to keep it warm for service. “In da vater?“ he asked?
“Yes,“ I grunted, but when I turned around to look, he had already dumped the entire pan of braised, shredded, and seasoned chicken into more than five gallons of water, effectively ruining the main entree. Needless to say, I had one of my Gordon Ramsey moments.
I often find that one minute, I want to strangle him, while the next, I want to hug him. We keep him on as a tutor more as our mascot than for his ability to cook, let alone teach.
Another time, Eric, my sous chef before Gil, had Shabbani cornered. “You were a ’Guido’ on the street, weren’t you?“ Eric smiled as his imagination came into focus. “I can see you out there tryin’ to buy a drink for some chick at the bar. You’ve got a couple of gold chains hangin’ around your neck, and you’re wearin’ a Puma track suit, open halfway down your chest with your taco meat hangin’ out!“
You’ve got to be quick witted to survive the insults and jabs of culinary. You most definitely won’t survive if you wear your heart on a sleeve. But Shabbani was at a cultural and linguistic disadvantage. The nuances of a joke would be lost on him. This, of course, is often what made it so funny, though sometimes cruel.
Shabbani stood there for a few seconds trying to decide how to respond. He didn’t know if Eric was giving him shit or fanning his ego. Yet we all looked on knowing full well that Eric had nailed Shabbani’s street persona to a tee. In hindsight, it’s a wonder he escaped being called ’Guido’ from that day forward. Shabbani squinted his eyes, thinking, scanning for this unfamiliar term.
“Vhat ees . . . ? He faltered. He was carefully sounding out the vowels and consonants in his mind. Then, after squishing all the syllables together into one solid contraction, he bravely forged ahead through his confusion. “Vhat ees POOma’drak’zoot?“
* * *
Now, Shabbani walks in late, just as I’m finishing our morning meeting. He scans the board up and down, side to side, like an old man with trifocals. He stops, perplexed, as if to ask something. We have given him the floor, but he doesn’t realize it. We all wait with anticipation, knowing something is coming. He continues to read the notes on the board. He looks at me, then back to the board; then his eyes focus on the list of leftovers.
Shabbani is always on the lookout for higher end products, scavenging and commandeering Parmesan, olives, or sun-dried tomatoes. If Feta is left unattended, he’ll snatch some of it up and squirrel it away to some secret Shabbani hiding place, the Bermuda Triangle of Feta Cheese.
We all watch him; holding our breath, we wait with anticipation. With the innocence of an unsure child, the first labial aspiration of this super fun, simple, and tender little word dances from his lips as if he’s blowing us a kiss.
“Pooooop . . . ?“ he asks softly, tentatively.
“Pooooop . . . ?“ he begins again with fragile confusion.
“Pooooop . . . ?“ The inflection in his voice crescendos with subtle delicacy.
We wait for it. Finally, he spits it out: “Vhat ees . . . pooooop joos?“
We break from the morning meeting and go into the kitchen, where there is a frustrating period of listless downtime. We wait for the Boss to escort Dave, our food porter, to and from the big kitchen, to fill our pull lists from the walk-in coolers and freezers.
Ask any prison official what their most important priority is, and their answer will inevitably be the same: security. All the locked doors and extra security measures centered around knives and everyday kitchen tools have a major effect on the flow of food production and the overall efficiency of a given operation. The Boss, however, understands our need to work on what we can while he and Dave go next door for product. Before they leave, he emerges from his office with three, 10-inch Wusthof chef’s knives, a 10-inch meat slicer, an eight-inch boning knife, and an eight-inch serrated bread knife, all of which dangle from three-foot airline cables.
Ting, ting, ting. Our blades are sorely abused under the circumstances. A dull knife is a dangerous knife, but this is simply the way it is. They’re good knives, and we sharpen them when we can, but we can never seem to keep ahead of their constant mistreatment.
The Boss secures the bread and boning knives to the prep table between the bakers table and the convection oven, adjacent to the planetary mixer. He opens a heavy-duty brass lock with a key from his guard belt and secures the looped ends of the cables into the hasp. He moves to the two prep tables in the middle of the kitchen and does the same with the remaining four knives.
The Boss walks around the prep tables to unlock the cooler and freezer. On his way back to the office, Wes stops him. “I need three ounces of yeast.“
Wes is a blond-haired beefcake. At least this is how he refers to himself. He’s tall, athletic, and muscular. With no undershirt, his white button-down is half open, and in my opinion, one size too small. He wants to open a pastry shop when he gets out of prison, and he plans to call it Beefcakes. His motto: “More than just eye candy.“ He jokes about filming instruction and ad video in the nude save for his apron.
The Boss delivers a jab. “I thought you had enough yeast with that infection you finally got rid of last week. Platinum told me that it was interfering with your sex life.“ The Boss gave me the nickname, Platinum, a few years back, right about the time he allowed me to start producing artisan cheese. A student once asked him why he calls me this. “Because he’s better than gold!“
“You’re just jealous!“ Wes replies. “Besides, this is more evidence of your latent homosexual tendencies coming to a head.“
“The only thing coming to the Boss’ head,“ I pipe in from across the kitchen, “is the sick and twisted shit that it’s filled with!“ This is my typically feeble and doltish attempt to defend myself. I just open myself up for more abuse.
“Platinum, feel free to crawl back under my desk and show me all about what’s coming to a head. Then I can hold you in my arms as you cry on my shoulder and bitch and moan about how you’re not gettin’ any more lovin’ from Wes.“ At that, he ducks back into the office. I chuckle and shake my head.
Wes takes the trash talk further into the abyss as he adds an ounce of salt to ten and a half pounds of flour he has in a bowl on his baker’s scale. He adds three quarters of a cup of freshly chopped rosemary, grown fresh in our garden out back, to the mix. He dumps the contents of the bowl into the mixer. Then he tares the scale after he places a smaller bowl on top. Timing is everything, and the Boss swings around the corner with a one-pound package of active dry yeast in his hand. This too is kept under lock and key. He pours the yeast into the bowl, and after the digital numbers climb from zero to three-point-oh, he returns to his office to log the date and time of when these three ounces of yeast were used.
Before he goes, though, the Boss watches intently as Wes immediately dumps the yeast into a one-gallon pitcher of lukewarm, sweetened water. After all, this amount of yeast can make enough hooch to get half the prison drunk. Wes continues his work and adds nine ounces of Kalamata olives and two pounds of diced, concasséd tomatoes to his dry mix. He attaches the hook to the mixer and turns it on low speed. After the yeast has had time to bloom, he combines six ounces of olive oil to the pitcher; he gives it a quick whisk and pours the liquid into the dry mix. He’s making focaccia for a chicken Caesar flatbread that will be served alongside tempura battered mushrooms, cauliflower, and broccoli.
Meanwhile, Twan, our soup tutor, dampens four kitchen towels and lays them out on top of the two prep tables that run parallel to the cooler and freezer. He slides into the dish pit and pulls out four cutting boards from the drying rack. In his struggle to dislodge them from this cramped and perpetually flooded, submarine-like station, he bangs his elbow on the sink faucet, and one of the boards clips him in the head on the way down. I’m blown away by the fact that he doesn’t curse. His upbeat demeanor doesn’t change as he places each board on top of the moistened towels, a precaution that prevents the boards from sliding around while working on the stainless-steel tables. Three of the students, Russ, Tom, and Bruce, respectively begin prep work for their soups, appetizers, and the heart healthy alternative.
The Boss locks his office, and he and Dave head over to the big kitchen for supplies. They return about ten minutes later and look like pirates coming back from a raid. They roll in two cartloads of raw pork butt, two beef rounds, a dozen flats of eggs, and three cases of whole chickens. This doesn’t even include all the fresh produce and dairy we appropriate on a weekly basis. We piggy-back off the greater food service department for well over a hundred-grand worth of product per year. Our own annual budget is a mere twenty-five thousand dollars. If it weren’t for the support we get from food service, we wouldn’t have much of a culinary arts program.
After this, Dave and the Boss go out back to our own walk-in cooler and freezer. This is where we keep the specialty items that do come out of our budget: limes, shallots, avocados, asparagus, shrimp, salmon, prosciutto, salami, beef brisket, pork tenderloins, gruyere, and the like. We often must plan ahead to thaw, brine, cure, smoke, and cook such items in preparation for the week, often weeks in advance.
In fact, I’ve been working with Zack, this week’s student chef, for more than six weeks in preparation for tomorrow’s main entree: a Reuben sandwich with every ingredient made in-house. Six weeks earlier, when Zack was still in the classroom component of the program, he came back to help me prepare a batch of “Nordic Feast“ cheese. This Swiss-like cheese is one of several cheese recipes that I’ve developed and perfected over the last few years.
Three weeks ago, Zack came back to help me prepare the cabbage to ferment into sauerkraut. Last week, we brined the brisket and today, Zack and I go out back with Dave and the Boss to fire up the smoker to finish the pastrami.
The cheese has now aged for six weeks; and the kraut is only a couple of molecules away from becoming hooch. Tomorrow, Wes and his student baker, Mike, will make a fresh marble rye; and Zack and I will simmer the pastrami and make a thousand-island dressing. Voila: 100% in house, from scratch, Reuben sandwich. This is culinary pride.
Maybe there is meaning to be had. While theoretically, it might be a solution to the absurd, I ruled out suicide as a viable option years ago. Perhaps it has some meaning on a cosmic level, but suicide is merely an escape from existence. Moreover, it fails to not only counter the absurd, it contributes to it. And religion, at least for me, fails the litmus test as well. Kierkegaard’s leap of faith turns out to be Camus’ philosophical suicide. (Religion, however, can be personalized, and this is perhaps the most rational and, for many, the most important approach to the spiritual.)
This leaves me with acceptance of the absurd. So, I choose to live in spite of the absurd in order to achieve the greatest extent of freedom available to me. In the meantime, I am in revolt against the absurd while simultaneously accepting it as inevitable. There may be meaning to be had in this construct alone. I would even take Camus’ thesis one step further and state that there is something spiritual about this acceptance. Still, in my attempt to address the ethereal nature of rising above the absurd to such spiritual heights, “I will most likely defeat any purpose of this story in my attempt to write it down,“ borrowing Camus’ words. After all, “deep feelings mean more than they are conscious of saying.“
What’s the point of spending years in prison, in constant fear, anxiety, dread, bitterness, and meaningless—this absurd reality? Likewise, the constant tension, ignorance, hatred, racism, judgment, damnation, violence, and loneliness are experienced equally by those outside of the razor wire. It becomes overwhelming and all-consuming. Unable to articulate, and resorting to cliché, I guess it is what it is. Perhaps the most frightening question of all is this: Can one be happy under these circumstances?
Twan explains to Russ, his student for the week, that he needs to knock out a small diced mirepoix for the minestrone that they’re making today. “The carrots, celery, and onions need to be uniform,“ Twan tells him. “Do you remember the ratio for mirepoix?“
“Two parts onions, one part each of carrots and celery,“ Russ replies. He’s done his homework.
Twan is one of my protégés. After he completed the program, we enrolled him in the cook’s apprenticeship program coordinated through the US Department of Labor. I taught him how to make good stocks and sauces, and now he teaches Russ. Twan, along with Gil, my current sous chef, assists me in the production of cheese and charcuterie that we make in house. He will later become my sous chef when Gil is released to the halfway house in his hometown of San Francisco.
Twan’s dreadlocks are tightly secured in a knot behind his head and doubled-up hairnets. His beard is restrained in the same way, two nets. He reminds me of some jolly old, black Rastafarian Saint Nick.
* * *
It’s a half million-dollar kitchen by modest standards. Uncle Sam spares no dime when he delegates accounting and purchasing responsibilities to competent bureaucrats with a deep sense of civic duty towards the American taxpayer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. My crew and I reap the benefits of a well-designed, professional kitchen.
Still, it’s a tight little ship, and when we cram 18 men into it—some of whom are well over 300 pounds, often from fat, not muscle—it’s as the seamen say, assholes to elbows. Indeed, our work becomes a delicate little dance, a culinary ballet of ducking, dodging, juking, and jiving. Some of us can hear the music in our heads, and when the fat lady sings at the end of the day, we’re usually pretty exhausted.
So, our little analogy of pirate ship meets all-male-ballet-troupe alludes to all the sexually charged innuendos that prevail—ergo, that are deliberately cultivated—the gallows humor that helps to relieve all the tension. Thus, the double entendre of “shooting the gap“ is never lost on us.
“Cheek to cheek“ is the spoken rule. “Front to back“ is a party foul, and you will be put in check for any infractions. To “shoot the gap“ often means prancing behind a guy just as he bends over in a cooler or to pick something up, hands full, in a rush, the clock is ticking, time is the real enemy. These things are understood. It’s even a given that you may brush his ass on the way by, and provided you excuse yourself, it’s all good.
Enter the party foul. Here, you’ll be called out, and—I suppose the pun is intended at this point—become the butt of the joke.
Wes’ choreographed dance is seamless and fluid. The mixer guard flies up, he lowers the bowl, twists and cranks the paddle, and lets it clink against the side. His movements are quick and efficient. With the bowl now in front of him, he bends over and runs a rubber spatula along the sides to make sure all the dry ingredients on the bottom and sides get thoroughly mixed into the red velvet cupcake batter he’s making. Before you know it, he’s standing, the paddle is reattached, and the mixer is humming, ticka-ticka-ticka-ticka. Seconds later, he stops the machine, and just as he crouches to effortlessly fling the fifty-plus pounds of bowl, paddle, and batter onto his work table, he “parks his trailer in the middle of the road.“
Of course, just at this precise moment, with a sheet pan loaded with forty pounds of honey mustard glazed pork tenderloins, I pivot my hips and shoot the gap. Not cheek to cheek—and just as he bends over—I graze his ass, front to back. Party foul.
“Come on, Paul! Why are you always the only one rubbing up on me like that? Now I know you’re gay!“
“No, no!“ I retort, smiling. “I think it’s the other way around, bro! You saw me coming and took the opportunity to park your trailer in the middle of the road!“
When Wes does the same to me, I’ll often turn to him with a wink, a nod, and a smile. “Why, thank you, Wes!“
And so, the banter goes, an absurd combination of friendship and camaraderie, balanced by sophomoric jokes to relieve the pressure of prison life. This is our sanctuary of the absurd. In the end, what’s the point? Well, allow me to invoke the words of chef, Anthony Bourdain, from his memoir, The Kitchen Confidential. He writes:
I want the readers to get a glimpse of the joys of good food at a professional level. I’d like them to understand what it feels like to attain the childhood dream of running one’s own pirate crew—what it feels like and smells like in the clutter and hiss of a big city restaurant kitchen. And I’d like to convey, as best I can, the strange delights of the language, patois and death head’s sense of humor found on the front lines. I’d like civilians who read this book to get a sense, at least, that this life, in spite of everything, can be fun.
* * *
I look around the kitchen and feel a sort of contentment—that everything is right in the world. Over the years, I’ve had pictures taken of us in our whites, the tutors, sometimes with a student or two.
“Why bother?“ Wes asks me. He’s serving a 23-year sentence, so I don’t hold it against him for caving, on occasion, to the inevitable apathy. The irony, too, is that I’m not a picture guy, so his question catches me off guard. He asks me this question at a time when I feel this fluffy, serendipitous nostalgia for it all, when the stars have aligned into a kind of Jungian synchronicity. I have to think about it for a few seconds before I’m able to answer, and then it occurs to me: this is my life. These guys are my friends, my brothers. After 14 years in prison and counting, love it or hate it, this is how it is. Our sanctuary of the absurd has not only given us reprieve, but also a deep sense of meaning and purpose, friendship and camaraderie. For this I’m grateful. I know, too, that Wes feels the same way.
Not only that, but there are some real success stories that have come out of this kitchen. Despite my earlier scorched earth interpretation of cooking and recidivism, I’ve played a direct role in the lives of many men who will simply not come back to prison, in part, because I taught them how to cook. Sometimes, I feel like I’m making things right in my own way, in the only way I can.
So, yes, food is all about sex, death, and rebirth. Maybe I’ll be reborn into a better life, maybe not. I’m reminded once again of Sisyphus. I am at the foot of my hill in Hades. My burden ever beckons me. Yet I’m graced with the opportunity to teach a higher truth to the g-ds who’ve condemned me to repeatedly roll my boulder to the top. I conclude that all is well. My universe is not futile. Every atom of the stone I roll, this mountain enveloped by night, each are worlds of their own. My struggle towards the top is enough to fill my heart. I am Sisyphus, and I am happy in this sanctuary of the absurd.
Copyright © 2018 by Paul Swehla.
About the Author
Paul Swehla is a chef with degrees in education and theology. He’s the author of Gilgul: Transmigration (Tikkun Publishing, 2016), and his second book, The Dystopian Hermit Monk, is forthcoming in 2018. “Sanctuary of the Absurd” is the title essay of the compilation he’s currently working on. His work has appeared, or will appear, in ArLiJo, The Safe Streets Art Foundation, Prisology, and The Santa Fe Literary Review. Paul is finishing a 22 year federal prison sentence linked to the accidental overdose and death of his friend, Ryan.
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 111
Accident on the JR, June 2008
On the way home
sticky with sun block,
pink at our shoulders,
the tops of feet;
we fall asleep
we fall into
in the dark.
A message in
I pick apart’
for its meaning;
in fifty voices.
I see our
sleeping in their arms.
They run to their
A huddle of cabs
waits for the rest,
without a look.
Copyright © 2018 by Heather Whited.
On a rainy day,
I take off my boots,
in damp socks
among the lines
that no one visits:
forest of yellowed pages
its buzzing sun above me,
half burned out,
hugging the carcasses
of several flies.
I flinch at the sound
of feet on the stairs,
a musty shadow
but no one comes for me.
I rest my head
against the cool of a metal shelf
to close my eyes
for just a minute.
Copyright © 2018 by Heather Whited.
About the Author
Heather Whited graduated from Western Kentucky University in 2006 with a BA in creative writing. She lived in Japan and Ireland before returning to her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee to get her graduate degree. She now lives in Portland, Oregon. She has been published in the literary magazines Straylight, Lingerpost, The Timberline Review, A Door is Ajar, Allegro, Foliate Oak, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Windmill; The Hofstra Journal of Art and Literature, Chantwood Literary Magazine, Cricket, Storm Cellar, Forge, Gravel, and soon The Hungry Chimera and The Broke Bohemian. In 2015 she was an honorable mention in Gemini Magazine's annual short story contest. She is a contributor to The Drunken Odyssey podcast and Secondhand Stories Podcast.