This story is based on a real place. There is a restaurant in my city called the Phoenix that is shaped like a huge sailing ship. It caught fire about 12 years ago and now just stands there, abandoned and left as it was on the day of the fire.
“Raise a glass for the Phoenix.” I heard glasses clink.
The bar was dim but I could see a small group of older men hunched together around a table. The empty glasses on the table showed they had already been drinking heavily for some time.
I should have left it alone, should have gone back to my drink and cell phone game and continued waiting for my friend to arrive. Still, I have a need to know, like a compulsion. When people say “curiosity killed the cat,” I reply, “Yeah, but at least he died satisfied.” That’s my motto.
“Excuse me, I said, sidling up. “I know this is impossibly rude, but I’ve heard the name Phoenix several times before. I was wondering what it meant.”
The men looked up at me, giving me a stony glare that showed I was interrupting and not welcome. Then one of them spoke. “You’re not from here, are you?”
“I moved here six months ago.”
The men looked around at each other. A few had doubtful expressions. “I’ll tell you,” one of them said finally.
“You really going to do this, Ryan?” one of the other men asked.
“Sure, why not? We need more for the party, right?” The other man shrugged, drained his glass, and then he and another left.
“Don’t mind them,” Ryan said. “So, a drink?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. He signaled the bartender, who brought me a beer in a tall glass.
“For the Phoenix,” Ryan said and we dutifully clinked glasses all around the table. He waited until I had taken a drink before beginning.
“It’s a restaurant,” Ryan said. “The Phoenix. It was, at least. It was way out in the middle of the forest, all by its lonesome. It looked like a big old sailing ship, always in full sail, never moving. The owner, Brett Narrock, was that weird mix of hermit and exhibitionist. The restaurant was just like him: a kind of Vegas built out in the mountains.”
I still didn’t see what was so special about it that it required constant toasts.
“Did you go there a lot?” I asked.
“Go there?” Ryan said, looking surprised. “No, the guest list was very exclusive and by reservation only. I hear that they booked months ahead. No, I was a chef there, the sous-chef under a man named Balodis. The slogan of the Phoenix was: ‘Be Reborn’ but Balodis would always say, ‘When pleasure is old, when the perverse is banal, when the shocking makes you yawn, come to the Phoenix.’”
Ryan brought his face closer to mine and I smelled the sour alcohol on his breath and saw the white-stubbled wrinkles of his cheeks. It was the face of experience. “We made things in that kitchen that defied reason, even sanity,” he said. “It wasn’t about nourishment or any sort of satisfaction of the stomach, it was about experience, titillation, and novelty. Culinary miracles, or nightmares came out it into the dining room. There were bowls of live meal worms that burst in a puff of glowing narcotic when you bit them; potatoes grown on blood; and strange, chemical cocktails tailored to produce specific emotions. One of the appetizers we made was a bowl of chocolates where every fifth one was poisoned. Balodis said a lethal dose was five.”
“And the customers knew you were doing this?” I asked.
Ryan nodded. “Oh, they knew. They paid a lot of money for it. Every night you would see them drive up in their black cars to the underground reception area, or be shuttled in by limo from the helipad.”
“It must have been huge,” I said.
Ryan shook his head. “Not really. It could probably hold a hundred people, may a few more. The clientele was ultra elite. It was nice enough, but it wasn’t covered with gold and jewels, or anything. The customers had all those things already. That’s not why they came.”
“So why did they come?” I asked.
“Unpredictability, loss of control,” Ryan said. “Nothing was the same from one night to another. One night the meals were free, the tables were naked women and the aperitifs were shots of squid ink; the next night, each meal cost five thousand dollars, there was a live tiger roaming the room and the hostess slapped them in the face when they walked in. They lived for that kind of unpredictability.
“Narrock, the owner, gave them everything they wanted and more. He and Balodis were of the same mind about things: both obsessed with pushing things further, trying to find the last untasted experience.”
He paused and took a drink. The story seemed to be over, so I pressed him. “So, what happened to it? They couldn’t have just closed it down after all that?”
Ryan shook his head. “No, there was a fire one night in the kitchen. Balodis was experimenting with some sort of combustible chemical. The whole place went up quickly and spread out into the dining area. Fitting end for a place called the Phoenix.”
Ryan stopped and on an impulse, I raised my glass again. “Well, here’s to the Phoenix. It must have been a hell of a place.”
The others just stared at me and I saw open hostility in more than a few of their faces. “What do you mean by that, exactly?” Ryan asked.
“I—just that it sounds like quite a place.” I felt as if I’d misjudged the situation somehow.
“Weren’t you listening?” one of the other men asked. “The place really was hell. Ryan left out most of the terrible stuff, but I was a waiter there: I know. They tortured animals; they even killed people. They had this place in the middle called the Pit. Once it was glassed in and filled with water for a shark fight. A girl fell in and got torn apart. No one tried to help her. They said it was an accident, but I don’t think so. They once set a live cow on fire and just sat and watched as it crashed around, burning. When it was dead, they cut it up and served the raw, smoking flesh to the diners. There was worse, but I’m not about to speak the words. The nightmares are bad enough.”
“But, then why did you toast it?” I asked. “I thought you liked it.”
“I’ve never hated a place worse in my life,” Ryan said. “After the fire, Narrock tried to rebuild but by then the area had had enough of him and they refused. Before he left, he said, ‘When the party starts to die down, the Phoenix will rise again.’ I don’t know what he meant by that, but it was the sort of cryptic thing he would say. We just started toasting it, hoping that would be enough to keep the Phoenix down. It might seem like superstition but you didn’t know Brett Narrock.
“Where was the Phoenix, anyway?” I asked.
Ryan just shook his head, as if to say, young people these days. “You want to go there, after all I’ve told you?” I nodded. “If you want to go bad enough, you’ll find it. But I won’t tell you. And if you go, if you wake up the spirit of that place, then don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
(I should have listened to him, of course, but I was younger and cockier then. The story continues, soon.)