Tag Archives: restaurant

Dinner at Encarna’s

This is a story I’ve been working on off and on for about two years. It is set in an alternate universe, so it’s not supposed to be historical at all.

Dinner at Encarna’s

They say all is fair in war, except at Encarna’s. The centuries-old restaurant stood in a sheltered pocket of no-man’s land, aggressively protected by both sides. Encarna welcomed everyone to her table as long as there were no weapons or any violence within her walls. Breaking these rules could get you killed, or worse, banned from the restaurant.

Encarna’s was the sort of place that wasn’t supposed to exist in war. It survived in a bubble that was exempt from the reality of total war outside its walls. The food was extraordinary, but it also survived through some deeply-buried part of the group psyche that longed for a respite from our current hell. It was a miracle that they could still get the ingredients they needed, although I guessed that both sides were secretly supplying it.

I stumbled through the doors, dead with fatigue after twelve hours of guard duty on the front lines. The guns had been quieter that day, but the quiet times were almost as bad, as you strained to peer through the fog for special forces troops creeping up under barbed wire to toss grenades into your machine gun nest.

I saw her sitting by herself at a corner table, dressed in the crisp, clean blue uniform of the other side. Gleaming brass on her shoulders showed that she was a captain.

I’d learned to gather information quickly. The new uniform meant she was either new to the front or worked in a department that didn’t see action. But people sitting by themselves usually wanted to be left alone, and they were usually accompanied by at least one bottle. This woman sat sipping water. Maybe she is waiting for a date.

When meeting people you would shoot without hesitation the next day on the battlefield, shyness doesn’t mean much. I went up to her. “Can I sit down?”

She glanced up, flicked her eyes over my faded uniform, but then nodded. “Fresh off the front, captain?”

Officially, both sides were forbidden from talking to one another in Encarna’s. Officially, neither side was allowed to visit at all. On all reports, it had been destroyed in the shelling years ago, but Encarna’s was a world of its own. Even generals and field marshals would sneak into the restaurant when they could.

I nodded. “Not a bad day. Your guns were pretty quiet today.”

“All out for repairs,” she said, beginning the verbal dance that mortal enemies play in conversation—that dizzying mix of truth and lies you tell when becoming friends with someone you can never hope to trust.

“I guess you’re new here,” I said.

“Why do you say that?”

“Your uniform looks pretty new.”

“I came out for a nice night, the first in a long time. Of course I wanted to look my best,” she said. “Doesn’t your side still have dress uniforms?”

“We chopped them all up for bandages,” I said.

She nodded. “I thought I saw an arm sling with epaulets a while back.”

A waiter came and we ordered and then sat talking, as normally as if we were on a date back in normal times.

“So, are you Intelligence? Logistics?” I asked after the lasagna and paella had arrived, a lovely mix of Mediterranean cuisines.

“I’m in the Army,” she said with a smile. It was the typical stonewall answer. The fact was that I didn’t recognize the branch insignia on her lapels: a coiled snake around a star. “You?”

“Mine’s easy,” I said, pointing to my Infantry insignia. “There’s no mystery about me.”

“Oh, I doubt that,” she said, and for the second time, she smiled.

“What’s your name?” It was a taboo question but I asked it anyway.

Her smile disappeared. “Captain Renzi,” she said. I knew that from her name tag. “You are Captain Foxhaven, but you are not English, are you?”

I shook my head. “Names have long histories.”

After the meal, Captain Renzi pulled out a few red banknotes—what on our side we called kommidollors—and stood up. “I will be sitting at this table three days from now.” Then she left.

It was devilishly hard, but I got an 8-hour pass three nights later and made my way to Encarna’s. Captain Renzi was already there in her corner. The waiter was just bringing her a plate of pasta.

“I thought you weren’t coming,” she said. “I was almost regretting turning down all the others wanting to sit.”

“It was hard enough to get away this early,” I said. “The Old Man always has work for me.”

“Order something,” she said. “We’ll split this, then eat that when it comes.” I felt a burst of pleasure at this and I ordered something quickly and got another plate to split the pasta.

“The Old Man?” she asked. “Do you mean Colonel Dreifuss?”

“You know him,” I said, surprised.

“We know a lot about your superior officers,” she said, with a tiny smile that made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want to think of how she knew. I would rather have ten howitzers pounding my location for hours than one double-agent, moving around undetected.

“How long have you been at the front?” she asked. My internal alarms started again.

“About two weeks,” I said, although I had really been there for over a year.

She nodded. “Me too.”

We started eating, but I was tired of all the evasion and lies. “My name’s Marco,” I said. Giving information to the enemy was a bad idea, but there was not much she could do with my first name.

She nodded and took a couple bites. Then she seemed to reach some internal decision and put down her fork with a smile. She reached across the table. “My name’s Angela Renzi. Nice to meet you.” We shook hands.

The evening went well, and we mostly talked about our lives before the war: where we had gone to school and what life was like growing up. Just before we left, Angela leaned into me. “Listen, I don’t know what your patrol schedule is like, but stay away from the Red Hill area tomorrow.”

I was stunned. “What did you say?”

Her look was blank. “What? I didn’t say anything.” She looked at me steadily for a few extra seconds, then turned and left.

The road back to my barracks seemed longer than the three miles it was. The fact was, I was planning on visiting the Red Hill outpost the next day, but how could she have known that? It didn’t make any sense. It was a war; nowhere was safe, so why warn me about one specific spot? I did not sleep well that night.

The next day, I found an excuse to stay away from Red Hill. I agonized about the decision. Should I warn the commander of the outpost? If I did, they would want to know how I knew, which would open up a lot of uncomfortable questions. And what would they do, even if warned? It was not like they would evacuate the outpost, just because it was going to be attacked. If anything, they might reinforce it, which would not help anyone if the base was going to be heavily shelled. Still, the burden of unwanted knowledge weighed me down like a machine gun slung around my neck.

The next day, I was in HQ when the news came. Red Hill outpost had been destroyed. Sappers had dug a tunnel up to the walls and thrown in satchel charges and grenades. The fort was a wreck. The enemy had not been able to hold it, but they had destroyed a lot of its fortifications. I stayed away from Encarna’s for the next week.

But I could not stay away forever, and despite what had happened at Red Hill, I missed seeing Angela. After all, she had not attacked the fort personally, and she had only been trying to warn me. Still, it had thrown into sudden focus that the woman that I thought and dreamed about was an enemy that I was sworn to defeat.

When I managed to make time to go, the anticipation of seeing her again made me almost nervous. I put on my best uniform and walked the muddy wreck-strewn track the three miles to the restaurant. When I got there, Angela was sitting in her usual corner with two male officers of her own side. Disappointed, I went and sat at another table. I was almost finished when she slipped over and sat down across from me.

“I’ve missed you here,” she said in a low voice. “I’m glad to see you unharmed.”

“Why did you tell me that?” I said. “Isn’t that treason on your side? You warned an enemy about upcoming plans.”

“You couldn’t have stopped us anyway,” she said, in a way that annoyed me. “Plus, I wanted to make sure you’d be okay. When’s the next time you can be here?”

“I don’t know,” I said petulantly, but then reconsidered. “This Friday I have some time.”

She nodded. “I’ll be waiting over at our table.”

Our table. That made me smile and even as I watched her leave with the two other officers, it made me feel better.

That Friday, I was the first one there, but she came in soon after and slid into her seat. “Did you order?”

“I just got here. What do you want?”

“I like everything. You choose. I’ll pay tonight.”

“Oh, really? Is it pay day over there?”

“Something like that,” she said.

We ordered and chatted a little, but it was obvious she was preoccupied.

“Trouble at the front?” I asked after a while, trying to make it a joke.

Angela shook her head. “It’s not that. I’m just worried. About you.”

“I can take care of myself, don’t worry.”

“I know you can. You’re smart and lucky so far, but I’m thinking of down the road. We’re winning this war.”

“I think it’s pretty even,” I said, more than a little defensively. In fact, the war was dead even, with emphasis on the dead. Ever since I had been at the front, the war was just a huge meat grinder with men and women being fed into it from either side of no-man’s land.

“It was, but it’s not anymore,” Angela said. “Red Hill was just the beginning. We’re going to win this war, without doubt, and I’m afraid for you.”

Psychological warfare, I thought, the disappointment twisting my stomach. She had made friends with me and now was trying to sabotage my morale. “Are you trying to get me to defect?”

She looked at me and I saw the beginning of yes forming on her lips. Then she smiled sadly. “I wouldn’t ask you to. I know you wouldn’t.”

“You’re right. I wouldn’t, any more than you would defect to my side,” I said.

The food came and we ate in silence for a bit, making only small remarks about the food. The atmosphere had changed. The word defect was almost as taboo in Encarna’s as weapons and like the word divorce in a marriage, it tainted the mood.

“Listen,” she said, as we were finishing up. “I don’t care if you tell what I said or not. I’d like to see you again, but I’ll understand if you don’t. In any case, please take care of yourself.”

“I’ll come here whenever I can,” I said. “I want to see you again too.” She smiled, gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, and left through the side entrance, back towards her side.

I got back to my barracks to find out that I had been reassigned, effective immediately. The new posting was thirty miles down the line, at another HQ. The transfer was a step up, but I was depressed as I packed my belongings in my duffle bag and got on the truck.

The next few weeks, I worked hard, but I never stopped thinking of Angela and what she had said. The war did seem to be going badly for us. More of our outposts were being taken or destroyed and the enemy seemed to find their way through our defenses almost effortlessly now. There was some talk of treachery. I was almost glad I could not go to Encarna’s to avoid any suspicion that I was a spy.

Two weeks later, the end of the war came for me. I was commanding a small outpost on what our maps called Hill 54. It was just after midnight and only the watch was awake when the side of the hill exploded. I was dozing in my cot and jumped up to hear shouting outside and submachine gun fire. Someone ducked into the tent and pointed a gun at me, shouting at me in the enemy language to get down. I fell to the ground, expecting every moment to be my last. Five minutes later, he told me to get up and I was marched outside.

Most of my squad had been killed, but three of us had been captured. They tied our hands and marched us down the slope and back across no-man’s land to enemy territory.

I won’t deny that I looked for Angela as we were searched, then marched to a truck and driven far behind the lines to a prisoner-of-war camp. If she was there, I did not see her in the sea of enemy uniforms.

What I saw depressed me. New weapons and fresh-looking soldiers were everywhere. The POWs were fed better than the officers at the front on our side. We were losing and everyone in the camp knew it. There was no talk of escape. We all knew the war would be over soon.

I was at the camp two months according the scratches on my bunk post when a guard came and called for me by name. I got some dark looks from the other POWs as I walked out, wondering if this was for release, interrogation or execution. The guard directed me to an administrative building. I walked into a small room with a table and two chairs. Angela Renzi was sitting in one of them.

She looked similar to the first time I had met her at Encarna’s, although the insignia on her epaulets had changed.

“Major Renzi,” I said. “Congratulations.”

“Marco,” she said. “I’m glad to see you.” She smiled but I saw the pity in her look. It incensed me as much as our unequal positions: she in a gleaming dress uniform and me in threadbare POW pajamas.

“How did you find me?” I asked.

“I’ve known you were here even since you arrived,” she said, “but I couldn’t come visit without arousing suspicion. Now, however. . . .” She slid a newspaper across the table. It was from the day before. My reading ability of the enemy language was passable, but anyone could have guessed the meaning screaming from the headline in 100-point font: “PEACE DECLARED!”

“Your president surrendered,” she said. “We were five miles from your capital.”

My grandparents’ home was about thirty miles from the capital, in the direction of the front. I wondered if they had gotten out okay, if the places I remembered visiting in the summers were now nothing but smoking crater holes and death-infused mud.

“So did you come here just to gloat?” I asked.

“No!” She seemed genuinely shocked. “I like you, Marco, but this was the only way that we could ever have had a chance together.”

She was right, of course, but why did it have to be her side that won? I thought of our glorious historical sites that had never seen the tread of an invader before now being overrun with foreign troops, the sight of that hated flag flying in our skies. The thought sickened me.

“How did you do it?” I asked. “If you think we have a chance, tell me that.”

“We developed a way to read minds,” she said. “We would listen across no-man’s land at night through special machines and heard all your plans, all your intelligence.” She saw the look on my face and put up her hands. “I wasn’t reading your mind in Encarna’s,” she said. “It takes special machines that require a truck to move. There, I’ve just committed treason by telling you that. Do you trust me now?”

I wasn’t sure. I still felt as if I knew nothing, and Angela held all the power. I had lived with enemies too long to loosen my grip yet.

“If what you say is true,” I said, “then I should be released soon, right?”

“Next week, I think,” she said. “They are drawing up the articles of surrender now and those will be signed in three days.”

“Six months,” I said. “Everything should be mostly back to normal by then, whatever normal will look like now, at least for me. If you still want to see me, I will meet you six months from today at Encarna’s at 8:00pm. Then we can see if we have a chance.”

Angela took out a notebook and wrote the date six months from that day on it twice, then ripped off one of them and handed it to me.

“Captain Foxhaven,” she said, shaking my hand. “I look forward to not being your enemy. I hope to see you again at Encarna’s.”


I Came for the Sugar

I Came for the Sugar

“What the…?” The waitress was staring at Nise’s sleeve. Panic exploded in my mind.

Nise’s laugh sounded natural as he pulled the worm out. “This is my pet, Mirai.” Nise sprinkled sugar on the table. “He loves this stuff.”

The waitress looked ready to vomit.

I rushed home and let Nise collapse on the couch. I crawled out of his pocket, exhausted from controlling the huge body.

That was too close. I had to get out of this Neanderthal era and back to my own civilized time.

I manned the chrono-communicator. Again. “Mirai to anyone. Get me out of here.”


Hot Pepper Vacation

FF217 Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

Copyright Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

 

“I’ll have the ghost pepper pie,” I said.

The waitress’s expression was that of a cop approaching a rooftop jumper. The words Are you sure? crouched unsaid on her lips.

I glanced out at the bleak Alberta winterscape. The meteorologists were rejoicing at the mid-February heatwave as the mercury rocketed up to -20.

“I just need a little heat in my life,” I whispered.

Twenty minutes later, my mouth was ablaze and sweat poured off me like a monsoon. I closed my eyes and imagined Cancun.

The manager noticed. The next week, they were advertising Mexican vacations, $4.99 a slice.


Quantum Parking: the conclusion (where things get even worse)

This is the second part of a story about time travel, valet parking, and an inexorable personality known as Bruno Brax. Part 1 is here.

Cosmic Orb Weaver

Terrible, horrible life experience

“At least I’ve never killed anyone,” I said to myself as Bruno’s phone number rang. I wanted to say it now while it was still true. I had just sent a man ahead into the far future, asleep in the back of a Hummer.

Bruno picked up at last. “Hello?”

“Hello, Bruno? Hello?”

“Hello?”

“Bruno, it’s Jimmy!” I shouted. “I’ve got a problem. Where are you anyway?” I had to repeat the question.

“Have you heard of a cock fight? Well, that’s not what this is.” In the background, I heard seals barking.

“You’re fighting seals?”

“They’re not fighting each other. What’s up?”

I explained the situation. “Yeah, that happened once before to a Chihuahua. It was fine. Pretty incontinent afterwards, but otherwise fine.”

“What do I do?”

“Bring the car back, of course.” Click. Bruno had a real gift for brevity.

I selected the Hummer in the computer and pushed the red button. It appeared as smoothly as it had disappeared and I opened the back door, afraid of what I might find.

The car was empty. I even checked under the seats. Nothing.

Just as I was starting to feel a hurricane of panic sweat start to build, Bruno strode in.

“The fight’s over?” I asked, as sarcastically as I could.

He nodded. “The robot won. Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

He went to the control booth and started typing things in. “You know, this is what I’m paying you for.”

“You’re not actually paying me anything,” I said.

Bruno pushed a button decisively, then nodded. “Okay, it’s set. The computer will scan for life in the area and automatically bring it back. Should get him back soon.” He typed in some numbers and hit the green button. The Hummer disappeared again.

“Where did you send that?”

“The future, of course. You can’t have the car here if something else comes back. Very messy. Very messy, indeed. Well, I’m off.”

“Wait! So this will bring back any life that comes into that area? What if it’s not him? What if it’s a dinosaur?”

“There aren’t any dinosaurs in the future,” Bruno called back, already on the street. “Probably. If there is though, catch it alive. I’ll pay good money.”

Another car honked its horn outside. My sociology dissertation, which had looked like a hopeless quicksand pit a few hours ago, was now looking like a quicksand pit with a silver lining and a great place to drown myself.

At that moment, there was a pop and a large rat appeared on the receiving pad, standing on its hind legs and waving a pistol. I ducked behind the control panel just as a shot rang out and the control panel exploded in sparks. By the time I gathered up the shattered pieces of my courage and crammed them back into my psyche, the rat was gone.

I called Bruno.

“You know, I don’t even know why I hired you,” he said, his voice almost drowned out by what sounded like metallic whale songs.

“You didn’t! You press-ganged me.”

He sighed. “I thought you’d be more grateful, considering. Look, I’m busy now but just push the black button, call in a gas leak, and go home.”

“Isn’t that illegal?”

He chuckled. “Ah, you’re cute.” There was an explosion in the background of the phone and a loud roar. “Oops, things just got interesting here. Gotta go.”

I tried to push the black button, but it had melted in the explosion from the gunshot. The other buttons didn’t work either.

Suddenly, what looked like a cross between a python, a millipede, and a Tickle-me-Elmo appeared on the receiving pad. At this point, calling in a gas leak was like turning down your thermostat in a forest fire. However, before I could react, a car also popped into existence on the pad, combining most interestingly with the abomination that had just appeared before it. The results looked like Jackson Pollock trying to cook a whale liver with a pile driver.

This last nightmare-inducing episode was enough to throw me out of the gravity well that was Bruno Brax’s hypnotic personality. I went home, threw the sociology dissertation in the garbage, then thought better of it and put it in the fridge instead. Then I started to drink and write fiction. None of it made sense, so I assumed I was on the right track, art imitating life and all.

By the end of the day, the restaurant district was cordoned off and sealed. The official story was a gas leak, but I knew better. There were also reports of a gun-wielding rat riding a small dinosaur.

Two weeks after my short-lived valet job, the phone rang and I answered it without thinking.

It was Bruno.

“Hey Jimmy. I found you a job. You’ll need your own harpoon though.”

Click.

It was me this time.

Ether Generator - Inverted


Quantum Parking

I always thought it was impossible to destroy the fabric of the universe while working at a parking garage. It was one of those comforting truths that I clung to when times got hard, one of those sentences you stick ‘at least’ on the front of, like: “at least rats can’t wield guns” or “at least I’ll never be eaten by a dinosaur.” Finding out these things are wrong is what I think is called life experience.

Cosmic Orb Weaver

Terrible, horrible life experience

Bruno Brax was a friend of mine, in the same way a black hole and a passing star are friends. He had a sly, Tom Sawyer-esque way of making you think he was doing you a favor when it was really the other way around. I’m still not sure what he did for a living, but if I had to guess, it was to be friends with people like me.

“Hey Jimmy,” Bruno said, calling me up one day while I was puzzling over my doctoral dissertation. “I found you a job.”

“I’m not looking for a job.”

“Not anymore. Cuz I found you one. It’s a valet job at La Fesse D’or. It’s a swanky place. The guy who worked there before made like, eight bills a night.”

“8000 dollars a night?” I asked, skeptical.

“Not eight grand, idiot, 800. What, that’s not enough?”

“How do you make that much parking cars?”

“Tips, of course. It’s high class. Anyway, I’m always happy to help. I’ll text you the address. See you in an hour.” He hung up.

I went to meet him. I was stuck on my dissertation anyway.

La Fesse D’or stuck up like a crystal needle in the middle of the restaurant district, poised to lance the boil of the heavens. It was so narrow that there was only one table per floor but the restaurant went up thirty stories into the air, like a space-age middle finger to anyone who couldn’t afford to eat there, which was pretty much everyone. I drove but had to park four blocks away. Bruno was waiting outside, looking impatient.

“You’re late. I wanted to train you but your shift starts in fifteen minutes, so there’s not much time.”

“What—?”

“Come on, I even got your size uniform. Hurry up and change.”

There is a certain point, just like with black holes, when you pass the event horizon and struggling becomes pointless. Bruno had this weird gravity about him that sucked you in and compelled you see his point of view. And his point of view was invariably that you should do what he said.

“Okay, so this is all there is to it,” he said once I had changed into a uniform two sizes too small and was standing out front with him. “The customer drives up and gives you the keys. Then you drive it around the corner and onto the receiving pad. Then you go into the control booth and push the green button and the car disappears. Simple as that.”

“Where does it go?”

“It goes forward in time,” Bruno said, as if this was obvious. “A guy I know set it up since the owner’s a friend of mine.”

“You send them forward in time,” I repeated. I thought the collar might be cutting off my oxygen.

“To the year 5400, I think. Trust me, it was cheaper to do it this way than rent parking space in this neighborhood. Now, it’s important to send the cars at least four hours apart, or they might appear on top of one another. That’s bad. The world is a blasted wasteland at that time, so there’s no problem with future people messing with the cars. To get them back, select them on the list in the computer and hit the red button. Got it?”

I don’t absorb new information well so for the next quarter hour, my brain was curled up in the fetal position in the corner of my skull. Bruno took my frozen expression as a good sign and left me with a hearty “Good Luck!” and a slap on the back. “Oh, by the way,” he said, poking his head back in the door. “Never let the customers know about this, okay? For all they know it’s a normal parking garage. Got it?”

I got it eventually and after the shock wore off, I started to get excited. An hour before, I had been mired in an ill-conceived sociology dissertation and now I was sending cars forward in time. I went into the control booth.

There was dried blood on the floor. I called Bruno.

“Oh, that’s from the last guy, Charley. He fell asleep and spun the dial to send the car back into the distant past. A small dinosaur came back with the car and bit his leg off. He died.”

“The dinosaur or Charley?”

“Charley. I don’t know what happened to the dinosaur. Listen, you’re not allowed to bring a gun to work, but it might be a good idea to bring a large knife when you come tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Bruno had already hung up.

Someone honked outside and from just the tone and duration, I could tell he was a jerk. It turned out to be a she, a very well-dressed she in a Hummer. She dropped the keys into my hand and walked off without a word. A moment later, the Hummer was on the receiving pad. I wiped the sweat off my palm and pressed the green button.

Bruno wasn’t kidding. The Hummer just popped out of existence, no flaming tire tracks or anything.

Just then, the phone rang and I picked it up. “Hey, buddy, there’s a woman here who says you just parked her Hummer. She said her brother is asleep in the back seat, so just tell him to come in when he wakes up.”

Click.

Crap.

Crap crap crap.

Crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrap.

I had to call Bruno.

Ether Generator - InvertedTo be continued tomorrow…


포크 주세요 (Fork Please) – Friday Fictioneers

Today I must beg your indulgence. I wrote today’s Friday Fictioneers story in Korean. Yes, it is pertinent, and yes, there is a translation. However, only the Korean version is 100 words long.

I wrote it with non-Korean speakers in mind, but still I’d like you to read the Korean first (there’s English in it). Try to make guesses about what’s going on before you read the translation. Consider it a metaphor for living abroad, when you can catch part of what is going on, but not the whole thing, and many times, not the most important nuances.

 

포크 주세요

외국사람 커플 들어갈때 식당이 조용했다. 다른 손님이 없었다. 3시: 점심과 저녁의 바쁜 시간 딱 사이 있었다.

직원이 와서 남자가 메뉴판을 얼른 보고 손가락으로 가리켰다. “Also, fork please. Fork?” 포크로 먹는 손짓했다.

“You should try using chopsticks, Mark.” 여자친구가 말했다.

그때 한국인 할아버지 들어왔다. 외국사람 커플 밖에 손님이 없는지 확인한 후에 자리에 앉아서 떡볶이를 주문했다. “그리고 포크주세요” 라고 말했다.

마크가 들어서 웃었다. “You see? Even Koreans are using forks these days. Chopsticks are history.”

할아버지가 코트를 벗었다. 왼손이 없고 오른손에 엄지 손가락만 남았다. 떡볶이를 받아서 포크를 느리고 아프게 들고 먹기 시작했다.

이제 마크가 웃지 않았다. “Maybe I’ll try chopsticks after all.”

 

_______________________________________________________________________

And now, the translation:

_______________________________________________________________________

 Fork, Please.

The restaurant was quiet and empty when the non-Korean couple entered. It was 3:00: right between the lunch and dinner rush.

The waitress came over and the man scanned the menu and pointed to something. “Also, fork please. Fork?” He mimed using a fork.

“You should try using chopsticks, Mark,” his girlfriend said.

Just then, an old Korean man came in. After making sure there was no one in the restaurant besides the foreign couple, he sat down and ordered. “Fork, please,” he said.

Mark heard him and laughed. “You see? Even Koreans are using forks these days. Chopsticks are history.”

The old man took off his coat. His left hand was gone and on the right, only the thumb remained. He got his food and slowly, painfully picked up the fork and began to eat.

Mark wasn’t laughing anymore. “Maybe I’ll try chopsticks after all.”

 


Back Alley Charm – Friday Fictioneers

copyright Kent Bonham

copyright Kent Bonham

Back Alley Charm

“Exclusivity builds value,” my father always said. That’s why he opened his restaurant on an alley with no name and no address. “Word of mouth is the best advertising. We don’t even need a sign if people like what they eat and tell their friends.”

So, no sign. For the first month, no one but friends of my father visited the restaurant. Until one night when the president’s personal secretary took a wrong turn and knocked to ask directions.

He liked what he ate and the rest is history.

“You also need a lot of luck,” my father finally admitted.


Raise a Glass for the Phoenix

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.

dim bar

“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.”

Moonlit Phoenix

The Phoenix

(I should have listened to him, of course, but I was younger and cockier then. The story continues, soon.)

 


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