It’s a pleasure to offer here this shocking and deeply comic little story by my former student and recent VCFA graduate Jason DeYoung (above with his son Harrison). “Mariska’s Tongue” was originally published in Gargoyle, No. 53 (2008). It reads like a cross between a segment from The Twilight Zone and something Donald Barthelme or Julio Cortazar could have written. Chief among its charms is the evidence herein of a deeply disturbed mind at work (would that we could all find our inner cannibal and let it out on the page).
When I saw it on the menu, I knew I had to have it. Tongue. When the waiter came to fill my water glass, I asked him what kind of tongue was it. “Human,” he said. I believe I gasped a little like some expectation had been fulfilled. I was not nonplus, however. The waiter had answered curtly, and when he picked up my water glass, he parried my eyes, and I sensed he didn’t want to give any explanation for this item.
In general, on a menu the indelicate items appear below what are the best things at the restaurant, maybe in the lower left column or tucked in among more mundane, unsatisfying things—squash salad, yuck. There is a rule I have: Order what the restaurant specializes in. For instance, if it’s a steakhouse, order steak. I do not stray from this rule, typically.
Everything conspired against ordering the tongue, the listing for which occupied a section of the menu that fully conveyed that it wasn’t the restaurant’s specialty. The tongue dish wasn’t cheap either at $25.00 a serving, and I was short on cash.
Looking up, I saw that the waiter was still filling my water goblet; the dark hair on his rock-colored fingers looked like hunched, over-fed horseflies, and his eyes were narrowed on the goblet’s sliver-clear rim. “Do you recommend the tongue?” I asked, when he was finished pouring. “For some,” he said. He was terse and respectful. He turned on his heels and limped back into the kitchen.
I looked again at the un-dramatic listing for tongue, and then put my menu down and sipped a little of the ice-water. How could I not take this opportunity to have human tongue? My god, what would it be like, taste like? What would it be served with? I looked back to the menu. It would come with a side tomato salad and wild rice.
When the waiter returned and asked if I was ready to order, I said, “I’ll have the tongue.”
“And how would you like it cooked, sir?”
“How do you suggest?”
“It is very lean meat. I would said medium rare, for you.”
“What does that mean? For me?”
“With respect, you do not seem to be the type to eat his meats cooked at a rare temperature.”
I smirked at the waiter, and asked him how he knew I didn’t eat rare meat, thinking he would give some observation about me, something keen and complimentary, something I’d secretly cultivated about myself but that no one else had picked up on or said anything to me about.
He tapped his nose with the ball end of his pen and gave an overly familiar smile: “You are a tourist, sir. I can smell a tourist.”
What gall! “I live here, in the city, the same as you,” I stammered.
“Very well. Rare tongue,” he said, without missing a beat, without a hint of reproach. He was obviously practiced at giving obsequious responses to petulant outrages.
“No, no. I do not eat my meats rare. I want it medium rare. I’m not a tourist.”
“Of course.” He limped back to the kitchen.
I sat there stewing, wondering if I should just leave. I furious over the waiter’s presumptuous attitude, and how he’d said tourist like it was an insult. It was true, in a way. I’d just moved here from a stay in Russia. I’d just broken it off with this curly-headed, overweight Russian woman I’d been with since my second year out of college. Though she was much older than I, she wanted me to marry her, but she had terrible habits that I couldn’t stand, such as that she plucked her gray pubes and collected them on the dark tile sink counter as if she was planning some wig or weaving. I’d say, “Mariska, what the hell! You think there’s some hair fairy for the middle-aged? What’cha gonna do when you got a whole gray bush?” She’d say, “I do not und’rstand you ‘Merry-cans.” Then she’d come over and rub my head and press her sweat-moist jelly body to mind. I liked her. She was generous and loving. But have you ever seen a collection of glossy gray pubes plucked from a soft bed of blond hair?
The waiter returned finally, his face much swarthier than I remembered, my meal plated in the dishes he carried. He sat the plate and bowl down without care, but not without decency—they didn’t rattle as they settled. There before me was a heat-swollen, grilled tongue that sizzled and smell wonderfully, nestled within tan long-grain wild rice with a side tomato salad.
I tried to put Mariska out my head. But she was there now, she was on my mind, and though I don’t know why, the tongue reminded me of her all the more. Its length, its readiness, its presences was too much like Mariska. In some grime outpost of my imagination, I thought of it as Mariska’s tongue.
I stared at it, a long, un-sliced meaty tongue. Its sizzles subsided. I needed a moment, so I started with the tomato salad and then nibbled on the wild rice around it. But I was starting to have difficultly bringing myself to look at it. A human tongue. No, no: a human’s tongue. Right there on my plate. Sanctioned by the restaurant, and by the state, I suppose. I looked around at the other patrons in the restaurant. I didn’t see another serving of tongue on anyone’s plate. They all had companions, and they all looked contented. As I scanned the room, I saw only one other person alone, and he sat two tables across from me. He had a jowly toad’s face, and winked knowingly at me as I noted his meal.
I stopped looking around and finished my side dishes. I even sopped up the oil and vinegar in the bottom of the salad bowl with bread before I took a long glance at what I thought of as Mariska’s tongue. It took on the stale, wizened appearance of something you’d want to flush. It just made me think more about that jolly gal who loved me, and who I knew would take me back without a second thought.
I’d left her, I thought at the time, like an outlaw. On the night of our first anniversary, we went to a Turkish restaurant and ordered everything we desired on the menu. We ate our feast with the speed and intemperance of trough-fed pigs. Afterward we went home for a bread pudding I’d made earlier that day. As she kissed the back of my neck and swore her love, I stirred together a simple syrup to go on top of the bread pudding. We test tasted the syrup many times. She giggles, “You have stuff on you face.” “Your,” I corrected, and let her lick the syrup from my cheek. As she moved back, I caught an unflattering glance of her. Her face looked beaded in blemishes and jaundiced. I stepped back. She was a crone in the poor Russian lighting. She giggled. I hurried her through dessert, making her drink as much imported Cognac as I force down her throat. She could hold her liquor, and it just made her more randy. The drunker she got the more clearly her flaws presented themselves to me—every stray hair, every small blemish, all of the imperfections coalescing into something utterly grotesque that unpleasantly spread across a glowing face-palette of ruddy flesh. Before she got a chance to force me to bed, I slipped into the kitchen, tucked the un-tallied rubles she kept hidden in a container in the refrigerator into my satchel, and bolted for the apartment door, all the while she was refreshing herself for me. I ran practically stark mad across the winter grey courtyard of her Soviet-era apartment building under the gloom of the midnight sun.
“Is there something wrong, sir?” I look up and there was that laconic and insulting waiter, hanging over me like a gawking spectator. I could see the dirty black hairs that jutted out of each dark nostril like the soot-covered bristles of a chimney sweep’s broom.
“How can you serve this kinda thing?”
“It is what you requested, is it not?”
“Aren’t there laws against serving human flesh?”
“Not in this country, sir.”
“What about natural laws? What about the laws of decency or respect.” Sweet, plump Mariska, welcoming and jovial, weighed heavily on my mind.
“Please sir, temper your voice.”
“Fuck my voice. You served me a human tongue!” The other patrons now looked up.
“But that is what you ordered.”
He had me there. I had ordered it. Just because it was available to me, I still had the choice not to order it. But I loved the exotic. Exotic. Poor Mariska. She was Russian, and I was not (I’d fuck a Martian). I looked back down at the tongue. It was dry now except for a thin layer submerged in its own bloodied juices.
“Sir,” —the waiter was unflappable, by now I’d be calling me all sorts of ugly names— “can I get you something else. Perhaps a stiff drink? A hamburger or a steak?”
“That drink sounds good.”
“Of course, and consider it on the house.” He turned and limped toward the bar. He left the dished tongue there in front of me. I pushed it away.
But I won’t lie. Across the table, out of my immediate reach, it seemed to attract me. I wanted it. I pulled it back and picked up my knife and fork. I steadied myself over it. It was here, after all. There was no giving it back to the owner to have it reattached. I closed my eyes. Natural laws be damned. Rebel, rebel: the outlaw moaned in my head. And just then I felt a hand clap me on my back. “You from out of town or something?”
I look up to see the man who’d winked at me making his way around to the chair at the opposite end of my table. He sat down slowly—he spoke slowly. “You don’t cut tongue,” he said with the grace of man who had never been hungry. “That’s not how you eat it. You take it in your hand.” He demonstrated by outstretching his fingers like he was holding a large invisible hotdog. “You show it respect. Someone will never speak again for your gullet’s pleasure.” His broad, moonlike face smiled over the table at me. He was the type of man I admired, the kind who never seemed to suffer damp wrinkles in his shirts or a moment of uncertainty while making plans. I did as he instructed. I picked up the char-stiffened meat; its tip hanging slightly wilted. “Yes, that’s right.” The man gave me a proud smile. My god, his teeth were prefect.
Like a last kiss from a lover, I put the tip of the tongue in my mouth and tasted its juices. Spiced and sweet. The waiter arrived with my whiskey, as I was about to sink my teeth into the tongue. He stood there with a slight smirk on his face peering at me.
What can I say? I ate it. Sweet Mariska on my mind the whole time. The outlaw in my head singing a happy saloon song as every bite of that tongue was chewed and tongued by my own and pushed down my throat. As I ate it, the waiter told me that the best tongue comes from those in their twenties, after salvia had tenderized it, but before it toughens. “Yet, generally, what is served here is of somewhat lower quality.” I wouldn’t know the difference, I told him.
I got to know the waiter and the other patron a little. We made paced and protective conversation. The broad-faced man had traveled through Russia, too. I told him a little about Mariska. He said, “I do love the Russian woman. Dirty in the sack, dirty in the kitchen.”
The waiter asked how the tongue was.
“It was very good. It reminded me somewhat of skirt steak, but with a more workaday texture. It was really quiet exciting to eat, however.” Sated and enjoying myself, the guilt I felt over Mariska and eating human tongue had vanished. “I was a little surprised that I had difficulty eating it at first.”
“Most do. You shouldn’t worry so. And I apologize about the ‘tourist’ remark.”
It was like we were old pals now. I’d learned both their names and knew they were both unmarried, like myself. “Would you like to see how we prepare tongue?” the waiter asked.
They took me to the kitchen. I considered this a rare treat, much like the tongue.
In the kitchen, a pair cooks dithered over stoves and prated to one another. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Their aquiline, heat-scarred faces were ruddy in the brightly lighted kitchen. The waiter walked to a prep station in the rear of the kitchen and lifted what looked to be garden sheers. He scrutinized their cleanliness. He took a small sponge, rubbed out a spot on the tool, and then beckoned me to come closer.
“This is what we use to remove the tongue.” He held aloft the large pair of cutters. “We have to make sure it is clean to avoid infection. We’re not in the murder business, you know.”
“Intriguing,” I said. “So you remove the tongues, here, in the kitchen?”
“Yes, and this is what we use to hold the tongue.”
“Whoa.” It was a pair of pliers with imbedded spikes that sparkled like polished jewels. He held both tools. The cutters were in his right, the pliers in his left.
“If you like, I could demonstrate on you.”
“That’s okay.” Not taking him seriously in the least.
“But sir,” he came closer. “Someone gave up her tongue for you.”
“But I’m not that giving.”
“But she was. And that is how it works. You get tongue only if you give it.” The waiter lunged toward me. “You tourists never know the rules!”
I ran for the door only to find the moon-faced man and the two ruddy-cheeked cooks standing in front of it. “Out of my way!” was the last thing I said.