Aug 272010
 
Naton Leslie, Photo by Jennifer May

Here is a story by my old friend Naton Leslie, short story writer, essayist, poet, teacher & mad antiques collector extraordinaire. He lives down the road from me in Ballston Spa and teaches at Sienna College. This story is from his collection Marconi’s Dream which won the George Garrett Fiction Prize. I wrote a blurb for the book. It went like this:

Naton Leslie’s passionately detailed prose wrings meaning from the lives of Americans passed over by the go-go economics of the last thirty years, the working poor of the rust belt and the old upstate New York mill towns gone to seed. His characters are desperately trying to find love and dignity in the wreckage of a society where the old verities—honesty, hard work, fair dealing— don’t count for much any more.

The rather splendid photo above is reproduced here courtesy of Jennifer May who just published a book of author photos River of Words: Portraits of Hudson Valley Writers.

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Author’s Note

I’ve always been fascinated with depression-era stories, as they always contain a certain pathos and desperation.  Sometimes I they think enter the realm of mythos as well; the story of being served up your own pet rabbit on a dinner plate has been told to me by a number of people, and nearly always the same way: the somber faces of the parents; the silent dinner as everyone digs in and devours Thumper etc. While my father also told this story, as reported in the following piece, he had other, more singular tales to tell.

—Naton Leslie

 

My father always laid claim to a Dickensian childhood, to hear him tell it. And he did, often, whenever some little triumph or tragedy entered our pale, inflated lives. When he delivered newspapers, long before breakfast, he’d pick apples along the way to keep from truly expiring from hunger. He had been close to death many times—but this is not about death.

This is about the movies. My father swept the movie theater floor for the change he’d find, and for a free ticket to the next show. Then he’d see Flash Gordon, the news from The War, Roosevelt relaxed in his seat, shaking hands with other men my father called great, or, if he was lucky, white-hatted men who finally gunned down their black-hatted foes—simple justice, simple myth-making when there was a real enemy, when there was a right and a wrong, a drunk and sober, a dirty and clean, a hungry and full, a happy and sad. On this he was adamant. His days were times of extremes, delineated like black and white film, not muddy and imperfect and phony, with our life-like living color. It was damned shame, he’d say, the way things turned out.

But my father is telling this story, mind you, not me. I’m not part of this story, or maybe simply a witness, an ear. I don’t even have to tell this story because you already know it. Your parents had their own snow drifts to navigate when they walked, often barefoot or at least bareheaded (come-on, you’d say) to school, their own pet rabbits slaughtered and served up on their own depression plates—that’s another story he told, too, and I’m sure he didn’t make it up because it’s happened to so many other people.

One time, at the Orpheum theater (a great name, I always thought, for the location of my father’s own Stygian stables), he was finished sweeping up the candy wrappers and popcorn, and the manager offered him a ticket to a show, but not to the next movie the next night because Gene Autry would be making a personal appearance, before the opening of a new feature film—even the big stars did that kind of stuff back then, he said. They weren’t primadonnas, like now. Well, my father would say, the theater owner knew he’d have no trouble filling the house with paying customers and didn’t want to waste a seat on him. He was sorry.

My father, the poor waif who swept up after the paying customers, was a great fan of all cowboys, especially those like Roy Rogers, but he tried to hide his disappointment as he left, walking home in tennis shoes that were both left feet because he’d bought them himself from the second-hand store because he’d needed them and there was a war, you know, and rationing. He tried to hold his chin up anyway, because he was strong, even back then. So he walked home, in the snow, I’m sure there was snow; there was always snow when you had to walk back then, and he left footprints that looked like they were made by someone you’d call Hopalong Cassidy, who was my father’s hero, though Cassidy had both left and right boots. He got home early so he could do his chores, for which he never received so much as a thanks, let alone a nickel, and then he’d go to bed early so he could deliver the paper the next day. It was Sunday, and the papers were extra heavy. A real burden.

But the manager had a soft heart, a common ailment back then, along with a stiff upper lip, tight fists and something my father simply called “backbone,” though I never knew if it meant you couldn’t sit down or stand up. The next day my father showed up after the show to sweep, but this time he was wearing a toy six-gun, a genuine Wyatt Earp, pearl-handled, hog-legged gun my father often described, his only toy as far as I could tell, which he bought with the sweat of his brow, I tell you. Nothing was given to him, not like children today, he’d say. But how I wanted that cap gun, all metal and nearly real.

But this is not about me. This is my father’s story. There he was, doing his job, when he heard a voice call out his name, and the owner walked down the aisle with another man, and as sure as you’re born it was Gary Cooper, tall and silent, my father’s favorite cowboy, asking him if he’d like to get a drink down at the soda fountain when he finished his work. This was better than seeing him before the movie. This was my father as a boy and his hero, Roy Rogers, walking down the street, the two of them, with everybody watching as they sat at the counter and had a fountain Coke and a hamburger too, and he usually didn’t get meat more than once a week—just my father and Jimmy Stewart or someone, I can’t remember who, but I know he was proud, and there was no snow, and he was wearing his six gun and everyone was finally envious of him. When the story ended we knew we’d never feel as proud as he did that afternoon. And we knew he spoke the truth.

—Naton Leslie

Aug 242010
 

Sex and poetry don’t often go together, to my mind at least–you know, not automatically anyway, although maybe, sometimes.  (Well, what do I know. Poets are so quiet. You never know what they’re thinking.) My friend Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, a Toronto novelist and story writer, smacks them together violently along with a hybrid motor car and a tale of old love in this new story “The Longest Destroyed Poem.” Kathryn’s two novels and her first collection of stories can be found at Amazon. Look her up.

dg

 

The Longest Destroyed Poem

By Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer



When Rosa saw him after all those years her first thought was how fleshily ugly Victor had become, and yet, if she was honest to herself, he hadn’t ever been much of a looker. He was a poet. And the second thing she thought was how easy it would have been all those years back to get him in one of his gin sleeps, and suture his mouth tightly shut. She imagined the semi-circular needle and the thick surgical thread, black and angry, and the coarse knots, like waxed midges, at regular intervals, but of course she was, in those days, not equipped with expertise in any field much less doctoring.

Victor noticed her in that split second, too, and he knew what Rosa was up to, for his face changed, channel surfing from neutral smug — well, this was his everyday face — to impending doom. The eyes dilated and he reeled ever so slightly backward. Rosa was driving. Coming up through the Annex on her way home from the hospital. It was primal instinct that led her to accelerate, and a surge in adrenaline after that, that — she could practically feel the dopamine firing her into focus — had her steering the Prius up between two parked cars over the curb and, then, right into Victor’s stomach. Whoop!

Their relationship had been a competition. Who could drink the most (him), who could over-extend orgasm (her) — like that. They were practically athletes when it came to domestic games. And now it was like the car ate him right up. Rosa paused, pulling her foot off the gas pedal, and then hitting it again, which bucked the car forward. She was excited to see him lift up, a test dummy, and fly along with the chassis of her ecovehicle through the plate glass window of the East-West Futon store.


Twenty-five years. He would be sixty-something, and she damn well wasn’t revealing her age. She looked fabulous. Better than back then, when she’d thought she wanted to be an artist, and Victor had made a point — she realized this as she realized many many things, that is she realized it in retrospect — of dropping into the conversation — the one she hadn’t actually been having with him, because she was instead focused almost solely on the fact his much younger roommate had a hand under the blanket her crotch also happened to be under — that he was off to bed early so he could work on a poem he’d been having trouble with.

A poem, she had thought, one he’s been having trouble with, like most men would say of their carburetor, or a girlfriend, things you really could fix by hitting them with the right sort of wrench or else a witty comment. But a poem. It hadn’t occurred to her that one worked on these. To her they arose genius born on the onion pages of a Norton’s Anthology.

Yet through the moist fug of foreplay, she had heard this little gem of information, and even though what the much younger roommate had been doing was more or less exactly what she wished for to happen, she discreetly pulled away and said she needed to go to the washroom, and where was it? And then Rosa followed her pheromonal imperative up the stairs to rake the door gently with her new manicure.


Continue reading »

Aug 222010
 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne. To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.

The personal essay as a form is relatively new to me; I enrolled at VCFA in the area of Creative Nonfiction, in fact, without a complete understanding of what the term means, and after my first residency I found I wasn’t the only one. In asking CNF faculty, I found they frequently brought up the terms “literary journalism” and “personal essay.” They almost always referred us to Phillip Lopate’s introductory essay from The Art of the Personal Essay for basic traditions of the personal essay form, and I referred to Mark Kramer’s “Breakable Rules of Literary Journalism” from the Literary Journalism anthology, which I also teach in my Media Writing classes. I’ve found that, while my media writing (and teaching) tends to follow the rules of literary journalism, the work I’ve been most interested in learning and doing recently has been personal essay. So, it makes sense that I would want to learn the traditions and conventions of the form, in the context of both my own writing and the CNF genre.

While Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay is a perfectly apt summation of the form for the general reader, I had my worries as a writer about applying a descriptive list of formal attributes to my own writing (and reading!). One name, though, kept coming up in both the introduction and my conversations with other people writing, teaching, and learning the personal essay form, a man who died more than 400 years ago, whom Lopate considers so important to the personal essay that he gave him his own section titled “Fountainhead” – Michel de Montaigne. I hadn’t read him since taking an undergraduate Renaissance literature course, and the only thing I remember is liking the fact that he was the only Renaissance writer we read who wasn’t obsessed with the nature of God. So last semester I read Montaigne’s three essays in the Lopate anthology, including the 54-page “On Some Verses of Virgil.” After reading all three of them, but especially “On Some Verses…,”I started to realize why Montaigne is so frequently cited, and – I’m not ashamed to admit it – I decided I want to write like him.

Which is, of course, a fool’s errand. But, at the least, I’ve decided to use his work as a model. So, for each of the five months of this semester, I’ll identify a technique Montaigne uses, show said technique at work in at least one other personal essay, and attempt an explanation of its purpose and effects. Besides my obvious hope that it will somehow ingrain some of these things in my own writing, I hope this series will be helpful to other writers struggling to come to grips with the personal essay form. And yes, I’m making this up as I go– I’ll be reading Montaigne’s Collected Essays each month as I go, annotating, denotating (okay, denoting), compiling, and analyzing as I go, god help me.

This month’s entry is on a central concern to most non-fiction writing (perhaps more so than fiction, but not exclusive to non-fiction) – the integration of “big ideas” with first-person narrative.  Montaigne does this masterfully in all three of his essays I’ve annotated so far, but none so seamlessly and extensively as the 54-page “On Some Verses of Virgil.” I’ll describe the macro pattern first, then for the sake of brevity I’ll  look at this pattern in the first two pages of the essay. After that, I’ll look at how Joan Didion employs this technique in her essay “Goodbye to All That.”

All 54 pages of “On Some Verses” generally eschew an overarching narrative, instead integrating, in order according to the amount  of words Montaigne gives to each, the following three elements:

  1. Personal anecdote, self-revelation, and opinion
  2. Aphorism, advice, and universal wisdom
  3. Direct quotations from other authors

For now I’ll concentrate specifically on 1 and 2, as 3 will probably merit its own essay later this semester. It’s also important here to note the difference between opinion and aphorism. In the (more frequent) cases where Montaigne gives his personal opinion, he generally uses the first-person and employs humor and winking self-deprecation; when using aphorism, he switches to the omniscient third person and the tone shifts to a weighty circumspection.  The fact that the personal material takes up the most space doesn’t necessarily betray a preference on Montaigne’s part – though it probably does – but rather  a necessity of the form. Montaigne’s forbear Cicero, quoted here from John O’Banlon’s Reorienting Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story, posited that narrative is “the fountainhead from which the whole remainder of the speech flows.” Most readers will attest that a story is more interesting than an argument, and the arguments people respond to most are the ones grounded in personal narrative, whether theirs or someone else’s.

Montaigne starts “On Some Verses” big:

To the extent that useful thoughts are fuller and more solid, they are also more absorbing and more burdensome. Vice, death, poverty, disease, are grave subjects and grieve us. We should have our soul instructed in the means to sustain and combat evils and in the rules for right living and right belief, and should often arouse it and exercise it in fine study. But for a soul of the common sort this must be done with some respite and with moderation; it goes mad if it is continually tense. [58-59]

You’ve probably already noticed that he’s meta-writing here, identifying and addressing some of the issues I’ve just pointed out that a personal essayist faces when writing, and reading  – we want to read and write important things – but too much weight at once will crush all but the most interested readers. (Edie Brickell’s most memorable words, to me, were “Shove me into shallow water, before I get too deep.”) Aware of this, Montaigne spends a lengthy paragraph confessing that his own body is failing him, summarizing in one confessional sequence how he went from, “In my youth [needing] to warn and urge myself to stick to my duty,” to his present state, where “I defend myself against temperance as I once did against sensual pleasure.” He continues in this vein for several pages afterward, describing – sometimes with humor, sometimes with a sigh – what a drag it is getting old, punctuating his personal confessions with aphorism and advice like “Wisdom has its excesses, and has no less need of moderation than does folly,” and “Let childhood look ahead, old age backward.” [59] In the course of 54 pages, Montaigne covers disease, depression, women’s roles, sex, love, vice, religion, fatherhood, and literary criticism, maintaining an obvious  self-awareness as a writer throughout.

Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” written roughly 400 years after “On Some Verses,” also mixes personal anecdote with universal statement; it also, at least in part, covers similar thematic territory. One of the essay’s major tropes is a Blakean focus on innocence and experience. I’ll focus on this here in context of the essay’s relationship to Montaigne’s. The innocence (or youth) vs. experience motif runs through literally every page of Didon’s essay, intermingling with the other motifs as well as narrative snapshots of her life in New York:

…one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before .(681)

She then tells of arriving at Idlewild, hearing a song on a jukebox on the Upper East Side that she thinks must be about her, and mistaking the Triboro Bridge for the Brooklyn Bridge from her apartment window in Queens. The most aphoristic statement of the essay is perhaps the one I can most endorse personally:

It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young. (682)

She segues from this into a story of a party in December which she goes to with an older male friend who has slept with five women and owes money to two men from the last party they went to, giving narrative attestation to her previous aphorism.

…I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never loves anyone quite that way again. (683)

After this, she tells of eating a peach on Lexington Avenue with the lush detail of a first kiss.

I knew that it would cost something sooner or later – because I did not belong there, did not come from there – but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have high emotional balance. (683)

There a delicious ambiguity to this statement – will the peach cost her something later, or is it something else? She recounts charging food at Bloomingdale’s in order to eat on $70 a week, looking in the windows of brownstones while thinking about she ways she would make herself rich, meeting extravagant people at extravagant parties, and watching the holidays and years go by.

New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not “live” at Xanadu. (684)

Which leads into her observation that for her first year she lived entirely in other people’s apartments, and after that she had a longstanding aversion to buying furniture, eventually leaving all of her belongings in her old apartment to move into a “monastic” apartment on 75th Street, where her new husband finally moved actual furniture when they were married.

That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it. (685)

This leads her to recount minute, seemingly unrelated flashes of memory, mnemonic smells, touches, sensations.

I suppose that a lot of us who have been in New York have the same scenes on our home screens. (685-6)

After this, she transposes a panoply of sleepless nights with friends at different bars with the comfort of Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee at her midtown job writing advertising copy, then describes the comforting loneliness of housesitting her friend’s apartment in the West Village with no one calling her, to the very end going to every party she was invited to.

You will have perceived by now that I was not one to profit by the experience of others, that it was a very long time indeed before I stopped believing in new faces and began to understand the lesson in that story, which was that it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the fair. (687)

And here she tells of everything seeming old, like she’d heard it all before, avoiding certain parts of the city, hurting people she cared about, insulted those she didn’t, crying compulsively “in elevators and in taxis and in Chinese laundries,” contemplating the final step to becoming a New Yorker – getting a therapist – but getting married instead, and leaving New York with him.

All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore. (688)

It wasn’t until I strung these lofty statements together and summarized the stories between that I discovered the road maps they gave to the succession of short narratives that might seem to have only intuitive coincidence with each other. In fact, each story reinforces the aphoristic point made by these epic statements, and allows her to be open-ended about the ending – in fact, seems to leave her no choice but open-endedness, as that’s the structure she set up.

—John Proctor

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne.

To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.

Aug 192010
 

Jason DeYoung

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).

dg

/

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.”

“For me?”

“Yes.”

“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.

“Would I!”

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.

—Jason DeYoung

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