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He Wanted All Galenans to Know That He Was Real

Stacey Levine

06.07.12

The wiry man from Galena, Illinois became a chef out of rebellion because the people of Galena always had snickered and said that was not a good job for a man. Though it seems strange, such things still happen.

He had a penline beard and sharp, dark eyes. He left home for the city, catapulting directly into the Institute Cordon Bleu, loudly announcing himself. From there the road was stupendously rough. Such schools are full of corruption. Students sabotage others students’ food. The man’s name was Vim. He graduated fast. Was pugnacious and deft enough to place as fish chef at Restaurant Tru, though he badly wanted to make sous chef. But virtually no one does that straight out of school.

Vim got an apartment and a dog. He could dress a fish in four minutes, screaming “Shut up!” at the sauté cooks and also Jim, the thin teen in the dish pit who had to take it all with a smile or get fired.

“And you want to become a chef, whatever that word means?” said Vim to Jim toxically. The dishwasher door leaked steam.

Vim sent a photo of himself to Galena, his teeth bared below the fluffy-white chef’s hat. The dog’s snout, blurred, jutting along the picture’s lower border. Vim wrote home that he was the new poissonnier at a high-end restaurant. Later it got back to him that Shirley Dirk at Galena Hardware and Tool told everyone she always had believed Vim was crazy, and, she said, since now he was an expert in poison, that proved it.

Vim sent more photos. He only wanted the Galenans to know he was real, all of them, for example, suspicious neighbors, old storekeepers and aunts, the nephew with the wobbling eyes, and the retired schoolteacher Mrs. Door, whose facial expressions always had shown she considered Vim strange or odd. But it did not matter, Vim said, because he had his own life now, the Associate’s and the car, the job and dog. And, unlike some of the staff, he knew the difference between a scallion cleaver and an ice saw.

The weeks tore on. He could squeeze ungodly-fiery sauces from peppers and mild, innocent herbs. Vim grew bold: now he wanted to challenge diners, crack their expectations, shock their senses when they dared order the fish of the day, perhaps even damage their nerves; and for some puzzling reason around this time, Vim got fired.

But he was going to quit anyway, he told the line cooks, because the river near Galena was rising. It was a flood, the news said. So Vim must go home. Goodbye, he said at the kitchen’s back door in the cold where staff on break smoked against the wall. He disengaged his glance. It never had been clear if the salad chef had been his friend. Inexplicably, the dishwasher Jim ran to Vim with his arms extended, saying, “I admire you.”

Vim raced to Galena. Belongings and dog in the car. Along the muddy hometown street he walked, chef’s tool kit beneath his arm packed with forty-one knives plus a zester. The dog snuffled the purplish mud. His neighbor Robbie Klohr standing on the porch, exceedingly tall as always, lower back slumped into his pot belly. Robbie said, “I knew you’d fail and come back home.”

Vim stood on the road. Already it was too much. “Get out of the diaper stage!” he yelled at Robbie in a fury, then telling himself in a smothered voice: “Relax your damned feet. Then the entire body will relax.”

The river rose sickeningly as he ran, sluicing freely through the streets as if it belonged. His parents peering from their window, faces recessed with worry and age. The water had half-melted his father’s shed, had stolen the wood pile. It was not just any river. It was famous and plunged south. Folding trees into itself, rolling them under like desiccating moths.

The house inside was still dry. Vim checked on his parents, then sat on the couch. He liked the fictional parts in the warp of the story (which I wrote). He told me those imagined parts––for example, the peppers, the zester, Robbie Klohr––nailed him into the world more than he previously had been, made him more solid. He approved of the tale and himself in it. Accepting that its roster of facts built the truth.

Vim had forgotten to feed the dog. Shirley Dirk came to mind. He ran, the dog behind him, through the watery streets to Shirley’s house on the left. He saw, through the window, that she sat on the sofa and read the newspaper.

My work on Vim’s story would be finished at some point. Unfortunately, then, I would have to labor forward with my own life.

Galena had shaped his body and made it scrawny-thin. He hated Galena because it forced his choices and created him. If he never had grown up in Galena, he never would have run to Chicago to train at the Cordon Bleu, nor would have seen fit to tell me the whole story, inlaid with the miniature ice history our bodies made.

Shirley was waiting for a casserole to heat. From the yard, Vim smelled the cheese. The casserole angered Vim. Shirley looked up, came to the door. Vim walked toward the stairs. The story must have a release or everyone feels cheated or annoyed.

“Two years ago, you were mean to me, Shirley, and gossiped,” Vim said, studying her.

She is pleasant-looking, he thought, except for her head and body. In the gray daylight Shirley’s face lilted, neither woman’s nor man’s, thin nose, fine hair, even, in this moment, resembling the dishwasher Jim. Yet, Vim thought, she slandered me while I was away at school, standing alone, lifting skeletons from herring at 2 a.m.

“What?” Shirley said.

Vim unrolled his leather tool kit. “I am not going to kill you,” he told her. “I just want you to know that I have a profession, and you don’t.” His fingers touching the white-handled knife.

The dog barked from hunger and the scent of human fear. Shirley’s hands raised with the shaking newspaper as she screamed. The dog leaped. Vim lunged. Now Shirley’s front window got smashed, and during this, the dog got knocked out.

The police wrote a report. The hearing was set. Once the ordeal or high point has occurred, it all seems a little flat. A Galena lawyer made the affidavit as Vim sat listening to the man’s whistling nose. They agreed Vim would promise the judge that he would return to restaurant work, and otherwise be very still.

Weeks later, I filled the kitchen sink with potatoes and clear water.

He said the Galeneans might someday understand him. He would go back and try the Galenans again when he and they had aged and narrowed. When they realized their time to know each other would someday end. Then it all might fit better, he said.

“There are so many parts to your psyche,” I said as Vim sat loosely on the couch.

“That’s not a psyche, it’s an earlobe,” he said. A weird joke. But maybe he was trying to change, break his mold a bit, the way some of us were trying to do.

__________

This story will be published as a limited edition chapbook by Louffa Press, Brooklyn.

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