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When people ask me what it is I write, the best answer I can give is that I don’t know. “I’m just starting,” I tell them, “I’ve just come out of a very intensive course of study and I’m changing career tracks.” “Did you study writing?” they ask. “No,” I tell them, “physics.” “Oh, but you’re a writer now?” “Well, I’m applying to wash dishes at a Mexican restaurant.” “Ah,” they say, “I understand,” and I wish they would explain it to me.
The goal of my writing up till now has always been exemplified by the quote from On Keeping a Notebook that I’ve repeated so many times: to remember what it was like to be me. But the world (in the narrowest possible sense) is changing, and it is not just Didion I must live by, but also Rilke:
Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.
Maybe Rilke is being too exclusive; surely there is such a thing as the hobbyist writer, for whom writing is not quite as important as water and air, but nonetheless more important than (say) sex or automobiles? I don’t think I would have to die if I were forbidden to write; I have gone long periods without writing. But then, there are those who fast.
Though I naturally have some private journals, an inappropriately large fraction (it seems at a first estimate to be around half) of my writing in the last few years has been on this blog. It’s been primarily nonfiction, first-person, like a diary (which the prankster in me would like to call diaretic, but which is actually diarial). I have sparingly but unapologetically sprinkled in fictitious elements where they made the story better; but from now on, my focus will be on using this as a platform to publish more polished short stories, essays and other literary efforts. My last post (from April!) was my first effort at this; expect more like it to come.
Eventually my hope is to submit writing to magazines, but I’m not there yet. If you are reading this, the odds are that you know me personally; if you take the time to read a whole story, I sincerely appreciate constructive (interpret broadly) feedback in the comments section.
Today I offer you a piece of fiction largely inspired by real events. Its working title is “About the Dog.”
Michael carried the dish across the kitchen. It was still replete with the old dog’s lamentably uneaten breakfast: a cup of crunchy, dry, almost unscented kibble, with a spoonful of leftovers for palatability, garnished liberally with ketchup in a crosshatch pattern. The plate was crawling with a mass of six-legged scavengers, seeking to capitalize on the sick old dog’s lost appetite. He turned on the sink. As the scalding, steaming water washed the food and its formicid inhabitants, incapable of protestation, into the gently whirring garbage disposal, he was reminded of the line from the Bhagavad-Gita: Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
He let fall a single drop of soap, massaged it with his thumbs into the old, decaying sponge. “This sponge,” he said aloud, “has seen better days,” and it was true; but he kept using it, nonetheless, because he had no other. Having worked the soap into a lather, he vigorously scrubbed the bottom of the dish, intent on removing every last invisible ant-germ. On some level he knew that ants carried no significant diseases, and that the old dog had, in his day, eaten enough of them to get an exterminator’s license; but it seemed important to get it right this time, to give the dog a dinner to remember, one not… Outside, there was the faraway grumble of a motorcycle.
Speak of the devil— when he turned around to replace the empty bowl, the old dog had dragged himself into the room, looking forlornly up at Michael, his master. Thick front paws supported his entire weight; neurodegenerative myelopathy (Michael remembered the name without a clue about the underlying causes it signified) was now several months advanced, paralyzing, atrophying muscle, working its way from the hind paws forward, until it would eventually reach… The two held eye contact for what seemed to him like a long time, until finally the dog’s rear legs gave way and his hindquarters fell into an unenthusiastic intercourse with the lacquered wood floor. “What do you want,” Michael asked, “old boy?” The dog, unaware of his slippage, did not change expression: waterfallen, cloudy eyes fixated as best they could on his master; bent and patch-haired tail, splayed out behind the bony, fragile legs, vibrated, feebly, once.
He sighed and went to go refill the dish. It bothered him, the amount of food he discarded every day. After all, each dry brown nugget represented a portion of the life of (he read the side of the bag) a chicken, a pig, or a lamb. Some animal somewhere had suffered and died, to be fed to the old dog, to be fed to the ants; to be washed down the garbage disposal. But dutifully he poured the chicken-pig-lamb-bits into the dish, and dutifully he opened the refrigerator and reached for the Tupperware of last night’s vegetables. It was empty. “Sorry, old boy,” he said softly, “nothing special for round two,” and satisfied the both of them with extra ketchup.
He returned the bowl to its spot on the low table. The old dog was now lying on his side, not looking at anything in particular; the squeal of the mailman’s cart outside did not even disturb him. “Come on,” Michael said resignedly, “come on.” The dog made a halfhearted attempt to lift his head, but gave up, waiting for what always came next. Michael knew. He slid his arm under the visible ribcage, feeling the tumor that was growing larger every day, and his other hand around the veiny neck. He gently picked the old dog up and righted him; he uncrossed the dying legs by hand, straightened them, and left one hand in contact with the old dog’s buttocks, to push him in the right direction should he slip.
Now they stood there, the two of them, in silence for a while. The old dog watched his food continue to exist; time did not seem to pass, the ticking of the clock above the shelf drowned out by the neighbor’s comically overpowered lawnmower. It may have been five minutes, it may have been fifteen; but nobody moved until the first ant had made its way up the leg of the table and into the dish. The first ant was followed by a second, and by a third, and before long the whole colony was back in force, consuming the sustenance that had so generously been proffered it. As the neighbor finished mowing and the engine sputtered to a halt, the old dog turned his head back towards Michael, who removed his hand. Ignobly, predictably, and slowly, the dog’s hindquarters slid backwards; he lost his balance; he fell sideways. Michael did not take his eyes off the ever-growing, squirming mass of ants, the ever-diminishing pile of ketchup. He was once again reminded of the line from the Bhagavad-Gita, and softly he began to cry.
“What,” I have been asked on numerous occasions, “is the best sandwich?” The customer stands, expectant, hopeful, slightly judgmental, waiting for the correct answer– for while they do not know which is the best sandwich, they are confident, like the pre-quantum physicists, that there is a correct answer, and furthermore that I have it.
This seems like it might be a difficult question to answer, to say the least. So I usually hedge my bets. “It kind of depends on what you’re in the mood for,” I reply, cautiously. “The Colorado Club is probably our most popular– it has turkey, bacon–everybody loves bacon–and this really good mild chipotle sauce. Or if you’re into something a little more unusual the Turkey Yard is pretty great, with the green chilis. If you’re vegetarian, the Forever is just hummus and all our veggies stacked as high as you like. And of course, I don’t know if you know this, but you can make your own sandwich from any of the ingredients we have…”
If they haven’t decided by this point, however, I clue them in to the truth. Because in fact, the question is deceptive; it is incredibly easy to answer. The objectively best sandwich, from a scientific standpoint, is the Reuben.
The Reuben is a classic, and as such doesn’t really belong in our “signature” list; as an Old Fashioned is to a bar, a Reuben is to a deli. It’s not everyone’s favorite, and sometimes it’s even a little too much for those who do like it; but woe befall the sandwich shop that lack the fixings for it. At its most basic, a Reuben does not contain any non-pickled vegetables. It consists of sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, Thousand Island (or Russian, but we use the former) dressing, and one more ingredient: a lot of corned beef. Corned beef piled on corned beef piled on corned beef. Corned beef is not something that people generally order at our deli outside of a Reuben; nobody gets, say, corned beef with American cheese and a tomato. This meat has one purpose.
Furthermore, and this is important, a Reuben must be on rye bread. All other sandwiches may come on white, wheat, or rye according to the preference of the customer, and I always ask which their preference in fact is. But while I will reluctantly make what I consider to be a faux-Reuben on white bread if asked, I will never initiate the heresy.
OK, you may be saying, so it’s a big pile of meat with some sauce, cheese, and funky-looking cabbage, on a very neurotically specific kind of bread. Why is it the best sandwich? The answer is simple: because our corned beef is really fucking good. And why is it so good? Because we make it in-house.
All the other meats– the turkey, roast beef, ham, salami, and capicola– arrive at Eagle’s Nest in large packaged hunks of the same kind that your grocer slices to order when you get a half a pound of pastrami. Many of my mornings are spent slicing these ten-pound behemoths into servable pieces, using a machine called the Slicer that was moderately intimidating at first but with which I have become friends. (Sometimes, I will confess, we use pre-sliced turkey and ham to save time, which I personally think is of inferior though still definitely acceptable quality; but most of the time, it’s a big old turkey breast, about which many predictable jokes are made in the all-male kitchen.) This seems reasonable. I mean, who makes roast beef themselves? You leave expert process to the experts.
Which makes it all the more important that the corned beef arrives as a big old raw piece of beef. While writing this post, I did a little research on the internet and concluded that it is likely that the brisket (the actual cut of the cow) is salt-cured prior to getting to Eagle’s Nest, since that takes quite some time. However, curing is not cooking. The chef takes the raw corned beef and covers it with a proprietary mix of herbs and spices and juices; puts it in the oven for maybe an hour; and when it comes out it smells beautiful, Irish, steaming with coriander and blood. Sometimes we put it in the fridge overnight, but one time last week I had the pleasure, the sheer joy, of taking this giant piece of fat and muscle to the Slicer directly from the oven. It practically dissolved off the blade.
This is how I know that the corned beef is better than any of our other meats: when I am slicing turkey, or salami, or even roast beef, which is by no means lacking in juiciness, the job is solitary. I put the slicer on “automatic” and keep my hand on the handle, gently pushing the meat downwards so the blade can catch it correctly and not shred it, and this goes on until the behemoth has been transformed into forty or so proto-sandwiches. Then I clean the Slicer, and wrap up the meat, and that is all. Throughout, the local Spanish station is playing on the radio, periodically announcing the only words I can recognize, “Eagle Countyyyyy!!!!”
But it is different with the corned beef. When I am slicing corned beef, every one of my co-workers who passes, pauses, if just for a moment. It does not matter if they are a chef, a cook, a dishwasher, a cashier. The nostrils flare. The eyes focus. The hand reaches. And out of my growing pile a slice is gone. And then they walk on. If they are feeling brazen, which they might as well be, in five minutes they will be back for a second slice. And potentially a third. By the time I am done at least two sandwiches’ worth of corned beef has gone down the hatch, unaccounted for, unpaid.
So if you are ever at Eagle’s Nest and you want to know what the best sandwich is: eat what the employees eat. Don’t ask. Get the damn Reuben.