Andy nearly had given up hope when he saw the place, tucked between two apartment buildings, across the narrow alley from a florist’s loading dock, its new red awning taut, the gold lettering on the window not yet chipped, the tables within warmly set in white and seated with a handful of couples leaning toward one another over meals. It looked almost throwback, almost like the height of chic in the late 60s, as if every man within would be wearing a sedate suit. As he hurried to the door, he saw a couple near the window snap open a pair of tall, thin menus, and so although it was late for dinner on a Tuesday in Atlanta, and the place was among the few businesses still open at this time downtown, perhaps they would look kindly on him, understand his predicament. Perhaps they would seat him.
He began his story for the host, how it had been the first day of a conference, long speaker, hotel restaurant overbooked, but the young man—hair gelled, nose ring, Bluetooth ear piece, crisp tuxedo shirt, a stark contrast to the formality of the rest of the room—said, “You’re fine. You made it for our last seating. And we have room.”
When he turned to the dining room, Andy appreciated his luck all the more. The handful of couples were just about all the place could handle, and only two tables remained. One was by the kitchen door, and the host was kind enough to seat him, sans reservation, at the other, in a corner along the front, just inside the large window facing the street.
The menu was spare, but every item interesting. He ordered crispy prawns served with a leek slaw dressed with orange and sake, sweetbreads with wild mushroom ragout, a crabmeat beignet, and an entrée of pheasant breast. He was not a food critic, not much of a cook, even, but his work had him travel, and so he had developed a greater-than-typical awareness of food and, more to the point, food trends in the cities where he ate many a business meal. The opinions of others more learned and affluent than he had helped educate him enough to know, with some degree of disappointment, that this chef, this plain-named and tattooed apparition Andy had come to know from online snooping, this Tom Wilson was, in fact, good at what he does.
At the second day of the conference, he doodled through panels. Sitting in crowds for speakers, he popped his laptop and looked for restaurant reviews, finding little yet available. His searching simply re-told what he already knew. Wilson had worked in a few kitchens in the early 90s in Charleston and Hilton Head, then scored a sous-chef spot when Eugene opened in Atlanta, and in 2008 made the leap to opening DeKalb Kitchen. He stuttered when the crash hit Atlanta hard, shifted emphasis from world cuisine to being part of the locavore trend, and enjoyed the good fortune that came with it. Nothing about his personal biography. Nothing about where he grew up. Nothing about his wife.
By the afternoon, Andy was in break-outs, amid loosened ties and nametag hunters and vigorous networking drones with highly sculpted hair. He did much talking and lost the thread of inquiry he had about Tom Wilson. He did the white-collar equivalent of bending to his purpose, however abstracted. But as invitations from long-time colleague friends and the newly eager came, to join them for dinner, for drinks, for some distraction, for a suite party (who books a suite at these things?) his purpose returned, and he declined, knowing he was going to DeKalb Kitchen.
That night, as he enjoyed a charcuterie plate, he thought he saw a glimpse of a tattooed arm through the service doors into the kitchen, but realized that the likelihood was the entire kitchen was similarly sleeved. By dessert, he began to foresee a long and expensive week of dining with nary a glimpse as a reward. Calculating on his phone what a week of meals might end up costing, and how he could either seek reimbursement (unlikely) or domestic forgiveness (equally unlikely) he began considering how he might pay in cash, and then the dessert menu landed on the table, followed by an inquiry from the sommelier, tastevin subtly tinnient against the brass buttons of his coat, as to whether he would like a glass of port. The dessert menu open, the first option a cheese plate with honeycomb, he found his voice stuck.
He remembered the day when he knew he was done with Laney. He’d cleaned up his act, left the band, enrolled at DelCo. She was at the Penn State campus in Abington. He drove up to see her, flush with a new job that would pay just enough to keep him in school for a year. Laney said it’d be good to see him. They sat on a bench across the street from a campus convenience store, he lounging into the bench, she more perched, as if coiled to run. He touched her arm and she let him. He looked at her for any sign of more, but she wouldn’t meet his gaze. Nearby, an overstuffed garbage can spilled onto the sidewalk, and ungainly bees haunted the coffee cups, their buzzing stutter in and out of the garbage a lulling sound. He asked the usual questions, but she asked nothing about him. Wanting to tell her, he almost just blurted what he wanted, how things were getting better.
A bee zagged nearer to her, bumped against her shoe, and began to yo-yo near her shin. Her body tensed, and Andy watched her face sneer its way to irritation. As she stood, he stopped talking. Her focus was the bee. He said, it’s a honeybee. Nothing to worry about it, just let it go.
She said something, almost a whimper. The entirety of her energy narrowed to irritation. As she watched the bee, all he had hoped for in seeing her—a willingness to hear him, the sophistication he recalled when he first met her and her impossible family in a suburban existence that to him seemed regal and otherworldly, how she reveled in the way she felt when touching him—all he had built and overbuilt in the broken vault of his memory, dissipated. In her presence, he felt the world reduced to irritation.
He knew he would think of this moment for years afterward, and that maybe it was unfair. He had seen the face enough. Her view of the world was disappointed, smugly aware of and even anticipating of the ways people and things would let her down, or confirm her worst expectations. He would be the biggest disappointment of all.
He slept with her later that afternoon. He never called her again.
Once, she wrote him, having found his address, and he never wrote back. When later relationships foundered and he took to looking for her online, pasting together the story of her life from vague mentions, he never bothered to call.
He chose the cheese plate. The honeycomb’s grit fused to his teeth, a bit of smoke in the honey itself. He watched the kitchen door swing again and again, and he thought of all the meanings of portal in the flutter of the doors and the yellow glimpses of the kitchen, its steel, and the shadows of waiters hurrying to cross between worlds.
The host greeted him with a broad smile and said, we should run a tab for you! Andy wished him serious, considered bringing it up, but instead thought of the cash he carried, nearly offered a silent prayer for restraint, and asked for a particular table. He did not tell the host why—he wanted a good view of the kitchen doors. The host, a good host, accommodated.
No appetizer that evening. Rather, to extend his time, he ordered a curried catfish soufflé, due to the menu’s warning that time would be required. He ordered a bourbon for the wait, and his solicitous waiter brought bread.
His skin prickled when a man in chef whites opened the kitchen door and looked directly at him. He matched what Andy knew of Tom Wilson—tattooed right arm, glasses, sideburns. He also had a small hoop in his ear. Without appearing to, Andy sought his right hand, now wrapped in a towel. The man went back into the kitchen and, by the time the door swung back, re-appeared, hands clasped behind his back. He strode directly toward the table, and Andy sipped his bourbon, wanting badly to guzzle the glass.
“Our host tells me this is your third night in a row,” the man said, a big grin transforming him from intimidating to genial. Andy nodded, surprised at his inability to speak. The man continued. He was the sous-chef, Michael something, and his voice was that of a native, at least regionally. By that time, Andy’s chest cavity sagged a bit in relief, and he missed most of what the man was saying—something modest and ingratiating about how the restaurant appreciates repeat customers, and how did Andy hear of them, their local food sourcing, and on and on. It occurred to him that the staff might be wondering or assuming he was a critic or food writer with a magazine, and he was not sure whether to play at that or not when Michael caught his attention again. He asked if, later in the evening, after the soufflé, Andy would like to meet the chef.
It was right there. That easy. And yet it had not occurred to him that this possibility would manifest itself. Half nauseated, half wanting to spring from his seat, Andy managed a nod and a grin, and Michael nodded back and in that bobbing, uncertain way they parted and the sous chef returned to the kitchen.
Her letter had told him about Atlanta. Andy had read it standing by the bank of mailboxes in the lobby of his building, his eyes running ahead of his comprehension as he read to sate curiosity while building in his imagination the life the writing gradually revealed. Laney had moved south to follow her family. Her dad had been promoted and transferred a year after she earned her degree. She had been temping, was intrigued at the idea of no snow, so she moved with them and worked in human resources for a few businesses until landing a position with a huge industrial distributor based in Atlanta. Then the part about Tom. And how she found faith, and was developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and he imagined her arguing with a Christ figure, then pictured Jesus watching her apply eye makeup, sharing a Kit Kat, lounging in his underwear while she debated which Smiths tape would be the best soundtrack for fucking. It made him laugh, despite the minor pang of familiarity. She would not, he reasoned, use the phrase best soundtrack for fucking anymore, with Jesus or anyone else.
She had a dog. Tom was teaching her to cook. She said she was happy. But he held a letter she felt she had reason to send—after years, after the bad final evening they ever shared, after no exchange at all—to what? Tell him she was OK? Exonerate him? Flaunt something? Do one of the 12 steps?
He kept the letter. For days, he thought about what he would write back. At the time, on paper, he could have made his job, his life, sound like something: traveling, feting visiting speakers, working for the University of Michigan, living in a decent condo, free and unattached. He never wrote. The intervening year distracted him—new job, new condo, new destructive relationship that he foolishly committed to via marriage, the launch of acrimony in a desolate home with two professional vagabonds. Then, about a year ago, he got a card, for his birthday, a quick signature and a question packing so much into punctuation: Write back . . .?—tell me how you are . . .??
The kitchen looked like every kitchen he’d seen on the Food Network. But because it was the end of the evening, the staff were cleaning boards, wiping knives, letting the grill cool. Busboys still stutter-stepped in and out, but the chefs were in a huddle near the cooler door drinking. The one who turned first toward Andy and Michael was Tom Wilson, and he had a few swallows of wine left in an enormous glass.
“You, sir, are our recidivist,” he said.
Andy went into the mode. Big grin. Straight back. A stance for talking money. “It has been a delight so far,” he said.
“How did you enjoy your soufflé?”
Andy appreciated that Tom knew enough—or was confident enough—to ask his question in a way that precluded any possibility of dissent. Andy gushed, talked about flavor balance, bluffed his way through foodie talk. Tom indulged, took a sip of wine, and then said, “I appreciate that. But was it fucking good?”
The other chefs laughed, looked at one another. Tom didn’t break eye contact with Andy. After a bristle subsided, he said, “Of course it was good. I wouldn’t have so much to say if it wasn’t.”
Tom relaxed then and said, “Let me show you around this cavernous kitchen. It’s good to talk to people who enjoy coming here.” He poured Andy a glass of wine and began to talk shop.
Andy asked him if he showed a lot of people the kitchen, and Tom confirmed he did. He said he is still new in town, as far as his business went, and that when he hears about repeat customers—and particularly those who dine alone, and at this shot some side-eye at Andy—he wants to engage.
“I’m not a critic,” Andy said. “Just in town for a conference. I travel a lot, so I eat alone quite a bit, but almost never in the same place twice.”
Tom raised his eyebrows. “I’ll take the flattery.”
While Tom talked about the kitchen, about his sources, about his methods, the cluster of chefs broke up, drifted through their night ritual of closing down, and one by one moved from kitchen to the small bar in the dining room. Tom was ebullient when he spoke of his work, of the food, of what he did. Despite the strutting beginning to their conversation, Tom’s presence was amiable, big without intimidation, masterful without pretension. Comfortable in his skin. He was a big man, and Andy remembered Laney’s father’s grilling apron: Never trust a skinny chef.
When Tom poured Andy another glass of wine, Andy saw his right hand clearly, and noted the absence of a ring. He even lacked the shadow, the white palimpsest of the recently un-ringed.
By the time they were in their third bottle, talking about great restaurants around the country, about the locavore movement, about toast in San Francisco and food trucks in Los Angeles and the taco stands of Austin and the decline of French classicism in New York, Andy was loose. He had lost track of time, lost the thread of purpose that had pushed his days, and was instead awash in speculation, wondering what Tom Wilson’s home looked like, who was there now, whether Laney sat on a couch somewhere angry at the world and the disappointing people it had brought into her orbit. How he had always left her abruptly, even in their good days, how he had itched to leave, felt he could not be in the room when the anticipation had seeped away, when he was left only with the weakness of their two personalities flicking at one another. Even now, Andy thought, I don’t know how to quit—always too early or too late, an awkward cut, a stumble.
And then Tom Wilson asked, “So, Andrew, where are you from?”
Andy put his glass down and said, “Small town in Pennsylvania, near Philly. Devon.”
Two years ago, the same conference was in Chicago. He’d gone about a month after a new dean had started in the college, partly looking for affirmation, partly looking for who might be hiring. He was sick of Michigan, sick of being pushed around, frankly sick of having to work as hard as he was. But instead of usefully networking, he spent most of the conference drinking the afternoons away with other burnt-out gift planners. By the time he was in O’Hare waiting for the flight back, his sense of momentum had eroded to bile.
He knew such moments were never a time to take stock, but as he motioned to the bartender at a fake Irish pub within the departures terminal, he reflected on loss and pissiness, in equal measure, and obeyed the urge to send a postcard to Laney, the only message being, “I’m doing fine.” That was it. Peevish. Peevish and hammered in O’Hare in a fake Irish pub next to a Five Guys. He enjoyed the irony of Five Guys flaunting their stacks of potato bags right next to an Irish pub, as though they were trying to be historically dick-ish.
Three Jamesons in preparation for the flight, recent nicotine habit kicked, flush from botched executive training and looking forward to a successful campaign event, and mindful of the disaster of a workplace to which he returned, he rifled deep in the accordion folds within his attaché and found the letter Laney had sent years before. The paper was warm from being up against his laptop. He purposely addressed it to her maiden name. Purposely wrote it with a marker, picking the cheesiest postcard he could fine—an aerial view of Chicago, Sears tower, expanse of lake, vantage point of being above it all, a mash up of tackiness, withdrawal and disdain.
He was later sick on the plane. When he landed, long after the postcard had been dropped in a mail slot, long after he had sobered up and regretted the mean-spiritedness of it, the can of communication worms it would open, he wondered what it was, what she had done, what failure in him, moved him to such pettiness. His sister had once said that when he had been with Laney he was at his weakest, at his most subdued, as if he were hampered in the business of living. He thought at the time she was just bitter. But navigating the rental car parking lot, laughing to himself about the metaphor inherent in his poorly executed efforts to find his car, he suspected she had been on to something: he disliked who he was and what he had become, and Laney had become an easy, distant, irritable personification of his failure.
Tom’s head tilted for a moment. He swirled his wine glass on the bar, the elliptical splash of wine within to Andy mesmerizing like a flame, suddenly hot and fierce.
“Andrew—tell me your last name again?”
He wanted to lie. Needed to lie. Too many things were between him and the door. His coat was somewhere, and in his coat, his hotel key. His phone. His life scattered through the restaurant.
“McNair,” he says. “Andrew McNair.”
“Small world,” Tom said. “My wife, she’s from that area.” He paused and maintained eye contact. “Maybe you know her.”
“Maybe,” Andy said. “Who’s your wife?”
Tom smiled only with his mouth. He looked down at his wine and let his gaze stay there. “I’m glad you enjoyed your meals enough this week to come here three times, Andrew,” he said. “It is unusual that I make a patron so obsessively happy with what we do here. It’s flattering. It really is.”
Andy looked at his watch, looked around from the bar. Only the host remained, twiddling over his phone near the host stand.
“Let’s get you on your way,” Tom said. “And my wife’s name is Elaine Wilson.”
Walking back to the hotel, Andy imagined the day that postcard arrived. He assumes Tom had been home, had not yet gone to the restaurant, saw the card. He would ask her about it later. She would sigh like she always did, as if releasing any hope she had for Andy to be better than he was. She would tell Tom Wilson all about the guy she used to date. She wouldn’t say it had been a relationship. And depending on how tight they were, how much they had fought, whether they had children (he still wondered about that), whether they were happy, she might not tell him about the disasters, the clinic, the drugs, all of the pain he caused. Maybe she would have said he was just some guy. But the way Wilson looked at him, at the modulation he showed in their final moments, he suspected Tom Wilson knew all he needed to know.
When Tom had held the door for him to leave, Andy had expected a final word, some caustic warning, the kind of thing he would have done. Instead, Tom held it quietly, let it swing soundlessly shut behind Andy, and then turned the lock. As he strode away, Andy heard Tom jiggle the handle once, a nightly precaution, he assumed, to ensure the lock caught.