Last Thursday night found me on the rain-drenched roads in the hills between Viroqua and Lafarge and points beyond. The lightening forked through the clouds around me, but I couldn't hear the thunder for the roar of the rain on the hood and the roof of my little truck. There was little traffic, which was fortunate because when the puddled rain wasn't trying to pull me to the shoulder, the thousands of worms were being turned to a slick puree under my tires.
So you might ask, "Gus, what the heck were you doing out in such weather? Was it a family emergency? A disaster of some sort?" No, it was nothing like that. Though, I say with some amount of bragging, it might have been a disaster of sorts if ol' Gus hadn't showed up. Okay, yeah, I know I'm gonna go to hell for Pride. So be it. No, I was on my way back from working at a benefit dinner for a Writer's Workshop. A fellow I had worked with in the construction trade, Jimmy, was hosting it, along with the Workshops director. What was her name? I don't recall, I'll call her, "Sonya." Just because.
Details. What details do I need? Jimmy called me up to see if I could help out at this dinner, feeding about 50 people. He knew I'd had experience in the food business. Ol' Gus wouldn't call himself a chef by any means. But he knows his way around a kitchen, he knows the basics. I like to think that I shine at prep work, doing the behind the scenes stuff. I've done the line cooking thing, but I'll tell ya, I just don't have the temperament. As soon as I get an order in, I'm a bundle of nerves. What's up with that? I don't know. I can do it, I have many times. I've dealt with lines of hungry people. But at the end of the day, I'm pretty wiped out just keeping the panic tamped down. So there ya go, Gus's admission of weakness.
But I told Jimmy, sure. I'd be happy to help out. There was going to be a chef there putting stuff together, so all I need to do was help him out. The chef was leaving before dinner got served, so I had to see that everything was ready to be plated up and served. It was all pretty straightforward. And I'd get to meet some literary-minded people, even a bona-fide Author, who was going to be reading from his latest release!
I got there and was introduced to the chef, Robert, who informed me that he wasn't an actual "chef", but his father was, and Robert had been cooking professionally since he was young. And that was fine with me. I respected him for not putting on airs. I've met a few folks who I think could have been called "chef" who have learned it by the seat of their pants.
Robert put me to work peeling some ginger to be pureed, then slicing apples and pears for the desert. Jimmy and Sonya were setting the tables and arranging things. They were giddy and a little excited about the event. I got the impression, though, that they didn't have much experience in setting up banquets. They came into the kitchen, laughing and joking around. And that was fine. Sonya asked Robert a question about serving times, and it got discussed for a moment before I realized that they hadn't really been communicating that part very well. They couldn't settle on a time for seating and serving, and it eventually became a heated argument that went on while I quietly sliced pears and apples as thinly as I could. They were three people talking over each other, not getting anywhere.
At one point, Sonya mentioned that she wanted to express her feelings about how Robert was talking to her. That didn't get very far either. They finally agreed on a time, and then Robert told them both, "Now. If you have any other questions, or anything to do with me, ask it now. From now on my only communication is with Gus. That's it. We need to concentrate on what we're doing." I thought that was a little extreme, considering that most everything was ready. But I mentally shrugged and went back to cutting. Jimmy and Sonya went back to work in the dining room.
Robert and I worked and talked. We didn't talk about the job at hand so much as everything else. Robert had cooked in cafes and restaurants out on the west coast, big and small, a lot of organic stuff. He did seem to have a good knowledge of what he was up to, but I still couldn't help thinking he was still flying by the seat of his pants. He also had a chip on his shoulder. And then Sonya came in the kitchen to ask how a certain dish was going to be served up. Robert's face grew dark, and he looked down at the bowl of ginger/lemon puree he was mashing up.
"I...what...Sonya...didn't I tell you..." He sighed heavily and seemed to be working himself into a higher plane of anger. Sonya didn't seem to see it. I wondered briefly if they were a couple, and if so, why were they still together. "I just wanted to know so..."
"You know what I have going on here. You know what I told you." He didn't raise his voice, but spoke through clenched teeth. Jimmy came back in, and then Sonya started talking about her feelings again, and why they should be known.
"I'll give all the information you need to Gus. He'll fill you in. After I leave."
Jimmy looked at me and smiled. "Sounds good," he said. "Come on Sonya. Let's get changed."
She wanted to stay, to continue the discussion about her feelings. But Robert was already reaching into cupboards and slamming spoons onto the counter and a pot on the stove. She spun around and followed Jimmy. I waited to hear an explanation from Robert, but it didn't come. He started muttering under his breath, talking about polenta and water and ratios. He spent five minutes trying to figure the amounts and ratios in his head. Then he measured out the water, turned on the heat, and we went back to talking as if the argument had never happened.
In the end, everything went smoothly. Robert left after the polenta was done. Waitstaff volunteers showed up, a couple of dishwashers started scrubbing pans left over from the day. I had help, very good help, plating up the food to serve. Everyone was happy, even the vegetarian who had to have the mushrooms picked out of her dish before we could take it out to her.
Personally, Gus thought the beef dish was a little too acidic. The tomato needed to be cut a little. And the vegetarian choice could have been something a little more imaginative than just mushroom broth with a few vegetables. But, like I said, everyone seemed to be happy. And after everything was served, I got to take off my apron and put on a clean shirt and open up a bottle of Moon Man pale ale from New Glarus Brewing Co. That hit the spot just fine. I went out and mingled a little while someone else cleaned up behind me. How often does that happen?
I did see some people I knew, and a few dear friends showed up. But by the time Gus was out there, the reading was about to begin, so there was very little visiting to be done. The reading began with a one-man skit that left the audience wondering if it was over or not, unsure of whether or not to applaud. But the reading went well, and drew a good response at the good humor and warmth of the writer. Afterward there was a question and answer that left me wondering if people actually read the material before they asked the questions. Oh, not everyone. Just some. And the best part of that was that Gus was sitting next to some friends and we were able to snicker quietly together. Yeah, I know, Gus and Friends might have been being a little catty. But come on, people!
After the presentation, everyone seemed to be ready to leave at once. Gus had wanted to socialize a little more, but it just wasn't in the cards tonight. I gathered up my tools and clothes and headed out to the truck and onto the highway out of town. The air felt heavy and warm. I couldn't see any stars.
The rain began to fall as soon as I got beyond the pale glow if the streetlights. It grew heavy and rattled in sheets across the hood of the truck. The wind picked up right before I dropped into the valley. I turned on the radio, and the local station, WDRT, was playing some really nice old blues. I turned it up to hear it over the sound of the wind and the rain. A pair of headlights came up from behind, caught up to me, then dropped back suddenly as the rain came down harder. I turned on to Hwy. 82 and the pair of headlights kept on without following me. The truck started the climb up the tree-lined and winding road to the next ridgetop.
A week or so ago my truck's tailpipe rusted off. The rest of the exhaust is still there; catalytic converter and muffler. So the noise isn't awfully bad. But it exhausts under the truck bed now, so that resonates along the body and frame when I have to give it some gas. I finally reached the top and then dropped down the other side into the next valley. A distorted guitar wailed out of the radio, while someone sang about a love gone wrong. The guitar and the voice were dark and muddy, like the night outside. They were heavy with reverb and distortion. The music belonged to the night. It belonged to me and my truck with the missing tailpipe. It seemed to go on for a long time while the truck sluiced down the road. It became impossible to judge how far I had traveled, and for how long. I came out on top of one ridge thinking I was not far from home, only to realize that I was two ridges too early. There were miles to go. I finally came to a small town that had one bar open in the middle of the block. There were a few cars outside, and I saw some people sitting at the bar as I drove past. But it didn't look like a place I would belong. Often Gus wonders if there is such a place. I left that town behind and was back in the dark countryside. I rocked on through the dark and the rain and the wind and somewhere there was a dark and muddy part of my brain that wondered, as anyone is bound to wonder from time to time, if home was where I really wanted to go tonight.