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Joe Bastianich: Restaurateur, TV star, winemaker, author. In fifty words, give or take, how’d you get here?

I thought I was being smart and securing a good life for myself by initially entering into finance, but I was miserable. I made the choice to pursue what truly interested me, worked like a dog to open Becco twenty years ago, and I guess the rest is history.

Merlot makes her sad, always has.
When the wet season starts, she pours early,

drinks deep into afternoon. Gone
are doubt-free days of communion,

salvation in a single sip. The sky, now
a punched eye, swells. Steeples vanish.

At night in a stranger’s bed, his chest
a bare wall she can beat, sex an excuse

BACKGROUND: 750 feet in the air, on the top floor of One Atlantic Center in Midtown Atlanta for Alston and Byrd, LLP’s hosting of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation Winetasting and Silent Auction fundraiser. The Judge stood about five-foot-six to my six feet. His wine sloshed in its glass, his caviar-smeared cracker half-bitten. I had two martinis before any wine, and nothing to eat.

Amuse-bouche

By Alan Brouilette

Food

I don’t know what I’m doing. Well, I do. But I don’t want to. I could throw out a CV, with articles and citations. I could throw you a family heirloom guilty-pleasure reverse-snobbery recipe from the fifties. I could yammer about obscure restaurants or the importance of pure ingredients or “the joys of authentic sushi” or any of a zillion other things. I could fake it, y’know? Look up some African restaurant no one’s ever been to and Asian fruits no one’s heard of and a couple of microbrews no one’s invented yet and wax poetic on ’em. Talk about how green sapote tastes just like chocolate pudding and tut-tut that more Americans aren’t adventurous eaters. (With the “like me” implied.) Wave my bona fides atcha like a puffed-up pigeon, strutting and looking for a fight.

The summer before we stole the car from the English electrician, our friend who arranged for us to pick grapes in Southern France, Eve, gushed from her perch in the 107th Street bistro, glass of wine in hand, fresh-faced and rested from what we would later learn was an extended stay at a sanatorium.

“I’ve spoken to the Madame, and her grapes are definitely growing,” Eve’s smoky laugh tinkled imperceptibly in the noisy bar. “She’s very excited to host you girls in Provence this fall. Oh, I wish I were going,” Eve lamented politely. “I’ve got to finish this semester, though. I’ve got to finish something.”

I admired so many things about Eve: her frosty hair and lined face seemed worldly at 20, as did her dry pride in the social nuisance of finishing college in four years. Add the fact that she kept disappearing, keeping my travel partners and I guessing about the grape-picking gig, and she quickly became just the right type of mysterious to me. One week I’d bump into her on the crowded city campus, finishing a blue cigarette by the Pan statue before our creative writing class. “See you upstairs in a minute,” she’d said with a weary smile. But when her empty chair persisted for that day and days after, Eve’s power only grew in my mind. She was living an urban, Cheshire life and I couldn’t think of anything more romantic.

I longed to break out of my suburban girl’s shell. Besides working as a hostess in a dingy, Upper West Side jazz club, I lived a fairly sheltered life for a twenty-one-year- old, commuting by bus from my parents’ house to Columbia University, scrunchies in my ponytail, buried under books in the magnificent library after lectures. I had no social life to speak of since relinquishing my cool magazine internship (I couldn’t afford not to be paid). New York was all around me, but I hardly felt like a city girl.

According to Eve’s pitch, if I was willing to take a semester off and fly to France, I could work the harvest for a few weeks and stay with Eve’s family friend, Madame Beauvert, who prevailed over acres of what would become Cotes du Rhone. My imagination conjured not backbreaking work, but lavender fields and nearby Mediterranean beaches; and Paris. I could live in France instead of read about how Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller did. So I withdrew from the upcoming fall semester and bought non-refundable plane tickets in cash, my first two major decisions made without parental consent. With a few hundred dollars saved from drunken tippers, I boarded a plane with a borrowed backpack and an elevated feeling that I was both finally living and pulling off a stunt meant for other, more privileged people.

But once seated and angling into the air, I felt sweat seep into the armpits of my Putamayo dress. In retrospect this onset of in-flight panic, prompted by fears of a future ruined while sipping free champagne on Air France, stood to reason. I had had no direct contact with Madame Beauvert. Our “plans”, arranged through Eve, had no confirmed dates of beginning or ending. I had no credit card, and of the three of us traveling, my college-level French was by far the best (I had gotten a B- in Conversation).

My travel partner, Mae, shook her head. “We’re in the right place at the right time,” she said, as one who had the glorious trait of worrying about nothing might. Mae was my age but Southern. She waited tables and lived alone in her mother’s Washington Heights apartment, and one of those circumstances made her as fearless as a secret agent.

Kay, our party’s third member, agreed. “Traveling is one of the good things in life,” she soothed, and because Kay was an artist and daughter of a tragically famous New Yorker, I believed she knew more about life than I.

We lugged our bags through the chaos of Orly airport, amid the human-smelling crowds and sexy, overhead announcements. Not one familiar face, sound or scent. Nothing to read, study or intelligently discuss. Someone stepped on my foot, but I didn’t care. I glimpsed a crepe stand and while waiting for a taxi, my fears became small and ornamental. That safe state in which I had lived, that of dissatisfied longing, had gone. I leaned my head out the window, feeling the urge to make a mark strike my face like raindrops on headlights.

For weeks, Paris was wet. We walked over puddles in our black city shoes and red lipstick, exploring old cathedrals and desecrated cemeteries that, while lovely, didn’t match my visions of sun, wine and the Mediterranean Sea. I had imagined there would be an obvious beginning by now, the pop of a cork, a magnanimous “welcome” from Madame Beauvert and ensuing directions of how to get to our new jobs at her palatial estate. Mae tried calling Madame Beauvert once or twice a day casually, as if it didn’t matter, and Kay echoed Mae’s cool calm about money more easily than I, sketching leisurely in the Left Bank tabacs. She had already finished college, and since Mae had no real intention of going back, the two of them shared a drifter’s context perfect for long afternoons in the Latin Quarter. I was alone with my urgency.

In order to not worry about money during the day, I tried evoking what I imagined would be Eve’s demeanor, smoking and ordering water and coffee to keep from wanting to eat more than camembert on baguettes. At night, I counted my remaining francs and dollars, about 150 total, and imagined myself as Eve, sitting by the statue of Pan, Greek God of the Wild, awaiting a change of fortune.

It was as if I had inadvertently said a prayer.

“Hi Madame Beauvert? My friends and I have arrived in Paris.”

“Sorry?”

Mae cleared her throat and spoke loudly into the youth hostel pay phone.

“We came from New York to work on your vineyard? For the harvest? For faire le vendage?”

“You are American?”

“Yes. Our friend Eve said she had spoken to you about our arrival. We’re here to pick–”

“I have men from Spain and Portugal to do that.”

“I see. Eve had said–”

“I am not well. I cannot take care of three girls. I’m sorry. Please enjoy Paris. Tell Eve I’m sorry.”

*

A few days earlier, a nun in a church vestibule where I had waited out a rainstorm had looked at me with pity. I scanned the wall full of nanny job postings, but her stare reminded me I didn’t belong, so I grabbed a few free publications like Libre Paris and France/USA, and covered my head across the street to the post office. In line for postcard stamps, two classifieds had caught my eye.

1. Join a crew of hot air balloon professionals for a two-month race across Europe. No experience necessary.

2. Restore a medieval farmhouse in the Provence countryside. Light construction/electrical experience preferred. Room and board.

My parents’ postcard, Dear Mom and Dad, Paris is beautiful never slipped down the mail slot that day; the line for stamps was too long and the message felt untrue. But now, this morning after Madame Beauvert refused us, the sun cracked through gray clouds while Mae fed the phone franc after franc, finally reaching the medieval farmhouse (the hot air balloon line buzzed a constant busy).

“You can do construction?” the male voice asked.

“Let’s just say I know how to use a hammer,” Mae replied.

“Let me talk to him,” I grabbed the phone. Picking grapes had slipped through our fingers, but a medieval farmhouse in the French countryside, and the grand adventure I now felt entitled to, would not.

“I’ve helped build my grandfather’s shed,” I lied into the phone without the least bit of regret. “I’ve carried wood, I’ve worked in gardens. I’ve even dug a ditch.”

“You did all of this in New York?”

“Upstate New York. It’s very rural. But we can tell you about it when we meet. How do we get there?”

Within one hour, our bags were packed. I amended my parents’ postcard message, Dear Mom and Dad, Paris is beautiful. We’re taking the train to Provence this afternoon but I was so excited, I forgot to drop it in the mailbox.

End of Part 1

Weddings are holiness and booze, sweat under the dress, sweet icing in the mouth. A whaler’s church in the afternoon, sunlit and salted, gives way to the drunken splendor of a barn-ish-space—who knows the names or categories of these spaces, where we gather to celebrate other people’s marriages?—and an entire island is suddenly yours, yours and everyone’s, the whole fucking thing. You feel the lift of wine in you, you feel the lift of wine in everyone, and everyone is in agreement—not to believe in love, exactly, but to want to. This, you can do. You dance with a stranger and think, we have this in common, this wanting to believe. In what, again? In the possibility that two people could actually make each other happy, not just today but on a thousand days they can’t yet see.

While the origins of San Diego’s name remain murky for some, The Nervous Breakdown is staying as classy as ever by celebrating it’s 5th birthday with TNB’s Literary Experience in San Diego, CA on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 7 p.m.

This event, like the tasty waves rolling up to its bikini-speckled beaches, will be epic.

To commemorate this auspicious occasion, TNB is unleashing a seismic event full of outrageous readings, delicious birthday cake and a special musical guest.

WHEN: Thursday August 25, 2011. 7 p.m.

WHERE:  The Historic Ideal Hotel and Tea Room
540 3rd Ave.
San Diego, CA

 

Blacking out in the aisle of a plane midflight is unnerving — not to mention socially awkward.

I had just woken up from a five-hour sleep on the overnight flight from New York to Paris. My first thought, as always, was to visit the bathroom, especially before breakfast was served and the aisle would be blocked. I pressed the button to raise the comfy seat from near-flat to upright position and unbuckled the seat belt. I stood up to find my slippers. Maybe a little too fast.

I became dizzy, breaking into sweats up and down my body. Sweating is disgusting especially on a plane surrounded by people and no chance of a shower. My vision became blurry, tunnel vision I think it’s called, and then, as if in slow motion, my legs fell out beneath me. This is quite scary if it’s never happened to you. (Although it is scary even it if has). Crumpled on the floor, in the dark, was me at 30,000 feet. And I still had to pee.

At least it was Business Class. The pundits don’t talk about this in debate over healthcare reform, but it’s true your experience is indelibly shaped by advantages in your circumstances. We know the the rich get better coverage and better doctors, but it’s also true they get better nurses. Stewardesses are like nurses — lovely, knowledgable, accommodating, comforting, manicured.

On my shoulder soon after I fell, I felt the hand of the Air France stewardess. Even in my clogged ears (had my hearing gone too?), her musical French accent cut through the din to ask if I was okay. I managed to nod yes, and mutter I would be fine. “I stood up too quickly after sleeping flat,” I explained. “This has happened before.”

This has actually happened three times before — all on red-eye flights to Europe. The first was to London for work, the second to Ireland for a friend’s wedding, and another on a flight like this one to Paris. If you’re collecting facts or a private investigator like Jason Schwartzmann’s character on HBO’s Bored to Death, here they are: The dizziness always occurs after waking and quickly standing up. It also is after 2-3 glasses of wine imbibed to help me fall sleep. I note this only to myself. It’s a vasovagal response thing, I learn from Wikipedia, and one of the triggers is high altitude. My father has had vasovagal responses in restaurants if he doesn’t eat soon enough after medication or with liquor. I called him about this to find out how he handles it and to see if his symptoms are the same. He’s learned to lay down on the floor — even in a restaurant — to get his blood pressure even again, he said. Luckily for me, none of these times occurred sitting in Economy Class. I hate Economy. I doubt the attention would have been even half the same. I might have collapsed in the dark, but not found by a stewardess until day break when the beverage cart had rolled into my prostrate body. The carpet is probably not cleaned more than once a month. Compared to the high-touch care of Business Class, Economy is the HMO of inflight.

I still needed to go to the bathroom. Able to stand up, one stewardess walked with me towards the sliding doors with the assuring words “Vacant.” I still wasn’t right yet, though, and she could tell. “You can’t go in there alone yet,” she was firm. By this point, I woud listen to anything she had said. For me, the French accent evokes a sense of history, art and confidence, and they have a good healthcare system. She sat me down in a kitchen jump seat, and brought me a wet cloth which immediately helped me cool down. I relished in the simple pleasures like a refreshing towel and the moment was my most positive since I woke up. I wasn’t going to die and there was hope I would get better.

Three stewardesses conspired in French while I sat there with my wet cloth, waiting it out. They agreed I should have oxygen and informed me so. They wheeled over a giant tank and handed me a mask to pull around my head. I had never put on one of these masks, yet had seen them so often on the safety videos. It fell off my face, which was disturbing for future worries, but we got it back on and it stayed in place. The turn of a knob and I was guided to “breathe” and did. The oxygen worked quickly, and to the stewardesses’ questions if I was feeling better, I was able to finally say yes. Yes, much better actually. Finally, I was released to go pee and everyone was able to go back to their duties. I wonder how much breakfast I held up from being served.

By the time we deplaned (love that word), I was still emotionally shaken but physically recovered. I had to fill out a form with my name, ticket number, phone number and home address. Europe loves paperwork, I know, but I think this was a normal procedural thing to cover their ass in case I dropped dead on the train from Paris to Belgium where I was headed for a speaking engagement. I smiled at the people sitting around me who looked at me with concern, probably relieved it hadn’t been them or we didn’t have to do an emergency landing and throw everyone off schedule. Maybe they were suspicious I was a drug addict or had a unique medical condition.

Next time. Recovery is always a bright, cheerful state of being and I of course made all sorts of promises to stay in that safe limelight. For example, I swore off drinking any wine whatsoever next flight, not even a glass. Since going from flat to upright too quickly may have thrown me off kilter, I also wouldn’t recline my seat all the way either to sleep. And I certainly wouldn’t stand up so quickly. Perhaps I’d count to ten as I stood up to find my shoes.

Reaching the custom booth lines, I already knew I didn’t mean a word of it. Especially the promise to forgo wine on such a long flight. I suppose I should see a doctor. I suppose I should read more than Wikipedia. But give up wine on my flight back to New York next week? Turn down the free champagne before an eight-hour luxury flight watching movies?

After all, I’ve never blacked out flying westbound.

This piece originally appeared in Gastronomica, was reprinted in the Best Food Writing 2006 anthology (Avalon Publishing Group), and is excerpted from my book, BAROLO (University of Nebraska Press, 2010)

Fingernails stained purple, I walk the quiet, cobblestoned streets of Barolo, Italy. It is early evening. My day has been spent harvesting the Nebbiolo grape crop for Luciano and Luca Sandrone, brothers whose distinctive features – one’s red suspenders and the other’s bald head – will certainly plague my dreams. I’ve been working in the vineyard for a month as a way to stay in Italy, as a way to be less of a tourist. At the moment, I’m a little stunned by the day’s heat and hard physical labor. Stunned, relaxed, and suddenly very hungry.

I step toward the counter, the butcher hidden from view in the back room behind the meat case. I hear the sound of a handsaw. I look to the walls, mostly blank, save for a poster of a bikini-clad woman holding a porterhouse in the air. The poster is signed in silver ink by “Valentina,” and addressed to “Franco.” Next to Valentina, encased in a black frame, is a picture of Barolo’s castle with a man-shaped shadow clinging to its east wall. I step closer and see that the man, like a comic-book superhero, is adhered to the ancient orange stone at least fifty feet off the ground. The man is facing the camera, sun in his eyes. His head is enormous, too big for his body, as if he’s been pieced together by Barolo’s resident mad scientist. A thick black moustache, curving over the sides of his mouth, is spread nearly horizontal in the force of his grin. He’s dressed in rock-climbing gear, leg muscles bursting in effort, his hands gripping a strange and bulbous rope. I step even closer to the picture, my nose nearly pasted to the wall, my breath fogging the frame’s glass, and see that this man is rappelling down the façade of the Castello di Barolo on a fifty-foot string of salami.

Before I can laugh, before I can even exhale, I hear the sound of thick flesh behind me, spreading into a massive smile. I turn. It is, of course, the man in the picture, Franco the Butcher, his moustache crawling over his face like a caterpillar on steroids. He wears brown-framed glasses that stretch from his eyebrows to his upper lip, from his black sideburns to the bridge of his boxer’s nose. A billow of black hair shoots geyser-wise from his head, calling to the florescent lights. His hands, strong enough to lift me by the top of my head, are streaked with blood. And yet — I never thought I’d describe someone like this — Franco the Butcher is jolly.

“Ciao,” I say, “Franco?”

“Si, si, Franco,” he replies in a quiet, gentle voice, a voice as hairy as he is. He rubs his hands together as if compressing the air into a pancake.

“Queste carne,” I say, running my hand over the expanse of display case, “e bellisima.”

“Grazie,” Franco says, truly touched by the compliment to his meats.

I watch as he rounds the counter, kicking sawdust from his shoes, and joins the scales, knives, and cleavers on the back wall. I examine his wares, salamis of all kinds: white salamis, red ones, pink ones, purple; salamis that nearly stray to black; duck salami, donkey salami, Barolo salami, truffle; salami as long as my legs, salami as short as my thumb; and there, twisted into cylinders as thick as my forearm, salami di cinghiale. Wild boar. Wild boar salami. I repeat the word in my head like a cured and fatty mantra, “Salami, salami, salami, salami…” until I descend into a cow-pig meditation. I wonder which meat held him to the walls of Barolo’s castle. I wonder if he celebrated his climb by eating his equipment. I smile and he sees it, his hands now on his hips, his white apron smeared with blood and fat.

“Americano, no?” Franco slurs.

“Si, americano,” I say, “ma adesso, in questa macelleria, sono italiano.”

Franco laughs at my wish to be Italian, then sighs, turns abruptly left, waves to me and utters, “Viene, viene qua.”

He leads me away from the salami display, and I watch reluctantly over my shoulder as these lovely jeweled life-vests float further and further away. Franco stops in front of the fresh meats: tenderloin, strip, porterhouse, sausages, pork chop, whole chickens, whole ducks—feet intact and orange, webbed and clinical in the light; pigs’ feet, pigs’ ears, pigs’ blood, veal chops, veal scallops, headcheese, and sweetbreads. And tripe, beautiful white tripe spread wide in its container like a Chinese fan; trippa, resting in recline like the Aurora Borealis on its lunch break. Franco reaches for the tripe with an ungloved finger. It yields like a lover to his touch. The tripe, for lack of a better word, is kissable.

I feel my feet slowly spinning across that high-school dance floor, slowly building a tango confidence to ask the beckoning girl out for a cup of coffee.

“Ti piace trippa?” Franco asks.

I shrug. I’ve never had it before. But how can I not like tripe?

“Si,” I say.

“Ah,” Franco smiles, “serio.”

“Si,” I nod, “serio,” and I feel more substantial for saying so. I feel like I could knock down buildings with my bare hands. I feel like I could keep up with Franco the Butcher.

He lifts the tripe from its tray and, like delicate lingerie, it unravels in the air. I want to rub its texture between my fingers, I want to try it on for size. I imagine taking a few pieces home to Il Gioco dell’Oca’s kitchen, asking my friend Raffaella for preparation advice, and cooking a tripe dinner together: soup, casserole, napoleon, whichever. I watch as Franco cuts a small piece the size of a finger joint. He holds the white gem to the light like a coin.

“Ah, trippa,” he says, and hands me the piece.

Amazing, I think, Amazing that he sensed my desire to experience its texture.

The tripe coin is soft and perforated, rich and heady like a chunk of styrofoam soaked in black tea. I, like Franco, hold it to the light and can almost see through it. I think I’m seeing ghosts. I think I can see my family back in Chicago. They’re all sitting in rush-hour traffic, car radios blaring classic rock. I allow them all to return home safe, then lower the tripe to the counter to give it back to Franco.

“No, no,” he says, holding his bloody-but-innocent palms at me, “Prego.”

“Che?” I ask, not quite understanding.

“Si, si, prego,” he offers again.

I’m confused. I think he wants me to keep the tripe. I’m not sure what to do with such a small piece. I reach to put it into my pocket; possibly I’ll play with it like a rubber stress ball on the way back to Il Gioco.

“No, no,” Franco says, and I raise the tripe again from my pocket to the counter, “Prego.”

I look at him and shrug. I shake my head. Somewhere behind me, Valentina, in her golden bikini, is comfortably holding her porterhouse. Franco opens his mouth. For a second, I think he’s going to take a bite out of me. I lean back and he points to the tripe, then points to his mouth, and again says, “Prego.”

I get it now, but that doesn’t mean I believe it. He wants me to eat the tripe.

“Crudo?” I say.

“Si,” Franco says.

He wants me to eat the tripe raw.

What kind of culinary hazing is this? Why? Why? Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the pig stomach, but the raw ingesting of such items sends my own organs into disarray; my once hungry stomach now closes in on itself like a fist. My mouth goes dry. I’m having trouble swallowing.

“Prego,” Franco says again, and I feel there’s no way around this.

My stomach recoils deeper into my ribs and I want to cry. I hold the tripe to the light again and it goes from beautiful to revolting in no time flat. Raw tripe, if about to be cooked, is one thing, but raw tripe that wants to stay raw is another.

I look at Franco. His eyes are wide, his cheeks are glowing red. Jolly never looked so evil. I stare at the tripe, wriggling in the toddler laughter of my little sister whenever I got into trouble with my parents. I look to Franco. I look for a way out. The fluorescents burn into me like a spotlight. The audience is waiting; there’s no turning back now. After all, I told Franco I was “serious.”

I close my eyes and bring my fingers to my mouth.

I smell it before it hits my tongue: dust, metal, morning saliva, bathroom tile, campfire. It squirms in my mouth like a goldfish fighting for its life, a mini skinned bronco bucking my teeth, surely stirring a cowboy-shaped splatter from my stomach.

Hold on, I think, as the taste of pure gut struggles to pass over my taste buds, Hold on. I don’t dare bite into it, don’t dare explode the taste of unmentionable pig over my tongue.

So I swallow it whole, think of oysters, hold my breath, and wait.

“Bravo,” Franco claps and laughs in descending octaves.

A sweat breaks from my forehead. I gag audibly, but keep it down.

Opening my mouth to exhale, I know I have passed a hideous test and am surprised to find that the taste, if not the memory, has already faded. I rode the bull and returned a little trampled, but ungored.

Franco pulls a necklace of wild boar salami from the wall and hands it to me as my reward, laughing all the way. I can’t believe I’m going to thank this man.

“Grazie,” I say.

All Franco does is laugh.

As I turn to leave the macelleria, paper bag shifting in my arms, Franco the Butcher raises a bloody, tight-fingered hand into the air and, smiling his biggest smile of the day, dangles another slice of tripe into the light.

“Domani,” he says, pointing to the horrendous thing.

I shake my head. I wave.

Tomorrow, I think, opening the door to the street, Tomorrow I’m not coming anywhere near this place.

In his introduction to Kingsley Amis’s “Everyday Drinking,” Christopher Hitchens (may he live to down another thousand martinis) notes that while alcohol itself does a good job of making life less boring, alcohol enthusiasts are always at risk of becoming bores on the subject of their enthusiasm. The tequila enthusiast, for example, may unwittingly one day find that he is a man with twelve unique hand-blown glass bottles of craft-brewed tequila on his mantle, each with a thirty-minute story behind it that he is eager to share, and every one of those stories deadly—because the alcohol bore (of course) fails to note that his enthusiasms aren’t necessarily the stuff of deep interest to others. That’s what makes them enthusiasms.

I am very unhappy.I am in the South of France, in a villa set in a vineyard, where bottle after bottle of Cote du Rhone wine is brought to me every day, alongside exotic cheeses, slices of country ham, and baguettes.I am with a woman who takes pleasure in my pleasure.None of this did I have to pay for.

My memoir, BAROLO, about my illegal work in the Piemontese Italian food and wine industry was recently released.  Check it out!

BAROLO is now in stock and available here:

To read Part I, please click here

Jeremiah balanced himself against the doorframe, his head loose on his neck, swinging from side to side like a pendulum. He motioned for me with his hand. I staggered his way inadvertently colliding with him at the front door.

Gary approached, intervening. He bucked for us to stay put, to crash at his place for the night citing how much alcohol the two of us had consumed over the preceding six hours.

“There’s more than enough room,” he said.

“I’m fine,” Jeremiah replied, exhaling smoke through his nostrils. “I’ve only had two beers.”

“And how many shots, how much wine?” Gary rejoined, “You smell like a damn orchard.”

“Do you mean vineyard?” Jeremiah countered with a wry smile. It was the same smile he gave when he was kicking your ass in Madden. It was the oh-how-do-you-like-that-shit? smile.

Jeremiah reeked of booze. Fumes of beer, liquor, and wine mixed with the nicotine from his breath produced a yeasty, acerbic combination. The inherent problem in Jeremiah taking to the wheel intoxicated—other than the obvious: he was intoxicated—was not so much the absorption of beer and liquor into his veins. The problem was the wine. Jeremiah simply could not handle wine. Never could. It made him off-kilter, a bit askew in his perception of reality and his ability to function in said reality. It was sort of a running joke within our circle that Jeremiah left zigzagging from Sunday services after communion was given just from the sheer tart quality of the grape juice on his palette.

I was a cheap drunk and hence stuck with my preferred Friday night beverage of choice, Hurricane. Hurricane is a malt liquor with 8.10% ABV and part of the Anheuser-Busch family of beers. BeerAdvocate.com gives Hurricane a resounding grade of D+ with a further comment for beer drinkers the world over to “avoid.”

I find this rating a bit unfair, particularly from the perspective of a teenager in the 1990’s with limited income save for the greenbacks earned by way of cutting grass in the summer time and chopping wood in winter.

The Three Pros of Hurricane:

  1. Extremely economical: Spend less. Drink less. Get drunk quicker. Have leftovers for next week’s shindig.
  2. Extremely potent compared to popular American lagers: Once again, drink less, get drunk quicker. I didn’t drink for the taste. Not to mention, easily the biggest con of Hurricane was that, like OE800, it smells like bottled and capped skunk piss. Pop it open, turn it up, don’t think twice, it’s alright.
  3. Never lifted at parties: The fact of the matter is people do not see a black, orange, and green case of Hurricane in the refrigerator and rogue one. They think, “Who in God’s name brought that?” move the case to the side so as to retrieve a can from someone else’s stash thus leaving my alcohol to keep cold and ready when the time was right to crack open another.

The latter was ultimately the deciding factor from my teenage perspective. Hurricane, Black Label, and King Cobra were my Big Three in those days. The lineup rotated as to which one I drank on a designated weekend. Unlike most, if not all of my friends, I never found myself in one of those “where the fuck is my beer?” moments at parties. My beer was always on the bottom shelf, untouched, except by me.

The only time anyone ever even touched one of my malts was when Brandon Shepherd grabbed one, held it up to his mouth like a microphone, and began singing, “Rock You Like a Hurricane” by Scorpions. Then, in the same motion, he passed out on the couch.

On days when the income was feeling a bit expendable and I was feeling grandiose and luxurious, I would step my game up and purchase a Mickey’s but those days were rare and few and far between. Not to mention, I loathed Natural Light for its redneck-specific designation on the drinking scene and avoided it at all costs, buying malt liquor instead. But I digress.

Other than Hurricane and a single can of Budweiser—whose slogan I unremittingly recited throughout the course of the night much to the protest of my cousin Gary—I downed a single mixed drink Gary had concocted.

Bleeding Liver

100 mL Vodka
15 oz. Fruit Punch Gatorade

Mix together. Shake very well. Add ice. Serve.



Gary in the middle, me on the right

Character Profile
Gary was my first cousin (standing in the middle in the picture to your left. That’s me on the right. My cousin Robbie on the left) and Jeremiah’s fellow classmate at Randolph-Henry High School in Charlotte Court House, Virginia—Graduating class: 1997.

As a young child, the third Hyde of the family, Garland Hyde Hamlett III, to be exact, had this intense fascination with WWF and WCW action figures and collectibles. Each year when Christmas rolled around and Santa Claus slid his morbidly obese, cherry red ass down the clay brick chimney, he would place under Gary’s Christmas tree some new wrestling action figurine.

By the time my aunt Julie, uncle Butch, and cousin Tiffany arrived at our home in Phenix for breakfast on Christmas morning, Gary was itching like a dog with mange to pull out his plastic men and toss them into the roped ring he had been given the prior Christmas. In turn, the Steiner Brothers—Rick and Scott—would gang up on an aging yet still shirtless Rick Flair or involve themselves in an illusory confrontation with the tag team duo of the Road Warriors.

This background is important for at times this imaginary play world of wrestling was implemented in the real world and my skinny self doomed from the start no matter how much milk I drank or Spinach I ate. (Yes, I arduously bought into the Popeye philosophy that a helping of spinacia oleracea would sprout Sherman tanks on my biceps and in turn help me bring down my own real life Bluto, Gary.)

Gary was my elder by two years, might as well have been ten, and was much bigger than I was then and still so even today. He does not recall putting me through the torture I am about to describe to you the reader. When you are on the giving end (as Gary was), I imagine it is but a faint memory pushed to the back of your mind with no resounding quality—just an ordinary day in an ordinary week. On the receiving end (as I was), however, it becomes burnt into one’s memory as if a fiery orange cigarette cherry snubbed out on the backside of one’s hand.

When I visited my Granny and Papa Hamlett in Drakes Branch, Gary, as sneaky and vengeful as ever, somehow found a constant lure and always managed to trap me in our grandpa’s bedroom. My cries for help were quickly silenced by the threat of pain I was soon to endure being even more painful if I called out for aid. He was also pompous to the fact that unlike other kids his age he already had underarm hair—and a jungle of it at that. As consequence, he jerked me immediately and without delay into a headlock and buried my pre-pubescent face in his armpits.

“Smell it,” he would cry out, squeezing my neck tighter as if to pop my head off like a grape. “Smell it!”

I refused to smell it.

He squeezed my neck tighter.

There was sweat on my nose and cheekbones from his pits. Thick white chunks of deodorant on my lips tasted bitter. Underarm hair tickled my nose.

“I want you to smell it. I want to hear you sniff,” he growled.

Then my nostrils would flare in and out.

* Sniff, sniff *

Enduring these moments of agony, I knew that nothing could be done but appeal to the Lord above for strength in a prayer that one day all those gallons of milk I had poured into my belly since weaning from the teat would jumpstart a growth spurt in my body and all that spinach I consumed would swell my biceps like it had done Popeye before he liberated Olive Oil from the masculine and obstinate grips of Bluto’s hands.

Then I would have my revenge.

Unfortunately, this petition to the Big Man in the Sky has yet to be answered and unless I dial up BALCO or Mark McGwire and get my hands on some Human Growth Hormone, my thirst for retribution may never be quenched.

Or will it?

In a metonymic adage originating in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 play, Richelieu, Cardinal Richelieu says and I quote, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

And so with this axiom clearly portraying wit over might, the power of the written word over the physical headlock, I will thus write with my pen a very significant and hopefully embarrassing little known fact about my Blutonian cousin Gary’s musical tastes.

Gary owned and purposely bought and listened to albums by Shaq Diesel, also known as Shaquille O’Neal, The Big Aristotle, and/or Shaq Fu. If my memory serves me correctly, his favorite song was “(I Know I Got) Skillz.”

Quiz him on this.

From the actual song, begin rapping these lyrics:

Yo Jef, why don’t you give me a hoopa beat or something,
Something I can go to the park to.
Yeah, there you go, alright, I like that, I like that,
It sound dope.

Just give him a minute for the full effect to take hold, to possess his body. Then like an uncontrollable instinct or an Episcopalian speaking in tongues, Gary will begin tapping his right foot and spitting the rhyme with prepositions incorrectly ending the sentence and all:

Knick-knack Shaq-attack, give a dog a bone,
Rhymin is like hoopin’, I’m already a legend,
Back in the days in the Fush-camp section,
Used to kick rhymes like baby, baby, baby,
Every once, every twice, three times a lady,
Is what I listened to, riding with my moms,
How you like me now? I drop bombs,
When you see me, please tap my hands,
I know I got skills man, I know I got skills man…

If that does not work, if he refuses to acknowledge this reality in regards to his music selection, simply ask to see his record collection. Inside a dusty cardboard box, you are sure to find a copy of Shaq Diesel’s debut album, and to top it off, nearly every cassette ever put out by the Fat Boys. True, there is nothing really to laugh about here. The Fat Boys had rhymes so sweet they would knock anyone into a diabetic coma.

Back in the day, I liked the Fat Boys too, used to beat box with my mouth at Gary’s on Saturday mornings while my uncle Butch sucked down a raw egg for breakfast. The two of us would venture out underneath the attached garage and toss lyrical heat into the fire. I would morph into Kool Rock Ski and him into Prince Markie D:

(Prince Markie D): $3.99 for all you can eat?
Well, I’m-a stuff my face to a funky beat!
(Kool Rock Ski): We’re gonna walk inside, and guess what’s up:
Put some food in my plate and some Coke in my cup
(Prince Markie D): Give me some chicken, franks, and fries
And you can pass me a lettuce. I’m-a pass it by.

And then Gary would pause for a moment, do the Robot, position his feet on his Max Headroom skateboard, pop an Ollie, and run his fingers through his hair like a 1988 James Dean. Peanut would call from the neighboring yard, “Yes, t-t-t-t-tune into Network 23! The network is a *real* mind-blower!”

Or at least this is how I like to remember the past.

And that was Gary.



Now he stood before Jeremiah and me, interrogating the man with the keys in his hand. Jeremiah opened the screen door, flicked his cigarette, and reached into his oh so smooth black leather jacket to retrieve a fresh smoke.

“Just a glass or two,” Jeremiah said of how much wine he’d had.

Gary hmphed. “More than that.”

“I’m fine man. I’ll drive slow. We’ll hit the back roads to be on the safe side. I pay more attention after I’ve had a few in me anyway.”

“Well if you don’t think you can drive, feel free to turn back around. Like I said, you can crash here for the night. It’s fine by me. Plenty of blankets and places to sleep.”

“Let me take one last leak before we hit the road,” I said to Jeremiah, knowing he would appreciate my common decency. I tend to urinate frequently, a result of what I suppose relates back to my recurrent bouts with kidney stones as a child. Jeremiah knew this.



Once on a short road trip the two of us took, Jeremiah was forced to stop every twenty minutes in order for me to empty my beans. I marked my territory more than a stray dog that evening.

Behind dumpsters.

On trees.

At a laundry mat.

In a 32-ounce Gatorade bottle.

In a 20-ounce Coca-Cola bottle.



Years later, I would earn the nickname “PP” by Jay Taylor, a co-worker of mine in construction. We used to carpool together. He drove. I sat in the passenger seat and read Noam Chomsky books.

In the late 1980’s/early 90’s, Jay used to play drums in a heavy metal band named Uncle Screwtape and had long, stringy hair down to his ass and was skinny as a toothpick. In promotional photos of the band, Jay wears black leather pants secured tightly by white laces running up the leg. Presently, he sports a reluctant comb-over and carries a few doughnuts in the mid-section.

Uncle Screwtape opened for Ugly Kid Joe in Texas back when Ugly Kid Joe was cool which took place during a window between June and November of 1992. They were on their America’s Least Wanted tour. The bass player for Uncle Screwtape named the band. As Uncle Screwtape’s star was on the rise, the bass player quit to enroll in college. He wanted to be an English teacher. Uncle Screwtape is a reference to a C.S. Lewis novel in which the demon uncle, Screwtape, writes a series of letters to his nephew in efforts to convince his nephew to help bring damnation to a man known as “The Patient.”

Jay used to get annoyed by how much I made him stop so that I could take a leak. We stopped at nearly every store we came upon on our way home from Buggs Island to Phenix.

I hated using a store’s bathroom without buying anything. I felt it was rude so I made a point to always buy an item. I loved Peppermint Patties so I bought one at each of my stops. I didn’t think anything of it, the abbreviation and all. The irony. Jay picked up on it.

“PP,” Jay said. “I think I’m going to call you ‘PP’ from here on out.”

“I hope the gods curse you with kidney stones one day so you’ll see what it feels like. Or an enlarged prostate.”

They never did. But they did curse him with the most awful foot fungus I have ever seen in my life during the summer of 2003. He had to change socks once every hour while at work. Doctor recommended. His feet looked gangrenous. Seriously. And they stunk like a rotting carcass.



It was cold that day and rainy, the evening Jeremiah and I were returning from our road trip down I-81.

“I’m not stopping again,” he said to me as I got back into the car. I had just pissed on a yellow brick wall at a laundry mat on the outskirts of Radford.

Twenty minutes later.

“Hey man, I know you said you weren’t stopping again but I really have to go. I might very well piss myself. I’ve been holding it for ten minutes now and my bladder is about to rupture. I’m pretty sure this isn’t healthy.”

“You’ve been holding it for ten minutes?” he questioned. “We just stopped ten minutes ago. Didn’t you piss?”

“I did. It was wonderful.”

“Then why do you have to go again?”

“I don’t know but I swear I do. I think it has something to do with the rain. Rain. Urine. Both are liquids. And your car idles rather fast. I think it is shaking my kidneys. I know Josh Holt had a similar problem once riding in my mom’s Corolla. It idled badly.”

“You’re not going to piss yourself,” Jeremiah responded matter-of-factly.

“I’m not so sure about that. This may be genetic. My mom gets the dribbles.”

“The dribbles?”

“The dribbles. She can’t do jumping jacks.”



I walked down the narrow hallway and into Gary’s bathroom. A Playboy magazine lay open in a wicker basket to the left of the toilet. An exposed woman stared back at me. She was on all fours stark nude. The sheets were red. Satin sheets I suppose. Rose petals were strewn across the sheets. You know, the way most naked women wait for you.

On all fours.

Stark nude.

Ass in the air.

On red, satin sheets with roses strewn across.

“You are not getting laid tonight,” she reminded me. I thanked her for her kindness and honesty. I wondered what her dad thought. I thought about how I was a hypocrite for enjoying seeing her looking this way, naked, and how I’d never in a million years let my daughter shed clothes for money whenever I had a daughter one day.

I thought about how it wouldn’t be up to me to “let” her do anything. I would have to hope I raised her properly so that she wouldn’t strip nude for money. Then I thought about how I had paid someone to strip nude for money before. She was a friend of mine. She said she’d get naked for gas money. I had gas money.

I was 16. She was 20.

I thought about how I was thinking too much. I thought about how drinking a lot always made me think too much when I already thought too much as it was.

I focused my attention away from the girl in the magazine.

The tank lid was open, pushed off to the side. The ballcock and float were visible. The water was running and the sound sensitive to my ears. I jiggled the handle.

“Don’t be the phantom shitter,” Gary called from the front.

I pissed the most glorious piss I had ever pissed in my existence all the while my stomach flipped, sat upright, turned. Through the pangs, I determined my stomach was essentially eating itself.

Hunger had taken over and the Wu Tang album wasn’t helping the cause. The martial arts samples dubbed into the mix began to remind me of sweet & sour chicken and orange chicken and fried rice with little chunks of egg and…

When I entered back into the kitchen, I grabbed a slice of white bread in my fist and crammed it down my gullet in a matter of seconds. I proceeded to the front door.

Jeremiah turned the handle and we made our exit.

Curtains for the night.

We each walked out with a beer in our hands. Gary stood at the door shaking his head as we made our way down the front steps.

“This is the famous Budweiser beer—” I began.

“Jeez,” Gary interrupted, “Drive safe. And make that moron shut up.”

I opened the passenger’s side door of Jeremiah’s black Thunderbird and slid in. Jeremiah buckled his seatbelt, as did I.

“We are really going down the back roads, right?” I asked Jeremiah.

“Definitely. Not trying to roll into a road check this time of night. Lawson can. Kiss. My. Ass.”

“Country Road?”

“Country Road.”

“I’d say that’s a good call, our safest route.”

“And I would second that notion. You ready? Buckled up?”

“Yep. Ready to roll.”

I had ridden with Jeremiah numerous times when neither he nor I were sober so I trusted him behind the wheel. (Trusted him with my life you could say) The reasoning on my behalf had more to do with the fact that when you are wasted beyond belief anyone’s driving looks pretty good as long as you get to your destination in one piece. It was a youthful decision on both our accounts. Not very wise no matter how you slice it. “Young and dumb” isn’t a popular phrase without reason, and when you are that age, you believe yourself as well as your friends are invincible.

We knew no krypton, could not be taken down with an arrow in our Achilles heel. To boot, hardly anyone traveled down Country Road, particularly at this time of the night.

I pulled out my pack of Marlboros and lit one. Jeremiah followed, asking for a light. I lit it while he edged his way from Gary’s driveway. The outside light on Gary’s front porch turned off.

“And you’re sure you’re okay to drive?” I asked just to double-check.

I was beginning to wonder if this time maybe Jeremiah had had a little too much to drink. His body swayed as if he was without a spine or bones. Under the surface, a sense of worry had presented itself to me.

“Oh yeah, I’m good,” he answered matter-of-factly.

About a mile up the road, Jeremiah hit his left turn signal.

“We’re turning right,” I told him.

Jeremiah hit his right turn signal. “I knew that.”

Country Road was now in sight. The car inched its way closer to the turn. The two of us were laughing it up, babbling about what the night had done to us.

“I’ll tell you, that wine did a number on me this time,” Jeremiah said, his beady eyes glassy.

“That wine does a number on you every time. Did you drink one of those Bleeding Livers Gary mixed up? I think it sent me overboard into the deep. Not a good mix with Hurricane. I feel sick as shit.”

“Nah. Only some shots, some wine, and a few baa-rewskies. If I added anything else, I’d be spewing for sure and you’d be driving.”

“We wouldn’t be driving. We’d be sitting. I’m definitely not in the shape to drive.”

“True. I don’t see how you drink that malt liquor week in and week out. Shit.”

“Cheap buzz.”

Snoop Dogg interjected on the stereo, singing. Jeremiah turned up the volume and veered toward the turn.

The only problem with this was that we had not actually made it to the turn quite yet. We still had a ways to go, roughly one-hundred yards or so; and granted, though we were not flying down the highway by any means, we also were not giving the turtle a run for his money on who was the slowest specimen on the roadside this time of night.

Jeremiah looked in my direction still talking, a grin etched on his face. The cigarette hung out of his mouth and the smoke danced off the end toward the ceiling of the car.

We were driving through the gravel parking lot of a closed convenience store.

And I was fully aware we were driving through the gravel parking lot of a closed convenience store.

For some reason, what reason I couldn’t tell you then, couldn’t tell you now, I thought maybe Jeremiah had decided to stop and get a drink, get a little sugar in his system to caffeinate him properly for the thirty minute drive we were making toward home in Phenix.

That’s what I told myself at least.

As a hypoglycemic in my own right, I tend to keep a stash of foods pertinent to the glycemic index close by to hold me over when my blood sugar begins to plummet.

In an article by Charles Q. Choi, “Why Time Seems to Slow Down in Emergencies,” researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, discovered that an individual’s memory plays a certain kind of mind game and tricks us in emergency situations. The amygdala, an almond-shaped mass of gray matter, one in each hemisphere of the brain, is associated with feelings of fear and aggression and is important for visual learning and memory. When one’s nerves tense up and the sense of danger near, the amygdala lays down an additional deposit of memories that go along with the memories typically taken care of by other parts of the brain.

Therefore, individuals tend to remember emergencies much more keenly than normal circumstances. Our senses become, in a way, pronounced and our attention level expands and takes in the scenery and sounds and smells of the moment, among other things. I bring this up because when Jeremiah hit the turn signal and began trekking through the gravel parking lot of the store, reality is this: it happened instantaneously and within a matter of seconds.

I was fully conscious of the situation. It was as if time stood still, the pendulum paused in mid-air, and everything was taking place in slow motion; that Jeremiah had a beer still in between his legs just as I did should have hinted something out to me that perhaps, just perhaps, Jeremiah was not thirsty and not stopping for a Coca-Cola.

Having sensed what I sensed, I created a reasonable explanation to make sense of those senses and did not say anything to Jeremiah at first.

Jeremiah was laughing and so was I. I figured, screw it. He was in control. He has done this a million times before and I have been the passenger of those million times myself and we had always been okay, always gotten where we were going in one piece.

False alarm, I told my amygdala.

You’re totally overreacting Amy so calm the hell down.

Now I know, just as any resident of Charlotte County knows, that our African shaped county in south-central Virginia is pretty dag gone country. Some kids across the United States like to claim that their hometown or home county is small.

“All we have is a Wal-Mart and a KFC,” they say.

Well, that’s nothing.

There is not a single stoplight—not one—in all of Charlotte County.

And Wal-Mart?

Well, if you want to hit up Wally World and support sweatshop labor and American jobs being sent overseas by the thousands all for the sake of a low price, Wal-Mart is a good 45-minute-to-an-hour drive away depending on where you live in the county.

The truth of the matter is that the road we were supposed to take, even if it is called Country Road (quite literally), is paved; and the path we were currently traveling down was nothing but gray dust and rocks.

It wasn’t even a road.

It was the near half-acre parking lot of a store that closed at 8:00 PM Eastern Standard Time (EST).

Like I said, this all happened in a matter of seconds; and ten years ago the Baylor College of Medicine did not even exist to me nor did their study of “Why Time Seems to Slow Down in Emergencies.”

I could have given them that answer and saved some taxpayers’ money.

Conclusion: Time appears to slow down because your senses freak and your adrenaline begins to pump and you’re alert to the belief that you’re going to die and that you never accomplished anything in life and when my mom cleans out my room and starts to cry because I’m no longer here, she’s going to discover my porn stash and she’s going to think I’m a pervert but I’m not going to be able to explain to her that it’s completely natural for someone my age to be looking at porn; at least I’m not a Trekky I would say to her, at least I didn’t waste my life collecting stamps though I did collect matchbooks once and I’m really sorry about almost catching the house on fire. I could have told Baylor College that much.

But right now God had his finger on the pause button and I got to thinking, got to convincing myself that Jeremiah had taken a mini shortcut and was simply going to cut back through on to Country Road when we got to the end of the store parking lot.

We’ll get home one-hundred yards quicker, I told Amy Amygdala, so quit your stinking pestering. I got this. Jeremiah’s got this.

Then Ms. Amy Amygdala wagged her invisible index finger at me.

Should have listened to me, she said. I was trying to tell you something, trying to warn you. Now it’s too late.

Jeremiah wasn’t slowing down. It became very apparent to me and Amy Amygdala who kept saying, I told you so, I told you so, that Jeremiah had made a rather grave error. He thought we had already made it to the right turn on to Country Road and had no idea that this was not a road but a gravel parking lot.

Fuck. I’m going to die.

Stones bounced underneath the black Thunderbird, clanging against the oil pan. A cloud of dust trailed behind our car like the last scene in Thelma and Louise when the helicopter zooms overhead and the car jolts airily into the pit of the Grand Canyon, a photograph of the two friends turning and turning and falling like a feather from the sky.

Click to view Thelma and Louise – Ending Scene

[with a ditch line in front of them and cops behind them]
Thelma Dickerson: OK, then listen; let’s not get caught.
Louise Sawyer: What’re you talkin’ about?
Thelma Dickerson: Let’s keep goin’!
Louise Sawyer: What d’you mean?
Thelma Dickerson: …Go.
Thelma Dickerson: [Thelma nods ahead of them]
Louise Sawyer: You sure?
Thelma Dickerson: Yeah.

I reached for my seatbelt to double check it was securely fastened. The radio was blaring, the cigarette smoke dancing, and Jeremiah was singing:

Hey, now ya’ know
Inhale, exhale with my flow
One for the money, two for the…

And then I noticed a huge ditch line at the back of the parking lot that casually adjoined an embankment. I thought to myself, Oh shit!

I looked at Jeremiah and to let him know that we were about to go jetting through a ditch line at fifty-miles-per-hour, I said, “Jeremiah.”

Yes, I know. Something more immediate should have spilt from my lips. It probably was not the best first thing to say in order to aware someone that you are about to be involved in a car accident, but God had pressed the play button and we were no longer on pause. Time was moving at its normal pace. And then in fast forward. And “Jeremiah” was about all I had time to blurt out.

Jeremiah looked at me and said, “Wh—” and at that very moment before he got the “-at” out to end his reply, I think he honest-to-goodness realized he had put the turn signal on prematurely.

SLAM!

WHOP!

CRASH!

Just like the colorful callouts in the original Batman episodes with Adam West.

We collided with the ditch. The airbags deployed. We smashed into the hill that adjoined the stacked mound of grass and dirt. Hubcaps retreated. Our car crippled, we flung our metal carriage through the last ditch and then managed to land back on the road, Country Road, the same road we were supposed to be driving down in the first place.

“Are you okay, man? Are you okay,” I said to Jeremiah in panic.

A cloud of powder from the airbags circulated throughout the car. On the driver’s side floorboard a cigarette glowed orange.

My left arm had slammed against the windshield and slightly cut open my left elbow and scraped my forearm. My scar from the Gilliam shed window I had broken out as a kid began to bleed and a small amount of blood trickled down toward my wrist. The car was the scene of what looked to be a baby powder fight. The powder from the airbags was suffocating.

I was coughing.

Jeremiah was coughing.

And Snoop Dogg was singing, “It Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None).”

The airbags had chalked up both of our faces. If I had to throw out a combination of words as to what Jeremiah and I looked like when Jeremiah hit the interior light then I would have to say—and this is because of the airbag powder on our faces I may add—that we looked like drag queen circus clowns with a bad coke habit and a bad aim at putting the coke up our nostrils.

I felt like I should be panning for change outside of a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus act come to town. I felt like Jeremiah ought to be right beside me juggling with a monkey resting atop his shoulder—a white-fronted Capuchin monkey named Larry with an asparagus stalk dangling from his bottom lip. I’m sure some animal rights protester would object; but Jeremiah and I would tell them that Larry loves our traveling circus act; and then, without notice, Larry would poo in his hand and throw it at the protester and giggle…

The two of us stepped out of Jeremiah’s black Thunderbird, dazed. Jeremiah looked at me and said, apparently gazing in the direction of an imaginary car and not the one that stood before us, “You think we can make it home alright still?”

I thought airbag powder must have been clogging my ears.

The black Thunderbird, once a fierce machine on the Charlotte County highway, its-terrifying-to-spectators pink racing stripe down the side, though it had now been in a wreck, still had a believer in its capabilities. His name was Jeremiah and he had lost his damn mind.

Or at least banged his head against the steering wheel when we hit the ditch to jar his intellectual capabilities.

I cannot remember my exact words but I believe they were somewhere along the line of, “I think we should probably go back to Gary’s and call someone,” which was immediately followed by a sense of panic that the cops were going to come, tow Jeremiah’s car, and arrest Jeremiah for drinking and driving, reckless endangerment, and me for underage drinking.

The wreck had miraculously sobered me—at least mentally. I could have passed an Algebra II test at that moment and it took me three years in high school to pass an Algebra II test.

Then Jeremiah replies with something else I will never forget: “Nah, I’m good. I can make it home if we just go slow.”

It was a common reply on a trashy talk show like Ricki Lake or Jerry Springer for a guest to come back with, “Oh no you didn’t” and that is exactly what went through my head as if on cue from the producer of one of these trashy talk shows.

Jeremiah tried to plead his case. He tried to tell me that he was okay to drive and his car fine but my mind was made up. Driving back home was no longer a good idea, not an option for this passenger.

Jeremiah looked at the car, looked at me, breathed in the last of his cigarette, exhaled the smoke, and then flicked the butt into the road.

“You’re right. Maybe it isn’t such a good idea. Let’s go back to Gary’s.”

So, the two of us got back into the Thunderbird, buckled our seatbelts, and putted and bounced and hopped our way back to my cousin Gary’s house. It was like riding in a horse and carriage on a road made of seashells. My window was down and I could hear the hubcap on the passenger side attempting to fall off into the road and roll away into the tree line.

Please don’t let a cop pass us. Please don’t let a cop pass us.

My dad is going to kick my ass. My dad is going to kick my ass.

When we arrived at Gary’s minutes later, I called my sister, Jennifer, at my parent’s house. She was in from college for the weekend and most likely asleep and in bed. It was 2:45 AM, after all.

Naturally, since I prayed with all my heart for my sister to pick up the telephone and not my mom, my mom indeed answered the phone.

My mom sounded alert as ever.

She has a freakish ability to do this, no matter the time. Honestly, it is weird. She never sounds groggy and she was definitely asleep when the phone rang and probably had been since 8:00 PM.

I asked my mom to give my sister the phone because I needed to talk to her. I didn’t tell my sister what had happened—the wreck and all. I just made it clear that Jeremiah and I needed a ride home. My sister came and picked both of us up. The next day, Jeremiah had his car towed from Gary’s place. Granted, it isn’t until now that I ever considered what Gary must have thought when he woke up and looked out of his window, only to see Jeremiah’s car busted to pieces and us nowhere in sight.

I believe Jeremiah’s dad, Johnnie, was onto our “someone ran us out of the road” story, as was my dad; but I am not sure still to this day that Jeremiah’s mom, Maryann, or my mom, have the faintest idea of what happened that night. I would like to think Maryann figured it out eventually, but my mom has not a clue of the truth, nor will she ever because even if I let her read this one day, this part will be edited from her copy.

Censored.

Absentis.



A few days passed. Jeremiah’s car sat in the shop being looked over by a local grease monkey in Charlotte Court House. Upon final inspection, the garage gave Jeremiah’s residence a ring on the telephone to give the full report of the damage done. (Let us keep in mind again that night Jeremiah still wanted to drive home after the wreck)

What was the damage?

Two broken axles and the car was completely totaled.

The mechanic told Johnnie the car was caput and he would haul it to the junkyard for him. Johnnie asked to have the car towed back to their house first.

When the wrecker brought Jeremiah’s car back to his house a few days later, I met Jeremiah in his front yard. We inspected the black Thunderbird and attempted to take in fully all of what we saw: our invincibility tested, our lives salvaged.

The rims on the wheels were busted. Two wheels were sunken. Because of the broken axles and two flat tires, the car drooped to one side, slouched as if an elderly man with bad posture or scoliosis. That or somebody born with a short leg. I knew a kid like that once. The front windshield was a spider web of cracks (which is why, when driving back to Gary’s, Jeremiah navigated the road by poking his head out of the driver’s side window).

The two of us peered inside the car for a closer look. The black seats were covered in a haze of white powder from the airbags, which lay deflated over the steering wheel and in the passenger’s seat. The furious Ford appeared as if it had been used in the Battle of Kursk, July 1943.

The Red Army victorious!

In the distance of Belgorod smoked a faithful battering ram with a badge of honor now headed to an aluminum and alloy grave.

“I’m glad you told me not to drive home,” Jeremiah said, his eyes still fixed on the black Thunderbird.

“Yeah, me too. Say, why did your dad have the car towed back here?”

“I think he wants me to take it all in. My piss poor decision. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t buy the story.”

“My dad either.”


In Alba, Italy’s rain, my hair flattens wet against my skull. Hugging the shopfronts of Via Vittorio Emanuele, I see a white triangular peak in the distance. It could be anything—a downed mountain bowing to commune with this street, the cobblestone river that carved it—except, glowing with rain, it looks to be made of canvas. I know.

I know. It is October. This is Alba. Simple arithmetic: October + Alba = Truffle Fair. Math never smelled so good. I thank the wet heavens for this day off. I am in Italy’s Piedmont region to work the seasonal wine harvest, sleeping in a tent in the garden of the Il Gioco dell’Oca bed-and-breakfast. But today, I am relieved of my grape-picking duties, and the white truffle beckons.

The truffle is an underground fungus of the tuber genus (some call it an underground mushroom), found beneath the bases of oak, linden, poplar, elder, willow, and wild hazelnut, where they establish a symbiotic relationship with the tree. They enjoy a cool soil about eight to ten inches below the earth’s surface. The truffle’s roots are as strong as its perfume. They are incredibly thick and intricate, surrounding the “fruit” or “gleba” with a cortex called a “peridio.” These characteristics vary greatly among the varieties of truffle, distinguishing each gem to the scrutinizing eye of the truffle hunter.

Truffles themselves are surrounded by legend. A famous Italian tale from the Piedmont regionclaims that truffles make their homes in the graves of dissipated gnomes and that their often-irregular shape is a result of the heartbeats of soon-to-be-sleeping plants. Truffle hunters, or “trifolau,” have always had their quirks and secrets, and their own fair share of lore. Often disguised as a man and his dog strolling an autumn hill at night, the trifolau are reputed to walk with lighter steps than the rest of us, and speak only with necessary words. The truffle-sniffing dog or “tabui” is calmer at night (hence, the typical night hunt); also, the night protects the trifolau and tabui from the imploring eyes of others. (Pigs can also be used to detect truffles, but dogs are preferred since they are less likely to eat the reward).

This peak in the distance is the demure cap to Alba’s famed truffle tent. Polar, bearish, the fur on the back of my neck stands up.

Soon, I am at its entrance and, ducking my head like a linebacker preparing to unleash a bone-crunching tackle, I dip my white face into the seas and come up with a salmon, flapping into U, inverted-U, U, inverted-U in my jaws.

Umbrellas woosh open and closed around me, people entering, people leaving. What an indulgent invention the umbrella seems in a tent so connected with the soil—with these personal hand-held awnings, nobody gets wets, and in turn, nobody dries off.

I shudder from the waist up as a dog shedding a rain-sheen onto a business suit or two, and survey this white vacuum of aroma and taste and commerce. Row after row of truffle vendors chat with a clamorous array of buyers, displaying their wares that they dug from deep earth oak tree bases with the aid if their sniffing dogs. And now, these black and white delicacies, the essence of earth and epitome of fungus, lie platter-lit under glass containers, exhumed by the merchants to be held, like their children, to the noses of probable patrons. This is the second coming through a kaleidoscope.The dirty gray rock-like truffles, so much like figs, play their cards close to their chests until the glass container is lifted and aroma spills the room like oil.

There is something in the contained stoicism of a red-bearded man in the tent’s west corner that makes me want to buy a truffle from him. He, unlike the operatically effusive majority, seems to share the wise hermit nature of the truffle itself. He knows. That’s all.

I walk to him, the sea of people and their downward-pointing umbrellas rushing from my heels like jet smoke. His red face, unearthed just this morning perhaps, spreads in a bread-and-butter grin.Wordless, he reaches for his platter, left hand bracing its bottom, right hand poised on the container lid. This is potential energy as it should be. Two steps later, the lid is off, the sweet white truffle smell of soil and mushroom, corn husk and asphalt gift-wraps itself bowless over the back of my head, grabs me my the ears like a schoolyard bully. I am thrown face first into this silver platter’s playground dirt. This is not fair. I’m telling on you. I want my mom.

In what sounds to me like a blubbering cry, I ask, “Quanto per uno?”

He waves his chapped hand over the pile, indicating that I choose my favorite. Always the champion of the underdog, I choose the second one from the top, a battered golf ball of a tartufo boasting the elegance of the clubs that hit it. Red-Beard, with a thumb and forefinger, lifts it from its family litter.It wriggles and wags like a puppy. The next thing I know, it’s in my hand. Its touch is gold and scab, bottlecap and skipping stone.

Once a white truffle touches your skin, a strange symbiosis ignites. A purchase is inevitable, even for those with a psychotic regard for self-denial. Rough, dimpled, irregular, geologic, its bloom waits for contact with a truffle shaver and a quail egg, a plate of ravioli, a loin of venison. I’ve never felt the stirrings of fatherhood before, but…

And just like that, he picks it from my palm as a poppy, weighs it, and writes £80,000 on a slip of blue paper. Forty dollars for an entire white truffle—worth about $1,800/lb. in the U.S.—forty dollars for a tongue’s meditation stone that will span a week’s worth of dinners. I want to weep. I want to pray. I want to, and do, hand him the money, and he proceeds to wrap the sweet baby in a fan of white tissue paper, then places it into a tiny paper bag. I hold the bag to my face and breathe as if hyperventilating, as a horse licking the first or last oats from its feed-bag.

Then Red-Beard, perhaps as penance for his namesake’s pirating, perhaps due to my treasuring of his ware, removes a plum-sized black truffle from another platter, wraps it, and hands it to me without so much as a “Prego.” I match his silence, my hands go numb, my hair most assuredly turning white.I am in a place where the purchase of a white truffle gets a black truffle thrown in for free. This place is Alba, Italy. $19.95 for twenty steak-knives be damned. I reach my bagless hand to Red-Beard and he shakes it, his palm rough as cornflakes, eyelids drooping nearly to the corners of his mouth.

Retreating to the tent’s entrance, the other merchants thrusting, then cradling their truffles under my nose, offering their perfume, my eyes begin to water, my breath shortens, my head spins in a wild vertigo. This is sensory overload at its best, the ripe fungal blossom of the tent tattooing itself into my nostrils. I need to take a breath of rain.

And in a step, stutter, step, I am back in it, iron pencil sky relentless in its spewing. I tuck the truffle bag into my windbreaker’s heart-pocket and make for the bus back to Il Gioco dell’Oca, where the kitchen will hopefully be empty, and my tent, most certainly, saturated.