The night sky smells of rain, but there’s no rain, there is to be no rain tonight, and this makes me think of ghosts and their smells, ghosts and meteorology, which of course stirs me to think of lightning; how one’s hair must smell after being struck in someone else’s country, long after the street-food stalls have closed, and options are limited, and there’s too much sulfur in your blood. I’m hungry and irrational, and after we dump our suitcases in the room, Louisa takes my hand, leads me to the marble stairs and we go down, down, down to find food.

Blood sugar dropping like sycamore leaves in a hurricane, I begin babbling about lightning, smells of rain. Louisa has gotten used to this. Back in Chicago, with its chemotherapies and countless scans, with its bald-mother heads and deflated fathers, I was like this most of the time.

“You know, men are struck by lightning four times more often than women,” I say, our footsteps booming in the after-hours hotel, the old eagle reincarnate thumbing through a magazine behind the front desk. Even though he wears reading glasses, his nose is nearly pressed to the page. I resist the temptation to make some “eagle-eye, my ass” joke, and stick, perhaps irrationally, to lightning.

“Do men spend more time outdoors?” I ask, “holding lightning rod-like things, like golf clubs? Or is lightning drawn to testosterone?”

“Weather must be a woman,” Louisa confirms, and I know, I just know she resists her own temptation to say something about the penis as antenna.

“Well, I’m fucked,” I say.

Louisa pulls me past the old man at the front desk—she knows my compulsion to strike up a conversation, show off my shattered Spanish, will outweigh even my lust for food right now, to my blood sugar’s detriment. Soon, we’re on the street, surprisingly quiet for a metropolitan area of nearly 21 million people. It is, I suppose, a Tuesday night in December—Wednesday morning really. Graffiti slithers along the buildings’ bases, day-glo snakes rushing for their holes—eyeballs commingling with lowercase Gs, whose tails extend like tongues. Either this graffiti is unusually erotic, or my need for food is approaching desperate, critical. Only hospital designations will do…

We choose the first open restaurant we see, a small beacon of muted yellow light a couple blocks from the Rioja. It’s Potzolcalli, and we’re among the last two tables of their night. In their overblown laminated menus, and table tents advertising fluorescent drink specials, the place strikes me as the Friday’s of Mexico, a bit cookie cutter. I’m not surprised to later learn the place has 18 outlets throughout Mexico City, but am immediately sated not only by the proximity to food, the smell of roasting corn driving the phantom-rain back into the atmosphere’s afterlife, but by the decor, rife with big-eyed clay animals, half burnt candles dripping their red wax down the yellow walls, giant wooden chairs with armrests wide enough for our legs, carved Metapec life trees capturing, in pottery, the seductive árbol from which Adam and Eve biblically suckled.

In situations like this, I typically order what I don’t know, welcoming the surprise, even if it is less than tasty. This had led, of course, to many a food-borne illness. But perhaps the same chemical that makes me vulnerable to lightning can successfully fight gustatory bacteria, allowing me always to eat and eat and eat another day.

I order a mysterious elixir called Garañona, which, the skinny twenty-something waiter assures me, his cheekbones poking from his face like chicks too weak to break the membrane egg, contains about a dozen herbs and barks, lots of sugar, and serious aphrodisiac properties. He transfers this last description across language by pumping his fist horizontally through the air, surely coupling with the windblown dust mites.

“Oh, great,” Louisa protests, “That’s just what you need.”

Our eyes narrow with exhaustion and, in this light, we feel airborne ourselves, and microscopic, dizzy with the first eight years of our marriage, uncovering the world with each other, and in each other, excavating with our tiny brushes the small truths in small sanctuaries, wherein all we can do is consume together, two cannibals against the world, all food the border we must balance upon between civility and the civil right to voraciousness; to eat and to eat each other. Our eyes narrow, and I think we realize all this, wordlessly in travel-and-hunger dementia, love ardor, and that smell of roasting corn. This, even before we leash our bodies to the weather of tonight, the next eight years, and the Garañona, and cerveza Bohemia and strawberry milkshake and tacos with carne asada, tinga, pollo con mole poblano, cerdo con mole verde, chicharron, epazote and sweet pickled onion…

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Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer (W.W. Norton: Liveright), Pot Farm, and Barolo (both from the University of Nebraska Press), the poetry books, Warranty in Zulu (Barrow Street Press), The Morrow Plots, and Sagittarius Agitprop (both from Black Lawrence Press), and the chapbooks, Four Hours to Mpumalanga and Aardvark. Recent and forthcoming work appears in The New Republic, Field, Epoch, AGNI, The Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, The Kenyon Review, Seneca Review, Crazyhorse, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, Indiana Review, North American Review, Pleiades, Black Warrior Review, Quarterly West, Crab Orchard Review, The Best Food Writing, The Best Travel Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, Hotel Amerika, Gastronomica, and others. After spending over 17 years of his occupational life in restaurant kitchens—from fast-food chicken shacks to fine-dining temples of gastronomy—he now teaches creative writing in the MFA Program at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of the literary journal, Passages North. This winter, he prepared his first batch of whitefish liver ice cream. It paired well with onion bagels.

24 responses to “Struck”

  1. jmblaine says:

    Stories about
    the smell of rain
    old ghosts
    & phantom lusts
    always work for me
    you’ve got quite a way
    with turning the words

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Matthew Gavin,

    If the only thing you did in this piece was describe the waiter:
    “the skinny twenty-something waiter…his cheekbones poking from his face like chicks too weak to break the membrane egg,”
    If that was the ONLY thing on the page,
    I would read it and say it out loud and taste how the words feel in my mouth, then taste it again and again and again.

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Matthew Gavin,
    I don’t hear that enough.
    I’m going to search out your pieces on the off chance you’ll say that again!

  4. Zara Potts says:

    God, I love the way you write. It’s a meal in itself. And the thing about great meals is that they always leave me hungry and wanting more.
    I love the way you throw images – like little darts – into your sentences. ‘Bald headed mothers and deflated fathers’ – seemingly casual, but deadly in its intent.
    You hit the mark every time, Matthew. What a joy.

  5. Zara Potts says:

    Oh and by the way – you have even more chance of being hit by lightning if you are an Aquarius.

  6. Judy Prince says:

    Matthew, that last paragraph was the most sensual and sexy passage I’ve ever read. And, yes, agreeing with Irene about the waiter’s cheekbones, and with Zara about “bald-headed mothers and deflated fathers”. Excellent writing.

    • Wow, Judy, thank you so much!

      • Judy Prince says:

        Well deserved compliments, Matthew! BTW, you live in my hometown. I went to OHHS and GRJC, then made the huge jump to U of M. What a fascinating city is Grand Rapids, Michigan. We were always told that it has the highest per capita number of churches per person in the nation. One thing that strikes me on visits back there is the proliferation of single-family dwellings as opposed to apartments. And that most of the homes are frame, not brick.

        • Judy,

          Louisa and I are loving Grand Rapids– some really great restaurants cropping up (a Cuban spot just opened up– very happy about that); nice beer halls and wine bars too. Yes: the churches still dominate. Where are you now?

        • Oh! Virginia and the UK. Sounds like a fabulous teeter!

        • Judy Prince says:

          Matthew, great to hear you and Louisa love GR; might try to get there for my OHHS 50-year reunion in September! Yes, Matthew, I’m sooo fortunate to be able to “teeter” between the two countries. Never would’ve imagined it, but there it is. BTW, I’m getting a neck ache from trying to see you from your gravatar; you might need a rotation. And maybe a light saber!

        • Judy Prince says:

          I think of light saber-holding as a spiritual thing, not a martial thing. If the spiritual thing is what Jedi means, well, then—you are!!!!!!

  7. Simon Smithson says:

    Matthew, I think this may be my favourite thing you’ve written (and, believe me, that’s saying a lot). This is going to stay with me:

    “uncovering the world with each other, and in each other, excavating with our tiny brushes the small truths in small sanctuaries”

    Ahhhhhhh…. you son of a bitch.

    I wish I’d written that.

  8. Mary Richert says:

    I agree with Irene. The waiter is stellar. Also, I really want to try that drink you described! And phrases like “two cannibals against the world.” Is it odd if I have actually wondered about that? About how cannibals can have a proper relationship? Good reading here.

    • Thank you, Mary. Quite the drink. I was tasting it for days afterward. I wonder about cannibals quite a bit, and about the taste of human flesh, prepared by an expert chef, properly sauced…

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