Read Grist Mill Road Online

Authors: Christopher J. Yates

Grist Mill Road (6 page)

 

PATCH

Staying at the back of the tree, I started with the ropes around Hannah's neck and worked my way down, sawing away diligently but in silence.

When the blunt knife finally made it through the last rope, Hannah fell to the ground, curled into a ball and covered her head. Her arms were all pimpled and scratched and some of the pimples were already bruising, flesh turning brown like cut apples. As she lay there, making herself small, I noticed that the back pockets of Hannah's jeans were embroidered with cartoon characters, Sylvester the Cat on one side, Tweety Bird on the other.

I stood there not knowing what to do, clouded with shame and convinced that everything had been my fault. Looking back at that boy all these years later, I want him to bend down and scoop Hannah into his arms. But no, his biggest test in life had come to him too young. How do you make up for something like that?

At last, having exhausted her sobbing, Hannah reached out to me and I pulled her to her feet but I couldn't look her in the eye, so my gaze fell on the cartoon ice-cream cone in the middle of her pink T-shirt. Only now the ice cream was streaked with red where once had been white, as if someone had drizzled it all over with cherry syrup.

Hannah crossed her arms and held herself as if she were cold. Patch, she said, I really want to go home now.

I felt a rush of relief at her suggestion. A plan. Home. Yes, that's where I wanted to be, home forever. OK, this way, I said, turning around.

But as I turned, Hannah gasped and said to me, Oh my God, Patch, what happened? The back of your shirt, is that blood?

Oh, that? I said, looking over my shoulder. Yeah, I tripped on a rock. Knocked myself out cold. It was pretty bad, you know, but I'll make it.

Such a noble show of bravado. I turned away again to conceal the sickly look on my face and then we set off, me helping Hannah through the thicket, moving branches aside for her, worried she might get jabbed in the other eye and then what would we do?

Once we reached the trail, I led the way but when we came to the edge of Jakobskill stream, I paused, waiting to help her across the rocks. Hannah had her hand over her eye and I could see she was in a lot of pain. Telling her to wait a moment, I pulled the bandana from my back pocket, washed out as much of my blood as I could and then folded the damp cloth into a sort of cold compress.

When I reached out to give it to Hannah, she just stared at me.

I took her hand by the wrist, pulling it away from her face, and started to move the wet bandana toward her. Now I had to look at the eye again. When Matthew made me look before, it had been mostly blood but now the blood was dry, brown streaks caking one side of her face. I could just about make out her eyelid, which was shut, and a line of clumped lashes. But as I moved the bandana closer, Hannah's eyelid started to flutter and that's when I saw something else in there among all the dried blood.

Like scrambled egg-white but only halfway cooked. I almost threw up on the spot.

This is the image that keeps coming back to me, twenty-six years and I can't forget what I saw in that moment, the memory making me nauseated all over again.

Hannah breathed hard and flinched when the damp cloth touched her face.

Shh,
I said,
shhhh
. OK, keep it there like that.

Hannah did what I said as I led her by the hand over the stream.

*   *   *

I DON'T REMEMBER ANYTHING ELSE
being that hard as a kid. I remember times in my childhood when I was tired or exhausted or hurting. Nothing was truly hard. Hard is something I associate only with being an adult.

But that walk back to the bikes was hard. I wanted to curl up and surrender every second, so I tried to think only one step at a time. Whenever one foot landed in front of the other, it was another minor victory.

We didn't talk. I offered my hand to Hannah every time the way got steep or there was a rock that needed clambering over. What would we have said?

When finally we reached Split Rock, Hannah seemed barely conscious, so I said I could take her on the back of my bike. Thank God the road to Roseborn was downhill all the way.

I had it in mind that I should take Hannah to the doctor but the only doctor I knew would've been another couple of miles, so as soon as I saw the first house, I freewheeled straight into the driveway. Hannah's chin was a dead weight on my shoulder.

Coasting up to the house, I saw an old-looking lady in her kitchen holding a glass up to the sunlight, her fingers all sudsy. Seeing us, she jerked her head and soon enough came running out the front door, dish towel thrown over her shoulder, yelling,
Oh my goodness, oh my God
, over and over. That's the last thing I remember because at that point everything started to go gray and speckly, the way untuned television screens used to look.

And I wouldn't wake up, my fractured skull bandaged tight, until that particular Wednesday in the calendar of August 1982 had flipped over to Thursday.

 

NEW YORK, 2008

The winter melts into a cold, rainy season at the tail end of which the first buds appear hesitantly on the trees. Days later, the true spring weather arrives, a feeling of freshness and warmth, the city's population seeming to triple overnight, streets teeming with newly bared flesh. The freshness lasts for three days before Manhattan turns hot, temperatures leaping suddenly from the sixties to the nineties.

His father calls twice and leaves messages, becoming insistent about the guy in Goldman who owes him a favor. Patrick doesn't return the calls, but less picky in his search for new work now, he sends out his r
é
sum
é
another eleven times and fails five interviews. Hannah might not like the word
fail
but what other word should he use? And he needs to find a job soon—the financial crisis is becoming more severe with each passing day, every news bulletin. What was it Trevino said?
Tornadoes with a 50 percent chance of Apocalypse.

He cooks more and more, making frequent trips to the greenmarket, returning with his wicker basket full of roots and apples before the spring produce arrives. And then with fava beans, asparagus, sorrel, baby artichokes. The frequency of his blogging increases and the numbers for Red Moose Barn show a steady improvement, more and more traffic to his website, a rise in the
number of page views per visit. He was worried that increasing his posting would lead to saturation, boredom, but instead he seems to be feeding some sort of need. And then his brother is on his back about allowing their father to help him. Eventually they fight on the phone, Patrick hanging up angrily when his brother scoffs at the word
principles
.

He embarks upon a personal mission to cook every recipe from the book
La Cuisine Pr
écise
by Jean-Jacques Rougerie, a Christmas gift from Hannah, described by
The New York Times
as the most challenging recipe book ever written for the home cook. When he is not dreaming up meals for Red Moose Barn he is filling a paint gun with chocolate to spray melon-ball-size scoops of ice cream, or turning chicken fat into a powder that he scatters over microgreen salads like a dusting of crumbled feta, or poaching egg yolks in clarified butter, droplet by droplet, so that when he is finished the plate appears to be covered in hundreds of kernels of corn.

Here and there he starts to slip Jean-Jacques Rougerie's modern techniques into the homey cooking of Red Moose Barn. But everything must stay hidden, he tells himself, the magic behind the curtain.

His technique is rapidly improving. Sometimes he looks at a plate of food he has produced and feels that something beyond him must have guided his hand.

And yet still Patrick knows he has to find a job and he spends hours trying on interview clothes, as if a certain shoe–tie combination or a particular pair of socks with this shirt or that, his blue suit or his gray, might make all the difference.

He fails three more interviews, the third of which he was sure he had nailed.

Gray suit, pale blue shirt, brown silk tie.

Meanwhile he continues to follow Don Trevino. There are no set days assigned to the task but he feels the frequency increase. One weekend he realizes that he followed Trevino on four of the previous five workdays,
weekdays,
and promises to limit himself to two days a week.

En route to these clandestine missions, or when returning home, it becomes increasingly important to Patrick that he take a route that will entail his not having to stop and wait at a single crossing light. He feels desperate that he should achieve perfect efficiency of motion and wonders if some part of him supposes that efficiency of motion might make up for the increasingly wasted hours of his life.

Often he imagines running at Trevino, charging like a bull, the liberating roar that would sound from his lungs. He pictures the moment of recognition on Trevino's face when he realizes that the crazy bellowing and running down the street is an ex-employee and that he, Don Trevino, is the target. Sometimes Trevino has time to turn and flee but Patrick chases him down,
pow
! Or if he doesn't catch him, Trevino runs into moving traffic. Oh, the distance a body might fly. Other times Don Trevino is frozen by uncertainty and Patrick leaps and tackles him, their bodies sailing horizontally offscreen.

He reads an article about professional pasta extruders and later that day imagines feeding Trevino's arm into one of the machines.

Linguine.

He recounts these daydreams to Dr. Rosenstock, who reassures him that such thoughts are perfectly natural. Patrick's mind clearly has need of these fantasies. But he doesn't tell Dr. Rosenstock about the actual stalking, not least because the word
stalking
strikes him as too extreme, and neither does he feel ready to share what he has written down about the events of 1982. Whenever he's ready, Dr. Rosenstock reassures him, adding that he's immensely pleased with their progress, he should be very proud of himself, Patrick feeling infantilized by the praise.

He starts to delight in the use of cheaper cuts of meat—beef shanks, pork shoulder, neck of lamb—and learns to debone a whole chicken, taking great pleasure in the task of butchering bird after bird, popping joints, snapping bones from their sockets, severing cartilage. Every time he finishes, he cleans and hones the knife, stroking the blade afterward, checking the deathly sharp
ness of its edge until he can almost hear a high-pitched ringing in his ears.

He continues to write about his food adventures for his blog on which he has now placed ads and created links to buy products he uses. In March he makes $147.40. In April he makes $202.68. He wonders about investing in a better camera.

When his next interview proves fruitless, Patrick realizes that his number of failures has risen to nine. He worries that it might mean something definitive should the total reach ten. He takes his r
é
sum
é
from the printer, crumples it into a ball and makes a perfect throw into the wastebasket.

He gives up having his hair cut expensively by Takahashi in a NoHo loft every four weeks and buys clippers instead, cutting his own hair while standing naked in the bathtub, the vacuum cleaner close at hand. While the clippers buzz he thinks about how undignified this scene would look to anyone witnessing the process.

The home haircuts are just one element in his effort to cost-neutralize his existence. Now that he cooks most weeknights, instead of two or three, they must be saving more than a thousand dollars a month on restaurant meals. His blog is making only pocket money for now but two hundred dollars is at least something to throw into the equation. Plus, they have no mortgage to pay—thanks to Hannah's inheritance, finances have never been a genuine concern. If he can cost-neutralize himself perhaps Patrick can justify not having to find himself another job so soon.

Thoughts of the continuing job search make him sick, the process having quickly made him feel undignified. As undignified as he might feel were someone to observe him standing naked in the bathtub, the vacuum cleaner close at hand, his pale body covered in short lengths of dark clipped hair.

Every day the picture in his head of Red Moose Barn gains a little more detail. The interior of the restaurant has been clear to him for some time, so his imagination begins to wander farther and farther outside. He sees a meadow rising behind the barn, climbing eventually to an apple orchard. The restaurant's nearest
neighbors are retired professors who live in a converted schoolhouse and take the same table early every Thursday evening.

Back in the real world of their condo, Patrick begins to perform domestic chores beyond the kitchen, which means they have to let go of their housekeeper—there remains nothing for her to clean. He fears an angry scene but it is worse, their housekeeper cries and tells him they have a beautiful apartment and she is grateful to have worked there. Hannah says that letting go of Marta was a mistake, Patrick will soon find a job and they will struggle to find a housekeeper as good.

But not using Marta will save them almost five thousand dollars a year. So he scrubs and he dusts and he polishes. He washes their clothes and folds them neatly away. One day in their apartment building's laundry room, a woman tries to help him add time to the dryer. But he knows how to add five minutes to the dryer. He's a man, not an idiot. This is not genetic fucking knowledge.

Patrick smiles and thanks her.

Returning to the apartment, he discovers that a picture of sorrel soup with blackened shrimp that he sent to a food photo submission website has been accepted. Nearly seven hundred people are funneled to his own website that day. One visitor, TribecaM, writes such a kind and gushing comment about Patrick's recipe-writing style that he asks Hannah whether she has invented the character TribecaM so that she can compose uplifting comments on his blog to bolster his mood.

She says that she has done no such thing, then looks uncomfortable, as if wondering whether she might be guilty of some negligent omission.

One night, before the weather is quite warm enough for it to be comfortable outside, they make love on their building's roof terrace, almost getting caught by neighbors who come out to show the view to friends. Patrick and Hannah are behind a long wooden planter and they hear the neighbors whispering about people in the building they dislike. Hannah and Patrick are not on the list but some of their dislikes surprise Patrick and he feels hurt on other people's behalf.

Another night, after watching
The Seagull
on Broadway, they eat at a Mexican restaurant and Hannah slips her hand under the table and up against his groin. They fuck urgently but almost silently in the men's bathroom before returning to plates of
l
échon
and carne asada.

They no longer talk about his efforts to find a job. He doesn't tell Hannah that his blog has started making money. It seems as if she has closed her eye to him and is silently praying for things to get better. But until they do, she doesn't want to watch, she can't take on his pain. Perhaps they love each other too much to talk about what is happening to him, that the sun is slipping from Patrick's world.

It had always seemed to him that Hannah's nighttime screaming occurred approximately once a week. At the end of January he creates a document on his laptop to keep a record of these episodes and discovers that the true figure, over a three-month period from February to May, was 1.23 times a week. But there are no particularly severe episodes. No knives, no slashed upholstery.

He expands the document to include figures that will allow him to analyze his
tailing
of Don Trevino—having decided that
stalking
is definitely too harsh a word—and then adds a section for recording the average frequency of his and Hannah's lovemaking.

One afternoon late in May, he snips all the collars from his work shirts, using a pair of kitchen shears he bought years ago to cut the backbones from chickens. The next day he tosses his ties in the trash chute, all of them except for the tie he wore on their wedding day.

TribecaM has become an increasing presence on the pages of Red Moose Barn. She or he is always complimentary and Patrick wonders, with an embarrassed blush, whether he has a fan. A female fan, he hopes, his blush deepening.

Perhaps the
Times
will include him in a list of top food blogs one day. He performs frequent web searches for
Red Moose Barn
to see if there are any new mentions. Soon this hopeful web searching becomes a biweekly habit. And then daily. But maybe his audience will simply reach a tipping point on its own. He looks
out for any surge by keeping a close eye on his website analytics—the graph of daily hits, the audience pie chart with its red
new visitors
wedge. He becomes aware that he is staring at his phone and computer too often every day now, praying for new messages, statistical bumps, hoping that something transformative will simply arrive, that one day his life will forever be changed by a new arrangement of pixels on a screen.

What else is there to do?

June arrives. The sky is mostly blue. And Patrick's number of failed interviews remains stranded on nine.

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