by Peter Medeiros
Ricardo almost made it to the end of his shift without getting called out of the kitchen. Almost.
"All right, all right," he said, scrubbing blood from his hands. "What is it?"
"It's a customer," the waiter said. "Rich guy, an app mogul.
"I know him?" Ricardo asked, and before he could get answer he added, "What's he want?"
The waiter shrugged. "Dude got famous off some program that lets you find single people who like the same sorta food as you. To help set up dates and stuff. Just said he wanted to speak with the head chef."
Ricardo already knew what it was. He rolled out of the kitchen, looking like a grumpy Papa Noel come months early, grey-haired since he was twenty and thick like a water buffalo.
He recognized the ringleader at the table right away: skinny white guy with a flashy red and silver tie and hair like the tip of a yellow highlighter. He and his suited-up buddies were all guessing what was in tonight's special, the Tournedos Rossini. "Because," the app guy said, "it's a French dish, right? Which surprised me." He said this like a man who was rarely surprised, which made sense to Ricardo. Now that he saw the boy, Ricardo recognized his face on the cover of last month's 7x7 magazine. "Surprised me, in a place like this. You don't seem, ah--" He motioned at Ricardo and smiled, like it was obvious the kind of place he was in, and the kind of chef Ricardo was, and what one could expect from all that.
"The difference between a cook and a chef," Ricardo said, "is that a chef can still surprise you. And himself." It was also the reason why Ricardo couldn't tell them what he'd done differently in this dish: he didn't remember.
That was all right, though. Ricardo was good with surprises, and he was good at improvising. He gave the app guy and his buddies some recipe for a demi-glace he made up on the spot, which they jotted down on their tablets. Actually sounded pretty good too; Ricardo regretted that he wouldn't remember it.
Bea would not have liked it. Ricardo could hear her saying, "Ricky, you couldn't remember? A big shot like that wants to speak with you, and you give him something you made up on the spot? You don't think he has a personal chef? They call it net-working, baby. You gotta sell yourself, play yourself up a little."
And he would say, "Ay, Bea. A man like that? He won't remember that meal either, with or without a recipe. And that's all right. He enjoyed it while it lasted."
After The Lounge's kitchen closed, Ricardo stepped out into the alley. Cool for July in San Francisco, but then again it was past midnight. Almost made him miss working the little kitchen at Angelita's down in The Tenderloin. The thought of Bea waiting up for him made Ricardo a little guilty, but before he could start back home, he was approached by a dark-skinned woman wrapped head-to-toe in a garment he couldn't identify. Looked like an orange sari, but frillier. She waved at him stiffly, like you might wave to a passing barge from the banks of a river.
"Honey, I'm a married man," said Ricardo. He flashed her the plain gold band on his finger.
"Señor Vargas," she replied, "it's not your capacity as a man that interests me. It's what you do a chef."
"All right," said Ricardo. He said it again as the woman drew a long thin branch--might've been yew wood, but covered in places by yellow fungus--and waved it in the air. "All right."
Like I said, Ricardo was good with surprises.
Even so, he was a bit put off when he blinked and found himself standing on a cliff edge, a hundred feet or so above a thrashing purple ocean. All right, he thought again, the two words like a mantra. All right. There were stars in the ocean, and sea serpents. Or maybe one really long sea serpent, he couldn't be sure.
The woman said, "I've brought you here because you have been invited to a competition of the finest chefs across the three-hundred and sixty known planes of existence." She raised a hand and continued, "Before you accept or refuse, I should tell you that you will be given the opportunity to work with the finest ingredients that the Council of the Famished Seekers have encountered, from your plane and all others we have visited. I am sure that an artist of your caliber, Señor Vargas, will not turn down such an offer."
"All right, all right. What I was actually gonna ask is, um, how'd you find me? Like, how'd I get into this contest? I didn't fill out any forms or anything. I'm not a very competitive guy." Bea told him all the time: Ricky, you're too timid. You're too nice to make it big time. But she smiled when she said it.
The woman explained: "The Council only invites the single best chef from each of the extant planes."
"All right." The best chef on earth? That was surprising. But then again, Ricardo's Tío Fig was the best guitarist who ever played, and nobody seemed to know it except Fig, Ricardo, and all the early-risers who passed him outside Dolores Park on their way to work.
Ricardo tried not to let it go to his head--no accounting for personal taste after all--but when he thought about it, he did prefer his own food over anybody else's. Wished he didn't, wished he could just sit back and let Bea do her thing in the kitchen, wished he didn't have to barge in and mix things up just to see what if it would turn out something…different.
He thought about telling the lady in the sari thing that The Lounge only got four stars in The Examiner last year. Then again, they were featured in a little segment on the Food Network the summer before that. Ricardo got to stand in front of the kitchen and spin lies about his "personal philosophy of cooking," that's what they said they wanted to know. The director kept telling him to quit giving the thumbs-up to the camera. "It's a habit!" Ricardo said, laughing. "I don't even know I'm doing it. Ask the servers!" But the TV people didn't think it was funny.
Ricardo followed the woman away from the cliff, up one thousand stone stairs. (He panted for the last nine hundred and seventy.) Eventually they arrived at a huge building, a cross between a medieval castle and those upside-down-triangle trees you see in National Geographic programs documenting the Savannah; each floor seemed larger than the one below it. Ricardo guessed it was roughly seventy times the size of the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist in Lima. (The Basilica had been Bea's main point of comparison for anything big ever since they went on vacation a few years back.)
The woman deposited him in a waiting area swiftly filling with other people. Ricardo had expected a bunch of aliens, but most of the competition wouldn't have stood out at home in San Fran. Ricardo tried to chat to a man and a woman trading swigs of something from a hollowed-out melon-half, but when he smiled at them they glanced at each other, dropped the melon, and sprinted away. After that, Ricardo gave everybody a chilly macho glare he'd fostered when he was in culinary school.
Ricardo normally didn't like crowds, but after an hour waiting around with almost two hundred milling chefs, he thought he'd get up and look for the kitchen. Scope the place where they'd throw down Iron Chef-style.
He didn't think too much about what he was going to make. What was the point planning ahead? Something would come to him.
The waiting area had been made of wood and stone, but Ricardo had no clue what the rest of the place was made of. A cross between cheap stucco and magenta coral, maybe. As he wandered through several crazy slanted hallways, the walls seemed to give off residual heat, like there was lava flowing on the other side. He couldn't tell where the building's interior light came from. No windows, no lamps. He was surprised to find himself growing a little bit nervous about this place; he was surprised that he was surprised.
"Ay, Bea, you were right," he mumbled. "I shoulda got one of those phones that takes pictures." Out of curiosity, he drew his antiquated flip-phone out of his pocket and checked the screen. It was all swirling colors, like an LSD trip. And no bars.
Trying to find his way back to the waiting room, he found instead a high-ceilinged court made of white marble shot through with green veins. Murmured, "Bigger than St. John’s…"
A hundred doorless arches lined the marble room. Ricardo looked into the first door and gasped. It was full of trees, and each branch drooped with an abundance of ripe fruit, each one different than the last. Apples and bananas and star fruit and glassy football-shaped fruit and something that looked like a puma carved out of cantaloupe. Berries grew right out of the walls, so dense that at first Ricardo thought it was wallpaper.
"Señor Vargas." Ricardo whirred around to face a tall man with a dark beard dressed identically to the woman with the branch. "Are you having trouble finding the waiting area? The competition will begin shortly."
Ricardo felt strangely defensive, like he was being accused of something. "What, I'm not allowed to take a walk? This supposed to be like a secret ingredient sorta contest, like Iron Chef?" He was sweating profusely. Realized he'd been wearing the same white button-up and gray pleated pants and stained apron for twenty hours.
"Not at all. I can tell you plainly what ingredients are your disposal: everything."
"We have gathered all popular ingredients from every plane, and many unpopular ingredients as well. You may have a look at all of them, if you like. We will send for you when the competition is beginning, and you will have more time to examine your options." The man gave a little bow. "I merely interrupted because I sensed you were experiencing difficulty navigating…" He trailed off, waiting for Ricardo to apologize.
"Oh, no," Ricardo said, waving a hand at the man. "Just checking out the premises. Big restaurant ya got here. But I've worked some big restaurants. Some big kitchens. You ever hear of, um, Saint John's?" The man pursed his lips. Ricardo wondered how much these folks new about his 'plane.' Or dimension. Or whatever. "Huge place. Always swinging on the weekends. Reservations only. Popular with senators and, er, kings. And emperors. Big with the emperor crowd. Empirical."
"The Famished Seekers disapprove of empiricism. Do not tarry, Señor Vargas. The competition will begin as soon as all the competitors have arrived." The tall man left Ricardo in peace to peruse the mysterious ingredients of the multiverse.
Ricardo breathed a sigh of relief. He hoped that Bea wouldn't worry about him coming home so late, but he was beginning to enjoy himself. Every ingredient that ever was? Who knew when he would get another shot at that?
Continuing his search, Ricardo poked his head into a room full of vegetables. Another archway opened into a field of grains that stretched far as he could see, beneath a sky with a foreign sun. One room was dominated by a massive aquarium tank, water too dark to glimpse what was inside. And one room resembled an independent frozen yogurt shop that had opened last May in The Mission. All of these were very surprising, but Ricardo didn't spend much time in any one room.
That is, until he passed through one of the arches and found himself standing in a grassy green field. A light breeze played against his face. It smelt the way he'd wanted Lima to smell, before he and Bea visited and found out it smelled pretty much like San Fran.
While Ricardo stood still, sucking deep breaths of clean air, a squat bird crossed his path. It waddled up to him and squawked, a noise like a bad case of gas. At first Ricardo wondered if it was some kind of monster, because he did not recognize the creature. It had a thin, bald head, the eyes of a seagull, a comically bulbous black and yellow beak, and a round knobby body. A second later he did recognize the creature; he'd seen one on one of those National Geographic shows. It was a dodo.
He bent down so he could address the bird confidentially, man-to-man. "You know, hermano, you're supposed to be dead. I think a lot of people would be surprised to see you." The dodo took this compliment in stride. "Humble, huh? That's good. My Bea, she tells me I'm too humble. Says, 'You should ask for a raise, Ricky, the way they treat you.' But, you know, she sorta smiles when she says it."
When he moved away from the bird, it followed him the way a deferential schoolboy will gravitate to his teacher.
Ricardo went for a stroll around the grassy green place. At first he thought he'd stumbled into a room set aside for livestock and poultry, all free range. But after he was chased by a polar bear, befriended a triceratops, listened to a chattering chorus of broad-faced potoroos, and was attacked (he thought) by a frisky rabbit-eared bandicoot, Ricardo put it together.
"All right," he said, "I'm in the room of dead things, or the dead things from my place. Read about most of you in the magazines, seen computer-generated versions on the television." He pointed at an Old World island wolf, which was a startling shade of pink. "Got you all wrong, amigo. All your colors. Ay, what am I gonna do with you?"
Maybe it was because they came from the same place, but the extinct earth creatures--the last of their kind, Ricardo surmised, captured long ago or else recreated through some kind of cloning like in Jurassic Park--were drawn into Ricardo's wake. They watched him with eyes that shone with a quiet confusion, as though Ricardo were a magician taking too long with the big reveal. Maybe something's wrong with the smoke n' mirrors, eh? Some techie guy's gonna lose his job.
Ricardo tucked his thumbs in his belt loops and stuck out his belly. "All right, fellas, whaddaya want me to say here? I mean, there's a part of me wants to find out what a dodo tasted like. Tastes like. I'm a chef, right? And I never knew I was the best chef in the world, our world, until today. So part of me's thinking maybe I'm the best chef in the whole of everything, right? Kinda want to find out. Gotta play to win, yeah?"
The animals were strangely still, watching him like half-comatose college kids in a lecture hall. Seemed unnatural. But maybe, Ricardo thought, "natural" meant something different when these little guys roamed the earth.
Ricardo sighed. "But on the other hand, maybe you all need another shot. When I first got to San Fran, thought I'd be a short order cook rest of my life. Never thought I'd be a real chef. It was Bea said I could give school another go. Tell ya, I was so surprised when it worked out. Felt special." He patted his belly and started walking back the way he'd come. "And you're all pretty special. Maybe so special you shouldn't end up a meal."
By the time Ricardo found the arch and made it back to the big marble room, the parade of animals behind him had almost doubled in length. A solemn-faced thylacine--which Ricardo thought looked like a kangaroo unconvincingly costumed as a tiger-- asked, "Why are we stopping?"
Ricardo shook his head, looked around, and started back to the contestants' waiting area. He tried not to think of a plan; he knew it would only make him nervous. And anyway, Ricardo was sure he'd think of something.
There was a general outburst when other contestants' saw Ricardo leading his parade of animals into the room. The chefs screamed and stamped their feet. One of them put his entire fist in his mouth and ran about the room showing this feat to others, in some obscure form of protest. Ricardo was surprised to hear more than a few of them speaking English and Spanish and Portuguese, or languages vaguely similar, but he couldn't make out an individual voice in all the clamor.
A minute later, he was confronted by the woman who found him outside The Lounge and the man who'd confronted him in the marble hall. They approached him with tight, disapproving little steps.
"Señor Vargas," said the woman, "the competition has not yet begun."
"I said you could look at our wide selection of ingredients," added the man. "Now that you've…you've…tampered with them, you are disqualified. Horribly disqualified."
"All right, all right," said Ricardo, patting the air with his wide hands, "I'm kicked out, I get it. But I'd like to take these critters with me."
"Dear God!" the thylacine stage-whispered to his companions. "He'd like to take us with him. What a hero! Sheesh." The other animals couldn't speak, or else they were content to let events play themselves out.
"That won't be possible," said the woman, now brandishing the strange yew branch. "You forfeited access to the Famished Seekers' Vaults of Delicacy when you tried to gain an unfair advantage over the other contestants."
The bearded man shook his head sadly. "Really, your world must be a very sad place, if you're the best cook they have to offer."
I'm not a cook, Ricardo thought. I'm head chef.
"All right," he said, rubbing his wide fingers on the collar of his sweat-stained work shirt. His skin, burned and hardened from a thousand kitchen accidents he never had time to treat, whispered against the fabric like snake leather. "No big loss. Pretty paltry pantry."
The man held up a hand to stop the woman, who had begun to wave her branch around Ricardo. He smiled coolly. "What do you mean, Señor? All delectables can be found within the Vaults of Delicacy. We have dedicated our lives to amassing the most comprehensive storeroom of ingredients. Master Lei Wohen returned from the outer banks of Paradise to bring us the Forbidden Kumquat. We have frozen dragon fire, and we chill our goblets with its shards. We lack nothing."
Ricardo hadn't been in every room and figured you couldn't see all the ingredients even if you explored them for a year. So he took a chance when he said, "I didn't see any of your people in there."
"I'm…I'm sorry," said the bearded man. "People? You can't be serious?"
The woman with the branch drooped a little. "There are some wonderful dishes that do call for--"
The bearded man threw up his hands. "Patricia, really!"
One of the other chefs, who were crowded around and straining to hear the confrontation, said, "I thought only the civilized planes were invited to this thing!"
"What do you mean, 'civilized'?" cried another. "My award-winning supu contained the lungs of a most delicate man, a former governor. He volunteered, under the condition that I would be the one to make him delicious. It was a great honor!" This was met with grumbles of agreement or dissent.
Soon the other chefs were in heated discussion, boarding on a heated riot.
"Not just that," Ricardo continued, "I didn't see the venom of the box jellyfish in there. Where I'm from, it's kind of a delicacy. And I don't think I've cooked without shaved, er, Rutherfordium in a long time--"
"That's not a real thing!" somebody protested.
The bearded man was boiling mad, stamping his feet with small, dusty noises. "We would never allow one of our judges to consume--"
By now, Ricardo was yelling to be heard over the crowd. He was enjoying himself, warming up to the character he was playing. He realized that in some ways, he wasn't just a chef, but an actor too. Whenever he got called out of the kitchen--and it happened a lot--he pretended to be someone else, someone predictable in his cooking. Someone with regular recipes, and an imagination as organized as his kitchen. Ricky knew Bea was the smartest person he'd ever met, but she was wrong about one thing: you don't sell yourself, you sell the person people want to buy. "For my first dish alone, I would've needed fecal liquid, arsenic, a couple teaspoons of dark matter, the fringe of a black hole…um, a dollop of star blood…"
"That's definitely not a real thing!"
But by then a hundred arguments had broken out in the crowd over what should or should not be included as a viable ingredient in the competition. The bearded man and the woman with the branch whispered nervously to one another, trying to find a way to diffuse the situation. They were so caught up in their conversation, it took them both a moment to realize Ricardo had plucked the branch from the woman's hands.
"All right," Ricardo panted to the animals, "follow me!"
He led them through the crowd, shoving people aside with the branch and his big belly. He burst out into the cool night and ran down the thousand stairs and out onto a cliff overlooking the starry sea. The extinct animals ran and flew and slithered after him and, behind them, the two Famished Seekers. Despite his size, Ricardo had managed to gain a lead on his pursuers; yet when he glanced over his shoulder he could still see, even from a distance, that their skin had tightened, distended, and they were both emaciated, like they hadn't eaten a satisfying meal in living memory. Jagged ribs cut through their orange clothes, which blew away in the ocean breeze to reveal bodies like a railroad nails twisted together. Ricardo was not surprised by this transformation.
He waved the branch around himself and the animals, who huddled close to him as possible. Nothing happened. Then the thylacine yelled, "The other way, you lump!" and Ricardo changed directions with the branch. The stars in the ocean seemed to scream, and the dark of night melted into the warmer, welcoming dark of hot fudge as they slipped between worlds.
Once they were back in San Francisco, the animals weren't so attached to Ricardo. The dodo almost wandered into traffic. So Ricardo blocked them in an alley with some trashcans (one of which now contained the yew branch) and empty wine crates. The thylacine eyed the flimsy barrier with quiet amusement, but he stayed with the others.
Ricardo went back to The Lounge and explained to the bartender how to make a pisco sour--Peruvian white wine, lime juice, egg white, and (not usually, but today, on a whim) a dash of raspberry syrup. He took the drink and hijacked his manager's office computer and spent the next hour making phone calls until he got somebody from the zoo who could send a team out to the restaurant. By then, the customers were gone and the staff was splitting tips. Ricardo made himself another drink and perched on a stool near a window until a station wagon showed up, spit out a pissed-looking morena in pajamas and a Red Hot Chili Peppers shirt. When she saw the animals, she started hopping around the animals yelling excitedly into a walkie-talkie. The thylacine had disappeared some time in the night. Ricardo was tired. He wanted to disappear too.
It was after one-thirty in the morning when Ricardo got home. Bea was still up, reading a romance novel in the living room. He apologized profusely. She was a bit ticked off, he could tell, but she shrugged and said, "It's all right. I got to make dinner without you butting in."
"Ay, Bea, I'm sorry I missed it. Tomorrow night, let me make you something special, all right?"
"No, Ricky, you don't have to do that, you already work so hard. It's okay. I just want to sleep."
Her easy forgiveness shamed him, like it always had. It burned like kindling somewhere between his belly and his heart.
The next day, Ricardo talked to his manager, called the assistant chef, and picked up the day shift so he could have the evening off. At work he stressed over what he'd make that night, trying, for once, to plan something ahead of time through the fug of exhaustion and a mild hangover. Bea wasn't one to hold a grudge, but Ricardo still wanted to do something really good for her, a meal she'd remember the way they remembered that vacation in Lima, a trip they couldn't afford to duplicate. It wasn't that he got home so late last night, it was the feline voice in the back of his skull whispering something he figured out wandering the grassy plain inside the castle bigger than St. John's, with all those half-familiar animals, gone from the world: You're gonna die, Ricky. Some day, you're all gonna die.
Ricardo didn't surprise himself once all day. People got exactly what they ordered off the menu. It was depressing.
He was home before Bea, who had an economics class over at the university that night. He took out all the pots and pans and set them on the kitchen counter. Took all the spices off the spice rack. Put on a little bossa nova and tapped his toes and despaired for ideas. Empty.
An hour before Bea would burst in and kick off her sneakers, Ricardo heard a scratching at the door. Nobody on the other side when he opened up. He glanced down and saw the dodo, its neck freshly snapped and oozing blood from four deep puncture wounds. He picked it up. Still warm.
As he closed the door, the dodo tucked under one arm, Ricardo spied the thylacine slinking across the street. The big, catlike creature flashed him a grin, darted between two trashcans and out of sight. Seemed at home.
As Ricardo plucked feathers from the big round bird, he felt a twinge of regret. But then he wondered what it would taste like, and found he had no idea, not even a guess. He reached at random into the squadron of spices he'd arranged on the counter. "All right, Bea. Tonight you'll have something you won't ever forget."
* * *
Peter Medeiros teaches composition at Emerson College, practices Kung Fu in Davis Square, and writes fiction and poetry over copious amounts of coffee at Diesel Café in Somerville, Massachusetts. His work was recently featured in Bastion Magazine, Outposts of Beyond, and Spark IV: A Creative Anthology.
What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?
Every writer needs writer-friends to read their work; but fantasy writers need especially frank writer-friends. You need people who are willing to tell you not just when a character needs fleshing out or a bit of dialogue rings false, but when an entire story-idea is botched or nonsensical. It takes a very special kind of honesty, and a willingness to go revise and rewrite...a lot!