William Auten


Oklahoma Storm by James Metelak

Grand Re-Opening Soon! exclaimed the sign out front and above the heavily plastic-wrapped and taped double doors leading into the main foyer of Velvet Glove. I walked in and saw the place with its fragmented ghosts of Wildcats, the club’s previous incarnation, but the contractors working inside had assembled the Jazz Age elements and had started replacing the derrick- and pump-jack-shaped themes, mirrors, chrome, and sparkling décor on the remaining walls and booths for brass and gold sconces and polished dark wood and inlays that management bragged about to me months ago. I brushed past a lineup of blinking modems on the bar and new cash registers set up for wireless transactions. A man wearing a yellow hardhat lowered a pallet of frosted and etched glass panes a few feet from me. Fleur-de-lis.

Management watched me sidestep a concrete mixer and a stack of lumber and motioned to me after I nearly tripped over extension cords. They sat at a small round table set between the main stage, with its old wood flooring ripped out and metal support beams exposed, and bungee-wrapped chairs detailed with intricate wood slats. After standing up, all three of them lowered their coffee cups, jiggled their laptops, and passed out the day’s itinerary and goals and a notepad and a pen for me. No more e-mails and Skype talks—it was our first official meeting as bosses and new employee on my first day on the job.

Artificial Eye Mike introduced himself first. He said that he was fifty-percent owner of Velvet Glove, and he offered this fact in the middle of a long welcome to me, asking if I had found a place to live (yes, on this side of the river, near the Warehouse District), how I liked the city (still getting used to being back in this part of the country, but my parents were happy we were closer), if I had any BBQ yet (not yet, but I planned on it). He pointed upstairs to his second-floor office that overlooked the main floor where we sat. He said that he’s not an office-windows guy or a micro-manager, doesn’t plan on being either, especially because he’s set in his ways at his age, and his plain white tablecloth of a dress shirt seemed to reflect all of these things. He introduced the second owner, also named Mike, whose class ring squeezed his right hand’s ring finger and who owned twenty-five percent of VG. “And Chef,” Artificial Eye Mike said to me, “this is Claire Sarsgaard, who is our third owner and our GM.” Artificial Eye Mike completed financial disclosures as nonchalantly as he started with himself, a white linen napkin gently laid down on a white tablecloth, by letting me know that Claire, like Rotund Mike, owned the final twenty-five percent of the newly minted club.

“I’m so pleased to meet you in person,” the tall brunette GM said, shaking my hand. “I’m really excited for all that you have planned for us, and I look forward to our many challenges and, of course, successes from our hard work at the rebranding and…”

A circular saw cut into wood in the background, breaking up her speech. She smiled and adjusted her black power jacket. “Our upgrades are upgrading as I speak…apparently,” she chuckled to herself as though she was wincing underneath a dentist’s drill. “Anyway, we’ve already crossed off our logo from our to-do list, which I’m sure you noticed on the way in…”

“I did,” I jumped in, and her face responded to my affirming interruption the same way it responded to the circular saw that buzzed off her earlier talk.

“Yes…OK,” she recovered, her glossy top lip stunted for a few seconds. “And we’re close to finishing the stage area and the lighting and the locker room for the entertainers…not,” she closed her eyes and held up her slender finger with a large diamond on it, “just girls anymore. Trained en-ter-tain-ers.” Her finger punctuated the accents. “Anyway, we have those items that we’re tackling, and now,” she opened her palms at me, “we need to cross off that kitchen of ours and its food…your kitchen, Chef.”

“We’re going to capitalize on the changes around us,” Artificial Eye Mike picked up, referring to the retrofitting of century-old warehouses and buildings between Walker and Seventh and the river. “Lots of potential, just minutes from shops, restaurants, galleries, and historic attractions,” he continued, using the phrases pitched by the area’s developers, real-estate agents, and city hall’s marketing department that I had read about before agreeing to this job. “Even in this economy,” he said, “we’re going to do it. Polished and refined.” Rotund Mike pushed up his glasses and nodded in agreement with Artificial Eye Mike.

Claire said, “More implicit, less explicit. Music. Artsy. Playful.” She smiled like a patient with one side of her mouth still numb and opened her arms to the dusty, noisy space. “We need some TV crew in here to document what we’re doing. Flip This Old Strip Club,” she chuckled. “Not a strip club,” she quickly corrected herself.

All three, as I listened and sipped my coffee, remained adamant about pushing forward with rebranding Velvet Glove and filling it with happy, sophisticated patrons in a safe environment electrified by a live band playing big-band sounds, comedy routines between each number, and of course, the dancers. To their credit, management’s story in real-life-face-to-face did not veer from what we had talked about when hundreds of miles had been between us.

“And you,” the dark feather-headed GM said to me, “are going to help us distinguish ourselves from everyone else.”

We stood up from the table and took a quick tour of the facility deeply embedded in demolition and renovation, Artificial Eye Mike and Claire leading the way, and ducking under a jungle of wires, I inspected the kitchen with them. It reeked of grease and fires and bits of food that should have been swept up and discarded a very long time ago. There were rat droppings by the refrigerator, which I refused to open, especially given the cream-like goo oozing between the deteriorating sealant and the rusted, dented door.

“Open-space kitchen and prep area,” Artificial Eye Mike beamed, pretending to knock out damaged walls and crusty appliances with his hand.

“Let the patrons see what’s happening in the kitchen,” Claire added. “It’ll be like any of the big restaurants in New York, San Fran, or LA. Modern touches and amenities and high-quality ingredients.”

Rotund Mike nodded as his cheeks wobbled and threw in in a horrible Cajun accent, “Or like Emeril’s in Nawlins.”

I picked up an old inventory list and menu and hoped that the menu could simply be called Menu and no longer Grub and Bub.

“Not just upgrade the menu,” VG’s management emphasized—more, all three of them spoke in unison. A complete overhaul, a complete start-over from scratch. I scribbled notes on my pad, and what they said still lined up with what we had talked about during my interview process. Farm to table. Local ingredients. Seasonal items. Relationships with area farms and farmers and ranchers. Hit the farmers market on Wednesdays and Saturdays. “And we need it all yesterday,” they smirked.

“We’re not cruising down to the frozen section at Albertson’s anymore, or having that dry-ice truck dump off its frozen plastic bags for the microwave like the old crew used to do,” Artificial Eye Mike said. “We’re talking prepping menus, prepping food, slow cooked, three- to five-course meals that match the atmosphere of the club, the season, and the drinks. Cohesion with what’s out there.” He threw his head to the refurbished stage and the conductor’s box installed with the whirring sounds of bolts and a drill.

“Speaking of your crew,” Claire interjected. “It’s your show, so you are welcome to clean house on the old staff. Hire anyone you feel matches what you and we are doing here.” The tall, power-suited GM glanced at Mike and Mike before smiling at me and calling me “the executive chef.” “A brand new image,” her resonant voice hammered on. “No more of the old days.”

By the end of that Monday afternoon, the four of us agreed to a frenzied month for me to finalize ingredients, sources, budgets, and at my insistence, a chance for the old Wildcats’ kitchen staff to try out. I told the three owners that I have little time and need anyone at this point who has even basic food skills to help, but I also told them that I would set up simple but necessary tests to separate the wheat from the chaff, and have a contingency plan if all else failed. Chopping, cutting, plating, saucing, grilling, pairing, preparing—who can handle my demands and who can contribute. “We will be ready in time for the big Valentine’s Day celebration,” I promised, my eyes catching the glare on the freshly shoveled snow in the parking lot behind the kitchen.

“That’s what we want to hear, boss lady,” they replied.

* * *

Tulsa was not my first choice where to start my life and career again in my mid-thirties, in all things reemerging from the Great Recession, even if the details of the job appealed to me and reflected my skills and experience. I knew about the city because it was regional to where I had grown up (a straight-shot down from my adolescent home), and I also knew of it because of Will Rogers and cowboys (part of Dad’s private museum of cultural holdings and memories), Garth Brooks, Gary Busey, Hanson, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (“Do it for Johnny.”), and Route 66 (Mom loved the antique stores along the Mother Road, so she said)—and, of course, because my home state’s beloved and apotheosized Big Red Cornhuskers battled the Sooners for college gridiron immortality.

Before the job at Velvet Glove appeared to me, I teetered on the precipice of quicksand debt and another year of credit-card living, dead-end job searches, and the narrowing hallway of decisions and my livelihood dependent on a selection of doors rapidly evaporating the longer I waited. Food, I had reasoned before all this, was something everyone needed, even the frothy indulgences and sweet extravagances I helped make, and approaching my thirty-fourth birthday, I was confident enough that my job and the food Lumina 212 provided in Manhattan’s Flatiron District was insulated and that the clientele who helped keep the dollar signs plentiful on the menus would be the ones who would help keep the doors open

But then it happened. My hours shrank until the restaurant shut its doors and permanently turned off its gas ranges, freezers, and refrigerators. Gone were the days of smoking cigarettes behind the restaurant and drinking cold bottles of Stella after the last dish was cleaned. No more saucing and garnishing and plating food for the runners. No more chatting with my line cooks. No more chef de partie and my name Eva Michelle following that hard-earned title. It was all over. The investors had suffered from financial stalactites dripping from economic charts every time the markets rose and set with the sun, and they dismissed the veteran executive chef, my colleagues, and me. My friends, who had lost jobs in other industries, joked that this was the opportunity for us to real-world test, for some of them, their feminist convictions or, for others, to re-visit their old-fashioned prudence that college and the Big Apple had disintegrated, and strip for money, but I had and still have no body for that (“These mosquito bites? This caboose?”), and I was not going to pay for anything plastic and stereotypical, to which one of my friends said that “seriously, none of that mattered anyway” because the recession was stripping the stripping industry, too. Bankers, Wall Street employees, and tech moguls weren’t filling the clubs like they did when the economy looked more like gilded pools and not backwater floods mixing with sewage leaks. Even one of the world’s oldest professions, I learned, was not immune to monetary calamity.

After promising myself one year to get out of where I was, after moments and months of considering working as a butcher in the meat/seafood department in a grocery store, clocking in and out at a fast-food chain, or entering grad school for any subject that would not fully hold my interest but that would accumulate more debt, after consecutive weeks of an in-box empty of serious or half-serious prospects, after Capitalism twirled the ends of its mustache and sent the trains of Rent and Bills towards me at break-neck speed, after feeling sick for all the times my cynicism helped me throw snide comments against the phrases Do What You Love – Love What You Do and Create Your Own Success, the one and only option in my dearly loved field appeared. The irony of what my friends had joked about waved as it plopped down next to me when Velvet Glove and I found each other.

The tagline that drew me in? Exec Chef Needed for Rebranded Entertainment Club. As I read the description, I soon realized that VG’s management sought transforming the club into something “your grandparents would attend” (their pitch), in addition to providing not a new restaurant in town but, according to About Us on the job description, “a new, classy touch on an old concept.” After a little digging around, I discovered that Velvet Glove was previously known for thirty-plus years as Wildcats and, playing off the area’s oil and petroleum industry, had offered three kinds of lap dances—Regular, Mid-Grade, and Premium, all available in the Oil Baron room. The former club was also a seedy home to prostitution, drug sales, and regular busts by vice squads. But I was sold on management’s statement of wanting not only tasteful, sensual burlesque dancing that was “fun, entertaining, and empowering” and included women of all shapes and sizes, wherein teasing and titillation and laughter were the goals, not exploitation, but also providing “high-quality food created and managed by our executive chef who, commensurate with experience, will have control on menus, ingredients, and kitchen staff.” I did, however, pause when I came across the club’s location—a part of the country I swore that I’d never live in again. But the cordial and professional e-mails between VG’s management and myself kept reeling me back. “You’re one of our top candidates,” they confided after the last videoconference interview.

I stared at the job description, the possibility, and the excitement emitting from our interactions. My brain’s cocktail of happy-making chemicals tingled under my skin. I stared at the location. The cocktail dripped and dragged. I reminded myself that I had no other options. I stared at the job description one more time. Why not? I said to myself, throwing my hands in the air. I may be there ten years. I may be there twenty. I may be there ten weeks.

As celebration for earning the job, I got a tattoo of Mars on the inside of my left arm and, under it, the symbol for Aries (my birth-sign). Warrior, tenacious, and battle-ready, I felt. I told my friends all about the new job, who cheered and reminded me of their joke months ago. I told my parents my new full-time, full-benefits, forty-hours-plus job that needed my skills and proficiencies under one roof—that I’d be an executive chef, my own boss in my own kitchen. It helped that I clarified that Velvet Glove will “not be your typical place” and that (I quoted the Web site) it will be “‘classy and sassy, not nasty.’” They were happy that I had found a job that aligned with me, and they laughed at the club’s name, its theme, and its presentation to the world at large, as I had to laugh. (Ha, ha, Universe, very funny. You have such a way with irony and throwing things back in my face—of course.) Security, I told them, will be sharply dressed, and dress shirts and sport coats must cover their tattoos, and Velvet Glove will be a smoke-free establishment. A no-nonsense policy firmly in place. “Well, that’s great. Glad to hear it’s all worked out for you, Chef,” Dad emphasized. “We knew you’d pull it off. We’re so proud of you.”  They were ecstatic that I’d be living closer to them again.

* * *

Three of the five original kitchen help from the Wildcats days showed up for training and testing, but I asked one of them to leave because he stunk of alcohol. The remaining two brothers impressed me—in particular, the older one, who listened to my instructions and was willing to adapt to what I wanted from him and with the plates I had envisioned. Lots of potential, hard worker, quick learner, I noted. Very capable. No criminal records for either brother. Just a few write-ups and run-ins with the old Wildcats management for the older one, which I could relate to. Fiery and tenacious. Like me.

After several dry runs, teaching moments, and long days and nights with my newly fashioned and hard-tested crew, I was pleased with what they could do in such little time and under my constant barking, criticizing, and tweaking. The two brothers met my high standards. They pulled off some amazing things. And more importantly, management was pleased with what I presented to them. The dishes they loved, and the techniques and presentations they praised—and all achieved under a tight deadline. They approved my budgets and my gear, but their green-light attitude quickly changed when I told them that I was keeping the two brothers for my staff. “They can do what’s asked of them,” I said, motioning to the meals that management had just praised. “I’ll scramble to find someone with experience to be my second-hand, but they can do what I’ll ask of them. We’re on the ground floor of all this right now, all of us coming here new in some ways. We can all learn and grow together. We have to get this going, anyway, right?”

The two Mikes and Claire hesitated but smiled. “OK, Chef,” they said at the last meeting before reopening on time.

* * *

“Amateur Night went flat on the line now,” Dodge said, cleaning up the kitchen counters after we tested a tomato gazpacho with large chunks of watermelons and a dollop of crème fraîche in the center for the grand-opening course on Valentine’s Day. “Ms. Devil in Prada Heels sent that away right along the tracks of its own wings.” Dodge’s left hand, trying to wave goodbye, curled down like the letter C but then crumbled onto itself. “Or we had previously presumed,” Dodge continued, spatula clanging on the stovetop, “because good news from out of that. And we sure know Ms. Devil Tower in Prada Heels didn’t parlay up the eyes to it. Why would she…all standing up in the paint-bin and color-chip remains and Travertine tile of her ‘vision’?”

“Who?” I asked Birch sorting knives next to me.

“Ms. Sarsgaard,” he whispered back, the smell of freshly chopped onions drifting between us.

Dodge joked that the fisherman on the bag of fish sticks during the Wildcats days knew him “like peanut butter lays down a soft song to jelly.” He sighed and wiped his hands on towels already worn from our practices. “I know I can’t register whether or not to have such an incomplete picture of what I am to become, all in accounted for that brought us to this point in the timeline of where we stand now.” Dodge blinked, sprinkled salt on a cutting board, grabbed a salmon, and tapped the side of his head. “If I’m staying put with all the stops, then I want. I just.”

The two brothers did not live on the side of the river near Velvet Glove, and they couldn’t live anywhere else. The prices across the river had climbed too high. They couldn’t rent, nor could they could own without help. “There’s no direct bus route,” Birch said to me one day while blanching spinach. Neither of them was capable of working at the technology and Internet firms that sprouted in the renovated buildings surrounding VG. The kitchen at Tulsa’s “hottest new place for dinner and entertainment” was where Dodge and Birch worked and where they loved to be.

Birch said that, at nine in the morning, Monday through Saturday, they took the number seven from Riverside Station, where they sat patiently under a metal-and-steel awning. A blue television screen hanging from the ceiling of the station, resting behind the awning, listed the bus numbers, the routes, and the timetables at the station. Birch said that green was in-transit, yellow for arriving in the next five minutes, red for departing. If there was a delay or some kind of impediment to the bus, the route, or the time, a little pixilated worker wearing a little pixilated hardhat took his little pixilated broom and swept away the bus number, the route, and the times. A zero with a diagonal line struck through it bounced behind him once he left the right side of the screen, just past the minutes, followed by the phrase, in big font and outlined heavily in black, ATTENTION RIDERS. The digitized worker then wiped his forehead and put his hardhat back on before being called to duty again on some other line on the screen. The blue screen and the little pixelated man with his gear fascinated Dodge, Birch told me, but Birch could really care less, and Dodge, Birch went on while we marked off the space for the new herb garden out back, was so infatuated with this that he often wanted to arrive early at the bus station, stand outside the main window, where some of the monitors faced, and stare at the monitors, hoping for such a display, not that Dodge wanted anyone to be hurt or any bus to be in serious danger. Dodge wanted something small, something conditional enough to bring out the little pixelated man and his broom and zero with the line slashed into it.

“Some things peel right down with ways that they’ve made to be apart without having much effort on the other side,” Dodge said as he, Birch, and I unloaded the crates that I picked up from a cattle ranch on the outskirts of the county. “That’s pretty close to what Lonnie says before the lights go out each and every night, and for that I can’t disagree.”

“Lonnie?” I asked Birch.

“Lonnie and Jamie,” he answered, closing my car’s trunk, “our middle brother and his wife. We’re with them.”

“Birchy and me now get to hold on down to here…with each other,” Dodge sang on his way back and helped with the arugula salad, setting out pear wedges and a jar of honey. “We both stand up with paychecks here now. We both stood up here with paychecks when it was cast about town in a much alternated image, then named Velvet Glove.”

I nodded, finished our list for the evening, and showed the brothers what needed to be done. The kitchen’s new appliances and utensils sparkled in the morning light. Food-storage bins were coordinated. They had done a fantastic job organizing everything that we used or would use.

“But it is now to be forever called Wildcats by those in-house and those paying onsite for its premises. Birchy stood up with a paycheck here first, but now I’m on the slice-dice-and-plate line, this being a long rearview appreciation of when I stood at the front under the moniker of the assistant to the bouncer. But those days are, on account of what I said, past the windows of the city in the rearview.” He paused to look at me but then his tired eyes jumped to the stack of onions. “You kept me on because I jump roped all those of your tests…shuttle-cone drills and hot-coal walks. Birchy too, and he was Mr. Pablo Picasso when it was time for that to be his hands and all.”

Birch smiled at me and took his time to look over the list that required each brother to accomplish. As he had been doing, he suggested a change or two, asked some questions, and dove into work.

“Birchy, got that one from said back there?” Dodge asked.

“You better believe I do,” he answered his older brother.

“I have been prior to in the kitchen on the slice-dice-and-plate line for near about fifteen stand-alone years, save for that exception of a few weeks when I had to go to the doctor for those grey-matter head-splitters, which on account of my breaking-and-making-records days as a career starter in a 4-3 Renegade defense whiteboard scheme at Dewey High seemed to have wanted to tag along, having shimmied up a chance to do so, so what I repeated were flashbacks from kickoff-bursts and goal-line citadels from our long-standing rival with Adair High coming back to say, ‘Hi, it’s Senior Night. See your parents in the grand seats for that last clock-down run?’”

As we chopped and spiced, Birch said, “Tell us, Dodgey, tell us.”

“Don’t hold back on us,” I caroled.

“Well,” he continued, jutting his jaw out, “at first they were certain that it was that USA Today Sports reporters have been talking about, making all kinds of unqualified experts worry and putting on so many flags and warning bumper-stickers that they made many some panics, and just as I was hitting the big upcoming five-zero-seven. Five-zero-seven.” Dodge paused to examine the filets sitting in their wine sauce. “Nonetheless, none of our family branches toss funnies around like bags in an airport collection service department when it comes to the numbers on a birth certificate. Every day…every day…is a day of breaths, and due on that, we say, however, how very thankful we are, have been, and will be with those numbers on our birth certificates, because, otherwise there’d be no light to see when the clouds of a dark, dark day puff on over from Gloom and Doom Land, all thanks, we honestly feel, to the many methods our flag-wearing leaders, red and blue, have journeyed us into. And the greenback many-fingers aren’t helping.”

“Money is the root of all evil,” I responded out loud.

“Greenback many-fingers is definitely not helping,” Birch repeated. “Especially when they’re tied to the red and blue flag-wearing leaders.”

“We all could use a little sunlight in a bottle,” Dodge picked back up, “like David the Giant Killer and Sheepherder had on that envelope slicing open underneath him that day when all of the land had a brightness to it when he said, ‘Yes, I will’ to that Power above.”

Birch pulled out the thick gloves for dry ice. I crossed off Dessert from my list. Spring was just around the corner, and lamb was available at the farmers market. He waited until his older brother moved a sack of sweet potatoes and walked towards the freezer. He didn’t break his rhythm of stirring the boiling stew and said plainly to me, “All those days of playing.”

“Playing what?” I asked.

“Football. He was good.”

Dodge glanced at my wrist, waited until just the two of us stood inside the doorway of the kitchen’s back door, sprigs of rosemary popping in the garden in front of us, and gently touched the top of my wrist, his hands trembling. I turned it over and rubbed the Mars tattoo and the script underneath. “Hardheaded. Self-reliant,” I told him.

He looked at me and hummed in agreement. “Leather.”

“Don’t you know that by now?” I teased him.

“On it,” he confirmed, flexing his scrawny biceps.

“My favorite passages before all this at this now,” Dodge revealed several hours later, tapping above his ear, “was all about the vast space not filled with much out there, but those flashes and rings and specks. Maybe water on there, too…the Red Planet. All my favorite, one anyway such as that.”

I wiped flour from my sweaty head and looked at Dodge’s eyes that had started to fade like an old watercolor’s blue sky. “Yeah, same here,” I said to him. “I liked the magazine NASA Jr. when I was younger.”

“Oh…now, settle here,” he chuckled, “Ms. Dr. Carl Sagan over here all about outer-space graphs and ballistic dimensions.”

“That’s right…planets and stars and galaxies. I can even name the order of planets in our solar system. And I know Pluto is no longer classified as a planet. Poor Pluto,” I pouted.

Grinning widely, Dodge turned up his accent and his volume. “That dot.” He clenched his eyes before opening them. “Now, I would on the account of being right when I can suspect that the Matthew McConaughey would indeed play me in a movie were my life to be filmed up and available for a download here or there with the appropriate amount of exchange value, all thanks to a password that I can’t offer.” He smirked at me before laughing so hard that he had to clear his throat. “Set yourself down to the planetarium out here?” he asked, washing his hands and retuning to his tasks.

“No,” I answered, “I didn’t even know there was one.”

“We should up on there sometime.”

“That’d be nice.”

“Friends,” he said and smiled at me. “Not wanting with anything else. Just sit under the stars as two good people. I’m on my way to get somebody in my life, but I am certain that cannot be because of my supervisor Chef. Double Mikes and Ms. CS would have a big roll of fair tickets to remember with that.”

I laughed. David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, I thought under the kitchen’s track-lighting of many little full moons. All those oddities fallen to and foreign on Earth—stuck here. Where else?

* * *

Over the first quarter, things moved along so well that management wanted to add a Sunday brunch and show. Birch, Dodge, and I attacked the possibilities and ended up with some pleasing options, including fresh hollandaise sauce on poached quail eggs next to two slices of toast packed with fresh jam and, on the crust, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds from the garden fueled by a compost pile that steamed whenever Dodge pulled the cover back. We watched from the kitchen as happy patrons, a mixed bag of young and old, tall and short, thin and thick, packed the front of the house, exactly as management’s business plan had anticipated. At back of the house we joked that most of the men out there had handlebar mustaches and skinny jeans and undercut hairstyles, and that, the two brothers added, most of the women looked like gypsies filtered through Stevie Nicks. But we didn’t care who was filling the seats and eating our food, as long as they did and as long as every one of us employed in that place kept up our standards. Money, media coverage, and check-ins on phones doubled, tripled, but my staff remained a solid core.

By summer, orders started returning to the kitchen. “And?” I snapped. “Customer says it’s overcooked,” one runner said. “Missing leeks on this, Chef,” said another. “Potato gnocchi on this one.” Birch became very quiet and pressed his weight onto his hands flattened on the counter. He tried not glancing at his brother and tightened his lips when he did. “How…how can that be tied when it’s stopped by being untied?” Dodge stuttered and lunged at the dishes, growling at them each time the runners appeared with half-eaten or uneaten foods pushed and dragged around the earth-toned sauces or left untouched on the plates balanced on the runners’ arms. “Come on, guys! Come on! This isn’t us,” I boiled. “No more on the house, OK? Let’s go! Come on!” We worried that the patrons stared at our meltdowns in the open-space kitchen. Management began looking our way, too.

Dodge showed up later and later to work, his brother saying that he missed the bus, sometimes on accident, sometimes on purpose, that he would be in later, when his head was clear and he could walk in a straight line, and when Dodge showed up, he missed orders, missed the small things that had made him seem different and full of potential to me. He complained more and more about his headaches. He complained about the haze in his head and the haze running over his eyes, sometimes, Birch explained to me, feeling that the pain ran behind his eyes, along those wires attaching the back of his eyes to his head. And at five-foot-eleven, Dodge dropped to 120 pounds and began walking and talking slower. He prattled about Claire and what she had done to the kitchen and to the work atmosphere and to him and Birch and the rest of the staff—mainly to him. Birch thought that everything had been rearranged or turned unfamiliar to his older brother, even though everything around him had remained stable.

I thought that maybe Dodge was in a funk and would turn himself around or that Birch would help him out. The two Mikes and Claire just wanted it fixed. There was more at stake, but they never specified. “It’s your show, your crew, but you may want to reevaluate who’s on it,” they said. “Q3 is coming up. It’s a good time to do that before the year ends.” I thought about cutting back Dodge’s hours, but to do so would put more pressure on the rest of us and would jeopardize the comings and goings between us, those orbits we had achieved. Birch told me that Dodge wouldn’t appear to take it personally, but deep down he would. I thought there was a difference between him and his work. I thought there some permanence was in place. I never thought that he would worsen.

That day in September I said to myself, Dodge has a gun. Dodge has a gun, and he’s done something horrific to himself or to the dancers or to Claire, and he made sure that whatever horror he did was at VG. Police cars, lights on, lined the street in front of the club. A few officers spoke into radios on their shoulders, and a few kept their hands on their holsters. A fire truck with its crew waited behind the line of police, and two EMTs popped open the doors to an ambulance when I pulled in.

Today is the day that he has shown up with a gun. We all saw the signs—yes, now in hindsight. And we saw it coming—yes, in hindsight—but we did nothing to help him or to stop it. He wasn’t angry about anything the day before, but his head had been tripping so frequently on his confusion—on himself.

A news truck rolled in when I parked my car and got out. I could imagine Dodge saying, in his way, that he wasn’t sure why he was there with the gun, but he was going to use it. I quickly realized how wrong I was.

“Something went out,” Birch said, wiping his face with a towel and sitting on the ambulance’s bumper. “We showed up early to get in all that work we missed. He said he felt good today, best he had in a long time. That’s why he wanted to get here so early…to surprise you and, I think, even Ms. Sarsgaard. He starting grinding the coffee beans and…he just slumped over and fell.”

Birch said Dodge was a few months shy of turning fifty-seven. Five-zero-seven.

* * *

Traffic on the downtown streets three floors below is quiet on a Sunday afternoon, 3:33 central time. The spring and summer storm season has moved on, the violent air come and gone, the sky is blue and cloudless, and the very tips of leaves are starting to turn into the colors of fall. And it’s that end-of-the-weekend quiet, and I know plenty of recliners in this town are kicked back and tables are cluttered with plates and silverware and soiled napkins from large meals, and it’s that everyone-with-family-and-friends kind of quiet that is typically cast in movies, paintings, or photographs or evoked when the theme calls for uncongested tranquility in the Heartland.

My phone rings. It could be my parents. This time on Sundays is their window to call before they have a late dinner and watch an old movie, a classic that they’ve seen in the past and want to see again before “Hollywood ruins it by remaking it” (Dad). I haven’t told them anything about the past week yet. They will want to come down and be with me. I watch the phone vibrate. It could be Birch calling, who, before he went fishing this weekend to get his mind off things, was waiting to hear from the medical examiner. The ME was supposed to deliver the autopsy results before the end of Friday. Yesterday I practiced saying, “I know I was a demanding boss, and I know I was in charge, and I know he struggled towards the end, especially when we all were under pressure to perform. I’m sorry.” It felt inauthentic to me, but it was a kind of exorcism in between bouts of tears, memories, and judgments. At this point I don’t know which is worse—avoiding my parents or having to talk to Birch about Dodge and how he died.

A breeze carries the aroma of rosemary, sends it over the wood floor of my patio, and drifts down onto some cars parking on the street and entering the building’s garage on the ground floor. I can’t determine if the aroma has drifted from the planters on my balcony or I’ve imagined that the door between VG’s kitchen and the garden out back has momentarily walled me in. My neighbor’s TV flicks on. His windows are open, and a game whistle blasts a few times before he switches to a radio station and its advertisement for T-Town Pizza and Wings, after which the program returns to Get the Led Out – All Zep, All Sunday Afternoon on 97.1 Classic Rock. The opening guitar riff to “Ramble On” jangles. The phone quiets before buzzing three quick bursts. The new voicemail icon blinks. I scold myself. The sun lowers a little more on my west-facing walls and brightens as it does. The old converted warehouse’s brick is a jagged, crimson landscape.

After listening to the voicemail, I call back. The phone’s screen blinks Richard Pritchett. It used to say Mom & Dad, but I read that criminals, if they steal your phone and if they can crack its passcode, can scroll through the list of contacts, looking for the big give-away names, such as Parents, Spouse, Boo, Grandparents, Aunty-Uncle, Big Bro, and give them a ring with nasty bait on the end. “I’m so, so glad you answered. This is Mom/Dad/Honey/Gramps/Uncle/Little Sis, yes? Oh, good, thank God. I’m calling on behalf of ———. There’s been a horrible accident, and ——— is in serious trouble and needs money/personal information/address/account to get out of it. ——— wanted me to call you because it’s the one chance we have to get hold of you.”

My parents’ number glows, and I hold the phone and wait for them to answer. I don’t have anything to say right away. I have no words to cast or to lure them in. And I can’t help but imagine the scenario, the other line chiming, “Hello, Eva? Eva, it’s your mother. Dick, why isn’t she answering?” “Evey-girl,” Dad would jump in, “are you there? Bad connection maybe. Evey?” And I can see one of my parents in the living room cradling the chipped, off-white cordless phone that I used when living there decades ago, while the other one is sitting in the kitchen chair holding the yellow landline phone—but both of them are on the line at the same time.

We’ll start with the simple questions. Weather in Tulsa as compared to Omaha (little to no difference). Family updates (who’s died, who’s infirm, who’s not talking to whom on account of a quip or a slight and, as a result, names being changed on wills). Church will be mentioned, the one they started attending in a suburb (“less about theology and more about community,” which, Mom said several Sundays ago, they really need now in their retirement years). Dad will add a few yes’s and no’s on the phone from his spot in the kitchen and keep his news short and sweet (save for his distaste for the current state of the union).

“How’s the job going, honey?” they will ask.

The weight and I will, together, tell them—one of us pulling the long string of what has happened, like a puppet and its puppeteer tied together, one of us sitting and listening, one of us doing all the talking. But I won’t mention my recent dreams—of going to an observatory, of arriving under a fully illuminated planet, a bright red circle in a sea of black—waking me the past few nights.

In one dream, I walked outside. The line to the main telescope was too long, so I peered through some of the telescopes fastened along the handrail. The planet grew darker, redder, and heavier the more I turned my attention to it—the details of its surface. Stars filled the sky above like a slowly projected film, and I wondered How is my dream so specific for a thing so far away? But as a chunk of alien rock and sand and wind-carved canyons, even as a dream, it whispered nothing to me, it uttered nothing, it asked nothing of me. It was no oracle. It offered no guidance, no solace. It hovered in the middle of my head, in the middle of my dream. It seemed as though it had waited for me, waited for a moment to be with me, and had found that moment.

How else could I have asked for it?


About the writer:
William Auten is the author of the novel Pepper’s Ghost, which is a finalist for the 2017 Eric Hoffer Award for contemporary fiction.  His recent work has appeared in District Lit, Sequestrum, Superstition Review, and Thoughtful Dog and is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review and Ponder Review.

Image: Oklahoma Storm by James Metelak. Fine art photograph. No technical information specified. By 2019. By permission.