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Fiction

The Eaters (with apologies to Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers”)

The door to Hank’s hog-and-waffles, the last of its kind in the Mission, swung open and two large, heavyset men wandered in. They looked up and down the darkened restaurant, and evidently satisfied, sat down at the counter. Hank meandered over and asked them what they would like.

“I dunno,” the larger of the two growled. “What you gonna get, Alvirez?” he spoke with a faint Chicago accent. “I dunno either,” replied Alvarez. “I never think what I want to eat, but I do know I’m goddam’ hungry.”

Darkness was descending on the Mission. Outside, the young and the restless were out in force, hopping from one artisanal food-stop to another. Neon light from the jazz bar across the street illuminated the restaurant. The smell of a basil-oregano goat cheese pizza wafted through the open window. The two men studied the menu intently. From the other end of the bar, her face shrouded in darkness, Nicky Kent watched them intently.

“I’ll have the pulled-pork Cubano, the proscioutto-wrapped dates, and the Marin pickles”, the first man said.

“We’re out of the pulled-pork.” said Hank.

“What the f@#% you got it on the menu then, asshole!” the first man exploded.

“The pork is grass-fed and hand massaged,” Hank explained, “We’ll have some more tomorrow.”

“It is tomorrow!”

“Somewhere in the world, it’s tomorrow, amigo” the second man said.

“Oh who gives a f$%^ what day it is!” the first man said, “what else you got to eat.”

“You can have any of the sausage,” Hank said “chicken-jalapeno, turkey-dill-merlot, also we have mesquite-grilled shrimp and stuffed lobster.”

“Give me the turkey-dill-merlot with a side of panko-encrusted goat belly and a heaping of heirloom collard greens.”

“It comes with Washington green-apple chutney and Idaho fingerling roast potatoes” Hank added.

“I’ll take it,” the first man said. He wore tight narrow grey pants, pointy shoes, a large pea-coat, a trilby, and (unusually, given the temperate climate), thin leather gloves. His face was tanned and leathery.

“I’ll take the chicken-jalapeno with a topping of the Cowgirl heavy-cream but no Dijon mustard,” the second man said. They were dressed like twins, although their faces were different. The second man’s face was pale and thin, and he seemed emaciated. Both men leaned forward and placed their elbows on the bar.

“What kind of beers you got on tap?” Alvirez asked.

“Blue Moon, Leffe, Newcastle Brown, Boddingtons, Hoegarden” Hank recited.

“You got any Chimay Blue, Leffe, Victory?”

“Just the ones I said.”

“This is a happening town,” the other said, “what do they call it, ‘The Mission’.”

“Did you hear about it before you got to SF?” Alvirez asked his friend.

“Nope.”

“What do they do here nights?” Alvirez asked.

“Eat fancy dinners at these weird joints.” his friend replied. “They all come to the Mission from Pac Heights, the Sunset, to eat the fancy organic, sustainable, farm-fresh dinners. That’s what they do.”

“That’s right,” said Hank, “There’s a new restaurant opening here every week, it’s amazing you gents showed up at this one.”
“You think that’s right, do you?” Alvarez asked Hank, menacingly, “You think people should just go out and get whatever they want, whenever they want it?”

“We do have some pretty amazing sustainable meats and organic produce in the neighborhood.”

“You’re a pretty good chef, right?”

“Decent,” said Hank.

“Well, you ain’t,” said the other man. “Is he, Al?”

“He’s a goddam’ idiot, he’s yet to prove he can fry a damn egg,” said Alvarez. The tone in his voice had changed. He turned and faced Nicky Kent. “What’s your name?” “Kent.” “Another smarty pants, said Alvarez. “Ain’t she the smarty pants, Morrie?” “Everyone’s a smarty pants in this town. The Mission’s full of them,” Morrie said.

Hank emerged from the kitchen and put down two dinners on the counter. Next to them he set down salads of arugula, heirloom tomatoes, goat-cheese and brandied walnuts and closed the ticket. “Did you get the turkey-dill-merlot or the chicken-jalapeno? he asked Alvarez nervously.

“What, you don’t remember? Smart boy like you?”

“Turkey-dill-merlot, I guess.”

“Such a smart Alec, they’re all friggin’ geniuses!” Morrie said. He leaned forward and took the other platter. Both men ate with their gloves on. Hank stood and watched them.

“What you lookin’ at? You don’t like the way I eat the sausage without the mustard?” Max growled. “No, nothing at all,” Hank replied, sheepishly.

“The hell you were! You were looking at me eat this fancy food of yours, and you were thinking such a waste!”

“Maybe the kid meant it as a joke, Morrie,” Alvarez said. Hank smiled uneasily.

“Don’t laugh,” said Alvarez, “it’ll only make him madder.”

“All right, OK,” said Hank, “but you may want to try some of this Mono Lake sea-salt with your sausage.”

It was Morrie’s turn to appear menacing. “He thinks it’s all right to offer me the sea-salt like I don’t know what would be a good condiment for my sausage. That’s a good one!”

“Oh, he’s an artiste, that one, a real foodie,” Alvarez said. The two men continued to eat.

“What’s the name of the cute kid down the counter?” Alvarez asked Hank.

“Nicky. Nicky Kent,” said Hank.

“Hey, cutey-pie,” Morrie growled at Nicky. “Get on the other side of the counter with your boyfriend!”

“Guys, what’s up?” Nicky Kent asked. She was standing by her bar stool and met the two men’s gaze unblinkingly. “Nothing’s up! Just get on the other side of the counter with your boyfriend before we bitch-slap the both of you!”

“You go around, Miss Smarty Pants, and do it now!” Al lunged towards Nicky Kent as if to hit her. Nicky went behind the counter and stood next to Hank defiantly.

“Guys, guys, food not to your liking?” Hank asked.

“None of your goddam’ business,” Alvarez said. “Who’s back in the kitchen?”

“The Mexican.”

“What do you mean the Mexican?”

“He’s the chef. He owns this joint. You probably heard of him. Oswaldo Diaz. He apprenticed with Michael Minna.”

“Well, tell Mr. Michael Minna or whatever His Royal Highness calls himself to come in!”

“What’s the idea?”

“Tell him to come in.”

“You talk silly,” Alvarez said to Morrie. “What the hell do you argue with this kid for? Listen,” he said to Hank, “tell your Mexican-Chef-Owner-Oswaldo-Diaz to come out here!”

“What are you going to do to him?”

“Nothing. Use your head, smart Alec. What would we do with such a genius chef? Do we look like we’re in the restaurant business?”
Hank opened the door leading to the kitchen. “Oswaldo,” he called. “Could you come out here a minute?”

The door to the kitchen opened and a tall, saturnine Hispanic man walked in. “What is it?” he asked. The two men at the counter took a look at him.

“All right Senor, you stand right there,” Alvarez said.

Oswaldo, standing in his suit, looked at the two men sitting at the counter. “Gentlemen, what is this about and how I can help improve your experience” he said. Al got down from his stool.

“I’m going into the kitchen with Mr. Oswaldo Wassisname and pretty girl,” he said. “Back in the kitchen, Senor. You too, cutey-pie. I want to see where this farm-fresh cuisine or whatever you goddam’ call it gets made.” Alvarez followed Nicky and Oswaldo into the kitchen. The door slammed shut. The man called Morrie sat at the counter facing Hank. He looked Hank in the eye, but every so often his gaze wandered to the mirror that ran along back of the counter. The restaurant had been made over from a saloon into a dinner counter, and the mirror afforded the owner an opportunity to watch the diners from the kitchen.

“Well, smart Alec,” Morrie said, looking into the mirror, “why don’t you say something clever?”

“We can make you something else if the food’s not to your liking, or get you a reservation at one of the nearby restaurants.”

“Hey, Al,” Morrie called, “smart Alec wants to know would we like something else from the kitchen. Seems he’s worried these dishes aren’t good enough for us.”

“Hey, Al, bright boy doesn’t know what it’s all about.”

“Why don’t you tell him what it’s about?” Alvarez’ voice came from the kitchen.

“Listen, bright boy,” Alvarez said from the kitchen. “Stand a little further along the bar. You move a little to the left, Morrie.” He was like a photographer arranging a group shoot.

“Talk to me, smart Alec,” Max said. “What do you think’s about to happen?” Hank did not say anything.

“I’ll tell you what’s going to happen Smart Alec,” Morrie said. “We’re going to kill a food critic. Do you know a famous food critic named Michael Bauer?”

“Yes. Everyone in this town knows who he is.”

“Well, we heard he loves to come here to eat. In fact, he comes here to eat every Friday, don’t he?”

“Sometimes.” Hank said.

“He comes here at six o’clock, every night, don’t he?”

“If he comes.”

“We know that, bright boy,” Max said. “Ever go to the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market?”

“Once in a while.”

“You ought to go to the Ferry Building more. Produce there is pretty damn’ fine for a foodie like you.”

“What are you going to kill Michael Bauer for? What did he ever do to you?”

“He never had a chance to do anything to us. He never even seen us. And he’s only going to see us once,” Alvarez said.

“What are you going to kill him for?” Hank asked.

“We’re killing him for a friend. Just to oblige a friend, bright boy.” “Shut up,” said Alvarez to Morrie. “You talk too much.” “Well, I got to keep smart Alec amused. Don’t I?” said Morrie.

“The Mexican and the pretty girl are amusing. I got them tied up like a couple of girl-friends in the convent.”

“I suppose you were in a convent.”

“You never know.”

“You were in a kosher convent. That’s where you were!”

Hank looked up at the clock. It was nearing six pm.

“If anybody comes in you tell them the chef is away, and if they keep after it, you tell them you’ll go back and cook yourself. You got that, bright boy?” said Morrie.

“All right,” said Hank. “What you going to do with us?”

“That’ll depend,” Alvarez said. “That’s one of those things you never know at the time.”

Hank looked up at the dock. It was a quarter past six. The door from the street opened. A limousine driver walked in.

“Hello, Hank,” he said. “Can I get supper? My next Uber ride isn’t for forty-five minutes.”

“Oswaldo’s out,” George said. “He’ll be back in about half an hour. He can fix you your arugula-radicchio green-bean salad when he returns.”

“I’d better go up the street to Locanda,” the limo driver said. “I don’t think I can wait.” Hank looked at the clock again. It was twenty minutes past six.

“That was good, bright boy,” Morrie said. “You’re a regular little gentleman.” “He knew I’d blow his f@#$%^& head off!” Alvarez said from the kitchen.

“No,” said Morrie. “It ain’t just that. Smart Alec is nice. I like him.”

At six-fifty-five Hank said: “Michael Bauer isn’t coming tonight.”

Wandering back into the kitchen he saw Al, derby tipped back, sitting on a stool with the muzzle of a sawed-off shotgun resting by him. Nicky Kent and Oswaldo were tied up back-to-back in the corner, a towel stuffed into each of their mouths.

“Smart Alec can do everything, he can cook and everything! You’d make some girl a nice wife, bright boy.” Morrie said. “You must be a better cook than your sweety-pie or Mr. Oswaldo Diaz here.”

“Your friend, Michael Bauer, he’s not coming,” Hank said “We’ll give him another ten minutes,” said Morrie.

Max watched the mirror and the clock. The hands of the clock marked seven o’clock, and then five minutes past seven.

“Come on, Al,” said Morrie. “We better go. He’s not coming.” “Give him five minutes,” Alvarez said.

In five minutes a man came in, and Hank explained that the chef was still out.

“Why the hell don’t you get another chef?” the man asked. “Aren’t you running a goddam’ restaurant?” He left.

“Come on, Al,” Morrie said.

“What about the two in the back and bright boy? We could have a lot of fun with cutey-pie.”

“Nah, leave them alone.”

“You think so?”

“Sure. I’m through with them.”

“I don’t like it,” said Alvarez. “It’s sloppy. We should get rid of the Mexican and Smart Alec, and have a good time with cutey-pie before we get rid of her. You know, you told bright boy too much.”

“Oh, what the hell,” said Morrie. “We got to keep amused, don’t we?”

“You talk too much, all the same,” Alvarez said. He came out from the kitchen. The cut-off barrels of the shotgun created a large bulge under the waist of his tight-fitting peacoat. He straightened the coat with his gloved hands.

“So long, bright boy,” he said to Hank. “You and your girl-friend have a lot of luck.” “That’s the truth,” Morrie added. “You ought to play the races, smart Alec!”

The two of them went out the door. Hank watched them through the window passing under the neon of the Elbo Room and across Valencia street. In their tight overcoats and derby hats they looked like a vaudeville team. Hank went back into the kitchen and untied Nicky and Oswaldo.

“Never again!” said Oswaldo, the chef. “Never again! I’m going to get security for this place.”

Nicky Kent stood up. She had never had a towel in her mouth before. “What the hell?” she said. Hank could see she was trying to swagger it off but was trembling.

“They were going to kill Michael Bauer,” Hank said. “They were going to shoot him when he came in to eat.”

“Michael Bauer?”

“I don’t like it,” said the chef. “I don’t like any of it. We need to warn Michael.”

“Listen,” Hank said to Nicky. “Do you have time to warn Michael Bauer? He lives up the hill on Liberty.”

“Of course!”

“You better not have anything to do with it,” Oswaldo, said. “Stay out of it.”

“Don’t go if you don’t want to,” Hank said.

“Getting mixed up in this will get you into trouble,” Oswaldo warned. “You’d do better to just stay out of it.”

“I’ll go and see him,” Nicky said to Hank. “Where does he live?” Oswaldo turned away.

“He lives up up at the top of Liberty and Diamond,” Hank said to Nicky.

“I’ll drive up there.”

Outside the neon light shone through the bare branches of a tree. Nicky walked up the street to the parking spot where she had left her car and drove up Liberty and turned down a side-street. Three houses up the street was Michael Bauer’s house. Nicky walked up the steps and pushed the bell. A man came to the door.

“Is Michael Bauer here?”

“Who should I say wants to see him?”
“Tell him it’s Nicky Kent, Hank’s friend, if he’s in.”

Nicky followed the man up a flight of stairs and to the end of a corridor. He knocked on the door.

“Who is it?”

“It’s somebody to see you, Mr. Bauer,” the woman said. “It’s Nicky Kent.”

“Come in.”

Nicky opened the door and went into the room. Michael Bauer was lying on the bed with all his clothes on. He had become morbidly obese and was too large for the bed. He lay with his head on two pillows. He did not look at Nicky.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I was at Hank’s,” Nicky said, “and two guys came in and tied up me and the chef, and they said they were going to kill you.”
Michael Bauer said nothing.

“They put us in the kitchen,” Nick went on. “They were going to shoot you when you came to dinner tonight, and us too!”

Michael Bauer stared at the wall and said nothing. “Oswaldo thought I should warn you.”

“There isn’t anything I can do about it,” Michael Bauer said. “Thanks for coming to tell me about it.”

“What are you going to do?” Nicky looked at the fat man lying on the bed. “Do you want me to go tell the police?”

“No,” Michael Bauer said. “That wouldn’t do any good.”

“Isn’t there something we can do?”

“No. There isn’t anything anyone can do.”

“Maybe it’s just a bluff.”

“No. It certainly isn’t a bluff.”

Michael Bauer rolled over toward the wall.

“The only thing is,” he said, talking toward the wall, “I can’t make up my mind to post my latest review. I’ve been in here writing it all day.”

“Couldn’t you go out of town and e-mail it from somewhere safe?”

“No,” Michael Bauer said. “I’m through with all that running around, from Chefs, from owners, from the San Francisco restaurant mafia!” He looked at the wall.

“Couldn’t you fix up the review in some way and then post it?”

“No. I got it wrong.” He spoke in a flat voice. “There’s nothing I can do. They’ve already read my blog and know I hate the place. Once I’ve had time to think about it I’ll make up my mind whether to submit the review.”

“I need to get back to Hank,” Nicky said.

“So long,” said Michael Bauer. He did not look toward Nicky. “Thanks for warning me.”

Nicky left. As she shut the door she saw Michael Bauer with all his clothes on, lying on the bed staring at the wall.

“He’s been in his room all day,” the man who had let her in said. “I guess he doesn’t feel well. I said to him: ‘Michael, you ought to go out and take a walk on a beautiful fall day like this,’ but he didn’t feel like it.”

“He doesn’t want to go out.”

“I’m sorry he doesn’t feel well,” the man said. “He’s been awfully nice to me. He was on TV, you know.”

“I know.”

They stood talking just inside the street door. “He’s a gentle man.”

“Well, good night,’ Nicky said.

Nicky walked up the dark street to the corner under the lamp-light, and then drove down the hill to Hank’s diner. Hank was inside, at the back of the counter.

“Did you see Michael?”

“Yes,” said Nicky. “He’s in his room and he won’t leave.”

“Did you tell him what happened?” Hank asked.

“Sure. He knows what it’s about.”

“What’s he going to do?”

“Nothing.”

“They’ll kill him!”

“I guess they will.”

“He must have got mixed up with the restaurant mafia in Chicago.”

“I guess so,” said Nicky.

“A hell of a thing!” Hank said.

“It’s awful!”

They didn’t say anything. Hank reached out and put his hand on her shoulder.

“I’m getting out of this town!” Nicky said. “Yes,” said Hank. “Maybe that’s something we ought to do together.”

“I can’t stand to think about him waiting in the room knowing he’s going to get it. It’s too damn awful.”

“Well,” said Hank, “don’t think about it.”

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