Stan the sous-chef turned forty-seven on a Sunday. A fishing rod and an apron were painted in icing on his cake. After his modestly attended party, Stan cleaned streamers off furniture and vacuumed up confetti. When the guests were gone, and Stan knew his wife, Cathy, and his adult son, Jamie, were occupied, he wandered outside and released a happy birthday balloon into the sky. Stan stood in his driveway watching the balloon rise and float away for a very long time.
Stan had been given his birthday off at work, the New Orleans Country Club, and since the club is dark on Mondays, Stan received two days off in a row. A phenomenon that had never occurred in the seven years he’d worked there.
Taking advantage, Stan enjoyed a quiet day of fishing for redfish while Cathy and Jamie went to work at an accounting firm and Wal-Mart, respectively.
He’d left at six a.m. The fog thick. He crossed the causeway bridge to Fontainebleau state park. Near the middle of the twenty-six-mile-long bridge, the fog lifted.
At the park, Stan found a spot away from the beach on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. He eased into his tattered fold-out, near an ink-black clump of reeds silhouetted by the rising sun and tossed his line out by a rubble concrete structure which had an oil drum placed on it. The causeway bridge rose and fell in the distance. Stan watched his bobber bob all morning, caught nothing, thought about nothing and left satisfied.
Stan returned home in the early afternoon and was afforded two hours of peace before Jamie came home. Jamie hustled across the room, brushing his hair from his eyes. Stan hadn’t noticed Jamie’s earbuds.
“Any word on the college application?” Stan asked.
The door to Jamie’s room closed, the lock clicked, and he spent the remainder of the evening playing the video game that produced nothing but the endless sounds of gunshots and explosions.
After that, Stan sat in his recliner, chewing on a lemon, watching the Military Channel. His best friend, Ray, was supposed to come over, but Stan fell asleep and never got a call or text from Ray.
When Stan woke up, stiff in his recliner, darkness lingered. He glanced at the square digital clock on the wall. The blood-red numbers, hovering in cavernous black, read nine o’clock. Cathy was nowhere to be seen. The sound of muted gunshots from Jamie’s room, mixed with those from the Military Channel, lent the house a warzone air.
When Cathy arrived, fifteen minutes later, Stan stood by his chair with his arms crossed.
“We aren’t telling each other when we won’t be home after work now?” Stan asked.
Cathy wore a black cocktail dress and dangling earrings, her hair squeezed in a tight bun. Black wedges. A gold bracelet Stan bought her for their tenth wedding anniversary swung from her left wrist. At forty-two, she’d never looked better. Adopting exercise and healthy diet as religion in her mid-30s, had Cathy bounded through middle age with the grace of a cougar.
“Sent a text, hon,” Cathy said.
Stan stomped over to his phone. The anger expelled out of him as hot air and refilled as cold guilt when he read the text. He blushed until his face was as red as the numbers on the clock.
“Well, who did you have drinks with then? It’s past nine o’clock,” Stan said.
Cathy stared at him for an insufferable length of time before leaving without a word. Stan poured a cup of cheap Merlot into a coffee cup and drank it on the back porch listening to the sounds of cars passing on the street out front.
The following morning, Stan opens his eyes with grim reluctance, thinks about everyone he can’t stand at work and rises from bed. Stan kisses Cathy on the forehead. His feet land on the plush, red carpet Cathy insisted on last summer. Stan hates carpet and Stan hates Tuesdays, the beginning of the workweek at the club. His disdain about having to go to work is incredible.
The steaming water scalds Stan as he climbs in the shower, but he gets used to it fast. His half-erection reminds him he and Cathy haven’t had sex in over a month. The unpleasantness of their last coupling has gone from cringe-inducing to coveted nostalgia in Stan’s restless mind. He loves sex with his wife. Makes him feel like a man. Reminds him of when he was young, studying French cuisine in Lyon, believing there was something better around the corner. Stan has lived in a snow globe since then, a frozen life, watching through the glass, and every now and again, things get shaken up.
Stan turns on the light to get dressed. Cathy rolls over. Stan stares at her back. He wonders what she would do if he marched over, stark naked, erect, and demanded she slide down her pajama pants. He even briefly considers it, before putting on his white chef’s jacket, black pants, no-slip shoes, and New Orleans Country Club baseball cap. Stan then marches across the room and grabs his phone from the dresser, where it always waits, charging beside Cathy’s. As he reaches for it, she stirs and draws his attention. He stands, frozen still, and waits for her to settle.
As Stan leaves, he wonders if she’s asleep.
Stan steps through the front door of his modest suburban home in Metairie, Louisiana – a clumpy loogie of suburban sprawl spit from the mouth of New Orleans. It’s cool now, but in a few hours, the air will feel like a kick in the face from a furnace. Stan’s small front yard is freshly mowed. He inhales the dew smell. Sun-scorched white roses and browning shrubs fill a flowerbed. A small waterfall pitters into a pool. Stan watches a single goldfish swim in the pool. Stan has purchased no less than two-dozen goldfish for the pool, always one at a time, but only this goldfish survives.
Stan climbs into his 2004 Toyota Corolla. He starts the car but doesn’t leave. He pulls out his wallet and removes a picture. The picture is old and faded. Stan and a girl he met in Lyon. He was nineteen. They’d met a few days before Christmas in a park on top of a hill overlooking the spot where the Rhone and Saone rivers converge. Snow lined the banks. Stan threw a snowball in the river. His breath made him think of frosty smoke. He felt alive then. The lights of the city sprinkled sparkles on the water’s surface. It was the one time in his life Stan mustered courage. He needed, if for only a moment, a connection to share. When she passed, he asked her to take his picture. She spoke little English and was bemused. She wore a red scarf wrapped tight around her face. He held up the camera. Her huge eyes lit up under a fashionable winter hat. She stopped an elderly couple, walking hand-in-hand, with matching canes and asked the husband to take a picture of the two of them. The picture Stan held in his arthritic fingers.
Stan somehow asked her on a date. They dined by the river eating a cheese spread called Cervelle de Canut, drinking Beaujolais, a chardonnay made from thin-skinned grapes. They smiled and laughed and held hands. Few words were spoken. Plates clean and glasses empty, they both stood. Stan wanted to kiss her as he went in for a hug. Her hopeful look and her giant, kind eyes widening were not something he could forget. He’d turned away at the last minute. She smiled, waved with a shrug, and walked out of the restaurant. The last time Stan saw her, she was glancing back through the window, disappearing forever.
Stan’s jealousy when it came to Cathy could cripple him, but his life had been spent thinking about this moment.
Stan drives four minutes to the New Orleans Country Club. Stan waves to the security guard at the front gate and cruises down around the curved driveway, over which majestic oaks older than the hundred-year-old club forge a canopy. On the tennis courts to his left, svelte women of exceptional breeding play serious matches wearing tight tops and short skirts in bright colors, hair yanked back in caps, sneakers squeaking on the court. Stan watches them and nearly rams the curb.
The first parking lot is full, despite the seven o’clock hour. Stan circles the lot and waits for the automatic gate to open. He circles around to the employee backlot, farthest from the kitchen. He’s the first of the spillover and parks his car alone.
Stan walks around the back of the club, passing the women’s lounge, then the men’s grill patio. He pauses to gaze up at a towering tree, surrounded by a bed of freshly raked white rocks, lined by an impressive array of flowers. The oak forms the central image of the club’s logo on Stan’s cap. Beyond the Oak is the eighteen-hole championship golf course, one of the nicest in the state, and it’s apparent from this distance that its upkeep is impeccable. Stan loves golf, but he has never played here.
Stan is surprised to see Ray standing on the first tee with three other men in expensive golf attire.
“‘Bout to go slave it away, are ya?” Ray asks.
“What happened to you last night?” Stan asks.
“Work. I was knee-deep, buddy!”
“No big deal,” Stan says. “Fell asleep. Anyway, have a good round. Raincheck?”
“I’ll text you,” Ray says.
Most days, Stan steps into the kitchen and becomes a different man. He’s second in command. A professional cook for twenty-five years. He commands a fleet of stewards and cooks. But today, there is unrest. On Tuesdays, Stan is responsible for making the lunch buffet on his own.
Despite his experience, Stan’s energy is manic as he enters the kitchen. He switches on the lights. Dull, flat light floods the kitchen. Stan wastes no time and gets to work. Pots clang. Stan’s apron flaps in the breeze he makes as he bounces around the kitchen. Water tumbles into the tilt kettle. Stove burners whoosh to life.
Today, executive chef Craig’s menu calls for pecan-crusted gulf fish, lamb lollipops, and pork tenderloin medallions. The chosen sides are wilted garlic spinach, Creole tomatoes, and stoneground grits. The soup is oyster and artichoke. Stan finds the menu passé.
Craig, a short, bow-legged man, whose kitchen attitude borders on hazing, breathes to make Stan’s life miserable. The night before his birthday, Stan shuffled a dozen tickets in the expo window. He was a runner short and found himself having to pour cups of soup. Then, a line cook couldn’t get a speckled trout right. Dinner service stopped. Chef Craig stormed out of his office so fast his chair still spun when he reached Stan and yanked him behind the line.
“I hate all you motherfuckers,” Chef Craig had said.
He forced Stan and the other cooks to watch him cook the trout while tickets shot out of the printer like a slot-machine gone haywire.
Stan begins the buffet prep with the gulf fish. His Wusthof knife slices perfect portions. A chime breaks his concentration. It sounds like a text chime for a phone, but his phone is always on silent. He assumes someone else has shown up and hustled by. He continues slicing the fish. When finished, he starts on the lamb lollipops, using even more care as he slices. Chef Craig will only accept perfection. He hears the chime again, looks around and sees no one.
When the lamb lollipops are cut, seasoned and put into a hotel pan, he moves on to the medallions. Their cutting requires the least care. The base for the oyster artichoke soup is ready for oysters, so he adds them. The grits boil on the stove, threatening to overflow. Tomatoes, chopped in half, wait to be stuffed and popped in the oven. The spinach will come last. Stan hears the chime again. Spins around, eyes searching. He shuffles items on a shelf, seeing if someone’s phone is charging. Nothing.
Just then, Chef Craig breezes in, glances at Stan and retreats into his office. Thirty seconds later he peeks his head out.
“Stan, when you’re done with that goddamn buffet, you need to organize the upstairs cooler. Lee called in.”
Stan watches steam rise from the tilt kettle.
“Again!? Fuck’s that son of a bitch’s problem?” Stan asks.
Chef Craig disappears back into his office. Stan seethes. The chime again. Stumped, Stan reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone.
A text message up on the screen reads: I can’t go another week. Repeat of last night?
The name of the contact reads simply R.
After a moment’s confusion, it hits Stan. He’d taken Cathy’s phone by mistake.
Stan walks heavily but calmly down the long hallway leading out of the kitchen. Through the loading dock, to the smoking area – a cubbyhole by a heat pump – where he sits down on a milk crate. He slides the phone screen to unlock it. Locked. A passcode. He tries Cathy’s birthday. Not it. Tries Jamie’s birthday. Not it. Types in his own birthday with a laugh. Not it.
He types in the date of their wedding anniversary. He’s in.
Stan opens the text conversation. Scrolls. Sweat beads on his brow, the whir of the heat pump deafening. The New Orleans summer heat envelops. The thick air suffocates. The messages date back two years. Stan catches snippets but can’t bring himself to read them. Nude photos of Cathy. One taken in the bedroom they share. In another, she’s pulling her shirt up in the bathroom at her work. A photo sent to Cathy of a toned male stomach, crossed feet, a pool in the background. The pool is familiar to Stan. He clicks on the contact, dials and waits.
“Hey, babe, you never call me from work,” the voice whispered. “You like my idea?”
Stan’s eyes scan the ground, waiting.
“Stan . . . fuck. I’m sorry . . . I love her.” Ray says, finally.
Stan hangs up.
Stan completes the buffet without a hiccup. Fellow employees speak to him, but he doesn’t hear them. He seasons to perfection and tastes each dish. He carries the pans one-by-one to the buffet and places them in the chafing dishes. He lights Sterno cans and listens to the water warm. He places labels with the names of each dish in front of the chafing dishes. He opens the tops of each one. After wiping down the counter and giving the buffet a final look, Stan walks to Chef Craig’s office and peeks in.
“Going to organize that freezer. It’s a mess, might be an hour or more.”
Chef Craig is on the phone. He waves Stan away.
Stan climbs the stairs to the second floor. Pulls open the door to the freezer. The temperature gauge reads one-degree Fahrenheit in red letters. Stan breezes by.
Two hours later, a country club member walks through the kitchen and enters Chef Craig’s office. A business meeting with eight potential clients proved a massive success. He lends much of that success to the spectacular buffet. The best meal of his life. He asks who cooked the food and demands to thank them personally.
Chef Craig and the member climb the stairs to the second floor. Chef Craig opens the door to the freezer.
The cooler is empty.
Stan steps up to a counter at Louis Armstrong International Airport.
“I’d like a flight to Lyon, France, please. I care little about the cost.”
Wilson Koewing is a writer from South Carolina. He holds an MFA in creative writing from The University of New Orleans. He currently resides in Denver, Colorado where is working on a horror screenplay and a collection of short stories. He has work forthcoming in Pembroke Magazine and Borrowed Solace. This is Wilson’s first piece on Fictional Cafe.