by A. M. Dellamonica
At seventeen, it was music. Guitar.
Then, at twenty-four: speechmaking. Rabble-rousing, his mother had called it. Binding a group of listeners — big, small, middling — with his voice. Inspiring the local grocery clerk to dump her useless husband. Selling roses in boxes on lonely street-corners. Swaying a strike vote at a fish packing plant on the East Coast.
Stupid, dangerous skill. What had he been thinking?
Reinventing himself again at twenty-seven, he took up gambling. Rake in the green, he figured, and the rest would fall into place. For a time he was about nothing but the ins and outs of cards and billiard cues, the snap of dice in his wrist and the chuckle of roulette balls going around and around.
Now Steep Dover had finally figured out what he wanted to do with his life.
At thirty-five, he looked close to fifty on his bad days, with taut, light-catching strands of white wired through the close-cropped black hair against his scalp. The lines on his forehead and around his eyes were prematurely deep. Instead of wearing the slow erosions of age, he’d been fractured by upheavals: heartbreaks, riot cops. When he faced the mirror in the mornings, he saw himself icing over. Only when he smiled — or so women told him — did he look like the young man he still was.
Tonight, though, he felt childlike: vitally awake, keenly excited, and more than a little scared.
He was picking his way along the side of Vancouver’s Lougheed Highway to a crossing point that looked — except for the whizzing trucks and fast commuter cars — like it should have been out in a country town somewhere. Squeezed between a shopping mall two hundred meters back and a scattering of machine shops up ahead, a barely-paved and rutted lane transected the busy Lougheed. An abandoned gas station occupied the northeastern corner of this crossroads, unconvincing evidence of human occupation in a wilderness that was otherwise nothing but traffic noise and curving hillsides of blackberry brambles. Narrow grooves of trampled grass bracketed the road — a path for anyone on foot who had business there, though what there was to bring an ordinary pedestrian into this no-man’s land, Steep couldn’t say.
The intersection had no traffic light, no sign or marker, not even a pullout lane for the gas station. A pocket of remoteness in the midst of an urban bustle, it sat in the industrial wildlands between the Lougheed and its sister highway, the Trans-Canada, its gas station dark, its blackberries fat and oiled-over with fuel emissions, its pathways abandoned and yet never quite overgrown.
It was just after nine. The mall had closed and the sun was setting; on the road, commuters were headed east to Coquitlam and Port Moody. Higher up, crows were commuting, too — sharp charcoal animations, they glided by the thousands across a palette of darkening blue.
Steep sat on a halved oil drum. It was still warm, heated through the sunny day that was now passing into dark. He took an anjou pear from his pack and chewed it slowly, only distantly aware that it was a little tough, not quite ripe.
Up above the crows kept coming, a first sign of the world bending into the wrong. The birds should all have been roosting by now, coating the flat roofs of the warehouses lying to the east like a lumpy black blanket.
An hour or so before midnight, he opened his backpack again, laying out its contents with a care usually accorded to surgical instruments. A cooking knife first; then a stew pot, a book full of Creole recipes, a small sack of groceries and a separate, smaller bag filled with okra. Moving deliberately, he selected an onion and began to strip its skin.
Overhead, the crows were slowing.
Flapping and flapping above Steep Dover, they were suddenly going nowhere. They flew in place over the crossroads, an ever-more dense flock that chipped away the sky. They blotted out the fish-scale clouds, the peeking stars behind them and the rising moon. The thin amber glow of the city reflected back at him off their bellies, leaving Steep to chop his vegetables in a faint haze of orange light and the glow of headlights cast by the passing trucks and cars.
He squinted at the book, sliced peppers, added things steadily to the crock pot.
Traffic continued to blur past, creating a hot yellow streak that lit the road. Beneath the tires, its surface seemed altered — not asphalt anymore but cobbled, bumpy shale. Steep kept cutting, glancing up occasionally, awakening to a distant awareness that his backside was growing sore. He noticed the grime on the windows of the gas station formed patterns, delicate lines tracing out the shapes of piled bones. The meridian between the east and westbound traffic lanes — sidewalk wide, just barely — curved upward in a smooth marble hump. A signpost thrust upward from its tip, a metal tree trunk with no foliage and viciously sharp edges at its crown.
The whisper of a road that crossed the Lougheed in this place had become a strange mixture of foreign material; mixed in with the chopped up bedrock were shards of fossil, dead barnacles, shaved bits of rust, ground lumps of chalky drywall, broken strips of zippers, fragment upon fragment of crumbled eggshell, knots of ginger root, broken bolts, child-sized teacups, bits of wire, and plastic knobs and switches.
At midnight the motion of the crow wings above brought a hot wind downward, skirling the road dust into tiny whirlwinds, raising ghost-shapes on the road. It gusted down at Steep in short panting breaths.
The blackberry bushes, silent barbed guards of the sides of the highway, rustled loudly.
Steep froze in the act of reaching inside the okra bag as the gnashing of brambles intensified. Berries rolled off the bushes, bouncing gaily onto the pavement to get squashed by the humming tires. Their juices pressed in instant fermentation, making blackberry cordial spiced with dirt and motor oil. The fruity machine-shop odor made him want to gag. He focused on the feeling of the feathery green pod in his hand, on the tattered cookbook and the sack of food — and tried to ignore the puddle of liquor spreading blackly to cover the crossroads. Rippling, smooth, it washed out and around the thin meridian, lapping at its edges like the calm leading edge of a flood.
Then, suddenly, a shuddering sound of brakes and a truck paused in front of him. Creaking, it slowed almost to a stop; then its engine roared and it sped away, taking the rest of the traffic with it.
It left a man behind in the intersection.
He was nine feet tall, with lacquered crow feathers for skin and shiny bird eyes. He wore a tailored suit, a stylish jacket woven from blades of autumn grass. His tie was a puzzlework of automobile air fresheners, lemon, pine, cherry and new car scented felt, all crushed together into silk and emanating chemical perfumes.
The new arrival stood, arms crossed, the expression on his face most distinctly a glare. Meeting that gaze, Steep felt his stomach melt to acid. His lips curled back from his teeth, and it took all his will to bend them into a smile.
No response — just that hostile, steady gaze.
Clumsily he stuck the knife into a thick wedge of potato and lifted the pot full of vegetables. Tucking the Creole cookbook under his arm, he started forward.
As he reached the edge of the road a motorcycle whipped into view. Oblivious to Steep, it bounced into a nearly-invisible groove in the pavement as it roared past. Blackberry cordial washed over him in a gravel-laced spray, coating him from toes to mid-thigh. A warning? Black Man telling him: go on home, learn to cook the old-fashioned way?
But he couldn’t do that, not with a head full of music, pretty phrases and card-counting.
Steeplechase Dover stepped into the crossroads.
Sticky wet steps: one, another. Excuses were marching in his head, pleas and arguments. This time it’s something I love, he would say. This time, I’m settling down.
His gut burned, unconvinced.
He’d cooked short order in a dozen cities before starting at Muldeen’s place. Why he’d ended up staying he hardly knew; there was something in the old woman that unnerved and delighted him, an atmosphere in her restaurant that made every diner a house guest, every meal a family gathering. But Deeny’s feet wouldn’t hold her up through a day any more. She needed a partner, someone to run the kitchen. Steep wanted to do it with the ease — the soul-gotten genius — that came to him when he was playing the guitar or drawing an inside straight.
An unromantic dream, maybe, but more honest than the other boons he’d begged.
He was close now, craning up to meet the pitiless inscrutable eyes. Holding the book and the crockpot out, he opened his mouth to speak. Then something hot and big raced past him on the road. The splash of cordial soaked his back, and the words dried on his tongue.
“Steeplechase Dover.” The Black Man’s voice was a gnashing of small rocks. “Why do you waste my time this way?”
Another answer rose to his lips; another car whizzed behind him. This time the rushing beast made contact, a bumper that felt like bone kicking out the backs of his knees. Chopped vegetables bounced across the road as he fell hands-first, losing the pot. The potatoes went airborne, propelled like soft shrapnel by the edges of oncoming car tires. They struck Steep in a quick hail as he braced himself on the rise of the meridian. He was drenched; thick toxic cordial tickled through his hair. A spreading bruise on his chin was haloed with potato mush.
His companion bent, rescuing the kitchen knife, and then began sharpening it on the tines of the signpost. “Do I look like a community college?”
Steep managed a muttered negative without getting sideswiped again.
Shhh-shhing! Whisk of the knife against metal. The cookbook had gone flying too, and now one taloned toe tore loose from its fine Italian shoe, flipping through the book’s juice-stained pages.
“Creole cooking,” he said in disgust. “Aren’t you from Michigan?”
Steep pulled himself closer to the signpost. “It’s the last time.”
Traffic snarled back and forth in response to this, roaring eighteen-wheelers with no clue he was there. Steep clung to the post, holding himself on the curved and slippery meridian and shouted again: “Please.”
Bird eyes regarded him. Something sideswiped the stewpot, setting it clanging back and forth in the road, bouncing off car doors. It whizzed past him as he clutched the slender steel tether, conscripted into a deadly game of road tennis.
What could he do? Dripping, stinking of cordial, Steep started talking.
At first it was the usual breezy bullshit, tales he’d told about himself a hundred times in a dozen cities. Half-truths about having to get out of music because people were using him. About how his speechmaking landed him in jail and in hospital. How the gift of gambling was a disaster if you lacked the nerves.
It all came down to nerve, really. The more he had, the less he’d been willing to lose.
And it all came out pretty, because he’d learned to speak from the best source there was, and though the deadly missile of the stewpot came close to hammering him off his perch a dozen times, it never seemed to make contact. He laid out a patter, lost himself in it, and all the while the Black Man sharpened the cooking knife, the trucks roared past and waves of berry cordial lapped at his ruined running shoes.
Then he thought he was done, and it turned out he couldn’t shut up.
“I never fit anywhere,” he heard himself say and that, suddenly, was full truth. “I grew up in Michigan with parents from Georgia, and I hit school talking funny. I couldn’t lose that accent fast enough. Then we’d go to Granny’s in Habersham and I was the next thing to a Yankee.”
“Boo and hoo, Steep.” The eyes were pitiless.
“I was always too something. In music: too political, too apolitical, too loud, too soft, too slow…”
“In the union: too soft, too chicken, too conciliatory.”
“I say flighty! If you’d just stuck with something!”
“I was a kid. I didn’t know what I wanted.”
“That’s all you have to say to me? You chose wrong, you didn’t know where you fitted, and now you’re up here…”
“Northern boy with a Southern accent. American among Canadians, black among whites,” he murmured, appalled at himself. What did this have to do with anything — and why did it hurt so much to say it? “Always just a bit out of place.”
“But now you belong somewhere.” Black Man’s voice rang skeptical.
He shook his head. There were no words for the feeling at the restaurant. “You know how when you’re putting a jigsaw puzzle together…”
“Son, I have good uses for my leisure time.”
“It’s going hard, and you’re frustrated, so you stick two pieces together because they look right. They almost fit, but there are these tiny empty spaces where the knob meets the groove… and you mash them together and pretend, for a second, that they work. But they don’t, and sooner or later you have to admit it.”
“But you put in the right piece, it’s effortless. This restaurant, it’s…” He stopped, uncharacteristically at a loss for words.
“So take yourself to cooking school.”
“There’s no room,” he said. “I wake up hearing music. I try to think about recipes and suddenly I’m putting words together to describe how the food’s going to taste. I’m supposed to be making roux and instead I’m reckoning the odds on finding a two-yolked egg in the next shipment.”
“And whose fault is that?”
He shook his head. His chest ached, and every inhalation seemed too short to make up for what he was pouring out.
“This is another whim, Steeplechase.”
He felt a heavy, fearful weight in his gut. “Can’t be. I can’t keep moving around aimlessly. I have to stop. I want to stop.”
“I hope you’re sure,” the Black Man said, and for a moment his voice was almost kind.
I do too, he thought. It was too easy to imagine himself packing up again in a couple years, and the thought made his knees waxy. His upper body went lead-heavy and strained to bring him down.
The blackbird toes started picking through the few remaining chopped vegetables on the road, choosing a bit of this, a bit of that.
Ssshhh sshiing! One last swipe of the knife. And clang! The crockpot, red hot with friction, a ground-level meteor burning itself against the velvety summer air, rebounded off an SUV. It rattled like a pinball on a bumper through the wheel well of a tiny Ford hatchback, and then bounced up to smash hard against the windshield of an oncoming semi. From there it came at Steep like a spiked volleyball, red-hot and lethal…
But the nine foot tall man caught it just millimeters short of his head. Steep had flinched away from the blow as it came; now he felt the heat of the pot up near his cheek, smelled his whiskers scorching and curling.
“One last gift, you say?”
“I swear,” he replied.
“You’ve tried to throw off everything I ever gave you,” the Black Man said. The traffic had dwindled again, and his words seemed to doppler in the sudden quiet. “But it could be that I’m fond of you. Could be I’d overlook that.”
Steep was seized by an overall shudder. He tightened his grip on the post and swallowed.
Whistling, the Black Man dropped a fat handful of onion into the glowing pot, sending a healthy kitchen stench rising into the air. His feathered hands pulverized cloves of garlic to liquid. He raked the small collection of rescued vegetables off the road into a pile, adding them to the brew. Hot roux, Cajun napalm, dribbled off the backs of his wrists as he took up the bag of okra and chopped it up fast, sending white seeds everywhere.
The avian eyes blinked once. “Didn’t you bring me anything else, Steeplechase? Can’t make gumbo without meat.”
Squeezing the post with his knees he pointed, shakily, to the grocery sack with its cargo of hard-shell crabs and chicken necks, sausage and oysters…
Instead of retrieving it, the massive head bent close. “Got some cooking secrets for you, son.”
Fear had set his teeth chattering, and he kept them clamped as he answered. “I’m listening.”
“Buy local. Check the product yourself. Never settle for crappy tomatoes. And always, always…”
“Marinade.” The knife seemed to come out of nowhere, slicing through the remains of his clothes like a razor blade through paper, unzipping Steep’s stained and sticky skin from his left collarbone to his right hip. His flesh dropped open in a flap, bloodlessly, revealing the red-lubed workings of his body. Heart, lungs, stomach, pulsing and healthy.
He pulled back involuntarily, and the taloned foot seized his neck, tossing him on his back into the road, pinning him supine on the wet alcohol-soaked asphalt. A station wagon zipped out of nowhere, spattering cordial into his exposed body cavities.
Steep’s shriek was cut off by the crushing weight on his larynx.
“Let’s see…” The red-hot pot clanged down beside his head, sending up clouds of sweet cordial steam. The knife hovered far above him; the feathered hand that had held the pot, now freed, poked at his innards with heated fingers.
Then the knife dipped in, out. A grub-sized hunk of meat was displayed in the Black Man’s hand. “Haven’t been playing cards much of late, have you?”
He tried to swallow, couldn’t. He could see his organs reflected in the bird’s eye gaze.
In and out again and another nugget came up on the knife, this one plumper, lined with one nice streak of fat. “But you have been on the guitar some.”
The grip on his throat eased. “Deeny likes it,” he chunked out the words like he was vomiting ice cubes.
“Audience of one.” Disgust in the voice, and blackberry stench roiled over Steep’s face in angry waves.
Then the Black Man’s expression gentled. He reached inside Steeplechase Dover and cut out a fat chunk of prime meat. “And here’s the gab. Who you wasting that on? Bankers? Health inspectors?”
He didn’t answer.
The Black Man juggled the three hunks of meat, dicing them in mid-air and letting the pieces fall into the gumbo. A rich meaty smell rose from the cooking pot, and he raised it to his feathered lips and drank deep.
Belching, he curled up the knife like an accordion, tucking it gently into Steep’s opened body. Then he took a handful of leftover okra pods, rubbing them fast between his hands until they were a wet, silvery paste. He glued the incision shut with it, fixing the skin into place with blackberry thorns.
“You’re a hot-shit Creole chef now,” he said. “Happy?”
“I…” Still pinned, he couldn’t look away. Instead, he fought against a series of retches.
“Don’t try to thank me. Cooking’s a gift, the last gift. As for the rest, you’re keeping what you’ve tried to throw off. Understand?”
He managed to shake his head slightly.
The Black Man glowered. “I’m gonna have a little of this stew tomorrow. And the day after. And the next. It’s up to you to make sure there’s meat in my pot.”
He chilled. “If you mean…”
“You saw where it came from.” The face was close to his again. “Sing songs, Steep. Roll dice. Talk up a storm, get people whipped up, start trouble. Do it all, do it often, do it up fine. Don’t oblige me to come looking for something else I can cut from you.”
Breath whistled out of him. For a ludicrous, brazen instant, he was even about to protest. How could he do everything — speak, game, sing — and still keep a restaurant afloat? Gambling alone would ruin it sooner or later…
Then he remembered where he was, lying on the eastbound yellow line of the Lougheed Highway, with talons clamped around his neck and the sound of approaching traffic humming in the road beneath him. The backtalk withered in him, died.
Belching, the Black Man lifted Steep to his feet, setting him lightly beside the sack of crabs and chicken parts in the gas station parking lot. He turned his back on the shaking, patched-together supplicant. The traffic steamed back into full visibility, howling past indifferently.
Maybe if we keep everything in Muldeen’s name, Steep thought, find me some way to own the restaurant without owning it. Shaking, he bent to lift his pack, and by the time he’d straightened up the Black Man was gone.
Good thing I gave up on asking him to teach me to box, he thought, remembering the single day when that had seemed like a sort of answer. The thought brought first a sickly laugh and then another case of the heaves. He retched dryly over the oil drum, once, before forcing himself to move.
“Things to do,” Steep muttered. Sing. Gamble. Shower. He smelled like a head-on collision between a bachelor’s party and a gathering of student engineers. His clothes were stained and resinous, and the blackberry thorns in his chest itched and tickled, pushing against the places where the Black Man had carved out his dinner.
But he still couldn’t seem to leave the crossroads.
Then a startled cawing drew his eyes upward. The crows frozen overhead were caught in a moment of night-blind confusion as they eased into renewed motion. Flapping madly for the roosts in the warehouse district, they drew back from the night like a curtain to reveal the sky and the stars.
Mouth tingling with a sudden and intimate knowledge of Southern flavors, Steep took first one wavering step and then another in the direction of the sleeping shopping center.
About the Author
A. M. Dellamonica’s first novel, Indigo Springs, won the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Her fourth, A Daughter of No Nation, won the 2016 Prix Aurora for Best Novel. She has published over forty short stories in Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed and elsewhere and was the co-editor of Heiresses of Russ 2016. She teaches writing at two universities and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at a third. Alyx is married to Nebula Award-winning author Kelly Robson; the two made their outlaw wedding of 1989 legal, in 2003, when the Canadian Supreme Court conferred equality on same-sex couples. You can support her at Creative Fictions.
About the Narrator
Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming, and gardening. She has written one novel entitled An Unproductive Woman available on Amazon. She has also been published in or has stories upcoming in Escape Pod, Diabolical Plots, and FIYAH. Khaalidah also co-edits podcastle.org where she is on a mission to encourage more women to submit fantasy stories. Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to long youth. She can be found online at http://khaalidah.com and on Twitter at @khaalidah.