Taste

Will never once considered doing anything to the food. Not even as a joke. But now he saw the benefits of tampering with a meal. Especially the meal of someone he did not like.

And Will did not like the man in his diner.

Will referred to him as the dude, and the dude had started coming around the place a month ago, once a week. He was an older man, perhaps in his sixties, with a flat face. A flat face, as if a deer or even a moose had come flying through his windshield one dark night, hitting the guy in his face, crushing the entire bone structure only to have it rectified later with a lot of cheap reconstructive surgery. This was just a guess on Will’s part, but even the guy’s nose seemed little more than a bump with two dark holes as if he suffered from some obscure disease that gnawed away at his flesh. Will snuck fascinated peeks at the dude through the window separating the counter area and the kitchen as he handed Rhonda her orders. The guy was territorial always sitting in the exact same corner where he could see everyone in the place.

And that was the freaky part.

The dude, with perhaps a few days worth of rusty stubble hanging off his saucer-like face, would sit and stare with almost equally round eyes.

Will thought the guy was heavily into some serious shrooms. That or the other mind expanding herb found naturally in the wild and frequently, secretly, cultivated for personal use.

The dude even freaked out Rhonda.

“He freaks me out,” Rhonda whispered to Will through the kitchen window, just after the newcomer had left. She cracked her gum nervously and watched the door in case the freak suddenly returned. The tabloids were Rhonda’s bibles. She believed in aliens, the Bermuda triangle and other places of power, and even creatures from other planes of existence. She conversed with Satanists, teased Ouija boards nearby fresh graves, and plied her share of Wiccan magic.

Rhonda, Will knew, did not freak easily.

“He breathes with his mouth open.” Rhonda said in horror, wrinkles appearing around her nose and eyes. “I could see his teeth. They’re gross. And he didn’t like the chicken.”

“What’s wrong with the chicken?” Will demanded in a whisper and not caring in the least what the guy’s teeth were like. Cooks were a sensitive lot.

Rhonda handed him a folded slip of paper, ripped from a small notepad. Will took it and read it.

Chicken sucks.

Will’s mouth screwed up with poison. Fuck him. His chicken was just fine. Thank you fuckly.

“He left me a four dollar tip though,” Rhonda punctuated the gratuity with a loud snap of her gum.

That was on the first visit.

The next visit was a week later. Same seat. Same stoned-as-fuck expression on his face. Same respiratory fixation.

Different order. The roast beef.

Same scribbled opinion.

Roast beef sucks.

The second note pissed Will off. In the nine years of owning and operating his roadside diner—and he would correct anyone else calling it a greasy spoon–he had never received any complaints about the food. His food was good. He ate it himself. One did not call an underappreciated wine swill.

The third time.

Fish cakes suck.

By the fourth time, Will was waiting and resolved. He decided he didn’t need the freak’s business. He didn’t need to be informed about the quality of his more-than-fine cuisine. He did not want the guy to come back to his diner. So Will did the unspeakable. He did what his instructors religiously emphasized and forbad at the cooking college. He did what he prided himself for not doing in the last nine years of cooking for the paying public.

Will fucked with an order.

The dude ordered the hamburger platter this time round, and Rhonda gave Will the request, cracking her gum in a challenge. Will took the order stoically and regarded the man in the corner through the kitchen-serving window.

The bastard sat and breathed and stared at nothing in particular.

Enough of this shit.

On his grill, Will did up the burger to medium perfection—just a tad red on the inside, but by no means bloody.  He salted it lightly. He fixed a log jam of home cut fries on the side, along with a gold mine deposit of corn giblets. No gravy.

No problem.

Will added a squirt of mustard and ketchup to the burger’s buns, dropped some onions on there, and just before plopping the patty down on the bread, he stepped out to the back storeroom. There, as quietly as possible, he hawked, hitched, and gagged, summoning up curds of phlegm.  His cheeks puffed out with his effort. Then, holding his load, he stepped back into the kitchen and quietly drooled his lung butter onto the hamburger buns, using his back as cover. With a spoon, Will stirred it all together and smirked. He packed the meat in, and added it to the waiting plate.

It was all he could do not to smile at Rhonda, for fear of giving the game away.

Will had three other customers in the diner, and as he readied their orders, he peeked at the freak in the corner. Lord help him! Will saw with malicious mirth that the man was eating his meal. He dared not linger, so he went about his work, fully expecting a scream of rage from outside.

It never came.

The old guy simply sat and ate… and stared.

When the old guy finished and left, Rhonda took her tip and handed over the note Will had come to expect. She waited for Will’s reaction. She knew what the note said. She had peeked.

Burger’s good.

And good was underlined.

Will smiled in spite of himself. “Man likes his burger platter.”

“It sure looked like it,” Rhonda agreed.

And they both shared a smile. Although Rhonda noticed Will’s smile was just a little more on the mischievous side.

For the next two months, the old man ate the hamburger platter at Will’s diner every week. And each time he came, Will sucked up whatever chunks of goodness he had lining his throat and lungs with a malevolent glimmer in his eye. Sometimes he massaged the mucus in with the other condiments on the burger, and sometimes, on those days he was feeling particularly bold, he simply let it lie as it came up.

The old man ate everything Rhonda placed before him and returned the next week for more.

Each time, the old man left a note.

Burger’s good.

He eventually began leaving the note on the table with his usual generous tip for Rhonda.

The dude remained territorial. Will noticed that the first month. It wasn’t unusual for a customer to sit in the same place for whatever reason. Sometimes they liked a window seat, sometimes they sat at the counter, and sometimes they sat at a table in the middle of the floor, but Will noted that those tables were usually the last to go.

The old codger, however, insisted on sitting in his corner.

Will and Rhonda observed this obsession as, one day, someone sat in the old man’s seat when he wandered in for lunch.

It was a young couple in their twenties. Good-looking trailer trash. Perhaps they were on a date, perhaps together for some time, but they were sitting at the old man’s table and he did not like it. The old man stood just aside from the main door so he did not block it, and stared at the couple. Those round flat eyes burned like lasers, centering squarely on the invaders of his island.  The weight of those unblinking flat orbs did not waver. Not even when Rhonda wandered over and asked him if he preferred to sit somewhere else. He did not seem to notice her.

Rhonda eventually retreated.

And the couple eventually noticed him.

Will wanted to say something. It was his opportunity to finally jettison the coot from the premises on a permanent basis. But he could not. In fact, Will stood back from the window in his kitchen, and simply observed what happened next with a mixture of suspense and fascination.

The man of the couple took notice first. He ignored the dude in the beginning, but then realized that the man really was staring at him and his woman. He actually glared back, until the woman noticed.

She turned. Became shocked.

She turned back to her man, and her shoulders hunched over in what Will knew to be a giggle. Her man smiled as well. He had a gold tooth in the left corner of his mouth. The one next to the incisor. It gave him an insolent, dangerous look. He smiled at his woman. Perhaps they figured the old dude was retarded. They exchanged looks in the old man’s direction, snorted their amusement, and dismissed him.

They did not move from the table.

The couple finished their meal, taking as long as needed. They decided on dessert, vanilla ice cream and cinnamon apple pie, and they took their time with that. They talked and talked. They had a good time.

Sneaking glances in between minor kitchen tasks, Will could see the old man did not like this. The dude’s face was as expressionless as ever, but his posture was stiff. The posture of a man that had made his point the only way he knew how, then being ignored, had kept on making his point while his blood began to simmer.

When the couple got up and left the table, Will actually stuck his hands and arms out of his window, just in case something happened. The couple paid for their food, made for the door, and passed the dude as they went. The woman appeared a little fearful at first, but knowing her man was behind her, she smiled daringly at the freak as she went by. Her man was bigger than the old bastard, and, as he took his time walking by, he smiled his gold tooth smile and glared back.

Will saw the challenge in that junkyard dog gash.

But instead, the dude merely looked to his table. Rhonda took the cue, and began clearing it.

Breathing in the old guy’s face, the young punk smiled again, and slowly stepped around the man. The punk drove his shoulder into the old man, twisting him about. The old man did not strike back.

Smirking his gold tooth smile, the younger man and his woman left Will’s diner.

The codger turned and looked out the window for a few moments, the length of time it takes for a young couple to get into a car and drive away. Then the flat-faced patron turned back and waited for his table to be cleared.

Not feeling any sympathy, Will spat in his hamburger.

And the old man ate it without comment.

For the next three weeks, Will left some very personal, very buttery gifts in the old man’s hamburger platter. He only spat in the burger, and didn’t feel as if anything more needed to be done. And surprisingly, Will and Rhonda gradually began to get used to the old character. The man was strange looking but he was quiet. He ate his food and did not linger. And other than a few notes, Will did not have any trouble with his new patron. His ill feelings disappearing, Will began to think the man was just an eccentric old coot. His dislike lessened more and more. Rhonda even greeted the old man with smiles and thanked him once or twice for the generous tips he left for her. He never engaged in anything more than placing his order, and attempts by Rhonda to open the conversation up were met with stretches of silence. Will had to admit the man enjoyed the food despite the added texture.

The day came when Will simply did not have the heart to lubricate his patron’s victuals. He sent the hamburger platter off with Rhonda, and watched the old man take the first bite. With a shake of his head and a smile, Will went back to preparing the other orders.

No more than twenty minutes later, Rhonda handed him a note.

Burger sucks.

A puzzled look came over Will and he blinked at the message. His first impulse was to curse the old man. Then he thought about it a little more, and decided that he was right in the first place. The old dude was simply too weird for Will anymore. Too out there. He wasn’t going to put up with him anymore. The man couldn’t actually like a burger slicked with phlegm. Could he?

The thought made Will sick.

In the final week, Will waited. He waited for the old man to enter his diner. He knew that the guy walked into the place and did not have a car. But he always came around the same time—lunchtime.

And then it happened.

Will spied the old coot ambling towards the diner door, arms swishing at his side and mouth gapping. Will threw down a cloth and stopped what he was doing in his kitchen.

He met the old man at the door.

“You can’t come in here anymore,” he told the old man. “I’m not serving you.”

Will had not been this close to him before, and he could see the lines and craters in the old man’s staring features. Rhonda was right. The guy’s teeth were messed up. Summer teeth, Will would later say: some’re this way and some’re that way.

The old man simply stared directly into Will’s face, eyes wide with disbelief. Or were they pleading. Will felt something tug at his heart, but his brain fought it down. No. The guy was a freak, and Will didn’t need his business anymore or his fucked up notes.

“Go on. Get outta here,” Will told him.

The old guy did not move.

“Get going now, or I call the cops.”

At the mention of the word, the man relented and broke. It was a tangible thing. Will sensed it immediately. It was fear. Fear of the law.

Without comment, the old man half turned, paused for a second as he stared across the road, and then about faced.

And left.

With his arms crossed, Will watched the guy leave. The old man wandered up the road, past parked cars, and eventually winked out of sight.

Rhonda clapped Will on the shoulder.  “You got balls, boss. I damned near peed myself.”

Will took a deep breath. He damned near peed himself, too.

Sometime later, perhaps a month or so, business around Will’s diner was as good as ever, and he had forgotten about the old codger with the squashed face and the stoner’s stare. The restaurant business for a single owner is a grueling one, and Will and Rhonda worked almost together for most of the week with no time off except Sundays. Will wanted to hire an extra waitress, but Rhonda wanted no part of it, not wanting to share the tips. She would let Will know when she was ready for a coworker, and she just wasn’t ready. She was a steady waitress, and Will was fine with her decision.

Will usually closed up alone and this night was no different. He hauled the garbage out back to a huge dumpster, the last thing he did before leaving for home. Rhonda had left after wiping down the tables and collecting her tip money.

The night was clear, starry and warm.

With a huff, Will threw the first of two bags into the lidless dumpster. He paused to look at the bright heavens and sighed. It had been a good day, and he thought that he would have to order more chicken in the morning. He threw the second blue bag of trash into the bin and slap wiped his hands.

A hand and cloth clamped over his mouth. Will sucked in air to scream.

And immediately lost consciousness.

His joints forced him back to consciousness. When he came to, Will moaned and longed for water. He opened his eyes. Candle light illuminated only a small area around him. He could see that he was in a basement.

Then he saw the skulls.

In particular, the skull with a gold tooth.

Will shrieked.

There was a shuffle, a two-step, and something hard clubbed him behind the ear. Will faded out of consciousness again, the grinning skull elongating in his darkness.

When he awoke, he was aware of two things. He was on his back, and there was something in his mouth. He stretched his neck to see and puffed in panic around the obstruction jammed and duct taped in his mouth. He was still in a basement, but he was in chains. His arms and legs ached and would not move for him. He was bound tight.

Even weirder, he was naked.

And shaved.

Will was a hairy man—thick black locks covered his head and body. Hair grizzled him so completely that he was embarrassed to go to the beach. Now, however, he was as bald as a newborn. Completely bald as far as he could tell. Even his exposed nether-regions were bare, he could feel it, and his little buddy was obviously as concerned with the situation as Will was. Weirder still, Will could see that his hairless body glistened in the candlelight. A smell of something caught his attention, and his jaw closed into the thing in his mouth. Will tasted apple. His eyes bulged. There was a fucking apple in his mouth.

The old man shuffled into view. He stared at Will with that same round-eyed emptiness Will had observed for weeks. In his hand was a bag. Will arched his head and saw that it was charcoal.  He tried to chew his way through the apple, but it was not moving. He gagged in panic at the piece he bit off. Then, suddenly, he was aware of what it was he smelled.

It was barbeque sauce.

The old man stepped up to Will and unceremoniously dumped the charcoal into the fire pit underneath him. He then produced the lighter fluid and lathed the rocks with it, the plastic bottle puffing and squealing with each squirt.

Will blinked. He couldn’t catch his breath. He needed time. He needed to talk to the old bastard. He needed—

The old man struck the match. It was perhaps the loudest thing Will had ever heard.

Breathing though his mouth, the old man tossed the match into the fire pit and moved towards Will’s feet.

The flames seared the flesh of Will’s back and he bucked to get away but the chains held him fast. His head whipped back and forth. He could feel his flesh crackle and pop. He heard his body fat sizzling. He screamed as best as he could with the apple duct-taped in his mouth.

Then Will’s world went upside down as the old man gave the human sized spit a turn, placing Will’s thrashing face and body directly over the growing heat… and flames… of the pit.

The old man left him there for a moment. He shuffled towards a work bench and the cooking utensils he kept there. He picked up a set of steel rib cutters and gave the powerful looking shears and experimental snip. He looked back to the meat roasting over his fire, watching the spasmodic thrashings. He would leave the chunk to roast on that side for the a little while longer, until the life left it. But only for a little while. Once that side was done, he would give the spit a crank and turn the chest upwards and crack it open with the shears.

He had done this enough times to know how he liked his food.

The old man gazed at the sauce-lathered chest, his mouth hanging open and salivating.

He so very much enjoyed harvesting the natural butter and juices of a healthy rack of meat.