"Equal parts science fiction, magic realism, and hard-boiled detective story, A Floating Life is a dizzying journey . . . a seamless, spellbinding narrative in the lineage of Borges, Castaneda, and Philip K. Dick."—Kenneth Goldsmith, author of Uncreative Writing
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A Floating Life
By Tad Crawford
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2012 Tad Crawford
All rights reserved.
To see the celestial unicorn is to gain divine wisdom. Touching that shining horn heals every ailment. Diseases vanish, poisons are made powerless, and lost parts of the body grow back with vigor. Heroes, sages, adventurers of all sorts seek the unicorn. And yet they call the divine beast invisible, a creature of the mind, a myth. Let lesser men beware their choices, hesitate before challenges and journeys. The ocean depths, the caves within the earth, the dark fastnesses of endless forests, and the typhoons that rend the air bring death to all but the great. In foreign lands beyond the reckoning of our maps, I shall succeed where all others have failed.
From the log of Cheng Ho, admiral of the western seas, voyage of the fifth armadaCHAPTER 2
The one-eyed man's kindly dark-brown pupil was surrounded by creases in his skin that I imagined had been shaped by smiles and looks of concern. He could have illustrated an ad for the miracles of plastic surgery, because his lone eye looked out from the center of his forehead without any hint of scarring from an operation. A tall man, close to seven feet, he wore a towering white hat to mark his authority over the dozens of people sweating before ovens, boiling pots, and frying pans. Waiters balancing trays rushed in and out, and I savored the scent of the delicious cuisine and wondered how the Mafia could employ such an expert chef to run this extensive kitchen.
The chef shed his white apron and hat and gestured for me to follow him. Dark hair grew in furry clusters on his naked body, and I realized that I too wore nothing. I must have forgotten to dress when I left the apartment that morning, but I had no recollection of waking, looking in drawers and closets for clothes, or even of my usual breakfast of milk and cereal. Fortunately, no one gave us a second look as I hurried after him in the busy excitement of the kitchen. He led me through a door, down a hallway decorated with scenes of gondolas and ancient buildings reflected in the water that would one day swallow Venice like a large fish preying on a smaller one, and at last opened a frosted glass door and brought me into a steam room with benches of worn marble.
Hot, billowing mist filled the room. I could see the bottom half of a man of more normal size dipping a wooden ladle in a bucket and pouring water that sizzled on the scalding rocks in a heater. A white splint covered his right forearm, and he poured with his left hand. The chef picked up a white towel, and I did the same. When he sat on the towel instead of wrapping it about his waist, I did that too.
"Comfortable?" asked my host.
"Yes, I'm fine," I replied, feeling the heat draw sweat from every pore. The other man had stopped wetting the stones and vanished into the steam on the highest level of the marble seats. The chef and I remained on the lowest level. I could see his eye studying me through the clouds of steam.
"I hope you don't mind the informal surroundings."
"Not at all," I assured him. I wanted to be agreeable and make a good impression, although I wasn't certain why.
He rubbed one hand over his large jaw with its dark stubble of whiskers and the other over the glistening bald dome of his skull.
"You know why I like it here?"
"It's a nice room," I said, not wanting to show that I had no idea. "Very old, elegant ..."
"Because it's like the kitchen."
"Hot. I've come to like the heat. I've spent my entire career in what might as well be a furnace. Hot as hell," he said with a grin. "But what you have to realize is that after a few years, you don't feel it the same way. You acclimate. What once seemed scorching becomes comforting and familiar. The nice thing about the steam room is that it's quiet."
"Not as hectic as the kitchen," I said.
"It's a good place to consider things."
"Yes?" I tried to be affirmative, but I could hear the question in my tone.
"Yes, all sorts of things." He closed his eye and squeezed his forehead in his hand. "There's so much to think about, and it's not always clear. But you know this."
"What are you thinking about now?" I asked.
"Of course, your dossier for one thing."
"My dossier." The odd-sounding word made me uneasy. It belonged to bureaucrats, apparatchiks who cared only for the great machine of the state.
"I reviewed it carefully. I appreciate," he said with a nod of his head, "the thoroughness with which you filled out our questionnaire."
I couldn't remember filling out anything.
"You don't have the dossier here?"
"No no. It's kept with the files. The key point is that you want the job."
"Of course," I answered, concealing that I didn't know what job he meant.
"To be second-in-command is no easy thing."
"Ha!" This jeering interjection came from the man hidden in the steamy heights.
The chef waved an open palm to show that I should ignore the intrusion.
"Why is it," he asked, "so difficult to be second?"
"Everybody wants to be the boss," I said.
What answer did he want? I couldn't take long to respond, because he would see my uncertainty.
"At the right time."
"Oh my!" This from the invisible man above us.
"And what time is this?" the chef asked encouragingly.
"Time for a change," I said.
"Yes, certainly. You wouldn't be here otherwise. And I am sorry to hear about your troubles."
"Which troubles?" I asked.
"At work," he nodded, "and at home too."
"I'm hoping for the best."
"Good, very good. And how long have you been interested in this position?"
"Since I first heard about it."
"How did you hear about it?" he asked.
"I listen very carefully."
Did I see the brow above that single eye wrinkle in the briefest frown? Had I jeopardized my chance of getting the job? I couldn't be sure, but he continued.
"What did you feel when you imagined applying for the position? When you had the fantasy of actually being a member of our staff?"
"It was a thrill I can't quite describe. And, to be truthful, I was a bit afraid, because the position is challenging. I know I can do it, but something new and important like this frightened me."
"How many years were you at the CIA?"
I hadn't the faintest idea, but I had to answer.
"That's good. What did you like best about the training?"
"I can't imagine a more thorough training. Everything was covered, and I mean everything," I repeated, stressing the word.
"In particular, what in your training prepared you to be a sous-chef?"
Then I realized that "CIA" referred to the Culinary Institute of America. I had visited the school once, many years ago. I hoped I could use the little information I recalled to my advantage.
"I know innumerable recipes by heart. Of course, I'm able to oversee efficient meal preparation and presentations for large parties."
"Are you sure? Even if the executive chef is occupied by his other duties?"
"Yes, on my own." An irresistible thought occurred to me, and I added, "In fact, the executive chef on board the ship suffered from seasickness. I often had to take full charge of the galley. And on those tour ships, we served more than five hundred people in a sitting."
"What ship?" He looked alarmed. "You didn't mention any ship in the questionnaire."
Would one lie cost me the position? I had never worked on a ship, but the specificity of the seasickness made me feel compelled to speak.
"Where did the questionnaire ask about ships? I don't remember that part."
"You had to fill in your work history. Of course, it didn't say anything about ships in particular."
"That's it, then."
"My mind is very literal. If you say 'to purchase and guide the preparation of meals for a thousand people,' that's what I do. I don't worry about the bigger picture. For example, I wouldn't be thinking whether the dining room belonged to a world-class restaurant, a cruise ship, a college cafeteria, or a soup kitchen for the poor. I would only be thinking about ingredients. How will I get them? What will they cost? When can they be delivered? Is my staff on hand sufficient for the task? Can we meet our deadline? On and on like that. That's why I work well as the second-in-command. You, as the executive chef, might have a far larger view of the whole process, but at least I can be counted on to get my work done."
"You seem to have a fascination with ships." The chef frowned and a sullen pout inflated his lips.
"I do like ships," I said, not seeing how this could do any harm.
"He likes ships!" The voice from above returned, loudly and derisively.
"We don't like water here," the chef said fiercely, his eyelid blinking in a nervous shudder.
"But what about the steam?" I asked, with a dreadful sense of everything having taken an unexpected turn for the worse.
"Making water into steam demonstrates the power of heat," said the chef. "Boiling water is no problem. We have certain objections to ice, but at the bottom of it all the frozen wasteland has much in common with the burning desert. So we serve our sodas and alcoholic drinks in tumblers brimming with ice cubes."
"What if a customer asks for a glass of water?"
"For reasons of commerce," the chef replied with disdain, "we serve the glass of water. However, the heart of the kitchen is fire. Fire allows us to prepare our alligator in sauce piquante, our roasted hazelnut-marinated ostrich in shitake mushrooms, and our tuna with turnips in saffron sauce. Fire is the great transformer, the engine of change. When you ask to work in my kitchen, you enter the cauldron. When the fire has done its work, only the essence remains."
For the first time, doubt entered my mind. Did I really want this job? The chef's beliefs struck me as ... unusual, even extreme. I wasn't certain what he meant or where this might lead. I tried to remember my current job, the office where I went every day. Nothing came to mind, but surely I worked. Whatever my job, it might be better than this. However, the chef's manner changed.
"It's always good to have a frank exchange of views," he said with an avuncular smile.
"Yes, of course."
"And he did us a good turn," said the voice of the hidden man in the top tier.
"Yes, you've already helped us out," the chef agreed.
"We have a long memory when it comes to people who help us ..."
"And also people who get in our way," added the voice from above.
"What makes you want to leave your present position?" the chef asked.
"After going a long way in a certain direction," I answered, "I want to explore more of the compass."
"But you're an account executive. Not an unimportant position. And to switch from a marketing agency to cuisine, even with your credentials from the CIA ... You have to admit it's unusual."
He made me aware of some important facts. I could barely imagine myself as an account executive at a marketing agency, but I must have said this on the questionnaire.
"I'm not excited in the way I was when I started. To be part of a well-run kitchen, that would be different. It's the smoke and mirrors that I can't stand. How can bolstering this product or that ever make a difference?"
"He wants to make a difference!" The voice above us repeated my words with contempt. "Soon he'll want to make the world a better place."
"Working from recipes, even inventing some of my own," I went on without letting the unseen speaker disturb me, "overseeing the cooking and serving of artfully arranged dishes, contributing to nourishment and pleasure — that's what I want to do."
"Yes, I could be convinced that you're the one," the chef said with a shine in his eye. "But, tell me, do you have any questions for me? About what we do here? Or the benefits of the position?"
"I am curious about the benefits, and the salary of course."
The chef gave a careful list of the benefits, which included vacation, sick days, personal days, holidays, unforeseen weather days, unspecified emergency days, and a lot of other things to which I paid less attention. These included details of plans for health insurance, workers' compensation, disability insurance, and unemployment insurance. Perhaps they could protect me against every risk, but would any of these plans improve my life today, this instant?
The chef caught the drift of my unspoken thoughts.
"The life insurance, of course, would go to your wife. Enough to give her peace of mind and security during a difficult time of grief and transition. Unless, of course, you'd rather designate a different beneficiary. I know from your answers to some of the more ... private parts of the questionnaire that your married life isn't all you might hope."
"I don't see what bearing that has on whether I'm offered the job."
"Enough of that," the chef said with a heartiness that I found contrived. "Any more questions about the position?"
"I would be the only sous-chef?"
"You mean the only second-in-command?"
"Absolutely. Our kitchen doesn't require more, though you'll have to use delicacy with the pastry chef. In the official hierarchy, you would rank above him. But we don't want him feeling out of sorts while he works on his confections. You might think of him as the ruler of his own domain, although his pleasures are ultimately encompassed within our menu."
"Yes, I see what you mean."
"He sees." The derisive voice broke in. "He's eager for the role of second-in-command. Not a thought for the difficulties, for always being under somebody's thumb."
I had been in the steam room too long. The heat had siphoned away my strength. I felt light-headed. If I didn't leave soon, I might collapse. The chef peered into the steam, and I heard stirring on the uppermost marble bench. The man descended from the gray mists, naked as the chef and myself, a white towel in his left hand. Now that I could see all of him, I measured him to be about my height and weight. In fact, he had my general body type — muscular across the chest and shoulders but flabby around the middle. Nothing that a well-tailored suit couldn't conceal. He shaved his head. His face, indeed all his skin, had a paleness that might have been called angelic if not for a perpetual sneer that made him look quite nasty.
"What happened?" I asked, gesturing toward the splint.
"I had a fall. What's it to you?"
I decided to ignore his tone. "I hope it heals quickly."
"Do you mind keeping your sentiments to yourself?" he asked. "Just because my arm got broken doesn't mean I've lost my pride."
I noticed that the chef fell silent. The Mafia ran this resort, not just the restaurant, but the casino and hotel too. Even in my heat-induced daze, I suspected the man before me to be a capo, perhaps the boss of the whole complex. He looked to be between thirty-five and forty, my equal in age if little else. I didn't reply to him. The heat had sapped me, and I had no idea what I might say that would please him.
"So," the man continued, looking me up and down, "you're the one who scammed the power company?"
I nodded my head. Hard as it may be to believe, I'd forgotten that I had gone undercover to help the authorities. I couldn't remember which authorities, but they had connections to the power company and had helped me to lower the electric bills for the entire resort. This ploy had led directly to my interview. If I could get the position as sous-chef, there would be no end to the useful information I could gather and pass on to the authorities. Why I would want to do this I couldn't say, after such a long sweat in the steam room. What benefit I would gain also eluded me. At least I would be taking the side of established order, the rule of reason and morality, against men such as the one who stood before me.
"I could make you a lot of money," he said. "I have plenty of friends, big men in business. If I say the word, they'd jump to be your clients. They'll pay me a third of what they save in power bills. I'll pass a quarter of that on to you. You could be a very rich man."
He frightened me, a visceral chill that made me shiver in spite of the heat. He cared nothing for the law, only for himself and his will to have power and pleasure. To him I might as well be an insect, something to let live if useful and crush underfoot if not. If I didn't want to help, he might kill me without a second thought. If I did help him, I knew I would move in a downward spiral through scheme after scheme of his devising.
Excerpted from A Floating Life by Tad Crawford. Copyright © 2012 Tad Crawford. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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