Lowell is a chef, and a quite brilliant one. He has one of those metabolisms that allows him to eat anything and remain thin. I, too, can and do eat anything, my diabetes having been miraculously cured by a Japanese acupuncturist, but unlike Lowell, everything I eat increases my weight. At six feet, I am two hundred and seventy pounds -- so imposing that the first time I hurried inside to pick up some items at our "Bait and" convenience store, the teenager behind the counter raised his hands above his head. This has become a standing joke with Lowell, who sometimes imitates the teenager when he and I cross paths in the house, or when I bring the evening cocktails to the back deck.
Lowell and I met more than twenty years ago, when I was driving for my cousin's private car company in New York City. Lowell was in town, that evening, to be a guest chef for the weekend at the short-lived but much admired Le Monde d'Aujourd'hui. I picked him up at La Guardia in a downpour, and on the way in -- he was coming from a birthday party for Craig Claiborne, in upstate New York -- we talked about our preferences in junk food, rock and roll, and -- I should have been suspicious -- whether any city that was a state capital had any zip to it. But this gives the impression that we chattered away. We spoke only intermittently, and I had little to say, except that I liked Montpelier, Vermont, very much, but that was probably because I'd only visited the state once, during a heat wave in New York, and it had seemed to me I'd gone to heaven. This brought up the subject of gardens, and I heard for the first time, though others no doubt knew it, the theory of planting certain flowers to repel insects from certain vegetables. On the streets of Brooklyn, you didn't hear about things like that -- Brooklyn Heights being the place I had settled when I was discharged from the Marine Corps. I was living in my uncle's spare bedroom, driving for my cousin's car company, making extra money to help support the baby that would be born to Rita and me -- that was going to happen, whether she left me or not, as she was always threatening to do -- though less than four months from the day I picked Lowell up, my twenty-two-year-old, in-the-process-of-becoming ex-wife, as well as the child she was carrying, would be dead after a collision on the Merritt Parkway. In the years following the accident, this has never come up in conversation, so even if I'd been able to look in a crystal ball, I would still have chatted with Lowell about Sara Lee chocolate cupcakes and the extraordinarily addictive quality of Cheetos. I do not care to discuss matters of substance, as Kathryn has correctly stated many times. Both she and Lowell know the fact of my wife's death, of course. My uncle told them, the time they came to a barbecue at his apartment, six months or so after I met them. By that time, I was in Lowell's employ, and he was working on the second of his cookbooks, trying to decide whether he should take a very lucrative, full-time position at a New Orleans hotel. I had become his secretary, because -- as it turned out, to my own surprise -- I seem to have a tenacity about succeeding in minor matters, which are all that frustrate the majority of people, anyway. That is, after some research, I would find the telephone number of the dive shop in Tortola that was across the street from a phoneless shack, where the non-English-speaking cook had used a certain herb mixture on the grilled chicken he had served to me and to Lowell that Lowell felt he must find a way to reproduce. (Not that these things ever struck him in the moment. He often has a delayed reaction to certain preparations, but his insistence in deciphering the mystery is always in direct proportion to the time elapsed between eating and doing the double-take.) My next step would be to send Chef Lowell tee-shirts to the helpful salesman in the dive shop, one for him, his wife, and their two children, and -- FedEx's ideas about not sending cash in envelopes be damned -- money to bribe both salesman and chef. It was a minor matter to get a friend of a friend, who was a stewardess, to use her free hours before her flight took off again from Beef Island to take a cab to the dive shop and pick up a small quantity of the ground herb concoction, which chemical analysis later revealed to be powdered rhino horn (one could well wonder how they got that in Tortola), mixed with something called dried Annie flower, to which was added a generous pinch -- as Lowell suspected -- of simple ginger. Of course I see these small successes of mine as minor victories, but to Lowell they seem a display of inventive brilliance. He describes himself, quite unfairly, I think, as a plodder. He will try a recipe a hundred times, if that's what it takes. But to me that isn't plodding; it's being a perfectionist, which, God knows, too few people are these days.
Excerpted from Perfect Recall, copyright (c) 2000 Ann Beattie. Reproduced with permission from the publisher; all rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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