The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break: A Novel

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break: A Novel

by Steven Sherrill

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312308926
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 11/09/2002
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

Steven Sherrill is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and holds an M.F.A. in poetry from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The recipient of a Lila Wallace/ Reader's Digest Fellowship, his poems and stories have appeared in Best American Poetry, Kenyon Review, and Georgia Review. He lives in Altoona, Pennsylvania.

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


    The Minotaur sits on an empty pickle bucket blowing smoke through bullish nostrils. He sits near the dumpster on the dock of the kitchen at Grub's Rib smoking and watching JoeJoe, the dishwasher, dance on the thin strip of crumbling asphalt that begins three steps down at the base of the dock, runs the length of the building's backside and stops abruptly at the overgrown bank, thick with jimson weed, honeysuckle and scraggly pine, leading down to the interstate. It's hot, and through the haze and the treetops the Minotaur can just make out a piece of the billboard advertising the restaurant: Next Exit. The Minotaur doesn't like to smoke but smokes anyway, smokes menthols because he likes them even less, while JoeJoe dances to the static-y music thumping out of the boom box at his feet, the music fighting with the sounds of the exhaust fan over their heads and the incessant traffic on the highway below. It's hot. As hot outside as in the kitchen. JoeJoe's black face and arms jut from the stained white uniform, jerking and twisting in furious rhythms; his chocolate skin has a sheen of sweat. The steps, the loading dock, the dumpster gaping open like a dumb metal mouth, the pavement itself, even the weeds and bushes have a permanent layer of grease, of animal fat spilled or blown through the exhaust year after year. Everything stinks. Everything is slick and hard to hold. But it's like the heat—people get used to it.

    "Order up," the Minotaur hears from the tinny little speaker hanging just inside the kitchen door.

    It's Adrienne; she's theonly one who whines like that. The Minotaur picks at a dried gravy stain on his apron, thinks for a minute about Adrienne. Titties, he thinks. He thinks it because everyone else says it. Big titties bouncing inside the ruffled tuxedo shirt that is her uniform, and a big nose, both of which stir his soup. But these kinds of thoughts never lead anywhere and are ultimately painful to him, so he doesn't linger on them. Besides, she always seems mad at him.

    The Minotaur is a line cook; he works the dinner shift, in at three and out at midnight after cleanup, later on the weekends. He works the hot line: the steam table, the FryDaddy and the convection ovens. Most of the appetizers and a few of the entrees come from his station. When it's slow he helps with salads and desserts as well. On busy nights there are two others on the line: Cecie on salads and a lean quiet man named Hernando who works the sauté station and cuts the prime rib on Friday and Saturday nights.

    "Order up!"

    She is impatient. Grub has those damn speakers wired all over the back of the house, even in the cramped airless bathroom designated for the kitchen workers, so Adrienne knows the Minotaur can hear her. As much as he is unable to fathom the span of his earthly existence, time, in its smaller and more manageable increments, is important to the Minotaur. Normally he's very prompt, even with the waiters and waitresses he doesn't like, but this hasn't been a good day. Half an hour earlier he had been making crepes, two at a time. It was a methodical task, one that he enjoyed. Oil the shallow pans with a little clarified butter. When it's hot ladle in just enough batter to cover the bottom. Over a medium flame the thin pancakes turn a beautiful golden brown in less than a minute. Crepes imperial, two rolled crepes filled with a thick seafood-and-mushroom mix, doused with hollandaise sauce. It's one of the most popular items on the menu.

    The Minotaur's vision is troublesome. Clarity is not the issue; even after all these years what he sees, what lies within his field of vision, he sees sharply. The problem is the Bridge of his nose, a black bony expanse lying between wide-set eyes. It creates a blind spot for which the Minotaur compensates by cocking his head a little to one side or the other, depending on what he is looking at. Up close a thing, a person, right before his eyes becomes all but invisible. Half an hour ago he was ladling crepe batter into a pan, turning the pan with his wrist to coat the polished surface, when one of the waiters asked him for a match. As he turned to speak to the waiter, he misjudged. The crepe pan banged against the container of drawn butter, knocking it over. The golden liquid spread quickly over the worktable. Some fell in a threadlike stream first down the thigh of the Minotaur's salt-and-pepper work pants, then across the scuffed tops of his steel-toed shoes, before finally pooling on the floor beneath a thick honeycomb rubber mat. Most of the spilled butter, however, took a more dangerous turn, washing across the stainless-steel tabletop and into the crusted burning eye of the stove, where it ignited. Fires are not uncommon in the kitchen. In fact, controlled fires are often necessary to burn away the alcohol in a pan, leaving behind only the sweet essence of a brandy or a Marsala. In the dining room, fires are an expected part of the pageantry of some entrees and desserts. But the Minotaur's fire was neither planned nor controlled. The flames leapt instantly, wildly toward the exhaust vents overhead. The hot orange tongues danced in the wide black eyes of the Minotaur, who stood paralyzed, clutching the crepe pan in his fist.

    The Minotaur's vision is troublesome. He watched from the periphery as Cecie, quick-thinking Cecie, came from behind the reach-in coolers, where the bins are stored under a low worktable, with a heavy scoop full of salt. Cecie doused the flame in one pass.

    "What a fuckup," somebody said.

    "Go have a smoke," Hernando said, starting to clean up the mess. They look out for each other; it's one of the things the Minotaur likes about the kitchen.

    The Minotaur sits on the back dock and smokes. Filter pinched between black lips, he draws deeply on the cigarette, pulling the orange tip nearly into his mouth. Then he flicks the butt away. He can almost hear it sizzle in the oily air.

    "Come on, M! It's getting busy." It's Adrienne; she's standing just behind the screen door. The Minotaur can see her breasts, parted by the fabric ruffle, pressed against the screen door. Her face, farther back, less clear, seen through the metal mesh, looks mechanical—hard and bloodless.

    "Unnnhh," the Minotaur says to no one.

    "I know what you mean," JoeJoe answers, sitting on the steps as the Minotaur stands, knots his stained apron around too-thin almost womanly hips, straightens the altered collar of his chef's coat, then goes inside.

    Cecie is just inside the back door cutting radishes at a high stainless-steel table. At barely five feet she has to stand on an upturned case of powdered Au Jus to see over the mountain of cut broccoli, cherry tomatoes, yellow squash, peppers, cheeses, cans of sardines and everything else. Looking close it's not hard to see all the little scars on her fingers and hands, like tiny shooting stars burning white in the black night of her skin. The Minotaur stands close behind her, his hot bull breath spilling over her shoulder. Cecie knows what he wants. Without looking she plucks one silvery sardine from an open can and reaches back. The Minotaur takes it from her fingers with his mouth. She wipes the ample saliva on the leg of her uniform. He looks to make sure some of the waiters are watching, then pinches her skinny little ass. Cecie feigns offense. She makes like she wants to stab him with the chef's knife, the blade nearly as long as her forearm. Then she winks and goes back to cutting radishes. Cecie keeps telling him she'd like to take him home some night, husband or no. The Minotaur waits hopefully. Husband or no.

    On the line the tickets are stacked three deep. Hernando works four sauté pans at once. From his back pocket he pulls a pair of tongs, turns a sizzling chicken breast in one of the pans, then claps the tongs twice at the Minotaur's crotch, as if he's going to pinch his balls. Hernando points with the tongs at the two stuffed flounder orders on the first ticket. The Minotaur goes to work.

    For the first few months he worked here it always surprised the Minotaur that people would come to eat at a place called Grub's Rib. But come they do, despite the distance from the city and despite the defunct Holiday Inn across the street; they come and line up at the door most nights. Weekends, when prime rib is the special, it's almost impossible to get in without a reservation, and even then David, the host—some of the waiters call him the hostess—gets so frazzled that it may take an hour to get a table. Most people think it worth the wait. Grub is the king of the T-bone and the rib roast, his reputation for tender meat pulling people in night after night. They line up, stomachs groaning; they pace anxiously and make small talk outside the imitation oak doors until the five-thirty opening. David says he can feel their eagerness—desperation, he calls it—seeping through the doors even before he turns the key. Desperate or not, every time those doors open, a hungry crowd spills into Grub's Rib: three narrow windowless rooms, a step up, two steps down, red carpet, mirrors, gold tatting, faux medieval trappings hanging from the walls. A few hours later they trickle out, liquor on their breath, grease on their chins, sated.

    This hot night passes quickly, without further catastrophe. The Minotaur doesn't mind the heat, finds it vaguely comforting, and the oil in the air makes the skin of his head and neck soft, less likely to crack open and bleed. The Minotaur doesn't mind the cleanup either. There is a sense of teamwork and order into which he is drawn. Each person breaks down their own station, wrapping what can be saved for the next day, discarding the rest. Everything is cleaned with diluted bleach. Cecie helps JoeJoe with the pots and pans. Hernando does the prep list and ordering. The Minotaur takes care of the walk-in, cleaning and organizing the disarray of the evening. Cecie sweeps the floors and most often has to be reminded to get under the ovens. Cecie sweeps while the Minotaur and JoeJoe heave the overflowing trash cans up and into the dumpster. Hernando hoses down the tile floor, and everyone squeegees it dry. The Minotaur likes the banter, JoeJoe's incessant monologue about girlfriends and getting high, because he is not free with his own speech. He likes Cecie's flirting. He also likes Hernando's silence, reading confidence into it.

    While the kitchen crew cleans, the waiters do their side work.

    "Here you go, guys," Timothy, one of the waiters, says, lining up three beers across the shelf above the heat lamps. "Thanks for your help."

    Later a new waitress named Kelly brings three more. She's so quiet, lost in the din of the cleanup, that it takes her a few minutes to get their attention.

    "Thank you," the Minotaur says in his nasally thick-tongued way, but Kelly is already out in the wait station wrapping desserts. The Minotaur has little tolerance for alcohol. Always has. He gives his second beer to JoeJoe.

    It's inventory night. After the shift is over, after the kitchen has been cleaned and JoeJoe and Cecie have left, Hernando is in the stockroom checking off items on a broken clipboard. The Minotaur does a final walk down the line to make sure all the cooking equipment is turned off.

    "Unnnnhh," he says to Hernando, who will be in the kitchen for at least another hour.

    "Hasta. See you tomorrow, M."

    The empty dining rooms are quiet. The scents of cooked meat, cigar smoke and cloying perfume hang in the air, made almost visible in the pale light from the torch-shaped sconces along the walls. In the back, in the room near the service bar, some of the wait staff sit in a deep booth figuring their tips. The Minotaur can hear their fingernails click against the calculator buttons. He makes himself a glass of ice water and stands by the bar listening to them talk. The conversation soon turns to going out, going together to a bar or maybe to the Pancake House for a late-night breakfast. The Minotaur steps closer, but just a little, enough so that if one of them happens to look up he'll be in their line of sight. The Minotaur leans stiffly against the bar. Head down, he toes the worn carpet. They decide on the Pancake House without ever looking up. They'll take two cars.

    "Unnh," the Minotaur says softly, and leaves Grub's Rib for the night.

    In the empty parking lot a milk-white moon, only a little cooler than the sun, rises over the city and finds the Minotaur alone. It casts just the hint of a shadow against the pavement. In shadow the Minotaur is large and powerful. In shadow the Minotaur looms over the expanse of asphalt and stretches nearly to the door of the deserted hotel. The quiet is disrupted by the deceleration of a truck as it pulls off the highway somewhere out of sight.

    The Minotaur unlocks the passenger door of his car. It's a Vega hatchback, 1975 model. He drives a fifteen-year-old car precisely because he has to maintain it, taking a small subconscious pride in making it run year after year. He unlocks the passenger door because the driver's side lock is broken. The Vega is too small and the Minotaur's head and upper body too cumbersome for him to climb over the gearshift and the hump rising between the bucket seats, so he fingers the lock from inside and steps around. When he puts the key in the ignition and turns the switch there is a single audible click and nothing more. Again he turns the key, and again just one click. It's the solenoid. The Minotaur snorts once through deep nostrils and goes to the back of his car, where he keeps his tools. The box is clean and the tools well ordered. Order and place are important to the Minotaur. He takes a short, thick, cold chisel from the bottom of the toolbox, opens the Vega's hood and raps the solenoid switch twice with the heavy tool. The car starts with the first turn of the key. No hesitation. Tomorrow he will go to the salvage yard and the auto parts store for a used door lock and a new solenoid.

    In the rearview mirror, as he pulls out of the parking lot, the Minotaur sees the waiters and waitresses coming out. He watches David lock the door. He watches them as they take off their short aprons, their bow ties, watches them pocket their wine tools, count their money, laugh. The Minotaur cocks his head to see the road before him, opens the window and sucks in the stifling night air.

Reading Group Guide

...In the Labyrinth all deals are shady.
Skullduggery holds sway. From the front door ashen
Theseus puts on a good face, touts his victory-
the Monster to market- while from the back the
Minotaur skulks into a tepid eternity;
high, the costs of living.

Inherent in the word myth lurks vague notions of a time long past. Way back then, there must have been little choice but to explain the mysteries of existence by way of fantastical tales that pit humans against, placed them among, even embodied them in more powerful supernatural beings. However dubious the motivations of some of these gods, and however dubious the logic-if it's fair to use the word-of the stories, they were sufficient at explaining things. The question is, are we that far removed from the process today?

Edith Hamilton describes the Minotaur as "a monster, half bull, half human," who was born to Pasiphaë, the wife of Minos, and a beautiful bull who had been given to Minos by Poseidon. Poseidon expected Minos to sacrifice the bull as a tribute to him, but once Minos caught sight of the rare creature, he could not bear to give him up. Poseidon punished Minos for his greed by making his wife lose her heart to the bull. Their union produced the Minotaur.

When the Minotaur was born, Minos chose not to kill him, but rather placed him in a twisted prison crafted by the famed inventor Daedalus. The Labyrinth was a puzzle of a place soon known worldwide. Within this maze, many youths and maidens met their deaths. All paths eventually led to the deadly horns of the Minotaur. Around this time, mighty Theseus sailed into Athens, where he soon heard the tale of the hapless youths who were being offered up in Crete. He promptly stepped forward with an offer to join them. His action garnered widespread admiration, but few knew what Theseus was planning.

Soon, the day came for the victims to march to the Labyrinth. Amidst those watching the parade was young Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, who lost her heart to Theseus at first sight. A resourceful girl, she quickly sent for Daedalus, whom she asked for the key to escape from the Labyrinth. She then sought out Theseus and promised him the secret if he would agree to return to Athens and marry her. Theseus accepted this proposal, at which point Ariadne revealed the solution Daedalus had offered: Theseus could unwind a ball of twine as he wound through the maze. He could thereby trace his steps back to whence he entered.

Thus armed, Theseus entered the Labyrinth and sought out the Minotaur, whom he found sleeping. He fell upon him, pinned him to the ground, and killed him on the spot. Then, following the thread to the entrance, he led those who had entered with him to freedom. Theseus himself went to Ariadne. The two then fled back to his ship and to Athens.

...The Minotaur dreams the brevity of hearts in a labyrinth of days
Dreams a flock of grackles settling in a field of narcissus
The birds descend in unison, their wing beats cease

Discussion Questions:
1. From what point of view is the story delivered? Is it constant? Are there moments or passages that occur outside the ongoing narrative?

2. How does the Minotaur resolve the paradoxical work that he now finds himself doing?

3. What roles do Grub and his family play in the book and in the Minotaur's life?

4. How do the dream sequences/chapters function?

5. In your opinion, what is the reason for placing the Minotaur in the twentieth-century American South? How does this setting resemble and/or differ from the Minotaur's original home of Crete?

6. Throughout the book, in the Minotaur's journey, he has several encounters with creatures who share his mythic past. Describe these meetings and explain their significance in the context of the story.

7. The entire book takes place in a span of less than three weeks in the Minotaur's never-ending life. What are some possible reasons for this? How does time function throughout the book?

8. Are there themes and/or images you can identify as recurring throughout the book?

9. How do the Minotaur's assorted neighbors and his life at Lucky-U Mobile Estates reflect the themes and issues in the book?

10. What, both literally and mythically, does the corn- dog trailer represent to the Minotaur?

11. How can you explain the Minotaur's appreciation of and understanding for things mechanical?

12. What are the various moments and levels of humor at work in the book?

13. The Minotaur seems to display his most human emotions in his reactions to Kelly. What is it about Kelly that evokes his feelings of compassion and pathos?

14. What of the Labyrinth that was created for the Minotaur in myth? Does its existence suggest anything about the Minotuar's future?

In the Author's Own Words:

Despite the constant and increasing barrage of knowledge, information, technology, etceteras, how different is our world now? Look closely and you'll find that there is an undeniable immediacy to mythmaking. We still seek, often desperately, explanations for the mysteries, the horrors, and the beauties we encounter as we move through our days. We hammer, pound, wrench, and torque our experiences, our memories into (seemingly) neat packages of understanding.

Mythomania: a compulsive tendency to tell lies. I found the word in a mildewed and unraveling Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary. God knows I can barely get my own name out in its true form. But in the process of gathering and telling all the lies necessary to make this book, I've come to a conclusion. Our mythomania, our compulsive tendencies-drives that originate deep in our collective core, drives to find, to capture, and to hold to any truths in a world that recreates itself every moment-are so much more than mere lies. They are vital and necessary. They even pay homage to the creative force itself. While all this comes dangerously close to being highfalutin', a lot of empty blah-blah-blah, I want to downshift here in a big way. Mostly, I just tried to write an entertaining book. I've always loved making things up. Creating worlds. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to things that have influenced me, at least none that I can see. I'll confess to an almost familial love of Flannery O'Conner, and an equally strong love for the gritty lyrics of Tom Waits. I am awestruck be the magic of Jeanette Winterson, Milan Kundera, Marquez, Rushdie, et al. I'm still fascinated by all those Bible stories I heard as a boy. I still cry sometimes over a good fiddle tune, and the way a clawhammer banjo sometimes sounds like water spilling over stones. I miss fish camps, the smell of gasoline on packed dirt, sheds, and outbuildings of all kinds. I am drawn, eagerly, to all things funky and weird. I tell stories and write poems because it's my way of paying homage. I tried to write a funny book, because I think getting life's joke is important. I tried to write a book that is honest, believable, and grounded in reality, despite having a main character with the head of a bull and the body of a man.

Moment by moment, we create the gods and monsters of our own lives; we make epic our individual struggles, tragic our most miniscule losses, and heroic our little successes. We work hard to rationalize or in some way justify our actions, to align them to often disparate outcomes. It is a dance that is at once sacred and lamentable. At the heart of all this frantic mythmaking lies a truth absurd in its simplicity and profound in its grace. Our monsters are nothing more than reflections. Intangible-if not harmless-mirror images. Without this awareness, they loom large. They stomp about and muck up lives with abandon. But when we recognize the charade, what is monstrous in us grows softer, less frightening. Grows no less eternal but infinitely more human: forever fallible, sometimes weak, and often miraculous. That beautiful alchemy of contradictions that refuses to be pinned down by mere definitions, that defies all but the most momentary containment, that thing that is life.

About the Author:
Steven Sherrill writes "I was born in Mooresville, N.C., in 1961 and continued to live in and around there for the first thirty years of my life. My formal education was rocky. It didn't begin in earnest until I enrolled in a vocational program for welding; I built myself a nice aluminum boat. A creative writing course turned things around and I ended up--more than 10 years later--in the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

While in Iowa, I met my wife, poet Barbara Campbell. Together, we collaborated on the most miraculous poem of our combined lives--Maude Eleanor Rose, born July 1996--who daily teaches me what being a man--compassionate, patient, humble, forgiving, joyous, etc.--is all about. We live together near Chicago with the most amazing Frisbee dog in the world, an Australian shepherd by the name of Glory Hallelujah."

Steven is a graduate of UNC-Charlotte and holds an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He was the recipient of a Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Fellowship to the MacDowell Colony. His poems and stories have appeared in Best American Poetry, Kenyon Review, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, Georgia Review, Mid-American Review, and others. He lives in Highland Park, Illinois.

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Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Want a great ride to see how far your mind will bend to believe? This is the book that will break your reality barrier....
seventime on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A good book; too bad about the last chapter, which keeps this mostly remarkable and very Southern novel from being great.
fothpaul on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Had a sense of unease through long portions of this book. Felt for large amounts that something bad was going to occur. Mainly seemed to me to be about the mian characters lonliness and isolation, this was certainly easy to relate to in some of the situations in which he found himself.Probably wouldn't read it again but would recommend it to people. Might well check out the author again.
jennyo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ever bought a book just because you thought the title was intriguing? Well, that's what I did with this one. I had no idea what to expect from it, but I thoroughly enjoyed this strange, lovely little story. You'd think a book about a Minotaur would be full of action, blood, and gore, right? Well, not in this case. The Minotaur has changed a bit over the past 5,000 years. Now, he's working as a chef in a prime rib restaurant and living in the Lucky-U trailer park.I can't really give a plot synopsis without making it sound silly, and Sherrill never makes it silly. The Minotaur is a believable character from the very beginning. He's lonely and melancholy. Through him, Sherrill expresses the feeling of isolation and shows just how desperate we all are for some kind of connection.This is a beautifully and lovingly told story that just happens to have a Minotaur as the main character. But the themes and emotions it explores resonate in all of us.
Jason_A_Greer More than 1 year ago
There is no other way to say it, but this is a strange book, yet really entertaining. Its premise - the mythic and ancient minotaur is now working for a low end restaurant in rural North Carolina, while living in a trailer park, is, of course, jarring. How does this massive, mythic bull / man live and work in a crummy restaurant, with a beater car and in a run down trailer park in the modern day, Carolina Piedmont, and no one he interacts with really pays much attention to how strange this is. So this is not really a fantasy story, or a myth come to life. It is really a strange journey of a very awkward man / beast, totally cut off from his world, with no one understanding him to the point that he isn't really noticed. He really was a man / god, and now he just performs utilitarian functions - grill food, fix old cars, laugh at inappropriate jokes he doesn't understand. So this is the jarring point, this total fish, or, um, man / beast out of water, who is surviving and forgetting. Through this character story, yes, you can see the world through a slightly different perspective, from really different eyes. It is entertaining, and I am really surprised that it was, but entertaining in its subtlety.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I heard about this book from someone who had heard about this book and now it is one of my all time favorites, I think I'll always have a copy of this book on my bookshelf and reread it every few years. It is a book about a minotaur and he does take cigarette breaks (among other things)...it could of only been written by a poet and I'm afraid if I start to tell you more about the book I'll end up telling you everything about the book. Please read this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great story!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
DULL