The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break: A Novel

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break: A Novel

by Steven Sherrill

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Five thousand years out of the Labyrinth, the Minotaur finds himself in the American South, living in a trailer park and working as a line cook at a steakhouse. No longer a devourer of human flesh, the Minotaur is a socially inept, lonely creature with very human needs. But over a two-week period, as his life dissolves into chaos, this broken and alienated immortal awakens to the possibility for happiness and to the capacity for love.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312308926
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 11/09/2002
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 362,695
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.

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