Wednesday, April 1, 2015
The Man Who Drank The Gravy.
He came in stinking of grease and sweat, a bandana so worn and encrusted all its red had run away. He wore his own weariness like cologne. As he passed through the doors, he banged hard on the jukebox, which failed to produce more than a skip on the CD that was playing.
The cook, turning around, saw the fellow and rolled his eyes. The hostess shook her little blond head.
He straddled his seat as if it had no back, which it did, which looked awkward. He had neither the height nor the finesse to take it on correctly, and floundered slightly before spinning it around and taking his rest. I turned back to my sweet potato pancakes and wiped my watering eye.
Blond waitress had left the bar and gone to the back. She emerged with a single bowl, which she sat down silently in front of the dun-haired dude. The look of disdain she gave him was spreadable, but nothing I'd want on my toast.
He pulled a wadded five dollar bill out of his pocket, nearly as dirty as he, and crushed it next to the bowl. Then, closing his eyes, he picked it up and lifted it to his grimy jowel, slurping in the lumpy contents.
The diner had hushed... the jukebox had given up on playing the skipping CD and shut down. A couple in the corner that had huddled over their food with sneaky eyes had pulled off their hats. The college kid typing away furiously at his laptop began to curse his blue screen of death before noticing that everyone else in the place had their eyes on the man with the bowl.
Cream dribbled out of the corner of his chapped lip. He swallowed gruffly, grunting like a rutting pig. The bowl fell from his hands next to the dirty five and he stood up, wiping the residue with the back of his sleeve. He glanced at the blond and shuffled out the door.
His truck door slammed, and the whispers began.
My pancakes, or what was left of them, remained on the plate as I craned my neck over. The blond waitress picked up the bill with the corner of her napkin, pressed the button on the register and then lifted the money tray to stash it within before pulling out three starchy ones.
The girl in the sneaky couple in the corner squeaked. "What is WRONG with that guy?" she asked her partner, who was looking out the window as if he were a kid dreading being picked up by a parole officer. The blond grabbed the bowl with a towel and slung all of it into a gray rectangular washtub. Sausage gravy spattered the wall behind the counter, and she cursed under her breath.
The smell of him had barely evaporated.
The blond came back over to my side of the counter with an orange-topped coffee pot, attempting to warm up my already full mug.
"What was that all about?" I asked.
"He comes in about once a week," she grimaced. "And all he wants is gravy. Who drinks gravy?"
"Is there something wrong with him?"
"I don't know... he just... he never talks. The first few times he came, he just pointed at the menu. He always tips... but he just STINKS."
She moved away, uninterested in my further curiosity. And even I, as the skies began to lighten outside, lost my enthusiasm for the mystery.
A few days later, and again I was out. This time, my deadline was looming, and so I'd headed to the south side of town to find an open table and a decent hamburger steak. Notes all over the place, on my recorder and my notebook and the backs of receipts, still not enough to get me past the second paragraph of a 2000 word piece that was due in hours.
I smelled him before I saw him. This time, he came in the door opposite my booth, but the odor of sweat and oil still overpowered the baking pies and bacon grease that had already perfumed the place. He didn't even wait for someone to direct him to a table. He just sat down near the register and waited.
A few moments later, a white-clad guy who I suspected was the cook came rolling out of the kitchen with a bowl in his hand. He plopped it down on the table and looked at the stranger expectantly. Their staring contest lasted mere seconds. I have no idea what they were trying to accomplish, but they had my attention. An hour, or more likely about two and a half minutes passed, and the cook walked away. A crumpled five appeared on the table, and then the huge slurp began, the bowl held in both hands up to the muzzle of this bearish guy. The loud gulping echoed across the single dining room, and the other patrons glared. The bowl went down with a clank and he was back out the door.
"Ungrateful sunuvabidge," the cook shouted from the back. A waitress came over and carefully picked up the five. I wasn't sure what ungrateful had to do with anything. He'd paid for his, er, meal at both places.
As I settled my check, unable to continue on my story or my hamburger steak, I asked the cook if this was a common situation.
"That guy won't say a word to any of us. I don't know what his problem is."
"But how do you know he wants gravy?"
"First time he came in here, all he would do is point at the menu. One of my girls brought him out biscuits and gravy and he threw the plate. I should have kicked him out then."
"But you didn't?"
"He tipped her $20. She figured out he just wanted the gravy, and he doesn't say a word but he always pays."
"When does he come in?"
"When it's dark. Sometimes it's in the evening and sometimes it's in the morning but he only comes when it's dark out."
I thanked the cook and went on my way, knowing there had to be another story.
I managed to get the piece I was working on under the deadline, but I wasn't ready to let this go. The gravy-slurping man had to have a tale, a reason for eating just the gravy, or rather, drinking it. I started visiting other late night and 24 hour establishments. The drive-thru restaurants hadn't noticed him, and no one reported orders for just gravy over the intercom. He'd been sighted at Waffle House and once at Cracker Barrel, where he'd freaked out two of the waitresses so bad the manager told him to get out and he'd smeared a couple of granny-worthy sweatshirts on the way out with his gravy-laced fingers. The doughnut shops didn't know a thing, and it was quickly clear that he wasn't a patron of any of the city's Thai or Vietnamese joints.
No one knew where he'd come from. I asked different diners here and there, men and women who worked at the areas manufacturers, and they were all in agreement. He wasn't some guy on the line at Trane, or Whirlpool, or even Rheem. The motorheads I met didn't recognize him, and the car dealership owner I talked with told me straight out that no one would hire a grease monkey that greasy to work in a shop.
I found my schedule slipping, quick naps after lunch becoming long snoozes and nights full of insomnia. I grew hungry for omelets and coffee and slightly bitter banter with tired waitresses.
And then, one midnight, I walked in and found I had managed to catch the guy moments after he'd come in. I saw the bowl raised to his ragged orifice and turned on my heel for the parking lot. Maybe he hadn't noticed me, but I could, perhaps, notice which vehicle he would drive away in.
I expected him to hop into the old beat-up Ford pickup at the edge of the lot. His appearance pretty much ruled out the nice white Escalade with white leather seats, and probably the little green Beetle with its crisp tan interior as well. Instead, I heard the screech of wheels... and realized he'd gone out the door on the far side of the restaurant. I ran to the street and saw a black late model Camaro grunting off down the street.
Summer had begun to drone on, and nights were lengthening. By this point I was rising as the sun went down, hopscotching from one diner to another. I needed to know more about the gravy drinker. I needed to understand his state, and why he was drinking the gravy. Because apparently that's how I roll.
And it all came back to that first diner. By this point I had become a regular, sitting in the lopsided booth at the end of the dining room so I could see everything. I didn't even need to look at my waitress. She just brought me black coffee and flopped that menu down in front of me, as if I might decide I didn't want sweet potato pancakes for once.
He came in and managed this time to back-straddle the barstool without looking like a Great Dane trying to sit on someone's lap. My waitress started to move away, but I pressed a five into her hand and told her quietly the gravy was on me.
When she sat the bowl down in front of him, she quietly shook her head at his own crumpled five and pointed at me. His entire crusted countenance turned towards me and I realized now I had nowhere to flee save the restrooms. I held my ground, kneeding the edge of the seat with my hands as he approached.
And in a tinny, nasally voice he snarled at me.
"I don't need your charity."
After a moment of leaning over my table, crowding my breathable air with body odor and brake grease, he turned back to the counter and one-handed the bowl, gulping it down quickly and slamming it on the counter. He flicked his crumpled five off the counter to the floor beyond and strode out the door.
I started to re-evaluate whether I should be pursuing the story. After all, my attempt to be friendly had been taken poorly, and it was doubtful now that I'd get anywhere with him.
But I don't give up easily, and I found myself hitting several diners a night, taking coffee at each. I would get the jitters and sit in my booth or on a bar stool, wondering if a bite of toast would calm the roiling thunder in my belly. Sleep started to evade me completely.
Here was my Bigfoot, my great white stinky whale, my quest. I knew if I could convince him to talk to me for a while, I might find that perfect story and justify all these overnights.
And then, weeks after our last meeting, I pulled up to a diner and saw him through the window. There was no second exit this time. I rubbed the coins in my pocket together and took a deep breath.
He was already bowl-up at the counter when I entered. I cleared my throat and he swung around. I set my jaw, knowing I was about to probably take a punch.
He stared. I stared back. He looked at me with pained eyes and asked me...
"What do you want?"
The voice, so tiny, so high pitched, could have been comical. I knew if I snickered the opportunity would be lost forever.
"I'm a storyteller."
He shrugged at me.
"I want to know your story," I continued. "Could we talk?"
This bear of a man, this oil-encrusted, stinking hulk suddenly seemed to lose a few inches of his height. "Outside," he whined, the gruffness gone.
On the other side of the glass door, he sunk to the pavement and squatted. I shuffled over and plopped down on the curb.
"So, you like gravy?"
He looked sheepish at the question. I pressed on. "Why gravy?"
With a heavy sigh, he ruffled his hands through his hair and blurted out, "You've ruined my groove."
"I've been working on this book for weeks and you have ruined my groove."
I stopped. I looked him in the eye and just asked, "What do you mean?"
"I haven't had to talk to anyone in months," that tinny, quiet voice stated. "And I have never felt so clearheaded in my life."
He went on to tell me about Jack Kerouac and about a thought he'd had. He was going to be the next great novelist, but he needed a schtick. "Stephen King is a recluse in Maine. I thought I could be a recluse here," he admitted.
"And the grime? Why are you covered in filth?"
"This isn't filth," he squeaked. "I've been working on my car."
"But why not bathe?"
"Because people don't talk to me when I'm like this," he admitted. "I kept losing my train of thought every time someone would say something to me, so I just... stopped washing."
"But why the gravy?"
He chuckled. "You really want to know why?"
"Because it FREAKS PEOPLE OUT. And they don't ever try to talk to you again. Dang, I don't even LIKE gravy all that much, but after I drink a bowl I feel like a god. I can write. And no one says a single word."
I sat quietly on the curb, thinking about that. He started to stand to go.
"So, how's your book coming along," I asked as he got to his feet.
"It's gonna be a best seller, if I ever get it done," he muttered as he crossed the parking lot. He slid into the Camaro and turned the key but left the door open.
"What's it going to be called?" I asked.
"You ask too many questions. That'll get you in trouble one day," he hollered before shutting the door, the car already rolling back out of the parking spot. He took off down the street while I watched.
After that, the gravy-drinker disappeared. I don't know if he ever finished his book, or if it did well or not. I just know that the different waitresses and cooks at the diners I frequented say he never came back in again.