A Touch of Garlic
by Peter Indianna
The potato salad nearly fell off the front seat but his quick reaction saved what could have been a huge mess in the BMW. Not a nice thing to clean up, especially with a burgundy carpet. Josh Jensen decided to pull over to stop and rearrange things. On the side of the road he leaned over and placed the large crystal bowl on the floor to keep the food level. He was heading for a late afternoon lunch with his younger sister, Grace, and her husband of two years, Edvard. The couple had just moved to the states from Europe over six months ago and this was to be Josh's first connection with them. He hadn't seen his wandering, itinerant sister in at least fifteen years since she dropped out of college to wander the Old World and he was anxious, yet nervous, about seeing her in person. They had talked numerous times over the phone - Grace always called collect - and the conversations were moderately long. She would tell Josh of her latest escapade as she merrily bummed across the continent. In contrast, Josh was the go-getter, the type-AAA personality in the family. Four years of business school at a prestigious, east coast university, plus an additional, three-year, accelerated Master's program. He was a prodigy with numbers and esoteric economic theory, and he mixed those ingredients with a simple, common sense approach in his financial dealings which was fifty percent of the battle.
What always gave him the notches in his business pistol was a tremendous knack for letting the bullshit flow but never having it offend or belittle a client, nor could he be perceived as obnoxious or pompous. He came across as a sincere, well-read and enlightened financial guru who dealt with people on a personal, human level. He was a guy-next-door type instead of a young, belligerent high-roller who was out for his own gratification and the rest of the world be damned. That's what Josh did feel inside but he played the nice-guy role to such a high level that at times he would be amazed at the gullibility of others. The more you stroked people, smiled and played them, the easier it was to screw them. And even though you just fucked them over big time, they apologized and were convinced that it was their own failure and ineptitude which caused them ruin. The perception of honesty has worked for ages and the Barnum quote about suckers is the universal and most absolute truth.
Josh turned down the one way street. The section Grace had taken up residence was a lower class neighborhood with single-story bungalows with chain-link fences, plastic bird feeders and whirligigs on the front lawns. It was a different universe compared to his gated community of private security guards and membership access to the most purified of country clubs. He drove slowly looking for the address. He felt like an intruder and would have turned back, except Josh had a curiosity to connect the voice of his enigmatic sister with an actual body. He finally found the street number at the end of the cul-de-sac. Josh pulled into the dirt driveway, the chassis bouncing through the water-filled potholes. He turned off the engine and sat for a few moments, looking at the house. It was tiny, run-down with the front lawn significantly overgrown. A vintage bungalow, circa 1940's with poorly attached aluminum siding now loose, sagging and cracked, the shutters broken and the peeling paint was a cartoonish lime green. Josh leaned over and lifted up the potato salad then stepped out of his car. Walking up the dusty driveway, he noticed a number of dented, aluminum garbage cans lined up along the path, each one jam-packed with malodorous, fly-ridden, maggot-swarming refuse. Some cans were tipped over in the lot, the rubbish spread throughout the tall weeds.
Josh made it onto the makeshift porch, then stepped forward to the front door. Spiders had liberally webbed the rafters and a number of bird nests were tucked in the corners. A dented screen door had been broken off of its hinges and now laid atop a rusty, cushion-less lounge chair, the white paint rusted and peeling. Josh looked for but there wasn't any doorbell. He summoned up some nerve and knocked on the chocolate-colored wooden door sharply. He waited for at least a minute without response then knocked harder. A stack of plastic flower pots fell over and Josh noticed a number of large, dark forms scampering away from the noise and into the shadows at the corner of the porch. Then he heard the lock jiggle and the door opened slowly.
It was pulled open slightly and there was a security chain across the space. Josh thought how nonsensical that seemed. A voice came from behind the door.
"Who is it?" It was Grace's voice. Scratchy and slurred, but unquestionably her voice.
"Grace? It's me, Josh. Remember? We said we'd get together this afternoon?"
The door closed, then the sound of the chain being removed. The door slowly opened with a B-horror movie creak and hidden partially in the shadows stood his sister Grace.
"Are you asking me in or will I stand here until I retire?"
Grace stepped forward into the fading daylight. Josh looked at his sister. She was only in her late thirties, yet she looked pale and haggard, her face wrinkled and drawn, as if she were forty years older. Shadows dark and cavernous like those of a terminally ill patient bordered her wide, glaring eyes. She reached out and grabbed his arm and stepped into him, kissing him lightly on the cheek. There was a foul odor about her - an unwashed, unclean smell. Her brown hair was stringy and unkempt. Though he was shocked seeing her like this, he didn't reveal it. He remembered how beautiful, vital and perky Grace was at nineteen.
Eager to take on the experience of an artist's life in the land of the great masters, discovering her life's passion in the esoteric and unfettered world of the creative, the inspired and the eccentric. He didn't really believe that this slovenly person who stood before him, dressed as a tattered street beggar, could be his once radiant younger sister. What had happened to her? His mind was racing in those initial moments.
"Please, Josh. Please come in. It's been so very, very long."
He stepped through the doorway and into the dim room. The eye-watering smell reached him immediately, reeking of urine and dankness. His nostrils flared as he followed Grace, holding tight the bowl of potato salad. The room was bare, only a battered couch and a few metal chairs circled around a folding card table.
The windows were dark, covered over with taped newspapers or a thick black cloth. The only light provided was from a number of glowing oil lamps.
"And you even brought some food. We'll all have such an amusing get-together."
Grace shined a smile and Josh reacted with an unsettled grin of his own. In the meager light he saw that her teeth appeared surprisingly, uncharacteristically clean compared to her outward appearance, though they appeared to be somewhat chipped.
"Well, I decided to make my little sister one of my gourmet delights." It was a blatant lie since Josh had purchased the potato salad at a posh deli in the city and dumped it into the bowl at his home.
"Oh, just set it on the table and we'll go out to the back where you can meet Edvard. He's cooking on the grill."
Josh put the bowl on the wobbly table then the two walked through the small, dark room and down a narrow hallway. Josh heard something scooting along the floor.
"I do so apologize about the lights, but lamps are our only salvation.” chattered Grace, her hands waving in a nonchalant motion. “We never can keep up with those silly electricity payments."
"It is atmospheric, to say the very least."
They passed through a pitiful kitchen with door-less cabinets and a worktop piled high with disgusting plates and pots and a mixture of plastic forks, spoons and knives, some broken, some simply pushed into corners of the counter. The grubby refrigerator and grease-coated stove appeared at least thirty years old. Another fetid aluminum garbage can filled with trash was next to the rear door. Towards the opposite corner of the room, there were a number of Have-A-Heart rodent traps of different sizes lined up along the far wall.
As they went out the door a large group of earwigs raced across the lime green counter-top and slid beneath a crack in the backsplash. They next stepped out into what passed as a back yard. Full of weeds, bloated trash bags, and assorted rusted or broken household and garden odds and ends.
"There's my sweet man, Josh, cooking like such a culinary graduate." At the small, circular grill was an extremely lanky, tall man. At the sound of Grace's voice he turned around.
"Hello, Josh! It's so very nice to meet you. Grace has told me so much about you," broadcasted Edvard as he put down the grill fork and extended his hand to shake. He was quite tall, gaunt and similar to Grace in his unhealthy appearance with sunken, corpse-like eyes and pale skin. His hand was so thin that Josh didn't shake it so much as simply touch it. His fingernails were filthy and long. The pupil of his right eye was white as cream. Yet, his teeth when he smiled were as clean and slanted just as Grace's appeared to be. Edvard turned quickly back to his cooking.
"They look and smell wonderful, sweetheart. You have such a knack."
"Well, they are noticeably rare. Josh, is that acceptable with you?"
"Actually, I’d prefer it well done, charred to death if you wouldn’t mind."
"Ah-ha! This one is nice and cooked, so it's all your's, my good guest. Grace, let's go inside with our meals." Edvard forked each wedge of meat and placed it on a sheet of aluminum foil. They all strolled into the house and re-entered the grimy dining room arrangement. Grace pulled up a folding chair and its frame nearly split in two, nuts and bolts falling to the wooden floor.
"Oh, dear Edvard, it appears we have another decorative piece for the yard." Grace giggled and pushed the chair to the far corner into a pile of clutter.
Edvard placed the grilled food next to the bowl of potato salad while Grace placed two oil lamps on the table. Edvard walked to a small cupboard and brought out three dust-covered bottles of wine. He poured the contents into styrofoam cups.
"Wonderful!" He exclaimed. "A marvelous side dish. Homemade, I'm convinced of it."
The trio sat at the wobbly table and indulged in the barbecued meat.
"Oh, my," mumbled a surprised Josh, "very tender. My compliments to you, Edvard."
Edvard grinned and Josh then saw the detail of his teeth. In closer inspection, they weren't chipped but appeared to have been deliberately filed to sharp points. The sight of Edvard grinning with his unique dentition, encrusted with meat and barbecue sauce, made Josh's stomach queasy.
"Oh, my Eddie is such a magician with our meager foodstuffs. He always comes up with a new and savory delectation. All those European years of esoteric, nutritional expertise."
They went on and on for at least an hour and Josh found that both Grace and Edvard, in spite of their slovenly appearance and appalling homestead, were quite entertaining and gracious. They told of their first meeting in an offbeat Berlin coffeehouse and their whirlwind romance of four months, traveling through most of Europe and seeing the great treasures and indulging in each other's fantasies. How they once lived in an artist co-operative outside of Bilbao and were married in Turin outside a small cafe.
They ran a tavern in Lyon, briefly smuggled opium from Izmir and sold oil paintings and terra cotta pottery from their workshop in Poznari. Edvard told of his life before Grace and his eight year term in the French Ministry as an assistant-director of documentation at the Louvre. It paid him garishly well. and after his resignation, he decided to move to Berlin and rent a studio apartment.
It was there, in that historic and decadent city where he met Grace, whom he referred to as his muse. They were attracted to each other instantly and their love broadened for one another's imperfections and idiosyncrasies. But, a year ago, they both landed jail in Zurich for serious health violations regarding the small sandwich shop they managed.
"Trivialities, Josh,” said Grace. “After some monetary payoffs to civil servants, they waived our sentence but under the condition that we leave the country. Since I was still an American citizen, we decided return to live out our lives together here in the States. Edvard has had a bit of trouble getting used to life here, as I have, having been away for so long, but we've become more and more accustomed to our rustic way of life."
"This was the only place that was available? I mean, Grace, had I known, had you contacted me at some point, you could have asked me and I would have gladly help set you up so you could live more, let's say...comfortably?" Grace chewed her meat slowly while Edvard shoveled down potato salad and meat in an uncontrolled, drooling and gluttonous display.
"Edvard's private funds are running somewhat low, but this is fine. It serves our lifestyle. More meat, Josh?"
"No. No, thank you and it’s really very delicious. I am really quite surprised. You could serve this at a five-star restaurant and get seventy dollars a plate. It’s such a brilliantly agreeable flavor. I‘ve never tasted anything so smooth and soft. Superb!"
“It’s quite easy, dear Josh, muttered Edvard. “Simple seasonings and a touch of garlic.”
Grace and Edvard both looked at each other and gave each other a tiny smirk.
The hours passed exchanging astounding life stories and family reminisces. Josh was at last getting a bit lightheaded from the combination of warm lamps, acrid, overpowering household smells and enchanting wine. He finally decided it was time to go back to his unsoiled world.
"Grace, I really, really enjoyed tonight. I mean, at first when I saw the place, I was worried and almost drove the fuck out of here. But you both are so gracious and the stories of your lives in Europe are absolutely engaging. The food and the wine were outstanding and the delicate, subtle tastes were beyond anything I‘d ever eaten in the finest of restaurants and I've certainly dined at them all."
"I'm glad you weren't ashamed or frightened, Josh. No, Edvard and I don't live in an exclusive neighborhood but we really take delight in selling our artworks and crafts to local shops. We get state assistance and subsidies, but our lives are so intertwined and we live simply for each other's benefit and well-being. We are at our happiest."
Edvard chimed in as he sipped a cup of wine. "Grace is my whole world, since the day we met and we've been through many changes of fortune. There is a special, spiritual bond we share."
"Well, who am I to determine what true love is. Again, Grace, Edvard, it's really late and I must get back. I have a busy day tomorrow with some exclusive Saudi clients."
They all stood up and walked over to the front door with Edvard holding an oil lamp high to light the way. Again, Josh heard the quick scratching and shuffling noises coming from the dark corners. Grace opened the door and kissed her brother on the cheek and Edvard lightly shook his hand.
"We'll get together at my home, perhaps next weekend?" Josh asked out of sympathy.
"We'll see, Josh." said Grace in a polite, yet perceptibly patronizing tone, as if any meeting outside of this hovel was totally out of the realm of possibility.
“Perhaps, Josh,” said the diplomatic Edvard. “That may be a possibility. Again, fabulous to have finally met you and please, drive home safely. Your company has been a pronounced delight.”
"And if there's anything I can do...you'll let me know. Is that all right, Grace?"
Grace nodded and Edvard gave a slight wave with is bony hand, wiggling his fingers as Josh stepped out into the darkness, onto the old porch. As he turned away, he heard the door creaking shut, the deadbolt quickly snapping shut and the chain latched.
Here's your hat, what's your hurry, he thought.
Outside he walked quickly in the dark, almost tumbling over an empty can of pork-and-beans, toward his BMW and became unnerved at the rustling and raucous chattering that issued from every direction of the darkened yard.
He sat in his car getting his bearings, then turned on the engine and drove away from the squalid neighborhood.
As he was driving, Josh thought to himself how sorry he felt for his only sibling, yet he doubted that they would ever have contact again.
My little sister. Jesus! What a fucking shithole. I didn't know she was that fucked-up. Probably did some significant drugs in Europe. Now look at her. A God-damned, burned-out, drug-head. Threw it all away for that cadaver she married. All that artistic-hippy, Old-World-European bullshit. Just a pair of lazy, weirdo, fuck-ups. Assistant director at the Louvre, my ass! But damn, if that food wasn't the best!
Grace walked into the room and sat on the old couch. She laid her head on the back of the couch and closed her eyes. Edvard soon came into the room and sat next to her. He put his hand gently onto her hand.
"A very pleasant night, my dearest, but your brother is a bit… on the nervous side?"
"Well, it‘s been so long. I haven’t any bonds to Josh anymore." Grace responded sluggishly, "He gets nothing but the best his money can buy and our life is so bizarre, so abnormal to him. I do forgive him and I was tremendously surprised that he couldn't say enough about your impressive dinner."
“Quite possibly, dearest. Yet, I could sense a touch of insincerity in his personal comments, the tone behind his words like so many others we have met in our lives.”
They both sat peacefully for a long time in the faint light, holding each other’s hands. Finally rising from the couch, Edvard extinguished the remaining room lamps and with Grace gripping the only flickering lamp, they both shuffled steadily through the room and crept up the creaking, rickety, narrow staircase and into their bedroom.
"By the way, my sweet, I checked the traps earlier and we have at least eight guests that will do quite nicely. They look so very plump, indeed. At least four to six pounds each."
"I can't wait, dearest. I can't wait."
And with that simple phrase, Grace blew out the lamp.