Strad was late. Really late. For his own party. And if he was keen to participate, like most civilized folk in a world where that kind of stuff mattered, maybe he’d just be…fashionably late. But to Strad, social convention was a bothersome fly. There were always so many intriguing things swirling around a person, and social obligations, like the rest of life’s arbitrary ‘rules’ seemed nothing more than roadblocks between him and the things, events, and people that he might like to get to know.
Still, he was on his way. He didn’t want his punctual fiancé to become apoplectic and give him his walking papers. But as his feet carried him toward the party, his curious eye spotted an oddly placed sign and he craned his neck to get a better look. Who puts up a sign in a deserted alley? He pushed aside the overgrown ivy and read its whimsically pasteled text.
* G A B E L’ S T A B L E *
If You’re Hungry, Come and Eat If You’re Thirsty, Come and Drink
Regardless of the ivy’s choice to cloak it, he liked its look, its hand-painted designs. Maybe he’d check the place out someday. …If You’re Thirsty Come and Drink… He actually was kind of thirsty. There’d be plenty to drink where Nina and his friends were waiting for him just a few blocks away. There was no reason to make a detour. Ignoring that logic, he followed his feet down the alley, away from where he thought he’d been headed.
Strad’s ‘quick peek’ soon became a search mission and then, ultimately—like so many of his recent endeavors— a wild goose chase, as he reached the alley’s dead end. He turned around and started walking the other way, making a mental note to use the tranquil alleyway as an urban refuge in the future. He’d nearly reached the main street from where he’d come when he heard some odd, tingly music beckoning him. His eyes followed the melody to the top floor of one of the nearby brownstones, its windows glowing a promis-ing neon. The low, chain-link fence separating him from the building seemed a minor obstacle until he actually tried to get past it. He winced as he contorted his gangly body beneath thick willow branches, while underfoot thorn bushes nipped the legs of his jeans like a swarm of mosquitoes. Finally, exult-ing like a triumphant jungle explorer, he emerged through a small opening in the fence.
“My good mon, c’mere a minoot will you?
Strad froze. He looked up and saw a wiry, denim-clad fig-ure standing in front of a small metallic shed. A barrel-shaped object was lodged between his arms as he pushed against the edge of the shed’s open door with his shoulder.
Strad’s first instinct was to slip away, but the guy didn’t seem angry and, curiosity getting the better of his judgment, Strad drew slowly closer. The stranger winced, struggling to balance what was now clearly revealed as a keg of beer.
“You’ve arrived just in the nickel of dime. Come and help me, will you? Just give this intransigent door a little keek, can you?” The man pointed his head—thick rust-col-ored dreadlocks spilling out from an oversized, red, blue, and yellow sock—at the half-open door of a walk-in refrigerator.
Strad pushed the door closed. The fellow smiled, thanked him and started to walk away. Strad didn’t know whether he was expected to follow or not, but smelling an adventure, he jogged up to his side.
“You need help with that?”
Without breaking his stride, the man turned, looked the skinny Strad up and down, and shook his head.
“I appreciate the offer, m’good mon. But this is a bit of weighty matter, don’t you know? And from the looks of you, I doubt you could carry more than a tune. But I can see you are perilously thoorsty, and the beer is rethawafying as we speak—come along.”
Strad followed him around the side of the building to the bottom of a rusty fire escape. The man put the keg down, reached underneath the steps and pulled out two sparkling clean glasses. He filled them from the tap and handed one to Strad. “Let us enlighten the barrel before its ascension, shall we?”
Sipping the cold, dark beer, Strad took his first good look at the man’s face: worn but handsome—mid-thirties maybe— delicate features, definitely Caribbean but with incongruous freckles and pale blue eyes.
“Are you Gabel?” Strad ventured.
The man nearly spit out his beer as he broke into a cackle, rolling his head and holding his sides. Recovering, he said, “Oh, yes indeed! Of course, I am! And you, I suppose, are the depotentated King of Sweeeden!”
Strad took another swig of beer, more amused than offended by the outburst. “I saw a sign on the street and I thought…”
“You thought? It’s always the same story, isn’t it?” He clicked his tongue. “If people would spend half as much time drinking as they did thinking, the world’s problems would be solved.” He extended his lean, bony hand. “Sir Reginald Albert Sykes. But you may call me Reggie.” Fumbling through the pocket of his worn denim jacket, the man fished out a small, carved wooden pipe. “Come along, you’ve destructed me far too long already. But shall we have ourselves a puff first?”
Strad shook his head. Thanks, but the beer’s fine. Anyway, my fiancé would kill me.”
His dreadlocked drinking companion grinned, waving off this protest. “Not a problem. Bring the lass as well. There’s plenty of puff to go-round.”
“That’s not it.” Strad shook his head. “She doesn’t touch the stuff. She says it’s an escape from reality.”
Reggie rolled his eyes and grimaced as he tried in vain to flick his lighter. “She means escape to reality, now doesn’t she? Forget that blinkered woman, mon. My boss, the one you misunderstook me for, is not the keenest on it, either. Of course, it’s easy for him, isn’t it? Being as he’s higher than a Himalaya even without it. Now, where did I put that other lighter?”
Smiling, Strad shook an Indonesian clove cigarette out of the pack stashed in his shirt pocket, lit it, and offered one to Reggie, who readily accepted. “Now, why didn’t you tell me you had matches?” He thrust the pipe Strad’s way. “I’ll give you the honor of the initial incendation.”
“I’ll pass for now, thanks,” he said.
“Have it your own way,” Reggie shrugged, tucking the pipe back into his pocket. He stood, hoisting the keg. “You’re welcome to taggle along,” he called over his shoulder as he began climbing the metal steps. “But be forely warned, ’tis far simpler to climb up this staircase than it is to come back down.”
Nina Thorne bit down on her well-glossed lower lip and glanced at her watch.
“Are you sure you told him the party was for this year’s birthday?” Ted winked at her, leaning back on his upholstered bamboo chair.
Nina forced a smile. When she’d called the get-together at Honda Lulu’s, the city’s trendy retro-Polynesian restaurant-lounge, the young professionals had cleared their busy sched-ules and showed up ready to party. Five years after graduating together, they remained close, while transitioning smoothly from college to real life. All of them, except for Strad.
“Let the festivities begin!” Paul announced with rum-fueled bravado.
Had he arrived? Nina glanced at the door. No, it was still just the five of them.
“Strad Crossriver…” said Paul, who’d stepped up onto his seat, drawing amused looks from the nearby tables and wary ones from the wait-staff, “We hereby accuse you of maliciously and intentionally turning twenty-six. We are therefore left with no alternative than to celebrate this momentous occasion—without you.”
Despite her dark mood, Nina couldn’t help smiling at the mock indignant snarl as the successful attorney loosened his silk tie; the exact expression he would don back in school while haranguing them with one of his fiery ‘save the world’ speeches.
“We’re recalling all search parties and shall commence to commemorate your birthday in absentia, and to ply you with food and drink—in effigy.”
“You’ve got to admit that when the guy does show up,” Allison said, patting her mouth with a red and black batik table napkin, “it’s always just in time. I’ll never forget that night back in school? Nina and I were sitting around, we had the munchies like anything and there was nothing in the fridge or cupboards? Then, out of nowhere, Strad throws open the door…”
Nina tuned out and checked her email; two new from TJ. Her grandfather didn’t like Strad and when they’d first announced their engagement, he’d tried hard to talk her out of it. When Strad quit his last job, he’d grudgingly offered him a position with Pyramedia. Nothing as prestigious as Nina’s own high profile reporter’s post with her grandfather’s mega-media company, but a job half the city’s liberal arts graduates would kill for.
Strad wouldn’t even consider it.
She could understand why. Nina loved her grandfather, who’d adopted and raised her since her parents passed away in her infancy. She loved his power, his confidence. If he stepped on toes he didn’t care; truth was, neither did she. But at least she knew she shouldn’t step on toes and tried not to. They were alike in so many ways. Maybe because they were so similar, she had no problem with him as a boss. Others, like Strad, would rather starve than work for TJ Thorne.
“…As if he’d read our minds, he marches straight to the fridge and says ‘You have a feast in here—let’s eat!’ He whipped up such a meal; I don’t know how he did it. Remember, Nina?”
She did. Strad had charmed her, pulling the ingredients out of thin air. But his latest disappearing act left her feeling anything but charmed. Nina drummed her fire-engine fingernails on the tablecloth, checked her watch and felt a flush rise up in her cheeks. It wasn’t from the strong rum punch she’d been straw-sipping from the communal “drag-onhead” punchbowl—she could hold her liquor better than most men.
“Despite the fact we all know he didn’t have to work late tonight,” Ted Calhoun drawled, in his Boston-Brahmin brogue, winking at Nina as he stood up to brush the crumbs from the lap of his well-tailored suit. The junior executive of his family’s investment bank continued, “I for one am not at all surprised Strad isn’t here, because the man is entirely beyond time. I used to think his problem was that he didn’t own a watch, and I gave him one as a gift. He looked at me like I was trying to slap a set of handcuffs on his wrist instead of a two-hundred dollar Swiss watch. ‘What do I need this for?’ he asked me. I explained to him how many interest-ing people he would meet by wearing a watch to keep his appointments. He just smiled at me and said, ‘But think how many different people I’ll meet by not wearing one!’ I’m glad I’m not his boss…”
“Or his fiancé,” muttered Nina.
Then a spotlight beamed down onto their table as the main lights dimmed. The restaurant’s Hawaiian-shirted band, on cue, struck up a loud, brassy version of the classic birth-day ditty, hands flying over drums, steel guitars, and ukuleles.
“Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!”
They’d hardly walked through the door when a hoarse voice rang out. “Reggie, were you waiting for us all to die of thirst?” He grinned at Strad just before he slipped away. “My admiring public waits. Make yourself at home. Everyone else does.” Strad scoped out the big, roomy loft, not sure whether he had walked into an avant-garde gallery or a homeless shelter. Worn brocade couches—the kind his grandmother used to guard zealously beneath lay-ers of clear plastic—lined the high, whitewashed walls, along with lush, creeping vines, candle-lit sconces and bright, art deco stained-glass windows that were curiously filled with light despite the post-evening hour. Some of the sofas sagged beneath the weight of people talking, tapping to the music or balancing plates of food; others were taken up by couples or lonely dozers. A massive thirty-foot oval lacquered wooden table filled the center of the room. Was that the literal Gabel’s Table?
Big baskets of homemade breads dotted the table’s length, each orbited by small bowls of multicolored dips and salads. Steaming tureens of thick, red soup alternated with tall glass pitchers of orange juice, and, thanks to Reggie’s quick work, beer. The food wasn’t going to waste either. The benches lining the lone table were packed with the most unlikely arrangement of diners: artsy hipsters, well-dressed socialites, and what appeared to be genuine off-the-street bums. Everyone was mixing like they were old friends. The atmosphere was contagious; even shy Strad felt inexplicably at home.
“Sit down and eat, friend.” Strad felt a tug on the sleeve of the flannel lumberjack shirt he wore un-tucked and unbuttoned over the day’s selection from his quirky tee-shirt col-lection. He looked down at the toothless smile of one of the less-well-dressed diners.
“Thanks, but I only dropped in to check the place out,” he said, moving closer. “My friends are waiting. I don’t even know how I got here…”
The man laughed, as a bit of soup dribbled down the stubble of his chin. “Join the club, pal. Gabel called you, just like he calls everyone. Now you’d better eat. By the time you finish being polite, all the food will be gone. One bite and you’ll know why. If you’re worried about money, don’t be. It’s all free, or whatever you can pay. Some of these fancy dudes drop a Franklin or two in the jar on the way out, you know, to keep the place running. Myself, I’m on what you’d call a temporary bad luck streak, going on twenty years. Haven’t paid a cent since Gabel first called me—he’s a very unusual man—and no one’s ever asked me to.”
“It sounds amazing, but I really have to go,” Strad said as he sat down. He bit into a still-warm-from-the-oven corn muffin and felt his tensions melt along with the dab of butter dripping down the crumpet’s crown. It had been a long and stressful day…
“Hey, it’s the birthday boy from the big city, honoring us with his presence. How’d you ever clear time from your, high-powered schedule?”
“Nice to see you too, Matt,” said Strad, smiling weakly at the two-years-older, twenty-pounds-heavier version of himself elbow-leaning on the cash register. He panned the garden supply store, graveyard empty except for two sales clerks playing checkers on a glass display case. “Where’s Dad?”
“Out back in the office. Now that I’m official store man-ager,” Matt said, throwing back his shoulders, “he doesn’t have to be out on the floor anymore.”
Strad did an exaggerated double-take. “Hey! Promoted?” he said, feigning enthusiasm. “I was wondering why you weren’t wearing a sales apron.”
“That’s what happens when you work hard,” Matt said, “which, with a wife and kid to support, is what you have to do. I’m not supported by a woman like you.”
“I am not supported” Strad said, his default semi-blush deepening. “I…”
“Welcome home, son.” Bert marched out from the back room, a wide grin wreathed across his lined face, defusing the ticking bomb of a conversation between his two sons. “Glad you got my message and decided to come.”
“What’s a birthday without family?” Strad said. Though he couldn’t remember the last time he’d spent his birthday with his family and had nearly blown off the visit and the long train trip it entailed, the light in his father’s eyes—a rare sight in the ten months since Stella Crossriver had passed away—made him glad he hadn’t.
“How old are you now, son? Twenty-six?” Bert said, looking him up and down. “You’re not a kid anymore.”
“Just acting like one,” said Matt. Suddenly his sour smirk morphed into a bright, puppy-dog smile. “How are you today, Mr. Ormond? How can we help you?”
Ignoring Matt, the rotund and ruddy-faced man strode up to Bert. “If you wanna rob people, Crossriver, at least do it with a gun like a man.” Ormond had a malevolent gleam in his fat-encased eyes. He pulled a rolled-up green garden hose out of a shopping bag and waved it in Bert’s face. “Did I forget how to read, or does this label say ‘Seventy-Five Feet’? I measured it last night just after I got home from buying it right here in this store, and the thing is only seventy-three-and-a-half. I have a mind to report you to the New Hampshire Better Business Bureau. How am I supposed to hook up the three thousand dollar home irrigation system I bought at National Garden Center if you’re gonna cheat me outta hose?”
Strad grimaced as he watched the familiar scenario unfold, one he’d witnessed a thousand times growing up—the customer, after spending a bundle at the local superstore, drops a few bucks on accessories at his dad’s full-service shop, picking the salesmen’s brains for free support how to use the products that the discount outlet couldn’t be bothered to explain.
Bert exploded as if on cue. “What? If that’s not a full seventy-five feet of hose…” He shouted at the bored clerks to measure the hose immediately, barking at them with the same urgency as if he was commanding them to evacuate the premises, meanwhile grabbing onto the phone and speed dialing the sup-plier in disgruntled fury. Ormond, despite his scowl, glowed at the full crisis mode spectacle he’d incited.
Strad felt his stomach turn. Scrupulously honest, to what Strad felt was a fault, his father was now being accused of theft by this boor for a few pennies’ worth of hose. But what felt worse was watching his dad get sucked into the fray.
“He’s right, Bert,” called the salesman. “Seventy-three feet.” “Seventy-three-and-a-half,” Ormond corrected graciously. Bert was livid. “You’d just better get your act together!” he yelled into the phone at the hapless supplier. “You’re gonna put me out of business!”
“Dad, please, calm down,” Strad whispered. “Remember your heart. It’s not such a big thing. Just give the jerk his five dollars back and tell him to take his business elsewhere. He’s just trying to take you for a ride.”
“Pull ’em all off the rack!” Bert roared in Matt’s direction. “…A candy store. We run a candy store!” Stella Crossriver’s cynical shriek clanged like a siren through Strad’s head. “A dollar for this, two dollars for that. Everyone else is getting fat while we’re the ones selling the candy!” Strad’s mother had hated the ailing business. She always said it would drive her to an early grave and it seemed she was right.
Strad stepped outside the store and slipped through the drizzle toward the coffee shop across the parking lot. “Whoever Has the Most Toys When They Die, Wins,” read the bumper sticker on one of the parked cars. Wins what? Mom certainly hadn’t won. Neither had Uncle Ollie, dead last month of liver cancer. One of the biggest commodity traders on the East Coast—he’d had plenty of toys.
Forty minutes later he returned to find the store empty again of customers, the salesmen back at the checkerboard and his father in the stockroom scrupulously measuring rolls of hose, now with more of the detached interest of an ex-accountant than a businessman’s indignation.
“There you are,” said Bert. “I was wondering where you disappeared to.” He grinned benignly at his youngest child. “It’s so good to see you, son,” Bert said. “Maybe you’re ready to change your mind and come join us in the business?”
As Strad washed the muffin down with a swig of beer, a trio of spiky-haired college women, seated on a sofa directly across from his place at the big table giggled softly, stealing glances his way. He really had to get moving, Strad thought. Showing up so late would do little towards putting him on Nina’s good side, a rarity these days. She was pressing him to get back on the career track and set a wedding date, neither of which appealed to him. He liked Nina well enough, but what was the rush to get married?
The career issue was more complicated. After graduating college, he’d moved to the city and started a decent paying job. He hadn’t given it much thought until his mother died. He took a two-week personal leave of absence from work— and never went back. His instincts told him that nine-to-five was a trap, and if he went back in, a door would snap shut and lock him out of…out of what? This was the point in his argument where he always got stuck. Neither Nina nor his family ever understood the part of him that just couldn’t toe the line…except Grandma Rose. She’d understood. And he was the only one in the family who didn’t make fun of her. As a kid, before they sent her to the nursing home where she quickly passed away, he and Grandma had shared a secret magical made-up language from a magical made-up place she’d dubbed Altruego.
…“Let’s do the ‘starfish’ one again, Gramma.”
The patient, faraway eyes met the boy’s eager ones, smiled, and formed the syllables only the two of them could decipher. “Straggling starfish, where do you run?”
“I must flee to the sea, or I’ll bake in the sun!” the boy answered, laughing…
He hadn’t thought of that in ages, and he wondered, why now? Strad’s reverie popped like a bubble as he noticed some fiery sparks shooting from a side room. “Hey, what’s that?” He tapped his tablemate on the arm of his threadbare tweed. The guy, deep in minestrone meditation, looked up reluctantly from his almost empty soup bowl. “Huh?”
“There it is again! Those sparks of fire over there. Shouldn’t we be concerned about that?”
The man glanced over at the door then back at Strad, and shrugged. “If you see sparks, friend, it’s okay with me. Maybe some of them blonde curls of yours got in your eyes.” He pulled over a pitcher. “Here, have another beer. I’m sure that’ll put the fire right out.”
What was wrong with this guy? Didn’t he see it? The flashes and tongues of flame were growing higher and brighter. That old fire escape would never handle a crowd like this!
“We’ll be closing up shop soon, you know?”
“Nah, business is booming, look at it out there.” “I mean the whole operation. Our charter’s up.” “The whole operation? The world and…”
“Maybe another month or two, at best. Unless there’s a major turnaround, I don’t see how…” Suddenly the man went silent. Staring at the closed door, he shook his head. “Look at that, he’s come back.”
“Who’s come back?”
The older man, seeming not to hear him, went on. “Could be we’re not out of business after all.” He turned toward his younger companion. “Of course, we’ll need you home now—by tomorrow this time.”
“Tomorrow? Impossible. Just to pack up…” “You’ll get help.”
“Who?” “You’ll see.”
“I don’t understand.”
As Reggie rushed by with refills, Strad flagged him down. “Reggie, this place is on fire!”
The man grinned. “Hottest spot in town, is it not? You fellows need more soup?”
“Reggie, wake up, man! There’s a fire coming out of that room over there! Call the fire department—we have to get everyone out of here right away!”
The waiter put down his tray, glanced across the room for a moment, and then slapped Strad on the back.
“Now, m’good mon, I see why you didn’t fancy any of my puff. Perhaps you have a wee bit of y’own left to share, do you?” Before Strad could respond, the laughing waiter-cum-maître’d had gone back to his rounds.
Strad high-stepped over the bench; he sprinted toward the side room. Ignoring the “KITCHEN – EMPLOYEES ONLY – WE DO THE COOKING, YOU DO THE EATING” sign, he pushed open the swinging aluminum-paneled doors and instinctively flung his arms across his eyes. Under normal circumstances, Strad would have appreciated the earthy and orderly kitchen; its huge mason jars of colorful grains and beans, and hanging oversized pots. He liked cooking and was beginning to take it seriously. But now he noticed none of this, as half-blinded, his whole body shook in fear as he took in the bizarre scene.
A fire was indeed blazing, yet there was neither smoke nor the intense heat that accompanies it. The leaping flames that filled the room were a strange icy blue, reminding him of the cool-burning rubbing-alcohol fires he used to light as a kid, in the bathroom when no one was home—only these were a million times brighter and a deeper, purer blue.
In the center of this surreal aureole two men stood, calmly conversing: A white-bearded old man and a younger, taller, fairer-skinned man in a chef ’s hat—not one of those cream puff things, but the low, boat-shaped type—cocked at a jaunty angle. A full-length apron was tied around his ample girth; the sleeves of his shirt pushed up to the elbows of his sturdy forearms. He stood at an awkward, almost submissive angle; both were oblivious to the fire blazing around them.
Strad edged closer, less frantic as the situation shifted from dangerous to merely strange. Suddenly, tripping on an unseen broom, he felt his legs slip out from under him. The instant before his head hit the floor he saw the old man gazing squarely into his eyes.
Gabel looked at the gangly, half-conscious young man spread out on the floor, and sighed.
The cook would normally have embraced such an encounter—after all, that’s what he was here for, and as his teacher liked to remind him, helping a bum out of the gutter was higher than the deepest meditation, and the smellier the better. He’d been able to help plenty of these ‘hungry hearts,’ some drowning in their vomit, others in their stock portfolios. But now that Kalonymos had just pulled the plug on him, what could he possibly offer this guy? At least he could give him a hand.
“You’ve gotta be careful where you step, my friend,” the man said in a deep, gentle baritone as he brushed the boy off and sat him down on a well-worn swivel chair. He filled a cup with steaming liquid from an imposingly large samovar. Glancing at a shelf full of small opaque bottles, he took one down, shook a few drops into the cup and handed it to the boy. “Peppermint tea—spiked with arnica to stop the bruise from swelling.
“Didn’t you see the sign on the door? The Board of Health could close me down in a minute if they found you back here. Not that it matters anymore…” Gabel chuckled bitterly. “The important thing is that you’re okay.”
Gabel scrutinized the young man’s face. He had the “look.” So sincere, searching…and so lost like so many others—both confused Unifiers and earnest Aborigines who’d passed through the place since Kalonymos had sent him here on his latest heart-feeding assignment…an assignment about to come to an abrupt and arbitrary end. He felt a wave of despair, but quickly pushed it away. The kid dressed the part in his non-conformist’s uniform. Gabel knew the mind-set well. He would undoubtedly still be there today—in one form or another—if he hadn’t stumbled into the Fifth Dimension and found out who he really was.
The boy sipped the tea. “I…I’m sorry I barged in like this. But when I…”
“Boss, we won’t have to do any deeshes tonight because they’ve licked them as clean as a whistler’s mother…” Reggie called out as he danced through the swinging door, balancing a tall stack of bowls. He noticed Strad. “Hey, you can’t come back here, mon! Nobody’s allowed…” But Gabel waved him off.
“It’s okay Reggie, he can stay.” Bizarre, Reggie thought. The boss never allowed anyone back in the kitchen, especially during the time each day he spent hunched over, talking to himself, as he’d just peeked in on him doing moments ago. With a habit like that who could blame him? Well, that was how it was with the boss, just when you thought you had him all figured out he’d throw you a monkey wrench. The waiter shrugged, gave the young man a conspiratorial wink and two-stepped back into the dining room.
The boy looked up. “Are you Gabel?”
“That’s what it says on the hat, friend.” Gabel cocked the worn-out chef’s hat that one of the regulars had given him, to one side of his close-cropped salt-and-red-pepper pate. “But, then again, you can’t believe everything you read. And you are?”
“What brings you to our humble eatery, Strad?”
“I was just passing by when I saw your sign out there on the street and I got this…feeling that I had to check the place out. What kind of place is this, anyway?”
“It’s…a window.” “A window?”
“Open when you are,” The cook said, hooking his thumbs around his royal blue suspenders and flashing Strad a Cheshire-cat grin.
“Whatever. It’s a great place you have here. Amazing food.”
“Thanks. But tell me, why didn’t you just enjoy your ‘amazing food’ in the dining room like everyone else?”
Strad took another sip of tea. “That’s what I started to say. I was enjoying myself, but then I noticed that the kitchen was on fire.”
He’s sticking to that ‘fire’ story. Is he fishing for a lawsuit? Maybe he thinks he’s in trouble.
“You must have banged your head pretty hard when you fell, friend. Because I don’t see any fire back here…” he chuckled, “…do you?”
Strad leaned forward and brought his hands to his face. “B-but I was sure I saw those strange blue flames…”
Blue flames? Could he mean the aura surrounding my fifth-dimensional body as I communed with Kalonymos? That would look like fire to someone who’d never seen it before. But how could he have possibly… “And the old man.” He’d seen Kalonymos too?
This kid was obviously something more than the typical hungry-heart. But what could he do? If the place would be staying open he’d invite him back, make him a regular. Over time, he’d introduce the idea that the world—that he—wasn’t exactly what he’d been told they were. He could grow slowly into his new five-dimensional reality. But how can you condense a story of millennia into a single night? The only thing he could do for him now was to try and calm him down.
Gabel pulled up a stool and sat down across from Strad, placing one big hand on the young man’s slumped shoulders.
“Listen friend, I’m very sorry you fell down and I’d give you your meal on the house if it wasn’t already on the house. If you feel like talking, I’m all ears, but let’s look at the reality in front of us.” He rubbed the stubble of the perennial three-day beard that segued seamlessly out from his buzz-cut hair. “Except for this ugly mug, there’s no one back here. And the only fire burning around here is the one under that pot of rice over there… The rice!”
Leaping up like a linebacker, Gabel dashed over to the big gas stove, gazed intently for a moment into the open steaming pot, and deftly slapped a cover on it with one hand and turned off the flame with the other.
“Caught it just in time!” He grinned, coming back to the stool. “The water had boiled down right below the grains. Rice cooks best when you just let it sit and absorb, but most people are in a big hurry so they boil it into mush.”
“A little oil sometimes helps,” Strad said. “Huh?”
“Sauté the rice in a little oil before you add the water and the grains won’t stick together.”
“Sure. That’s what I do for white or Basmati. But for short-grain brown I find it’s better to…hey are you a cook?”
“Not a pro or anything. But yeah, I’m into it.”
Gabel wiped the perspiration from his brow with a huge white handkerchief and studied the young man’s face as an implausible yet thoroughly agreeable thought flashed in his head. “Are you working?”
Strad squirmed. “Working?” he asked. “What do you mean by working?”
“I mean do you have a job?” said Gabel. “Well…not officially…lately. Why?”
“I can see you know your way around a kitchen and I could really use some help right now. You like to travel?”
“Um, listen Gabel, it’s been great meeting you, but I’ve gotta go. My friends are waiting for me and I’m late already. You know today’s my birthday and…”
“Had I known it was your birthday, I’d have baked you a cake,” he winked. “But we’re just about to serve dessert; homemade sorbet—piña colada tonight. I’ll stick a candle in yours.”
“I’m sure it’s delicious but I really gotta go.”
“You finally got here, and now you want to leave? What’s your rush?” Strad stood up and began to back away.
Gabel started to speak, and then stopped himself. It hurt so much to watch someone dying of thirst walk right back into the desert, but he’d realized long ago that all he could do was offer water. This kid, like everyone else, would have to decide in his own time when he was ready to drink. The problem was that time was running out. He fished a small card out of his billfold and handed it, together with a small white paper bag, to Strad, who was now halfway out the kitchen door. Strad folded the card and stuffed it absently into the pocket of his jeans.
“Friend,” Gabel said, now feeling a little saddened. “I truly wish you a marvelous birthday. If you change your mind about the job, the offer is open for another 24 hours—exactly.”