Author’s note: Hey, did you know I write fiction too? Here’s a short story in lieu of this week’s column. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled program of food geekery in September.
Mirabella’s jukeboxes were filled with a mixture of Motown, the Rat Pack, and Beyoncé. The coffee tasted awful. Ghosts of ketchup and hot sauce stained the menus. A baseball bat stood behind the front counter, and an unloaded and rusty shotgun guarded the office, right below a picture of Mirabella herself, arm in arm with her husband, my uncle, Carmine. Mirabella had died long before I’d ever met her, but the diner named after her had persisted, mostly unchanged, unlike the city around it.
I loved my uncle’s diner. Mirabella’s stood just around the corner from my grotty apartment in Bridgeport, and our neighborhood was still mostly intact from the intelligent superstorms that had been destroying swaths of middle America. It was always the first place I went to when the all-clear signals sounded..
The sentient storms had been pounding the Midwest since the beginning of the summer. EF-2 category tornadoes had chewed up and spat out parts of Lakeview, Bucktown, River North, and several of the outlying suburbs. The handwritten notes the storms left behind–letters carved in broken asphalt in vacant lots, or pressed down in empty fields–were all incredibly passive-aggressive and somewhat vague.
The following had been written the week before, in a cornfield in DekalbCounty: Meatloaf just gives me ALL THE FEELINGS, idgaf, h8rs gonna h8.
Or one time, during a storm that flooded huge sections of the south side:
Ugh, I can’t even do this with you right now. PEACE OUT.
Whales. Crazy, right? Wwwwwwhhhhhaaaaaaalllllleeeeessssssssss. It’s almost onomatopoeic.
Chicagoans interpreted the meteorological decrees as well as they could. The beluga whales (and, just to be safe, the white-sided dolphins) in the Abbott Oceanarium were sold to the Monterrey Aquarium in California in one controversial move. Grocery stores stopped carrying carrots, and started carrying votive candles in gunmetal gray with streaks of yellow, the color the sky turned during the storms. But what about meatloaf? Did it refer to the singer or the American staple food? What kind of feelings could a superstorm of arguable intelligence have about meatloaf?
And how had the superstorms become sentient, anyway? Global warming? Fukushima fallout? Terrorists? God? And if they were actually intelligent, why did they leave notes that read like Tweets from stoned teenagers? Nobody really knew. Life went on, in the meantime, amidst the debates, the preparations, and the prayers.
By the time I got to Uncle Carmine’s diner that night, the rain had slowed to a sullen drizzle. I looked at the sky to see if there were words written in the clouds, but there was nothing there I could read.
“What are you doing out in the rain, Izzy?” Carmine asked me as he ushered me in. “It’s too late for pretty young girls to be out.”
“Power’s out in my place,” I lied. He’d pitched a fit when I actually admitted to checking in on him after the last storm. I knew better than to respond to anything else he said; it didn’t matter I’d lived in Brooklyn and the less-glamorous bits of the metro area before moving to Chicago for grad school. And honestly? Having someone fuss over me was a novelty.
Carmine wasn’t, strictly speaking, my uncle. He was some kind of second-cousin, but he was older than my parents, he fed me, and I helped him around the diner when one of the waitresses or bus boys called in. I’d written chunks of my thesis there during slow days, perching my laptop on my knees in the kitchen or on the stool behind the counter.
Every time the sentient storms steamrolled through Chicago, Uncle Carmine spent the dark and stormy nights in the kitchen, cooking or prepping for the next day. He’d hum tunelessly under his breath as he sliced onions or thick tubes of salami, crushed garlic, parboiled lasagna noodles, made soups for the week. Tonight, there was the smell of beef and sage and garlic hovering in the air. My mouth started watering as soon as I sat down at the lunch counter.
“You hear this latest message from the storms?” Uncle Carmine asked. “I heard it on the radio. This last tornado wrote, and I quote, Vermont is the only state without a McDonald’s in its capital city. You want fries with that? Idiots.” He shook his head. I didn’t know if he meant the storms themselves, whatever force powered them, the scientists studying them, or something else entirely, and I wasn’t about to ask.
“You want some tea?” he offered.
“I can get it,” I said, but he waved me off.
“Sit down, Izzy, I got it. You want honey? Lemon?”
“Yes, please. What are you cooking, anyway? Anything I can help with?”
“No, sweetheart, I got this. Wanna go turn on the sign?”
“You expecting people?” I asked.
“You showed up, didn’t you?” he replied, shooting me a smile.
I slid off the stool and went to the glass plate windows in front of the lunch counter, switching on the neon sign. The red and blue lights threw streaks of color onto the wet sidewalks and the streets beyond, here and there dotted by branches and puddles and street detritus. Nothing else moved besides the wind. Above the city, the sky was black.
“I was thinking,” Carmine said, setting a mug of tea in front of seat.
“Dangerous habit,” I replied. One of his favorite comebacks.
“Wiseass,” he said fondly. “I was thinking about this thing the Greeks used to do. I guess it influenced the Church eventually, since when I read about it, it sounded like some of the processions we used to do for the holidays.”
“What thing is that?” I’d never seen Carmine like this, stammering and a little embarrassed.
“The Romans called it the lustratio,” he said, leaning his forearms on the counter. “It was a sacrifice, with a procession. A ceremony, you know?”
“Sure, sure,” I said, easing back onto my stool. I curled my fingers around the handle of my tea, held it close to my face.
“These storms, Izzy,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it at first, you know? I got family down in Oklahoma–Bella’s sisters married two hicks from there. Anyway, they always said that every storm seemed like it picked and chose what to destroy and what to jump over. The storm would pass right over the sheriff’s station and destroy the jail next it, rip half a house away and leave the chicken coop. And these hicks were always going on about the hand of God, reaching out from the heavens, and how it was unknown and unknowable and not for us mere mortals to question.”
I’d never heard Carmine–generally a laconic man, quick to smile at a joke but reluctant to ever tell one–say so many words at once, or so eloquently.
“And now, actual sentient storms,” I said. “Proof of intelligence beyond what we’d imagined.”
“Intelligence, my ass. They make about as much sense as the gods ever did,” he said, cracking up. “McDonalds and whales, for Pete’s sake.”
I laughed with him. “We had to read the Iliad in my freshman core class. And that book follows the gods around a lot. Not as much as the warriors, but you get to hear a lot of their conversations.”
“And they spend most of their time one-upping each other and talking smack. Weird notes about McDonalds and whales sounds par for the course. ”
I was over-simplifying, but that pretty much encompassed my view of theology. Gods (and God) were just like people, only more so: greedy, petty, and impatient. And now there were intelligent storms, huge forces of nature that exercised personality and reason, if not ones we could exactly understand. Every storm seemed like the end of the world when it passed over you, but they delivered a punchline straight out of a preteen’s private blog. What if meatloaf gives me feelings had been what God carved on Moses’ stone tablets?
Suddenly, I realized what I had been smelling coming from the oven, what Carmine had been cooking the whole time.
“Uncle Carmine, you didn’t.”
“What?” he said. “I figured I’d hedge my bets. What could it hurt?”
“A lustratio? For these storms?”
“Bella had a great recipe for meatloaf. Should be done in a few minutes.”
I set my tea down on the counter, shaking with laughter.
“You laugh, but your ancestors sacrificed food,” Carmine said. “You invite the gods to the table, but when they don’t show up, you take the meal out to them. Speaking of, I should check on that meatloaf.”
He went back into the kitchen, and I concentrated on drinking the rest of my tea.
“You look like her, you know. Bella,” he called.
“So I’ve heard,” I answered. I didn’t see the resemblance myself. Mirabella had been Northern Italian, a strawberry blonde with blue eyes. I looked like the rest of my family: dark hair, olive skin, three drinks away from picking a fight.
“She would have thought this was stupid, too,” Carmine said.
“I don’t think it’s stupid,” I said. “It’s just…”
Just what? It implied that the storms were just trying to get attention, and despite all the evidence that they had left–the snippy notes scrawled across corn fields and spelled out with debris, the way they picked and chose which neighborhoods and buildings to destroy–I didn’t want to believe that a force of nature, the closest thing to a god that I personally had encountered, would be so petty.
But it did have a historical precedent, I thought, remembering the Iliad. Or at least a literary one.
“I just take issue with thinking these storms just want a hug and a slice of meatloaf.”
“That’d be a real twist ending, huh?” Carmine said as he came back, armed with a steaming dish. “Get it? Like a twister?”
“Ugh, that was terrible,” I moaned. “I can’t believe we’re related.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Get your rain coat back on.”
This close, I could smell the meatloaf, the sage and garlic and ground beef still sizzling in its pan. My mouth started watering again.
“How long is this procession going to be? Can’t we eat some of it first?”
“Just around the block. And there’s another loaf for us, when we come back. Can’t serve the gods cold food. Intelligent storms neither. Grab my umbrella, would you, sweetheart? It’s in the office.”
I swallowed the last of my tea, thick and sweet from the honey Carmine had poured into it. I gave the photo of Mirabella an ironic smile as I grabbed the umbrella from where it stood next to the empty shotgun. A thought occurred to me.
“Hey, Uncle! Did they play music at these lustratio things?” I asked.
“How should I know?” he answered. “There’s only so much the Internet can tell you.”
I pulled out my phone as I walked back through the kitchen, and typed in a quick search on Youtube.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Almost,” I said. “If we’re gonna sacrifice your meatloaf, it should have a soundtrack with it.”
So as we walked out into the fierce wind and stinging rain, Meatloaf dispelled the grave silence of the streets with “Hot Patootie (Whatever Happened to Saturday Night).” He sang us all the way around the block, Uncle Carmine and I shuffling off-beat, collars flipped up against the rain. Carmine held the meatloaf, while I struggled to keep the umbrella over the both of us, my phone clenched in my other hand.
“Can’t say I’m a fan of the guy,” Carmine said, nodding at my phone, which had moved on to “Bat Outta Hell”. “But it’s got a good beat to dance to.”
We left the meatloaf in its pan near the Loomis Street bridge, a feast for the rats, if no one else. I looked at Carmine, raising my eyebrows, wondering if he’d say something. About how he’d cooked his dead wife’s recipe, about how the two of us had escaped disaster thus far and please, please, let it stay that way. Let the diner remain whole, let my grotty apartment remain unflooded, let us both be kept safe and fed. The storms had shown themselves to be arguably intelligent; maybe they were reasonably sympathetic too. And if not sympathetic, open to culinary bribes.
But in the end, probably because the whole thing was ridiculous enough, he only took the umbrella from me and turned around. The smell stayed with me while we walked back to Mirabella’s, the sky clearing enough to let the moon shine through the thinning clouds.