Thursday, December 9, 2010

deep down tasty

“In the afternoon, the sun often heats the city up into the triple digits, especially in the early afternoon before the rain comes,” Carolyn read from the guide book.

“Great,” her husband huffed beside her.  “I already feel like I’m drowning just from breathing the air.  How can it get any hotter?”

“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” she said.  “Look at all the people going about their business like nothing is strange.”

“Yeah, but they live here,” Tyler said, taking another deep breath and grimacing.  His hair, carefully styled to impress as they left the hotel this morning, was matted down onto his forehead with sweat.  He continually pulled it back, trying to wring the moisture out of it, but there was no way to escape what it was doing to him.  He felt deflated. 

"Well, we don’t want to stand out, do we?”  She seemed to be holding up to the heat a lot better.  Her hair was naturally thin and pulled back in a pony-tail that hadn’t moved since she tied it back.  The heat just gave her skin a beautiful glow.  Tyler was envious, even as he realized how stupid that was.

“Come on,” he said, “let’s keep moving.  Maybe one of these huts has an AC.”

Carolyn rolled her eyes.  “They’re huts!  Most of them don’t look like they have electricity. But I’ll tell you what, you humor me while I find something crazy at one of these stalls, and we’ll head over to the restaurant street and get some lunch. Or at least some water.  They all looked like proper buildings.  At least they’d be inside.” 

“It’s your day to pick,” Tyler said.  Yesterday he had picked a hike up to the mountains that loomed above them to the north. It had been fun, to see this dense jungle give way to the kinds of trees he recognized. It had been refreshing to feel the air get cooler.  In fact, their hike had taken them high up to where there were still lingering patches of snow.

The memory of snow made him suddenly feel wrung out and dehydrated.  What he wouldn’t give for a sno-cone right about now. 

Carolyn lead the way to a variety of stalls, looking for souvenirs to take back.  This was their big shopping day, the one he had agreed to, so he couldn’t complain too loudly. That didn’t stop Carolyn from doing the same, however.  Many of the stalls sold the same cheap trinkets they had seen and refused to buy on the cruise ship.

“I don’t understand how hard it is to find a good shop,” she said.  “I just want something interesting.  A piece of art, a small statue or something, maybe a homemade fabric.”

“It doesn’t look like anyone here is wearing homemade fabric,” Tyler said.  “They’re wearing the same stuff anyone does. I think I saw an Ed Hardy shirt on that guy who was selling the beaded necklaces.” 

“Ugh,” Carolyn, totally disgusted, stormed down to the end of the street, checking every stall with a glance.  Then she marched back up to Tyler and grabbed him by the arm.  “There’s nothing here.  Come on, let’s go get something to eat.  We’ll ask one of the locals while we’re eating.  Maybe they can point us in the right direction.”

“No arguments here,” Tyler said, taking the lead and making their way up the street towards the road that lead to all of the town’s restaurants.  They were all clustered together, a menagerie of signs, people drifting in an out at a steady pace.  It was shortly past the lunch rush, more people leaving than were coming. 

“Where do you want to eat?” Tyler asked her. 

Carolyn looked around.  There were multiple restaurants that seemed to be themed, colorful decorations of pirates or voodoo or whatever else they thought people wanted to see. Tyler could practically hear her sneer beside him as she looked at those. 

Beside those were the ones catering to the unadventurous, places that offered ‘down home American food’.  Tyler was baffled by that. Why come all this way to get a cheeseburger?  He could stay on the boat and get that garbage.  This did not bode well for finding a nice, quiet, authentic place to eat. 

“What about that one?”  Carolyn pointed, and Tyler looked down the street to a small little place near the far end of the street.  It looked incredibly small, tucked between two of the larger establishments.  And the front of the restaurant was incredibly modest, the window a large painted sign that said On Shoals: the edibles is deep down tasty. 

“They can’t even use proper English on the sign,” Tyler said with a sigh. 

“Exactly.  Obviously they’re not concerned with marketing themselves.  They must be a bunch of locals.  Probably generations of people who worked there.  Come on, let’s go.”

“I guess,” Tyler said.  “I don’t know if I’d trust seafood from a place that can’t even write a sign.”

“Oh, stop being so stuck up.  You wanted an adventure, this’ll be one.  Think of it as gastronomical hiking.”

“Right,” Tyler said, but decided to play along.  The two of them went into the small restaurant, blinded by the darkness of the interior compared to the bright sunshine outside. It was, at least, mercifully cool inside.  It felt almost like a cellar, a vaguely damp sort of darkness that Tyler remembered from the basement of the house he grew up in.

“Can I help you?” A voice called out from the darkness. It was heavy with the accent of the island, but Tyler had a hard time locating it at first.  Carolyn, who was obviously adjusting to the dark better than him, took the initiative. 

“Yes, we’d like a table for two, please.”

“Of course,” the figure said, and Tyler felt he could make out the flash of white teeth in a broad smile, but that was all he could see.  Carolyn pulled him along as they made their way further into the restaurant, where there were dim lamps illuminating each of the alcoves where a booth was.  In the darkness, it was impossible to tell which booths were full and which were empty.  There was no natural light, the one window of the building painted over for that unfortunate sign. 

They sat down and Tyler could now make out the face of their server, a strikingly tall, thin woman.  She had much darker skin than most of the people on the island, which made her broad smile stand out all the more.  It was nearly dazzling.  Tyler wondered, for a second, whether or not he had some sort of heatstroke. The cool air made him feel completely detached from what was going on.

“What can I get you two to drink?” she asked, her voice lyrical.  Tyler blinked, and hesitated. 

“Iced tea for the two of us,” Carolyn said. The woman nodded and disappeared into the darkness again. 

“See?” she said once the woman had left.  “This is nice,” she said.  “Quiet, romantic, perfect.”

Tyler looked around, his eyes starting to adjust.  The restaurant was certainly dark, though not nearly as much as he had thought upon first walking in.  The booths were very isolated, lined up along one side of the narrow building, the other side taken up by a large, ornate bar. 

“Yeah, it’s nice,” he said. 

The girl quickly came back with their drinks and handed them menus.  Carolyn spoke up, though.  “What do you suggest we get?” she asked the woman.  “We’re feeling adventurous.”

The woman smiled again, all teeth and grinning eyes.  “Of course, ma’am. I might suggest the house soup.  The chef makes it himself, it’s an old family recipe. Fills you up, but doesn’t make you feel sleepy or too heavy to go back out into the sun. And, we just cooked up a new batch, completely fresh.”

“Perfect,” Carolyn said.  “We’ll have two.”

“Escellent choice,” she said, taking the menus and disappearing quickly once again.  Tyler watched her go, and then took a long drink of his tea. 

“You know…” he started.  “Maybe I didn’t want the soup, did you ever think that?”

“Oh, c’mon,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I’ve ordered for you before.” 

“Mhm, right,” Tyler said, but with an obvious grin.  Carolyn lightly kicked him under the table, and the two of them broke out in quiet laughter. 

Their soup was brought out to them pretty quickly, two large bowls.  The ingredients weren’t immediately apparent but the soup smelled incredible.  Tyler suddenly felt his stomach, which had been fine, growl impatiently.  His hunger was immediate and vast.  “Oh man, this looks great,” he said aloud as he reached for his spoon. 

“Glad you think so,” the woman said.  “Go ahead, take a taste, see how it suits you.” 

They both lowered their spoons and took a taste of the soup, some sort of meat and vegetable stew.  It was rich and spicy but refreshing in ways that Tyler couldn’t immediately identify.  He eagerly scooped up another spoonful, downing it even quicker than the first. 

Carolyn talked around the spoon in her mouth, “This is good,” she said.  She quickly followed with her second spoonful.  “No, scratch that, this is fantastic.”

“I’m glad you think so,” their smiling server said to them.  “I’ll be happy to tell the cook.”  She then turned and disappeared into the back room once again, leaving them to their meal. 

The next ten minutes were spent in relative silence, punctuated only by the quiet scrape of spoons against bowls and the slurping of soup being happily eaten.  Neither of them seemed to get enough of their meal, one spoonful after another, until they were both drinking the last of the broth out of the bowls.  They both leaned back, almost in unison, and groaned their satisfaction. 

“That was … oh man,” Tyler said. 

“Tell me about it.”  Carolyn took a deep breath, adjusting on her bench.  “I hope I didn’t overdo it.” 

“We can always go take a nap if that’s the case,” he said.  He turned to look for their server, who didn’t seem to be out in the main dining room.  “I have to talk to the chef, find out what’s in that soup.”

“If it’s a family recipe, he probably won’t tell you,” she said.  “You know, cooks guarding their secrets and all.”

“Doesn’t hurt to ask,” he said, standing up.  He stretched and sighed happily.  “That was super satisfying.  Come on, let’s find the cook. I at least have to let him know that he deserves the huge tip he’s getting.”

“All right,” Carolyn said, climbing out of her side of the booth.  The two of them looked down the rest of the restaurant, where there were two doors, one swinging door that seemed to lead to the kitchen and another, proper door with a handle. 

“Probably that one,” Carolyn said, gesturing to the swinging door. 

As they walked towards it, Tyler took a look around the room.  It was surprisingly quiet, and Tyler noticed that all the booths but theirs seemed to be empty.  He had a moment of disquiet, but shrugged it off as it being the down time and this being kind of an out of the way place.  He headed towards the kitchen door and began pushing it open.


The voice behind him was startling, but it was too late.  Tyler pushed the swinging door to the kitchen open even as he looked behind him to see their server come out of the other room, her face contorting with horror, her mouth a silent O of outrage, her teeth still large and bright.  He also felt Carolyn freeze up next to him, a kind of sudden rigid jolt that was so sudden it pulled his attention towards her. 

“What’s wrong?”he said, addressing both their server and Carolyn at the same time.  The server was running up to them, but when Tyler turned to look at Carolyn, he noticed her looking ahead, stock still, her skin suddenly incredibly pale, her hand which had reached out for the door trembling in the air, frozen. 

“What’s going on?”  Tyler turned, even as he saw their server rushing towards him, her teeth bright, her mouth wide, her features distorted in the darkness and how quickly he looked into the kitchen.  When he saw what was in the kitchen, his concerns about their server were forgotten compared to what he saw in here.

In the middle of the room was a spit, a long slab of meat roasting over a heating element, turning automatically.  It made Tyler think about rotisserie chicken, but it was obvious whatever the meat came from was much larger than a chicken.  Then he spotted the bones, the long white bones and the rounded skull, as familiar as any anatomy textbook or police procedural on TV, sitting on the table, haphazardly scraped of all meat. 

And then he saw the thing that Carolyn had seen, the thing that caused her to go completely rigid.  The large pot of soup, more of a barrel than a pot, and the monstrous thing stirring the pot.  It was large, with a blue-black shell that reminded Tyler of a beetle, but it moved more like a squid, long black tentacles spreading throughout the kitchen, mixing sauces and grabbing spices, bringing it all to the cauldron where the stew was simmering. 

The creature seemed to look up at the noise and intrusion, its face a mass of white jellied things that must have been eyes, though they were unlike anything Tyler had ever seen.  It had a long mouth, a snout of sorts that was almost like another tentacle, though on it was a thick beak like that of the parrots he had seen just this morning perched on the island. 

The beak opened, squawking at him in sounds that made his teeth ache.  He tried to move, but found he couldn’t, watching this thing’s many arms set down the various tools it was using and reach out towards him, a mass of tentacles that slowly slithered along the floors and walls, up the door, reaching for him and Carolyn’s extended limbs. 

As the first one touched his skin, cold and wet and exuding some viscous slime he couldn’t begin to name, he turned and saw their server push between them.  No, not push.  She was slithering, her slender body distended, her neck seemingly as long as his arm, her wide mouth now permanently an O, the white teeth a ring of teeth around that gaping maw as it clamped down on his arm.  He felt the teeth moving, seemingly hundreds of them, and felt a searing pain even as the first tentacle pulled him forward.

He didn’t even have time to properly scream.

Nighttime.  The lights strung up all over town were lit up, fires burning on torches, the whole city awash with a bright glow.  An older couple, silver-haired asians, walked into the small restaurant.  They were shown a table, talking cheerfully between themselves. 

“What is best?” the husband asked in broken English. 

“The soup,” the server said, a tall, slender girl with bright eyes and an even brighter smile.  She intimidated the man, but he said nothing.  He did not see people who looked like her very often, and he was old and unused to the wider world.  But his wife had been so happy to finally go on this trip now that he had retired. 

“What kind soup?” 

The woman’s smile widened, if that was possible.  “Chef’s secret recipe.  But it’s very good. Been passed down for generations.  And just special this evening, we have a fresh batch of it. New ingredients passed through that very same door you did not four hours ago.”

His wife smiled enthusiastically, her eyes wide.  They had been eating at Pirate Pete’s the past two days, and their food had been stale and terrible and overpriced.  This, at least, seemed like the real thing.  He nodded his agreement. 

“Two fresh soups.” 

“Gladly, sir.”

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