In 1696, Mme. de Maintenon, Louis XIV's longtime mistress, writes, "Impatience to eat [peas], the pleasure of having eaten them, and the anticipation of eating them again are the three subjects I have heard very thoroughly dealt with .... Some women, having supped, and supped well, at the king's table, have peas waiting for them in their rooms before going to bed."
Peas are new to the French court and all those lascivious mouths and expert tongues are anxious for this new sensation. I applaud this pea frenzy. Who would want a stoic as a cook?
Mme. de Maintenon, sixty-one years old, now secretly wed to the king, stalwart of court etiquette, she likes her pea pods dipped in a sauce, and then she licks them. Yes, she does.
Going up the stairs, I instantly miss the sunlight. Outside, Brooklyn in January is brilliant and the sea is in the air. The stairs feel narrow and dim and cold and dank, and it is like leaving childhood behind for the grave. In my memory, Paul is a child, permanently around the age of, say, ten. I've seen his later photographs on driver's licenses, and the face seems gaunt, the eyes hollow. I'm afraid of finding the room those eyes came from, finding it upstairs at the end of these seemingly endless flights of stairs, with almost no light, a chill in the air, and that dampness that says no one cooks in the kitchen and the woman is never in the bed.
But the machinery standing in the gray light of the big room comforts me. I have stumbled into a surviving pocket of the nineteenth century, that time when people still believed that they could throw themselves at problems and wrestle with materials and fabricate solutions. The morning bleeds through the large windows and glows against the shrink-wrap machine. He had a thing about shrink-wrap--the more you stressed it, the stronger it became. I soak up the room and feel at peace. This is a proper shop for a craftsman and his craft. His craft was pretty simple: He was going to be the best fucking artist in the world and show that all the other stuff was shit. He was going to cut through the fakery and the fashion and get to the ground floor, the killing floor, the factory floor. He was not about tricks or frills or style. He was brutally simple and industrial-strength. I can feel him here, his mouth a firm line, his hair carelessly framing his totally absorbed face, his body bent over slightly as he tinkers with some project, oblivious to everything, including himself, pushing on relentlessly toward mastering a riddle that only he sees or feels or can solve. He's forgotten to eat for a day, his dog watches him silently from a corner of the big room, a stillness hangs over everything and is only slightly broken by the careful movements he makes.
Over in a corner of the shop is the apartment he carved out of the vast cavern of the old factory, and sketched on his door is an arrow pointing down to the floor and a message to slide the mail under here. It has the look of something a twelve-year-old would do. And enjoy doing. I half expect Orville and Wilbur Wright to tap me on the shoulder, or to hear old Henry Ford laconically announcing idiot-savant theses about the coming industrial age. I'm in the past, a place Paul picked to find the future. There is a feeling of grime everywhere, an oil-based grime that has come off machines as they inhaled and exhaled in the clangor of their work. I stand over a worktable and open a cigar box of crayons and carefully pluck two for myself, a blue and a red. I ask a friend of Paul's a question, and he visibly tightens and says suddenly that he can't stay in here anymore. He says he is still upset. So I go alone and look down the narrow hallway to the door to this loft/studio/factory floor and glance up at the stout pipe; it looks to be six or eight inches in diameter. Then I come back to the factory room and see a piece of a black doormat that Paul had nailed to the wall. It says quietly, GET HOME.
I think, Well, shit, so this is where he hung himself.
King Solomon's palace was probably one warm home. He lived with seven hundred wives and three hundred girlfriends and somehow everybody tore through ten oxen a day, plus chunks of gazelles and hartebeests. The Bible said the wise old king had twelve thousand horsemen charging around the countryside scaring up chow for the meals back home.
Money does not replace the lust for food. Or the flesh. Nothing replaces it, nothing. Sometimes it dies, this appetite, sometimes it just vanishes in people. But it is never replaced. By 1803, one restaurant in Paris had kept its stockpot bubbling twenty-four hours a day for eighty-five years. Three hundred thousand capons had gone into the pot over the decades. This is what we like to call a meaningless statistic. Until we open our mouths. Or catch the scent of a woman. Or lean over into a bloom raging in the night.
I'd come out to the ranch, a two-hundred-acre remaining fragment of the fifty to eighty square miles that once wore his family's brand, and we'd sit on the porch and have a beer. Chris worked as a carpenter and enjoyed life. He knew every plant and rock for miles around. He didn't seem to give a damn about being born into money and now living without it. I never heard him say a word about it. He cared about when one of his cows was going to calf. And he liked not owning a horse he prided himself on getting along without one and in wearing sensible boots instead of narrow, high-heeled cowboy boots like every other person in a western city.
He'd show me things. The foundations of a settler's cabin down the hill. The little collapsed house he and his first wife lived in along the arroyo. An old Indian village.
I remember the village clearly. We walked for an hour or two or more and then hit a steep incline under the palisades. Chris paused and pointed out the hawk and falcon nesting sites. Then his legs went uphill at a steady pace, like pistons. At the top, we slid through a narrow chute and were upon a small village on a mesa. At the entrance was a low wall and piles of rocks for throwing at invaders. This was clearly a fort people fled to in some time of trouble five hundred years or more ago.
Chris had been coming here since he was a boy. The place, like almost everything else in the area, was his secret. We sat up there in the sunshine, swallowing a couple hundred square miles of scenery and saying little. He was like that. I hardly ever heard him complain. Things just are. And if you look around, they're pretty good. Have a cold beer, a warm meal. And take in the countryside.
In the first century, Apicius put together a manuscript that lets us visit the lust of the Roman palate. The empire made all things possible--Apicius once outfitted a ship because he'd heard some good-sized shrimp were being caught off North Africa. The emperor Vitellius, said to be somewhat of a pig at table, favored a dish of pike liver, pheasant brains, peacock brains, flamingo tongues, and lamprey roe. Apicius is supposed to have killed himself when he was down to his last couple of million bucks because he could not bear to lower his standard of living. Before there was a language of words on paper, there must have been a language of food. Speech begins with the fire and the kettle. I am sure of this.
When I was drinking at the grave, I didn't feel quite right. I'd been uneasy about leaving Dick, worried about two days away. I'd gone down and gotten him bailed out a few days before, done the shopping trips, talked to him about the importance of cleaning a counter. All of that. We had sat in the yard and watched the woodpecker eat insects in the throb of the August air. His speech was very slow and nothing seemed to ever lift, nothing. He'd been fired, the drinking had come back, the electroshock didn't seem to do much good, and the gambling dug in deep until he had about a hundred thousand on the credit cards. So we'd sit in the yard and I'd explain that you can't beat a slot machine, that you can't win. He'd say, That's it, that's it, you can't win.
So when I left for a memorial mass in a distant city for a murder victim named Bruno Jordan who'd crossed my path, I felt ill at ease. Out at the cemetery after the mass, we stood around the grave drinking beer and talking, and then we went back to the house in the barrio for dinner, one cousin looking down at the grave and saying, Hey, Bruno, see you back at the house.
The next day, when I came through the door, the phone was ringing. They'd found the body. Dick had been dead two days. He'd died clean, nothing in his body. He'd accidentally tripped on the rug, hit his head on the dining-room table, that was it. He'd been working on a book about the drinking life.
Dick had always had one terror: that he would die drunk.
So God smiled on him.