Jan. 4, 2021

Episode 2: SECRET INGREDIENT/SECRET ADMIRER

Episode 2: SECRET INGREDIENT/SECRET ADMIRER

Conway archives two more odd letters this week. A struggling chef encounters a new customer with unusual tastes. A secret admirer reveals his game.

(CWs: blood, food, stalking, implied death)


Conway archives two more odd letters this week. A struggling chef encounters a new customer with unusual tastes. A secret admirer reveals his game.

(CWs: blood, food, stalking, implied death)

TRANSCRIPT:

CONWAY: This is Conway, receiving clerk for the Dead Letter Office of ***** Ohio, processing the national dead mail backlog. The following audio recording will serve as an internal memo strictly for archival purposes and should be considered confidential. Need I remind anyone: public release of this or any confidential material from the DLO is a felony. Some names and places have been censored for the protection of the public. 

Dead letter 12603 was found in a vacant building before demolition on July 22nd, 2011. It was addressed to the ****** Police Department, but was not postmarked or sent. There was no return address. It was forwarded to our office for verification and processing. The letter has been subsequently opened and read per the state’s revised code. The letter reads as follows:

 NARRATOR: I’m not sure if what I’ve done--and what I’m about to do--is technically a crime. A sin, sure, one of the gravest, depending on your outlook. But you don’t deal with sinners, do you. This is a confession, regardless; I’ll leave it to you whether it’s religious or criminal. Let me start at the beginning.

I’ve been in this neighborhood for over three decades. I built this place, and I’ve stuck it out through fires and floods and all kinds of hardships. I’ve seen this place rise and fall and get back up again. But things are different now. I used to know a lot of the people coming in. I could ask them about their kids or job or whatever. Even if the place wasn’t packed, it could stand on its own. But the old faces just don’t come here much anymore, and the new ones are not the same. It’s all young people in their jumpers and track pants and fancy watches with no numbers. They spend more, but their tips leave a little something to be desired. 

The old businesses have vanished along with the old faces. The Fledermouse is gone, now it’s just a store for lampshades. Not lamps, mind you, just the shades. And across the street they’re done building some fancy studio apartments. Used to be a real workin man’s neighborhood, lotta immigrants, real good folk. Now it’s a sanctioned “arts district,” and with that comes “arts district” rent. This city’s too chickenshit for any kind of rent control, so I’m looking at shuttering my business and moving out within the year if things don’t pick up.

Well one night we’re unexpectedly swamped, and I hear some chatter about a food writer for some internet website being here. Always looking for new experiences and all that. So I’m in the back sweating up a storm, trying to get these orders out to the good people. I’m dicing up chives for the garnish and I slip a little. No time for errors if I want to keep this place alive. I keep my head down, toss on the chives, and slide the bowl down the line to be taken out to the table. I take a breath, lean back against the counter, and wipe the sweat off my forehead with my greasy apron. Then I can feel my finger pulsing when I press it against my face.

And that’s when I see it. The fresh, dark red on the apron, dripping from my finger. When I was chopping, I must have nicked it. I go to pick up a dry towel next to the cutting board, when I see it again. Those same red globs on the chives, on the knife. Holding the towel over my finger, I rush to the kitchen door and crane my neck, straining to see out the window. The guy’s lifting the spoon to his mouth and sipping it just as I peer out.

Well, that’s it for me, I figure. I had a good run, time to pack it in and close shop. I take a seat and bandage my finger, thinking about the old times here.

I’m stirred from my thoughts by one of the servers, she says the food guy called her “garcon” and says he wants to meet whoever was responsible for the soup. Well, time to face the music, folks. I slip my damp hat off, run a hand through my thinning hair, and amble to his table. I don’t hear much of what he’s saying, I’m looking past him and thinking about the fat fine the city’s gonna stick me with. That is until he holds out his hand for a shake. He says something about a genius reinvention or deconstruction or whatever. Says it was unlike any soup he’s ever had. I’m speechless for a minute, half-tempted to fess up right then and there. Instead, my self-preservation instinct kicks and I zip my fat lip and shake his hand. He says he feels reinvigorated and will be back next week for the same dish. 

So next week rolls around and here he is, Mr. Food Blog himself, asking for the soup, exactly as before. I put in the same ingredients, prepared the same way (minus the finger incident of course) and send it out. Not two minutes later, he sends it back. He sends back my soup! Says it’s not the same as the first time, it’s boring, it's missing something. The only difference this time was...well I look around the kitchen for anything bloody I can squeeze into this soup, but nothing turns up. 

Now, the first time was an accident. I don’t think that’s a crime, at least not one an attorney would waste their time on. Can’t imagine God getting too upset about a thing like that either. Here’s where it should have ended: he sends the soup back and I let the guy leave disappointed. But this was my business, my life, we’re talking about, on the brink of drowning, and here was a life jacket floating right by. How could I not grab it?

Yeah, this second time, I knew what I was doing. Motive makes a difference, don't it? So it was my poor finger’s time to shine again.

He loves it. Be back next week. With friends.

Next time I’m prepared. It’s pretty easy to get your hands on some livestock blood. I can keep it in the kitchen without too much suspicion from the line cooks.

Around dinner time the following week, he comes in, flanked by a few guys in nice shirts and sneakers and two girls with big hats. He orders the soup. Exactly the same as before, he says. For all of them.

I finish preparing the soup and sneak a few drips of cow’s blood into each bowl. It's not too different from lard or meat, right? I don’t see any harm in it. I send out the bowls and await the praise. But instead, I’m met with 6 bowls of soup, sent back. “Exactly as it was before,” the guy scowled at my waitress, pointing to the bowl. 

I can already see where this is going: he doesn’t just want any old blood, he wants my blood. 

Well, what’s running a restaurant if not putting your blood, sweat, and tears into every dish? What’s a little blood if it means I can pay the hiked rent? The problem is, for six bowls, a little finger nick isn’t going to do it. I clear out the kitchen, under the pretenses I’m still upset about the food being sent back and need a minute. Next thing I know, knife meets palm and the customers are raving. Better than ever, he says, a total rejuvenation.

The weeks pass by as more and more of my new neighbors stop by for the famed soup and the old customers slip away entirely. More and more bandages show up on my hands, arms. My employees think I’m getting slow, shaky, with my age. But I’m sharper than ever, and business is booming. 

It all goes real smoothlike for months. I get some nicer ingredients, tweak the presentation, the whole shebang. None of it seems to make a difference to these people besides how much of uh myself I put in the dish. The more I lose, the more they pay. Sure I get woozy, need a break. Yeah, I’m looking a little pale these days, feel a little weaker. But if it means keeping this place open, keeping some small part of the old days intact, I’ll deal with it. The plan's working.

Until last week, that is. Rent’s up again. They’re tryin to push me out for a high-tech gym, or some artisanal dog food joint or something. “Arts district” my ass, it’s just a shopping mall now. On top of this, Mr. Food Website is bored of my stuff. Says it’s stale, wants to move on to other places and take his crowd with him. Says the place could use shaking up. Something big, something truly impressive, truly enlivening. 

So now you know what I’ve done. I’m guilty, absolutely. Guilty of caring, of passion, of doing what it took to stay afloat. If that’s a crime, I’ll gladly face my punishment. 

He’s coming back tonight, though, the same day I’m writing this letter. If he doesn’t like the dish, he’s leaving and taking all my business with him. If this isn’t the best thing he’s ever, ever tasted, I’m shit out of luck. I’m done, gone. Demolished and forgotten after 30 years. 

So this time, I’m leaving nothing behind. Oh, it’ll be big all right. A real shakeup, a total showstopper. I’m putting my everything into this last supper. I’m leaving all of myself on the table, roasted and served on a silver platter. 

CONWAY: There were no names or addresses provided, and research into similar events in the area have come up inconclusive. The DLO has thus ruled this letter deliverable. One of our carriers will deliver a lightly redacted copy to the correct address, and the original letter will be stored in our vault.

Dead Letter 07104, found cramped and crumbled at the bottom of a filing cabinet at the *****, Ohio police department. It had been opened and read previously, and one of our carriers intercepted it at the way to the dump. The letter reads as follows.

SECRET ADMIRER: You were not supposed to see me. We were never meant to meet. You were not supposed to see me, but oh I saw you. I saw so much of you. Alone in the cafe, reading rejection letters from various institutions. You were a meandering, flat person, nothing special inside or out. I saw you in the cafe, and that’s when you invited me into your dull little life, Daniel. All you could have seen was a man in reflective shades and a scarf. It’s a stroke of luck that you did not see behind the shades, nor under the scarf. An unfortunate number of my previous clients have done so and I deeply regret it. I am here to help, after all. Do you remember me there, Daniel? My entire appearance is tailored to ensure that you do not. I trailed you from that cafe. I took countless photos and copious notes as I followed your every move for months. I saw you in your home, at your job, in your car.

To any outside observer, your life must have appeared interesting, very interesting indeed, from that point on. Yes, to any outside observer, you were quite interesting. Not because of who you were, or what you did while you were followed, but simply because you were followed. 

You were made noteworthy by this very act of following. You see, I believe that in order to be complete, every person must have at least one secret for themselves. And what better way to keep a secret than by not knowing you even have one? To any outside observer, your secret made you fascinating, thrust you from your flat world into three dimensions. Oh, life has dimensions beyond what you could possibly know, and I had only begun to show you.

Does it matter that there was no film in my camera, that my notes were unrelated sketches? Does it matter that I will leave no record, and forget you as soon as you leave my sight? I should think not. You have a secret now, Daniel, a kernel of mystery forever in your life. No longer a mannequin, you are now fully rendered.

No, I’m not with any government or business, I’m what you might call a free agent. A purveyor of mysteries, an admirer of secrets, if you will. But then you saw me, and foul suspicions formed in your mind. Now I shall take my leave. Before I go, you must admit: I have irrevocably changed your entire life by simply following you. Do not bother with authorities, I'm already long gone. And besides, why would you tell them? Secrets are powerful, Daniel. Remember to keep them when you can.

Sincerely, 

A Secret Admirer

CONWAY: This letter appears to have had quite the history. It was initially mailed and delivered to a Daniel ****, and from there was apparently forwarded along with additional information to the **** police department. What happened to it once it arrived at the police department, we have no way of knowing. But it seems it has not seen the light of day in a number of years.

We here at the DLO deem this noteworthy enough to store in our vault. For Dead Letters 12603 and 07104, this is Conway with the Dead Letter Office of **** Ohio, signing off.