"And then there were two of us." Jason leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table with his hands clasped together under his chin. He looked around the table. His audience sat motionless, waiting for him to continue the story. Instead Jason paused to take a long sip of water. He was enjoying being the center of attention.
"Go on, go on!" someone at the table finally blurted out.
"Hot dogs stacked three feet high. I'm not even kidding. Just dogs and buns all around us. And then BAM!" Jason pounded the table and everyone jumped. "The whistle sounds. And I'm eating those wieners like they're going out of style. I mean, you have to hit your rhythm right away. Left grab, two bites and swallow, right grab and bite and swallow. Don't even bother dunking in the water yet, that's what the rookies will do." Jason paused. "Excuse me miss." He stopped the waitress.
"I'm sorry to even bring this up, but the lardons in my frisée and Reblochon salad are practically inedible. It's like the chef just served me cubed ham. Seriously, I can't even stomach it."
"I'm terribly sorry sir," the waitress looked mortified. "Can I bring you another?"
Jason waved her off dismissively. "No, I don't think another will be any better. You know what though, I think I'll try the twice minted mackerel and mushroom escabeche instead if you don't mind."
"Certainly sir. I'd be happy to bring that out to you as a replacement." She took his plate and left.
"So where was I?" Jason asked the table. "Oh yes, the Tokyo Finals. I'm hitting those hot dogs hard, just pounding them away, and I look over at Jimmy and he's just a friggin' blur. I mean he just looks like a tree chipper plowing through his plate. I swear this giant hazy cloud of flour and processed meat is billowing around him. And I knew I was in trouble."
The waitress stopped at the table to put down a basket of artisan ciabatta breads. Jason looked at them distastefully.
"Miss, if I can bother you again." Jason handed her his water glass. "This Perrier's gone slightly warm."
The waitress stood for a second, a look of panic washing across her young face. "I could bring you some ice sir?" she offered.
"Oh, good one," Jason said with a chuckle. The waitress stared blankly at him for a long moment.
"I mean, I'm assuming you're joking, because adding ice to this Perrier is not going to restore the proper carbonation level. You know what, I hate to think that I'm being too picky here. Just take this glass and I'll be fine. Thank you."
The stunned waitress accepted the glass but before she could turn to walk away, Jason caught her attention once again.
"Oh sorry, one more thing. I ordered the wild boar risotto and I'm a little concerned about the spices. Does the chef use fennel seed and peppercorns in the dish or is more of a tarragon-centric sauce? I would certainly hope he has the good sense to use the fennel considering that shallots and carrots were listed with the dish."
"Let me check with the head chef," the bewildered waitress replied slowly.
"Very good, thanks."
Jason turned his full attention back to the table. "Wow, that was embarrassing. Am I being unreasonable here?"
A chorus of "no's" came back from the others. Jason shook his head and pushed the basket of bread across the table.
"You guys go ahead," he said. "Too dense for me. Also it looks like it has rosemary in it, a terrible pairing with this whipped black truffle butter." He sighed and looked around the restaurant. "I can't believe they are serving this kind of slop. My tastes are just too refined I guess."
"Finish your story," one woman asked him eagerly.
"Oh of course. So there I was just inhaling these nasty hot dogs and I know I'm losing to Jimmy. And that's when I did something truly insane, something no one has ever attempted before. I knew I had to do something innovative. So I kicked it to the next level."
"Oh my god, what did you do?" the woman asked.
"I grabbed four hot dogs, two in each hand. Can you even imagine? And I just turn into a rabid pig eating machine. I mean, at this point I'm the goddamn honey badger of hot dog eaters. Just putting them away like they're nothing. I'm the judge, the jury, and the executioner. And they're ALL guilty. It's four-on-one and I'm winning the war with a full court press. You know what I'm saying?"
There were a few nodding heads and quiet murmurs of assent. "Actually no, no not at all," a man finally spoke up.
Jason leaned back in his chair, "Dude. I was eating hotdogs as fast as I could. That's it. That's the story man."
"Did you win?" the woman asked.
"Oh God no. Jimmy killed me. No one can eat four hot dogs at once. It's insanity. I almost died of asphyxiation." Jason looked off into the distance. "I can still hear them calling my name, 'Omnivore', 'Omnivore', over and over. Then I passed out with a blocked esophagus. It was glorious."
The waitress had been standing by the table, not wanting to interrupt the story. When Jason stopped, she stepped forward. "Ok everyone, I have your plates. Careful some are hot."
"Is it always hot dogs at these competitions?" another man asked.
"Oh no. It can be anything, each competition is different," Jason said with a wave of his hand. "Mayonnaise, Rocky Mountain oysters, haggis, SPAM, raw onions, you name it and I've eaten it. My record for mayo is seven pounds in just under nine minutes. That stuff just slides down. Butter though. That's hard. It coats your mouth with grease, and the fat content really slows you down."
Jason paused and looked down at his plate, an elegant and tight arrangement of wild boar and locally sourced whole roasted carrots on a bed of saffron-infused Carnaroli risotto with a light blueberry brandy sauce.
"God this looks terrible," he sighed.
"Ok, stop stop stop!" Kevin called out. He zipped up his navy jumpsuit.
The director sighed, "What now Peters?"
"This just isn't working for me. I mean, what's this scene trying to accomplish anyway? Where is my character going here?" Kevin ran his fingers through his hair. "I need to understand my motivation. What's my goddamn motivation?"
The lady in front of him rose to her feet. "This is friggin' ridiculous," she said. "Hey listen, if I don't do it for you fine, just tell me." She stormed off set.
"Just wait honey. Wait! Shit, will you wait a minute please?!" The director pleaded. He was getting desperate.
"I can't be on my knees all day," she called back. "I'm gonna grab a smoke." The deep metallic scraping sounds of a sliding glass door indicated that she had just gone outside.
The director stood up and took a long slow breath. I'm an accomplished director. I'm an accomplished director. I'm an accomplished director and this is just part of the job, he told himself. Ah, who are you kidding? You're a babysitter with an Arriflex D-20 and a couple of hot lights. He pivoted slowly to face his male star.
"What do we do Peters? What do we do now? You're killing my movie. You know that right?"
Kevin wiped some sweat from his forehead. The set lights were hot. He grabbed a bottle of Aquafina from the kitchen counter. "It's just, I don't know man, the script is too light you know? It's all positions and no direction." He waved his hands helplessly in the air.
The director bit his lip. "We've been over this before. You're the plumber ..."
"Yeah yeah, I know that. But listen, am I licensed?"
"Do I work for someone or do I own my own company?"
"Whatever you want."
"Ok, fine. Do I secretly want to go back to school and get a law degree?"
"For fuck's sake - we're shooting a porno here!" The director exploded. "This isn't Driving Miss Daisy! This isn't Bridges of Madison County! It's porn Peters. It's porn. That's it. We need you for that." He waved in the general direction of Kevin "Kielbasa" Peters' generous package.
"I know, I get that. I totally get that." Kevin paused, "I just really want to nail this scene."
"I just want you to nail the girl."
Kevin took a swig of water. "Just so you know, I do want my law degree. You know, someday."
The director put his hands over his face and took a long drawn out breath. "Awesome."
"And I think I'd be the type of person who'd take a deep discount on the bill you know, because of the way she's paying me for the services."
"What's wrong with her dishwasher anyway?"
"It doesn't wash dishes."
"Could it be under warranty?"
"Honestly Peters if you don't shut up this second I will cancel this whole thing. In fact there's probably a hard salami in the fridge. I'm willing to cut you out of this all together. She can fuck herself for all I care. The title will be 'One Less Plumber' instead of 'Servicing the Service Men'. I'm not kidding."
Kevin raised his hands in mock surrender. "Ok ok. I got it."
"Good." The director turned and called out, "Someone get Violet back in here please!"
Kevin put the water bottle back on the counter. It was good to finally have some creative direction. "How someone could move from 'doggy-style' to 'reverse cowgirl' and then finish with 'rusty bike pump' and a facial without first knowing if he's gonna get a law degree someday is beyond me," he muttered to no one in particular.
"Bradley. I need to see you in my office."
"Sure boss," Bradley said with a sigh. It had been another rough game. Oh-for-four with two K's. He was stuck in what was turning out to be the worst slump of his career. He'd tried everything, extra batting practice, no batting practice, stepless hitting, t-ball, slump busting with fatties, uggos, trollops, and hoes, not washing his socks, wearing women's panties, incense, voodoo, shaving his head, shaving something else, and even growing out his facial hair. None of it had worked. And now the manager wanted to see him. Bradley sighed again and pulled up his sweaty socks. He might as well get it over with.
The walk down to the manager's office was long and Bradley couldn't help but speculate as he padded down the corridor. Maybe he was being moved lower in the rotation again? Oh lord, please don't put me after Collins, he thought. It was embarrassing enough to be moved out of the three-hole, but batting after the catcher would be unbearable. Or maybe he'd be sitting out the next roadtrip. Triple A ball? Oh, please no.
Bradley reluctantly approached the manager's half-open door. He paused, and then knocked.
"Yeah, come on in," said a gruff voice.
The manager wasn't having a particularly good run either. The team had lost seven of the last nine and had effectively given up any shot at the division. It didn't help that his best hitter, the reigning NL batting champion, was mired in a hitting slump so bad that none of the other players would even look at him for fear of catching the bad vibes.
"Sit down Bradley," he said with wave of his hand.
"Thanks boss." Bradley had a hard time looking his manager in the eyes. His mind was still racing through the various nightmare scenarios.
"How's it going champ?" the manager said with a tight smile. His eyes were crinkled at the corners and he suddenly seemed old and tired.
"Oh you know - " Bradley trailed off, and then restarted, "- every game's a new game. Hanging in there. Just need to break this slump, then it'll be alright."
"Yes, well about that . . . we've ah, decided to have you tested for several substances."
"What?" Bradley sat up with shock. "You think I'm using performance enhancing drugs?!"
"No no," the manager said. "Nothing like that. We just want to make sure that everything's on the up and up. We're paying you eighteen mil a year, I think we're justified in taking certain steps to protect our investment."
"I don't understand," Bradley sputtered. "I'm not using steroids if that's what you think. My last test was like a month ago."
"This has nothing to do with roids Bradley. We're actually concerned about performance dehancing substances."
"I'm sorry, what?"
Suddenly, there was a soft knock at the door. The manager stood up slowly, his eyes still locked on his star hitter. "Come in," he said.
The door opened and Bradley turned around to see one of the trainers enter the room. He was holding several items in his hands. "It's positive sir."
The manager winced, "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure." The trainer walked across the room and dumped the items on the desk. It looked like a pile of trash.
"We found Carl's Jr. wrappers in his locker, a half-eaten Butterfinger and a pack of Skittles in his bag, and these -" the trainer reached into his pockets with both hands and pulled out two unopened Twinkies, "were in his SUV."
The trainer waved the Twinkies in the air in what he no doubt must have considered to be an accusatory manner but which more resembled the necessary movements to safely guide a passenger jet into the terminal.
Bradley jumped to his feet. "Now wait a minute!"
"Sit down Bradley," the manager commanded.
"No!" he shouted. "This isn't right. I mean, you went through my ride?!"
"Look at this crap Bradley! Carl's Jr.? Come on now!" The manager was red-faced and bellowing. "This evidence is pretty clear. Plus you never lock your Escalade. Everyone knows that."
Bradley stammered. It was hard to argue with the unwrapped Twinkies sitting before him. He just hoped the trainer hadn't found the remaining three boxes in the trunk. It was time for damage control.
"Boss," he said, "I don't know how those things got in my locker, but I promise to look into it. I'll talk to my nutritionist tomorrow." Bradley turned smoothly to the trainer, immediately realizing he didn't know the man's name. "Listen guy, are you certain it was my Escalade?"
"I'm certain," The trainer nodded firmly. He was still waving the Twinkies around like glow sticks at a trance club. "License plate said BORN2HIT, so I knew it was yours. Oh yeah, and I also found like a dozen Slim Jims in the back seat but I couldn't carry them in."
"Slim Jims?!" the manager exploded. He was hot now.
"Now just hold on guys." Bradley took a step back. "Slim Jims can be part of a nutritious breakfast. Let's not get crazy here. I'll tell you what, let's have a meeting tomorrow before the Tigers game and we'll talk about this some more when we've both calmed down."
The manager was twitching with anger behind his desk. "I can't believe this Bradley!" he exploded again. His voice was getting hoarse. "I thought maybe your uniform was a little dirty from the game today but now I'm beginning to think it might be CHOC-O-LATE!" He held on to the last word for emphasis.
"That isn't even rational," said Bradley, taking another step back.
"Oh it's not is it?" his manager snorted. "Slim Jims aren't rational! Not when you're hitting .118 for the month of AU-GUST."
Bradley shook his head. "I just really want to thank both of you for bringing this to my attention. It's really great to know that so many people are looking out for me. It makes this place feel like a family. Truly it does." He was at the door now.
Bradley paused to let the 'family' reference fully sink in. He was a master of charm, and even though he couldn't hit a grapefruit of a hanging slider, he hadn't lost his ability to capture an audience. "I won't forget this when my contract renegotiations come up. A family. I'm calling my agent right now."
And just like that, Bradley Anderson, former NL batting champ and all-around junk foodie, slipped out the door and headed quickly back down the hall. No benching and no triple A. It was the best he could have hoped for. He smiled and reached into his pocket for a Snickers bar. It was warm and melty and Bradley unconsciously wiped his chocolatey fingers on his uniform. Mmmm, peanuts and caramel. Maybe it wasn't that bad of a day after all.
Genjo was close. He could feel it. In fact this might be his last form before he attained universal consciousness and became light, much as the Buddha had done so many years before. He could feel the grass underneath and the sun overhead. And yet he was also the very grass underneath himself and he was the sunlight above himself. There was no self. There was only spirit. And spirit had no physical boundaries. Genjo had understood this for some time. He had reflected on this simple truth through most of his past lives. In different forms and different lives he had been mindful of this. Yet here he remained, a physical being one glimmering step away from universal consciousness, from Buddhahood.
A smell invaded his crystalline thoughts, breaking his concentration. What is that? It smelled tantalizing, like deliciousness wrapped around culinary divinity, and possibly smothered in savory and highly saturated fats. Stop it! Genjo struggled to focus on the light within, the universal platitudes that had taken him so close to his ultimate goal. No seriously what IS that smell? His eyes flitted open.
"Hey, what up dude?" Brian "Bud" Collins from Newark, New Jersey stood in front of him, chewing a mouthful of food.
Genjo blinked several times. "Who are you?" he intoned. His voice had a certain power that barely hinted at his awesome intellectual prowess and didn't need volume to impress.
"Oh hey, I'm Bud. Bud Collins. Just flew in this afternoon." He wiped his free hand against his jeans and held it outstretched. Genjo eyed the freshly applied grease stains on the man's clothing and made no movement.
Bud faltered slightly, "Ok, no problem. Not into the hand-shaking thing. I can respect that. My wife's the same, she keeps the Purell close by. You know what I mean? You know? No. Ok, no problem." Bud lapsed into awkward silence.
Genjo shifted his gaze to the man's other hand. "What are you eating?"
"What? Oh this. Yeah, it's awesome. Bacon cheeseburger. There's a fast food place at the airport. It's not Mickey D's but hey it'll do right? You know what I mean? No? Anyway..." Bud looked away and sort of mumbled to himself "I mean, everyone loves bacon, right? bacon makes everything better."
If Genjo had known anything about trains, the term 'train wreck' would have immediately come to mind. But he actually didn't know anything about trains, and so the word 'idiot' popped into his head instead. This man was clearly an idiot. But that burger did look tantalizing. Genjo immediately realized the devastating consequences of this line of thought. He had strictly forbidden himself from eating meat at least 17 lives ago. And now he was sooooo close to enlightenment.
But look at that bacon! His eyes kept coming back to the cheeseburger.
"You want a bite don't ya?" Bud piped up again.
Genjo slowly nodded his head yes and said firmly, "No. Definitely not." A strange look passed over his face as he wrestled with his thoughts. Eternal understanding. Melted cheese. Universal oneness. Bacon. Buddha. Bacon. Bacon. More bacon.
"Ah what the hell, bring that bad boy over here." Genjo commanded.
Bud shuffled over. "Sure man, have a bite."
"Oh, I'll have a bite." Genjo reached out with surprising quickness and snatched the burger from the surprised American. He held it at arms length for a long moment as though appreciating its beauty. Then he took a massive bite. He chewed slowly and with deliberate precision.
"Oh. My. God. This is, mmmm ... so, worth it," he managed to blurt out amid mouthfuls of beef, processed cheese, bacon, and enriched flour. Enlightenment could wait a few more thousand years. What the hell did the Buddha know about bacon cheeseburgers anyways?
It hadn't been a great week. The elephants had stampeded through the civic center. Again. Luckily they had only trampled a handful of older women, but that was hardly the point was it? Atticus sighed and looked disinterestedly at the pile of molding grapes on his lunch platter. He absolutely hated the exotic animal shows. They were so much harder to coordinate. Attempting to parade all species of wild animals around the amphitheater and keep them from mauling each other....or the patrons. It was exhausting.
Timid footsteps padded down the white marble hall. They stopped shy of the entrance.
"Come," Atticus mumbled.
Blartus entered the room slowly. "We have a bit of a situation."
"What is it now?" Atticus didn't even bother hiding his annoyance. He flung a particularly moldy grape in the direction of his assistant.
Blartus ducked. "We're running out of lions sir."
"Gods almighty!" Atticus thundered. He rose unsteadily from the table and caught himself before he fell back down. Too much wine. "What do you mean 'running out of lions'?! The Games start tomorrow!"
"The last batch of Christians, gave them ulcers we think." Blartus looked down, "Not a very balanced diet if you ask me."
"Oh, you'd suggest that they receive a more religiously diverse diet? Too much monotheism for the king of the jungle?!" Atticus threw the entire plate of grapes this time.
"I'm just saying...." Blartus' voice trailed off. He brushed some grapes off his toga. Grape stains! Great. These will never come out, he thought.
Atticus sat back down. This could be fixed. Everything can be fixed. "So how many lions do we have for the Games?"
"Just one sir."
"Yes, but we do think he's quite hungry." Blartus smiled weakly.
Atticus put his head in his hands. One lion would never work. The crowds would be displeased. The emperor would be displeased. He swallowed thickly. "What else eats Christians?"
"Ok, how many bears do we have available?"
"Actually none sir." Blartus looked nervous. "But in my defense I thought the question was academic."
Atticus contemplated hurling himself at his idiot assistant, but decided that in his current state he might miss badly. He stifled a hiccup. And then another.
Blartus kicked at a grape. "Couldn't the gladiators just kill them sir?"
"No!" Atticus choked. He had risen to the top of the creative arts world and he knew the formulas for success. Gladiators killing Christians? That would be barbaric. It didn't make any sense. He took a deep breath. "The entertainment industry is about relationships Blartus. We have to set a scene, set the forces in motion, forces that will collide... because they have to collide. You can't just throw anything out into the ring. They have to have a relationship. It gives the whole thing meaning. You know?"
Blartus had no clue.
Atticus sighed. He was an artist after all. He couldn't expect the proletariat to understand. "How about tigers? Any other big cats?"
"We have two tigers. And a handful of Iberian wolves, mangy bunch them."
Atticus tapped a finger against his pursed lips. This just might work. "Ok, we release the lion from west entrance. The crowd will boo-"
"They'll boo?" interrupted Blartus.
"Yes of course, they'll be expecting a pack of lions, like we've always done. Try to keep up. So, we release the single lion from west entrance, we let them start to boo a little, then we release the tiger from east entrance. That will be new. Confusing but interesting. Then, we release the wolves from south entrance!" He stood with a flourish.
"Great." Blartus smiled. "Any worries that the cats will go after each other instead of you know, the Christians?"
"Good point. We'll set up blinds. Use the ones with leaves, it will look like a hunt. A safari hunt in the wilds of Africa! Great gods I'm good." Atticus looked around as if expecting random applause to materialize around him.
Blartus paused and then clapped several times. The sound echoed uncomfortably down the vast marble hallway. "Or....we could dress the christians up as zebras." Blartus felt emboldened. This was his chance, his opportunity to set the scene. "You know, with costumes with stripes and the, and with... and..." he trailed off under Atticus' withering gaze.
"Get out. Get OUT!"
Blartus scampered away. Atticus glared around the empty room and then sat down heavily. Dress the Christians up as zebras?! He shook his head. There was a right way and a wrong way to do this. Blartus just didn't seem to get it. Christians in zebra costumes wasn't classy at all. Now gladiators wearing zebra costumes ... that idea had some merit. Atticus picked a grape off the floor and brushed it against his toga. He popped it into his mouth and chewed it thoughtfully. Gladiators in zebra costumes battling hungry lions! Great gods, it was brilliant! Atticus almost fell out of his chair in excitement.
"Is anyone writing these ideas down?!" he called out to the empty room. "No? No one? Must I do everything around here?" Atticus stood clumsily and began searching for parchment. This idea had to be written down. It was that good.