Bob has a wandering eye, not in the forbidden fruit sense, but in the less familiar and less hazardous strabismus sense. To conceal the offending abnormality from the distressed gazes of fragile strangers, Bob wears a tinted right lens on his eyeglasses. Bob and his friend Otto occupy a corner table, facing the entrance, at the House of Wheat & Water restaurant in Normal, locally acclaimed for its nouveau prairie cuisine. Bob insists they’re boiling cabbage back in the kitchen, even though there is no cabbage of any kind listed on the menu. He knows so from the corrosive smell of rotting fish heads wafting through the dining room. And from his irritated and watery left eye. The hydrogen sulfide, he explains. Otto sniffs the air. “Acorns.”
The two friends are awaiting the arrival of a very important person who has something valuable, they hope, to tell them. They nurse tumblers of thin lemonade and make small talk to allay their anxiety. Otto peruses the menu and says, “I see that Chef is doing some fun things with parsnips.”
Bob says, “Why don’t you take off the toque.”
Otto pulls the wool hat down to his eyebrows. “It’s my brand,” he says.
“It’s rude,” Bob says.
“People know me by the hat and the thumbs.” Otto has hammer thumbs, foreshortened and thin at the base, with tips as small and fleshy as pearl onions.
Otto catches Bob’s eye and points with his chin to the table at Bob’s right. “Do you see that?”
He does not, of course. The diner, a gentleman in a tweed jacket, has covered his head with a large embroidered napkin, beneath which he is chomping, it sounds like, on crackling bone. Bob turns and sees a pair of anisodactyl avian feet on the diner’s white china plate. When the gentleman removes the napkin, he picks a tiny russet bill out of his mouth and sets it beside the feet. He dabs grease from his glossy lips and sips his pink watermelon champagne.
Otto points to the parchment menu. “Ortolan bunting.” He reads, “Drowned in Armingac, the fig-engorged bird is roasted and served piping hot on a bed of frisée. When bitten into, the pea-sized lungs and heart burst with lemon-scented flower on the tongue.”
The bell over the door rings and an undistinguished looking couple enter. He stomps his boots on the carpet; she pins her hair back with a fierce-looking hair clip.
“False alarm,” Bob says. “Be still my heart.”
Otto says, “How will we recognize him?”
“The wheel. The nabob. The VIP.”
“He’ll recognize us.”
“We’ve been chosen.”
“What will he tell us?”
“Or what will he ask us?”
“Whatever the question, our answer will be yes.”
Their waiter, Baptiste, arrives with a crystal bowl in each hand.
Bob says, “We didn’t order this.”
Baptiste says, “Compliments of Chef André.” He sets the bowls on the table, steps back, bows from the waist, unfolds his hands, and says. ”What we have for you gentlemen is potato starch and dirt soup.”
Otto says, “Dirt is a metaphor, I take it.”
“Dirt is a special black soil from the Eastern Prefecture.”
“Is this on the menu?”
“Yes, sir, just there below Small Plates: under Geophagy.” Baptiste points to the item with his baby finger.
Otto says, “The sauteéed sea bass. How is that prepared?”
“With dirt risotto and burdock root. It’s our most popular dish.”
Otto samples the soup, smacks his lips, and drops his spoon.
Bob is skeptical. “Dirt.”
Otto says, “We live in filthy times.”
Baptiste tells him, “We all need to eat more dirt to combat allergies and auto-immune diseases — we’re not exposed to enough of the micro-organisms that once covered all of our foods.”
“You’re just saying that.”
“I’ll leave you gentlemen to your soup.”
“We’re expecting a third.”
“So you said.”
“Just so you know.”
Otto says, “I loved being dirty as a kid. It meant I had done something. It was like a badge of honor.”
“I ate mud pies.”
“Me, wallpaper paste.”
“Are you going to finish your soup?”
“I suppose our lives will be quite different from here on out.”
“They say he always knows exactly what one needs.”
“What do we need?”
“How is it we fell from grace?”
Baptiste returns. “The important person you are waiting for cannot keep his appointment and has rescheduled for tomorrow at the same time. He sends his regrets.”
“Isn’t that the way with important people,” Otto says.
“Tomorrow it is then,” Bob says. “We’ve waited this long. What’s one more day.”
Otto says, “You’ve told us this before, haven’t you?”
“As recently as yesterday,” Baptiste says.
Bob takes off his glasses, rubs his eyes, and says, “Is this some sort of game?”
“Which one of us are you looking at?” Baptiste says.
“I’m only the messenger.”
Bob says, “Perhaps we should go.”
“We should go,“ Otto says.
Bob puts on his glasses. Otto twiddles his little thumbs.
Baptiste says, “Are we ready to order?”
Bob says, “What would you suggest?”
“Our special house omelet made with creamy turkey eggs and sprinkled with a mealy loam from the White River Valley, which has a slight potash nose and a robust iron oxide finish.”
“Sold,” Otto says.
“Two,” Bob says.