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PHILOSOPHER'S STEW

A short story that will make you think twice about what you "swallow"

PHILOSOPHER’S STEW

A short story by Jeffrey Scott

          It was 3:25 AM when my big rig crunched into the wet gravel parking lot of Hy’s Truck Stop just south of Buffalo, off the New York State Throughway. I couldn’t wait to stretch my legs and get out of the storm. Hy’s was open 24 hours, which was good if you had to take a leak after a 300 mile non-stop from Schenectady (which I did), but bad if you were hungry (which I was). Hy had a reputation that stretched like an acid rain cloud, from Pennsylvania to Ottawa, for being the worst short order cook to ever choke a trucker. There are only three reasons Hy stays in business: first is the size of his parking lot, and two and three stare at you every time his waitress leans over the counter to top off your coffee.
          Priscilla was pouring another round for two wide-eyed young marines when I entered to the din of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York on the jukebox. Hy was behind the counter, his eyes following a fly as it circled over the apple pie, procrastinating about where to land. He wore a sailor cap like Gilligan, white t-shirt, white pants, and a dishtowel tucked into his belt that hung before him like the bloodied loin cloth of some prehistoric Neanderthal. He watched as the fly landed on the pie and unrolled its little tongue to have a late night snack. One lick and it took off in a shot, headed straight for the window, banged its head on the glass a few times before it found an opening and disappeared.
          “See,” said Hy, pointing past me at the departing insect, “some of my customers fly into town just to eat my cooking.”
          I took a seat at the empty counter and checked the menu, trying to recall what gave me the least heartburn.
          “I’ll have a hot turkey sandwich,” I guessed. “And a cup of coffee.”
          “Best thing on the menu,” responded Hy, making me feel even less certain about my choice.
          As he took out two slices of Wonder Bread and went to work I spotted a used newspaper on the seat beside me. I folded it into a semblance of order and checked the front page. The headline wasn’t exactly dinner reading.

IRANIAN TERRORISTS BOMB RESTAURANT

          “You ever get any Iranians in here?” I asked.
          “Nope,” said Hy as he took an ice cream scoop and made a triple dip of mashed potatoes.
          “Too bad,” I mumbled, checking out some of the lesser headlines.

POPE SAYS LIFE BEGINS AT CONCEPTION

          I’d never really given much thought to when life began. I couldn’t remember when mine did, so I assumed it didn’t have much relevance to life. It was an interesting question, though. It couldn’t be before conception or every time a pubescent teen whacked off over a Playboy centerfold he’d be guilty of ten million counts of murder one. But if a sperm isn’t a life, and an egg isn’t a life, then what is it that changes at the instant they kiss that makes them a human being?
          Hy poured the alleged giblet gravy over the mashed potatoes and a half-dozen slices of pressed turkey, then dropped the plate before me.
          “Don’t have any cranberry sauce. How ‘bout some strawberry jelly?” he asked.
          “No thanks,” I muttered, trying not to look at the food. I figured I’d better wait a minute for my hunger to overcome my better judgment so I decided to make small talk with Hy.
          “What do you think about this ‘life begins at conception’ question?” I asked.
          “Nonsense,” he said, matter-of-factly.
          I expected him to give me some predigested answer gleaned from the 11 o’clock news, so I was surprised to hear some conviction in his voice. I chose my words carefully and gently prodded his intellect.
          “Nonsense?”
          “Absolutely! Let me give you a graphic example.” Hy held up his left hand, palm up, fingers curled open, as if he were holding an imaginary baseball. “Let’s say I had an egg in my left hand.” Then he held up his right hand. He noticed there was some gravy on it, so he wiped it across his t-shirt, then raised it again, this time holding his thumb against his fingertips. “And let’s say I had this sperm in my right hand.”
          Actually, I didn’t particularly want to imagine this, as I was having enough trouble trying not to imagine what the hot turkey sandwich was going to taste like.
          Then Hy brought his hands together making a loud clapping sound.
          “Whammo! Conception. So what’s the big deal?” Hy wiped his hands on his shirt again, as if to clean off the remains of the imaginary zygote.
          I smiled politely at Hy, then took a bite of my hot turkey sandwich. As I swallowed all I could think of was Hy’s giant sperm and egg sliding down my throat. I couldn’t decide whether it made the food taste better or worse.
          “Everybody has a different story about what makes the world go ‘round,” said Hy as he poured himself a cup of coffee, then poured mine as an afterthought. “Some people say life starts at conception, others say it’s birth. One guy says the Bible is the way, another says it’s the Koran. You know what?”
          I shook my head, washing down another bite with a gulp of coffee. Big mistake.
          “At the very best, half the people on this planet are nuts. Maybe they’re all nuts. I mean, everybody can’t be right. Can they?”
          I shrugged.
          “One religion says man’s a sinner, another says he’s a speck of dust in the cosmic nothingness. One says you come back as a cow, another says you burn in hell for eternity, while science says you don’t come back at all. One religion says the world was formed in six days, another says it rose out of the mud on the backs of elephants. No disrespect intended, but I couldn’t make up a screwier bunch of stories if I tried. I mean, if one of these religions is the truth, what about all the others? And if they’re all true then hell, stick me with a fork, I’m done; there goes logic out the window. Know what I mean?”
          I nodded, taking another bite of turkey, wishing that I was a Buddhist and therefore a vegetarian. Then he popped the big one.
          “Do you believe in God?” he asked me.
          As I felt the turkey gobbling in my stomach I wondered, then said, “I guess so.”
          “Now everyone agrees God’s omnipotent, right?”
          As I tasted Hy’s mashed potatoes I couldn’t help but think of the old riddle of God and the rock, wondering, “If God is omnipotent then surely he can make a hot turkey sandwich that even he couldn’t stomach. But if he couldn’t stomach it...” 
          Hy just went on talking, as if driven by the caffeine and other toxic wastes in his coffee: “I mean, why bother believing in God if he’s just another Woody Allen? Am I right?”
          I was getting tired of nodding.
          Hy began to pace back and forth behind the counter, looking off into some other world that I couldn’t see. “If I was God...” Hy interrupted himself and looked at me square in the eyes. “And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I am.”
          I was glad.
          “If I was God,” Hy said, continuing his pacing, “I bet I could create a much better world. And it wouldn’t take me six days, either.”
          Judging by how fast Hy slopped together my dinner I was certain he could whip up a couple of billion galaxies in no time.
          “After all, I’m a chef aren’t I?”
          I didn’t answer this time, assuming his question was rhetorical.
          “And who better to put together a world than a chef. It’s like a recipe. Ya know what I mean?”
          I was getting light-headed from the MSG and found myself nodding again.
          “I’d do it just like I do my Philadelphia cheese special,” said Hy as he pulled his check pad from his back pocket and a pencil from his ear. He started to write. “First ingredient, space. Lots of space. Yeah! Just like you need lots of water to cook spaghetti, you need lots of space to cook up a world.”
          He put the pencil to his tongue, posing to contemplate in a New Yorker’s version of Rodin’s The Thinker. I could almost see the light bulb turn on in his head as he continued to write.
          “Second ingredient, stuff. Little stuff, like protons and neutrons, so we got lots of stuff to make bigger stuff out of.”
          Hy continued to write.
          “Hey, this is starting to taste good already,” he said, licking his lips.
          It suddenly dawned on me that Hy must get all his recipes this way. My hot turkey sandwich was probably conceived in spiritual ecstasy while Hy was watching The Exorcist on cable.
          “Now of course,” said Hy, “we need lots of people in this world. And I’d make them in my image.”
          I could see it now, a trillion trillion planets, all inhabited by chefs who couldn’t cook.
          “Everyone would be a nice guy...or gal.” Hy suddenly got excited. “Oh, yeah! Can’t forget the women. Lots of women.”
          He put a star by that ingredient. Hy was going to flavor his universe with women like an Italian chef uses garlic.
          “Now let’s see, everyone would be immortal.”
          This time I interrupted him as he wrote it down.
          “Wouldn’t your world get awful crowded if no one ever died?”
          Hy looked at me as if I were a complete moron. “Who said nobody dies? People can die all they want.” He looked at himself in the mirror behind the counter. “You’d have to be a fool to want a body like this for the rest of eternity.”
          I agreed with him there.
          He turned to face me again. “Bodies, they can die. But a person, in my recipe, would be an immortal spirit, capable of being anything, experiencing anything, creating anything. Able to dream, to set goals and reach them. To love...” Hy stopped. He had stumbled over another asterisked ingredient. “Love! Lots of love.” He scribbled it down.
          “Almost forget the most important one,” I said.
          “Yeah. Better add perfect recall to the list.” He noted it down before he forgot. “And while I’m at it, better add an ounce of clairvoyance, a pinch of telepathy.”
          Hy paused to think again. I paused to look down at my plate. I couldn’t believe I’d eaten half of my hot turkey sandwich already. I prayed that Hy was right about immortality.
          “Seeing as how I’m God in this scenario, and seeing as how I’m a nice guy, that makes God a nice guy in my world.” He started to write again, turning to the back of the check to continue.
          “All this pain and suffering never gets anyone anywhere. In my world life would be a game, something to be enjoyed. Each man would be his own master. Everyone would be an artist...so to speak. And everyone would be responsible for his life and the actions he caused. None of this having to call me up to get them out of jams. I’d make everyone capable of solving his or her own problems.”
          Aha! I’d found the chink in this God’s armor. “If your universe is so perfect how come people have problems?” I asked. Again he gave me that look as if I had the I.Q. of a hamburger.
          “Are you kidding?” he said. “What would you do if you didn’t have any problems?”
          “I’d save a lot of money on truck repairs,” I said. What I didn’t say is that I wouldn’t have this bad case of heartburn throbbing in my chest.
          “No, I mean what would you do if you didn’t have any problems? No money problems, no relationship problems, no health problems, no problems to solve at all.”
          I gave that one another shrug.
          “You’d start inventing problems is what you’d do. A man’s got to have problems to solve or he goes nuts.”
          Maybe Hy was right. Maybe I didn’t have enough problems in my life. Maybe that’s what drove me to have dinner at Hy’s. Maybe what I needed was a good case of food poisoning, a couple of weeks in the hospital and a few thousand dollars in hospital bills.
          Hy checked his recipe. “Where was I?” He mumbled to himself as he read through his notes. “I’ve definitely got the basic ingredients. Yep! This is one damn good recipe.” He smiled to himself with a deep satisfaction. What egotism! Here was a man who ran the greasiest greasy spoon on the pike, whose food was so bad you didn’t need a trap to kill rats, all you had to do was brush the crumbs onto the floor. And he had the audacity to create his own universe and inaugurate himself as the Supreme Being. I had had all I could take of Hy, and far more than I could stand of his cooking. I stood up and was about to speak my peace but Hy’s turkey spoke first.
          “Burp!” it said.
          “Excuse me,” I added.
          Priscilla leaned over the counter and asked if I wanted some more. It took me a few seconds to realize she was talking about the coffee.
          “No thanks,” I said, “just some Alka-Seltzer, and the check.” But before Priscilla could write out a check Hy stopped her.
          “This one’s on the house,” said Hy.
          “Thanks,” I replied, certain I had gotten what I paid for.
          He tore his recipe out of his check pad and handed it to me. “And you can keep the recipe, too.” I looked it over. It was more of a recipe for cosmic indigestion than for a universe, but I said, “Thanks,” and headed for the door.
          As I was leaving another of Hy’s out-of-town customers flew in. 
          I waited till I got to my truck before I crumpled up the recipe and dropped it on the gravel. I got in my rig and slowly rolled out of the parking lot, not looking forward to the next 300 miles of stomach cramps. I checked my side mirror as I pulled onto the highway and noticed the crumpled ball of paper blow into the air, propelled by my exhaust. It spun a few spirals then shot up into the sky. Although the storm had died out considerably, it was still a bit windy, so I figured it must have been a little cyclone of air sucking it up. But it didn’t come down. It just kept rising higher and higher. The storm gave a final flash of lighting as the recipe disappeared into the heavens.​

©2016 Jeffrey Scott, All Rights Reserved

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