The Gourmet by Henry Slesar
by Henry Slesar
Published in Playboy, May 1968
Illustration by Peter Green
Eldridge Pachman tested the popular conviction that large blue quantities of sky, sea and silence can heal and soothe a troubled mind. This notion proved false. He spent the first week of his vacation in Greece, in a small white Aegean hotel that lay stunned and bleaching in the sunlight, and he discovered in himself an incipient agoraphobia, the terror of open spaces. He spent most of the week in his room, where he could lie on the bed and ruminate on his divorce, on the wife who was now spending his money, the children who were so oddly indifferent to the sea change in their lives. Then he went to a Balearic Island, where the white buildings were at least splashed with scarlet and purple foliage and where the coastal cliffs were penetrated by peaceful inlets with sandy beaches surrounded by pine. But he was no happier there. Luckily, he saw the colonel one day, and that was exactly what his brain needed: not healing and soothing but a mystery to ponder.
Pachman wrote magazine articles for a living. Frequently, he ghosted celebrity-written pieces or autobiographies. His favorite joke about himself concerned the question asked by his seven-year-old son; the boy wanted to know if his first name was Astoldto. Pachman averaged $20,000 a year, although in the lawyer’s office, his wife, her lips looking like a closed purse, claimed he averaged $30,000. He was good at his work. He had an awesome gift for remembering names and faces.
But when he first spotted the colonel, sitting in a closed car parked on the beach, Eldridge wasn't struck by the familiarity of his face. The scene itself was too remarkable. The shabby old Renault, its tires threatened by the lapping water; the neatly dressed driver picking shells out of the gluey sand; and the colonel, sitting behind the upraised window of his vehicle, puffing on a cigarette and peering out at the sea, toward the island of Vedra rising sheerly on the horizon. Later, the colonel told Pachman that the island was inhabited only by blue lizards. He commented, "Lizards can be the swiftest creatures on earth. It may take days to trap one. Then the disappointment is keen, when one discovers their hide is so tough they are inedible."
Pachman spoke to the manager of his pension, who was only too happy to talk about the colonel. His full name was Colonel Antonio Sebastian Teixeras. No one knew if the title was military, honorary or spurious. He was wealthy by the standards of the island, being able to afford a boat, a house and a manservant. The servant's name was Rodrigo and he was a mute, and he may or may not have once been the colonel's orderly. They lived in solitude in a dwelling that used to be the highest on the island, until the mayor pompously decided to build his own house above it. The colonel had been indifferent to this; but then, the pension manager shrugged, the colonel was indifferent to most things.
The next time Pachman saw the colonel, they were exactly three yards apart, the measurement made possible by the length of cloth the saleswoman at the Gran Galeria was holding between them. Pachman had wandered into the shop as a dutiful tourist. The colonel was there because the owner imported English cigarettes for him. The brand name was reason enough for Pachman to strike up a conversation, and he was pleased to learn that the colonel was not only willing to speak but able to speak his language.
He was an immaculate man of medium height, whose military bearing added an illusionary inch or two. Pachman guessed his age at 70. He was craggy-featured, small-eyed and his nose was a nose. Within the first few seconds, Pachman was certain that he looked upon a familiar face.
When they parted, the colonel, with ritual courtesy, suggested that they meet again. Pachman asked him where he went for his tertuiia, having been told that Spaniards prefer to hold their social conversations away from home. The colonel mentioned the Cafe Francia, the smallest of the three on the island.
For the rest of the day, Pachman had something else to chew on beside memories of his divorce. Why would the face of a Spanish ex-officer, on a small island in the Mediterranean, be so hauntingly familiar?
He went to the Cafe Francia that evening and saw the colonel's Renault parked outside. Rodrigo was in the back seat, curled up like a child, asleep. The colonel was alone at a small table with a glass of wine and he greeted Pachman almost as if the appointment had been arranged.
But nothing the colonel said that night gave Pachman the clue he needed. He confined his comments to the island and its neighbors, to remarks about the cats in the street, the fish in the sea, the lizards on Vedra. When Eldridge inquired about his past, the colonel answered by sipping his wine. And yet, inches from the narrow contour of his face, the promontory of his nose, Pachman was more certain than ever that he knew this man and knew him because of some event that made those features famous or infamous.
For two days, he pondered. On the third day, he went to the Cafe Francia early, to try its dinner fare. The menu boasted langouste, baby octopus and bean dishes. While eating his lobster, Eldridge was suddenly struck with the answer and it was electrifying enough to cause the fork to drop from his. hand and clatter to the tiled floor. After that, he finished his meal quickly, no longer willing to enjoy the colonel's tertulia that night.
But with only four days of his holiday remaining (he had committed himself to the autobiography of a silent-screen star), Pachman knew he had to have his answer confirmed or denied. And the only man who could do that was Colonel Teixeras. Or, rather, if his answer proved correct, Colonel Miguel Fernan- dez Malagaras.
The next evening, he arranged his encounter with the colonel at the Cafe Francia and, with hardly a preamble, said:
"You know, Colonel, when I was a very young boy, I didn't collect stamps, coins or model airplanes; my passion was old magazines. And certain articles stayed in my memory, especially those that told of mysteries still. unsolved. One story I recall concerned an officer in the air force of Spain who, in 1933? 1934? undertook an experiment in transatlantic military transport, in an aircraft made for passenger service, by Handley Page, I believe. With a dozen officers and enlisted men aboard, the plane left Madrid early one morning and was never heard from again—until parts of the wreckage were spotted in the Mediterranean by a fishing boat."
Pachman, watching the colonel carefully, was disappointed by his reaction—or, rather, the lack of it.
"As a result," he continued, "a search of the area was made and the survivors of the crash were removed from a small island by a British destroyer. Or, rather, the survivor, singular—since,of the twelve men who left Madrid, only one, the commanding officer, was alive. In fact, his survival was so miraculous that it earned him dozens of speculative articles in many magazines. I read all I could find, looking for definite answers to the mystery, but there were none. The officer—his name was Colonel Miguel Fernandez Malagaras—stuck doggedly to a story that simply made no sense."
Now Pachman saw the reaction he wanted. The ash of the colonel's cigarette dropped onto the colonel's lapel and he failed to notice it.
"The officer's story was simple and tragic in its beginning. The plane developed an oil leak. The pilot, being at the point of no return, had no choice but to crash into the ocean or attempt a forced landing on one of several small, barren, uninhabited islands within sight. The attempt was made and it was partially successful; the aircraft was brought to ground on a strip of volcanic rock. The plane was demolished, the pilot and two enlisted men were killed, the others injured or shaken but alive.
"As commanding officer, Colonel Malagaras naturally took charge of the group and tried to keep them going until they could be rescued. The effort was doomed. There was a fresh-water inlet on the island, but except for a handful of lizards, there was nothing even vaguely edible. Death by starvation seemed inevitable, so they spent their days praying for the sight of a vessel and their nights dreaming of steaks and roasts and puddings .... "
He heard the colonel heave a sigh.
"When he was finally rescued, Colonel Malagaras had no idea how much time had passed; actually, it was eight weeks. There were no bodies on the island; as a health measure, he decreed that each dead man should be weighted with stones and slipped into the sea, an unpleasant chore he performed himself.
However, during the rescue, two of the bodies were recovered from the deep, having drifted into the shallows; they were fearfully mangled, presumably for the pleasure of passing sharks.
"It was a grim and lamentable story and it brought the colonel world-wide attention. But the attention swiftly turned into something else, something unspoken at the time of the rescue, a question none of the newsmen voiced aloud but a question that permeated every account of the tale when it appeared in the public press. To put it bluntly: They were curious about the colonel's weight, which was five pounds more than the weight on the official air-force record, a measure taken only one day prior to the flight. Eight men died of starvation, but Colonel Miguel Fernandez Malagaras was overweight, pink-cheeked and, according to army physicians, in excellent health."
Pachman took the chance of looking directly into the colonel's eyes. But on both sides of the great nose, the pupils were dark, empty and devoid of revelation.
"You can imagine how the rumor mills began to grind, Colonel," Pachman said. "You can imagine the speculation. How was it possible for eight men to starve and one to grow fat? The colonel credited his healthy constitution. He claimed that the weighing machine had been in error. He spoke of having gotten grossly overweight prior to the flight and even attempted to laugh about his indulgences in food and drink. But his fellow officers reduced this story to ashes. They said the colonel was always a lean man. The scale used to weigh the colonel was stolen by an enterprising newspaperman and tested in a laboratory. It was found to be accurate. There was no military tribunal, no private investigation, no public charges; nowhere in any official document did the word appear; the word that was unspoken in public statements and unwritten in printed accounts; the word that every man and woman in the world was whispering. Cannibalism. That was the word, Colonel."
The old man deadened his cigarette and made a gesture for more wine. In the movement, light struck his eyes and Pachman saw their glassy surfaces.
"The answer seemed terribly obvious to everyone. Colonel Malagaras had been in charge of the expedition. He had been in command after the crash. He had formulated the rules for survival, including the 'sanitary' rules for disposing of the dead. He had gotten rid of the bodies himself. But the world guessed that the method had been more than honorable burial at sea. It had been burial, but only after the colonel's dinner."
The wine arrived. The colonel sipped it, put down the glass and rose.
"Good night, señor,” he said. "Thank you for the entertaining story. Now is the hour I retire. I hope to see you again."
Pachman was impressed by the dignity of his exit. But that dignity faltered at the door. The colonel stumbled and might have fallen, but Pachman hurried over and seized the wishbone of his arm. The colonel tried to pull away, but Pachman persisted and helped him to his car. In the open plaza, the colonel allowed his eyes to blaze. "You must not tell that filthy story again!" he said. "It is all a lie and I am not that man! Why can't you let me live in peace?" Then he clouted Rodrigo's shoulder and woke the mute. When the Renault drove away, a noose of smoke escaped the window as the colonel lit a cigarette.
The next morning, Rodrigo delivered a note to Pachman's pension, asking him to call at the colonel's home early that evening. The note was left with the manager, who made no pretense of not having read it. He was astonished that the recluse would extend any invitation, especially to a foreigner. It was a miracle; he predicted that the fish would jump out of the sea that day and hook the people.
Pachman obeyed the summons. There were 115 steps to be climbed to reach the old man's house. It was smaller than it appeared from the beach, with only four rooms: one for dining, one for cooking, one for sleeping and one for talking. He entered the last, admired its few pieces of Moorish furniture and waited for the colonel to make his statement. He was grateful that the colonel, too, was not one for preambles.
"What will you do, Senor Pachman?" he asked. "You say you are a journalist by profession. A journalist has no morality about such things. Will you go back to your country and write of this?"
Pachman hesitated, then said: “Yes, I've been considering it. However, I wasn't going to reveal where I met you, Colonel Malagaras, nor the name you are choosing to use, I wouldn't expose you to such publicity. You needn't worry."
"But I do worry," the colonel said bitterly. "I worry from the force of a thirty-five-year habit, senor. Expecting momentarily to hear that word whispered behind me on the street. To hear that word in the cafe or from a passing tourist on the beach or from some new friend with old memories, such as you. I am not a recluse by nature or temperament, Senor Pachman, only by necessity; I crave human company, I enjoy my tertulias, I would prefer to travel; all these things-are denied me."
"You never leave the island?" Pachman said. ''I've heard you own a boat."
"The boat is mine, but Rodrigo is its captain; he uses it to bring supplies and provisions from the mainland. No, senor, I am a prisoner of myself, a prisoner of my own fear, the fear of recognition that has been fading slowly for three dozen years, until you came like a curse to this island."
"Colonel Malagaras," Pachman said, ''I'll be honest with you. As a journalist, I can't ignore what is in front of my own eyes. I can't pretend you don't exist and I can't feel so much compassion for you that I can keep silent for the sake of it. But I'll tell you this. There's something here even more important to me than my job."
"What is that?"
Pachman said: "Right here in front of me is the answer to a mystery I've wondered about since I was a child."
"So I'd like to make a bargain. I'll offer to keep my silence, but I want something in return."
"Not money? I have none."
"Not money. It's an answer I want, Colonel. The truth about what" happened on that expedition; what happened to those eight men on the island; what accounted for your rosy cheeks and avoirdupois while they starved. Not the answer you gave the press thirty-five years ago, Colonel; an answer I can accept and believe. And I give you my solemn oath that nothing you tell me will be published through my doing."
Pachman expected one of two replies: an outright refusal to speak or, more likely, a reiteration of what the colonel had doggedly told the world in the year of his crisis. But after the colonel had risen, paced and smoked through a cigarette, the old man said:
"Very well, senor. It may prove to be a relief to speak the truth to someone."
Then he said:
"I am not a cannibal. I am something worse."
Pachman felt a sharp thrill.
"And because I am something worse, I was unable to be honest with the press at the time of my rescue. The inference they made was unexpected. Abominable! And yet, I was unwilling to retract my story, unwilling to speak the truth, unwilling to reveal the true shame of what I had done."
His pause was so long that Pachman prompted him.
"And what did you do wrong, Colonel? What were you that was worse than a cannibal?"
"A coward," the colonel said.
"You see, senor, there was a detail that was never mentioned in the news stories. It was the fact that the aircraft that crashed on the island carried more than twelve passengers. It also contained provisions. Yes, Señor Pachman, food; a supply meant to sustain twelve hungry soldiers on a long flight. Not a supply for two months, it's true, but quite enough to keep ... one man alive."
Pachman leaned back, feeling a small warm flush on his face.
"After the plane crash, and before I set the wreckage adrift in the hope of attracting attention, I removed that box of provisions and hid it on the other side of the island. I had every intention of rationing the food by some system that would keep us alive until help came. But then, as the painful truth dawned, that the odds against rescue were enormous, I realized that the pitiful supply of tinned meat and biscuits would merely be a final banquet. Then we would all surely starve to death on that lonely, miserable rock that had been thrust out of the bottom of the earth. And, besides—I was their leader, the commander of the expedition; I needed whatever strength that food could provide, so I could maintain discipline. And I knew that once they were aware of the presence of those meager rations, they would fight one another for them and die, anyway.
"I did what 1 thought was right, senor. But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps, as the days passed and it was clear that death was coming for all of us, my fear overwhelmed my reason and my stratagem for saving all their lives became only a device for saving my own .... "
The colonel stiffened in his rattan chair and reached for his glass of sherry. He lifted it slowly, as if it were a great weight. Pachman cleared his throat and said:
"Thank you, Colonel. Thank you for telling me. I know how difficult it must have been."
"Yes," the colonel said. "I would have preferred to say nothing. You have forced me to speak of something I wish to forget. I hope you will keep your promise to forget it as well."
Pachman said: "That was my bargain, Colonel."
He left immediately after and returned to his pension. He wasn't sure if he was elated or depressed. He was happy to have the mystery solved, unhappy to have it forbidden to him as a subject for his typewriter. He found himself composing titles for the article. He began to think of outlets for the story. He began to wonder if it wasn't worthy of an entire book; he could visualize it stacked in the bookstore windows; he was almost ready to compose the imaginary reviews. It seemed to him that such a story might well be a watershed in his career. Pachman began to feel the stirring of excitement, the first real excitement about his work he had experienced since the last three years of his unfortunate marriage.
Suddenly, he knew he had to have a rationale for publishing the colonel's story. He wouldn't present it as a rationale, not even to himself. But it was so obvious, so clear, so convincing. He would go to the colonel at once and say:
"Colonel Malagaras, please hear me out before you refuse me permission to write your story. For thirty-five years, you've lived the life of a recluse, your face so repugnant that you hid it from the world, your name so dishonored that you abandoned it. And for what? For an ugly and untrue suspicion that you might have erased with a few words to the press. Perhaps it's thirty·five years too late for you to make that correction. But if someone else did it, Colonel, if someone else discovered the truth—the fact that you acted as you did only from a sense of duty, only from an honest conviction, whether right or wrong—what a difference that would make! You would be understood; you would be exonerated; you would be forgiven; you would be free to be yourself again, to be Colonel Miguel Fernandez Malagaras, to live your own life in your own way.... "
Pachman found himself rehearsing the argument aloud as he climbed the 115 steps to the colonel's house and knocked on the door. The thick oak absorbed the puny sound his knuckles made, so he pushed it open and entered. He found the colonel in his dining room, with Rodrigo beside him, pouring wine into a goblet. He cleared his throat and the colonel turned so swiftly that his chair almost toppled.
Pachman began to apologize for the intrusion. But then he saw what was on the colonel's plate. When he realized what it was, and recognized the lie he had been told, there was no more voice in his throat. The colonel followed his gaze, and then his eyes began to beg.
"Please, senor, please," he said. "You must understand. Once you develop the taste .... "