Because sometimes, you just have to write a noir scene about a detective and potatoes…
I pressed the red circular button on my small audio recording device, set it down on the detective’s desk, and looked up at him. The street lights outside were mostly blocked by the drawn shades in his dank charcoal-grey office, and a slow trail of cigarette smoke was curling it’s way from his bandaged left hand, past his square jaw, until it finally stretched out and blanketed across the paint-peeled tin ceiling above us.
Private Detective Poe Tatum looked as if though he’d been run over by a delivery truck with an Idaho license plate.
He brought his bandaged hand to his mouth and took a long drag of his cigarette, letting the soft orange glow illuminate his exhausted eyes. He was staring at me, unblinking. Sitting on his desk was a .38 revolver, a few stacks of folders, a pile of messy receipts, and a rusted old vegetable peeler with a worn handle.
“What do you want from me, kid,” he asked, defeated, his voice so rough I thought he’d eaten gravel for dinner. He sighed out a massive cloud of smoke across the surface of his desk.
I had an impossible time looking into his eyes, so I kept my gaze busy with the blank open notebook in my lap, “Just, you know, your story. You know why I’m here,” I looked up at him. “Tell me about the potatoes.”
I watched him as he looked across the room, staring longingly at a crooked picture of who I assumed was his wife. The framed shattered glass obscuring a smile of days long past. He put out the cigarette, a quick wince of pain shooting across his face as his bandaged hand stamped out the last remnants of those dying embers. I couldn’t help but notice the parallels of two extinguished flames in the room, and his stone face hid any tell as to whether it was subconscious, or a deliberate and unspoken detail.
He spoke slowly and his grizzled voice filled the room, “It all started 10 years ago. I was married. She was beautiful. We were happy back then. I look back and it was like I was living in a joyous rainbow factory. With joy. And rainbows. Once or twice a week, sure, I’d hit a fast food restaurant. Grab some fries. I preferred them salty.”
He looked toward the picture once again, “Karen always liked them salt-free. That’s how she lived. Free. Unbound by the merciless, wicked shackles of salted vegetables.”
I cleared my throat, pulling his gaze and attention from the shattered frame back to me, “Go on?”
“At first it was a slow descent. Maybe a stop at a Chick-fil-A for some crosscut waffle fries. Arby’s for some curly ones. I didn’t think anything of it. Thought I could handle the heavier stuff. I thought I was in control.”
His bandaged hand, gently holding a fresh cigarette, raised to his lips. His right hand struck a match across the top of his desk and his eyes squinted, focused on the flame as he lit up with a slow, deep drag, letting the smoke trickle out as he shook his head, “I was so very wrong.”
I couldn’t divert my stare from the broken man in front of me, “Um, how did it really start, then,” I managed.
He turned his head slightly, waving toward the window with his busted hand, “I’d wander into that bodega on 4th and Washington,” he continued, “filling my pockets with some Russets or Yukon Golds. I preferred the Idaho stuff, it had a purity to it. Never the reds, those awful rocks are real dangerous. Sometimes I scored half-eaten poutine dinners out of a dumpster, fighting with the rats for soggy gravy-soaked fries. Before I knew it I was in a back alley, filling my empty soul with bites of raw spuds. I didn’t realize that as I was consuming them – they were consuming me.”
I nodded, glancing at the recorder as time ticked past, praying the audio would capture his pain as he told me his story. “Can you tell me about the injury?”
“Karen made dinner. I walked in the front door and the smell hit me like a two ton steel masher. Baked potato night. I knew immediately I was in trouble. We all were.”
I had to ask. “So, what was it about the baked potato?”
He suddenly slammed his good hand on the desk, sending papers scattering and upending his ashtray, “Kid have you ever seen a baked potato roasting in the oven,” he shouted. I didn’t move a muscle, I was stunned. Terrified.
The detective calmed himself down, fixed his ashtray, and took another puff of his cigarette as he looked away in quiet resignation and continued, “Maybe it was the way the warm glow of the oven heat caressed that perfectly shaped tuber. It was almost done roasting. Exposing a hint of its soft, buttery flesh to my wanting eyes. Taunting me. Playing with my insatiable desires. Seductively resting in a roasting pan, offering itself up to me. It knew I wanted every bite. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. It was begging me to slather it in sour cream. Hurl a fistful of scallions at it. Devour it madly and when I was done – lick the plate like a dog. It wanted me to consume its naked, starchy heat. That wicked temptress. It knew my every weakness, and dropped me to my knees.”
He looked down and shook his head, “Right in front of my wife. Kid, that’s when I left. I had no choice. And I started hitting the heavy stuff, living out of my car. Yams. Turnips. A broken man, shoving whatever bits of a tuberous Jicama I could find into my waiting maw.”
“And the hand,” I prodded, gently.
He leaned back in his chair, blowing out a large cloud of smoke and placing his feet upon the desk, “I woke up in the hospital. Broken. Bandaged. I don’t remember how it happened. The nurse said some kids found me passed out, half-way in a freezer at Costco, my left hand stuck in a half-eaten bag of frozen, expired tater tots.”
He extinguished his cigarette and held up his bandaged hand, looking at it thoughtfully, “They managed to save it, though there’s permanent nerve damage from the frostbite. Doctor says I’ll never peel again.”
I stood up, gathered my notebook and recorder, and slipped into my raincoat. He was staring out the window and for a moment, I wasn’t sure if I should say goodbye, or just walk out and leave him to the shattered remains of his existence.
“Thank you,” I finally said, turning and opening the door.
“Hey Kid,” he asked, his voice dusted with a seasoning of shame.
I turned toward him, “Yeah?”
“You got any fries on you? Maybe, some mashed potato? Even just a single raw Fingerling?”
“I’m sorry, Poe,” I shrugged.
He looked away like a man who knew the answer to the question before he asked it. I turned, slipped out the door and made my way toward the unforgiving rain-soaked streets below.