I don’t own a cell phone.
I rarely answer the landline.
When it rings, Kathy picks up.
My friend Ronnie is calling.
I’m in my “office” in the basement, taking a break from my nerve-wracking work routine, relaxing as I check the latest videos on Voyeurs R Us – Russia Edition. Some of these Slavs are fascinating folks, possessed of an odd sense of appropriate public behavior.
Kathy yells down the stairwell.
“It’s Ron. Hurry. He says he has terrible news.”
Ronnie had an appointment with his cardiologist earlier in the day: emergency tune-up of his pacemaker, stent replacement, pig valve implant, something like that. Two days ago, Ronnie mentioned that his resting pulse rate fell far below that of a chilled Iguana, and a full order of biscuits and sausage gravy (smothered with both red and green chiles), and a side order of a half quesadilla with grilled jalapenos, failed to amp him up. The only option: make an appointment with the doctor.
Perhaps there were complications, and he’s calling from the ICU. Again.
Maybe he received confirmation of his impending demise, as in: Here it comes, today, before 7 p.m. — and he’s phoning to say goodbye, and to give me his nearly new gas grill and freezer full of roasted Hatch.
Then again, maybe one of our ne’er-do-well acquaintances consumed a Big Gulp cup full of bourbon before lunch, and teetered off a curb into the path of a speeding gravel truck. Could happen any time, given the habits of our mutual friends.
Ronnie is fond of listening to the Golf Channel on satellite radio and, while he knows I couldn’t care less, he might be in a dither about the latest injury report on Tiger Woods — a matter of grave importance to Ronnie. I’m interested to learn the identities of Tiger’s mistresses, but the guy’s latest physical ills are of no concern to me. Unless, of course, Tiger breaks his dick, in which case I want photos.
One might wonder what kind of doofus spend hours each day listening to golf broadcasts on the radio and watching golf and poker tournaments on TV. In particular when that doofus has precious little time left to live.
The answer: my pal, Ronnie.
And you might wonder what kind of doofus is a dedicated friend of that doofus.
The answer: me. For thirty or so years.
Now, Ronnie has bad news to deliver.
I pick up the receiver; I brace myself.
“Karl, I can’t believe it: they’re doing away with Kraft singles.”
Ronnie takes a deep, fluttery breath, a man balanced on the edge of a breakdown.
“I mean,” he says, his voice cracking, “that’s the kind of quasi-cheese product my dad used in grilled cheese sandwiches when I was a kid in Albuquerque. I loved those sandwiches; I’d have three or four of them at a sitting. I have a deep emotional tie to singles.”
His comment pries open my memory drawer, and I’m confronted by a touchstone of my own.
“Holy shit, I know, Ronnie: little Karl in Denver was anchored by singles, as well. After school, I’d waddle across Mississippi Avenue to the tiny neighborhood grocery located at the alley between Emerson and Ogden streets. The joint had a butcher counter at the back, where the owner, Mr. Ruegnitz, (I’m pretty sure he was once a guard at a concentration camp) held court, clad in a bloodstained apron. The curt brute cut me two, extra-thick slices of bologna off a giant roll. I hustled home, fried the bologna in a pan, laid a couple singles between the crispy slabs, cozied the stack between slices of white bread liberally smeared with Miracle Whip, and my afternoon snack was complete — enough to hold me until dinner, an hour or so later. For god’s sake, man, what is the top brass at Kraft thinking? No more singles?”
Some background, for symmetry’s sake: over the years, I’ve savored Morbieres, wolfed down an embarrassing amount of Pont l’Eveque, shaved slivers of Tetes de Moines on a custom-made rotary device, overdone it with Epoisses and Fourme d’Ambert, shoveled all manner of ash- and mold-crusted semi-solid rotten milk into my mouth, conquered spectacular cheese courses at great restaurants. Despite this, the news of the demise of the king of sliced synthetic cheese substitutes hits me hard. At my nostalgic core.
“It’s beyond me,” says Ronnie, “but things get worse yet. Put on your seat belt.”
“How is that possible?” I inquire, knowing that Ronnie and I have together confronted a good number of dire situations over the years: hallucination-haunted ventures across the Mojave, rooms packed with hostile rural folks at hearings for one of Ronnie’s ranch-killing subdivision plans, passing lines of vehicles on a double yellow on Red Mountain Pass at 60 mph, negotiating the bobsled run-like tunnel of blizzard-blitzed 285 south of Antonito, taking flights on Southwest Airlines.
Things have been grim for us, many times.
One example: The Great Chubby Chicken Debacle.
A quarter century ago, entertainment options in Siberia with a View are few. One Friday, Ronnie and I find ourselves on the road to Aztec, New Mexico, to watch our local adolescent heroes compete in a high school wrestling tournament. It is our favorite homoerotic activity; we make bets on which kids will suffer a semi-erection; whether the first boner owner will be one of our boys or a member of the other team; whether the kid will be a underclassman, a neophyte in a lower weight class, or a 220-pound senior, garishly tattooed, newly released from prison and wearing an ankle monitor, his wife and three kids perched near the edge of the mat. Young lads in tight singlets, exposed to unremitting and ferocious friction, are easily embarrassed. They can’t help themselves. There results a flurry of wagering.
“I’m starving,” says Ronnie as we zip toward the outskirts of Aztec, me at the wheel of his car, Ronnie taking a final pull from a pint of Tanqueray. “I haven’t eaten anything for the last hour.”
Where to stop?
No question: Chubby Chicken, a shack located on the east side of town next to the highway, a small sign hanging atilt above its door, cheap asphalt siding peeling from the front of the structure, a splintery picnic table set sagging in the rutted dirt area that does double duty as a parking lot.
Inside: flickering fluorescent lights, and a counter. No tables, no chairs. Behind the counter: a flat top and two of the largest women in the American Southwest — mother and daughter, allegedly Jack Mormons, at least 350 per. They know their craft; they offer incredibly tasty in-house ground and hand-shaped burgers, cooked-by-the-order fries and onion rings, and it’s obvious they consume a load of their craft each day.
“I’ll take the green chile, double cheese burger, “ I say, in the most polite way. Be gruff, and one or the other of the gals will toss your ass out the front door.
“Oh, gosh, look,” says Ronnie, with all the excitement of a kid spotting the arrival of Santa and his elves at the orphanage Christmas party (a kid who has guzzled a pint of Tanqueray). “There’s a special today: a double cheeseburger — three-quarters of a pound of 80/20 chuck, two slices of Swiss cheese, with sautéed onions, and wild mushrooms gathered by the cooks on their way to work! Wow, that’s for me!”
He orders. We eat at the table in the lot.
Later, we’re sitting in the bleachers at the Aztec High School gym, about six matches and four bets into the evening, when Ronnie turns to me, a concerned expression on his wide mug.
“Did you hear that?,” he asks.
“I think it was my stomach. Or something in its vicinity. There’s strange stuff happening down there.”
By the time we leave Aztec, Ronnie has turned an ashen color and groans periodically. I, on the other hand, am feeling fine, if for no other reason than I am $25 to the better, having bet repeatedly on the Aztec wrestlers (lower altitude, better circulation, more boners).
It is 10:30 p.m. I am at the wheel of Ronnie’s car; he is slumped against the passenger-side door, sweating, mumbling incoherently. As we speed past Allison, nearly to Arboles, Ronnie shouts: “Dear God, I gotta get out. Quick, pull into that driveway. Hurry!”
I make a hard left into the driveway of a house that sits fifty yards from the highway; a long lawn slopes down from the front porch to where I bring the vehicle to a skidding halt.
Ronnie opens the glove compartment and pulls out a roll of toilet paper. “Always carry one, “ he shouts as he leaps from the car. “You never know when you’ll need it.”
Picture this, if you will: moonless night, headlights illuminating the backside of a rotund figure twenty yards distant, the man squatting to deposit the remains of three-quarters of a pound of chuck, two slices of Swiss Cheese, a load of sautéed onion, and wild mushrooms whose character has become profoundly clear.
Now, picture this, if you will: the lights on the porch of house flash on, bright as the landing lights on a 787 touching down at an international airport. Through the front door steps the figure of a man. The man carries a shotgun.
Finally, picture this, if you will: aforementioned burly guy attempting to run with pants around his ankles, a long ribbon of toilet paper fluttering behind him as he hurls himself through the open door of the car.
“Gun this fucker, Karl!”
I’m pretty sure I hear a shotgun blast as we fishtail on to Colo. 151 and make a dash for home.
“Whoa, that was nasty,” says a clearly relieved Ronnie. “We need to drive past this house tomorrow. My bet is there’ll be a perimeter of crime scene tape around the dumpsite, with a crew of guys in Mylex suits analyzing the evidence. That was really something, let me tell you; that load could be there for centuries before it totally degrades. The state should create a monument, earn some revenue from visitors. ”
Another example: this one an economic catastrophe, rather than one of the gastrointestinal variety.
We find ourselves at 3 a.m. seated at a $25 minimum blackjack table at the Tropicana, ten or so gin and tonics and several joints of brain-thumping sativa into the late hours, our other friends having long before retired to their rooms, our already questionable abilities to exercise reason further damaged by the alcohol, the weed, and a recent savage frontal assault on the Bellagio buffet.
The two of us are bracketed by a brutish Greek gentleman who reeks of English Leather and sports at least three ounces of gold — teeth, rings, numerous chains around his neck, the links falling to a remarkably hairy chest — and a taut Chinese matron, hair gathered in a tight knot atop her head, her rail-thin frame swathed in Chanel, a young assistant at each shoulder providing strategy in hurried Mandarin prior to each bet. Our fellow wagers can barely see over their towers of black, purple, and orange chips. These…are whales.
Intoxication plays the key role in our decision to regard the situation as a challenge, to remain at the felt to battle it out with these alien interlopers. America First!
Each of us loses a lot of money — Ronnie a whole lot more than me — and, in the process, he and an aging swing shift cocktail waitress named Ruby fall madly in love. The racket at 5 a.m. coming from Ronnie’s hotel room adjourning mine is reminiscent of fight night at a Cajun dog pit in south Louisiana.
It is a long flight home, as are all flights on Southwest, and once the pain, guilt and shame recedes, it signals the end of my career as a self-anointed “great gambler.” I continue to chase income to this day, partly due to the damage done that night/morning in Vegas.
So, could Ronnie’s “worse yet,” indicate another, recent dip in his fortunes? Another run-in with toxic fungi?
Not likely, since there is no fortune left to dip into, and it is not quite mushroom season. There were days when Ronnie possessed an eye-popping bank account, credit, and portfolio. But, that was a while back, when there were still ranches to subdivide. Now, he sticks to slot play at a nearby reservation Southern Ute casino, to maintaining one of his residences as a vacation rental, cooking world-class carne adovada, drinking at least a bottle of wine per day, smoking a lot of weed, checking his blood pressure, listening to golf radio and watching The Golf Channel on TV, when he isn’t busy absorbing the wisdom of Sean Hannity or Alex Jones. He likes his politics loud and unencumbered by fact.
I remind him that it is one thing to admire the skill of the pickpocket from a distance, another thing altogether to find your wallet missing. He does not know what I mean.
I forgive my beloved pal his excesses, as he does mine. He was once a primo high school football player in New Mexico and a stalwart on the field in college, and I’m fairly sure he was never issued a helmet.
“What is it, big boy,” I ask. “What could be worse? You can tell me. I’m strong.”
What he tells me is more horrible than I could imagine.
“There’s been an explosion of commentary on a website I go to regularly,” he says. “It’s one of those group sites; people with similar interests trading info amongst themselves. I connect to a bunch of sites every day. There’s one for fans of golf broadcasts, one for semi-destitute real estate developers, another for people who evaluate out-of-the-way vendors of ground Chimayo red chile in northern New Mexico. This one’s for fans of Kraft cheeselike products. It’s where I learned of the death of the singles. Reliable and respected inside sources say… hold on to your chair, Karl … Velveeta’s next to go. And soon! The fucking Millennials aren’t eating Velveeta; sales are way down. Those despicable Millennial freaks are shopping at Whole Foods, existing on a diet of wild-caught Dover Sole, kombucha and tofu, not spending a dime on Velveeta. I can’t fucking believe it!”
Silence follows, at both ends of the line.
Finally, feeling as if I’d been repeatedly struck in the forehead with a ball peen hammer, I whimper.
There is another pause, then Ronnie speaks, a tone of profound resignation tinting the transmission.
“Velveeta. It’s the fucking Millennials, and whatever the generation that comes after them is called. You know, the sensitive ones who’ve got all the answers, use all the right pronouns, get their drawers in a bunch about everything, spout off, then don’t show up to vote. Them. They’re out to smash every one of our idols, and Velveeta is next to go.”
Then, after a suitably dramatic interval, I speak.
“So, this is how it grinds to a halt for us, eh? Little by little, the things we trusted would last forever, the cornerstones of well- and faithfully-lived existences, are pulverized, heisted, shipped off to a farm upstate to live with our beloved childhood pets. Everything we value will be ripped to shreds by the cold claw of an impersonal corporate machine working in concert with the PC police and the diet Nazis.”
“Yeah, sure, that’s it. Sounds good to me. Whoa, look at that, will ya?” I hear a golf announcer in the background saying something about Tiger Woods. Ronnie has a short attention span, and has gone off track (see absence of helmet, above).
“I’m sure you are as aware as I of what this means. Should we call Jack now, and tell him to cancel this year’s Super Bowl party? We can’t have the party without your queso.”
Ronnie prepares a peerless adovada, but he also makes what has to be one of the finest versions of chile con queso … ever. If there is a Best Queso list kept by the Michelin guys, Ronnie’s must surely be ranked in the top five. Maybe the top seven.
Our amigo, Jack, every year secures a two-bedroom timeshare unit in the “resort” here in Siberia With a View for the week of the Super Bowl, for use as Party Central — the two bedrooms serve those in attendance who experience a sudden loss of consciousness or an urge they can’t suppress.
Some of the guests actually watch the game. Many of us use the occasion as an excuse to drink to excess (though, in truth, any excuse will do the trick, including the sun rising yet another day), and to hoover up the many party treats brought by attendees — casseroles, appetizers, red and green chiles, tortillas and desserts, and little weenies in barbecue sauce that, any other time, would go to the dog. By the end of each year’s event, I stagger from the unit reeking of tequila and cheap red wine, my shirtfront resembling an abstract expressionist painting.
The standout item on the board every year?
The critical ingredient in Ronnie’s queso?
Plenty of it.
His queso is one of those combinations of common ingredients — OK, in other applications, disgusting ingredients — that, during a skillfully manipulated alchemical process, are transformed into the culinary equivalent of the philosopher’s stone.
Food geeks who crow about the meals they enjoyed at the old El Bulli, at Eleven Madison Park, or Mugaritz, will no doubt feel faint, or recoil in horror, when they read the list of Ronnie’s queso ingredients. Most will pause to consider whether they would rather taste the concoction or have their throats slashed by khat-chewing pre-teen members of Boko Haram.
These effete food bozos would surely refuse to fill a flimsy plastic bowl with the cheesy/spicy elixir, then employ a fistful of Tostitos Scoops as edible spoons, managing to transport at least three-fourths of the semi-solid marvel to their pie holes, the remainder dribbling down to decorate their shirtfronts (see above).
Not me. I experience no distress when I enjoy prole cuisine…if it is exceptional. I’ve experiences the best on both sides of the chow spectrum Several times, I’ve eaten my way through the menu at The Little Door in LA, but I have also savored down-home dishes the equal or better of the offerings at that magnificent establishment, as well as at others of similar caliber. Delicious is delicious, whether I experience it at a white tablecloth joint with chandeliers, or seated at a folding table in a rumpsprung singlewide down by the river.
Ronnie keeps his exact recipe tight to the vest, but I’ve twice watched him at work. On both occasions, he and I labored to drain a couple bottles of Zinfandel as he made his way about the kitchen, the Golf Channel at full volume on his big-screen TV in the living room. Despite the distractions, here is what I remember.
For one load:
At least a full brick of classic Velveeta (none of the latter day, adulterated Velveewhatever, no doubt created as part of a desperate attempt by Kraft execs to convince Whole Foods to stock their products). Cubed.
A can (or is it two?) of Campbell’s cheddar cheese soup. Never the cheap knockoffs; this queso is a classy production. Plus, with this stuff, there’s no need for extra salt.
A can (or is it three ?) of Rotel tomato and green chile.
A shitload (yes, this is a measurement used by noted chefs throughout the Southwest) of chopped, roasted, hot, Hatch green chile. Ronnie buys his by the bushel in New Mexico, has it roasted by the vendor, then transports it home in a large plastic garbage sack. His Nissan smells like chiles for at least a month.
Garlic and pepper. Maybe flour. He tossed something powdery and white in the mix.
And other stuff I can’t remember because a load of Zin does dark work on me.
Everything goes into a slow cooker and stays on the heat for hours. A miracle occurs as the mess reduces.
“Ronnie,” I ask. “What’s gonna happen to us? I can do without ever again eating the sweetbreads at L’Incroyable, in Paris; pinxtos at my favorite Basque bar in the Barri Gotic; our buddy Mike The Michelangelo of Meat’s smoked brisket and chicken that he whips up in the gigantic smoker fashioned from a Texas oil field tank. But…no queso? Dear god, what’s gonna happen to us?”
“Calm down,” says Ronnie. “It’s a crisis, but I think I’ve found a solution that will take care of guys like us.”
“You mean guys who aren’t expected to live much longer?
“Exactly. Hold on just a sec, they’re interviewing Tiger on the Golf Channel.”
While I wait, I mouse back to Voyeurs R Us — Russia Edition, and watch a staggeringly inebriated Crimean couple attempt to copulate in the sandbox of a deserted public playground. Someone should remind them that it’s difficult to consummate the act if you don’t remove your underwear.
Three or four minutes later, Ronnie’s back.
“You gotta respect that guy. What an athlete! What a comeback! Anyway, where were we?”
I hear a clink as the neck of a wine bottle meets the rim of a glass.
“Well, it seems Tiger hired a new swing coach, and…”
“No, the queso solution…”
Oh, yeah, that. Easy. I went to Wal Mart and bought fifty bricks. Got ‘em stored in my wine room under a tarp. Constant temp. I think the stuff’ll be fine, and it’ll hold us till our lights blink off. One of the guys on the website claims he’s a scientist — a microbiologist or a meteorologist, something like that — and he assures me Velveeta has a half life of at least fifty years.”
“That means there might be a few bricks left to will to your kids.”
“Could be all I have left to give them, the way things are going. But, then, my kids are Millennials, so they probably won’t want it. They’ll be too busy dipping Kale chips in organic hummus.”
“It’s a sad scenario, Ronnie,” I say. ‘”I wonder how queso would taste on a kale chip?”
“Queso improves everything.
“And, hey, did you hear we’re due for a spell of rain. This could be a classic mushroom season. I’ve got a great idea…”