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«Mike Spry A Thesis in The Department of English Presented in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts in English at ...»

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Working Up the Bottle

Mike Spry

A Thesis


The Department



Presented in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements

for the Degree of Master of Arts in English at

Concordia University

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

February 2011

© Mike Spry 2011


School of Graduate Studies

This is to certify that the thesis prepared

By: Mike Spry

Entitled: Working Up the Bottle

and submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts (English) complies with the regulations of the University and meets the accepted standards with respect to originality and quality.

Signed by the final examining committee:

___Kate Sterns________ _________________ Chair ___Josip Novakovich ____________________ Examiner ___Karis Shearer________________________ Examiner ___Mikhail Iossel _______________________ Supervisor Approved by Jason Camlot Chair of Department or Graduate Program Director Brian Lewis Dean of Faculty April 4 2011 Date


Working Up the Bottle is the story of three friends from youth who decide to rob a restaurant.

Hunter, a chef with suicidal tendencies yet cursed with drunken immortality; Riley, a waitress (who Hunter loves) trapped in a dead-end job and an abusive relationship; and Jack, a successful entrepreneur who amuses himself by toying with his old friends‘ existence. The novel finds Hunter and Riley trying to achieve some measure of salvation in escaping the world of the service industry; a forgotten community of addicts, miscreants, misfits, and savages. Set against the backdrop of an unnamed Canadian metropolis, Working Up the Bottle is a darkly humorous tragedy that discusses the sad reality of the educated working poor, characters whose aspirations have long since dissolved into the bottom of their drinks and their desperate attempt to climb back to the top.


for Hillary



I. 2 II. 7 IV. 25 V. 27 VII. 41 IX. 50 X. 54 XII. 63 XIII. 71 XIX. 96 XXI. 103

–  –  –

There‘s a violent knocking, followed quickly by my doorbell which is exceptionally loud. And I‘m absolutely covered in vomit. I mean a lot of vomit. More vomit than one would expect from someone whose diet is mostly poutine and Tums. The vomit is covering my shirt, my favourite shirt, my Palace Brothers shirt, speckled in half-digested pills and bits of cheese curd and thinned gravy, and the doorbell keeps shaking the walls. There are significant cuts on my hand. I go to the door and open it to find a short Middle-Eastern man holding a bag of what is obviously food delivery.

–  –  –

I‘m not sure exactly the course of the day that brought me here. I remember drinks with Jack, my overly attractive and successful childhood friend. I remember panties and bourbon. I remember a bird. I remember being left in the bar. I have no recollection of ordering the food, but it must be mine because I see the familiar white plasticized take-out container seeping a mahogany-shade of gravy out the side and mix against the white bag making a strange vertical puddle. My diet ginger ale is in there too, the condensation fusing with the gravy puddle, rapidly changing its consistency. I can even tell they‘ve forgotten the napkins and hot sauce, as they always do.

― Eight-fifty. Eight-fifty plus tip,‖ he‘s still barking at me, which builds upon my headache as if the doorbell has lodged itself in my frontal lobe. I‘m shuffling through my pockets, but of course my hands just keep sliding around in remnants of vomit, vomit which has yet to deter the poor little man from demanding his eight-fifty. Plus tip.

― uh, I don‘t have any money friend. I‘m so sorry. I don‘t remember ordering. I. I. I I, was supposed to be dead, eh...‖ I trail off at the end, still confused by the moment.

–  –  –

He shoves the bag into my chest, which warms against the vomit, and he takes off down the hall swearing. My neighbour sticks its head out the door and shakes it in disapproval.

–  –  –

ginger ale out of the mess and close the door. I crack it open and take a large swig, the carbonation both cooling and burning my ravaged vomit-weary throat, and catch my thumb awkwardly on the can, slicing into an old scar. I kind of wish I had the poutine. The gravy would cauterize the wound. Maybe.

Then it occurs to me that I can‘t recall where the scar on my left thumb even came from.

I know a knife was involved. I know that for a while it really did resemble a moth, and before that an Indian head dress. Aboriginal head dress. I remember pain. There was a hospital, or at least a doctor. The Polish and carrots were not involved. My medical bill was covered by the state, both provincial and federal. It must have been in a kitchen somewhere. I would have been underpaid, overworked, hungover, hung-under, worked-over. The waitresses would have been young, and cute. The chefs, the cooks, older and weathered. The cuisine fused, the cutting boards clean, the owner absent. I believe a potato instigated the cut, and I‘d have given in to its tuberous bravado, its Irish blood. The when escapes me and I wonder how the years could have dissolved so quickly into a vast imbalance of time and memory.

It also occurs to me that I have never fucked a girl with too many tattoos. I have no idea why it occurs to me, but suddenly I‘m overwhelmed by a rush of shortcomings and evidence of an incomplete life. I have never enjoyed a Wednesday in its entirety. I can‘t dance, save for some pseudo-Gord Downie/Ian Curtis thing that is meant to explain that I can‘t dance, but I‘m self-deprecating – in a Canadian way. I have never enjoyed a David Lynch movie. I don‘t care for, though I claim to, the works of Hart Crane. I have never been on an all-inclusive vacation, never swam up to a bar or tipped a bellman. I‘ve never walked up to a girl and spoken to her, just because I thought, maybe, she might want me to. I masturbate with my right hand, and I am

–  –  –

fingers. Can‘t throw a curveball. I have horrible knife skills. Which brings me back to the once moth-like scar on my left thumb.

The blood continues to run from the wound, uncauterized and fed by the thick humidity in the room. The thermostat in my apartment says it‘s 19 degrees, but it feels way hotter. I feel hotter. I sweat constantly. It‘s important, I remind guests, it‘s important to hydrate. I have hydration issues, myself. The Last Waltz is on the TV, as it always is. If I had a cat, it would be dead, though I would have named it Hemingway or Dave. If I had a partner, she‘d have left many tumultuous years ago. She would have taken the cat. She would have taken the cat, and it would have been a scene. I‘d have chased her out onto the street, the cat screaming in confusion in her arms. Her father or brother or new lover would‘ve been there to keep me back, to threaten violence. I wouldn‘t have hit him. But I‘d have wanted to. Desperately. The cat would‘ve preferred to stay, but would have been given no voice.

The place smells like Levon Helm. I smell like Richard Manuel. The walls are a dirty mustard colour. I once tried to decorate them, hang pictures of memories; a mix of decades best unremembered. But the effect is that of an unkempt framing store, or a bad aisle at IKEA. A few empty prescription bottles lay to rest on my coffee table. There is a half-bottle of Lamb‘s Navy rum. There is ruin and regret.

My vision is fading. The scar and new wound dance gently in the fading light of its body‘s once subtle glow. The blood trickles off the hand onto my shirt into an estuary of gravy, and ginger ale. Something from earlier is taking over, but I can‘t recall what it was. I miss a girl who may have missed me, once. I miss five am, and my first drink, and my tenth, and that

–  –  –

I don‘t wake up until the next morning. Though I‘m vaguely unaware of the day, I assume that I should be at work by the fact that it seems to be daytime, and I tend to work during the daytime.

My shirt has dried enough that I can peel some of the poutine and pills from it in large pieces, yet after careful consideration I come to the conclusion that showing up for my shift in a vomit encrusted concert tee is not the best of ideas, even if I hide it beneath a hoodie and change swiftly upon arrival into my chef whites. Even if I‘ve done it before and no one really gave a fuck. I search for a non-vomit encrusted shirt, and come up with some greyish rag that appears to be stainless, though smells strongly of cigarettes, what can best be described as minted car fumes, and heavy layers of Old Spice deodorant. I decide a heavier layer of Old Spice will override the rest of the olfactory accomplishments of my outfit, which is complimented with a pair of jeans I haven‘t spent a day without in four years, and a pair of blue Chuck Taylors that are constantly on the verge of turning into sandals. I pick bits of pills and curd from my beard, which is more neglect than style, and stab at my teeth with a toothbrush so ancient it may predate fluoride. I wrap myself in a dark blue hoodie and a pair of aviators, which sit crooked against my face.

A crisp morning‘s chill greets me immediately as I step from my building. It‘s later in the year than I expected or remembered. As busses cruise past me, their exhaust is thick in the season‘s cold, lingering against the day and signalling an end of better months. The hoodie quickly proves useless against the elements, though I‘m too lazy to go back upstairs and change and I push forward darting quickly past anything and everything, refusing to break my gait.

Given the temperature, the amount of other assholes in the streets, and sounds of teenagers

–  –  –

which will actually make me early for work.

I cut through the back alley that runs behind the block where the restaurant is located.

The cold concrete exterior, with establishment names scratched against it for the benefit of delivery trucks and employees creates an urban suburb in the middle of the city. Cookie cutter and sad. Indistinguishable, save for what‘s behind the doors. The restaurant, Agharta, is the

–  –  –

use my manager‘s key to let myself in, thought there‘s no need to enter my alarm code as I can hear the scurrying of activity from the prep kitchen in the basement.

I sneak into the change room downstairs and change into my whites. The starched white chef‘s jacket, with black cuffs and ‗Hunter‘ stitched across the top of the left breast. The spot below my left shoulder where my thermometer slides into its holster. The crisp black pants that break ever so gently over my shined black leather CSA approved work shoes. This may be as good as I‘ll ever look.

I begin the day as I do all others: I bake three sheets of cornbread. Milk, eggs, oil, in one bowl and flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cornmeal in another. Let them rest. Fold the wet into the dry. Pour onto baking sheets. After they‘re ovened, I check my levels making sure I have enough of everything to get me through the lunch rush and prepare a pre- and post-rush prep list. Agharta is located just beneath a large, 10 storey government office, so our lunch rush is filled with civil servants with but one hour to spare for a meal. It‘s hectic, mostly unrewarding, and at times violent work, but it‘s better than working nights. I prefer to drink from 4:30pm to whenever, as opposed to working a dinner rush and drinking from 11:00pm until whenever. I enjoy seeing the end of the day, the 5:00pm happy-hour bars of people with normal

–  –  –

and talk of tiles and fabric swatches. I enjoy the darkness that comes with 10:00pm, the scurrying light of memory against the numbed embattled glow of drink and confidence.

With the cornbread baking, I quickly find order in my station. I work the hot side, so I cook all of the meats, and sauces, the pastas and the baked dishes. I am manic about the perfection of my station. Each 1/4 insert has its place. Each 1/8 insert has its place. As does each 1/2 and full. The grill must be spotless, glazed ever so slightly with olive oil. My bainmarie must have the perfect amount of water, and each cylinder must rest in order. Black bean soup, butternut squash and carmelized apple soup, soup du jour (aujourd‘hui: dark beer/cheddar/potato) pasta sauce du jour (aujourd‘hui: spinach almond pesto cream), béchamel, sauce piquante, 1 full insert rice, 1 full insert baked garlic and cayenne new potatoes. The salamander must burn at 210 degrees, the convection oven at 411 once the cornbread is finished baking at 380. I like all of my elements burning just slightly, ready to go at a second‘s notice.

My oils must be placed in order to my right: olive, canola. My spices: one dish 3 parts pepper, one part salt, one dish of chili flakes, one dish paprika and one of cumin (for garnish and colour).

Around an hour in, the rest of the staff begins to disrupt my day. Working with me, as on most days, is Day, who works the cold side. Don‘t know why he‘s called Day, as to the best of my knowledge that is neither his first nor last name, nor his favourite of things. Day is around six foot four, shaved clean bald and tattooed as one can be. His arms are covered in Japanese embryos, his back weaves the names of all six of his kids in and out of each other in fauxCyrillic or Gaelic or Greek, and on his chest is a naked brunette holding two shotguns, sitting in a half-empty martini glass. I like Day. More than I like most people, I guess. Because I hate people. He calls me Hunt, the ‗t‘ sound trailing off, as he always says my name quickly,

–  –  –

other, affectionately, almost like a married couple, for that‘s what we are at the best of times.

Cooking is not a pretty vocation. It requires a skill and congruence that most would not believe.

A wife like Day makes me good, makes my days easier.

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