It is a disagreement in our group as to whether cheesecake is in fact a "cake" or a "pie." Please, Giant Squid, settle this argument for us.
The Prescriptive Bakers Union
It is fortunate that you bring this question to one such as me, for I happened to own and operate, for a brief period, a popular little alcohol dispensary with cabaret functionality on No Name Key, in the string of islands reaching down from Florida's tip, and yearning to tickle Mexico in her moist and gulfish crevices. The endeavor itself was not terribly long-lived—the purchase, which I made based on balance sheets recording business during the heyday of the Overseas Railroad—which operated throughout the Keys from 1912 through 1935 and had a terminus on No Name Key—led me to form an unjustified estimate of the earning potential of the site when I made my purchase, following the end of the nominal hostilities of the Second World War (how was I to know that the justifiable and swift invasion of Poland would not in fact be quick 'shock and awe' style liberation, but instead mutate horribly into an occupation and then quagmire for the Fatherland?). Nonetheless, my strong mixed drinks and the Fritz' smokey tenor (he had returned to earning his keep by song following the war) earned the loyalty of a sizable band of drinkers and diners whom we could depend on to keep our assets ahead of our liabilities. They were simpler times.
I recall one particular rain-lashed evening, we had finally cleared out the last straggling inebriates, placed chairs, inverted, upon tables, and swabbed the floor. Fritz sat himself at the bar for his drinks and I, ensconced in my latest chrome and glass velocitating suit, busied myself behind the bar, polishing glasses, washing dishes, balancing our books (eight high, ten high, the tower quivering), repairing a sink, and crocheting (this at a doctor's recommendation, in treatment of "bad nerves" acquired during Field Marshal Rommel's Folly in North Afrika).
We sat in silence, only the persistent chug of our diesel generator keeping us company, when I heard the idiosyncratic creek of our front door, which I was not in the habit of locking. Fritz, intent on his neat tumbler of bourbon, did not look away from the long, clouded mirror which ran along the wall behind the assorted nepenthic bottles. In our doorway stood a young men, rain soaked about the shoulders of his serviceably well-tailored suit, and dripping in runnels from the brim of his fedora hat. A press pass from some earlier assignment was still tucked into the grosgrain band encircling the crown of his capote.
"Let me guess," Fritz said, taking a sip and maintaining eye contact with his own mirrored twin, "another envoy from the glorious Fourth Estate." The reporter smiled, running his finger along the brim of his hat and then flicking the collected water to the floor.
"You're good, Mr. Swanson," he strutted in and seated himself upon a stool, leaving one empty between himself and my beloved tenor. I set down my glasses, dishes, pipe wrench, crocheting, then closed and absconded with my ledger books, and instead took to mopping the bar's zinc top with a clean rag. (I had for myself a special attachment that went through this process, whizzing and whirring, the cogs and gear teeth chattering as the towel was pushed and drawn back across the bar surface).
"I don't wanna eat up a lot of your time with go-nowhere talk about 'the old days,'" he smiled, "I just have a few real specific questions about a man named Reggie Sykes—fact checking, really. Just a few facts to check about Reggie Sykes and that cherrywood arch-top guitar he swore was made from the very tree Washington chopped down. Really won't take but a minute."
It had been over an hour since we had whisked out the last customer, and the night, despite the precipitation, was as hot as the devil's humidor, yet Fritz was as neat and unflappable as his bourbon, his tie still impeccably knotted, and not even a cuff's link loosened. He sipped his drink, stared into his mirrored eyes.
"Men," Fritz sneered. "Men, and their guitars and their cursed cherrywood and their damned convictions. Men."
Then he looked up, and the look, the hollow look, drove all of the cockiness from that very young reporter, no differently than a strong wave would drive the clinging little crabs from out of the crevice beneath a dock. It dawned across the boys face where he was, out in the hinterlands of No Name Key, a point to which even Mr. Edison's ubiquitous electric lines bother not to march their progress, alone, and with souls like us.
"You wanna hear about men?" Fritz asks, "I'll tell you about men. You pay for this bottle, and I'll tell you every-damn-thing you never wanted to hear about that goddamned guitar."
The reporter, confidence steadily ebbing back, knocked back his fedora hat and turned to me. "How much is the bottle," he asked, indicating the Old Crow, two-thirds full, which still sat upon the bar.
"ONE-HUNDRED AND ELEVEN AMERICAN DOLLARS, PLUS TAX, GRATUITY, AND SURCHARGE."
The reporter whistled "That's an expensive bottle," he sighed, resigned.
"IT IS A LONG STORY, FRAUGHT WITH INTRIGUE, AND JUDGING FROM THE CREDENTIALS IN YOUR HATBAND, ONE IS LEFT TO PRESUME THAT YOUR PUBLISHER AT THE MAJOR EAST-COAST DEADLINE NEWS PAPER AFFORDS YOU AN EXPENSE ACCOUNT OF WHICH THE QUESTIONS ARE RARELY ASKED."
The reporter smiled, "You're pretty sharp for a fella with no bones or edges." He pulled a thick, battered leather wallet from the pocket within his jacket, and from it extracted two portraits of Ulysses S. Grant—a great and noted proponent of this very brand of Kentucky Bourbon—and a baker's dozen of Washingtons to serve him in a support capacity.
"I AM ONLY JUST SHARP ENOUGH TO GET ALONG," I opined modestly, spiriting away the bills with one manipulator and shuttling the ill-fated bottle to my dear Jaded Starling with the other.
"Pour me a neat double from that hundred-dollar bottle?" he asked.
Fritz did not look away from his reflection. "Sorry, Charlie; no such thing as a free lunch in the Keys."
The reporter smiled, despite—and plausibly to spite—himself.
"Guess I'll have the key lime pie, then."
Fritz coughed a cynical laugh.
"WE DO NOT SERVE IT, SIR."
The reporter became supercilious with disbelief. "Then you're the only damn joint from Miami to Cuba that don't."
"SUCH IS THE CASE."
"What do you got, then, for a man with a sweet tooth."
"CHEESECAKE, IN THE STYLE OF OLD-NEW YORK."
Now it was the reporter's turn to laugh, "Cheesecake! You bake a cake in his humidity?"
I made to comment about his culinary error, but he waved it away.
"Good Christ, I guess I came to the right place to hear about Reggie Sykes and his six string, then. Yeah, the cheesecake, as long as it ain't over twenty bucks."
"AS COINCIDENCE WOULD HAVE IT—," I began, but the reporter was already shaking his head and laying the twenty-dollar bill—which I similarly spirited away with a quickness—upon the zinc of the bar.
"First thing I'll tell you," Fritz began, again faced towards the mirror behind the bar, but with his true eyes trained on the terrible, dark mirror of memory, "Is that if Reggie Sykes and me had had that damned guitar at Tulagi, he'd be alive today. But even a madman like Reggie wouldn't try and take an arch-top on an amphibious assault—Hell, we'd had to wade the last 100 yards in over a goddamn coral reef— so it stayed locked in its beat-up case, lashed to a locker in the transport ship we rode in on. If he'd been noodling away, like usual, he would have whistled Dixie even as those Japs came off the sandbags and dropped into our machine-gun pit, and slid out just fine. As it was, I got a silver star and he got a bayonet through the gut with MADE IN JAPAN stamped on the handle. We held the line, though."
Fritz sipped again, emptying his glass, and so I topped it off, then slid the reporter's cheesecake before him. He took a bite, and smiled. The generator hitched momentarily.
"'course, I had long experience with that thing. Me and Reggie, we'd played the juke joints and the gin joints since we were kids, back when the juice was still riding across the river from Canada in stuck pigs. We'd started out in Detroit, in the speakeasies down by the river. My god," Fritz actually smiled, "That place was a mess; the goddamned Purple Gang—you call what we've got down here a 'mob,' but they're as organized as a Boy Scout Troop compared to those Jewish boys; shoulda called it 'the 24-hour Kosher Slaughterhouse.'" Fritz had either warmed to his tale or his liquor, "Hell, I remember this one time, me and Reg—"
"The guitar," the reporter prompted nonchalantly, taking a bite, "Where did it end up? After the Guadalcanal campaign? It was shipped back to his folk?"
Fritz turned to him. "You ain't much of a reporter, are you? Reggie Sykes didn't have any folks; everyone knew that. He was a St. Vincent's boy; hell 'Sykes' was what was printed in the side of the pasteboard box he was dumped on the doorstep in."
The reporter had put down his fork.
"No girl, then? No no one?"
"Me," Fritz said in disbelief, poking his thumb to his chest. "I was that man's father and brother all in one. He was a hellcat on the guitar, but had less sense than a government mule."
"So then you wound up with the guitar?"
"Of course!" Fritz had grown angry, and spittle flew from his lips, "I'd never learn to play the fucking thing, but you think I'd dump the only damn thing a man's brother ever cared fo—"
Just then the generator sputtered and died, throwing the room into lunar darkness. I dropped to the floor and scuttled back toward what I hoped was the doorway to our small kitchen, hearing a clatter of chairs as Fritz bolted from his stool, thrashed through the dark labyrinth of tables, and hid himself in the bar proper. Over top the steady droning hum of the indefatigable rain I could hear the cooling tick of my velocitating suit, Fritz' rapid breathing, and the tap of the reporter's fork as he took another bite. Outside an alligator rolled and grumbled in the mire aside the parking lot, and men muttered furtively.
"Listen," the reporter called out in the dark, "I don't want no one to get hurt; I just want to nab Reggie Sykes' guitar and eat my twenty-dollar cheesecake before this damn humidity does it in."
"THAT IS FAR FROM A WORRY," I called out, "FOR, YOU SEE, DESPITE BEING TERMED A 'CHEESECAKE,' THE CONFECTION IS ACTUALLY—"
"Squiddle!" Fritz shouted from his cover in the dark, "Stop fucking yapping! They'll get a bead on you!"
And, in the next instant a shot rang out, pounding back the darkness with its stark, un-illuminating light. In the resurgent darkness, I heard another delicate tink as the reporter took another bite, followed by a small, but genuine grunt of gustatory satisfaction.
In the least, I hope I've illustrated that few things ever, in the end, are precisely what they immediately present themselves to be.
Fortunately, I Remain,
Your Giant Squid
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Copyright (c) 2000, 2004, David Erik Nelson, Fritz Swanson, Morgan Johnson