A journal of narrative writing.
The Tasting Room

Walter Hubbard was in Red Cedar, Florida, of all places, conducting research with one of his clients. Taste research, of all things; the people doing the tasting were kids and moms. The objective was to prove that the new form of anti-emetic liquid, Zovent Fizz, tasted significantly better than the old one, Zovent Syrup. 

In they came, the kids five or six or seven years old, the moms anywhere from 21 to early 50s; fat moms with fat kids, fat moms with thin kids, and the rare skinny mom with a kid so obese that Walter couldn’t imagine how one had ever contained the other. Sometimes it was a father instead of a mother, sometimes an aunt or grandmother, this being Red Cedar, where it was not unusual for parents to go missing.

Late in the morning a mother and father walked in. Their arms were tattooed from shoulder to wrist, and they sheparded a boy so pristine Walter thought he must be the product of immaculate conception.

"Good morning," said Harriet, the study administrator. Then to the boy: "Hello, Harley. Sit down here. You get to go first."

The tasting room was large and windowless, with two walls painted blue and two pink. In the center of the room was a large desk, where Harriet sat and the actual tasting took place. Walter and his client, Wilva Stimmer, observed from opposite ends of a couch behind Harriet. First the child sat at the desk, while the parent waited in a chair against the wall behind them; then they traded places. Harriet placed three cups and one soda cracker before each subject. "Now Harley. Take a sip from this first cup. Then, pick the face on this paper that matches how it tastes. And tell me anything you want about it; you won't hurt my feelings. Then, clear your tongue with this cup of water and some cracker. And then, sip this third cup and tell me what you think of that, too."

Pristine Harley listened intently, and then skipped water and cracker, going straight from Fizz to Syrup, which invalidated his responses. The beautiful kids were always stupid. The bright kids were crazy, the ugly kids sweet. (And tedious: watching them might be heaven for a pedophile, but a big yawn for Walter.) The moms, without exception, were miserable; unlike the mombies and whiners in his New York apartment building, their misery was fact, based on hard lives and short money.

Another fact: things weren't going well. His client Wilva had said there would be "no contest" between the taste of Fizz and the taste of Syrup. She was kidding herself. The syrup was as bitter as medicine could be (even known to make kids gag, a real problem in a product designed to prevent vomiting), but the fizz was like sour Seven-Up and left an aftertaste. Plus this methodology was killing them. Wilva had insisted on using the visual scale that started with a frown and ascended in stages to a California smile — an expression Walter hadn't yet seen on anyone's face in Red Cedar. While Syrup consistently rated frowns, Fizz hadn't broken a smile either, never rising above the neutral straight mouth.

For a moment the next kid stirred Walter's hopes: a chubby, placid girl who nodded at them as if promising the result they wanted. She took a mouthful of Zovent Fizz, and spat it right back out, and poor Harriet cracked a chair leg failing to get out of the way.

Walter looked down, noticed three dark spots on his new Hermes tie. He wondered dimly how he had come to this.

"Come on, honey," Wilva Stimmer said in her slow-pouring North Carolina voice, "it can't be that bad." While she addressed this to the kid, Walter took it personally, as Wilva's typically indirect way of refocusing him on the task at hand, for which he was earning 50 thousand dollars, plus expenses. That would cover a lot of opera tickets, and at least one new first edition, maybe the Catcher he'd seen on line last week. So no, it wasn't so bad: a couple of days with these rednecks, a couple of nights in a hideously furnished but comfortable Marriott Suites, and then two weeks of writing the study report back in civilization.

"Oh my lord! Britney!" The mother, an elephant in tight jeans, extended one arm solicitously toward Harriet, while the other waved trunk-like at her child, who deftly moved out of reach. "I'm sorry! Does this mean we don't get paid?"

"Everyone gets paid," Harriet said. She resembled a prison matron from a 50s movie with lesbian overtones. But her effect was soothing rather than scary, on both kids and adults, and instantly the mother calmed down.

"That's right," Wilva said. "Take care of it for her, Harriet. And get yourself a fresh chair."

And just like that he and Wilva were alone. She's smooth, he thought, for perhaps the hundredth time in the 20-plus years he'd known her, and was still surprised.

"It's not so bad," he said, "but it could be better."

"You know what, you're right," Wilva said. "It could."

"I think we need to change the protocol," he said. Wilva's face, which normally resembled a friendly walnut, became pure shell. Behind her vocal molasses was an ego, he knew, and a stubborn streak. "It's my fault, totally," he added. "I should've never tried the smiley scale — too nuanced — "

"Walt honey, you stop it now. It was my idea and you know it."

"Wilva, please. I'm responsible for study design, that's what you pay me for."

"And you're worth every penny." She smiled slowly. It would be all right. He had enabled her to be honest and save face at the same time. Wilva was almost Asian in her appreciation of such rituals.

He said: "It's an easy fix. Make it straight preference. Taste one, taste the other. Don't ask if they like it. Which one do you prefer? That's all we need. That's the only way we'll reach high significance."

A long moment, and then, to his relief, Wilva pulled her Marlboros and plastic lighter from one of the stiff pockets of her thick brown wool suit jacket. "God," she said. "Smart as a whip, aren't you."

More ritual. Walter, born on Long Island and long a New Yorker, was immune to flattery. To make her happy he said: "And you're the world's best client. I'll redraft the forms."

"Sure you don't want a quick one?" Wilva said, of her cigarettes.

"Don't tempt me." He'd abruptly quit smoking 33 days ago, after a black coughing fit left flecks of red on his shirt sleeve. "No, what I need is the bathroom."

"Don't worry about your beautiful tie, Walt honey." Wilva never coughed; but she sounded possessed by the devil when she cleared her throat. "Zovent Fizz is like Seltzer. Cleans itself right up."


* * *


She was right: the dark spots had already vanished. In this mirror everything was dark, probably because the glass was cheap. The mirror was clean — he had to admit the tiny bathroom shone — yet there was a faint smell, redolent of shit and peppermint. Walter's cologne was Apricot Branch. But he checked himself anyway, armpits, breath, he pulled off a shoe and sniffed that too. A bitter ex-girlfriend had once called him fastidious; maybe so, but it was out of self-defense, not vanity.

No, it was the bathroom. Still he had no desire to leave, because that would put him back in the corridor with the long window that gave no view of beach or water, only the strip mall across the highway, a mirror of the mall in which he was trapped. And he would see Wilva puffing away on the pavement outside, wearing that awful suit, and smiling at him as at a soulmate. And to escape Wilva he'd have to reenter Maypole Research and face the self-described "reception girls," Linda and Juanita, both on the far side of 50 with strange hair and raccoon eyes, beaming at him like he was George Clooney. Sometime after passing 50 himself, Walter had become irresistible to certain types of women — middle-aged receptionists, saried Indians at newsstands, horsy women a head taller than him. Nobody beautiful.

Not that what sighed back at him was beautiful, either. His head was small, his nose tilted to the left, his earlobes pendulous, and his hair gone except for a patch at the crown and a ring around the back. (He refused to join that ludicrous trend among balding men of shaving his head.) He was short and — what would best describe him? Portly? Not fat, because fat implies a distortion of your natural shape, and this had always been Walter's shape. "Hey Penguin," one of the brats had greeted him today.

Maybe he was smarter than Wilva, and miles ahead of everyone in Red Cedar, but in Manhattan he was nothing special. Bright not brilliant, easily bored yet not driven, which was why he didn't have his name on the door of an agency and long ago entered the nether world of "consulting." If he had a talent, it was for appreciation. He appreciated good clothes, furniture, theatre, music, meals, wine, literature. And women. Not the augmented anorexics that currently ruled Manhattan but women who wore their clothes well, had manners, laughed at the right things, and turned wanton when the lights went out. Women who understood, not their place, exactly, but the proper distance between them and him. But ultimately they all wanted the same things — marriage and children, houses and lawns, daily declarations of love whether you felt it or not. They wanted to need him, wanted him to need them, and he refused. Maybe losing his parents early and being raised by an aunt had something to do with it. But now instead of women he pursued post-minimalist art and first editions. Now at restaurants or the opera, he was mostly alone, and mostly preferred it.

Technically he could retire; he'd probably be dead within 10 years from lung cancer anyway, and he had ample money to cover that span. But he kept working. Work gave him contact with people, which he felt was good for him, and from which he happily retreated once the work was done.


* * *


In the waiting area, the rednecks were restless. About 40 of them jammed the benches and chairs. The kids were darting and yapping like dogs in a kennel, but at Walter's appearance the loudest barks came from the moms: "What's going on?" "Are we next?" "I'm late for work, you said we'd be out by eleven!"

"I'm sorry about this delay," Walter announced. "We have to make a small change in our study procedure. We should be back on track in 20 minutes. If you have to leave now, we understand, and you'll still be paid half your fee — "

"In cash? I need to buy something today."

A skinny girl at the other end of the room. She hopped and waved her hand as if this was school and Walter a teacher who refused to call on her. She was tall for her age, wiry as a pipe cleaner. Another case of ADD, Walter thought, but even as he thought it the girl managed to fix him with her stare, a white light that made him feel like he'd been caught at something.

Walter escaped by addressing the group: "Cash? The little lady wants to know if we can pay her in cash." At that magic word, the din subsided. "Sorry honey," he said, letting his voice go twangy, "we only give out checks. But I'm sure your Momma can cash it quick." In fact, there was a check-cashing store two doors down from them.

"You got that right!" shouted a mother — not the girl's mother, whom he registered only as a tired smile — and now the barks became howls of laughter, and Walter had another inspiration.

"Tell you what — it's almost 12." (It was 11:40.) "Why can't we serve lunch now, what do you say, Linda? Juanita?"

They stared at him like he had conjured a feast from a few loaves and fishes. "Sure we can, Mr. Walter."

"Great! Thank you all." He left the briefly happy noise behind, found his laptop, and sat at the desk in the tasting room. He was halfway into writing the new protocol when a smell of smoke entered the room, followed by Wilva. "Walt honey, how are you doing?"

"Doing good." Amazing how awful that cigarette stink was once you'd quit. "Should have the new protocol drafted in a minute. Then I'll show it to you."

"Sure enough," Wilva said vaguely. Her smile wandered, settled back on him.

"Hope you don't mind…I had lunch served early," he said, to say something. At the same time he accidentally hit a key that erased a sentence he'd just written. It took effort not to curse out loud, and instead to add blandly, "Have some if you like."


"Some lunch. They have sandwiches."

"Oh, thank you, Walt." From the day they met she'd called him Walt, which he hated then and hated just as much now; it reminded him of Walt Disney. "I'll wait till the line gets shorter." Then she sat down opposite him. Walter pasted a smile and kept his eyes on the screen.

"What did you think of the restaurant last night?"