Biscuits and Gravy
by William Blomstedt
The sign was taped on the front door when Vernon arrived that morning at 6:45. "Wellgood's will be closed from July 17-24 for staff vacations. Apologies for the inconvenience. Signed, Management."
Vernon felt funny for the rest of the day. It wasn't that anything was wrong, it was just that nothing like this had ever happened before. And Vernon wasn’t looking forward to it.
The rest of the guys in the Dead Pecker Club rambled on about the news in an odd mixture of condemnation and approval, but Vernon didn't think it bothered them. Those dried up old geezers who only ordered coffee and toast could get those from any two-bit hitching-post diner in the county. The only difference in ordering them at Wellgood's was that it was close and they'd have Patty serving them. Of course, they'd also have each other to yap at but they could do that at Toolie's or Walt's or even sitting in their trucks on the side of the road. Vernon was the man with the most to lose; without Wellgood's diner, Vernon would not be able to have his biscuits and gravy.
Usually Wellgood's was open year-round for breakfast and lunch, with the dynamic waitress-cook duo of Patty and Oliver keeping the patrons fed. When one of them needed a break, you might find Fay working the grill, or little Jenny Rout running around and taking orders. Or it might be Kathy. Or Dorris. The person pouring your cup of coffee would be whatever warm body Milky could find and coerce to work that day. Those were often rough weeks at the diner, but they usually managed to squeak by without any food poisoning or serious grease fires. One time even Walt tried to be the waiter, but he could never get past the DP Club without stopping to chat for five minutes. That was not a smooth day at Wellgood's and Oliver eventually had to bring out the food before the flies colonized it.
But this time Milky must not have been able to find any replacements for his two workers. It was the first time other than a major holiday that Vernon could remember the place being closed. Wellgood's opened its door as sure as the sun would climb in the sky, and in an equally regular pattern The Dead Pecker Club gathered at the diner to yuk and drink coffee. The club was open to anyone who wanted to pull a chair up to the corner table, but the topics of interest and the windbag conversation self-selected a core of seven or eight regulars. Most of them would just drink coffee and maybe get a little something to nibble on after the real breakfast they’d had at home. Or perhaps they’d had no breakfast at all; they were retired old farmers, most of them skinny as the stalks of wheat they’d spent so many years laboring over.
Vernon was the leading exception in the club. Artie was a thick fellow, and Roland was roundish, but Vernon was big. His gut hung proudly over his belt and threatened the middle and bottom buttons of his shirt. He had been skinny once, back in his athletic, hard-working youth, but during middle age he came to the realization that he liked to eat, and he was going to die someday anyway. Who knew if he was going to be able to eat after that? When some people retired they bought an RV or a winter home in Florida, but Vernon decided he wanted to use all of the money he’d saved to eat good, hearty food. Bunson was a fine town to live in, and he didn't want to drive around the country and annoy distant relatives, so he might as well eat while his jaw still worked and his taste buds could absorb the flavors. And what Vernon's taste buds liked most of all, out of any substance known to mankind, were biscuits and gravy.
For years Vernon had eaten biscuits and gravy at Wellgood's diner at least four mornings a week, though he had been thoroughly cautioned against this practice. Doctors raised their eyebrows and shook their heads, instructing him to change his breakfast to fruit and granola. His wife Gail offered to cook oatmeal for him every morning. Even the guys in the club suggested he ease up a bit, citing basic modern health knowledge. But all of this well-meaning advice bounced off him and struck other people nearby, who then began to worry about their cholesterol level and fat intake. Vernon continued to order the biscuits and gravy and pack them into his gut, which swelled with the slow creep of a glacier after each bite.
Every morning was the same and Patty did not even have to ask anymore. If for some reason Vernon did not want biscuits and gravy that day, say he wanted to switch things up with chipped beef on toast, or steak and eggs, he would tell Patty while she poured his first mug of coffee. Otherwise, fifteen to twenty minutes after he sat down in his seat, Patty would bring out a plate of paradise: two open faced biscuits slathered with a thick country-white gravy.
Vernon was not sure which part of the meal he liked better. The biscuits, well, they were the base: the pillars on which the meal stood and thrived. Oliver made them from scratch, he said so himself when Vernon asked him about his recipe. He took the Bisquick and butter and combined them with cream in an alchemist's esculent daydream, whereby in an ambrosial twenty minutes a bowl of off-white goop became a mystical substance: buttery, round, tan pockets of delight that ruptured the atmosphere around them in mouthwatering delectation. One might think they are exclusively a solid, but these biscuits straddled this line of classification due to their recent existence in the liquid family and the gas invoked during the convection; one crack inside the biscuit showed flakes piled upon melting flakes with the baked fragrance escaping from the trapped pockets of hot air out into the world, ready and knowing they were going to please any olfactory receptor they came in contact with.
This is not toast we are talking about here. Nor is it a muffin, a hash brown, a hush puppy, a string potato, a home fry or even a buttermilk pancake, for that matter. Texas toast was fine in a pinch, but nothing came near the elegance of the biscuit. Vernon could eat the biscuits alone, without any butter or jam, they were that good. But, why settle for just good? On occasion Vernon would spread a full pat of butter on top of a single biscuit and watch it melt, the wet oil slicking down the sides until it leaned with the slope of the biscuit, liquefying and lilting, then slowly sliding off the cliff and crashing onto the white plate. In the right mood a big scoop of raspberry jam on the crown of the biscuit added a flash of color, the stroke of perfection to the painting, after which he could stand back and admire not only the singular creation, but the benevolent universe for allowing this expression to exist within it. Then, that single bite, removing a crescent-shaped cross section of the whole disc with the hot air escaping and the warmth and the freshness and the smell and the taste exploding in his nose and mouth... Mmmmmm. It was a stepping stone to heaven.
If only the biscuits were missing, perhaps Vernon could handle a week of asceticism. But when he took into account the thick, white gravy on top of the biscuit, it was a near-paralyzing prospect. The gravy complimented the biscuits, a creamy, lush yang to the sweet, bready yin, and together they were transformed into an unthinkable creation of succulence – one of the seven food wonders of the world. The gravy was spread over the two open-faced biscuits, sometimes so generously that Vernon couldn't even see the biscuits underneath. It was a mysterious pair of mounds that shaped the gravy, like some buried ancient ruins, and Vernon the ciboarchaeologist deftly employed his fork and mouth to excavate the treasure. He would do so with relish, parting the gray-white sea and burrowing down through the opaque, milky juices to reach the temple of butter and pull it up in chunks, making sure the partially-defined biscuit was fully embraced by the gravy as it traveled up, up into Vernon's mouth. He shoved his head out over the plate in case any drips came tumbling down, not for the fear of stained pants, but in the ethos that every drop counted. No man was left behind when Vernon was at the table. They would all meet again in the afterlife of his great stomach. Even if it required an order for a third biscuit (Vernon would wipe the gravy off his chin and hold up three fingers; Patty, across the room, would see him and understand the order), the plate would be wiped clean; so clean that Patty could use it to serve the next customer without him knowing it hadn't been washed.
This meal was made by the hands of Oliver the cook. He had worked at the diner for nearly twenty years and had been churning out the biscuits and gravy, among other brunch delectables, for anyone who stopped at Wellgood's for a bite. Sometimes through the chatter of customers and the clinking of metal spoon on ceramic plate you could hear Oliver whistling to himself behind the farce-wall that blocked off the corner of the room. Though he was slow, and often overloaded with orders during the morning rush, the food was well worth the wait. Vernon had tried biscuits and gravy at other joints throughout the state, but he had yet to find one that came anywhere near Oliver's dish. He had asked Oliver how he made the gravy, for Vernon suspected that the real magic of the dish was in the gravy, but Oliver refused to divulge his secret. “Family recipe,” he said while wiping his hands on his grease-stained shirt. Vernon did not pry any further, and fell back to his normal script of raving about the food.
But now this, this vacation, this temporary stop was a pothole in Vernon's parade. This threw everything amok. As one would think, it dominated the morning's conversation at the corner table. The date was June 28th, meaning the scheduled stop was only a few weeks away. The Club began debating about where they should meet when Wellgood's closed. Should they drive over to Fairview and find a table at Judy's Foodheap? Bernard was against that because Dick Thompson and his own posse always drank coffee at the Foodheap and Bernard and Dick still had a spat over a controversial cattle sale a decade ago. Bismarck was mentioned next, with the Cracker Barrel at the south end of town being the most likely spot, but that was vetoed as well due to the group's agreement on their mediocre coffee and terrible service.
The Dead Peckers discussed the possibility of meeting at one of their own homes, but going around the circle they each ruled themselves out with flimsy excuses. Lester said he didn't have enough chairs. Bernard said he didn't have enough coffee mugs. Cliffis didn't have any running water, and to be fair his little shack probably couldn't fit Vernon alone, much less the rest of the guys. Roland, and a few others, claimed that the missus wouldn't have it. Vernon fell into that group; Gail would not like a bunch of his friends cluttering up her morning. They talked the subject to a weary death and it turned out that Walt, as always, was the most likely host. Their weekly meeting to discuss Bunson business was always at Walt's house, so it now looked like Walt would be hosting the morning coffee round-up as well.
Once their informal decision carried the weight of the democracy, the air came back into the room and the men fell back into their jokes and complaints about the weather. Only Vernon remained aloof. Even when Patty brought out his biscuits and gravy, he pushed them around on the plate for a little while, watching the gravy mold to his fork, frozen for a moment until it obeyed gravity's will and sloughed down towards a lumpy equilibrium.
He could make it. It was only a week. Heck, it would probably be good for him. Vernon could proudly tell his doctor about it, who would congratulate him by saying that perhaps a week had been added to his life, and if Vernon wanted any more than that he would have to continue his abstinence. At the very least, the interruption would make the next biscuits and gravy, eight long days later, taste even better than normal. At that thought Vernon stopped pushing the gravy back and forth and gulped down his breakfast. With a full belly, he forgot about the upcoming troubles. They were weeks away.
William Blomstedt is a beekeeper and geographer. He has had fiction published in Ambit, The Missing Slate and The Alarmist, has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and is a columnist for the American Bee Journal. He lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia.