Yoder and the Five Odors


by Matthew Mark Miller


to my friend Sheldon, by way of disclaimer and lawsuit avoidance:  I know a man can only stomach so much ridicule.  Please believe that my heart is not to merely regurgitate old embarrassments, neither is it my desire to needlessly divulge the contents of something you’d just as soon I chuck aside.  I don’t mean to ruminate too long on an old gag.


This, for certain, be one long and torrid tale.


In the heart of every good storyteller, there is a great story.  And in the mind of every good storyteller, there is a subconscious quest for permanence.  We long to build the next Notre Dame, to shape the next David, or to write the next Henry V, for there is truly no greater immortality than to enter the hallowed afterlife of high school textbooks.


When storyteller meets story, then, he knows he has work to do.  The burden of proof lies with the storyteller to “get it right.”  The task is to take the irregular pulse of some tale and knit of it a “greatest hits” retrospective.  One must leave one’s listeners thinking they have heard the entire skein, when in fact they have only been fed a juicy yarn. This is the job of the storyteller, and it is not an easy one. The onus, as it were, is on us.


All too often the listener’s mouth opens, the world readies itself…and the story lodges in the throat like so much unchewed meat, unfit for digestion by the grade school world.  Our world is fat from junk food literature and unexercised brains.


In that vein, I begin this story with a preambling tale of historical import.


My parents had not long been married before they invited over a couple for dinner.  Said couple had attended their wedding and given them a wedding gift, a matching set of tall, ornate salt and pepper shakers.  The two shakers were absolutely flawlessly identical, so much so that my parents kept them separate solely by their position on the kitchen table.

My blessed mother broke the cardinal rule right off; she attempted to make a meal she had never made before.  She decided to make a roast, serving fruit salad as a side dish.  The couple arrived on time, the woman wearing a lovely outfit, complete with a new white blouse.

Well, as things would have it, Mom misjudged the cooking time of a roast.  Badly.  In fact, she misjudged it so badly that after the couple had arrived, after the typical pre-meal chatter had subsided to muted hunger pangs, there were/was still two hours left to go on that bloody ex-beast.

The wife was gracious, and she offered to help Mom in the kitchen slash dining room.  The husband was typical, and offered to sit at the breakfast slash lunch slash dinner table with Dad, yakking.  Mom put the woman to work straightaway, directing her to pitting the cherries for the fruit salad.

The men bantered as only men can do, and soon the subject fell to the salt and pepper shakers, featured, as I have mentioned, prominently on the table.  This particular set of ornate, expensive shakers had been given to my parents by this very couple, a fact which escaped both of the men and neither of the women.

The husband asked Dad, “Mark, how do you tell those shakers apart?”

My Dad, ever the joker, quipped, “Simple: by the number of holes on top.”

Mom, sensing impending danger, tried to give Dad the international “Knock it off, dimbo; you’re embarrassing me” symbol.  Dad, never the linguist, totally missed it.

Our friend the husband, having counted the holes on both salt and pepper shakers at least twice, shot Dad a quizzical look.  How do you tell them apart?”

“Simple,” quipped Dad.  “By the number of holes on top.”

The counting commenced again, much to my mother’s chagrin.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, my mother was feeling sympathetically embarrassed; the helpful lady had managed to splatter her new blouse liberally with cherry juice.  It was a pitiful sight.

The roast, in rare fashion, was taking its sweet time approaching the safely edible stage.  Desperate times were about to be met with quick and decisive action.  Mom reached for a big knife.

Cutting the roast in thin, bloody slabs, she placed them in the ubiquitous toaster oven, and roasted the dog out of them.

At the dinner table, the first bite was met with a stunned and awkward silence.  Things couldn’t be worse.  The wedding gift had been mocked.  The blouse had been ruined.  The roast was…boot material.  You can’t hide grief like that for long, and I’m sure it was evident somewhere on my poor mother’s face.  What choice, caring, gracious words would my father use to dispel the tension?

Putting his fork down next to his plate, my father famously declared, “That must’ve been one meeeeean cow!”

When the couple finally left, my mother collapsed into my father’s arms and sobbed, “We’re never having anyone over again!”  And let me tell you, in my sixteen-some-odd years in the Mark Miller household, we pretty much didn’t.


Jump forward with me to the establishment of the Matthew Miller household.  Within a month or so of the wedding, Becky and I felt like we’d gotten down the “dishes” and “sex” parts of young marriage, and were feeling feisty and ready to tackle that “hospitality” bit.  Well, one thing led to another, and after rejecting Becky’s initial suggestion of, “Let’s have my boss and his wife over!” I proposed we invite over a guppy.  A guinea pig.  A crash test dummy.  Somebody foolproof, a “takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’” kinda feller.


I knew my man.  His name, pause for emphasis, is Sheldon Yoder.


Sheldon is a quality gentleman who hails from that portion of Ohio that still thinks beards are cool and that farming, done wrongly, involves tractors.  He is himself a first-rate storyteller and news journalist, two highly compatible skills that coexist peacefully inside his unassuming frame.  His arrival to our house that fine feathered evening was late, tardy, and appallingly not on time.


He couldn’t have timed it better.    Sheldon was due to arrive at 6:30 pm, and we blew up at precisely 6:15.


The crumpled newspaper for this particular conflagration was, as with so many, completely inane.  And stupid.  I believe we were fighting about cleaning.  It was kinda like, “Why aren’t you cleaning that?  Why isn’t the house clean yet?  Why can’t I blame you for all of this?”


Well, to make a long story longer, Sheldon arrived promptly thirty minutes late.  Perfect timing: seven o’clock.  Our fight ended at six-fifty.


One great thing about fighting is that it is a one-track sort of undertaking; you can’t very well come up with poignant nastinesses when you’re half-engaged in doing something else.  This in part explains why our apartment was still not quite clean when Sheldon arrived.  For the ten minutes immediately prior to his arrival, we scurried around like madpeople, trying to make up for lost time.


And so it was that when Sheldon arrived in high fashion at seven PM, the lingering and distinct odor in our house was:


Odor #1: Cleaning Products


We quickly ushered Sheldon into the dining room slash kitchen, and I began the hospitality process while Becky began to prepare the meal.  She had elected to cook Swiss steak, a meal which she had never cooked before.  Our comedy of errata began when Becky pulled out the recipe and noticed that the meal which she had thought took twenty minutes to prepare in reality took an hour and twenty.  Not dismayed in the least, she began the meal process.  First, however, she made the best of the ammoni-ish stench by making a batch of liquid potpourri and putting it on the stove.


I, for one, offered Sheldon a seat at the breakfast slash lunch slash dinner table and began the hospitality process.


Odor #2: Cinnamon


While a sweet cinnamony odor wafted throughout our apartment, Becky turned to preparing the Swiss steak.  For the uninitiated, you prepare Swiss steak by pounding the meat.  In Becky’s case, it was a severe beating; before long, bloody meat particles speckled the counter and floor.


Meanwhile, I was entertaining Sheldon with stories, jokes, and Monty Python “Flying Circus” DVDs.  We had received a 14-disc box set for our wedding, and it killed time wonderfully.


It was after the first set of sketches that I first noticed the “haze of glory.”  Light filtered across the living-room floor, and I wrinkled my nose as I said, “Ummm, Becky?”


Unattended, the potpourri, livid in its cinnamonious glory, had turned into a black, bubbling, lava-like mass.


Odor #3: Burnt Potpourri


Becky yanked it off the stove, stuffed it in the sink, and moved to rolling the Swiss steak in the flour mixture.  By now, it was nearly eight o’clock.  The stress was visible on her face and evident in the pronounced motions with which she thrust the meat in and out of the flour mixture.  Flour flew like through the air like something white, powdery, and wheat-based.  It was a sure-fire mess.


By now, I was trying to pretend that all was normal: “Want to watch another Monty Python, Sheldon?” 

Before long, however, I was desiring to avoid my Dad’s mistakes, so I went over to Becky and gave her a hug.  “Don’t sweat it, B,” I said.  “Is it okay if I officially give my disclaimer to Sheldon?”  I did, and Sheldon was cool with it.


Becky, having pounded the meat and tossed the flour, threw them into two greased saucepans on the stove, lavishing them – and the range – with tomato sauce.  With that, she turned her attention to the broccoli and cauliflower salad.


By now, it was nearly nine o’clock, and our stomachs were ticking their irregular and impatient way toward dinner.  Thing were looking up, however. It seemed like our nourishment was at long last nigh.  This was rather fortunate for me, the hospitable entertainer, as I was beginning to run short of both jokes and Monty Python.  Suddenly I noticed that, lo!  The haze of glory had returned!


Odor #4: Scorched Meat


Smoke swirled in the air from a roiling mass of Swiss steak as Becky, her fragile calm dissolving, yanked it from the stove.  One pan, showing an alarming lack of restraint, had gone past merely cooking the meat and had scorched it all the way to a blackened mess.


Ultimately, I need to give Becky credit for pulling off a very visually appealing gastronomic feast.  The other pan of Swiss steak, though not as tender as Becky had envisioned, was still thoroughly edible.  The meal looked great on the plate, and despite Becky’s repeated apologies for the meat’s toughness, it really tasted quite good.


So the meal commenced, and, Murphy’s Law having run its course, I enjoyed the sumptuous fare while thinking to myself, “Well, it really couldn’t have gone much worse than this.”


How wrong a man can be.


I was in the middle of telling some story, as I am wont to do, and Sheldon was listening politely, as a person who is hungrily consuming food is wont to do, when suddenly his face took on a funny expression.


“That’s funny indeed,” I thought to myself.  “I don’t recall saying anything terribly humorous.”


Now, a storyteller should be prepared for any sort of response to a tale, including complete boredom, or even a snide “was that supposed to be funny?”


I was surprised, then, by the gastric liquid that spurted from Sheldon’s mouth and nose.


I was further astonished as he leapt enthusiastically to his feet, for the story wasn’t that well told, nor had I even reached the punch line.  But sure enough, there he stood, arms and fingers extended, flailing himself slightly with a look of desperation.  And then he spoke:


“I can’t breathe!” he gasped, pulling in his neck as he did in an impressive display of muscular control.


Speaking of reactions, I’ve been party to a few emergencies in my day, and I’ve seen the ways people react to such situations.  Some panic.  Some get choked up.  Some, the natural born leader types, take quick and decisive action.


Becky, by way of complete contrast, started laughing.  Hysterically.


So there I stood, my friend in danger in front of me, my wife in stitches beside me, and my story absolutely ruined.  Thinking clearly, I said, “Sheldon, if you need the Heimlich, nod your head.”  I could hear the pained gasping, and I could see the panic in his eyes, but I also knew that giving the Heimlich prematurely is a terrific way to turn “partly choking” into “probable cause: asphyxiation.”  And it was in this quandary that I stood, trying to determine the best course of action, waiting for so much as a head bob from Sheldon to drive me into action, when Nature, that clever paramedic, took matters into her own hands.


Odor #5: Bile


Covering his mouth, Sheldon divulged everything.  Dinner was everywhere; it was on his shirt, it was on his pants, it was on the carpet.  And Sheldon looked like a dog who’d been hilariously thrown into a swimming pool by a pair of naughty, taunting digestive tracts.  We wiped what we could off of him and the floor, got Sheldon a clean shirt, and retired to the living room.  Sheldon sat on the couch and sipped water cautiously from a glass.


When he finally left, Becky collapsed into my arms, laughing.  “What a night,” she said.


“I never thought we’d top my parents’ story,” I said.


“Me neither,” she said.


We turned and looked at our house.  There were wet, fetid spots on the carpet by the table.  The table itself was frozen in time, Sheldon’s half-eaten Swiss steak bearing witness to the beginning of the end.  The kitchen was a disaster area.  There was tomato sauce all over the stove, flour all over the counter by the espresso machine, and bloody meat chunks on the floor and by the sink.  In the sink itself, the remains of the day were a bloody meat mallet and two charred, blackened pans.  We took photos and went to bed; some of life’s messes are more amicably faced after a good night’s sleep.


I never got all the black out of those pans.