Everyone knew that Riley Holdcamp would eat anything except liver. It was not a secret. Since high school he had announced to every date and future potential spouse that if they ever served him liver and onions, he would extract revenge. He could not even tolerate to be in a dining room where liver was on the menu. The smell gagged him; and if he had missed the smell when he walked into a dining room, seeing “Liver and Onions” on the menu brought beads of cold sweat to his forehead.
As a consequence, May’s and Ossy’s and most of the other eateries within 60 miles of Bennings, Montana, including the yuppy places in Great City, had not offered the dish in at least the last fifteen years. Everybody loves a champ, and for fifteen years Riley Holdcamp held the title of Champion Gastronomist at the Last Lost River Valley County Fair Sweet and Savory All You Can Eat Competition. In six of those fifteen years, Riley had won the State Title and had competed and won in places as distant as Omaha, Nebraska; Ennis, Texas; Pendleton, Oregon. He even traveled Coney Island, New York, to compete in Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, a few times, but only managed to place third or fourth, and once—when he was in his gourmanding prime he took a close second to the champ of all champs, Joey Chestnut of Vallejo, California.
Riley was not a fat man, but he was large, his heavy, thick-boned body stood six-four; and he kept it as fit as an Olympic sprinter, jogging four to eight miles a day. Riley was also known for his ability to move large inanimate objects. Men who worked for him at Holdcamp Construction claimed if a backhoe was not available to move a two-hundred-pound rock, and Riley was, there was no need to wait for the backhoe. They also said he could take a crisp hard apple and break it in half with his bare hand, then chomp half of the half and eat it with a grin. They like most of the Last Lost River Valley were in awe of his strength and gormandizing.
Riley had such a reputation around the Last Lost Valley that almost everyone would buy him a meal at the May’s and Ossy’s Diner just to be in the presence of an epicurean of such style and valor. He was asked to stand and raise his hat if he was in the bleachers at the annual July 24 rodeo, and the Bennings Chamber of Commerce paid him ride their Labor Day parade float, which more often than not advertised the Labor Day afternoon fish fry. Invariably, Riley sat on the float at a table featuring a plate the size of a small boat and holding, deep fried and crispy, a whole Last Lost River Cutthroat Trout and a heap of potato salad. (FYI the Last Lost River Cutthroat Trout is a bragging rights size fish and the big summer tourist draw for the whole Last Lost River Valley.)
Then, in 2014 Dianne Frustbran was the County Commissioner in charge of the County Fair. You would think that since they were both long since married, apparently happily, that her thing for Riley back in high school, would not be a factor in her duties as County Fair Commissioner. Unfortunately, as Riley should have remembered, Dianne Frustbran had a long and malicious memory. Riley’s rejection of a fifteen-year-old girl was to prove a challenge in the 2014 County Fair Sweet and Savory All You Can Eat Competition. Dianne decided that the 2014 champion would be the person who ate the most liver and onions.
If anyone else on the Commission had been paying attention, she probably would not have gotten away with it. Certainly, Ossy Oldsmith would not have put up with it. Riley was his and May’s best customer and best draw for other customers. But Dianne did not make her order of huge amounts of liver and onions through the usual channels, which was May’s and Ossy’s Diner. She went to Costco in Bozeman. The rest of the Commission and the rest of the Last Lost River County learned of Dianne’s sinister arrangement only when she released the posters for the Sweet and Savory All You Can Eat Competition. By then it was to late to do more than fume and fulminate. Dianne took it all with wide-eyed innocent hurt claiming nobody appreciated all the hard work she put into the County Fair project. “Besides, she told her accusers, “She didn’t like liver and onions anyway and so it was a sacrifice on her part to even think about putting it on a menu.”
The question on everybody’s mind was “would Riley concede and live on his laurels as fifteen-year champion, or would he overcome his aversion to liver? Bets were going strong both ways. Those who knew Riley’s deep aversion to being second place—he had gone into a mild funk when he lost to Joey Chestnut at the Coney Island Nathen’s hot dog competition—were betting that liver was the lesser of two losses to Riley. But most were betting that liver would win out and Riley would be a no-show for the event. Riley never said one way or the other, though when the question was put to him, the sweat beaded above his brow, his nose wrinkled, and his blue eyes went nearly white. So naturally, the Sweet and Savory All You Can Eat Competition was the not-to-miss feature of the 2014 Last Lost River County Fair.
And there was Riley sitting in front of a pile of liver and onions, his face white as his hair, his lips turned dejectedly down at the edges, his nose wrinkled with disgust. The pupils of his blue eyes were needle points as if they were trying not to see the vast corruption that lay before them. The back and armpits of his shirt were already dark with sweat. But there he sat. And so, the betting changed from whether he would be there—losers paid up—to whether he would A) stay the whole three minutes and/or B) win or lose. The betting was fifty-fifty on whether he would last the three minutes. But even those who understood Riley’s aversion to losing could not bet that he would manage to gag down enough liver in three minutes to win. As a result, the odds were rising toward thirty to one that he would lose. The only taker that he would win was his mother, Cynthia. She covered every bet she could which amounted to her entire checking account and her next social security check, about $1,500. She even borrowed $500 more under the table (since spouses of Fair competitors could not place bets) from Jean, Riley’s wife.
About the three-minute time frame. Dianne had determined that the time of the event would be seven minutes. But she had uncharacteristically neglected to put that on the competition poster, and the rest of the Commission deemed that seven minutes was much too long for anyone to send eating liver and onions. Ossy Goldsmith moved for a time of one minute, but after discussion the motion was modified to three minutes which passed unanimously. Dianne was one who knew how to cut her losses and maintain her innocent ‘who-me’ smile.
This was a smile that she carried to the head of the liver and onions table, where, as County Fair Commissioner she was charged with opening the eating event. She was smiling (almost in triumph some would say) while she noted all the achievements of the former winner in order hype the event, and incidentally make his loss more humiliating. But her smile unsmiled when the champion spoke up from his end of the table.
“Well, Dianne, we all thank you for making this great auspicious occasion possible. From the bottom of our livers we are appreciative,” Riley said. This got a chuckle from everyone—though it was a bit nervous considering the speaker and his usual aversion to even the word “liver.”
“But,” Riley continued, “I wonder if our honorable Commissioneress would join us?”
That is when Dianne’s smile frowned, and she suddenly regretted her fifteen-year-old confession to a boyfriend that she too despised liver and onions.
“I think not to day,” she said. “I’m not entered in the event.”
“Well, it’s like you are the hostess to this event,” Riley said. “And it would be a social disaster for a hostess to serve something she does not join her guests in partaking in. Would it not?”
Dianne’s forehead curl began to mat with perspiration and sag down toward the bridge of her nose. She squinted sourly at her former boyfriend.
“I guarantee there is plenty to go around,” Riley continued.
“Well, yes sir!” said Dianne’s fellow commissioner Ossy Oldsmith. “By damn, last year I ate a hot dog or two. It’s the hosty thing to do.”
“You mind your own business, O.O,” Dianne snapped. Ossy hated his nick name. Dianne knew this. And she should have known saying it was a mistake.
O.O. Oldsmith doubled down.
“What’s everybody here think?” he said, lifting his voice and turning his head to the bleachers around the table. The roar was unanimous.
A server put a platter of liver and onions on the table in front of Dianne. She slumped in her chair, forgetting that she was suppose to fire the starting shot for the event.
Ossy Oldsmith stepped up, picked up the starter’s revolver and the stop watch. He lifted the pistol toward the sky with his right hand, held the watch in his left. “Ready. Set,” he said, “EAT.” he punched the watch button and fired the pistol.
Riley dove into his platter of liver and onions as if it was a job he had to get done. All of the other competitors dove with him, though most of them with more gusto.
Dianne lifted a small fork of onions to her lips and vomited.
Three minutes at most jobs for Riley was a flash. But these three minutes lasted until Kingdom Come. The sweat flowed from him as if he were shoveling a ton of sand in a hot August sun. Still, his fork went down to the plate and brought something up to his mouth. Still, he swallowed and shoveled more from the plate. The pong of Dianne’s mishap drifted into the vile foul of liver and onions, but it seemed more a help than a hinderance. Even vomitus was a smell sweeter to him than what he shoveled from the plate in front of him. It was made sweeter still because he had finally nailed the witch with her cheesy grin who had always been a witch with a ‘who me’ cheesy grin, even when she was fifteen. There are reasons I ditched you, girl, he thought as he shoveled. After the first plate was cleaned, a second was put in its place by a server who stood behind each contestant. And it went on. And on.
At last, at terribly long last, the ending bell rang, and everyone, satiate or not, lay down their forks.
Following the weighing of what was left on each plate, it was determined that the champion of the 2014 County Fair Sweet and Savory All You Can Eat Competition was not Riley Holdcamp; he had placed a dismal third. This did not bother him except that he knew his mother was out her savings account and a month of social security and that his wife was out $500. These losses could be handled—construction was a boom business. He was not bothered otherwise with his loss because he had won a thirty-year battle he had not realized was still being fought until he saw the poster for the 2014 County Fair Sweet and Savory All You Can Eat Competition.