Editor’s note: Storyteller and local writer Rich Knoblich shares a terror-ific tale, just in time for Halloween.
East of Wheeling on National Road, near the West Virginia border, is a diner housed in an old, but well-kept, stone tavern. The building has a simple architectural style that harks back to the early years of tavern houses, roustabouts and Conestoga wagons. Like early travelers, you have to step past the outer appearance to find the treasure hidden within the eating establishment.
That treasure is the proprietor, a fellow named Morgan Joe.
Morgan Joe can usually be found leaning against the far end of the counter at the Epicurean diner, perusing his newspaper for a second or third time, reviewing those “newsworthy’” items that escape one’s interest the first time. The radio may be broadcasting his favorite music in the background, something gentle, low, perhaps blue. He’s been cooking at the Epicurean longer than anybody can remember. Customers joke that Morgan Joe is as old as the stone structure housing the diner, both weathering the years without a trace of wear.
Day or night a hungry traveler can drop in and order anything listed on the menu. Every order is served with style by the amiable Morgan Joe himself. He doesn’t operate an “all you can eat” diner offering watery gravy poured on a mound of potatoes, nondescript meat, mushy overcooked vegetables, and for dessert, a slice of pie that was manufactured in a factory.
His strength lies in the quality of the meals routinely turned out of his kitchen. His cooking reputation is so solid that word of mouth is his only means of advertising. Through the grapevine, many of the national food critics have heard of his skills. They’ll often stop in for a meal to satisfy their gastronomic souls. Each would like to write a review but Morgan Joe won’t let them.
“I let my food do the talking,” he’ll declare.
Under fear of being banished from his establishment and not ever getting to taste his sumptuous culinary delights, the critics respectfully yield to his request. And so it’s been until one rainy night. …
Morgan Joe and his good friend, Andy, were discussing current events. Andy is a freight hauler who likes to visit the diner after completing his Pittsburgh deliveries. He can often be found sitting on the stool opposite Morgan Joe enjoying a late-night snack. This particular night their discussion was interrupted by a raucous demand from the far end of the counter.
Both were surprised for they hadn’t heard anybody enter. Curiosity turned both men’s heads in unison to see who had ventured out this late on such a tortured night. The spectacle seated beyond caused them to stare hard.
She looked like a gypsy from a traveling carnival. She wore multiple loop earrings with one in her nose, rows upon rows of silver necklaces, each finger had a ring, two for each thumb. Her long ebony hair was tied back with every wicked color of ribbon imaginable. Judging from the heavy layers of makeup applied, she was a Sephora rep’s dream commission come true. Her attire suggested a Caribbean influence, but her thick Cajun accent tipped off Morgan Joe that her home parish was somewhere in Louisiana. She hollered again, “What do you do for some service around here?”
Morgan Joe ambled down apologizing, “Sorry. I didn’t hear you make your entrance. Where exactly do ya hail from and what might I serve you?”
Outside the storm’s intensity increased. The gusts began to howl through the trees but the wailing of the wind couldn’t begin to match her savage defiance.
“I am Isadora, Queen of Voodoo. I live in the bayous of Louisiana, back deep, where the sunlight no longer penetrates the Spanish moss, beyond where even the bayou gators fear to hunt for prey.
“I have heard of your fame, and the tales of the spiciness of your sauces have reached my domain. I hear so much that I decided to come to taste for myself, for in Cajun country we don’t take claims to spicy food lightly. I paddle my pirogue past the bayou gators, past the levee, up ol’ man Mississippi, I take a right onto the Ohio and then travel up Wheeling Creek. Now, I have arrived!
“I am here to test you. You will serve me your claim to spicy cuisine, and if you fail, I will take you back. Back down the creek, the Ohio, the Mississippi, past the levee, beyond the gators, back deep into the bayou where I practice my voodoo. All will come to mock you, and you will be humiliated for the remainder of your days for pretending to match the celebrated spiciness of Cajun. Ptui!”
Morgan Joe didn’t appreciate her saliva on his immaculate floor and said so as he mopped his tile clean. But he couldn’t ignore the challenge. Without batting an eye he countered, “In that case, Miss Voodoo, you’ll be wanting my spaghetti with red sauce. My regular customers claim it’s spicy enough to redden a tan from the inside out.”
He stepped over to a simmering kettle sputtering on the stove. Occasionally, a bubble burst from the surface and sent up a plume of red steam. He served up the usual generous helping. Placing the platter down he said, “Bon appetite. I’ll bring you some coffee later. My java is just the thing to wash down dessert.” Morgan Joe then ambled back to where Andy was sitting.
The voodoo queen shook out her linen napkin and tucked one corner under her chin. Twirling her fork, she rolled a mouthful of Morgan Joe’s spaghetti with red sauce onto the utensil. The initial taste caused rivulets of perspiration to stream down her face streaking her makeup. She took a deep measured breath before attempting the second mouthful. This time, blisters formed on her lips and tongue. With the third bite, she clutched her throat and emitted a high squeal as she felt the tangy sauce rip her stomach lining like a nuclear meltdown. Isadora, Queen of Voodoo, leapt up and departed the diner without leaving a tip or compliment.
Noting her sudden departure, Andy requested a side order of the spaghetti. “Seems to be uncommonly good tonight,” he marveled.
As Morgan Joe prepared the order, another customer magically appeared. There was no mistaking this patron’s identity. The twitching barbed tail, protruding horns and ruddy complexion darkened by the eternal fires from below were proof enough that Old Scratch himself was seated there.
Morgan Joe is not one to discriminate, but he did turn up the air conditioner just to be impish. He omitted the usual, “Welcome,” for that would have been a false greeting. He graciously placed a menu before the devil and requested his order.
Satan leaned in close and hissed with his sulfurous breath, “I’ve come to taste your fare. I understand you offer hot food. Where I come from the term hot is not a relative term. Serve me your most torrid. If it’s not scorching enough you’ll have to return with me to stoke the coals of the raging fires of my stove. It gives a whole new perspective to the phrase ‘open flame-broiled.’ You’ll cook with a heat so intense that you’ll be cured of your impudence on a permanent basis.”
Using a menu to fan away the devil’s odorous bad breath, Morgan Joe first offered a before dinner breath mint. He then suggested, “Perhaps what you’d enjoy is a bowl of my chili. I grow my own variety of chili peppers to give it spunk. My regulars claim that after eating a piping hot bowl in the midst of winter they no longer need to don overcoats and openly scoff at the wind chill factor.”
He fetched a large earthenware bowl and ladled in a generous portion of chili from the crock that’s always simmering on the back burner. Morgan Joe never makes a fresh batch of the chili, though occasionally he adds whatever ingredients he feels are necessary to keep up its spirit.
Setting down the bowl Morgan Joe said, “Enjoy your meal, Mr. Satan. I’ll return in a moment to serve up some of my java, which is just the thing to wash down dessert.”
While consuming the chili, Satan had to wrap his barbed tail around the counter stool to keep from skyrocketing to the ceiling. His long misshapen nails left marks where he gripped the counter to steady himself. With every bite steam shot from his flaring nostrils like a faulty radiator hose. Morgan Joe admired the gusto with which Satan consumed his meal. It was the same enthusiasm his regular patrons displayed.
After clearing away the empty bowl, Morgan Joe set down a generous slice of cake in front of the devil. But before he could return with the coffee, greed caused Satan to devour the dessert with great gluttonous gulps. Satan had devoured freshly baked angel food cake. The heavenly taste reminded the fallen angel of his previous encounter with something so divine. He flashbacked to that losing confrontation and realized he wasn’t ready for the rematch. The cake’s angelic flavor caused him to bolt from the room in a dazzling flash of crackling red sparks. Andy, unimpressed by the gaudiness of the pyrotechnical display, ordered a bowl of chili to round out his own late-night snack.
Following Satan’s departure, things settled down for a spell but, gradually, the night grew darker. Suddenly, timing his arrival with a roll of thunder, there appeared the Grim Reaper. He spoke with a deep sonorous tone of doom.
“Morgan Joe, prove the mastery of your culinary skills or I will take you to your grave tonight,” the Grim Reaper said. He then quietly sat down in stone dead silence. Death’s not one to chitchat. He’s a bottom-line kind of guy who had a bone-chilling effect on the diner’s atmosphere. Andy ordered a second helping of the chili to keep warm.
Having to guess at Death’s preference for sustenance, Morgan Joe played it safe by offering the surf and turf special. He assumed anything already deceased would satisfy the Reaper’s appetite. Though the Grim Reaper cast a pall of gloom on the diner’s ambience, Morgan Joe extended to him the same courteous manner shown to all his patrons. Setting the meal down he offered to serve dessert with coffee later. The Grim Reaper ate the main course with the clicking of his utensils making ominous sounds much like the sharpening of his scythe against the grindstone. After finishing his meal he used the point of his blade as a toothpick.
Upon clearing the plates, Morgan Joe poured Death a steaming cup of his delicious Swiss mocha coffee, to stall for time while trying to determine a suitable dessert. The Reaper added a packet of artificial sweetener and a dash of cream. “Don’t get this much where I come from,” he said. He then quickly drained the cup. He immediately received a complimentary refill, a traditional practice at the Epicurean.
But just then Morgan Joe, staring past the hooded form through the Epicurean’s plate glass windows, caught sight of a disturbing spectacle in the background. He coughed gently to attract Death’s attention and nodded toward the front lawn. Following Morgan Joe’s gaze, the Grim Reaper swiveled around on his seat and stared out.
Through the rain-streaked windows, a ragtag collection of zombies could be seen staggering about bumping into the landscaping. They were a motley crew in various states of decay. Some looked mummified, covered by taut dry leathery flesh. Some had decomposing skin dangling from their gaunt skeletal frames. A few appeared to be recently interred, a judgment made because of the numerous worms that could be seen crawling throughout their partially decomposed bowels and eye sockets.
Startled, Death jumped up to the window for a better view. “Good gracious!” he exclaimed, “Why are all of those dead people wandering about? They should be resting in their graves. I’ve already tended to them once before, and they should have the decency to stay put in their coffins. How on earth did this come about?”
Morgan Joe tactfully explained. “You see, Death, what happened is this, you’ve partaken of my very finest hand-ground fresh brewed coffee. All of my regular customers will testify as to how I concoct an especially rich potent blend. They claim it’s strong enough to wake the dead. It appears their critique is justified. Now ol’ Morgan Joe’s not one to tell the Specter of Death his business, but it seems to me that before you concern yourself with carting me off to the nether world perhaps you ought to return those cadavers to their proper burial plots first.”
Andy then interrupted to order a cup of coffee, straight up. “I declare I can’t resist after getting a whiff of its aroma.”
The Grim Reaper hastily made for the exit. Once outside, he got busy with his scythe gleaning his previous harvest. Chasing those zombies about the yard kept him occupied and out of mischief for a good long time. While concentrating on herding the zombies back to their cemetery plots he eventually forgot about his threat against Morgan Joe and was never heard from again.
After slurping dry his own cup of coffee, Andy commented how it had been a long day, bade goodnight, and went home to catch some snore. Morgan Joe, left alone, went back to perusing his newspaper while listening to the airwaves.
He continues to serve his customers fine food, 24 hours a day, seven days a week and has done so for as long as anybody can remember. When folks stop to reflect upon the matter, not that it does matter, they marvel at how he hasn’t changed in all these years.
With an ornery look he’ll kindly jest, “Must be something in the coffee.”
Check out this interview with Rich Knolich by WJMH Media, the student-run broadcasting service of Marshall County Schools and featured on the weekly 30-minute show, WJMH Reports. The entire show will air on WLU-TV, Comcast Channel 14, beginning Monday, Nov. 4, and will air daily throughout the week at 7 a.m., 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. The show will also be available to view at any time on TopperStation.com.
• Rich Knoblich is a tour guide, storyteller, Behind the Scenes presenter and host at the Welcome Center for Oglebay Resort. He also tells for Grand Vue Park in Marshall County. Along with Judi Tarowsky, he has developed storytelling festivals at Pricketts Fort State Park and Grand Vue Park.