Some asked where they could read the two stories of mine that received special mention in the 2011 Pushcart Prize collection: here for your Thanksgiving musing, published previously in CONJUNCTIONS, the great literary journal edited by Brad Morrow, is one of the stories, "Beef":
We take advantage of that friendliness that Southerners are supposed to have, you know, the gentleman thing. What happens is I come up close to the door, press my nose up to the glass everyone has out here, and one of these people comes to the door, could be an old lady, could be a guy, it doesn’t matter. I start talking real fast, sort of snowing it over them, which is why the guys call me The Tongue, as in you want something, get the Tongue. Meat, beef, I’ve got a lot, I say, I’ll give it to you, I’ll give it to you, cost me three hundred but I’ll give it to for one hundred fifty, I’m almost shouting, I’ll give it to you -- and behind me the other guys are holding these black cardboard boxes we use, and our van is puffing steam, our van which is also painted black, paint so thick we can’t even use the rear lock and have to open it from the inside.
And if the people who open the door raise their objections, like: I don’t have room in my freezer, I tell them, look, I’ve known freezers in my time and people don’t know how to use them, no need to get namby-pamby on anyone, and I sort of shoulder it past them to the kitchen and start arranging things better, because one thing people don’t know how to use is space and one American thing we know for sure is space. I start shoving in the beef, packages of sirloin and T-bone and all that, racks and hamburger patties, and I’m opening up the box and hefting stuff in there, and if they say they want to keep the box in case of returns I tell them no worries, it’s fine, I’ll recycle, I’ve got everything flat before they say lickety and before they say split they find themselves whipping out a pen and writing out a checkarooni for one hundred and fifty buckarupees, and if they don’t, it’s essentially highway robbery, because now we’ve got all our beef in their freezer, unpackaged, and possession is nine-tenths of the law, what can they do and anyway we’re gone before they think better.
And hey, it’s not like we’re taking anything from them, they get to have beef for a month of Sundays, sauce it up anyway they like, some people would die to eat beef, and okay it’s not that prissy stuff, none of that pure free-range cock and bull stuff, that grain-eating mushmush, this is real cow slaughter. We’re talking choose your cut and take it between your jaws, bloody or barbecued or what have you.
This is what the lone cattle farmer has to do in our time. I mean, I’m not that guy but I’m hired by a guy who works with a guy who works with that guy, one local guy who’d never let me use his name but I feel for him, I do, and anyway when I got out of the hoosgaw after those domestic incidents what other jobs were open to me, I mean it wasn’t like some national company was going to hire me to drive a brown truck delivering parcels or anyone would trust me decorating their cakes or whatever pissant job people find when they need to get by. If my mom weren’t sick I wouldn’t be doing this beef racket, because that’s what it is, a racket, who are we fooling here, but money is money and truth is, it’s sort of fun, the choice of a house, the way you zero in like a detective, circling. Trick is you got to look for markers that someone isn’t really comfortable in his skin, like maybe you see someone with one of those cutesy mailboxes that show they’re living out here because they think it’s quaint, not someone throwing their trash out unbagged on their lawn but someone poking a rake at leaves as if yesterday someone introduced the whole idea of rakes to him. Or you see someone wearing his jeans a little too tight. Once you’re done spotting, don’t move in right away, you wait a while and come back in an hour, you have your guys with you, and the thing depends on speed, which means that after a good take, inside the truck, you are high as kites. This is pure adrenaline without any guilt to tug it down, because after all didn’t you just sell a decent product at decent markdown?
The only other job I’ve been able to get is working for the campaigns, I mean, at night, going around and removing signs the other guy has put up, people know me around here, in the electioneering scheme of things they don’t call me Tongue, they call me Steam because I get away so fast, as in: you need a job done, you call Steam. Only it’s these new people, the out-of-towners and northerners who drift south because their cities are turning into habitats for rats living on top of each other, prime target for a terrorist bomb, it’s the escaping rats who don’t understand the way we do things. Just for the record, the way you collect election signs is you stack them on a corner at night and then come back an hour later, no one really notices. All these endeavors depend on patience, you got to wait that hour before you scoop up the other guy’s signs and then go drive to the river and throw them in the water so that even if they want to use them, they would look all bad and waterlogged and who’s going to vote for someone whose signs are mildewed? It’s a sign you should kick yourself out of the race, right? And the river’s always better than going to the county dump, because anyone can dig up a sign from a dump.
When I was in Basra I was called Steam for a whole nother reason. I was in Basra but back in Bentonville, where I lived for a little bit just out of high school, I had Cherilyn waiting for me. Cherilyn I’d met when she’d auditioned for the kind of bar where the bartenders dance and sing on top of the bar and she hadn’t made it, they’d told her she was tops in the personality department but wouldn’t be good for sales, she’d been sitting curbside outside the bar, crying just before happy hour on a Friday, a girl whose cheeks were so fresh you felt you’d get the first bite out of an apple, if you know what I mean. She felt I understood the troubles of her life and why getting this bar job meant so much. All the other guys in my unit were jealous about Cherilyn, whose mama had gotten her wallet photo retouched so that no matter how many times I took it out of my kit Cherilyn still looked like one hot apple.
The bad thing that happened two days before Christmas in Basra was basically that I was eating some turkey soup out of a can when we hear this explosion and everyone goes down, I mean everyone, and even my can gets knocked out of my hand, all I have left is the spoon in my hand and that’s the dumb luck of a survivor. The only guys who didn’t buy the farm that second were me and the corporal who was about fifty yards away pulling down his pup. That one-night recon ended up, basically, a life sentence because in the bargain I lost everyone but the corporal who hadn’t been especially a friend of mine, though the moment did bond us, especially after we had to haul one of my buddies to the medevac that came too late because how can anyone get there in time to keep life flowing?
The soup incident is why I got a purple heart, even though it didn’t take much bravery on my part, just the dumb luck I have, they gave me a heart making up for all those other lost hearts, which is also why I got to see this head-shrink now because some wires got crossed, I mean who wouldn’t need help. Like say you stared down the mouth of a nuclear reactor, wouldn’t you think you were ready for some help? Not everyone gets blown up and just has his stupid soup spoon left in his hands.
Which probably in a roundabout way explains how I got into the beef racket, the whole thing with my buddies and then Cherilyn walking out -- we had a few domestic incidents, cops called, all that, but really she walked because I didn’t hang on her every word and then she fell in love with some fellow boytoy prisoner friend of mine who only thought about lifting weights so he could update his photo on the prisoner web site at the same time as he was legally changing his name to Dream Big -- all that just did a number on me, and when I got out, Tony suggested I help him out in a new business venture with guaranteed profit each month, he kept saying, guaranteed, right when I was ripe for anything guaranteed, prayer wasn’t doing the trick and also it had gotten too depressing staying at home with ma all the time waiting for the veteran’s check to thud in with all the other mail asking us to go out and buy things on the cheap. And I wasn’t ready to start calling anyone Your Honor. You can see how it made sense.
So what happens is I’ve stocked the beef in someone’s freezer and even got them to the point of sale, that’s what it’s all about, you get them to use their pen and sign the check and put it in your hand, and any objections they raise along the way you’re like okay, I understand, your answers ready like little soldiers. And then we’re out the door, vanished like the shine on some Christmas decorations the day after you’ve taken the tree down when it doesn’t really matter anymore that you just had all this expectation hanging on getting something. This is not evil. If it were evil, I’d be a liar or someone would’ve stopped me already, because I’m not such a big guy, a fact that I got reminded of a thousand times a day in the hoosgaw. It’s just that my bald head makes me look taller or tougher, I can’t stop shaving it since I got home from Iraq, so though Cherilyn used to say I had super-kind eyes or at least did until the day she stopped saying it, it’s probably my eyes draw them in while my shiny head is probably what keeps people from slamming and locking the door in my face. They’re scared.
And you’d think that even after we leave they’d stop the check but they never do, probably stand a long while in the kitchen shaking their heads, trying to figure themselves out. Probably feel too foolish to want to explain it to Tanya at the bank, as in, Tanya, please stop my check because I just got taken in by the Beef Boys, which is the name we incorporated as, the name we ask them to use for the checks, and Tanya isn’t about to help them out either, being that Tanya’s a good local girl who understands that everyone out here does what he’s got to do. Especially because out here we’ve got God country on our side, that’s what we call it on days when you see dads standing around with their sons around the back of a flatbed, unloading a two- hundred-pound hulk of deer, everyone struck dumb by the fact that they’re still living and that stupid animal just kicked it.
People ask okay did something happen in Iraq that made you go into this line of business and usually I don’t talk about the soup-spoon moment, it’s too much a tearjerker, so I can’t think of anything except the one thing which is that time we were crossing this little bay which I won’t name because it was supposed to be a no-fly zone but our fuel supply was low and we see this little action hero sort of gasping somewhere out in the water, and I was not myself that day, I can’t explain it, I asked Johnny who’d been pressed into flight even though as corporal all he’d ever done was go to some military academy and get shipped out too young, barely knew how to man a copter, given that he was younger than I was, a fact I never let him forget, but on this day I was trying to eject something out of my throat, so I said let’s go down, Johnny, I think that hero’s one of our men, which I didn’t really, but how can you explain days when you’re not yourself? Everyone has them, I’m as good as the next guy. Still we get closer and I see the hero’s not on our side, not at all, he has one of these superlong mullah beards, as we call them, not mullet as in long bad haircut from some 1970s band but mullah as in super-evil trainer of young jihad minds trained to battle the U.S.A.
Like the guy might be one of the priests those guys have out there. But something’s hitting me, maybe because it’s morning of Christmas Eve and we all should’ve been home two months ago or I don’t know, I’ve gone a little soft on account of the soup-spoon incident, so I feel soft toward him, and this even after what I’d seen the day before. We scoop Mullet up in our copter, I say mullet because their hair is long in front not in back, and we’re supposed to be heading to Basra to pick up some replenishment of our medical supplies which have run low given our events, plus the fact that we’ve been bunkered in Bazookistan for two and a half months. And there Mullet is in the helicopter with us, spitting up water and smelling like something just dragged through major sewage, if you know what I mean, probably soiled himself. The problem is he doesn’t speak much English and the Arabic rattling in my head is really not that useful, stuff like koos emuk, which means your mother’s private parts! And other choice words which I won’t share here. I don’t know why, but certain things stick better than the how are yous? And please turn around and raise your hands over your head? that we had drilled in us during pre-op. I can’t help it, my head’s not really sorted out for languages, but at least I remember one or two choice elements.
So here this guy is gasping and I hit on it, like something we could do for him, give him back some dignity, I go digging in my rucksack and I pull it out, it’s a little mushed, but it’s still okay, this hoagie like we used to call it back in training camp near Phillie, I pull it out and true the meat is mushed and true it’s dripping but still it’s prime USDA, sent in a Hugs from Home package filled with diaper wipes and graham cookies when what most guys really want are magazines and beef, even if ladies and beef both come freeze-dried.
And the guy at first looks happy when he sees the puffy part of the bread, he’s skinny like a bird and hungrier, because even if someone has a different color of skin and different way of thinking you can still figure out the basic human things, this is one thing I’ve learned, hunger anger love self-defense, but he’s saying something we can’t understand, muttering and spitting out a kind of question, so we’re just smiling and saying aiwa and la, kind of at the same time, yes and no, which are words that even I can remember though neither of us really at that moment remembers how to say anything else.
So what he does is take a bite and chews and it only takes him a half-second before he spits it out and says something which I think might be the word for infidels but could just as easily be the word for disgusting, and that does it, I mean I’ve had it, what with the soup thing with my buddies only the day before and here I am sharing my last KP with him when we had a three-hour flight at least to get to Basra, me with my low blood sugar and him with the nerve to spit it out because it’s not cut to his liking or whatever. It’s cut wrong supposedly because the animal suffered and I’m all like who doesn’t suffer? Is suffering a reason to reject someone’s courtesy? I say not.
So I say: let’s drop him.
Just like that, let’s drop him.
Plus the corporal doesn’t even bat an eye, he’s all like aye-aye sir, kind of roasting my bones because I’m a private but I don’t care, he’s with me on the dropping of Mullet idea. So we’re over some compound, I can’t tell what it is, one of those secret government installations that are everywhere, they’re on the maps like empty rectangles with squares jostling around inside, and we just do it, we force Mullet out, we drop him inside one of those cement blocks, maybe everyone has fled, maybe he gets locked inside, who knows. These guys can be super-crafty, have subterranean tunnels like moles. And Mullet can’t believe we’re doing it to him, I can still see his narrow longbeard face looking up right before we pull away, shielding his eyes from the wind of the copter blades but still shouting at us. Okay, so even after I say that Mullet will figure out a way to escape because he has Allah on his side, the corporal seems too rattled to even crack a smile. When Mullet really deserved something, treating us with such inhospitality when there we were trying to rescue him, plus I shared my last sandwich with him, and the best thing he could think to do is call us infidels?
Which is all kind of a tangent but maybe it explains why I got so bothered last Saturday when we came to this prissy kind of door, the kind with painted birdboxes in front of it, as if our birds here don’t have any place to go find shelter, and the guy who shows up at the door looks sort of concerned, has one of those pasty Northern cityfolk am-I-doing-it-right, I’m-still-a-foreigner-here sort of faces. He actually has paint stripes on his clothes, so I figure he must be one of those gentleman artsy painters because there is no way in freezing buck county that the guy is a house painter, I’d never let him touch one of my walls, inside or outside.
His wife has vanished like an aroma upstairs, I just saw her white ankles vanishing, and it is probably out of fear of the evangelicals who run rampant in these parts and who you got to be on guard against because they’ll talk your ear off for a million months of Sundays and never let you get down to business, and they almost put us out of business because now some people don’t even answer their doors.
But this is one pasty-looking mother staring at me, and he starts trying to out-egg me, you know, talking some breed of stuff about how he doesn’t need beef, doesn’t even eat it, being one more of these blue-veined vegetarians starting to infest our land, and I’m smiling at him like I can’t believe this, like what kind of guy would you really be in bed, I mean I’m not exactly about to say anything, insults tend to put off sales, first thing you learn, because I’m not in the intimidation racket, just into the speech-and-speed thing. Then he starts asking all sorts of questions and it’s not like I have any ready answers to his questions, and I’m starting to get a little pissy, because things are not going according to plan, and it’s like when he says what are you fighting about? I try not to lose it and say I’m not fighting, that was before, and when he asks is the world black-and-white I say only if you say so and for whatever reason I’m thinking of our copter and I see this painter smiling in some way that makes him seem twice as crazy. He starts taking the beef, just ripping open the packages and throwing beef onto these massive iron skillets he has, I’m not kidding, frying up our goods in his kitchen which is painted all these godforsaken colors, aqua or pumpkin or whatever they call those colors, cooking it up, and I would’ve left by now but I’m not kidding, the guy’s wife is quicker than she looked, she came back smiling herself, smelling of vanilla perfume but basically using surprise tactics that made this one vet look bad, because she got me tied me to their kitchen chair with two extension cords which for the life of me I can’t undo. Must have had a brother in the Boy Scouts or what have you. At this point I’m bellowing like a ram in heat and stomping all what out but who’s going to hear me out here? No one. And she keeps interrupting her husband whose eyes could be those of a serial murderer, I’m not kidding, keeps interrupting to say you want me to call 911?
You’re not supposed to do this, I say, trying to calm everyone down including myself. How it’s supposed to go is you’re supposed to let me free now. Right here you should be signing the check and --
And he says we’ll just keep him here. The thing they used on me was surprise, which I’m still feeling embarrassed about given how you’d think basic training plus my current line of work would have prepped me for better, but he’s frying up the beef and I’m sitting there tied up and then he’s serving it to me, not with sauce or anything, holding my nose to make me open my mouth and at first I’m just spitting it out onto my lap or the floor, wherever I can reach, and I’m thinking what kind of justice is this, me forced to eat my own beef, but the more I spit the more he shoves it in so I figure I better just start swallowing. If it’s so good, he’s saying, you think we’re rubes or something? People you can just get something over on? And I keep eating, it’s okay, not raw or anything, not like the desert lizard-flesh I had to eat once, but it’s also sort of disgusting, it’s like I can see the meat there on his counter, the Freez-R-Pak starting to melt, losing its value as Tony would say, and I can’t tell which is killing me more, the fried meat or the sight of profit dwindling. And my voice is weaker than I mean it to be, I say, if you don’t mind, would you please mind just putting those packages back in the freezer?
Because for everything that I sell for one hundred and fifty, I’ve had to shell out fifty, so it’s like if everything goes bad, I mean I could sell it but I don’t want to get anyone sick with E. Coli, that’s not my business, I never volunteered for the nerve-gas patrol if you know what I mean. I just don’t want to lose money, you understand. I’m thinking of ma at home waiting for me to bring her home a carton of cherry ice cream like I do whenever I make a decent sale, and I’m almost about to explain but the guy’s talking too much, out-tonguing me basically. Meanwhile the guy’s wife has disappeared again when I’d had the sense she was my only hope, something about her white ankles and vanilla scent and the way she knew to tie knots.
Not to go on too long but I’d say my guys apparently had vanished from outside, worse than steam, showing no loyalty, and I’m sitting there about three hours telling by their folksy-cute kitchen clock that cuckoos in the voice of every different kind of bird. Three hours later and this crazy couple finally decides alright, it’s enough, they’re going to untie me. They’ve made me eat all the beef, the guy has even said back to me the thing I had said to him, which is that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Being tied up had gotten me confused and I’d started saying things out of sequence.
So that was yesterday. At least I got out with my pants on.
We have enough houses tucked away in the hills that I could be in business for a whole nother year before shifting to another line of work, and it would’ve helped out ma with her payments for her lung cancer, that stupid doctor she goes to once a week who makes her breathe into a breathalyzer or whatever just to chart her lungs. None of it makes sense, and nothing lasts forever, I tell my ma whenever she complains but she sort of chucks me on the head and says Jimmy you used to be a decent kid, used to be able to figure numbers in your head so quick, and I let her treat me like I’m six because the old lady has gotten some marbles loose and there’s no way I’m going to ever forget I’m all she has, this is why I’m so steady with the cherry ice cream except for yesterday. Not to mention that she has reminded me that I’m all she has practically every day since my dad was locked away and me only eight and allowed to see him once a month at visiting hours. Which is all a long way of saying I’ve changed my tactics, I’m a reformed man. Which also means I see the world in a new way and look, you gave me your time, it hurts me but I’m just about ready to give it to you.