Saturday, January 8, 2011

Fiction: THE NEW MEAT By Matthew C. Funk

Pedro stood in the marvelous smell of the basement and saw what there. He could only think there should have been omens for it.

Something in the LA Times Crime section. Something in the stars. Some psychic buying late-night ad space on public access to announce the world was about to change.

There had been no sign. There was no explanation for this. There was just the smell of the New Meat.

Lush. Layered. Sweet and rich and salty all at once, sewn together with ripe chords of a raw and formless quality that might have been protein, might have been mineral, but was certainly life.

Pedro lowered the crowbar. He shut his eyes.

The sight of the Meat in the basement was still there.

The other man in the basement was talking to him. And the Meat was talking to him.

But behind his eyelids, Pedro's mind could see only the smell-an irresistible subject that was temptation and promise of deliverance alike.

It had began with Pedro's first smell of the Meat, nearly a month ago. He had been picking up the kitchen of the Calvary Grill to cover for Francisco's mess. Mr. Alfonso had lumbered up and dropped a slab of the meat on wax paper where he'd just wiped.

The smell of the Meat lit up tastes and appetites Pedro had never imagined could shine so intensely and all at once.

"We're going to be cooking this for Sunday specials." Mr. Alfonso said around his plastic toothpick.

"What is it?"

"It's from out of state."

"Like Bison?" Pedro wiped his hands.


"Is it Bison?"

"It's the Sunday special." Mr. Alfonso snorted and looked through the opening between kitchen and dining room. The crowd was lean. Three regulars-Johnny Newspaper, Estelle with her blue nails and the Cavertons-and one new, lone diner who looked as comfortable as a patient awaiting a root canal.

"Kind of hard for me to cook it if I don't know what it is."

"Smell it?" Mr.Alfonso wafted his chubby hands toward his face.

Pedro did. He could almost taste the smell. It was nice as Christmas lights at his hija's house, his aunt's.


"Smells great, doesn't it?"


"Like a dream. It'll cook up nice."


Mr. Alfonso had a twitch before he sniffed and pinched his nose.

"It's like pork; cook it like pork."

Pedro just stared at him. Mr. Alfonso waved at the freezer.

"You clean that up and make sure the pre-cooked is ready?"

Now it was Pedro's time to cringe. He hated the idea of passing pre-cooked food off as fresh. It only lasted a moment before he was back to thinking about the smell of the Meat. That seemed to make everything better.

"Yeah, I did."

"How's Francisco coming along with the gravy?"

"He's coming."

"He making it back at his house?"

"It'll be done."

Mr. Alfonso pinched his nose again. "Nothing but excuses. People these days. Nothing but excuses."

When he left, Pedro wasted no time in putting the New Meat in the freezer. Shutting it in seemed a sin against the senses. Even when he went to bed that Saturday night, he was wondering how it would smell when grilled, when fried in butter and challots, when braised in red wine.

He only wondered a little what it was.

When he grilled the first piece of the New Meat on Sunday, Pedro realized it didn't smell better than it did raw. It just smelled like a different kind of perfect

The notes of the New Meat's aroma turned thicker and mellower. It had a dark and woody smell now. It reminded Pedro of the old cathedrals his abuela would take him to before Mama stopped returning her calls and stopped sending Christmas cards.

He was serving up the first plate when Francisco came in with his blouse open. Francisco pointed at his concave chest.

"Feel my heart, bro."

Pedro's first thought was that he'd just washed his hands.

"Going to reveal your hidden feelings for me after all these years, cabron?"

"Come on," Francisco said. "It's racing."

Pedro put on a begrudging look and stuck his hand on Francisco's chest next to the plain wooden cross-the one he got at the same first communion as the one Pedro wore. His skinny friend buzzed with a chuckle.

"Feel that?"

Pedro didn't.

"It's been going like that all day. It's Julietta, man. She wrote me back. An actual letter, hand delivered. You can smell her skin on it."

Pedro had to raise eyebrows at that. "She finally got the message, hm?"

Francisco shrugged and picked up a knife to start the potatoes for the au gratin. "More like I finally got it together to put it all out there, rather than counting on her reading between the lines. And hey-what's that great smell? New cologne?"

Pedro washed his hands briskly. "You mean you said you loved her? Or just that you'd been stalking her since 10th grade?"

Francisco set down the knife. "It's like an oak smell. Or like steaks in Echo Park."

"Tell me about Julietta, bro."

"Yeah, yeah, I will." Francisco started sniffing around, strutting, swiveling his shaved head around. "But I'm following my nose now, you know?"

Pedro dropped an edge of his mouth in disappointment and lifted the plate with the grilled New Meat on it. "Sunday special."

"Sure is something special."

"It's something. Don't know what, though."

"I haven't felt this hungry since I was a kid, bro."

Pedro had to smile. Shared childhoods as best friends meant shared smiles. That's how it worked. "Like you said-those steaks up in Echo Park around Cinco de Mayo."

"Hells yeah, bro." Francisco glanced at the dining room and reached for the plate.

"Almost too good, you ask me." Pedro set the plate on the serving station for Dreary Deidre, their Goth waitress. Francisco waved for it back.

"Hey, let me have a taste, dog."

He got a scalding look from Pedro. "You serious? Nah, man, this is for Estelle."

"We're dying out there already. Two tables filled on a Sunday evening?" Francisco scoffed. "She can wait, man. If she finally croaks of old age, I'm sure we're in the will anyway, much as she comes in here."

Pedro responded by waving over Deidre. She lowered her book, sighed, dog-eared the page to mark it and shuffled over.

Francisco tossed his hands up in frustration. "Whatever, bro, you play me like that, I'll just cook my own piece, then."

"Not a good idea." Pedro wanted to glare. He couldn't take his eyes from the removal of the New Meat, though. He couldn't stop his heart from sagging.

"Why not?

"Alfonso only brought in enough for one night."

"What?" Francisco shook off his surprise. "Well, whatever, I'm sure there'll be some left over."

"Even then, man, I don't like it." Pedro looked to washing his hands for the third time, just for something to do. He watched the plastic rosary around his wrist dance in the water. "Alfonso won't tell me what it is."

"So you figure it's leftovers from his mob buddies' hit job?"

Pedro just gave him a look.

"You know that goomba's connected. All those trips to Vegas and shit."

"If he was connected, do you think we'd be serving to pensioners and Johnny Newspaper's lonely ass?"

"Good point." Francisco shrugged and moved a few utensils around to try to seem useful. "It's probably just ostrich or shit, man."

"Whatever it is," Pedro wiped his hands. "I'm not going to eat it not knowing what it is. And neither are you."

"Bitch, please," Francisco gave up on the act and took out a smoke. "Nothing this side of Fear Factor I won't eat."

"I'm serious. It's fucked up."


"Francisco. Promise me."

Francisco nodded and slotted a Marlboro in his lips. "Cover for me."

Pedro was left to prepare the soup for Monday and watch Estelle eat the steak of the New Meat. He saw every bite go down. Pedro tried to remember just what it smelled like. That was the easiest thing he'd ever done.

By next Sunday, the Calvary Grill was packed with customers. Francisco and Pedro sweat like Olympians on the final stretch to keep up in the kitchen. They couldn't smell themselves over the aroma of all the New Meat cooking.

The aroma sauced everything with its splendor. The pans and knives were already shiny with it before they sank into the many servings of New Meat. Attention drew to it like Pedro's eyes would draw to the stars above Los Feliz during the long nights when his mother gave up on her medication and sang the dramas of her bipolar mind for the neighborhood to hear. Emotions reflected in its delicious gloss.

Francisco had been scowling all evening, but even he couldn't hold that frown for long. Pedro would catch sight of his displeasure melting like butter on a steak. They were both forcing their lungs to breathe deeper.

"It's a zoo out there." Francisco grumbled, looking longingly at the door to the alley where he took his seven smoke breaks a night.

"Guess they really like the remodeling." Pedro shared a smirk with Francisco. Mr. Alfonso had closed down the Calvary on Wednesday for remodeling, but Pedro and Francisco had spent every narrow, spare moment they had on Thursday looking for some change of d├ęcor and had found none.

"They only want us for our meat." Francisco sighed. Pedro caught sight of genuine distress.

"What's up, bro?"

"I'm pissed."

"At what?"

"At you."

"No way. Why?"

Francisco's wry smile survived for a flash. "Because you're keeping me away from having a taste of paradise."

"Seriously?" Pedro didn't know if he believed it or not. It was serious enough to get him to pause in the sprint of the dinner service. "You're pissed because I don't think it's safe for you to eat mystery meat?"

"Nah." Francisco shrugged. "Well, kind of. Yeah. But no. It's Julietta."

"Things not going well?"

"Just no fireworks for her, man."

"Is that the end of the world?"

"Could be the death of the dream, bro." Francisco's sigh had no humor in it. His sadness was thick enough to have gravity. It reminded Pedro to tear his attention away and go back to frying a cutlet of the New Meat.

Pedro discovered his hands were already obsessed with the task.

He knocked away the lure of the New Meat's smell with a bat of his eyelids. "Well, uhm, shit, Cisco, can you ask her out again?"

"No sense pumping a dry well. She treated my peck on her cheek like a case of lice."

"Maybe she just needs to know you're serious, cabron."

Francisco sighed. Pedro was vexed-more with the draw of the New Meat's smell than with his friend. It was easier to focus on solving Francisco's problems than ignore the irresistible, though.

"Look, how about we take our day off on Tuesday, go to the park with her and Murietta, maybe hit La Cabinita and a show after?" Pedro spooned the cutlet onto a plate and served it.

"I guess."

"Nah, man, sign on. This is your dream here."

Francisco didn't even sigh back.

"Cisco, seriously, don't give up on eight years for just one bad night."

No reply. Pedro looked over. Francisco was poking at a steak of the New Meat with a fork. His eyes were wet and wide as a dog's mouth.

"Hey." Pedro said loud. "Francisco. Tuesday. Dream."

Francisco shook off the reverie. "Yeah, I'm dreaming, bro. I'm dreaming."

He managed a smile, but only when he looked back to the New Meat.

When Francisco wasn't at his house on Tuesday or the day after, Pedro worried his friend had gone on one of his infrequent but explosive benders. But come Thursday, Pedro arrived at work to find Francisco there early, tidying the kitchen with his blouse buttoned and his eyes on the crowds lining up outside the tinted windows of the Calvary Grill.

"So you're not buried in the Vegas desert." Pedro washed his hands. He didn't like the glazed smile Francisco shone at him. "I thought Mr. Alfonso had enough of putting up with your fucking around."

Francisco tapped a butcher knife against his fingernail. "No, my luck has changed and with it, my attitude."

"Your luck?"

"As in got lucky."

"As in with Julietta?" Pedro's spirits tried to rise but something tamped them down. Maybe it was the sugary and constant whisper of the New Meat. You could smell it from the street now.

"You know it."

"How'd that ever happen?"

"I played to my strengths." Francisco polished his long, dirty fingernails on his shiny blouse buttons. He turned back to slicing up slab upon slab of the New Meat, the stacks on almost every counter.

"You showed her your completion rating on Bioshock and Metal Gear?"

"Funny, funny." Francisco's grin was bigger than Pedro had ever seen. "No, I cooked for her."

Pedro didn't want to voice his opinions on Francisco's cooking. He was a snob about that like about most things, he guessed. There was no point in ruining Francisco's mood.

They left it at that awhile. Francisco treated every dish with a doting affection. Practically every dish now involved the New Meat-as a sauce, a garnish, a side soup. Pedro worked and blocked it from his thoughts.

It took all the serenity he had. That was saying something-forcing his mind to a peaceful place was a well-developed muscle for Pedro, trained by years under his mother. He had to bluff credit collectors, blow dry the phone when she put it in the sink, write apologies to friends and family and teachers and even an angry lawyer once. Serenity was the only thing in his life more important than cooking.

It required a fixation on total control, though. Waking up mornings to find Mama sitting on his bed with gardening shears open had taught Pedro that life depended on a direct connection between control and environment. You had to keep your doors locked. You had to keep your bills paid and your clothes pressed.

You had to keep on top of problems and you could not tolerate loose ends.

"So," Pedro asked between lunch and dinner service, already knowing the answer, "What did you cook her?"

"A steak." Francisco almost whirled on him, smile a butterfly knife splitting his glazed features.

"Not a beef steak."

"Not a beef steak."

"Not an ostrich steak."

"Not a people steak."

"You sure?"

"It's not human."

That gave Pedro a shiver. Not the fact of it-what made his spine go to water was the casual way Francisco talked about it: The joyous way.

"You forget your promise?"

"I didn't forget anything." Francisco tapped his head. "I kept my eyes on the prize, bro. I didn't give up on the dream."

"And just like that, she's yours now?"

"Just like that."

"You gave her the New Meat and she gave you hers."

Francisco's smile shuddered like it was full of maggots. "That's a...nasty way of putting it. That stuff transforms lives."

"Does it now?"

"Why do you think people are pouring into here?" Francisco waved his hand at the packed and demanding dining room. "For hand-massaged Kobe beef? For fucking truffles? This is more than a delicacy, dog. That meat's a new lease on life."

Pedro's spine wasn't just shivering now. It was weeping inconsolably. It was disappointment more than fear. It was getting kicked to the curb by reality-as bad as when his mother tried to sell him for a pair of jeans.

"Where's it from? Or does that matter?"

"Oh, it's around."

"You're not going to tell me?" Pedro was already putting on his hat. In the tense pause, he could hear the crowd clamoring for the New Meat. The dining room was a packed mob. But let Francisco see to the zealots, now that he was part of the faith. Pedro was out of here.

"You'll find out eventually." Francisco said to his back. "It'll come to you if you don't come to it."

Pedro tried not to look like he was running away.

Pedro did everything he could not to break the rules, but he ended up with a crowbar in hand anyway.

He had gone home and done an extra exercise routine. Then he ironed his clothes. He checked his e-mail-first deleting all the pharmaceutical ads that promised chemical serenity, since he hated those the most.

Pedro thought about selling his TV on eBay and he thought about joining the Marines. He kept coming back to the gleaming counter of his kitchen though, and to the photos of him and Francisco-hugging outside Disneyland, hugging in Tijuana, hugging outside Our Lady of the Angels. And he kept smelling the New Meat.

Around ten at night, after cooking a four course, high-fiber meal, he caught himself rubbing his nose, the smell playing like cake frosting and prime rib in it. His brain was hung with hija's Christmas lights.

Pedro realized he wasn't trying to dislodge the smell. He was trying to entertain it.

It was then that Pedro got the crowbar.

On the way to the Calvary Grill, Pedro tried to meditate on the various musical timing of rap music beats to occupy his mind. It didn't work. It was just thin bookends around thoughts of how Francisco had betrayed him. How this was an idea his mother would come up with. How he really wasn't just trying to get closer to the New Meat.

His stomach was still rumbling in chorus with his heartbeat when he broke open the door to the basement with the crowbar.

"Remodeling my ass." Pedro said to himself.

"I know, right?" Francisco said from the shadows. He stepped out, waving his cigarette. Pedro just stared at Francisco, feeling as ashamed as when he had to lie for his mama.

Francisco milled the cigarette around. "I was almost worried you'd smell the smoke and know I was here. Then I realized that I hardly smell these things anymore. There's no point in smelling anything other than the Meat, I suppose."

"I suppose."

"Well," Francisco loped up and put a lean hand on Pedro's shoulder, "yeah. Yeah, right? I mean, you came here."

"I came here to see if I could find out what this was about before I bailed."

"Right. Bailed. Right." Francisco nodded, a wry smile poking the tendon of his face. "Let's go on inside."

They stepped into the brew of that delicious smell. And everything lit up with it; draped with rainbow lights; warm as white candles.

In the smell of the basement, Pedro gave up on shutting out the sight of the Meat and opened his eyes to see it again. It wasn't because he ached with the desire to see it. No, he just felt there was no point in blocking it out anymore.

The basement of the Calvary Grill had all three walls stacked with coolers, racks for perishables and canned ingredients, and crates of stuff Mr. Alfonso brought in and shipped out without mentioning.

The center of the basement was where the Meat was chained. It had to be chained well. It had eight arms, after all. At least, it used to.

The Meat looked back at Pedro with its seven eyes and waved the stumps where its tentacles used to be. The steaks had sliced its limbs almost all the way to the greasy, bear-like torso. Set in the fluorescent greens and yellows and purples of its veined bulk, the Meat's seven mouths worked their blubbery gaps.

It spoke to him.

"Release me. Release me. I come in peace."

Francisco was lapping his lips beside Pedro. "Says it just like in the movies. Ain't that a trip?"

The Meat's wheeze was weak, sanded down by agony. Somehow, words formed in Pedro's mind.

"I come in peace. I am an emissary of peace. I brought gifts."

"Do you think it sounds more like Dennis Haysbert," Francisco was gnawing his own mouth, drooling. "Or James Earl Jones?"

The Meat reached. Pedro felt a pang of sadness. He felt the drool sliding from his mouth even more.

"I bring you a better way." The Meat sang in Pedro's mind; tones of butter, tones of glaze.

And maybe it had. It was so serene, even with slices in its side and amputations instead of limbs. The Meat was still calm. It looked on Pedro with eyes like stained glass and it spoke in incense.

Pedro didn't know. He didn't think it mattered. He knew what mattered.

He dropped the crowbar.

Pedro took a step closer through the chill dim of the basement. A crown of thorny antennae waved in greeting. He stared into the stained glass eyes and they stared back serene.

Pedro breathed in. And the breath bulged against his heart, swollen with smell, promising the thrill of hunger and the rush of deliverance, of satisfaction.

Pedro spoke through bubbles of saliva to Francisco. "So which are the choicest cuts?"

1 comment:

Bryce said...

Great story. Had me enthralled to the end. Well done.