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Jul/Aug 2008 Fiction

Jerky

by Eric Braun


I thought I was so intrepid, leaving home for the first time at age twenty-one, fresh-faced and freckled, bopping down the road with my hatchback loaded, radio loud. Something good was Out There—capital O, capital T.

I took jobs in armpit bars, serving drinks and greasy snacks to sad, unhealthy people, and though I had been optimistic about the great wide world, I found that I was one of those people, too. I began to imagine that my diet fed not just my body but also my soul: microwave burritos, popcorn with hot sauce, various battered-and-fried fingers, nuggets, and chunks from plastic baskets.

Junk.

In Denver I met a guy, as I often did, and thought, as I often did, Who knows? Maybe something good would happen. He owned a tattoo shop and was obsessed with his muscles. Once a week he shaved his head. He said, "Janie baby, you laugh like you don't give a shit. I dig that." He put his mouth to the bong and cleared the chamber. Then he ordered a pizza.

Denver had this semi-hip warehouse district and massive urban sprawl that reminded me of Minneapolis, where I grew up. And this man reminded me of semi-hip boyfriends I'd already had. So, yeah. While he sat on the floor and coughed his lungs out, I got up, took a walk, was gone.

Landed in Cheyenne, where I got a job in a bar near the Air Force base and did activities to help me meet people. I took horse-riding lessons, but they said I spooked the horses. Cooking class, but it was all couples. I talked to airmen from the base about oil viscosity and the value of home-cooked meals. "Good food nourishes the soul," this man told me. After my shift, I drank Jim Beam with the airmen and sometimes I went home with one of them.

I called my mom on her birthday. "I'm moving again."

"Oh?" she gasped. "Where to?" She meant, "Coming home?" She was still wounded not only because I'd left, but because I didn't hate Dad for leaving us five years before that. He'd been restoring a TR-4 in the driveway—growling motor, obstinate green paint job—and when he finished, he leapt inside and drove away with the top down, even though it was Thanksgiving and cold out, the stereo cranking "Ramble On." And now Mom wailed in the kitchen each night, waving her oven-mittened hands: "Tuna casserole! Meatloaf supreme!" The siren call to lure us back.

That's what I imagined, anyway. I'd been gone by now for three years. Everything I did was nothing except trying not to be her.

"So, happy birthday, Mom," I said. "How are you doing?"

She said she was baking muffins. From scratch. Eggs, butter, flour, lemon rind oil or something, I don't know. Big batch, empty house. Here was my mom on her birthday: she'd go outside, pretend she was gardening, and try to catch the New Neighbor Lady when she was gardening, then invite her over for coffee and fresh baked goods. Three times before she'd hooked her, and together they sat on the bricks admiring Mom's sunflowers, tomatoes, and garden gnomes. Mom implied that these meetings just happened to work out by chance. I didn't tell her I knew better. She couldn't just invite the New Neighbor Lady over. That would make her look lonely.

Our phone conversations had developed a code: avoid everything non-trivial. "Lemon muffins, huh?" I said.

She inhaled. "They smell delish."

"Mmmm."

I could have told her I was going to Oregon, where I'd never been, maybe Portland or maybe some tiny town with lots of rain and used bookstores. I was very earnest. I imagined a dignified, contemplative lifestyle. I might get glasses, though I didn't need them. There was also Montana, where the people would be as rugged as they were in Cheyenne, but not so hick. The women would wear stylish, blocky waffle-stompers and play the guitar and run coffee shops, and the men would listen to public radio while throwing lariats all day. There would be an eager local music scene.

When I hung up with Mom, I was leaning toward Montana, but I had to get some groceries for the road. That's when I met Rochelle. I was picking up way too many bags of beef jerky, she was doing the same with dried fruit. She looked embarrassed. "It's my night to supply snacks," she said. "For birthing class." She looked about seven months pregnant. She rested one wrist sweetly on top of her belly.

"I'm taking a trip," I said, and rattled a bag of jerky. "Non-perishable."

"Sounds wonderful. Where are you going?"

"I don't know," I said and loved, as I always did, saying it.

She sighed dramatically. "And poor, pitiful me, stuck in Shah-yan forever." She said it with a fake country-western twang that made us allies against the town.

"A fate worse than death," I joked but right away I regretted it. It sounded like a condemnation.

Besides fruit in her cart, she had prenatal vitamins, cottage cheese, frozen spinach, and milk. Her fingers spread out on her belly. She looked into it like a crystal ball. "I was dragged here by the baby's father, for his job," she said. "Back then there was no baby. Now there's no father." It's true! She said this to me.

We were strangers in a store. I said, "Where is he?"

"Oh," she said, "gone," and chose a box of cornbread from the shelf.

I nodded. "Been there."

"Oh, do you have a boy or girl?"

She'd misunderstood. I meant only that I'd been left, not that I'd been left with a kid. I debated for about two seconds whether I should pretend. I can pull it off! I thought. But it was too big of a lie. Then I surprised myself by telling an even bigger one: "I lost her at birth."

The edges of her eyes softened into sympathetic parentheses, and I knew that she was born to be a mother. She was filled with something. Love, I guessed. She tipped her head in a way that made me say more.

"My boyfriend dumped me, but I wanted the baby. I had no one in the delivery room." Rochelle put a palm to her jaw. She had a fine sheen of blond hair on her cheeks. I kept going. "It was a little girl," I said. "She had tiny little toes." I pantomimed the baby's size: about one-half a ham.

"I'm so sorry," Rochelle said. She blinked back tears.

We pushed our carts down the aisle: Cocoa Puffs, Corn Flakes, sugar, muffin cups, muffin tins, jackalope statuettes. "This town," I said, shaking my head.

 

I had been pregnant—that much wasn't a lie. It was in Austin. I never even showed. The baby—the fetus—never had any toes.

It was more than a year ago. My period was late and I was starting to panic, and when the puking started, I knew I was in trouble. These were not hangovers. And I didn't know who to confide in, since I didn't have any friends and to call home would be like defeat. And I didn't know who the father was. I'd been sleeping with two meatheads, one who worked at the bar where I worked, one who was a regular customer. I asked Jim one night: "What would you do if I got pregnant?" I was very casual about it. Maybe that was a mistake. Because he said without hesitating, or looking up from his jalapeño poppers, "Burn it out of there with a funnel full of Clorox."

That night I shuffled into my apartment and looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. My eyes were so deep and ringed, I couldn't see anything inside. And I made up my mind to quit drinking. Quit the meatheads, too. There was the kid to think of. It made me feel so good to do something right, something for my baby. Except, God, I was terrified.

I went to bed, proud and resolute, preparing for motherhood, thinking tomorrow I'd go out and buy some mother-to-be products, vitamins, iron pills, pants with the panel in front--I could look at cradles and mobiles--but I woke a couple hours later because my stomach was cramping. I sat up and screamed, and in screaming I puked on my chest. And my torso and hips and my confused uterus clutched in pain, and a small amount of blood spurted from inside me, and out came a tiny zygote in the shape of a kidney bean. And I couldn't afford to replace that comforter—swiped from my room at Mom's house—so I washed it, twice, and bleached that spot, but the stain remained and I slept with it for six weeks, until I had the money for a new one.

And then one night a long time later, in a grocery store in Cheyenne, Wyoming, something good happened. Rochelle asked me if I wanted to accompany her to birthing class. "I could use a partner," she said. A jackalope stared at me from its shelf. "Okay," I answered.

We learned about epidurals and spinals. The woman has to bend way over to stretch out her spinal cord, and then the doctor slides a glistening needle in between two vertebrae. We saw one on a video, and it made me nauseous. Couples whispered to each other, and some couples even whispered to other couples. They all knew each other. But nobody talked to Rochelle, and I was glad that at least I was there for her now. It must have been so lonely before.

At the end of class, we did breathing and pushing exercises. The instructor had us pretend to have a contraction, and the mother had to breathe and breathe and breathe, in with the good and out with the bad, and at the climax of the contraction she had to push push push. Then at the end she took a big "cleansing breath."

"Partners," the instructor said, "your role here is very important." We were to time the contraction and breathe breathe breathe with her, then time her pushes. If we wanted to be especially helpful, we could push along with her. This would show support. The instructor encouraged us all to push hard, push loud, push like hell. Grunt and holler. But I was the only person in that room who made any noise.

 

That was a Tuesday. We talked on the phone on Thursday, and Saturday we went to lunch. She had a salad. I ordered nachos, but then I chased down the server and changed to salad, too. I bought the baby a gift, a little snowsuit and Elmer Fudd cap, which would be cute on a boy or a girl. The many bags of jerky sat in my pantry, and on Tuesday I went with her to class again. At break, munching on crackers and fake cheese spread, Rochelle said, "You should tell him."

"Who?"

"The father. He probably thinks he has a kid out there someplace."

I nibbled at the rim of my Styrofoam cup.

She said, "I think it would make me feel better, if I were you. Help close that part of my life."

I shrugged. "It's closing anyway."

 

Next day I called Mom. She and the New Neighbor Lady had purchased bicycles. Bicycles! Saturday they'd filled bottles of water and Tupperwares of trail mix and rode downtown to the co-op, where they bought ingredients for an elaborate Saturday-night feast. They rode home along the creek with baguettes poking from their backpacks, bike locks like bandoliers across their chests.

"Bicycles, Mom?" I said.

"It was Lina's idea."

"To the co-op?"

"What is the big deal?"

I'd seen her on a treadmill in the basement and at Jazzercise in a strip mall, but never such derring-do as this. "I don't know," I said. But my view of the world was jolted.

 

Rochelle twisted a carrot stick through a ramekin of nonfat ranch, bit the end, and frowned. "This heartburn," she said, covering her mouth while she chewed. With her other hand she pressed her chest. "Did you have that?"

I guessed heartburn was pregnancy-related so I nodded. We were at Denny's, which had become our usual place. At the counter nearby two airmen in service blues ate cheeseburgers and watched the cute waitress hustle around. She was in the weeds. All the servers were busy because it was the rush, but the guys kept asking her for things like napkins and water. They grinned and tore huge bites from their burgers like raptors ripping carrion. Their french fries leaked grease onto their plates.

"It's the worst at night," Rochelle went on. "Between that and peeing every half hour, I haven't slept in weeks."

"It only gets worse," I said, spearing a radish wedge.

"Poor, poor, pitiful me. Maybe when they drug me up, I'll be comfortable for once." I'd told her before that I had an epidural, because I knew I would if I ever really had a baby, but I had assumed she'd do it natural. She was definitely the natural type. But I admired her honesty now even more than I would have admired her if she'd abstained.

One of the airmen spilled his water on purpose and the waitress sopped the counter with a white towel. They were smiling like jerks, but nobody cared. Even the girl was smiling. It occurred to me that these guys might have charge of buttons that could change the world. Somewhere inside that sprawling Air Force base were the controls for 200 missiles. But these were just regular meatheads eating junk food. The waitress cleared their plates, which were littered with a few remaining fries, and I thought how even when I was eating junk, I always hated clearing plates like that. Getting some meathead's oily scum all over my fingers. Maybe I'd eat their leftover fries, though, when I got them back to the kitchen.

Rochelle burped, just lightly, and she wasn't embarrassed, and I considered telling her the truth: I never had a baby, never went through labor. I never had heartburn. Watching her shovel cobb salad into her mouth, I imagined she'd be receptive to new information like that. But then I looked at the Air Force guys again, and my courage drained. I said, "Everyone in this town belongs but me."

 

Two weeks before the baby's due date, Rochelle and I took a practice drive to the hospital. I packed a bag for her, helped her into the car, and drove cautiously to the correct hospital entry. And we made a plan. When she first went into labor, we would walk a while to loosen her hips. If it was business hours, we'd drive to the mall and buy something at Baby Gap. By then she'd be ready.

At her house that night we were sitting on the floor eating pizza—whole wheat crust and veggie combo, so the baby got some nutrients. And Rochelle said, "I called Greg today." The father.

"Greg?" My slice wilted in my hand.

"Just to let him know how things are going."

"I thought you said he's a scumbag."

She nodded. "He is a scumbag."

"But..."

"But this baby needs a dad."

I bit the limp end of my pizza and we chewed in silence for a minute. I picked up one of three how-to-raise babies books from the end table and flipped through it. Then I said, in a jokey, mock-territorial way that was supposed to hide my real selfishness: "Well, no way I'm going to let some scumbag steal my labor coach job." Heh, heh.

Rochelle hesitated. She knew she was treading on dangerous ground. "It would be nice if you could both be there."

"Come on," I said.

"What?"

"He hasn't been to the classes. He's not trained."

"Yeah, right." She laughed. On TV a cocktail waitress bubbled on about the happy hour at Touchdown Timmy's. Half off anything battered.

"Well, it's true," I said quietly, almost to myself.

She looked at me. "So he's not trained in breathing? In sympathy pains?"

"The partner's job is important!"

"Janie," Rochelle said in a very level, motherly voice. "This isn't about you."

"I know," I said. I caught my breath.

She held the side of her water glass to her lips, as if her mouth were hot, and I wondered if she'd already figured it out about me. But you'd have to be pretty cynical to suspect a woman of inventing a dead newborn. I decided she didn't have it in her.

She drank some water and slouched in the wicker chair, her enormous stomach rising between the armrests. "Maybe I'm being stupid," she said finally. She sounded very tired.

I had thought about who would be in my delivery room. That's why the story about being alone had come so easy; it was my fear. I'd always pictured Mom and Dad, both of them, even though that was pretty much impossible. Now I tried to imagine Jim the Meathead in there with me all hooked up to tubes and wires. Him feeding me ice chips.

"Maybe you are," I said.

Rochelle stared at the ceiling. The fuzz on her cheeks looked like baby's hair. She said, "It was a hard, hard thing to do, calling him. I was really hoping you would be supportive about this."

And then I laughed. "I'm sorry," I said quickly, but it was too late.

She moved her feet below her knees, pushed her arms against the chair, and slowly hoisted herself up. She walked to the bathroom, dabbing her eye with that sweet wrist, and shut the door.

Water splashed in the sink. I turned off the TV and looked at the door. It would have been easy to confess right then, just talk to the door. I heard her sniffling, but she didn't come out. After half an hour I went back to my apartment. Week-to-week rental. Fake wood paneling. In thirteen days the baby was coming. James for a boy, Louise for a girl. Unless Greg changed that. Would she give the kid his last name? I scrubbed my face with a cool washcloth, then looked at myself in the bathroom mirror.

I looked good. In the last six weeks I'd totally changed my lifestyle. I drank eight glasses of water a day and slept at least eight hours a night. Alone. I refrained from booze and ate well. Red bell peppers and spinach, cashews and blueberries, salmon, tofu, carrots. Cheese, chickpeas, black beans and string beans, peas, pea soup, potato soup. Sugar-free organic whole grain granola with plain yogurt for breakfast every day. My soul should have glistened with health, but I couldn't feel it. I lay flat on my stomach on the bathroom floor, groping for some metaphysical geography to raise up in relief texture. But all there was was linoleum.

Next morning I got up, took a walk, was gone.

I loaded the hatchback with boxes and the front seat with a pile of cassettes. On the floorboards I arranged a jug of water and the half dozen bags of beef jerky. I didn't know where I was going. I was thinking about how much I was going to regret not meeting that baby. At a truck stop in the mountains, I called Mom. It was Saturday morning, and I worried she'd be gone on her bike trip already, but she picked up.

I said, "Mom, I have to tell you something."

And right away she said, "What happened?"

A driver climbed from the cab of his semi and rolled his head and touched his toes, and you could tell he'd driven nonstop from Bakersfield or Bishop or somewhere even farther. Even his clothes looked tired, even his truck. The cab was the color of cheddar cheese. And that's when I realized I was going home. The idea made my stomach feel empty and sick like the dry heaves were coming, but I wished I were there already. After I got home, I would hear from Dad that he'd married a woman in California, a woman with a kid a little younger than me, and then this whole adventure would feel pointless and embarrassing, but right at that moment, as the trucker went into the restaurant to order trucker food, I just felt like I had failed.

"I was pregnant," I said to Mom.

She clinked a spoon in her cup and said nothing. Then she blew softly, cooling her coffee, and I remembered a Saturday night in sixth grade. I'd been calling a radio station for an hour but couldn't get through. She took over redialing, and when she finally reached the DJ she said, "Do you take requests?" and then, "Hold on." When she handed me the receiver I said, "Hey," to the DJ in a voice that I hoped sounded cool—even though my mom called for me.

I requested "Hot Blooded," by Foreigner, and Mom and I stayed up until after midnight. Dad was out partying, perhaps already thinking about that day a few years from then when he would leave us for good. The radio pulled waves from the atmosphere and translated them into love songs and anthems and commercials. Mom yawned and drank coffee, and even let me have a cup—mostly milk, with sugar and a rich smell that filled the kitchen—and we ate graham crackers with margarine. The DJ rambled on from that magic place where he was and wise-cracked and played songs I'd never heard until I fell asleep on the couch, and Mom at the table turning it down but not off.

Now Mom said again, "What happened?"

And I told her.

 

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