“A Hunk of Meat” by Max Detrano
My name is Alice Pedersen. I live at 12244 Bender Avenue in the north end of Seattle. I just want to say right off that I am not a busybody. I believe that everyone has a right to their own privacy. But any sane person can’t help but notice things, can she? I mean, things that are right outside her own window.
Well then, my kitchen window looks right out on my neighbor, Mrs. Comstock’s backyard. Mrs. Comstock and I are just about the same age. We are in our 60s, and by that age, two or three years to one side or the other, just doesn’t count for much. We’re both widows. Her husband was a minister. He died before I met Mrs. Comstock, but she always insists on being called Mrs. Comstock, and I never saw a man over there. Not until that Haitian man, Patrice was his name, moved in with her. That was a year ago. After Mrs. Comstock got diagnosed with the stomach cancer.
Oh, I am getting ahead of myself. My husband, Harold, God bless his soul, died seven years ago of a heart attack. He never would eat a vegetable. Harold always said I was a terrible storyteller. “Stick to point,” he’d say. But what’s the fun of telling a story if you have to follow rules.
Where was I? Oh, never mind. I’ll start over. Mrs. Comstock had two loves. First were her cats. She had at least six, but Mambo was my favorite. I had a dog. A Pekingese. But after they cut off my left leg, my son, Danny, took Pooky. That was the Pekingese, because I couldn’t take care of him any longer. Lordy, I miss that dog. He was just like a baby, all helpless and lovable. But my diabetes got so bad and my legs swelled up like balloons, and well, now I look forward to Mrs. Comstock’s cats coming over. I put milk out for them. She gets angry with that, because she says it makes their stomach’s bleed. That’s silly, I think. Cats love milk. But Mrs. Comstock thinks she knows everything about good health. But that didn’t keep her from getting that stomach cancer.
That brings me to Mrs. Comstock’s second love, which is gardening. Did I mention that my kitchen window looks right out over Mrs. Comstock garden?
She is just a tiny woman, 5’3″. I’m not much taller, but I’m wide. I like my ice cream. Harold and I used to eat a pint of Häagen-Dazs every night. The doctors tell me I shouldn’t, but I still sneak a spoonful here and there. Well, more than a spoonful.
Mrs. Comstock said ice cream was going to be the death of me. Well, I told her, something is going to be the death of all of us. Then Mrs. Comstock’s mouth pinched up like a wrinkled balloon, and I thanked her for showing interest. It’s not smart to anger a good neighbor over nothing.
Mrs. Comstock’s husband, the minister, was a missionary in the Caribbean somewhere. The Dominican Republic, I think she said. Anyway, it was near Haiti. You know, where the voodoo is. I know because Mrs. Comstock, who is as prim and proper as a schoolmarm, always amazes me when she starts talking about healing. It sounds, I don’t know, unchristian, some of the things she says. Her husband was Episcopal, which is like Catholic only they can marry. Harold and I were Lutheran, but now that Harold is gone, and I only have the one leg, I don’t go to church anymore. I figure God knows where I am. Stuck here at home. Anyway, Mrs. Comstock talks like she can cure diseases with all her weeds, and says that some people have magic. She learned all this when she and her husband were missionaries. Her husband died of something tropical. I asked her why voodoo didn’t heal that. “He didn’t believe,” she said. And I let it drop. Well, that was before she found out about the cancer. And long before that Haitian man moved in with her.
Oh, what am I trying to say. I should just start at the beginning, all over again. But, oh, I don’t know where the beginning is. I guess it is when Mrs. Comstock told me about her symptoms. She had a lot of gas, she said. She was wearing that funny garden hat. The one that makes her look like the Queen of England. She said it kept the sun off her face, that she had pale skin, and was afraid she’d get a melanoma.
I told her something was going to get us all. She told me about her stomach pains and vomiting. I said maybe she should see a doctor, but Mrs. Comstock didn’t hold much trust with the AMA. She wasn’t Christian Science or anything like that. She was more of an herbalist.
Did I tell you about her garden? Well, it was the damnedest craziest garden I ever saw. More like a weed patch, I’d call it.
Back when I had two legs, Mrs. Comstock would call me over and give me a tour now and then. She’d point to some gangly looking vine and call it by its Latin name, which she knew, and would list the diseases it could heal.
“This one over here is poison,” she told me.
“Why do you grow plants if you know they are poison?” I asked.
Mrs. Comstock shrugged and told me the name in Latin.
You see, Mrs. Comstock spoke French. I am impressed by anyone who can speak French. Mrs. Comstock said she learned French at the missionary when her husband was still alive, and that must’ve helped, with the Latin, I mean, knowing all those names of all those weeds. French and Latin are pretty close, I think.
So, in a way, it really wasn’t so crazy when that Haitian man moved in with her, after the doctors told her she had stomach cancer. You see, Mrs. Comstock lives on a fixed income, like I do, and the cancer is expensive, and that Haitian man, Patrice, spoke only French, and Mrs. Comstock needed a boarder. It made sense. But it still seemed odd. Him being a man, and Haitian, and them speaking French. Well, this just isn’t a French speaking neighborhood is all I mean. Oh Lordy, don’t I sound like a biddy?
Never mind. Still I just could not get used to seeing that man with his shirt off working in Mrs. Comstock’s garden.
* * *
Mrs. Comstock had six cats. My favorite was Mambo, who is all black with a white diamond over her nose. One day Mambo showed up at my door with something in her mouth. Well, I assumed it was a mouse or a bird. You know how cats can be, and you really can’t hold it against them, because it’s part of their nature. But it always bothers me when they bring them in alive. Some terrorized wet creature, maimed maybe, and the cat puts it at your feet. You know how they look at you? Then they look at that creature. It’s a gift really. I know that now, but I used to shoo Mambo away, and set the poor creature free, which may not have been such a blessing after all since it was hurt and going to die. Then Mambo would look at me like I was such a disappointment. Anyway, this time it was not a mouse or a bird. It was a bloody hunk of meat covered in mud.
Well, that’s where Danny comes into the story. Danny is my son. My husband and I, Harold, God bless his soul, encouraged Danny to study science, like his Dad, but Danny didn’t like engineering. That’s what Harold was, an engineer with the Boeing Airplane Company. That’s why I have good health benefits. But then he didn’t like engineering. Danny that is. He liked biology. Actually, what he liked was dissecting things, animals mostly, but he dissected plants too. He was a funny kid. At 17 years old, do you know what he asked for at Christmas? A taxidermy kit. Honest to God. He showed us a picture in a magazine of a man in a baseball cap and a hunting jacket standing next to a stuffed bear that was snarling and ready to attack.
“Well,” Harold said, “Maybe he’ll become a doctor.”
“Or a mortician,” I said.
Danny did become a doctor. But not the kind of doctor a mother wishes for. Danny became a pathologist. Can you imagine? He does autopsies.
Anyhow, when Mambo brought in that hunk of meat, I called Danny. He came over and took that hunk of meat away and said he’d get back to me. He was going to dissect it.
All this happened shortly after the dinner party at Mrs. Comstock’s. Let me tell you, that is one evening I will never forget.
It started out ordinary enough with the phone call from Mrs. Comstock, asking would I like to come next door for dinner. Patrice was cooking up a very special meal.
“You realize I can’t walk,” I reminded Mrs. Comstock.
“Patrice will come get you.”
I assumed she meant he’d wheel me over in my wheelchair. But no Siree, he showed up at my door with a big toothy smile, wearing a bright orange shirt and billowy pants, with one of Mrs. Comstock’s scarves twirled around his head. Mrs. Comstock always wore that scarf around her neck with her nice wool coat on cold days. Here it was on this man’s shaved head. It looked good too. Better than on Mrs. Comstock.
Patrice said, “Bon Jour,” and crossed my living room in three steps. He bent gracefully from the hip. I was afraid he was going to give me a kiss. But, no. His slim buttocks pointed straight up in the air and he slipped one hand under my stump and then under my good leg. He put the other hand under my shoulder.
“Oh my,” I said, but Patrice wasn’t asking permission. He scooped me up, turned around, and retraced his steps, and had me out the door just like that. He plopped me down on Mrs. Comstock’s three seat davenport, which is what Mrs. Comstock calls a couch, upholstered in soft green corduroy with big overstuffed pillows. Oh, I wish I had a comfy couch like that.
“Well, isn’t this nice?” said Mrs. Comstock. Patrice and she exchanged a dozen words in French, and then Patrice began to howl with laughter, almost like a woman. He smelled like a woman too, only mixed with a lot of testosterone. I think he had on Mrs. Comstock’s perfume. “What have you gotten yourself into Alice Pedersen?” I said to myself. But what could I do? My stump and me were on Mrs. Comstock’s couch without so much as a crutch. I was there for dinner and thought I might as well make the best of it.
We drank a lot of tea. I remember that because I don’t usually drink tea. I like coffee with half-and-half and three spoons of sugar, which I should not drink on account of my diabetes, but what the hell. Coffee isn’t coffee without cream and sugar. But that night we were drinking tea, kind of bitter, and a lot of it. Later Mrs. Comstock said Patrice made the tea with catnip she grew in the backyard, mixed with chamomile and some other special herb. Patrice wouldn’t say what special herb it was, but he said it was good for healing.
“Healing what?” I said.
“Whatever ails you,” said Mrs. Comstock.
“Perhaps it’ll grow me a new foot,” I said. Mrs. Comstock got that puckered-up look.
Patrice appeared, all arms and legs and long neck, in the doorway to the kitchen. The sun was coming in the window behind him and made colors shimmer off his orange shirt and the scarf on his head.
“Oh my,” I said again and wondered what was really going on between Mrs. Comstock and this French-speaking man who appeared to be her manservant, her cleaning lady, her personal assistant, and well, I don’t know what else, if you get my drift.
What I was really wondering was, what did they want with me? Do you suppose they were thinking about a three way? I was squirming on Mrs. Comstock’s couch, adjusting the sock that covered my stump. Patrice did have a nice touch. And he smelled nice. Oh, silly me, if I was 30 years younger and had two legs, maybe. But there was no good that could come of this, I thought. Yet, I couldn’t help wondering what a man like that felt like. Harold was up to his stuff, in a fashion. My, my, I thought, Mrs. Comstock, the missionary. It all seemed very peculiar. Especially, when Mrs. Comstock came and sat next to me on the couch and put her arm around me. It was like being hugged by a little girl, only Mrs. Comstock was no little girl—she was a little old lady.
“Are you uncomfortable?” asked Mrs. Comstock.
“Well, this damned stump of mine itches something fierce,” I said, tugging at that sock.
That’s when I realized Patrice had slid in on the couch next to me. He was so slim and quiet I hadn’t noticed, but I smelled him. Remember the perfume and testosterone? He put his hand on my stump. His eyes closed, his eyelids twitched as though they had a heartbeat, and he started to sing. It was not exactly singing. Chanting is a better word. In French. I can’t begin to tell you what he was saying, but my stump stopped itching. It was getting warm. Not in a bad way. It was calming. I want to tell you, that man has hot hands. He put his other hand over the first hand and kept chanting in French. I just watched him in disbelief, hoping he wasn’t going to slide his hand up my skirt. But he only seemed interested in touching my stump.
That was it till after dinner. We had a lovely pot roast kind of thing with carrots and potatoes in a thick brown sauce seasoned with herbs from Mrs. Comstock’s garden. When I asked what it was, “Mrs. Comstock translated for Patrice and told me it was like mutton.
“Mutton,” I repeated. “Well, I have certainly never had mutton like this,” which was true, because I don’t believe I have ever eaten mutton at all.
Dinner lasted about an hour. We had something healthy for desert, which really wasn’t worth eating but I ate it to be polite. And more tea. After dinner, I needed to use the little girl’s room since I drank at least a quart of tea, and Patrice deposited me in the water closet. Mrs. Comstock calls her bathroom a water closet. At home we just call it a bathroom, but when in Rome, as the saying goes. So I went to the water closet in Patrice’s arms, and when I was done he came and fetched me. I went back to the corduroy davenport, and Mrs. Comstock got right to the point.
“Alice,” she said. “Patrice is going to perform an operation and I would like you to be a witness.”
“What kind of operation?” I asked.
“He’s going to remove my cancer.”
“Oh, I don’t know about this,” I said.
“It’s all right,” said Mrs. Comstock. “He isn’t going to cut me open. Patrice is a psychic surgeon. I’m just a little nervous about being here all alone with him when he does it.”
Now I know what you must be thinking. This all sounds a little crack-potty, which is what I thought too. But then, Patrice did make my stump stop itching. So, I said, “What do you want me to do, Mrs. Comstock?”
“Just sit on the couch while he does it.”
“Well, I suppose I can do that.” I told her, but to myself I was thinking this is the craziest evening I have had since the night I slipped getting off the toilet and got wedged naked between the potty and the bathtub. But that’s another whole story.
So there I sat on Mrs. Comstock’s corduroy couch. My eyes were glued to the spot where Mrs. Comstock was lying on the floor. Her six cats were acting crazy, chasing their tails and climbing the curtains, which Mrs. Comstock normally does not condone. But since she was lying down on her new wall-to-wall carpeting she had installed last year, she didn’t seem to notice. I really couldn’t see what Patrice was doing, except that he pulled a big hunk of something bloody out of Mrs. Comstock and wrapped it in a napkin. Patrice smiled that toothy grin and headed for the kitchen. There was blood on both his hands.
“Don’t you throw that away,” said Mrs. Comstock.
I tell you, I can’t remember how I got home that night. I woke up in my own bed, in my nightgown, happy as a clam. I felt better than I’d felt in years. And my stump didn’t itch anymore.
Anyway, as I was saying, here Patrice had reached into Mrs. Comstock stomach and plucked out her tumor, and Mrs. Comstock started saying something to him in French that sounded like she was scolding a child.
“He better not get blood on my wall-to-wall,” she translated for me.
I awoke on my back, my mind awash with memories. At first I thought they were dreams. All those cats hanging on the curtains, Mrs. Comstock on the floor, and Patrice kneeling over her bare midriff squeezing her skin, jabbering in French. But it sounded nice the way he jabbered. You know, anything in French sounds good. You can say, “Call a plumber cause the sink’s plugged up,” in French and it sounds like a love song.
And what’s funny about it all is that it seemed normal enough that night at Mrs. Comstock’s. That’s why when I saw her out my window with her shovel out in her backyard, I wheeled my chair to the screen door and yelled to her, “What are you doing, Mrs. Comstock?” Mrs. Comstock put her finger to her lips, you know, like it was a secret, so I just watched. She put something in a hole she’d just dug—she said some words quietly—and then shoveled the dirt over whatever she was burying.
After she was done, Mrs. Comstock came to my back door. She was smiling. She looked at least 10 years younger than she looked a week ago. She had on rouge and lipstick, and that goofy garden hat that made her look like the Queen of England. But nice. Like Helen Mirren, I was thinking. Not like Bette Davis, which I used to think.
“I buried it. It was a part of me. Not my favorite part. But it deserved a funeral. I’m cured,” said Mrs. Comstock.
“Go on,” I said.
“Cured.” I went to the doctor. The cancer is gone. They gave me an MRI. I’m cancer free. Patrice healed me.”
“Good gravy,” I said. “That thing he did the other night?” I asked.
Mrs. Comstock nodded her head affirmative.
“My stump stopped itching,” I told her, which wasn’t quite as remarkable, but we both laughed and Mrs. Comstock gave me a hug. I was happy for her. I really was, and didn’t give the matter another thought. I mean, I thought about it, but I didn’t question the truth of it till I got a call from my son, Danny, the pathologist. Remember Danny? He took that hunk of meat that Mambo, the cat, dug up in Mrs. Comstock’s yard and brought to my kitchen door.
“It’s a goat liver.”
“Goat’s liver,” he repeated over the phone.
“Now how do you know that?”
“I have a friend at Fish and Wildlife. They can tell what kind of animal it came from and what part. It’s a goat’s liver.”
“Is that like mutton?” I said, thinking back to the dinner at Mrs. Comstock’s.
“They are related. But no,” said Danny
“Not human?” I said.
“What?” said Danny.
“Never mind,” I said.
Oh my, how was I going to explain this goat’s liver to Mrs. Comstock?
* * *
Well, after Mambo the cat dug up that hunk of meat from under Mrs. Comstock’s mountain laurel bush and brought it into my kitchen, and my boy Danny, the pathologist, autopsied it and found it was a goat’s liver, I just picked my brain over and over, wondering if I should tell Mrs. Comstock. She looked so happy. Just like Helen Mirren did on the television after she won the Academy Award in 2006.
But then Mrs. Comstock came to my kitchen door one morning with that gardening hat on her head. She was looking for Mambo—you know, the cat with the diamond on his forehead that dug up the goat’s liver and not Mrs. Comstock’s tumor.
I just happened to be making tuna fish salad that morning. My doctor says I need to eat that fake low-fat mayo on account of my diabetes, but I just don’t think life is worth living without using the real stuff. I always use an extra scoop to make it extra creamy. Anyway, as I was saying, Mrs. Comstock came looking for Mambo and saw my family-size jar of Best Foods mayo. I was in my wheelchair, and Mambo was in my lap licking away at a spoonful of mayonnaise. I have never heard a cat purr as loud as Mambo was purring, her little sandpaper tongue flicking little bits of mayonnaise here and there, but swallowing most of it.
“What do you think you’re doing?” screamed Mrs. Comstock through the screen door.
Mambo stiffened up in my lap, the spoon of mayonnaise went flying across the kitchen. Mambo dug her claws into my stump. I screamed. Mambo flew right over my shoulder and scampered out of the kitchen into the living room.
“You hussy,” Mrs. Comstock said. “You are stealing my cat with that unhealthy dairy product.”
I was so flustered I could not respond. Mrs. Comstock was in the kitchen and past me and into the living room looking for her cat, which was none too anxious to be found.
When Mrs. Comstock returned, it just came out of my mouth. “Mambo dug up your tumor. It’s not a tumor at all. It’s a goat’s liver,” I said.
Oh my, I knew right away, I’d done something terrible. First, there was the look on Mrs. Comstock’s face. Her puckered up mouth melted into a frown. Her face aged 20 years right before my eyes. And darn it all, my stump started itching again, that very second, and Mrs. Comstock didn’t look like Helen Mirren anymore.
She didn’t say a word. I didn’t know what to say either. So we just looked at one another. Then Mrs. Comstock’s eyes got all watery and she started to cry. Not blubbering, but there were tears on her cheeks. And darn it all if I didn’t start to cry too. Why is it when one woman starts to cry, we all have to cry. And I don’t know what we were crying about—that cat, the mayonnaise, the goat’s liver. I honestly did not know.
Then Mrs. Comstock turned and left. She closed the screen door as soft as you please behind her. To this day, she has not spoken one single word to me.
* * *
That’s about all there is to tell about that hunk of meat. But I can hear my husband Harold, God bless his soul.
“You can’t end it there, Alice.”
“Why can’t I, Harold?”
“But what does it all mean?”
“Why does everything have to mean something?” I ask. “I’m just telling what happened.”
But even I, Alice Pedersen, can see how you might want to know what became of poor Mrs. Comstock, and Patrice, who only spoke French, and Mambo the cat.
So, I guess I need to tell you about the poisoning.
It was Patrice. I heard the sirens late at night and I saw that nice fireman who unwedged me from between the toilet and bathtub. Well, after that incident, I felt like we were friends, so I called him over when I saw Patrice being taken away on a stretcher.
He told me Patrice was sick and they had pumped his stomach.
“Poisoned?” I said.
The fireman shrugged, but I thought of Mrs. Comstock’s poison plants and well, you know.
It was a couple of hours later when the phone rang, and it was Harborview hospital. A social worker apologized, saying that Patrice had given her my phone number, and that Patrice was being discharged and had nowhere to go. Mrs. Comstock had thrown him out.
Well, I said okay, he could stay with me one night. And, oh, I’m so glad I did. Patrice has been the best thing that has ever happened to me.
Sorry, Harold. I just mean he does everything for me. He cooks, he cleans—and my stump doesn’t itch at all anymore.
Oh, now, I know what you’re thinking, but Patrice has a boyfriend it turns out, a man from France, but he’s really Algerian. He says he came to America because nobody is French enough for the French. Anyway, those two liven up my house. They’re like George and Gracie in the kitchen, only they speak French. His name is Maurice, which is funny because it rhymes with Patrice, and Maurice has a wife and kids, but who am I to judge.
Patrice and I watch TV together. Oh, did I mention Mambo the cat moved in here too. Well that’s probably why Mrs. Comstock still won’t talk to me. Mambo sits on my lap at night while Patrice and I watch reruns of Sex and the City. Patrice wishes he were Courtney Cox, so we watch Desperate Housewives and Cougar Town. I don’t know how, but Patrice figured out a way to get French subtitles, and I’ve learned to speak a few words of French—Mer-see, Vu-le-vu, Bon Jour—you don’t really need to speak a language to communicate. I’m figuring that out.
So, you’re wondering, Did Mrs. Comstock really poison Patrice? Well, according to Patrice, the answer is no. He just picked a bunch of fools-parsley out of her garden, thinking it was chervil. But after tricking her with that goat’s liver, she wanted to be rid of him.
That was two months ago, and Patrice has rearranged my entire wardrobe. We share clothes like a couple of girlfriends. He still gives Mrs. Comstock her treatments even though her tumor came back, but it hasn’t gotten any worse, which the doctors say is a miracle, because she refuses to take chemotherapy. I’ve stopped taking my insulin shots. My blood sugar is close to normal. But I feel like I got gypped in a way, because I have that good Boeing health insurance from Harold, and I ought to use it more to get his money’s worth.
Patrice has these funny dolls he keeps all over the house. They wear dark sunglasses and he tosses them shots of rum for breakfast. He’s forever bringing home bananas.
Even my son Danny is happy that Patrice is living here with me, although at first he said Patrice was a sponge and a parasite.
All in all, I’d say things have turned out pretty well. I do miss my husband, Harold, though. Harold knew me. And even though he didn’t like the way I told stories, he always listened. Sometimes Patrice catches me talking to myself and I just shrug my shoulders and say the name, Harold, and Patrice smiles. Patrice believes that dead people are all around us anyway, so what’s one more.
Max Detrano grew up in Hoboken, NJ. He’s been a waiter, a carpenter’s assistant, a printer’s assistant, an art importer, a book buyer, and an independent publishers’ rep. He studied writing at Denver University and the University of Washington. Max’s words have appeared in such diverse publications as: Small Press Magazine, Alaska Airlines, The Sun, Northwest Magazine, The Seattle Weekly, and now 10,000 Tons of Black Ink. He writes with friends at coffee shops in stormy Seattle, WA.
To read Max Detrano’s comments on Rebecca Burns’s “The Intruder,” click here.
Notes from Denis J. Underwood, Online Managing Editor
The voice in this story hooked me right away. It had me thoroughly entertained and intrigued. I laughed out loud while reading this, but also cringed at times in response to the narrator’s awkward interactions, her judgements and fantasies. I wondered at the odd cast of characters and how everything was going to shakeout. All along the narrator starts and stops, meanders, loses her place. But it all comes together—she delivers an unexpected tale filled with loss and, in the end, joy.
Comments on this story by Colleen Fullin, author of “Times Ending, Times Beginning”
I love the voice in this story. It pulled me in right away and kept me reading until the last word. I love the quirkiness of this character, the idiosyncratic way that she weaves this narrative. More than just being quirky, though, this voice is doing work. It reveals character, it sets tone, and helps the reader understand this story. Ultimately, I bought the oddness of all these characters and the strange turns in this story because I believed the voice.
I also love that the quirkiness of this story is counter-balanced by the straightforward worldview we see in Alice. Though disease and aging are inescapable to her, she seems to take this lightly with the phrase, “…something is going to be the death of all of us,” a line that reveals her fatalistic streak. She presents this tale as something that happened to her, something interesting, something worth reporting, nothing more and nothing less. We are left to make our own impressions of its larger meaning.
Filed under: Uncategorized | 3 Comments