- A Pound of Flesh
The heat that simmered off the blacktop of the roadsand circled through my car (its windows down,
the air conditioner long broken) soaked my clothesin sweat, my shirt so thin a strip four inches wide
revealed my spine as armpits dripped and swathsreleased across my chest from neck to belly, pec to pec.
At work, I sat alone inside the walk-in freezeras I waited for my shirt to dry, my body steaming
in a room so cold my skin felt like it tightened. Boxes fullof every cut of meat (from porterhouse to tenderloin)
surrounded me where I had spaced and stacked themas a frigid throne. The freezer door was like a bank vault's,
thicker than my chest. A knob some engineer designedprotruded from the inside of the door so that,
when pressed, the latch released (I often wonderedjust how many men and women locked themselves
by accident into a freezer's crypt before a knobhad been invented that would let them out).
Perhaps, like me, they tried to seal themselves away.I knew what waited on the other side—three cooks
hell-bent on making servers pay for wearing clothesthe cooks had deemed "sissified" (tuxedo shirts
and polyester pants, a bow tie like a choker at the neck).The cooks would throw both food and knives. [End Page 50]
The food was aimed at servers, knives at anythinginanimate (or not) that moved between the prep sink
and the storage room. The cooks hung back untila server—three plates balanced on one arm from wrist
to bicep—teetered at the swinging door that ledinto the dining room, and then the implements would fly.
The plates would never fall at once, but swivelon the arm before they shattered at the server's feet.
The patrons, both in memory and form, were worsein temperament than any child. The joke I heard
most every night came from the oil-field workers, ripewith dirt and sweat and heading out to bars. When asked
how they desired their steaks, the roughnecks often sneered,Remove the horns and wipe its ass and put it on a plate.
I heard the drone of anger underneath their every word,a kind of tightening, a binding as when threads
are turned around themselves to make a rope.The fire and brimstone preached at me on Sundays,
(almost every sermon claiming, more or less,that, sinful by his nature, man should never judge
another man) unsettled me by what was presupposed:how easily a stranger's will, one's good or bad intent, is seen.
My pen and pad in hand, I waited every night as fathersreprimanded sons, as mothers fussed about a daughter's
manners and her looks, as children tried to order alcohol,and shysters, penniless, connived and haggled [End Page 51]
with the manager about the bill, the food, the service,every dime. The worst were patrons who conversed with me
as if they were sincere: the proselytizer ("Tell me, son,now if you were to die tonight . . . "); the divorcée
who ate alone and waved her napkin like a flag;the lovers, eager on a date or bold in long affairs,
who lifted wine (I never told them it was from a box)or leaned (an awkward pose) across the table for a kiss.
The image that returns to me when I am rudderless, adrift,that rises from the summer of my nineteenth year,
(adulthood is a force that acts upon you—even in your sleepyou age) is of the kitchen table in my parents' house
where every night when I returned from workmy parents set a plate for me as I produced a sirloin
or a ribeye (tenderized and seasoned) from a box a cook(the nicest one) had left for me beside the grill.
When I had finished with the meal, my parents watched(the way an audience will gather at a game of chance)
as I unrolled my modest stack of bills and smoothedeach dollar back and forth across the table's edge.