The Calf

I am wrapped and warm.

Contractions shock my world. An arm intrudes. A hand grabs my leg, pulls me out. I fall onto dusty dirt swaddled in my birthing skin. Fetid air smothers my first breath. Clamors explode in my ears.

A soft tongue laps.

Mama.

I’m seized again, dropped into a cold wheelbarrow. They’re taking me away. Mama follows next to me. She tries to block the wheelbarrow, but they shove her aside. Our mutual calls to each other rise together to clash against harsh voices into a cacophony of suffering. Still she follows until she can follow no more. They dump me into a truck, birthing skin, muddy placenta, and all. Mama cries and crashes herself against the rail. The truck engine roars. I howl, mama. My needs thrust full-throated until her anguish fades into the distance, until my gullet is raw. Still I cry until exhaustion takes over, and I dream:

I am standing on two feet, not four, a man bound by a discomfiting suit and tie, not fur. Everything is familiar. I’ve been here before, stood on these two legs. I oversee a stockade network crowded with cows extending into the plains beyond the horizon where a setting sun blisters the sky. I wish for the umpteenth time to be home with my wife and newborn baby girl.

Rows of faces protruding through fence headgates into a long trough of slop remind me of the endless rows of cubicles I just left at the office. Lifeless eyes staring over bellowing maws mirror my own feelings. Many lay on their side. Several weakened bodies stumble on their knees as a cursing man cattle-prods them towards a livestock truck. He sees me, approaches. I hand off a baseball cap embroidered with “I heart Sanmonto” and clap his back, an unnatural smile plastered to my face. The smell of foul waste and filthy animals burns my nose, but I try not to think of it or the tortures before me, rather what’s critical for my employer, the profit motive, and the earned money required to pay off my chic new house and fancy car.

A hose wakes me, sprays away my birthing skin. They toss me into a tiny crate whose fence rails hug close without comfort. My soaked body dries slowly in the soggy air thick with pungent odors and discordant noise. Other calves sit next to me in identical situations. I howl for help. Where’s mama? There’s no mama they say.

I crave to suckle. My tongue searches through space, pulls at the air. I nurse on my empty mouth until a discarded dirty rag replaces. Despite the greasy taste, it feels good to suck something. I doze and dream:

I am that man again, this time marching on my two feet, with balled fists instead of front hooves, into a big white domed building. A hangover from last night’s spousal argument over finances beats at my brain. The falsity of this high-minded place snags at my sanity. I don’t want to be here, yet I proceed. An old scraggly man sits at a large desk gazing with bleary eyes at anxious beads of sweat on my forehead and upper lip. Everyone bustles about calling him Congressman. One of my hands unclenches to clutch some papers with a heading. Sanmonto. Global Expansion. Feed The World. My pushed voice rattles, rushes louder than I wish. The Congressman knuckles under, promises quick product approval. This pyrrhic victory pricks at my chest, gnaws at my soul.

Everything blurs; my dream shifts. The Congressman morphs into a scientist dressed in a white lab coat. He lifts a beaker shaking his head. I want to leave, to run away–maybe I don’t need this job–but my stomach tangles and my instincts go unheeded. Instead I compel my stiff jaw to speak while jabbing at his chest in the same way the executive above me had jabbed mine. He acquiesces. A hapless experiment with an extravagant udder stands in a corner mewling. I turn from the sight trying to blink away its memory, cursing my want of courage to change my circumstance.

A kicking boot rouses me to the reek of gas and dung. I am made to stand and they attach something to my testicles. It pinches and burns. A needle stings my shoulder muscle as fluid rushes in. A heavy collar dragging down my neck is tethered to my crate rail. I can no longer stand. My rag is taken away so I suck my restraint. The weight chafing my neck and small space holds me in place until my legs are too weak to lift me. My yearning to move, to live, turns to stupor, and dreams:

I am that same man standing onstage in a large meeting hall before a cheering crowd. Again, as always, I am away from my family, missing my daughter’s first violin recital just like my father had missed mine. A picture of a bull overlays a sharp line with a jagged red arrow going up and up reaching past the ceiling, beyond the moon, grasping for the stars. The top of the chart has words. Sanmonto. Stocks. Biotech industries. This success stands in cruel contrast to the state of my marriage and the offspring I seldom see. The red arrow is my prison.

Throbbing music pounds at my aching temples. My armpits sweat rivers as people jump in rhythm. My eyes squint as ambition over-illuminates the room, reflects sun-bright on every shiny face. Profits, more profits, they sing with the same excitable tones of my wife. Their joy at numbers pins my diaphragm to my throat. In the midst of community, I am lost in isolation. The CEO lifts his arms. I must perform my role, not wallow in wretchedness, so I match his upraised arms, as if to catch their adulation, which pelts me like a hard rain, chilling me to my marrow.

A slammed bucket wakes me, sloshing a vaguely chemical-smelling white goop into my now open eyes. Nausea prevents me from touching it so they pour it down my esophagus. Eventually I drink it without being forced. The burning pinching thing hanging between my legs soon falls off, taking my balls with it. I rub my dry itchy skin against the rough wooden slat floor. There are so many others. Our moans encircle groans to echo beside screaming machines.

A nearby snuffling causes me to nose at a weakness in my fence. Another sniffs and nuzzles me. Our mouths reach to suckle each other. Mutual sorrows inspire my new friend. He reaches into his imagination to whisper tales of gentle green fields and a kind blue sky with benevolent breezes caressing us both. Even under the metal ceiling, confining the hoary light of a permanent winter, my tender heart soars, trembling at the thought that such a place exists. My friend keeps on soothing until I drowse, and dream:

I am the man driving my open-roofed, fast car. Speed is my escape from job stress and family decline, the driver’s seat, my hiding place. I round every curve as fast as I can go to unknot my strained stomach. My modified motor manufactures the loudest possible vroom to cover up conflicting voices in my aching head. The twisting road turns and turns, the wind lifting my denial, my inability to face myself, to ever increasing levels. A livestock truck comes at me head on.

My soul lifts and in my dream a calf is conceived.

I am wrapped and warm.

Jack

Dogfucious says, “He who make bad life choices have beef with karma.”

 

 

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Reading, Wine, and a Dog

“Would you like another Chardonnay?” I asked. My regular’s glass was a quarter full. He doesn’t like to wait long between glasses. It was late afternoon and not very busy at The Pie Shoppe.

“By the time you pour that glass, I’ll be ready,” he said with a smirk. He comes in almost every day. Roly-poly, balding, and bespectacled, he always sets up a hardback book from the New York Times best-selling fiction list on a reading stand to peruse while he sips four glasses of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay. Today he had two books, one two-thirds open on the stand and one waiting near his pudgy elbow.

“That’s a lot of reading for one Pie Shoppe visit,” I said.

“Oh, I read very quickly. I’ll finish this one and be a quarter way into the other one before I leave.” Later, it turned out he wasn’t bragging in vain.

“Guess the Chardonnay helps.” I laughed.

With his third glass, he expects a slice of cornbread. “Center cut. Please make sure it’s very fresh.” If he’s really hungry, he’ll order the turkey dinner or pot roast to be enjoyed with the fourth glass. It was a hungry day, so he ordered the turkey, extra gravy on the side, melted cheese on his veggies. “And I’d like to order a top sirloin to go.”

“That’ll be a nice lunch tomorrow.”

“It’s not for me. It’s for my friend’s dog. I’m dog sitting for a few months.”

“Oh. Must be nice to be a guest in your house.”

He laughed. “She is man’s best friend. I don’t know what to feed her.”

“I’m sure a pet store would have something.”

“Yeah.” He didn’t sound convinced.

“How do you think she’d like her steak cooked?”

“I think she’d like it medium rare. How do you think?”

“Well, I like my steak rare. You know, still mooing. But I’m not a dog.”

His face scrunched at the idea. “Maybe medium’s better. Yes. Medium.”

“Okay. It comes with loaded mashed potatoes. Do you think she’d like that, or maybe just a plain baked potato?” Loaded mashed potatoes come with bacon, chopped green onions, sour cream, and cheddar cheese melted together on top.

“Hm. I’ll take the loaded mashed potatoes. What are the veggies?”

“They’re the same veggies you get. A medley of yellow and green squash, carrots, broccoli and onion. You want that for her.”

“I think maybe she wouldn’t like the broccoli.”

“I can order it without broccoli.”

“That’d be good.”

“Great. Thank you.” I rushed off to place his order.

My dog Jack says, “Let them eat steak!”

As I gave him his fourth glass of Chardonnay, I said, “It’d be cheaper next time if you buy the whole bottle.” A bottle of wine is just under 5 glasses.

“Yeah.” He smiled. “But that would be so indulgent!”

Job Searching 101: Early Warning Signs Your Employer is a Jerk

The day was too warm to be pounding the streets and dropping off resumes in restaurants. The Sushi Place was my last stop and I felt wilted walking in. The sign outside offered a happy hour with $1 off sushi and half-price Asahi and Sapporo beer until 7 p.m. It was close to 5 when I walked in. Near the entrance was a bar, where a tired looking bartender stood staring at a huge, soundless, wide-screen TV located over the sushi bar. An experimental art film seemed to be playing. The images were visceral and discordant, closeups of food being chopped and chewed, raw. A Lady Gaga song played innocuously in the background. There were a few occupied tables, but it wasn’t very busy.

“Hi,” I said to Weary Bartender. “Is the manager or owner available? I’d like to apply for a server position.”

A small smile cracked his stony expression, more out of amusement than friendliness. He gestured to a seat at the far end of the bar. “The owner is in the back. You can wait here if you’d like.”

“Sure. Thank you. It’s hot out. The air conditioning feels great.” As I sat down, I noticed a half-finished pint of beer and a laptop in front of an empty seat at the other end of the bar.

“Would you like a glass of water?”

“Oh, yes, please. Are you hiring servers now?”

“We’re always looking for someone,” he said, filling my glass and placing it before me.

“Oh. Great. How long have you been here?”

“A few months.”

“Are you pretty much settled in, then?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

I gratefully drank as I took in the place. It was decorated in a lean, vaguely Asian style with oak wood paneling throughout. The sushi bar sat in front of the kitchen and next to the bar. A sushi chef was unwrapping fish and placing them in the bar display. A couple of girls were nursing beers and staring at the sushi chef expectantly. In fact, there were a lot of expectant faces and I had yet to see a server.

The TV caught my eye again. What I thought was an art film turned out to be a Japanese horror movie with subtitles. A man had just thrown a naked woman across a table. Her face was made up Kabuki style. Another man, also naked, held tongs in one hand and poured a brown sauce on her with the other. I stifled a shocked laugh.

“Have you seen our waitress?” A man from one of the tables had just approached the bar. “We’ve been waiting 30 minutes for our sushi.” I looked over at the sushi bar and there were some plates with sushi on them at the service area waiting to be delivered. The girls at the sushi bar still sat waiting to eat. The sushi chef was slicing fish laggardly, like a DMV clerk processing forms.

“She’ll be right with you,” said Weary Bartender, not moving.

Just then, the kitchen door banged open and belched forth a man. His hair was greasily combed over half his forehead, barely covering a bald patch. A couple of facelifts had given his face a wide-eyed skeletal appearance. He shambled over to the half-empty pint at the other end of the bar and drew a draught between surgically fattened lips. His colorful collared shirt was unbuttoned almost to his navel, revealing sparse hair, strange scarring, and the top half of his beer-gut. He seemed to be hanging onto a style from his heyday.

“Are you the owner?” asked the customer at the bar.

“Yes,” said Weird Owner, not even looking up from his now finished beer.

“I’ve been waiting 30 minutes for my sushi.”

“Yes, well this isn’t fast food you know.” He then pirouetted away from the bar and toddled to the back to pour another beer. Frustrated Customer went back to his table to rejoin his friend. After setting the beer down next to his laptop, Weird Owner walked over to the sushi bar, sashaying to the music of Rage Against the Machine. I thought he might deliver the still-waiting sushi plates, but he stopped at the two women. A caterpillar roll finally sat in between them, upon which they were nibbling. They looked up at him as he inquired about their food in a voice that carried over the thin din of music and guest murmuring.

The girls smiled and said something I couldn’t hear. “Pretty girls and pretty sushi go together like a handroll with spicy tuna.” He snorted at his own joke.

They smiled politely. He went on, pointing to his chest. “See these scars? I got them in ‘Nam. I got this there too.” He rolled back his sleeve to show them a tattoo on his upper arm. It continued onto his shoulder, ending who-knew-where. I was afraid for a minute he would take off his shirt to show them the whole thing. “You ladies really are pretty, and for a kiss, dinner is on me! Hell, I’ll pick up your tab even without the kiss.” He chortled.

This time the ladies didn’t smile back and I heard a reply. “That’s not necessary,” said the bolder of the two.

“No, I insist,” said the owner.

The kitchen door banged open again and a young server, looking bored, walked out. The owner jerked around and marched toward her. “Where have you been, skank? I don’t pay your lazy ass to stand around.”

She looked unsurprised by his outburst. “I took a cigarette break,” she said and went to the server station to pick up the waiting sushi. When she arrived at her table, Frustrated Customer started complaining to her.

At this point, Weird Owner finally noticed me taking everything in. He approached, his bee-stung lips parting into a grin. “What can I do for you, young lady?”

“Um. Nothing. I was just leaving.” I fished for my wallet and pulled out a dollar for Weary Bartender. Then, as he continued to stare, I picked up my résumé and handbag and scurried back out into the stifling air.

I may be broke, but I have standards.

Server for Hire

The Art of Persistence

I was shopping at Jons, an Armenian grocery store chain with locations throughout Glendale and East Hollywood. The locals call it Little Armenia. Their selection of quality Mediterranean ingredients make them one of my favorite foodie haunts. I especially love their yogurt, kefir, and carbonated yogurt drink.

I don’t typically dress up for such adventures. Rolling out of bed, throwing on an old tank top and shorts, and stuffing my hair in a ponytail was my beauty regimen. There was no make-up on my face. I was proud I washed it. Living in the quasi-barrio offered many advantages, including dressing with what look liked rash carelessness in other parts of shallow L.A. People preened to be seen on the Westside. I dressed to disappear on the Eastside. The last thing I expected as I scrutinized the cultured dairy section was any sort of male attention.

His softly insistent voice startled me. “Can I take you to lunch sometime?”

I looked to my left where a man about my age stood. He didn’t have a cart or basket and wasn’t carrying any products. His clothes were mismatched and his hair hung willy nilly. Eyes were gray and wandered about. Nails were bitten down to waning crescent moons.

“Um… no… I have boyfriend,” I said, thinking a boyfriend was irrelevant to the question. He made me edgy. Not sure I would even be comfortable discussing the merits of various yogurt brands, much less arranging for lunch.

“I don’t mind if you don’t mind. There’s room for all of us.” His tone was serious and his gaze intent.

“Well, I’m really busy… but thanks for asking.” I still endeavored politeness as I was afraid of pushing some button and him acting out like he came from Crazytown.

“I’m really easy to squeeze into a schedule.”

“I don’t think I can squeeze you in.”

“Well, can I have your number and maybe we can chat?”

“No, I’d rather not.”

“Would you like my number?”

This guy was not going to take a hint and his persistence was turning my edginess into screaming meemies. “No. Look, I really think you should just let this go and leave me alone.”

“Okay, I don’t want to annoy you or anything.”

I stifled an ironic laugh. “Thank you.”

I went back to my kefir selection and he shuffled away. I kept an eye over my shoulder all the way home.

The Gold Crown Incident

With three new tables sat in quick succession, on top of four other tables already started, I was barely caught up. The Pie Shoppe was thick into its lunch rush. A couple at table 70 sat with faces of stone as I greeted them with a harried smile. A Very Old Mom with her Bland Son, who looked to be 50-ish, sat with glazed, almost expressionless eyes and pale skin. My Favorite Busboy had brought coffee for her and iced tea for him. They were ready to order, as were my other two tables

“Is this how it comes?” he asked, with all the personality of a rice cake. He pointed at a picture on the menu of The Pie Shoppe turkey dinner. “We’d like to split it.”

“It sure does. Would you like the lunch portion or the dinner portion?”

“What’s the difference?”

This was all explained on the menu. “The lunch portion is slightly smaller and doesn’t come with soup or salad.”

“What’s the difference in price?”

“The dinner is $15.99 and the lunch is $12.99,” I said, pointing at the clearly marked menu. “The dinner portion comes with soup, salad, and bread, or you can add it to the lunch portion for $2.59. Since you’re splitting your meal, you might want the dinner portion with a salad for 40 cents more.”

Pause.

I could literally hear both the wheels of calculation rotating in his head, and the table behind me tapping their feet impatiently waiting to place their order. Very Old Mom asked, her voice a rasping whisper, “What do I get?” Bland Son explained what I’d just explained.

“Do you want soup, Mom?”

“Our soups today are chicken noodle, potato cheese, and hearty vegetable,” I said.

“I want soup,” Very Old Mom said.

“Okay, we’ll take the dinner portion,” Bland Son said.

“What kind of soup would you like?” I asked.

Pause.

“What’s the soup?” she asked.

“Our soups today are chicken noodle, potato cheese, and hearty vegetable.”

Pause.

“Potato.”

“We’ll take the potato cheese,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. “Would you like cornbread or garlic bread with your potato cheese soup?”  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see another table of mine being sat. I groaned inwardly.

“Would you like the cornbread, Mom?”

“Huh?”

“Would you like the cornbread, Mom?”

“Yes.”

“We’ll take the cornbread.”

“Great. Thank you,” I said.

I gathered their menus and did my best to look like I wasn’t running away from that table. I got the drink order from my new table and took lunch orders from two other tables, then rushed to the kitchen to fulfill everything and catch up.

Later, two young girls at the table across the aisle from Very Old Mom and Bland Son flagged me down.

“The table over there needs your attention.” They both looked smugly joyful, like they couldn’t wait to see what happened next.

Indeed, table 70 was also staring at me, eyes still glazed, and there was a metallic object sitting on top of a napkin.

“Mother found this in her soup,” said Bland Son.

It was a gold crown, sucked clean of the potato cheese soup. It looked for all the world like a real tooth, browned with age, a bit spotty, only shiny, like jewelry. Its sparkle mocked me.

Very Old Mom sat stirring her soup.

“I’m sorry. I’ll get the manager.” It was all I could say.

The Bald Man stood at the hostess stand taking the name of a customer waiting for a table. I rushed to him wondering how could I miss a solid chunk of metal while ladling a pureed, cream-colored soup into a bowl. Who in the kitchen could afford fancy dentistry? A thing like that didn’t just fly out of one’s mouth. If it did, it’d be hawked on Pawn Stars before being pureed.

I approached with a vain attempt at wry humor. “Are you ready for this?”

He looked grim. “Yes.”

“Table 70 found a gold crown in their potato cheese soup. They wanna see a manager.”

At first I thought he might laugh, his face contorting into a strange grin. Then, just as quickly, his face became a grim mask. I suggested the crown possibly belonged to Very Old Mom.

The Bald Man took that in and accompanied me back to table 70. Awkwardness hung in the air. I could see the girls across the aisle watching intently, as were several other tables. It was a free show.

The Bald Man quickly offered apologies, then said, “Are you sure this isn’t your crown? None of the kitchen staff has a crown.” My jaw dropped. I hadn’t intended my supposition be mentioned aloud to them. I expected him to follow his apology with a comped meal. The air grew more taut. Nobody said a word. Finally, he offered to comp their meal, or provide another one gratis.

“My stomach’s a little queasy now. I’m not sure I can even eat lunch,” said Bland Son.

“Well, I’ll happily comp your meal. Please let me know if there’s anything else I can do.” He apologized again and marched off, a couple hundred dollars’ worth of gold in hand.

I stayed to pick up the rest of the pieces. “Would you like a pie to take home?” I thought if there was a gold crown in the potato cheese soup, there might be a diamond ring in the pie.

“Sure. Okay. We’ll take a pie,” said the son. Of course. Free stuff. Now, pie decision-making prevailed. Bland Son seemed pleased. Very Old Mom sat vacantly. Holes were being bored into my back by the eyes of waiting customers.

“What kind of pie do you want, Mom?”

Pause.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want a peach pie?”

Pause.

“I don’t know.”

I tried to facilitate the decision. “I like the fresh peach better than the baked.”

Pause.

“What’s the difference?” asked Bland Son.

I sighed inside. “The fresh pie is made with fresh peaches and a peach glaze and is mounded on a crust. The baked pie is sweetened peaches baked between a double crust.”

Pause.

“Do you want the double crust, Mom?”

Pause.

“Yes.”

“We’ll take the double crust.”

“Okay. I’ll be right back with your baked peach pie.” I ran away saying, “Thank you!” this time without hiding it. I came back with their pie, apologizing as sincerely as I could– “… hope you’ll try us again…”– as I wished silently, with even more sincerity, I would never see them, ever.

I tried in vain to win back favor with my other tables. My slow service annoyed, though they witnessed the event. You’d think I put the gold crown in the soup. It set the tone for the rest of my shift.

My Favorite Busboy sought me out. “The guys in the kitchen– they no can afford gold for teeth. That guy wanted free stuff.”

I said, “Maybe. I think they were too out-of-it to know it came from her mouth.”

He shook his head.

I guess we’ll never know.

Analyzing Mr. Pig Man

“I took Mr. Pig Man’s order since you weren’t there. He’s in your station. I’ll put it in the computer and transfer it to you,” said Perfectionist Server. He’s tall and thin, and his uniform shirt is always dry cleaned, starched and pressed.

“Oh my god! You keep him. I don’t want him,” said Theatrical Server. Her short, dyed-black hair was side-parted and combed diagonally across her forehead, then tucked behind her ear.

“Sorry. I don’t need his dollar.” Perfectionist Server was talking about the tip expected to be left by Mr. Pig Man.

She stamped her foot and shook her hands in the air. “Oh, God! I can’t stand waiting on him! He’s so rude!”

Mr. Pig Man, a regular at The Pie Shoppe, earned his moniker for a variety of reasons. His face resembled a pig, sans snout, with a sallow complexion, beady eyes, and sparse, greasy hair. His belt hid beneath a protruding pot-belly. He ate like a pig, both in quantity and quality, shoveling copious amounts of food into his mouth with sloppy gusto. His ordering was abrupt and squealing, like someone making demands but who was uncertain he’d receive compliance.

As Theatrical Server waited on him, she repeatedly refilled his iced tea. She microwaved his big bowl of potato cheese soup and full rack of BBQ ribs “very hot.” Corn bread sprayed from his mouth as he called for more napkins. Every time he got up to refill his plate at the salad bar, he adjusted his ill-fitting clothes pushed aside by his corpulence, hiking up his pants and pulling down his shirt. His over-loaded salad plates were cloaked with ranch dressing like a snow-capped Mount Everest. He mowed down ribs and fries like they were blades of grass. When he finished eating, the table looked like a toddler made merry there.

When he was ready to leave, Mr. Pig Man sought out Perfectionist Server in the server aisle and gave him the bill book with some cash. “Here’s your money. Keep the change, buddy,” he said in a jovial tone I’d never heard before, waving his hand as he walked away.

“Why did he pay you when Theatrical Server waited on him?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Cuz I took the order?” he suggested.

We both looked at the cash. There was $30 left for a $28.18 bill. His tip was a dollar and some coins. Theatrical Server approached.

“Here’s your money from Mr. Pig Man,” said Perfectionist Server.

I started wiping the pie area counter of crumbs and smears of fruit and whipped cream. “Funny, I never heard him talk like that before, sounding so friendly. I wonder if he doesn’t know how to talk to women. Maybe he’s afraid of women. Or shy. I feel sorry for him. He’s probably never been laid.”

“Never been laid? I don’t think sex factors in,” retorted Perfectionist Server, who was organizing the glasses and pulling empty racks to take to the dishwasher. “I mean, fuck sex. I don’t think he’s ever had someone’s arms around him. Think about it. He’s what? Late 40s, early 50s? It’s possible he’s never been held. I’m talking by someone who’s not his mother or sister or something. And maybe not them either.”

Theatrical Server, who was loitering, holding up her money from Mr. Pig Man, looked fascinated and serious. “Well, what about his defense mechanisms? If you put it out there like he does, it’s what he’s gonna get back. You can’t walk around being unpleasant all the time and expect people to hug you. How we act attracts what we get.”

I said, “I don’t think he’s aware of how defensive he is. It could be unconscious behavior.”

Perfectionist Server replied, “Yeah. He was probably raised by people like all the parents we see here all the time, where their kids can run around how they please, drinking soda after soda, screeching, and getting ignored, while their parents sit on their smart phones, texting.”

Theatrical Server moved closer to Perfectionist Server, enthusiastically chewing on the discussion. “That’s so true! These parents don’t get that what they’re doing is creating another Mr. Pig Man. I think it’s sad.”

At that point, we all dispersed from the server aisle to check on our tables. Mr. Pig Man was forgotten.

On Serving Pink Slime

“I would like the BBQ Cheddar Burger, extra cheese and add bacon. No tomatoes, no lettuce, and no pickles. Just the burger, cheese, bacon, and onion ring,” said the woman. Her hair, eyes, and skin were monochromatic brown and vaguely masculine. “Oh, and make the fries extra-crispy. Is there dressing on the burger?”

“Thousand Island. Also BBQ sauce,” I said.

“Extra dressing on the side. For my fries.”

“How would you like that cooked?”

“Better get it well done. Is there pink slime in it?”

I paused. The question put me in an awkward spot. I didn’t know but figured the answer was “yes”. I knew I couldn’t give that answer without repercussions. “We’ll cook the pink slime out of it,” was all I could think of to say. Thank goodness she laughed and stopped pursuing the question.

I sought out the Bald Man. “I’m fielding questions about pink slime. Is it in our burgers?”

“If it is then we pay too much for our beef,” said the Bald Man in well-rehearsed fashion.

This didn’t answer my question and I sincerely doubted we paid top dollar for beef. I’ve watched quality go down and cost cutting go up in the years I’ve worked at The Pie Shoppe. Since the Bald Man had taken over as General Manager, we’ve been squeezing the nickel until the buffalo poops. The food coming out of the kitchen has been increasingly prefabricated. Earlier that day, I watched a cook dump individually frozen, pre-cooked, pre-chunked turkey breast pieces onto a sheet pan. They sounded like marbles as they clattered across the surface, glistening a strange shade of gray. Later they were served in the salad bar. Once upon a time, we freshly roasted turkey breast in-house for our dinners and salad bar. Now the turkey breast comes frozen, pre-roasted, and ready-to-eat in a vacuum-packed bag. So does our “Freshly Roasted Whole Turkey”, which we unwrap then rewrap for takeout Easter dinners. I’ve also watched them dump frozen “Tasty Yams” straight from the freezer bag into the foil containers customers take home.

I said, “I’m not sure pink slime is tied to pricing. I read it was in 70% of our beef supply.”

“That’s all the cheap grocery stores,” he said, his tone sharp and his body stiff.

“Foodservice too. It’s not just grocery stores.”

“They’d have to tell us if there was pink slime in our meat,” he insisted. I wasn’t sure who “they” were.

“What do you mean? Did you ask? I don’t think distributors volunteer the information. The FDA doesn’t require labeling or disclosure. It’s part of the hue and cry.”

His head jerked backwards and his eyes narrowed. The air felt crackly. These kinds of questions and direct conversation made me unpopular with the Bald Man. I knew if I kept it up, I’d likely see my schedule reduced by one shift next week, or find myself closing the restaurant on Monday nights. He punished for his annoyances where it hurt: my wallet. I needed to redirect the conversation, so I laughed a little too loudly and said, “Well, pink slime is only the tip of the iceberg. Why aren’t people asking about hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs?”

His tone was still sharp. “Pink slime isn’t even bad for you. It’s meat. It’s still part of the cow. If people wanna worry about something, they should worry about the chemicals in food.”

I turned and grabbed a couple of glasses and filled them with orange soda and root beer. The subject was dropped.