Tender Meat

artwork by Dash Snow

by Jennifer Love

         Me and Baby Rae like to talk about how we’re gonna get out of here soon. We both have big plans. She’s gonna be a school bus driver, and I’ll probably find Jesus or something. I just need to experience a great miracle to make me believe. Then I’m gonna be saved.

        The chili always burns black at the bottom of the pot. That’s why they’ve let Baby Rae stay here so long, because she’s the only one who’s got the sinew in her arms to scrape the iron clean again. “I’ll tell you a secret, Tiny,” she had said when I was first assigned to kitchen duty with her. “I got a deal with the cook. She always burns the food a little on purpose, gives me something to work with. Keeps me off the streets til I get going on my bus license.”

         My secret is that I watch her work out of the corner of my eye, I love to watch the rumbling muscle and fat. Baby Rae has great big folds of flesh and great big grooves around her eyes, she is stout and strong and steeped in rare wisdoms, pluckable as grapes. Like what she said before my first job interview. A shower ain’t enough, honey. You gotta go down to the Walgreen’s and pick out a 99 cent tube of lipstick. You wear lipstick, people think you got money, you know? She’s smart like that. Took a lot for her to get this way, though, living in the shelter for a record amount of time and not hearing a peep from no one about moving on. I know she had a baby boy and that baby boy isn’t hers anymore, because I guess somehow his school found out she was shooting up at home. The story’s a little fuzzy. She always gets to blubbering before long.

         I stay quiet when Baby Rae gets to talking about her son. A long time ago, I had tried to explain to her about my own experience as a mother. Tried to say, hey, I know what it’s like. To give birth. And then to lose your kid. But she didn’t understand, because my baby was born into the hands of a fortune teller named Grace who I had found in the Yellow Pages after a long night of contemplating the vast mystery of the future. And I guess to her, that isn’t quite the same.

         I reach back to the furthest tentacles of my mind, take myself out of the salty haze of the kitchen and back to that most important day. I am fifteen years old. I am wearing a sweatshirt that hangs halfway to my knees. I am on her doorstep, and then I am inside her house, sinking into the folds of her couch, breathing through my mouth and holding my hand out expectantly as she rustles through the contents of a drawstring bag. “I’d like to see my future, please,” I say.

        She makes me pay before she will touch me. Takes my ten dollar bill, then takes my hand and glides her crackled fingertips across its surface. Retrieves a stone to press into its center. Oils the fingers, a different oil for each one, from tiny bottles she produces from the depths of her bag. Stones. Oils. And a knife. This she lifts with great ceremony before running the blade along the creases of my palm, drawing bubbling red threads to the surface.

        “I didn’t know those were under there,” I breathe. When I touch them, they smear.

         She strokes my wrist with her thumb. “Are you ready, baby?”

          Her voice is barely audible. If I speak out loud, I fear the moment may break. My head nods before I know what I’m agreeing to.

          She sinks the knife deeper into my palm, angling it towards my wrist. She’s reaching for something, I know. She’s finding something important inside of me, and I feel no pain at all.

          Something bloody and gelatinous is on the end of her knife, as she pulls four inches of blade out of my flesh. She scoops it out of the meat of my hand and lays it, with reverence, across my other open palm.

           “A baby duck,” she sighs, eyes glittering. “An embryo.”

          The glazed eye of my offspring gazes up at me. Grace takes my hand again, pulls a needle and thread through the incision she has left.

          “Will it survive?” I ask. “Is it going to grow up?”

          She just nods, breaking the thread with her teeth. Taking my hand, she leads me to her front porch. She kisses the embryo, staining her lips red before she retreats into her house and shuts the door.

          “Grace, wait!” I try the door, but it’s locked. I shake the knob to make the hardware rattle. “What about my future? You never told me!”

         I bang on the door with my stitched hand, keeping my baby cupped carefully in the other. She pulses warm and wet in my palm. “Grace! What does this mean?”

          It seems as if my voice should echo, but it doesn’t. I desperately need Grace to let me back in, but she won’t. The night, unsympathetic to my situation, descends. So I just slush home.

          I named her Meatball. The little duck. My daughter. I cracked eggs over her miraculous body each day, gently massaged the yolk into her skin. Meatball was my moon and sun. She grounded me during my time of navigating life as a disoriented Canada goose, two states behind and wondering when everyone else was going to catch up. She started the thaw within me, organs materializing from the soup of my cells and groaning slowly to life. The world was becoming real with her every imperceptible breath; life could be more than something I thought about from afar, formless and alone, wondering when everyone else was going to catch up.

          Frozen, thawed, back in flight-- life could be more than something I thought about in my sleep.

          But I am not fifteen anymore. I am not with Grace, I am with Baby Rae. And she has moved on. Now she is telling me that if she’d had a man, she would still have her kid, and she’d have a job and a house and all that. Playing the game, she calls it. That’s how you gotta do life, she advises.

          She cracks her dishtowel, slings it across the wire rack. “You know, Tiny, you’re a cute little thing. I don’t know why you don’t just pick a man off the street, get him wrapped round your finger. You’d be all tucked up in a nice house in no time.”

          “It’s not that easy.”

          “Like hell it ain’t. Wait til you’re my age, see what you think ‘bout it then. You can give me a call.” Baby Rae pulls the stopper out of the drain and meanders out of the kitchen, squawking with laughter. “Cos you know if I ain’t dead yet, I’m still be here!”

          Baby Rae doesn’t know about the last time I tried anything like that. I had been scooting down the strip mall at the edge of town, a shopkeeper after me for stealing a can of beans. The bowling alley had seemed like a safe haven from the outside, with a faded sign promising fun for the whole family. Inside was dim and interplanetary, every surface yellowed by fluorescent beams. I ran for the lanes and slid down the first alley I reached, dropping my body low, gliding under the ten-pin triangle suspended and into the dark. My feet slammed into a metal grate. What the hell, a voice said from the other side, a voice that I would later know as that of my angel, my angel took a socket wrench to the grate and pulled it down with a clang so I could hop out, and I hopped.

          “Who are you?” I asked him. He had a greasy black mustache that I trusted with my life. His body was shaped like a beautiful egg.

          “I feel like I should be the one asking the questions here,” he said with something like a grunt, or maybe a laugh. I waited. I checked on Meatball. She was a fluffed-up duckling by that time.

          The man cleared his throat and puffed out his chest a little. “My name’s Dave. I’m the pinsetter mechanic.”

          He showed me the supply closet to hide in when the owner came back a minute later to bang on the door, said I don’t know man, she ran out that way, I don’t know, she didn’t say nothing to me until he left, and I asked from inside the closet if he had a wife, and he didn’t hear me so I came out of the closet and asked again, and he didn’t say nothing to me, and my insides snapped for a second and my eyes darted to the door, until he asked me hey kid, you gonna be okay if I sneak you out, and I didn’t say nothing to him, and that’s how I ended up sleeping in the musty space behind the bowling lanes, eating the food he brought me, feeding Meatball the oats and peas he brought her, spending my days plotting how I was gonna get out of there and into his house, where I could have a real bed instead of an inflatable mattress on the ground, and real showers instead of baby wipes and weekly trips in the middle of the night to the campground showers just out of town. I spent a long time on my teeth in those concrete restrooms in the cold and the dark and the night. Convinced that if I brushed them long enough, they would get sharp like fangs.

          His wife’s name was Barbara. I had to ask him four different times if she was fake until he showed me a picture in his wallet. He loves her very much, he said, but that’s why I gotta stay here. He gets it, he said, but she don’t. And he kinda likes it, he said, having a little secret to keep.

          “You guys don’t have any kids, right? Can’t you adopt me?” I asked him one day, and again. He didn’t say nothing to me. “Do you think of me as a daughter? Or more like a captive, illicit love?”

          He snorted. “Come on, kid. You’re only old enough to be my daughter.”

          “So I am your daughter, then?”

          He watches the pins through the grates, spinning, spinning, spinning into place. From where I sit on my mattress, I can see every single line in his skin.

          “Sure, Tiny. You can be my kid.”

          I could be his kid. Until the night I was woken by the sound of pins crashing against one of the grates, and his voice, and something less familiar. The voice of a girl. Younger than Barbara. I scrambled out of bed and pressed my eyeball to the grate and saw her, my age but prettier than me, pretending she didn’t know how to roll the ball so that he would put his arm next to hers and he put his arm next to hers and behind them on the plastic seats, a cherry slushie he must have gotten her from the snack shack, he would’ve had to turn the machine back on for that and then clean it again before the morning crew arrived and I knew this because he’d done it for me and until that night, for me alone, and I saw the way they were looking at each other, and I pulled on my sweatshirt and shoved Meatball in the pocket and wrenched out the bolts and pulled down the grate and ran down the line at the side of the lane, picked up a bowling ball, and they were yelling but I couldn’t hear what they were saying and they were yelling and I threw the bowling ball at her head, and I didn’t throw it hard enough, and it landed with a bone-cracking smack on the ground that I became certain was the sound of my heart breaking.

          She’s my niece, he thundered after me as I ran to the front doors, clasping another bowling ball against my chest. And here’s what happened next: first, his hand clamped down on my arm. Second, every nerve ending in my body shrieked. Third, my entire being pulled itself away from his grasp, a great surge of revulsion pushing forward so hard that my sick-mouse feet couldn’t keep up and one kicked the other and I fell, hard, on the hardwood, on my left hip. The pocket with Meatball inside. I felt her little bird bones popping against mine, the warm blood seeping through my sweatshirt, and my baby girl was dead, a mess of flesh in my pocket. A sob rose from my stomach, but I couldn’t think about it then.

          At the front doors, I threw the bowling ball against the glass and this time it worked, the glass shattered, sent the screech of an alarm across the building and into the night. It sounded like silver blood, just like me, and it almost drowned out Dave in the background, his footsteps, his voice, still yelling, Tiny, you fucking crazy bitch, she’s my niece.

          Two lungs later I laid flat on the side of the highway, arms outstretched like an angel. My bones were aching like they wanted me to tear them out or something, bury them in someone’s backyard until a hush settled in. Made them docile. I thought of all those glittering fragments of glass, suspended for milliseconds before raining down on the pavement. And my body a tiny angel, fluttering amongst the iridescence, avoiding the sharp edges with the practiced bobs and weaves of someone who has felt them before. Laying far out in the dark, I considered whether I really cared that Dave had some other stupid girl with a ponytail, or if I just thought I should. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how much of what I’m doing is me, and how much is a hand slipping through the cracks in my skin and knotting against my spine.

          The sobs had long subsided, faded to kitten hiccups in my throat. I felt convinced that no one in history has felt as hard, as much as I do, no one else has ever laid flat on the ground on the side of the road in the middle of everywhere with their baby’s mangled body turning crusty against their hip, fucking freezing and waiting for the earth to split open beneath their back, waiting to fall, praying for a home or a hand or something to catch them on the other side. No one else has ever been so close to the void.

          I stayed like that, a bloodstained palm to the sky, until the cops came to take me away.

          But it’s okay. You know? People are always talking about how everything is okay. I’m gonna be saved. And Baby Rae’s gonna get her certificate and become a school bus driver, probably in Kentucky, she says. Where they have white picket fences and green grass, the kinda shit you don’t see round here, she says. I dig my nails into the blackened grit at the bottom of the pot, and the grit bites back. I’ll be there, too. When I’m an angel, back in flight. Higher than the sun. I’m gonna be saved. I swear. I’m gonna be saved. I’m just waiting for the miracle.

Jennifer Love is a writer, artist, and Bay Area native. She currently resides in San Jose, teaching literacy skills to ESL learners and working on a collection of short stories.