September 11, 2008 at 2:56 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

The nose of the car breached the divide between broiling asphalt and dry, rocky sand all yellow-brown and shimmering with translucent wavelets of heat. It was an undeveloped lot just off the city street and right in between two nondescript concrete and glass strip malls. I continued on a few yards and parked behind a pale green palo verde, too stubborn like the rest of its bristly species to let the searing sun and miserly sky overcome its will to endure.

“You got the cash?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Here.” She pulled a new ten out of her blood-red wallet.

“This won’t take long,” I said, hoping it wasn’t a lie.

“I’m coming with you,” she said.

“No, stay in the car.”

Dust puffed up and enveloped the toes of my shoes as my feet hit the desert earth. Sweat formed a thin film all over my skin. In the front of the lot squatted a rusty food service coach, the kind you can buy a taco out of if you’re willing to brave a few parts per dozen of insect viscera. I had parked somewhat behind and to the side of it. Walking around to the front I could see that it probably hadn’t moved in years, its tires exhausted and splitting and large swaths of paint having preferred disintegration among the grains of sand to continued service on the metal sides. A wide awning ran the length of the side closest to the street, and in front of the driver’s cab sat a no less dilapidated but probably more mobile van, the big kind from before suburban moms demanded a sleeker, more feminine silhouette from that type of vehicle.

A man clambered out of the back of the coach as I came around. He was ancient and weather-beaten like one of those ramshackle barbed-wire fences you encounter on hikes over the open range, face pitted and lumpy from sun exposure and grey-white hair untouched by any cleansing agent since the Carter administration. Outside of this rotting establishment I would’ve taken him for a wino. His gait stiff but hurried, he continued on without a word to the open cab and half sat on the driver’s seat, at last turning to survey me with his puffy, deadened eyes. They probably had cataracts. Still he said nothing.

I stepped in under the awning, dodging one of several hanging wreaths made of dried red peppers. I took off my sunglasses and nodded in silence to my taciturn, decrepit host before moving forward to the slapdash table bearing the mangos.

“Whatcha lookin’ for?” he rasped at last. I had set my hands on a few mangos in succession, giving each a light squeeze to test the firmness of its moist, nectary flesh.

“Mangos, old man. Or couldn’t you tell?”

“I can tell you which ones are ripe, if that’s what you mean to determine with all that intimate fondlin’,” he said.

“I know my way around a mango.” I continued to press my fingertips into the pliable red and green skins. Most felt a little squishy for my purposes.

The old man cleared his throat. “Well lookie here, son—”

“No, you lookie here,” I cut in. “I need these mangos for a fruit salad. A good one, none of that these-were-about-to-go-bad-so-mom-cut-em-up-and-threw-em-together crap. There’ll be jicama and cilantro. Now where do you get these mangos?”

He looked down at his feet and kicked the dirt. “I don’t like to talk about my sources. And they don’t like me talkin’ ’bout them either.”

“Oh, I’ve heard that line a thousand times. You wanna sell some mangos? Talk.”

“Son, these are the finest mangos you’ll find in town. I can vouch for that.”

Fuck it. I lunged at him and seized the front of his shirt with my left hand, then lifted, pulled, and slammed him against the side of the coach, pinning him there and moving my face in close. He gave a token squirm or two but seemed too indifferent to really struggle.

the dread mango nut weevil in all his infernal glory

“Where did these come from, old man?” I shouted, my voice lashing his eyes as their wrinkled flesh-shutters flickered rapidly up and down. “You bought them at a supermarket, didn’t you? Or stole them, more likely. But there they were, idling their freshness away under the pale glare of the fluorescent tubes, already exhausted from an odyssey that began in the dirty fields of India and went on through weeks crammed in a dank hold and a few miserable seconds sucking in radiation like a Chernobyl tick. Lest the dreaded mango nut weevil get us all, of course.”

“I swear, I didn’t…” he wheezed, his fetid breath washing over me like swamp gas. I fought the urge to retch. My right hand still clutched one of his mangos. Rearing back, I smashed it into the coach right next to his head. It exploded like a massive insect, spraying sticky orange glop all over the side of his face.

“Yeah, you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?” I continued, my words popping out faster and faster like sparks from a bonfire. “You think I came here for the three-dollar basket your sign announces to every credulous idiot rolling by? Mangos come cheap lots of places, but you come to the bum in the jalopy on the side of the road for the good stuff, the juicy gold, the virgin fruit that hasn’t been blasted within an inch of its life by the FDA’s machines. I need the real mangos, dammit, the ones that come fresh as the morning dew on Eve’s bosom.” With my pulp-coated hand I gave him a brisk slap that snapped his face like a fresh latex glove.

“Alright! Alright! There, in the back on the right. Let me go, you son of a bitch!” I eased my grip, letting the fabric of his greasy shirt slip out. He bent over to catch his breath. “That basket’s different,” he said, eyes fixed on the ground. “Got it from the Mexicans. They bring a couple crates up each week.”

I felt them. They were as firm and supple as your high-school girlfriend’s ass. “Never been boiled or irradiated?” I already knew the answer just from the touch.

“No, no, I swear.”

“How much?”

“Eight dollars for the bunch.”

I pulled out the ten and dropped it by the man’s feet. “Keep the change.” Taking a plastic sack from the side of the table, I piled the mangos into it and turned to walk away. Just before crossing out into the sun again, I turned. “You’ve got strange ways with your mangos, old timer. You could have just told me at the start.”

He glared at me out of the corners of his eyes. “They ain’t supposed to be for sale. People who know the Mexicans, I guess, come around to grab ’em. Always the same folks, and they know which ones to get. They ain’t gonna be happy about this.”

I chuckled. “I hope they don’t slap you around too much.”

“They will. And then they’ll come for you. And they probably won’t knock first.”

“Tell them I’ll be waiting.” I stepped out into the shade, brushing a wreath with shoulder and snapping off part of a pepper. “Sorry, old man. You’ve got the change. We’ll call it even.”

Back in the car, I handed her the bag of mangos. “How are they?” she asked.

“We’ll have people knocking down our doors for this stuff, sugar.”


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Tender Is the Chicken

August 30, 2008 at 1:55 am (Uncategorized) (, )

The chicken gleamed at me, the two breasts of it lying, thawed, on the kitchen counter like dead slugs, stripped of skin and bone and any other ancillary tissue, just wet and flabby muscle.


Chicken, that most un-meatlike of meats, insipid and uninspiring. It’s hard even to hate. Sure, you can do nice things with it. Some can do great things, and they send them through the wires to flicker into your eyes from the TV. But the chicken on the margin, the chicken after the chicken after the chicken after the chicken…one runs out of great and nice things to do. No man swimming in the frigid seas of life can or should have to bear that accreted weight, that mass like a thousand small, nondescript millstones hung about the neck.


“What’s for dinner, honey?” she called from the living room. For a moment, I let myself pretend that her final word was a menu suggestion rather than a shopworn term of endearment. If only. But no, her voice would have betrayed her even if convention hadn’t. That hint of forlorn resignation – which by its very presence implied and recalled the memory of the times when things weren’t so damn drab, and in doing so gave the knife of regret the slightest twist – hidden beneath the thin sunshine lacquer on her voice…was I imagining it? She must have known the answer already.


“Chicken,” I replied, trying and failing to keep the same tonal hint out of my answer. “Chicken,” I said again more quietly, lacking any inkling of how to elaborate. Silence was her only rejoinder.


Goddammit, what do I do? The grains of life are too few to let them go seeping through your fingers with meek non-resistance, let alone to toss them about like so many spent cigarette butts by eating plain chicken day after fleeting, indistinguishable day. Grilled with rosemary? No, did that the other day. Barbecue sauce? Too late to do it proper, let it bathe in the stuff for a few hours, let them get to know each other. Look up a recipe? Sure, then go to the store and spend money that isn’t there to buy ingredients that you’ll use a tenth of just this once and then forget in the dingy shadows of the larder. You stymie me, chicken, you vex me. I’d flay you if you hadn’t been flayed already, I’d slice you into…


“Chicken tenders!” I called, almost shouted, really. Of course! Delirium crashed through me like a tidal wave, like it does in a man crawling on his knees through the desert to the oasis on the shimmery horizon. When is a bad time for chicken tenders? There is none. When was the last time I had chicken tenders? I can’t even remember. I’ve got oil, dammit, of the extra virgin olive sort, and flour, and half an array of spices such as 12th-century barons would start a crusade for! I don’t have a deep-fryer but I can pan-fry. These will be chicken tenders to put Chik-Fil-A to shame, to make the world’s flop-hatted chefs sweat at night pondering how they were bested by an amateur with a dish eaten only by children and the vulgar. “I love chicken tenders!” she responded. “Love” would seem a wan bit of diction once her mouth had closed softly round one of these.


I set to work like a bugged machine, half-flinging ingredients and implements with an expression of grim mania on my hunger-strained face. The chicken breasts, laid out like dredged-up drowning victims on the red plastic cutting board – I sliced them lengthwise without compunction, then tossed the pieces into limp wads on an extra plate. Now the crucial part: the batter. Look it up online? Hell no. This was no time for holding hands and following leads. I’d need egg, obviously, two of them whipped into a homogenized slop. Then the dry stuff, flour to start, white like bone and just as dry. And spices: salt, black pepper, garlic powder, the pillars of amateur seasoning. As a personal flourish and a signifier of my own genius, I threw in rosemary, the aromatic herb that must have evolved for the sole purpose of being devoured by man on white meat, and paprika, the red spice overpowered by the scent of…myrrh? Who on earth still knows what myrrh smells like? But that seems right.


Soak in the egg, roll in the spice-flour, and drop into the singeing oil. It sizzles. Turn as needed. Each batch left a residue of sediment, a dusting of flour particles that lacked the gumption to see the journey through to its happily digested end. They burned for their lack of faith, turned black and sludgy and collected on the low side of the pan. I tried to strand them out of the oil and away from the tenders. Some pieces still had their breading darkened by the belatedly repentant hangers-on, but no matter: chicken tenders birthed by a vision as grand as mine could not be destroyed by such as these. Before the last batch hit the pan, I dumped the slop of extant oil and immolated flour, coating the sink with a hellish splash of super-heated organic matter. One more dose of olive oil and the operation resumed.


At last they were done, a glorious, juice-seeping white all the way through beneath the golden brown, spice-flecked shell. I piled them on a paper towel cradled by a red ceramic plate. “Oh, get the ranch out!” she called. I did. Together with packaged shells and white cheddar they went on the scarred wooden top of the table.


The most exquisite moments a man lives come just as his dearest dreams are about to become his actual history. His heart, languishing as it does so long in the bonds of bored routine or pained anticipation of far-off paradises, thrills and flutters in the evanescent presence of its almost-fulfillment. The rest of his body effervesces also, the soma aping the psyche as ever. The mind, for its part, approaches a singularity, casting off from itself all notions but the virtual pre-experience of what is yet to come. And then the threshold is crossed: the flower of the man’s imagined future, so precious and so despised for not being the actual, palpable truth, has its stem severed by contact with inescapable, irrefutable reality, and its blossom withers and disintegrates in a quantum instant. All that remains is the recognizable but strange state of things as they really are.


Half-greasy, with muddled seasoning. The mulched bits of chicken and breading rolled across my tongue in huddled clumps. I swallowed and bit another, this time applying the dressing first. I forced a smile. “Pretty good,” I said. Not really a lie, probably one of the less crooked things uttered on this globe that night. But not exactly a crystalline mirror held up to reflect the hard facts, either. She turned down the corners of her full, pouty lips – those lips that could make me into warm pudding, into a panting hound at heel, without enough warning even for a moan to escape my mouth first – producing an expression of appreciative contemplation, but that too was a dodge. Our eyes met, and our eyes could not pretend.


“I’m full. Do you want these?” Two whole tenders sat glistening with soiled grease on her flimsy, oil-spotted paper plate. “Sure,” I said. They’d go down, with ranch at least. A man needs sustenance, though the wise know better than to ask what for. In philosophy as in court: don’t ask a question you don’t already know the answer to.


Enveloping a spoon’s worth of creamy white pasta with her soft, red mouth, she turned her eyes to the kitchen and half blanched at the small mound of tainted cookware. I let mine drift to the patio door, which was mostly glass. The unwashed steel grill sat outside of it, obscured by shadows but highlighted by the dingy glow of the yellow porch light, waiting placidly, complacently, intently, ready always like a long-discarded lover to welcome me back with a sweet, sickly embrace.

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