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Neighborly Beef

As soon as I close the car door, I get the craving again. That needling, all consuming craving for a burger. And then, as always, I have to talk myself down.

“C’mon, Nate,” I say. “C’mon, you can beat it.”

But I’m not sure I can beat it. I see burgers dancing in my head—those long-legged burgers with the sultry eyes from B.I.L.F twirling around and do-si-do-ing with those mustachioed burgers with the little flags coming out of their buns from Swank Burger.

I shake my head, scattering the thought-cloud that had formed above me, and the burgers vanish. But I know they’ll be back. I’ve had these recurring meat reveries ever since the cholesterol results came in from my last physical. The nutritionist said: “No more burgers, Nate, or you’re dead in five years. Your heart can’t take it.” After hearing about my lackluster health, my ex-wife Tracy made me swear against burgers. “You don’t need that garbage in your body. The kids need you here. You have to promise me. Just say no.”

So I said no to burgers. I had to. I want to live to see Rudy and little Jess grow up. I want to see them get married, to hold my grandkids. That’s why, for three long weeks, I’ve gotten my fix from FitBurger, a proprietary blend of soy protein, virgin coconut oil, and plant-derived leghemoglobin—whatever that is. Tastes enough like meat, better for me, cows don’t have to be murdered, yada yada. But it’s not meat. I know it. My stomach sure as hell knows it.

With the familiar, empty ache of burger deprivation, I put my car in reverse and pull out of the driveway for a trip to…where am I going again? Oh right, the hardware store.

And that’s when I hear the heavy thump under the back wheel.

When I get out of the car, there, dead and sprawled out on the asphalt, is Rex, my neighbor’s pet goat. Harold Cedar, ever the saint, adopted Rex and six of his kin from the shelter after the pet goat craze had run its course. He saved them from getting euthanized. You wouldn’t think goats would make great pets—because they don’t—but there was a brief period where goats were all the rage. Every other family on the block had a goat. I think the challenge of goat ownership was what appealed to people initially. Or maybe it was the built-in lawn care? I don’t know. I do know that goats lack common sense. They’re too stubborn and loud-mouthed and now, unfortunately, I’ve killed one.

I crouch down and stare at Rex. His goat eyes are still open, revealing vertical slit-shaped pupils that strike me as alien and freakish. I close them with my hand like a priest, as if that makes things more dignified. Part of me wonders whether I ran over Rex on-purpose. It’s true that Harold’s goats bothered me, what with their constant bleating in the middle of the night and their continual habit of shitting everywhere. I’m certainly not sad about Rex’s demise.

Perhaps my lack of remorse has something to do with my recent struggles vis-à-vis Harold. You see, Tracy left me for Harold five months ago. I can understand it on some level given her proximity to him—the chit chat during playdates with Harold’s children, those evenings when we had Harold and his former wife Lynn over for wine and Settlers of Catan. It was just a slight rearrangement in Tracy’s orbit to shack up with him. We’re still neighbors after all. Harold insisted that I didn’t have to move, shouldn’t move. He said he’d miss our friendship—that jackass. At least I still get to see Rudy and Jess; I wouldn’t have gotten custody. I’m away at work from 9 am to 9 pm every day, stuck at the regional Samsung office complex.

Complicating things further, a week ago when Rudy was over my house for his weekend visits, he got into the shed and wound up throwing a paint balloon at Harold’s goat Casbah when it strayed onto my front lawn. What a mess that was—Casbah shrieking and dripping purple. Rude Dude just doesn’t like goats. I guess he takes after his old man in that regard. I’d asked Harold if he could please just keep his goats corralled and off my property.

Harold said to me, all hurt: “Nate, life is life. Just let it be.”

Rex is still lying there dead on the hot pavement, baking in the sun. Soon enough, his meat will spoil. What a waste. I stare at Rex’s meat. His body, I mean. Then I feel a great rumbling in my stomach. No. Don’t think it. But the urge is already taking shape, gears turning unconsciously in my brain, signals flying across hemispheres against my will. I want to eat that goat. I want to make Rex into little patties, grill up his goat flesh. I want to pack him between two buns, load him up with mayo, and go to town. Somehow, it’s the only thing that makes any sense. But then I think of my kids and my clogged arteries. I must resist.

Nobody is around, so I grab a tarp from my garage and wrap Rex up in it. Now what? Not knowing what else to do, I decide to just go ahead with my errands and deal with this situation later. I throw the tarp with Rex’s body into the trunk of my car.

“Okay,” I say, hands planted firmly on the steering wheel. “Everything’s okay.”

Without turning the radio on, I drive to the hardware store. I don’t think about the goat carcass in my trunk, or at least I try my best. At the store, amongst the young, cheery DIYers and the old, jaded plumbers, I can’t even remember what I’d needed to buy. I leave emptyhanded, but on the way home I finally remember: a propane tank for the grill. Summer is in full swing, and I’ve been grilling a heck of a lot of FitBurgers. At my last cookout, I remember Rudy asking why we can’t just have regular burgers.

“Because, bud,” I said. “These are healthier.”

“Healthy my butt,” he said.

Then he did his little butt dance, where he sticks out his keister and wiggles it in the air, which got a laugh from everyone in the backyard: me, Jess, Tracy, Harold, and Harold’s six kids from Lynn. We still have joint barbeques. It’s pathetic.

I imagine my biceps slumping the wrong way, sagging underneath my arms, like a reverse Popeye. I blame this weakness on my diet. Apparently, to match the nutritional profile of beef, the lab that makes FitBurgers enriches their patties with iron from soybeans, specifically their root nodules, along with a kind of fermented yeast. My muscles are made of root nodules and rotting fungus. No wonder Tracy left me.

I remind myself I needed the propane anyway. It’s not weird to be purchasing propane. It’s not out of character. So I turn around, get my propane and, why not, a new grill apron.

#

Back home, I unload the propane from the backseat and go sit on my porch. The light’s fading as I watch the remaining goats in Harold’s yard chomp on his grass, keeping it the length of a golf course green. His lawn is so much better than mine. It’s not for lack of trying on my part. I used two whole bags of fertilizer, but the results were mixed.

Things are just easy for Harold. He’s wealthy from being an early Crypto adopter and, before his separation with Lynn, he had an open marriage. He told me once, as I put down mulch in my front yard, that while the money was nice, it could also be a burden.

“I crave so much more,” he said, after offering to help me with the mulch, as if we were friends, as if I was his confidant. “All the things I buy are just things, you know. Eventually wealth becomes a trap. It’s this whole hedonic treadmill. There’s always someone richer, more successful. D’you know what I mean? You don’t have to answer. But Nate, here’s what I know: Money is only one part of the equation. It’s the people that matter.”

He did a really good job with the mulch. My geraniums are especially lovely right now, vibrant and beautiful—another reminder of Harold’s superiority.

The first time he made a move on Tracy was last winter, when we had him over while Lynn was away on business. Harold placed his hand on my wife’s thigh like it was all fun and games. And, of course, Tracy didn’t want me to make a scene. “It’s no big deal,” she said, holding my arm. “Harold’s harmless.” So, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t yell, “What the hell man!” even though I wanted to. I didn’t even ask him to leave. We played charades.

My stomach moans its empty, clawing churn of want. I see burgers again in my mind, but not the silly dancing ones from earlier humming their little fast-food jingles. I imagine a steamy cardboard carton, and inside two sesame buns enclosed around a seared, pinkish slab, glistening with fat, all the fixings swirling into a glorious miasma, salty and sweet, promising to fill me up. And I see that first bite, how the meat juice just drips down the bun. I shiver.

It’s embarrassing, these meat fits.

Then I remember: Rex is still wrapped up in the trunk of my car. Christ on a cracker.

Harold’s bound to be home in a few hours from travel soccer with our kids. That’s right. While I’m toiling away as a Senior Project Consultant at Samsung, he gets to take all the kids—mine and his—to soccer games. “It’s no trouble,” he’s told me. “Seriously, pal, it’s all good.”

As I’m running back out to the trunk for Rex, I can just picture him high-fiving Rude Dude or little Jess after they score a goal. Why does he get to be rich and leisurely and chill the whole day with my kids and spend the night with my wife, while I have to keep tabs on everybody at work and report back to some Korean higher-ups about time wastage?

I pop the trunk. A gamey tang greets my nose. Rex smells of meat. I plop the tarp down onto the hot pavement and drag his body into my garage.

Then I stare at the corpse, unable to make a decision.

I can’t tell Harold what happened. That’s non-negotiable. Even after everything, he has the moral edge on me. Just the other day at Rude Dude’s fifth-grade class graduation ceremony, he was so generous, albeit in his wormy sort of way. After they called Rudy’s name and we all clapped with pride, Harold strolled up to me in his V-neck and corduroy blazer.

“Hey, pal,” he said, and I remember how he put his hand on my shoulder, the tender weight of it. “Tracy mentioned you had a health scare the other day?”

I nodded back at him like a simpleton.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “And I just wanted to let you know, if something happens, I’ll take care of the kids in any way I can.” He stared at me with his earnest, blue eyes. “Seriously, Nate, if that’s something you were worried about, don’t be. We’re family.”

And what did I do? I hugged him. The financial security of my kids is a constant worry. I haven’t socked nearly enough away to put Rudy and Jess through school.

This makes me think of dying, of my children inevitably forgetting me, of the unwelcome vision of Harold bedding Tracy after my funeral, and something breaks—the inner string that has kept me diligent, that has kept the burgers from my mouth. If I can’t have anything else, why not just this one thing? Why not Rex? He doesn’t need to go to waste. In death, he can be so much more than he was in life. And then, finally, something of Harold’s will become mine.

#

In my garage with the door closed, I unfold the tarp with Rex, dead as ever. Then I head inside the house and retrieve a butcher’s knife from the kitchen drawer, as well as my Grub Ninja, which billed itself at the home goods store as a restaurant-quality food processor.

I don my new grill apron and look up how to slaughter a goat online.

The first step is slitting the goat’s throat. While I’m typically squeamish about this sort of thing—blood and guts in haunted houses are a no-go for me—there’s something hypnotic about the way the blood flows from Rex’s neck into the slop sink. It pours down the drain and into the sewers, leaving only a trickling stain. Once the blood stops, I twist Rex’s head back, then slip the knife between the bones, sawing back and forth until the spinal cord severs. With Rex’s head separated from his body, I scoot it out of sight with my left foot.

As I work, Rex’s slick, pungent fluids spill onto my grill apron. His organs are ruby and burgundy-hued, like the cabernets Tracy and I used to share with Harold. The color of the organs is a sign of how rich they are in nutrients, the iron that my body craves. My skin and hair take on a humid, metallic scent. But it doesn’t bother me. My appetite only increases.

When the carcass is fully prepped, I begin cutting meat off the bone into chunks. I lay the chunks out on my woodworking bench, carefully slicing them into smaller cubes. Then I plug in the Grub Ninja. The sound of electric whizzing and grinding echoes in the garage. Without thinking, I wipe my forehead and get Rex’s guts on me. It’s not a great look.

I dump the meat slurry from the Grub Ninja back onto the woodworking bench and start making patties. To some extent, it’s relaxing work. My mind drifts. I wonder: Is this that much worse than going to the grocery store and picking up patties hanging on the wall in those vacuum-sealed packages? At least I know where my meat comes from.

Soon, all that’s left is clean up. I stuff the goat remains, the bone and sinew, into trash bags. As I bag, I begin to imagine the neighborly barbeque I’ll host, a little family get-together. I’ll fire up the grill, the juice from the patties steaming and popping, the hot, meat-laced smoke wafting up and filling my nose with that sublime scent. No doubt Tracy will be livid, murmuring under her breath how I don’t care about my health. And Harold, oh Harold, he’ll look upon me with compassion, with horrible, horrible compassion, having no idea of the truth. That Rex is mine now, that soon he will become part of me.

Then I hear the belching creak of the garage-door opening. “Dad!” Rudy yells, as the door rises. “We won!” Whipping my head around, I see two silhouettes in the waning daylight. I realize I’m covered in Rex’s blood, that the garage is the scene of a massacre. “No wait!” I yell, waving my hands. “Wait, wait.”

But the children, standing there in grass-stained cleats and shin guards, see me. Rude Dude’s small, determined chin quivers, and then his face crumples with horror. I drop a wet garbage bag full of Rex onto the cement floor. I cover my eyes.

My children scream. They scream and scream. And my heart breaks.


This work was first published in Call Me [Brackets] at https://callmebrackets.net

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