A Thing For Aspic

God is a word, and the argument ends there
— Bill Callahan


They were driving home from church, where the service ended with Pastor Higgins making an all-too bawdry joke that left the congregation reeling. Muriel understood the joke all-too well, and her creased face betrayed a smile when she turned her gaze from the road. She couldn’t resist the temptation to avert her eyes every now and then. She liked to see the child next to her and reassure herself that yes, there he was, a new addition to both her life and her Honda Accord.

“What are you doing with that straw there hon?”, she asked idly. Thomas had an orange plastic drinking straw in his hands that was left over from breakfast. He had been chewing on it, and its end was flattened and crumpled with small dents from his still growing molars. He held the end between his thumb and fore-finger, and was absentmindedly curling it into a spiral. To Muriel it was starting to resemble the bud of a young fern. He jerked his head and looked down at the tiny creation, as if her words sparked some renewed acknowledgment of his hands.

“I dunno… nothing”, is all she got out of him. Only recently had Thomas started to talk to Muriel.

Even at a solid clip, she still managed to steal a glimpse of the roadside billboards. She liked the consistency of these things, always changing and yet always the same.

Today one of them set off a twitch. The Latter Day Saints sponsored this particular billboard, and it read in bold gothic lettering:

BE RIGHT WITH —

And this is precisely why Muriel was annoyed. Here she was, driving home from church, and the stupid sign had to mention that word. It was the one word that she had never even been able to read, or hear, or even really understand, for chrissakes. She literally, in all her 52 years on this green earth, had never had any true exposure to the word. Anytime it popped up, she would only see gobble-dee-gook. Anytime it was spoken, she would only hear a muffled sound. Anytime someone spelled it out for her, she was confused.

Muriel suffered from among the least likely of neurological conditions, and neither she nor anyone else knew it. The doctors had no clue. There were 24 areas (with an average size of 0.003 cubic millimetres) of malformed neural tissue in her cortex, and each one of these malformed (and hence completely non-functioning) areas corresponded to the exact locations that dealt with the assimilation of all data that related to the synthesis and/or comprehension of the word —.

She was however, and had been for a long time, able to comprehend that there certainly was a word at the end of the sentence on the billboard. She even had a pretty good idea what it meant, which made it all the more frustrating when anyone, let alone a billboard, tried to explain it to her.

She had accepted this strange fact a long time ago, but it still sometimes annoyed her.

She drove on, finally starting to feel that she could do it again. It certainly helped to understand that she hadn’t a choice in the matter, that Thomas had no place else to go. It also helped that she was a widow.

Besides, the Pastor would always be around to lend a hand.

Muriel loved her daughter Lesley, even if she ended up too much like her father. At this point she was probably in some stinking gutter in some stinking city, probably treating her body like some sort of low-grade get-rich-quick scheme. She had dropped out of high school to go along with her no-good friends, and never come back.

Every so often she phoned and made a big production out of repenting, feeling sorry for herself, pleading for help, and so on. These calls usually ended in a request for money, but, they were just as clever as they were deceptive, and all of them evoked the same reaction, whereby Muriel would plead for her to please, just come on home and make things right.

On the waning strength of her heartstrings Muriel had even made more than a few withdrawals from the bank, but those eventually ceased. The last contact she had from her daughter came in letter form, and was pinned to the tattered shirt of her grandson, who had appeared on the doorstep.

In order to cope, Muriel found strength in Jesus, and the Lord. She also liked to create her own deli meats to sell at the market on Saturdays. Sausage, cold cuts – smoked, or cured – she found solace in the process, in the preparation. What disgusted most people made her grow stronger, and she possessed a great deal of sturdy machinery that could process an animal flank and make it into a flimsy slice of deli meat.

They arrived home and Thomas quickly ran off to his room. Muriel decided to finish some prep work for next Saturday, so she went out to the garage.

Some time later, after her work was done and she’d fed Thomas his lunch, the phone rang. Pastor Higgins’ gelatinous voice rang out from the receiver, “Hi Mur, I’m phoning because I just talked to Junior and he mentioned that he slaughtered a pig. He said he’s got no intention of using the head this time around.” Muriel immediately understood. She was excited, “Oh good! I should very much like to get my hands on that.” The Pastor, also in good spirits, answered in his customary way. “Well thank — for that,” but here he paused, “sorry Mur… Anyway, he’ll sure be glad it don’t go to waste.”

Muriel looked out the kitchen window and saw the blazing afternoon sun, beautiful weather for this time of the year, “Listen Bob, we have tae kwon do lessons this afternoon, so why don’t we swing by afterwards and then we can all go out and get it together?”

“Sounds good. When should I expect you and Tim then?”

She paused to adjust a stray curtain and stared aimlessly into the glare, letting the error linger a moment. Finally she decided it wasn’t worth it. “Around four thirty I should think.” She placed the handset back into its cradle and turned to see Thomas standing in the hallway entrance.

“Gramma, do you think we can get a —? Mom’s friend used to have one and I always liked it when he came over because I got to play with it.”

Muriel twitched again. She hated it when people would say the word in such a bizarre context. Or whatever word it was. She new it was an anagram; she knew it was actually two words, with two meanings. Nevertheless, she was always thrown off by sentences like these. After an awkward pause, Muriel turned to Thomas and replied, “Sorry dear. Could you repeat the question?”

“Never mind…” Thomas looked at the splayed arms on his Mickey Mouse wrist watch, “My — gramma, we gotta go! I’m gonna get my stuff so we’re not late!” He ran back down the hallway to his room to fill his backpack with his most prized possessions. These things had never let him down, and he liked to have them near at hand. They included his comic books, his rabbit’s foot and pocket knife (both gifts from the one and only time he’d met his dad’s dad), his Mickey Mouse hat, and of course, the newest addition, his white scrubs and yellow belt. Thomas valued his treasures with the irrational zeal of youth, and when he was home he kept them on their own shelf in his closet.

They got back in the car and Thomas stuck his nose in one of his Little Lotta comic books. Muriel was driving intently, musing her grandson’s request. She decided it was best not to pursue the matter, turned, and told Thomas about their plans for the afternoon.

“When you’re finished with your tae kwon do, we’ll go visit with Pastor Higgins for a little while. He has something to give me.” Thomas raised his face in a grimace. “Do we have to? I don’t like the way that man talks.” Although Muriel wasn’t surprised to hear this, she adopted a grave expression and turned to her Grandson. “He’s a Pastor! What could you possibly have against him?”

As an answer, Thomas pressed the knob on the stereo and turned up the volume. It was repeat programming. They listened to the strained tenor of the Wolfman as he introduced a song from Mungo Jerry. Thomas sat in his chair, picked up Little Lotta, and bobbed his head to the merry beat.

*

Muriel sat in the waiting room of the amateur martial arts training building, reading Women’s World magazine. She looked around and saw the faces of all the other mothers. She and Thomas had been around enough that she knew they knew. There would be furtive whispers, ruminations and gossip in the corner by the snack and coffee machines. Every successive time she found herself in this waiting room, the glances became a little more sustained, a little more probing. Sometimes the glances would become glares, and she would feel the full weight of her abject failure, which would then roll over and crush whatever goodwill she managed to find in her attempt to make up for it.

Muriel disliked these prim suburban bitches. They didn’t know what it was really like, to retire with a flimsy pension from a dire job selling Jack Daniels to middle-aged men who reminded her of her own bloated, unshaven, Jack-swilling husband, who died 2 years ago from lung cancer. He had worked as a pipe-fitter and she as a clerk at a liquor store, and they each bore the brunt of their own disillusionment. His name, funnily enough, was Jack, and he had worked his job for 27 years − meaning 27 years of duct tape, chemical glue, musty places, and dust in his eyes. In the end it was the asbestos that got him, or at least that’s what the doctor said.

Jack’s habit meant that Muriel had to work at a liquor store, which meant that half her pay went to the daycares her own child had to attend, effectively giving her half a minimum wage to supplement his income. A small price to pay to have someone else raise your child. At least it kept Jack in Jack.

And at least the insurance payout from his awful death paid off the house. There was always that silver lining.

The thing these modern mothers would never realize is that she loved her daughter, and was committed to doing right with Thomas what she did so horrendously with her Lesley.

On her way out of the martial arts training building, Muriel glanced at the nearest housewife. She looked her straight in the eye and mouthed the words. You know nothing. The woman turned back to her Cosmopolitan and smiled incredulously.

Upon strapping himself in, Thomas turned to Muriel and asked if they still had to go to the Pastor’s house and when Muriel insisted, why. Not knowing what else to tell her grandson, Muriel told him the Pastor wanted to give her a pig’s head, for her business. Thomas looked confused, but instead of pursuing the matter further, he opted to shrug his assent and finish his comic book, with Little Lotta always being the helpful friend. They drove out to the church and picked up the Pastor, then swung out onto the highway, headed for his son’s house in the country.

Thomas watched the prairie fields meld into one another. His mom had conceived, bourn, and raised him in a scummy part of a big city, and he wasn’t used to seeing so many open spaces. They passed a scarred pasture and he wrinkled his nose as he smelled the acrid tang of cow pies roasting in the sun. He loved it when they passed a field with animals.

He thought he could see horse silhouettes on the horizon. The car approached and he stared intently, hoping to see them gallop, or rear up. Instead, he couldn’t see any real movement whatsoever from any of the three horses in the pen. They all just stood motionless, chewing their oats.

*

At last they reached their destination. The farm was set in the Northeast corner of a modest piece of land planted with steady rows of barley. The Pastor had inherited the land from his father, and had leased it to his son the year before. Their hosts were seated on the front porch, seemingly awaiting their arrival.

The trio exited the Accord, and were greeted by the young couple, whereby the Pastor introduced Muriel to his son Robert, who in turn introduced his wife Beatrice to Muriel. While this was happening, Thomas stood quietly, and eventually Beatrice looked at him and said, “Well… And who’s this little guy?” Muriel broke in, “Oh I was just getting to that. This is my grandson, Thomas.”

Beatrice ruffled his hair and offered to have Robert show him the animals. For his part, Thomas just looked down at the porch and used his sneaker to scatter some dirt into the spaces between the planks.

“Yeah… I would like that”, is all they got out of him.

While Thomas and Robert went off to the pig pen, Beatrice served iced tea in the living room, and they made small talk: weather trends, community gossip, upcoming church events, and so on. It was clear that Beatrice hadn’t seen much city life, but she spoke with grace and was very welcoming. The small talk eventually ended however, and the threesome settled into an atmosphere of awkward banality.

Beatrice looked out the bay window and saw Robert lifting Thomas so he could stand on the second rung of the pig enclosure. She turned back to her guests and asked Muriel if Thomas often spent Sundays with his Grandma. Muriel shot her the briefest of glances, and smiled politely, “Well yes… I suppose you could say that. Thomas actually lives with me.”

“Oh… Would it be inappropriate for me to ask how come?”

“No not at all.” At this point Muriel would feel a tenseness creep up her flank. She never liked entering into this discussion. She would have to make euphemisms.

“It started about six months ago. My daughter Lesley, Thomas’ mother, had come up on some hard times. I’m hazy about the details because we had lost contact due to personal circumstances. She came home from the city one weekend for a visit, and now she’s in a mental institution for stress. In the meantime I’m looking after Thomas.” Beatrice had a blank look on her face. It was either disbelief or regret. She didn’t know how far was the polite amount to take this. She looked to her father-in-law for some clue, but he was distracted by something outside. He gave a slight sigh and idly commented, “Now just how long has it been since I’ve had a pork chop?”

Beatrice looked befuddled, but seized the opportunity, “Speaking of pork chops, I just went ahead and assumed you’d be staying for dinner, I hope that’s all right.” The Pastor broke his gaze and replied, “Of course that’s all right,” and with a wink he added, “You know I can’t resist your chops.” At this point he turned to Muriel and asked, “Now what was it you were talking about?” Muriel broke the ensuing silence, saying, “Nothing that concerns you.” She then turned to Beatrice, and offered to help with dinner, an offer that was mercifully accepted.

Eventually the group convened at the dinner table. Not only had Beatrice truly outdone herself, but everything was grown from the surrounding land, which made for a damn fine meal. This flourish was lost on Thomas, who sat quietly, mostly looking at his food. He wasn’t used to seeing so much green on his plate. With Robert back, the dinner guests made their way through some more small talk. They covered the crops, the animals, and other minutia pertaining to a small farming community. The Pastor had an opinion about everything.

Thomas started to wander into his synapses. Why didn’t those horses do anything? The pigs were so funny! He looked forward to going home.

Beatrice decided a change of subject was needed so she asked Muriel how she met her father-in-law. Muriel wasn’t expecting this. She ruminated briefly but decided to stay the course and replied truthfully, “Funnily enough, we met at Duke’s.” Robert piped in, “Isn’t that the bar over on Foxwood drive?” Muriel had no reason to lie, “Yes, it is. Fancy that, two old farts like us meeting at a bar, and on a Tuesday night!” She cackled, surprising even herself. Robert didn’t know how to reply. Beatrice finished her peas.

The sun was setting as the trio made their way home from the farm, but Thomas made sure to stay awake so he could see the horses again, even if he would have to pick them out of the dusk. Even though he just managed to decipher their silhouettes, they stood motionless again.

*

Whereas a gutted ‘73 Camaro formerly occupied the empty spot in Muriel’s garage, it now contained a retinue of meat hooks, cleavers, bone saws, grinders, and slicers. The Pastor opened his car door and was met with the shimmering stainless steel tableau. “Quite the set-up you’ve got there Mur, you need any help getting things started?” Muriel reached in to the back seat of the car, grabbed a large box out of the back, and handed it to the Pastor. “If you could take this to the kitchen, I’ll put Thomas in bed.” She circled the car, opened the other door, and let out a slight groan as she lifted her sleeping grandson from the seat.

When Muriel found her way to the kitchen the Pastor asked her why she would want to eat anything made from brains. As always, she answered patiently and said that yes, she liked head cheese. She then told him about its history, about how it was traditionally regarded as peasant food, and how it reminded her of her roots. He seemed interested.

She moved the box beside the stove, ruminating her reply. After a short pause she added one last footnote, “And besides all that, I guess I’ve just got a thing for aspic.” She flipped the box’s flaps open, pulled the pig’s head out, and set it down on the cutting board. “Robert was so kind to skin it for me. I never really liked that part of the process.” The Pastor only murmured his agreement, and asked Muriel if he could fix her a drink. She stood looking the skinless pig in the eye, and shrugged, which the Pastor took as a ‘yes’, so he disappeared into the next room.

Muriel placed the head in a 20 quart stock pot and set the stove to medium-high. She added white wine, water, herbs, and a couple bay leaves. Just as she was finishing her prep, the Pastor walked back in to the kitchen. He had poured them both a generous portion of bourbon.

The scratchy echoes of an old record emanated from the living room. I see the want to in your eyes, great, Conway Twitty, it was one of Jack’s old records. They both took a sip of their drink and listened. That old country crooner, the Pastor had hair just like him. Another song went by, and Muriel checked on the pot to see if the broth was boiling.

As she was standing in front of the stove, the Pastor came closer and leaned on the opposite counter just behind her. He lit a cigaret and asked her if anything was wrong. She just stood there watching the pot. Soon enough bits of flesh would peel away from the animal skull as it boiled in a stew of its own marrow.

After a good deal of silence, the Pastor approached Muriel. He put his arm with the cigaret around her neck and rested it on her collarbone as he peered over her shoulder into the pot. His other hand slid around and down her stomach until it rested on her pelvis, with his thumb hooked into her belt. He took a drag, turned his head, and exhaled away from her. They stood like this for a bit.

Muriel kept looking into the pot. Finally, she let out a deep sigh and said, “Dammit Bob, this just ain’t gonna work.” Undeterred, the Pastor leaned in and kissed her delicately on her neck.

Thomas was standing in the hallway entrance. He was wearing a beat up commemorative Mickey Mouse souvenir hat. On its front, in yellow embroidery, was the name ‘Tim’.

He had seen this before, but this time he spoke up, “My God gramma, why is Pastor Higgins kissing you like that again?” There were tears in his eyes.

Muriel twitched. She was stupefied. She turned her gaze to Thomas and replied with a snap, “What was that you said hon?”