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After sausage link number three (mild Italian), they’d stopped angling for meat action, and now Marisa stood back, allowing other students to huddle around the laminate counter and sausage set-up. Remie, the hunter wearing the blinking blue Jawbone headset, wanted to hold the casing this time. Remie had already cranked the stuffer and poked the holes in the sausage with a toothpick, so the man from Sunnyvale (who apparently had a wife who refused to chew and swallow meat) cranked. The first of the two girls from Whole Foods poked the holes, and the second turned the extruding sausage into tight intestinal coils.
Marisa watched the production while her husband Steve chatted about curing salts to the chef who wore a chef coat with dirty cuffs. The room smelled not only of dead pig (of which there were not one but two in large Tupperware containers in the old fridge), but of something like a dog that had lived exclusively in the room for months without grooming. The windowsill overlooking the sparse winter garden was filled with disregarded tchotchkes and bulbs of sprouting garlic. Dusty porcelain pigs clumped in clanking groups, old cookbooks baked in the sun stacked up in loose, sad piles; pig statuettes and boxes of something—the labels Italian—leaned against the sill.
Hoary clumps of dried sage and rosemary skittled on the counters by the sink. A crock pot Marisa recognized from the 70s—orange and emblazoned with the words “crock pot”—sat next to the tiny toaster oven.
The aluminum sink wasn’t big enough for the old wooden cutting board. The chef chopped everything on it without washing it. After cutting strips of pork butt, he wiped it off with a towel he later dried his hands on. Now, the second Whole Foods girl was coiling the sausage on the smeared, damp board.
Marisa imagined a bottle of Clorox, a bottle of Windex. She wanted to soap down the counters, the fridge handles, the Tupperware tubs.
The chef opened the fridge and then closed it again, a new wet dead smell wafting toward her. Marisa wanted to throw up, but she was having a “marital sharing experience,” and throwing up would ruin the class that Steve had signed them up for months earlier.
“I’m a bow hunter,” Remie said, her right arm yanking back a stiff, imaginary bowstring. “I said to my boyfriend, ‘I need to learn to make a clean kill.’ He got that, let me tell you. And then I told him, ‘I need to know how to prepare and eat all this meat.’”
“What do you hunt?” Marisa asked.
“Everything,” Remie said, but she really said “Ever-thang,” even though this was Oakland, California and not Alabama or Texas or somewhere southern. Her right bow bicep flexed.
“Boar, deer. Elk once, but they are hard to hunt. Find, more like. Skittish. Once I went with my boyfriend to Montana, and these guys they said, ‘You all want some of this bear?’ I was like, ‘No,’ ‘cause what am I going to do by myself with twenty pounds of bear meat in Montana? But it was good, let me tell you.”
“Doesn’t bear have trichinosis?” Marisa asked, remembering this fact from medical shows on television. When she was growing up, her mother was so afraid of trichinosis that she served all cuts of pork brown, almost gray, cooked through and through. Now Steve served Marisa slices of pork tenderloin pink, puddles of bloody red on the serving plate.
“That’s right—slow it down there,” Remie said to the Sunnyvale man who cranked the stuffer with hard yanks. Marisa wished his wife were there, the one who was a great cook—Italian on both sides—but couldn’t chew meat and didn’t like anything spicy. The Sunnyvale man had mentioned these facts when he and Marisa had stuffed the stuffer with the sticky pork mixture.
“She gets a weird feeling first in her teeth and then her throat,” he said. “Like she’s going to choke. So I’m going to learn how to make sausage for her. I think she’ll eat that.”
Now he slowed down on the crank. The antique stuffer was cast iron, the handle hard to turn, but once you got going, hard to slow down.
“Sorry about that,” the Sunnyvale Man—Jim, Marisa thought—said.
“No problem,” Remie said. “We’re all trying to learn, that’s all. Just keep it smooth.”
The two Whole Foods girls stood side by side, working hard, eyes on the coil. Poke, turn. Poke, turn.
“That’s looking good!” the chef boomed, raising his hands to expose his dirty sleeves. “We’re going to be able to eat after we finish this last one.”
Steve moved next to Marisa, putting his arm around her waist. At his touch, Marisa relaxed, pressing into him, realizing how she’d been trying to guard herself from bacteria with her rigid spine and held breath. Her husband was warm, and happy, his eyes on the sausage making.
They both wore burgundy-colored aprons that read “Country Sausage” in gold letters, the aprons well worn and washed, pilling on the front from too many spins in the dryer. The chef had given them each a cloth towel they strung in the tie at their waists, but all they’d used them for was drying their hands.
“So,” Remie said, still holding onto the casing. “Mostly we eat wild boar, though I do like to deep-sea fish, too. I made some fish sausage with mango last week. Got me some great mangos and that sausage was good.”
“Okay, stop now,” the chef said, and Jim stopped cranking. Remie bent down to tie the sausage tail, the twist of intestine left over for just that purpose.
As Remie fumbled with the white slickery strip, the rest of the class looked at the tight coil on the dirty cutting board, and it was impossible, Marisa thought, not to put her hand on her belly, knowing that something familiar but completely opposite spiraled inside her.
The chef’s hands curled like gory shells at his sides.
“Y’all ready to eat?” he said.
The chef’s wife had prepared a meal with the chef’s sausage, presumably made in the same small kitchen in the backyard workshop. Now the deadly hygiene was hidden in meatballs that still crackled hot in the serving dish, smelling of sage and parmesan cheese. A big, festive pile of pasta, strewn with a rich tomato sauce and sprinkled with freshly shaved cheese, was served on a lovely porcelain platter. Green beans, a salad of baby lettuces, three bottles of red wine, and a bell pepper sauce for the meatballs filled the rest of the space in the middle of the large oak table. For a second, Marisa imagined she could forget about the pink rounds of ground meat in the backroom.
“Dig in,” the chef said, and the class leaned forward to grasp serving spoon and fork, the room a clack of cutlery, glass, and dishware. His wife helped pass around serving forks, smiling in a way that either meant she had nothing to say or too much, deciding on silence as the best alternative.
“So, tell me,” Jim asked Remie. “Why don’t people shoot things in the head? Why worry all that good meat on the chest?”
“Do you know how small an animal’s head is?” Steve asked. “Kind of a moving, wobbly target. Think of a deer.”
“Tiny heads,” the dark-haired Whole Foods girl said.
Marisa ate her salad, watching the hunter who nodded and said, “That’s right. Kind of hard to hit. But a bow doesn’t do the damage a bullet does.”
“I used to be vegan,” one of the Whole Foods girls said, the strawberry blonde with the dark serious glasses, the kind nerds used to wear when Marisa was in high school. “I lived with a bunch of people and all we worried about was who would make the beans.”
“What changed you?” Marisa asked.
“I started working at Whole Foods and saw how, like, meat could be raised and butchered in an okay way. They took us to the farms and stuff. I like, met the animals and the farmers.”
The dark-haired Whole Foods girl nodded. “Really cool,” she said, serving herself another meatball. “These are way delicious!”
Marisa never wanted to be vegan, and she never wanted to meet the food she was going to cook and eat. She could buy a whole chicken and prepare it to roast or butcher it into pieces. She could cook a standing rib roast, a turkey, a leg of lamb. She liked meat, but she wanted to meet it halfway, somewhere in between it eating hay in Petaluma and sliced up in tiny Styrofoam packages at Safeway. She didn’t want to be blind, but she didn’t want to see everything, either.
Marisa leaned toward Steve, hoping he’d turn to her and smile as he often did when things were ridiculous, one eyebrow raised. She wanted him to shrug, whisper, “I’m ready when you are,” as he often did at parties with either of their colleagues. They would swoop into the room with all the coats piled on a bed, grab their belongings and slide out the front door, sometimes without even saying goodbye.
Under the table, Steve’s foot hit hers, but he didn’t notice. He was far away from her now, deep into his subject. Besides, like everyone but her, he’d had two glasses of wine, and now he was talking about his lamb sausage experience, the way he didn’t know how to rinse the casings, the terrible time with the stuffer tube, the learning curve in terms of poking holes in the sausage itself.
All this Marisa had observed. In fact, she’d bought him the stuffer for Christmas, one of many gifts to him since they had started dating: sausage stuffer, Kitchen Aid mixer, pasta cutter, food mill, Shun knives, All Clad pots, immersion blender. At night, they watched cooking shows, Steve recording them so he could later review how to prepare hangar steaks, duck confit, homemade lasagna noodles, sole meunière. He shopped on Friday afternoons and came home with ingredients for his weekend experiments, also bringing with him dripping French cheeses, Greek olives and fresh local bread, crusty to the hands and lips, tasting of yeast and salt. He made tomato sauce from the tomatoes Marisa grows in the summer, canning the rest for use all year.
Now they’ve moved on to sausage class, but Marisa knew she didn’t want to go any further. She wanted to cling to this table and not move another inch.
And what’s left to explore? Both of their sets of children were grown and almost launched—though sometimes the launches were aborted, one or the other of them scurrying home to regroup—all of them close to the same age as the Whole Foods girls. In ten years, Marisa would retire from her teaching job, and in less time than that, Steve would be home all day reading cookbooks and probably butchering a lamb or goat on the kitchen counter, making little meat packets to toss in the new freezer he had bought last month. All day, he would bubble stews and make sauces, his goal to perfect the five mother sauces of French cooking: béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise, vinaigrette. He wanted a pizza oven, a bread oven, a smoke room, a pickle cellar. He wanted to perfect his pie crust, his soufflé technique, his barbeque sauce.
His Matterhorn, his Everest, his moon was every single thing he’s never tried to make before.
They would eat their way into old age and death, leaving behind a restaurant of equipment.
What is left? she wondered, smiling at Remie politely as the hunter explained how she buys whole sides of beef at Cash and Carry, a restaurant supply store in downtown Oakland. Everyone else at the table had shopping suggestions, too, all of which the chef bested, recommending the exact right place to buy every kind of slab of meat.
Marisa had married Steve in midlife, and now midlife was pulling toward old age. She’d worked longer than she would work. She had no children who were children any more. She didn’t know what was left to be done, what to make, or how to make it. She didn’t want to shoot anything in the head. She didn’t know what her sausage class should be.
Except for the two Whole Foods girls, everyone at the table was middle-aged, trying to learn to eat more and better, moving farther and farther up the food chain when, in fact, the food chain was almost over.
“Dessert?” the chef asked.
Jessica Barksdale Inclán
Jessica Barksdale Inclán is the author of twelve novels, including the bestselling Her Daughter's Eyes, The Matter of Grace, and When You Believe. She has also published several ebooks and a women's studies textbook, Diverse Voices of Women. Her work has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Czech. A new Dutch edition of Her Daughter's Eyes is forthcoming. Jessica also teaches composition, creative writing, mythology, and women's literature at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California; and online novel writing courses for UCLA Extension. Her short stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Rockhurst Review, Flywheel, Salt Hill Journal, the Drum, West Wind Review, Compass Rose, Gargoyle and many other journals and newspapers. She is a 2002 recipient of the CAC Artist's Fellowship in Literature. Her short story "Open Eyes" was awarded first prize by Sandra Cisneros for El Andar magazine's 2000 writing contest. She has degrees in sociology and English literature from California State University Stanislaus and a Master's degree in English literature from San Francisco State University. She is an MFA candidate at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and is currently at work on just about everything.