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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-six AND WHAT ROUGH BEEF



heir daddies drove the cattle down beneath the mountain back when he was a boy. Thought it easier that way, keep them down in the mines, let them graze on the soft cave grass. Safe from the war fires, and the pestilence. They never expected things to end up like this.

The cow’s wizened face glared at Jasper from the sewer grate. What had once been wide wet kind eyes were now hooded with contempt. A leathery lid batted once over her dry sclera in a sarcastic wink. Jasper shuddered in the evening heat, and reached for his gun.

The cow snorted and shuffled away; the scrape of her great spotted bulk along the dry cement, the stern tamp of her many hooves, and finally the long bristled tail flipped, twice, the fringed tip laying for a long second like a viper outside the concrete lip, before withdrawing into the darkness. A low moooom belched from the hole, then faded, echoing.

Jasper sighed on the silent street, a long whistling pell of relief slithering from his smoked throat. Everyone would live another day. But so close to home…

Jasper moved his boots back toward the big house. They were old yellow slicker boots, for little girls in the rain, and his granddaddy’s feet would have been far too big and broad for them. But not Jasper. He cinched his rucksack tighter on trembling shoulders, stalking among the burnt-out tarpaper shacks and abandoned clapboard ranch homes, up toward the crest of the hill. There his wooden house perched, bathing in the toxic shadow of the mountain.

From inside the big white panel house, gramophone music wafted on the wind. A few plucky guitar chords, a fiddle, and Spade Cooley warbling “...woe is me-eee, shame on yooooou.” There was the smell of sorghum casserole, and if Jasper’s mouth could water it would. There’d be coffee gravy, and whitepeas, shoofly pie, and maybe even some rabbit stew. Patty always cooked up something nice. But what was that other smell? He breathed deep, but the wind had wicked it away. He coughed. It was getting dark out, fast.

Jasper stopped on the cluttered porch, and sat down the rucksack. Withdrawing a soiled bandana and a putty scraper from his pockets, he doffed his hat and shirt and began the delicate work of removing his dead outer layer of skin. Cut, scrape, wipe. Cut, scrape, wipe. Soon, ghostly shells of his head and torso lay in pieces among the empty tin cans and dust by his boots. He had sliced himself too deep in the cheeselike flesh of his left arm, but there was no blood.

“Not a good sign.” Jasper grumbled to himself, and spit nothing on the ground. He kicked his shed skin away. Working outside all day was taking more of a toll on him. His fingernails were already long gone, and his last few teeth were loosening.

Jasper pushed the rusty screen door open and stepped inside, his boots rumbling the loose planks, the door snapping shut behind him with a loud twang-BANG. He tossed his shirt and hat on the stairs, fumbled absently at the small chrome dispenser marked “United States Air Force Superfund Site: CAUTION,” swallowed a few of the pink and yellow pills that ratcheted out from it, then unbuckled and hung his heavy revolver on the square nail beside it. On the gramophone, Gene Autry was hollering “I don’t worr-y, cuz it makes no difference now.”

Patricia hollered from somewhere deep in the bowels of the house, accompanied by the clanking of pots and pans. There was that smell again, heady, gamey, and occult.

With hoots and cheers, his menagerie of offspring scrabbled and limped and wheeled into the foyer to greet their father, swarming around his thin legs. Expectant parents had to have a lot to hope to have a good one, and him and Patty’d had a lot. But looking at their warped and uneven little faces, and at Violet’s terrible cyclopean eye, Jasper felt bowed by the weight of guilt. This rotten old hovel wasn’t a place for sick children, too much mildew beneath the thin splintery floorboards, radon, asbestos, anthrax. But did it really matter? He hugged the kids close, trying not to crunch their brittle skin or his own, and asked them what their mama made.

Billy, being the least malformed and possessing most of his faculties, googled his eyes at his dusty father and sprayed: “Huh, uhuh, it’s a sir prize, Daddy!”

In the cramped kitchen, a stout woman moved gaily among the pots.

“Goll-y Patty, smells mighty fine! Whatta ye got in that oven, rabbit? Woodchuck?”

She skipped over to him, rattling the leaded windows, and raised her chin to plant a wet kiss on his dusty lips. Her lips were syrupy and soft. “You’re just going to have to wait and see-eee, Jasper Lee Bonnet!” she answered in her throaty sing-song voice. Her eyes glinted above her full cheeks. She had blood on her polka dot dress, but if she was happy it weren’t a concern.

They set the poison oak table, cradling the precious antique crockery like eggshells, handing out the forks and spoons to the soft white claws of their children. Jasper, in a threadbare check shirt, sat at the head in the tall plastic chair and squeezed his swollen knees beneath the gnarled table top. Patty busied herself bringing in steaming bowls of mushed whitepeas, sorghum casserole, taters, grits, and black hominy. Then she brought in the big covered tray, balancing it carefully on her thick palms, and laid it in the center of the table. Beaming, she lifted the lid.

Jasper dropped his fork to the plate with a rattle, his breath hitching in his throat.

On the serving tray nestled eight charred little triangles of grilled meat; freshly cut, bone-in, and dripping with succulent juices. Steam wafted from them, carrying that smell. The smell.

Jasper dully met his wife’s eyes. They were still gleaming; he now knew it was with madness. He felt himself rising to his feet, crossing the room to her.

“Sue Hedner brought it by,” she was smiling proudly. “She said Paul caught it halfway out of an old steam vent and walloped it before it could crawl back down! I cut it up all by myself. We have lots left over. Can you believe? Veal! Veal, in all my life, I never thought I’d...”

Jasper interrupted her raving with a hard slap from his fragile palm. She was bigger and stronger than him, but the unprecedented blow left a little crimson handprint across her face, and she fell back on her butt, shaking the table, upturning the basket of taters, gasping in shock. Violet started to wail, her solitary eye dripping big tears into her open mouth. From the darkened parlor, Ted Daffan & His Texans were singing “Born to loooose, and now I’m losin’ youuuu”.

“Don’t ye know what you’ve done woman!” Jasper sputtered in stark horror. “Ye’ve doomed us! YE KILLED THE WHOLE FAMILY!” His hands balled into little fists, then he squeezed them into his eyes and squatted beside her, rocking on his heels, openly weeping. “Why’d you have to… Patty, our GOT DAMN FAMILY!” He tore out his hair in handfuls.

All the children were crying now, hooting and bawling like piteous crippled birds.

“I thought,” Patricia said, slackly leaking tears, “I simply thought it might be a... a nice treat. We’ve never! Not even once. And they’ll never know! I promise, they won’t!”

“They ALWAYS know!” Jasper shrieked in despair, his thin voice tea kettling. “They’ll bust right in here, a buckin’ and a stompin’ and a tossin’ them horns, and they’ll get every last one of us!” He turned to the children, who glazed up at him with panicked wet faces. “Kids, you g’won up now and git yer coats and anything else you need, we’re gettin’on out of…”

There was a sound: a twang-BANG, then a stern tamp, and another. Then another. Many.

“Oh God,” Jasper moaned, turning toward the thundering hallway. “We’re too late.”

Hooves. Hooves in the house.




James Fruit lives in New England, and has degrees from Kent State and The American University.

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