SEVEN PIECES OF MEAT
for Franz Kafka
Published in The Irreal Reader: Fiction & Essays from The Café Irreal,
edited by G. S. Evans & Alice Whittenburg, Guide Dog Books, MD, 2013
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t love my husband, but I’m so sick of seeing them come up the walk again, all stiff and formal in their dress uniforms that I’m tempted to get Jake’s old pistol and start shooting before they make it to the front door.
It’s not that I’m unpatriotic either, but I don’t see the necessity of their coming around every time, repeating the same sorry lines each time. “We have some very bad news to tell you,” as if I hadn’t heard it before. It’s all nonsense and play-acting, those silly medals they’re so proud of and that absurd salute and folded flag and all the nonsense to come at the ceremony and graveside and firing squad as if they’re shooting invisible ducks in the sky. They must think I’m a collector of flags.
I’ve even lost count of how many dynamic duos have been here. After the first one I assumed they had collected about all of Jake that the roadside bomb had left, and they were pretty delicate and prissy about how they talked about it, as if they really were talking about a human being, the same kind as themselves.
Then they got a little more casual about referring to another “body part” found, and I kept visualizing fingers, maybe because I don’t want to think of some of the other things. Maybe they’re just hunks of meat that were Jake. Or, God knows, what we used to make love with.
After we’ve had the little formal chat in my living room I offer coffee and pie and they turn it down like cops in movies, but when I assure them nobody will know, they sit down for a while at the table. Sometimes they forget to grimace, and seem to have forgotten why they’re here, then they’ll glance at each other and put on a grim face.
That’s usually when I give them the hug they’ve obviously been expecting—one for each of the poor boys, and they remind me that it’s against regulations, and I smile and reassure them that I won’t be reporting them for misbehavior.
It’s premature for me to start feeling like a Mom for grown boys. It’s enough of a problem to come up with enough maternal blessings to my own two, who still have a long time to catch up with these guys. But I’m afraid this war will never be over, and they may both be taken too. Maybe I should be glad for these guys that they’ve got this softy and perfectly safe job. I wish Jake had drawn that assignment.
Actually, and I was reluctant to tell this, even in the privacy of my journal, where I work out my feelings without having to justify them, one of the men doubled back one night. I answered a rap on the glass, not the doorbell, and there he was, not in his dress uniform, but looking like a clean-cut kid just out of high school. He shoved a dozen yellow roses at me so fast that I jumped back and sneezed. On their third visit I realized that these boys had a technique for getting me to feel sympathy for them. Maybe that was a psychological trick, I don’t know. It was all in little things, like saying they were breaking the rules about accepting coffee. Then it was not to tell that they broke the rule against traveling in separate cars. Bit by petty bit they were getting me to feel sorry for them, though I was the one that needed the comforting. Who could ever trust anything that comes out of their mouths, armed with talking points. They probably take lessons on how to control their faces and gestures.
They nurture fantasies, who doesn’t? Here we are, all the fresh widows, and they get to be the first to break the news. Women will do anything when they’re in shock. Maybe they’ll never want another man to touch them. But some may be so desperate for comfort that if one of these smartasses—forgive me, Mr. President, but that’s how I feel about them after seven or eight of their visits, one for each body part turned up—should double back after dark I swear I might let him make love to me. If he asked politely, I should say. Like a gentleman, I should say. I’m not saying these guys aren’t cute, but dammit, I never want to see another one. They probably salute before and after they make love.
They travel in pairs like nuns, though instead of white with wimples it’s their dress uniforms and neckties with the regulation knot. Maybe the pair business is so they’ll not take advantage of the situation. Some new widows probably simply collapse in their arms. They’re perfect gentlemen, though. One of them actually mentioned the five hundred thousand dollars I’d be getting, and how if Jake and I had had any children they’d be getting their piece of the federal pie too and a monthly allowance of a thousand and free college educations. That’s what they promise to bribe the innocent to join, stalking them in high school hallways. I’ll believe all those promises when I see them. Of course it’s true that they keep one promise, the recruits get to see the world all right. Before they wind up in a casket.
If they gave me five hundred million, though, I wouldn’t trade one of Jake’s fingers for it. And I still don’t get the logic of all this nonsense. If I have to get a visit from the survivor notification team every time they discover another body part—a finger or a toe—shouldn’t I get another half a million every time? It just doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I never thought this war made any sense. If Jake were here maybe he could explain it to me.
I suppose he’d tell me that the war was worth throwing his life away for, not caring enough for me and another baby or two we still might have if he had figured out a way to come back, anything to escape that goddamn roadside bomb in Iraq. I wake up seeing him breathless, as if he ran all the way, even over the ocean, to let me do a running jump, my legs around him and my lips on his before he can say my name.
Call it AWOL, desertion, if he had managed it during one of his leaves, when he thought it was all over but then got called back. Call him a coward, unmanly. Call him a war criminal or whatever they call people who won’t be a part of it. We could have gone to Canada. I’d have gone anywhere with Jake. I still would. This could all turn out to be a big mistake. All those body parts could be for someone else, a guy with a different number. They make mistakes all the time. Maybe they’re too embarrassed to admit this one, but when and if they do Jake will come back. And even if they don’t, and he’s in some horrible prisoner of war camp, he’ll get back. I know a lot of things like that happened back in Vietnam. If Jake has to claw his way back he’ll make it. Damn the dynamic duos and their smartass ceremonies.
I think a lot of my fellow widows must be as mad as I am. Maybe they only get one visit from that pair with their cute folded flags, and maybe like me they’ll permit a non-regulation hug. I guess it would be okay if you were a flag collector. But even these guys must have some mixed feelings about their buddies or comrades or whatever they want to call each other throwing their lives away for a crazy war. Don’t they know it’s crazy?
The newspapers quote the widows saying how proud they are that their husbands have made the ultimate sacrifice, but I know damn well they can’t really feel that way, no more than I can. Maybe one in a hundred who’s playing around wants the blood money, but it’s hard to imagine even the worst bitch I ever knew in college who would trade a man for five hundred thousand dollars.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said.
“Not another body part?” I said. “Where’s your pal? Why aren’t you in uniform?”
“I thought you might need some company,” he said. “I know it’s not regulation, but I just kept thinking of you all alone here, and thought maybe there’d be no harm… I’d do about anything to make you feel better.”
“I don’t,” I said, “really, I don’t,” but I could tell he was watching my face for my response, not my words. I can’t even say how I felt toward him. I knew I could get him busted by making a phone call, but what satisfaction would that give? Maybe it would save his life by assuring he’d never get sent overseas to meet Jake’s fate.
So sure, dear diary, I was outraged. But here he was, a man, and he wanted to make love to me. And he did ask politely, very.
Stranger things have happened. But even my patience has its limits. When I heard the same rap on the glass, or so it seemed, a few nights later, and opened the door, assuming it was Thomas, the name my seducer had given me, it was the Other One, the other side of the dynamic duo.
Like Thomas he was apologetic. But unlike Thomas, he would get nowhere. If there is anything more insulting than taking advantage of a woman’s grief it’s passing her on to another man afterwards.
Maybe they don’t realize how they have become nothing but delivery boys for butchers, informing widows about the pieces of meat the war has made of their husbands, then treating the widows themselves as nothing but pieces of meat.
One more piece of meat, be it a head or a finger, a toe or a chunk out of Jake’s heart, even mentioned in this house and Jake’s pistol will take care of the problem. There’ll be two pieces of meat on my stairs, and a 911 call will get them picked up and carried out feet first, because I’ll have declared my doorstep an extension of the war zone. Mr. President, what the hell would you do about that? I can see the headlines now: WAR WIDOW DOWNS SURVIVOR NOTIFICATION TEAM ON DOORSTEP.
And Jake, if he’s in heaven looking down, will just have to forgive me. I don’t care if they find his other three fingers and all ten toes, I’m not going to open the door to any other pair of blue-uniformed ghouls. And as for that decision they’ve asked me to make time after time, what to do with the newly discovered piece, cremation or a little bronze coffin and burial, they can damn well make it themselves, because I don’t give a damn. Jake, I don’t give a damn, I want you to hear that. And of all the men in the world, I know you’re the only one who would understand.