We drank beer under the Midwestern sunset.
“His meat is the best,” my father said. “Your uncle raises the grass-fed cattle himself; 100% organic, no steroids, hormones, or antibiotics. You should ride down to the farm with me on Saturday morning. I’m picking some up.
“Sounds good pops,” I said. “I’ll manage it.”
Sales at the bistro were mediocre compared to the first year we were open. We went from clearing forty thousand dollars in weekly sales to twenty five. The chef and I hadn’t come up with anything buzz-worthy in a while. We were worried that our lack of revenue would mean the beginning of the end.
“What do you mean we only have twelve covers for next Friday night?” Chef said. He was pacing around behind the bar, smoking a cigarette. “I didn’t bust my ass in culinary school for four fucking years to cook for twelve people on a Friday fucking night.”
Chef placed two polished glasses in front of us and poured bourbon, three fingers high, into each one.
“We were the talk of the town six months ago. Now we’re discussing exit strategies!”
“Maybe we should try seasonal items,” I said. “Everyone’s going organic these days.”
“I could shit in a bag Seth and call it 100% Certified Organic. If it comes from the Earth, it’s organic. Besides, our lack of creativity has us in this hole, not our product.”
“Then why did we have so many steaks go back to the kitchen last night?” I said.
“Those fucking people wouldn’t know a good piece of meat if it walked right up and bit them in the tongue!”
“Listen. I’m going to my uncle’s farm tomorrow with my dad. His beef is top quality, no bullshit. I need you to start thinking about how we’re going to serve it.”
The following morning I met my father at his home outside of town. It was early. The moon was still visible while the sun was rising. When I pulled into the driveway, I noticed that his SUV was still in the garage. This was peculiar because he’s always the first one ready to go, with his expectant thumbs tapping the steering wheel.
The gravel sounded hollow and alone beneath my shoes as I approached the paved garage. Blood was splattered on the wheel of the small tractor my dad used to mow the two acres of land he lived on.
I went inside to find him reading the morning sports page. A white bandage was wrapped around his left arm. It was stained with blood from an obvious wound.
“Fucked my arm up is all,” he said. “I wasn’t paying any attention when I was mowing and ran into a tree branch behind the tool shed. Son of a bitch got me good.”
“Uh, I’d say. Are you going to the doctor?” I said.
“Yeah. Your brother should be home soon. Third shift is killing him, but he’ll take me. There’s a check made out to your uncle on the cork board.”
“Take it. It’s all yours,” he said. “Get asses back in your restaurant and in those bar seats. Besides, I know you’re good for it.”
I was headed south on Highway 83 when my ginormous cooler began banging around the bed of my truck. Annoyed by the constant sliding and thumping, I pulled over to the nearest gas station to tie it down. I needed fuel anyway.
There’s something special about full service gas stations. There aren’t too many around anymore and if you’re lucky enough to find one, like I was, you’ll be in for quite the experience.
First, there’s the fuel pump. I love how the numbers spin forward inside of the gallon and the price display. It always reminds me of the big wheel on The Price is Right that advances lucky contestants to The Showcase Showdown.
Next, there’s the dog. Every good full service gas station has a lazy dog, typically a basset hound, lying next to a bench. On this bench is either an old man reading a newspaper or a little girl with her mother sharing an ice cream. Today, the bench was occupied by an overweight man. His belly button protruded through the sweat stained tank top he was wearing. He put the sixty ounces of soda he was drinking against his hot melon to cool it off. I preferred the girl and mother sharing an ice cream; I think the basset hound did too.
Finally, there’s the jack of all trades, the mechanic. He doubles as the serviceman who pumps your gas. This mechanic wore denim bib-style overalls soiled with grime and engine oil. A white ring developed in the front breast pocket of his overalls from where he kept his can of chewing tobacco. On top of his long, matted hair sat a meshed baseball cap with a popular dog food logo above the bill.
“Fill ‘er up,” I said.
I noticed a large mirrored lens in the corner where the beer was kept. Big Brother is watching you…I could see the reflection of the clerk in the lens. He was skinny and dull, probably the younger brother of the mechanic. All these places are family owned and operated.
I turned the corner past the aisle of snack chips, escaping the watchful clerk, and headed towards the coffee station. “County’s Best” was written in black magic marker on a sheet of copier paper. It was taped above the coffee machine like a “Sorry, Out of Order” sign is placed outside of a stall when the toilet isn’t flushing properly.
For claiming to be the best coffee in the county, they sure didn’t give a shit about the quality of the cup it was served in. I thought the hot liquid was going to melt right through the damned thing, so I put another Styrofoam cup over it, then one more, just to be safe.
As I was exchanging a few dollars for the overpriced coffee, I noticed the article on the front page of the gazette: Local Law Enforcement Baffled by Missing Horses.
“Someone stealing horses around here?” I said.
“Someone or something,” the clerk said.
“What do you mean, like a wolf?”
The clerk leaned in close. “Crop circles, man. They’ve been showin’ up around the farms lately. But the churches don’t want them printin’ nuthin’ like that.”
“Sounds like a case for Mulder and Scully,” I said. I whistled the theme to X-Files. “Thanks for the coffee.”
Outside, the mechanic was pulling the squeegee across my truck’s windshield. I said thank you and slipped him a five dollar bill for his services. He flashed his pearly yellows and tipped his dirty hat towards me. I’ve always respected the manners of country bumpkins.
Back on the highway, I took in the lush scenery that urban life doesn’t offer: Wind turbines the size of sky scrapers that slowly turn, generating solar power to the farms and the way wheat grain curves at the tip when a cool breeze whispers through a field. I don’t even mind the sudden wafts of manure that hit my nostrils on occasion. That’s the smell of hard work. The smell of Americana. The smell of freedom.
Up ahead in the distance, massive dust clouds formed around a tractor travelling down an arid, dirt pathway through a cornfield. I turned on the radio. A preacher man was shouting about how God will punish those who don’t believe that Jesus died for our sins. I let him ramble for a few miles. No longer amused by his sermon, I changed the dial to find the only rock n’ roll station: WKRT, The Wolf. A long howl belted through my speakers as the DJ announced the next song. It was “Lights Out” by UFO playing at the top of the hour.
Crop circles. I had a feeling the church wasn’t the only reason the clerk’s theory wasn’t printed in the paper. There is a laughable embarrassment towards a community when “Bettie Lou” or “Lil’ Cuss” is on the news, standing outside of their trailer home, talking about the unexplained flashing lights in the night sky while holding a sixteen ounce can of cheap beer and wearing a t-shirt printed with the Tasmanian Devil biting a football. Some things in life you have to protect and stereotyping themselves was one of them.
Pulling into my uncle’s driveway reminded me of the few times I spent here as a kid during the summer. He still had that old rusty weather vane on the hill, just past his mailbox. The metal rooster that sat on top of it still carried the look of determination above its beak. A black tire still hung from an oak tree, knotted together with homemade twine, welcoming anyone who dared to swing from it.
“Tomatoes are coming in good this year. The peppers are shit. Might make it if I can keep the dang rabbits outta my garden,” he said.
“Pull up next to the barn. We’ll get yer cooler loaded up. Don’t go lollygaggin’ on yer way home neither. You’ll want this in the freezer ASAP as possible, so it don’t spoil.”
“Yes sir. Know anything about those missing horses?” I said.
“I raise cattle Seth, not horses.”
“Yeah I know, but I was wondering…”
“There you again wonderin’. Always with the wonderin’. You want this meat or not? And I thought yer dad was comin’ with yins.”
“Yeah, I do want the meat, sorry I asked. He was, but he hurt his arm pretty good. Has to get stitches.”
“Yeah, well, he always was a softy.”
My dad said my uncle had become unnerving since my aunt passed a few years ago. I didn’t realize the severity of it until now. He refused to let me help him load the cooler. He tossed the cryovaced packages of frozen meat ten at a time, like he was in a hurry. He obviously wasn’t interested in small talk with his nephew.
“Don’t go tellin’ everyone where you got this from. I don’t like the attention,” he said. “Things are nice and quiet here, just the way I like it. It’ll take some time to get more, so make it last.”
“So that’s it?” I said.
He held his hand out.
“Oh right.” I handed him the check. He held it up to the sunlight, inspecting the check like it could be counterfeit. Then he smiled.
“Your customers will love it Seth. It’ll be the best they ever had.”
He tapped the bed of my truck three times, I suppose for good luck, and waved goodbye. Well, it was more like a salute. The earth crumbled beneath my tires as I pulled down the driveway. I managed to avoid a massive hole that I hadn’t noticed on my way in. Groundhogs! I checked to make sure my balls were still between my legs and I found myself on an embankment overlooking a field where the cattle grazed. Something was peculiar about the field. There were no cattle. My uncle told me he had just slaughtered two. There still should of have been some in the pasture. There was one lonely sheep by the chicken coop. That was it.
Did my uncle just sell me horse meat? Nah. No way. The aliens were the ones feasting on fine equestrian these days. My uncle, a horse thief? Never. The only thing he ever stole was a six pack of non-alcohol beer when he was a teenager. He caught so much shit over it that he never thought twice about stealing again. This all according to my dad one afternoon, telling “remember when” stories during a barbeque.
True to my uncle’s word, our customers loved the beef. Chef came up with new dishes: Beef Wellington with herbed potatoes, mouth melting beef sliders, and carne asana. But what they really raved about were our large cuts of sirloin, either wrapped in bacon or infused garlic and topped with a bleu cheese crust.
You couldn’t find a better steak in town. We thought about turning the bistro into a steakhouse, but that would require money that we didn’t have. Besides, for the first time in two fiscal years, we were turning a profit. We were fine to be known as the little place on the corner, serving the best steak in town. But all of that came to an end, on the thirteenth of a Friday, of course.
“Seth, you hungry?” said Chef.
I gave chef a nod of approval and pulled a bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild Pauillac 1986 from our office. It retails on the high end and was given to us from Paula. She owned the winery down the street and was “compelled”, her words, not mine, to gift it to us after we comp’d her bill during our grand reopening.
I popped the cork and poured the aromatic red liquid into a decanter, allowing the wine to aerate for the proper amount of time, thirty minutes. By giving the wine exposure to air, it becomes less harsh and improves its characteristics. It would be the chocolate and raspberry overtones that would be enhanced with this wine; a perfect pairing with the marbled ribeye steaks chef was preparing for us.
Because the restaurant business is a fast paced environment that demands attention in every way, you relish the moment when you can relax and enjoy a meal. That is exactly what we were doing when my dad called.
“Seth, it’s your dad.”
“Where are you?”
“At the restaurant, eating.”
“Are you at the bar?”
“Turn the television to Channel 10 and call me back.”
My father hung up. I placed my phone down and followed his instruction. A newscaster was standing next to a barn. She reminded me of Daria from the animated show with the same name. A rusty, maroon pick-up truck was behind her. I turned up the volume.
“This is Dana Baxter reporting live for Channel 10 News. What you see behind me is the truck of Robie Burton, a senior at Jacob Memorial High School. Robie is an All-American center for the Jacob Memorial Lions football team. He hasn’t been seen in several days. Thanks to two local men who were looking for their hunting dog, this mystery has come to a close.”
I’m grateful that I just swallowed the last bite I would ever have of my uncle’s beef because when the camera panned to the left, I nearly fainted.
“To my right is the barn where the body of another high school student, junior linebacker Clint George, was found. His body was suspended upside down by meat hooks before the coroners removed it for examination. Says the man responsible for this macabre action: ‘They thought it’d be funny to chase away my cattle while they partied on my property. I count on those cattle to pay my bills.’ All of this in a desperate plea for revenge. I’m Dana Baxter for Channel 10 News.”
Just before Dana signed off, the camera caught a glimpse of the man arrested. His face was blurry to protect his identity, but I knew who he was. The camera followed the patty wagon down the driveway as it turned onto County Road 23, just past the old weather vane with the determined rooster on top.
“Chef, put your fork down. This isn’t beef.”