Jerks

By Sara Lippmann

We make beef jerky to distribute as gifts for the holiday season. Brian believes it is better to give a part of ourselves than it is to give cash but I wonder if the recipients agree, if they see the gesture as heartfelt or narcissistic or stingy. We live in Brooklyn so we are hardly alone in this effort. Every year it is something: tins of granola, jars of dill pickles, artisanal yogurt by the biodegradable tub. Once we tried bees on the roof but struggled with the yield.

Brian is on a real self-reliance kick.

“You can’t count on anyone,” he says.

I can’t argue with that.

Yet we are a team. Brian downloads the recipe from A Gentleman’s Guide to Survival. While he trims the fat, the kids concoct flavor combinations: teriyaki, Cajun, sweet & sour. We also have original, not like we’ve done this before. After the beef marinates we tuck strips into dehydrators that hum like a white noise machine. We wait and wait. Now we have all this shrunken meat. It is the color of dried blood, a scab that has been picked over and congealed. As I peel the layers off the trays I notice: up close the jerky still looks moist. I suggest loading it back in the dryers for more time.

Brian says, “It’s not how it looks but how it feels.” The meat is leathery tough, which spells success for him. I worry we’ll give the mailman salmonella but Brian says, “That line of worrying will get you nowhere.”

 

Packaging is my job. At the paper goods store I collect cellophane sleeves, ribbon to rip into curlicues, sticker labels and a sparkle pen.

“How about The Jerks?” I propose as a name for our family enterprise. Brian tears a piece of meat with his teeth. He says Ha-ha in the way that saying it makes it clear I’m not funny.

“The Hurky Jerky Man?” I try again but that is no better. I am a rusty brand manager; the older I get the more out of touch I become. Brian says there is almost a prideful stubbornness, a purposeful disdain to my unknowing, that I have no interest in giving people what they want. I’m not sure that’s true or if I’m just out of practice. What does anyone want?

“A Heart of Beef?”

“Season’s Meat?”

“Main Game?”

“Jerk is the Word?”

“You’re trying too hard,” he says. I don’t flag the contradiction. Instead I stuff and I seal. I am my own assembly line. People are many things. In my life I have tried at turns to be thoughtful and kind but cannot offer a cost-benefit analysis of either.

As for erstwhile ambition – lately, doing the dishes is an accomplishment. When it gets dark at four o’clock, I pass out on the couch, fold over like a drunk, mid-snack, as if I’m not just bored but narcoleptic. There is no fighting it. This is heaven on earth: being dead to the world. The TV blares. Between shows the kids climb onto me like a pack of puppies, they lick my face and tickle my pits and when I don’t respond they poke. My skin is flushed and warm but doesn’t spring back where their fingers push. The depressions remain. In meat terms that’s an indicator of being past prime; I am no longer good.

Later, at night I can’t sleep. Brian keeps the light on.

“Do you mind?” I say but he is reading about the Anthropocene and sustainability. There is terror everywhere. He is researching safe spaces. Lying in bed with his combed hair and his undershirt he reminds me of the Sears catalog. Bomb shelters once sold like erector sets, but I have no desire to survive disaster.

I climb into my daughter’s bed. She is restless. I lie still. Her hand slaps my face; her watch in my ear ticks like a scolding. Time’s a wasting. It is a Swatch like I had as a child, where you swapped bands with boyfriends to demonstrate loyalty. I thought the brand went out of business. On the other side of the room my baby has something wrong with his heart. It goes “glub zlub” instead of “glub glub” which is probably nothing – “Innocent,” the doctor says, “functional” – but I can’t stop thinking what if. I strive for global perspective but there is my son going glub zlub and here is my daughter, kicking. I roll in and twine my legs around hers as if we might graft together but she fights and she flails then shoves me with all of her might.

For five nights in a row I do this. I’m not sure Brian notices. He is busy devising a plan to carry us off-grid. The question is when. The world is ending, but if I were to say it, it’d be hysteria. Paranoia on me is practicality on him. As a child, my parents unleashed a midnight wrath without concerns for messaging, for what the neighbors might think, their children on the other side of thin walls. I admire their anger. Mine is a different rage. It roils but has no place to vent. There are options, sure. Choices. I crawl into my son’s bed, but it is toddler-sized. My knees bang my chin. I feel like Alice in Wonderland breaking through the roof. My daughter continues to thrash. Tonight she sits up and says, “I won’t go,” but it’s a dream; she plops back onto the heap of animals she is incubating and will not remember in the morning. Brian says autonomy is the greatest gift we can provide our children, and I agree, I don’t wish dependence on anyone even though people say I’m lucky. No one knows the full story. Sleeping, my daughter smells like sauerkraut and feet; she is not mango and whipped cream but gingko nuts, the chalky vomitus reek upon which I twisted my ankle walking home alone from grade school.

Not just the heart but the environment. At 6, my daughter has breast buds not from precociousness but from god knows what in the atmosphere. Chemicals, hazardous dust, soy. You are what you eat, Brian says, which makes me a noodle in the dark recounting steps on a board game, sliding my pawn along the waxy plane to approximate the jagged moves of my youth: a zigzag a seesaw a ladder going up then down down down. My eyes are dry a doll’s. I lie there but it’s futile. The past haunts. The future creeps. My daughter catches me in the bathroom. There is no privacy so we talk about spilled blood and lost eggs. She says, Even you? How much have you lost? And I say: It’s not really losing a part of you, but that which has never been loved. While she sleeps she slips a hand into the elastic of her pajama bottoms. Earlier she found the word puberty in a book. Will I catch it? She’d asked, panicky. I press my lips into the mess of her hair and hope nothing happens too soon.

 

At breakfast Christmas music plays on repeat. It plays on every station. Brian comes through the kitchen, beaming. “Do you see what I see?” I am a lapsed Jew. It’s amazing how cheerful he can be while preparing for Doomsday. I package up the jerky for teachers, sanitation workers, the UPS delivery person. Wrapped up they look like chocolate lollipops, if I’d done heroic molds of One World Trade. Either way they are a disappointment.

My parents arrive for a visit. After all, it is the holidays. They bring eggnog and mellowed dispositions, but they are careful not to occupy the same room. My father is showering when I slip into pee. Through the curtain I can make out his aging body: doleful breasts and shoulders heavy with hair matted and slick as a seal. I slip out without flushing before he shuts the tap. My mother waits wide-eyed at the bathroom door, her arms brimming with coated, battery-operated plastic.

“For the kids,” she tells me.

I hide everything then throw on a dress. My parents are babysitting so we can attend a dinner party at our neighbor’s. I don’t know why we have to go when they never bother to curb their dog but Brian welcomes the invitation to see how other people live.

When we get there it is already loud and important. We bring our wrapped meat as party favors; place one on each plate. Everyone slides along wooden benches, farm style, even though we are in a basement apartment.

Brian places his hand on my lower back where a badass tattoo would go, if I had one. He does this without looking my way. It means, Sit up straight. Immediately, he is roped into conversation. It is easy when you are Brian. People want to talk. I watch him throw back his head and laugh, eyes twinkling, chin jutting like Fred Flintstone.  Sure enough, the blonde woman across from him leans forward to tell him about the book that changed her life. Actually, a trilogy. Imagine! Now she sells toys – for the boudoir. She wears a fur vest and permanent eyeliner and has a confession: She lives in New Jersey. But, she says, “Brooklyn women need me the most.” A long crystal prong dangles from her neck only it’s more than a charm, wink wink. Brian smiles and nods and says nothing about the dead animal on her chest. Heat spreads where his hand is. I slouch deeper. I used to be afraid I’d turn out curved like Sally J. Friedman and no one would want to feel me up. Now I realize that fear was misplaced. I’d marry. I’d become an adult.

The person to my right is discussing 19th century Islamic thought. He is an expert and the person across from him is also an expert. I scan the table for familiar faces, the stay-at-home father from the playground, the real estate broker with kale in her teeth, the bespectacled pair of entrepreneurial Millennials who just moved onto our block, but we are on opposite ends. I examine my plate, cage-free protein aligned against designated pockets of seasonal greens and grains. It is stylish and unappetizing. If I cut and chew I figure I am absolved from conversation. I don’t need to answer, And what is it you do?

With my mouth full, I observe the sex girl. She looks like my college roommate who also has a home business where she posts half-naked photos, calls her husband THE BULL and sells vibrators like Tupperware. Apparently, they’re everywhere. On Facebook I liked it when she asked me to like it but it’s hard to believe she can be the same person who sat in bed fat and stoned all of freshman year. I never once saw her masturbate but Brian says, People change. You can do anything; become anyone you want if you put your mind to it.

It’s late when the host and hostess rise to make a toast. They are in their 50s and have been in Brooklyn the longest. Brian says we should entertain more but what he really means is we should toast. Despite the news there is much to celebrate on a local scale: Neighbors, community, lending a helping hand. I peer through the red belly of my glass.  The sex girl adds, “Let’s pray for world peace.” We clink and clink and drink.

Back home, I take off my dress but Brian is already hopped up on our next project. Canning. Salsa, jams and jellies. String beans. I’m not sure how that helps, but Brian believes it’s key to stay busy. The possibilities are endless.

“Shouldn’t we wait for summer?” I say, climbing into bed.  He faces the wall but it’s not personal. We’re not even arguing. I slide my fingers down his spine to where he likes it. “That was some party.”

“You can start by making room for storage.”

 

In the morning, I take care of the leftovers. Meat scraps for the neighbor’s dog. Sprinkles for the birds. Shredded bits fold into eggs. I swear, the jerky stash seems to be growing rather than diminishing. In certain light it gleams green. I can’t look at it anymore. I don’t care what’s a waste. When my parents leave I dump entire drawers and shelves, organize closets, clean out the pantry, make stacks and piles and heaps. My kids trail behind me. “Is it recycling day?” and “That’s daddy’s,” but there is a rapt fury to my focus. I drag out trash bags, jumbo-sized for lawn debris, and shake them open. My kids stretch the mouths wide as a pit. I climb in. I’m not interested in donation. I throw out what we don’t need.

 

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Sara Lippmann’s debut collection, DOLL PALACE (Dock Street Press) was long-listed for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She was the recipient of an artist’s fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her work has appeared in Carve, Slice Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Joyland, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood and elsewhere. She co-hosts the Sunday Salon, a longstanding reading series in New York’s East Village. For more, visit saralippmann.com

Art: Night Mission by Dave Berk

I am a local Lancaster County photographer documenting the everyday cool stuff around me. Every now and again i meet interesting people, find new places, and experience new things.