Drop #144: Boucherie

pig headI picked Frank up at the station early Sunday morning. I hadn’t seen him in years. He’d emailed Friday out of the blue saying he’d be in town for a day. First time in New Orleans.

As the local I’d immediately felt pressure to show him a good time, and arrange the type of stuff you can’t do anywhere else. He’d said not to put myself out planning anything and had suggested a couple of restaurants he’d read about but I’d never heard of. Said they were popular joints but that we might still get a table at if we booked that day. As if that was going to happen! What kind of host lets the guest pick the restaurant?

How you been? We shared an awkward hug. Two pats on the back. Good, and you? Then we drove off, heading for the highway.

‘Such a short visit!’ I said, stepping on the gas.

‘Yeah, just a layover. Leaving early tomorrow  – but we have the whole day.’

‘Just as well. There’s something special going down and I managed to get us invited. Only got confirmation last night. Had to pull a few strings and I owe Big Lou a favor but it’ll be well worth it.’

‘When, later today?’

‘Right now, buddy. We’re already on our way.’

‘OK.’

‘It’s a ways out of town, and starting soon, so no time to stop off to shower or change. Hope you don’t mind.’

‘Not at all. But now I’m curious. Where are we going?’

‘Ever heard of a boucherie?’

‘Can’t say I have.’

‘Oh boy, it’s something else! An iconic Cajun ritual, but really quite uncommon nowadays – usually only happens around Mardi Gras. Man, your timing really is immaculate!’

‘Cool. Tell me more.’

Well,’ I said excitedly, ‘it’s got everything to do with a pig.’

‘Hmm.’

‘It’s a community thing. So, what happens is: neighborhood families and friends get together on someone’s property, out in their back yard, and butcher a pig – I’m talking an entire hog – then cook the hell out every last bit of it.’

‘Hence the name boucherie, I guess,’ Frank said. ‘So, I guess the reservation at Bella’s didn’t pan out then.’

‘What? Oh, that restaurant you mentioned?’ I laughed. ‘Nah. Not with a boucherie down the road!’

The moment I received his email a dozen possibilities had popped into my head for lunch, dinner, drinks and snacks. I could have taken him to Dooky Chase or la Petite Grocery or gone casual at Katie’s. I could have hit any number of food trucks, or crawfish boils, or hit my go-to po’ boy destination. But come on! La boucherie trumps all.

‘Man, you’re gonna love it,’ I carried on, glancing at my wristwatch. ‘I’m so excited – I mean, I live here and I’ve only ever been to one, and they had the pig killed and cleaned already. Today’s is proper old school. They’re going to bring it in squealing and shoot it on site, immediately slit its throat and collect the blood for boudin, then butcher it right away! That never happens anymore; in fact, I’d given up on experiencing the event in such a pure, complete form. This is a damn rare thing, a real privilege! That’s why we have to hurry. Killing’s at 10 sharp.’

‘Hmm.’

‘Hmm? Hmm! Is that all you have to say?’

‘Well – ’

‘So, after they expertly singe, scrape, gut, and cut it up using hacksaw, knife, cleaver and even ax, everyone sits at long wooden tables and goes to work on their portion, preparing ponce, andouille, ham, organ soup, hogshead cheese, backbone stew, cracklins, boudin and lots more. Every scrap of the animal is used: brains, blood, ears, hocks, feet, marrow, skin, snout, heart, and tail. We cook all day, eat and drink and get loud all day, and we feast at night. We do it all together, and you and I are going to be a part of it! We’re going to be right in the bloody middle of it all!’

‘Fascinating,’ Frank said.

‘You betcha!’

‘There’s only one small problem.’

‘What’s that?’

‘I’m vegan. Have been for years. I won’t touch swine with a ten foot pole.’

By E.M. Vireo

Drop 143: Pressure

‘What’s it going to be?’ the man in white asked again.

‘Just a second,’ she said, postponing once more.

‘Please.’ He took a menacing half step forward, metal implement at the ready in his hand. ‘People are waiting.’

‘Just a second!’ she barked, shaking her head. ‘I can’t think.’

The room had grown more crowded and louder, and she felt flushed and dizzy. What if she chose wrong? What if she messed it up? She looked across at all the citizens waiting for her to act. The pressure was immense.

‘Seriously,’ the man implored, ‘you’re almost done. Just make your final choice.’

His voice was distant through the thickening claustrophobia. She could feel them all watching her, whispering, commenting. She felt she might be sick.

‘Jesus, lady. I haven’t got all day!’

‘OK, OK,’ she said, fighting off the panic. ‘Just give me beets.’

‘Beets. You got it.’ The deli man expertly plucked some from one of the many colorful metal trays in front of him with his tongs, and added them to the romaine leaves, sprouts, feta, broccoli and cherry tomatoes in the mixing bowl. ‘That’s your six choices for the salad lunch special.’

Phew. She felt the weight soar from her shoulders, even managing an odd smile. The long line she’d been holding up at the counter seemed to sigh in relief too.

‘Now you just need to choose a dressing. We got balsamic, honey-Dijon, soy-ginger, French, Italian and ranch. What’s it going to be?’

By EM Vireo

Drop #142: Long Hair

IMG_1183Tom and I were walking through Union Square when the thin, long-haired guy from Saturday night saw us and hurried over, all smiles. He looked like he wanted to give us hugs but checked himself and settled for two vigorous handshakes.

‘Wow, how are you guys?’ John asked. Or was it Jake? ‘I’m still recovering from the weekend. What a night!’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘It sure was a crazy one.’

It really had been. Tom and I had started drinking in the afternoon at a bar on Avenue A before heading over to some house party where we had champagne and wine and smoked a couple of blunts. That’s where we met the long-haired guy. The three of us left together, with three girls, and cabbed it to Jake’s apartment—or was it Jim?—where we drank insane amounts of whiskey while we finished a gram of blow one of the girls had produced. At around 1 a.m. we went to some club on the west side where one of the other girls knew the bartender. That was the girl I made out with. Fit brunette with a slight lisp. Tom hooked up with two or three ladies at the club, and Jim—or was it Jack?—almost went home with a very tall and beautiful black girl with a shaved head, but lost her trying to score more drugs from a dodgy looking dude in some weird private room in the back. 6 a.m. the three of us got burgers at a diner on 9th Ave before calling it a night.

‘You’re telling me!’ Jack said—or was it Jay? We should do it again some time.’

‘Sure.’ I said.

‘I got to run though. I’m late. Was great running into you two.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I’ll drop you line.’

‘Cool.’

He shook our hands vigorously again, smiled again, and walked off briskly.

As soon as we were out of earshot, Tom turned to me. ‘Who the fuck was that chick?’ he asked, squinting. ‘Not the most attractive specimen, is she?’

 by EM Vireo

Drop 141: Lost

lizard kingLate afternoon, 32 hours in, and John had begun to lose hope. He was hungry and thirsty and tired beyond words. He didn’t know if he could survive another night.

The dust storm had come out of nowhere dropping visibility to zero and sending the Cessna into a spiral. He tried to radio for help but that was down too. He barely had time to grab his chute and jump before the plane dove. Through sand and swirling wind, it was a miracle he made it to ground, landing rough in a patch of thorny shrubs. The storm had moved on and it was eerily still on terra firma, with good visibility. Beige sand, rock and cactus stretched as far as the eye could see. He was somewhere in the Mexico’s central Chihuahuan Desert. This land was vast and desolate.

He was scuffed up and he’d bruised a shoulder, but he was otherwise physically fine. There was real concern, however, about making it out alive with no phone or supplies, knowing no one would miss him for days. He’d need water and food and mainly he’d need luck. He was no Bear Grylls. He didn’t know the first thing about surviving in the wild, about getting moisture from cacti or eating wild berries. Odds were against him, which made slogging though the desert, with no known destination, that much harder.

He made a tactical decision to head west, based on a dubious mental picture gleaned from glances at flight maps, of an area he’d never been to. Seven hours later it hadn’t worked out and he was in real trouble. Maybe every plan would have produced the same result. It was that remote here, and not in any way pleasant. It was hot and dry with little shade and except for a few insects, lizards and that one hare, he hadn’t seen signs of any life, let alone humans. In all the time he’d been walking the landscape had barely changed, and soon night would fall.

The temperature dropped considerably after dark, and the wildlife came out. He tried to sleep on the sand, then on a flattish rock but was kept up by the cold, the scorpions and the clouds of biting gnats. Daybreak brought massive relief, but it was short lived. He hadn’t had water in almost a day, food in longer and the cloudless sky framed a cruel sun. Without hat or sleeves his skin grew red and blistered. Exhausted, he pushed on, striving towards a fictional target, towards an invented savior, hoping against hope to find a person, road or stream. But this was a far-off corner of hell few others would think to visit. He took breaks beside boulders, tried to dig for water in the dust, catch lizards to eat raw, but this only tired him further and made his fingers bleed. He struggled on.

32 hours in, and John had begun to lose hope. He was feeling dizzy and had started to shiver. His feet were cut up and every step sent searing pain up his leg and through his back. He could not swallow, could barely see, and night would soon be upon him again. He knew that it would take him this time. That if he lay down on its endless sandy bed, under its callous, cold and silent darkness, it would take him from this world. He was so tired, so very tired and sore, but he kept walking, staving off an inevitable night. Maybe exhaustion would ease his passing. Perhaps delirium would cushion his journey from this realm. Perhaps insanity would—

‘Oi, mate. What you doin here?’ A hoarse chuckle. ‘Figured I was the only bloke crazy enough to venture to these parts!’ More laughter.

When John looked up the man was right in front of him: a big man with a round belly and full red beard dressed in khaki shorts, a pink polo, and a felt bush hat. John thought he must already have slipped some way into madness as it looked like the man held a pair of tongs in one hand, a beer in the other. ‘You lost or something?’ the impossible vision asked, stepping closer, and then laughing again. As John also stepped forward he saw more that he struggled to make sense of: tables and chairs; pots, pans, and cooler boxes; a large fire with a barbecue grill set up over it; several other people carrying cameras and microphones; and further away, a helicopter.

‘Welcome to the set of Bazza Barnes: Remote Kitchen,’ the big man said. ‘A beauty, isn’t it? And that makes me Bazza,’ he added, having reached John and sticking out a hand. John took it. It was like a bear paw. ‘You can call me Bazz, Bazzmaster or Badman B if you want,’ Bazza said, still shaking, and following with his customary laugh, which sounded much louder and deeper up close.

‘Remote Kitchen?’ John managed through his desiccated throat.

‘Yeah, yeah. You got it. It’s a cooking show. They fly me to some of the remotest places on earth and I set up a kitchen and cook one hell of a bloody tasty feast, if i say so myself, right there and then. I’m quite famous in Australia, but I guess you’ve never seen the show or you’d be acting more impressed.’ More laughter. It had begun to be deeply soothing. ‘Isn’t this place is crackers though,’ he said, looking around. ‘Brutal spot. Just brutal—but I guess I don’t have to tell you that by the look of things.’ He contented himself with huge squint-eyed smile this time. ‘How’d you get heres anyways?’

‘Plane crash. Sorry, please, I need water.’

‘Of course, of course,’ with a great wallop on the back. ‘You want sparkling or still? Cold or room temperature? Probably hungry too, aren’t ya?’ Bazza put an arm around him. ‘Let’s walk you over to camp and get you fed. Got a whole menu on the go: mini lamb burgers with tzaziki and crispy onions, grilled chicken with Sriracha mayo and crunchy apple beet slaw, a beef bourguignon that’s been on the low coals for hours, and a huge chocolate marble sheet cake. Oh, and I’ve got ice cold beer on draught. A corker of an amber ale. Figure it’ll hit the spot in this climate and I reckon it’ll taste better than sex to someone in your position—but of course, we’ll get you a few sips of water first, get hydration goin. That’s only reasonable.’ There came the inevitable laughter. ‘Then we’ll sit you down, feed you for hours and keep the beers coming. Oh boy, I’m glad you dropped in! Tonight is going to be aces. And hell, mate, looks like you going to be on Aussie TV too!’

By E.M. Vireo

Drop 140: Cough

I’m sitting in a café, warm croissant in hand, when the woman at the table beside mine coughs. Two wet barks seem to get the job done but a few seconds later a wheezing buildup ushers in several more. She tries to gather her breath, hand on chest, but another coughing spell overwhelms her. This one is even more violent, lurching her torso back and forth as it delivers its blows. She fidgets with her handbag to pull out a tissue, to cover her nose and mouth with while she carries on sputtering. It puts up little resistance. Teary-eyed, she grabs another while she hacks up phlegm, then spits into it twice. A green strand arches from her face as she replaces it, suffering through another agonizing round of deep lung spasms. It’s one of the worst bouts I’ve ever witnessed. She looks like she’s dying as it just keeps coming.

Everyone in the place cringes through another long spurt, and is relieved when she finally stops, a full two minutes after she began. She blows her nose one final time, scrunching up the tissue and adding it to the pile that litters the table in front of her.

‘Wow,’ she says, looking at her friend and smiling. ‘My cough is so much better today.’

By EM Vireo

Drop #139: Paper

IMG_2026Barefoot in soft pajamas, she went to the front door to fetch the paper. This flawed old medium, with its wide ungainly pages that kinked at every turn and stained fingers a disturbing blue, still did it for her. In the twenty odd years she’d been addicted to coffee, she’d found no better companion for her morning cup.

She walked past the kitchen, ignoring the high-pitched squeals. A glue trap had finally worked. Opening the heavy gray door onto suburbia, the crisp air teased with the promise of a pleasant day.

The paper lay on the front porch, just two feet away. Some mornings, victim of a wayward arm, it barely cleared the fence. She stepped forward to pick it up, noticing the two boys as she bent down: maybe 8th or 9th graders, maybe on their way to school. They’d stopped beside the elm tree just outside the yard.

‘You little shit,’ the bigger one said loudly, as she straightened back up. ‘I’m gonna make you eat my fist.’

Curious now, she waited and watched. The bully was already well into his routine: ‘I’m gonna make you pay,’ delivered with a curt little shove.

‘Please,’ said the little one. ‘I didn’t do anything. I didn’t–’

‘Shut up, faggot.’ He put a hard palm to the other boy’s jaw and pushed it away. ‘Or I’ll hurt you worse.’

‘Please.’

‘I said shut up!’ He slapped the kid twice before grabbing him by the collar and shoving him against the tree. ‘You just don’t seem to get it.’ He flicked him on the forehead, smirking slightly. He was good at being mean. This was what he did. This was what he was. ‘And now I’m going to have to hurt you.’

She watched motionless in her pajamas, from her camouflaged spot on the porch, holding her rolled up paper. She watched the children with her adult eyes, with a responsibility, a duty to intervene. It was all so close, so clear: the hollow sobs, the growing wet patch.

‘Oh don’t cry, you pussy,’ the bully scoffed. ‘Take a beating like a man—oh Jesus, you went and pissed yourself too. That’s disgusting.’

Too clear: the humiliation, the sad reality. She’d watched it all with her terrible adult eyes; now she’d had enough. She’d seen enough.

She turned and went inside, closing the door softly behind her. She leaned against it, too taken by the scene she’d just witnessed to move another inch. Playing back the degradation, the closeness, the keenness of those slaps, she slid down the hard gray wood, banging her head twice against it and pursing her lips as she slipped four fingers under her pajamas bottoms and into her panties. In the past she would have fought back tears but it had long been all too clear: what one is, what one does. The mouse still squealed but faintly, slowly dying but not dead.

By EM Vireo

Drop 138: CAB

steak knifeC  

Witnessed a bizarre and disturbing scene today while having a bite at my local joint. Two guys at the table next door were just eating and talking quietly and suddenly the taller one grabs his knife and stabs the other straight through the hand. There was no buildup, no apparent reasoning. Dude was pinned to the table, screaming like crazy while blood flowed freely from the wound. It was insane. Just bonkers.

A

‘Hey, can you do me a huge favor?’

‘Maybe.’

‘Can I borrow your van this morning and for some of the afternoon? Have to make a few pick ups for the show.’

‘Guess you’ll also need me to drive it, yeah?’

‘Yeah. Haven’t renewed my license yet.’

‘Typical. And you’ll probably need help carrying shit too, right?’

‘That would be awesome.’

‘OK, but on one condition: we don’t skip lunch.’

‘Course not. Sure.’

‘I’ve been craving a buffalo burger all week and today’s the day. Going to JJ’s for the full combo and I don’t want to be rushed.’

‘Fine.’

‘I mean it. I want to sit and enjoy.’

‘No problem. You got it.’

They make the first pick up at 10.30, the second an hour later. After the next, they bring it all to the theater and unload. It’s almost one when they get to JJ’s. Tim orders the double buffalo cheeseburger special with fries, onion rings and slaw, and a pint of Bass. Larry gets a grilled cheese and a soda. It comes first and he finishes quickly. He taps his fingers on the table for a second, looks at Tim, who is savoring his second bite, and says: ‘Hey buddy. You think you could speed it up a bit? I still have two spots to hit before three.’

By EM Vireo

Drop #137: POV

windowI visit Giorgos for the first time at his seven-flight walk-up. His roommate answers: ‘Oh, he’ll be back in ten minutes. You’re welcome to wait.’

I take off my coat, hanging onto it as I stroll around the small apartment. The miniscule bathroom has a toilet, sink and shower all in the same few square feet of space with drain in the center. No curtain, door or other partition separates the shower. There is a squeegee with broken wooden handle in one corner. Neither bedroom has a window and both smell of must. Each has a raised single bed so clothes can be stored underneath. There’s no telling where kitchen begins and living room ends. A stubby mini fridge with a gas camping stove on it crowds the front door. A fold out table leans against the fridge, closed. There is a couch and a crooked side table on which an old Dell laptop sits. A tiny square window is the only link to the outside and I now walk over to look through it.

The first thing that catches my eye is a large round fresh water receptacle off to the left, now defunct. Two dead pigeons are suspended in its off-black void. A rotary washing line, rusted and broken stands nearby. Its slack remaining cords cling to a sweater, pair of trousers and some underwear that have long been deserted. They hang hardened, tinged a fungal green. Nearby is a makeshift cemetery; maybe a single family took burial into their own hands. There are four tombstones. Two have cracked and another has disintegrated. One of the graves looks freshly dug up. They lie under an apple tree with a yield of rotten fruit, beside a polluted pond. The water here is a sick dull brown, probably from the sewerage pipe running into it. Two structures command the right side of the picture: a derelict apartment complex, half burned down, housing only debris, broken household appliances and other garbage now, and diagonally in front of it, an operational slaughterhouse. The pigs are heard screaming as they meet their end, their crudely hacked bits hang dripping off hooks from outdoor racks. The whole scene is luridly painted in various shades of blood.

‘It’s not a great space, I admit,’ the roommate says as I notice another small garbage dump closer by, ‘and we probably could have done better, but we just fell in love with that view. We simply couldn’t pass it up.’

By EM Vireo

Drop 136: Locked Up

padlock‘All done? I’m closing up.’

‘Yeah,’ she says, watching mating cranes dance on TV.

‘You sure?’

‘Yeah.’

He carefully seals the Ziploc bag, checking twice it’s airtight, and puts it in the small cloth sack. He pulls its strings tight and ties them in a firm triple knot. He folds over the slack and slides the sack carefully, face up, into the embossed leather satchel, pushing it gently into the corner to ensure a snug fit. The satchel goes into the metal box, which is locked with a combination of three 5 number combinations and two simultaneous key turns; the box, in turn, goes into a reinforced oak chest which is wrapped lengthwise, then widthwise in a heavy chain, which is locked with a half-inch padlock. All keys are now stored in a small pouch which is duly locked (by combination) in a small titanium case, which he places, by way of step-ladder, in the safe in the study at the back of the house, behind the master bookshelf’s oversized top row of books (East Asian night markets and Taxidermy). Upon his return, he gets back to the chest, cloaking it in a heavy blanket, which he secures with a full roll of packing tape. He carries it down the double flight of stairs to the basement and deposits it in the trapdoor under the Persian rug, which he then kneels down to roll back out.

‘Done,’ he says, getting back to Jade and plopping down beside her. ‘Phew!’

‘Huh, what?’ She says, watching a snow leopard hunt mountain goats on a sheer cliff wall, then looks at him. ‘Hey, give me the baggy again for a second. I need one more thing from it.’

By E.M. Vireo

Drop #135: Confrontation

I came home late. My roommate, Pete, usually hit the sack early but I heard loud talking coming from the back of the flat as soon as I stepped inside. It sounded angry too: ‘Get out. Please. Just get out!’

I locked up softly and took off my coat. ‘Damn you, bastard. Damn you to hell!’ Pete now screamed.

Was he OK? I’d only moved in a month back and knew little about him or his acquaintances.

I took a few steps towards the ruckus, listening. There was a bang, as if something was being thrust against the wall. Jesus, what the hell was going on? I grabbed a golf club from the nearby closet and tried to compose myself. I’m small and weak and I’ve never been good with confrontation. I’d certainly never had to deal with violence. A few more tentative steps and more shouting: ‘You’re hurting me! Seriously, I want you out now!’

I’ll admit I was scared. I went closer but wasn’t sure what to do.

There was an eerie silence now. No shouting. No banging. I stood with my weapon in the dark corridor for a minute, procrastinating, soaking in the growing fear.

Then the toilet flushed, the faucet ran for a few seconds, and Pete came out of the bathroom whistling. ‘Oh, hi buddy. When d’you get back?

‘Just a couple of minutes ago.’

‘Man, hope you didn’t need the John. I wouldn’t go in there for a while. Quite a battle, if you know what I mean. Not pretty at all.’ He grinned. ‘Hey, what’s with the golf club?’

By EM Vireo

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