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I’m going to hunt a cow, I tell some friends after sinking back a few whiskeys. I say it in jest, but I can feel truth festering behind the words.
I’m sitting in a dimly lit bar with three other somber-faced ex-chefs, anticipation buzzing from our bodies like static across an old television screen.
Usually, we just talk about it — red meat. How it would feel to slice into a thick slab of it — a steak with pink Himalayan salt, seasoned as we used to in the restaurant — to, at last, use our teeth for their purpose. Jeff speaks of blood dripping from his chin, dark as beets. Gerry says he would trade his wife for a tender slice of sirloin against his taste buds, buttery spun silk. He laughs when he says it, but it doesn’t sound like hyperbole.
I hunch over a circular wooden table, a five-minute bicycle ride from home. It’s late, past midnight, and my wife and daughters sleep soundly in their beds, unaware that I crept across the floorboards to the music of their faint snores. If my wife wakes to my absence, I’ll find her pacing in the kitchen brewing tea when I stumble home.
We’ve shut our phones off out of caution because we must pretend that we don’t miss it. We must publicly savor the okra, the beyond-meat burgers, the fried tofu.
Cigar smoke curls around us, thick and balmy.
“How would you cook it?” Simon asks, salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs. His pupils, full moons, leave little room for blue irises.
“Butter,” Gerry scoffs. “You have to sear it in butter. Top it with a little rosemary. Pair it with Merlot.”
“I don’t know,” I interject. “I’d do something fancy — au poivre crust sprinkled with gorgonzola.”
“You don’t have to hunt one,” Jeff offers. He’s uneasy and his eyes dart back and forth, watching as the bar-back pours Tito’s over ice.
He lowers his voice. “My brother says you can buy it on the black market.”
The smell of stale beer and salted almonds packs the room, sliding across the floor in a sticky film.
“No,” Gerry says. “It’s not the real stuff. You’ll be choking down a human thigh or glute. You’ve got to do it yourself.”
“It’s nearly impossible,” I say, shifting in my seat. I’m pulling on the wiry, rust-colored hairs of my beard. “I could end up dead.”
Simon agrees. “They’re almost eradicated in the States. Unless you’re willing to sneak onto government soil for one.”
“You’ve got to try upstate New York,” Gerry says. “Elites, ex-mob guys, they keep them as pets. Worship them, like the Hindus do.”
“Nah, they breed bovines, castrate and eat ‘em.” Simon waves his hand above his head. “Greedy bourgeoisie.”
“God, you’re a bunch of conspiracy theorists,” Jeff says, vodka spittle spewing from his lips.
“Why don’t you just go to India for one, then? I hear there are some there still, roaming in the streets. They wouldn’t hurt them.” Simon leans on his elbows.
“I can’t afford a plane ticket,” I say. “And besides, they hate us over there since the mass slaughter, though it was more human than most of our factories.”
“The ol’ hunting decree,” Gerry nods — he’s the only one who personally participated. “The fall of the meat industry.”
“So long, cattle,” Simon shakes his head sadly.
We lean back in our seats, thinking in silence. Jeff gestures for the check, as if to silence the idea.
But it lingers in the air, settling over us in a blanket of possibility: I could hunt and cook us a steer.
My wife’s standing in the kitchen staring into a mug of tea, letting the steam heat her cheeks. She jumps when I open the door.
“Went to the bar again, huh?”
Pans decorate the counter. Fresh chopped mint and parsley cling to a cutting board. A bottle of olive oil leaks onto granite.
“New recipe?” I ask her.
She still cooks (though I stopped when we lost the restaurant) at a Michelin-star in Center City that Philadelphia Magazine dubbed inventive and piquant. She never mentions the steakhouse.
Sometimes in the dark when my back is turned, I ask if she misses it. Remember school in Brazil? How we learned to tenderize? I ask. Remember fat and sinew?
“Yeah, new recipe,” she answers me now, reaching to push her black bangs out of her eyes. “Restaurant is looking for a sous chef, if you’re interested. I told them I knew a guy.”
“No, thanks, Ava. I think I’ll keep recruiting for a bit.”
Ava sighs and her eyebrows meet above her upturned nose to form a deep wrinkle. She puts her mug on a coaster and walks quickly around the cramped, industrial-style kitchen, stuffing plates in the dishwasher.
“You’ve got to move on, Dave,” she says. “It’s been five years.”
She reaches for my hand. “We’ve got two little girls. The recruitment job isn’t a career.”
I pull my hand away, sliding it across the crumbs on the countertop.
“I know you’ve been talking to Arabella,” she goes on. “She’s got drawings of cows pinned above her bed. It isn’t normal.”
I back away with my hands in the air, but she keeps talking.
“There’s still fish. There’s still chicken. A true chef can cook anything.”
“Come on,” I say. “You know they’re hard to come by, now. The whole food chain’s out of whack.”
She sighs. She’s tired of having the same argument.
“Well, wouldn’t you rather be alive?” she asks. “It needed to happen.”
Her eyes brush over me, taking in the beard, the tattoos, the untucked shirt, and a look of dissatisfaction mars the pretty features of her face.
“Actually,” I lie, suddenly inspired, “I’ve been thinking of heading to upstate New York. Gerry says there’s a plant-based culinary summit there in a few weeks. Maybe I’ll consider that sous chef job, after all.”
In my bed later, I stare at the ceiling. Moonlight steals through the window, illuminating Ava’s skin like foam against a wave. Half-dreaming, images materialize—me, in a white coat, carrying a tall skewer of beef, bending to slice it with a gleaming silver knife. A patron reaching forward with tongs to grip the piece gingerly and court it to a ceramic plate. The salad bar lined with luxuriant chunks of burrata that ooze cream from the center when punctured with a fork.
“Daddy, what’s methane?” my six-year-old asks in the morning, shampoo suds bubbling in her ears. She splashes and watches droplets fall from the air and merge with the bath water, becoming one again.
“Well, too much of it is bad for the earth,” I say. I’m kneeling on the cold bathroom tile. “When we used to eat cows, and drink their milk, it spread to the atmosphere from their burps.”
Her nose scrunches in confusion, and then she laughs, gums showing where her two front teeth once dangled. I reach forward and release the drain to let it gulp noisily at the soapy water. Arabella covers her ears.
“And you killed them, Daddy? To get rid of them?” she asks, wrapped in a towel on my lap.
“No, I didn’t kill any. Daddy’s friend Gerry did, though.”
“The gov-ner-men told him to, though, right, Daddy?”
“Dave, that’s enough,” Ava shouts from our bedroom.
Three Saturdays later, I meet Gerry at noon, and we sit outside on his front stoop, because the air is particularly warm for November. Yellow leaves line the cement steps and crunch in satisfaction beneath our feet.
Gerry lives in Old City, in a stately, stone townhome off a cobblestone street. His wife is an app developer who funds his gambling habit, and he works for a security company but takes in little commission.
He’s found us a family in the Catskills who recently outfitted their mansion in security. The husband’s a class-action attorney who, according to Gerry, earned a hefty sum in a cruise wreck recovery.
Gerry’s company performed the installment a few months ago and his buddy returned to the office wide-eyed and frantic, pulling Gerry into the bathroom where he whispered, they’ve got a pasture; they’re breeding steers, I’m sure of it. Gerry driveled just hearing it, he tells me after. It’s confidential information, of course, but he scans the computer later, retrieves the address, and draws us a map of the grounds.
Since he’s kept tabs on the file, he learns that this week the family has plans to vacation in Italy. They’ve requested tight surveillance on the home with special focus on the pasture.
“Hey, Dave!” Gerry’s wife leans out the upstairs window and waves. “Have fun at the summit, you guys. Sounds great. I’m so glad Gerry wants to get back in the kitchen.”
Gerry smiles, waves. “Miss ya, babe!”
He looks at me and his voice drops two octaves. “I’ve got two guns: a rifle and a big handgun, depending on how close we get to it. I figure I can hold one, you hold the other. Whoever’s got the shot, shoots.”
I nod in reverence. “Did you get the truck?”
“I’ve got my brother-in-law’s truck. Told him we’re gonna need it to bring back any cooking supplies we buy at the retreat: smokers, grills, the likes.”
Though I shared the first impulse, Gerry’s the mastermind behind our plan, the one who agreed to accompany me. I knew Jeff and Simon would decline, though they’ve asked us to bring back meat for them. I imagine the four of us, hunched over chunks of grilled flesh in a field somewhere, juice dripping down our forearms, like the schoolboys in Lord of the Flies.
Kill the pig, cut her throat, bash her in, and all that.
We leave in the early afternoon, in a white moving truck, the sort with no rear windows that my wife tells my daughters to run from. Gerry cranks his seat back and sleeps, his meaty legs sprawled across the dashboard and I drive, holding my phone in my right hand to navigate the GPS.
Gerry wakes only to request a gas station burger, and we step out of the truck to eat them on the asphalt floor of the parking lot. I wolf mine down in two bites, the taste of beyond-meat sufferable with the promise of fresh beef so close.
Next to me, Gerry takes slow bites of his. He’s sitting with one leg bent underneath his body, balancing his burger on the knee of the other. He looks at me with sad eyes, like taking this trip has brought us closer, entitled him to share something personal.
“Alright,” I say. “Finish up. Better get back on the road.”
“I’m falling apart, man,” Gerry says, voice cracking. “I hate my job. I need a Perc just to get through the day.”
“Ger, in a few hours, you’ll be a chef again.”
I pat his broad shoulder for what feels like an appropriate length of time.
The bulk of our travel unfolds on the Jersey Turnpike, and I pass the time reading the billboards, Gerry’s snores a welcome replacement for his sorrow. In quick succession, I see the Virgin Mary clutching at a string of beads with text that reads “Pray the Rosary Every Day,” and then next to it, a sign that reads, “Wanted: Serial Bank Robber,” across a grainy image of a white male with long hair. Further ahead there’s an older sign, sticking out of the dirt road. A large red “X” crosses out the image of a cow. “Us or Them?” the sign asks.
It dawns on me that in years past, autumn would have brought bloodied fawns, recumbent with vacant eyes, to the side of the highway.
Instead, the scene is picturesque — the Northeast in fall — and a spectrum of burgundy dots the turnpike. I crack open the windows to let in the crisp air and nostalgia washes over me in the form of Thanksgivings as a child. I think of cooking corned beef brisket with my father who loathed turkey, of the way he cured the beef for weeks with large-grained rock salt, in preparation.
My father taught me to carefully slice the meat with an electric knife, avoiding my fingers; in hindsight, he had likely slugged too many beers to cut it himself. By night’s end, cans of crushed Bud Light lined the counter, and shouts wafted through the vents of my parents’ bedroom.
My father’s temper, emboldened by rampant alcoholism, subdued only when we cooked together. In silence that mingled with Frank Sinatra’s crooning, we held our collective breath as we took the first bites of Sunday meatballs, rib-eye steaks, lamb chops.
When he died, I saved nothing of his but his recipes, scrawled on lined paper in chicken-scratch print.
We stop in Poughkeepsie to rest and wait for the still hours of early morning. The motel is a small, brick building with an orange, clay-tile roof. Across the parking lot stands a light blue, abandoned and windowless cement building with the words “Edward’s Adult Bookstore” trailing across the side in shaky, black ink. The sun, an angry ball of flame, sets slowly behind Edward’s.
“Now, that’s a place I’d have liked to check out,” Gerry says, grinning to show white Chiclet teeth. His mood has shifted considerably.
I pull my phone out of my pocket and text Ava: just arrived at the hotel. Beautiful! All expenses paid for. Head chef sounds talented.
So proud of you, she writes back.
At the front desk, a woman hands us the key to our room. She has stringy blonde hair and pockmarked skin, accentuated with deep craters. She’s jumpy, talking fast but struggling to enunciate.
“Two beds, please,” I say.
“You’ll take what I have,” she slurs.
There’s one queen-size bed with a flowered, green quilt in the middle of the square room she gives us. The print, the same as a ceramic bowl my mother gave me to vomit into as a child, makes me nauseous, feels like strep throat again and amoxicillin in a plastic shooter. Gerry reaches into his duffle bag and pulls out a UV-flashlight. He tugs back a corner of the fitted sheet and scans the mattress for bed bugs.
“The wife says you gotta do this at hotels,” Gerry says. “And she thinks we’re at a Hyatt.”
Gerry ventures off to find a vending machine and I lie against a flat pillow, letting my eyes flutter shut. When I open them, hours later, and pull back curtains that cover a streaky window, stars pulse against a vast, black canvas. My chest thumps. It’s almost time.
I look in the bathroom for Gerry, but he hasn’t returned, so I ease on the sink, turning the handles of a rusted faucet, and splash water on my face. I fasten the buttons of my plaid flannel over a white undershirt. Red grooves in my face from the pillow decorate my left cheekbone.
I venture down the hallway in search of a water fountain, my tongue pasty against the roof of my mouth.
At the front desk, Gerry’s dancing slow with the blonde woman. Her greasy hair hangs mid-way down her back swaying along with her hips. He whispers something to her, and they laugh.
“Wouldn’t you love it, though?” Gerry says a bit louder, into her ear. “A juicy, McDonald’s Big Mac.”
“Gerry,” I blurt, my voice high-pitched, unrecognizable to my own ears. “It’s nearly time. We’ve got shit to do.”
“Excuse my friend,” Gerry steps back from the woman. “He was a famous chef once. Tomorrow’ll be his first day cooking since.”
“Not even breakfast?” she asks, monotone.
On the hour-long drive to the property Gerry found in the Catskills, we talk logistics. Gerry has brought his work computer and logs on to the property’s security cameras from the passenger seat.
“We’ll go in and cut the power manually,” Gerry says. “I don’t want to shut the system down from here or they’ll know it was an inside job.”
But once we arrive, Gerry refuses to exit the truck. He doesn’t want to kill another cow, he says; he’s seen too much blood and gore.Seen white, black, and red spotted beings scattered in the grass like battlefield casualties. It’s not as easy as you think, he says.
“What the hell, Gerry?” I ask him, grinding my teeth near his face. “I’ve got to do it myself?”
“I’ll help you cook it after. I’ll cook it myself! I’ll cut it and put it in the fridge,” he gestures to the back of the truck, where the supplies wait.
“What the hell, Gerry?”
“I’ve been watching YouTube videos on butchering,” Gerry goes on, gesturing emphatically.
“It’s a one-man job, Dave,” his eyebrows raise in defense. “I’ll be here waiting. I’ll keep a lookout.”
He’s tired, though, from his late-night rendezvous with the motel manager, and I see his eyelids droop as he speaks. The skin under his eyes is translucent, showing purple, tree-branch veins. I remember how he walked when we first hired him, shoulders thrust back in confidence, broad chin protruding forward.
I reach into the backseat and retrieve the loaded guns, tucking them under my hunter-green jacket. The house sits atop a winding hill, secluded, and shaded with tall pines and maples with roasted-carrot leaves that bask in the light of the truck’s headlights. It’s dark, early morning, and the castle of a home looks menacing—stone pillars frame the front door and a wrought-iron balcony juts from the main bedroom like a threatening underbite.
Gerry has mapped out the spots on the land where motion sensors and cameras hide. I carry the piece of paper with me, stepping across the wet grass on tiptoe in a gentle ballet. The air here is hibernal and unfriendly, a contrast to the recent warmth of the city.
The land is large, sprawling, and it’s a mile walk to reach the enclosed pasture. I disable the alarm like Gerry taught me (snipping the wires with kitchen shears), and unlatch the gate, before bending over to rest my calloused hands on my knees. When I look up, air catches in my throat.
“Holy shit,” I breathe.
It’s a steer, like Gerry promised, with short, brown fur and massive ivory horns pointing toward the gray sky—a figure with demonic presence. I stumble back. He grunts in my direction, his nostrils flaring at the tip of a wet, fleshy nose. Beady black eyes perched sideways on a long, narrow face stare at me, unblinking. It’s got eyelashes, I think.
I’m close enough to use the handgun, which I retrieve slowly from under my coat. I can hear his breathing, or maybe it’s my own, reverberating in a trance that feels drug-induced, but isn’t. I’ve got the gun cocked, pointed in his face, my finger slipping from the trigger.
We stare into one another’s eyes, sentient beings locked in an unspoken understanding—he knows what I’ve come to do. I hold the power here, but I back away slowly. The lust for meat, once primal, feels trivial.
“Hey, drop the weapon,” someone shouts behind me.
I snap my head to the left and see two men dressed in dark suits, shotguns aimed at my back. They’re strapped in bullet-proof vests.
Somewhere in the distance I think I hear a truck engine revving, tires screeching away. Dammit, Gerry, I think.
The men are shouting. They close in on me with pointed weapons.
“No, no, don’t shoot,” I beg, thinking of my wife, my daughters.
I fall to my knees, dropping the handgun, and rip moist stalks of grass from the earth with clenched fists. I’m on all fours, my back in the air, staring into the steer’s eyes. He’s unmoving.
Suddenly, he throws his head back, mocking me.
The early morning sun peeks through the clouds and glints off our silhouettes, two animals at the mercy of a gun’s barrel.
Annie is a copywriter in the Greater Philadelphia Area. She holds a master's degree in English from West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where she focused in creative writing. Her poetry can be found in Pulp Poets Press and The Bangalore Review. This is her first fiction publication.