By Melissa Moore
“Something’s wrong with the meat.” Eddie sat on the metal kitchen counter, poking at the spot where he took a bite from his hamburger. There was something off about its taste. The diner hadn’t changed butchers, from Eddie’s knowledge.
Jed, the cook, would always fry a burger up for Eddie every time the diner got a new shipment of meat. Jed said that Eddie was his taster, making sure the food wasn’t poisoned or spoiled.
“Does it taste bad?” Jed asked. His hands dripped watered down blood from the ground meat. He had been slapping more patties into shape, readying to place them on the grill. Jed wiped his hands on his apron and turned to Eddie.
“It’s not bad. Not really,” Eddie said. “It just doesn’t taste like beef, that’s all.”
Jed frowned. “What does it taste like? Chicken?”
“More like pork.”
“Listen kid,” Jed interrupted, laughing. “I don’t care if it doesn’t taste like beef. It can taste like chicken or cat or dog. Whatever. As long as it doesn’t taste like shit, we’re good.” Jed shook his head and returned to his cooking.
Eddie slid off the counter, his feet landing on the cracked tile. Jed’s Diner, like all good diners, was an oily place. Sometimes the food seemed to come alive and threaten to eat you, but it would taste great as long as you could bite it before it bit you. But as long as you didn’t mind that the only vegetables on the menu were the limp add-ons for grease-drowned meat, and you didn’t mind that the faux-leather of the cracked booths would stab at your skin, and you didn’t mind that no amount of soap could ever get the floors clean—then Jed’s was the place for you. The diner was a melting pot. In one crusty booth, you’d find a wealthy couple, or a preacher—and in the next you’d find a druggie or some broke college atheist. Black people, white people, Asian people—everyone came to Jed’s because everyone had to eat.
Eddie got the job because Jed dated Eddie’s sister Jeannie in high school. Eddie had thought that his sister could do better—and she did, because she ended up marrying some big city dentist. Eddie wondered if his sister made the right choice. She didn’t smile as much as she did when she was with Jed, and her husband’s eyes landed on every pretty girl except her. Jed may have been a pot-smoking, binge-drinking, motorcycle-driving nightmare for Eddie and Jeannie’s parents, but she laughed when she was with him. Jed never looked at his string of honeys the same was as he had looked at Jeannie, either. Once after Jed and one of his ex-girlfriends broke up, Eddie walked into the back office of the diner and found Jed staring at Jeannie’s Facebook photos. Jed threatened to fire Eddie for not knocking, ranting about how an employee should respect his employer. “If you keep doing that kind of shit,” Jed had said. “Then you’re going to catch me watching some weird Japanese porn with my dick in my hand.”
Eddie knew Jed wouldn’t ever fire him, because Eddie was Jed’s only remaining tie to Jeannie. Maybe if Jed knew what Eddie did, things would be different.
The diner was a tiny place, but Jed had crammed wall-to-wall autographed photos of actors and athletes who’d supposedly visited. Jed had found most of the headshots at yard sales, and let Eddie forge the celebrities’ signatures. The diner had a jukebox, but the jukebox only had two options: bluegrass and Elvis. Jed sometimes played opera in the kitchen, but the real music was the sound of chattering guests, clanking silverware, and the drone of the flatscreen Jed had mounted on the wall.
Eddie was one of two servers. The other server was Jed’s girlfriend of the month, Annie. She was the stereotypical diner waitress: big hair, big boobs, and a habit of calling everyone “honey.” Annie smacked gum behind her over-painted lips, and never wanted to take any tables. Instead, she’d go to the kitchen and fight with Jed before stomping out of her shift early. Eddie picked up her slack.
Eddie tightened his server’s apron and grabbed a few laminated menus. It was Sunday, and almost noon. The church crowd would soon be coming in. It was the middle of the month so Eddie could expect more tips. The beginning of the month was the worst, because that’s when the church folk would tithe. They were less likely to tip then, having already given their generosity to God.
The diner was empty except for a big man squeezed in a shadowed corner booth. The man was biting his fingernails like a ravenous animal. He would tear off one of the yellowed tips and spit it to the floor. Eddie watched, raptured in gross amazement. The things people would do when they thought no one was looking. Eddie’s fascination broke at the shrill of a single alarm from the television. His eyes flew to the smudged screen. A banner reading “Breaking News” flashed across the screen in bold red. The banner shrunk to scroll across the bottom of the screen, and a brunette newscaster appeared. Her mouth was a grim line. The Botox in her forehead prevented her brows from furrowing, so her face contorted with a weird expression.
“It’s a terrible day for meat-lovers in the city of Newman,” she began. “Police arrested Frank Bailey, owner of Bailey Butchers for the murder of his wife, Glenda. Two weeks prior, friends noticed Glenda’s sudden disappearance and attempted to file a Missing Persons report.”
The newscaster shuffled the wide index cards in her hand. She shook her head and continued. “Police investigated and were unable to find evidence, until an anonymous tip led them to find Glenda’s severed head in the freezer of Bailey Butchers. Sources say that Bailey ground the rest of his wife up in the meat he sold to the public.” A phone number flashed onto the screen. “If you have purchased meat from Bailey Butcher’s in the last three weeks, please call the number on your screen—”
Eddie’s mouth went dry. Bile rose in the back of his throat, and he took a step back. He felt like he was going to faint, so he leaned onto the front register for support. His mind was fixated on the memory of the bite he had earlier. He remembered the strange taste. He had commented to Jed about it, but he hadn’t thought it tasted bad. In fact, the meat tasted good. Like fully developed veal. Was he a cannibal now? He rushed into the kitchen for Jed. They had to trash the meat. Burn it. It would ruin the diner if people knew that they were cooking with human meat. Even if the meat wasn’t entirely human—just that it came from a place now tainted with producing human meat…
Jed wasn’t in the kitchen. The grease popped alone, and the steam from the dishwasher rose in thick billows which were sliced through by the shaking ceiling fan. The pungent smell of burning food slapped Eddie in the face. He ignored it, deciding that he had more important matters to do with. Eddie couldn’t hear the smacking of Annie’s gum or the clicking of her heels. Sometimes Jed and Annie would step out back or hide in the office for a quickie. Eddie would see them reappear, Jed zipping up his jeans and Annie wiping smeared lipstick from her mouth. He would pretend that he didn’t notice, although neither Jed nor Annie cared much for their reputations.
Eddie banged on the office door, and the door squeaked open. The lock broke long ago, when Jed’s Canadian fling robbed the safe. Jed hadn’t bothered to fix the broken lock, after deciding that the best crime prevention is to avoid ‘exotic’ girls. The office was empty, but Eddie saw a picture of Jed and Jeannie pulled up on the screen. Jeannie sat in Jed’s lap, cradled in his oversized leather jacket. Jed’s stringy hair covered half his face. They were both laughing at something off-camera. They looked good together, Jeannie’s black skin in stark contrast to Jed’s white skin.
The office had a single, skinny window. The glass was tinted brown from never getting clean. Eddie could see the two rusted dumpsters outside. The green one was for recycling, and stayed empty. The red one was full with old food and stained cardboard. Between the dumpsters Eddie saw a glimpse of leopard print fabric and the spike of a red high heel. A burly hand shot out to grip the corner of the dumpster. They were finishing.
A feeble ding from the doorbell signaled someone had walked in the front. Eddie returned to the kitchen and burst out of the kitchen doors, expecting the FDA or even the police. Would he be arrested? What about sent to an asylum? Don’t they usually send people like him to the looney bin? Instead of the law enforcement, an elderly couple walked in. They were in their eighties, at least. The old woman wore a salmon-colored skirt and matching blazer two decades out of fashion. The skirt stopped at the knee, and her legs were covered by mismatching stockings. Eddie could see the lumps on her legs through the thin panty-hose fabric.
She sat herself at one of the nicer booths—one with only stains but no cracks. Following her was an old man. The old man wore a rumpled dress shirt with suspenders. His pants were wrinkle-free, though, with a sharp ironed-crease running down the middle of the leg. His shiny patent-leather shoes pointed towards each other and his knees knocked together when he walked.
The couple weren’t regulars. The woman had a string of pearls wrapped around her jowls, and a golden brooch over her left breast. Eddie wondered sometimes why people like them chose a place like Jed’s. The woman uncovered her hair, setting an ivory hat on the buttery tabletop. Eddie could see the pale, veiny skin stretched around her skull through the puffs of thin, white hair. Her sagging skin drooped over the hems of her clothing like jelly oozing from a sandwich.
Eddie was unsure whether to tell the couple that the diner was closed. Jed would yell at him, red-faced and spit-flying, if Eddie let the couple’s money go to some other restaurant. As he pondered this, Annie waltzed in while adjusting the strap of her heel.
“What’re standin’ around for?” Annie asked, smacking her gum. She kept endless packs of gum in the cash register up front, which means she was chewing the same gum that she had before she went outside with Jed. Eddie wrinkled his nose.
“Where’s Jed?” Eddie asked. A thin line of sweat formed at his hairline. Annie shrugged.
“Went to get buns. We’re out.” Annie nodded to the table with the elderly couple, and attempted to whisper. “You goin’ get that or not?”
“Annie,” Eddie went to the register and reached underneath, unsnaking his car keys from a hook. “I always get your tables for you. Take this one. I got to see Jed about something.”
Annie shook her head, her stiff hair-sprayed hair bouncing. “I ain’t doing your job, queen.” She turned and made her way back to the kitchen. Eddie hoped that she would go to the office and find Jeannie’s picture on the screen.
The elderly couple had been watching. Their beady eyes drilled into Eddie. They looked like some time of robot or zombie. Maybe the FDA did hire them.
Eddie reasoned that if they ordered a burger or anything else with the contaminated meat, he would tell them that the item was unavailable. He took their drink order and handed them the menu. Eddie sat down at the booth behind them, staring at the television. He wondered if more news would break about the possible cannibalism. He wondered if the older couple would see it and leave.
Instead of the meat story, a story about some guy committing suicide in a church was on. Eddie ignored the TV and glanced at the clock. The short hand pointed at twelve but the longer hand ticked back and forth between twenty and twenty-one. He could hear the older couple’s brief conversation. They were talking about the menu and their Sunday school class. Eddie looked up for the man who was in the corner booth when the meat story broke. The man was gone.
The old woman nodded her head towards the television. She stared at the screen over her thick glasses, her wrinkled lips pursed.
“Martha said they considered cancelling church because of the fuss.” The woman scoffed. “Shame of a world we live in, where someone would think to blaspheme like that. Strung himself up right over the cross. Like he thought he was the Savior.”
Her husband grunted in agreement. “Probably a schizophrenic. They tend to commit suicide.”
“Well, we know where he’s burning right now. I wished that pastor had damned him to Hell from the pulpit. He just rambled about how sad it was and how people like that need love. I tell you what, the young people of today are too politically correct to say that someone’s in Hell.”
“Is that what he talked about? I could barely hear him over that woman’s wailing,” the old man said.
The old woman’s voice lowered. “She’s just as guilty as her son. A mother should know if her child doesn’t respect the Scripture.”
“I always thought the boy was one of them gays.”
“See, that’s no surprise there then,” The old woman laughed. “I’d kill myself if I was a faggot, too.”
Eddie’s head jerked to the direction of the couple. He couldn’t believe that they would have said something like that in a public place. Small towns sometimes bred hatefulness, but rarely did he see people so blatantly impolite.
“Where’s that damned waiter?” the old man grumbled. The woman scoffed and spoke too low for Eddie to understand. He caught one word, however. Negro.
Eddie stood and stepped over to the booth to take their order.
The old woman thrusted the two menus at him. Eddie cradled the laminated menus, picking at the brown edges that had started to crack. “I’ll have one of your burgers, please. He’ll have a salad. Diabetic, you know.” She narrowed her eyes at Eddie. “And make sure you wash your hands, too.”
Maybe it was the shock of having consumed human meat or maybe it was the incessant, broken tick of the clock. Maybe it was the fact that no matter how many times Eddie scrubbed the floor, it never looked clean. Maybe it was because Annie never did her work and Jed always abandoned the restaurant to get a blowjob. Maybe it was the sheer injustice of what the couple said or how uncomfortable it was to listen to it. And Eddie thought that maybe when Jed finds out, he’ll finally let Eddie go.
Eddie smiled. “Coming right up.” He went into the kitchen, and saw a burger already prepared. Annie wouldn’t miss her lunch. He grabbed the warm plate and emptied a bag of pre-fixed salad onto another plate. He brought both plates out to the couple, setting them down with a loud clank.
The man mumbled a thank-you, but didn’t look at him. Eddie stepped back to stand by the register, his eyes fixated on the pair. The woman attempted to cut through the hamburger with her plastic cutlery, but the prongs of the fork broke with a satisfying snap. Sighing, she gingerly grasped the sandwich between her two index fingers and thumbs. She took a bite, and then another. And then another. Grease dribbled down her chin, running through her wrinkles like an unhealthy river. The old woman closed her eyes in pleasure, a quiet, unholy moan escaping her thin lips. The old man stabbed at his salad, shakily thrusting each forkful into his mouth. Their sex must be like this, Eddie thought.
The sound of rushing water through old pipes jolted Eddie from his fascination. A toilet had been flushed. Expecting Annie, he tightened his jaw, gritting his teeth. Instead, the big man with the yellowed fingernails lumbered out. His fingernails were dipped red where he had pulled too much off.
The man stopped in the bathroom doorway, the swinging door slamming into his back. He didn’t flinch or move. Instead, he stared at the couple. The woman had reached the middle of the burger, where the meat was slightly pink. Pink juice dripped onto the table. She licked her fingers, sucking each swollen extremity with care. The man looked back at Eddie, eyes widening in realization. He knew.
Eddie’s heart raced as he searched frantically for his keys. Where had he left him? He just had them. The man’s mouth opened and closed like a fish gasping for water.
“You—” the man stuttered. “You can’t do that.” His voice grew louder as he repeated himself.
“You can’t do that, you can’t do that. You can’t do that! You can’t do that!” He pointed a damning finger at Eddie, who was frozen in shock. The man looked like some sort of god condemning him to Hell. The old couple had stopped eating, and were watching the spectacle.
“You can’t do that!” The big man stepped closer. His eyes were wild. He smelled like some sort of drug.
The feeble doorbell dinged again. Jed stood there holding a box full of burger buns, a confused look on his face. His eyes darted from the old couple to the yelling man and then settled on Eddie. His face seemed to harden. Did Jed know what he did? Did Jed know everything? Eddie had only wanted the best for his sister. He had told himself that he shouldn’t—that he couldn’t—break them up but he did anyway. The look on Jed’s face was obvious to Eddie. Jed knew.
“You! Can’t! Do! That!”
Eddie could feel keys digging into his thigh. He had put them in his pocket.
About the Author:
Melissa Moore is a junior at the University of Memphis. She is majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing. Melissa grew up in the small town of Middleton, TN, and developed a love for writing (and animals) on her family farm. She currently resides in Memphis, TN.