Here it is, May is National Short Story Month and I didn’t remember until today. Fine short story devotee I turned out to be. Still, it’s worth celebrating for those of us who take the challenge of telling a tale in pages, not volumes…character, plot, conflict, beginning, middle and end in 3,000 words. In honor of this month and all people who follow in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allen Poe, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Pamela Houston and other greats, I am including here Spicy Beef Barbecue, one of the stories from my collection, The Last Generation of Women Who Cook.
Spicy Beef Barbecue
by Kathy Johncox
In the late afternoon on the wrap-around porch of the main house, Luke tried to get comfortable, but his shoulders ached from the ranch work he and the other guests were obliged to do to get the true flavor of the west. Hell, all the flavor he needed was in the golden bottle next to him, in the slabs of bacon presented at the crack of dawn every morning, in the Tex-Mex fare that spiced up the dinner hour before the evening of compulsory interaction with strangers sharing this week at the dude ranch began.
He held the cold brew to his forehead and he allowed himself to be wistful for a moment. If only Roni were with me, we could watch the sun set and then turn in, as they say out here. But then, he reminded himself, she’s the reason you’re here. She’s the one who pushed you to take a break from creating computer software, obsessing on coding solutions, working late into the night on seemingly insolvable puzzles. A break from all the things you love.
“And she’s not here,” Luke muttered softly to himself, pushing her away mentally as she had done to him physically, telling him to leave, just for a while, just to get it all straight.
He stretched his legs out long, leaned his shoulders against the wooden porch chair, and cupped his hands behind his neck. He closed his dark brown eyes, trying to stop the stinging from the day’s onslaught of prairie dust. He rubbed the sweat-dampened ends of his dark curly hair, just before he felt the familiar sharp pain in the trapezius muscle near his shoulder, the one most affected by the stress of hunching over a keyboard all day. That’s where it was, all right, everything he worried about amassed right there in the pain that never could escape notice, no matter what he did, whether it was grocery shopping, or washing the car, or surfing the Net or sitting on the verandah on a dude ranch, or even making love.
He felt sure he was here because Roni had sensed his growing feelings of inadequacy, a mix of exhaustion and psychic impotence that eventually had become the real thing. He had been too tired for sex or anything that took that amount of energy, and his fatigue evolved into performance anxiety that, at age thirty-five, made popping the question to Roni a very disturbing issue. Finally, they had opted for some time apart.
No actually, Roni had opted for some time apart. But he had bought into it, agreeing after they had had five arguments about food in as many days, each one ending somehow in a reference to his lack of desire. During the fourth disagreement, he had contended that her nightly selection of a container from the freezer, the folding up one edge of the sealed cover, the tossing it into the microwave, and the throwing it on the table with a fork and a napkin, lacked a passion for food. She, in no uncertain terms, reminded him of what she saw as his lack of passion for other things, then started to nibble on her steaming hot dinner, neatly separated in three small compartments, no one food daring touch another.
Her relationship to food was as unpredictable as her relationship to anything else. She would slave over certain meals and came home with others bought at the upscale grocery. But inevitably when he craved a home-cooked meal, she was too tired. When she wanted to cook, she did, but she groaned and moaned about the effort she was expending and always, always involved him in the preparation.
Roni did have many positive qualities, Luke would tell himself often. She was neat and efficient and had a logical mind. She was attractive enough to make other men look at her and more attractive than anyone Luke had ever dated before. Too bad she was developing into an insolvable puzzle, one he wasn’t sure he loved so much.
Then came the fifth argument.
“Could you take the meat out of the crock-pot?” she had asked. There was an edge to her request and if he had not been thinking about the latest programming problem, he might have reacted to it.
“Sure, baby,” he’d replied absently, lifting the chunk of well-done beef and putting it on a platter. Ready to go back to thinking about the computer problem, he heard her say “Could you get two forks and pull the meat apart please?” He dutifully did that and was ready once more to relax with his Chardonnay when she asked him to pour the bottled barbecue sauce over the beef and put it in a pan on simmer. At which point he said, “I’m a little busy thinking. Can’t you just do that part?” Whereupon Roni said she was sick of doing EVERYTHING herself, “If you know what I mean,” and stormed into the bedroom which was the last place he would follow her.
Later that night he heard her in the bedroom talking to someone on the phone and when she came out she suggested some time apart, just to clear his head.
Waking up from a snooze on this verandah near Butte, Montana, several thousand miles from Roni in Syracuse, New York, Luke thought that the smell of beef barbecue had been in his dream. Only when the ranch hand rang the dinner bell did Luke realize food was actually cooking, food with a smell similar to the beef barbecue that had got him here in the first place. Surprised it was nearly sunset, he got up, tucking the shirt tails of his newly purchased denim shirt into his only slightly worn jeans, and led by the smell of the beef, hobbled around the corner in his new and not yet comfortable cowboy boots. By lantern light, he saw long tables decked with gingham picnic cloths welcoming guests and inviting them, in the sharing of food, to become friends. He saw the replica chuck wagon, gate open in the back, holding an old campstove with its flames licking at a huge cauldron of tantalizingly fragrant, spicy fare. A blond cowgirl stood on a stepping stool stirring the bubbling beef with more energy and enthusiasm than he had seen anyone do anything lately.
He thought a cowgirl because her well-worn jeans, her work boots, the pearl buttons in her shirt glinting in the flickering light, all made her at home right there in the realm of Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane. Luke watched her reach into the iron pot, scooping and scraping the beef barbecue, her body undulating toward the pot and then away, then leaning gracefully forward on the stool as she peered into the dark center.
Roni did not speak with her body as she prepared to heat the food she picked up at the local deli, food that someone else had cooked.
Wisps of the cowgirl’s hair fell casually from the ribbon holding it back and her western hat, kept around her neck by a leather strap, bobbed up and down on her back. Roni’s dark hair was gelled to keep it in place, no matter what. As the woman used her shoulder to wipe perspiration from her cheek, she winced but this motion was made with such economy that no one would even know, except Luke who had made that motion a million times in frustration in the midst of a difficult software development project. His shoulder ached for her.
“Come and git it,” she called with authority and a western drawl. The twelve other people on the week’s junket meandered toward the wagon, with their substantial margaritas. Luke carried his beer bottle. He was beginning to feel Roni had been right. This was what he had needed.
“Here. You dish it up like this,” the cowgirl said. She demonstrated how to ladle the tender shredded beef and tangy sauce over fresh baked biscuits. She cajoled them into dunking their corn on the cob in a bucket of butter and tucked a wedge of watermelon on the edge of each of their plates. She used her bandanna to wipe her neck, damp with the effort of serving hot food on a steamy Montana night. Roni did not perspire, wouldn’t do anything that might cause it, even refused him on summer nights saying too sticky, too clammy, too much, just too much.
Luke waited his turn, then sauntered over to the table closest to the chuck wagon. The woman, satisfied that all were served, grabbed a plate and efficiently filled it with the smoking beef, and sat down next to Luke, plate heaped higher than his, and greeted every one at the table.
“You’re gonna love this barbecue. Isn’t a person doesn’t rave about this meal. Some people even take my picture near the pot while I pretend I’m stirring. Imagine that.” And she laughed so richly, so deeply that Luke wondered how he could hear it again. Her chambray shirt boasted a smear of barbecue sauce on the pocket over her left breast, which captivated him even as he tried not to stare.
“I’m Letty,” she said. She extended her buttery hand to the folks around the table. Luke put down his corn and wiped his hand before telling her his name.
“Your name is Luke Dalton? Oh, right.” She laughed her rich laugh again. “That’s a well- known name around here. You have heard of the Dalton Brothers.”
“In the movies. And I do have a brother but we’re both law abidin’ folk.”
“The Daltons had reputations, you know. Lying, cheating, stealing, womanizing. Not exactly the type a girl would seek out for a long-term relationship.”
She smiled and dug into her barbecue like cholesterol didn’t matter and fat was a thing of the past, devouring her food voraciously, with gusto. Then Luke dug into his own meal, his eyes widening in surprise at the delicate flavor of the strongly scented meat, the delightfully blended tastes of the sweet, the sour and the hot and something exotic, piquant.
“This is great,” Luke said.
“Told you. You Daltons don’t take anything on faith, do you?” Her face was made bright by the campfire roaring in the fire pit between the chuck wagon and the main house.
“You made this for real? From scratch?” Luke persisted.
“It’s what I do.”
“Ever use a crock-pot?”
“Heavens no.” Then she laughed again.
They continued in silence, but for Luke her laugh echoed into the night. He heard sounds he had never heard at home: crickets chirping and small animals chattering as they burrowed in for the night, cozy yet wild, alert to the tiniest sound, to every potential threat. The horses whinnied softly in the paddock not far away, rustling hay as they settled in to spend some dark hours getting ready for the light.
Letty was so companionable and friendly. Maybe she was paid to be that way by the Silver Stirrup Ranch, but then again maybe not. Her cooking skill and her delight in the beef barbecue were obvious. No picking through the shredded beef, no half-hearted attempt to eat less or wiser. Just honest enjoyment of that and, perhaps, everything else. Cozy yet wild.
“What?” she said.
“Stop your staring at me and eat your food. I’m the least interesting of the two, believe me. I’m going for another biscuit. You on?” She stood waiting as he shook his head.
The others at the table had finished their dinner and were wandering around the grounds, not too far from the safety and light of the campfire.
Luke watched her choose a biscuit. It had been a while since he’d even felt like contemplating making a move on a girl and now that he was tempted, there was not enough time to plan and carefully rehearse as he so often did. Like the flow charts he created for his computer software, he was used to creating comments carefully calculated to elicit the next logical response.
She flipped her hair back over her shoulder as she sat down and dug into the remainder of her barbecue, dipping the buiscuit aggressively into the mix and lifting it to perfectly shaped lips.
“I suppose you want to take my picture stirring the pot?” She looked up, smiling.
“Actually yes,” Luke said, realizing that he did. He hoped he had said it suavely, not eagerly.
“No, really,” Luke leaned forward. “You are the perfect souvenir. If I want to remember anything from this day, I want it to be you, stirring the beef, your hair blowing, the little wet spot on your lip.” Here he couldn’t help himself. He reached out and touched her lip before he could stop or she could stop him.
Then he dared look at her eyes, big and brown and wondering at his actions, now that he had touched that spot, a spot he had touched on no other, nor had wanted to.
And her eyes were not unwelcoming, in fact just the opposite. Like a colt, he thought, honest and innocent like a colt, holding nothing back.
“No one has ever done that before,” she whispered. “That was so, so romantic. Are you a photographer? Are you a writer? Worse yet, are you married?” She let her words flow with little care into the space between them, bringing them closer.
“None of the above,” he said, breathing deeply, breathing her in, just in case she chose this moment to disappear forever into the night.
They stared together into the campfire for a while. Then, with a sigh, Letty stood, saying she had to clean up. She hesitated, rubbing her fingers on the tablecloth, back and forth, back and forth like a child stalling for time. “But then maybe we could go look at the horses.” She motioned to the darker area near the corral, away from the firelight.
“Let’s go now,” said Luke. “We can double team the clean up later.”
“Good God, no. The guests can’t clean up. I’ll lose my job.”
“Hey, I’m a Dalton, remember?” he said.
She laughed and said something about Daltons and scoundrels and womanizers that made him feel strong and illogical as they strolled toward the sounds of the horses. Elbow to elbow, they leaned against the fence and stared into the dark at the shadows of the horses, some eating, some nuzzling each other, some staging impromptu short races here and there.
They aren’t ready to settle down, Luke thought. The more they frolicked, the more strongly he felt their power and freedom.
For the first time in nearly two long and difficult years, he put his arm around another woman and his neck didn’t hurt as he did it. There was no logic to his action but even so, Letty turned toward him with kisses that didn’t even start slowly but rampaged like a herd of careening mustangs, kisses that he returned so wildly that the two of them could barely stand. Letty’s kisses were laced with sauce sweet and hot.
“My, my,” she murmured. “It’s that buffalo meat.”
“Buffalo meat,” she whispered, her mouth close to his ear. “Promise you won’t tell. I always add a pound or two to the barbecue. Some people say it does something to them. Makes them frisky, you know, like colts.”
“Like stallions,” he said. Surrounded by the whinnying horses, the chirping night birds, the campfire flames reaching for the dark western sky, Luke tasted her—piquant, exotic, and above all, new.