Sunday Pages: "Beef"

A true story by Jim Ruland

Dear Reader,

Flip the calendar, my friends. Three months from tomorrow, whether President Delusions of Grandeur likes it or not, there will be an election, and his ass will lose, bigly. All the tsar’s hackers and all the tsar’s men can’t put Trumpy-Dumpty in office again. And somewhere in the dim recesses of his mind, he knows it.

This week’s “Sunday Pages” is from my friend Jim Ruland, an inveterate anti-Trump writer and the longtime host of the fabled Vermin on the Mount reading series in San Diego. A veteran of the US Navy, he describes himself as “writer, sailor, punk, rat.”

Jim was actually the first writer of my acquaintance to send me a piece for this feature, way back in March, at the very beginning of quarantine. I held off sharing “Beef” at the time because it is, in his words, “salty,” but really, how else should eponymous meat be? It’s a very short piece, but it may well make you go vegetarian. Anyway, Mom, you’ve been warned.

“Beef” was published last year in Incoming, an anthology of veteran writing, by the San Diego literary non-profit So Say We All. His new book, DO WHAT YOU WANT: The Story of Bad Religion, drops on August 18. He wrote it with the members of that seminal band. Subscribe to Jim’s weekly newsletter Message from the Underworld; it’s good stuff.

And now, to his salty, rated-R, totally true tale of sailor woe…

Beef

At 0400 hours on the day my life changed forever, I was standing at attention with a dozen shivering recruits inside the largest meal-producing facility in the universe, awaiting orders from a gangly, nineteen-year-old sailor in a white t-shirt and a paper hat. The harsh fluorescent lights seemed to reflect off a zillion stainless steel surfaces. My hands were numb, my body confused. I was groggy from lack of sleep, but thrilled to be inside the galley at Great Lakes Recruit Training Command, away from the wind whistling off Lake Michigan.

As the baby-faced autocrat went down the ranks, handing out work assignments, the realization started to sink in that I’d be on my feet and working my ass off in for the next sixteen hours straight.

“Bakery… Serving line… Scullery… Deep sink.”

They were the lucky ones.

I was dispatched to the ovens to work with Mike, a foul-tempered brute with a complexion like wet dough and circles under his eyes that were so deep and dark he looked like he’d been up for days. He kept his long, greasy hair in a net. His arms were clotted with terrible tattoos. His teeth inspired nightmares. He was the kind of guy who said things like, Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed.

The work was simple but dangerous. Everything was hot, slippery or sharp. Before breakfast was served I managed to remove a hundred trays of bacon from the massive ovens, drain off the crackling grease, and stack the trays in a rolling meat locker without burning myself.

After a couple of hours, Mike opened up a little, started cracking jokes he’d probably told a thousand times before. His comments were crass, his sense of humor profane. I wanted no part of it. I kept my head down, and my mouth shut.

After lunch we switched from bacon to beef.

It went like this: I took a tray out of the oven, speared a roast with a long fork, and placed it in a stainless steel bin. When the bin was full I brought it to Mike, and he pushed the roasts through the meat slicer.

We were in a pretty good rhythm when it happened.

The blade got snagged on a piece of gristle and the roast shot into the air and stayed airborne for a few spectacular seconds before it hit the deck.

Mike and I looked at that hunk of meat for a long, long time, studying it, you might say. There was a puddle where the blood had squirted out and the roast was coated with grime.

I was pretty sure Mike was deliberating whether or not he should put the beef back on the slicer. I wouldn’t have said anything if that’s what he wanted to do. I might have volunteered to rinse it off first, but that’s it. I didn’t care one way or another.

But Mike had other ideas.

“You wanna fuck it?”

It took me a moment to process this ungodly solicitation.

I thought he might be joking. I prayed that he was joking.

He wasn’t joking.

“I’ll drill a hole in it and you can take it back to the cooler before it gets cold. What do you say?”

Now I was many things: the son of a naval officer, a slacker, a punk—but I wasn’t someone who did unspeakable things to inanimate objects. Not yet anyway.

“Come on,” he pleaded. “I know you ain’t getting no action in them barracks. Plenty of brown eye though…”

That’s when I understood that Mike, a federally employed wage slave in the food service sector, wasn’t just offering to drill the hole: he wanted me to screw the meat.

In the gospel according to Mike, anyone who declined his invitation to have intercourse with a hot bloody hole in a cow carcass must be gay, which in his mind was the worst thing a sailor in Ronald Reagan’s Navy could be.

I shook my head.

“What a shame.” Mike said as he kicked the roast with the toe of his boot before picking it up and tossing it in the trash.

“It’s still warm.”

We finished slicing the rest of the roasts. I stacked the bins in the meat locker and wheeled them up to the serving line. When it was time for my break, I got in line and stared at all those mounds of rare roast beef.

My heart started racing and I broke into a sweat. The drugs the Navy supposedly put in the pancake batter to suppress our animal urges weren’t working. Somewhere in the soft, pink folds and shadowy dimples was my meat friend.

The association had been made and nothing could unmake it. The meat was making me horny.

And it will be the same for you. The next time you’re standing in line for a buffet at a birthday or wedding, and the server forks a glistening slab of hot, bloody meat onto your plate, you will think of me, you will think of Mike, you will think of our lost innocence.

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Jim Ruland (@JimRuland) is the author of the award-winning novel Forest of Fortune and the short story collection Big Lonesome. He is the co-author of My Damage with Keith Morris, founding member of Black Flag, Circle Jerks and OFF!, and Giving the Finger with Scott Campbell, Jr. of Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch. Jim lives in Southern California and is an avid enthusiast of punk rock music, tattoo culture, and strong coffee.


Photo credit: Claire McAllister.