Metaphysics of Steak
by Joseph Hoover
“No,” Samantha says.“It's perfect. I like it rare. That way I know it's real.”
“Are you afraid they'll try to serve you a fake steak, or something?” Adam asks.
She laughs.“No. It's just, if there's no blood, if I'm just eating a dense, gray, slab of protein, then I feel like I'm eating an illusion.”
“What do you mean?”
“An illusion. Without the blood and texture of nearly raw meat, I lose track...” she pushes a large chunk of steak into her mouth, chews for a second, and, with her mouth full, continues speaking,“of what I'm eating - the fact that it was once a living, breathing, shitting, one ton quadruped with udders and fur and spots. I like to stay connected to that kind of background, historical reality, the once was, you know?”
“Well, I guess we differ there,” Adam says, with a hint of annoyance in his voice.“I pretend that my food has no history. Some things are better left unknown. Like, for example, this steak's past life. Think about it – drugs, confinement, the slaughter house...”
“Yea, but that's exactly what you have to be aware of to eat real steak.”Samantha stabs the remaining half of her steak with her fork and lifts it up and shakes it; droplets of blood spatter the tablecloth.“Real steak,” she says, and flops it back down into its juice with the fork still sticking up.“You have to accept its history. If you pretend that steaks fall from the sky like manna or... are grown in rows next to the avocados in California, or whatever, then for you it is just a slab of historyless gray stuff, even though it's not, even though like you said the animal had a horrific life. If you try to ignore that, you're just being cowardly; because that's what it's all about, right? Facing life's horror - even when it comes to cow genocide – in whatever way you can - just as long as you're facing it.”
For a moment, Adam is silent. Then he widens his eyes and says,“the horror – the horror,” in his best, raspy Marlon Brando voice.
They both laugh awkwardly.
“Sorry,” Samantha says,“I get carried away.”
“It's fine. Cause, you know, I've come to terms with my occasional cowardice. If I'm afraid of my steak's history, so be it. All I really care about is that it tastes good.”
“Well, these certainly do, I think the Garden has the best steak in the city.”
“Mmhmm,” Adam says with his mouth full.
Adam takes a sip of wine. Swallows.
“So, tell me more about yourself,” he says.
“Ohhh, anything - I've never been on a blind date before, I have no idea what else we're supposed to talk about.”
“Well,” Samantha says with an audible exhalation.“I'm in the same boat. I've never been on a blind date, either. And beyond that it's been quite a while since I've been on any kind of date, and even longer since I've felt like I knew what to talk about, with anyone; people don't usually get me, if you know what I mean.”
“Well, it can be hard to really get anyone. But I don't think we're doing too bad. I mean, we've covered work, school, hobbies...the metaphysics of steak.”
They both laugh again.
“What about family?” Adam says.“Family is important, right? To really know someone, you have to know about their family. So, what's your family like?”
Samantha hesitates.“There's actually not much to say. They're pretty boring.” She thinks for a moment, stares down at her plate; her right hand's fingers start to tap upon the tabletop. Then they stop. She smiles slightly.“How about I tell you a story, about my family.”
“Yea,” Adam says, and leans forward.“That would be great.”
“It'll be about my grandpa... about the only funny joke he ever told. It's long though, and it might not make sense, like, in the end, you might not understand it, or like it; still want to hear?”
“Hold on though, let's get more wine.”
Adam asks the waitress for another bottle of the house Pinot Noir.
“Okay. Ready.” He says.
“Alright. So, my grandpa was probably the worst joke teller ever. But that didn't stop him from being obsessed with jokes. He was like some kind of Jeopardy joke freak - he had hundreds for any thinkable category: cats, Indonesia, semiotics, Donald Duck, imaginary numbers, each of the American presidents –anything.”
“And after my grandpa told a joke, his expression was always the same, a sort of grimaced smile and scrunched forehead, like you might make after you saw your dog get run over and were not sure yet whether it was perfectly fine and healthy or a twitching, eviscerated mess; basically an expression of horrified concern. And, looking like that, he would wait silently for laughter, which usually would come because it felt cruel to not laugh; though, sometimes, and I admit this is a little twisted, sometimes the absurdity of the situation was so extreme that it was genuinely funny; I mean here was this old man just absolutely hanging onto your silence, like your response was going to determine the value of his life, like, I don't know, just like he didn't have a clue, like he was totally helpless, like a baby or something, this fully grown, self-made, once-upon-a-time World War II prisoner of war, man, like a baby – totally absurd, right?
“He was also big into joke theory and criticism. He had a huge, two volume Anthology of Joke Theory and Crit., and he read it all - however many thousands of pages it is - at least three times - I know, because he would brag about it. And when he got tired of telling jokes, he would go on and on about one or another esoteric this or that – like the parabolic curve of the audience's cathexis, or how particle theory informs the initially potential multiplicity of comedic derivations... And, whenever he could, he'd draw diagrams or graphs to accompany his impromptu lectures, which were always,always about the most excessively obscure and hyper-intellectual shit you could imagine.
“Once, on Thanksgiving, after going to the bathroom, I found my boyfriend at the time, Trevor, alone with him at the dining room table. He'd been abandoned by the rest of the family. And he had the fringe of the tablecloth clutched in his fists; he was scraping it mechanically with his thumbnails, looking like he was borderline manic – eyes nearly popping out and everything - while my grandpa pontificated about the function of humor as a social cohesive and filled in a bar-graph, which he had drawn on a dirty napkin that he had unfolded and laid on the table between them, with statistics he had memorized regarding a correlation between various populations' capacities for humor and their social stability. Trevor told me later – while breaking up with me, actually – that my grandpa had said "panacea" twenty-three times in nine minutes and that he knew this because if he hadn't distracted himself from my grandpa's raspy, little-old-man voice by counting how many times he said “panacea”, he would have either hemorrhaged blood or attacked him with a dessert fork.”
Samantha and Adam laugh.
“So, was your grandpa always obsessed with jokes or...?”
“Well, no... It started years ago, before I was born, before he was even old; right after my grandma died. She had a psychotic break or something while my grandpa was at work and my mom and aunt Lenora were at school, and she decided to run around downtown, naked except for the underwear she'd put on her head – and this was in November, so it was cold – and sing “God Bless America”- I know, crazy. And, because of that, and because of her rather, from what I hear,illustrious history of abnormal behavior, she was institutionalized. A few weeks later she died under shock-therapy – this was the fifties, mind you.
“After she died, my grandpa didn't speak for three weeks. Then he started reading some book about jokes. And, suddenly, after two more weeks, at Christmas dinner, in front of the entire family - uncles, cousins, aunts, et cetera - he spoke his first post-grandma words.
'How do you kill a chicken?' he asked.
“After precisely seven seconds of silence – my mom actually remembers seeing him mouth the numbers – he said,'Nail it to a rood.'
“Nobody even freaking breathed, they just stared at him. They probably didn't even know what a rood was. Eventually though, somebody, thank God, realized it was a joke and started to fake laugh and then everyone else joined in. I guess at that point my grandpa looked like someone had given him the gift of life or something. Ridiculous. I mean the joke was so bad. It's a perfect example though of his particularly horrible sense of humor.
“Anyways, a few years ago, I asked why he liked jokes so much. I was half way through one of those obligatory spend-time-with-your-grandpa, late afternoon lunches. After he had harangued me for a while, I just asked him what, exactly, he found so damned interesting about jokes, especially bad jokes.
“'There is only one joke' he said – and he always affected this sententious more-intelligent-than-thou manner of speaking -'and that joke comprises the totality of truth. It is truth. All other jokes and truths are subordinate to it. In a sense, life itself is subordinate to it – to the joke. And, concordantly, other jokes, truths, and life itself can only be truly experienced, perceived,understood: if you know the joke – if you don't know the joke you know nothing. However, if, and when, you finally do learn the joke, if you can't find humor in it, your life will be meaningless. I happen to find humor; thus my life is meaningful; and thus I have an associative affinity for jokes.'
“I knew he wanted me to ask him what the joke was, and I knew it was going to be something stupid, and I just could not bear a joke right then. So, rather than humor him, I tried to explain that he had just replaced God with this idea of the joke. That in other words he had just assigned a subjectively contrived and thus arbitrary value to variable 'x'. And that despite various differences, all the world's multitudinous strains of transcendental mumbo jumbo were just different patties dropped by the same cow – in other words: the human condition. And that by turning this joke or humor or whatever into God, he was stepping into the same pile of shit that had been fouling the existential carpets of humanity since someone first tried to make their interior warmer, more comfortable, less drafty – to make themselves more habitable – by installing said carpeting.
“I went on for a while, but when I finished, instead of getting pissed off, as I expected, my grandpa just chuckled.
"I like that,” he said.“The joke is god, God is the joke.”
It almost seemed like he agreed with me, though I actually didn't found out what - if anything - we had agreed upon, or even what he meant, because he spent the rest of the meal musing. In the silence though, there was something - a mutual understanding, or... an agreement, I guess.
“Anyways, soon after that, his age caught up with him, and with it came dementia and incontinence. Eventually, it was impossible to converse with him like a regular human being. He suddenly became this shriveled, red eyed, Depends wearing, floppy-jowled, bald – completely bald, as in sans eyebrows – old man; and he communicated only with jokes. Only with jokes. And, whereas for past decades he had donned that run-over-dog expression and waited for someone to laugh, now he followed each joke with a jowl jiggling giggle that sometimes mutated, horribly, into a bowel-evacuator, which is what we called it when he laughed so hard that he'd shit his pants – and. it's worth noting, after one of those, he would only laugh harder, so it was always a full evacuation. During his last weeks, all he did was watch us and tell himself jokes while he sat in his Medicaid financed, mechanical recliner or at the dinner table, or laid in bed.
“Then, one morning, when my mom and I were at my grandpa's house, my aunt Lenora – who lived with him, and took care of him, and stuff - went into his bedroom to wake him up. Suddenly we heard her scream,'That bastard!' We ran into his room, and there he was, in bed, on his back, arms by his side, dead, naked, and covered in feces, with a jumbo-sized post-it note stuck to his forehead. His bed was smeared with feces, too; and the walls and the carpet and the ceiling. And there was an empty OxyContin prescription bottle on the floor. My aunt Lenora was standing near his bed, with her arms crossed, tapping her foot.
'Read it.' she said.
My mom maneuvered between the brown streaks on the carpet to the side of the bed and stared at the note for a moment.
'Son of a bitch,' she said.
Of course I was curious about what he had written. So I stepped carefully up to the bed and read the note. Here's what it said,
I know that you did not understand me; but I also know that you have never understood anything. And I know that whenever you laughed after my jokes, you were laughing out of self-righteous pity, or what you interpreted as my absurdity. What you don't know, is that I told bad jokes intentionally, so I could watch your stupid faces contort into affected laughter, because the existence of creatures like you, and, yes, my own existence – the utter absurdity of it all - is the only real joke I have come across. Have fun with the mess.
P.S. Perhaps it will comfort you to know that I was still laughing at you as I died.”
Samantha stares across the table at Adam.
“God, that's horrible,” he says.
“No way! I laughed harder than I had ever laughed after I read that.”
He raises his eyebrows.
“I was doubled over, with my elbows on my knees, crying, and gasping - totally spluttering and squeaking like an asthmatic Minnie Mouse or something; I probably would have been rolling on the floor if it wasn't splattered with my grandpa's crap.”
Samantha is laughing now, and she misses Adam's expression.
“That's terrible. It's a horrible story - your poor grandfather. How can you laugh?” he asks.
“Oh god. You actually...You don't get it, do you? It's...”
“It's tragic, that's what it is,” Adam interrupts.“It's not funny. It's tragic.”
Samantha sighs.“That's why it's funny. Because it's so goddamn tragic. What else can you do but laugh?”
“That's fucked up.”
“Oh, totally,” Samantha says. She looks at Adam and starts to laugh again, so hard that her body bobs up and down in her seat. After a few seconds everyone in the vicinity of their table is staring at them. She gradually stops laughing.
“Anyways,” she says, wiping tears from her eyes.“It was just a joke - my Grandpa and my Grandma are both still alive; they live in an air-conditioned condo next to a fifteen acre lake in a golf resort in a suburb of Phoenix. My family is entirely uninteresting. I made it up. It was a joke.”
Adam stares at her, horrified.
“Get it?” She says, in a soft voice.
He says nothing.
“Come on, I didn't know what to say. So, I thought I'd make something up. It was a joke.”
Adam's cheeks are red.
“Seriously?” Samantha says, nearly laughing.“I didn't mean to offend you.”
“No. Listen. That was...I mean... my grandfather died - recently. And it wasn't funny. At all. And that's not even why I'm angry - because of my grandfather I mean. It's that shit like that just isn't funny. Ever. And you shouldn’t joke about it. It's despicable. Disgusting.”
Samantha and Adam stare at each other across the table. His jaws are clenched. She watches his chest rise and fall, she can hear him breathing. Adam looks away.
“This was great and all, but I think I need to go.”
He slides his chair back and stands.
“This should cover dinner,” he says, and drops four twenties onto the table.
Samantha smiles faintly, sighs.“Christ. Okay.”
Without a word, Adam turns and walks toward the exit with his eyes fixed in front of him. But, before he reaches the door, Samantha suddenly yells, almost sings, to him across the room,“You know, if you don't laugh at it, then it's all meaningless. And, even if you do, it's still meaningless. Get it? All there is, Adam, is to see the blood and the suffering and the absurdity and laugh. All there is is to laugh, Adam,to laugh.”
He keeps walking, pretends to not hear her. Unconsciously, he pushes his shoulders back and his chest out and straightens his torso as much as possible. He reaches the door and pulls it open and walks out. After a few seconds, he passes the window, still with the same affected posture and locked-forward gaze. Then he is gone.
Samantha pours the last of the Pinot Noir into her glass and takes a big sip. She pictures Adam as he appeared when he walked out of the restaurant, affecting a gait somewhere between a stride and a stagger, like a cardboard-cutout, incapable of flexion. She giggles - flashes a sudden, crooked smile - and finishes the wine, alone.
Joseph Hoover, a recent graduate of Central Connecticut State University, is planning on applying to MFA programs, although he's not if he wants to leave his cabin. A friend and he have moved south and plan to start a farm. If their plans work out, they'll have a few acres of veggies to sell at markets and in CSA programs, five or six pigs, and a few dozen chickens.