Sunday, February 10, 2008

Face in the Tree

By Walter Giersbach

Thirteen summers ago I discovered the true taste of barbecue—slow-cooked, smoky tasting and piquant as a woman’s thighs. It was the same time I discovered Belinda Lee in a little town outside Asheville, North Carolina. Belinda was as country as corn pone, a major change in my diet from northern boiled beef and skinny blondes in Boston. I never knew such a molasses-sweet girl existed. Two things distracted me from Belinda: my work researching Civil War strategy for my Master’s dissertation and guilty memories of Calista, whom I’d left back home in Salem, Massachusetts. They were minor distractions. Well, Belinda’s barbecue also distracted me from any more serious thoughts than eating.

Belinda called it “bobby-cue” and made such a deal about going out to strip shag bark from a hickory, light a low fire and cook the meat for—I swear—six hours. The first time Belinda made barbecue, I laughed to think someone would work so hard for a meal. Her Carolina-style was made with a vinegar sauce and a bit of Southern heat, both of which found a backdoor into a hidden part of my brain to start a circus of pandemonium. Her pulled pork was a magical blend of barbecue ingredients that was a versatile entrée that turned a simple bun into a palace of pulchitrude.

We would sit down with napkins around our necks, and then I’d dip the first morsel of pork into her sauce and pop it into my mouth. The buzz of ecstasy begin at the base of my throat and extended down to my stomach while, at the same time, the aroma of her sauce permeated my brain and flowed out my nostrils. My head swam as I closed my eyes to let the feelings extend through my arms and legs. I had never before tasted such enchantment in food. This was the discovery of a new religion, the essence of witchcraft capturing my soul.

Belinda smiled in a secretive way and said, “Down here, we say cookin’ doesn’t last like lovin’.”

Her granny would often join us along with her folks and some brothers and sisters. Barbecue was serious eating in their neck of the woods. Granny said, “You got it back’ards, B’linda. Lovin’ don’t last but cookin’ do,” and she cackled.

Ours was what Granny called a tornado romance there in Asheville. Nothing was left standing in its wake. “You two are just smitten,” the preacher said, as he accepted a glass of Champagne after I married Belinda at the little church in the hollow outside town.

Belatedly, I called Calista in Salem and sheepishly said I’d found another woman. She was outraged and used a really vulgar term. This was totally unlike the girl I had known since eighth grade. Calista was a folklorist, an oral history publisher and a self-described New England witch. She was royally pissed at losing what she thought was her property and flew down—on an airplane, not a broomstick—from Salem. I don’t know why she was angry; I’d never said we were going to get married. I never promised her a thing, but when she saw my wedding ring and met Belinda coming back from the woods behind our house, I knew there’d be trouble.

“Y’all stay for some barbecue?” Belinda asked real politely.

Calista was not amused at Belinda’s invitation. “There’ll be no more bobby-cue, Baby Cakes,” she said mean-like, and grabbed the bark out of Belinda’s hand. “This is what you eat?”

“It’s what we make the fire from,” Belinda said in confusion.

“I’m surprised,” Calista snarled, “it looks better than the care you give your skin. Maybe you should put your face in the fire.” With that, she stalked back to her Hertz rental and aimed it back to the airport.

A strange thing happened in the coming week: Belinda began to age quickly. I put aside my research and got her to a good dermatologist in Raleigh, but he was mystified as to why her skin was flaking. Soon, it was all I could do to look at Belinda without feeling my own skin crawl. Her friends began avoiding us. Her parents looked oddly at me, as if I had infected her with a Yankee virus. Granny clucked and said nothing.

In the middle of our confusion and fear I received a telephone call from Calista—a sarcastic Calista I’d never known. “Enjoying your bobby-cue? Eating your hickory-smoked pigs?”
I tried to make civil conversation, but she just wanted to relish her pain that I hadn’t done—what? Marry her instead of Belinda? She was sucking on her remorse the way a dog gnaws a bone. I hung up as quickly as possible and went in to see Belinda, who by that time had taken to bed.

Belinda’s lips moved behind the thick puffiness in her cheeks. Her eyes had sunk deep into the flesh of her head. Her skin was brown and flaking. “I’m dying,” she whispered. “But I’m so hungry….so hungry. Feed me.” I jumped forward as her head lolled to the side, then I realized she had fainted. I debated whether to call the doctor or her parents, but decided to obey her wish first. I went out to the field above the creek and up to the hickory tree Belinda had always pulled bark from for her authentic smoked meats.

I went to the opposite side of the tree and suddenly dropped the bag I’d brought. A section of the trunk the size of a dinner plate had become as smooth as a eucalyptus, and in place of the curled, scaly bark was a face—Belinda’s face. It came to me in a flash. Calista had taken her vengeance by turning Belinda’s face into a shag bark hickory while the features I loved had morphed onto the tree in the meadow.

Forgetting the basket, I ran back to our house. Belinda was hallucinating and mumbling. Her mother had come over while I was in the field and was trying to put soup into her mouth. Time was running out for Belinda the way the last drip of honey leaves the jar. Doctors had no medicine for what was eating my wife. My only solution was to do the irrational, the unscientific and seek help from Granny.

Afterwards, swallowing my apprehension, I telephoned up to Massachusetts. “She’s dead, Calista. Belinda’s dead.” I choked over my lie, “I’m so alone and need you. I’ve made a terrible mistake.”

“I understand,” Calista cooed. “Do what you have to do, bury the poor thing and then let’s meet and talk.”

“In Boston. This week,” I said.

By the next day, Belinda seemed to be better—at least, somewhat improved. “Darling,” I told her, “I have to go up to Boston for a day or two. I called the doctor, who’ll look in, and your mother will stay, but you’re going to be all right. Trust me.”

She nodded uncomprehendingly, and I walked over the hill on my mission of hope.

Calista met my flight at Logan Airport and we cabbed into the city. “I made a reservation—for us both—by the waterfront,” I told her. “We’ll see shows and there’s a new jazz club I’m dying to visit. Meantime, let’s celebrate with a drink.”

“Celebrate?” she asked curiously. “You just buried your wife.”

“A new life. I must have been out of my mind, staying in the South. Do you know what they do down there…?” I hustled her into a little bar and restaurant on Newbury Street I knew from earlier days and ordered up drinks. Margaritas, that would make her hungry enough to eat anything. The “anything” I put on the table were chips I’d carried north. Granny was a true witch of the South and had made up chips she called Something Special Surprises. She guaranteed they’d whet the appetite.

“I don’t want to be reminded of Southern cooking,” Calista said.

“Try one, as a token of what we once shared in the magic of our love.” Reluctantly, Calista took one and licked it with her long pink tongue. Then, she inserted the chip between her red lips. The glow of a smile crossed her face.

“Anngh,” she said, as though she were auditioning as a judge on a cooking show on television. And her mouth closed.

Granny had told me Yankee girls were skinny, anemic and a passionless bundle of nerves. Her remedy was a secret from the hollow where she lived—guaranteed, she said, to put flesh on those white Northern bones. Granny’s spell was beginning to work. “Ummm,” Calista said, swallowing and reaching for another. “What is this?”

I’ve seen the way the kudzu has invaded the South, growing to overwhelm trees and telephone poles until the result is an obscene mass of succulent green jungle that chokes the life out of everything natural or man-made. Almost before my eyes now I could see Calista begin to fill out as her manicured hands dipped into the bag of chips. Her cheeks puffed out, the pouches under her eyes filled in, her neck began to thicken. She was visibly growing as her hand waved the waiter to our table. She called for another margarita and began ordering a trio of appetizers, two entrées, a side dish of french fries and a couple of desserts. When I got up to go to the men’s room, Calista was d reamily stuffing food in her mouth as fast as her hands could move. She had finished two days’ worth of calories with no end in sight when I excused myself an hour later . I left my credit card number with the waiter, told him to fill her up, and went out the door to catch a cab back to Logan.

Belinda was much improved by the time I got back. Her face was smooth and shiny again. I checked on Calista through a friend a week later, and discovered she had ballooned past the two hundred pound mark. My friend said she hadn’t once mentioned my name as she continued eating.

But most interesting was that Belinda’s impression remained on the shag bark hickory until years later when I could point it out to our children. I taught our kids to make equally delicious barbecue fired over wood from a cherry tree. Cookin’ and lovin’ both last when they season each other.




Walter's short stories have been published over the past year in Mouth Full of Bullets, Lunch Hour Stories, Every Day Fiction, and Bewildering Stories, while Wild Child has just published two volumes of his stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue and Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, Vol. 2. Earlier, he directed corporate communications at Fortune 500 companies in New York for more than 30 years. A complete biography can be found on his website at www.allotropiclucubrations.blogspot.com.

12 comments:

Walter Giersbach said...

Thanks for publishing this, TJ. I've always felt there’s a natural affinity between fiction and food. Comestibles and condiments just seem to mix so well with horror and homelife.

Anonymous said...

Bad typo in paragraph 18--you called Belinda Calista. That'll get up a woman's ire!

Charlotte Jones said...

Great story, Walter! I could taste that bobby-cue!

Walter Giersbach said...

Ooops! Thanks for catching this, Anonymous. I’m gratified that in a 1,178-word story there was just one mistake. That’s an error rate of 0.08%, considerably better than most products engineered for human consumption.

Southern Fried Weirdness Online said...

Typo corrected....Thanks!

-TJ

Shawn said...

Deliciously imaginative!

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