No, there really is a man.
I get up sluggishly, reluctantly, wiping the smallest trace of drool from one corner of my mouth with the back of my wrist. I do not recognize the man, whose face and upper body are sliced into strips by the Venetian blinds on the window. I look at him for a moment, pausing for just a second before opening the door. I am still trying to wake up and put this post-nap puzzle back together.
The man is really more of a guy, probably in his mid-20s. He’s the kind of guy you see at bars slapping strangers on the back as if they were old friends and hitting on any woman unlucky enough to wander into his orbit, though experience has stripped his flirting of any expectation at all. It’s strictly de rigueur. He needs a shave, kind of, and he is wearing a weathered baseball cap and a colorful golf shirt. In his right hand, there is an old, battered suitcase, which he holds matter of factly, as if he is my cousin in for a weekend visit.
Why is this man standing at my door holding a suitcase? Maybe I am still dreaming.
“Sir, I won’t take up but a minute of your time,” he says. “Can I show you something? I think you’re really going to want to see this.”
In the backyard, my beagle, Walter, is barking without cease.
“Hush, Walter!” I yell, which works, surprisingly enough. Walter goes back to digging a hole under the tree house, a project he’s been working on for days.
I finally notice another guy, who is still sitting in the first guy’s truck, a smallish Ford with a strange kind of camper/compartment covering the back. It looks almost like one of those trucks the animal control people drive around to collect stray animals, except it has some type of logo I can’t quite make out stenciled on the side. The truck is still running, which might suggest that these fellows are accustomed to making quick getaways. But I am still too disoriented to connect such dots. I’ve got my eye on the suitcase, which the guy hoists on to a rocking chair.
“My name is ‘Mark’,” he says. “I forgot to introduce myself.”
But did he forget? Didn’t he just introduce himself? I grow more confused, instead of less.
“Hi, Mark,” I say. “I’m Chris.”
“Do you like meat, Chris?” Mark says. “I mean really GOOD meat?”
I take a peek at the other guy, the partner still in the cab of the truck, who seems to be fiddling with the radio. He won’t be able to pull in anything but the local country music station, not in our driveway, not with all these tall trees on our property. This is what I am thinking, until Mark summons my attention toward the suitcase, which he is unsnapping.
“So, are you a meat eater or not?” he says, not unpleasantly.
“Well, it depends on the meat,” I say, unsure of what I might be committing to.
“That’s what I thought,” says Mark. “You look like a man who can appreciate a good cut of meat.”
I have to admit, I am that kind of man.
Now the suitcase has been opened, with an impressive little flourish, and I see what appears to be a length of deep red silk inside, wrapped around something. The mystery deepens.
“Do you buy the meat in your home, or does your wife?” Mark asks.
“We both do,” I say. “I mean, we don’t have a designated meat buyer.”
“Good,” says Mark, as if I had just correctly answered the bonus question on Jeopardy. “Because you are not going to believe what I have for you in this suitcase.”
Even before he unveils it, I have correctly deduced that Mark has lugged a suitcase full of meat to my front door. Finally, I am getting my wits about me.
“Do you like filet mignon, Chris?” he asks, choosing a shrink-wrapped cut of filet up for my inspection. “What if I told you I could sell you five of these eight ounce filets for less than three bucks apiece? But it gets even better than that, Chris, a lot better.”
My mind has drifted away from the meat again. Now I am thinking about the training program for door-to-door meat pushers. Clearly, Mark has been trained to repeat my name a lot, as a method of cultivating a sense of familiarity, of faux intimacy. It’s Mark, my good buddy, with a suitcase full of meat! How does a person get into this line of work in the first place? Is there a school, a program? Is the guy in the truck a meat apprentice? What’s his role?
I can see that it is probably best to keep these questions to myself. Mark is hitting his stride now, although I register only the bottom line as he closes in for the kill. Suddenly, I am the meat.
“… so you can have this whole case, all 24 cuts, for a hundred and seventeen dollars. You just try buying this at Ingles and see what it costs you, Chris. Three hundred easy, maybe more. I tell you one thing. If you don’t buy it — and this is all we have left in the truck — your wife is going to kill you when she gets home.”
“What if I just take the filets?” I suggest. “What did you say, less than three bucks apiece?”
“No, no, no, no,” Mark said, as if I had hurt his feelings. “It’s the package, Chris. We sell this as a package. It’s all about the package. Now I have got to get in that truck and get back to Greenville, and I am just unloading the last of our stock at this incredible discount. You are not going to see another deal like this. How many times do you get a chance to buy meat like this?”
Not that many times, I must admit.
But I just can’t do it, even if I had $117 on me, which I don’t (Mark’s is a cash only business, it seems). For some reason, disoriented as I am, I can’t quite get past the bias I have against buying meat out of the back of some stranger’s truck. I guess I’m just quirky. I wouldn’t let someone in a bowling alley work on my teeth either, but that’s just me.
When I tell Mark I have only $18 in cash in the whole house, I see right away that I am off the hook. He packs up the suitcase faster than you can say “Jack Sprat.”
It’s just as well. My wife buys all the meat in our house anyway.
Chris Cox will read from his new book, The Way We Say Goodbye, at 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 29, at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville.