Dan, Cheryl, and Clare were all vegetarians once but not anymore. We were having a barbecue. Dan and I were standing by the grill while Cheryl and my wife, Clare, were up on the patio, talking.
“The only thing that makes me sad about veal is when it’s overcooked,” I said. I was trying hard to be funny.
Dan chuckled, though I didn’t believe him. “This isn’t veal you’re grilling,” he said. “Tell me it isn’t.”
I didn’t answer but went on: “Those poor baby cows suffered. On a certain level, it’s the moral responsibility of the cook to make sure they’re delicious. That’s why overcooking veal is such a crime.”
“I guess I can see that,” said Dan. I was half certain he was fucking my wife. We were all alcoholics.
“Come down from the patio,” I said. “The meat is almost ready.” The women finished talking and came down to meet us.
“Hey, beautiful,” Dan said to Cheryl. “What were you talking about?” I knew what he was worried they were talking about. I asked if anyone wanted a drink. Everyone did. I gave Cheryl her drink first. She touched the backs of my fingers when I handed her the can of beer.
“What kind of meat is this, anyway?” she asked.
“It’s the delicious kind,” I responded.
“You make a lot of promises,” she said.
Her husband broke the awkward silence that followed. “I sure hope I don’t get mad-cow disease and die from this,” Dan said.
“You’re not going to get mad-cow disease, Dan,” I said.
“How do you know?”
“I know because I know. This meat is mad-cow-disease-free.”
“There’s no way to test for it, so how do you know?”
“I bought it from a respectable supermarket.”
Clare piped up: “My husband smells the meat in its packaging before he buys it.”
“Even still,” said Dan, “we don’t know for certain that we all won’t get mad-cow disease and die from eating this meat.”
“You’re such a pill,” said Cheryl. She had unbuttoned the top two buttons of her blouse.
“Just you wait,” I said. “This meat will be worth it.”
“I knew a girl whose mom died of mad-cow disease,” Cheryl said. “She lived in England. She and her mom were having lunch in the pub one day and suddenly her mom froze up and then had these weird convulsions until she was all of a sudden dead. That’s how it happens with mad-cow disease. It turns your brain to jelly and then you freak out and die.”
“Both your spine goes rigid and your body goes into seizure,” said Dan. “You sort of mash yourself up on the inside like you’d swallowed a blender.”
“Dan has been watching a lot of Discovery Channel since he’s been out of work,” Cheryl told us.
“You’d think they’d come up with some kind of pill for mad-cow disease,” said Clare. I began taking the meat off the grill.
“Mad-cow is the new syphilis,” I said. “If you want to be an artist, you better eat some mad-cow.”
“But it lies dormant 20 years,” said Clare. “That’s the scary thing. I ate those school hamburgers when I was 10.”
“I used to love those school hamburgers,” said Dan. “Oh Jesus.”
“I have no doubt in my mind that I have mad-cow disease,” said Cheryl. She said it like it didn’t matter.
“Is that meat well done?” said Dan. “I want my piece well done.”
I threw a chunk back on the grill and pushed it with the tongs. Juices dripped into the flame. “OK, Dan,” I said. “Yours will be tough as leather.”
“Sometimes I get these little headaches,” said Clare. “I wonder if my brain is turning to mush because of mad-cow disease.”
“You don’t have mad-cow disease, honey,” I said. “It’s plenty more difficult to contract than you think.”
“Like you care,” she said. “You probably gave it to me.”
“Is that some kind of joke?”
“It wouldn’t be the first disease you gave me.”
I pretended she hadn’t said that. But they knew all about us anyway.
“Hell with it,” I said. “Meat’s on.”
I looked at Dan. His wife looked at me. Clare was still with us, but she was off somewhere. Then I looked at the plate of steaming meat in the center of the table. Nobody touched it, nobody dared, even after the coals burned out and the dark evening sky enveloped us.