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Here’s a nifty fact for you: during World War II, Julia Child worked for an undercover agency called the OSS—that stands for Office of Strategic Services, a nicely meaningless moniker, don’t you think, for a very cloak-and-dagger sort of outfit? This was back when she was still just Julie McWilliams, thirty-two and single and not sure what she wanted to do with her life. She thought maybe she’d be good at espionage, though it’s hard to imagine a six-foot-two-inch redheaded woman making herself inconspicuous in, say, Sri Lanka. Of course she didn’t do any spying—although I suppose if she had, she wouldn’t tell us, would she?
In a way I was sort of in the same boat. I too was working for a government agency—though not a particularly cloak-and-dagger one—at a historic moment. My own agency had some busy weeks ahead of it, because it happened that a lot of what the government agency did had to do with filling up the hole left when the towers fell. This is an exciting thing for a government agency to be in charge of—beats the hell out of, say, processing building permit applications or something—which is probably one reason why I caved and went permanent in May of 2002. But here it was, nearly a year after the attacks, or tragic events, or whatever you want to call it—even at the government agency, people still had a hard time with that, mostly settling for “September 11,” which is at least neutral, better than “9/11,” which sounds like a deodorant or something—and there were memorial ceremonies to arrange, brave new initiatives to announce, publics to garner input from, and governors and mayors to get money from.
An office competition had been held to come up with an inspirational motto for the agency. The winner got a free lunch (with the president of the agency—an odd choice, to say the least). The motto was on the stationery, the Web site, the glass front door of the office. It was a nice motto, very stirring. But I was a secretary. And when you’re a secretary at a government agency in charge of filling up the hole in the ground where the towers used to be, during the weeks leading up to the first anniversary of September 11, mottoes just don’t help at all.
The trouble was not an inconvenient excess of emotion—the staff was much too busy to go around feeling sad. Besides, the place was lousy with Republicans, so genuine emotion wasn’t such a big commodity, anyway. Plus, the agency’s office was in a building right across the street from what the world called Ground Zero but we all just called “the site”; from the windows in the conference room you could look directly into the hole. After you look at that every day for a couple of months, you just get used to it. You can get used to anything, as long as you don’t mind collapsing a few mineshafts of your brain where the stuff you can’t think about is skulking around. It’s easy—not simple, maybe, but easy.
When I was offered a permanent position back in the spring, those yellow trucks with the giant toothed scoops were still raking delicately through neat furrows of debris, searching for bits of people. Every once in a while, when you were downtown or even when you weren’t, you’d still find a torn bit of paper skittering along the gutter. Pages from legal memos, work orders, inventory sheets—all of them mashed in this odd way, like the icing on a cake that’s been wrapped in cellophane, and smudged with a strange pale powder, as if they’d been dusted for prints. You always knew just where they’d come from.
The head of the agency called me into his office one day. He was a bluff sort of man, Mr. Kline, not particularly young but not old either, thick-necked, with features that were not exactly unattractive, but small and oddly close together. He probably looked a little piggy to me only because I knew he was a Republican. He was nice enough, though, and particularly so when he offered me a permanent position.
Why did I take it, after years and years of saying no? I don’t know. Maybe it was because of Nate. Nate was Mr. Kline’s sort of unofficial second-in-command—baby-faced, cute enough if you like the evil genius look, and two years younger than me, if you’re to trust his word, which of course you can’t. His offhanded compliments, casual insults—just barbed enough to leave a pleasurable sting—snide asides, and comradely sexual innuendo had drawn me in, giving me the illusion that I was working in some alternate universe’s version of The West Wing, with President Bartlet on the other side of the political fence.
Case in point:
As I was coming out of Mr. Kline’s office, having received the job offer and told him I’d think about it, I nearly ran headlong into Sarah, Vice President of Government Relations, who was rushing in. (This particular government agency was absolutely crawling with vice presidents, with more popping up all the time.) Sarah was an implausibly pert woman with freckles and enormous eyes as thickly lashed as those of an animé character. (She was also, as I had learned when I spent a month and a half filling in for her secretary, a raving lunatic, in my admittedly unprofessional opinion.) She stopped and grabbed my shoulders, staring into my eyes like a hypnotist. “Julie,” she asked, “are you a Republican?”
I was still picking up my eyeballs and sticking them back into my head when Nate, who’d been standing right there, for all the world like he had just been waiting for me to come out of Mr. Kline’s office with the job offer, gave me a little wink and smirked, “Are you kidding? Republicans don’t wear vintage.”
Which, when I thought about it, seemed as good a litmus test as any.
So maybe it was Nate. Or it could have been the temptation of history being made outside the window. Or maybe I was just almost thirty and afraid.
Whatever the reason, this time I had said yes, and now it was four months later, early September, and I was in my cubicle—the fourth cubicle I’d inhabited since starting work at the government agency—spinning around in my rolling office chair, digging a trench in my forehead with my fingernails while muttering robotically into a phone headset, “Yes, sir, I understand your concern that our organization is shitting on the heads of New York’s Finest. Would you like to send us your comments in writing?”
As the anniversary approached, dignitaries and mourning families and reporters began streaming in and out in ever-burgeoning floods. The large room where press conferences were held was directly in front of my desk; I knew I was meant to present a professional demeanor. But frankly, I just couldn’t be bothered. That was partly because I’m not very professional, but more immediately, it was because of the phone.
When Julia Child worked in Ceylon, she probably didn’t even have a phone at her desk. Not a lot of international phone lines in Kandy in those days, I don’t imagine. But my phone is constantly in action. It has eight lines, endlessly blinking red lights. Sometimes I’ll have four or five people on hold at a time. I talk to screamers, and patient explainers, and the lonely old, who are the worst, because I can never think of a nice way to say to the housebound lady in Staten Island who is sure her idea for the memorial is being stolen by some big architect somewhere because the picture she saw in the paper looks just like the collection of crystal paperweights she keeps in her knickknack hutch, “Thank you for your input, you loon—bye now!” And then there’s the mail to go through—the drawings of enormous steeples shaped like praying hands, the models built from Popsicle sticks and Styrofoam cups and cotton balls dipped in tempera paint. Each of these, of course, is carefully archived and cataloged, presumably for some distant future exhibit of wackadoo outsider art.
Sometimes, when it gets really bad, I contemplate just going ahead and bursting into tears. I figure that’s just the kind of namby-pamby crap they expect from a Democrat, and maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll shake their heads and let me go home with a cold compress. But I have a reputation to uphold. I am not a crier—well, not at work, anyway. I maintain more of a Weimar-era tough-cookie image, all paper cuts and ironic hysteria and dark circles under the eyes. So instead of crying, I sigh when asked to get a box of Kleenex for a grieving widow, or bang my head wearily on my desk in the middle of phone calls from some woman who can’t walk anymore and hasn’t been out of her apartment for a week and used to be a great hoofer and was in pictures but now can’t pay her medical bills and thinks the only appropriate thing to build at Ground Zero would be a reproduction of the ’39 World’s Fair. Instead of crying, I make withering comments about little old men who send in poems with titles like “The Angels of 911.” It passes the time. But hard-bitten cynicism leaves one feeling peevish, and too much of it can do lasting damage to your heart.
Four days after they’d arrived, I loaded my parents onto a plane back to Austin, where the living is easy. All of us, by that time, were suffering the constant nagging headaches and viselike pains around our middles that are the inevitable results of parental visits to New York. You know there’s something wrong with your lifestyle when you look forward to getting back to your cleansing Julia Child regimen. The night after they left we ate Poulet Poêlé à l’Estragon, with mesclun salad out of a bag on the side, and found myself feeling very virtuous using less than a stick of butter for a dinner for three.
Heathcliff was staying on in New York for a while because he’d gotten a job. It was not clear to me exactly how this had happened. Over the last few days, he’d constantly been getting calls on one or the other of his cell phones—he had two. He never told us about any of the conversations he had on them, but after one of them he pulled me aside and asked if he could keep sleeping on our couch for a little while longer. He was going to be running a kiosk at a cosmetics convention at the Javits Center, which didn’t sound at all like something Heathcliff would do, except that he was going to be selling soaps and lotions made from the milk of cashmere goats he had spent a year herding in Tuscany. That is Heathcliff all over.
Anyway, it seemed I had been missed, out in the virtual world. Someone named Chris posted a comment on the Poulet Poêlé à l’Estragon post, my first in most of a week: “Oh thank GOD you’re back! I thought you were dead!!! I missed you SO much!” I spent fully half a day at work thrilled that I had a regular reader named Chris when I didn’t even know anyone named Chris, before realizing that Chris’s comment was, well, creepy. It was nice to feel appreciated, though, and after my parent- and hellish-move-induced hiatus, I came back to the Julie/Julia Project with all cylinders pumping. I started out slowly—some poached eggs, some soup. But soon I was ready for a bigger challenge. A challenge like, say, steak with beef marrow sauce.
The first obstacle in a bout with a marrowbone is simply arranging the match. Perhaps in 1961, when JC published MtAoFC, marrowbones hung off trees like greasy Christmas ornaments. But I did not live in 1961, nor did I live in France, which would have made things simpler. Instead, I lived in Long Island City, and in Long Island City, marrowbones are simply not to be had.
Lower Manhattan was not much better. There were wine stores and cheese counters and cute bistros, but since most of the fashionable people who live this far downtown prefer, like vampires, sustenance they can just grab and suck down on the run, a butcher was nowhere to be found.
So I put Eric on the case. First he headed over to Astoria one evening after work. The thought was that in Astoria there would be stores patronized by good authentic immigrant people who still appreciate the value of a good hunk of bone. But the authentic immigrants seemed to have moved on; Eric had no luck. Heathcliff wasn’t finishing up at the convention center until after seven that night, and I didn’t get home until after nine. Dinner was roast chicken, Julia-style. I was supposed to mince up the gizzard for the accompanying sauce, but I found I didn’t know what a gizzard was. I knew it was one of the things in the paper bag up the bird’s bum. I knew it wasn’t the liver, but among the remaining bits of innards, which was the gizzard was a mystery.
(After reading my post about this, Eric’s father called me and cleared up the trouble: the gizzard is the thing like two hearts stuck together; the heart is the thing like half a gizzard.)
The next night Eric and Heathcliff tried a two-pronged approach, with my husband catching a train from work to the Upper East Side, my brother catching another to the West Village. But both Lobel’s and Ottomanelli’s were shuttered by the time my faithful marrowbone-retrievers got there. Butchers must really need their beauty sleep. My brother did manage to get to the Petco before it closed to buy mice with which to feed my pet snake, Zuzu. (Whenever Heathcliff is in town I take advantage of the situation by letting him take over snake-feeding duties. I figure since he’s the one who gave me a five-foot-long ball python, back in college when he thought I needed a pet, he ought to be responsible for some of the karmic debt accrued over ten years of rodent sacrifice.) I got home just before ten and ordered pizza before I crashed on the couch. Eric had to make me wake up for long enough to take out my contacts. Waking me up when I’ve fallen asleep on the couch is no fun for anyone.
And then it was Wednesday, September 11, 2002. I was up at five a.m. to get to my office by seven. I spent the morning standing about. First I stood around in the back of a crowded press conference room, listening to blandly stirring politicians talk and trying to decide if Nate was looking at me or just staring into space. Then I stood outside on the concrete plaza surrounding my building. Across the street, in the hole where the towers had been, a circle of family members stood silently in the blowing construction dust. They were reading the names of everyone who died there into a microphone. In the afternoon I manned the Family Room.
The Family Room was actually a conference room that had been converted into a sort of funeral viewing area for those whose husbands and sisters and sons had never been recovered. The windows, twenty stories up, looked out into the hole; the walls were plastered baseboard to ceiling with photos and poems and flowers and remembrances. There was a sign-in book, and a couple of couches, and some toys and games for the children. The Family Room was the only place these people could go to be near those they’d lost without being assaulted by hawkers with NYFD gimme caps and Osama Bin Laden toilet paper, or tourists posing for cameras in front of the fence as if they were visiting the Hoover Dam. Until fairly recently bodies were still being found, so I suppose it made a certain kind of sense that they would want to come here, although I’ve never been much of a graveyard-visiting kind of person, and when I looked down there, I didn’t think of God and angels and the serene faces of the dead gone over to some Other Side; I just thought of body parts. I couldn’t see how anyone who’d actually lost someone to that sucking wound could stomach it.
After the morning memorial, they all came up to the Family Room and stared into the hole some more. They brought yet more pictures and poems to affix with pushpins to the walls. They were already so full that anyone who was coming for the first time and wanted to pin something up would need help finding a spot. I helped these people, carefully moving one memento half an inch to the left, another an inch to the right, to squeeze in a snapshot that was the only photo the small Ecuadoran woman had of the son who had washed dishes at Windows on the World. It was hard for first-time visitors, not just because the walls were so packed, and not just because they hadn’t started friendships with the other families that were more regular visitors, but also because if they were only coming for the first time a year after the tragic events had occurred, it was maybe because they came from another country and might not speak English, or because their relationship with the dead person they had known had been a difficult one. So I handed out Kleenex to gay German brothers and bottled water to dotty English aunts, and awkwardly patted the back of the estranged ex-husband from Belize who broke down in sobs. This was the job of the junior staff, during the anniversary of September 11—well, some of the junior staff, anyway. The secretaries but not the city planning interns, the girls from PR but not the guys from program development. Women, in point of fact, no men at all, spent the day supplying the thumbtacks and fresh pens and water and tissues and keys for the bathroom in the hall. Maybe, being Republicans, the senior staff had some family-values sort of notion that women possess inherent delicacy and sensitivity—despite the abundant evidence to the contrary within their own organization. Or maybe they just knew that twenty-something Ivy League boys don’t take kindly to being drafted for emotional shit work.
Meanwhile, the bone marrow remained a problem. It occurred to Eric that Sally was a natural to assist in this quest, but since we still didn’t know for sure whether her parents had been murdered by a lunatic with a high-powered rifle, there was the risk of disaster en route to enlisting her help.
“My parents what? What?! Oh God, did I not call you?” Sally’s tone was stricken.
Eric had never before inadvertently blundered into a conversation with anyone about their parents’ recent hideous murder, but somewhere deep inside he had always feared, and even assumed, that one day it would come to this.
“No, no, no, everything’s fine. The movers didn’t show up, that’s all. They were supposed to drive in from Rhode Island, but they never came. I’m so sorry, I thought I called! They’re Czech, and I think they’re on crank. The movers, I mean. If I get them to come again, can I still have the couch?”
It did not even occur to Eric to ask Sally why she had hired Czech moving guys who were both addicted to meth and from Rhode Island. Instead, still gasping from the unimaginable telephonic hell so narrowly averted, he told her that she could indeed still have the couch, which was still teetering on one end in the stairwell of our apartment, but only if she would help them find a marrowbone. “Sure, sounds like fun. What’s a marrowbone?”
Sally and I have managed to remain close friends ever since living together our freshman year in college even though I’m the kind of person, who, when bored or unhappy, either drinks myself into oblivion or cooks very unhealthy things; Sally is the kind of person who, when bored or unhappy, goes jogging or cleans the bathroom with a toothbrush or matriculates at rabbinical school. Sally didn’t yet want to talk much about the departure of her good-looking English boyfriend, but her tone, like an aural wrinkle of the nose, when she mentioned his dissertation on the prehistoric roots of feminism, and the gusto with which she agreed to join the marrow hunt, led Eric to suspect that the jig was definitely up with the Brit.
Eric took off work early, Heathcliff handed the cosmetics kiosk off to somebody or other, and Sally ventured down from the Upper West Side. They all met in front of Ottomanelli’s at five minutes to six. The shop was still open, barely, but was fresh out of marrowbones. They then proceeded on their grand tour of West Village groceries, flitting from Gourmet Garages to Garden of Edens. Only after five stops’ worth of flirtatious probing over meat counters (flirting by Sally, or possibly by Heathcliff, if they ran into any bubbly female butchers—but not by Eric, who was miserable at flirtation—I practically had to take him to a frat party and dose him with GHB-laced punch to seduce him) did they at last obtain their six inches of cow thighbone.
The three of them emerged from Jefferson Market with the marrowbone in its blue checkered bag held high—triumph at last! Eric felt the shudder of disaster averted. A month ago, he’d never have suspected how important a piece of cow might be to his marriage.
His giddiness was, however, somewhat squelched when Sally told him she would not be returning with him to Queens as planned, to eat the Bifteck Sauté Bercy I would be garnishing with the bone marrow of a cow. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she said.
“Ah, come on,” Heathcliff chimed in—not because he harbored a secret crush on her, much as I might want that to be so. I’ve long cherished a tiny hope that maybe the two of them would get together someday. Which, if you knew Heathcliff and Sally, you would immediately see was an epically bad idea. There must be something wrong with me.
“I just don’t think I can face the subway ride back. Tell Julie I’m sorry.”
She was far from the first dinner guest we had lost to the irresistible urge not to go to the outer boroughs to eat French food in a grotty “loft” apartment, but every time it happened it was both a disappointment and an obscure sort of humiliation. Socially speaking, we might as well have lived in Jersey.
Meanwhile, I had straightened up the Family Room after the last mourner left, and gone home. Even as my friends scoured the streets of the West Village for my bit of bone, I was separating the cloves of two heads of garlic for Purée de Pommes de Terre à l’Ail, or garlic mashed potatoes with a garlic sauce. Which is fantastic but sure does make for some dishes.
(Have you ever seen pictures of Julia’s kitchen? It’s lined in pegboard, the whole thing, with rows on rows of pots, the outline of each one drawn on with marker so she always knew which pot went where. Her husband, Paul, did that for her, or maybe he did it for his own sanity. He was always very methodical. Such a setup might come in handy for me from time to time—say, for instance, when realizing at the very moment I’m meant to add boiling milk to the rapidly darkening roux that I have not in fact put the milk on to boil. At times like these it might be convenient to be able to have the smallest saucepan immediately to hand, rather than scrabbling around under the counter with one hand while frantically stirring the roux with the other. But I will never have such a setup, because the very last thing in this world I am is methodical.)
The making of Purée de Pommes de Terre à l’Ail is exacting and not quick, but even so, and even given my late start, I was still finished before the bone retrieval party, or what was left of it, returned. I was getting a little nervous. To pass the time, I went online to check e-mail.
My friend Isabel lives in the Texas hill country with her husband, Martin, and her mother, who’s a professional animal communicator. Isabel is, well—hell, I can’t explain Isabel. Just take a look for yourself:
Nancy has just shared with me a BRILLIANT, weirdly prescient and Truman-Capote-mixed-in-with-Burroughs-ian dream in which I was choreographing a TV Easter special with a cast of deranged chipmunks. And it reminded me of a dream I had last weekend, which I’m pretty sure is precognitive, I’ve been rereading my Dreaming into Truth, and this has all the signs.
Now, I have never met Nancy, do not understand (nor much want to) how a dream about chipmunks dancing could possibly be construed as pertaining to Truman Capote, William S. Burroughs, or precognition, and have never heard of a book called Dreaming into Truth. Also, you should realize that Isabel sent this to her entire mailing list, several dozen people at least. This is what she’s always like. In an age of brevity, Isabel is unembarrassedly prolix. This would read somewhat more amusingly if you knew her voice, for Isabel has a voice like a genius third grader who’s skipped her Ritalin—swooping from low guttural imitations of people you’ve never heard of into high-pitched trills and back again, unpredictably. Sometimes eardrum-splittingly. Her voice, I think for the first time right at this instant, is not unlike Julia’s:
I’m walking on cobblestones beside a river. I pass a sidewalk café, and sitting at one of the tables is Richard Hell.
(Oh, also? I have no idea who Richard Hell is. Not a clue.)
He’s drinking iced tea and wearing an old argyle sweater with leather pants and very thick purple eyeliner, which looks really sexy somehow. So I say, “Remember me? It’s Isabel. I just wanted to tell you that I finished Find It Now and it was wonderful.” His book is called Go Now, but in the dream I called it Find It Now, not because I had misremembered the name of the book but because in the dream that WAS the name of the book. And Richard says, “Have some real English tea.” But when I reach out to take a cup I realize I’m holding a bright pink dildo. It’s teeny-tiny, it fits in the palm of my hand. I know it will only get big in the bath, like a sponge but hard.
Next thing I know I’m knocking on an apartment door painted a sort of queer faded crimson, with the number 524 on it. My friend Julie—you know Julie, she’s the one who’s doing that cooking blog I sent you all a link to?—opens the door, and her hair is all wild, and her husband Eric is in the background throwing rounds of pizza dough in the air, singing beautifully. Julie asks me in to eat, but I hand her the dildo and say, “Thanks for the dildo you gave me, but I can’t use it.”
Julie asks why, looking very shocked, and I say, “I don’t take baths anymore, only showers.” To which Julie says, with this totally un-Julie-like primness:
“Well, that’s your problem, isn’t it?”
Now, this is embarrassing, and my aunt Sukie is going to just die when she reads this, but Isabel didn’t make up the thing about me sending her the dildo. We’d been having an e-mail exchange—a private e-mail exchange, I might add—about Isabel’s sex life, which I guess was less than totally satisfying, which, well, whose isn’t? And it’s not like I’m some kind of dildo maven, but I did spend some time in San Francisco once. I guess I wanted to look hiply pro-sex or something, because sometimes when you’re friends with Isabel it’s nice to know more about something than she does. So I sort of talked up the joys of sex toys—gleaned from several years of Web surfing, rather than much in the way of actual experience. And I guess I talked a pretty good game, because Isabel wound up sort of enthralled with the concept. Then it was almost like I couldn’t not send her a dildo for her birthday. So I did.
God, I hope her husband isn’t on her mailing list.
I was not at all sure how to respond to this missive, so I went offline again without answering and went back to the kitchen. Deciding to assume that Eric, Heathcliff, and Sally’s late arrival was a good sign, I opened the Book to the page on extracting marrow.
“Stand the bone on one end and split it with a cleaver,” wrote Julia, sounding ever so confident and blithe. I could think of one possible wrinkle right off the bat, which was that I had no cleaver. A few other vague misgivings were floating around in the old brainpan as well.
At that moment the door swung open. Eric and Heathcliff strode through like Arctic explorers in from the cold. Eric bore his plastic bag before him like a prized ice core sample. He was no doubt expecting a thankful kiss, at the very least—perhaps a good deal more. “Who’s the man?” he bellowed.
“You got it, did you?”
“I sure as hell did!” He cackled, even did a little dance. Heathcliff grinned a one-sided grin, and graciously did not roll his eyes.
“Did you have to trade Sally in for it?”
Heathcliff explained, “She couldn’t make it. Didn’t want to deal with the subway.”
I sighed. I hadn’t kissed Eric hello, and he was beginning to fear his hopes for a show of gratitude would be dashed. “Well, maybe it’s for the best anyway.”
“How do you mean?”
“It’s time to extract the beef marrow.” The look I gave the two of them was slightly stricken. “Not sure she’d want to be around for this.”
My largest knife was a carving one with a serrated edge, probably nine inches long with a blade about an inch and a half at its widest point. I’d always thought it a rather grand, daunting sort of a knife, but after one whack I could see it was not nearly tool enough for the job. “Julia must have the strength of ten secretaries,” I muttered. “She should have been a crusader—she’d have been hell at dispatching infidels. ‘Split it with a cleaver,’ my ass.”
For a moment Eric and Heathcliff stood over the bone in silence. Eric rested his chin in his hand thoughtfully; Heathcliff scratched the back of his head.
A few years ago, Heathcliff lived in New York for a while. The plan was that he would crash on our couch for a few weeks while looking for a place—he wound up staying there an entire year. This sounds like the worst kind of horror, a married couple with a brother-in-law lodged permanently in the living room, but it actually worked out pretty well. We cooked together a lot—Heathcliff makes a mean spinach, sausage, and cream pasta—and watched a ton of movies, and had a hell of a good time, actually. On the downside, Eric and I had sex like a dozen times that entire year. (But I don’t think we can really put all the blame for that at Heathcliff’s feet.) On the upside, I had lots of opportunities to sit back while my husband and my brother worked out various domestic puzzles, which was fun and saved me having to do it besides. Watching them sussing out the marrow situation got me feeling a little nostalgic, actually.
“Do you have a jigsaw?” Heathcliff asked.
For twenty minutes the two of them went back and forth with the saw Eric had dug out of the hall closet, until both of them were dripping with sweat. They managed to cut into the thing about an inch. The oozy pink stuff on the blade of the saw was, though exactly what we were looking for, truly horrifying. The boys were looking a little green.
“Hell, give it to me.”
I threw the bone into some simmering water on the stove. This felt wrong, like Julia would not approve, but I just didn’t know what else to do. I scooped the bone out of the pot after a few minutes and went after it again, this time with my very smallest knife, a paring one, about three inches long and narrow enough to fit into the round tunnel running down the middle of the bone. Slowly, painfully, I wormed my way into the interior.
I clawed the stuff out bit by painful pink bit, until my knife was sunk into the leg bone up past the hilt. It made dreadful scraping noises—I felt like I could feel it in the center of my bones. A passing metaphor to explorers of the deep wilds of Africa does not seem out of place here—there was a definite Heart of Darkness quality to this. How much more interior can you get, after all, than the interior of bones? It’s the center of the center of things. If marrow were a geological formation, it would be magma roiling under the earth’s mantle. If it were a plant, it would be a delicate moss that grows only in the highest crags of Mount Everest, blooming with tiny white flowers for three days in the Nepalese spring. If it were a memory, it would be your first one, your most painful and repressed one, the one that has made you who you are.
So there I was, scooping out the center of the center of things, thinking mostly that it was some nasty shit. Pink, as I think I’ve mentioned. Very wet. Not liquid, but not really solid, either—gluey clots of stuff that plopped down onto the cutting board with a sickening sound.
The boys looked on, mesmerized. “Someday,” Eric said, swallowing hard, “our ship is going to come in. We are going to move out of New York, and we are going to have our house in the country, like we’ve always wanted.”
I thought he was just trying to talk me into my happy place, but he had a point, and when he finished swallowing his bile, he made it.
“When this happens, we need to get ourselves a rescue cow. We will buy it from a slaughterhouse. And then we will treat it very well.”
“Yes,” agreed Heathcliff. “Damned straight.”
It’s true. I am a fanatical eater of flesh. But bone marrow, it struck me, was something I had no right to see, not like this, raw and quivering on my cutting board. Unbidden, the word violate popped into my head. “It’s like bone rape. Oh God, did I just say that out loud?”
We got maybe a tablespoon and a half out of the bone and decided it would have to be enough. Eric and Heathcliff had to go into the living room and find a football game to rid themselves of the horrid vision. Muttering “Shake it off, goddammit,” I went ahead and began sautéing the steaks.
But once you’ve got your head in a place like that, it can be hard to crawl out again. Reading about “the moment you observe a little pearling of red juice beginning to ooze at the surface of the steak” didn’t help at all in that department, though it did make for an excellently prepared steak. The sight of the pink stuff on my cutting board was still making me feel sick, but I thought I detected another, more buried sensation as well. A dark sort of thrill.
When the steaks were done, I put them on a plate and stirred the marrow and some parsley into the buttery pan juices. The vestigial heat from the juices is supposedly sufficient to lightly cook the marrow. Besides, Eric assured me, there was no way you could get mad cow from marrow, and even if you could, cooking it would make no difference—something to do with prions or something—but it sure looked scary, so I decided to leave it on the heat just a bit anyway. Then I dolloped a spoonful of the marrow sauce onto each steak, plopped down some garlic mashed potatoes and Tomates Grillées au Four—just whole tomatoes brushed with olive oil and roasted in the oven for a few minutes—and dinner was served.
If I had thought the beef marrow might be a hell of a lot of work for not much difference, I needn’t have worried. The taste of marrow is rich, meaty, intense in a nearly too-much way. In my increasingly depraved state, I could think of nothing at first but that it tasted like really good sex. But there was something more than that, even. (Though who could ask for more than that? I could make my first million selling dirty-sex steak.) What it really tastes like is life, well lived. Of course the cow I got marrow from had a fairly crappy life—lots of crowds and overmedication and bland food that might or might not have been a relative. But deep in his or her bones, there was the capacity for feral joy. I could taste it.
One theory on cannibals, of course, is that they eat parts of their slain enemies to benefit from that person’s greatest assets—their strength, their courage. Then there’s that thing they do in Germany. You heard about that, didn’t you? Some man over there agreed to let another man cut off his penis, cook it, then feed it to him—now, what in hell was that all about? What did he think the taste of his stir-fried cock would tell him about himself? Was he seeking to wring one last drop of pleasure out of the thing? (Goodness, that’s an unnecessarily vivid metaphor.) But somehow—I said this over dinner—this steak with beef marrow sauce, it didn’t seem all that different. “It’s like eating life. It’s almost like eating my own life, you know?”
“No, not really. But it’s a hell of a good steak, sis.”
If I tried to say something like that to anybody at the downtown government agency I would get nothing but blank looks and a subsequent internal investigation. Especially on the first anniversary of the tragic events, some might think that a discussion of spiritual cannibalism might be seen as being in poor taste. Sally, the only sex maniac former rabbinical student we know, might understand, if only she could withstand the trauma of a subway ride to the outer boroughs. Julia might, too.
As I lay in bed early on the morning of September 12, dreading the approaching moment when I would have to throw off the covers and go to work, I thought about Julia’s job for her government agency. The OSS existed before the invention of cubicles and all that that implies, so Julia didn’t have to work in a cubicle. She didn’t have to answer the phone, and she didn’t have to comfort crying people, and she didn’t have to ride the subway to get home. She got to handle information substantially more top-secret than that bureaucrats are assholes, and that a not-insignificant minority of the American people are blindingly stupid, shithouse crazy, and/or really terrible memorial designers. In all these things she was better off, in her secretarial days, than me.
But she didn’t have her Paul yet, either, I thought as I curled up against Eric’s back for one last rest. And (as I tasted one last, gentle, beefy burp) she didn’t yet have beef marrow, either. So I guessed I had a few things up on her as well.
One bare, glaring twenty-five-watt bulb was not sufficient for this close work at noontime on a bright day; at dusk on a rainy one it was close to impossible. Paul pinched the bridge of his nose hard between his thumb and forefinger, then pushed the heels of his palms into his eye sockets. His bowels were in rebellion yet again, and he ought to be in bed, but these jobs weren’t going to get done by themselves—when you are the Presentation Division, you get no sick days.
He stared absently out his window. Through the curtains of warm rain he could watch the small elephants being herded out of the botanical gardens for their evening meal. The animals’ slow, gentle pace, their small swishing tails and comically long Theda Bara eyelashes always cheered him, and the gardens were beautiful in any weather. On the wall of the cadjan hut where he worked, an emerald-green lizard perched, making a sound like a spatula rasping across the bottom of a cast-iron pan. Paul dug his fingers down into his sock to scratch uselessly at his damned athlete’s foot, then returned to his drafting table, setting his mind to get one last board done, at least.
“Dammit.” He reached up and gingerly unscrewed the bare bulb, shook it for the light rattle of a sprung filament, but there was none. He replaced it, got up, and went to peek out his door. The lights were out everywhere. He’d suspected as much. This late in the day, they’d probably not come on again.
To think he’d once thought work with the OSS would be dashing and exciting. Well, perhaps he could at least organize some concepts for the boards he’d have to start first thing tomorrow. He began to shut his door again.
“Paul! Just what are you thinking of doing, alone in there in the dark?”
It was Julie, of course, no mistaking that voice, but at first he did not see from where she was speaking to him. He peered into the dishwater dimness of the hallway but saw no one. “Paul! Behind you!”
She and Jane had their faces pressed to the flimsy shutters of his one window and were grinning like a couple of twelve-year-old kids. Jane wiggled a summoning finger at him, and Julie cried, “Come with us to watch the elephants get washed. Don’t tell us you don’t want to!”
“Need to get this work done, I’m afraid. I’m already late with them, they need finished boards by tomorrow at the latest.”
“Balls to that! If they want to get work out of you they ought to get you some light, I say.”
Jane cocked her eyebrow at Paul in a way that would have been more seductive if it hadn’t been so obvious she meant it to be. “See what a bad influence you’ve been on our little Julia? She’s got the mouth of a sailor these days.”
Paul sighed. The girls had a point, didn’t they? Balls to that, indeed. He set his pen down. “I’ll be right out.”
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