Four Ounces Of Flesh From The Karmic Ox

Happy Halloween...

On the other side of the glass daylight is filtered by thick mist. It could roll away to bright autumn or a slow drizzle. Either way, it looks good for business. Karl hears Louise drop her car keys on the side, knows the kids are delivered to school. Kettle noise will follow. He should have a shower, although it's tempting just to crawl into yesterday's clothes. He puts them in the wash basket. That way, no temptation: that way, no scowls from Louise. Her hours at the shop have been cut, she makes up for it with extra housework. The house looks lovely, he admits. He thinks of the day he announced their engagement: his mother, saying, 'You'll do well, you two, you're both workers.' Almost time to order another wreath for her grave. The years are getting faster. The mortgage is getting smaller. He heads for the shower.

Ivy heaves the burger boxes in the cold store. There's something about the work that makes her happy. The lifting, the cold: a sort of challenge to it. As a girl she had wanted to be a builder, a solid brickie sort with a hard hat and a tin lunch box. After junior school she stopped talking about it. It wasn't going to happen. She worked in hotels, she worked in clubs, she worked in pubs, she spent a few seasons working in Spain: loved the weather, loathed the ex-pats. One night Edie turned up, in a see-through sundress, and she was all about poetry and saving the precarious planet but there was something about Edie that made Ivy feel like everything was fine. They left the sun and the loud red people, for a third floor flat in Brighton with an inch of sea view. Ivy found a bearable job as a bar manager. She was free to indulge a passion for Buddhist tattoos and the people were okay. Edie drifted through a series of temp positions, found herself a niche in an arts charity. Work was peripheral, really. Ten years passed. One night, Edie didn't feel well. Two weeks of hospice care: Edie was gone. Ivy packed one bag and left the flat. Every day she thinks of this. But her job here, it helps.

'Hey Ivy, how's it going?' Karl pushes through the warehouse plastic curtain.
'Not bad Karl. Business all right?'
'Sure, pretty good. Sore foot but the family's all right, there's food on the table, that's the main thing, right?'
'Yeah.' Ivy nods.
Karl knows about Edie, about how Ivy's friends have most of her possessions in storage for her. She knows about his bunion and his mortgage free plans.
'Your Sarah make the football squad?'
'Yeah, she did. Girl's football is more accepted now, I think. Hoping we might even do a bit of names on shirts sponsorship soon.'
'Not much of a football fan myself,' Ivy admits, 'but dreams, dreams are important.'
Karl checks his watch. 'Talking of dreams,' he says, 'I slept in a bit this morning, best get on. Got the trailer backed right up, I'll give you a hand.'
They load the boxes on: burgers, sausages, white bread rolls, an extra ketchup.
'I'll grab the invoice now, if you like, save you posting it.'
'Thanks Karl, I'll just print it out.'
Karl checks his supplies while he waits, tidies up the fridge.
'I got an open pack, needs using today, just one burger left, if it's any use to you?'
'Save me cooking any real food, I guess. Trade you, one invoice, for one burger.'
'There you go Ivy, enjoy!'
'You too Karl.'
'Here, take one of these too- got a boxful on offer- novelty things.'
'Halloween Fortune Cookie?' Ivy raises an eyebrow. 'Not very Chinese, Halloween, is it?'
Karl laughs. 'That's the novelty,' he says. 'Anyway, they do allsorts, companies now, don't they? It's the same logo, look.'
Ivy checks the box. 'So it is. The slogans don't always translate too well do they?'
'This one's better than the quarter-pounder boxes though, eh?'
Ivy reads: 'Festivity Futures From The Karmic Ox. Yeah, better than the quarter-pounder!'

It's mid morning when Karl makes his first pitch, which is a good time. People who want breakfast from The Meat Wagon don't tend to be early risers. There's a few husbands on muesli sneaking a second breakfast, and Karl doesn't mean to be judgemental, because actually he feels a bit sorry for them, but there are too many single looking mothers slinging sausage baps at their kids. They all seem to smoke, they all seem to be on the phone. He calls them all 'darlin' anyway. He can't help thinking of Ian and Sarah, who go on school trips and have clean jumpers. They had poached eggs for breakfast today. Free range. Louise likes the idea of happy chickens.

The sun is struggling though the mist. Karl sits down and watches light glance from cars. The car park is averagely busy. He guesses the garden centre will have a glut of custom if the sun holds. People always think of improving their lives when the sun shines: go on a diet, plant up borders, paint the spare room. He puts the radio on, there's a guess the sound competition. He closes his eyes for a moment but all he can visualise is a sock full of wet sand hitting something soft, like: more wet sand? Something pulpy? Good job I'm a grafter, he thinks, I'll never win my fortune. He misses the answer, sizzling bacon for a lad with a pierced eyebrow. It must have been something horrid: when he sits back down the voices on the radio are horror-struck.

Sonya pulls out a chart in the paint aisle. Nick wonders if they have the colour of her skin in the golds and soft browns. He thinks of a name for it. Honeymoon Kiss, Sunshine Honey, something like that. Her tan lines are under a cable knit jumper now. Light freckles on her face, her smiling face.
'What do you think, Nick?' She is suggesting a burgundy gloss for the dining room. Nick likes black and white, but he can see her point. The room needs a bit of base warmth. He thinks she has read that phrase in one of her magazines, he likes it; it reminds him of them.
'We have base warmth,' he tells her. She looks at him. He realises she thinks he is teasing. 'Really,' he says, 'not base like animals, base like foundation. I like the colour, that's what it made me think of. Me and you, warm and cosy.'
She laughs, and shows him the name on the chart: Liverspot.
'Okay,' he says, 'that doesn't sound very romantic at all.'

Sonya stands in the queue behind a man who, intriguingly, is only buying a bar of chocolate. She rolls her eyes and Nick pulls a surprised face. She thinks how nice the dining room will be, with a bit of dark red. She might look out for some dark red candles. She thinks of the spare room that is painted white, a black sofa bed pushed in the corner. She thinks of that room with a wooden cot in it, with a tiny little person in it, a little person with Nick's hazel eyes. Outside, the sun swells, streams in through the sliding doors. That chocolate will melt, she thinks. Breakfast was one croissant each and a glass of orange juice, and it seems a long time ago. The fridge is empty. They haven't been food shopping, just got talking about the dining room, just popped out to look, and then buy, and she really wants to get back and paint. The sanding was already done.

In the car park the smell of frying onions beckons them both.
'Cheeseburger?' Sonya suggests.
Nick nods. 'Double for me. And if you're having onions, so will I. And ketchup.'

Karl stirs the onions, smiles at the couple: just back from a holiday, in love: maybe a honeymoon. Not that everyone gets married these days. Him and Louise went to Torbay. They had a fairly cheap wedding, put their money to a house instead. He sees the gold band as Nick hands over a note.
'Been married long?' He can't help asking.
'Two weeks,' Nick smiles.
'No time for cooking then, eh?' They laugh, Nick slides his change into his pocket, helps himself to ketchup.
Karl holds up his banded finger. 'Fifteen years, and I'm still smiling,' he says.
'Congratulations.' Sonya likes that idea.
'Here, have a couple of fortune cookies. Enjoy your lunch!'
'Thanks. We will.' Nick takes the little packets. 'Halloween fortune cookies, that's cute.' He pictures a little girl with her mother's smile, dressing up for a trick or treat outing.
Karl watches them walk to their car. They eat in the car. That's how love works, Karl thinks: a burger in a car park can seem so romantic and sweet. He hopes it works out for them. He opens a cookie, partly from curiosity, partly from boredom, and reads it to himself.
''Tis now the very witching time of night, when farmyards yawn and hell itself breathes out contagion to this world. William Shakesbeard.' Shakesbeard? Sure that should say churchyard too. Farmyard! Hey ho, they were on offer.'

Nick finishes his impromptu early lunch first. He tears open the fortune cookie packet, cracks open the cookie, unfurls his slip of paper to read: ''Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life, he who opens wide his lips is ruined. Proverbs 13:3.' What does that mean?'
'A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips?' Sonya teases. She puts down her burger to open her cookie up. ''I don't paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality. Frida Kahlo'. And a picture of a bat.'
Nick checks his slip again. 'A skull.' He shows her. They share a bemused chuckle.

Karl sticks it out till five. Business has slowed. He has developed a good sense for when people will or won't fancy grabbing food from the van. He sends Louise a text: 'Heading home xx.' She texts back: 'casserole still hot xx.'

At home, Sarah and Ian do their homework then are allowed to watch cartoons. Karl falls asleep on the sofa. When he wakes up, he makes Louise a cup of tea.
'Sorry about that love, I didn't mean to drift off.'
'Been a busy week,' she says. 'Ian wants to show you his science project.'
'I'd better take a look then.' He wanders out of the kitchen to find his science mad son.

Karl hits the second pitch about eleven. He's built up a bunch of regular lads, they walk out from the bars to get a bit of fresh air, grab a burger; gossip, just as much as the girls; they wipe grease off their lips with the back of their hands, talk about whether they are going the town's only nightclub that evening, or whether they might share a taxi and go further or save money and disappointment and just go home. Mostly habit wins: they go to the club in town. Karl will see some of them later, he knows, amongst the drunk, hilarious, quarrelsome people spilling out of the club to gather at the Meat Wagon: it reminds him of a zombie film he saw, half-dead creatures clutching to be fed, mostly incoherent. A police car is parked opposite, so trouble ends swiftly, and the takings always balance out the chaos. He drives to his last pitch, brings a book and a flask of tea, to wait out the dead hours.

Lorielle checks her purse. Just enough for a burger and a shared cab: if there's someone to share with. Bloody Sally-Anne! Sneaking off. She knows tomorrow the tearful fool will be on the phone: he said he loved me, it's all over with Julie, he said, he's a liar, I'm putting the pictures on Facebook this time.
A man in a pale green shirt says, 'You on your own, a beautiful girl like you?'
Lorielle weighs it up. Shares on a taxi, maybe, exchange phone numbers, maybe; or potential sex pest, stay well clear? She's not really in the mood for any of it.
'I don't like men.'
'Oh. Sorry.'
She likes how easily cowed he is. 'You live in town?'
'I thought you didn't like men?'
'I'm not going to have sex with you. A conversation might be okay.'
'Oh. Yes, in town.'
'Well, me too. If you understand the No Sex, we can share a taxi.'
The man looks at the attempted queue. Boobs are falling out of dresses. Three people are vomiting. He looks at her.
'Yeah,' he says, defeated. 'We might as well.'
Lorielle smiles. She knows most of the taxi drivers here. He will be dropped first, so he needn't know where she lives. It was turning out okay. For her. She felt sorry for Sally-Anne.
'I'm getting a burger first,' she tells him.

John in the pale green shirt offers her a coffee, just for the conversation, he says.
'No thanks,' Lorielle shakes her head. She doubts the conversation would be worthwhile. John likes computer games and warfare strategies. She likes reading, astrology and dreams. 'Sorry if you're lonely but it's 3am and I really want to go to sleep.'
'It was nice talking to you,' he hands her a ten pound note, to cover his share of the taxi.
'Hang on,' she says, and gives him the five she had taken from her purse. 'You already paid for my burger.'
He's about to argue but the taxi pulls away.
'Got another job,' the driver says, 'sorry about that. Should have gone before you could give him that fiver though!'
'Not everyone's on the scam, Marty.'
'I've got three kids and I'm keeping the tips. You don't dob me in though. That I appreciate.'
Lorielle chuckles. 'Your secret is safe, dumb ass. Drop me on the corner, it's quiet there.'
'Three fifty love.'
'You got a fiver?'
'Yeah, sure. Why?'
'Here's ten, you give me five, you keep the change.'
'You are a darlin,' Marty winks, doles out the note, drives off.
Lorielle has her key to hand, walks to the shared front door, up the shared stairs, in to her tidy flat. She eases off her high heels, puts the kettle on. Chamomile tea, then bed. There's a fortune cookie in her pocket, she puts it on the side. Might be nice with the tea. She turns her phone off. Sally-Anne will have to look after herself for a few hours.

Karl tiptoes in. Louise is a good sleeper. He puts his keys on the hook, slips off his shoes, steps gently upstairs. He has done this so often there's no need to put a lamp on. His clothes are slipped off, he slides carefully into bed beside Louise, lightly kisses her shoulder, rolls to a comfortable back to back position.

Ivy thinks the burger was a bad idea. She put it in a white roll, too. Edie would have frowned. She liked her bread brown and her meat organic. At least there was a bag of salad. It's hard to cook for one, sometimes. And not always easy to sleep, alone. Ivy puts the lamp on, pulls on a dressing gown, decides to make a cup of tea. She'll read for a while, maybe, see if sleep can sneak in while her conscious mind is distracted. The fortune cookie Karl gave her is next to the kettle. Edie would have liked that, a Chinese Halloween thing. Quirky, she would have said. Ivy opens it.
Dis-moi ce que tu manges jet e dirai ce que tu es (tell me what you eat I will tell you what you are) Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendent 1826.
'That's not very helpful.' Ivy sighs.

Nick mumbles and turns. Sonya synchronises. In the dining room the gloss paint is drying. They couldn't decide whether to keep the serving hatch.
'Sleep on it?' Sonya had said.
Nick had agreed, with one proviso. 'Let's open that bottle of red first.'
The wedding gift clock chimes but they don't hear it.

Lorielle finishes her tea, it makes her warm and snoozy. Tomorrow she can sleep in. Get the strength to get her cousin through the latest drama. Who knows, she ponders, she's heard that Ant's not happy with Julie, maybe he is done with her. Odds on him finding someone else to mess around are pretty obvious. She doesn't get that bad boys are exciting. She gets that they are selfish, and that seems pretty tiresome. She remembers to take her door key out of her coat pocket to hang on the hook and finds the fortune cookie.
'What's in my future then?' She opens it and reads: 'The vengeful gods are bullish gods, Karmic Ox Company.' There's a picture of a minotaur, the same picture that's on the little paper wrapper. She wonders if it means that Sally-Ann will wreak some havoc on the philandering Ant. 'Fingers crossed,' she says, and cleans her teeth and heads for bed. Karmic Ox strikes her as an odd name for a company. Maybe it's just a mistranslation.

Night blooms with mist. Limbs in beds stir. Roads are quiet. One truck rumbles through the town, unnoticed. Here and there it stops: outside a neat home, where the borders are newly planted and the earth turned over in smart rectangles: at the curb where a sparse bed-sit is scarcely lived in: in the drive of a house that smells of paint, where suitcases stand in the hallway, waiting to be packed away: at the door of an old townhouse where each floor is a separate flat and the hallway lined with locked mailboxes.

Lorielle feels sick. It is dark. Against her back, flat steel. She is not alone. She smells sweat, fresh on stale. It's too hot. The floor and the walls jolt. This is a dream journey, she counsels herself: what does a dream journey signify? It stops, abruptly.

A rectangle of light opens. Nick holds Sonya's hand. After the warm press of the journey the outside air is first fresh: cold creeps in after. They shiver.

Ivy does not want to move, does not know why her legs are moving. It's a dream, that's all: it's the stupid undigested burger's fault. Everything is damp, the air, the thin mud, the grey walls. Mould thrives on a wooden partition. There is a building, a sort of tunnel.

Karl is certain that he should not go into the building. He turns to look for a gate, it's hard to see anything, there are too many people crowding in. He must think of something to do, some way out of this. He walks to the front, to look for a way out. He always regrets eating late.

The walls of the tunnel funnel in. They must walk single file, through the rough damp building, until they reach the door. Nick is pleased that he is ahead of Sonya. He can make it safe for her, whatever is beyond the door. Sonya does not want Nick to disappear. The door will take him and not give him back.

Karl thinks: this must be it. This is where the way out will be.

Ivy says sorry; in her mind; sorry Edie that your life was too short, life is cruel, sometimes, and I ate white bread, I know you hate that, processed meat and white bread. I'm sorry. I miss you.

Lorielle remembers that doors in dreams represent one thing ending, another thing beginning. She tries to think of beginnings but this is not a good dream and the door is shut; it is not a good dream at all. It feels too real. She can put her hand on the dank wall, she can smell something that leaves a copper tang on her tongue; like blood: blood is coppery. The fear that needles through her is real fear.

Karl steps through the door. Nick has a brief glimpse of a gleaming room, a tiled room, he thinks, there is steel in there, clean and shining steel.

Karl looks for the way out. His eyes follow lines; they look like drainage channels; the brightness hurts his eyes. The door shuts behind him: he hears a noise like a sock full of wet sand hitting something soft, something pulpy.



Suze said…
All right, my dear. I made it to Karl's second pitch at eleven and decided to get up for a cup of tea.

The muesli bit made me chuckle and I liked the liverspot color swatch. As I was reading the fortunes, I felt a twist of anxiety. I'm liking the slice of life aspect of this so much but am fearful these nice people are going to suffer at the hands of something strange before this is through! I wish people just wrote nice slice of life stories still. I'd gobble them up. It seems there's just so much brutality in story. It grieves my core.

I do love your characters, Lisa. They feel like people I've met. There was a blogger I was in touch with year(s?) ago called Ben who is Karlesque. Or maybe Karl is Benesque. Just this 'good people' vibe.
Lisa Southard said…
They are good people- I like them and am being rather cavalier perhaps to my readers, making them fear what will happen to these characters... (SPOILER ALERT) Hence my adoption of the not-very-original 'but it was probably just a dream' get out clause. The first version of this was more shock tactic based and I had to delete it. There needed to be a chance of hope at the end.
Perhaps a sequel is required to reassure... The Karmic Ox will deliver them home and their dietary choices will be much improved. Karl makes a fortune from his organic local burgers, takes his family on holiday. Ivy works on an organic farm, becomes a skilled healer. The newly weds buy a greenhouse and raise three children on home grown veg. Lorielle meets John again, he asks her on a date. They go cheese making at a goat farm and fall in love. Marty's taxi is their wedding car. My readers like this and smile to themselves- for a moment there life might have horrid, but it turned out okay. xx
Suze said…
Well, Halloween is a time for indulging the grislier shadow side but I've been thinking, the last several years, that there is no 'specialness' about that, anymore. I know that sounds weird but our culture just seems grisly and brutal all year now so the spookiness of October has sort of lost itself. Does that make sense? Have you had similar thoughts?
Lisa Southard said…
Indeed I have- it seems to me tied in with the modern disinclination to delay gratification- all of the lovely seasonal celebrations have been affected. And people aren't happier for it. I am lucky to live in a rural setting with no central heating, we can't help but feel tied to the changes through a year here. I don't have any urges to live a homogenous life! Halloween should be a release of dark energy, a recognition, an acceptance: that leads to the redemptive. The overall annual result should be a balanced mind, an active progressive process. Don't mind the dark side but what I want is good compost, not crap!

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