Clark Roberts

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Craftsmanship for Food

Good God, Gary Jennings thought as he hustled to his car, I can’t get away from this place fast enough. He’d spent an extra hour at the dealership crunching numbers, trying to come up with a way to persuade a customer into one of the new cars displayed in the front lot. His efforts were futile; it was written on the woman’s face when they shook hands that she would be buying elsewhere.

If only he could sell his writing, just get a foot in the door in the publishing business, maybe life wouldn’t seem so unbearable. Maybe the ball would get rolling for him. Even if he never made it big-time, so what? He could keep working jobs he really didn’t care about. He’d been doing it his whole life. If some of his stories were published, he’d be able to say he accomplished the one goal in life he was bent on making happen. Of course the possibility of striking gold always lingered in the stretches of his mind. That would be the life. Novels, cocktail parties, and women. Heck, with a flourishing career as a novelist he might even find a woman suitable for marriage.

He glanced at the clock—six-thirty. Of course he was in a pissy mood. He’d wasted an extra hour at work, an hour he could’ve spent drumming his mind for magical words and phrases.

As he turned onto the expressway ramp he noticed a man dressed in rags with a sign propped up against his legs. Scrawled and colored in with dark marker, the crude yet bold penmanship read, Craftsmanship for food. Jennings had seen the man there yesterday, slumped on his ass in the same tired posture, the same sleepy face.

This time, when Jennings passed the man they made eye contact. Jennings instantly felt downright deplorable for the pity-party he always threw for himself over his job and not being able to achieve some otherworldly goal. At least he’d always had a steady income.

On impulse, Jennings slowed the car down, pulling over to the side as a couple commuters sped past. He wasn’t sure how many days the bum would be out there in the heat begging for work, but Jennings knew he couldn’t just drive by ignoring him every day. After all, the man was a real life representation of the types of characters Jennings so desperately tried to portray in his stories. Besides, Jennings liked how the sign was written.

Craftsmanship for food.

At least it didn’t read, Will work for food. That phrase was so tired, so overused, so banal.

Craftsmanship for food.

The phrase was tight, to the point, and about as original as a sign begging for a handout could be.

Jennings waited as another car whizzed past, then backed up to the stranger. The stranger idly watched as Jennings leaned over while thrusting open the passenger side door.

The stranger hid any excitement or gratitude behind a poker face.

“Come on, hop in,” Jennings invited. He took off his sunglasses, grinning hugely. “I think I can help you.”

“What do you have in mind?” the stranger asked.

“Umm, I don’t know really, but I’m sure I can find some kind of work for you to do. Clean my apartment maybe.”

The stranger coiled his face in a look of disgust. “You people are all the same. Read the sign again, Asshole. Craftsmanship for food. It doesn’t say I need charity, or that I want to be a pet monkey.”

“Come on, man. I’m just trying to help you out.”

“Yeah, and maybe when I’m done changing your toilet paper roll I can clean your ass too, but that would mean wiping away that shit eating grin.” The stranger’s face dared Jennings to make another offer.

“Sorry,” Jennings mumbled, more than a little bewildered. “I didn’t mean anything by saying…anything.” Mentally, Jennings kicked himself for sounding so stupid.

“Piss off!”

That was tight and to the point, not very original, but definitely concise.

Jennings opened his mouth to say something but found he was lost for words. He swung the door shut and drove home.

***

Jennings cried himself to sleep that night. Not over the confrontation with the man, but because nothing had gone right with the story he was currently drafting. He’d studied the first few pages, analyzing them, trying to pinpoint why exactly the pieces weren’t fitting snuggly together with the tale he was trying to weave. After only a half-hour he pushed away from the computer screen cursing and throwing papers. Nothing could be done to save the story. It was doomed, sentenced to the half-finished, half-imagined vault of his mind. It was a one-way vault, never opened to retrieve something from the past.

He broke down in the shower, curling himself into a knot of limbs while the water pelted his bare skin. Wasn’t this how professional authors behaved?

Yes, of course people with artistic minds behaved in this manner. Didn’t they?

Or did they go so far as to bleed their stories out?

Eventually, still passing tears, he got out of the shower and went to bed naked and wet.

***

He traipsed through work the next day, meddling only with the customers he knew had already been helped and avoiding those with questioning faces.

The times he did talk to a customer he used a surplus of adjectives, big fifty-cent words without knowing their full meaning. Alabaster. Albescent. Using this type of vocabulary on a daily basis would strengthen his writing. An insane thought, still, he’d arrived at the conclusion that this very well might be the last method of self-training to help his cause.

Another day droned by, and Jennings made no sales. Mr. Johnson called him into the back office at the end of the day. Johnson told him he’d better get his act together—a salesman is supposed to sell.

Writers are supposed to write, Jennings thought, but bit his tongue and complacently nodded.

On the way home he stopped at a fast food joint to pick up dinner. There was no time to cook at home. All attention had to be given to the craft.

Craftsmanship for food!

Jennings prayed the bum would be at the onramp again today, hopefully looking shabbier, hungrier than the day before and more willing to bargain.

Yes, the man was there.

The man was standing instead of sitting, as if expecting Jennings’s arrival. The sign was propped against his shins. Jennings didn’t drive by him but wheeled his car in frantically enough to strike fear in his own heart that he might actually strike the man. The man stood stock still, looking down curiously at the nose of the car only inches away from his legs. Jennings rolled down his window.

“Hey!”

“Hello, Asshole,” the stranger said.

“Get in the car. I’ve got an offer you can’t refuse.” Now he sounded like a salesman.

Amazingly, the bum did not retort. He simply folded the cardboard sign in half before dropping into Jennings’s car.

“Listen,” Jennings said, pulling the car back onto the ramp. He ignored the honking from the traffic behind him. “I’m trying to become a published writer. I like your style. I don’t know why you live the way you do, but you seem intelligent, and more than anything I like your style.” He cursed himself for sounding so pathetically redundant. “Your sign I mean. I like the style of phrase there. Craftsmanship for food. That style…that…that voice. I really like it. I like the style of that voice you used on the sign.”

“Get to the point, Asshole.”

Jennings cleared his throat. “I want you to edit my writing. I’m not sure why I think you’ll be able to do it, but there’s just something about you I can’t describe, can’t quite put into words. I guess it’s the style of that sign. I can just hear a voice when I read it. It’s got—oh I don’t know what it is—style man. Style is the best I can do.”

“I think we can come to some kind of terms of agreement.”

“Great!” Jennings said. “This might work out just great. By the way, I really am sorry about yesterday. I certainly didn’t mean to insult you in any way. What’s your name anyhow?” Jennings freed a hand from the steering wheel and extended it out.

“Jennings,” the bum said. “Gary Jennings and I’m a cannibal.”

The man leaned over to spit on the floor as if this were a practiced custom after shaking hands.

They rode to the apartment in mostly silence.

The stranger sat with a smug smile covered by his wildly unkempt beard. Humming, the bum twiddled his thumbs.

***

“I don’t know what’s going on here, but your name can’t be Gary Jennings. I mean, I’m Gary Jennings.” Jennings stood in bafflement as the stranger strode into his apartment not bothering to remove his dirt-caked shoes. Paying no attention to Jennings, the man headed straight to the kitchen, pulled a glass out of the cupboard, and drew water from the tap. He took a long drink, gulping nearly half the glass down in one giant swallow. Jennings feared the man might actually eat the glass.

Why had he let this man into his home? Why had he even bothered to try and help the man? Had he heard the man correctly when he’d said he was a cannibal?

The man went right past Jennings to sit on the couch. He propped his feet onto Jennings’s hand-me-down coffee table and flicked on the television. A cold sweat broke out on the back of Jennings’s neck. His hands began to shake. He had to show some authority here. He couldn’t allow a stranger—a bum of all things—to act like he owned the place.

“Hey buddy,” Jennings’s intoned while trying to sound authoritative; yet his voice rattled with nerves.

“What, Asshole?” The stranger turned, his expression frozen as a winter gravesite.

“First of all, quit calling me asshole.”

“Asshole! Asshole! Asshole!”

“Get out of here!” Jennings roared. He pointed towards the door as if sending an impudent child to bed without dinner. “Get out of here! Leave! Leave at once!”

“Is that really the best you can express yourself?” The man stood. He placed a sympathetic hand on Jennings’s shoulder. “No wonder you can’t get published, Asshole.”

The man strode away taking his invasion of Jennings’s home even farther to the back of the apartment.

Call the cops, Jennings thought. They’ll come and throw this piece of shit out, probably haul him off to jail. Cops enjoy kicking this kind of person around.

Then Jennings heard the familiar sound of his computer booting up. He ran for the spare bedroom where he attempted to write every night. The stranger was sitting in front of the monitor, looking as patient as a sea turtle on a nest of eggs. The stranger canted his head to the side to spit on the floor.

“Don’t do that. Stop spitting all over the place.”

The stranger spit again. “Shut up, Asshole.”

“Who the heck do you think you are?”

“Jennings. Gary Jennings, and I’m a cannibal.”

“You’re not Gary Jennings! I’m Gary Jennings! You’re nothing but a bum!”

The stranger’s hand clicked on the mouse. The word processor opened on screen. He began diligently typing. There was deftness in the manner the man’s fingers worked, lightly gliding over the keys, barely pressing on them. He never once glanced down at his hands. From time to time he would pause to spit. The current of anger in Jennings ceased as he watched with his mouth agape.

“Listen up, Asshole.” Typing at a mind-boggling pace, the man’s attention didn’t stray from the screen. “This is how it’s going to work. I write. You leave. Jesus, Asshole, don’t you know the first thing about this craft? It isn’t easy. You have to let a man write in peace. Now go fix some dinner. I haven’t fed in nights.”

The man was a lunatic, an absolute lunatic. Jennings couldn’t imagine why on Earth he’d thought to help out this bum. He’d let a total stranger into his home. He’d let the man invade his life.

“Didn’t you hear me, Asshole? Believe it or not, I can get extremely agitated. I suggest you find me something to eat.”

Now the man did stop to look up at Jennings. He grinned. For the first time Jennings noticed that every single tooth came to a point, as if they’d been sharpened with a steel file.

Jennings stepped out of the room shutting the door behind him. He went to the kitchen to cook a dinner.

Spaghetti.

***

“Here it is, Asshole.” The stranger plopped a thick bundle of papers onto the kitchen table. “Your first story that will get published. I’ll send it out tomorrow. You should probably read it just so you know the basic plot if any editors have any questions.”

The man sat down and heaped a large portion of noodles on a plate. He smothered them in a thin sauce with meatballs.

Jennings picked up the manuscript. Judging by its thickness it was about fifty pages deep. Jennings’s name and address were at the top of the first page. The title was “Running with Rabid Dogs”. The corners were marred with dirt where the stranger had handled them.

“You got all this done in under two hours?” Jennings asked, digging a red pen from a drawer.

“Yes. You can put the pen down. It doesn’t need any editing.” The stranger stabbed a meatball and took it right off the knife with his mouth. He chewed and then spat it out. “I thought we had a deal.”

“Huh?” Jennings looked up from the story.

“Our deal. Craftsmanship for food. Remember? I’m a cannibal.” Red sauce dripped down the man’s chin, and of course, Jennings remembered. “Maybe I’ll take your story back. How would you like that?”

“No!” Jennings cradled the pages to his chest. “Please don’t do that.”

In a flash the knife was an inch away from Jennings’s eye, the point of it promising unrelenting pain.

“Tomorrow night you feed me better, or else I start finding my own meal around this place. I won’t have to search far.”

“Yes,” Jennings trembled.

“Yes, what?”

“Yes, sir.”

The knife dropped away from Jennings’s sight. The fear was so strong he thought he might retch over the table.

“Good. Go ahead and read your story. It’s good.”

It was good, better than good. The man was some kind of deity of the craft. Just two pages into the story Jennings found himself enthralled by the simplicity of the writing as words and phrases coalesced drawing out perfect sentences, perfect paragraphs. He was too deep into the story to feel any jealousy towards the man sitting next to him. The action of the story was fast, happening in flashes. The dialogue minimal but absolutely essential and effective. There was just the perfect amount of imagery painting a background to allow the reader fill in the details with his or her own experiences. Emotionally it packed a punch; there was love and love lost, pain and sorrow, and in the end a hint of redemption as the protagonist’s soul bled out whether to heaven or a dark nothing was left for the reader to contemplate.

Jennings was lost to reality. He finished reading in what seemed five minutes, but when he shook his attention from the imaginary world, the clock on the wall indicated over an hour had passed.

The seat next to him was empty. The shower was running.

After the shower turned off the stranger stayed in the bathroom for an impossibly long time. When he came out he was naked and clean-shaven. The resemblance was undeniable: the muscle-build, the facial features, even the birthmark on the man’s back shoulder. How had Jennings not before recognized this man as his doppelganger?

“What did you shave with?” It was all Jennings could think to ask.

“My razor of course. I keep it in the medicine cabinet.”

“That’s mine!”

The stranger smiled, a second time flashing his predatory teeth. “Your story, it’s good isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“I’m glad you like it. No small market publishing, it deserves much more. Goodnight, Asshole.”

The stranger spit on the floor once more and left the room.

Jennings ran to his bedroom, but the stranger was already in bed with the light off.

“I never said you could sleep in my room.”

“The story, Asshole. Your first published piece. Go sleep on the couch.”

Jennings glared flatly. When the man in his bed ignored him and rolled over, Jennings headed for the couch. The apartment seemed dark and cold.

Jennings stayed awake most of the night listening to his own thoughts. Maybe fame wasn’t so far out of reach after all. The story really was that good.  It was early morning when he finally nodded off.

***

Someone was shaking him.

“Wake up, Asshole.”

Jennings rose out of sleep, his joints complaining and cracking from the awkward, strained positioning he’d been forced into from the restraints of the couch.

Jennings realized he’d never set an alarm clock. He popped his eyes alert and gasped, “What time is it?!”

He’d overslept. For sure Mr. Johnson was going to fire him.

“Relax,” the man said. He was dressed in Jennings’s best suit. “I still have over an hour before I have to be at the dealership. I’m just getting an early start because I’ll be hitchhiking. You’re going to need the car today. Remember, I want a solid meal tonight.”

“Wait,” Jennings said. “I just have one question.”

“What?”

“Young or old?”

“Doesn’t matter, just make it human.” The stranger held up the manuscript. “I’ll mail this out today.”

He walked out the door, smiling.

To Jennings, it was like watching a happier version of himself leave.

***

Could he do this?

Why not?

He’d already committed murder. The wound on the old man’s head had finally stopped bleeding so profusely. If Jennings shifted the neck in the right position more blood would seep out, but it wasn’t as messy as he thought it would be. He’d used a hammer, only meaning to knock the man out before toting him home to slice away a muscle or two that would make a good slab of meat. If the man’s consciousness came around the plan was to simply crack him in the head a second time. Then he was going to ditch the old man in a side-alley and make an anonymous call to 911.

Instead, the old man had expelled the weakest, most haunting groan Jennings had ever heard and died in the backseat of the car.

So he’d killed an old man.

Fine.

Could he actually carve him up to cook the meat?

The flesh came away from the bone considerably easier than he’d anticipated. He didn’t worry about the blood spilling. The kitchen floor was linoleum, easy to mop up with a little time and elbow grease.

Maybe the meat of a human was actually palatable.

Maybe it was like chicken.

When he was done butchering the legs he decided to try a thigh for himself. He melted some butter and slapped a slab of meat in the frying pan.

The meat sizzled; juices jumped. A sweet aroma wafted about the apartment.

It didn’t taste like chicken, but with some added spices, it was good.

***

When the stranger came home he told Jennings all about his day. He’d sold three cars and Jack Johnson, not Mr. Johnson, had thought that was just exceptional.

“By the way, I mailed out the manuscript today. We should be getting an acceptance letter in about three weeks.” He said this mildly with the slightest overtone of confidence. He spit on the floor. “We can expect a check for at least five-hundred. Smells good in here, almost like veal. You must’ve tried some. I like my meat pretty rare. Did you eat it rare?”

“Medium.”

“That’s fine,” the stranger said. “but you’re losing all the juices by cooking it that long. I’m going to bang out some more pages. The old noggin is just crammed with ideas. Fry me up some back straps. You did butcher out the back straps didn’t you?

“I did.”

“Great. Don’t overdo mine, and hold off on the spices.”

Jennings unwrapped a cut of meat he’d stored in the freezer. It was amazing how fast it had frozen, so he had to unthaw it in the microwave.

Jennings cooked the meat along with a baked potato as a side.

The stranger ate dinner without complaint.

***

Gary Jennings woke up the following day feeling fresh, ready to make some more sales. He was silent on his way to the shower so not to wake up his roommate sleeping on the couch. He shaved using his razor, pissed in his toilet, and brushed his teeth with his toothbrush. He took the time to make sure his shirt was tucked in just right and the knot of his tie was nice and snug.

Have to look sharp to make sales.

He would let Asshole sleep in today.

Gary Jennings found the couch unoccupied.  He wasn’t all that surprised as it had been a rough couple of days for Asshole.

There was a note on the end table.

Dear Mr. Jennings,

What happened to me? I killed a man yesterday,

an old man. Then I cooked him. I ate part of

another human!  And—oh God—I liked it.

I don’t deserve my life. I’m gone. Please don’t

worry or look for me. Good luck with your future

in writing. I killed an old man. Don’t look for me.

There was no signature at the end of the letter, only a damp spot, as if spitting was the perfect closure.

A whistle on his lips, Gary Jennings strolled out of his apartment.

Please don’t worry or look for me.  

That part of the letter was almost funny. In time, Asshole would be fine. He just had to learn what it meant to be a starving artist. He’d figure it out eventually, once he reached a point where he’d eat almost anything. Then he’d have some real stories to tell.


 

119 Comments »

  1. Typically I am not a fan of horror but this story intrigued me until the end. It felt like the “Twilght Zone”. A mix of horror, science fiction, and drama with a bizarre ending. Well done!
    I really liked it!

    • Wow, a “Twilight Zone” reference for my story is very humbling. Thanks so much, and I’m glad you found the ending bizarre. That’s definitely what I was shooting for.

  2. As I watched you lovingly spread bbq sauce over each tender rib that you prepared tonight for dinner, I couldn’t help but wonder, “where did Paul get these ribs and why was he home so late last night?”.

    • Well, I did know a guy that once roomed with a serial killer…or so the story went.

      “Lovingly spread bbq sauce”–just say when, baby.

  3. imagined vault of his mind,,,I never imagined my mind as a vault, but I will from not on. Like the vault at the bank storing up my earnings and hoping to grow with interest.

  4. When I think this was written 20 years ago, I can see growth in your writings. This just confirmed the stories to coe in the future. Love, Mom

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