Gym Bag Steak

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Timothy L. Marsh


When I knew Conrad he was a sick old man who drank too much and couldn’t walk anymore. He watched cooking shows and World War II documentaries and occasionally listened to Johnny Cash records. He lived with one of his daughters in a house he’d built with his own two hands in 1957 when whiskey cost a dollar and Newfoundlanders still did things like build their own houses.

The house was going to hell because Conrad couldn’t walk anymore and none of his four sons wanted to get their hands dirty. His sons were all some kind of businessman. They wouldn’t come over to fix leaks or tighten doorknobs. They didn’t want to deal with it. Conrad sat by while his daughter relied on professionals who overcharged for repairs and didn’t show up on time or do the job correctly. Conrad would watch grimly from his chair while the repairmen performed their services and when they left he would gripe and point out everything they’d done wrong but of course his daughter never listened. He was old and couldn’t walk and didn’t know what was what anymore.

“It’s goddamn awful getting old,” Conrad would complain, “and even worse getting old around your children.”

Conrad was dying of a dozen conditions of which uselessness was the most malignant. He drank fat glasses of Johnnie Walker and had his own easy chair in the front room that nobody else ever sat in because it was always as if he was sitting there anyway. Once he’d been a great craftsman and had built houses for every member of his family, even the ones he didn’t like. Then his knees gave up the ghost and his hands rusted shut with arthritis. Out of ten once nimble and efficient fingers only two had any functionability, a thumb and one finger which could still be peeled open with the aid of his daughter and used to feebly grip his whiskies.

He didn’t go outside anymore, but sometimes he would turn the dusty venetians and gaze out the window past the front yard where Infancy had wandered into Boyhood, Boyhood into Youth, Youth into sober and heedful Manhood, and Manhood into Age, the snowy ice-summit, where he perched trembling and malfunctioned, trying to make out all the countries and climates his life had crossed.

Conrad had many stories but there was one story he always told. Whenever I came over he would track this story down and proudly spread it out before me like the trophy hide of a rare animal that didn’t exist in the United States or even in Newfoundland anymore.

It was a story from his youth.

He was a young man, not yet out of his twenties. It was a brisk summer eve and all the boys were over for a cookout. He had just gotten married and built their first home. His wife was pregnant with their first son. The future was a honeyed fragrance.

There was an old man carrying a gym bag and hanging around the neighborhood that day. Nobody had ever seen him before. The old man wandered around the property as though he was lost and then he came over to Conrad’s fence and stared at the cookout. He was crippled on one side of his body. The right side of his face dipped below the left like a partly fallen banner. Maybe he’d had a stroke.

It was a little uncomfortable. Everybody at the cookout was very young and fresh and the old man was very old and life-walloped. They didn’t have much in common with him.

The old man didn’t say anything for a long time and then all at once he called for the cookout’s attention. “Boys,” he almost groaned. His voice sounded like rheumatism.

Everybody ignored him. They didn’t know the old man and figured he was there to beg for food or money.

“Boys,” he called again, louder this time, and this time Conrad went over.

The old man didn’t introduce himself. He didn’t say anything. He set the gym bag on the ground. Then he dropped slowly to a knee and unzipped the bag and presented a dozen fresh wet steaks sealed in plastic just like the grocery store.

That was because they had come from the grocery store.

The old man had stolen or bulk-bought the steaks and was following the scent of summer barbeques to every house, selling them. Conrad was incredulous. “Are you serious?” he laughed. “Gym bag steaks?”

The old man just knelt there. There was nothing on his face but all the years that added up to ending his life selling meat from a bag.

Conrad looked back at the boys. He was a moral young man who believed that God kept a gracious finger on every life and two fingers on the lives of the charitable.

He took out his wallet and bought a gym bag steak for seventy-five cents. The old man took the money without thanks. He dropped the coins into the bag and then zipped the bag up and faded with the dusk-light into the breezy summer eve.

Everybody said it was disgusting and probably dangerous. They told Conrad there was plenty of food from people he knew to fill him up. His wife threatened to leave him if he died of food poisoning. But Conrad wasn’t about to waste his money. He put that steak on the grill and cooked it medium-rare and when he took his first bite his senses rejoiced in the surprising and savory warm succulence, and he literally gasped. He cut the steak into pieces and served everyone a bite and they all agreed it was a remarkable cut. The perfect steak for his life.

For the rest of that summer Conrad kept an eye out for that old man. Every time he had a barbeque he’d start the grill early and let the aroma of meat and charcoal carry with the wind, casting a line for the old man and his bag of delicious protein. The old man never came around again. Maybe it was a one-time only offer. Maybe the old man moved on to other barbeques in other towns. There was plenty of speculation.

Conrad always told that story but I couldn’t say whether or not he liked to tell it. In whichever case, he always made sure to mention that it was the best steak he ever ate. Whenever he talked about his life you could see that steak in his eyes, warm in the mouth, perfectly cut, fresh and full of juice.
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“Currently I am on a folklore fellowship at Memorial University, Newfoundland. In the last year my work has appeared or been accepted in several literary magazines, including The Crab Orchard Review, The Nashwaak Review, The New Quarterly, The Newfoundland Quarterly, Green Hills Literary Lantern and The Oregon Literary Review, among others.” E-mail: timlmar[at]hotmail.com

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