the deil counter by emily talapa

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this story was featured in "I eat meat everyday"

There was an old mechanic named Crusty Martins and we never really knew his real name because if you ever asked him he'd say, "I can't call it."

He had a beard like wire mesh the color of rust and teeth that would be comfortable to sit on. I saw him at the grocery probably three times a week staring at steak cuts in the meat section. I worked in produce but he was always there so one day I made a point to say hello.

"Do you need any help finding anything?"

He made a loud sniff and didn't look up at me. "What do you know about meat? I can smell strawberry juice on your apron."

I put a piece of hair behind my ear and suddenly felt nervous.

He didn't look at me and I just stood there. His fingers were stumpy and the skin there was stained a patchy-black. He held a sirloin in his right hand.

"I don't know anything about meat."

"Then get away from me."

I didn't approach him again for two weeks. I was arranging pineapples in a tower when I noticed him at the deli, lips moving in a slow, concentrated way. His right hand held his bearded chin. The way he was standing made me think of a politician contemplating a serious life decision.

I took a pineapple in my hand and threw it at his head.

The spiked fruit spun beautifully like a perfectly thrown football. It struck him directly in the back of the head, like right behind his left ear. I stared at my hand for ten seconds and then clamped it over my mouth.

Crusty didn't react. His head lurched from being hit but he just continued to stand, whispering something under his breath, eyes locked on some turkey shavings behind the deli glass. The pineapple dropped to the ground and rolled a little bit.

I glanced around and realized that no one noticed. A mom walked past me, pushing a cart of wine and Totino's Pizza Rolls, probably Triple Cheese flavor. My supervisor was watching Family Feud in the break room. I was safe.

I picked up the pineapple. "How. . .how does the turkey look. . .to you?"

Crusty's lips stopped moving and his eyes snapped to meet mine. They were sunken and resting in pillows of skin. I saw them and thought the word, "pale." His eyebrows were true works of art. I pictured myself carrying them into a high-end art gallery in Chicago, mounting them on a canvas and naming the piece, "Facial Caterpillars of Fleshy Origins."

"Do you just ask me how the turkey looks?" His voice was like a hermit in the woods.

"Yes."

I tried to be confident in his presence even though I was cradling the pineapple in my arms like a small baby. I tried to forget that this was the pineapple that flew ten feet into Crusty's head just moments ago.

He suddenly reached behind his left ear and rubbed the spot there. I swallowed.

"My head hurts like the beginning of the war." He smushed his eyes together. "Why are you near me now? Why do you ask me about meat when you dabble in fruits and smells?"

He looked at the pineapple in my arms like it had just slapped his mother.

My eyes got wide. "I see you here often and I sometimes wonder about your life. I want to know why you stare at meat and whisper things."

"I'm counting, kid! Dontcha see? Counting, understand? Meat's got a method and ain't nobody know the process but me and me." Each time he said "me" he slammed his hand on his chest.

"What are you counting?"

Crusty held unbroken eye contact with the pineapple. "Get that thing away from me and maybe we can have an intellectual conversation."

He looked away quickly and started to stroke his beard. The wrinkles on his knuckles looked like the wrinkles under his eyes.

I moved away so quickly that I tripped and slammed my wrists into the shiny grocery ground. The pineapple went rolling. Some family with small children saw me fall and the dad gasped.

"That lady fell down," said a small boy who looked like he would be named a biblical name.

I just laid there for a couple seconds, my cheek like a pancake on the tile. Crusty never moved.

"Are you alright?" The gasping dad was on his knees, looking into my face. "Do you need some help here?" "Sure," I let him grab my arm and steady me on my feet. The pineapple's green mohawk was peeking out from underneath the trail mix cart.

The grasping dad hurried away after helping me. He was wearing an argyle sweater.

I rejoined Crusty, rubbing my throbbing wrists.

"What took you so long and where did you put that dang pineapple?"

"I fell down."

"Where is that dang punk-fruit? Those make me uneasy. They remind me of before the war."

"It rolled underneath the trail mix."

Crusty looked calm and intrigued and peered past me to the see if I was telling the truth.

"Ah. Belongs in the dust, it does. Out of sight and in the shadows."

"Which war were you in?"

"I'll tell you now why I count meat but to disclose information on my personal life would be like letting you walk into my mind without your name on the RSVP list, understand? You're not invited there!"

I swallowed. "Okay. Why, then, do you count meat?"

"There's a real process here, you see." He pointed a stubby, patchy-black-stained finger at the rows of cold cuts and sausages. "Every third piece in a row is of best quality if it's on an even numbered date on the calendar. Weekends don't apply, Mondays - every Monday is the fourth piece down. Once you gather every best quality, you multiply that number by three and buy that many ounces of meat plus three more."

"Why only even numbers of the month?"

"Well, I lost a piece of my skull on an odd numbered day, so there's no trust there."

I didn't want to ask about the war. I watched him rub behind his left ear again.

"How do you know the third one down is of best quality?"

"I worked in a meat plant right out of high school. Every man who works in a meat factory, a large percentage of them are color blind - only see blacks and whites." I nodded.

"They sort the lightest colors in groups of threes. Most valuable piece of information I've ever gained and I've carried it with me my entire life."

"So you buy meat every day and you eat meat every day?"

"Is it the fruit-smell that gets to your head, kid? Is it the sweet sugar that infiltrates your bones and seeps into your blood - of course I eat meat everyday and I'm here most every week, as you most certainly know. I see your blonde hair watching me from over the watermelons."

I felt heat rising in my face. I always thought the watermelon mound was a secure hiding spot. "I feel like you have ill feelings towards fruits."

"My mother died when I was seven. She choked on a grape."

My eyes expanded in horror.

"And then she spit up the grape. Two years later, she died from pneumonia. Our house had leeks and it rained a lot and my dad said her immune system was weak. But, I still hated grapes. And now, I hate all fruits."

"I tried making cantaloupe juice one time. I left it in a jar in my garage on accident and my mom's cat drank it and got sick. I thought I'd hate fruits then but I got this job six months ago and I feel fine."

Crusty looked at me with what seemed like genuine interest. "I wish I could change my thoughts on that food group. My doctor says it would benefit my health."

"Maybe you could try applying your meat process to fruits. Maybe that would help you appreciate them."

He suddenly leaned into a folded stance, coughing and sputtering in the dustiest laughter I had ever heard in my life. He convulsed for a couple minutes, bringing a pink color to his face. Wiping a victory tear from his eye, he looked back at me.

"You're delusional, kid."