The Meat Closest to the Bone

Everyone knows we should try to be healthier, but what if the federal government required it?


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“Your cholesterol is 237, Mr. Jersey,” the state doctor told him, reading the computer printout of his blood workup. The doctor, a fit-looking man in his forties — they were all fit-looking nowadays; they had to be — tsk tsked when he saw the body fat percentage, and hmmmed when he read off Martin Jersey’s list of crimes: “Blood sugar elevated beyond approved level. Blood pressure over approved norm. Treadmill performance acceptable for an asthmatic woman of 60. Muscle mass reduced by 5.9 percent. Mr. Jersey,” the doctor suddenly hailed him, as if he had only just arrived in the Mandatory Exam Cubicle, “you couldn’t do 20 sit-ups, the minimum the law allows for a man of 43. How on earth do you expect me to give you a red meat permit?”

His arteries were showing signs of plaque buildup as well. A red flag, that. Red meat was allowed for certain B vitamin deficiencies, anemia, high protein diets, carefully monitored.

“I just want a steak,” Martin Jersey said, becoming all folksy and friendly with the bastard in the white coat. “Haven’t you ever had a craving you just had to satisfy, doc?”

The doctor, cheekbones sleek as the curves on a Ferrari, eyes clear as purified water, gave him the measured stare of the reformer.

“It is our cravings,” the doctor lectured, “that lead us down the path toward self-destruction. Before the Health Authority took over, deaths from cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes were out of control. Be thankful that a benevolent government finally stepped in and said ‘enough!’ Americans are leaner, fitter, and healthier than at any time in our history. Be thankful, Mr. Jersey, that you have free medical care and live in a society that looks after your welfare.”

And taxes me to the nth degree, Martin Jersey thought, and forces me to see a quack every three months.

Ever since that zealot Benson, the health nut, doing jumping jacks during press conferences, and his pack of billionaire cronies had gained a stranglehold on the food industry, from growers to distributors, and infiltrated every nook and cranny of government, parking Theodore Benson’s skinny can in the Oval Office, the whole populace had been put on a diet. You had to eat. And you ate what was available to you. You ate Benson’s way, because Benson and his people owned it all, or controlled it, and got even richer and more powerful than the old dinosaurs like Pepsi Co. and Nabisco, long sunk into the prehistoric tar.

“Sugar poisoning!” Benson proclaimed. “Millions of tons of fat and flab, costing us all in productivity and medical care and vitality. The Body Is the Temple!” That was the catchphrase, shouted from the pulpits and the TV screens.

Who hadn’t seen those chilling TV commercials showing those long white buildings surrounded by razor wire, where the poor slobs in the exercise yard grunted out push-ups to the screaming insistence of the khaki-clad wardens who monitored their every bite of lettuce and cottage cheese.

Stan, his next-door neighbor, had been arrested one night after buying 50 pounds of sugar on the burgeoning black market. He’d been a regular at all the Speaks, but somehow had just managed to stay within the numbers set for him: body fat, blood sugar always skirting the top allowable levels, he liked to boast, but never going over them. He used some illegal drugs to purge fat and normalize blood sugar, and was going to get some for Martin before the good-for-you goons pinched him and locked him up in a Fit and Trim compound. When he got out, Stan might look like he was fashioned from pipe cleaners.

To the doctor he said, “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Still, a nice porterhouse and a glass of cold beer would go down pretty smooth right now.” He gave a little friendly chuckle, for the quack’s benefit. The state doctor wasn’t amused.

“Be satisfied that you’re still allowed one cup of decaffeinated coffee in the morning, Mr. Jersey. Had you tested positive for alcohol, I would have been forced to call the authorities.”

Son of a bitch. Martin Jersey looked into the doctor’s humorless blue eyes and mentally wished him a swift heart attack.

“You’re due for a follow-up exam in one month,” the doctor said. “I expect to see a marked improvement in your overall condition.”

He didn’t say “or else,” but then, he didn’t have to. He gave Martin Jersey a strict diet to follow and sent him on his way.

* * *

His wife, Clarisse, was doing jumping jacks in the living room when he got home. She was wearing a leopard-print leotard, and, though he hated to admit it, she looked pretty good.

“How was the check-up?” she asked in between bounces.

“He gave me a diet,” he said and trudged off to the kitchen to find something edible. The fridge was devoid of anything with fat or added sugar. Fruit, yogurt, skim milk, and tonight’s dinner — soy meat patties and a three-bean salad — shared shelf space with government-approved pre-packaged meals.

“Damn,” he muttered, “I’d kill for a good rib-eye right now.” His mouth watered as he imagined the tender meat closest to the bone, mentally stripping it off with his teeth.

Maybe he could slip off to Danny’s place, after what passed for dinner, and chow down on something a guy could really sink his teeth into. Melville’s joint had been raided last week, and the next nearest Speak was in Culver City, 40 miles away. He could drive to Danny’s and be back in a couple of hours, tell Clarisse he was going to get the car looked at. It was still making that clanking noise she kept complaining about. It was probably the hydrogen pump; there was more water vapor than usual coming out of the tailpipe. He trudged back out to the living room. Clarisse was running in place now, huffing and puffing with the trim government exercise instructor on the TV.

“Don’t forget your workout,” she called.

“Yeah, yeah, I remember.”

Thirty minutes of phys. ed. three times a week was the minimum requirement. It felt like he was back in junior high, forced to take gym if he wanted to graduate. The docs could always tell if you were skipping your exercise by the tone of your muscles. Or lack thereof. He looked disdainfully at the weight machine sitting in the corner of the living room, a snare of cables and iron plates. Piss on them. It was his body.

He never bothered to ask Clarisse the time-honored question “What’s for dinner?” anymore because he knew whatever it was, it would inevitably be good for him and taste like something astronauts would squeeze into their mouths from a plastic tube.

Martin watched Clarisse bounce some more and then told her he was taking the car to the garage.

* * *

Danny’s place was a warehouse that held outdated “plus-sized” clothing and concessions to body mass for a customer base that was quite literally shrinking. There were still people with weight issues, and therefore a market, but girths throughout the general populace were receding in the advent of the Health for All revolution. Martin went around to the rear of the warehouse, to the double doors with a sign over them that read “DELIVERIES.” He knocked five times, paused, knocked twice more.

A gruff voice over an intercom asked, “What’s the word?”

“Duck soup,” Martin replied, and the doors swung open.

He was met by a very “big-boned” man wearing a tuxedo.

“This way, sir,” the man said, and led Martin to the back of the warehouse. Along a wall were stacks of high crates, artfully concealing a hidden door. Behind the door was what looked like a 1950s diner, shining with chrome and Formica tables, a long counter with cushioned stools, and red-leather-upholstered booths. A jukebox was playing “Rock Around the Clock.” The place smelled cheerfully of French fries cooking in boiling grease.

When a waitress in a poodle skirt and a ponytail came to his table with a menu, Martin smiled at her and said, “Bring me a steak, honey. Cooked rare as the Hope diamond. And a baked potato dripping with butter.” Real creamery butter, he thought. He ordered a beer. God, how long had it been since he’d tasted beer? They had their own microbrewery, of course.

Poor Stan. Unlike the young kids of today, Stan knew what he was missing, and that made it harder. You couldn’t miss the taste of something you’d never eaten before. And speak of the devil. That skinny guy sitting by himself with the guilty look on his face looked like Stan. Hell, it was Stan.

“What are you doing here?” Martin asked, slipping into Stan’s booth.

Stan didn’t seem happy to see him. “Hi, Marty,” he said.

“I thought they gave you a year,” Martin said.

“They shortened my sentence.”

Martin laughed. “For good behavior, huh?”

“You do what they tell you to do,” Stan said. “Or not to do.”

“I could tell them what to do,” Martin said. “You still with that company, what’s it?”

“Ashes to Ashes.”

“Stamp out tobacco, yeah, I remember,” Martin said. “The genetic engineers and their little viruses, killed off all the tobacco plants. Thought you were still there.”

“No. I got a new job,” Stan said, shifting his eyes to the glass of ginger ale in front of him.

“Yeah, doing what?”

“Government work. Keeps me busy. Gathering statistics. How’ve you been?”

“Don’t ask. I got put on a diet. Like it makes a difference. Couldn’t stand it, huh?”

“I beg your pardon?”

Martin pointed out Stan’s new-and-not-improved thinness.

“Stuff tastes like crap, what they give you, doesn’t it?” Martin said. “Bet you couldn’t wait to eat real food. You still have that stuff that cleans you out?”

Stan shook his head. “I can’t get it anymore. The penalty for possession is ten years at a T & F.” His eyes looked bleak when he said it.

“You took a big chance coming here, but then, don’t we all?” Martin grabbed a breadstick stuffed with cheese from a green plastic basket the ponytailed waitress had brought over to him. Stan took one from the proffered basket, laid it primly on a napkin.

“You’ll be sitting here?” she asked, and gave Martin a thumbs up when he told her he was going to eat dinner with his buddy. “Your steak will be ready shortly,” she said.


“Red and juicy.” She turned to Stan. “And you, sir? Are you ready to order?”

She looked askance at Stan’s glass of ginger ale, as if it was wasted without some whiskey in it. The fizz was almost gone. He must have been sitting there a while, Martin thought. Was he waiting for someone?

“Maybe a salad,” Stan said. “Plain. No dressing.”

“Salad!” Martin said. “Are you kidding me? Get this man a double-decker burger with cheese and a side of fries. He held up his hand before Stan could protest. “It’s on me, buddy.”

The waitress nodded, said, “Will do,” winking at Martin, and swayed back to the kitchen.

“Better get it while you can,” Martin said. “The Speaks are being hit hard. I know you’ve been away for a while, but did you hear about Melville’s?”

Stan nodded, took a sip of ginger ale. He looked like he’d been caught with his hand in the erstwhile cookie jar. It was the conditioning. You were afraid to put a wrong fork or spoon anywhere. Danny’s rich, greasy fare was just the antidote he needed.

“Health Enforcement is really cracking down,” Martin said. “Benson vowed to eradicate every Speak in the country. The cops closed down three in Culver City in the last three weeks.”

“Four,” Stan said, and took a quick sip from his glass. “I read the papers,” he added.

“Yeah, sure,” Martin said, “they got Harry’s joint, too. It’s the goddamn end of an era.”

The jukebox, flashing like a neon sign, played “Bad to the Bone.”

“Good to the bone,” Martin paraphrased, dismissing from his mind the soy patties waiting for him at home. And a half-hour of calisthenics.

Clarisse was probably still bouncing.

Stan wasn’t much in the way of entertainment — quiet, subdued, still recovering from his ordeal, no doubt. But he hadn’t come here for Stan, not that he’d known or cared that Stan would be here. They weren’t exactly friends, more over-the-fence neighbors who had exchanged a few words, as Martin had done with Stan’s wife when Stan was sent up for that sugar buy, and went out once in a while to the joints Stan frequented. That was how Martin had first gotten into Danny’s place, via a regular customer. Stan was in the loop. Now he looked like a stranger in a strange land. The last time they’d gone out together, jeez, it was ages ago, Stan had gotten plastered at Spiro’s, before it was closed down, and danced a jig.

As Martin’s grandmother used to say, eat something, you’ll feel better. But that was then.

In Danny’s, you could get your fill, and Martin decided he would order dessert when he finished his steak. Something with a million calories, a tribute to the million souls in the Trim & Fit prisons languishing on the Minimum Daily Allowance.

“Let’s get some rum cake,” Martin said. “My treat.” God, he was going to have to work it all off before he went back to see that quack, but it was worth every bite to him.

Stan didn’t look enthused.

“I’ll skip dessert,” he said.

“You’re just out of practice,” Martin said, talking over a cheesy hunk of breadstick.

He imagined Stan’s Health Score, kept on file for every citizen: Rating A1; 2% body fat, pulse 60, all the pertinent measures of Vitality at optimal levels. Martin had heard stories about the use of electroshock to induce aversion to sugar. Stan wouldn’t verify it. Well, good for him that he’d come back to his old haunts! A rebel, getting his own back. That’s what was needed, Martin thought, a revolution. Meetings in the back rooms of Speaks, where plotters could map out the Bensonites’ overthrow.

He might mention it to Stan. He hobnobbed with Speak goers and owners all over the city. Or once had, anyway. Plant the seeds of dissention and take over. Wipe the smirks off the millions of Benson’s sheep-minded followers who spied on their neighbors and gleefully reported any violations; the usual gang of idiots, latching on to any demagogue with a slogan and a private agenda that mirrored their own obsessions.

Look at him, Martin thought, nursing his nerveless drink. You needed a guy who’d been put through the mill to get things going, someone motivated for a little payback.

“Listen, Stan,” Martin said, “why don’t we get together this Saturday at Lily’s Eats. I got a few ideas I want to kick around.”

“I’ll be there,” Stan assured him.

“Great. Make it around ten a.m. You remember Lily’s?”

Stan nodded. “I know the place.”

“They got a new password,” Martin said, and told him what it was.

“Thanks for the information,” Stan said.

“Don’t mention it. Boy, you got a lotta catching up to do.”

They could get together with a few others Stan knew, after he’d gotten some food into him, and recovered, start putting a resistance group together, recruit new members. It could really happen, Martin thought, warming to the idea. One dinner at a time.

And speaking of which …

Martin rubbed his hands together when he saw the ponytailed waitress heading for their booth, bearing laden trays.

“Here’s your steak, hon,” the waitress said, setting a plate and a mug of beer down in front of Martin. “And a burger and fries for you.” She gave Stan a wink. Stan didn’t seem to notice. She asked if she could freshen up his drink, with the implication that she could put something stronger in it. Stan shook his head.

“This is fine,” he said, and the waitress said, “Just let me know if you want anything else.” She bent over the table and, in a low voice, added, “We got some stuff that’ll curl your toes.” Another wink and she went to a table occupied by three businessmen who, from the sound of their loud laughter, weren’t drinking ginger ale.

Martin gazed at his plate, inhaled the steam coming off the baked potato. Its jacket was slit open, a generous pat of butter melting into the white flesh. The steak was over a pound. Martin ran his finger along the bone.

Picking up his knife and fork, he cut a piece of fat off the tip of his T-bone. They always left the fat on; crisped, it melted in his mouth. The meat was rare, just the way he liked it, swimming in its own juices. A health hazard, according to those who peered into microscopes and wrote reports to lawmakers, who mandated well-done for all beef, poultry, pork (if you could get it). As if our ancestors hadn’t eaten it raw, Martin thought.

He felt a growing excitement about the planned rebellion. They’d go from Speak to Speak, join the black market, build up a network of freedom fighters, work steadily toward the downfall of the New Prohibition. He felt as if he should be shouldering a musket and waiting to see the whites of their eyes, the damned alarmists, fanatics, snitches, and bullies, millions of dolts and yesmen, sabotaging everyone else’s good time.

Martin speared a piece of pink meat, studied it with hearty approval, then popped it into his mouth.

“Eat drink and be merry,” he said, chewing blissfully.

He raised his mug to Stan, who was sitting like a mannequin, not even looking at his burger or greasy fries.

“What’s eating you?” Martin said, and laughed at his little joke. “Dig in, buddy.”

“I’m not allowed,” Stan said quietly.

Martin stopped chewing.

“Oh, Jesus.”

His new job. Gathering statistics for the government: Number of Speaks, locations. Names.

“You were at Melville’s last week,” Martin said. His stomach felt leaden.

Stan spread his hands. “Sorry, Marty. They gave me a deal.” He tapped his chest.

There was a beep, followed by the sound of a door being smashed open and a bullhorn blaring instructions to suddenly panicked customers who ran for blocked exits.

Martin bent over his plate, wolfing down pieces of T-bone until he choked, and a muscular man in a white uniform whacked him on the back, dislodging a chunk of meat from his throat before he hauled the offender off to a waiting paddy wagon.

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  1. Orwellian! And terrifying! I could see what was coming, and it made me want to throw up! Better dead than to be so controlled!

  2. An excellent, well told story here, William. I love how you said it as much as what you said. “Americans are leaner, fitter and healthier than at any time in our history.” “We must be grateful to live in a society that looks after our welfare.” Prohibition meets George Orwell meets The World Economic Forum.

    Setting the story in mixed up, messed up California was perfect. I had some business over in Culver City earlier this week. Loved the description of the 1950s diner where Martin went, and the waitress. The food descriptions of both the lavish and the bare are amazing; mostly the latter. I liked the way you blend the serious with dark humor also.


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