Friends and Food

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Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Sandy Parsons

 

I checked the address on the crumpled piece of paper as I stepped from the cab. I hadn’t been to this bar before, much less to this part of town. But Juvy asked me to come. And when Juvy asks me to go somewhere I go.

I peeled open the dilapidated door and almost keeled over from the smells. Smoke, sweat and something like citrus soaked in lighter fluid circled around me. I squeezed onto the only barstool left and scanned the tables for Juvy. The place was crowded for a weeknight. The bartender tapped me on the shoulder.

“I’ll just have some water,” I said, only half-turning.

He scratched the stubble on his neck. “Two-drink minimum.”

“What? Oh. Well then, a beer I guess.”

He nodded, satisfied that I had come into line. Then, as if to mollify me, he leaned in close and spoke from the side of his mouth, “The little tart’s worth it. But the alcohol doesn’t hurt either if you know what I mean.”

I didn’t, but I smiled and took a big swig, raised the bottle in his direction. Come on Juvy, I thought. This better be good.

The crowd was getting thicker, and the pitch in the background noise quickened in urgency. The house lights dimmed and the stage lights came up, momentarily blinding me. There was loud clapping, then hoots, then a hush as the curtains parted. I took a drink and gagged as my eyes took in the sight before me.

The alien was smaller than on TV. Her upper body was stuffed into a denim jacket and the lizard-like tail had been contorted into a sort of bun against her back. The lower set of eyes was ringed with blue makeup and the feather boa shaded the upper set. Sparkly earrings dangled from vestigial earlobes. Something akin to stilettos wobbled beneath the clawed feet, but the worst, by far the most incomprehensible sight, was the stockings. Mottled skin dripped like candle wax through the diamond mesh, and the nylon squeezed and stretched around the warty thighs, sagging and baggy at the knees and hindquarters.

I’d always considered myself a leg man until then. I’d never seen one of the fulgur queek in person, much less in drag. I shuddered a little when the alien waddled around and I caught sight of the zigzagging seam along the back of its legs. It took me so long to recover from my shock that I hadn’t noticed the singing. I think it was “Strangers in the Night,” but with all the squealing and grunting it was impossible to be sure.

I was on my fourth whiskey sour when Juvy showed up.

“Isn’t she great? I’ve been dying for you to come out and see her.” Her head swung to the side and her eyes rolled back as she emphasized the word dying.

I gestured somewhat shakily at the stage. “So, this really is what you wanted me to see? I thought it was some kind of joke.”

She laughed, and as she slid into a barstool and stretched her long legs I began to recover a bit from my revulsion. “So, why’d you want me to come out here?”

“To see the act for one. Didn’t you think it was phenomenal?” She leaned in and her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “To be honest, I didn’t even know they could make human sounds until I saw her perform.”

“So what? Does this have anything to do with the big case you’ve been working on? Wait, don’t tell me, you’re representing the fulgur queek.” I laughed, warming to my joke. I held my hand up, as if reading a newspaper headline. “I can see it now, Juvy Mallowtine inks million-dollar contract for flabby life form.”

“That’s way too long for a headline. And Marilyn isn’t flabby, she’s germinating or something.”

“Germinating? Who’s Marilyn? Oh wait, you aren’t serious. I was only kidding about you representing those… them… the aliens. Aren’t they like plants or something anyway?” I’d studied the discovery of life on one of Jupiter’s moons like everyone else but it wasn’t my best subject. My grandfather said the knowledge gave everyone on Earth a new respect for terrestrial life, but it’s hard to imagine how different the world was back then. He even said that before interplanetary space travel, humans actually ate other Earth species.

Juvy was smiling at me over the rim of her drink.

“What?” I could tell she was up to something.

“I’ve got a surprise for you, that’s all. I can’t wait.”

“So Marilyn wasn’t the surprise?” I gestured to the stage but realized the alien was gone. I was a little disappointed I had missed her final number. “She’s coming back for a second act, right?”

“Hmm. Maybe. But no, the fulgur queek isn’t the surprise. At least not that one.” She drained her glass and signaled for another.

“What? You mean there’s more than one that can squeeze into a pair of fishnet hose and belt out “I Gotta’ Be Me”?”

She looked hurt. “I don’t represent entertainment. I am strictly food and drink. Didn’t I ever tell you about Simplicious Foods? That’s my big client. The biggest. And you, as my ever-patient boyfriend, are getting the chance of a lifetime tonight.”

I was glad to hear it, but I couldn’t help turning my head every few seconds to see if Marilyn was coming back.

“Yes, tonight, baby, prepare to feel your taste buds sing. Are you hungry yet?”

Something to absorb all that nervous alcohol sounded good. “Yeah, I guess I’m ready. Where are we going? I hope it’s not far.”

“We’re staying here,” she said in her all-business voice, snapping fingers with sharp red nails over my shoulder. She mouthed something and made wiggling motions with her hands. Then she turned to me. “Great. It’ll be out in a minute.”

I shuffled my feet on the sticky concrete floor and rubbed my elbows across the graffiti-laden bar top. I wouldn’t have thought a place like this could raise enough in bribes to run a kitchen. But Juvy never let me down before. I decided to be optimistic. “What are we having?”

“Ah, that’s the surprise. But I’ll tell you this much. It’s something you’ve never tried before.”

“The last time someone told me that I got arrested.”

She smiled wickedly. “No one told you to take all your clothes off.”

I started to argue, but my mouth suddenly began to water so much I couldn’t open it without fear of drooling. I felt light-headed from the aroma. I inhaled deeply, and my stomach, if it could, would have cried with joy.

Juvy rubbed her hands together in anticipation. “I think they braised it this time.”

I wasn’t listening to her. There was sizzling. There was steam. There was a plate in front plying my nostrils with a delicate yet pungent fragrance.

Juvy was already eating. “Dig in. You should really eat it when it’s hot.” Her chin was glistening, and her lips were a glossy ginger hue.

It was too good to be true. My suspicions were aroused. “What is it, Juvy? Is there some kind of drug in here?”

“No, no. Absolutely not.”

My hand had already decided to pick up the fork. I raised the first bite to my lips. My tongue wriggled in anticipation.

“It’s the fulgur queek. The chef’s specialty.”

My mouth clamped shut.

“What? Trust me, it’s best if you eat it hot.” She picked a little something from her teeth. It looked suspiciously like fishnet stocking fiber.

I turned back to the stage. It had a forlorn emptiness. “Marilyn?” I managed to croak. I was having a hard time making eye contact with Juvy.

She leaned her head back to laugh and her long mane of luxurious curls swung out around her. “You are so sweet. I’ve heard of people becoming attached to the fulgur queek before but that is just too rich.”

My brain was preparing an angry response but my hand, stomach and mouth had their own plan. I can remember fighting it for only a second and the next thing I knew I was licking the last bit of gravy from the plate.

“Don’t you have any manners?” grumbled Juvy, but she looked more satisfied than angry.

I pushed the plate away. “Oh Juvy, how could you have made me eat Marilyn?”

“You idiot, you weren’t eating Marilyn. Do you have any idea how long it takes to train one of them to tolerate the costumes? Much less find one who can make enough sounds to mimic a human voice.”

“Then what were we eating? A slow learner?”

She tossed her crumpled napkin on her plate. “I guess so. Although it wouldn’t surprise me if this is last month’s entertainment. People do get bored with the same old song and dance, you know?” She slid her tongue along her teeth and lips. “Now that beats seaweed stew any day, don’t you think? Simplicious Foods is going to make me very rich. And you too, if you’re smart enough to invest now.”

I had to admit she had a point. At every table, people were merrily munching away. Still, I was bothered.

“But we aren’t supposed to eat other species. Humans decided long ago that that was wrong. I mean just because something tastes good…”

She stared at me innocently, with her lovely slanted eyes.

The waiter, who was clearing our plates, gave a knowing little laugh. “We hear that one all the time in here. Put your mind at ease, my friend. The fulgur queek are plants. They are plucked from the stem like fragrant onions, living only to be sautéed in a light cream sauce.”

“But the singing… and the eyes…” During one song I kind of thought Marilyn was singing to me.

“Those are just tricks. Their minds, nothing but wheat. Their bodies, nothing but the ripe fruit of the vine.”

I thought about the flesh oozing from the stockings, and wondered where he got his images from. “Don’t be so conflicted,” he continued, “It’s okay to eat the fulgur queek.”

Juvy piped up. “It better be okay, because they are just too delicious to give up.”

“Juvy, I have to go.”

“What? Wait, don’t you want to discuss your investment options?”

I pushed away from the table and stood up. “No. I don’t think this is the deal for me.”

She looked crushed.

“Thanks though. Really. I’ll see you ’round.” I threw bills on the table and got out of there as fast as I could.

It wasn’t easy finding the back alley entrance that would get me backstage. I had to bribe both a bouncer and a fat woman with hairy underarms guarding what I guess you could call the dressing room. But it was worth it.

I knew I had done the right thing when I saw the fishnet stockings, stretched in all the wrong places, folded neatly beside the denim jacket and the makeup kit. Plants didn’t fold clothes.

I picked her up gently from the nest of newspapers she had been sitting in, rubbing her claw-like feet with her stumpy little appendages. She was smaller than she appeared on stage. “Come on, Marilyn,” I whispered, turning my head a little so she couldn’t smell the betrayal on my breath, “I won’t let you become dinner.” I tucked her gently into the crook of my arm, and before I had gotten a block she had fallen fast asleep.

 

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