HOW’S THE BEEF? • by Jeanne Holtzman

I quit the band after our drummer cracked up the van while steering with his knees and rolling a joint. Now instead of sleeping all day and staying up all night, I’m stuck in this hospital basement from nine to five writing articles like “Fifty Ways to Leave your Butter” for pathetic health-obsessed losers. Finally, I’m done for the day and I’m tired and hungry and there’s nothing at home besides dried-up take out.

I climb the stairs to the main lobby. It’s not as if I couldn’t take the elevator. It has nothing to do with my nightmares of the elevator walls pressing in and crushing me, or the elevator not stopping at the ground floor but going down and down and ejecting me into a train yard where ferocious trains charge me wherever I run. I just take the stairs out of habit.

Before flinging open the metal door, I touch each of the six metal bolts securing the handle, starting at the upper right hand corner and going around clockwise. I know what you’re thinking, but I don’t have to do it, and I’m not a germ freak and my house is a mess.

I walk like a New Yorker through the lobby, looking only at the exit door, never glancing at the people slouched or huddled on the couches and chairs. I don’t breathe the stench of worried waiting. I avoid catching the eye of the gray and balding man who’s about to learn his wife has ovarian cancer, or the father of the fourteen year old girl screaming her kid into the world.

I need food; I’ll stop on the way home. I peer into the dark parking lot. The nurses laugh at me as they amble to their cars, but I wait for the ancient security guard to walk me to mine. At least the old geezer has a uniform and a gun, probably an ex-cop. My dad was a cop, saw the world through cop eyes, always the worst-case scenario. Probably why he developed cop lips, thin and tight as stretched rubber bands. If a positive statement ever escaped those lips, he’d knock wood and chant “no evil eye” in Yiddish. Compared to him, Woody Allen was Pollyanna on Ecstasy.

I pull on my seat belt, start the engine, and turn on NPR for the news. The Boston Globe is too grisly, and the TV doomsayers turn ordinary storms into The Breath of the Apocalypse, and flu season into The Return of the Black Plague. Science Friday’s on the radio “…the first Mad Cow in the United States has just been discovered.” As I drive home, frantic listeners call in. “How do we know that cosmetics made from cow parts aren’t a threat to human health?” they whimper. “How can we be sure our hamburgers are safe?” I switch to a rock station.

All this talk about hamburgers has made my stomach growl. Up ahead, the Golden Arches beckon. A long line snakes its way toward the drive-through. One sick cow somewhere out west won’t keep these diehards from their favorite meal. To beef, or not to beef, that is the question. I pull off the road and follow them. I order a Big Mac, small fries and a coke. My mouth waters.

I lock my apartment door behind me, push my straw into the cup, spread out the fries and unwrap the Big Mac. I finish off the fries. I pick up the burger. It feels heavy. The sesame seed bun indents, and two all-beef patties threaten to slip out. I hesitate, imagine bovine spongiform encephalitis eating holes in my brain. Then I take a victorious bite. And then another and another until the hamburger is all chewed up and swallowed. I wipe special sauce off my face and smile in triumph. I am no wimp. I am no prisoner of fear. I am a free spirit.

Jeanne Holtzman is an aging hippie, writer and women’s health care practitioner, not necessarily in that order. Born in the Bronx, she prolonged her adolescence as long as possible in Vermont, and currently lives with her husband and daughter in Massachusetts. Her writing has appeared in such publications as The Providence Journal, Writer’s Digest, The First Line, Twilight Times, Flashquake, Salome, Hobart online, Hip Mama and The Iconoclast.

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