Sunday, July 23, 2017

BEAR MEAT by Peter Nolan Smith

In August of 1987 Pullie Fallen, Grieg Packer, and I left New York City for Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The art professor, literary agent, and I took turns driving Pullie's F-150 pickup truck through the sweltering heat of the Midwest. None of us broke the speed limit, since Pullie had two unlicensed guns under his seat. He used the .45 and .38 to blast his steel sculptures. The bullet-holed pieces sold well in the South.

We stopped at the Great Bear Dunes to visit mutual friends from Florida. Vonelli's sister had a beach shack overlooking Lake Michigan. The art dealer took us out on a ChrisCraft. The vast expanse of water rivaled Conan the Barbarian's Vilayet Sea. Three days passed riding dirt bikes off the dunes and drinking beer. Vonelli was heading back to Paris. The auctions at the Hotel Drouot opened in less than two weeks.

We said our goodbyes at noon. The Vonelli clan was heading south to Florida. Pullie pointed the pick-up north. I sat in the back of the truck. The midday heat zapped my strength and I passed out in the back of the truck short of Petrowsky.

The Ford's humming over the Straits of Mackinac Bridge disrupted my sleep. It was a little after sunset and the temperature had dropped into the 70s. The sky was filling with the cosmos illuminating the black waters on the two joining lakes. This was Hiawatha's shores of Gitche Gumee by the shining Big-Sea-Water and I sat up in the back to breathe in the boreal night air.

Pullie drove for another 15 minutes and pulled off Route 2 somewhere north of St. Ignace. We slept in the back of the truck and rose with the misty dawn. Breakfast was a bag of warm pasties from a Epoulette diner. The delicious meat pies were a hang-over from the Welsh miners working mineral deposits in the mid-1800s.

The bearded sculptured had summered on the UP in the 50s. His deceased father had designed cars for Chrysler. His son had a photo of an black Imperial sedan parked on thick ice next to a fishing shack. His family wintered on the UP too.

"The UP was a paradise back then. Jobs, nature, and good people. Most of them gone since the mines closed. Now all you got are old Finns to stubborn to quit the land. "

The Upper Peninsula had a population density of 10 people per square mile in the late-80s. We hadn't count heads passing through dismal towns overlooking the Great Lake, but I hadn't seen more than 3 people in a clump the entire morning. The stocky men and woman looked the same in their jeans and flannel shirts topped by a baseball cap.

Three men, three women, or a menage a trois.

I couldn't tell the difference.

We pulled into Fire Lake around 3.

Pullie beeped the horn before an old farm house. The walls had been weathered by many winters and the two-story structure leaned away from the prevailing wind. A herd of cows grazed in a fenced field. One cow stood by itself. It was not the bull.

Our host limped into the afternoon sunlight. Uvo was in his 50s. He greeted us with a firm handshake and a yellow smile. He lit an unfiltered Camel.

"Where's everyone?" Pullie's scratched at his beard. It was more salt than pepper.

"Down at the lake fishing, but Jim left for Ann Arbor two days ago, eh."

"Sorry, I missed him." Pullie had attended U Michigan with Uvo's second son. Both were artists.

He tugged on the cigarette and exhaled a flume of smoke. "You boys fish?"

"Not much fishing in New York." Grieg regarded Uvo, as if he were a Norman Rockwell painting.

"No, guess they don't like to swim in concrete.

The afternoon sky that filled with high clouds from the north. The summer was almost gone. Uvo held a pair of axes in this hands.

"Going to get cold tonight, eh. Call me old fashioned, but I believe in the work ethic. You work. You eat. No work. No eat."

Grieg and I looked at each other.

The Londoner was no farmer.

I had picked crops as a teenager at my local farm.

Neither of us was a farmer boy. We had blisters on our hands within minutes, but as an Englishman Grieg believed in doing a host's bidding and the both of us hacked logs into firewood, while Pullie and Uvo drank Schlitz beer. They were examining Pullie's 45 and the shotgun. Beer cans floated in a metal tub.

Hard work.

We finished our task in a sweat and joined the other two. Grieg slung the ax over his shoulder, as if he graduated from Paul Bunyan School. Uvo surveyed the woodpile.

"Not bad for trolls, eh."

"Trolls?" I had been called many things in my life, but never a troll.

"Trolls is the Yopper euphemism for people coming from unda the bridge," Pullie explained, as he handed us two cans of Schlitz. The beer that made Milwaukee famous was unavailable in New York. The gusto of the crisp cold beer brought back memories of my youth on the South Shore of Boston.

"Good beer."

"Better than Bud." Grieg refrained from his usual assault on American beer. They tasted like water to the Brits.

A breeze whiffled through the trees bordering the pasture

Uvo sported a serious bruise on his forearm.

"Cow butted me, eh." The farmer glanced over to the single cow in the pasture. "You boys feel like a sauna."

Many of the inhabitants of the UP were descendants of Finnish immigrants. Uvo had build a traditional Scandinavian steam room next to the barn. He stripped off his clothing and waved for us to join him inside the sauna.

The gnarled farmer threw water on the hot stones. Steam furled from the rocks. Te temperature was close to the surface of Venus.

"Good to see new faces up here, eh. Fire Lake is a long way from anywhere. Most of the people in town are tired of seeing each other. Crabby as a bear coming out of hibernation and the winters are long up here. People just don’t like getting together too often. Too busy working, but nothing gets them together faster than talk of a barbecue, so if you want to see people, we’ll have a barbecue.”

“Fresh meat too.” Pullie's was a total carnivore. His blood pressure was that of a 300-pound man. The art professor weighed under 160. He ate steak four times a week. The Homestead Steak House on 9th Avenue knew him by name.

“Y-up.” Uvo spoke with tinges of Finnish clinging to his accent. He scratched his buzzcut then rubbed his unshaven face. “Go shot a cow after we’re done.”

“Shoot a cow?” I was a meat-eater, but my steaks came from a supermarket. I wiped the sweat from my face with an old towel.

“Would rather he kill it with an ax?” Grieg joked from under his wrap of towels. The English literary agent looked like a soggy mummy.

“I kill one cow every fall.” Uvo stated matter-of-fact. “Keeps me in meat until the spring. The way snow falls up here you never know when you might get supplies.”

Winters were hard this far north. 200 inches of snow were the norm. A few communities had recorded annual snowfalls nearing 13 feet.

“Killing a cow ain’t sport, eh. I known this cow all its life. Fed it as a calf.” Uvo seemed sad about the upcoming culling of his herd. “Strange but the other cows sense what's going to happen.”

“You think they tell each other?” Grieg came from London. The only cows in that city arrived dead at the Smithfield Market for slicing into steaks and grinding into hamburger.

“Dunno. Cows are funny, eh.” Uvo stripped the edge of an old straight-razor to the sharpness of an assassin’s blade. He stroked the grizzle from his face with an economy of motion. After finishing Uvo stropped the edge. My beard was scrapped from my face without a nick. Paul had a beard, but Greg wasn’t so lucky. His skill with the blade suffered from his heroin intake. He exited the sauna patting his cuts with a towel.

"You boys religious?" Uvo didn't wait for an answer and said, "Because up here on the Upper Peninsula we take the Word of God for truth."

"Okay." I was a confirmed atheist, but kept my devout non-belief to myself.

"In da beginning dere was nuttin." Uvo's accent thickened to a nearly indecipherable patois, "Den on the first day God created da Upper Peninsula. On the second day He created da partridge, da deer, da bear, da fish, and the ducks. On da third day He said "Let dere be Yoopers to roam da Upper Peninsula". On the forth day He created da udder world down below. On the fifth day He said "Let there be trolls to live in the world down below". On the sixth day He created da bridge so da trolls would have a way to get to heaven. God saw it was good and on da seventh day, He went Huntin and that works as the Word of God on the UP."

"Good for me." I toasted his version of Genesis with a cold Schlitz.

We raised our cans to the sky. The sunlight dried our naked flesh. The winwu lipped up the silver bottom of the leaves. Uvo looked over his shoulder to the large pasture. The herd of cows were standing against the fence. The one cow was in the distance.

“That’s the one.” Grieg lifted his head from a nod. He was handsome in a desperate way.

“Weird, eh?” Uvo reached into the bucket and pulled out four more beers. They were going fast. “They shun that one like killing might be contagious.”

Death awaited all creatures. We drank our beer. Uvo saved the empties for target shooting. The cows stared at us like we were holding a vote to change the sacrifice.

“Funny how they’ll protect themselves from other animals but not man.” Grieg aimed a finger at the distant cow. It moped in protest. “That’s because they trust us.”

“Trust?” Uvo laughed with a farmer’s certitude. “Cows ain’t no one’s friend and nuttins as dumb as a cow tied to a post, eh. How you think I got this black and blue on my arm.”

“The lone cow.” Pullie was sitting on a log. His legs were thin. The sculptor needed more exercise.

“Yup that’s the one.” Uvo walked over to the gate. He lifted his fingers to his mouth. A long whistle got the attention of the solitary cow. The others huddled closer to the fence. The cow shook his head.

Uvo whistled again and then banged the grain bin. Corn husk dust misted a halo around the farmer’s head. The cow meandered to the gate. Uvo slipped a noose over its head. Long scars crisscrossed the haunches. Something wild had had at it. Uvo led the beast to a trellis constructed of thick logs. A pulley hung from the beam. The naked farmer fed the lead line through the pulley and hauled the cow’s head upward.

Uvo returned to us. The other cows scattered over the pasture to munch the long summer grass. Grieg was sprawled against the sauna wall. The heat and the beer had taken its toll on the Englishman. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

“Something wrong with that troll. I don’t want no one dying on my farm, eh.”

“I’ll take care of him.”

“You a doctor?”

“No,but I know what to do, but my grandfather was a doctor in the First World War." I went into the sauna and came out with a bucket of icy water. I emptied the contents over Grieg. The Englishman sputtered to life. Uvo and Pullie laughed as only naked men can laugh.

Hands over their genitals.

Grieg wasn’t too happy with the sudden reveille but understood that he had violated his guest privileges.

“Thanks for the wake-up call."

“No problem.”

“I have some calls to make and that cow has a date with a Winchester.” Uvo walked over to his house. He entered by the front door. The cow in the rear mooed our surrender. We followed Uvo’s path across the lawn. I went to my room. It was on the second-floor. the windows overlooked the cow. I stuck wet tissue in my ears waiting for the killing shot.

Uvo and Paul exited from the house. They were still naked. Uvo held a Winchester rifle. Paul had his 45. The cow mooed once and Uvo stuck the rifle muzzle in its ear. One bullet buckled its legs. Paul gave the coup de grace.

The killing took less than 10 seconds.

Uvo and Paul tugged on the rope around the dead cow’s neck. The creature was ready for slaughter. I lay on the bed. The mattress was old. The sheets smelled of the seasons. I fell asleep in a minute.

I woke to the sound of people talking and the smell of sizzling steak. I got out of bed and went to the window. Meat was burning on the grill. Ten people were drinking beer. Pullie, Uvo, Grieg, three women and four men. Everyone was wearing the UP uniforms. The only way I could identify Uvo was by his red cap.

I dressed in the uniform and joined the party.

Pullie's truck was parked next to the house. The tape deck was playing a tape of garage music. ? and the Mysterians. Grieg was entertaining the congregation with tales of Oxford. I had heard them before, but he was a good storyteller and I laughed along with the other guests. We drank beer and ate steak. Medium raw. Blood dripped from our lips. The meat went well with the potato sausage and cudighi, a spicy Italian meat.

One of the women had brought a nisu, a cardamom-flavored sweet bread. Another juustoa or spueaky cheese and sauna makkara, a Finnish bologna. It was good eating. The sun was going down.

Uvo gathered the empties and placed them on a shot-up fence post 50 feet from the grill. Pullie placed his 45 on the table. A box of ammo.

We shot the entire box in ten minutes. Only two of the beer cans survived the onslaught. Pullie put his pistol under the seat of his pick-up and I sat on the porch.

“Good steak, eh?” Uvo was aglow with beer. His smile was shared by his friends. They smiled broader when the stereo played DIRTY WATER.

“Delicious.” Better than anything from the Homestead. “But I meant to ask you. What were those scars on that cow.”

“Bear, eh.” The nisu woman answered my question. Pullie was flirting with the scrawny 40ish brunette. She was in her 40s. She wanted to dance to LOUIE LOUIE playing on the pick-up’s stereo. They did the two-step.

“Yup, a bear attack that cow last spring. I shot it dead.”

“Don’t say that too loud, eh.” The woman glanced around the guests. “Game warden hear that and Uvo has a big fine.”

“Maybe $2000 for out of season.” Uvo popped open another beer.

“But it was attacking your cow.”

Bears in Maine roamed the blueberry patches for a sweet treat. The police warned hikers to stay away from the patches. Last summer spotted two black bears. Smaller than a Grizzly, but big. They were scavenging a moose carcass across a river. Both studied me as if I were food.

“Bears won’t attack something big unless they’re hungry. Guess that bear was hungry. I shot him with that Winchester, eh.”

The same one with which he had killed the cow. It was almost like the scene in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA where Lawrence has to shot the man that he saved from the desert in order to seal the alliance of another tribe of Arabs.

“Uvo called me up and I came over with my backhoe.” A longhaired farmer nodded his head in remembrance of that day. “Big hole, eh.”

“Yup.” A chorus joined by the other locals.

“That cow was a little crazy after that. Always running around the pasture. Scaring the other cows. Sorry it had to go, but crazy cows are bad for milk.”

“Yup.” Another round of ‘yups’.

“Bear meat tastes like pork. Best are the legs and loin.”

“bears too strong for me. Too much grease.”

“Plus they get trichinosis.” Paul’s date made a face. “Bears are no good eating. Not like steak.

“Yup.”

Grieg and I joined in the chant of yups, for after the fifth beer we all spoke the same language.

The land of beer.

And no bears.

At least not at a barbecue on the UP.

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