Even as a kid, Gus had a big gullet. Look at that boy put it away. You enjoying yourself, Gus?, tuck into those mashed potatoes why don’t you. Slow up, son, watch what you throw down the ole chute, you’re gonna make yourself sick.
But Gus never made himself sick, no matter how much he ate. He had a remarkably eupeptic disposition. As he advanced in years he discovered that this was a greater gift than strength or speed or wit or a silver tongue. The world around him was edible. The plate was never empty. He who ate it all, with gusto and a big smile, and returned for seconds, and thirds, would be commended; even more, he would be trusted. He was convivial, the life of the party, a real character, a man sucking the marrow from the bones of life. Others would demur, or retire from the table, and make themselves suspicious with their antisocial unwillingness to partake. Not Gus. There he’d be, laughing it up with a turkey leg. Gosh how many of those can you knock down Gus ha ha. What a man of gargantuan appetites. What a large liver.
To the conglomeration this presented a tasty opportunity. Meetings were mostly trips to the trough: executive steaks and side salads, maybe some risotto with caramelized vegetables and extra lard. Clients wanted to eat only the best. Soon the brass dispatched Gus on three, four, five power lunches a day, power dinners, no sparing the expense account. They all had a wonderful time. Deals were closed over foie slabs. No asset in the vault, said Mr. Trilby, was worth quite as much to the conglomeration, or was quite as irreplaceable, as Gus’s gastrointestinal tract.
So he and his golden belly were promoted, or, rather, relocated to a sensitive assignment. The conglomeration owned a stake in a grand new casino project. Trilby needed a man on the spot. For the land of the endless all-you-can-eat buffet, Gus was declared a perfect fit.
But Marie didn’t want to go. She liked it in Chicago. She would be forced to leave her job in Wrigleyville, say goodbye to her friends, for a place in the desert where she didn’t know anybody. And it would be hot. Gus knew she didn’t like the heat.
“It gets pretty chilly at night,” he told her. “It’s a different kind of heat.”
“And dryness! Dryness too.” Gus had not considered the dryness. He had to admit that his wife was moist. Like pound cake; not that processed stuff, either, batter with some eggs in it. There she was, over by the stove with her wooden spoon sticking out. Over time he’d gotten much bigger and she’d stayed the same. By relativity did that mean that she had shrunk. In Las Vegas they could have a house, he explained, a place to bring up little ones. Quarters were tight in Chicago. More money, more room.
“What about the restaurants. You rave and rave about the restaurants here. You really want to say goodbye to that, Gus?”
Exasperation. Vegas, he explained, was one of the great eating cities. If you had a chef, a great chef, chances were he’d set up or was in the process of setting up a satellite place in one of the hotels. Take Aaron Grichatz, one of their favorites, he was doing a Skybird in the very casino he’d been transferred to. Heck yes it’s true. Marie huffed and let her shoulders fall. Promise me if we try it and we don’t like it we’ll come back. Gus promised.
Privately he was not as sanguine as he let on. He had doubts of his own. What, he wondered, if his talents did not transfer to the Southwest? Perhaps they were specific to Chicago. Almost all of the eating he’d accomplished had been right here at home. And he did worry about Marie. She loved to ride her bicycle on the lake shore. Gus didn’t know all that much about Las Vegas, but he thought it was unlikely she’d find anything like that there.
Enough with the fretting; time to eat. First came the pork with bok choy served in a puddle of hot sauce that Marie ladled on the plate all nice. Gus scraped it all up with fat slabs of meat. He prepared himself bites with the fried rice with an extra egg cracked over the top. Then came the glistening sausages tucked into long buns and Marie spooned extra grease on the top plus slippery fried onions and green pepper. Splatter all over the backsplash. Gus rammed them on in, chased with a crusty bread smeared with garlic and oil and melted cheese. Sizzling strips of beef in peanut oil, so tender they nearly liquified apart on the first incisor press, slid into his maw. Marie made more. As he waited Gus chucked great handfuls of nuts into his face. With lust he pulled apart thick logs of cheesy bread, slurping up the telephone cable strands of oozing mutz. At the stove Marie turned the porterhouse. She did like to cook. Well, she could make dinner anywhere. He could eat anywhere. There was food everywhere.
As it turned out, Gus’s fears were misplaced. The transfer to the desert did not diminish his appetite. Instead, the dry climate seemed to intensify his talents. In Las Vegas he encountered a pulverizing hunger he’d never before known. And it was a good thing he did, because Mr. Trilby had given him an ambitious schedule. Lunches, dinners, even power breakfasts; Gus chewed through it all. By the end of his first month in Nevada he was already the most popular man in the satellite office. There goes Gus, what a guy. No sandwich is safe around here anymore, right Gus? They loved the big man. This was going to be a tasty assignment after all.
The World was state of the art. Or at least that was what Mr. Trilby said, and Gus was in no position to dispute it. He had never been anywhere like the World. With remarkable fidelity and impeccable detail, the inside of the casino hotel had been decorated to resemble the outside. The roof was a perfect replica of the sky, and the lighting had been timed to simulate the rising and setting of the sun. Anything visible from the street — buidlings, signs, cars and busses, the whole chaotic panorama of the Strip — had been reproduced on the other side of the door with great attention to perspective. Some of the World had been modeled in three dimensions, other parts were flat, but the illusion was maintained throughout. Even the floor had been treated to resemble a sidewalk. Design at the World Casino and Hotel had been overseen by an artist who Mr. Trilby called world-famous, although Gus had never heard of him. Whoever he was, he’d done an bang-up job, Gus had to admit. It was possible to enter the World and not even know it. Only the dealers at intersections and rows of slots on streetcorners gave the game away.
Yet the zombies bothered Gus. He didn’t get that part. It seemed like a breach in verisimilitude. At random intervals during the day, zombies would run wild through the World. They didn’t just upset the casino floor, either — sometimes they streaked through Corporate. He’d had to call Mr. Trilby to register his mystification.
“Oh, yes, zombies, should have warned you. Market tested very well. Great customer feedback on that.”
“Doesn’t it shatter the realism that the World is built on?”
“You’d think it would, Gus, but strangely, it doesn’t seem to. Or perhaps it’s that element of overt fantasy that’s needed to deepen the illusion, do you know what I’m saying?”
“Straightforward rationality makes the World feel alien, it turns out.”
“I thought the zombie apocalypse craze was over.”
“Oh, we did too, Gus. We did, too.”
“Look, Mr. Trilby, those aren’t…. actual zombies, are they?”
We understand that you’re under a hefty amount of stress, Mr. Trilby said. But you’ve been doing a great job, a great great job, and we need you to keep it up at the meeting this afternoon. Everyone at the conglomeration is thrilled with you, Gus. We just know you’ll be great this afternoon. Eat a large amount. Eat an intimidating amount. Represent our ravenousness, our zeal. Mr. Trilby’s voice sounded distant on the phone, like he was disappearing inside his sweater. Maybe he was getting sick, Gus worried. Toss a chip onto double zero for luck, Trilby told his man. Gus promised he would, but he wouldn’t. He had no interest in gambling.
He also wasn’t worried about the meeting. As far as he could tell, it was the same as all the others he’d attended since his arrival in Las Vegas. An older operation — one that could not hope to compete with the World Casino and Hotel — had hit hard times. Executives there were open to consolidation, which in practice meant that they were willing to sell off as many components as the conglomeration could digest. A property called Wild Wild West had fallen into receivership and Gus was there with the basket to catch the fruit as it tumbled off of the old apple tree. He had to lard down the transaction with good charm and make sure it was all conducted in the spirit of conviviality. Two, three lunches and it would be done. He itched to go. His mid-morning snack had been a few hours ago and he was famished.
Food at the West, as it was called around town, was notorious. To meet costs, corners had cut. Gus had offered to host at the World, but Mr. Beavers, his counterpart, had too much pride. So the West it was, and Gus loaded himself into a taxi for the short ride from the Strip to the older part of town where the crummy casinos were. And there it was — a wan box with a heat-beaten exterior and a light-up sign in a forgotten Frontierland font with many of the bulbs burned out. A distribution point for magazines offering low price hookers.
The restaurant, which was called the Gulch, slung buffalo steaks from a low kitchen decorated with a wall mural of Indians on the plains. Beavers’s younger associates all seemed embarrassed of their employer, and its outdated taste in decor, and marveled at Gus as he piled the fatty cuts of meat into his mouth. They barely touched their plates. Here was someone Herculean, with so much zest that even the loathsome kitchen at the West, with its questionable purchasing practices, could not defeat him. Gus slit the foil open with his knife and squashed extra squares of butter into to his baked potatoes. Butter was hard to mess up. Jolly jolly, business was a jolly thing; you sell to us and we buy, we all get dough.
Beavers, however, remained unamused. Trilby had warned Gus about this: he wouldn’t be an easy mark. Beavers, a sun-withered saguaro with a pocket square, truly believed that the West had more to offer that it actually did. He seemed hurt by the easy repartee his underlings had developed with Gus over lunch, their talk about restaurants and heroic eating, Gus’s colorful description of the mouthwatering-revolting stadium food in Chicago and the greasy delicious places where Marie had once worked. None of it hit the mark.
Well, I kinda screwed that up, thought Gus, on his way home that day to the flat little house he’d rented in Spring Valley with its two palm trees and brown rock garden. Always pay attention to the head honcho; figure out what he wants and tailor your attentions to him. He’d been carried away with the steaks. If he hadn’t been so hungry. It was the desert air that was doing it to him, he was convinced. It had dried out all his tracts.
Marie wasn’t home. Nothing new there lately. She hadn’t been able to find work. Instead she’d been spending her time on her bicycle, taking long rides to the lip of the cultivated landscape. Sometimes beyond. It wasn’t a problem for them financially, especially since Gus was about to make a huge commission on the Wild Wild West deal. Still, he wished someone would hire her. She was quite a bit smarter than he was. Prettier, too. He hated the thought that he’d pulled her out of the workforce. What if she had something to contribute to the world? It seemed possible.
Gus stumbled over to the refrigerator to see what was inside. Not much; just some chops and wilted lettuce and spaghetti sauce and fermented whatnot. Marie had forgotten to go to the supermarket. It wasn’t like Wrigleyville where the store was right there at the end of the street, under the train tracks. He’d have to look into one of those delivery services.
Gus pawed open a jar of pickles, consumed them, foraged for more. In walked Marie, helmet on and bicycle over her shoulder. Pensive, thoughtful, sweet, nicely toasted all over. Gus always loved the way she looked when she’d learned something. But he complained anyway.
“Dya hafta roll that dirty thing in the house? That’s what the garage is for.”
“I like it in the living room,” said Marie, “It reminds me of home.” Blushing when she realized what she’d said, turning away from him on the couch, swishing brown hair.
“What’s for dinner?”
“I thought we’d go light tonight.”
Ugh. They’d gone light the other night. Well, three nights ago, but recently enough. And Marie’s cooking had gone a bit grey since they’d moved. She used to be so consistent.
Goat cheese, a small round of it on the bottom shelf by the crisper, good enough to slather on cocktail toasts. Gus pulled open the cellophane and got to work. He told Marie of his day: the boys from the West and how he’d bragged about her to them, the impenetrable Mr. Beavers, and everything he’d ate. He described his meals with the customary detail and the usual bravado, but he had the sense that Marie’s attention had drifted. Wassamatta, he asked. Wassamatta.
“Nothing. It’s nothing, really.”
“No, it’s an insignificant thing. Just something I saw when I was on my bike. That stayed with me.”
A coyote, right by the bicycle path, a scrawny one with hot yellow eyes and a complicit look. In its mouth hung a baby bunny, or a small one, at any rate, absolutely alive and twitching between the teeth. The coyote had not yet bitten the bunny. Yet it carried the rabbit with complete authority. It was no more concerned that its prey could escape than a shopper might be that her lambchop would leap away and return to the butcher.
“Wow, I didn’t think coyotes came out during the daytime.”
“Well this one did.”
“Hoo boy. Glad you were on your bike, Marie. Maybe stick to town streets.”
“What do you think it feels like? To be eaten?”
Air jetted through Gus’s nose. It wasn’t really a laugh; more like an unwise internal combustion in a badly ventilated engine. Holy wow Marie, what a question. Must feel awful. Must feel like you’d do anything you could to get away from that. Hot breath and scratchy tongue and rubbery lips and the churning belly down below. Going down in pieces. Wriggle away, claw back, squeal, do what you could do to make yourself unpleasant. Spare you the fate.
“But that’s just it, Gus, the rabbit didn’t do any of that. It just lay there in the jaws like a piece of rubber. Arms all limp. Like, the look on its face was one of finality, and sadness, ok, but also resignation, and a kind of serenity?, I guess? A horrible kind of comfort. Like a question had been answered, and now it could recognize what it was for. What it always was for? I don’t know Gus, that’s why I’m asking you.”
There was much more in the house than Gus thought. There were crackers and cookies and instant rice, ground beef in the freezer and Asian noodles in the larder and tubs of ramen and leftover pork. Marie went to work at the stove, and for this night at least, she was her old inventive self, combining ingredients to Gus’s delight and amazement. He packed it in and crammed it down. His belly was like an overstuffed suitcase, and he kept slamming on the lid with more food. With a big sausage he ramrodded it. Eventually it all fit. He was happy. Marie smiled and he smiled.
The next morning Gus woke up starving. His poor tummy grumbled all the way to the casino. To make matters more vexing, the foyer of the hotel had been newly outfitted with a series of interlocking mirrors. The corridors that led to his desk had already been outfitted to look indistinguishable from the casino floor. It took Gus twenty minutes of wandering to realize he wasn’t in the World at all. He was actually out on the sidewalk.
When he finally arrived at his desk — and the many fortifying snacks he’d stored inside it — he was greeted by a call from Mr. Trilby. What had happened with Beavers; where were we on the West. They had competition for those depreciated assets: they had to slurp them up fast before somebody else got them. They were counting on Gus. He had never blown one before. No pressure but if he couldn’t bring this one in, the conglomeration would be forced to rotate in a different man.
Gus promised Mr. Trilby that he would try.
“We’ve set up a one-on-one for you tomorrow. With Beavers. Don’t leave without a handshake.”
He put the phone away and looked through the broad office window at the nearby hotels. Restaurants, many of them fronting the street, were squeezed into every available inch of new retail space. Many were fast food spots designed by chefs who’d made their name at renowned kitchens in other cities. Steak and burgers, fries, chicken and biscuits, hot dogs and sausages of all lengths and shapes, shakes, pasta ready-to-eat with meat sauce, pork balls, lamb balls, beef balls, polenta balls smothered with pork and lamb and beef, melted cheese on everything, toasted cheese, cheese blends and fancy tater tots, sesame noodles in a pile, bone broth and organ meats, high-end gizzards. Gus had probably tried every one. Not just Gus, all of these places served hundreds if not thousands a day. There it all went, down the gullets of the multitudes, and the next day they set it all up and did it again. Where did it come from, how did it keep coming? Did they ever worry, Gus wondered, that the shipment wouldn’t come in, that the well would go dry, that the slaughterhouses would have nothing to slaughter, that the truck would break down or the road would close or the farm would be contaminated or the river would rise and there’d be no way to get the food to the people? Would there be famine in the land ever again, or had logistics and transport solved the problem of hunger with a gush of overabundance and a squirt of secret sauce?
He thought all day about how to romance Beavers. Where to take him, what to feed him, what to feed himself, how to cultivate that atmosphere of devil-may-care cheer that lubricated every deal. Hard work made Gus hungry. But Marie had forgotten to go to the store again. Gus ordered in and went to bed unsatisfied. Delivery was always so uncreative.
Gus felt it incumbent upon himself to carboload before the meeting. No going in lightheaded. He’d chosen a refined part of the World to meet Beavers — an Italian restaurant called Salento, right on the casino floor — and he was unsure whether the fare there would be sufficiently filling. Nervously, surreptitiously, in a corner bathroom stall where nobody went, he crushed three egg sandwiches and a Coke. Then he washed his hands and commenced the tete-a-tete.
They sat across from one another at a broad table. Beavers on one side, unblinking, refusing to be impressed by the surroundings, Gus on the other side, sweating. Two gunfighters, high noon. Plates began to arrive: a long cheeseboard bearing blue-veined gorgonzola and smoked scamorza, crab stuffed olive and olive stuffed crab, charred octopus on skewers, charcuterie, focaccia with a thick patina of garlic and onions. With each dish, Gus played the bon vivant, the sybarite, describing the origins, the method of production, winking and laughing knowingly about the luxurious habits of the Italians, inviting Beavers to slide into sympathetic decadence. He held a slice of prosciutto up to the filament lightbulb and asked his guest from the West to admire its translucence. The exquisite marbling, the pinkness of the flesh. Beavers would be dragged to the trough screaming if necessary.
“You know why this tastes so good. Because they feed the pigs the rinds of aged parmesan that’s why. The flesh has the richness of the king of cheese the parmesan.” Gus made a fist to accentuate the point.
“You are what you eat,” said Beavers, eating nothing.
“And what are you then?”
“I,” said Gus, arms wide and napkin bib flapping, “am all things. Ha ha.”
“I don’t like you.”
The whole company, the whole conglomeration, Beavers didn’t like any of it. He had sat there and listened to Gus rave about the amenities, mostly culinary, of the World. Well he was not impressed. Because did Gus know the one thing that he did not have and could not buy: actual roots in Las Vegas, which was an actual town with actual people and actual traditions, not a crater in the desert to be filled by outsiders with banal dreams and the lust for a quick buck. The West was established years ago, years before Gus was born. It was not a carcass for the vultures at the conglomeration to pick over. It was history. Moreover, the themes of the West, which Gus and so many of Beavers’s own subordinates sneered at, were salient to the experiences and the lives of the people of the American Southwest.
Gus put down the ham and adopted his most sincere stare. I hear you telling me: go back to Chicago. Go home. Well, Mr. Beavers, he said, my wife and I have come to love it here in Las Vegas. It suits us very much just as it suits thousands upon thousands of other newcomers. And with all respect I believe you are overestimating the relevance of the West. I believe your misapprehensions prevent you from making the best deal you can make for an ailing enterprise.
Beavers threw a napkin in Gus’s face. Goodbye, he said, and stormed off into the World.
He’d blown it. What would Trilby say. What would all of them say? The big boy could get her done in the Midwest, but he could not cut the mustard in the World. Maybe it was true. No commission for him, maybe no job here once Trilby was through with him. The conglomerate was not known for mercy: it rewarded unbroken success and that was about it. They waited with the knives to carve a man up after the first slip. Worst of all was that he’d have to tell Marie there wouldn’t be any bonus. At least they had a reservation at Aaron Grichatz’s place in the World tonight. He’d break the news over supper that maybe it would be their last fancy meal in awhile. How would she take it.
Very well, as it turned out, annoyingly well. The story of Mr. Beavers brightened Marie’s mood beyond any she’d been in since their move. It almost seemed to Gus as though she took the side of the Beavers. His own wife. Well. Maybe we could return to Wrigleyville. We could find a place to rent. We could get out of here. Gus, let’s get out of here.
“C’mon, I got a lot of people depending on me. Mr. Trilby is depending on me.”
“And what about me? What have I got? I’ve got no job. I’ve got no friends here. I’ve got nothing to do but sit around.”
He was inclined to say that Marie just wasn’t trying hard enough. But on one score at least, she was right. Gus hadn’t made any friends in Las Vegas either. Oh, the boys at the World liked him plenty, but to them, he was just a caricature. In Illinois, his prodigious eating had been grounded in a three-dimensional character, one with regional and cultural specificity. They’d said there goes Gus, son of his mother and boy could that woman make a meatball. Well, sure it was the biggest thing about him, but it wasn’t the only thing. In the desert he’d become a cartoon: a single-trait actor, a garbage disposal, a mouth.
The restaurant was another Skybird, but not exactly. In keeping with the theme of the casino, Grichatz had named it Skybird Global. According to the menu in Marie’s hands, it featured recipes from the Chicago flagship threaded through with world influences. Interwoven food it was, bespeaking connections between cultures. The relaxed original in the West Loop held an intimate twenty tables; the Vegas expansion had tables flung everywhere on three levels, great chandeliers, waitstaff everywhere, refilling bread bowls and water dishes and demanding constant feedback. How is that tasting. Isn’t that first bite just amazing. Strap in for the ride of your life.
“Everything on this menu has three ingredients too many,” complained Marie. She pointed to a halibut ceviche with yuzu kosho, and kombu and hummus, and turmeric, and spigarello, and an edible flower garnish, and made a face.
“Jeez, always a critic,” said Gus, a puttanesca breadstick in his hand. “Cantcha just give it a try?”
But by the end of the dinner Gus had to concede that Skybird Global was no Skybird Regular. Good enough, and interesting, compelling at times, but a notch below. Maybe two notches. Also Marie had gone sullen again. She’d dressed up to go out, but as her shoulders retracted into her body, her dress grew big on her, like a skin she was shedding. Gus could not draw her out. Holy Toledo, twice in one day. All his charm had evaporated. Only when the dessert course had arrived, and Gus had scarfed it down, and Marie had poked at her pie with the tongs of her fork did she speak.
“Isn’t it strange that we do this,” she said, to no one in particular. It wasn’t exactly a question.
“Eat. Eating. That we do this to keep ourselves alive. Put stuff in a hole in our face.” Her eyes, lit from beneath by a candle and from the sides by the steady pulse of the slot machines, looked crossed.
“Good stuff, hopefully.”
“Good stuff, bad stuff, whatever stuff. Just think about how bizarre it is. A minute ago there was a piece of cake on your plate. Now it’s vanished. Where did it go?”
“Well, I ate it.”
“No, Gus, think about it. That object that was on your plate, you threw it into your insides. The whole thing. And it was a big object! How the heck does that even work?”
“Please don’t get weird on me now. I can’t –”
A crash and a clatter, and the sound of shrieking and stomping and doors swinging wide. Down the aisles between the tables, knocking crockery to the ground and waggling grey fingers in the air, kicking over chairs, on came the zombies. A pack of them, eight, no ten at least, and the dinner was gleefully disrupted as several patrons got up and joined them on their run. Marie covered her face with her hands. Eyeballs, eyeballs and brains, said a nearby zombie. Then it leapt on a table and growled, to the great delight of the crowd. Zombie apocalypse, shouted a well-dressed man in his forties. Grey legs, whirling arms, the smell of makeup or perfume or decay, Gus couldn’t tell which. He closed his eyes. Its okay, he said to Marie, behind shuttered lids, it’s okay, it’s just actors from the university. Mr. Trilby said so. They run amok. They’re paid to. They’ll be gone before you know it. They have the whole World to thrill.
Back at his house that night, Gus felt so hungry he could faint: a constant burning, gnawing hunger, a spiked fist at his ribcage, a great trap door in the basement of his belly. He couldn’t understand it. He had tucked away plenty at Skybird Global. Marie had gone to bed, but Gus was too famished to sleep. Instead he paced the kitchen, opening closet doors and rummaging around, hoping to trap something edible in his fist. Go out, he told himself, hit the road, go until you find a convenience store. It’s a matter of life or death, or it felt that way anyway. Pringles, freeze-dried burritos, Big League Chew: the whole 7-Eleven bill of fare, he couldn’t get enough. Gus grabbed his keys. Just then the phone rang.
It was Mr. Trilby. Gus cringed. There could only be one reason why he’d call so late. He’d heard about what had happened with Beavers and it was time for a spanking. Others at the conglomerate had gotten these calls. Now it was Gus’s turn. The stream of invective began the moment he picked up the call. Why you bungler. You good for nothing incompetent. Thoughtless bag of lipids, worthless lump of plasticine. Trilby delivered it all in a mean and even tone, low, regular, each syllable weighted evenly, smooth stones thrown through the plate glass of Gus’s self-confidence.
Gus kept the phone pressed against his face, and he sensed the acrid sweetness of his own breath as it steamed up the bottom of the receiver. He could smell the animal scent of the leather of his phone case, wettened and odor-activated by his sweaty palm. It was meaty, rich, toothsome like the exterior of a sausage. That snap. Before he even realized what he was doing, he’d taken the phone into his mouth, and he dragged his tongue in circles on the leather. And then he was swallowing it, swallowing the entire phone, the glass top tickling his uvula, the smooth sides of the device catching in the grooves of his esophagus, Gus, startled and delighted, shimmying it down. Then it was his gastric juices, roaring, dousing the phone with car-wash jets of pure acid. He thought he would choke but he did not. It all fit. Good gravy, it all fit. Deep in his belly, Mr. Trilby yammered on, until a great contraction and wave of corrosive enzymes drowned him.
Well if anything oughta give a man a case of indigestion, it should be that. No? Metal and glass around a radioactive pill. Yet Gus did not suffer a bit. His digestion was just as regular as it always had been. The body was made to break down organic chemicals, but inorganic chemicals, Gus figured, were composed of stuff that wasn’t so different at the atomic level. Just as some men’s brains could grapple with knotty problems, Gus’s gut could disentangle molecular bonds. It was ultra talented like that and that’s all there was to it. His belly pulled apart food – any food – like thugs strip a car. He was proud of it: its ingenuity, its brutal efficiency.
To celebrate his discovery, Gus ate a few more inanimate objects: a hairbrush (tickly, scratchy, but also salty and complex, with bitter notes), a roll of masking tape (fruity, chewy, with a savory finish), a large fingernail clipper (sleek, cold, refreshing), and a wooden statue of a penguin (oddly tasteless). He marveled at his saliva, how it softened and pulled apart even the hardest plastic and sleekest glass, how his tongue worried at hinges and holes and the softest, deftest tip of his tongue pried apart plastic pieces, how his trachea relaxed and accepted whatever Gus welcomed into his stomach. He could feel it flume down now, all the way down the windpipe and into the red pit, where the intestines grabbed it and pulled it into the labyrinth, twisted it around and squeezed it and piped it out. Could any belly be enlightened and trained in these skills? It seemed to Gus that the answer was yes. Perhaps Gus could take on disciples. Perhaps there was some money in it.
Better still, Gus had not been demoted. He hadn’t even been reprimanded. Instead, he found a pleasant surprise waiting for him at the World Casino & Hotel. Beavers was out. He had been ousted from his position by the bank that handled the receivership of the West. Somehow the executives had learned all about the lunch at Salento — the unprofessional behavior of Beavers, Gus’s hospitality, all of it. One of the underlings who Gus had entertained at the West broke the news. He’d be delighted to negotiate the transfer of the physical assets to the conglomerate on terms favorable to all parties. Also, what about the World, were they hiring? Me and the team want to know.
So how about that?, Gus had outfoxed Beavers after all. A round of applause for him at work. A promotion. Big bonuses to come. Compliments on his guile and his tenacity. Don’t get in the way of the big man. House always wins. Relieved, Gus stuffed a paperweight in his mouth. It was dry and crusty, minerally, Mediterraneany, like an asiago scone.
It was all the same that Marie forgot to go to the store, or that she lacked the motivation to make dinner. Conventional sorts of food bored him now. What challenge was a pork chop to a gullet so grand. To a palate so precisely attuned to minor variations in taste — a mouth craving uncommon texture. By the end of the week he had consumed most everything in the vicinity of his desk, including clips and staples and thumbtacks, flash drives, rubber bands, a calculator, a pair of scissors, and several boxes of post-its. When in three bites he ate his desk phone and masticated the wire he thought he’d hear from HR. Instead a new phone appeared the next day. Hm. Gus paused a moment and then tucked in.
Besides the constant roaring hunger Gus felt good. He’d been through the fire. Mr. Trilby could have, and in fact did have, nothing to say. Time to celebrate with Marie. He’d made another reservation at Skybird Global; they’d try again.
But when Gus arrived at home, Marie wasn’t there.
Out on the bike, most likely, right? Tooling around the blocks, tooling around the lots by the edge of the desert, back soon surely with her helmet on and the bicycle over her shoulder. Any minute she would step through the door. Then the minutes came and went with no sign of Marie. Gus began to pace around the kitchen. Nervously he threw open the cupboards. There was nothing inside. Night had fallen, clocks ticked, cars pulled into the cul-de-sac and painted white slashes on the far wall.
Gus drummed his big fingers on the butcher block. What if she’d run into that coyote again. Or a pack of coyotes. Did coyotes even operate in packs?, well, yes, they must, they’re just wild dogs, dogs that tried to be wolves but didn’t measure up. He had heard reports of pack attacks. Coyotes could tear a girl from her bicycle seat by the tight cuff of her exercise pants, drag her to the verge of the road, to a sandy ditch lousy with scrub, far from the probing headlights of trucks. One would worry the leg. Another would take a hand. The big one would go straight for the face. Coyotes could eat her up.
Stop, just stop thinking about that. Change the subject. But he couldn’t. Over and again he repeated the scene in his mind as he stalked the kitchen, opening and shutting drawers, popping the door of the microwave. Starving coyotes hungrily surrounding Marie, leaping, pawing at her throat. Then, feeling caged in the narrow room, Gus left the kitchen to pace in the den. Then the bathroom, and the bedroom. Finally the garage, where he discovered something strange: parked in the middle, kickstand down, Marie’s bike. Wherever she’d gone, she hadn’t ridden there.
He walked nervous circles around the bike, coming closer to it with each pass. He had never really looked at it. It had always been Marie’s mount and her means of conveyance; it was completely ancillary to her. Yet by sitting on it so much, she had imparted to it some of her compact grace; her retiring quality too. Yes the bicycle seemed shy, reticent, its front wheel cocked coyly to the right, its Brooks leather fanny-catching saddle sticking up into the air. Gus admired the curve of the handlebars as they met the rest of the frame, the spaghetti tangle of gear cables, waiting to relay brake information from Marie’s fingertips to the wheels. It would be wrong to eat Marie’s bike. Then again, now that a bonus was forthcoming, he could buy her a newer, better one. With a casual gesture he plucked the bell off the bar. It was round and firm, like a habanero. Gus popped it in his mouth, and felt the peculiar abatement of anxiety that only eating ever seemed to provide. At once the coyotes faded from his imagination and he dropped to his knees and slid the handle into his mouth, enjoying the ribbed texture on his tongue, the slight give of the rubber against his incisors and canines. It was like chewing a straw. He moaned as his throat dilated.
Someone threw the lights on. Gus squinted, extracted the tube from his mouth, and turned. There was Marie. She’d arrived at last.
“I’m so relieved to see you,” said Gus. He was relieved to see her.
“Gus? What the fuck are you doing?”
“What am I doing? What were you doing?”
No, first what was he doing, was he — was he sucking her bicycle? She didn’t sound angry, just exasperated. Gus thought it best to change the subject. You look sore. You look tired. Get off your feet, let’s go out, starving here, let’s get something to eat. Had a reservation but who cares now. Let’s just go out.
“I’ve been out.”
“The West? Honest? What were you doing there?”
“Gambling, Gus. That’s the game.” Now she really looked wiped out. Marie sank to the floor of the garage, spread her legs in a V, pressed her palms against the concrete. She’d been going down to the West daily for weeks, throwing coins into the slots, letting it ride on red, searching for a hard eight. She picked the West because there were no pretenses there: it was just gambling, nothing else, plain and simple, in a room with a filthy carpet that smelled like fear and stubbed cigars. Most of the men there were worn, desperate types, no vacationers, no families. Marie asked him to ask her how she did.
“I lost, Gus. Ask how much.”
He asked. Marie gave him a figure. Gus’s eyes widened and his nostrils cleared. Oh my. Goodness. And now she was crying, small round tears on her cheeks, her eyes red and her lower lip shaking. I’m so sorry, said Marie, I’m so sorry for letting you down. Swear I’ll make it up to you. She was going to make it up to him somehow. She would she would. Marie wrapped her arms around her knees and rocked. Half ball half girl.
With eyelids puffy and half-sealed Marie hoisted herself to her feet and left the garage for the kitchen. There she draped her body across the upholstered chair, letting her legs dangle over the arm rest. Her flat shoes fell from her feet. Marie covered her eyes with the back of a hand and began to breathe evenly. She’d fallen asleep.
For a long time Gus looked at her. How neatly all the lines of her body had been cut, carved, smoothed out of the original block of marzipan from which she’d been shaped.
His eyes traced the long curve of her hip, the dimple on the back of her knee, the wave of her calf as it crested just above her ankle, the perfect sphere of her heel, the smooth trough of the sole of her foot, her toes impudent, each squat and white and pointed at the floor.
Lips trembling and tongue alive with juices, Gus squatted before the chair. Gently he took Marie’s heel in his fingertips and brought the bowl of her foot to his lips. Then he slid the whole thing into his mouth. Gus opened wider than he ever had. Like a snake his jaw unhinged. He felt his ribcage part to make room. His insides had become elastic. Marie stirred but did not wake.
Deeper and deeper he took her in, feeling the press of her toes on the back of his throat, sniffing at her ankle, and then at her kneecap, as the aperture grew and the slide grew easier, and quicker. When Gus reached her waist, Marie’s eyes blinked open with a start. She exhaled, two hard huffs, and looked as if she would speak. Then she pressed her top lip against the bottom and drew them together tight.
From his vantage at her hips, he saw her fear; she searched the ceiling, her eyes rolled right and left, and she shut them hard and scrunched her nose, as if she was cramming herself into the full backseat of a tiny car. Then, as his lips sucked past her bellybutton, Marie’s body relaxed, and composure and relief shone on her face. There her expression stayed for the duration, as he rolled up past her breasts, and her neck, and her chin, and stretched his face to cover her nose, right down to the last loving swallow of the last strand of candy brown hair on the top of her head.
It was a lot to digest. For once in his life, Gus was full; maybe food-addled, too. Memories of old meals came back to him: bread and butter cut into soldiers by his aunt when he was still in his crib, a birthday cake with layers of chocolate crunchies from his mom, his first hot dog at a Cubs game, a perfect fried egg Marie had slipped on his plate on the first morning of their honeymoon. She had always loved to cook for him.
Gus shuddered. He had eaten his little wife and she was not coming back. What did he do. Now he really was all alone in the desert. He plopped down atop the kitchen island and began to blubber.
But no one could hear him. There he marinated in his tears, beating his palms on the block like a baby. Growing softer and wetter. There was, he realized, only one move left on the table for him. Gus forced one finger and then another into his mouth and began to chew. Pain seared at him but he did not stop. Gus gulped up to the wrist, and then the elbow, as the rough hair on the back of his arm scored the roof of his mouth. Tonsils parted, thorax gaped, his heart leapt, and somehow his mouth slid up to the shoulder. In complete submission to his appetite he upended himself, and had the peculiar sensation of turning inside out, as his skin unzipped from his spine and his musculature detached from its moorings. He was like a great sail unfurled, a battle standard in the culinary wars. And then the guts and viscera and dead meat that was Gus came tumbling down into the hole in his face in a great rush, his scull unfolded and his senses were consumed, and all that was left in the kitchen was a flat, open, gibbering mouth.