He had the butcher’s apron strapped on like a suit of armor: proud and tight. He wore it dirty. The stains from previous chili tournaments were intact and crusted brown, like barnacles on some ancient leviathan from the deep.
He liked to hee-haw and back-slap with the tough old fucks who sought out these backwater festivals. Men with calloused hands from working too damned hard all their lives and calloused tongues from smoking cheap cigars. They offered their stogies to him, and he accepted with grace but never smoked.
He made a good chili. In the clapboard, shit-heel smokehouses that most of the festival regulars claimed to have made pilgrimages to but had never actually seen the inside of, he was known. The old ones who tended those outside-of-time, hickory heavy smoke pits knew him by his apron or Panama hat or just the way he dipped a short rib into their chili sauce. Made them think of the pastor dunking a new convert in the muddy waters of the local river.
His chili was hot and honest and contained about a baby’s crib’s worth of smoked poblanos and a quart of Sazerac Rye. First, though, he would decant the expensive whiskey into an empty bottle of Old Crow. He drank half of that to get in the mood and poured the other half into the chili to finish it off. His competition buddies liked booze mixed in with their heat and liked that he never had all the alcohol cook off before serving time.
He won as often as he wanted but always shared his prizes. After the main ceremony he would dole out cups of the prize-winning dish and watch the small town folks line up because God knows that everybody loves a winner. During such times the story of Jesus and the fishes and loaves would come up strong in his mind, and it made him forget about the small towns and the small townspeople with their rough hands and lives of mindless labor.
He liked the way the forgetting burned through his mind, nice and slow.
The losing cooks always wanted to know about his secret ingredient, and he would always tell them to go fuck themselves. They liked that sort of talk and rewarded him with much back-slapping and some genuine affection. Their faces, red and alcohol-fueled, would remind him of Noah and that shit-filled ship the old codger had steered into the side of a mountain.
When his opponents won, not often, but it happened, they would also offer him a share of the loot. Maybe a skillet endorsed by a has-been football hero or a plastic cooler big enough for a six-pack of longnecks or the head of a murdered spouse. He accepted such offerings with grace because that’s what was expected of him.
On his way out of town he would take their gifts and heft them out the window of his Chevy and watch the worthless junk roll and jump and shatter against the asphalt. It made him smile to see the pieces later on, like dried bones, lying open to the sun when he passed by there the next day.
He always doubled back. Liked to see his handiwork because that’s what his Pappy had taught him: you have to be proud of your work. And he was.
On that day, when he came back into the festival town, he tipped his Panama at the banner strung across the now-empty main street. Small towns loved themselves a good banner, and this one was no exception. On it was advertised the hellfire heat of the chili contest along with some sage advice like, “Come hungry!” and, “Bring your own fire extinguisher!” He enjoyed the home-spun humor and chuckled when he passed underneath, riding his Chevy like a chariot charging down some unfortunate Christians caught in a tough time and tougher place.
He drove down the street and thought about the story of Sampson’s honey-filled lion. How the sweetest delights were so often distilled from decay.
He stopped off at the festival grounds, got out and walked to the judges’ table. The place was mostly quiet, but the main tent’s loudspeaker was still plugged in, hissing like a snake chopped in half. He took up the microphone like an old-time crooner and breathed in the scent of stale beer and stale meat that clung to it. Then he belted out one long and hollow, “Well howdy, folks!” and waited for a response, even though he knew there wouldn’t be any. He liked the sound of his own voice.
The greeting bounced around the grounds in such a way that two stray dogs and a few crows scattered away, abandoning the objects that had held all their interest up to that point. He was glad to see the crows and dogs. He thought of them as his kin and liked to mess with them from time to time. He knew that they liked him more than they could tell.
After a time, the vagrant animals returned and took up their previous occupation. So as not to disturb them, he walked slowly to where his chili still stood, seething in the sun with a halo of midges and flies competing for a scrap of the meaty sauce. He dipped one slender finger into the pot and ran it around the rim to properly sample all the goodness and then brought it up to his nose and smelled the complexity of the poblanos and whiskey. He licked his finger clean, taking care to catch the grainy bits that had gotten stuck underneath his fingernail.
The chili tasted like the freshest of small-town virgins. Those vacant-eyed country boys and girls with big plans in their tiny heads and even bigger disappointments waiting up ahead. As the sauce burnt a trail of fire down his throat, the image of the great fish came to him, and he imagined how close and tight and hot it must have felt for Jonah when that big maw inhaled him out there in the deep blue sea.
He savored the heat. The burn would last for a good long while. As he surveyed the quiet festival grounds, he stretched straight and popped the bones of his back with a sound of hailstones on a tin roof and stared up into God’s sky. He tipped the Panama in the direction of the smoldering sun. He remembered a time when it was still freshly put up there. A time when he hadn’t been compelled to mingle with flies and dogs and the people who now lay (some sat) all around.
He dwelled on the memories for some time. If some lone survivor or late-in-the-coming dog or crow had been there to see him, they would have marveled at how still he stood. How he resembled a statue or carving. Only the hint of a smile on his face and the way the sun caught his eyes providing clues that this was a living thing not made of stone or wood.
When the memories had faded along with the daylight, he turned his back on the place forever and took up his pot of chili and walked back to the Chevy and headed off to the next town. He didn’t mind driving through the night; he rarely slept these days.
He drove without a map or a purpose. He knew that the best towns and the best chili contests they had to offer would find him. The ones that promised hotter than hell and all-you-could-eat fiery goodness. The ones that made him think back to times when he knew what he was put on this earth to do.
Towns like that found him real easy.
MARCEL HARPER lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he communes with dark forces and tries to avoid being killed by his cats. His writing leans toward the speculative and weird. You can connect with him at www.marcelharper.com