Asceticism, with Melons and Prosciutto

William Hawkins

Which is only the first course. Crescents of cantaloupe garbed in pig. A sprig of mint. A scattering of champagne grapes. Salt from a Victorian cellar. Pepper shaker offered and demurred. A glass of sparkling water with a companion rosé. Our compliments to our chef and host, who waves them away. With the outermost knife and fork, we tuck in.

We have gathered at this childless table many times before. From my left and round, Karla Faye, Mary Cooley, Tookie, Mr. Greenacre, Elmer Wayne, Susan, our hostess and myself. The talk is unremarkable. Stories we’ve told before. Memories we disagree upon. Trump was president. There are too many television shows to watch. Summer is more now—longer, hotter—a season encroaching on the others, the way a desert spreads across a continent. Our host’s air-conditioning is a necessary evil, but she keeps the windows open. There is talk of air flow as societal good. And so on. The end-of-days as polite conversation.

Second course. Greens, dressed in olive oil and vinegar, nearly naked. A simple dish that belies the care given it, the nourishing hands of our host massaging each individual leaf which, when we masticate, releases a bright, almost floral note in our mouths. This time we accept the pepper grinder. There didn’t use to be mosquitos in Los Angeles. The geese fly no further south. A walrus named after beauty has been euthanized.

Third course. Pork tenderloin, her specialty. Three of us are vegetarians, but you could never guess who. All partake, as good manners demand. Our host complains—but softly, so softly, in her mouth complaints are only woes—that so few people will cook pork, so many are worried about—what? Infection? Disease? Ah, trichinosis. We compliment her as much as we think she’ll allow. We stuff ourselves. The pork is crusted with peppercorn and a special seasoning, the recipe of which she would be only too happy to share if we were to ask. We never do.

The final course. Flesh-opened figs rendered up in a tart. There are so many fruit trees in California and not enough people willing to pick them. The lemons. The avocados. The loquats. The loquats! We advise each other on fruit. When to avoid apples, how to sniff mangoes. Passion fruit should be shaken like a maraca. If you hear the seeds, it’s time to rip it apart. Go ahead and gorge yourself.
We are the last hedonists. After this—what after this? Dinner is the oldest religion, and our useless optimism acts as our penance. The tea she serves with dessert is no different than a crop whip to the shoulder. In the face of extinction, a full stomach is the greatest denial of the flesh. Look at Mary Cooley: as we rise to take our leave, she kisses the noose around her neck. None of us are any different. None of us will leave this table.

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