Mark Zegarelli
Mark Zegarelli

Jessie and Her Man-Meat Pies, 1932

This is a story about a girl named Jessie, short for Jessica, who lived in our apartment building, or maybe just on the same block, I don’t remember for sure. And she was an ordinary girl who wasn’t rich and wasn’t poor, just like the rest of us, who ended up doing extraordinary things. I always thought she was pretty, but then when I asked Gemma downstairs a few weeks ago what she remembered, she said, “Oh, no, Kaye, you mean our Jessie. Geez, she was an awful plain thing, that’s one thing I do recall.”


But I still say she was nice enough looking, with red hair and a button nose and that slim little waist of hers. And she had a dog named Sam that she used to walk every day, I don’t even remember what kind of dog he was, some kind of a mutt I’m sure.


Well, as I heard the story, one day Jessie gets done walking Sam, and she brings him home, then takes off his leash and hangs it up on the hook by the door. And then Sam wants to be fed, of course, so she goes to open a can of Alpo. Only this wasn’t a usual sort of can, it was all bloated and exploded with the label hanging off, and not can-shaped at all but almost a big tin ball of dog food.


Well, Jessie isn’t some kind of idiot, she know what that means, so she’s about to get rid of it, but then the phone rings and it’s her mother, who can talk your ear off. So she lights up a cigarette and prepares for long, long talk on the phone, but there’s no other food in the house for Sam, so she figures this one time she can chance it. I don’t know how she managed to get the can open, but she does, and dumps the whole can of toxic Alpo into Sam’s bowl and, well, he’s just a dog, so you know, slurp slurp.


A few minutes later, the doorbell rings, so Jessie tells her mother she has to get off the phone. But I bet she wishes she hadn’t, because it’s the landlord, Mr. Callahan, who at is best is always angry and maybe with a young thing like Jessie more like threatening. Jessie is late with the rent, of course, because this is during the depression, when we were all lucky not to be on the street. And she makes her usual set of excuses, but Mr. Callahan is having none of it.


All of a sudden, from the kitchen, a sound like death. “Hwooh-Hwaah-hweeh-hwaay-hwoah,” just like that. And on “hwoah” the sound of something falling and landing on the kitchen linoleum like a stone. Jessie of course doesn’t know what to think, but she excuses herself from the living room where Callahan has seated himself uninvited and goes inside to the kitchen, expecting to find old Sam lying there on the floor.


Instead, the dog seems fine, with his tail wagging under the kitchen table, even though his bowl is empty, . But behind the kitchen chair that never gets used because it’s backed up against the wall there, she looks and finds something strange deposited there. The whole can of Alpo, every last bit of it, is laying in one round heap under that chair, already flattening out like a pancake.


Jessie can’t find her dustpan, so takes a flat griddle off the stove and slides it under what the dog has left for her, scrapes right underneath it, and pulls it out. Well, you can imagine what a whole can of poisonous Alpo looks like after the dog chucks it up, so I won’t belabor this. She goes to throw it in the bin, but it’s stuck to the pan like glue, so she’s holding on to it trying to decide what to do when Callahan shows his ugly mug in the doorway.


“What’s that?” he scowls.


And just as a joke, she says, “It’s something new for dinner I found at grocery store.”


Well, she doesn’t expect for a minute that a man like Callahan is as dumb as he looks, but then this is a long time ago, before there was the Internet or even television, and regular people were a lot less sophisticated than they are nowadays. Callahan looks at what’s on the griddle and he must have been hungry, because he says, “That looks pretty good, what do they call that.”


So Jessie tells him, “It’s called a Man Meat Pie, and it says on the package that one is enough for a big man to eat after a hard day’s work.”


And Callahan says, “Well, I’ve had a hard enough day shaking down all you deadbeats for what you owe me. Serve it here.”


And just like that, Callahan sits down at Jessie’s table with no formal invitation, tucks a napkin under his chin and prepares to be served.


Well, Jessie thinks, you’re going to get just what’s coming to you. She heats up the Man Meat Pie on top of the stove until it’s good and hot, serves it on a plate to Callahan with a glass of cold beer, and says “Now see how you like that!”


And Callahan puts his knife and fork right into the thing, cuts off a big bite, and chews it up. Jessie is leaning herself way back against an ironing board, bracing against what’s sure to come as the inevitable reckoning. But Callahan just finishes chewing, swallows it with a sip of beer, and says, “That’s not bad, what do you call that again?”


“A Man Meat Pie,” Jessie recites.


“Well, it needs some salt, but even so, I wish you’d tell my wife about that, because her cooking is so bad even a dog wouldn’t eat it.” And as he says this, Sam, who’s hiding under the table wagging his tail but still has some dignity, stands up on all fours and leaves the room.


Later that night as she’s doing the dishes, Jessie is thinking through the events of the day, trying to get her head around it. Callahan has left in peace, giving her neither the back of his hand or any other part of his anatomy, and in those days, believe me, there was no recourse for a girl alone like that. He hasn’t even yelled at her again for the rent, just says that the least he can ask in his time of life is a decent dinner, and expects to see her tomorrow night at the same time.


Now this presents a problem, because you’ll recall all this started with a tin can of Alpo gone bad, and where do you find something like that twice in a lifetime, let alone two days? Lucky for Jessie that she knew exactly where to go, because she had bought the first can on the penny-off counter at the filthy little market just around the corner. Because that’s where you went when you couldn’t afford better, and I say it was the Turks that owned it, but Gemma says no, they were from Armenia, and I know how that sounds but the plain fact was that in 1932 the place was not clean and you didn’t shop there.


Well, Jessie was in luck, because when she went back there the next day, she found a whole shelf full of Alpo cans that all looked to be in the same condition as the last one she’d bought. Now if this were today, the board of health would have boarded that place up so fast your head would spin. But in those days, nobody knew and no one else told them. So Jessie just filled her shopping trolley to the brim with every last spoiled can she could find, and no one was the wiser.