The Meat Slicer by Michelle Blair Wilker

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It was just a simple errand. A bizarre task that could have been accomplished in an afternoon while the sun loomed high, dangling like a burnt tangerine. But it was late, 10:15 by my watch and I hadn’t a clue where we were. The moon cast its spotlight across the Fiat’s rusted hood, which cracked into sparse fragments.  We relaxed there, against the bumper listening to the crickets hum. Pops took short drags from a stogie and then coughed. Manu was out cold, snoring in the back.

“Ok, Pops. I get it.”

“I have a tickle in my throat.”

“Sure you do.”

He coughed again.

“For fucks sake!”

He shrugged and continued to puff, blowing tiny smoke rings like a dragon in heat.

This wasn’t the summer that I envisioned. I was going to lounge by the pool and get wasted on a micro brewery’s pale ale. You see, I hated people and this was the perfect time of year to get some peace. Don’t worry, they hated me right back. Just check out my Fresno Yelp rating.  But I’m not at the pool enjoying a cold beverage. I’m here, in Biarritz taking a meat slicer to be repaired in Spain. Why does it have to go to Spain? Who the fuck knows, but here we were stranded. For what? For the sake of a perfect slice of deli meat?

Pops hadn’t been on an airplane since 1993, so it was up to me to cart him all the way to France.  Mom refused to fly. She was terrified of heights and irregular turbulence.  The last time either of them traveled the TSA didn’t exist and taking your shoes off was considered unsanitary. He wanted to “carry on” his homemade blood sausage.

“You can’t do that Pops. You can’t even bring water.”

“Poppycock. That’s just ridiculous.”

After a month of arguing, he agreed to pack it in his checked luggage. There was plenty of room since he only brought five outfits and one suit (for six weeks). We crammed it in dry ice and surrounded it in a cushion of toiletries and pajama pants. It wasn’t my problem if he ended up smelling like a charcuterie plate. He insisted I bring a suit too, just in case we had to go a funeral. Who goes to a funeral on vacation? I guess, maybe us.

My Uncle Manu was a butcher in Biarritz, known for his precision slicing, for the delicate waves that tumbled with each gentle push. The cuts melted as they met your tongue.

“It’s a balance between push and pull. Not too much, not too little. Voilà.”

That damn machine was his pride and joy. An older model that hadn’t been in production since 1978 and belonged to my grandfather. It had lost its shiny luster and rested into a dull pewter. It whined as he worked, but he swore by it. People drove all the way from Marseille just to get ¼ pound of ham and he had a few regulars from Paris who had a penchant for peppered turkey. Two weeks after we arrived the old bastard went kaput.

It didn’t feel like summer. The sky cloaked into a thick fog and a mist sprinkled across the countryside. Droplets clung to each petal in desperation. I watched as they fell, one by one.  I zipped my hoodie to the tip of my nose and perched on top of the stone staircase. The cows grazed on the emerald lawn, mooing leisurely. My aunt’s dog, Petey, paced, tapping his paws on the pebbles into a rhythmic clatter. He then settled on the bottom stoop. It was beautiful here but totally boring. No one spoke English and it looked like I wasn’t even going to get a good tan. Petey howled which I didn’t mind so much since I sort of understand a bark more than Basque. It was pretty quiet except for the occasional truck blatting on by, dirt tremors liberated in its wake.

I could see all the way to the barn where Pops and Manu were leaning over a work table, dissecting the meat slicer. Pops banged at it with his cane and Manu had a wrench in one hand and a screw driver in the other. He was bent over, left appendage sunk into the bowels while the other hand extended skyward, wrench gleaming. The tools clanked against the metal with a silly plink.  Manu hammered on top like he was playing the drums, and then flung both tools backwards.

“Manu!” Pops shouted. “Calmez-vous. You’ll break it for good.”

I could hear them through my earphones.

“Piece of shit.” And he kicked it.

“We’ll take it to Martin. He will know what to do. It will only take a few hours and then we will be back in time for Anna’s party.”

He patted Manu on the shoulder and waved.

“Nicholas come down from there and take off that hood. You look like a criminal.”

“Christ.” I flipped it back and popped out my earbuds. He seemed to have forgotten that I was thirty-five and not fifteen.

Petey nipped at my heels like I was part of his herd, but since I was 6’5” and he was twelve pounds you can imagine how that went. Manu was now on the ground, sitting Indian style, palms covering his face. I could see his pinkies trembling. Pops bent over and helped him to his feet.

“C’mon now. Ne t’inquiète pas.” He nodded. “We need Louie to help us load it into the Fiat.”

My cousin Louie was tall too, but his bony frame collapsed as he ambled, almost like a marionette needed to yank his strings upright. He was five years younger and spoke very little English. I ran my fingers along the base of the metal. The slicer had tiny grooves that climbed to the tarnished blade. I caught a whiff of sour titanium. How was this colossal piece of junk going to fit into a compact coupé? Louie stood to the left and my uncle’s neighbor to the right. We formed a triangle and lifted the beast. Its weight was oppressive even though three of us were transporting it. I tiptoed back while Manu and pops barked directions from the sidelines.

“Faites attention, oh it’s heavy. Slowly, now. Watch out!”

Pops swayed his cane like he was conducting a fucking orchestra and the two ancient siblings trailed us as we inched towards the vehicle. My cheeks heated and my fingers quivered underneath the metal. We lowered it into the trunk and released it. I hopped back and watched as the weight wobbled the car, bobbing the bumper before settling. The trunk descended almost to the driveway, but remained intact. I shook my palms.

The ridges imprinted into my skin tingling in surges. I tugged on the trunk to close it, but only got three-quarters of the way. The slicer jutted up like it was the Empire State Building stuffed into an old lady’s’ pocketbook.

“Nicky, pull harder.” said the peanut gallery relaxing on a bench and pantomiming.

“It’s too big.” I hollered. “It’s won’t close.”

One at a time they stood up and thrusted their hands with a whoosh. Louie rolled his eyes and handed me a spool of twine. We fastened it from the handle to the bumper looping and finishing it off with a bowline knot. Louie tugged..  Seemed good enough. I shook his hand and put the roll in my pocket.

“Come on guys, let’s go.” I opened the driver’s door.

“No.” Manu yelled and got up from the bench.


“I drive.” He said. “You are my guest and I am excellent driver. I know a short-cut.”

Manu wore thick spectacles that swallowed up his mug. He did not get the height that the rest of us did. The black frames were wide with glass protruding beyond the plastic. He could barely see fifty feet in front.

“Are you sure?” I said.

He shuffled and bumped his hip against my thigh pushing me to the back.

“Uncle Manu, are you sure?”

“What? A cure? Yes, Martin will cure the slicer.

Great. He couldn’t hear either. Maybe it would be my funeral I needed that suit for. Pops sat up front with Manu, cane upright between his knees. Brothers reunited at the helm, bumbling to navigate new territories. My knees extended to the headrest and my hair was just shy of the roof. Anna waved from atop the staircase.

“Ne soyez pas en retard. Jai besion de toi de retour par 7. Au revoir.”

Manu blew a kiss.

“Of course mon amour, c’est ton grand jour. This will only take a few hours.”

The engine sputtered, but then the old gal accelerated into a smooth hum. The car leapt hauling the metal monster in its girth, like a trusty tug boat. I twisted to eye the twine which remained intact. The slicer rumbled. Maybe, I could take a nap. Pops fiddled with the radio, until he found Pavarotti belting out some operatic jingle. The slicer stunk. I had to roll down the window and gulp in the countryside imprinting it into my olfactory. Manu veered to the center, hands gripped at ten and two. He jerked the wheel trying to stay on track. I yanked at my seat belt to make sure it was tight.

“Nicky, you will love Martin. A true artiste like yourself.”

“Oh yea?”

“His shop is an amalgamation of magnificent machines.” He smiled in the rearview, glasses impenetrable like antique Coke bottles.

“Nicky is not like Martin. He needs a job at a bank or the restaurant.” Pops thumped his cane on the dash.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“Oh Julian, but his paintings are so belle.”

“Beautiful doesn’t pay the bills.”

I closed my eyes. Maybe the suit was for his funeral, after someone loses it. The window framed rolling hill after hill, bright shiny lawns with sharp blades poking up. A plethora of cows and horses lounged on top and the sun peeped from beneath the clouds casting a luminous glow across the route leading us to the Vincent Van Gough of appliance repair.

“Look! Is that Sylvia?” Pops pointed.

Two hundred yards ahead an old lady waddled in a straw hat. She had a limp and leather satchel slung across her shoulder. She was plump, and her big bum jiggled as she made her way. She cradled something, but it was hard to see since it was swathed tightly. Manu slowed as we approached and rolled down the window.

“Bonjour. Ca va, Sylvia?”

She shielded her eyes from the glare.

“Leo sick. Walking to médecin.” She garbled and drew the blanket down.

“I’m allergic.” I blurted out.

“Shhh. Don’t be rude.” Pops whispered.

Leo was a baby butterscotch goat with floppy ears. He yawned and tilted his head back. Most people would coo and say how adorable, but I’m not an animal person.

“Oh, entrer. Nous allons vous prendre” Manu said.

“Merci.”  She grinned, but had two teeth missing.

“Move over Nicky.”

She plopped in and thrust the baby bacteria carrier onto my lap while fastening her seat belt.

“Achoo. Non-merci.”

I dangled that smelly fur ball like I was using tongs and dropped him back. I thrust my head all the way out. This was like a bad joke. How many folks can fit into a miniature car in France? Two old men, a lady with a goat, and busted meat slicer?


Pops glared.

“I’m allergic.”

Boy, I needed a drink.

Sylvia smiled her toothless grin and cradled Leo. I scooted towards the door gripping the handle. My eyes watered and it was getting harder to breathe. Thankfully, the vet was only five miles away. I was two minutes shy of needing an inhaler. Sylvia slammed the door and waved with Leo’s tiny paw.


I pulled out Purell and rubbed it all over. I swear to god if I get hand to foot to mouth.

“Who’s hungry? Nicky, you hungry? Want a snack?” Pops asked.

“We just left, twenty minutes ago. So, no.”

“I’m hungry.” Manu said.

“We could get a croque monsieur?”

Pops and Manu proceeded to debate about who melted the cheese enough, crisped the bread to perfection, and how no one could measure up to his heavenly ham from the now defunct slicer. They settled on a place that would just do and munched with breadcrumbs sticking to the rim of their lips. I got three beers.

The rest of the way Pops napped, head lounging against his chest. The cane slid along the dash like some odd metronome. Manu struggled to stay on the correct side of the street while singing a Basque folk song. I chugged all three beers which made me feel pretty good. I had gotten used to the scent, a musty oxidized whiff of pungent flesh. The AC was on the fritz so sweat trickled out like a leaky faucet. All the windows were rolled down and a warm breeze tickled my skin. I flicked a bottle cap across my knuckles. We had to stop three times for one us to use the loo, but after a few hours we finally made it.

Martin’s workshop was a delipidated barn with mottled planks that were rotted.  Moss mounted the roof crowning it with a khaki wig.  It smelled of gasoline. Rows of chainsaws lined the worktables into a rainbow of blades. Lawnmowers both push and rideable, small and large leaned. Motorcycles, Harley’s and bright shiny Vespas parked out front and a few cow milking machines stood upright, tubes floating and loose.

Manu maneuvered the Fiat towards the open door. I got out and snipped the twine. The trunk flew skyward. A lone café stood transversely and a gas station a block down, there wasn’t much else besides acres of greenery and more farm animals. I needed to recruit two peeps to help remove it.

“Martin!” Pops shouted. The friends embraced into a chubby trio.

So there he was, the maestro of machine repair, Mr. Vincent Van Gogh. Lanky with curly red hair, freckles dotted his nose, and goggles topped his crown. His feet were adorned with Birkenstocks which seemed odd for a repairman of machines with sharp blades. He looked more Irish than Spanish.


“Martin, thank god. Papa’s slicer needs your love and attention.”

Martin nodded and patted Manu on the back. He peered inside the trunk, tapping the slicer with a wrench.

“Ok, give me an hour.”

“Francisco, Pedro, rapido.”

Two dudes who looked like Martin exited the garage and lifted the slicer, just the two of them like it was a sheet cake.

“Go have a snack at the café and I’ll see you in a bit.”

“Thank you Martin. You are a lifesaver. We have to be back by seven for Anna’s 70th.”

He nodded.

“Let me get to work.”

Pops and Manu crept like sea turtles in sand. One after the other, eyeing the nonexistent traffic. Who lived here besides Martin? An old cowboy relaxed on a lawn chair outside the gas station, legs outstretched, straw hat towed down.  A few mutts chased chickens outside the café and a rusted tractor was parked about a half a mile up. Pops pressed his face against the café’s window.

“Siesta.” He shrugged

They collapsed, propping their legs on to the patio chairs. Within minutes they both snored. Pop’s belly levitated like a baked soufflé. I walked to the gas station which had a convenience store attached. Even the clerk was on siesta. She was folded onto the counter into a pretzel of appendages. The store was practically empty except for a basket of day-old baguettes, eggs, cigarettes, and red wine. I grabbed a pack of Marlboros and a bottle. I didn’t have the heart to wake her so I left fifty Euros beneath her limp palm.

The sun was now at full tilt with a slight breeze emanating. I set up camp on the curb and took a swig. It was tepid and reeked of balsamic. The bottle’s green glass reflected the pumps into warped coffers. I took another nip and lit up a Marlboro. Now this was vacation. I closed my eyes and let the sun bake me on the blacktop.  It was tranquil except for the sway of the grass and the occasional cluck from up the street. I chugged the rest, lit a cigarette, and shut my eyes for ten minutes. It wasn’t so bad once the sun shone. I took one last drag and stood up. Martin should be done by now and I needed to wake Pops and Manu so we could make it back in time for the party. The reason for the France pilgrimage in the first place.

I walked along the curb. One chicken trailed, pecking at discarded twigs. The café’s patio was vacant. They must have gone to the shop.  I crossed the street and eyed the turquoise Vespa, it was a real beaut.

“Hola, Martin.”

A bell jingled at the entry’s apex.

“Nicky, you’re still here?” Martin poked out from around the corner, goggles dangling, gloves reaching to his elbows.

“What do you mean? Of course I’m here. I came to reload the slicer and get Pops and Manu.”

“They just left five minutes ago. The boys packed it in the trunk and they pulled out. I thought you were in back?”

“What? Those mother fuckers!”

I ran to the street, looking from east to west. Not a car in sight, just those scuttling roosters. How could they forget me? I was double the size of the Fiat. I pulled out my phone. The screen was black with one lone battery bar. Not that calling them would help, neither carried a cell.


I selected a mid-size rock and hurled it, whacking the Vespa’s kickstand. I started to chain smoke and pace. How the hell was I going to get out of here? And when would those two idiots realize they left me? I lit three cigarettes slurping down the nicotine like it was H2O. I flicked them out one by one, ash leaking in gobs. Just as I got to the third, the red coupe puttered in the distance. Manu swerved so as not to clock the rooster brigade and then slowed to a crawl. Pops rolled down the window and leaned out.

“Nicky, where the hell have you been? We are going to be late for Anna’s party.”

“Pardon.” I said and cupped my hand around my ear. “Where have I been?”

I lit a fourth and strolled over, bending down.

“Excuse me, but you left me without a second thought.”

“Well, if you weren’t lollygagging.” He thumped his cane against the window’s rim.

“Oh, me? A lollygagger, a dawdler, a quintessential dilly-dallier. Sure, we can do that.”

I jumped on to the hood and scooted back stretching my legs till they dangled off. I waved at Manu still gripping the wheel at ten and two. I took a few puffs and pulled down my sunglasses.

“Julian, S’il vous plait. S’excuser. Julian! À present.” Manu said.

Pops just sat there staring at the floormats and cracking his knuckles with swift twists. I laid down. I could’ve relaxed on that hood all day. It was an excellent spot to get a tan. The sun enveloped it into a balmy bliss.

“Sorry.” Pops whispered.

“What?” I said.

“Nicky get in, please.” He continued to look down.

I slid off the hood and opened the passenger door. That was as good as it was going to get.

“Excellent. Allons à la maison.”

Manu navigated through the elusive flock of nibbling street fowl. I turned to eye the magically mended slicer. It didn’t stink and the blade was polished into a mirror that reflected my hairline. The metal glistened, fashioning tiny prisms along the back window. Well, I’ll be damned. I guess Martin was an appliance prodigy. The slicer looked brand spanking new.

“Belle, Nicky!” Manu said. “It slices like butter again. I told you he was a genius.” He beamed in the rearview.

“You sure did. It looks great. Everyone will be excited to have your prosciutto and melon.”

“Merci. Anything for my Anna.”

At this pace we would only make it by the skin of our teeth. Pops still wouldn’t look at me. He glared ahead, grumbling. It started to cool as the sun sunk into a buttery half-moon dipping its crown at the skyline. I tried to stretch, but the closest I got was a fetal knot. The slicer sat docile, like Martin had ironed out all the snarls and beat her into a streamlined contraption. The trunk was tied with twine again, which let a warm breeze slink in and singe my forearms. It kind of lulled me into a catatonic state. The radio was off and all I could hear was the thrum of the fireflies as they twinkled and leaped from the antenna to the side mirror and back again.

My lids fluttered and I was just about out, when the thrumming turned into a buzz. It was hushed but then got noisier. I opened my eyes. We had veered off the road onto the grass and were puttering along a fenced in pasture. Pops, was asleep propped up against the door. The slicer wobbled in the trunk.

“Manu, Manu!”

I tapped him on the shoulder as his head slumped. He was snoring, eyes shut, palms still gripping the wheel. It was dark and the headlights were off.

“MANU! WAKE UP!” I hollered and pinched his bicep.

“Wha, what?” He murmured.


“I’M UP.”  He shouted, head spurting. “What’s going on?”

“Watch out, turn on the lights!”

Pops began to stir. Manu flicked them on casting a sunny glow. It illuminated our route which was headed for a herd of cows.

“Les vaches, fais attention!” Pops said.

But it was too late. Manu jerked the wheel counter clockwise sending the Fiat into a tailspin. It felt like Disneyland’s nauseating teacups.  I crouched into a tiny ball.

Pops screamed, “Oh mon Dieu. Jésus, Jésus.”

The spinning slowed until we walloped a ginormous oak.  The coupe shivered, hood smoldering, trunk sky high. The twine was severed with frayed remnants dangling from the handle.

“Are you guys ok?”

Pops nodded. Manu began to weep. I got out to survey the damage. The hood remained intact, but was severely dented. Looked like we had a flat. I made my way to the rear. The slicer had nosedived ten yards. It was splintered into heaps; twisted, busted and gnarled. Each part was covered in mud and the shiny blade was missing. At this point, even Martin couldn’t revive this pile of junk into a workable apparatus. Manu whimpered and bent down to pick up fragments but there were too many.

“Jésus, S’il vous plait. Pardon Papa. Pardon”

“It’s ok, Uncle Manu. We’ll think of something. Go rest.”

We linked elbows and I led him to the back. He scooted in. Pops relaxed against the bumper and lit his cigar.

We sat there for almost two hours. Not one word was uttered. Manu snored in the back. I tried to collect slicer shards and load them in despite their mangled state. Pops took alternating drags and then coughed.

“Ok, Pops. I get it.”

He coughed again.

“For fucks sake!”

This was so typical. Everything was my fault. I wasn’t the driver who fell asleep, but he wasn’t someone to be reasoned with. Stubborn son of a bitch who thought the TSA didn’t apply to him.  He was stuck in the 90’s wearing the same clothes and watching the same TV shows. It was like Groundhog Day. France was a huge step for him. I’m actually surprised we made it. He continued to lean and savor his cigar, each billow with more fervor. I noticed that his hair had gotten thinner and rested into white feathery wisps. For all his crankiness, he looked kind of fragile in the moonlight with his bony arms and broad belly. Deep furrows imprisoned his forehead and bordered his eyelids into loops. Maybe, I was too hard on him? He was so excited to be here and see his family. It had been over twenty years.

We missed the party, Anna must be worried sick. Not one car bypassed the crash or mooing herd. It’s like we were in outer space, sky pitch black, with a million twinkling stars. I sat in the trunk and rummaged. There had to be something to help.  I found a bottle of water, a jack, a bicycle pump, and a patching kit. Well, it was worth a shot.

I got into the driver’s side and flicked on the headlights.

Pops jumped and shielded his eyes.

“What’s going on?”

“I’m going to fix it.”

“You can’t fix it.” He folded his arms in front.

“Well, I’m going to try.”

I had taken three semesters of shop in high school. Hopefully, I remembered.

I released the hood and dumped the water. Smoke percolated, it needed to cool.  The tire didn’t look too thrashed. I ran my fingers along the circumference to search for the crack. Pops hovered like a chicken hawk awaiting his prey, chewing his nails. Manu continued to nap. The hole was a quarter size. I used the kit to swath it and then stood up to pump. I had to press down with both hands for fifteen minutes before it got firm. My palms swelled into colossal balloons.

“Get in.”

“Nicky, I mean…”

“Get in.”

He wandered over, but only after starring me down for five minutes. I shut both the trunk and hood, pushed back the driver’s seat.

“C’mon, baby.”

She snarled a spell, but then rolled over.

“Do you know the way?”

Pops nodded pointing north, mouth agape.  I backed up and she ascended, headlights piloting us to civilization. She sailed deftly with her rather desolate trunk. The journey was wordless and the vehicle ambled despite her injuries. We made it back at 1:15am. Manu never woke.


We rescheduled Anna’s party two weeks later. It was a casual lunch.  I found the same slicer on EBAY, identical model number and everything. Just like grandpas. It was in pretty good condition, Martin just needed to modify the blade and polish a rusted spot.  I surprised Manu. He cried like a baby and wouldn’t stop hugging me, even pops grinned.  I did wear that suit after all. The morning of Anna’s lunch, all three of us got up at dawn. We stood in the backyard and dug a medium size hole. Manu dropped in the salvaged slicer fragments. Dew dotted my loafers and a deep fog smothered the hills into topless mounds.  Pops released a lily and I sprinkled dirt on top, shaking the particles down evenly. Manu planted a small French flag and then took out a harmonica. He played a bluesy Taps. The notes were soft and sweet. Red, white, and blue swayed in the breeze and Pops held my hand, tears escaping.

“Repose en paix.”

It was silly, but beautiful.  We kind of needed it. A way to mark the end of that insane journey. We made our way to the shop and Manu handed me a bottle of champagne.

“You do the honors, maestro.”

I gazed at the new slicer all filled with hope and glistening. I cracked the bottle on its blade. The bubbles cascaded into a vanilla waterfall.

“May she live long and prosper. Salud!”

“C’mon gentleman. We have a party to get too.” Pops said.

I watched as they shuffled out arm in arm, brothers reunited, maybe for the last time. I took one last glimpse at their titanium savior, a simple but fucking complicated machine. So, now when I’m on picnic enjoying a ham sandwich, where the meat is carved extra lean and it melts on the tip of my tongue. When the grass tickles the back of my calves and the neighbor’s glee hypnotizes, I think of that fateful night and savor that slice.


Michelle Blair Wilker


Michelle Blair Wilker is a Los Angeles-writer and producer. Her work has appeared in Across the Margin, Whistlingfire, Hollywood Dementia, Unheard LA, Felix Magazine, and The Huffington Post. She was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s November 2012 contest for new writers and shortlisted for the Fresher Writing Prize in 2015. In 2017, she attended DISQUIET: Dzanc Books International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal, and was featured in The New Short Fiction Series in Los Angeles. Her first book, Chain Linked Stories was published in June through Post Hill Press and Simon & Schuster. Chain Linked was recently selected for the 2018 Montana Book Festival.

Read Michelle Blair Wilker’s previously published story ‘Manolos and Gas Fumes’ here

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The human heart: you can’t live with it, and you can’t live without it.

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We yearn for connection’s kinship and mourn its losses; it is the fabric of our existence and what drives us. The agony of lost love, the hollowness of an absent family member, the cute guy on the basketball court that you just can’t muster up the courage to say hi to. A summer trip to Montauk. A night out at a salty dive bar. A foghorn in the distance, sipping a sweet drink. Emptying the fridge, packing up the old condo. Listening to Grandpa’s corny jokes. Wondering if life as a prep school art teacher meant anything. Getting even with your older brother. Haunted by Havana’s vacant casino high rises and ancient automobiles, dreaming of pizza in Rome.

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