“Hepatology” by James Stuart

Sometimes, when the boy thinks of his father, the back corners of his mouth begin to tingle, and saliva fills the space around his tongue. It is a sensation unlike simple hunger and without the Pavlovian charm of say, a sudden craving for a sliver of Junior’s Famous Cheesecake. Instead, it is akin to the shiver that runs the length of the spine and reminds a person of their ultimate place in the grave. A feeling more of dark mystery than tangible satisfaction.

The timing and intensity of these episodes vary and predicting them is an imperfect science. For instance, the mere mention of his father’s name is not enough to trigger the flood of anticipatory salivation. Nor do the handful of photos he keeps framed under dusty glass set his mouth awash. But there are moments when the reaction is inevitable: the puff of starch-scented steam billowing from the roof of the dry cleaner’s on 8th; the slow drawl of John Wayne in one of a dozen syndicated westerns; the tight ball of pressure behind his eyes when he’d been staring at a computer screen for too long. It is in those small instants that the boy — now a man — quickly swallows his pooling spit and tries to imagine anything but chicken livers.

They had been purchased for the first time without comment. Twelve livers, breaded and deep fried, were scooped into a plastic container, weighed, tagged, and thrown into the cart wordlessly as the boy and his father shopped. This was in the days when he was given very little agency in the selection of foodstuff. Except for boxed cereal and soda, his opinions were not solicited or appreciated as the cart began to fill. If anything, he was an impediment to the process. Too young to be left at home on his own, his presence was an unavoidable complication. He reached for bright packaging incessantly, begging for each new and improved item with a certain ferocity and cunning. His appetite for fillers and high fructose corn syrup showed in both his endless enthusiasm and the swelling of his small chest and belly. Round after round they went each time, until his father’s patience strained, and he snapped the boy into a silence that would last until early evening.

He remembers the way the chicken livers fogged their container with steam, forming small drops of condensation that slid into one another and coalesced as the cart rumbled toward the checkout counter. A loose wheel dragged perpendicular to the rest until breaking free on its axis and jolting the cart every ten feet, shaking loose a small sodium rain over the chicken. When she ran it across the scanner, the cashier allowed a trail of juice to spill from the seam where lid met base and streak the illuminated glass. She snarled in disgust but said nothing, snapping her gum and stomaching a revulsion the boy shared.

They made their way, lazy wheel scraping, to the back of the lot where his father’s van was parked under the middling shade of a sapling rooted in the cement island. Three stalls down, a gray sedan was parked in front of an “Employee of the Month” sign, something which would seem very odd to the boy when years passed and he’d lay awake wondering why any exemplar employee would be made to park so far from the building. Together, they unloaded the cart in bucket brigade fashion — his father passing each paper sack to the boy who then tucked them neatly against one another on the stained gray carpet of the van. The work was seamless and made the boy feel needed. His father began reaching for the lift gate when he spotted the livers perched atop three cans of chili and a box of Shells & Cheese. Without releasing the gate, he stretched forward and snagged them, tucking them close to his chest as he slammed the heavy door shut against their groceries.

Behind the wheel, his father peeled apart the halves of the clamshell packaging, letting a large wave of aroma wash across them both. The boy’s mouth began to water for the first time. The livers sat shriveled, caked in premixed batter, and sweating with their cumulative heat. But their smell was intoxicating — savory, rich bits of refuse that had been spared the scrap heap and granted a second life as a treat for man and boy alike. His father shook the tray, rattling them loose from one another, and offered them first to the boy. He picked one that been split by movement, torn neatly in half to showcase its pink-gray offal. Inside his chest, his own organs churned in dark anticipation of the depraved treat to come. His father smiled as the first bite slid down the boy’s throat.

One by one, they made efficient work of the meal. Their fingers became wet with grease and the corners of their mouths collected peppery breading. Neither spoke, for to do so would break the fragile spell which bound the moment. Even then, the boy knew he would tell no one of this moment; its fragile magic relied entirely on the mystery of this thrilling depravity. One of only a few secrets shared only between a man and his youngest son.

Many years later, the boy — by then a man, himself — would pass a deli counter in a city far from any in which his father had stepped foot. Rows of golden fried drumsticks, creamy mashed potatoes, and neon yellow macaroni stuffed the display and made his stomach rumble. But it was the unlabeled and unheralded dish in the back which set his hunger on edge. By the time he reached his car, he had already peeled away the paper seal. He dropped himself behind the wheel and popped the first piping hot morsel into his mouth. After only a few bites, he knew the alchemy wouldn’t appear. He chewed slowly, alone with his thoughts and savoring the salty, earthy taste for the last time.

James Stuart is a fiction writer based in Tacoma, Washington who received a Bachelor of the Arts in English from Colorado State University. Stuart’s work has been published in Creative Colloquy, The Almagre Review, and Short Fiction Break. He also maintains his own fiction website, The Forge (www.storiesfromtheforge.com).