F. Paul Wilson
[Editor's note: This story was first published in 1978 by F. Paul Wilson. Then it was probably considered rather "out there". Today it's a prescient look at what is close to becoming a reality as the Food Police continually try to foist their "good-for-you" policies on individuals. We're pleased to bring this story to our audience.]
I can name a man's poison at fifty paces. I take one look at this guy as he walks in and say to myself, "Butter."
He steps carefully, like there's something sticky on the soles of his shoes. Maybe there is, but I figure he moves like that because he's on unfamiliar ground. Never seen his face before and I know just about everybody around.
It's early yet. I just opened the store and Gabe's the only other guy on the buying side of the counter, only he ain't buying. He's waiting in the corner by the checkerboard and I'm just about to go join him when the new guy comes in. It's wet out---not raining, really, just wet like it only gets up here near the Water Gap-and he's wearing a slicker. Underneath that he seems to have a stocky build and is average height. He's got no beard and his eyes are blue with a watery look. Could be from anywhere until he takes off the hat and I see his hair: It's dark brown and he's got it cut in one of those soup-bowl styles that're big in the city.
Gabe gives me an annoyed look as I step back behind the counter, but I ignore him. His last name is Varadi--sounds Italian but it's Hungarian--and he's got plenty of time on his hands. Used to be a Ph.D. in a philosophy department at some university in Upstate New York till they cut the department in half and gave him his walking papers, tenure and all. Now he does part-time labor at one of the mills when they need a little extra help, which ain't near as often as he'd like.
About as poor as you can get, that Gabe. The government giraffes take a big chunk of what little he earns and leave him near nothing to live on. So he goes down to the welfare office where the local giraffes give him food stamps and rent vouchers so he can get by on what the first group of giraffes left him. If you can figure that one out...
Anyway, Gabe's got a lot of time on his hands, like I said, and he hangs out here and plays checkers with me when things are slow. He'd rather play chess, I know, but I can't stand the game. Nothing happens for too long and I get impatient and try to break the game open with some wild gamble. And I always lose. So we play checkers or we don't play.
The new guy puts his hat on the counter and glances around. He looks uneasy. I know what's coming but I'm not going to help him out. There's a little dance we've got to do first.
"I need to buy a few things," he says. His voice has a little tremor in it and close up like this I figure he's in his mid-twenties.
"Well, this is a general store," I reply, getting real busy wiping down the counter, "and we've got all sorts of things. What're you interested in? Antiques? Hardware? Food?"
"I'm not looking for the usual stock."
(The music begins to play)
I look at him with my best puzzled expression. "Just what is it you're after, friend?"
"Butter and eggs."
"Nothing unusual about that. Got a whole cabinet full of both behind you there."
(We're on our way to the dance floor)
"I'm not looking for that. I didn't come all the way out here to buy the same shit I can get in the city. I want the real thing."
"You want the real thing, eh?" I say, meeting his eyes square for the first time. "You know damn well real butter and real eggs are illegal. I could go to jail for carrying that kind of stuff."
Next to taking his money, this is the part I like best about dealing with a new customer. Usually I can dance the two of us around the subject of what he really wants for upwards of twenty or thirty minutes if I've a mind to. But this guy was a lot more direct than most and didn't waste any time getting down to the nitty-gritty. Still, he wasn't going to rob me of a little dance. I've got a dozen years of dealing under my belt and no green kid's gonna rob me of that.
A dozen years... doesn't seem that long. It was back then that the giraffes who were running the National Health Insurance program found out that they were spending way too much money taking care of people with diseases nobody was likely to cure for some time. The stroke and heart patients were the worst. With the presses at the Treasury working overtime and inflation getting wild, it got to the point where they either had to admit they'd made a mistake or do something drastic. Naturally, they got drastic.
The president declared a health emergency and Congress passed something called the National Health Maintenance Act which said that since certain citizens were behaving irresponsibly by abusing their bodies and thereby giving rise to chronic diseases which resulted in consumption of more that their fair share of medical care at public expense, it was resolved that, in the public interest and for the public good, certain commodities would henceforth and hereafter be either prescribed or strictly rationed. Or something like that.
Foods high in cholesterol and saturated fats headed the list. Next came tobacco and any alcoholic beverage over 30 proof.
Ah, the howls that went up from the public. But those were nothing compared to the screams of fear and anguish that arose from the dairy and egg industry which was facing immediate economic ruin. The Washington giraffes stood firm, however--it wasn't an election year--and used phrases like "bite the bullet" and "national interest" and "public good" until we were all ready to barf.
Nothing moved them.
Things quieted down after a while, as they always do. It helped, of course, that somebody in one of the drug companies had been working on an additive to chicken feed that would take just about all the cholesterol out of the yolk. It worked, and the poultry industry was saved.
The new eggs cost more--of course--and the removal of most of the cholesterol from the yolk also removed most of the taste, but at least the egg farmers had something to sell.
Butter was out. Definitely. No compromise. Too much of an "adverse effect on serum lipid levels," whatever that means. You use polyunsaturated margarine or you use nothing. Case closed.
Well, almost closed. Most good citizen-type Americans hunkered down and learned to live with the Lipid Laws, as they came to be known. Why, I bet there's scads of fifteen-year-olds about who've never tasted real butter or a true, cholesterol-packed egg yolk. But we're not all good citizens. Especially me. Far as I'm concerned, there's nothing like two fried eggs--fried in butter--over easy, with bacon on the side, to start the day off. Every day. And I wasn't about to give that up.
I was strictly in the antiques trade then, and I knew just about every farmer in Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania. So I found one who was making butter for himself and had him make a little extra for me. Then I found another who was keeping some hens aside and not giving them any of the special feed and had him hold a few eggs out for me.
One day I had a couple of friends over for breakfast and served them real eggs and toast with real butter. They almost strangled me trying to find out where I got the stuff. That's when I decided to add a sideline to my antique business.
I figured New York City to be the best place to start so I let word get around the antique dealers there that I could supply their customers with more than furniture. The response was wild and soon I was making more money running butter and eggs than I was running Victorian golden oak. I was a lipidlegger.
Didn't last, though. I was informed by two very pushy fellows of Mediterranean stock that if I wanted to do any lipid business in Manhattan, I'd either have to buy all my merchandise from their wholesale concern, or give them a very healthy chunk of my profits.
I decided it would be safer to stick close to home. Less volume, but less risky. I turned my antique shop up here by the Water Gap--that's the part of New Jersey you can get to without driving by all those refineries and reactors--into a general store.
A dozen years now.
"I heard you had the real thing for sale," the guy says.
I shake my head. "Now where would you hear a thing like that?"
"New York? The only connection I have with New York is furnishing some antique dealers with a few pieces now and then. How'd you hear about me in New York?"
I nod. Sam's a good customer. Good friend, too. He helped spread the word for me when I was leggin' lipids into the city.
"How you know Sam?"
"My uncle furnished most of his house with furniture he bought there."
I still act suspicious--it's part of the dance--but I know if Sam sent him, he's all right. One little thing bothers me, though.
"How come you don't look for your butter and eggs in the city? I hear they're real easy to get there."
"Yeah," he says and twists his mouth. "They're also spoiled now and again and there's no arguing with the types that supply it. No money-back guarantees with those guys."
I see his point. "And you figure this is closer to the source."
"One more question," I say. "I don't deal in the stuff, of course"--still dancing--"but I'm curious how a young guy like you got a taste for contraband like eggs and butter."
"Europe," he says. "I went to school in Brussels and it's all still legal over there. Just can't get used to these damned substitutes."
It all fit, so I go into the back and lift up the floor door. I keep a cooler down there and from it pull a dozen eggs and a half-kilo slab of butter. His eyes widen as I put them on the counter in front of him.
"Is this the real thing?" he asks. "No games?" I pull out an English muffin, split it with my thumbs, and drop the halves into a toaster I keep under the counter. I know that once he tastes this butter I'll have another steady customer. People will eat ersatz eggs and polyunsaturated margarine if they think it's good for them, but they want to know the real thing's available. Take that away from them and suddenly you've got them going to great lengths to get what they used to pass up without a second thought.
"The real thing," I tell him. "There's even a little salt added to the butter for flavor."
"Great!" He smiles, then puts both hands into his pockets and pulls out a gun with his right and a shield with his left. "James Callahan, Public Health Service, Enforcement Division," he says. "You're under arrest, Mr. Gurney." He's not smiling anymore.
I don't change my expression or say anything. Just stand there and look bored. But inside I feel like someone's wrapped a length of heavy chain around my gut and hooked it up to a high speed winch.
Looking at the gun-a snub-nosed .32--I start to grin.
"What's so funny?" he asks, nervous and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's his first bust.
"A public health guy with a gunl" I'm laughing now. "Don't that seem funny to you?"
His face remains stern. "Not in the least. Now step around the counter. After you're cuffed we're going to take a ride to the Federal Building."
I don't budge. I glance over to the corner and see a deserted checkerboard. Gabe's gone--skittered out as soon as he saw the gun. Mr. Public Health follows my eyes.
"Where's the red-headed guy?"
"Gone for help," I tell him.
He glances quickly over his shoulder out the door, then back at me. "Let's not do anything foolish here. I wasn't crazy enough to come out here alone."
But I can tell by the way his eyes bounce all over the room and by the way he licks his lips that, yes, he was crazy enough to come out here alone.
I don't say anything, so he fills in the empty space. "You've got nothing to worry about, Mr. Gurney," he says. "You'll get off with a first offender's suspended sentence and a short probation."
I don't tell him that's exactly what worries me. I'm waiting for a sound: the click of the toaster as it spits out the English muffin. It comes and I grab the two halves and put them on the counter.
"What are you doing?" he asks, watching me like I'm going to pull a gun on him any minute.
"You gotta taste it," I tell him. "I mean, how're you gonna be sure it ain't oleo unless you taste it?"
"Never mind that." He wiggles the .32 at me. "You're just stalling. Get around here."
But I ignore him. I open a corner of the slab of butter and dig out a hunk with my knife. Then I smear it on one half of the muffin and press the two halves together. All the time I'm talking.
"How come you're out here messin' with me? I'm smalltime. The biggies are in the city."
"Yeah." He nods slowly. He can't believe I'm buttering a muffin while he holds a gun on me. "And they've also bought everyone who's for sale. Can't get a conviction there if you bring in the 'leggers smeared with butter and eggs in their mouths."
"So you pick on me."
He nods again. "Someone who buys from Gelbstein let slip that he used to connect with a guy from out here who used to do lipidlegging into the city. Wasn't hard to track you down." He shrugs, almost apologizing. "I need some arrests to my credit and I have to take 'em where I can find 'em."
I don't reply just yet. At least I know why he came alone: He didn't want anyone a little higher up to steal credit for the bust. And I also know that Sam Gelbstein didn't put the yell on me, which is a relief. But I've got more important concerns at the moment.
I press my palm down on top of the muffin until the melted butter oozes out the sides and onto the counter, then I peel the halves apart and push them toward him.
He looks at the muffin all yellow and drippy, then at me, then back to the muffin. The aroma hangs over the counter in an invisible cloud and I'd be getting hungry myself if I didn't have so much riding on this little move.
I'm not worried about going to jail for this. Never was. I know all about suspended sentences and that. What I am worried about is being marked as a 'legger. Because that means the giraffes will be watching me and snooping into my affairs all the time. I'm not the kind who takes well to being watched. I've devoted a lot of effort to keeping a low profile and living between the lines--"living in the interstices," Gabe calls it. A bust could ruin my whole way of life.
So I've got to be right about this guy's poison.
He can't take his eyes off the muffins. I can tell by the way he stares that he's a good-citizen type whose mother obeyed all the Lipid Laws as soon as they were passed, and who never thought to break them once he became a big boy.
I nudge him. "Go ahead."
He puts the shield on the counter and his left hand reaches out real careful, like he's afraid the muffins will bite him. Finally, he grabs the nearest one, holds it under his nose, sniffs it, then takes a bite. A little butter drips from the right corner of his mouth, but it's his eyes I'm watching. They're not seeing me or anything else in the store... they're sixteen years away and he's ten years old again and his mother just fixed him breakfast. His eyes are sort of shiny and wet around the rims as he swallows. Then he shakes himself and looks at me. But he doesn't say a word.
I put the butter and eggs in a bag and push it toward him.
"Here. On the house. Gabe will be back any minute with the troops so if you leave now we can avoid any problems."
He lowers the gun but still hesitates. "Catch those bad guys in the city," I tell him. "But when you need the real thing for yourself, and you need it fresh, ride out here and I'll see you're taken care of."
He shoves the rest of the muffin half into his mouth and chews furiously as he pockets his shield and gun and slaps his hat back on his head.
"You gotta deal," he says around the mouthful, then lifts the bag with his left hand, grabs the other half muffin with his right, and hurries out into the wet.
I follow him to the door where I see Gabe and a couple of the boys from the mill coming up the road with shotguns cradled in their arms. I wave them off and tell them thanks anyway. Then I watch the guy drive off.
I guess I can't tell a Fed when I see one, but I can name anybody's poison. Anybody's.
I glance down at the pile of newspapers I leave on the outside bench. Around the rock that holds it down I can see where some committee of giraffes has announced that it will recommend the banning of Bugs Bunny cartoons from theaters and the airwaves. The creature, they say, shows a complete disregard for authority and is not fit viewing for children.
Well, I've been expecting that and dubbed up a few minidisks of some of Bugs' finest moments. Don't want the kids around here to grow up without the Wabbit.
I also hear talk about a coming federal campaign against being overweight. Bad health risk, they say. Rumor has it they're going to outlaw clothes over a certain size. That's just rumor, of course... still, I'll bet there's an angle in there for me.
Ah, the giraffes. For every one of me there's a hundred of them.
But I'm worth a thousand giraffes.
(c) 1978 F. Paul Wilson