Deli Meat

On the road to recovery

Cleaning a meat slicer requires a certain kind of finesse. It takes concentration, patience, and that funny muscle in your upper forearm. I’m standing awkwardly behind the glass counter at Terri's Deli in upstate New York, my oddly shaped teenage torso hunched over the slicer. My toothpick arms move carefully back and forth as my fingers get raisin-y from clutching the bleach-stained towel. With every stroke I remove small bits of Boar's Head from the crevasses in our world-class Hobart. One eye one the clock, I begin to move rapidly. 

It's May, Hendricksons are on the rise, and I have eleven minutes until it’s 6 p.m. Luckily, I pay Bob five bucks to come in early on Wednesdays—the only day I don't have lacrosse practice after work. My patience dwindles once the scent of cigarette smoke creeps through the back door. It's Bob, sitting on a couple cinder blocks behind the building, smoking his Marlboro Red, waiting until the last second to walk through that screen door.  

With 30 seconds left, I finish cleaning and nail a Big Country hook shot into the towel bucket across the room. I bust outside, slap an Abe into Bob's hand, and sprint up the street, Usain Bolt style. I cut through Johnny O'Connor's backyard and hop over Mr. Decker's chain-link fence, nailing a perfect dismount before dodging Mrs. Gilligan's sunflowers. I fly through our front door and yell upstairs to my brother, "Gus, let's go!" He comes crashing down the stairs with backpack in hand. It contains exactly one cigarette, five Busch lights, and a small bag of weed we got from Freddy Gibson, a senior that lived up the street.  

We run out the door, hop in the truck, and hit the road. Gus is driving. He guns it through our neighborhood, dodging manhole covers and rolling through stop signs (except the one in front of Mrs. Garraghan's house, of course.) I sit shotgun and struggle to rig up. My hooks always get caught in the duct tape holding the interior together. We blow through the last yellow light and pass the big blow-up dinosaur at the local Ford dealership. Anxiety is high until we reach the city limits.  

We keep right onto Route 28 and the mood changes. I throw my feet out the window and start sifting through cassette tapes. After the usual brotherly argument we settle on Mississippi John Hurt, jamming to Salty Dog Blues as we fly through Woodstock, passing the Jerry Garcia doppelgangers with their headbands and body odor and extended thumbs. We blast through Phoenicia and dodge the Indian trading posts. We’re getting closer to the Junction. The Junction is our secret spot, where the sweet smell of wet pine drifts through the truck windows, and the dusty suburbs disappear in the rear view. It also happens to be a sexy stretch of water in the Catskills where a Woodland Valley trib meets Esopus Creek. It's where Gus caught his first rainbow on a dry, and where Chris Roser fell in during last spring's runoff. It's where we say we go, but we continue upstream.  

Our suspension squeaks with every pothole. An empty can of Coke rolls back and forth across the dash as we weave our way around dirt switchbacks, climbing farther into the foothills toward a small hole we found last weekend after Steve Marchetti's house party. A quarter-mile upstream, we find a roadside turn-off.  

“No waders today,” says Gus. “Too hot.” I lace up my old football cleats and we hit the trail, treading lightly as the legality of our presence is still uncertain. With little regard for poison ivy, we pick up the pace. The sound of the river grows louder. A blue jay squawks as my tippet gets caught in another bush. Gus sighs but waits. I untangle my tippet and move forward. As we near the bank, we crouch slowly and ascend. We peek over the dead pine on our right.   

Gus cracks a Busch Light and whispers, “You see anything?”


[Ben Gruner got his start chucking corn flies at carp in trailer park ponds. At 24 years old, he recently fled the East Coast in search of brown-haired women and mysis shrimp.]