She was not one for second cups of coffee. Even working from home where such extravagances came easy and cheap, where there was no one else around to be singed by the toe-tapping agitation a second cup brought out in her, she was not one for second cups of coffee. But the onset of summer has a smell, like a herald, a musky, thick smell like the slow creep of heat up a hill. It unfurled in her nostrils as she checked the mail and the promise of sun and sky and sweat inspired in her a yearning for another cup of coffee she knew she shouldn’t have.
Somewhere between lunch and the end of the day she stepped away from work and set out on foot for the coffee shop up the way. Something in the air felt like the end of the school year. Had school ended yet?
Without a roof over her head work left her entirely. What job? What did she do again? She found herself taking deep, dramatic breaths and exhaling contentedly.
Small, black coffee. Nothing debauched. Just something to mark the occasion.
Across the street there was a ham on the end of a chain at the mouth of an alley between two houses. It sat jutting out over the curb of the sidewalk and into the road, daring a heavy rain to come down and try to cram it down the gutter. She couldn’t tell if it actually smelled or if her brain was concocting some uninvited facsimile of the aroma the ugly, unexpected sight must surely have emitted.
“Hey, uh, weird question,” she began as the barista turned around with her small black coffee. “Has anyone said anything about there being, like, a whole ham in the sidewalk up the block?”
“Like a ham on a chain. It looks like someone threw it out of an alley into the street or something. I don’t… I was just wondering.”
The barista handed over the coffee, looking past her for a customer that was not there.
“Maybe they’re trying to coax their dog home?” the barista offered.
“Yeah, I think that’s going to be what I need to tell myself to get to sleep tonight. Thanks.” She made a tip of the cup to the barista and went on her way.
Heading home she considered crossing to the other side of the street to take a closer look but when the time came someone else was making their way by the ham in the opposite direction. She affected a loud disinterest and intently surveyed the other walker as they stepped over the chain as if it were nothing more than an extension cord, ignoring the ham entirely.
Right, sure. Smart.
She was in a house now, not an apartment, but the city skyline was still in view. Things that were loud or bright or out of the ordinary were to be ignored, lest they be trouble or, as she so often and so potently feared, something entirely ordinary masquerading as abnormal for the purposes of tricking her into paying attention to it.
To notice is an admission you don’t know you’re making until you’ve already blurted it out. A loss in the economy of attention that is someone somewhere else’s gain.
The faintest hint of a smell again. Like bacon boiling over in hot dog water. Surely her mind couldn’t and wouldn’t conjure such theatrics.
The ham was mercifully a few blocks away from her home and had thus not imposed itself on her entirely. Returning home she felt the faintest hope that the neighbor she knew by name might be coming out or going in just as she arrived so that she might make a comment, a nonchalant, throwaway comment, about what she’d seen. No such luck. Against her own best judgement she eventually checked upstairs to see if she might be able to spot the thing from her window but as she’d already known ascending the stairs she could not.
After work, after dinner, during television she established and quickly deleted an account with a neighborhood social group. There’d been no word on the ham. Packages stolen, cars broken into and riffled through, zones and their zoning, but no word on ham.
So someone’s dog had run away. Someone’s beloved dog. Well-trained, immaculately behaved, but with one glaring shortcoming. This pup was wild for ham. Would get up on the counter with its front paws and annihilate any ham it could get be it lunch meat or Christmas dinner. And every time the dog was scolded the dog’s eyes said “I’m sorry, I know you’re disappointed, I’m disappointed in myself, I just can’t control myself around ham.” And the dog’s owners, never all that passionate about the stuff anyway, just stopped getting ham. They hadn’t thought about ham in years. And then one day the dog is gone. They’re looking frantically, calling every shelter in the area at opening and closing every day, crying themselves to sleep each night, the dog’s name catching in their throats any time they work up the courage to call it out as they patrol the neighborhood each day before and after work, after and before their calls to the shelters. In the depths of despair, when there are no more tears to shed, no more sobs to heave from sore throats, one of them cracks a joke because it is the only thing they can think to do. “I guess we can have ham now.” And the idea strikes like a bowling ball. They rush to the store and buy all kinds of ham and leave it all over the house and watch diligently for Paprika to spring back home from the wild, ham-crazed. And in case they fall asleep waiting they sling a ham down the alley out back on a chain so Paprika can’t run away with it and probably, probably definitely, the chain has some bells on it to wake them up if, no, when Paprika comes to nibble on the pink hunk and when she returns, when the bells wake them up, there will not be enough speed and agility in the entire world for Paprika to run away again and they’ll have ham for dinner every night until they’ve all put on weight and even Paprika agrees ham is a bit much and a year from now the smell of it will turn all their stomachs and they’ll share a fond look between the three of them.
She told herself as much in bed, listening for bells in the night.
It was lunchtime the following day before she remembered the ham again. The smell of the grilled cheese she’d thrown together over the stove reignited her olfactory senses for the first time since the previous afternoon. Already on her lunch break she took her warm, unmelted grilled cheese and went for a walk, nearly forgetting to turn off the burner.
Now in the know, she crossed to the opposite side of the street straight from her front door so as to organically happen upon and ignore whatever ham-related travesty waited several blocks ahead.
It was still there.
She could tell from a block away and as soon as she laid eyes on it her nose went off playing pretend again. But the smell lingered. It didn’t get any stronger as she approached, but it was there. Real. It was faint, thin, like some aerosolized faux ham scent a realtor might use to sell a house to a weirdo.
As she came upon the ham, glanced at it out of the corner of her eye and kept moving without any perceivable deviation in pace, she was able to observe that the ham was not only still there but seemingly entirely intact. There were no birds circling overhead, no parade of ants, no flies or maggots. Paprika had not so much as licked the thing as near as she could tell.
She took a left at the end of the block trying to decide whether she dare risk walking all the way back around. If she did she might regret it, someone might notice her. A denizen of one of the houses on either end of the alley might glare at her from a window or call her out from their porch. If she didn’t she would definitely regret it. She would be concocting a new epic to herself to explain it away each night until Paprika had nefarious progenitors and valiant offspring.
She decided noticing a lady noticing a ham was just as much a breach of the unspoken code that dictated her relationship with her neighborhood as noticing the ham would be and any goon that dared make a thing of it would be dragged down shamefully alongside her. Or she would apologize and say she was just curious. Or she would, in her wildest aspirations, immediately respond at a hundred and ten and scream “are you following me?”
The chain went out the other end of the alley, trailed across the street and kept going through the next block and beyond.
On her second loop around she slowed down and, both her confidence in her gambit and her general incredulity increasing with each step, stopped about five feet short of the ham to slowly untie and retie her shoe.
There was a hook in the ham.
Like a thin silver worm breaching the plane of pink meat and diving back in, its matte back curling above the surface. Too big for a trout too small for a shark. Her stomach turned as she involuntarily imagined the thing twisting out of her own cheek or curling through the roof of her mouth, the metallic taste of blood mingling with that of ham.
Fortunately, no one would be stupid enough to fall for such a loud trap. But it was there. Some sort of intention was there. It made her stomach hurt. It made her afraid. She wouldn’t. She would never. But she could. Anyone could.
The thought offended her and she found herself possessed by a newfound sense of righteousness.
How many people walked by this thing, this unknown danger so blatant it ceased to be dangerous? How many kids? Or, or dogs?
Newly equipped with an upstanding moral fortitude she could launch back at any prying eyes she found a stick and gave the ham a gentle poke.
Somewhere she heard the faintest rustle and the bright ting of two links in a chain kissing.
It wasn’t ham.
Whatever it was gave like a soft clay, the point of her stick sinking in with only the slightest resistance. Removing her prod, however, proved more demanding. The substance stretched with her stick as she made to pull it out. In an instant the stick was ripped out of her hand as it, the ham and the chain all whipped away with frightening speed and force, leaving a cut on her palm.
She could hear the commotion of it all, the chain and the meat dragging on the ground ahead of her, but already it was escaping her line of sight, disappearing down the alley, across the street, gone but still rattling onward.
Fear kept her in place. Of the hook. Of the other end of the chain. Of being noticed running through the streets after a ham. Soon the sound was gone.
Against her better judgement she walked down the alley and crossed the street at the other end. Down the next alley. Across the next street. There was nothing save sporadic scuffs in the dirt.
She was late returning to work from lunch. She apologized and did not bother with an excuse.
It took her through dinner, and through an uncharacteristic viewing of the evening news, to finally look up the police non-emergency line, personified on the other end of the line by a clear, passive voice.
She dutifully, calmly recounted her discovery of the ham that was not a ham at the mouth of the dusty alley up the street and of her finally noticing a hook in it all with an affected sort of disassociation that communicated a very this-is-probably-nothing-but… attitude and begged for authoritative reassurances that yes, of course this was something my god you poor, sweet brave thing, we have a helicopter en route as we speak, but before the voice on the other end could pick up on the fact that her disassociation was actually courage she began to spiral and rant and rave.
“There are dogs in this neighborhood. I mean, there are children in this neighborhood. Young children! And the hook. It could’ve really hurt someone. Who knows if the thing was maybe even poison. There might still be some, some particles of it on the sidewalk or in the alley. And the way they yanked it. If this is a prank it could really have hurt someone and if it’s not it’s honestly sick. I cut my hand!”
“Oh my gosh,” the voice replied.
“I know. I was late coming back from lunch.”
“And there was nothing about it on the news tonight.”
The voice replied with a bank of non-committal niceties through a few more conversational appendices that finally culminated in her divulging her address and the addresses of the homes bordering the alley and noting that they were on the same street and that multiple children lived on that same street. Finally, when silence ceased to coax any further information from the exhausted caller, the voice replied in earnest.
“So the thing with these is to avoid them as best you can. It’s not supposed to happen. They aren’t supposed to be doing that. It’s not allowed. But they do do it and it does happen from time to time so what’s best really is just avoid it all together. We’re working on it. It’s not ideal but for the time being they’re really only dangerous if you, you know, fall for it.”
“Do people fall for it?”
“Sure, sure. Not often. Rarely really. But sure.”
“And then what?”
“Oh, well that becomes a very difficult situation.”
“So what are you doing about this one? This one I’m calling about?”
“We’ll make a note of it for the way ahead.”
“Again. They really aren’t supposed to be doing that.”
And so it wasn’t a big deal. Like living near a nuclear power plant or something. She felt like she’d swung, missed and realized she hadn’t actually been holding a bat but she also felt a sense of relief. She wasn’t supposed to stop and notice but she did what you’re supposed to do when you stopped and noticed, had pulled that thread of responsibility to its reasonable conclusion, and could now extricate herself from the whole scenario with her sense of civic duty uncompromised.
The following morning there was a ham on her porch that was no ham at all, with a long horizontal slit near the bottom and two smaller ones above it. Eyes and a mouth. A droopy face, like an old jack-o-lantern of an old man, with the slightest hint of a wicked silver tongue. A hook.
It squinted at her slipper-clad feet.
She slammed the door shut.
She rushed to the front window, hunching down to hide from any onlookers, and surveyed the block as best she could for anyone doing anything they weren’t supposed to be doing but there was no one outside, only a long chain snaking from her front door, across the street, down the sidewalk and up the block out of sight.
Never stopping her surveillance from the window, never rising from her stealth hunch, she called the police.
“Someone left a fake ham on a hook on a chain on my porch. They left it right on my porch. Right at my front door.” She had not seen slits for ears carved into the thing but still she found herself speaking in a hissy whisper.
“Okay, don’t mess with it,” came the reply with a casual authority. “We’ll send someone to your location.”
She did not bother with socks or shoes or her morning cup of coffee. They were sending someone. There was no time. She listened for the sirens and waited, not bothering to check in at work or browse the news. She waited. And she waited.
Eventually she had to go to the bathroom, which she did in a hurried panic. Eventually she put on socks and shoes. Eventually she had her coffee and checked in at work. Eventually, inevitably, she cracked her front door open just a slice. She could smell it.
Don’t mess with it.
She closed the door again, careful not to slam it, careful to hold the knob until the door was shut and then slowly, silently rotate the lock back into place.
She did not mess with it and she waited.
“Sure, now that I’m on my lunch break they’ll show up,” she said aloud to an empty house, pleading to the universe.
Near the end of her workday there was finally a knock at the door. The cop, or detective as their long, beige coat seemed to shout, paid her no mind when she opened the door, standing over and staring down at the ham, one leg on either side of the chain. They took a loud sniff, leaned forward to observe the face of the thing.
“You see where the chain goes?” they asked, still staring at the ham.
“I didn’t want to leave. Didn’t know when you’d show up.”
The detective made an about-face and began to track the chain across the street. She watched from the open door but did not follow, watching them teeter down the road, eyes at their feet, following the chain with a single-minded focus that all but invited a negligent driver to run them over. They kept on down the block in no particular hurry and eventually disappeared from her line of sight. Eventually leaving the door open began to feel irresponsible so she closed it behind her, though it felt less like stepping out and more like being sealed in with the ham. She stood close enough to the thing that if she looked away for long she knew it could be on her in a heartbeat, the slit flesh of a mouth gumming at her sneakers, the hook trying to find purchase on her laces.
More time passed and the detective appeared to have vanished. Still, she stayed on her porch and waited, taking a seat, an increasingly purposeless gaze drifting back and forth from the ham to the road ahead.
Series regulars drifted by, the sort she recognized from around the neighborhood but couldn’t conjure even a guess as to the names of the actors portraying them, and waved or nodded or else entirely ignored her. None observed the ham on her porch and any whose path found its way to the chain simply stepped over it.
On their return trip the detective still seemed somewhere far away from their own two feet, but they paid the chain no mind now. They stopped at the bottom of her porch without acknowledgement and jotted briefly in a notebook that seemed too large to have appeared from out of nowhere. They at last acknowledged her.
“Alright,” the detective said with a precise, very official kind of nod before spinning on a heel to depart.
“Wait, what? Excuse me!” she called after them.
“What, what now?”
“Well,” the detective scratched at their nose. “I got some notes. I’ve got your information. There’s a report. We’ll let you know what happens.”
“What about this?” asked, presenting the ham for their consideration.
“Oh, don’t mess with that.”
“Well I don’t want it here! What are you going to do with it?”
“Just don’t mess with it and it’ll go away, ma’am.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Little bit. You don’t mess with it and they’ll lose interest and they’ll figure
no one’s falling for it and they’ll move along. They don’t often come back.”
“Who the hell are they?”
“I do not know.”
“But you’re trying to catch them?”
“Sure,” the detective offered, fidgeting to reset their posture.
“You deal with this often?”
“Maybe not this so much, but this sort of thing, sure, maybe. Every now and then.”
“You’ve dealt with this before?”
“Some, sure. I’ve seen it.”
“This is not news to you?”
“Newer maybe, but no. It’s just a trap. Nothing new about a trap. Old as they come. Big, loud, obvious thing. But then you got your old folks, your out of touch folks. The lonely. Folks who maybe don’t understand the language of the thing. They’ll get got. Every now and again they’ll get got. That’s not new. It’s just ham on a chain now.”
“So I just leave it here?”
“It won’t be here long.”
“But what if I don’t want it here at all? This is my property. I want it gone.”
“I really have to caution you against messing with it ma’am.”
“And what if some little kid or some old person should come walking by and fall for it? I don’t want anyone getting got at my home. This is dangerous! And it is your job to protect!” she said, thinking about what if she grabbed it? Thinking about what if she took it in her arms and bolted inside and slammed the door behind her? Or what if she woke up, insatiable in the night, and sprinted down the stairs and out the door and squeezed the thing to her chest and plunged her hand into its mouth and felt the curve of the hook prodding her ribs, and how would that feel? How satisfying? To have it out of the way? And it was just there, right there on her porch and what if she did all she had to do just because she could and what if?
“We’re working on it. Newer, y’know? I mean, there’s some ideas, but nothing official yet.”
“Please,” she replied, wanting to feel the other side of the door on her back, knowing it would do no good. She dare not even look at the thing now.
The detective sighed, stared at their feet.
“Look, it will go away. If you leave it and you don’t mess with it it will go away. Or, y’know, it’ll go away if it thinks someone fell for it.”
“Right, right, trick the trap,” she rambled, encouraged enough to look at the ham again, scheming. The detective immediately interjected.
“Ma’am, ma’am in my experience, you don’t mess with it, it goes away, it does not come back. Maybe it pops up down the block, but eventually it’s gone. You’ll never see it again. But if they have any reason to believe something might be around? So you try to trick it yeah, it’ll go away, but more likely than not it’ll come back. It’ll come right back.”
take the thing squeeze it crush it you have been found
“I have to get rid of this thing. I cannot have it around. I need it gone. Now. I can’t. I can’t have it here.”
“And if it comes back?”
plunge your fist into those gummy slits and feel around inside and squeeze it in your first until your nails puncture your palms through the meat
“Please,” she begged.
The detective took a long breath and ascended the stairs to stand next to her on the porch.
“You have a place to stay, this comes back?” they asked.
“Sure,” she whispered.
The detective looked her in the eye, really looked her in the eye for the first time.
She stared back, gaze unwavering as she imagined what if would feel like to fall for it, the feeling in her gut the precise moment it would be too late, like the thought of someone else’s teeth biting her own and slowly scraping down across the enamel plane.
“Well,” the detective offered, looking down again, shaking their head.
They gave the ham a good hard kick and it flopped off the porch and onto the sidewalk below with a dull splat, its mouth above its eyes now, gravity sliding it into an upside-down smile.
There was a long second.
The chain pulled away with such ferocity that the ham appeared to never touch the ground as it disappeared down the block and out of sight in an instant, leaving nothing in its wake but a memory of its own three-holed expression imprinted on the inside of her eyelids.
“I did not do that,” the detective asserted, leaving her on her now otherwise unoccupied porch, never to meet her or her eye line again.
That night she imagined it. Falling for it. Taking it and running as far up the street as she could get, yanking it away with such force that something on the other end came loose and fell, plummeting from a great height. They were not supposed to be doing that, after all. And in the night she left her bed, journeyed to the front door without turning on a single light and checked to see if it was there for fear that it wouldn’t be but when it wasn’t she felt nothing but the cold night air revealing just how feeble her pajamas were in the face of the elements.
She did not mention it at work.
She found herself with an insatiable appetite for the local news now, checking in with various affiliates at regular intervals each hour.
She went to the grocery store and looked at hams and verified that whatever it had been it was no ham and she left without buying anything.
She did not go out for a second cup of coffee and on the first day after she did not even leave the house for a walk.
She did not check the porch that night.
Instead, awake in bed, she thought about whether or not it had been the most danger she had ever been in and she thought that in all likelihood she would have no awareness of, nor would she ever discover, the precise moment of the most danger she had ever been it. She thought about someone going around with a high-powered rifle, looking down the scope and putting the crosshairs on unknowing strangers’ heads. Would that be the most danger those strangers would ever be in? Had anyone ever done that to her? Had she ever been hunted and gotten away out of sheer dumb luck? Or would it be a thwarted terrorist attack, or the climatic point of no return? How to quantify such a thing?
She decided, with a lethargic calm, that it had been the greatest danger she had ever known herself to be in and the night after that she woke up to shattering glass and blinding lights when something like a man crashed through her bedroom window.
Everything felt loud. Endlessly loud. Her hands went to her ears and for a brief eternity she felt the world around her was deafening but in reality after the shattering window, after the brief shower of glass on hardwood floor that followed the room held nothing but silence, herself, and a thing like a man dangling just inside her window.
It was bright and she had to remove her hands from her ears and use them instead to shield her eyes for a moment to begin appreciating the nature of the thing.
The body was torpid and flimsy, little more than a men’s room silhouette made of something less than flesh. The head was a ham with a thick rod sticking out of the top – a flashlight to cast a horrible glow out of the emotionless eyes and mouth that had been gouged out of the thing, the latter lined with rows and rows of hooks.
And below the waist of it was another circle of light shining on her in her bed, another mouth of hooks, this with a single larger hook jutting out of the center.
After breaking her window it did nothing.
It had no hands or feet. The stubs at the end of its legs lay forward on the floor like empty pants. It seemed to come to a rest sitting on her windowsill like a teenager sneaking in while her parents slept.
She got out of her bed slowly and stood to face the interloper. When the thing offered no reaction she craned her neck to try to look behind it and on the other side of all that light she could just make out the shape of a chain snaking up into the night sky.
For a moment she was gripped by an impulse to hide under her bed, but as her breathing slowed and the silence of the room began to settle in her reason returned.
you should not hide under the bed you should run you should call the police you should figure out where you are going to stay
She wondered if it could hear her. It had no holes for ears but still she wondered if speaking to it or near it constituted “messing with it.”
Trying her best to keep it in sight while avoiding the glass strewn about her floor she backed away to her open bedroom door and stood in the frame.
“Hello?” she said into the night.
She was pinned still for some time, watching the reserved dance of shadows in her bedroom when the thing swayed slightly on its chain. Still it did nothing.
Now she could imagine clearer than ever what it might be like to grab the thing, to hug it, to bite it, to bring in her kitchen knife and scream and stab until something happened.
do not mess with it
But it was not quite so easy as that. It was not easy, it was not nothing, to be in close proximity to the thing. It was not easy for her to be aware and to know and to keep that in her back pocket and continue to walk down the road.
She tucked her feet into a floppy pair of slippers and approached her visitor slow and steady. The crunching and scraping of the glass on the floor beneath her slippers grated in her ears but she paid it no mind.
The lights were warm. A thick gel coated its orifices like foam and as soon as she noticed it she noticed the smell, a deep, earthen smell that made her hairline tingle. She thought she might hear the faintest sizzle of the frothing gel in the heat. She smelled the mouths and their discharge and the smell was so potent she could feel it against her face like peaty scotch. Where its head met its neck there was a chain ascending out of her window and into the sky.
Her stomach nothing but nerves, the hairs on her body standing at attention like fields of antennae, she docked her finger inside of it, avoiding the hooks, leaving it to hover and bake in the light. She did not touch it – mustn’t mess with it – but as she traced her finger around the insides of each hole, around the curve of the biggest hook, her stomach settled and the hairs on her arm were at ease. She had, she felt, finally dropped the act. She had been granted a respite from an excruciating game she had never been good at anyway.
why do they insist you play when you are no good at it anyway
It was right here. Right here in her house. In her bedroom. All she had to do… all anyone ever had to do… and here it was. She knew exactly what would happen. She didn’t have to lie anymore.
When she withdrew her finger it was red from the warmth.
She sweated through her blankets from the heat of the thing in her sleep.
Joshua Lawson lives in Richmond, VA with his wife and dog. Unfortunately, he has a Star Wars podcast.