Fiction · 02/09/2011

Our Own Flesh And Blood

Bob and Jude sat at a booth in the back of the diner. Their seats were covered in green vinyl, torn in several places. Some of the tears had been patched with duct tape, but others, left unmanned, leaked the foam entrails. Bob was eating a grilled cheese sandwich. Jude was eating chicken strips.

“I thought you were a vegetarian,” Bob said.

“Not on the weekends,” Jude said.

“I’ve always wanted to hunt for my own meat,” Bob said, pulling apart his grilled cheese and saturating it with ketchup. “I’d like to shoot something one of these days. Skin it and butcher it with my own hands.”

Oh, Bob, thought Jude. Bob was bald and 33 — a palindrome, just like his name. But Bob did not drive a racecar, or paddle a kayak. Bob, it seemed, was a hunter — an amateur hunter, but a hunter nonetheless. He stalked his prey like a cougar, like a great ravenous grizzly bear. Bob was himself a pack of bears. He pursued his targets from the darkest corners of the earth. With stealth and patience, Bob would wait for the perfect kill.

“Like a deer?” she said.

“Yeah, like a deer. Or a buffalo. How about that?”

“Wouldn’t that be a lot of meat?”

“You could eat it on the weekends.”

A mutual friend had recently introduced Bob and Jude. This was their first date, though they had talked several times before on the phone. Ricky, the mutual friend, thought they would make a good match. Bob was charming and down to earth; he’d just had a streak of bad luck with women in this town. Jude was a widow — a term which made her sound sophisticated but unapproachable. Her husband had died two years ago in a freak construction accident (falling block of concrete, poor timing). He’d been a handsome man, with a thick beard and dark eyebrows that his face always hid behind. Jude had understood the coziness of this. Now though, when beards cropped up in her peripheral vision or came walking down the street, they seemed menacing — like there might be something waiting in there to jump out and ambush her. Bob’s face was smooth and pink and hairless, and Jude could not help but consider this a fortunate thing. A good luck charm.

“Hell, I’d even like to kill a pig. Shoot it straight in the head.” Bob lifted his right hand and took aim at the pepper shaker. “Bam. There’s your pork sandwich.”

Jude had lost her appetite. She pushed her plate of chicken fingers across the table toward Bob. “You want the rest of these?”

“Or a cow. I’d slaughter my own cow someday.”

“Wow,” Jude said, feeling vaguely lightheaded. “A cow.”

Jude’s husband, a fan of useless trivia, had once told her that cows had four stomachs, each with a different name. Thanks for wasting my brain space, she’d probably said. She had probably said something like that to him, but she should have listened better.

“Cows spend half their day eating. Six or seven hours, that’s what they do,” Jude said, which was all she could remember now. “They’re easy targets.”

“Indeed,” Bob said, picking up a chicken finger. “You sure you don’t want these? I hate to impose, but if they’re just going to be thrown out…”

Jude nodded and as she did, felt a wave of nausea rise in her throat. The chicken fingers smelled rancid and dead. Bob devoured the first one and wiped some crumbs from his chin, grabbed the second. The plate was left slicked with grease. Jude realized she was going to be sick.

“Excuse me,” she said. She stood up from the booth and ran to the bathroom. It was a single bathroom, the size of her closet, and reeked of vanilla air freshener. There was a picture of a mermaid on the wall, winking at her. Jude closed the door, leaned over, and promptly vomited into the toilet — a swirl of half-digested chicken fingers and French fries. Shaking, she leaned her forehead against the cool, pink-tiled wall.

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Dead squirrel on the ground. It is lying on its side, arms splayed, body intact, eyes glazy. In a panic, Jude grabs a large stick and flings the corpse into the creek. It is surprisingly aerodynamic. It glides like a Frisbee.

When her husband was still alive, they took a camping trip together one summer. They packed hot dogs and marshmallows. Then they drove into the mountains and set up their tent near some pine trees and a small creek. “What a beautiful creek,” Jude could not stop saying. “I’ve never seen a more gorgeous creek!”

“Indeed,” her husband would echo, like a useless broken doll. “Indeed.”

In the middle of the night it rained — an icy, relentless downpour that leaked into their tent and through their sleeping bags — so they left early. She never mentioned anything to her husband — that morning as they drove home in the fog, her feet hovering in their wet socks like little frozen steaks, or anytime thereafter — but she sometimes worried that the squirrel had not been dead at all; that in the half-dark she’d confused asleep for dead.

Or, perhaps it had been an offering, an omen — though these could be hard to decipher — these lingering, oddly tragic things that seemed to dangle all around her, as if she was some sort of pathetic Christmas tree.

+

“You feeling alright?” Bob asked. “You look a little pale.”

Jude slid back into her seat at the booth. “Oh, I think, the chicken — my stomach isn’t really used to it, you know.”

“I ordered you a water while you were gone,” Bob said.

That was considerate of him. A thoughtful man, really. Perhaps Ricky had been right; perhaps Bob was good for her. He had manners, and he was virile, wasn’t he. Virile Bob. There was, after all, something reassuring — something almost sexy — about a man who could hunt his own meat, fend for himself.

“Bob,” Jude said, leaning forward, lowering her voice. “I think you should know something; I’m not well.” The fluorescent light above them flickered mildly. Wink, wink. Last year, for instance, Jude had lost her car no fewer than five times. It seemed that the car had a way of moving itself once she’d parked it somewhere. Only after it was impounded was she ever able to track it down. Who lost their car five times? Not a well person.

Bob mulled this over for a minute. She had concerned him. He frowned and rubbed his hands together. “Maybe you need more iron,” he said. “Maybe it’s a lack of protein that’s making you sick.”

“Do you think it could be as simple as that?”

“I’m no doctor,” Bob said, “but sure, I bet it might be.”

“You’re nice,” Jude said. She smiled without showing her teeth, which were noticeably crooked. Bob placed his large hands on the table and interlaced his fingers. Jude wanted to crawl in between his palms. She wanted to feel him squeeze her with those massive hands, that pressure. He would flatten her like a pancake, open his mouth and slide her down his long, dark throat. Inside his stomach was a movie theater: a warm, comforting cavern of shadows. There were clouds of popcorn for her to sleep on.

Bob grinned. “I’d like to take you out again. We could go to that vegetarian joint next time.”

Yes, they could. It was true. And they could eat brown rice and grilled vegetables. Jude would explain the difference between tofu and tempeh. She would describe the taste of tamari, the texture of wheat gluten. Bob would appreciate that.

Oh, Bob. He was bald, but not unattractive. Bob was strong and sensitive. He would make a wonderful doctor some day. And Jude could love him, she really could. She could wash his socks and sing him sweet Joni Mitchell songs. She could tan his buffalo hide, whatever that meant. Oh, Bob! A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

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Becky Margolis lives in Missoula and is an MFA candidate at the University of Montana. She is the winner of the 2011 Prism Review fiction contest.