Jack took his time picking the tomatoes. Plucking each one individually. Squeezing each vine, gently, with his thumb and forefinger and letting his palm cradle the falling fruit. He was doing it slowly on purpose. Methodically for effect. It was ritualistic entertainment for tonight’s dinner guests.
Come see how the Self-Sufficients live!
It would give them something to gab about, tonight and for their next slew of unrelated social engagements. After tomatoes he would move onto plums. Make sure these lookie-loos really taste their dessert too.
Roni (Veronica) was already inside, fielding all of their careful questions. They had brought wine, not knowing what the right custom actually was. Jack imagined them going through the same old set of dilemmas: they shouldn’t bring food because that would interrupt the sensitive cycle of growing, harvesting, preparing and eating that he and Roni (Veronica) had mastered over the past year; they shouldn’t bring flowers because bringing D.O.A. plants into their household went against everything he and Roni (Veronica) stood for; they shouldn’t bring a house gift because they knew Jack and Roni (Veronica) had been reducing their material possessions to the very base elements of need. So they brought wine.
Roni (Veronica) had taken one look at the label and already knew that she didn’t agree with any of the winemaker’s growing, picking, brewing, bottling or distribution methods, so had cast it aside, never to see human consumption. Minor collateral damage in their war against consumerism. Instead, she talked up a batch of gin that had taken well to its recently-introduced botanicals, mixed it with a little garden-grown grapefruit juice and made a round of greyhounds for the group.
“This all smells wonderful!” exclaimed the generic male guest.
Jack couldn’t actually hear them from the other end of the garden but assumed as much from his enthusiastic hand gestures through the window. Roni’s (Veronica’s) eggplant casserole was a thing of legends, so it wasn’t that the generic male guest was wrong, but Jack hated that he and his generic female partner felt so uncomfortable with the lifestyle in front of them that they had reduced themselves to small talk and socially-acceptable platitudes.
Jack loved his self-sufficient life. He loved Roni (Veronica). He loved the produce they grew together. He loved the food they took turns in cooking with it. He loved that their children had gotten over their previously strongly held reservations that they would never eat anything that grew in a garden. Let alone live on it. He loved that they had even gotten over their strong declaration that they would never be homeschooled, not in a million years, not over their dead bodies. He loved that the kids would now, happily, invite their young friends over from their old lives, to enjoy the self-sufficiency show. He even loved that their young friends would bring their generic parents with them.
Things had all turned out quite nicely.
Now all Jack needed was a nice, big, juicy, greasy bite of meat.
He longed for it. Dreamed about it. Daydreamed about it. Sung in the bath about it. He even wrote in his Growing Diary about it. He couldn’t stop thinking about flesh between his teeth, touching his lips and sitting, just for a split second, on his tongue.
He moved over to the plum tree and made sure the generic dinner guests were still watching. They were. They had come for a show and they were going to get every last damn bit of one.
He imagined, for a second, biting into the generic female guest’s healthy upper arm. Right into the muscle. They looked as thick as steaks.
He giggled to himself.
Of course he wasn’t going to eat their dinner guests. That was preposterous.
He might eat Roni (Veronica) though. Or maybe one of their two kids. Keep it in the family.
He giggled to himself again.
Of course he wasn’t going to eat his wife or one of their two kids.
He had recently been worrying that they might know more than they let on, though. He was quite sure he hadn’t said anything out loud. He could still keep his inner monologue to himself. But all three of them had caught him looking at their various body parts in ravenous ways and it was starting to make him nervous. If they were ever to happen upon the wrong page of his Growing Diary, all this would be over, immediately.
It would all be much safer if those generic dinner guests would just bring a big, chunky, dripping piece of meat when they came over. None of this pussyfooting around with arbitrary social graces. Just bring a goddamned great big, dripping steak.
He knew Roni (Veronica) would no doubt throw it in the garbage without a second thought. But what he wouldn’t give just to see one. Even just smell one. That would almost be enough. Almost.
He looked down at his baskets full of tomatoes and plums, respectively. He had been so caught up in his meat thinking that he was picking on autopilot. He may have picked a few too many. Roni (Veronica) would let him have it for that. There was no such thing as overeating here. And no allowance for wasted food. They only had what they grew and every morsel counted.
He arranged the produce symmetrically in the baskets that Roni (Veronica) had handwoven. It all looked adorably authentic. He picked them both up and headed toward the house.
He let himself in through the conservatory-style doors. Roni (Veronica) introduced him to Chuck (smiled) and Wendy (waved). The Kings.
Chuck looked somewhat relieved. Jack guessed he had just sat through one of Roni’s (Veronica’s) anti-consumerism diatribes. He thought it had probably been the whole “better living through biology, not chemistry” one. Which was a good one, that Jack certainly agreed with, he just didn’t always want to hear about it.
Jack shook their hands and sized up their fleshy limbs. Chuck looked tastier, he didn’t mind admitting, and imagined chewing on his forearm. He pulled himself together and realized he was in the middle of a sports talk.
“Do you follow the (generic sports team name)s?” asked Chuck.
“Um, I’d better salt these tomatoes,” sidestepped Jack.
Chuck had another sip of his greyhound and went back to looking uncomfortable.
Roni (Veronica) took her eggplant casserole out of the oven and left it on the stovetop. Everyone in the room smelled the air and beamed, exchanging hungry glances. Jack made a crack about them probably needing to pick up a burger on the way home, you know, to fill up on. Roni (Veronica) stared at him, betrayed. Chuck laughed, guiltily. Jack knew that meant he had already made the same comment to Wendy, probably in the car on the way over.
“Just kidding,” smiled Jack and he imagined his guests’ ears deep fried and served with dipping sauces like a box of nuggets.
He washed the tomatoes slowly and seductively. Like they were being filmed for a Hallmark movie. He transferred them to the wooden cutting board and let their guests inspect each one as he split it open. They “ooh-ed” and “aah-ed” like they were at a fireworks display. Wendy even giggled. They were so performative they made Jack wince. They’re just tomatoes. Without thinking, he asked Roni to pass him the finishing salt.
“Don’t call me that.” She snapped. And then caught herself and smiled apologetically at her guests. Jack stared at her for a long time, until she started resembling barbecued meats. Then smiled back at her and said softly, “Veronica.”
She had been Roni when they met, Roni when they were married, Roni when they bought the house they were standing in. Now, all of a sudden, she was Veronica. Jack wasn’t sure why, but he suspected she felt the more sophisticated, full-length version of her name was in some way supposed to make up for the non-traditional approach to life she had opted for. He didn’t have a problem with it. He just forgot.
Veronica (Roni) placed the eggplant casserole on a thick mat in the middle of the table that she had beautifully laid just two days earlier.
Self-sufficiency hadn’t relaxed her as much as Jack expected it to. In fact, when it came to entertaining dinner guests, it had made her all the more tense. She probably felt as though everything had to seem perfect to make up for the life they chose.
Jack placed the freshly-salted tomatoes on one side and a scantily dressed Lollo Rosso salad that he had picked this morning on the other. He explained to the Kings, as he was placing them, that the time of day you pick the produce was almost as critical to the flavor as the months of growing that led up to it. They lapped it all up and stored it in their little memory banks to pass on to their generic friends once the night was over. Jack wasn’t even sure he believed it but he knew these garden variety Americans would be all over it like a cheap ham.
A trio of children ran into the dining room and broke up the otherwise calming ambience that Jack and Veronica (Roni) had been expertly crafting.
“Jack, have you met our son, Cheese,” said Chuck.
Jack open-mouthed smiled and clapped back with, “Ha! And these are my two, Quart and Pounder.”
He laughed enthusiastically but no one joined in. He guessed Chuck and Wendy were upset that he was making fun of their son’s name. And he was certain that his own kids had just uncovered even more evidence of his sinister plot to take a bite out of them.
Wait, was the kid’s name really “Cheese?” Or had he just imagined it?
All three children stared at him. He was used to it from his own two but adding Cheese into the mix gave it a new dimension. He stared back. Cheese had that processed foods look. Junky. Not that there was anything wrong with it. He just didn’t look like good quality. More like comfort food. Drive-through food.
Jack let the dinner conversation go on around him. He glanced up and down the table and weighed up his options. He could live off the people in this room for a whole year. At least.
He didn’t know Chuck and Wendy very well. Or Cheese, for that matter. He realized you should probably get to know a person before you eat them. Even before you eat just a piece of them.
His kids were staring back at him. He thought about everything he had written in his Growing Diary. He had never used their names. That way he could deny it. He wondered for a moment if they were looking at him and thinking the same thing.
Would they start with his arm? His leg? Maybe his cheek?
He thought that would actually be the fairest way to do it, to trade body parts. A thigh for a thigh.
He giggled to himself.
His kids looked at him more intensely.
Maybe he should broach the subject? He was the grownup after all. And what’s more self-sufficient than eating each other?
For a second he thought he had cracked it. What’s more self-sufficient than eating each other?!?
He slapped his open palm on the table and sat up, ready to release the eureka.
His family and dinner guests all looked in his direction. Waiting for him to enthrall them with whatever had inspired him.
He opened his mouth and felt the words edge closer and closer to the tip of his tongue, then look out, survey the scene and retreat to the back of his throat in fear. He laughed and smiled and choked just a little. Then he paused for a moment, before asking, dry-mouthed, “Anymore for anymore?”
There wasn’t anymore. There had barely been enough for everyone. The whole table looked at him strangely. He wondered if their entire conversation, while he hadn’t been paying attention, had been about his intention of eating one of them. Or, at least, part of one of them. He wondered if they had maybe been open to the idea and he had completely missed it. Or, if they had been closed-off to the idea and he had missed his chance to try and talk them around. Either way, he decided he should start paying more attention.
“Dessert?” Announced Veronica (Roni), skillfully phrasing it as a question.
Earlier, while Jack had been silently interrogated by Cheese and the others, she had sliced the plums he’d picked as part of the evening’s garden theater and layered them under a vegan crumble crust.
As she walked into the kitchen with the empty casserole dish, he heard the oven timer ping. Jack sipped on his third greyhound and wondered if the guests noticed how metronomic she was. Or if it all came across as elegantly kismetic as she had designed. The three kids helpfully picked up the empty plates and followed her out. Jack could feel their stares driving daggers into the back of his head as they left. He wondered if they would confer with Veronica (Roni) in the kitchen and the jig would finally be up.
Wendy and Chuck smiled awkwardly at him, as their eyes begged the conversation gods for something to say.
Jack gave it a whirl, “I’ve been thinking about eating one of you.”
Wendy and Chuck continued to smile. Chuck took a sip of his greyhound. Jack counted it as his fifth. Those grapefruits don’t grow themselves.
He wondered why they weren’t responding to his terrible confession, then realized he may not have said it out loud.
Chuck took another greyhound sip, scratched his stomach and excused himself to go to the bathroom.
Wendy looked stranded. But she did her very best.
“So… what kind of… tomatoes were they?”
“Orange Sunsugar,” sang Jack. “Want to see?”
“Sure!” She replied. More than anything, just grateful to break the silence.
Jack got up and led Wendy out of the conservatory-style doors, into the garden. He looked back at the kitchen and saw Veronica (Roni) and the three kids with their faces pressed against the windows, staring at them.
“Witnesses,” thought Jack. Maybe he said it out loud. He couldn’t do anything with them all watching.
He showed Wendy the various tomato plants he and Veronica (Roni) had tended to. It was peak-season, so the orange, red and green fruits were dominating the grow boxes.
He showed her all of the places they had had to prop up and strengthen the cages. The vines had expanded to massive, almost alien-like proportions. He glanced back at the kitchen and saw all of the eyes still pressed against the windows, watching his every move.
“They’re wonderful!” Wendy squealed.
“Yeah? It’s been six months and I never want to see another f~ing tomato again,” he replied.
Wendy threw her head back and laughed up at the night sky. She reached up and plucked a single Orange Sunsugar from the vine and popped it straight into her mouth. Jack thought maybe this was an invitation and leaned over and bit straight into her fleshy shoulder. It was much tougher than he expected. She screamed and hit him on the side of his head with her fist and then ran inside, screaming.
He turned and saw all of the eyes staring back at him. He retreated back into the undergrowth. Back as far as he could to hide from all the eyes. But they were still there, watching. They were probably calling the police. Maybe even a shrink.
Jack kept backing further and further into the wild vines and plants that bore all of his meals, until he bumped up against the garden gate. The eyes still stared. He pushed down the handle and fell out into the alley. The garden gate slammed shut. He peered through a crack in the wood and the eyes all ganged up and stared right through him.
He tripped over his own feet and stumbled down the alleyway, onto the road and ran up the street.
He saw headlights in the distance and imagined all of their eyes pressed up against the windshield.
He ran until he was convinced he was out of Veronica’s (Roni’s) cycling distance. They hadn’t owned a car for eight months but had spent almost as much on a set of high-end bikes for themselves and the kids.
Chuck and Wendy probably had a car, though. Probably a hybrid. It wouldn’t be long until they were out, scouring the streets for him. Clubs in hand. Pitchforks, even.
Jack saw a fast food restaurant’s light flicker desperately in the distance. He felt an instinctive aversion but knew he was going to keep walking in that direction.
He peered into the fluorescent interior. He walked the drive-through route. He recited the items on the giant backlit menu boards. And the next thing he knew, he was inside.
Had he really just tried to take a bite out of a dinner guest? It felt so distant to him, he wondered if it had been a dream.
“No one would name their kid, Cheese.” He cackled out loud. Several customers in the line looked at him, apprehensively. One even took a step back. He rubbed his mouth, in case there was a blood stain.
“Welcome to Wendy’s, sir!” said a polite cashier. “What can I get started for you?”
Jack felt an instant joy come over him. He could smell the grease that was lining his clothes and seeping into his skin.
He looked up at the radioactively lit menu boards above the cashier’s head.
He was trying to decide between two separate burgers or a double-stack.
He felt in his pockets. He inspected them thoroughly. His body dropped. And he had to admit to the attentive young lady, “I haven’t got any money.”