Food for Thought
by Morris Marshall
Eric Maddox looked around the 31st Division Toronto Police holding cell at the bunch of twenty-somethings sharing it with him. A lady with spiked black and purple hair and a silver nose ring sat across from him, chewing gum and blowing the occasional bubble. A slim, long-haired man with dried blood around his nostrils removed his glasses, closed his eyes and rested his head against the jail cell wall.
No one spoke. The only sound was the occasional sigh or cough. The guy beside Eric was dressed in a yellow feathered chicken suit up to his neck. Several feathers were missing from the chicken’s head, which sat on the floor, staring vacantly into space.
It was a hot, humid Saturday evening in mid-August. The body heat in the cell was excruciating, and the air reeked of sweat. Eric ran the back of his hand across his forehead and fanned himself. He’d used his only phone call on his wife, Rachel. She’d be here soon to bail him out. All he had to do was last a few more hours.
I didn’t do anything illegal, Eric thought bitterly. If I had to do it all over again, I would.
Until recently he’d kept most of his opinions to himself. Why offend others? Live and let live. Different strokes for different folks. Two good mantras to live by.
If there was one thing Eric was adamant about, it was his love of meat. Sizzling steaks, bacon, chicken breasts. He’d purchased a high-tech barbecue so he could enjoy them all. When his favorite restaurant dropped butter chicken from its menu, he had written a scathing letter to the manager, to no avail.
On June 15th, the date of his 12th wedding anniversary, Eric had arrived home early from the office. He asked Rachel if she was up for dinner and a movie. They decided on the Burger Barn, the fast-food place where they’d first met back in high school. It was only twenty minutes away from their current home by public transit. It also still had the same quaint booths and stools it had back in 1988. Even the original jukebox, with its eighties’ hits, remained.
As he and Rachel sat on the bus, waiting for the light to turn green, Eric looked out the window and noticed a commotion around Burger Barn. A group of five twenty-somethings stood on the sidewalk. They were wearing bright green T-shirts and handing out pamphlets to anyone who went by or entered the restaurant.
“What are they doing?” he asked Rachel.
“I’m not sure,” she replied. “I guess we’re about to find out.”
They got off the bus and crossed the street. When they reached the sidewalk outside the restaurant, a young woman with spiky black hair tinted purple approached them, holding pamphlets and a clipboard.
“What’s going on?” Eric asked her.
“This restaurant engages in cruelty to animals,” the woman said. “They have a factory farm and the animals are beaten and denied water on the way to slaughter. Would you like one of our pamphlets? You can also read about the details at our website.”
“I’m not interested,” Eric said. “I’m here with my wife to eat. Now, can you please get out of our way?”
A twenty-something man with shoulder-length brown hair and black rimmed glasses came over and stood behind the woman. “Is everything okay, Janine?”
Eric grabbed Rachel’s hand. “Come on, hon, we’re going inside.” He pushed his way past the protesters and, in the process, bumped the man, who lost his balance and fell to the ground.
The nerve of those people, Eric thought, staring out the window several minutes later as he sat across the table from Rachel. How dare they tell me what to eat? Meat is a staple of life. Animals were made to be eaten. What difference does it make if animals were mistreated on their way to being slaughtered? They’ll soon be dead anyway.
Eric rarely ate vegetables. Once, when he was in nursery school during the 1970’s, they’d served a variety of vegetable dishes like potato soup with onion, borscht and eggplant. During one particular lunch, he’d engaged in a potato-soup eating contest with his best friend, Hans Lie. They’d eaten four bowls of the stuff. The contest had ended on the fifth bowl with Hans puking ceremoniously into his own lap. Thirty-five years later, the sight of a bowl of white potato soup still made Eric gag.
“What are you going to have, hon?” Rachel asked, looking up from her menu. The lights were low and “Dancing in the Dark,” by Bruce Springsteen, was playing on the jukebox.
Eric scanned the menu. “The chicken wings look good. What about you?”
“The spinach salad looks healthy.”
Eric grimaced. “If you say so.”
The server appeared, poured some water into their glasses and took their orders.
Ten minutes later, they were digging into their food. Eric broke one of his chicken wings, pulled off some meat and put it in his mouth. Delicious. Pure bliss. Let Rachel have her spinach, kale, beets and purple onions. He’d stick with chicken, bacon and steak.
* * *
Two weeks later, Eric and Rachel returned to the Burger Barn for its July 1st Canada Day specials. On their way in, they walked past the activists. Eric turned back and approached the twenty-something man with the shoulder-length hair he’d bumped the last time they’d been there.
“You’re not going to hit me again, are you?” the man said.
“I just came to apologize. I didn’t mean it. It was an accident.”
The young man smiled. “No worries. I’m Rudy.” He extended his hand.
Eric shook it firmly and introduced himself.
“He seemed nice,” Rachel said, scanning her menu while they waited for the server.
“For an activist,” Eric conceded. “I still don’t think he should be confronting people like that. It’s none of his business or anyone else’s what I eat.”
“It’s my business,” Rachel said, “and I think eating more vegetables would be good for you. You could lose some weight. It would improve your health.”
Eric looked down at his protruding stomach. “I’m fine,” he said, trying to convince himself that he was. He had a doctor’s appointment in a week.
When the server came, he ordered chicken wings and carrot sticks to make Rachel happy. Half of his meal was vegetables. The beta carotene from the carrots would more than offset the grease from the wings. Balance was the key.
Covered in BBQ sauce, the wings smelled delicious. Eric took a deep breath and savored their aroma before taking his first wing off the plate. He bit into it, a large juicy one with plenty of meat
When he swallowed, something happened. At first he thought he was fainting. The sound of Rachel’s voice trailed off, along with the buzz of restaurant conversation and the tinkling of utensils against plates. The background of Burger Barn — the beige walls, cream-colored tables and windows — faded and was replaced by a dark barrier with holes punched in it, through which thin beams of light flowed into a cargo hold. The hold was moving forward, bumping periodically. A loud motor could be heard along with the constant fluttering of feathers and squawking of chickens.
Eric was on a transport truck. Rather, his consciousness was there, but his form had changed. Feathers covered his body. His arms had turned into thin wings that had wasted away to almost nothing from constantly living in close quarters. He was crammed into a tiny cage whose space wasn’t much bigger than a sheet of paper. He felt he was in a coffin. Every so often, he squawked as one of the other chickens pecked at him. Worst of all was the fear gnawing relentlessly at his gizzard. Where were they going? He had no idea but, wherever it was, it couldn’t be much worse than this...
“Eric? Eric! Are you okay?”
It was Rachel. Her voice seemed far away, as if coming at him down a long hallway. It slowly got closer as the beige walls, tables and windows of Burger Barn reappeared. Eric was back in his own body but his side and left arm hurt. His lips felt parched like prunes, as though he hadn’t had a drink of water in days.
“I... I’m fine, hon,” he said softly.
“Where were you?” Rachel asked. “You looked really spaced out.”
He gulped down what remained of his glass of water. “I’m just tired from work. We’re under a lot of stress. Sales are down.”
“Aren’t you going to finish your chicken wings?” Rachel asked. “You’ve barely touched them.”
Rachel touched Eric’s hand. “What’s that on your arm, hon?”
He looked down. There was a purple triangular bruise on his left bicep that he hadn’t noticed before.
Acidic bile rose in his throat. He pushed his plate away, certain that he’d vomit if he had to keep smelling those wings. Then he asked the server for another glass of water. When it came, he gulped it down, savoring the cool rush. He ordered another glass of water and glanced out the window at the young people he’d encountered on the way in. They were still handing out pamphlets on the sidewalk.
* * *
A month later, Eric and Rachel returned to Burger Barn for lunch to celebrate Eric’s 40th birthday. Rudy, Janine and the other young activists stood on the sidewalk, engaging passersby.
“Don’t you guys work?” Eric asked, smiling.
Rudy looked up and came over with a pile of pamphlets. “I’m a third-year medical student, but this is my work for the summer. I also work part-time at a walk-in clinic.”
“Had any luck with the public today?” Eric asked.
“Not much. It’s been slow. The manager of the restaurant came out a couple of times and gave us dirty looks.”
Eric shook his head. “What do you expect? You’re cutting into his profits.”
“We’re just here to educate people on their choices.”
“Well, I’ll take one of those,” Eric said, plucking a pamphlet out of Rudy’s hand. “I can’t promise anything, though. I still like my meat.”
Rachel smiled. “You won’t get anywhere with him,” she said to Rudy. “I’ve tried for years without success.”
The hostess showed Eric and Rachel to a table near the window. While they waited for the server, Eric mentioned his doctor’s appointment. “He said I’m forty pounds overweight. I’m borderline diabetic and a prime candidate for a heart attack.”
“What are you going to do?” Rachel asked.
“I didn’t expect this. I knew I was overweight, but not by that much.”
When the server arrived, Rachel ordered a Greek Salad. Eric couldn’t eat chicken wings anymore, so he ordered a BLT — bacon, lettuce and tomato — sandwich. At least it had some vegetables in it. He’d recently added a few vegetables to his diet, but the idea of a meatless existence scared him.
When the food came, Eric looked at his sandwich. The whole wheat bread was toasted brown. He lifted the top slice of bread. The lettuce and tomato lay on top of a bed of crunchy bacon slices. He took a bite, savoring the bacon’s rich salty taste as he slowly chewed it.
When he swallowed, his throat immediately froze, as if paralyzed. He tried to talk, but all that came out was a rapid series of helpless grunts. He dimly heard Rachel’s voice asking him if he was okay, if he could breathe. Then she was yelling for someone to call an ambulance. Her voice quickly faded along with the Burger Barn’s cream colored walls and windows.
Eric was in a holding pen with dozens of other pigs. They were crushing against him from all sides so that he could barely breathe and biting each other in a desperate attempt to secure personal space. Workers ran around with whips, trying to direct Eric and the other pigs up a ramp into a waiting transport truck. His nose — snout — erupted in a flare of pain as a whip snapped sharply against it. He squealed in protest and fell to his knees.
Once the truck was loaded, the motor started up and the driver pulled out of the shade of the barn into the beating sun. Almost immediately, a stifling heat spread through the cargo bay. They’d been given water at the farm but no more was expected for... how long? Two hours? Five hours? Fifteen? Eric already craved a drink to cool down his soaring body temperature.
The squeals in the cargo hold were deafening. Eric was sure one of his fellow pigs had been trampled to death by another pig. His heart thudded in his chest. Maybe their destination would be an improvement. At least they’d get out of this crowded truck and have some breathing room.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Morris Marshall