Food for Thought
by Morris Marshall
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
When Eric regained consciousness, Rachel was looking down at him with concern. A doctor in a white jacket with a stethoscope around his neck stood beside her. Eric felt like a specimen in a science experiment.
“Where am I?” he asked groggily.
The doctor put the stethoscope on Eric’s chest and listened. “You’re in Toronto General Hospital, Mr. Maddox.”
“Hospital? The last thing I remember—”
“You had a choking spell,” the doctor said. “Your vital signs are normal, but I’d like to keep you overnight for observation. We’re discharging you tomorrow.”
“You got up from the restaurant table,” Rachel said. “You ran outside, holding your throat, gasping for air.”
Eric stared at her blankly.
“Rudy saw what was happening. He came running, put his arms around you and gave you the Heimlich maneuver. He saved your life, hon.”
There was a knock on the hospital room door.
“You have a visitor, Eric,” Rachel said.
Rudy entered the room, carrying a potted aloe plant. He placed it on a small table off to the side.
Eric looked up and smiled. “Thanks, Rudy, for what you did. I owe you one.”
“Just get better. That would make me happy.”
“I’m going down to the cafeteria,” Rachel said. “Does anyone want something to drink?”
“I’m fine,” Eric said.
Rudy sat down in a chair beside Eric’s bed. “Me, too.”
Rachel closed the door as she left the room.
Eric’s attention shifted back to Rudy. “So... who’s watching the fort back at the Burger Barn while you’re here?”
“The others have it under control. Could I talk to you?”
“If you’re going to lecture me about my diet—”
“It’s nothing like that.”
“I’m sorry,” Eric said. “I’ve been stressed lately. My doctor told me that I’m overweight and if I don’t lose, I could die of a heart attack or stroke. There’s more. I didn’t want Rachel to hear this next part.” He told Rudy about his physical and emotional reactions to consuming the chicken and bacon. “That’s what was happening when I choked. Am I going crazy?”
Rudy leaned back in his chair, took off his glasses and closed his eyes. Ten seconds later, he opened them. “Interesting. It sounds like some kind of emotional transference from animal to human in real time. I’ve never heard of anything like that. Are you sure you weren’t dreaming?”
“No,” Eric insisted. “I was fully awake in the truck with the other animals and feeling everything they were feeling. It happened twice: once with chicken and once with pork. Now I can’t even look at either of them without puking.”
“Why did this start happening now?”
“I don’t know. It started that day we first shook hands.”
Rudy smiled. “Have you tried eating beef to see what happens?”
Eric flashed him an annoyed glance.
“Seriously, though. I’m a vegan, but I’m not so naïve to presume that everyone is going to live that way. My goal is to provide people with facts and let them make their own choices.”
“I sense a lecture coming on.”
“Look at me as a medical student for a couple of minutes, Eric. Consider the facts about meat. Processed meats such as bacon, ham and other cold cuts, especially smoked meat, have nitrites in them and are associated with a higher probability of cancer. The same goes for red meat, especially when cooked well done. Chicken, beef and pork also contain growth hormones to make them ready for market more quickly. Those facts alone should make you think twice about eating meat.”
“That’s not fair,” Eric protested glibly. “I’m a captive audience.”
“Now you have some facts,” Rudy said. “It’s your choice. I admit that I did have an ulterior motive in coming to see you.”
“I knew it.”
“I was wondering if I could ask you a favor.”
“Anything,” Eric said. “Didn’t I say I owed you one?”
“Think about this first. It’s a lot to ask, but I’d really appreciate it. The group would appreciate it. We’re having a protest in two weeks. Charlie the Chicken will be there, but we need someone to represent beef. Eddie Metcalfe usually wears a cow costume, but he broke his leg playing football. You’re about his size and I was wondering—”
“I don’t think so. I’m kind of old for stuff like that.”
“It’s all legal, and it would only last an hour.”
“I don’t think I can do it.”
The door swung open and Rachel came in carrying a coffee. “What can’t you do, Eric?”
“I... I can’t get out of bed, because I still feel weak.”
* * *
The protest was planned for August 15th at six in the evening on the sidewalk in front of Chicken Etc., a fast-food place that had recently opened at Yonge and Dundas streets in downtown Toronto. They’d meet at Rudy’s apartment a few hours before to firm up the details.
Eric left home at two in the afternoon and took the subway from Keele Station to Eglinton Station. He got off and walked two blocks west. Rudy’s apartment building was on the corner.
Eric found the code on the display board in the front lobby. He buzzed up.
“It’s me, Rudy. I’m downstairs.”
“Thanks for coming, Eric,” Rudy said as he opened the front door. “Come in and meet the gang.”
Several twenty-somethings lounged on Rudy’s couch and chairs. Eric recognized most of them from Burger Barn. They all wore identical lime green T-shirts. “Vegan Power!” was splashed across the front and back in black lettering.
“This is Janine,” Rudy said, pointing at a thin woman with spiked black and purple hair. “I think you’ve met before.”
Eric nodded and smiled. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Janine said, returning the smile.
“This is Charlie Parsons,” Rudy said, waving at a young blond man with two armfuls of colorful tattoos. “Our resident chicken.” There was a yellow chicken suit on the floor in front of him.
Eric shook hands with Janine and Charlie. “Good to meet you both.”
Rudy continued: “Beside Charlie is our technical guy, Mike Lee. He takes care of our website and online presence.”
“And, last but not least, Marie Davis, Membership Director.”
A twenty-something woman with short blond hair stood up, smiled at Eric and sat down.
Once the introductions were over, they talked strategy.
An hour later, the group sat on the southbound subway. Each person carried a placard that was covered in a beige canvas sheet. Eric and Charlie carried their costumes in large duffel bags.
“Where are we going to change?” Eric asked.
“There’s a movie theatre across the street,” Rudy replied. “Movies don’t start until around seven so the bathrooms should be empty.”
On this particular Saturday evening, the Toronto Blue Jays were playing, and Chicken Etc. was experiencing long lineups. The tables were full with customers enjoying chicken fillets on Kaiser buns, chicken nuggets and burgers.
Janine, with her spiky purple/black hair recently cut, came out of the movie theater first, carrying her still-covered placard high. The sun glinted off her nose piercing. Rudy walked behind her, followed by Charlie the Chicken, Mike and Marie. Eric headed up the rear, dressed in his cow suit, which was reddish beige with large horns and a black nose. He’d lost some weight over the last month, so the suit was a little big for him. Every time he moved, the head jiggled, interfering with his vision.
Without warning, the activists in the green “Vegan Power!” T-shirts ran across the street and spread out on the sidewalk in front of Chicken Etc. They uncovered their placards, revealing images of various animals affected by slaughterhouse conditions. Pigs with bleeding snouts and open, festering body sores. Emaciated chickens. Cows bleeding from slit throats.
“Stay on the sidewalk!” Rudy screamed. “Don’t go on their property!”
Charlie the Chicken began squawking and flapping his wings. Eric joined the chorus with a series of enthusiastic “moos.” He watched Rudy, ready to respond in case of trouble.
Janine and Mike raised their placards and chanted, “Animal rights! Animal rights! Treat animals with decency. Animals abused on their way to slaughter.” Marie took a package of colored chalk out of her shorts pocket, kneeled down on the sidewalk leading into Chicken Etc. and wrote, in large pink letters, Animals weren’t made for your eating enjoyment. Find real happiness. Go Vegan.
A woman walking along the sidewalk shielded her young son’s eyes with her right hand and marched him across the street.
A minute later, a middle-aged man in a shirt and tie came out the front door of Chicken Etc. He frantically waved his arms at the activists. “Get away from my restaurant, all of you, or I’ll call the cops!”
“This is a legal protest,” Rudy shot back. “We’re on public property.”
Another man, stocky and younger, in a tight blue T-shirt, stormed out of the restaurant. He came down the concrete path toward the protesters. “My son doesn’t need to see those,” he said, pointing to the placards. “Take them down.”
Rudy stood only a few feet away. “We’re not leaving.”
Before Eric could respond, the man lunged forward, cocked his right fist and delivered a solid right hook to Rudy’s nose. As their leader crumpled to the sidewalk, the rest of the group dropped their placards and ran to his side. A stream of blood flowed from his nose down to his lip. Janine knelt down, put her arm around Rudy’s head and wiped his nose with a Kleenex.
A wave of uncontrollable rage coursed through Eric at the sight of his friend lying on the pavement. Still in his cow suit, he rushed Rudy’s attacker, wrapped his arm around the guy’s head and tightened his grip. He was so busy holding on that he didn’t notice the police officer sneaking up behind him with a baton.
When Eric regained consciousness, his head was throbbing. He was sure he had a huge bump, but he couldn’t reach up to check. The head of his cow costume was missing and he was sitting in a paddy wagon, handcuffed to Rudy and the others.
* * *
Rachel bailed him out of jail at noon the next day with a five hundred dollar cash deposit and an order to stay in Canada. He also wasn’t allowed to associate with any of the other protesters. On the way out, the arresting officer shook his head when he saw Eric.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” he said. “A middle-aged man getting involved in a protest with a bunch of kids and wearing a cow suit, no less. Don’t you have any decency?”
Eric looked at the officer’s protruding stomach. “Since I met them, I’ve lost thirty pounds, I have more energy and my diet has improved. If that’s something to be ashamed of, bring it on.”
What a jerk, Eric thought. He’d put the cop in his place quickly enough, but there was still Rachel to face. She always asked a lot of questions. Eric had told her he was going to see an old friend that afternoon. He hadn’t been completely lying.
On the bus ride home from the police station, Rachel remained quiet. She must be fuming, Eric thought. I’m never going to hear the end of this. They stopped at the Burger Barn for lunch.
“Look, hon,” Rachel said as she opened her menu. “You’re in luck. They’re having a sale on all their meat products.”
Eric looked out the window. It felt strange not seeing Rudy, Janine and the others standing on the sidewalk, engaging people. He wondered if they had parents or someone to bail them out. Rudy hadn’t mentioned anything about his parents, but Eric was sure they’d be proud of his medical school accomplishments.
As he scanned his menu, staring at pictures of BBQ chicken, bacon and pork chops, Eric’s stomach heaved. He thought about taking Rudy’s advice and ordering beef to see what would happen, but the picture of a hamburger also made him queasy. While wearing his cow suit, he’d developed a new affinity for cows. Eating a burger would be like eating one of his relatives.
The server came over to their table and filled up their glasses with water. “What can I get you?” she asked Rachel.
“I’ll have a Greek salad, please.”
The server turned to Eric. “Are you ready to order yet, sir? I can come back if you need more time.”
He closed his menu. “No, I’m ready. I’ll have the same, with extra olives.”
Rachel stared at him. “What happened to you while you were in jail?”
He smiled, took her hand and squeezed it softly. “It’s a long story, hon. I’ll explain while we’re eating.”
Copyright © 2016 by Morris Marshall