Lucy Bryan Green lives in State College, Pennsylvania where she writes, gardens, hikes, and teaches composition and creative writing at Penn State University. She holds a B.A. in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Penn State University. Her novel, Guarding Eden, was a semi-finalist for the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society's 2012 Faulkner - Wisdom Competition. Her short fiction, personal essays, and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in So to Speak, Word Riot, Orion Headless, New Letters, Sojourners magazine, Green Mountains Review, and The Georgia Review, among others.
I'm practicing excuses when I pull into the parking lot, half an hour late for my wife's appointment. A new client somehow got me from pitching image maps for his wedding photography website to hooking up his son's new XBox. We had to try it out, of course.
I could tell her I spotted a random gaggle of chickens, lost and scared and dangerously close to Atherton Street traffic. Is “gaggle” right, or is it “flock” or “brood”? Doesn't matter—she'd correct me anyhow. But, then I'd describe how I herded them into the back of the car and drove fifteen miles outside of town to a vegan commune where rescue chickens live without fear and die of old age. I can just see Kate now, proclaiming “My hero!” as she throws me onto the examination table and straddles me. Yeah, right.
I don't even make it out of the car. As soon as I pull into a parking spot, the door to Doctor Johnson's office swings open, and Kate marches out. Her left arm is swinging wildly, and her right arm clenches her teacher's tote, overflowing with orange, brown, and red construction paper—it must be turkey time in kinderland. A gust of wind whips her strawberry blond hair into her face, and as she pushes back the tangle, I notice her lips are still swollen—not like they were on Monday, but enough to give her a noticeable pout. It's actually kind of sexy.
She jerks open the passenger door so violently that I make a mental note to check the body of our Jetta, to see if she's dented it at the seam. She wrests it shut with corresponding vigor and pitches her bag into the back seat.
“I'm sorry,” I say.
She crosses her arms and looks at me, and I can tell by the way her eyebrows are twitching that she's about to cry.
“What?” I ask. “Is it bad?”
At the hospital on Monday, they said it was probably just an allergy. No big deal, right? But, the way she's looking at me, I brace myself. Lupus? Dengue Fever? Bubonic plague? Cancer?
“It's soy,” she says, voice cracking. “I'm allergic to soy.”
Thank God, I think. But, she grabs hold of the dashboard like I'm about to drive us off a cliff and lets out a long, loud wail.
I pat her on the back. She is wearing the light blue cashmere sweater her mother gave her for Christmas. “I hope this is clipped cashmere, not pulled cashmere,” she said when she opened the box. Her mother rolled her eyes and said, “It's an expensive sweater is what it is, and I bet your sister would love to have it if you don't.” Kate kept the sweater, said that if some goat had to die, it wouldn't die in vain. I agree, because she wears it well. And it's soft. Beneath it, I can feel the planes of her raised shoulder blades, the contour of her spine. My fingers glide over the clasp of her bra, and I start thinking about unclasping that bra, and before I know it, I'm chanting “dead cats, dead cats, dead cats” in my head to rid myself of the rise in my khakis. Maybe if we had sex with some degree of regularity, I wouldn't have a pimply middle schooler's propensity for inappropriate arousal—that's something I've been wanted to bring up with Kate for a while now, but now is clearly not the time.
“What am I going to do, Paul?” She sits up and runs her knuckles under her eyes, smearing the inky tears that have pooled on her pale skin.
This is a test, I realize. If I answer Kate's question with the seemingly obvious answer (stop eating soy), I fail. I decide to try a new strategy, returning the question: “Well, sweetheart, what do you think you should do?”
She scowls and looks out the window. “Give up and die.”
She's being dramatic now, something she's very good at, and despite two years of husbandhood, I still have no idea how to respond without making myself the target of her anger. I have learned that calling her performances “Oscar-worthy” is remarkably ineffective, so I settle on sweetness-sprinkled candor.
“I can see how upset you are, and you know I'd swim across Lake Erie, if that's what it takes to help you through this.” I pause and take her hand.
“You'd probably drown,” she mumbles, but she's smiling, sort of, which is a good sign. She's also right about the drowning. I'm not a great swimmer.
“You're going to get through this,” I say. “Everyone has allergies, and this one's particularly inconvenient, but I'm just glad you're okay.”
The smile disappears and she withdraws her hand.
“Inconvenient?” she says with a huff. “It's soy, Paul. Soy. No more soy milk. No soy nuts. No soy sauce. No apple cinnamon soy chips. No Luna Bars. No edamame. No Wegmans' pumpkin muffins. No veggie burgers. No tofu, Paul. No fucking tofu! Everything has soy in it—fucking soy oil or lecithin or textured vegetable protein or whatever.”
Once I recover from the shock of hearing Kate say “fuck” twice (“ugly words are for ugly people,” she's fond of telling her kindergartners, and me), I feel really sad about the muffins, but that is superseded by my excitement about never eating tofu again. I try to think of something delicious that doesn't have soy in it—something I can comfort her with. Then it hits me. You know what doesn't have soy in it? Meat. I envision our dining room table covered in brisket, ribs, pork chops, shaved lamb, blackened salmon, and barbeque chicken. I know I'm getting carried away, but the thought of getting to eat meat at home instead of sneaking off to McDonalds for the occasional carnivorous frenzy is too appealing to ignore.
“It does throw a wrench in the whole vegetarianism thing, doesn't it?” I say.
She nods and bursts into tears again. “What are we going to do?”
Tact, I tell myself. See, I am a vegetarian by marriage—not by choice. It's not that I don't care about the chickens being cooped up in tiny crates, wading around in their own shit. I get the whole cruelty to animals argument. But, Kate won't eat anything that's been killed, not even oysters or scallops, which supposedly can't feel pain. Grass-fed, free-range, shot or caught in the wild—she doesn't care. If it had to die, she won't touch it.
“I'm sure they make products for people with soy allergies,” I offer. “Like for people who can't eat gluten, you know? I bet there's even cookbooks. We can look on Amazon when we get home.” She nods, and I continue. “But, we do have protein to worry about—and our friends.”
“They already consider us high maintenance eaters. Add no-soy to our dietary demands, and we'll never get invited to dinner.”
She stuffs her hands in her armpits and stares out the window. “We should go. We need to stop by the grocery store on the way home.”
I turn on the radio—PR—and she slams the power button with an open palm. Then I pull out of the parking lot, and we drive in silence.
At the store, we examine a box of “Quorn Chik 'N Cutlets, Meatless and Soy Free, Cranberry & Goat Cheese.” As a rule, I stay away from commodities that have more than five words in their names. I've found that the likelihood of an item looking, feeling, or tasting like the sole of a Birkenstock is directly proportional to the number of words on its label. Of course, I don't say anything when Kate places two boxes in our cart.
She cries in the cereal aisle when she discovers that “Kashi Good Friends High Fiber Cereal, Trio of Flakes, Twigs, & Granola” has soybean ingredients. I pat the cashmere until she's calmed down enough to settle for “Kashi Organic Promise Cinnamon Harvest,” which, to me, seems like a step up from a cereal that has to use the words “Good Friends” to counteract the revolting combination of “Fiber” and “Twigs.”
We stop in the meat section for the first time ever. Kate picks up a pack of organic, free range chicken breasts and frowns at it. I notice that the words “Food You Feel Good About” beneath the Wegman's label. For once, I hope the marketing works. I think about herb roasted chicken breast in a lemon and white wine sauce. I will Kate to “feel good” about that chicken. She pokes the package with her finger and shudders. Then she tosses it back into the refrigerated meat case.
“I can't do it,” she says.
On the way home, I hit a groundhog. Not on purpose, of course. The little bastard shoots out of a boxwood before I have time to stop, makes a terrible noise—thump on the bumper, then bump bump under the tires. Kate looks at me like I just ran down a child.
“Pull over,” she commands.
I do what she says. She unbuckles her seatbelt and twists around in her seat. I look in the rearview mirror to make sure the little guy isn't still flopping around. He's not, thank God, but Kate whips back around and glares at me.
“You killed it,” she says.
“I'm sorry. It was an accident. I don't think he suffered very much.”
“Go take him off the road,” she says. “I don't want that poor creature getting smeared all over the street.”
“Kate, he's dead.”
“Exactly.” She shoots me a look with those fierce green eyes that has me out of the car in seconds.
I hoist him up, rear paws in my right hand, front paws in my left, and look for a place to dispose of the carcass. Across the street, there's a hedge of hydrangeas, and I walk over there and toss him into the middle of it, hoping to God no one sees me.
“Bye, little buddy,” I say, and I give a salute. There's blood on my left hand, and I wipe it off on my jeans before heading back to the car. It occurs to me that my chances of getting some action tonight have gone from slim to nonexistent.
When I get back in the car, I say, “You know, in Vermont, there's this list people can get on, and the game warden will call them when there's fresh road kill—deer or moose. They come get it and eat it.”
“That's truly horrific.”
I know it's wrong, but I sort of relish her squirming, and I can't help but add, “Seems pretty thrifty to me.”
Kate shakes her head, and I leave it be.
Four more blocks, and we're home. I'm eager to get inside to wash my hands and change my jeans, but Kate tells me to wait before I can turn off the car. She bights her lip with her front teeth, which I'm sure doesn't help the swelling.
“I shouldn't have a problem with people eating road kill,” she says. “I mean it's gross and probably unsanitary, but I shouldn't have a moral problem with it.”
I agree, but I'm not sure if this is a trap, so I don't say anything.
“I think I'm unreconciled to death,” she says.
Now I really don't know what to say. A Bruce Springsteen lyric comes to mind—“Well now everything dies, baby, that's a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”
“Everything dies,” I say.
She nods. “I know, I know. What's wrong with me?”
Ha. Such a dangerous question.
“There's nothing wrong with you,” I say. “Everyone's afraid of death.”
“Well, yes, in a way. I don't want to die. I don't want you to die. But, death is a part of life. Things have to die so other things can live.”
“It's science.” I shrug. “Just think of the vultures and flies and bacteria that will receive the gift of life from Punxsutawney Phil back there.”
She gazes out the window at the red leaves of our Japanese maple, awash in yellow light.
“It's weird,” she says. “I think I've always been like this. I can remember this time when my family went to Manasquan Beach. I couldn't have been more than five or six. We were walking on the beach, and we came upon this dead pelican. Its wings were spread out and its eyes were gone, and I bent down touched the pouch on its neck. It was soft—gummy, really—and sand was trapped in the folds. I just kept thinking, 'This is not right. This should not have happened.' I felt sick for the whole day.”
I want to sympathize. Honestly, I do. My wife loves life so much that death bewilders her. She may be out of touch with reality, but at the very least, I should appreciate her guilelessness, her passion. But, instead of endearing her to me, this little story of hers annoys me. It makes me want to grab six-year-old Kate by the shoulders and give her a good shake. Which makes me a champion jackass, I suppose.
“You've got to help me, Paul,” she says.
What I want to do is go inside and wash my hands. “Isn't that what shrinks are for?” I ask.
She laughs. “Yeah, but husbands are cheaper.”
“I'm also unqualified.”
“Oh, come on,” she says. “You play psychologist all the time—like when you tell me that being late all the time is just a way for me to assert my dominance.”
It's true. I said that. As I recall, it provoked her usual reaction to me pointing out one of her flaws—first denial (“Do you really think I would have chosen to be a kindergarten teacher if I had a problem waiting for people? I'm an incredibly patient person.”); then accusations (“You're the one who's the control freak. How many jobs have you quit just because the client insisted on having some stupid format or backward layout or ridiculous way to navigate his website?”); then a hysterical flight to the bedroom, where she sobs until I came in and comforted her.
She shakes her finger at me, one of her classroom gestures that often finds its way home with her. “Now that I'm asking for your advice, you don't want to give it. Maybe this is just your way of asserting your dominance."
“Okay, okay,” I say. “You really want to know what I think you should do?”
“Well, you know how they tell you to walk across a bridge if you're afraid of bridges, or pet a tarantula if you're afraid of spiders, or go sky diving if you're afraid of heights? You know, the whole face your fears thing?”
“Well, I think you should do that with death.”
“How? It's not like I can just die for a little while and then come back and say, 'that wasn't so bad.'”
“I think you should kill something.”
She gives me a sly smile. “You're kidding.”
She frowns, inhales deeply, and then looks up at me. “Like what?”
“Well, I'm not one for senseless killing, but it might have to be that way in the beginning if we start small—like, with a plant, for instance.”
“Yes. You could kill one of our houseplants.”
“But, I love those plants!”
She does love them—waters and prunes them assiduously, even gives them names like Dr. Cool and Spiderman. Maybe I'm being a little ambitious.
“What if I buy you a plant, and then you kill it?” I ask.
Her shoulders slump. “I guess I could do that. So, you'd get a plant and we just wouldn't water it?”
“I was thinking more along the lines of Roundup.”
She gasps and her hand goes to her chest. “Oh, that's really nasty.”
But I can tell she sort of likes the idea, that something about it titillates her. “Sure, it's a little unorthodox, but if you want to progress to animals—”
She makes a shrill noise, and I can't tell whether she's appalled or turned on.
“We would use the animals—we'd eat them,” I continue. “I'm sure Justin would take us fishing. And I've got Dad's old 12-gauge. You could work your way up to a deer."
“Never,” she says. “I will never kill a deer. But, I'm willing to consider the plant option.”
We start with a half-dead snake plant that I pick up in the sale section at Lowes. Kate sprays it with Roundup, and the long, fibrous leaves brown in two days. She dumps the whole thing in a trash bag and wipes her hands on the pink hoodie she wears while doing housework.
“How do you feel?” I ask after taking the bag outside.
“I feel okay,” she says. “Is that bad?”
I shake my head. “That's the point, isn't it?”
“I just wish we could have eaten it, or something. It seems like such a waste.”
“I wouldn't lose any sleep over it,” I say.
She stands on her toes and gives me a playful kiss on the cheek. “Don't worry. I won't.”
In December, we do lobster. We just saw Julie & Julia, and Kate is feeling inspired. She spends a couple of hours scouring the Internet about how to most humanely kill a lobster.
“They don't have a central nervous system,” she tells me, “but some experts think they can still feel pain.”
The first Friday night of her Christmas break, I pick up two lobsters from the grocery store—prehistoric looking things with dark brown spots and antennae that waved eerily in the tank. I tell Kate that they're really just the cockroaches of the sea, that they even resemble roaches, kind of. Still, she refuses to look at the lobsters until the water is boiling.
“Okay, let's get this over with,” she says.
I pull one of them out of the cooler and hold it on the cutting board. Its claws, bound by bright orange rubber bands, wag, softly knocking against the wooden plank. Kate positions the butcher knife behind its beady, black eyes.
“I don't think I can do this,” she says.
Frankly, I'm not sure if she can either. This is supposed to be more humane than plunging them into the boiling water, but it takes a lot more balls.
“One-two-three,” she says, ramming the blade into the shell.
Crack, and the lobster goes limp in my hands.
“I think I need to sit down,” Kate says, her voice trembling. She walks to the living room, and I hear her lie down on the couch.
I toss the dead crustacean into the boiling water. Then, I pull the second lobster out of the brown bag and hold it at eye level.
“Sorry,” I whisper. Then I throw it into the pot and hold down the lid.
At dinner, Kate takes one bite of lobster and sets her fork down. “How do you feel?” I ask her.
“Not great.” Her face is an ashen gray, and she's staring dully at the bright orange shells at the center of the table.
“How about some tomato soup?” I ask, standing and scooping up our plates. “I'll even throw in my world famous Swiss and apple grilled cheese.”
She looks up and smiles. It's that shy, flirty smile I haven't seen in years. “Really? You don't mind.”
“To hell with forty dollars in shellfish,” I say, ducking into the kitchen. “Chef Paul, gourmand of the inanimate, is at your service.”
I don't actually send the lobsters to hell, or to the trash for that matter. I put them in a Tupperware container and stick them in the fridge, where I'll later retrieve them for a midnight snack.
As I melt butter in the frying pan and stir the pot of Campbell's, I think to myself that the experiment is over. I feel a pang of sadness—or maybe something more like disappointment. It's not just that I'd hoped to avoid a lifetime of tasteless, vegetarian, soy-free entrees with five-plus words in their titles. It's that our little project gave me hope that Kate could change, that we could change, that being together didn't have to be so hard.
She walks into the kitchen and wraps her arms around my waist, rests her head on my back so I feel the warmth of her cheek through my sweatshirt. With my left hand, I rub my thumb over the knuckles of her interlocked fingers. With my right, I maneuver the spatula, flipping the browning sandwiches one at a time.
The experiment is not over. In January, Kate starts renting the Planet Earth series from the public library. She tells me she wants to take a cold, hard look at the food chain, that maybe if she sees animals eating animals it will bring out the animal in her. I like the sound of that.
She watches in the morning as she eats breakfast. She watches as she cuts snowflakes out of tracing paper to hang from the ceiling of her classroom. She watches late at night until she falls asleep, and I carry her into the bedroom.
One afternoon, I come home from a marathon meeting with an auction company that wants to go online, and she is ironing in front of the TV.
“It's the Jungles episode,” she says. “You missed the cutest thing ever—this capuchin monkey packing his mouth full of figs until he couldn't even chew. It reminded me of you.”
I inflate my cheeks, and she laughs.
“Speaking of my voracious appetite, what's for dinner?” I ask, stretching out on the couch.
“I was thinking we could have some of the leftover stir fry...” she trails off.
On the screen is an ant, staggering around the jungle floor like it just drank a fifth of Jack Daniels. The narrator explains that spores of the Cordyceps fungus have entered the ant's body, consumed its internal organs, and invaded its brain. Its mind is under the control of the fungus, which causes it to climb up a twig, clamp on with its mandibles, and die. Soon, its entire brain is devoured, and an orange shaft of fungus splits open its exoskeleton and rises out of its head like a great spore-releasing horn of Satan.
“Holy hell,” I say, and as if my words have cued some diabolical manifestation, I smell burning.
Kate yanks back the iron from her shirt and says, “Well, crap.” There's a big iron-shaped burn on the front of it. She sighs. “I loved that shirt.”
“At least your brain isn't being consumed by a parasitic fungus.”
“You don't know that.” She crosses her eyes, stumbles across the room, and falls onto my lap. I reach up and kiss her, and she says, “Now you're infected.”
“Then I can't be held accountable for what happens next,” I say, yanking down the zipper on her housework hoodie.
We make love. Really, we fuck. Right there on the couch. And it is good in so many ways. A couple of months ago, this wouldn't have happened. Kate would have cried for the ant. She would have had nightmares about the fungus bursting through her skull. She would have been angry at the injustice of it all. But, here she is ripping off her bra, while on TV, a bunch of cannibal chimps go on the warpath. Thank you Discovery Channel and time-lapse video and certifiably insane camera-people.
I expect Kate to say no when I tell her I want chicken for my birthday dinner. The only meat we've encountered since the lobster incident was a smoked trout my brother Justin brought over. When he offered her some on a Triscuit, she nibbled hesitantly and declined a second serving. In any case, my best hope is that she'll let me buy some boneless breasts from the store and cook them up myself.
Instead, she leans towards the kitchen window and looks into our backyard. A couple of the chickens are poking around outside the coop we installed in April. Chickens in the middle of town—who would have thought? But, fresh eggs were Kate's solution to the protein problem, and I have no qualms with that. Eggs beat tofu any day.
“Georgina's been causing trouble in the coop,” she says, still staring into the backyard. “She scratched up Ferdinand again, and she bit me this morning.”
“Hmmm,” I say.
“I wonder what's involved in killing and preparing a chicken.” She hoists herself onto the counter.
I chuckle, but the creases in her forehead tell me she's serious.
“She's had a really good, happy life,” Kate says. “And there's no way to know something's been killed humanely unless we do it ourselves.”
I nod, but I have doubts. I'm pretty sure there's more to getting chicken meat than sticking a knife in its head and putting it in a pot of boiling water. And unlike lobsters, chickens have blood. “I'm a little concerned that this endeavor will be considerably messier than the last,” I say.
“Yeah.” She wraps a few strands of hair around her finger and chews on the ends. “But, I think we're ready. Things have to die so other things can live, right? In this case, Georgina has to die so you can live. I consider that a decent enough cause.”
Maybe she's all hyped up from Shark Week. Maybe she's feeling empowered by killing a roach in our kitchen—last week, I heard a slam and found her squatting on the floor, peeling back the phone book.
“So, what exactly is the plan?” I ask.
“Your mom grew up on a farm,” she says. “Give her a call. I bet she'd know how to do it.”
We decide to put a day between the killing and the eating, which I'm grateful for come Saturday morning. We get up early, before it gets uncomfortably warm out.
Kate puts on a pair of jeans and old Turkey Trot t-shirt from a 5K she ran in college. I think this is funny—maybe a little ironic—but I keep my mouth shut. She's worked herself into a sort of frantic mania that I know is volatile. As she paces the back porch, holding a bowl of oatmeal and scooping giant spoonfuls into her mouth, I inspect the backyard, making sure everything is accounted for.
Chicken killing, apparently, is something that takes a lot of buckets—a bucket for blood-catching, a bucket of scalding water, a bucket for feathers and guts. It also requires a table, which we constructed from a piece of plywood and some cinder blocks, and a metal cone with a hole in the bottom. I made this from some sheet metal and nailed it to one of our fence posts—not one of my prouder acts of husbandry.
Eight o'clock rolls around, and I pour the final pot of boiling water into one of the buckets, while Kate wrestles Georgina out of the chicken coop. I watch her come across the yard, holding the chicken feet up in the air. She slides Georgina into the cone, head first, and says, “Georgina, thank you for the life you had and the life you give.” Then she nods solemnly and says, “Alright. Go ahead and do it.”
“Wait,” I say. “I thought you were going to do it.”
“She's your birthday dinner. Isn't it enough that I'm willing to be present?”
It occurs to me that I don't actually want to kill this chicken, this auburn-feathered hen who's eaten my kitchen scraps and furnished many a fine omelet and listened to me ramble about source coding over the past few months—even if she did rip up our daffodils.
“Well, I thought you were going to do it,” I say. “I'm not mentally prepared for this.”
Kate's neck turns red and splotchy, so I know what's coming even before she opens her mouth. “Really? You have no problem eating chicken, but suddenly when you're faced with the actual chicken, you can't summon the courage to get the job done? You expect your vegetarian wife to do it for you? Person-up, Paul. You're ridiculous.”
At that moment, Georgina emits a garbled squawk. Kate fastens her eyes on the upside down head of the bird, and says, “She's suffering, because of you.”
“Well, there's a pretty easy solution to that problem.” I reach for Georgina's ankles. “I'm going to put her back. If she's really such a nuisance, we can sell her on Craiglist.”
Kate grabs my wrist. “Stop.”
The furious look in her eyes tell me it's pointless to fight back, pointless to reason with her, so I release Georgina's legs and hold up my hands.
“She's all yours,” I say.
Kate moves toward the cone, and I don't even realize she's done it until I hear the noise in the bucket. Slop. Slop. Slop. I see the scaly, yellow feet kicking, hear wings pressed against the tin in an attempt to flap. Then I turn my eyes to the pulsing stream of blood, the crimson that is seeping into the wispy white neck feathers, the nearly severed head dangling at an unnatural angle—and I know with certainty that the experiment is over. No amount of chicken therapy is going to fix us.
I step back and wipe the sweat off my forehead.
“Just where do you think you're going?” Kate demands.
Her right hand clasps the hunting knife I sharpened yesterday, and on her wrist is a delicate arc of red drops.
I count the drops, nine in all. “I'm done.”