A Story Told Over Dinner, Jacquelyn Bengfort
Originally published in Viewscreen(2016).
Now, ladies and gentlemen, most welcome guests, thank you all for joining us this evening. How’s the corn liquor? Best in the county, if you ask us. Fresh from our bathtub. To your health.
We suppose it’s our turn to talk this time, so get another helping of rutabaga, refill your cups, sit back, and allow us to share our little story. We have a bit of time before dessert.
It began like this. No one knew it was coming, but Grandmother had her suspicions. Our grandmother had just shown up one day, on a Greyhound bus, no warning, no explanation, in a flowered nightrobe and snowboots. Our first introduction to a woman our father had never mentioned was of this straight-backed old lady pushing a wheelbarrow full of potato sacks up the driveway. She'd walked, three miles, from the bus stop. No neighbor had offered her a ride, though the man with the blue truck (not a nice man, the neighbors agreed) had driven by her twice as he cruised the neighborhood, gilded testicles swinging from his bumper.
Our father’s only reaction to her arrival was to ask where she’d found the wheelbarrow. She replied that she brought it with her. The bus driver had strapped it onto the front of the bus.
What is this story, you ask? Why, it’s the story of the Desert, of course. Our little piece of the story. We invited you here for more than an amuse-bouche or a cheese plate or some coffee. You can stop us if you’ve heard this all before, but we think it’s important to tell you about how things were in the suburbs where the lower middle classes experienced the onset of the Desert. Being who you were and living where you did, we just aren’t sure that you really felt it the same way as we. After all, the working classes living like bees in their low-rent hives perished outright, but the very rich went on with their parties and their fashion shows and their excesses, and if the oysters were smoked instead of fresh, who really noticed?
We shall go on, thank you. The potato sacks Grandmother brought with her, being vintage and thereby “upcyclable” in the parlance of those days, probably retained more value than their contents, which included a ratty Russian fox-fur hat, a radio that had to be wound, a bag of hard candies gone opaque through cycles of melt and reformation, and one of those brides that goes on a cake, the nose chipped but the eyes still very blue. Our mother, her own nose wrinkled, did not want to let any of it into the house, but our father gave her a look that he reserved for the two days per year that he asserted any authority, and she held her tongue for the moment. The sacks, and their contents, came inside with Grandmother.
At night, for many nights, our mother held closed-door conversations with father, her voice seeping through the wallpaper and echoing in the heat ducting. Always variations on a theme:
“She can't just come like this. Have you seen the garage? Cans of food! Mountains of it! Have you asked her why?” Grandmother, you see, had taken to daily trips to the grocery store with her wheelbarrow.
Our mother would pause. We could hear her eyes continuing the conversation, burning our father so that we could almost smell the singe of his pale hair.
“‘The children will need to eat.’ That's what she says—then spits on the ground! I'm telling you, Steve, your mother's gone round the bend. I see it all the time, these old people going batty and quoting Revelation, when they're bused in for their yearly cleanings. She ought to be in a home.”
Inaudible mumblings from our father, followed by, a little louder and surer, “And anyway, who would pay for it?”
“She must have some pension or something. Social security. She has money for all that food and a bus trip, after all.”
It went on like this for six weeks straight, our mother as relentless as ever, carrying on in a theatrical voice meant to be overheard but calibrated, she thought, not to sound like it was meant to be overheard. Grandmother continued to stock the garage with whatever was on sale, sometimes making three trips a day, and in the evenings after homework she would tell us strange stories, gruesome like antique fairy tales.
Then one day, Grandmother warned our father, her son, just like that. “Steven,” she said, though he hated it when she used his full name, “I think some sort of storm is coming.”
He laughed at her. It was April and clear and the sky was that bright dyed blue of toilet bowl water.
“Yes, mother,” he said, in a tone that said it all. I hear you, but I’m not listening—that's what he really said. You’re crazy, he said. I'm unconcerned and would rather watch this television program regarding the mating habits of vampire bats than talk to you, he said. She heard him, and went back to watching. She was always watching—the sky, and the twenty-four-hour news.
Eventually, our parents both came to laugh at all her careful preparations, the stocking of the garage with food and the procurement of shotgun shells for an ancient weapon she wandered home with one day. Our mother was a proud woman and not one to bow to the superior wisdom of the elderly. She was after all a dental hygienist, as she liked to point out, an educated professional who spent her days scraping decay from the mouths of the likes of this woman. By that April she laughed every time she pulled into the garage and saw the neatly aligned rows of canned corn, canned carrots, Vienna sausages, the bags of dried beans and lentils. You could hear a lot of pity in that laugh, and an undercurrent of annoyance as well.
Once, only once, did she do anything more than laugh. There was a food drive on at her office, one that she’d forgotten about, and she took a pallet of canned pearl onions from our grandmother's supplies. No permission asked or granted, just took them. Grandmother met her in the garage when she got home, and neither woman came in the house for a long time. And after that day, our mother rarely laughed, and she never again looked our grandmother in the eye.
In May, no strawberries and no oranges made it from Florida, and our grandmother started secretly filling the bathtub with water at night. She got up early to drain it. Just a precaution, you understand, in case the water failed by morning. Her twenty-four hour newsmen assured her that the lack of fruit was merely the result of a late freeze.
In June, the federal government declared tobacco an illegal drug. Officials cited a new study that proved the ill effects of cigarettes to be greatly underestimated. You now know, of course, that in fact the government was attempting to mask the fact of the wholesale destruction of the southeastern tobacco crop. It is said that the crop dried up in the fields and burned to ashes in a lightning storm, and that huge swathes of abandoned Tennessee smelled like an empty honky-tonk bar after closing.
It was also in June that we first heard word of “The Desert,” always in a reverential tone, always from the least reliable sources: homeless veterans, other schoolchildren, charismatic preachers. “It’s the storm, Steven,” our grandmother said. Our father, peering out across our cul-de-sac at the slough there, toxic green and buzzing with life, made a face of mocking disbelief and went back to his Sudoku.
All that summer, crops failed. Wheat in the Midwest, corn in the Dakotas, potatoes in Idaho, avocados and tomatoes in California. Apples, in Washington. Most people began to believe that the Desert was coming well before the crops in their own state failed, but our father had to see the famous Washington apples shriveling almost before his eyes before he could believe that something was terribly wrong. Our mother continued to insist on her own version of reality, one in which everything was fine—everything except our grandmother's presence in her home.
The Desert came to us on a Tuesday. It seemed like a normal fall day, a little drier than usual, and of course there were no pumpkins on front stoops. We hadn’t seen a fresh vegetable all summer by then. There was no television to warn us, all regular programming having ceased a few weeks prior, the newsmen abandoning Grandmother to her omens and stockpiles. Our father dropped us off at school on his way to work—isn't it funny how people will try to stick to their everydays, their routines, until it is too late to save those days?—but Grandmother arrived midmorning, wearing her snow boots, and for some reason our teachers let us go with her. We’re still not sure how she managed to convince them, or even how she knew it was the day to take action, but she walked us home to the beat of her storytelling and we saw that she had boarded up the windows after we had all left for our daily distractions. She stopped just in front of the house. “Stories like the ones I have been telling you this summer—they are your lives now.”
Without another wasted breath we were herded inside past bottled water and emergency cans of gasoline and, shortly after, the wind started to blow with an animal fury.
Two days later, the howling stopped with a sudden whimper and a hush and we ventured outside.
A shattered landscape met our eyes, the bowl of the slough like a failure of amateur pottery, what had been left of the grass just straw that crumbled to dust underfoot. Our ears buzzed in the total silence of stupefaction, a fall day stripped of insect buzz and birdsong. We did not wander far from the concrete slab in front of the garage, for beyond the boundaries of that square island, here and there, deep cracks could be seen still widening under the sun. The earth had fragmented, it seems irrevocably; the last we saw of the old neighborhood, the fissures remained, their edges eaten away little by little over the years until they became great gaping bottomless maws.
Our father never made it home—and perhaps he was in heaven, but we didn't concern ourselves with the matter. Our mother arrived three days after the wind stopped blowing, in a dingy white labcoat, without her car and with only one shoe. Her formerly perfect chin-length black hair looked brittle, and her lips were white with dry flesh and cracked and caked in spots with brown blood. She didn’t say anything, just looked at us and went to the bedroom she’d shared with our father, crawled under the covers, and stayed there for the rest of her days. Which weren’t many, as she refused to eat.
We buried her next to the garage. The shit-stained sheets we burned in the backyard.
No need to trouble yourself with sympathy, friends. We weren't very sad. Two less mouths to feed, we saw it immediately.
There were children in the early days of the Desert--maybe they'd been on one last brave school bus, or walked, leaning into the wind, the same route we'd taken earlier in the day--who made it home to nothing but rotting food in the fridge and perhaps a grandmother not so prepared as our own. When the wind stopped blowing they emerged from hiding holes and ran the curving streets of our neighborhood in packs, clans of feral monkeys whose clothes grew more tattered the nearer drew winter. They had had names before the Desert came, and we had fought with them or told them secrets or pretended to marry them on the playground with twist-tied circlets filched from bags of bread. Now we only peeked out through cracks between boards as they went past, sometimes with a great whooping, more often quiet, stalking, nostrils flared, sniffing the air.
Thanks to our grandmother, we had food--not the food we wanted, not the salty mac-and-cheese and the sticky sheets of dried fruit to which we were accustomed--but food enough to last through winter. Once, and only once, did the children try for our stores. One twilit night in the late fall, our grandmother found three of the little anthropoids trying to light scraps of newsprint they had crammed in next to the foundation, it seems with the intention of roasting us out. She took a step back, this woman in bedroom slippers (her "hunting shoes," she called them), and fired a single shotgun round to the sky. The tiny, hungry, thirsting arsonists looked up at her, a terry-robed behemoth, their hollow eyes flooding with awe. She held their gaze, then slowly began to lower the muzzle. They vanished, bare feet slapping arrhythmically against the pavement.
After that, we took to guarding our dwindling food supplies with the shotgun. Grandmother moved her cane rocker with its ruffled blue upholstery and matching ottoman to the garage, stationing it next to the side entrance, and covered the single window with a cheap machine-made tapestry featuring a lion and a lamb lying together. She insisted on taking her turn in the watch rotation. She scared us sometimes, rocking slowly in the dim filtered light, gun across her knees. She always took the night watches, and when she remembered she scratched a hash mark in the arm of the chair to mark the day that had passed. Sometimes she brought her crank radio and wound it like a jack-in-the-box, perhaps hoping that some stray transmission might bounce off the moon and into our garage.
By December, we stopped seeing the children or hearing their cries. We’re likely to find their corpses if we were to return to the old neighborhood and do the archeology required, probably just bones by now, arranged in a heap like a litter of ill-fated puppies. Perhaps that would suit one of you for a dissertation topic? We offer it freely. Urban archeology. The history of the near-past. Just drop our names in the acknowledgements section. We can also teach you, should you desire, how to bathe with dust and sand and ashes. Another time, though.
We’d hoped things would be different in the spring. And they were. They got worse. The only hope of something fresh to eat came in the form of a blackberry bramble that bravely took root over our mother’s grave. We survived until the summer on what we had, catching the rains whenever they came and gnawing on the bones of birds that had dropped from the sky, but soon we were down to beans. Mother and father’s money, such as it was, was long lost and we were too scared to venture far from the house anyway. We heard rumors on the radio that the grocery store received irregular supplies—a bushel of wheat here, a peck of cabbages there—but the hints that this food was controlled by National Guardsman with itchy trigger fingers kept us home. One warm night, we went to relieve grandmother and found only crickets guarding the remaining three or four cans in the garage. The shotgun and the wheelbarrow too were missing.
Unsure of what to do, we sat in the garage and waited for morning. Just before dawn, we heard the creak of a single wheel turning over on an axle. Cracking the door, we saw grandmother in one of her holey muumuus, shotgun slung across her back, straining to push along her wheelbarrow, it filled to overflowing with something wrapped in a sheet.
“Get yourselves inside”—that was all she said. We obeyed. We heard the sound of an ancient chainsaw sputtering before it became a steady whir.
That night we had steak, and asked no questions.
When we next took a watch in the garage, a bloodstain adorned the floor and cuts of salted meat hung from the ceiling where there’d once been a little-used canoe. One evening soon after, perhaps in a spirit of solidarity, perhaps by way of confession, over a single blackberry each we learned that we were eating the man with the blue truck.
And now we’re telling you, and it’s hard to say why. Historical record, perhaps? These things happened when the Desert came. Don’t be concerned, though, tonight’s menu is free of flesh of any sort.
We’re not sure how our grandmother chose him—was it the slight on the day she arrived as he lazily circled the neighborhood without offering assistance? The décor with which he marked his truck, the balls on his bumper complemented by handles on either side of the cab in the form of bound naked women? Perhaps it was just that he was still living, and he was whom she found. She had said it herself—our lives were become grim fairy stories. Her grandchildren were about to go hungry. So on the night that the crickets guarded our food, grandmother abandoned the beans and hunted the neighbors. We were ravenous, and growing, and the food was running out, and the Desert had come. Someone had to die, and the only question was who. She made her choice.
Knowing what, or who, we were eating did not really change things. Children, you’ll find, have malleable morals in survival situations. He was tough and stringy in parts, but flavorful. We must have cooked him a thousand ways. We loved to soak the cured muscle in water from the earliest of the new rains, then place it on a spit, carefully turning it over an open flame. In the fall, a year after the wind stopped blowing, the government rolled through our cul-de-sac at last and delivered bags of rice to each household that remained. We loved him best with rice. We ate him until spring came again.
And of course, in time, as you know, despite the coming of the Desert, things went back to normal. Or stabilized, perhaps, would be the closer word. Or did we just adjust? There were jobs again, banks again, teeth to scrape, bat mating habits to document. Grandmother died in the second year of the Desert and we buried her next to the garage, with a rock from the dried slough to mark her head. Near our mother, but not too close. It was a shallow grave but no one disturbed it. We knew how to guard well by that time.
You go to the store now, you can get things in cans again, and dried legumes cheap, and sometimes plucked pigeons. The Desert brought so many things into fashion—we all eat pigeon again, don't we? Rutabagas are popular, and aspics are all the rage once more. The grocery store soldiers were stood down and sent off to fight a foreign war somewhere (and we’ll admit the where is of little matter to us so long as we know we can yet fight). We, the two of us, never ate another human—it never came down to that again. In fact we’ve done quite well in our brave new world.
But once in a while we reminisce about the season when we ate the man with the blue truck, and admittedly, our mouths water.
Jacquelyn Bengfort is the author of Navy News Service (Ghost City Press, 2018) and an individual artist fellow of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Her website: http://www.jacib.com/.
A Story Told Over Dinner is included in our first magazine of republished work, Derelict Vol. 1. Profits go to 350 dot org in the hope that our future doesn’t involve eating each other.