Organic, Local, and Cruelty-free

Organic, Local, and Cruelty-free

JoeAnn Hart

Evelyn took quick red bites of her beet salad, then pushed the plate away. The bloody color offended her. This dinner offended her. She chewed without tasting and checked her phone for the time.

Her father speared an olive with his fork from a square bowl in the center of the table. “For what amounts to a buck an olive and they can’t even pit it?”

“Give it to me,” said her mother. “I’ll do it.”

“You’re supposed to be out enjoying yourself, not doing their work for them.”

While her parents struggled over the olive, Evelyn picked one up with her hands and pitted it with Spartan resolution. She swallowed the briny flesh but it lodged in her throat, pressing down like a grinding stone on her heart.

“I’m starving,” said Paulie, Evelyn’s younger brother. He said this to the phone in his lap, fully immersed in a game with a stranger in Indonesia. While he played, his tongue stuck out of his mouth like he was catching flies.

“We should starve on a regular basis,” said her father. He ran his hand down his chest, proud of the effort he made to keep trim, religiously walking from the station to work no matter the weather. “Humans evolved in scarcity, so it’s good to have our food supply cut off once in a while. It should be law! The Germans have a saying: Fattening hogs think themselves fortunate.”

“We’re not going to get fat in this place,” said Paulie. “How long does it take to make two lousy pizzas?”

 “Not lousy pizzas,” said his mother. “Artisanal ones in a clay oven. They’ll be here soon enough.” She handed the pitted olive to her husband who left the dark, mangled fruit on his plate.

“Paulie doesn’t have an ‘enough’ button in his brain,” said Evelyn.

“Never enough for any of us,” said her father, speaking in a voice meant for half the restaurant to hear. “Food is the driving force of the species. It’s only when a society can count on a secure supply that it can start being civilized.”

“When do we get there?” asked Evelyn.

“Get where?” her mother asked.

“Civilization. Look at us. We’re going backwards.” She picked up her dinner knife and slashed the air in front of her. “People aren’t going to let their children starve when all the resources are squandered. We’ll have to learn to fight with knives. Or else.” She made a swift movement across her throat.

“Evie, please,” said her mother. “We’re trying to have a nice dinner out.”

“College is turning you into a socialist,” her father said, making an expression between a smile and a snarl that exposed his upper teeth. “I started with nothing and look where I am today. Anyone in this country can rise up if they want to. Anyone.”

“The higher up you go, the more they see your butt,” said Paulie. His father leaned across the table and shoved his upper arm.

“Hey,” said Paulie, “you’re messing with my battle.”

“I wish you wouldn’t play war at the table,” said his mother.

“He’d better start training for combat,” said Evelyn. “It’s coming. And it won’t be on a game app either.”

“I’ll be ready,” said Paulie. “I’m killing the other team.”

“You think that’s what the next big war will be like? Us against Them on a screen?” She pressed the tip of her knife into the table. “My history professor says it won’t be another country, it’ll be those who have pilfered all the cake against those left without a crumb. You’ll be fighting hand-to-hand with people who have nothing to lose and everything to win.”

“Oh Evie,” said her mother. “You tore the tablecloth.” She tried to tap the threads together with her napkin, a gesture that brought Evelyn back to her childhood. Oh Evie, oh Evie. Look at what you’ve done. And yet it was her mother who seemed frozen in time, girlish, even as Evelyn grew up and left her behind. It made her sad against her will. She should not have come home this weekend.

“It’s all wrong,” she said to no one in particular. Her father’s attention had turned to his drink, the mixologist’s creation of the day called the Copley Fund: Local apple syrup, lemon, Orleans Bitter Apple Cider Vermouth, with a Prosecco float. As he finished it off, his eyes were searching the room for the server.

“Evie,” said her mother, giving up on the tablecloth and raising a bottle out of its cooler. “Have a little wine. It’s your birthday.”

“No. I’m allergic to sulfites.”

“At least have some of this bubbly water then.”

“I’m drinking tap until everyone has access to potable water.”

“What?” asked her father. “Who? I have water.” He lifted a glass to show her.

“Not you. The disenfranchised. People who have to drink dirty water because government has ignored the broken infrastructure where people of color live.”

“Disenfranchised?” Paulie laughed without lifting his head up from his game. “They lost their McDonald’s franchise?”

“Fuck you,” said Evelyn.

“Evie, please,” said her mother.

“Have you any idea how much we have to pay for you to go to this college of yours?” said her father. “Any? And all for meaningless crap. Environmental studies. What a racket.”

Tears filled the hollow at the base of Evelyn’s throat. The sound of the dining room intensified as voices rose above the clash of cutlery and pans. She rubbed her temples.

“How about a boyfriend?” her mother asked. “Have you met anyone nice at school?”

“Maybe she has a girlfriend,” said Paulie, and Evelyn flushed.

“Don’t say that,” said her mother. “Evie is not a homosexual.”

“Who knows?” Her father looked at Evelyn. “You should have worn a dress. You look like a dyke in those clothes.”

“What if I were?” she asked. “You have to be open to love wherever you find it.”

“Christ,” said her father. “I don’t want that sort of language at the table.”

“I’ve got to pee,” said Evelyn. She left her napkin over the remains of her salad.

Her mother called after her. “Or that language either!”

Evelyn squeezed her way past crowded tables, her eyes on the floor. She could not bear the thought of making contact with other humans. She was sick of them. She locked the bathroom door behind her and took a breath. Air. More air. She stood very still to keep the water in her body from swishing back and forth, then closed her eyes to enter her special space. A safe bright place, peopled with friends she did not know, and feelings she did not have to dissect. A new world lodged under her rib cage, spinning with joy. Spinning, spinning. She opened her eyes and lowered herself carefully to her knees. When she lifted the toilet lid, the action itself set off stomach spasms. She flushed the toilet while she heaved unproductively a few times, then up came the beets, like pieces of heart.

There was a knock on the door. “What?” Evelyn snapped, assuming it was her mother.

“It’s Glory, your server. Just checking you’re okay.”

Evelyn flushed the toilet again and opened the door a crack. Glory was not much older than she was, with a pierced lower lip and black Tweety Bird hair. One arm was thickly tattooed with tendrils and skulls and crows. She wore a blue ribbon around her neck like a Persian cat.

“I’m sorry,” Glory said. “You didn’t look too good going in.”

“I’m all right,” Evelyn said with a vague gesture towards the dining area. “It’s just, my family.”

“Cool. Do you need anything? Water? Food?”

“Thanks,” said Evelyn. “But no. I’m not hungry.”

“I live in an apartment over a funeral home so I’m always hungry. Formaldehyde is an appetite stimulant.”

Evelyn laughed for the first time that night. “Then I’ll have a double.”

“Stick around after your family leaves, and I’ll buy you a drink. You can take the emergency brake off.” Glory turned at the sound of her name being shouted from the kitchen. “Gotta run.”

Evelyn stood at the bathroom door for a moment and looked out at the restaurant, which seemed, in the dim light, like a murky fish tank. Her mother was speaking to her inattentive family as if submerged, producing a steady stream of bubbles that rose and popped above their heads, releasing not words, but emotions. Boredom, anxiety, depression. Hunger. And in her mother she saw herself, but there was no making any of it right.

Paulie looked up from his game and stared at Evelyn with blurry eyes. His life could not be easy at home alone with her gone. She gave him a weak smile and he looked back down at his lap. She could not help him either.

“Are you okay?” her mother asked when she returned to the table.

“I am now,” said Evelyn.

“What were you talking to that waitress about?” her father asked.

Before Evelyn could respond, Glory swooped in on the table with two pizzas, placing each ceremoniously on its own pedestal.

“No pepperoni?” asked Paulie, looking up from his game.

“The hell’s that?” asked her father, picking at a piece of greenery on the pizza.

“Arugula,” said Evelyn. “Why didn’t you two say anything when Mom was ordering? You have to pay attention.”

“I didn’t think she’d go off the rails,” her father said.

“The menu said no changes,” his wife said. “You like anchovies, and the only way to get them was on the arugula pizza. The other pizza is Andouille sausage and potato. It was the closest I could get to pepperoni, but it did say it was organic and cruelty-free. Who knew sausage could be cruel in the first place?” She laughed and looked around the silent table.

“Fascists,” said Paulie as he took a slice of the Andouille pie, eating most of it in two large bites.

“There’s no getting around cruelty if the pig had to die for our sausage,” said Evelyn.

“Can I get you anything else?” Glory asked. Evelyn blushed and shook her head, no.

“Another drink,” her father said. “Straight bourbon this time.”

“We have a nice whiskey distilled locally,” said Glory. “Can I get you a taste?”

“No, you can get me a glass of Jim Beam over rocks.”

Evelyn tried to catch Glory’s eye to smile, as in, what can you do? But Glory had turned on her boot heels to the bar. “I’ll see what we’ve got.”

“Did you know that formaldehyde is an appetite stimulant?” Evelyn asked.

“Bring it on,” said Paulie with a full mouth.

“Here,” the mom said, trying to push a slice onto Evelyn’s plate.

“I can’t have any pizza, Mom. I’m gluten free, remember? No wheat?”

“Oh, I forgot,” she said. “Why didn’t you remind me when I ordered?”

“Why didn’t you ask where I wanted to go on my birthday? Because it certainly wouldn’t have been an artisanal pizza and oyster bistro. I can’t do gluten and I’m allergic to shellfish. That’s why I had the salad.”

“But you hardly touched it.”

“She likes being a victim,” said Paulie, reaching for another piece.

“Martyr,” said her mother. “Not victim.”

“More for us,” said her father, as he picked arugula off his pizza slice.

Evelyn leaned back in her chair with her arms crossed. She glanced down at her watch, then pushed her shirt sleeve up and envisioned a tattoo. She liked Glory’s tendrils and crows, but she was not so sure about the skulls. Maybe if you lived above death you had to make friends with it.

“Don’t just sit there acting pious,” her father said to her. “Look what you’re doing to your mother.” Evelyn turned to her mother, who lifted up her head in mid-bite at the sound of her name.

“Look what you’re doing to her,” said Evelyn, then under her breath she muttered the word “thug.”

“What was that?” her father asked. His face was a roasted, hot color and Evelyn thought he might be sitting too close to the pizza oven. He undid the top button of his shirt.

“You’re a thug,” she repeated. “A bully and a thug.”

His nostril veins became pronounced and when he opened his mouth, his face swung loose from his cheekbones. Evelyn braced herself as he began to stand, but still no sound came out. In her mind there were only bubbles, bubbles escaping from his nose and ears, floating up and bursting before they reached the ceiling.

“Henry, Henry, what’s wrong?” her mother asked.

“What the fuck?” asked Paulie. “Dad, what are you doing?”

Evelyn stood and she and her father stared at one another as he slowly sank, drifting to the floor instead of rising to the surface. He swallowed air in sharp spasms and clung onto the edge of the table like a Gila monster, and when he lost his grip he clutched at the white tablecloth, pulling the hot pizzas towards him. Evelyn grasped her side of the linen with both hands to keep everything from falling on him and was still holding on when the staff came running over. Glory stood next to Evelyn and helped her, as if the tablecloth were a lifeline to her father, paying out cloth as he finally settled on the floorboards. Then Glory snatched the pizza pedestals before they fell off the edge as another server shoved the table aside. They all backed up for the manager, who was rushing towards them with a defibrillator under her arm, as if heading into war.

Evelyn’s mother turned to Glory and screamed, “Is he going to die? Is he dying?”

The manager read the directions on the side of the defibrillator box while the bartender checked her father’s airway, then tore open his jacket and shirt, exposing his flesh.

“I know dead,” said Glory. “He’s not. Good color.”

The manager placed the insulating pads on her father’s naked chest and administered the first electric shock, and Evelyn imagined a flash of light cutting through the darkness within. But nothing happened. Nothing changed. Evelyn could hear sirens in the distance, and then she started to shake.

About the Author

JoeAnn Hart

JoeAnn Hart is the author of the true crime memoir, Stamford ’76: A True Story of Murder, Corruption, Race, and Feminism in the 1970s (University of Iowa Press, April, 2019), and the novels Float and Addled. Her short fiction, essays, and articles have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including the Boston Globe Magazine, The Stamford Advocate, Design New England, Orion, Solstice, and the anthology Black Lives Have Always Mattered.

Edited by Veronica Montes

Image: chuttersnap | Unsplash

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