At midday, Main Street of Hubert, Texas (pop. 4,158) is a pale mimicry of its former self. When the town’s share of the aquifer dried up and their fields of world-famous cantaloupes had been left fallow, so had the heart and soul of Hubert disappeared — or so goes the claim of the locals who now work thirty hours a week at Wal-Mart. Hubertians with more property and knowledge of the cattle industry contend that it was the mad cow scandal of ‘98 that had brought the town to its knees. Regardless, Main Street is hardly more than a casualty of changing times. The traffic lights of its three intersections flicker from green to yellow to red and back again for no one in particular. The only two cars parked in front of its tavern belong to the bartender and his drunken probation officer. Even the flowering dogwoods lining the sidewalks are wilted, for the Parks and Recreation employees now have better things to attend to, like their methamphetamine habits.
Yes, if it weren’t for Gaia’s Bounty, the last bastion of business on the strip, coroners could officially sign Main Street’s death certificate. Here, in this successful anomaly of a diner run by one tattooed and trust-funded Owen Kelly, all vegans within a hundred mile radius congregate, finding respite from the prevailing beef culture. Here, young and beautiful people who liked each other’s online profiles attempt their first face-to-face dates. It is here where the seeds of a more healthy and sane and ethical future have been planted, waiting in dormancy to be watered by someone, anyone.
Ralph Newman sits anxiously in a booth at Gaia’s Bounty, wondering who this Gaia gal is and why he should give a hoot about her bounty in the first place. This is not the type of establishment that he is used to. He is a simple fellow with simple tastes. He doesn’t understand why the man from Craigslist selected this hippie sanctuary as their meet-up spot, with Finger-Licker’s BBQ just two blocks away and all.
He scans the lunchtime crowd with his mud-colored eyes. All those families and couples and twenty-somethings with oversized glasses and jangly Oriental jewelry are ripping into their vegetables with wolfish abandon. A man in a Smiths “Meat is Murder” t-shirt skewers an enormous spleen-shaped mushroom from his plate and eats it directly off the knife. One small child is popping handfuls of cherry tomatoes into her mouth; red juice dribbles down her chin and splatters onto the napkin atop her lap. On a stage in the far corner of the room, a pale dreadlocked performer strums a mandolin and yowls, “Kale and turnips! Cover with dirt! Grow in the bosom of our mother earth!”
The whole scene makes Ralph feel very alone. He is acutely aware of how much he must stand out in this crowd with his simple crew-cut, his ruddy rancher’s face, his perfectly-ironed denim shirt and faded jeans. At the youthful age of forty-two, he is already an outcast. An outcast among these bohemians by default and an outcast among his own ilk by circumstance. For a minute he stares at the empty seat across from him and entertains the fantasy that he’s on a date with some sexy cowgirl, who’s presently fixing her hair in the lady’s room but should at any moment come strutting back into sight.
Quit it, you damned fool, Ralph rebukes himself. Think about why you’re here.
Ding! The front door opens, and in steps the most bafflingly oddball man that has ever treaded upon the streets of this Texas town. Ralph tries not to stare but can’t resist.
The man in question is vulture-like in all appearances, gawky yet rugged, sporting a three-piece hemp suit. His left hand swishes through the air — apparently conducting a symphony that only he can hear — while his right hand clutches a faux leather briefcase. Ralph can tell it is faux leather by the one sticker (“I’m leather-free!”) that adorns its surface. His hair is straight and blonde and hangs halfway down to his waistline. A beaky nose juts out from his concave face. “Ah, Debussy!” the man exclaims as he removes his earbuds. Then, after a little chitchat with the hostess, he pivots on his feet by ninety degrees and stares directly at Ralph. His gaze is too much for Ralph; it is as if the man had stolen the Lord God’s omniscience and boiled it down to fit inside his two eyeballs.
Ralph turns away and pretends to pore over the menu. This fails to produce the desired result. In his peripheral vision, he sees the man weaving amongst the tables, heading towards his booth. In his head Ralph begins to construct a polite rejection: Real sorry, fella, but I have an important meeting here, so if you wouldn’t mind . . .
But the man is already hovering over him. “Namaste, Ralph,” he bows smartly.
So this is the man from Craigslist, Ralph thinks. Should’ve figured. Can’t count on the internet to provide you with a real gentleman.
“I’m Donovan. Donovan Deacon.” The man pronounces his name like it’s a word from a dead language. Contrasting his appearance, his voice is calming and silky smooth. He slides into the booth, sets his briefcase on the bamboo tabletop and offers his hand. They shake vigorously. “Thank you, thank you, thank you for coming out here today.”
Ralph chuckles nervously. “Well, it was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.”
“That’s the spirit,” Donovan says, smiling. “Out of the three applicants, I can already say you’re my favorite. Granted, one is underage and the other is morbidly obese, which narrows things down, I suppose. But still, I like you the best.”
“Thank ya. Do you have your, um . . . credentials?”
Donovan hands Ralph his résumé. With just a ten-second glance at it, Ralph is satisfied. Not only does he have a PhD from Ponce School of Medicine in Puerto Rico, but he also is an expert on important-sounding things like “epidemiology of carcinogenesis” and “commensal, pathogenic microbiota.” How could Ralph argue with any of that?
A waitress materializes before them. A pretty redhead with bags under her eyes and a one-size-fits-all happy face, nametag reading “Harmony.” One of those types who, no matter how much they fake it, can’t hide the fact that they’re not where they belong. Ralph can relate. He feels a strong urge to carry her off to the nearest park bench, sit her down and ask her questions about her life. Instead, he asks, “Have any meatloaf here?”
Harmony’s artificial smile turns into a scowl. “No, sir. This is a cruelty-free, sustainably-sourced restaurant.”
Now Ralph feels a strong urge to cut out his own tongue. He bites his lower lip and peruses the incomprehensible menu again. Quinoa? Chanterelles? What the hell?
“Well, have any cow, then? Or anything that tastes like cow?”
“No cow, Ralph,” Donovan interrupts. “I won’t allow it. Harmony, I’ll have the house salad, with the walnuts served on the side. Light on the vinaigrette. And would you kindly recommend the black bean burger with sweet potato fries for my friend?”
“Out of everything here, our black bean burger tastes the most like cow,” Harmony mumbles, hands at her hips.
That settles it. In his younger years, Ralph would have served Donovan a mean left hook for having the audacity to limit his beef intake. But he doesn’t have the energy or willpower to do anything now, let alone brawl. Harmony scurries off to the kitchen, leaving Ralph with this fellow who he supposes he has to get comfortable with fast.
“So, Ralph, tell me about yourself.”
Ralph takes a moment to mentally skim through the chapters of his life. “Well, not much to tell you, being plumb honest. Waddaya want to know?”
“Tell me why you responded to my posting. Tell me why you showed up today.”
The posting. Ralph had found it while sifting through the casual encounters section of Craigslist (the only remaining activity in life that spurred him out of bed each morning). There had been the usual cornucopia of wonders, of course — the desperation, the cock pictures, the bafflingly specific fetishes never to be fulfilled. Then he saw Donovan’s posting, buried thirty-five pages deep. It had spoken to Ralph’s soul. After rereading it twice, then again, he knew the path that his life must take: it was right there in front of him, glowing on the screen of the computer in his mother’s basement.
“Ever since I was a boy,” Ralph speaks to Donovan’s left shoulder, “I’ve wanted to be a part of something greater than myself. I tried me a lot of occupations — cattle farming, meatpacking, you know — but none of ‘em suited me. I’m at the end of my rope. You’re a successful man, and I was just hoping I could be . . . well shucks, how do I put this . . . absorbed into that success.”
“Hmm.” Donovan nods in approval. “Insightful, Ralph. You know what you want. I like that. And really, isn’t that what we’re all searching for in this violent, confounding world of ours? To be absorbed into something greater? Isn’t that the point of art? Science? Religion?”
“Maybe that’s the point of religion,” Ralph entertains. “That and being a good person, I suppose. Can’t comment on art or science.”
“Are you a good person, Ralph?”
The question wallops Ralph like a kick from a bucking bronco. An instinctual two-pronged reaction takes over him. First, his body reddens to the shade of a raw chuck steak and he begins to mumble to himself incoherently. Secondly, he contemplates his escape routes. Front door. Back door. Window. In his mind’s eye, all Ralph can see are faces of hospitalized children, anchormen hollering about mad cow disease, his mother’s look of disappointment when he told her he would be liquidating the farm. It was a simple mistake. All he had done was feed his cows some bone meal supplements he’d purchased from his uncle in the UK; those poor heifers must get sick of eating grass all the time, he had reckoned. Stupid! So stupid!
Donovan grips his clammy hand. “Hey, relax,” he consoles. “I already know about all that. So you goofed up, made some people sick. ‘Deadliest foodborne outbreak in United States history,’ yadda yadda yadda. Do you think I care about something that happened years ago? I’m only concerned with the purity of your body, not your soul.”
“My body’s pure. Don’t you worry about that.”
The features of his new acquaintance’s face begin to shift and stretch as if by influence of subcutaneous tectonic plates. He is clearly trying to hold back some strong emotions. “Not until you go cold turkey on that beef, my friend,” Donovan enunciates. “Only after six months of my prescribed vegan diet will you be cleansed of all nitrates, nitrites, prions, antibiotics, additives, E. coli and growth hormones. Only then will we be able to work together. I would have preferred an applicant who was vegan to begin with, but beggars can’t be choosers, as they say. Can you agree to this?”
Ralph falls into silence. For a minute, he listens to the two nasally voices in the booth behind him, who are discussing the pros and cons of coffee enemas. Finally, sullenly, he nods his head.
Donovan unclasps the bindings of his briefcase, digs through a collection of vials that appear to contain spices and rubs, and unearths an intimidating stack of papers.
“The contract,” he states.
At that moment Harmony reappears, bearing their platters of cruelty-free, sustainably sourced lunch. She stands facing Donovan as if Ralph were invisible, or at the very best a warty cave troll with whom eye contact should never be attempted. She places Donovan’s salad daintily before him. Ralph’s plate issues a loud clatter when she half-serves half-drops it onto the table.
“Unbelievable!” Donovan snorts when their waitress is out of earshot. “She’s acting like you poisoned her child or something!”
Ralph only blinks and frowns at his black bean burger.
“Okay, okay, bad joke. My apologies.”
While Donovan tears into his house salad with his pearly incisors, Ralph nibbles his emasculating dirt-flavored burger and skims over the contract. The header on the first page is baroque and professional:
Deacon Oncology Institute, LLC
A beacon of hope!
Below this, legalities. More legalities than what any FDA or USDA representative had thrown Ralph’s way during the mad cow fallout period of his life. The words of the contract make conceptual sense to Ralph, but the existence of the contract itself does not.
“So,” Ralph murmurs, drawing in close. “I ain’t suggesting you’re anything but a law-abiding citizen, but I still got to ask: are you sure that cannibalism is legal as long as I put my John Hancock on this here form?”
Donovan inhales, drops his fork and runs his fingers through the blonde stubble on his chin. “Please don’t use that word,” he says.
“‘Cannibalism,’” Donovan shudders. “Such a nasty word. Someone says ‘cannibalism,’ and all anybody can ever think of are those dirty pygmies in Papua New Guinea who spear each other in the back and devour their elderly when they grow too old and inconvenient. Would you want to work with someone who roasted his own grandmother on a shish kabob?”
“My point being: we live in a civilized society, with rules and mores. We stand above the animal kingdom. Whereas a lioness does not ask an antelope’s permission before she rips it to shreds, I am proceeding with a contract, which is based on mutual trust. So don’t call this ‘cannibalism’. Call this ‘mutually agreed-upon consumption’.”
“Well, hell,” Ralph chuckles, “it makes no difference to me. Going in one end and out the other, no matter what you want to call it.”
This answer fails to rouse Donovan out of his sour mood. “Don’t think of me as a cannibal, Ralph. You’re signing a contract. This is legal. This is advantageous for both parties. For me and my scientific pursuits; for you and your stated desire to be absorbed.”
In the corner of Ralph’s eye, the pale dreadlocked fellow is playing his mandolin so ferociously that you’d think his strumming arm is powering a generator. He is singing a song about winemaking, apparently: “Brothers! Sisters! Plant an organic vineyard!” Just as he is about to reach the grand finale, the zenith of his artistry, the E string snaps and whips him in the face. “Fuck!” he yells. “It does that every time!”
Donovan cups his hands over his mouth and calls the performer out on his language. The ears of the children around him are too sacred to be fouled with cursing.
“Anyway, Ralph,” he says, returning to the matter at hand, “Do you agree with everything on the contract?”
“I don’t know. It’s a lot of ten-cent words. Could you give me a summary?”
“Do you agree to be, um . . . snuffed, rubbed out — declared legally dead, if you will — and also, er . . . harvested for consumption?”
“Yep,” Ralph agrees.
“Do you agree, er . . . ” Donovan pauses before the plunge, “to have your thigh and arm muscles prepared as flank steaks, your ribs and torso coated with a Memphis Style BBQ rub and grilled to perfection, your heart cooked in a lentil stew and paired with a South African Cabernet Sauvignon, and your intestines apportioned out and ingested in half-ounce doses over a span of two years as part of the Microbiome Transfer Project?”
“This the project that’ll cure cancer?”
“With your help, yes.”
“Well, can’t say ‘no’ to a mission like that,” Ralph reasons, “not with a clear conscience.” Truly, this is the crux. As long as his body is being put to good use in the body of another, he doesn’t give a hoot about the surrounding circumstances. Be a part of something greater, his father had always told him while they were out prodding herds towards the slaughterhouse truck. Well, pa, Ralph thinks, I might’ve screwed everything up, but I’m making up for it now, ain’t I? Although he can’t fathom how any of that science stuff works, Ralph imagines how his proteins could fuel the brain of this man of inscrutable genius. He imagines how after years of intestinal experiments, Donovan and his scientist buddies would on one glorious morning squint in disbelief at a sheet of data or some cells on a petri dish and dare to say, finally, ‘Eureka! We’ve found the cure!’
After a few more back-and-forth exchanges which only reinforce his trust in the project’s merit, Ralph Newman signs his name with the very best cursive he can manage — wobbly and amateurish. Having done this, he leans back in his seat, cracks his knuckles and feels the sweet calming presence of the Holy Ghost spread through his bones.
“Congratulations, Ralph,” Donovan beams. “Glad to have you on board.” Under the light of an overhanging lamp, he glows like an angelic revelation. All the surrounding hustle and bustle, all other conversations dwindle and evaporate. What is happening between the two of them, Ralph knows, is the only story that matters in this joint.
“One thing that’s pestering me,” Ralph admits. “Could you maybe have a Budweiser with my heart instead of a Cabernet? And baked beans instead of lentils?”
Donovan Deacon tips his head back and laughs a rich, flowing laugh, occasionally punctuated with squawks. “That can be up for future debate,” he says after collecting himself. “As for now, my friend, let’s give you a tour of my property.”
For the briefest moment, Ralph cannot help but second-guess. “Already?” he asks.
“I have a pearl of a day planned for us. Horseback riding, VIP access to the oncology lab, maybe watch a film. Just to get to know the man that is Ralph Newman.”
They set their credit cards down on the table. When Harmony returns with the check holders, she seems less angry with Ralph now and more worried about dropping any of the four plates balanced in her hands. The lunch rush hour is bringing her to the verge of a panic attack — a weekly misery that she silently endures in the handicapped stall of the woman’s bathroom.
“Harmony?” Donovan asks. His eyes sparkle and a roguish grin stretches across his face. “What if I told you that this man across from me is an American hero?”
The sentence causes Harmony’s eyes to shrink back into their sockets. “Listen,” she begins, even briefly glancing at Ralph, “I’m sorry about being rude earlier. You don’t have to tip me. The meatloaf thing just really set me off. Once again, I — ”
“I’M AN AMERICAN HERO!” Ralph yells, slamming his fists on the table. The words “American” and “hero,” when coupled together, never fail to send him into a tizzy. The fact that Donovan had labeled him as such is almost too much for his brain to process. Yes, he is an American hero! Stars and stripes forever! Glory hallelujah! They might as well chisel his face besides Lincoln’s at Mount Rushmore.
“That’s right, an American hero!” Donovan echoes back. “Harmony, without brave men like Ralph Newman, who sacrifice themselves for the advancement of our great nation, where would we be? And you treated him like he was a gnat in your eye!”
Harmony begins to quiver and crack under the strain of their unbridled patriotism, which by now has drawn the eyes of every last patron in Gaia’s Bounty. “Sir, even though I’m a pacifist,” she ventures, “I can still appreciate that you’re a veteran — ”
“I ain’t a veteran!” Ralph roars. In his fervor, he can no longer see this girl as a human being with quirks and pains and joys, but only as an obstacle to his redemption. “Those goddamn pension-pinchers got nothing on me! I’m an AMERICAN HERO! What’ve you ever done for our country, huh?”
Instead of answering this reasonable question, Harmony drops all four of her plates, grips her head and, hyperventilating, collapses to the vegetable-littered floor.
While Ralph seethes, Donovan signs his own receipt and forges a signature on the other, tipping nothing. He coughs and clutches his briefcase. “Shall we be off, then?”
They sidestep the body of the incapacitated waitress. With chest puffed out and confidence fully restored, Ralph follows Donovan into the blinding, boiling heat of the afternoon, crosses the street without looking both ways — for he has no fear of being struck on Main Street — and then, without a moment’s hesitation, slides into the passenger’s seat of Donovan’s Toyota Prius.
Back at Gaia’s Bounty, the crowds swell and slump, tables are filled and vacated, and vegan delights are served on porcelain platters until the last customers have ambled home. At the day’s end, Harmony is called in to the office and “agrees” to tend to her mental health by pursuing other career opportunities. Instead, she enrolls in art school.
The world continues to spin on its normally crooked axis until one December morning, six months later, when Ralph sets everything off-kilter again by emerging naked from the woods on the outskirts of town with half an arm chewed off and his genitals gone. “Should’ve read the fine print,” he rasps to the shocked old widow whose backyard he stumbles into. “The foreplay . . . Christ almighty, that foreplay . . . ”
There on the patio, surrounded by garden gnomes and bird feeders, he exhales “the foreplay” once more, shudders at the horror of it all, and dies.
Police trace the blood trail back to Donovan’s mansion, where they find him unconscious on the floor of his crackpot laboratory amidst signs of a struggle. Three other bodies hang on meat hooks in his freezer for the purpose of curing cancer.
No one could have predicted the outcome of all this: miraculously, Main Street is resurrected. Journalists covering the “Craigslist Cannibal” case fill up the dilapidated motels. Tourists driven by morbid curiosities flock to Gaia’s Bounty and other known haunts of Donovan Deacon. After Donovan is sentenced for anthropophagy and assisted suicide, film crews roll into town with their vans and cameras to immortalize the story through a critically acclaimed HBO miniseries. Then come the investors, the upsurge of local businesses, increased funding for public safety, shiny new playgrounds. Slowly, the question on the lips of Hubert’s citizens morphs from “Should we profit from the Craigslist Cannibal?” to “Why shouldn’t we profit from the Craigslist Cannibal?”
If Ralph Newman weren’t decomposing under a headstone, he would have smiled at all the good things that he, an American hero, had brought about.
JOSH EPPERLY is a graduate student in watershed sciences at Utah State University, which allows him plenty of time to concoct his stir-crazy stories while counting mayflies under a microscope in a windowless basement laboratory. He daily finds himself torn between the great outdoors and the great word processor, and often settles for writing sessions accompanied by sagebrush-scented candles. Four of his short stories have been published in his undergraduate college’s literary magazine. He grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan.