I’d never really thought much about meat. It was there in the supermarket in a plastic wrapper; it came between slices of bread with mayo and mustard and a dill pickle on the side; it sputtered and smoked on the grill till somebody flipped it over, and then it appeared on the plate, between the baked potato and the julienne carrots, neatly cross-hatched and floating in a puddle of red juice. Beef, mutton, pork, venison, dripping burgers, and greasy ribs — it was all the same to me, food, the body’s fuel, something to savor a moment on the tongue before the digestive system went to work on it. Which is not to say I was totally unconscious of the deeper implications. Every once in a while I’d eat at home, a quartered chicken, a package of Shake ’n Bake, Stove Top stuffing, and frozen peas, and as I hacked away at the stippled yellow skin and pink flesh of the sanitized bird I’d wonder at the darkish bits of organ clinging to the ribs — what was that, liver? kidney? — but in the end it didn’t make me any less fond of Kentucky Fried or Chicken McNuggets. I saw those ads in the magazines, too, the ones that showed the veal calves penned up in their own waste, their limbs atrophied and their veins so pumped full of antibiotics they couldn’t control their bowels, but when I took a date to Anna Maria’s, I could never resist the veal scallopini.
And then I met Alena Jorgensen.
It was a year ago, two weeks before Thanksgiving — I remember the date because it was my birthday, my thirtieth, and I’d called in sick and gone to the beach to warm my face, read a book, and feel a little sorry for myself. The Santa Anas were blowing and it was clear all the way to Catalina, but there was an edge to the air, a scent of winter hanging over Utah, and as far as I could see in either direction I had the beach pretty much to myself. I found a sheltered spot in a tumble of boulders, spread a blanket, and settled down to attack the pastrami on rye I’d brought along for nourishment. Then I turned to my book — a comfortingly apocalyptic tract about the demise of the planet — and let the sun warm me as I read about the denuding of the rain forest, the poisoning of the atmosphere, and the swift silent eradication of species. Gulls coasted by overhead. I saw the distant glint of jetliners.
I must have dozed, my head thrown back, the book spread open in my lap, because the next thing I remember, a strange dog was hovering over me and the sun had dipped behind the rocks. The dog was big, wild-haired, with one staring blue eye, and it just looked at me, ears slightly cocked, as if it expected a Milk-Bone or something. I was startled — not that I don’t like dogs, but here was this woolly thing poking its snout in my face — and I guess that I must have made some sort of defensive gesture, because the dog staggered back a step and froze. Even in the confusion of the moment I could see that there was something wrong with this dog, an unsteadiness, a gimp, a wobble to its legs. I felt a mixture of pity and revulsion — had it been hit by a car, was that it? — when all at once I became aware of a wetness on the breast of my windbreaker, and an unmistakable odor rose to my nostrils: I’d been pissed on.
Pissed on. As I lay there unsuspecting, enjoying the sun, the beach, the solitude, this stupid beast had lifted its leg and used me as a pissoir — and now it was poised there on the edge of the blanket as if it expected a reward. A sudden rage seized me. I came up off the blanket with a curse, and it was only then that a dim apprehension seemed to seep into the dog’s other eye, the brown one, and it lurched back and fell on its face, just out of reach. And then it lurched and fell again, bobbing and weaving across the sand like a seal out of water. I was on my feet now, murderous, glad to see that the thing was hobbled — it would simplify the task of running it down and beating it to death.
“Alf!” a voice called, and as the dog floundered in the sand, I turned and saw Alena Jorgensen poised on the boulder behind me. I don’t want to make too much of the moment, don’t want to mythologize it or clutter the scene with allusions to Aphrodite rising from the waves or accepting the golden apple from Paris, but she was a pretty impressive sight. Bare-legged, fluid, as tall and uncompromising as her Nordic ancestors, and dressed in a Gore-Tex bikini and hooded sweatshirt unzipped to the waist, she blew me away, in any event. Piss-spattered and stupefied, I could only gape up at her.
“You bad boy,” she said, scolding, “you get out of there.” She glanced from the dog to me and back again. “Oh, you bad boy, what have you done?” she demanded, and I was ready to admit to anything, but it was the dog she was addressing, and the dog flopped over in the sand as if it had been shot. Alena skipped lightly down from the rock, and in the next moment, before I could protest, she was rubbing at the stain on my windbreaker with the wadded-up hem of her sweatshirt.
I tried to stop her — “It’s all right,” I said, “it’s nothing,” as if dogs routinely pissed on my wardrobe — but she wouldn’t hear of it.
“No,” she said, rubbing, her hair flying in my face, the naked skin of her thigh pressing unconsciously to my own, “no, this is terrible, I’m so embarrassed — Alf, you bad boy — I’ll clean it for you, I will, it’s the least — oh, look at that, it’s stained right through to your T-shirt — ”
I could smell her, the mousse she used in her hair, a lilac soap or perfume, the salt-sweet odor of her sweat — she’d been jogging, that was it. I murmured something about taking it to the cleaner’s myself.
She stopped rubbing and straightened up. She was my height, maybe even a fraction taller, and her eyes were ever so slightly mismatched, like the dog’s: a deep earnest blue in the right iris, shading to sea-green and turquoise in the left. We were so close we might have been dancing. “Tell you what,” she said, and her face lit with a smile, “since you’re so nice about the whole thing, and most people wouldn’t be, even if they knew what poor Alf has been through, why don’t you let me wash it for you — and the T-shirt too?”
I was a little disconcerted at this point — I was the one who’d been pissed on, after all — but my anger was gone. I felt weightless, adrift, like a piece of fluff floating on the breeze. “Listen,” I said, and for the moment I couldn’t look her in the eye, “I don’t want to put you to any trouble…”
“I’m ten minutes up the beach, and I’ve got a washer and dryer. Come on, it’s no trouble at all. Or do you have plans? I mean, I could just pay for the cleaner’s if you want…”
I was between relationships — the person I’d been seeing off and on for the past year wouldn’t even return my calls — and my plans consisted of taking a solitary late-afternoon movie as a birthday treat, then heading over to my mother’s for dinner and the cake with the candles. My Aunt Irene would be there, and so would my grandmother. They would exclaim over how big I was and how handsome and then they would begin to contrast my present self with my previous, more diminutive incarnations, and finally work themselves up to a spate of reminiscence that would continue unabated till my mother drove them home. And then, if I was lucky, I’d go out to a singles bar and make the acquaintance of a divorced computer programmer in her mid-thirties with three kids and bad breath.
I shrugged. “Plans? No, not really. I mean, nothing in particular.”
Alena was housesitting a one-room bungalow that rose stumplike from the sand, no more than fifty feet from the tide line. There were trees in the yard behind it and the place was sandwiched between glass fortresses with crenellated decks, whipping flags, and great hulking concrete pylons. Sitting on the couch inside, you could feel the dull reverberation of each wave hitting the shore, a slow steady pulse that forever defined the place for me. Alena gave me a faded UC Davis sweatshirt that nearly fit, sprayed a stain remover on my T-shirt and windbreaker, and in a single fluid motion flipped down the lid of the washer and extracted two beers from the refrigerator beside it.
There was an awkward moment as she settled into the chair opposite me and we concentrated on our beers. I didn’t know what to say. I was disoriented, giddy, still struggling to grasp what had happened. Fifteen minutes earlier I’d been dozing on the beach, alone on my birthday and feeling sorry for myself, and now I was ensconced in a cozy beach house, in the presence of Alena Jorgensen and her naked spill of leg, drinking a beer. “So what do you do?” she said, setting her beer down on the coffee table.
I was grateful for the question, too grateful maybe. I described to her at length how dull my job was, nearly ten years with the same agency, writing ad copy, my brain gone numb with disuse. I was somewhere in the middle of a blow-by-blow account of our current campaign for a Ghanian vodka distilled from calabash husks when she said, “I know what you mean,” and told me she’d dropped out of veterinary school herself. “After I saw what they did to the animals. I mean, can you see neutering a dog just for our convenience, just because it’s easier for us if they don’t have a sex life?” Her voice grew hot. “It’s the same old story, species fascism at its worst.”
Alf was lying at my feet, grunting softly and looking up mournfully out of his staring blue eye, as blameless a creature as ever lived. I made a small noise of agreement and then focused on Alf. “And your dog,” I said, “he’s arthritic? Or is it hip dysplasia or what?” I was pleased with myself for the question — aside from “tapeworm,” “hip dysplasia” was the only veterinary term I could dredge up from the memory bank, and I could see that Alf’s problems ran deeper than worms
Alena looked angry suddenly. “Don’t I wish,” she said. She paused to draw a bitter breath. “There’s nothing wrong with Alf that wasn’t inflicted on him. They tortured him, maimed him, mutilated him.”
“Tortured him?” I echoed, feeling the indignation rise in me — this beautiful girl, this innocent beast. “Who?”
Alena leaned forward and there was real hate in her eyes. She mentioned a prominent shoe company — spat out the name, actually. It was an ordinary name, a familiar one, and it hung in the air between us, suddenly sinister. Alf had been part of an experiment to market booties for dogs — suede, cordovan, patent leather, the works. The dogs were made to pace a treadmill in their booties, to assess wear; Alf was part of the control group.
“Control group?” I could feel the hackles rising on the back of my neck.
“They used eighty-grit sandpaper on the treads, to accelerate the process.” Alena shot a glance out the window to where the surf pounded the shore; she bit her lip. “Alf was one of the dogs without booties.”
I was stunned. I wanted to get up and comfort her, but I might as well have been grafted to the chair. “I don’t believe it,” I said. “How could anybody — ”
“Believe it,” she said. She studied me a moment, then set down her beer and crossed the room to dig through a cardboard box in the corner. If I was moved by the emotion she’d called up, I was moved even more by the sight of her bending over the box in her Gore-Tex bikini; I clung to the edge of the chair as if it were a plunging roller coaster. A moment later she dropped a dozen file folders in my lap. The uppermost bore the name of the shoe company, and it was crammed with news clippings, several pages of a diary relating to plant operations and workers’ shifts at the Grand Rapids facility, and a floor plan of the laboratories. The folders beneath it were inscribed with the names of cosmetics firms, biomedical research centers, furriers, tanners, meatpackers. Alena perched on the edge of the coffee table and watched as I shuffled through them.
“You know the Draize test?”
I gave her a blank look.
“They inject chemicals into rabbits’ eyes to see how much it’ll take before they go blind. The rabbits are in cages, thousands of them, and they take a needle and jab it into their eyes — and you know why, you know in the name of what great humanitarian cause this is going on, even as we speak?
I didn’t know. The surf pounded at my feet. I glanced at Alf and then back into her angry eyes.
“Mascara, that’s what. Mascara. They torture countless thousands of rabbits so women can look like sluts.”
I thought the characterization a bit harsh, but when I studied her pale lashes and tight lipstickless mouth, I saw that she meant it. At any rate, the notion set her off, and she launched into a two-hour lecture, gesturing with her flawless hands, quoting figures, digging through her files for the odd photo of legless mice or morphine-addicted gerbils. She told me how she’d rescued Alf herself, raiding the laboratory with six other members of the Animal Liberation Front, the militant group in honor of which Alf had been named. At first, she’d been content to write letters and carry placards, but now, with the lives of so many animals at stake, she’d turned to more direct action: harassment, vandalism, sabotage. She described how she’d spiked trees with Earth-First!ers in Oregon, cut miles of barbed-wire fence on cattle ranches in Nevada, destroyed records in biomedical research labs up and down the coast and insinuated herself between the hunters and the bighorn sheep in the mountains of Arizona. I could only nod and exclaim, smile ruefully and whistle in a low “holy cow!” sort of way. Finally, she paused to level her unsettling eyes on me. “You know what Isaac Bashevis Singer said?”
We were on our third beer. The sun was gone. I didn’t have a clue.
Alena leaned forward. ‘“Every day is Auschwitz for the animals.”’
I looked down into the amber aperture of my beer bottle and nodded my head sadly. The dryer had stopped an hour and a half ago. I wondered if she’d go out to dinner with me, and what she could eat if she did. “Uh, I was wondering,” I said, “if…if you might want to go out for something to eat — ”
Alf chose that moment to heave himself up from the floor and urinate on the wall behind me. My dinner proposal hung in the balance as Alena shot up off the edge of the table to scold him and then gently usher him out the door. “Poor Alf,” she sighed, turning back to me with a shrug. “But listen, I’m sorry if I talked your head off — I didn’t mean to, but it’s rare to find somebody on your own wavelength.”
She smiled. On your own wavelength: the words illuminated me, excited me, sent up a tremor I could feel all the way down in the deepest nodes of my reproductive tract. “So how about dinner?” I persisted. Restaurants were running through my head — would it have to be veggie? Could there be even a whiff of grilled flesh on the air? Curdled goat’s milk and tabbouleh, tofu, lentil soup, sprouts: Every day is Auschwitz for the animals. “No place with meat, of course.”
She just looked at me.
“I mean, I don’t eat meat myself,” I lied, “or actually, not anymore” — since the pastrami sandwich, that is — ”but I don’t really know any place that…” I trailed off lamely
“I’m a Vegan,” she said.
After two hours of blind bunnies, butchered calves and mutilated pups, I couldn’t resist the joke. “I’m from Venus myself.”
She laughed, but I could see she didn’t find it all that funny. Vegans didn’t eat meat or fish, she explained, or milk or cheese or eggs, and they didn’t wear wool or leather — or fur, of course.
“Of course,” I said. We were both standing there, hovering over the coffee table. I was beginning to feel a little foolish.
“Why don’t we just eat here,” she said
The deep throb of the ocean seemed to settle in my bones as we lay there in bed that night, Alena and I, and I learned all about the fluency of her limbs and the sweetness of her vegetable tongue. Alf sprawled on the floor beneath us, wheezing and groaning in his sleep, and I blessed him for his incontinence and his doggy stupidity. Something was happening to me — I could feel it in the way the boards shifted under me, feel it with each beat of the surf — and I was ready to go along with it. In the morning, I called in sick again.
Alena was watching me from bed as I dialed the office and described how the flu had migrated from my head to my gut and beyond, and there was a look in her eye that told me I would spend the rest of the day right there beside her, peeling grapes and dropping them one by one between her parted and expectant lips. I was wrong. Half an hour later, after a breakfast of brewer’s yeast and what appeared to be some sort of bark marinated in yogurt, I found myself marching up and down the sidewalk in front of a fur emporium in Beverly Hills, waving a placard that read how does it feel to wear a corpse? in letters that dripped like blood.
It was a shock. I’d seen protest marches on TV, antiwar rallies and civil rights demonstrations and all that, but I’d never warmed my heels on the pavement or chanted slogans or felt the naked stick in my hand. There were maybe forty of us in all, mostly women, and we waved our placards at passing cars and blocked traffic on the sidewalk. One woman had smeared her face and hands with cold cream steeped in red dye, and Alena had found a ratty mink stole somewhere — the kind that features whole animals sewed together, snout to tail, their miniature limbs dangling — and she’d taken a can of crimson spray paint to their muzzles so that they looked freshly killed. She brandished this grisly banner on a stick high above her head, whooping like a savage and chanting, “Fur is death, fur is death,” over and over again till it became a mantra for the crowd. The day was unseasonably warm, the Jaguars glinted in the sun and the palms nodded in the breeze, and no one, but for a single tight-lipped salesman glowering from behind the store’s immaculate windows, paid the slightest bit of attention to us.
I marched out there on the street, feeling exposed and conspicuous, but marching nonetheless — for Alena’s sake and for the sake of the foxes and martens and all the rest, and for my own sake too: with each step I took I could feel my consciousness expanding like a balloon, the breath of saintliness seeping steadily into me. Up to this point I’d worn suede and leather like anybody else, ankle boots and Air Jordans, a bombardier jacket I’d had since high school. If I’d drawn the line with fur, it was only because I’d never had any use for it. If I lived in the Yukon — and sometimes, drowsing through a meeting at work, I found myself fantasizing about it — I would have worn fur, no compunction, no second thoughts.
But not anymore. Now I was the protestor, a placard waver, now I was fighting for the right of every last weasel and lynx to grow old and die gracefully, now I was Alena Jorgensen’s lover and a force to be reckoned with. Of course, my feet hurt and I was running sweat and praying that no one from work would drive by and see me there on the sidewalk with my crazy cohorts and denunciatory sign.
We marched for hours, back and forth, till I thought we’d wear a groove in the pavement. We chanted and jeered and nobody so much as looked at us twice. We could have been Hare Krishnas, bums, anti-abortionists, or lepers, what did it matter? To the rest of the world, to the uninitiated masses to whose sorry number I’d belonged just twenty-four hours earlier, we were invisible. I was hungry, tired, discouraged. Alena was ignoring me. Even the woman in red-face was slowing down, her chant a hoarse whisper that was sucked up and obliterated in the roar of traffic. And then, as the afternoon faded toward rush hour, a wizened silvery old woman who might have been an aging star or a star’s mother or even the first dimly remembered wife of a studio exec got out of a long white car at the curb and strode fearlessly toward us. Despite the heat — it must have been eighty degrees at this point — she was wearing an ankle-length silver fox coat, a bristling shouldery wafting mass of peltry that must have decimated every burrow on the tundra. It was the moment we’d been waiting for.
A cry went up, shrill and ululating, and we converged on the lone old woman like a Cheyenne war party scouring the plains. The man beside me went down on all fours and howled like a dog. Alena slashed the air with her limp mink, and the blood sang in my ears. “Murderer!” I screamed, getting into it. “Torturer! Nazi!” The strings in my neck were tight. I didn’t know what I was saying. The crowd gibbered. The placards danced. I was so close to the old woman I could smell her — her perfume, a whiff of mothballs from the coat — and it intoxicated me, maddened me, and I stepped in front of her to block her path with all the seething militant bulk of my one hundred eighty-five pounds of sinew and muscle.
I never saw the chauffeur. Alena told me afterward that he was a former kickboxing champion who’d been banned from the sport for excessive brutality. The first blow seemed to drop down from above, a shell lobbed from deep within enemy territory; the others came at me like a windmill churning in a storm. Someone screamed. I remember focusing on the flawless rigid pleats of the chauffeur’s trousers, and then things got a bit hazy.
I woke to the dull thump of the surf slamming at the shore and the touch of Alena’s lips on my own. I felt as if I’d been broken on the wheel, dismantled, and put back together again. “Lie still,” she said, and her tongue moved against my swollen cheek. Stricken, I could only drag my head across the pillow and gaze into the depths of her parti-colored eyes. “You’re one of us now,” she whispered.
Next morning I didn’t even bother to call in sick.
By the end of the week I’d recovered enough to crave meat, for which I felt deeply ashamed, and to wear out a pair of vinyl huaraches on the picket line. Together, and with various coalitions of antivivisectionists, militant Vegans, and cat lovers, Alena and I tramped a hundred miles of sidewalk, spray-painted inflammatory slogans across the windows of supermarkets and burger stands, denounced tanners, furriers, poulterers, and sausage makers, and somehow found time to break up a cockfight in Pacoima. It was exhilarating, heady, dangerous. If I’d been disconnected in the past, I was plugged in now. I felt righteous — for the first time in my life I had a cause — and I had Alena, Alena above all. She fascinated me, fixated me, made me feel like a tomcat leaping in and out of second-story windows, oblivious to the free-fall and the picket fence below. There was her beauty, of course, a triumph of evolution and the happy interchange of genes going all the way back to the cavemen, but it was more than that — it was her commitment to animals, to the righting of wrongs, to morality that made her irresistible. Was it love? The term is something I’ve always had difficulty with, but I suppose it was. Sure it was. Love, pure and simple. I had it, it had me.
“You know what?” Alena said one night as she stood over the miniature stove, searing tofu in oil and garlic. We’d spent the afternoon demonstrating out front of a tortilla factory that used rendered animal fat as a congealing agent, after which we’d been chased three blocks by an overweight assistant manager at Von’s who objected to Alena’s spray-painting meat is death over the specials in the front window. I was giddy with the adolescent joy of it. I sank into the couch with a beer and watched Alf limp across the floor to fling himself down and lick at a suspicious spot on the floor. The surf boomed like thunder.
“What?” I said.
I let it ride a moment, wondering if I should invite Alena to my mother’s for the big basted bird stuffed with canned oysters and buttered bread crumbs, and then realized it probably wouldn’t be such a great idea. I said nothing.
She glanced over her shoulder. “The animals don’t have a whole lot to be thankful for, that’s for sure. It’s just an excuse for the meat industry to butcher a couple million turkeys, is all it is.” She paused; hot safflower oil popped in the pan. “I think it’s time for a little road trip,” she said. “Can we take your car?”
“Sure, but where are we going?”
She gave me her Gioconda smile. “To liberate some turkeys.”
In the morning I called my boss to tell him I had pancreatic cancer and wouldn’t be in for a while, then we threw some things in the car, helped Alf scrabble into the back seat, and headed up Route 5 for the San Joaquin Valley. We drove for three hours through a fog so dense the windows might as well have been packed with cotton. Alena was secretive, but I could see she was excited. I knew only that we were on our way to rendezvous with a certain “Rolfe,” a longtime friend of hers and a big name in the world of ecotage and animal rights, after which we would commit some desperate and illegal act, for which the turkeys would be eternally grateful.
There was a truck stalled in front of the sign for our exit at Calpurnia Springs, and I had to brake hard and jerk the wheel around twice to keep the tires on the pavement. Alena came up out of her seat and Alf slammed into the armrest like a sack of meal, but we made it. A few minutes later we were gliding through the ghostly vacancy of the town itself, lights drifting past in a nimbus of fog, glowing pink, yellow, and white, and then there was only the blacktop road and the pale void that engulfed it. We’d gone ten miles or so when Alena instructed me to slow down and began to study the right-hand shoulder with a keen, unwavering eye.
The earth breathed in and out. I squinted hard into the soft drifting glow of the headlights. “There, there!” she cried and I swung the wheel to the right, and suddenly we were lurching along a pitted dirt road that rose up from the blacktop like a goat path worn into the side of a mountain. Five minutes later Alf sat up in the back seat and began to whine, and then a crude unpainted shack began to detach itself from the vagueness around us.
Rolfe met us on the porch. He was tall and leathery, in his fifties, I guessed, with a shock of hair and rutted features that brought Samuel Beckett to mind. He was wearing gumboots and jeans and a faded lumberjack shirt that looked as if it had been washed a hundred times. Alf took a quick pee against the side of the house, then fumbled up the steps to roll over and fawn at his feet.
“Rolfe!” Alena called, and there was too much animation in her voice, too much familiarity, for my taste. She took the steps in a bound and threw herself in his arms. I watched them kiss, and it wasn’t a fatherly-daughterly sort of kiss, not at all. It was a kiss with some meaning behind it, and I didn’t like it. Rolfe, I thought: What kind of name is that?
“Rolfe,” Alena gasped, still a little breathless from bouncing up the steps like a cheerleader, “I’d like you to meet Jim.”
That was my signal. I ascended the porch steps and held out my hand. Rolfe gave me a look out of the hooded depths of his eyes and then took my hand in a hard calloused grip, the grip of the wood splitter, the fence mender, the liberator of hothouse turkeys and laboratory mice. “A pleasure,” he said, and his voice rasped like sandpaper.
There was a fire going inside, and Alena and I sat before it and warmed our hands while Alf whined and sniffed and Rolfe served Red Zinger tea in Japanese cups the size of thimbles. Alena hadn’t stopped chattering since we stepped through the door, and Rolfe came right back at her in his woodsy rasp, the two of them exchanging names and news and gossip as if they were talking in code. I studied the reproductions of teal and widgeon that hung from the peeling walls, noted the case of Heinz vegetarian beans in the corner and the half-gallon of Jack Daniel’s on the mantel. Finally, after the third cup of tea, Alena settled back in her chair — a huge old Salvation Army sort of thing with a soiled antimacassar — and said, “So what’s the plan?”
Rolfe gave me another look, a quick predatory darting of the eyes, as if he weren’t sure I could be trusted, and then turned back to Alena. “Hedda Gabler’s Range-Fed Turkey Ranch,” he said. “And no, I don’t find the name cute, not at all.” He looked at me now, a long steady assay. “They grind up the heads for cat food, and the neck, the organs, and the rest, that they wrap up in paper and stuff back in the body cavity like it was a war atrocity or something. Whatever did a turkey go and do to us to deserve a fate like that?”
The question was rhetorical, even if it seemed to have been aimed at me, and I made no response other than to compose my face in a look that wedded grief, outrage, and resolve. I was thinking of all the turkeys I’d sent to their doom, of the plucked wishbones, the pope’s noses,1 and the crisp browned skin I used to relish as a kid. It brought a lump to my throat, and something more: I realized I was hungry.
“Ben Franklin wanted to make them our national symbol,” Alena chimed in, “did you know that? But the meat eaters won out.”
“Fifty thousand birds,” Rolfe said, glancing at Alena and bringing his incendiary gaze back to rest on me. “I have information they’re going to start slaughtering them tomorrow, for the fresh-not-frozen market.”
“Yuppie poultry,” Alena’s voice was drenched in disgust.
For a moment, no one spoke. I became aware of the crackling of the fire. The fog pressed at the windows. It was getting dark.
“You can see the place from the highway,” Rolfe said finally, “but the only access is through Calpurnia Springs. It’s about twenty miles — twenty-two point three, to be exact.”
Alena’s eyes were bright. She was gazing on Rolfe as if he’d just dropped down from heaven. I felt something heave in my stomach.
“We strike tonight.
Rolfe insisted that we take my car — “Everybody around here knows my pickup, and I can’t take any chances on a little operation like this” — but we did mask the plates, front and back, with an inch-thick smear of mud. We blackened our faces like commandos and collected our tools from the shed out back — tin snips, a crowbar, and two five-gallon cans of gasoline. “Gasoline?” I said, trying the heft of the can. Rolfe gave me a craggy look. “To create a diversion,” he said. Alf, for obvious reasons, stayed behind in the shack.
If the fog had been thick in daylight, it was impenetrable now, the sky collapsed upon the earth. It took hold of the headlights and threw them back at me till my eyes began to water from the effort of keeping the car on the road. But for the ruts and bumps we might have been floating in space. Alena sat up front between Rolfe and me, curiously silent. Rolfe didn’t have much to say either, save for the occasional grunted command: “Hang a right here”; “Hard left”; “Easy, easy.” I thought about meat and jail and the heroic proportions to which I was about to swell in Alena’s eyes and what I intended to do to her when we finally got to bed. It was 2:00 a.m. by the dashboard clock.
“Okay,” Rolfe said, and his voice came at me so suddenly it startled me, “pull over here — and kill the lights.”
We stepped out into the hush of night and eased the doors shut behind us. I couldn’t see a thing, but I could hear the not-so-distant hiss of traffic on the highway, and another sound, too, muffled and indistinct, the gentle unconscious suspiration of thousands upon thousands of my fellow creatures. And I could smell them, a seething rancid odor of feces and feathers and naked scaly feet that crawled down my throat and burned my nostrils. “Whew,” I said in a whisper, “I can smell them.”
Rolfe and Alena were vague presences at my side. Rolfe flipped open the trunk and in the next moment I felt the heft of a crowbar and a pair of tin snips in my hand. “Listen, you, Jim,” Rolfe whispered, taking me by the wrist in his iron grip and leading me half-a-dozen steps forward. “Feel this?”
I felt a grid of wire, which he promptly cut: snip, snip, snip.
“This is their enclosure — they’re out there in the day, scratching around in the dirt. You get lost, you follow this wire. Now, you’re going to take a section out of this side, Alena’s got the west side and I’ve got the south. Once that’s done I signal with the flashlight and we bust open the doors to the turkey houses — they’re these big low white buildings, you’ll see them when you get close — and flush the birds out. Don’t worry about me or Alena. Just worry about getting as many birds out as you can.”
I was worried. Worried about everything, from some half-crazed farmer with a shotgun or AK-47 or whatever they carried these days, to losing Alena in the fog, to the turkeys themselves: How big were they? Were they violent? They had claws and beaks, didn’t they? And how were they going to feel about me bursting into their bedroom in the middle of the night?
“And when the gas cans go up, you hightail it back to the car, got it?”
I could hear the turkeys tossing in their sleep. A truck shifted gears out on the highway. “I think so,” I whispered.
“And one more thing — be sure to leave the keys in the ignition.”
This gave me pause. “But — ”
“The getaway.” Alena was so close I could feel her breath on my ear. “I mean, we don’t want to be fumbling around for the keys when all hell is breaking loose out there, do we?”
I eased open the door and reinserted the keys in the ignition, even though the automatic buzzer warned me against it. “Okay,” I murmured, but they were already gone, soaked up in the shadows and the mist. At this point my heart was hammering so loudly I could barely hear the rustling of the turkeys — this is crazy, I told myself, it’s hurtful and wrong, not to mention illegal. Spray-painting slogans was one thing, but this was something else altogether. I thought of the turkey farmer asleep in his bed, an entrepreneur working to make America strong, a man with a wife and kids and a mortgage…but then I thought of all those innocent turkeys consigned to death, and finally I thought of Alena, long-legged and loving, and the way she came to me out of the darkness of the bathroom and the boom of the surf. I took the tin snips to the wire.
I must have been at it half an hour, forty-five minutes, gradually working my way toward the big white sheds that had begun to emerge from the gloom up ahead, when I saw Rolfe’s flashlight blinking off to my left. This was my signal to head to the nearest shed, snap off the padlock with my crowbar, fling open the doors, and herd a bunch of cranky suspicious gobblers out into the night. It was now or never. I looked twice round me and then broke for the near shed in an awkward crouching gait. The turkeys must have sensed that something was up — from behind the long white windowless wall there arose a watchful gabbling, a soughing of feathers that fanned up like a breeze in the treetops. Hold on, you toms and hens, I thought, freedom is at hand. A jerk of the wrist, and the padlock fell to the ground. Blood pounded in my ears, I took hold of the sliding door and jerked it open with a great dull booming reverberation — and suddenly, there they were, turkeys, thousands upon thousands of them, cloaked in white feathers under a string of dim yellow bulbs. The light glinted in their reptilian eyes. Somewhere a dog began to bark.
I steeled myself and sprang through the door with a shout, whirling the crowbar over my head, “All right!” I boomed, and the echo gave it back to me a hundred times over, “this is it! Turkeys, on your feet!” Nothing. No response. But for the whisper of rustling feathers and the alertly cocked heads, they might have been sculptures, throw pillows, they might as well have been dead and butchered and served up with yams and onions and all the trimmings. The barking of the dog went up a notch. I thought I heard voices.
The turkeys crouched on the concrete floor, wave upon wave of them, stupid and immovable; they perched in the rafters, on shelves and platforms, huddled in wooden stalls. Desperate, I rushed into the front rank of them, swinging my crowbar, stamping my feet, and howling like the wishbone plucker I once was. That did it. There was a shriek from the nearest bird and the others took it up till an unholy racket filled the place, and now they were moving, tumbling down from their perches, flapping their wings in a storm of dried excrement and pecked-over grain, pouring across the concrete floor till it vanished beneath them. Encouraged, I screamed again — “Yeeee-ha-ha-ha-ha!” — and beat at the aluminum walls with the crowbar as the turkeys shot through the doorway and out into the night.
It was then that the black mouth of the doorway erupted with light and the ka-boom! of the gas cans sent a tremor through the earth. Run! a voice screamed in my head, and the adrenaline kicked in and all of a sudden I was scrambling for the door in a hurricane of turkeys. They were everywhere, flapping their wings, gobbling and screeching, loosing their bowels in panic. Something hit the back of my legs and all at once I was down amongst them, on the floor, in the dirt and feathers and wet turkey shit. I was a roadbed, a turkey expressway. Their claws dug at my back, my shoulders, the crown of my head. Panicked now, choking on feathers and dust and worse, I fought to my feet as the big screeching birds launched themselves round me, and staggered out into the barnyard. “There! Who’s that there?” a voice roared, and I was off and running.
What can I say? I vaulted turkeys, kicked them aside like so many footballs, slashed and tore at them as they sailed through the air. I ran till my lungs felt as if they were burning right through my chest, disoriented, bewildered, terrified of the shotgun blast I was sure would cut me down at any moment. Behind me the fire raged and lit the fog till it glowed blood-red and hellish. But where was the fence? And where the car?
I got control of my feet then and stood stock-still in a flurry of turkeys, squinting into the wall of fog. Was that it? Was that the car over there? At that moment I heard an engine start up somewhere behind me — a familiar engine with a familiar coughing gurgle in the throat of the carburetor — and then the lights blinked on briefly three hundred yards away. I heard the engine race and listened, helpless, as the car roared off in the opposite direction. I stood there a moment longer, forlorn and forsaken, and then I ran blindly off into the night, putting the fire and the shouts and the barking and the incessant mindless squawking of the turkeys as far behind me as I could.
When dawn finally broke, it was only just perceptibly, so thick was the fog. I’d made my way to a blacktop road — which road and where it led I didn’t know — and sat crouched and shivering in a clump of weed just off the shoulder. Alena wouldn’t desert me, I was sure of that — she loved me, as I loved her; needed me, as I needed her — and I was sure she’d be cruising along the back roads looking for me. My pride was wounded, of course, and if I never laid eyes on Rolfe again I felt I wouldn’t be missing much, but at least I hadn’t been drilled full of shot, savaged by farm dogs, or pecked to death by irate turkeys. I was sore all over, my shin throbbed where I’d slammed into something substantial while vaulting through the night, there were feathers in my hair, and my face and arms were a mosaic of cuts and scratches and long trailing fissures of dirt. I’d been sitting there for what seemed like hours, cursing Rolfe, developing suspicions about Alena and unflattering theories about environmentalists in general, when finally I heard the familiar slurp and roar of my Chevy Citation cutting through the mist ahead of me.
Rolfe was driving, his face impassive. I flung myself into the road like a tattered beggar, waving my arms over my head and giving vent to my joy, and he very nearly ran me down. Alena was out of the car before it stopped, wrapping me up in her arms, and then she was bundling me into the rear seat with Alf and we were on our way back to the hideaway. “What happened?” she cried, as if she couldn’t have guessed. “Where were you? We waited as long as we could.”
I was feeling sulky, betrayed, feeling as if I was owed a whole lot more than a perfunctory hug and a string of insipid questions. Still, as I told my tale I began to warm to it — they’d got away in the car with the heater going, and I’d stayed behind to fight the turkeys, the farmers, and the elements, too, and if that wasn’t heroic, I’d like to know what was. I looked into Alena’s admiring eyes and pictured Rolfe’s shack, a nip or two from the bottle of Jack Daniel’s, maybe a peanut-butter-and-tofu sandwich, and then the bed, with Alena in it. Rolfe said nothing.
Back at Rolfe’s, I took a shower and scrubbed the turkey droppings from my pores, then helped myself to the bourbon. It was ten in the morning and the house was dark — if the world had ever been without fog, there was no sign of it here. When Rolfe stepped out on the porch to fetch an armload of firewood, I pulled Alena down into my lap. “Hey,” she murmured, “I thought you were an invalid.”
She was wearing a pair of too-tight jeans and an oversize sweater with nothing underneath it. I slipped my hand inside the sweater and found something to hold on to. “Invalid?” I said, nuzzling at her sleeve. “Hell, I’m a turkey liberator, an ecoguerrilla, a friend of the animals and the environment, too.”
She laughed, but she pushed herself up and crossed the room to stare out the occluded window. “Listen, Jim,” she said, “what we did last night was great, really great, but it’s just the beginning.” Alf looked up at her expectantly. I heard Rolfe fumbling around on the porch, the thump of wood on wood. She turned around to face me now. “What I mean is, Rolfe wants me to go up to Wyoming for a little bit, just outside of Yellowstone — ”
Me? Rolfe wants me? There was no invitation in that, no plurality, no acknowledgment of all we’d done and meant to each other. “For what?” I said. “What do you mean?”
“There’s this grizzly — a pair of them, actually — and they’ve been raiding places outside the park. One of them made off with the mayor’s Doberman the other night and the people are up in arms. We — I mean Rolfe and me and some other people from the old Bolt Weevils in Minnesota? — we’re going to go up there and make sure the Park Service — or the local yahoos — don’t eliminate them. The bears, I mean.”
My tone was corrosive. “You and Rolfe?”
“There’s nothing between us, if that’s what you’re thinking. This has to do with animals, that’s all.”
She shook her head slowly. “Not like us, no. We’re the plague on this planet, don’t you know that?”
Suddenly I was angry. Seething. Here I’d crouched in the bushes all night, covered in turkey crap, and now I was part of a plague. I was on my feet. “No, I don’t know that.”
She gave me a look that let me know it didn’t matter, that she was already gone, that her agenda, at least for the moment, didn’t include me and there was no use arguing about it. “Look,” she said, her voice dropping as Rolfe slammed back through the door with a load of wood, “I’ll see you in L.A. in a month or so, okay?” She gave me an apologetic smile. “Water the plants for me?”
An hour later I was on the road again. I’d helped Rolfe stack the wood beside the fireplace, allowed Alena to brush my lips with a good-bye kiss, and then stood there on the porch while Rolfe locked up, lifted Alf into the bed of his pickup, and rumbled down the rutted dirt road with Alena at his side. I watched till their brake lights dissolved in the drifting gray mist, then fired up the Citation and lurched down the road behind them. A month or so: I felt hollow inside. I pictured her with Rolfe, eating yogurt and wheat germ, stopping at motels, wrestling grizzlies, and spiking trees. The hollowness opened up, cored me out till I felt as if I’d been plucked and gutted and served up on a platter myself.
I found my way back through Calpurnia Springs without incident — there were no roadblocks, no flashing lights and grim-looking troopers searching trunks and back seats for a tallish thirty-year-old ecoterrorist with turkey tracks down his back — but after I turned onto the highway for Los Angeles, I had a shock. Ten miles up the road my nightmare materialized out of the gloom: red lights everywhere, signal flares and police cars lined up on the shoulder. I was on the very edge of panicking, a beat away from cutting across the median and giving them a run for it, when I saw the truck jackknifed up ahead. I slowed to forty, thirty, and then hit the brakes again. In a moment I was stalled in a line of cars and there was something all over the road, ghostly and white in the fog. At first I thought it must have been flung from the truck, rolls of toilet paper or crates of soap powder ruptured on the pavement. It was neither. As I inched closer, the tires creeping now, the pulse of the lights in my face, I saw that the road was coated in feathers, turkey feathers. A storm of them. A blizzard. And more: there was flesh there too, slick and greasy, a red pulp ground into the surface of the road, thrown up like slush from the tires of the car ahead of me, ground beneath the massive wheels of the truck. Turkeys. Turkeys everywhere.
The car crept forward. I flicked on the windshield wipers, hit the washer button, and for a moment a scrim of diluted blood obscured the windows and the hollowness opened up inside of me till I thought it would suck me inside out. Behind me, someone was leaning on his horn. A trooper loomed up out of the gloom, waving me on with the dead yellow eye of his flashlight. I thought of Alena and felt sick. All there was between us had come to this, expectations gone sour, a smear on the road. I wanted to get out and shoot myself, turn myself in, close my eyes, and wake up in jail, in a hair shirt, in a straitjacket, anything. It went on. Time passed. Nothing moved. And then, miraculously, a vision began to emerge from behind the smeared glass and the gray belly of the fog, lights glowing golden in the waste. I saw the sign, Gas/Food/Lodging, and my hand was on the blinker.
It took me a moment, picturing the place, the generic tile, the false cheer of the lights, the odor of charred flesh hanging heavy on the air, Big Mac, three-piece dark meat, carne asada, cheeseburger. The engine coughed. The lights glowed. I didn’t think of Alena then, didn’t think of Rolfe or grizzlies or the doomed bleating flocks and herds, or of the blind bunnies and cancerous mice — I thought only of the cavern opening inside me and how to fill it. “Meat,” and I spoke the word aloud, talking to calm myself as if I’d awakened from a bad dream, “it’s only meat.”