Last night I had another one.
Stacy and I sitting at a picnic table outside The Salt Lick. A gorgeous spring day, clear skies, lots of sunshine. Bluebonnets blooming on the hillside, kids frolicking in the grass. We’re hunched over plates of barbecue: I’m devouring a giant brisket sandwich, while Stacy gnaws on a stack of ribs. Our fingers sticky with sauce, juice dribbling down our chins.
Isn’t this delicious? she says, smacking.
I lick my fingers and agree: Scrumptious, I say, best thing I’ve ever tasted.
And it is; it always is. That’s how these things go. As if I haven’t tasted meat in years and years, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted in my mouth. As if that’s what my mouth was made for. Meat.
We slurp and smack and moan with carnal delight.
I’ve finished one sandwich, and I’m already two-thirds through a second when it hits me:
The remains of my sandwich disgust me. As if I’m clutching a handful of corpse. My stomach churns, and I’m overwhelmed by waves of nausea. I hold the sandwich out to Stacy for inspection, but I can’t get her attention. She’s got a plateful of ribs to attend to. Panic crushes my chest.
Stop, I yell, don’t eat that!
All that comes out is a long, anguished lowing. Moo-ooh! Moo-ooh!
Stacy smiles with all her teeth, face smeared with sauce and juice and maybe blood, too. Bits of meat stuck to her lips.
I know, she says. I feel exactly the same way!
I wake up thinking I’m going to retch, the stink of mesquite smoke in my throat.
Funny thing is, Stacy’s the vegetarian, not me. I’m more what you’d call an omnivore since I’ll eat anything.
Yeah, says Stacy, as long as there’s meat in it.
It’s true, I like meat. Love it. I’ve always been a meat man, even when I was just a little kid. And like I said, I’ll eat almost anything: pot roast, veal parmesan, pork loin, lamb chops, gyros, shawarma, you name it. But, of course, I have my favorites. Mesquite-smoked brisket and three-alarm chili and Frito pie. Beef fajitas from Güero’s.
Couple years ago, Stacy went all twigs and berries. I don’t know how she does it.
We’re made to eat meat, I protest.
We’re on our way to meet our friends Scott and Melinda at Trudy’s Tex-Mex, where, miraculously, there’s something for everyone, even herbivores.
Our bodies crave the proteins and enzymes, I explain, and there’s no way you can substitute tofu or garbanzo beans and get away with it. It’s not natural.
Plus, she’s anemic.
Animals were put here for people to eat, I insist.
We listen to the pickup growl. My mind wanders to all those Discovery Channel shows Stacy likes to watch, life of the gazelle, life of the ibex. I wonder what they’d taste like?
What about predators at the top of the food chain? she asks.
We pull into the parking lot and hunt for an open space.
Lions, she says, tigers—
And bears, oh my!
Were we put here for them to eat?
Scott and Melinda are already seated. When the waitress comes, I order steak Tampico and a spicy beef burrito.
When I wake up this morning, I swear I’m going to puke. I stagger to the bathroom, sweaty and disoriented, and drop to my knees over the chipped porcelain. I’m sure it’s all coming up this time, but it doesn’t. I lie on the cool tile for five or ten minutes until my stomach settles. When I hoist myself to my feet, I feel fine.
It’s all in your head, says Stacy when I stumble out onto the porch.
She’s cradling a mug of coffee, watching the blue jays flit from cedar to pecan to live oak.
The heat has already begun to bloom.
We were right here, I say, though I know she doesn’t want to hear it, you and me, sitting on the porch eating Sunday dinner. I’d grilled steaks, these two massive t-bones, and we covered them in bacon you’d fried up in the skillet.
Come on, Jack. That’s disgusting.
That was it, I say. Two slabs of meat covered in meat.
A mockingbird sings from the power line.
You’d already polished yours off and were gnawing on the bone—
I don’t want to hear any more, she says.
I guess for the marrow. I was well past halfway—
Enough! she yells, glaring at me. Then she pitches her coffee into the grass and storms inside.
I find her in the kitchen, lingering over the sink. I pour myself a cup of coffee.
You okay? I ask.
Thought I was gonna lose it.
She wipes her brow with a sour dish towel, smiling weakly.
What is it? Morning sickness?
Don’t be ridiculous, Jack. It’s those revolting dreams you insist on recounting in morbid detail.
I wander over to the fridge and survey the breakfast scene. We always make a spread on Saturday mornings.
But I didn’t even finish.
Don’t they all end the same way?
She’s right; they always do.
Moo-ooh! I say, swallowing a laugh. Moo-ooh!
I want you to see someone, Jack.
What, like a shrink?
Talking them out helps, right? But enough’s enough. I don’t want to hear about them anymore, okay?
You need a professional.
Okay, alright, I’ll make an appointment on Monday.
The fan whops the air overhead. The window unit clangs alive and sighs cool air into the room. I open the fridge again. I’m starving.
I’m thinking sausage and bacon and eggs?
Ugh, says Stacy, then pours another cup of coffee and goes back outside.
So I go see this guy, Dr. Würstchen, a dyed-in-the-wool Freudian who hails from Fredericksburg. Smokes a pipe, wears tweed and corduroy (in this Texas heat!), the whole nine yards. He lays me down on his little couch, and I tell him my dreams. He nods and scribbles in his notebook. He drags on his pipe, scribbles, and nods.
Very interesting, he says. What happened next?
His v’s sound like w’s and vice versa. Maybe he’s laying it on a bit thick.
Still, I tell him my dreams, one after another. As I talk them out like that, in a long, unbroken stream, I realize they’re basically all the same dream. A single recurring nightmare.
When I’m done, he tells me to relax while he studies my case. So I wriggle and squirm until I’m more comfortable on the couch, then I doze a little. I’m roasting in here, it’s so hot. Could Würstchen have the heat on? I never really fall asleep because each time I nod off, I get this god-awful stench of rot seeping in from somewhere. Like there’s a mouse decomposing in the wall. Which is unlikely, given the Westlake location, but still. Maybe it’s a raccoon or possum out by the creek. Anyway, it’s roadkill foul. I’m almost surprised buzzards aren’t circling overhead.
Dr. Würstchen sucks on his pipe as if nothing’s amiss.
He studies his notes, checks a reference book or two, and makes some more notes. Then he empties and refills his pipe.
You suffer from Acute Guilt Complex, he concludes. You have killed your father and screwed your mother. You now wish to atone for such acts of desecration.
Needless to say, I leave Würstchen’s office bewildered, my wallet two-hundred dollars lighter.
And the dreams only get worse. In one, I’m in a long trailer, jostled against dozens of others as we bump along the road behind a dually glinting in the summer sunlight. They all look exactly like me. Seriously: Jack after Jack after Jack. Our acrid stench is thick, cloying. No one says a word, not even Moo-ooh! I’m sure I’ll be crushed against the wall of the trailer or underfoot, if I don’t suffocate first. […]
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J. T. Townley has published in Collier’s, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University. Townley teaches at the University of Virginia. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.