Issue 1.2. “A Story Told Over Dinner,” by Jacquelyn Bangfort

Pho­to­graph by Derek Munn.

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished April 18, 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?

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 bussed 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 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.

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 apples shriv­el­ing almost before his eyes before he could believe that some­thing was ter­ri­bly wrong.”

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.”

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.

Chil­dren, you’ll find, have mal­leable morals in sur­vival sit­u­a­tions.”

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 a writer, native North Dakotan, and for­mer US Navy Sur­face War­fare Offi­cer based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Her work has appeared in Gar­goyle, Storm Cel­lar, Dis­trict Lines, and the antholo­gies Mag­i­cal and Dear Robot, among oth­ers. She holds an MPhil in Social Anthro­pol­o­gy from Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty and a BS in Eng­lish from the US Naval Acad­e­my. Find her online at