by Angele Ellis
On our second date, he said he had a surprise for me. The maître d’ led us into an intimate dining room whose winking electric chandeliers made the cream damassin tablecloths almost too bright to bear.
A glass of white wine and an appetizer I recognized as a designer version of spanakopita, dusted with paprika and garnished with baby onions and rosemary, relaxed me into thinking that I belonged there. I forgot that my dress was striped cotton, my purse from a Mexican street stall, my necklace of variegated stone beads the handmade gift of a friend, and my flat sandals woven hemp and pleather.
Until the main course, set down by a tuxedoed waiter with a flourish: rack of lamb. A lamb—her poor thin ribs upended for display, each roasted bone wearing a papillote. So much like a human corpse, laid out in a ruffled blouse.
I’d told my date that I ate vegetarian—mostly—but I hadn’t stressed this habit. A first date seemed too soon for what was much more than politics or concern over the fate of the earth.
Now I was confronted by my earliest trauma.
My parents weren’t farmers, although we lived in a house on a few acres of land. We had a big garden bordered by berry bushes, and Mother made sauce and jam, and filled a locker freezer with vegetables we couldn’t eat in season. To be neighborly, to try to fit in, she would bring a basket with these things when there was a birth, an illness, or a death. She put flowered handwritten labels even on her white cardboard boxes of frozen goods.
I don’t remember which of the neighbors gave her Agnes.
Agnes, the sickly motherless black lamb my mother was too embarrassed to refuse. Agnes, who wouldn’t have survived if eight-year- old me hadn’t fed her with a bottle, cuddled her in a heated blanket, sung to her, brushed her soft curls. Agnes, who slept next to my bed, and then on a mattress in the old potting shed I cleaned out for her. Agnes—who would take grass and clover straight from my hands, but from no one else’s. She was more than my pet; she was my best friend.
Perhaps Mother would have let me keep Agnes if Daddy—who sold used cars—hadn’t had a few months of low commissions. (I pieced this together later, from arguments I overheard.) Daddy told me that he’d given Agnes to a petting zoo several towns away. She was getting too big for us, he said.
Daddy wasn’t thinking of Bobby Carney when he lied to me.
Bobby was the bully of my year, a fat boy perpetually growing out of his clothes, which were hand-me- downs and never clean. After I’d spoken in class about Agnes—I still have the lavishly crayoned picture I drew of us together—Bobby wouldn’t stop teasing me.
“Lambs ain’t pets, Susie. Even dogs ain’t pets.” He went on to tell me about watching his father shoot their hunting dog in the head “when Rex got too wore out to hunt or even to drag hisself around.”
I shiver when I think of the Carneys’ ramshackle farmhouse and barn, and the ragtag children who weren’t pets, either.
It was the day after Thanksgiving weekend when Bobby swaggered toward me, smacking his blubbery lips and boasting that instead of turkey, his family had eaten fresh roast lamb, as tender as anything you could get in this world.
“That lamb was damn sweet—as sweet as if it was raised by a girl, even a dumb girl who’d name it Agnes.”
The next thing I knew, I woke up in the nurse’s office. I’d fainted, sustaining two black eyes in the process.
I lied, too. I said that Bobby Carney had pushed me on the playground. Principals still paddled kids, then; I watched with satisfaction as Bobby got it good.
I never regretted that, never had any sympathy for Bobby and his ignorant family. There had been no merciful bullet for Agnes. I knew that they’d slit her throat, using her lifeblood to make puddings to suck into greedy mouths. I knew that the black lamb cuffs and collar that appeared on the droopy mud-brown coat Mrs. Carney wore to church were cut from the pelt I used to stroke, feeling Agnes’s heart beat faster with joy.
The damassin tablecloth looked like a shroud to my aching eyes. Across the table, my carnivore date was grinning at me. How greasy his lips were. Lips more blubbery than Bobby Carney’s. Lips that I’d planned to kiss.
For the second time in my life, I fainted.
There was no third date.
Angele Ellis is author of Under the Kaufmann’s Clock (Six Gallery Press), a hybrid illustrated collection of flash fiction and poetry inspired by her adopted city of Pittsburgh, Spared (A Main Street Rag Editors’ Choice Chapbook), and Arab on Radar (Six Gallery), whose poems won her an Individual Artist Fellowship from the PA Council on the Arts. Her poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared in over 60 publications–including American Book Review, Grey Sparrow, Italian Americana, Mizna, Prime Number, Rogue Agent, and Yew. Two of the following three things are true: Angele committed civil disobedience seven times, seriously dated a man 20 years her junior, and parachuted from an airplane to celebrate the release of her first poetry collection.