Henrietta first noticed the box that arrived on the Purdys’ front porch each Wednesday morning because the Purdys were suspicious people, ones that required watching. Most of her other neighbors had lived on the street for years, or had grown up one street over, or at least had the decency not to install solar panels on their roof and then point them out to Henrietta as if she should want her own. The Purdys had a backyard outdoor shower and they weren’t careful enough about not using it when Henrietta happened to be looking out the window of her laundry room at night.
The box did not come by regular post. The delivery truck was red, and Henrietta thought that was slightly improper, perhaps a company scheme to trick other drivers into slowing down and moving over for what appeared to be a firetruck. Each Wednesday morning an overweight woman parked in the Purdys’ driveway. She loped around the truck, threw up its door, and heaved a box onto the front porch. The box was about the size of a cat carrier, and a sticker on its side read, “FRESH.” What most surprised Henrietta was Mr. Purdy’s punctuality in regards to the box. Precisely two minutes after the overweight woman had driven away, Mr. Purdy opened his front door, looked toward Henrietta’s house, toward the Pollards’ on the other side, and then brought the delivery inside. Mrs. Purdy was never the one to retrieve the box, and as it usually came after the school bus had already picked up Veronica, Huey, and Ester from the sprawling white house, none of them ever got the box either.
Henrietta decided that she would walk over and say hello on a Wednesday morning just after the delivery truck arrived.
Veronica did not know why they weren’t supposed to have friends over for dinner on meat nights. Yes, it was a surprise that the family was no longer vegan, but the town they were living in now wasn’t so devoted to the organic, free-range, grass-fed religion. The cafeteria at their new school even served greasy pepperoni pizza on Styrofoam trays. If Veronica did have one of her friends over for dinner on a meat night, the parents of that friend weren’t going to rush over, appalled and angry, the way they might if they knew that Veronica’s parents let her smoke weed.
The first time they’d had meat, Veronica had pretended she’d never tasted pork before, and acted all thrilled and grateful that their father had finally found a butcher he could really respect, one who had a true relationship with the land and the animals, but Veronica didn’t think it was all that shocking that they ate meat on Wednesday, and again on Friday, and then the leftovers, if there were any, in sandwiches with cracked-wheat bread on Saturday.
Ester was nine and still quite sensitive to climate change and the plight of animals. She usually refused to eat the meat, and although she was no longer allowed to lecture her family on the hurt they were doing, she did continue to glare at them and suck on her empty fork for much of meat nights.
Huey did not care much.
Mr. Purdy was a humanitarian. Each summer, he took his three children with him on a service trip to one of the poverty-stricken regions he supported with his work for various foundations and government agencies. Veronica was grateful for these trips, as they’d taught her that it didn’t matter how much organic food her family ate or how often they rode their bikes. Her father was big on sustainable development, social enterprise, economic revolution, but Veronica wasn’t really sure how anyone progressed without some earth-damning industry. She had given up on her father’s sort of compassion. She would become a photographer or a drug queen instead.
Henrietta applied a fresh coat of nail polish (the bottle called it “Pearl of the Orient”) and performed her calisthenics. Retirement suited her. She did not pretend to look or feel younger, but she was remaking herself. The women at church had all encouraged her to try a dating website. First, Henrietta had made a profile on “Singles with Food Allergies.” It wasn’t that her tree nut allergies were particularly important to her; she was just interested in the sort of people interested in specialty love. She was soon creating profiles on dozens of sites: “Equestrian Cupid,” “Hot Sauce Passions,” “Furry Mate.”
She’d found Mrs. Purdy’s profile last week on “Flesh Land.” The username was not Karen Purdy, but the photo of a woman in a yellow scarf looking out on the water was unmistakably her. Despite the site’s name, it advertised itself as a place for “Friends to Meet.” Henrietta expected that even if Mrs. Purdy was looking for friends, Mr. Purdy would like to know that his wife had a profile with her interests listed as: yoga, hot yoga, eel conservation, folk music, and her children.
Mrs. Purdy was an anesthesiologist. While some people might think of this as a second-rate doctor, Henrietta always read the highest-paying job lists. Mrs. Purdy’s hours were unpredictable, but the Wednesday that Henrietta resolved to walk over, Mrs. Purdy’s hybrid was not in the driveway, and Henrietta was relieved.
Henrietta sealed her nail polish with a blow dryer and put on some casual sneakers. The red truck came, the red truck left, and Henrietta walked across the Purdys’ lawn. It was best to be devious about using the truth instead of lying, and Henrietta did really hope that the Purdys would take part in the town centennial.
Up close, the cardboard box was still a cardboard box. The “FRESH” sticker was stuck on below a label that showed the shipment came from Venezuela. Henrietta rang the doorbell and Mr. Purdy opened the door so quickly that he must have already been on the other side of it.
“Good morning, Henrietta,” Mr. Purdy said.
Mr. Purdy was wearing white tube socks, and no shoes.
“There’s a box here for you.”
“Yes, there is.”
“Would you like to take it inside?” she said.
He looked at her and did not answer.
“Strange time for a delivery,” she said.
Henrietta was justified in her suspicions. Mr. Purdy did not want to talk about the box, and she would not force him. She would ease him into it.
Mr. Purdy liked to talk about his work even if you didn’t understand it. The door remained halfway open, Henrietta remained on the front porch, and Mr. Purdy spoke about his new business endeavor, explained that it incited the sustainable exchange of foreign natural resources and human capital for hard American cash. Instead of shifting his gaze as he spoke, Mr. Purdy stared at Henrietta. He reminded her of a young boy who has just begun a rock collection.
Henrietta smiled and nodded and asked what his family was doing for dinner that night.
“We like to eat as a family every Wednesday,” he said. “It’s our time to connect, a reprieve in the middle of the week.”
“What if I just stop by? I’ll bring cookies.”
“Another night would be better.”
“We’ve been neighbors for over a year and we’ve never had dinner!”
“I appreciate your enthusiasm Henrietta, I do.”
“What about tea this morning?”
“I’ve got to get to work.”
“I’ll be over at seven then,” she said. “I’ve got to tell your family about the centennial.”
Ten minutes before seven, Henrietta walked across her grass, damp from the sprinkler, to theirs, a native kind that scratched at your ankles and looked like a weed. She knocked instead of ringing the doorbell, a knock was more personal. She’d brought brownies instead of cookies. The children would like them.
There was no answer and so she rang the doorbell, and rang it, until shining-faced Huey was there, with his pant legs rolled up and his eyebrows raised high.
“Yes?” he said.
“Your father invited me over for dinner.”
“Oh,” he said. “We’re already eating.”
“That’s quite alright,” Henrietta said.
She smiled as she walked into their dining room. When the Landers’ lived here, she’d been over nearly every week. The room was less familiar now, with the prayer flags hanging down over the windows, the chandelier that mimicked sunlight.
“This smells delicious,” Henrietta said.
Veronica fixed Henrietta a plate. When Veronica reached for the last cut of meat from the white china platter, her mother stopped her.
“Dear, I don’t think Henrietta would much like our meat.”
“Why? Isn’t it all natural?”
“I’d love to try it,” Henrietta said.
“Oh let her,” Mr. Purdy said. “Let her.”
Veronica placed the meat on Henrietta’s plate. It seemed like pork, and Henrietta knew that it would be poor-mannered to ask what kind of meat it was. Veronica hadn’t finished eating hers yet either, and so she and Henrietta took bites in tandem. The meat wasn’t over salted, over seasoned, over brined. Grilled simple to display the freshness.
“Do you like it?” Mr. Purdy said.
“It’s sweet,” Henrietta said.
“See!” he said. “This is the venture I was explaining to you this morning! This comes from places abroad that can support a kind of agriculture we can’t. It uses their waste, it brings them capital. It’s sustainable. It tastes wonderful.”
“Frank, what are you—”
“Dad, I didn’t know you were working with the butcher,” Veronica said.
“Yes, I haven’t told you all about it yet,” he said. “Other than your mother, but she has her own secrets! I’m too excited to keep it secret any longer. This meat is only shipped to a few select homes now, but soon, well we’ll be national, global, transformative.”
Veronica understood only a moment before her father gave it away.
“What sort of meat is it exactly?” Henrietta asked.
“Didn’t I tell you that it’s an excellent use of human capital?” Mr. Purdy said. “Didn’t I tell you?”
Veronica wondered if she was eating a thigh or an arm or a part of someone’s chest. There were so many extra bodies, weren’t there? Wasn’t that the point, that her father’s work had always been useless.
“But,” Mrs. Purdy said, “but it isn’t meat at all!”
“What are you talking about Karen?” Mr. Purdy said.
“It’s imitation meat! That’s your enterprise! Imitation meat created in the developing world!”
Ester began to cry.
“Venezuela,” Henrietta said. “Venezuela.”
Huey decided that it had definitely been an arm tonight.
“It’s an imitation!”
“No, Karen,” he said. “It’s flesh.”
Henrietta realized she quite liked the taste. And Veronica, for once, did not.