Pretty much everybody made peace with it very early on in the process. It wasn’t the most pleasant prospect in this world, or any other. But it had been explained to us in the most rational and persuasive terms imaginable, in sentences so simple that even the dumbest among us were capable of getting it; and once we swallowed that pill and incorporated it into our daily lives, it really didn’t make much of a difference in the scheme of things. We were adults about it.
But that doesn’t make much of a difference when your four-year-old daughter looks up at you with her big brown eyes and asks you, “Daddy? Why are the space men going to grind us into hamburgers?”
Tanisha is the light of my life. I guess that doesn’t come as much of a surprise, really. Fathers are supposed to dote on their daughters. But I’ve been around long enough to know that this isn’t always so. I have a friend, Ferd, short for Ferdinand, not a bad guy really, but one of those men who really doesn’t know what to do with the strange miniature people he’d created when he got together with that pretty wife of his; not his son, and certainly not with his daughter, who he regards like she’s as much of an alien as the ones who came down from space and declared our future as meat. Ferd doesn’t have one damned idea what to make of the pretty little girl he fathered, who looks up at him with her sky-blue eyes and expects him to show her something, anything. “I guess I don’t have the fatherhood gene,” he told me once. But since Tanisha’s birth, I’ve found out that I do, and that it wraps me as tightly as any set of chains ever forged for any imprisoned man, and I would not have it any other way. Whenever she asks me a difficult question, whether it’s naïve or childish or just one of those eternal mysteries that anyone not a four-year-old girl understands cannot be solved even by authorities far more educated than I, I know that to her I am the primary source of wisdom and that I don’t dare blow her off with some half-truth meant only to placate her into giving her a moment’s peace.
So I just said, “They think we’ll taste good, I guess.”
This was on our back steps, after sunset, looking out onto our little green yard surrounded by a high wooden fence with the one knothole that sometimes flickers with pink whenever the big friendly pit bull from next door sticks his tongue through and licks our side for reasons mysterious to any mind less arcane than that particular canine’s. The sky was a dark purple not yet fully faded to black and a few of the brighter stars, none belonging to the aliens who were going to grind us up and make us into hamburgers, had already appeared to announce that yet another day had passed. We’d just had dinner, franks and beans, and as per our nightly habit had stepped outside so I could have one of my four daily cigarettes and Tanisha could have her last energetic run in circles before her bath and bedtime story. It was a time when a daughter could ask her father questions, like how birds could fly, or what life was like in olden times, or why the aliens were going to grind us up and make us into hamburgers.
She was beautiful, my little girl: not just beautiful in the way that all little girls are, even when they’re not, but beautiful in the way her mother was, beautiful in the way that made strangers say that one day she was going to break hearts. And she would have, too, at least if there were a future beyond the one only weeks away, where she and everybody else was going to end up being ground into hamburgers. Someday, if not for those aliens, I would have stood there with wet eyes as she married some guy, or, I more than halfway suspect, some girl I pretended to like but hated a little, for taking her from me, and if there was a plus side to what was going to happen, it was that I would never really have to live a day when she was no longer my little girl. The negative, of course, was that I would live a day when she and her mother and I all got ground into hamburgers. But she was beautiful, a little person with probing eyes and an infectious laugh and hair that got tangled in her braids, and never more beautiful than when she was trying to stump her old man with questions.
She tilted her head, in the manner of any little girl who needed to stay in some kind of motion even when doing something as sedentary as asking a question, and said, “How are they going to grind us into hamburgers?”
“Do you remember that big silver building we saw the other day? The one that just popped up in front of the Winn-Dixie?”
“. . . yes . . .”
“Well, that’s one of the machines that’s going to grind us into hamburgers. There are millions of them, now, in every city and every town, and in places far from any city or town, anywhere you can go to find people.”
“Even on the ocean?” said Tanisha.
Maybe she would have been a lawyer. She’d always been quick, even before she started talking. That’s one of the great pleasures of parenthood, you know; at least, it is if you’re one of those folks who take to the job, who understand that when you take hold of a baby, you’re in for an exercise in watching that child forge connections, figure out the way the world’s put together and how she’s going to find a place in it. Each basic building block is triumph. I, for one, deeply remember the day when I carried her outside, brought her to the scrawny little sapling that sits beside my front curb, and taught her the word “tree.” I remember how she repeated the word doubtfully, saying “twee?” and how she seemed to be filing it away for future reference, a useful bit of information that she’d likely need to reference later on. I treasure beyond all reasonable proportion the knowledge that I never had to tell her the word a second time. Before long, she was acquiring data at a rate that seemed dizzying, figuring out things before I got around to explaining them to her, deducing Z from her prior experience with X and Y. Now I was proud to say that she was smarter at her four than I’d been at my ten, and that she seemed poised to accelerate still further, to build the kind of mind that dwarfed her old man’s. Even on the ocean? That was her brain at work: a direct line for the first obvious loophole.
A lawyer, then. It would have been nice to see her graduate from law school. She would have been the first in our line, of which we only know the last century and a half, to make something like that of herself.
“Even on the ocean, sweetie. They have smaller vessels tracking our ships at sea. They’ve let us know that when the day comes, those vessels will match speeds with those ships, lower a walkway and let folks know when it’s time to climb aboard to be ground into hamburgers.”
“Oh,” she said, and asked the next question after the shortest possible interval for processing: “Will it hurt?”
“No, honey. They promised us it won’t hurt.”
“Do you believe them, Daddy?”
“Yes,” I said, without hesitation. “They were kind enough to show us everything. It’ll be over before we know it. There’s even a bit, just before the end, that’s going to be fun.”
“How can it be fun?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. But they showed us. They’re smart.”
By now her eyes were very round. “How will they make us into hamburgers?”
And how much of the truth does a wise father tell? What details do you include, when replying to life’s unanswerables? Do you say that Grampy died because he was an old man who lived too hard, drank like a fish, suffered hypertension, and had a simmering temper that he mostly hid from his loved ones, but that ate away at him every single day he endured on this planet? Or do you say that God was getting lonely without a Grampy and that he took yours to live with him for a while, but that Grampy’s still in our lives, looking down on you from a heaven of fluffy white clouds? Which is better, the truth or the fantasy? The truth did have the advantage of being indivisible. It might be upsetting, but she would never be able to pick at it, never be able to find the contradictions that had already led her to question the accounts, if not the veracity, of Santa Claus. I would only have to leave out some of the worst to advise her that when the day came, the aliens would release a signal, more powerful still than the one that currently kept us reconciled with the inevitable; one that would call to every human being with two brain cells to put together, and have us drop everything we might be doing to head toward the machines and up the ramps and past the burst of something that would relieve us of any senses at all, so we wouldn’t have to dread feeling what happened next. I wouldn’t have to tell her that the blades they intended on using, which they were kind enough to demonstrate for us on the same day we found out that we were all going to be ground into hamburgers, were only a few molecules thick, and sharp enough to part steel; those would end us, and subsequent more advanced filters would separate the edible from the nonedible, removing anything that didn’t belong to the animal, from eyeglasses and clothing to the fillings in our teeth to artificial heart valves and hips and other prosthetics, discarding all of those, before what was left was sent further to machines that separated every organic part of us from every other part of us, separating the prime from the gamey, the fat from the lean, the tender from the tough, grading it all before mixing us all together and collating us into individually wrapped patties of about a quarter-pound apiece, before cooking. I could tell Tanisha that since we were all going to be mixed together, in the end, that some of the patties I’ll become will also contain bits of her, and bits of Mommy, and bits of other people we care about, and that as I lay awake at night, I sometimes prayed that this would be so, because in my head it possessed some value of still being a father: that being what I was left with. But really, I could have said that it would be all be over with that one burst of bright something that was going to take away God and the alphabet and rules of poker and the awareness of each other and the capacity for feeling pain and fear; and anything that happened after that was going to be beyond our capacity to feel, except for, as the aliens who were going to grind us all up into hamburgers promised, one moment of artificially-induced but nevertheless powerful joy.
Their kind explanation had included a brief, diluted sense of that happiness, broadcast to all of us in the same instant. The fundamentalists got their rapture and the addiction-prone got a high that they could chase, with longing, for all the time we had left. Some even called what we were going to get fair recompense for what we were going to lose, and I was not one to argue, not when in all the weeks that followed I’d been unable to keep thinking of that one taste I’d had, the taste that still called to me and that I found myself still longing for, in the dead of night. Nothing else I’d ever known, in my life, had ever compared to that taste . . . but for one thing, the arrival of the little girl who was still staring up at me, blinking, waiting for me to provide an answer that would get past a filter far more demanding than any the aliens were going to use to take the good parts from the bad.
Big brown eyes like dinner plates, asking the question:
How will they make us into hamburgers?
I said what all daddies have always said, to such unanswerable demands, since the beginning of time.
Blessedly, that was still an answer that satisfied. She nodded and said, “Okay.”
She crawled into my lap and gave me a hug, not so much because she needed the comfort as because it was one of the good things she had learned that a life could have, and I hugged her back and kissed her on the top of her head and told her with mock sternness that it was time she got her little butt back inside and got ready for bed. I assured her that I would be back inside in a little bit, to tuck her in and tell her a story, one that would send to her the land of sleep with sweet and comfortable dreams. She knew from experience that this was a critical part of the negotiation that, once completed, could not be argued with, and so she went, bopping with the energy that she had somehow still not used up, not with that conversation, and not with anything that had come before it.
I was left with one of my favorite parts of the day, the sudden delicious quiet that came after she was gone, but before I had time to worry about what she’d gotten up to. It was the first few days of fall, just before a winter that was coming but that none of us would live long enough to feel, and the breeze was cool in a way that lightened what part of the summer had still not resigned us into departing. It felt good, and with that breeze came a charcoal-scented whiff from some neighbor a few houses away, using his backyard grill for what was surely one of the last times.
I’d eaten a full dinner, but the aroma did what such mouth-watering smells do, and fooled me into thinking I was still hungry.