"I wouldn’t make up shit like this, I swear," said Dennis halfway through his third beer.

Scott squinted at him skeptically. "So you really want me to believe…"
Dennis nodded. "That Ashram Anton has been grinding people into hamburger for the last six months. That’s right." He completed Scott’s sentence and his own beer consecutively.
"My God, Dennis. I don’t know what to say. Hamburger? Why? Anyone we know?"
"Well," replied Dennis, raising one finger to beckon the waitress. "Therein lies a story."
*
Scott and Dennis and a core group of friends had remained in touch after college, their social lives a continuation of their Portland State revelries. Scott nearly married one of the group, Allison–blonde, gregarious, earthy. A little too earthy for Scott’s tastes which ran more to khakis and mutual funds than Birkenstocks and saving the flat-footed grebe. So the romance ended but the friendship remained.
To the general amusement of the old gang, Allison over the years had introduced a series of increasingly eccentric boyfriends as her enthusiasms meandered from eastern medicine to preserving the Amazon to vegan cooking. The last had coincided with the introduction of a painfully thin, bearded fellow the group quickly dubbed Ashram Anton, as much for his fiercely-spiced vegetarian curries as his appetite for recreational drugs.
Anton ran a vegetarian restaurant on Hawthorne Boulevard. The Sacred Cow was a narrow cavern of a joint wedged between a non-profit women’s interest bookstore and a used-CD shop. A cramped cluster of tables overlooked by hemp wall hangings and yellowed Robert Crumb posters fronted a lengthy kitchen, hidden behind a beaded curtain, where Anton concocted his leafy delights. Allison browbeat members of the group to stop in occasionally. Most of the old gang grudgingly admitted to enjoying a dish or two, with the noted exception of Scott who professed an unreasoning and unchangeable opposition to all things meatless.
One evening in January Dennis agreed to meet Allison at The Sacred Cow. They’d remained tolerably good friends, based largely on the amiable Dennis’ ability to reduce the friction between her and Scott during gatherings. On the appointed day Allison rang up Dennis at his office.
"Dennis? Allison. Look, can we meet at another restaurant? It doesn’t matter. You decide."
That night at the Bridgeport Ale House, Allison unburdened herself while picking strips of ham and turkey out of her chef salad.
"Something is wrong with Anton." She raised her fork threateningly before Dennis could respond. "No wisecracks. I’m serious."
"OK. I’m sorry. What’s bothering you?"
"Anton started serving hamburgers at The Sacred Cow."
"What!" Dennis exclaimed, a forgotten forkful of baked potato raised halfway to his mouth. "Ashram Anton eating meat?"
"I didn’t say he was eating it. He’s serving it. Hamburgers anyway."
Dennis resumed eating. He was a hard man to put off his feed. "So? Maybe he wants to expand his customer base."
"I don’t think so. The timing is really weird."
"How so?"
"Well, two weeks ago the cattleman’s association held a convention here in Portland. Anton and I joined a protest outside the convention center. Somehow things got out of hand. The anti-fur activists showed up, then the medical research opponents, and then some real fringe elements. Shut up Dennis, it’s not funny. Anyway, the protest escalated until the police showed up. A little pushing and shoving, a couple of rocks and bottles and suddenly it’s the ’68 Democratic National Convention. I get Anton into the Subaru. He took a face-full of pepper spray but other than that he was okay. We drive away, and Anton’s staring through his tears, fixed on the cattlemen standing outside the convention center, grinning and smoking cigars. Next week he’s slapping burgers on the grill."
Dennis had to agree that was a little odd. But as he’d no constructive advice for her, he simply suggested she keep an eye on Anton and keep him informed.
A few weeks later, at a housewarming thrown to introduce the gang to Scott’s new riverfront condominium unit, Allison mentioned the case of Mack Sheridan, a wealthy rancher of some local repute (or infamy, depending on one’s view of the chain of ‘gentlemen’s’ clubs he owned), who had mysteriously disappeared. No one had a clear idea when, as Sheridan frequently drifted off on private jaunts without leaving word of his departure. No ransom demands arrived, and not a trace of the man could be found.
Dennis found that interesting but hardly conclusive. Then Allison offered the more recent case of Pauline Delacroix, an "edgy" clothing designer from LA who had arrived in the city but apparently did not leave it. Her fall line of knee-length otter-hide skirts had garnered a certain degree of notoriety. Such people are difficult to misplace in a metropolis, but there you have it. Vanished.
*
"Yeah, I think I remember that," Scott interjected, breaking the flow of Dennis’s story. "I caught the tail end of the conversation, remember? I said something about ‘the skin looking better just above the knees of some hottie of a model than it did on the overgrown water rat.’ Allison got all huffy and said something like, ‘How can you say that? Don’t you think that poor creature had feelings, and hopes and dreams, and loved its children?’ When she let up for breath I said, ‘No.’ That’s when you stepped in, patted us both on the head and said ‘Now, now, play nice kiddies.’ You condescending bastard."
"Right," grinned Dennis. He took advantage of the interruption to order a couple more pints of Widmer’s IPA, then continued with his narrative.
*
Dennis met Anton and Allison a week later for a Warren Beatty retrospective at the Clinton Street Theater. Allison had been insistent. Afterwards, over organically grown, fairly traded coffee, Dennis sat sullen, grumpy, and bored. Ashram Anton, however, was effusive.
"Volunteered at a gun turn-in program yesterday," Anton volunteered. "A record store was offering Yusuf Islam MP3s in exchange for each piece. Got at least a dozen murder sticks off the street, man."
Allison smiled cautiously. "Good work. Who knows how many lives you saved?"
Anton grunted. "Maybe. One was a hunting rifle some old woman brought in. So I may have saved at least one or two innocent lives."
He spread wide the lapels of his threadbare sports coat to reveal the ‘I Heart Hunting Accidents’ t-shirt stretched across his skeletal chest. "I heard on NPR that Thomas Vesper drove off the lot after work the other day but never reached home," Allison offered. Vesper was a local truck and Sport-Ute magnate whose face beamed benignly from every conceivable advertising medium.
Anton’s gaunt bearded cheeks lifted into a broad grin, approximating Vesper’s ubiquitous smile. "So, it’s been a good week."
"You’re awful," Allison said playfully.
"Am I?" replied Anton, his grin fading. "If you’re not part of the solution, babe, you’re part of the problem."
Decidedly odd, Dennis thought. But if coincidences did not occur, the language would be unlikely to have a word for them. Not an entirely rational thought, to be sure. But Dennis shied away from following the rational train all the way to the terminal. He decided instead to pay a solo visit to The Sacred Cow and talk to Ashram Anton alone.
*
He’d just avoided the lunch "rush." Given the compact dining space and the pungent organic smells emanating from the kitchen (and, frequently, from the diners), Dennis considered his timing fortunate. Ashram Anton was bussing up the remains of a platter of tabouli and black bean enchiladas when Dennis entered, setting off a tocsin of miniature cowbells dangling from the door. Anton manned his restaurant alone, having encountered some difficulty in hiring reliable help, so he and Dennis had the place to themselves.
"Dennis! Can’t get enough of that saffron rice and tofu, huh? Have a seat," Anton said.
"Thanks Anton," Dennis said, depositing himself in a chair, "but I’ve already eaten. I’d like to talk to you."
Ashram Anton gazed at Dennis for a moment, shaggy head cocked to one side.
"Sure, just let me get these dishes in the sink." He disappeared behind the beaded curtain, then reemerged a minute later with a pot of tea.
"What’s on your mind Dennis?" Anton asked, pouring two cups.
"I understand you’ve expanded your menu."
"You understand? What do you mean you understand?" Anton asked. "Speak plain. You corporate suits and your circumlocution complicate everything. Someone told you that I expanded my menu, so just say that. ‘I was told you expanded your menu.’" Anton drained his tea with satisfaction, as if celebrating a victory.
Dennis conceded. "OK, Anton, I was told you expanded your menu. I was told you are slapping burgers on the grill."
"Excellent! You can be taught, there’s hope for you yet. Now, Mr. Man, the next step in plain talk is to lay all your cards on the table, not grudgingly drop bits of information one at a time. So, who told you?"
"Look, Anton, I just think it’s a little unusual, that’s all. I don’t see why it matters who told me."
"The truth always matters, Dennis. A little more sunshine beamed up corporate America’s asshole would matter a lot. ‘Course that won’t happen. So, ‘fess up, who told you?"
"Fine. Allison told me."
"Allison," Anton snorted. "Why am I not surprised? She always was a bit of an unreliable flake, wanting to be part of the movement, but never willing to lose touch with her complacent drone friends. But yeah, I’m serving you carnivores your precious ground flesh. It’s no secret."
"Well, this complacent drone is uncharacteristically curious. Why the policy change?"
"Simple. For a reason you certainly should understand–business. I need to expand my customer base, bring in the wannabe’s and the backsliders. People like Allison who think they want to be on the side of the angels but just can’t commit. Want a burger?"
Dennis declined and, thanking Anton for the tea, returned to his office. He placed a call to Allison as he drove his Montero home from work that evening. He’d worked late so traffic proved pleasantly light. Allison’s voicemail picked up after the third ring, so Dennis tried her cell. One ring, then: "Dennis, help! Anton…" The connection terminated.
"Damn!" Dennis cursed, dropping the phone and cranking the SUV into a precarious, tire-squealing U-turn. He forced the accelerator to the floor and navigated a high speed run towards The Sacred Cow. He applied no deductive reasoning to choose his destination. That Ashram Anton had just kidnapped Allison and was holding her at The Sacred Cow with nefarious intent was beyond question. Calling the police did cross his mind, but fumbling for the cell-phone where he’d dropped it on the floorboards proved unnerving at eighty miles per hour.
He slalomed through sparse traffic over the Burnside Bridge, rocketed down MLK, catching a succession of green lights, and hurtled up Hawthorne, fingers digging deep into the wheel, eyes flicking nervously in search of pedestrians, bicyclists, and impending vehicles driven at sane speeds. He brought the Montero to a halt in the middle of the street and paused just long enough to retrieve his phone before jumping out. He dialed 911 and dropped the phone into the front pocket of his blazer as he sprinted for the restaurant. Jangling cowbells announced his entry. The dining area was deserted.
"Damn it Anton, don’t you think cowbells in The Sacred Cow restaurant are inappropriate?" Dennis had no idea what he meant by the question; he’d called out loudly for the benefit of the dispatcher who had (he hoped) answered the emergency line. "What have you done with Allison?"
A muffled scream from behind the beaded curtain, followed by a dull thud, was the only reply.
Dennis tore the curtain from its moorings in his haste, triggering a deluge of plastic beads. Allison leaned against a vintage refrigerator, one hand held tightly against the right side of her face. Blood trickled between her fingers. Ashram Anton stood nearby, awkwardly clutching a medium-caliber revolver.
"You son of a bitch!" bellowed Dennis, taking a step forward.
Anton raised the pistol. "I only pistol-whipped the bitch. I’ll put a slug into you, fuck you up like your kind fucks up the Earth." His thin frame vibrated with intensity, the cords of his neck strained taut against his skin, a too-large ten-gallon hat perched precariously on his shaggy head. Hugely dilated pupils glistened between hat and beard.
Dennis stepped back involuntarily. He raised his hands. "Relax Anton. I think we need to talk."
"Talk? That’s all I’ve ever done, up ’til recently. I’m through with talk."
"Look, you’ve got the gun. I’m no threat. Another chat can’t hurt." Dennis cast about for a place to sit. A stool bellied up against a chopping board near at hand. Anton didn’t object as Dennis walked to the stool, but tracked his movements with the pistol. Dennis sat, and noticed with little surprise that, incongruously, an otter skin was draped across the scarred plastic cutting surface. An empty pill bottle lay on its side next to the skin, the label obscured by black marker.
"Why don’t you let Allison go, Anton?" Dennis said. He spoke in what he hoped was a reasonable tone, but winced internally at the note of hesitancy that came through.
"So she can run off and squeal to the pigs? She’s already proved she’s faithless."
"And why should I do anything else?" demanded Allison suddenly. "You’re a murderer, and you’ve just added kidnapping."
"Murderer? That wasn’t murder, bitch. That was cleansing. Those I killed–ranchers, industrialists, polluters of all stripes–were a blight upon Mother Earth with their mass production and automobiles and fast food. But I see now that they were only purveyors of the blight. It is the consumers of their filth–you and Dennis and all the rest–who are the real problem. Man, with his fire and sharpened sticks. That is the cancer gnawing away at Mother Earth."
"How can you lump me in with the corporate greedheads? Didn’t I sit in the drum circle with you for two hours? Don’t I recycle my garbage? And my neighbor’s garbage? I even got rid of my leather sandals."
"Tokenism. That’s not commitment. That’s not sacrifice."
"Not sacrifice? Anton, I threw away shoes. But there’s sacrifice, and then there’s sacrifice. You are killing people!"
"That is commitment. I am part of the solution. I’m eradicating the cancer."
Seeing that Anton was as buggy as an anthill, Dennis broke in. "So you manage to kill a few people. So what? You think that is a solution? The rest of the cancer will hardly notice the loss of a few cells."
"It’s a start. It’s the beginning of the final solution. Others will see my commitment."
"Final solution, huh? So, let me get this straight. Fire, sharpened stick, man–that’s the problem?"
"Simplistically put, yeah," agreed Anton.
"And the solution, the final solution, is doing away with the problem?"
Anton’s respiration, already rapid, increased. He nodded, swallowed. A thin smile played across his lips.
"And you are leading the way. You are–what did you say–showing your commitment."
"Exactly right. Now you’re catching on."
Dennis adopted a slow, thoughtful tone. "Well, I don’t believe you’ve shown commitment at all. If, as you claim, people are the problem, and if you are leading the way, then have the courage of your convictions. Kill yourself."
Anton did not answer. He turned to stare at Allison with glassy eyes for a long moment. Then Anton laughed hollowly, fixing his gaze on Dennis. He put the barrel of the pistol between his thin lips and pulled the trigger.
*
"No fucking way!" Scott exclaimed.
"I shit you not my friend," replied Dennis, and lifted his hand to summon the waitress for another round.
*
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