“Slaughtered 20 yesterday. Brutal.”
“Think it’s their right.”
“Is it really now? Thought there was some sort of fucking requirement…”
Sharon set the vanilla dishes down enough a muted clatter fell between each plate but not enough for anybody within earshot, James or the slow walkers who took to the sidewalk most days admiring bluebirds. Today was a frostbite-inducing exception for it was only city workers, casually getting ready for completion, each face fogged by their own breath, dark facial hair contrasting frost.
Setting aside the dishes on the counter, she went for the flatware. She liked to put the flatware away first. It made the most noise and she remembered when her mother would do it in the middle of the night after a row with her father. The more stressful the battle had been, the louder the flatware got shoveled back into the drawer.
Sharon put the large chrome spoons away softly as if handling a softheaded baby. “I wish you wouldn’t … say … use that kind of language.”
“Fucking is what they do to us. Lure us in with promises and fuck us after. No matter who it is – corporations, government, this … housing cluster or whatever you want to call it. False fucking promises. Aspen Copse. How in the hell did they ever come by that name? Sharon, do you know any cops living in this neighborhood? I sure as hell don’t.”
“It’s a grove.”
“A grove? Uh huh. Right. We don’t have Aspen in …”
“The corner, James. Northwest. A grove of Aspen … a copse.”
James stood at the faded kitchen table, a muted version of its former honey pine. Sitting slowly, he took a deep breath, held it for a moment before his tailing exhale. He stared at the daily placed just so by Sharon.
Flatware lightly clinked as Sharon set each grouping into the divider’s proper place in the kitchen drawer next to the stove. Another breath from James accompanied by a sigh, he picked up the daily while stating, “Ought to look into your damn snoring.”
Sharon answered by moving her stack of dishes into the upper cabinet. James opened the newspaper and looked at the grocery store insert. Per custom, the insert’s front page was dominated by meat specials. He set the insert to the side with an audible “hmm.”
“James, you know I could maybe get one of those machines.”
“Can’t now, Sharon.” James softened for her, “It’s not so bad. I sleep, most times.”
She had felt his resignation as he set the insert on the table. Keeping on her toes was one of her best traits. Sharon the Intuitive is what he called her, and he had liked that in her. Two weeks and 21 years ago after Valentine’s Day they had married on a day so cold the frost crept up the narthex window’s glass in an scratchy pattern as if the devil was desperately trying to claw his way into the church for sanctuary’s warmth. He had wanted to be married on Valentine’s Day, but she thought it too much plus, she fondly recalled, she wanted to have two celebrations in one month every year.
Sharon had stayed home at 228 Feather Lake waiting for the children who never came, tending the house, making everything fit in an orderly fashion because she knew. She’d place daily pieces systematically in the kitchen, mostly on the table, for James to begin and end his day.
Sharon willed a few stubborn matching vanilla bowls into their positions in the upper cabinet alongside the salad plates they rarely used for salads. “James, there’s a new place I hear…”
“With fresh faces.”
“Experience never hurts, James.”
“The greatest teacher. Yeah.” He paused for a moment, looking out at the city workers donning their bright orange vests lest anyone blinder than a bat couldn’t make out the huge truck to avoid in the first place. A quick glance back down at the grocery store insert, his eyes came back up to carefully watch their activity.
“Well, they’ve got a lot of work to do James, maybe they…”
“Not them. Her.”
“Who else. So goddamn chatty.”
“Not sure she was so chatty.”
James turned in his chair to look at Sharon. He glowered and spat out, “Really? Were you there every day? No. Her cheeriness. It’s goddamn hard work and here she was, five foot four, 110 pounds soaking wet in sweat trying to move sides of beef. Shit she can’t do it by herself. Ridiculous.”
And so it had gone for nearly a year before he got called into the manager’s office. James reluctantly taught her how to be a proper butcher in spite of her own father being one who obviously was not paying attention to anything for James had to do it. James would come home; complain to Sharon about the unfairness of it all. But she was right for the most part for some things were better left alone, including trying to keep the girl from talking so much. His pay was significantly more, as it should be for he was seasoned, she a fresh cut straight out of high school with plans for college at some point if her father would cut her loose.
The manager’s office sat above the meat locker so it was always appropriately cold for anyone having to be called in regardless for what occasion. The general manager, a man a good half-decade younger than James, had waved his hand for James to sit then leaned forward from his grey fabric desk chair.
“Gotta let you go. You’re getting to be too much.”
“Too much pay you mean.”
“Well, too much. You’ll get a good recommendation.”
“Fuck your recommendation.”
“Not the best way to go out after what? Five years, Jim?”
The general manager had propped his elbows onto his desk, clasped his hands together, and stated, “I won’t hold your crassness against you.”
“You heard what I said.”
“How quickly do you want me to show you the door?”
“It’s the only reason. That and money. She comes from money too, but you know that.”
James got up and the general manager rose with him. Arms simultaneously folded across their respective chests.
“So that’s it.”
“As far as this conversation and your employment, yes.”
James had thought of himself as a damn good butcher. He had a tender ego but most of the customers liked him. For short bits of time he could charm and dispense advice. Long chunks of time he could cauterize, unless someone was willing to have the soft patience he never could muster.
To him, there was no reason whatsoever to have Emma in meat. She was young, pretty and slow. Not mentally slow for she could chat up a customer on how to prepare any cut and upsell them too depending upon the meal. She was, how did Sharon describe Emma upon first meeting her? Bubbly. Sharon liked her. They weren’t close friends for there was a large age gap, but friends. She always looked at Emmy through her hazy aged eyes as the girl stared back with youth’s wonder.
Youth, or age, wasn’t the issue. Sharon knew it. She knew him better than he knew him. She had watched her husband’s career ascend the hill of success in sputters, two years here, three there, an astounding five at this last one. It was a car taking a steep hill with two flats and a dying alternator, but it had moved forward. This job he was fired for ‘being too damn expensive and not pretty enough for the job’ as James had put it, had been number seven without much of the superstitious luck associated with the number.
“I was chopped down, Sharon. Hacked. Like the 20 goddamn… did get that severance, Sharon. Didn’t I? Yep. Whoop do dang fucking diddly do.”
James quickly got up from the kitchen table. He grabbed his deep red coat, whipped it around and shoved his arms into the sleeves, followed by a hasty donning of his thick wool ski cap and set of matching gloves so generously given to him by the union.
“I’m going out.”
In this brittle morning everything was red, all red, as the chipper ground away: his coat; raw hamburger; the blood he poured into every single day; his face seething in anger as his cheeks fought the breath-snapping cold. He watched, red, raw and angry, and yelled. No use, the young pink asses with their bright orange vests couldn’t hear a thing as they thrilled themselves taking down an old tree. Big stout Maple number 21. No longer than a day ago the tree provided over 20 years of consistent housing, shade and protection.
He kept shouting, but no one was listening and his ears returned to ringing with his wife’s careless sleeping staccato.