“Are you still to learn that the end and perfection of our victories is to avoid the vices and infirmities of those whom we subdue?”
Plutarch, Parallel Lives
EVERY MORNING AT ELEVEN the butcher tossed the expired, damaged, and discolored meats into the bone-can. When the can had filled to the brim, he would wheel it to the receiving dock and dump the spoiled meats into a larger disposal unit, which was emptied weekly by an outside team contracted to Loman’s Supermarkets for collecting organic waste. What this outfit did with the animal waste was a topic of endless conversation in the meat department. Were the putrid animal relics returned to the Earth? Were they sourced for ingredients to produce makeup? Ground it into dog food? Or more insidiously, reconstituted into meals for the homeless? Buzz sessions were a daily ritual around the bone-can while the fouled meats were knifed out from their packages in slimy clusters. A water-cooler for the blue-collar gaggle.
With hardly any effort the butcher slid the scabbed cooler door open, walked into the brisk refrigerated room, boots sticking to the greasy floor, slowing his tread, tipped back the container onto its wheels while grasping the cylindrical handle, and led it out towards the sprinkler room, which had a large drain built into the center of the floor with a catcher for larger loose particles. The sprinkler room lay between the electrical room and the garbage room just beside the receiving docks.
Many years ago the butcher had coined the bone-can, with considerable enmity, as “the great asshole of Satan,” a phrase that had withstood the trial of time. The bone-can doubled as a test nowadays, making trial of a butcher’s apprentice stomach. The mound of decomposing meats commingling was a sight not everyone could endure after breakfast. They didn’t slaughter carcasses onsite anymore, so the bone-can was as dicey as things got in the meat department. “If you can’t stare down the devil’s back-door, day-in, day-out, then you can’t cut it in this business,” the butcher had told his staff authoritatively and they took it to heart like the gospel truth.
Just before reaching the sprinkler room, the butcher stopped dead in his tracks and eased the can to the ground. “Stupid,” he said aloud to himself. He had forgotten to empty the bone-can of the spoiled meats before taking the container to be cleaned. For a creature of habit, such an error in judgment rarely occurred. He enacted the same rite every couple of days when the can had filled to the brim, instinctively knowing the best angle to recline the container for the drive, his raw callused hands, flushed from the refrigerated air, gripping the abraded moss colored handle, and adjusting the angle based on the weight being carried.
He disdained being sidetracked with things beside the task at hand. Daydreams were not for him. He was very conscientious of his routines, to the point of being meticulous, formalistic even, but not fussy. The other laborers adhered to his methods because they were clear and precise, on the nose. Not fussy. Just tried and tested. He reclined the can onto its wheels and retreaded his steps, backwards, in the direction of the receiving dock, deciding for the speediest route in order to correct his error.
“Watch out, old man!” yelled the tall, heavyset boy from the grocery department, narrowly avoiding the white coat and the square arched back of the butcher who was oblivious to the oncoming traffic for the garbage room. The butcher dropped the can onto its haunches and shook his head, ignoring the grocer’s affront. Not in fear of the boy’s three hundred pound frame, but uneasy of being chanced upon by some other putterer, as if his lapse would disrupt the balance wheel of the supermarket.
The butcher walked the bone-can to the receiving dock and dropped it on the ramp that was saturated with rust and grime from the steel leveling boards all the way to the metal braid that lifted and dropped the rollup door. The dull echoing sound of the petroleum can striking the metal ramp aroused the receiver from his stupor at his desk just a few feet away. “You heading for a smoke?” he said abruptly in the butcher’s direction without looking at him.
“Might as well,” replied the butcher absentmindedly, unnerved for having screwed up his morning’s circuit. He decided to mix his routine even further by taking a deviant second smoke break before his lunch.
The unruly alarm wailed as the pair exited by the door abreast the receiver’s dilapidated desk, which was held together and leveled by a two-by-four and some stacked meat totes that had been hastily gathered and assembled by the butcher to help his smoking buddy. The whole job was pitched together with an alacrity of mind that everyone at Loman’s had grown accustomed to. A contracted handyman would have charged half-a-day’s wage.
“When they gonna fix that alarm for you, Ben. Don’t it piss you off already,” said the butcher.
“They gotta get to my desk first. Then’s the alarm’s turn,” replied the receiver. “Why don’t you have a look at it later?”
“Rewiring alarms ain’t in my contract. It’s also a violation of my basic union rights.”
“Is that right, Jack.”
“Uh, huh. You just chew on that for a while, before you think of asking me again. Unless you want me returning them totes you’re borrowing to its proper owners.”
“No, no, no. Don’t do that. A broken alarm is one thing. A tipping desk is another. Them cheap fuckers will do anything to avoid a repair bill. ‘Maybe next quarter,’ they say. Well, I need to get my work done now. Can’t wait till next quarter. Up their asses with their bottom line and quarter reports. I can live with the alarm bitching all day long. I’m kinda starting to like it anyhow. Reminds me of my ex-wife.”
“Oh, you know. All my exes live in Texas. That’s why I hang my hat in Grimsby.”
“I’ll drink to that.” The butcher said, squatting atop a sea green polyethylene milk crate. He eased a thin stainless flask from inside his butcher’s coat, unscrewed the cap, and swallowed a mouthful of whiskey.
“Geez, Jack. What are we doing in Grimsby? The end of the line.”
“I’ll drink to that too,” the butcher said and then swallowed another mouthful, quicker than before. The whiskey’s fiery descent pleased him, dulled his restless thoughts a little. A semi-crushed cigarette found its way into his mouth next and he ignited it with his utility lighter. He lit the receiver’s cigarette after that. “You change brands?”
“Yeah. That native shit was killing my lungs. Can’t fuck with the emphysema forever, you know.”
“You sleeping at all these days?”
“It ain’t easy to sleep standing up. But thanks for asking.”
“I dunno about that. Some of the hosers in my department do it all the time.”
“Stupid hosers,” grumbled the receiver.
“Yup,” equaled the butcher. “Stupid.” He pulled from his cigarette and it kindled in his lips. The smoke plumed and swept high into the brisk and bright autumnal sky that was marbled with clouds. The combined might of the tobacco and whiskey momentarily distracted the butcher from his thoughts, but because his hands weren’t busy with work, his mind drifted back to his careless manner from earlier and then riveted itself to other wending matters.
“How’s Gregor doing?”
“Having more fun licking his balls than I’ll ever have.”
“That’s only because you’ve never had the pleasure,” laughed the receiver.
“Amen to that,” the butcher added, but he did not laugh.
“You coming back inside?” asked the receiver, standing from the polyethylene milk crate, which stuck to his pants for a moment, eyelets clinging to the fabric of his dark jeans, before it hit the cement again, tilted, and found its equilibrium amidst the horde of littered cigarette butts.
“No. I’m gonna smoke some more,” replied the butcher.
“Buzz when you want back in.”
“You want me to ready the truck for the boner?”
“Ah fuck it. Do it yourself, Frenchy.”
The receiver bent his body and put the plastic card that hung around his neck to the door and the safety unlatched and the alarm grieved loud like before. He disappeared behind the gray weather-beaten door with the flecked paint and the rust colored sores that dug into the metal.
The butcher considered pulling the slim dog-eared Plutarch he was reading from his blood-dappled coat but he reconsidered. Instead his Gordian thoughts shifted to his ex-wife Niobe. She had said something to him the other night that bothered him while they were in the back seat of his car.
“You look like you’re in love, Jean-Jacques,” Niobe hummed. She rested her cowboy boots on the butcher’s lap and pulled her flared dress out from beneath her.
“You know I can’t get enough of your cookies, doll-face,” the butcher said, deep from years of smoking and years of hollering in noisy and capacious warehouses. “Is it just me or are they tastier now? And don’t call me that. My momma used to call me that and you ain’t my momma.” He straightened out his sweaty hair, which Niobe has twisted and curled in seven different directions, matting the black mane to the back of his neck, slanting it over his ears, lifting it from the moisture on his forehead. Beneath the dome light, the creases in his forehead drooped like clotheslines taut with wash.
“I didn’t mean with me. And thanks. It’s nice to know you can still compliment me even after I’ve pulled my panties back on.”
“Pull them down and I’ll tell you another.”
“Don’t change the subject on me. Is it one of those Grimsby skanks you work with?”
“You sure know how to kill a man’s buzz. Why don’t you just let me enjoy this a minute,” the butcher said, pulling up his trunks and jeans. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a fold of money. “Don’t spend it all in one place, you know. Maybe get the kid something nice.”
“You don’t have to be like that, Jack. I’m not breaking ‘em. I’m just a little jealous.”
“Jealous a’what? You have a husband.”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t get jealous when you cheat on me.”
“What’s the matter with you? You can be one crazy bitch sometimes.”
“Yeah, but you came good didn’t you?” She leaned onto him and kissed him impetuously on the lips, her right hand cupping his crotch.
“What a mind-screw you are. I pity that oaf who lives with you,” he uttered with the unlit cigarette between his lips. He emphatically struck a match against the box and animated the tobacco with it.
“Doug’s all right. But no one gets me hot like my Frenchman. Give me a drag off that cig.”
“Yeah, right. As long as the bread’s hot out of the oven, I’m your guy.”
“You and your supermarket jargon. You’re all lost up in that place. Always were. Give me a drag of that Lucky, will ya?”
He handed her the cigarette. “Regular work, regular pussy, what’s not to like?”
“You lousy pig! Okay, you can take me home now. I’ve heard enough for one night. You used to be classy, Jack.” She sat up hastily, flicking through the crisp bills with her briery fingernails, drawing tobacco with her ample lips. “How much is here anyways?”
“You’re telling me you don’t know by just eyeballing it? Maybe I should change the dome light.”
“Very funny. Forget it. I’ll count it later.” She leaned over and shoved the tuft of cash into the sprawled purse lying on the rubber mat. She straightened her hair a little in the rearview and then handed the cigarette back to the butcher without looking. She applied a fresh coat of red over her mouth and then slid a tissue between her scarlet lips.
“A little short this month. I had some unforeseen expenses.”
“It’s okay. You’re good for it, right?” she said, razzing him, her green olive eyes burgeoning beneath her thin-plucked brow.
“Oh, sure. You can count on ol’ Jack. If not, you can send Doug to break my legs. You know where I live.” He exhaled the robust tobacco smoke from his nose, the cigarette changing places, hand to mouth, mouth to hand, in an igneous trail of agitation.
“Forget Doug. I’ll break them myself.” She leaned in again and sucked his bottom lip, pressing against his thigh.
“How’s the boy?”
“Aeneas is fine. He’s playing the drums in school now, so I got him a training kit for the basement. He’s pretty good too. Playing a lot of the old classics his daddy loves. Deep Purple, the Moody Blues. You know which ones.”
“Yeah.” He rolled the window down some and flicked the cigarette outside. The trees shook softly from the veering wind and the tickled leaves coyly whispered amid the intertwined branches.
They’d come to this spot before. The smooth clearing beneath the weeping trees in front of the woods. It could be spooky at night. The butcher left the high beams on, saturating the dark woods with light. There was a .38 Special in the glove compartment in case anything but the darkness slunk out from the depths. Could be there were too many perverts itching for a peek.
“Come on, don’t look so glum. We did good with Aeneas. I was just kidding earlier. Don’t look so crestfallen.”
“I don’t know the meaning of the word. You decent? You ready to go?”
The butcher was startled out of his reverie by the 18-wheeler that was pulling into the receiving bay, trailer first. The driver was eager to unburden his carriage, engine chugging, wheels turning, slowing, stopping, then turning once more, until the trailer’s edge met the deck, and then the entire rig just shut down, transmission snuffed. The driver exited the cab and slammed the door behind. He walked past the butcher, nodding his lidded head, and resoundingly walked up the perforated metal stairs to the weathered door where he buzzed the receiver with an unflagging tintinnabulation. The butcher peered over at him with weary annoyance. Ben popped open the door and he greeted the bearded, boulder-sized driver, “Jerry! Long time no see!”
The rollup door came jangling up at the dock, the rig’s cargo door unlatched with a hollow thunk, cranked up, rollers squeaking, and then the hydraulic leveler started doing its thing, rising, unfolding, lip elongating, and then falling, bridging the gap with a dull thump. The receiver began unloading the rig with the electric jigger, making a bumping noise whenever he crossed the threshold. The butcher tried to ignore all these auditory distractions, the cigarette between his fingers smoldering to the core.
The butcher put out his cigarette and decided to return to his work. He was temperate with his drink and yet he slept till noon, he thought, And sometimes all day long. Yeah right, Pseudarch. Consistency. History will not permit it. He rapped at the ulcered door with his craggy knuckles and the receiver let him in.
The bone-can was slathered with the remnants of beef, bison, venison, pork, chicken, turkey, lamb, veal, duck, rabbit, salmon, haddock, cod, tilapia, trout, all kinds of meat. The butcher sluiced the can with cold water and soap and he brushed the bloody matter out of the hard to reach spots along the brim, hard bristles scraping the coagulated blood and fat from the petroleum. Printed on one side of the can in white-stenciled letters was “Do not use for hot ashes, building material, debris, dirt, dead animals, solvents, or any other flammable liquids or solvents.” Further down was printed, “Max Load 70 KG or 154 LBS”. And just a little further below, an identification code, “214 # 0014 232”, lest this particular bone-can be mistaken for another. On the front of the can, stenciled in bold capital letters, was “ROTHSAY”, and below that, in descending order, “Inedible Meat Products Only. No Plastic. No Styrofoam. No Polyethylene.” There was an image at the center of the can of the Earth, also printed in white, encircled by the universal recycling logo, three mutually chasing arrows, a snake eating its own tail. “ROTHSAY Recycles. Improving Our Earth.”
The butcher didn’t pay any attention to the print tattooing the bone-can. After nearly two-decades of exposure to Loman’s beguilements, being constantly inundated with conflicting, usually hypocritical, information, the butcher had learned to look the other way, to ignore what he couldn’t change. He used to beat himself up over it, his culpability in the heinous act of dumping the unsold meats. Heinous precisely because it was avoidable. A meat manager with a tight watch over his counter, one eye on stock and another on his order guide, predicting commercial traffic like a meteorologist predicts weather, that is, studiously and conscientiously, could mitigate losses tremendously. But those types of managers were hard to come by, scarce like uncultured pearls.
Loman’s stores were getting larger all the time and the fresh-meat counters were getting wider and longer. Mass quantities were needed just to fill the counters. “Eye candy”, the store managers called it, sentiments that were empty of irony. The trays were stacked three-high, all the time. Never mind that only half of the fresh meat being merchandised sold. The counters had to be kept full to maintain an aura of plenitude. Robust, bounteous stock was a signifier of great fitness, no matter the cost, no matter the ecological burden. Throwing out meat was a part of doing business. They called it “shrink”. As in, something that should theoretically be diminished, after all, resources should never be squandered, but they never quite got around to doing it.
There was no moral imperative to brood over. There was only design and execution, sum and substance, point and profit, and that was the last word on the subject. The butcher would butt heads with management all the time over this issue and he’d give the meat managers hell, but there was nothing the poor bastards could do. Upper management could always find another puppet to push a button. They reiterated that maxim to their staff behind closed doors. “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” And every time a meat manager pushed a button, another animal died.
If Loman’s had pork tenderloin on special, stores would go through skids upon skids of the product at a time. One skid could easily hold fifty cases of pork tenderloin. Each case contained eight individually cryovaced packages of tenderloin, therefore four pigs had to be slaughtered per case. A skid meant two-hundred dead pigs, multiplied by the number of skids per store, multiplied by the number of stores. The number of the slaughtered was astronomical. And Loman’s always over-ordered. It was part of the “Super” credo. Superabundance. With his prices, he was practically conditioning people to overeat.
Everyone obeyed the great chain of being. It began with Loman, from the firmament, and progressed downwards, from the President all the way to the part-time workers on the floor. In between these pillars lay the great incalculable corporate chain. New links were being added all the time, lengthening the chain, and it grew more and more distant from ground level, from the stores, and thus more and more unfathomable as time went by.
Management was to introduce a new operating system in the New Year, the much-vaunted “C.A.O.” program that Loman spent millions of dollars to develop, which would order product for the counters on its own, without manual aid. The Computer Assisted Ordering program would purportedly increase the efficacy of ordering, replacing all manual ordering in time, and reduce “holes” on the shelves by over ninety-nine percent. There’d be less meddling from ineffective, dissenting hands. With the C.A.O. in place in the New Year, store conditions would be better than great, they’d be perfect.
All of this troubled the butcher. Computer programs replacing workers? There was nothing the union could do about that. Not even they could halt progress. And there was certainly nothing the butcher could do. Except get out. That’s what management always told him. He could always get out. But he liked being around the meat industry. He was used to it by now. Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. It came to him like a calling. And no matter how hard he tried to keep things the same, the atmosphere, the suavity, it was always changing, would never stop changing. They didn’t build them like they used to. So he learned to stop caring about the stymieing invasion of enlightened technology, to be indifferent to the immedicable ritual of the bone-can. Sometimes he grumbled inside with indignation. Sometimes he grumbled from hunger because lunch was approaching.
After cleaning the can, he returned it to the cooler for storage, and geared for a return to the cutting block. Before he even managed to reach the floor to inspect his case, he was halted by one of his fledgling apprentices who was waiting by the produce department’s doors, the quickest route onto the busy commercial floor congested with shopping carts and baskets, the preferred route because it afforded an Archimedean vantage of his work. The beef to the left, roasts and then steaks, prime rib, sirloin, premium roasts, and then the strips, Delmonicos, porters, and tenderloins, then the lamb, the pork, the sausage, and the chicken. A modest display case by company standards. And yet the butcher’s yield was first-rate. He was peerless in the industry. Loman’s foremost meat cutter. They buried him in Grimsby where his artistry was lost amongst the common people.
His pismos were state of the art. Silver skin removed to a hair’s breadth. Flesh immaculate. Fat removed to the extent that whatsoever remained cast the steaks in the greatest possible marbled light, diameter proportionate throughout, defying reason, perfect cylinders, like they were carved from red marble. At the heart of Loman’s racket, Queen’s Quay, they’d come far and wide for his cuts, chefs and restaurateurs. He was a professional with distinction in the industry. In Grimsby, he was just another laborer, work serviceable, nothing else much mattered.
In Toronto, he had brought his own implements to work, a steak knife, a chop knife, a sticking knife, a skinning knife, a cleaver, a sharpening steel, and a block brush, all strapped to his butcher’s bandoleer. Quite a sight in fact, strolling through the supermarket like some savage relic, some olden virtuoso. In Grimsby, he used the company issued stock, steel so dull he could barely finesse a steak to his liking, to his lofty standard. Still, he left zero room for complaint. None of his cuts were uneven or lacked trimming. And he could still fillet or butterfly burningly close.
“Mrs. Crompton is here for her Chattelbreeund special.”
“Chateaubriand, Crawford. Cha-teau-bri-and. It’s a town in France. The word means noble castle. There’s no fucking “chattel”. When you gonna learn?”
“Sorry, Jack. She been waitin’ a while.”
“Let her wait.”
Mrs. Crompton came to Loman’s every two weeks for her beef tenderloin roast, like clockwork. Her husband was a Member of Parliament for the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, who happened to live in the Niagara region. He was out of town on business for the weekend, which meant he was backsliding with his mistress just a few clicks north of his luxury home on Niagara Stone Road, playing golf and then taking the yacht out for the weekend. Mrs. Crompton came all the way to Grimsby to get her meat, driving about 40 klicks along the Queen Elizabeth Way, which really was an excuse to invite the butcher over for dinner. A simple phone call would not do. Mrs. Crompton liked to add a little dash of ritual to their affair. Maybe I’ll get him to wear his apron tonight, she thought.
She would dress all the way up, classic black stilettos, ultra sheer stockings with the seam, fitted pencil skirt, short belted trench, black Wayfarer sunglasses, pinstriped short brim fedora, and most importantly the white, Hepburn opera gloves, come to Loman’s, drive the men up the aisles with her exercised body, her legato walk, pick up the necessaries for dinner that varied depending on if she was making Carpaccio or steak tartare or a plain-old roast, ordering the beef tenderloin last, which the butcher prepared for her like she was just another customer.
Watching her from the block, sometimes he’d get a vicious hard-on when the opera gloves touched her face, in sync with the coquettish, wife-of-a-statesman smile. She never washed the gloves, never took them off when they screwed, caressed herself with them, rubbed and poked and prodded, that was the Crompton special, and it drove him wild. She got off on the pretense too. The butcher’s red hands handling the meat with panache, the acute measurements, the knotting and cinching of the twine, gently strangulating, the sleek and violent slicing. The scent of sex off her gloves, brushing against her lips, it got her off, beneath the lace and finery, she was a heated mess, thrown from her equilibrium, but none were the wiser, only the butcher knew her dirty little secret.
“Steaked, Mrs.?” inquired the butcher, his red hands, redder from the blood, tying the meat with a single-minded intelligence of their own, looping, twisting, knotting, cinching, lopping the twine, and then sliding down to the next spot along the flesh.
“No, no, whole. Leave it whole. I’m making a roast tonight,” she said, startled and completely thrown from her reverie by the question. But a statesman’s wife is always quick to recover, swiftly sealing the cracks along the way.
“What’s that?” shouted the butcher in reply, not being able to hear distinctly for the fans.
“Whole! Leave it whole, please!” she said in a louder tone, politely yelling. She blushed from the attention, secretly thrilled by the foreplay.
“No frills, huh?”
“That’s right. Just me and the husband.”
“A little candlelight,”he said, rocking his head sportingly, with a neat sardonic expression slung over his face.
“No, no. He doesn’t go for that kind of thing. Just a roast and potatoes. Maybe some roasted artichokes or asparagus. A bottle of wine. We’ll see.” Her reflection in the pane. Featureless. A raw meat matte.
“Meat and potatoes. My kind of guy.”
“Mine too,” she said, biting her lip to keep from giving up game. She’s always fantasized about the back room. The rapid air of the cooler. The damp smell of cardboard. Her face pressed hard against it.
He pushed the trimmings from the beef into the chute atop the block, placed the four-pound roast onto the peach paper, lifted it to the scale, weighed it, printed a label, threw the roast down to the wrapping station, rolled it in peach, sealed it, and handed it to the lady.
“Is this AAA beef?” she said, looking at the label. The peach had bloody fingerprints all over, which the butcher had neglected to wipe off, staining her white opera gloves. They’d incorporate the cherry smears and blotches into the act.
“No it’s Angus, mam.” He raised his cap a little to get a better look at her coy face.
“No, somewhere in the States, I think,” he said, wiping his bloody hands on his apron. His busy mouth stirred the remnant taste of tobacco and whiskey around with swagger. The seesawing made him want to spit, but there were other customers in line at the counter.
“Oh, well. It’s still good, though?”
“It’s excellent, mam.”
“Please, call me Flora. So you personally guarantee the quality of this meat?” She demurely looked into his russet eyes. She was trying to annoy him. And it was starting to work. He hated the extra attention.
“Yes, personally. In fact, if you find the meat at all disagreeable, I’ll repay out of my own pocket,” he said in a courteous tone in order to indulge her flirting, softening his manner, even sounding urbane in the process, smooth-tongued like a polished city man.
“Is that a butcher’s promise?” she toyed, loving to tease refinements out of him, graces that we’re hidden out of sight. She knew they were there quite early on in their affair. After a little wine, a litre or so, his cultivation would rise to the surface like the jeweled eyes of a cobra. She’d drink with him the expensive wines from her husband’s cellar, keeping up, every cup of the way, pouring through the Pillitteri like water, charming those savage jeweled eyes out from the dark. She’d flash her Salome grin, spellbinding him, wheedling out his dirty little secrets.
“No. It’s Jack’s promise,” he glibly said and hated himself for it a second after.
“Okay. It’s been a pleasure, Jack,” she said, putting the roast in her cart alongside the petite Parisian potatoes and fresh scallions.
“Indeed. G’day, Flora.”
“Good-day to you, Jack.”
Mrs. Crompton finished her shopping and left the store. She headed into town to run some further errands, drop off some laundry at the cleaners, get her nails done, her legs waxed, and then she would return home to shower and slowly prepare dinner.
The butcher returned to his block, did some last minute touch-ups to the counter, trimmed the skirting peach, rotated the steaks, removed the drier cuts, tightened things up, bringing out the red of the beef, red like a fire hydrant, moist side up, accentuating the raspberry of the pork, the dark wine of the lamb, laying the meat right for the Grimsby brood.
It was noon. He told the boys to have the block cleaned before he returned from lunch. But he didn’t get far. He was paged to the manager’s office over the PA system, which was something that had never happened before in Grimsby because the butcher and the store manager hated each other, and couldn’t stand to be in close quarters with each other, so he knew immediately that it was bad and so he braced himself. They must’ve smelled blood, the butcher thought, in light of the anomalous day he was having. He didn’t know how grave the situation was until he saw Longsteifler, the district manager, and union leader, Cross, in Ratched’s office.
Working in the meat industry was hard labor for hardboiled types. The butcher had met some tough customers in his day, bruisers who’d made his days a grind to get through. The butcher did his fair share of cutting, earning his keep at the block. But it didn’t come easy. When he had first started in Toronto, the meat business wasn’t tame like it was now. You needed to be resilient to survive the feudalism. If you lacked fortitude in any sense, you’d be lighted on and tweaked and chafed until you broke down or got yourself into bleeding shape. The full-time varmints were brutes in those days. They’d drink and smoke right on the job. Life was a cigarette and a spot of Johnnie Walker, slagging in the chuck bin as if it were an ashtray, a receptacle of bone and fat and cinders.
There was one man in particular, an Albanian by the name Amyntas Kushtrim, who was nicknamed the Balkan Bear by his workers, who took an early interest in the butcher at the St. Clair location, and decided to groom him for better things. He was nicknamed the Balkan Bear because of the strength and amplitude of his bearing and also because he was immoderately hairy. When they wanted to call him by his proper name, they’d refer to him as Amen for short. “Amen, hand me that cleaver, will ya?” “Thank God for Amen.” “Amen to that.”
There was a nasty rumor trailing the Balkan Bear like a hound dog, that he’d nixed some guy in the meat department over a disagreement and stuffed him in the bone-can to get rid of the evidence. If you’d spent any considerable amount of time with the Balkan Bear, say the amount of time it took him to break down a carcass, which wasn’t very long at all, working from the extremities in toward the animal’s core, first with the knife and then truncating with the hacksaw, hewing and shearing and hackling with rambunctious transport, you’d think that perhaps there were legs to this rumor.
He was no artist with the knife, just a skinner, a boner, a hacker, a run-of-the-mill, mom-and-pop type of freewheeling butcher. He couldn’t seam for the life of him. His focus had been driven to dross over the years with the binge drinking, crooking the elbow so often he couldn’t straighten it out, popping the pharmaceuticals, “Suzy Qs,” “dilly dallies,” until he slurred and was permanently cock-eyed. But the sawing and the hacking and the cursing, he had those mechanics down. The Balkan Bear looked dangerous, talked dangerous, and dangerously scuffed around the building. But he got the job done, swifter than most. And he had a coronary way with the staff, a real backroom way with the boys. So Loman’s kept him around. So long as he remained useful.
The alleged nixing occurred well before cameras were implanted into the stores. Someone had filed a missing persons report, which drew the police to Loman’s, but there was no reason for the police to run a fine comb through the premises. And there were no suspicions circling around the Balkan Bear then. The police briskly kicked the tires, questioning some of meat department bruisers about the missing person, including the Balkan Bear, who was the manager. The guys didn’t say very much, they didn’t know very much, and the Balkan Bear, he was like Teflon, shrugging off their questions without compunction, allowing nothing to stick. Having discovered nothing at Loman’s, the police carried on with their half-hearted investigation elsewhere.
The guy who was missing, a scarred-up Slavic thug by the name of Goran Mladic, worked part-time at Loman’s in the meat department, and was chiseling the company along with the Balkan Bear. Whoever had filed the report did not know of their partnership. They were taking Loman’s to the cleaners, running a lucrative back door operation along with the driver who collected the foul meats, and the night crew receiver who was skilled at blotting out their footprint. The operation was fairly simple in design and execution. It had come from the top-shelf of the Balkan Bear’s dampened mind, who was no whiz, but had a melon seeded enough to understand the basic physics of criminality.
Mladic had met the Balkan Bear in some Wang-house in Chinatown. They both happened to be waiting for the same massage girl and so they’d struck up a conversation while she finished with her client. Serbian and Albanian relations were not always so good-humored, but Mladic and the Balkan Bear had no problem breaking the ice, and the conversation tipped towards crookedness without much foreplay. Both men were braggarts. It didn’t take long for them to flash their credentials.
The Balkan Bear planted the hush-hush scenario in Mladic’s skull, who was a willing and pliable accessory, having a longstanding pledge to the criminal fraternity firmly in place, having operated a skin house and a protection racket back home in Bosnia under the direction of the Brotherhood. Holding the surname of genocidal warlord was advantageous. It had helped him get on the good side of the Brotherhood quicker than if he had some common village epithet. There was more street cred in a name like Mladic than Stanko, which was his matronymic, or Vlasic, which was a common name from his village. Mladic was as timely a trade name as any.
The numerous indecent scars he sported were the direct result of his vulturine enterprising and he wore them like a badge of honor. Getting cut-up was a part of doing goon business in lupine Kosovo. Everyone carried a little something. The prostitutes he chaperoned were fond of hiding sliding knives on their body, in case a john got rough, or if they got into a sticky situation over money. The sliding knife was easy to operate one-handed, which made it popular amongst the working girls. One hand on the mark’s joint, the other on the handle. You just pressed your thumb on the button, applying pressure along the length of the handle, and the concave blade poked out, poised to scallop. The cavalier lightness of the knife with its plain edge action was all a call girl could really ask for.
Mladic fancied a straight razor himself. It became his trademark, along with the matching scars. The working girls were terrified of it. He also carried a homemade shiv for direct impact assaults. But he favored the razor when he got up close and personal, when he could savor the scuffle. And it sure made things bloody. The amount of blood from a slashed wrist artery was dizzying. Mladic felt there was dignity to his hatchet work when he used the razor, a sense of craftsmanship, it held an air of nostalgia for him.
The particular razor he used, a vintage, 5/8, buffalo horn, with surgical quality stainless steel, was an heirloom inherited from his father. He used to love watching the ritual of his father shaving. Straightening the blade from the taut hanging strop, the rhythmic diagonal drawing across the length of the strap, the dawdling sighing blade, the twinkling pirouette at the tail. He’d warm the toilet seat cover while gazing at his father with rapt attention, hypnotized by the rise and fall of the blade.
Mladic was a refugee living illegally in Toronto. Crime didn’t just pay in his case. It was the only line of work that consistently paid. He did whatever it took to survive. He dealt drugs, pimped, kidnapped, stole automobiles, robbed homes, held-up convenience stores, trafficked arms, and more. But he wasn’t successful at anything. He spent his money as fast as he earned it. He had a drug habit, loved to gamble, and had an appetite for prostitutes, who he beat and even carved on occasion. He did everything except work a nine-to-five, which is was what the Balkan Bear put on the table at the Wang-house, with a little something on the side.
It was a four-way score. Nothing you could retire off, but a regular paycheck, with little to no hassle. Just a basic skimming operation. Product came in the backdoor. Stocked for a couple of days. And then pushed out again with the spoiled meats. In the bone-cans were fresh vacuum-packed cuts that were bumped wholesale to lesser vendors on the black market. The books were slightly cooked. Inventory counts adjusted. The shrink took a hit. But nobody noticed any leakage. The Balkan Bear had been running the scam for years. He had the same crew with him from day one, but was now recruiting another body for some extra help.
He needed extra muscle on the wholesale side, in case vendors got chintzy. There were other guys from his own department he could have recruited, but he didn’t trust them enough not to showboat to the others, flashing a little extra cash at lunch, or after work at the bar. And he couldn’t afford to bring in too many bodies on board. One extra guy was all he needed. So they forged some papers for Mladic and got him a part-time gig at the store. He’d only work two shifts a week on the Balkan Bear’s days off, ensuring full coverage for the skimming operation.
Everything went skippy for the first few months. Mladic adjusted to the working life. He’d tried his hand at butchering but was miserable at it. Maybe if he’d wielded the straight razor? He managed to be on time some of the time. And he did a bang-up job of pissing off the meat crew with his scrappy, misanthropic ways. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, Mladic passed probation and earned his place at the block, but only because he got the gentle pass from the Balkan Bear. He became a protected member of the union, but it wasn’t the sort of brotherhood he was accustomed to. He was loath to contribute the three dollars a week the union requested for membership. He never had to pay for muscle work before. He usually was the muscle.
All in all, Mladic was a terrible employee, never quite earning his bucks the way the rest of the brotherhood did. His butchering skills were nonexistent. No customer service skills to speak of. In fact, the Balkan Bear had instructed him to stay off the commercial floor altogether, “to avoid suspicion.” His mug was an affront to the customers. If they’d horse-dragged him through the streets of Kosovo, face down, the difference would have been negligible. Of course, he didn’t tell Mladic as much. But he had one heck of a time explaining to his crew what exactly Mladic did at Loman’s. The littler said, the better. The crew just figured the Balkan Bear owed a favor, so they kept their mouths shut. Product came in and went out. The crew skimmed. The vendors got their pirated meat and paid fairly. The funds were distributed, forty to the Balkan Bear and twenty three-ways, and everyone was happy. Loman’s was none the wiser.
Business was booming in the early eighties. It was when Loman had built and solidified his wealth. He was at the height of his ambition. The LC brand (Loman’s Choice) had gone nationwide. The media buzzed with glad tidings. Customer’s thronged to the market place like obedient ants to empty the shelves of Loman’s Choice products. There were national commercials, celebrity endorsements on TV, product plugs in magazines. LC was everywhere. Homemakers rejoiced at the newfound ease of home cooked meals. Everyone wanted a piece of the action and Loman was overeager to re-invest in his own company. He put the brand on NASDAQ and the monopolists had a field day. The stock soared, the gulls gobbled it all up, Loman’s monomania hit an all time high. It vaulted him clear over his grocery competitors. He no longer owned a chain of supermarkets. He owned the supermarket. It was the place to shop. But Loman had wanted it to be the place to be.
He installed cafés into his markets. A hot deli where people could purchase some fast food and munch as they strolled around shopping with their kids. He built a woman’s only gym with an adjacent day care for children. There was a dry cleaner on site. A pharmacy. A Loman’s brand financial pavilion offering standard bank products. There was no end to his good ideas. The more he earned, the more he invested. He just kept feeding the gun-belt, firing off idea after idea, expanding the borders of his grandiose grocery vision, employing all and sundry, a workforce tenacious enough to drag his pyramid through the Canadian hinterland and into the sunset multinational. Loman would never miss a few thousand here and there from some picayune skimming operation. He was too elephantine for that, too intent on stomping larger quarry.
The skimming operation only hit a roadblock when the skimmer became the skimmee. Mladic had the bright idea of raising the prices upon delivery, without the go-ahead from the Balkan Bear. He caught a whiff of opportunity and snagged it, cooking-up some featherbrained scheme to augment his commission. Some of the smaller vendors resisted at first, but succumbed before long. What the traffic will bear. They were all making money. So what if the margins shrunk a little. Mladic intimidated them with his pitted, zigzagged face, and managed to re-direct the funds from those shrunken margins into his pocket. That was the new liberated score. Mladic’s ingratitude, bred in the moonlight, bred in the bone.
The Balkan Bear was none the wiser because his return remained the same, that is, until he decided to raise the ante himself. Prices were subject to change along with the season. When barbecue season arrived, the cost of beef rose fifteen to twenty percent in anticipation of the sizzle. The Balkan Bear had to recoup his losses somewhere. If he were paying more for his meats as a manager, it only followed that his vendors would have to swallow some of the inflation too in order to keep the victual flowing. He charged Mladic, in line with his role as middleman, to deliver the news.
What was a vulture from Kosovo to do? Mladic was enjoying the newfangled score a lot better. He was able to afford a little extra scag and more than one chippy a week. There was no way he was going to let things go to wrack and ruin again. He was done with those narrow ways. So he raised the prices again to cover the spike, but this time the vendors wouldn’t have it. Their margins were getting dangerously close to the red, so there was no use in going through all the trouble bootlegging for some bantam sum. They collectively showed Mladic the door and then the curb, four out of the first five along his route. He didn’t bother visiting with the other three.
He needed to scare up some new customers and quick. He wasn’t prepared to fall on his sword just yet. So Mladic went on a fishing expedition without The Balkan Bear’s knowledge, hitting the circuit pretty hard, but not angling too many takers with his new lupine prices. Muscle couldn’t help in these delicate matters. It wasn’t some pimp or dealer he was trying to racketeer here, these were legitimate business owners, who might have been in the market for illegally redistributed product if the price were right. Where finesse was needed, Mladic tabled brawn. It was a clumsy endeavor, through and through, and the vendors could spot his brittle antics a mile away, so they too gave him the boot.
But Mladic wouldn’t be shown out nice or easy. At his last visit, Bob’s Supermarket on Gerrard Street, just east of Cabbagetown, feeling stifled and exasperated, he started pulling down end displays on his way out, a colonnade of jarred pickles crashing to the floor, making one dilly hell of a mess. Bob wouldn’t have any of it. He didn’t call the cops. Instead he dialed Loman’s at St. Clair and asked for the meat manager. He knew the Balkan Bear from an earlier solicitation, when the Balkan Bear was canvassing for clientele for his black-market operation and was turned down by Bob, who already had a cheaper deal in place with the Chinese from Spadina.
Bob got him on the phone and he told him everything, threatening to call the cops unless some kind of restitution was made. Blanched by the imputation, the Balkan Bear mumbled an oath to pacify Bob, and by the time it took to get Bob off the phone, he’d already made plans how and when to nix Mladic. It wasn’t a question of talking to Mladic, feeling him out, squeezing information. The Balkan Bear knew he was guilty. Mladic had been tried and sentenced. Now was the time to time up loose ends. The Balkan Bear didn’t have any tolerance for double-crossing. He’d warned Mladic as much at their inaugural meeting at the Wang-house on Spadina. He laid his code down. “No funny stuff.” But what was a vulture to do? Funny stuff was the name of the game. Mladic had a short memory for oaths. Not being a man of honor, he had no faith in vows.
They were supposed to meet later that day at the store in order to settle up the day’s accounts. There was an enclosed cooler in the basement of the St. Clair location. They took the elevator down to make the day’s rounds, slicing and dicing in monk-like isolation. Only the meat crew were authorized to make the descent to that squalid and spattered room they called “the dungeon.” There was an electric floor saw there, an industrial grinder, and a circular slicer. All the slattern tools. Rugged, stainless steel equipment stands that harbored the many daughters of the trade, including the Balkan’s Bears favorite tool, an orange and black, polyurethane mallet, a specialized hollow hammer filled with lead shot, which minimized damage to the struck surface. The Balkan Bear kept these mallets in every space he occupied. There was one at the dungeon, one in his car, for chassis work, and one at home for extracurricular business.
Like Mladic, the Balkan Bear had cultivated a taste for debasement. He’d wrecked havoc in the suburbs with his dead blow mallet, guard dogs, meandering cats, and he was working his way up the food chain. He found himself ardently wanting to make house calls next. He’d stay up all night with a restless, fevered constitution, imagining these unannounced “visits,” point for point. Circling the placid, suburban neighborhoods, targeting just the right house, the merry traipse to the stoop, the papulous doorbell, the muted shuffling from behind the door, his own heart racing like a colt, comportment as prosaic as the linden tree in the front yard. Pressing his cumbrous hirsute head into the pillow, he’d lick the brine from his swarthy upper lip, stargazing in the benthal night.
There was a brief scuffle with Mladic. No mallet, no razor. Only the Balkan’s cannonball fists bludgeoning Mladic’s face to pulp and shard. He was sacked and killed over the sullied dungeon floor in a locomotive matter of seconds. Next he made Mladic disappear into the cutting room, sectioned on the cutting table by virtue of the band saw, chunked into manageable cubes by dint of the cleaver, pressed into the grinder piecemeal, out he came multifid, bit by bit, by driblets, parceled into the bone-can, swept into the drain. Thereafter, the logical next step was to find a replacement for his pirating business.
“Come in Jack,” Ratched said, leading the butcher into his office with a trained gesture both welcoming and guarded, shutting the door behind them. The friendly, animated look on Ratched’s face was swiftly replaced by some stony, draconian expression as he stepped past the butcher and between Longsteifler and Cross, who were standing across from each other on the taupe carpet, flanking the room, arms crossed over their chests, exchanging nervous humorless glances.
Ratched took his place behind his cluttered desk seated in his ox-blood executive armchair, a clutter that looked contrived in its disarray, dropped his elbows over some stat sheets and interlocked his fingers, stanching the blood flow at the knuckles, and catching the butcher square within the crosshairs of his tensed overlapping fingers. Cross nodded his head and verbally greeted the butcher, while Longsteifler mechanically lowered his eyes and tried to stare through him like an x-ray machine. He strongly felt that he had a faculty for reading people and so he did this.
The butcher reached up and lowered his cap over his eyes by way of an ironic salutation to union leader Noah Cross. His name a cruel joke, evincing a flash of advocacy, a ray of vindication, when in truth he stood for nothing but the worst of betrayals, a treacherous branding on the blue-collar federation. His name was like some twisted collation of Old and the New Testaments, some irreligious codex bound by the publishing press of hell at the head office in Brampton.
“Please, have a seat, Jack,” Ratched said, flagging the drawn chair that was also angled premeditatedly. The butcher shouldered the invitation aside.
“I’m fine where I am,” he replied. Longsteifler and Cross renewed their tongueless parley through wide censuring eyes. The butcher felt uneasy about the whole situation, it felt entirely rehearsed, the stooges flanking him like two esurient cranes, the binders and files arranged like bayoneted toy soldiers on the shelves, the jejune chair deceptively positioned in the center of the room like a wolf trap ready to spring, and seated behind the teak desk covered with scrawled papers and manila dossiers was Ratched, the spiteful rhadamanthine executor of the interrogation. He felt uneasy but betrayed nothing to his interlocutors.
The butcher’s bristly weathered face was incongruous to their expectations, catachrestic even. They knew his face well enough, especially Ratched, who could inspect it daily if he pleased, and therein laid the problem. The butcher’s mien suggested something trustworthy, something that hit close to home. His hardened features conveyed the very essence of the blue-collar man they all depended on to keep the business, with all its sticky work, afloat.
Nostalgia, sentimentality for the inveterate truths of the supermarket industry, it was the very opposite feeling they needed his face to summon. They wanted to be provoked to anger in order to embrace the loathing they shared for the butcher. What kind of man would poach a seventeen-year-old? Surely not this salt-of-the-earth type with his prairie eyes? But it wasn’t their parental protective instinct that had summoned the butcher to Ratched’s office.
The image of Loman’s as a family type business was important, yes, but that wasn’t the catalyst for this inquisition. Their grey orthodoxy, their bien pensant, was a pious sham. Nothing but bourgeois canting to preserve their fogyish white bread strata. It was the butcher’s iconoclastic views that drew the swarm. A longstanding grievance that now had a firm pretext for his dismissal, a discharge that Longsteifler and Ratched had dreamed about for years, a way around the union red tape and the butcher’s expert defense.
Loman himself had heard echoes of the butcher’s dissenting antics all the way from his ivory castle on the Bridle Path in Toronto. Zoe Vrabec was the gift horse they were all awaiting and she was a long time coming. Now that Loman was made aware of the grave situation in Grimsby, how the butcher was affecting worker morale and reshaping the culture on the work floor, how he was on the verge of corrupting another store, much like he’d done in Toronto, and Scarborough, and Ajax, and Wasaga, and Sarnia, and Thunder Bay, Ratched’s and Longsteifler’s future prospects very much depended on the butcher leaving their gift horse alone.
“Jack, don’t be alarmed. We’re all friends here. Eric and Noah have joined us to see if we can solve our problems amicably.”
“You’re the problem, Ratched,” the butcher spat out.
“Come on, Jack. Ted is trying to be decent about the whole thing. We’re all friends here, right Eric,” Cross said, nodding towards Longsteifler, who had his hands in pockets like he was shying away from the candor the men were employing. When he finally spoke, with no little coercion from Cross’ supplicating gaze, his voice was a little unsure at first, feeling for the right note of assent until he hit the choice modulation, the correct waffling frequency that conveyed just the right amount of soft politic a man of his authority was expected to supply upon request.
“Yes, of course, we’re all friends here and,” a slight hesitation, an electric pop charging through the cables, a sizzling misfire through the internal programming, a crackling failure in the executive P.R. system that took so many years to acculturate, so many painful years of coolness and restraint, of nurturing a culture of mitigation, of meeting people half way, of placating and redressing the V.P.’s when the shit hit the fan, all flushed down the toilet because of some upstart lackey butcher who was threatening to overturn the tables because he refused to find his place in the scheme of things, snarling at the fist that fed them all.
The electric banner of Loman’s placed outside the store flashed in his mind. He’d seen the man in person once. Shook his hand. It was his greatest business success at that point. Some press event that was held in one of his stores in ’92 that Loman had attended. The launch of a new designer line of products. “The Black Label.” Loman had slipped out of the limelight ever since. Receded behind his business like a puppeteer behind the curtain.
To hell with discretion, Longsteifler thought. This butcher might as well be standing on my lawn threatening my family. He was trying to motivate himself. To drum up courage. He so hated these face-to-face encounters, especially with men of the butcher’s ilk. His tender thoughts drifted sentimentally to the sedan in his driveway, to the two-storey in Roncesvalles, the cottage on Horse Island, the placid crystal waters, the pristine sandy beach, the tranquil lawn chair view of Huckleberry island in the distance, and finally little Albert’s university fees. This image of little Albert lining up to apply for Government assistance for his tuition fees, like some ghetto charity case, he envisioned it in his mind’s eye, community college instead of an institution of higher learning, pants down to his knees, Malcolm-X embroidered ball-cap in reverse, rap music thumping his brain to mash. Poor little Albert!
“Didn’t your parents teach you a single damn thing about respecting your superiors!” Longsteifler poured out in a reprimanding torrent of air and froth, that issued from his crimson face with so much velocity that the features on his face momentarily discombobulated and bedlamized like the harrowed unglued face of a skydiver.
“I don’t see any superiors,” the butcher snapped.
“Eric, Jack, please!” Ratched pleaded, standing from behind his desk, trying not to overstep his bounds with his district manager, but at the same time striving to get a rope around the unseemly jackpot their collective livelihoods depended on. They had to square this one.
These cornbread district managers, Ratched thought. Unless they were nourished from the very environs that birthed the butcher’s ancient caste, unless they climbed out of those jungles themselves, one rope-burned hand at a time, with the hyenas snapping at their feet, they could not handle themselves well in close quarters with these rowdies. Ratched was better equipped. The same Darwinian altitude had hardened him and the butcher. “We’re not here to accost you, Jack.”
“Then why are these bums here?” the butcher said, pointing slantwise.
“Excuse me?” said Longsteifler turning his crimson face from Ratched to the butcher and then back again, as if seeking justification from Ratched now for his previous outburst. All of this shuffling of control, this subcutaneous blurring of station and ranking, emboldened the butcher to stand his ground and mix it up further. He could have walked out of the room because of Longsteifler’s outburst, his breach of manner, delayed the proceedings for another couple of days maybe, but he wanted to ride the meeting out, curious to see what direction it would take now that he’d turned the tables.
This was the gamesman in him pulling the strings. Watching them tossing around the gavel of authority like a hot potato, a smile threatened to escape to the surface, but he repressed the hooligan feeling, and took in the whole scene with a forking glance. Like when he strolled past the service case with the meats, he leveled the lay of the land geometrically, rapidly extracted the gist of the matter and negotiated what was required to get the job done. Likewise, he anticipated the next part of the meeting. He didn’t know the accusation just yet, but he’d taken a guess as to the nature of it and he surmised that Zoe was somehow involved.
In his two-plus decades at Loman’s, the butcher had his pick of the crop, or more appropriately, the choice cut, which, if we were to consult a butcher’s argot, would mean something like a hanger steak, something the unrefined butchers in the business put for sale and the discerning one’s kept for themselves, something Jean-Jacques Louis, pulled aside and illicitly cooked on the heating pad right in the prep-room, charred on the outside, pink in the middle, slightly gamey, full-bodied.
The butcher had fallen prey to nostalgic reflection as of late. The Expo of ’67 crossed his mind on occasion. Fanette Pare and the Summer of Love. Lying on her bedroom floor at the dorm, listening to The Doors, “Before you slip into unconsciousness/I’d Like to have another kiss/Another chance at bliss/Another kiss, another kiss,” stroking her naked back in a reefer haze. There was Reina Dechamps under the carousel in the parking lot of Place Versailles in ’63. The lamb of the fair. Her white-knit winter hat with the fluffy pompons. Her big oval cheeks he laid a wet kiss on. And how could he ever forget Anna Karina on the big screen in Vivre Sa Vie in ‘62.
Zoe Vrabec worked in the bakery department at Loman’s. It didn’t help that Zoe was seventeen, but it hadn’t really hurt yet either. The butcher would be turning fifty in a few years and she’d be turning eighteen soon, and there were many pleasures to be found in her blossoming body, youthful smells and textures, emotions electric, spirit unmarked and thriving for experience, pleasures he’d forgotten with the older women in his life. He’d been a skirt man his entire life, un bon viveur, but his love affairs he could count with the fingers on one hand. And there Zoe waited for him, in the least likeliest of places, the least luckiest of places where his heart was concerned, in the bakery department of Loman’s Supermarkets, in all-white attire, flour speckling her chin, augmenting the fantasy.
Zoe was passionate in a way that surpassed all others amongst the butcher’s many dalliances, tying the lover’s knot at the drop of a hat, or an apron as it were, like when she took the butcher to the janitor’s closet, very near in plain audience, and tasked him in the French way, and he, being well favored by nature, tasked her in return. That was how they got to know each other. He’d seen her around. Spied her budding curves, but minded his own business otherwise.
She’d heard about him, about his reputation as a lover from the other women, heard his brusque, Francophone-bark in the back room, his Alpha-dog manner with Loman’s lackeys, bullying them with his acerbic wit that he wielded like a bayonet, even trumping the long-arm of management, who avoided him like the plague, and she couldn’t help herself, she wanted him, his élan vitale, all of him, very much, all the time. Perhaps some old instinct came calling, some wild compulsion, perhaps she dreamt herself into a western or a film-noir, her imagination beaming effervescent, and this brute was her master there.
She wanted him at Loman’s, out of her dreams, away from his spurs and fedora, in the back or front of the store, it didn’t matter, on top of the service case, her naked ankle dangling against the raw meat as the butcher serviced her, on the baker’s window, or over the back of some willing cashier, in the ’68 Camaro, in his bedroom, as the proud husky howled over his master’s conquest.
The romance of the restored ‘68 was undeniable. For classier affairs, some inexpensive motel at the airport strip or near the train station would do. He never brought women home. That was a firm rule. Even when a skirt played hard to get, he wouldn’t cave. Home is where he went to get away from work, it’s where he kept his valuables, and it’s where Gregor, the butcher’s twelve-year old Siberian husky, lived. There was no place for a skirt there anymore. He adhered to the rule when he was married and he obeyed the same rule now. Except with Zoe. She’d been to his place, thumbed through his books, drank his liquor, watched his old VHS movies, played with Gregor, and slept between his sheets.
She had recently needed money for school and the butcher had helped her. That was another unforeseen expense that put a dent into his cashflow. Zoe had been accepted to the University of Denver on a skiing scholarship. Not bad for a girl from Grimsby. But she needed help the rest of the way. Her Czech immigrant parents didn’t have very much money. The mother waitressed at a local restaurant and the father was a commercial rig driver, always in and out of town. They’d devoutly paid for Zoe’s frequent excursions to the Blue Mountains while she came of age, for the hotels and transportation when she competed provincially, and they even kicked in to get her a car for Denver, but Zoe’s living expenses were something they could not afford.
Books, clothes, furniture, food money, these were among the things Zoe would need in a new city. Until she was able to find a job in Denver, she needed money to tide her over. The scholarship covered her tuition and room. The rest was up to her. She had barely managed to save anything working for Loman’s during the school year and through the summer. When the butcher had asked her about her finances she answered bluntly, honestly, always straight with him, and so he opened his wallet to her. Modesty kept her from accepting his money at first, but he convinced her without much ado. Her little hands in his. She had never asked the butcher for a penny. She wasn’t that kind of a girl.
There weren’t many girls like Zoe in Grimsby. There weren’t many girls like Zoe anywhere. On Sundays, after church, before closing shop at Loman’s, she’d ladle hot soup into bowls for the local homeless, dressing sandwiches for the grizzly crew of forlorn contrarians and hangdog discontents. She wanted to escape Grimsby any way she could. Skiing was a means. Her dream was to be an actress. And she was a very devoted thespian, excelling in her high school drama classes, earning special praise for her parts in the extra-curricular plays the class put on, playing Nora Helmer in a chamber version of Ibsen’s A Doll House in grade ten, and then Ophelia in a modern revision of Hamlet in grade eleven.
She fully invested herself in these parts. Memorizing the character’s lines, making them her own, re-reading the texts for subtleties, learning about the time and the place, grounding the characters in their social context, the history of their performances, watching recorded performances on VHS, which she borrowed from the library on loan from another library in Cambridge, and even watched a couple of Hollywood productions in the cinema. The butcher had driven her to the York Cinema in Toronto in early May, where a double-header of Hamlet was screening, Olivier’s stentorian black-and-white from ’48, and Zeffirelli’s earthy 90’s version, with Mel Gibson playing the burdened Danish prince. She found Zeffirelli’s “sensual” version easier to relate to, her eyes glued to the screen whenever pixie Ophelia appeared.
Maybe it was the color in the picture that made all the difference. She wasn’t all that used to the black-and-white. The butcher yawned the whole time, his butt getting sore any which way turned in his seat. His roaming hands rebuffed. Her sparkling gaze fixated to the screen. He rolled his eyes at the pompous monologues. “To be or not to be.” Something-something. “Alas, poor Yorick!” Grumble-grumble. He promised Zoe not to leave for smokes. She chirped felicitously when the guy behind the popcorn counter flirted with her and asked if her dad wanted anything to eat or drink. The butcher coldly shrugged his shoulders and then Zoe stepped into him all haughty and kissed him on the lips in full view of everyone. “Don’t forget my change, buster,” she said to the popcorn guy, who’s face turned beet red as he rolled his tongue back from the counter and palmed Zoe the money.
“Toronto’s not much different from Grimsby, is it lover?”
“I guess not, kiddo.”
“Is Quebec any better?”
“You bet it is darling.”
It rained all the way back home and the butcher and his little baker girl romped to Marquee Moon while the ’68 burned up the asphalt. They made love in the car overlooking Port Dalhousie, the sweeping light beam illuminating their ardent expressions for a brief moment in the darkness.
“I love you,” she said, and tears ran down her roseate cheeks. He cupped her pale slender neck. There was nothing for it but to go down with her, to give himself over to the tidal waves. He drank deep from her lips and forgot himself all over in the merciful waters of oblivion.
“There’s no need for that kind of behavior, Jack,” said Cross distantly, tossing his two-cents into the fray, affecting personal injury with a sad sympathetic expression. J’adoube. The stock in trade of a glib union negotiator.
“Okay, here’s how we’re going to do things,” Ratched resumed, endeavoring to regain control of the room. On the wall was a framed photo of Ratched on a pier holding up a big fish vertically from a chain, a bass or a pike. Further down, there was picture of his smiling, four-piece family before the mint R.V. on a camping trip. “I’m just going to get to the point here. Jack, we were willing to tolerate your shenanigans as long as they were small fry. But this we can’t ignore. You’ve royally fucked up.”
“Get to the fucking point,” the butcher said. Even though he had figured out the destination of their chinwag, he still was eager to know for sure what dirt they’d managed to scrounge up, so as to measure the allegation, parry it, and then bat it back with extreme prejudice. Like a seasoned poker player who’d seen the flop and raised the ante, he now anticipated the river card to lay his next bet.
“You fucked up with that bakery girl, Jack. We got video of you and her in the parking lot,” Ratched said with visible discomfort.
“Is that right?” the butcher answered and there was something melancholy in his voice, a frog he needed to clear, a tell he needed to restrain.
“We don’t see any reason to involve the police at this juncture. But you’re done here, Jack. You have no business being with us any more,” Ratched concluded. Longsteifler scanned his subordinate with pleasure. Cross held his neutral gaze to the floor distractedly.
“Bullshit!” the butcher shouted contemptuously. “Cross, you got nothing to add? Don’t my ten bucks a week purchase me any defense from the union.” Had he anticipated this turn of events, had he sensed the accusation beforehand and was now merely playing the part of the hunted? Weak means strong and strong means weak, a rule of thumb at the poker table, but this game was more complex. Perhaps a new set of rules were required, a new measure of inquiry needed to assess the broad spectrum of tactics across the board.
Ironically, Cross was startled by the mention of his name in the same breath as the union. He snapped out of his daydream and scrambled to contribute to the conversation in a graceful manner. The problem was he had nothing of value to say at that precise moment and he knew the butcher would light on that fact in an instant. He didn’t want to arouse the ire of the butcher any further than he had already by being present in the room. There was also the ethical matter of the butcher being a loyal member of the union for the last two decades, a fact that made Cross feel superficially indebted to the butcher and obligated him to respond judiciously.
First he simulated a look of profound interest, of deep absorption, like he was resolutely wrestling with some portentous moral dilemma, and then a stern mood washed over him like the bracing splash of aftershave. He shook his head and opened his mouth with grave import.
“He’s right, Jack.”
“Get this asshole out of here!” the butcher erupted. “I don’t need his help.”
“Hold on a second,” Cross pleaded, his little satiny hands held aloft in supplication. “I didn’t mean—what can—?” he said in rapid staccato, hoping his earnest mien would fill the blanks. Beads of sweat were forming across his baldish forehead.
“Get him out before I defenestrate him out your window.” Cross looked to Ratched for counsel. “Don’t look at him, Cross, look at me! I’m the one paying your wages. Me and the rest of them ham-and-eggers down there you’re tweaking,” the butcher hollered, decisively pointing with both hands to the vitrine situated behind Ratched at the far end of the office. He hurled his fist at the door behind him and the door rattled in its frame. Longsteifler leaned sideways timidly, while Ratched made himself smaller in his chair. Cross, with his clammy hands still in the air, pushed himself back a pace from the butcher like a mime trapped in a box.
Ratched thought to call up security but resisted the inclination. Longsteifler thought about how much he hated being around these wheelhorse industry types, with their lunch-pail lingo and brown-bag attitudes. Things were much comfier at the head office. The air lighter. He could breathe easier. He despised doing the store tours. Walking the floor with Ratched and his ilk, the stock “guest” badge pinned to his sport blazer, the petrified looks from the staff filling the shelves, the damp jittery proletarian handshakes, it all amounted to nothing for him, a token for the workers, it nauseated him, the entire piddling pageant.
Cross pore through his mind, anxiously seeking for the definition of “defenestrate,” pronouncing the word over and over in his head, his internal lips and tongue masticating the word every which way it could turn, with little success.
The butcher turned the knob and opened the door. The fanfare from the hallway wedged in and trickled through the room like the ambient murmur of a river. “You!” he barked at Cross, “Out!” Cross peered skittishly at Ratched one more time and Ratched nodded in agreement. Cross cleared his throat, flattened his black polo shirt over his ribs with his perspiring hands, wiping them over the cotton material and leaving an alluvial imprint in their wake.
He made for the door that the butcher held open. “Good day, gentlemen,” he sheepishly uttered and exited without looking at the butcher who was scowling something fierce, lips held so tight they could have seared from the pressure, penumbral eyebrows engulfing the whites of his eyes.
“You too,” the butcher said to Longsteifler. “You ain’t got no business here.”
“What do you mean?” Ratched asked on behalf of Longsteifler, who was pressing his powdering gaze at the blood stains on the butcher’s cadaverous coat and apron. The apprehension Longsteifler felt, it was insensible to him, but it was there, large as an elephant in the room. He didn’t dare admit it to himself. Nor did he deny it. The cadaverous coat. The bloody apron. These were the accouterments of a primitive non-literate order that he could not understand. Maybe Ratched could speak the butcher’s language. He certainly could not.
“He ain’t union, he ain’t H.R. He’s got no business knowing my business,” the butcher said, still holding the door ajar.
“Eric’s here’s in an advisory role in lieu of Henry’s absence,” Ratched replied.
“His advice ain’t needed. Tell him to be on his way.”
Ratched and Longsteifler exchanged a terse look. A bleeping page over the P.A. cleaved through the silence in the room. “He’s right, Ted,” Longsteifler said. He nodded to Ratched and passed through the half open door, en passant, ignoring the butcher. The door slammed curtly upon his egress.
“Alright, Ratched, let’s have it already,” the butcher said, and then ambled deeper into the room, circling in front of the chair facing Ratched’s desk and fell onto it with a bowling thud.
“You’re one rude son of a bitch?” Ratched said.
The butcher leaned back into the stiff beige stacking chair, the sort of chair you’d encounter in a classroom, a similarity that likely informed the mind selecting the office chairs in the first place. The humiliating feeling in the principal’s office, that suppressing feeling in first period English or history, that was probably the intended goal of the décor. Now a grown man or woman, called into Ratched office’s, the belittling feeling of the chair, the beige plastic poking, jabbing, filling out your back, even if you’d done nothing wrong, cut down to elementary size, maybe secondary, presided over by Ratched in his executive, high-backed, rich-burgundy arm-chair, pneumatic seat height adjustment, waterfall seat edge for good circulation, tilt tension adjustment, brass armrest tacks, mahogany wood base with dual wheel casters, the boss of it all, the manila dossiers, the hefty binders containing the confidential history of the store and its employees, and the widescreen vitrine to lord it over them.
“Don’t I know it,” the butcher answered, and leaned back in his chair and when it didn’t yield to his weight, he rocked back harder, pitching the weight of his back into the beige plastic and it squeaked from the tension.
“You really think you’re something special, don’t you?” Ratched confidently declared, leaning forward in his chair. “You’re no cowboy. I worked stores out west. Calgary. Edmonton. Those some real cowboys. You? You’re just some union backed pepper. Nothing special.”
“So you’re a real stud hound, eh, Ratched? Sunk your spurs into some real good ones in Calgary? No need to fret. I’m sure your rodeo days ain’t behind you,” the butcher said.
“Yeah, but I’m not a fucking terrorist either,” Ratched snapped, losing control of his stung emotions, leaning over his desk with flattened palms, elbows pointing outwards.
The butcher halted his rambunctious rocking. The room was silent enough that Ratched could hear the butcher forcefully breathing through his noise. He continued. “Yeah, that’s right. We did our homework on your mother. The FLQ. Bombings, kidnapping, murder. That’s some messed up shit. That’s the kind of family you come from? No wonder,” Ratched said with righteous fervor.
The butcher exploded from his chair, fists bulging at the end of his white coat like two burly fisherman’s knots, but he paused at the threshold of action and considered, briefly, some bleak prospect, before leaning over Ratched’s desk, strong-arming the contents with a fluid raking motion, over and onto the floor with a loud crash, pencils over pens, dossiers, a calendar, a mug of cold coffee, which splashed all over the taupe carpet, and a picture frame, with a high-school graduation picture of Ratched’s gawky daughter, little bits of shattered glass everywhere. Ratched stood and unintentionally pushed the ox-blood armchair away with the back of his legs.
He reached for the phone and lifted the ebony receiver to his ear, nervously punching the three-digit extension to the security office on the ground floor. Before Ratched could connect, the butcher reached over the desk towards the phone and wrapped the extension cord around his index finger, tearing it from the wall. Ratched backed away from the desk even further, pushing the high-backed armchair all the way to the vitrine, still holding the listless receiver to his ear, even though the phone was amputated from the line.
The butcher lifted himself from Ratched’s desk, maw jutting out, and for the first time Ratched confessed to himself that he was afraid of this man, in these close quarters, without Longsteifler and Cross in the room, anything could happen. Things weren’t going according to plan. His strategy had derailed with the desk clearing.
On the other hand, things were going exactly as the butcher would have liked. It was his mode. To lay a violent shadow down with his body language, it was a natural tendency for him, precisely because it disrupted the chemistry of others. He’d learned that fact long ago. How to situate a multi-pronged attack, in poker, snooker, boxing, hockey, it was second nature now, a particular tone he’d strike, a specific gesture he’d drop, a peculiar expression he’d wear. Even in anodyne everyday exchanges, he rarely turned off that aspect of him that domineered over others, that measured and aimed to master an opponent in a matter of seconds. It was his bread and butter. How he made a difference in things.
“You were saying something about my mother,” the butcher said, looking Ratched in the eye, watching him break eye contact to survey the wreckage around his desk. “Continue.”
The butcher strode over to the wall just beside the desk that housed the picture frames. He stepped onto the toppled pencils and a couple of them snapped under the weight of his boot. Beside the picture frames of Ratched with the fish, and the four-piece family before the RV, was a certificate of “Excellence in Management” that Ratched had won at some supermarket award gala in the 80s, when he was managing a store out West.
The butcher jabbed his craggy fist right through the narrow sheet of glass, smashing the thin pane, and pulled the parchment from the glass with his fingers. He looked at the certificate and made as if to read it, but then abruptly crumpled it with both hands, making short work of it. Noticing his knuckles were scratched from the blow, he wiped the accumulation of blood from his hand with the crumpled parchment and then he threw it at Ratched, striking him on the chest.
Why can’t they hear the noise, Ratched thought, referring to Longsteifler and Cross. Neither man was within earshot. Longsteifler had gone to the hot deli for a cup of Joe. Even though he detested the in-house recipe, he needed it to calm his nerves. Maybe a cigarette after. He thrust his granulating gaze to the cash lady, atomizing her to the quick, and she trembled like a flickering flame upon returning his change. His radiating leer still worked. Cross had gone to the washroom to relieve his tension in a different fashion.
“You want me gone? You want me out?” This was where the butcher had been steering the conversation all along. The shawl of acrimony, the Vesuvian eruptions, the stone-cold stratagems, they were all negotiating tactics, trenchant avowals of blunt compromise that were misunderstood by the scheming trio as salami tactics, that is, as a divide and conquer undertaking, with the butcher attempting to eliminate the opposition, slice by slice, in order to dominate the room. On the surface, this was true. The butcher had cleared the table by cutting off his enemies. But the butcher’s true goal, after he realized what they’d dug up on him, was to have a one-on-one with Ratched.
He’d intuited the accusation fairly early into the proceedings and he knew that Longsteifler and Cross would only complicate things. Management wanted him gone. They’d always wanted him gone. It was just a matter of time before they’d manage to get him gone. The butcher had had a good run. But he couldn’t evade them forever. Especially with the way he carried on, speaking his mind, doing things his own way, battling policy and company standard when it conflicting with his way, “the better way.”
Whenever they’d tried to come down on him, he’d incessantly maneuvered the union rules to shelter himself, finding the loopholes in their disputes against him, marshaling support from his coworkers, unflaggingly demonstrating that his method was indeed the best. He always had his nose to the ground, expecting the worse, on the lookout for what was coming his way. You don’t live and work like the butcher did without having to pay the price. Everyone has to pay the piper someday. The butcher was now ready to cut a deal.
It was unthinkable for him. But from the moment he laid hands on Zoe, from the moment he let her reach into his pants in the janitor’s closet, this day was coming. A wolf only needs to get trapped once. When she put her mouth on him, when he leaned back and allowed it, with the brooms and mops as witnesses, his destiny was set in motion. Fait accompli. It was a done deal. And then Ratched had to go and mention his mother. It was a sore spot. She upped and disappeared over twenty years ago, without a trace. They didn’t know if she was dead or missing.
“Gimme fifty thousand as severance and I’m history.” It grieved the butcher to utter these words, wounded him in places too deep for language to convey. It was akin to selling out. But he had to take care of his own, to cash-in his chips while there was still a prize to be had.
For almost twenty years he’d made Loman’s his home away from home. When he’d left Quebec in his twenties, he was looking for the good fight. He’d come from a culture of bohemian utopianism. La belle époque. Anti-authoritarianism, free love, cooperative business enterprising, acid tests, and other hipsterisms survived the trip from Quebec, but the non-violent means he’d left behind like a shed skin.
He’d left behind the Quebec Aces and his dream of ever playing for Les Canadiens, his father, Professor Emeritus Etienne Louis, renowned Classical Civilizations expert, his mother, Winona Louis, who had disappeared, willingly or unwillingly, without a trace in the early 70s, the imprint of her left behind in their two-storey family home in L’Ancienne-Lorette, which his father had so painstakingly maintained in her absence, scholarly, like an archivist, as a means of keeping her shadowy presence tellurian, grounding the lingering residue of the life she had once lived in familiar objects, obsessively containing it within the articles she’d left behind. Heat, light, oxygen, dust, these were the enemies that degraded her memory.
He’d left the memories of his lovers, his neighborhood friends, the games they played, a Bruegelian cornucopia, the schools he went to, the hockey rinks he played in, the goals, the fights, the glory, Les Glorieux, the Forum, the malls, the playgrounds, the sights, the sounds, the smells, he’d left it all behind, his whole Quebecan life and all of its carnival lights.
Leaving Quebec was like dying and coming to Toronto was like awakening in some leaden-grey Dullsville, a placeholder of a city, Dog River, Moose Fuck, Upper Rubber Boot, with your memories of having lived a sensory life intact, but without anything quick or tender within you to trigger a response. Living in the ashen past was the best most expatriates could effectuate. The butcher still managed to make the best of it without ever attempting to get back to the land of the living.
“There’s nothing for you,” Ratched mumbled, putting the comatose receiver down on the shambles of his desk. “Loman’s denied you any such package. The union too. They’ve washed their hands. There’s nothing.”
“I’ll get my lawyer to—“
“You’ll get your lawyer to do nothing,” Ratched cut in, and the butcher allowed him to complete his train of thought, despite the fact that his voice trailed off between clauses. He was starting to regain some of the equilibrium that was scattered along with articles on his desk and wall.
“Loman’s gonna spend all of it, whatever your severance package may have been and more, on lawyers and judges, he’s prepared to spend it all, just to make sure you don’t see a single penny. You know how many friends he’s got in Parliament? I warned you. You’ve made this personal now. The richest grocery tycoon in the country and you wanted to take him on with your piffling shit. You’ve got his attention now.”
And that was it, the trump card Ratched had jealously stored up his sleeve for the last few months, until everything was complete, until every notable shred of evidence had been collected and assembled in his dossiers, the lunch-hour quickies in the butcher’s Camaro, the video footage of the 68’s gentle oscillations in the parking lot, the butcher’s unlawful drinking and smoking on the job, time theft, truancy, insubordination, violations of company policy, suspicions of back-door dealing, sweet-hearting, corrupting the youth, you name it, all diligently recorded. Even the hush-hush material they finagled from installing a secret closed-circuit camera in the backroom washroom behind the thick-rimmed, two-way mirror, a clandestine contrivance Loman himself had cash financed. Like in the boiling frog parable, the butcher had been submerged in tepid water for years, but temperatures had now become scalding.
He started walking around the perimeter of the desk towards Ratched, who cowered in the direction of the wall, not knowing what to do and expecting the worst. The butcher drew near to him and pushed him back against the wall with a convincing thrust to the chest. But it wasn’t Ratched he had set his sights on. It was the executive armchair he wanted, which he accosted with great vehemence, lifting it from the ground with a deep squat by the quadruped mahogany base. He placed one hand on the hub below the chair, the spoke print embedding onto his palm, and the other on the shifting telescopic column cover, hoisting it waist-high and leaning the seat-cushion against his chest and shoulder.
He took a couple of strides toward the vitrine that dimly reflected the scene from Ratched’s office and he saw the heavy Saturday traffic below, floor abuzz with the Grimsbian throng busily shifting and swerving their shopping carts across the thoroughfare at the foot of the lobby. Without a second thought for the welfare of those below, the butcher effortlessly lifted the ox-blood chair overhead and heaved it towards the vitrine, wheels squeaking amid the casters, where it made a great shattering splash and fell twenty feet below in a shower of spidery glass, luckily landing in a vacant spot between the shoppers, hitting nothing but the bare waxed floor.
The ergonomic design busted instantly, cracked through the gas-springed column, which had separated from the mechanism plate, causing the chair to fold into itself, legs dichotomized from the body. There was all kind of clamor from the floor, screaming and shouting, bounded by a wave of general panic. Somebody had mistakenly taken the chair for a body, thinking somebody had jumped from the second-story and broken in half at the waist. Another shopper dropped her basket to the floor, scattering her groceries wide, a flotilla of bright oranges pitched towards the broken chair and glass debris. People were pointing up to the broken vitrine. A deep and resounding drone circulated amidst the thunderstruck shoppers, reaching up all the way to the ears of the butcher who was peering through the breach. Ratched remained against the wall, mouth agape, stupefied like King Knut before the tide.
Several Loman employees were drawn to the scene like bees to honey, waywardness, disorder, delinquency, honey to worker bees. The meat clerks saw the butcher overlooking the accident from the fractured vitrine. He’d paid no attention to the razor-edged glass that hung overhead and cut the back of his neck as he withdrew from the rupture. Blood began to coat the back of his neck and brook down his throat and collarbone, making the wound look more serious than it actually was. Security finally burst into the office, arresting the black Goyan tableau.
The security guards were walking the butcher down two flights of stairs to the security office in order to contain him until the proper authorities arrived. They walked on either side of the butcher, two strapping men in their twenties, but they did not dare to touch him. He walked unaided, tending to the wound abaft his neck with some plicated paper towel he’d obtained from the men’s washroom just down the hall from Ratched’s office. All of the patrons on the second-floor stared at him with amazement as he was led past their parasoled lunch-tables. The collar of his coat was red-branded.
On the landing separating the open-concept staircases, the trio walked past an elderly lady who was minding her own business, head down, feet fixated on the tiles, eyeballing her loafers and utterly absorbed by what was sliding down the length of her heel. The butcher’s nostrils were overrun by the stench of fresh shit. He looked at the old lady who eased and guided the warm pile down her boot by tenting the pleat in her pant. Le esprit de l’escalier. When she was finished with her mishap, she swiftly absconded from the mezzanine, walking up the next flight of stairs, indifferent to the steaming muck she aborted on the landing, and made her way to women’s washroom past the lunch area.
By this time, security had ushered the butcher near the scene of the accident. The cleaners were busy sweeping the debris together in a circular compass around the disjointed executive chair. Employees from all over the store were gathered at the scene. Friends of the butcher. The butcher’s cabal from the meat department caught sight of him passing the wreckage and ran up to him with concern.
“You okay, boss,” said Atman, the young Indian boy who the butcher had taken under his wing for the last couple of years. “You’re bleeding,” he said, pointing to the butcher’s neck that was overrun with blood.
They were a strange pair, but they worked indefatigably well together. The butcher never having to repeat his commands twice or question Atman’s obedience. The young man eager to learn and improve himself, a blank slate for the butcher’s manifold experiences and ideas. He’d bucked his own father in order to learn from the butcher. Dropped any plans of post-secondary school and taken any shifts directed his way. Abandoned shifts, sick calls, last-minute additions, if he got the call, he’d be there before you could snap your fingers. Sometimes he’d drop by on his days off just to see how things were running. If the butcher needed a quick face up, even off the clock, Atman would do it for him and then get promptly lectured. “Never off the clock,” the butcher would chasten, “That’s the beginning of thralldom.” Atman would take note. He was a vessel of the butcher’s. One of the many illegitimate sons he’d fostered at Loman’s over the years.
“I’m okay,” the butcher mumbled. He looked at Atman and Crawford, the avid new hire Atman was chaperoning. “Take Crawford and head to back to the shop. This doesn’t concern you.”
“But boss,” Atman started and then hesitated. The security guards stood idle while the meat men conversed. They all knew each other. Gone for coffee runs and smoke breaks together. But it was different now. They were departmentalized by the situation. It was in Atman’s eyes. One word, one look from the butcher, was all he needed.
“Atman!” the butcher growled with a deathly stare. With that, the apprentices quickly acceded, turned tail, and headed back to the meat department. While the meat manager was on vacation, the butcher was running shop, sending orders, delegating routine tasks, commandeering the schedule, directing staff. Saturday was a busy day for meat at Loman’s. The Spaniard cleaning crew would have this mess cleaned up in no time and things would return to normal. The eager Grimsbians were here to shop. A little accident would not deter them. The next meat crew would not be arriving for another hour. There’d be no relief until then. Atman and Crawford were at the helm now. They could handle it. They’d been trained to run things. Even without the butcher.
At the foot of the produce department, by the grape display, stood the receiver. He nodded at the butcher when their eyes met. The receiver looked wretched. The butcher would have patted him on the shoulder if he were beside him. They’d known each other since Wasaga, going back twelve years now.
“Always get the receiver on your side,” he’d taught Atman. They’d been through a lot together. When the receiver went through his last messy divorce and was displaced from his home for a spell, he stayed with the butcher for six weeks at his apartment on Davenport in Toronto, wrestling with Gregor for the couch. They’d drink at the Irish pub across the street, where, to the butcher’s glacial chagrin, the receiver karaoked to Sinatra deep into the night, his distended brioche jutting out. They’d go through a case of beer easy watching the butcher’s beloved Habs pound on his Maple Leafs, griping and moaning out the side of his mouth the whole time.
The butcher was there when his first daughter had suddenly died from ovarian cancer when she was just twenty-eight. They held wake together. Carried the coffin abreast. Buried his beloved Caroline, shovels in hand, shoulder to shoulder. And then they held their own totemic wake. They stayed up together for three long days, getting foggy and fricasseed in pubs all over town, kerb-crawling black velvets along Jarvis, parceling out the railroad bible wherever they could, in any after-hour joint they could smoke out. None of it was honorable, but the receiver had to get the devil out of him, before he did worse to himself. The butcher stuck with him the whole time and got just as bladdered. That meant a lot to the receiver. It meant the world. Now the butcher was going the other way.
The receiver wanted to back him up. He was older now, but he felt he still had a say in things. He never cared for the butcher’s politics. He’d listen to his idealistic prattle after a bottle of good whiskey, hearken to his palaver while in a deep and lush haze, but he’d never internalize the butcher’s whacko theories. It was the politics that would get the butcher in trouble one day, the receiver always said. It didn’t take a soothsayer to see that coming. The receiver didn’t like to mix politics and work. He left that task to the union. That’s what his dues were for.
Security led the butcher around the corner and through the exit doors, disappearing from view. The receiver took a deep woebegone breath and returned to his post. He hadn’t felt this awful in years. When he reached his desk, a team of drivers were waiting for him, jabbering and heckling him, pink manifests in hand. He didn’t hear a word they said. He walked past the unshaved, flannelled cluster, and through the blighted, wailing door. If he ever needed a cigarette this bad before, he couldn’t remember the occasion. The bright autumnal sun greeted him, braced him at the pit of his stomach like a guardrail.
The butcher was led into the office, one guard in front, one in back. He had no intention of staying put, no desire to talk to the cops. The one in front had his back turned to him. He didn’t have the time or energy to waste on a scuffle. They’re just kids. Put the fear of God into them, he thought.
Over one wall were a series of embedded screens in tile formation like on a checkerboard or with chicken wire fencing, each seven-inch monitor observing a different part of the store. There were cameras strategically barnacled all over the store. You had to fix your stare along the ceiling for a minute in order to find the ubiquitous camouflaged watchmen. The butcher espied the terminal observing the meat department. He saw Atman serving a customer some meat at the case. Replenish, the butcher thought reflexively. The command ran through his mind involuntarily like a sleep-twitch.
The butcher had been tight with the previous security team before they’d been transferred to a different store. They often drank together at a local pub after work. He even sparred with one of them regularly at Tully’s gym, the watchman being a decent amateur boxer in his own right, having fought Golden Gloves in British Columbia. Despite being twenty years his senior, the butcher held his own, pushing the youth away with his forceful counterpunches, punishing him whenever he got too close and too comfortable with devastating combination shovel hooks to the liver.
It so happened that that watchman had obtained some classified video footage and he landed it straight in the butcher’s lap. It turned out that Loman’s cronies had come to Grimsby nightly, over a two-month period in the Spring, to change the tape from the CCTV camera rig, which was covertly stashed behind the two-way mirror in the employee washroom. In their haste, they overlooked the fact that they too were being recorded by the ubiquitous eye in the sky.
Being shrewd enough to know an opportunity when he saw one, the watchman investigated the washroom, perusing the suspicious thick-rimmed mirror, which he adroitly removed from the wall with the toolset he’d retrieved from his truck, only to find the diabolical camera rig behind, recording away insensibly. Isn’t that what the executives at Loman’s always talked about? Opportunity? He removed the damning evidence from the camera and pocketed it. And replaced the old tape with a new blank one. Sure, Loman’s cronies would have qualms about what he did, sure they’d notice how vacuous the fresh tape was, but what could they prove?
Management transferred him to another store on a hunch. Maybe it was glitch in the camera. Or maybe somebody had got to the tape. Loman would murder them if he learned they’d botched this. It’d be their jobs and maybe even more. So they pulled some strings and transferred the watchman and his partner to a different store. And the watchman sold the tape with the damning evidence, nothing special, people using the can, washing their hands, fixing their makeup, not much else, to the butcher for a tidy sum.
It was invaluable to the butcher. His coup de grace. The centerpiece of his conspiracy against Loman. His ace in the hole. Taping people in the toilet was a no-no. “Let’s see the courts throw this one out. Let’s see Loman’s PR system smooth this one over.” Loman would come out in the media as no less than a nasty, depraved, weirdo-pervert. There would be no out-of-court settlement. But he still wanted his fifty thousand buy-out for his many years of loyal service to the industry. The butcher was committed to writing his own ticket all the way down the line.
He had to get out of the security office, quick, before the fuzz arrived. His mind returned to the Mark 3 attached to his calf. He probably didn’t need the blade against these guys, they were mere boys compared to him, puffy designer muscles notwithstanding, but once a strategist, always a strategist.
“You better lay a lick on us both, Jack,” the thick-necked, tattooed watchman said, looking the butcher thoughtfully in the eye. “It’ll look better.”
The butcher turned and looked at the watchman’s beefy, stubbly partner standing in the rear. He nodded his sweaty, close-cropped head in agreement. “Not too hard, though.”
It was the summer of 1977. Shoeshine boy Emanuel Jacques had just been murdered. The city was in uproar over how seedy Yonge Street was becoming with body-rub parlours and strip clubs. Shortly after, unrelatedly, the Charter of the French Language was passed by the Parti Québécois. And Jean-Jacques was looking for full-time work because he’d knocked up Niobe and had decided to stick by her. He came knocking on Loman’s door and the Balkan Bear answered the call with open arms.
Jean-Jacques was hired as a part time clerk but his gung-ho attitude put him on the map in no time and before long he was getting the forty-hour guarantee. He had to stand on his toes and learn on the fly if he was to compete with the other ham-and-eggers for the lock. The minimum wage in Toronto in 1977 was $2.65. His take-home pay, after taxes and union dues, was around ninety dollars per week. Loman’s was not in the habit of paying overtime so Jean-Jacques had to settle for the ninety and stretch his paycheck as if it were elasticated. He hadn’t left Quebec with very much to his name. He’d loaded the Plymouth Roadrunner to the brim on a Thursday, with a couple of suitcases full of clothes and assorted knickknacks, like his hockey gloves from his brief stay with the Aces. He had five-hundred dollars in his pocket and the crumpled phone numbers of a couple of contacts in Toronto, friends of friends, with places where he could crash until he set himself up.
Jean-Jacques arrived in Toronto towards the tail end of March in ’77. It was a brisk four-degrees Celsius when he pulled off the Don Valley Pkwy on Adelaide. It was seven in the morning and he was desperate for a place to sleep. Six-hundred highway klicks through the dead of night had left him a little fatigued. He hadn’t slept the night before either. Coffee and amphetamines had carried him across the freeway. Jean-Jacques dialed the scrawled numbers from his pocket and they rang again and again with no answer. He grew impatient with the rote noise and dove back into his orange Plymouth and parked on George Street across from the Moss Park Armoury to catch some shut-eye. He lived out of his car the first week, having only dialed his contacts once more, with the same droning result. He nearly froze the second night in his Plymouth parked on Washington Avenue nearby St. Thomas’ Anglican Church. He went out and bought a thick woolen blanket from Honest Ed’s the very next morning, shivering to the very core of his body, his teeth rattling like loose coins in a jar.
Jean-Jacques was at his lowest ebb. He didn’t leave Quebec on the best of terms. He was twenty-nine and perennially dissatisfied. With McGill and the Aces being firmly in the past, Jean-Jacques didn’t really have anything on the go. He was knocking about from job to job, parking cars, washing dishes, laying bricks, banging around town mostly, bunking with friends, living out of a suitcase. He was a jack-of-all-trades but master of none. It was his wit that separated him from others. At school, it was amazing what he could hear in a lecture and how he’d synthesize the material he eavesdropped upon, eavesdropping because was always doing something else in the class room, scribbling away some notes on foolscap he had borrowed from some cutie in the second-to-last row, drawing pictures of cars he wanted to build. It was the act of eavesdropping that developed a sort of talent in Jean-Jacques for free thinking.
He would never hear the lecture verbatim. It was like watching television with the radio on. The two mediums bled into each other but remained intact. And so it was with the lectures. He’d hear the teacher’s voice, but he’d mostly pick up on the cues and subtleties of the material, packing and unpacking ideas in the air with one part of his brain, while another embossed the hood curvature of some muscle car on paper. His train of thought hardly ever ran on a horizontal plane during his youth. It was like an expressionist painter landing in the Ashcan School, Jean-Jacques way of thinking was misunderstood and often lambasted.
His own father, Etienne, could not stand to have a lengthy conversation with him because they differed in so many ways. Where Etienne built-up to a point, slowly scaling to the tip like William F. Lamb, Jean-Jacques leapt from peak to peak like some skydive daredevil. Nobody knew how he did it. It was almost like Jean-Jacques tapped into some unconscious frequency that discharged the prolegomena of any conversation or discourse. This is why they couldn’t keep him out of McGill, despite the fact that he never did any homework or take any notes in class. He’d write essays on the day they were due without any preparation and ace them. He’d improvise his way through tests and exams like Charlie Parker flowing through a melody.
He played hockey in the same mercurial way, seemingly eavesdropping his way into the privileged conversation. He found a way to channel the talent of Aces alumni like Doug Harvey and Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur. He was nothing to brag about during practice and was rarely spotted anywhere near a gym conditioning himself. He was smoking when he was ten years old and snorting burgers, fries, and milkshakes on a daily basis. He barely sat still long enough to practice anything. He worked on cars all the time. When he wasn’t working on cars, he was racing his buddies on Rue Saint Paul, Rue Notre Dame, wherever the action was good. But he didn’t practice. He just threw himself into the mix and did that thing until he did it right. Lapalissade.
He played hockey like his idol, Maurice Richard. When the game was on the line, a fire burned within Jean-Jacques to rise to the occasion. Not that styled himself after “the Rocket.” Aside from the number 9 stitched across the back of his jersey, there was nothing imitated about his stride across the ice. He scored and checked and fought too much and too good. He was irrepressible when he jockeyed to the net. His ice pals called him “Caribou Rouge” or “Red Caribou” because he skated without fear and could not be stopped when charging to the crease, antlers down. He had a native intelligence for the game that could be not be taught. There was an economy and unpredictability to his on-ice motions. He didn’t play the game in any traditional fashion, which made him difficult to read. Was he a speedy power forward with delicate hands or a thug who happened to be in the right place, at the right time? His stats were too impressive to ignore for long. The way he scored goals, threw his body around, and fought, was special. He landed a tryout with the Aces for the ’69 season.
Jean-Jacques was invited to training camp in the month of September. He showed the letter to his father, who shrugged his shoulders and said, “What about school?” He let the letter fall from his hands like a deciduous leaf and returned to his study, shutting the door behind him. Poisoned by his father’s reaction, Jean-Jacques wandered the streets listlessly. He found his girlfriend of the time, Fanette Pare, at one of the local delicatessens, and they went for a walk to the park together, taking turns on the swings while puffing off Marlboroughs. They lay in the Autumn foliage, bodies half covered by the Maple’s honeyed blanket, and they spoke about the future. She was twenty, in her second year at McGill, majoring in linguistics. She had hoped to become a speech therapist in order to help people in ways she couldn’t help her brother, who was born with an unconquerable stutter and still living with his parents well into his forties.
Jean-Jacques only wanted to prove his father wrong and to stay true to the dreams of his youth. He reached back to himself at fifteen and eleven and seven, handing down the invitation to skate with the Aces and he felt collectively vindicated. Every homeward call he’d ignored while sporting on the streets, every grounding, every punishment he’d endured at the hands of his father, lectures about how he’d never amount to anything if he ignored his studies, words that shackled him to the brick and mortar of his neighborhood, were rungs on the ladder to the hockey summit. When he ran away from home at ten years, and raced down the streets until his little heart almost burst in his chest, he ran and he ran, the neighborhood chant in his ears, “Caribou! Caribou!” The police found him three days later deep in the forest, half-unconscious near the ravine, nearly dead from hypothermia. His mother tore at her hair and face at the sight of Jean-Jacques ashen complexion, a waking nightmare that never left her sight. He didn’t leave her side for a year after that. Taking leave from her career as a domestic violence counselor, she challenged herself to home school Jean-Jacques for a year. In that lost year Winona rekindled her connection to her ancestral roots.
Winona was of Metis descent and started to rethink what that meant when she sat down to develop a curriculum for Jean-Jacques. Ce que chante la corneille, chante le corneillon.Her father, David Asham, was proud Metis and refused to speak English around the house. He addressed his wife and daughter in Michif, a mixed language consisting of parts Cree and Canadian French and First Nation borrowings. Her mother, Roselin Melanson, was of regular Quebec ancestry, parents and grandparents both French Canadian. The marriage dissolved after Winona’s father disappeared when she was five. David left the house one day to get some cigarettes and milk and never returned.
Roselin remarried a few years later to a respectable Union representative in the textile industry. They raised Winona in their household until she was nineteen, when left home in order to attend McGill and study criminology. She got an apartment in downtown Montreal and worked part time as a waitress to support herself. She met her future husband, Etienne, at McGill in a Canadian history survey class. They married shortly after graduation and Winona never returned home. She never became a lawyer like she had planned but became a social worker instead and felt tremendous satisfaction giving back to her community. She gave birth to Jean-Jacques when she was twenty-six. After twenty-two hours of intensive labor, Winona rightly won the naming rights over her son and named him after her favorite French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, trumping her husband’s Ancient Greek predilections.
She hadn’t thought of her Metis descent for a good long while. She had thought of her father over the years but he was a marginal figure in her life. She barely remembered him. Growing up, there were hardly any photos of him around the house. Roselin desperately wanted to forget about David after he abandoned them, destroying most of his photos in a hot-blooded fit one evening. He hadn’t been the best choice in husbands. He smoked, and drank, and gambled, and fought on a regular basis. For some reason he thought many of these things were a celebration of his Metis ancestry. He flounced from job to job like a nomad while Roselin held down the fort with her legal secretarial position. But he was handsome and kind to Roselin and irrepressibly romantic. Coupled with the fact that he was Roselin’s first love made him difficult to forget. But she managed to do just that after three long years without a single phone call or letter from David.
Winona started connecting the dots. She called Roselin and asked questions about her father. Roselin admitted that her father had attempted contact with her again maybe ten years after he had abandoned them. He had cold-called Roselin one night and they spoke briefly before Roselin told him never to call back again and hanged up the phone. David said he was living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and mining for a living. He had asked after Winona. Wondered how old she was and if she ever asked for her daddy. Talking about David brought Roselin to tears and Winona changed the subject in order to appease her mother, chalking her newfound paternal interest to mere curiosity. But it was something deep seeded. She felt that she needed to learn about her father if she were understand her Metis heritage. She had reached the phone operator in Saskatchewan and asked if there were a David Asham listed in Moose Jaw to which she received a negative. Her search died in its early tracks. Her next natural inclination was to study history.
She took Jean-Jacques with her to the Redpath Library on McGill’s campus. She pointed out the gargoyles perched atop the roof and spun delicious stories for her little son. They spent long hours together in the beautiful Romanesque halls of the library. Winona reading books like The History of Canada by William Kingsford and the Chronicles of Canada by Wrong and Langton. Jean-Jacques was nose deep in Action Comics #241, “The Super-Key to Fort Superman,” which was the first appearance of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. He was happy to be away from school. He missed his friends, yes, but the bespectacled teachers, the yellow classrooms, the grey hallways, they were a distant vinegary memory now, and he wondered how long these golden dream would continue. Those two months they spent together in the sunlit halls of the library, Jean-Jacques would never forget. Redpath, with its high Romanesque ceilings and long stained-glass windows, was his Fortress of Solitude and he felt a sense of peace and discovery there. It wasn’t long before mother and son together graduated to texts and decisions of more complicated import. Il faut réfléchir avant d’agir.
The butcher drove along the Queen Elizabeth to his home on Victoria Avenue. It was a twenty-minute drive to the community of Vineland where he was renting a 1300 square foot home with a barn garage. It was much too large for Gregor and him. But it was all he could find on the short notice he was given when Loman’s had transferred him to Grimsby from Thunder Bay. He talked the owner down a little from his original asking price and put down a six-month deposit. He didn’t intend to remain past the term, but Gregor and him liked it so much they’d decided to stay. They’d been living there for over two years now.
The three-bedroom house was close to town and to the store. It had an enclosed porch and a country sized eat-in kitchen. And Gregor finally got his own room. A family could live comfortably here. For the two of them, it was a palace. The butcher was paying more rent than he was used to, but considering the comfort he and Gregor were living in, it was well worth it. It was time they lived a little. The Spartan routine was getting a little stale. The butcher was even thinking of settling down for the first time in a long time. He could afford to buy the home outright with his savings. With the recession still scourging real estate, now was as good a time as any.
He had thought a good many things. How he could buy some chickens for the barn garage, install a coupe with some nest boxes and a few perches. How could set up his weights and his heavy bag. He could get his tools out of storage and pick-up restoring automobiles again. Plant a garden in back. The spare bedroom he’d keep empty just in case. But he didn’t dare broach the subject. Not even with himself.
The knuckles on his right hand smarted a little when he shifted the stick. He’d probably decked the watchmen a little harder than either of them would have liked. The butcher was never any good at pulling his punches. “Not too hard,” the guy had said. He fell funny when the butcher struck him, making a sort of whooping sound. They don’t make them like they used to. He’d probably take the guys out for a drink sometime to make amends. For now, there were more important matters to attend to. The back of his neck was stinging. The blood had run dry, but he still needed to take a look at it. He’d be in one hell of a mess if his neck got an infection or needed stitches.
He ran into Longsteifler in the parking lot as he stormed out of the store. He was having a smoke, pacing around the lot, so deep in thought he didn’t even see the butcher coming. The butcher edged up to him from behind, just a foot away from Longsteifler’s heels, and said abruptly, “You gotta a light?” Longsteifler flinched and turned to face his querier. He took one look at the butcher’s no-nonsense expression, yelped, dropped his cigarette, and turned to run. But it took a full second for that to happen.
When his loafers finally got the better of the asphalt, he sprung himself north in the direction of the fences, towards the highway, accidentally farting from the exertion, khakis flung footloose, dancing in the wind. He was panting like a dog as he accelerated past the buggy-boy, who laughed his ass off at the sight of Longsteifler’s wild, panicked dash, zigzagging around the cars that were blocking his lane. The butcher chuckled too and made a beeline to the ’68. He had to get home and batten down the hatches. There was a storm of trouble coming his way.
He was making great speed along the QEW. The posted limit was 100 km/h. The ’68 was pushing 140 klicks, practically chewing the asphalt in its charge. He couldn’t afford to be stopped by the cops. At these speeds—he wasn’t thinking. He was inviting the very thing he was running to get away from. His dour mood had gotten the better of him. The public deposition didn’t help, being removed by security, the familiar faces in the crowd, looking on, maybe even reprovingly. But that was all his doing. He was always grandstanding.
He always swore that when Loman’s finally took him down, he’d scare up a spectacle so large everybody would notice. With the inception of industrialization, fearful workers used to destroy machines by tossing their sabots, “wooden shoes,” into the machinery. The ergonomic chair pitched through the vitrine was no different.
The ‘68 skid into the driveway, stopping just behind the pickup, the ‘85 cobalt Ford F-250. He had to get things ready in a hurry. He wasn’t sure if the cops could find him, but he wasn’t willing to wager his livelihood either. He had to pack a bag and get Gregor out in a flash. He made for the side door, slid the key inside and stepped past the threshold. Gregor wasn’t there to meet him like he usually was. And there was a foul odor in the air. It smelled like shit.
“Fuck,” the butcher said aloud to no one in particular. “Gregor,” he called out. No response. And then once again, louder, “Gregor!” But again there was no response. No barking. Not even the sound of his paws rustling on the hardwood. The butcher flicked the light switch and turned to walk up the stairs leading into the kitchen. Before he reached the top, Gregor’s fluffy, salt-and-pepper face peered around the corner. His heterochromic green and blue eyes were glazed and panicked.
“Hey, boy,” the butcher said in a coddling way, slowing his step, preparing for the worst. He was relieved to see Gregor was alert. For a second there he’d prepared for life without him and in that second there was an eternity of dissolution. “What’s the matter? You feeling ill?” Gregor started to whimper. He was too proud to begin the conversation with his master that way. But now that the butcher had broken the ice, Gregor swiftly abandoned his stoic posture.
The butcher reached the top of the stairs and entered the kitchen. Gregor was lying on the hardwood, his paws shielding his master’s slippers. The stench of shit was overwhelming, suffocating the butcher’s olfactory, but he didn’t flinch. He was used to it by now. It was tracked all over the kitchen floor. “Fuck,” the butcher said and Gregor whimpered once more, lowering his head onto his paws, flattening his ears as if chastened by the butcher’s remark.
“It’s okay, boy,” the butcher said, soothingly, bending to stroke Gregor’s salt-and-pepper coat. His hind legs were soiled. “Can you get up?”
Gregor slowly rose to his feet. His hind legs were late to respond. The butcher lifted Gregor’s tail to see the damage, but the husky emitted a growl and lightly snapped at the butcher’s intrusive hands. “Hey now. There’s no shame. I’ll clean you up quick.” He gingerly led Gregor to the basement, towards the laundry room, which was a wide area with a drain in the floor.
The butcher attached the hose and started to rinse Gregor’s fur with warm water. He worked some shampoo into the fur and scrubbed it around with a soft brush, building suds all over the husky’s hindquarters. Gregor didn’t give him any more trouble. After brushing the mess from Gregor’s legs and tail, he rinsed him off, and rubbed some perfumed lotion into his fur. Then he toweled him off, drying Gregor’s coat as much as possible. It would have to do. He didn’t have the time to blow dry him.
“Gregor, you stay down here. I’ll come back in a minute.” The butcher grabbed a pail and filled it with water, one quarter of the way, and added a little hydrogen peroxide. He took the pail and mop and headed back upstairs to the kitchen to clean the remaining mess. He was careful with the hardwood just in case he decided to buy the place one day. Not too much liquid. He gathered the majority of the diarrhea with paper towel. When the floor was reasonably clean, he put the wet mop to work, making figure-eight motions over the open floor, side to side, overlapping each stroke and flipping the mop-head as he moved back. The peroxide was working on the floor, but it still made one hell of a smell in the dirty compartment of the bucket when he strained it. The butcher then went onto his hands and knees and dried the hardwood with some rags. He hoped the shit wouldn’t stain. The entire job took about fifteen minutes.
“The cops are coming and I’m on my hands and knees like some fool.” Or maybe the cops weren’t coming at all. The butcher had taken sufficient care to cover his whereabouts from the state. Loman’s did not have his current address. The Ministry of Transportation was out of sync. Ditto the bank. He had a PO Box for any mail. He paid the landlord cash. He had negotiated a special deal with him to keep the bills in the landlord’s name. He just kicked up a little extra in rent every month. The butcher took these additional steps to keep his identity secret just in case of situations like the one he was facing. You never know when you’ll need an extra half-hour to bathe your dog and clean shit off your hardwood when the fuzz is on your tail. Nobody had ever called the butcher careless.
Gregor had been recently diagnosed with bone cancer and the vet bills were piling like a bad case of hemorrhoids. He wasn’t good with illnesses and doctors. When he came down with some bug, he’d ignore the aches and pains and fevers and carry on with his work or stay home and drown it with a hot toddy. That wasn’t going to work with Gregor. Bone cancer was something the butcher couldn’t afford to ignore. Gregor couldn’t carry himself like he used to. The butcher found that out the hard way during their last hike through the trees.
They were racing up the muddy hills of Wilket Creek, past the wild mushrooms and sapling trees, when Gregor’s legs swept out from under him and he slid down the wet hill, unable to get back to his feet. He struggled in the mud, twisting and thrashing among the twigs and conifer, but he couldn’t regain his foothold. When the butcher had reached Gregor, he just lay there sagely in the muck. He bent to lift Gregor and the husky gave a start as to help but faltered. The butcher managed to lift Gregor half way up before slipping and returning to his knees. He groaned and dug deep and with a second effort lifted the sixty-two pound husky. It was a long sloppy walk back to the car. Luckily there were no other hills on the way. The butcher never broke stride once. Gregor placidly hung his head, peering at the moving ground below.
There were signs of sickness with Gregor long before the collapse at Wilket, but the butcher had ignored them all. He’d lost some of his prodigious appetite. He wasn’t as energetic through the trees anymore. And there were the occasions when he’d lost control of his bowels. The butcher turned a blind eye to all these things. He changed Gregor’s food brand. Chucked the Loman’s brand to the wayside in favor of some organic type mash that had flax-seeds and blueberries and oatmeal on the card for triple the price. When that didn’t work he started cooking for Gregor himself. He made stews and roasts that Gregor hastily gobbled up, which seemed to brighten his mood in the interim, but the end result was the same. Gregor was struggling to get by and so the butcher began to reconsider his policy of no doctors and no hospitals.
After the incident at Wilket, he took Gregor to see a veterinarian. The husky’s first ever visit. The butcher had patched up Gregor himself when the need had arisen. Cuts and scrapes he managed, but this was something else. The first battery revealed the cancer. It was waiting to be discovered in a sunburst pattern around the femur. The medicines the vet prescribed took away some of the inflammation and helped reduce Gregor’s pain. The next course of treatment would be more expensive and more intrusive.
The butcher had awaited the news in the waiting room of the animal hospital at Yonge Street. The vets weren’t expert enough for the task in Grimsby, so the butcher shelled out the extra dollars for Toronto’s elite. The place came highly recommended from the vet in Grimsby. He was a good and humble elderly man. He couldn’t help Gregor himself and thought Toronto might be the better option. The butcher agreed and made the drive with Gregor in the passenger seat. Gregor looked for rabbits along the highway whenever his pain subsided, sleeping the rest of the time, making soft afflicted noises whenever the Camaro hit a bump or changed lanes aggressively.
The butcher had a history of avoiding hospitals. He wasn’t present at the birth of his own son at Mount Sinai hospital. His wife had done it alone. The hospital air had anesthetized him: it had made him numb, made him forget his own body, lose sight of himself, wander from the ground of his being. So he’d wandered to a bar on Church St. and got drunk instead, watching his beloved Canadiens outlast Cherry’s Bruins in game two of the Finals. His indignant brother-in-law had called him at the bar when Aeneas was born, just minutes after Lafleur scored the winning goal in overtime. The bar had been full of queers who were eyeing him strangely because he seemed so out of place, but the butcher did not pay any attention. The Molson in his hand and Le Canadiens were all he needed to blank out his worries.
Nothing newsworthy happened at the animal hospital this time around. He didn’t bail for a drink at any of the local dives. He toughed it out, waited for the dreaded news, numbly flicking through the sports section of the newspaper. He read about how the Canadiens were retooling for the coming season after missing the playoffs for the first time since the ‘69-70 season. He was just twenty-one then. Playing professional hockey himself, a short stint with the Quebec Aces of the AHL. Rejean Houle was hired as GM for the upcoming season, replacing the famed Serge Savard, the Savard of the “Spin-o-rama,” who’d played with the legendary Canadiens of the 70’s, hoisting eight Cups in a little over a decade.
The butcher remembered that Houle was drafted first overall by the Canadiens in ’69 too. The butcher thought it was an omen. But he wasn’t sure what it augured. He figured things couldn’t get much worse. As long as the Canadiens raised a banner to the roof of the Forum every few years, things would be fine. As long as St. Patrick was tending the nets, things would be okay. Roy was the Canadiens’ link to the legends of the past. And he would pass the torch one day to the next French-Canadian hockey hero.
Even as a little boy, he felt his destiny was closely tied to Les Habitants. A lot of little Quebecer’s did. A winning season concealed many sins for the Province, lifted many a dreary day. It was ingrained in the culture, the red-white-and-blue of the hockey sweater. “Real battles were won on the skating rink. Real strength appeared on the skating rink. The real leaders showed themselves on the skating rink.” Les Canadiens were the peoples shining beacon. It was the team’s last year at the Forum. Next year they would be playing elsewhere. Sometimes things changed for the better and sometimes they just changed.
He thumbed through the news. His inflamed, sleepless eyes cast a wide net over the print, gathering prodigally. He nervously awaited the CT-Scan to conclude its investigation. Waited for the news that Gregor would need chemotherapy if he were to survive. If the chemo didn’t take, they would have to amputate. The butcher signed the dotted line for the treatment to commence. The amputation he wouldn’t allow. Truth was he didn’t like any of it. “Chemo.” The word alone made him want to break something. But he wanted to give Gregor a fighting chance. What was the alternative? He was probably tough enough for the alternative, the famed Alexandrian solution, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He signed the dotted line and several thousands left his hands. The chemo was to commence in a few days time.
He left Gregor in the basement while he swiftly packed a duffel bag in the bedroom. A change of clothes. Socks. Underwear. A comb. Deodorant. I need a bottle, the butcher thought. Don’t wanna get stuck in some hotel with nothing but cable and a minibar. Dressing for the cut. He lifted the duffel bag from the mattress and walked it into the living room. He had a fifth of Walker’s ready to go. He packed that. The first aid kit from the washroom. He took some cans of dog food from the cupboard and packed them as well. And water. He took an empty jug from beside the fridge and filled it from the tap. He took these supplies to the pickup. Gregor was intently listening to the stirrings of his master from below, but he didn’t dare leave the basement until the butcher came to fetch him. He was a loyal and well trained husky. He’d been having trouble with the stairs as of late. He just licked the fur under his legs contentedly, waiting for a signal from his master.
“Fuck, what about Crompton? I can’t backpedal now.” He opened the screen door and went back inside to the kitchen. He opened the fridge and took out a piece of meat from the back of the fridge that was contained in a clear, zipper bag. It was a cow’s tongue. He got it fresh the other day, special order, from a friend of his who worked at an abattoir. The butcher then returned to the bedroom once more and removed a type of whip from the closet. It was made from the pizzle of a bull. It was shaped like a corkscrew and was about 50 cm long. There was a black handle on one end, with a leather wrist strap. It had a tawny, ochraceous color like dried pasta. He walked back to the kitchen and slid a little over the drying hardwood.
He took the bagged cow’s tongue and placed it within a larger plastic zipper bag. He then opened the freezer door and took the ice tray out and broke some cubes into the zipper bag in order to preserve the tongue for the trip. It wasn’t a long drive to Crompton’s, but he wasn’t expected at the house on Niagara Stone Road for at least a few more hours, so he needed to preserve the tongue as faithfully as possible. It was nearly two in the afternoon. She was expecting him at six. Gregor and him would have to drive around for a few hours. He took the cow’s tongue and the bull’s pizzle to the truck and placed them away from the maturing sun, which was burning its brightest above the house.
He organized and maneuvered things around the truck, stuffed his necessaries under the seat and in the glove compartment, to make room for Gregor to lie down. He rolled the bloodstained butcher’s coat and apron he was wearing into a ball. He felt the Plutarch protruding, so he removed it from the pocket and tossed onto the dashboard. “Fate leads him follows it, and drags him who resists.”
He usually left these articles at work. Loman’s had a laundry service that took care of the soiled coats and aprons every couple of weeks. He threw the balled bloodied vestures outside the truck. He put the cow’s tongue in a small picnic cooler that he kept on the vinyl hump for emergency sandwiches and beer. The eight-inch, two-pound tongue fit snugly against the Molson. The butcher then heard something and halted the cleanup. Gregor had started to bark. The butcher paused and listened. Gregor didn’t relent. Something was going on. The butcher exited the cab backwards, walked back to the house and opened the screen door, poking his head in.
“What do you want!” the butcher shouted, annoyed with the husky now. Gregor didn’t answer back. The telephone was ringing. Gregor was merely alerting him. The tolling came from the kitchen. The butcher headed up the stairs and wavered before the black receiver. He didn’t have time to spare but not knowing would kill him. Who is it? That question unleashed a torrent of doubts and suspicions. The fuzz wouldn’t call ahead of time. The caller was insistent. The butcher hashed things over. He had to know. He lifted the receiver from the base but he didn’t say anything, holding his breath.
“Hello?” the voice said. It was a young girl’s voice. The butcher recognized her immediately.
“Zoe,” the butcher softly muttered into the receiver and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Jack! Where have you been? I tried you at work and Atman told me something bad happened!”
“Yeah, darling.” The butcher drew a chair from the table and sat down. He stretched his legs and squeezed the muscles at the back of his neck with his callused hand, avoiding the gash that was giving him a headache, the gash that was beginning to clot over. No stitches after all. “Where are you calling from?”
“From a payphone outside a restaurant. I drove out to get some lunch. I couldn’t stand it anymore on campus. It doesn’t matter. What’s happening with you? I’ve been so worried,” Zoe said breathlessly.
“Calm down, kid. Things will be just fine.”
“I hate it when you call me that.”
“I’m sorry. Zoe, I hate to do this to you right now, but I can’t talk.” The butcher was looking at the large oval clock hanging on the wall beside the cupboard. It was a ten minutes shy of two.
“What do you mean?” Zoe fretted.
“I have to go, Zoe. I can’t stay here.”
“Why not?” she throbbed. “I’ve been waiting to talk to you for days. I got a calling card and—”
“I told you to call me collect,” the butcher said, exasperated, sitting up straight in his chair in order to peak out the window. He’d left the truck door wide open. He didn’t like that. It drew too much attention.
“I don’t want to burden you.”
“You’re no burden, darling.”
“You mean it, Jack?” Zoe said, with a note of buoyancy in her voice, sounding less despondent. That’s how things were with Zoe. She wasn’t exactly high maintenance, but she was very emotional, highly sensitive to Jack’s manner with her. She could pick up so much information from his tone alone.
He wanted to get her off the phone and that drove a spike into her heart. It was the last thing she was expecting from him. She dreamt of him every night. Held onto everything she could from their time together in Grimsby. His smell and taste were fading fastest from memory. She could only recall those unconsciously. In her dreams. Where he’d sneak into her dorm, where men weren’t allowed, and into her bed, and he’d make everything all right. It was like falling into a bed of hay. An apparition of pastoral bliss. He smelled like October and tasted like May, brisk and maply, poured warm and syrupy over her, but fleeting too, like a favorite season, nature ignited at the fading of the year, one last harvest, the last dribbling hours. His voice thrummed in her ear like the wings of a honeybee, anchoring there, pollinating her imagination with a coddling intimacy that lay just beyond her grasp.
“You know it,” the butcher whispered into the receiver, trying to console Zoe with a soft velvety tenor, using as few syllables as possible to spare his nerves any further abrasion.
“You love me, Jack?”
“I can’t talk right now, Zoe” His patience ebbed while Zoe winnowed her feelings.
“Jack,” she pleaded, reaching for him with her plum breath through the austere remoteness, 2500 klicks away.
“Darling, we’ll talk soon. I got the fuzz on my tail. I gotta skip out.”
“You’re in trouble?”
“Maybe. I dunno. I can’t take a chance.” Just then he heard a car approaching and he perked up his ears, waiting for a sign, tires crunching the gravel, but the car simply drove past and he relaxed back into the chair.
“How will I reach you?”
“I’ll call you at the dorm. I have the number.”
“I promise. I’ll say I’m your father. I’ll call tonight. Or tomorrow morning.” The pain in his neck was getting worse, coursing up and down his spine, across his trapezius, down his arms. He massaged the crimping muscles with his fingers, winced from the aciculated tingling. His back was buckling. Not from the cut. This was something other. It was like getting your nerves crushed and twisted around with a vice grip.
“All right now.”
“Is Gregor okay?”
“He’s sick, darling.”
“Uh-huh. I just cleaned up.”
“Oh, poor Gregor. I miss him so much. I miss you both so badly. I want to come home so badly, Jack.”
“It’ll be okay, kiddo. Just tough it out. I’ll be coming down soon.”
“Why don’t you come right now?” She was squirming around a point she wanted to make, torsade de pointes, frustrating him as a result.
“I can’t, darling. I got things to sort out first. But soon.”
“Leave your shit and drive down. If you leave now, you’ll arrive tomorrow afternoon. We can find a hotel nearby and make love all night. I’ll even skip class the following days. We’ll have breakfast, bacon and eggs and apple pie, and then go see the mountains. Gregor can run around and breathe in the fresh Rocky air. It’s Grimsby that’s making him sick, Jack. I’m telling you. A husky needs pure mountain air.”
“Zoe, I have to leave. The fucking cops are looking for me. We’ll talk about things later. Vis-a-vis.” The butcher usually held back any French idioms from creeping into his speech. He’d trained his mind to repress that aspect of his culture. His lips, tongue, and vocal cords followed suit. Once in a while they rebelled. Once in while some jarring but occasionally mellifluous patois crept through the cracks.
“What happened, Jack? What did you do?”
“Not now, Zoe.”
“Not now!” The butcher slammed the receiver down. “Goddammit!” Gregor barked resoundingly from the basement, wary of the noise. The butcher bent over himself, trying to outmaneuver the agony of his back. Where’s it coming from? It was shifting its circuit now, the needling pain was radiating from the center of his chest and he met it with his fist and pushed against it, clenching his jaw to meet the ascending pain, which was working through his molars like serrated floss. He needed to lie down, so he pushed the chair away, which teetered from the force and fell sideways onto the hardwood. He lay on his back, trying to catch his breath and temper the cutting paroxysm that had seized his body. This attack was nothing new. He’d had them before. But they’d gotten worse as he’d aged.
He hadn’t been to a doctor for a consultation. He’d figured there was bound to be a toll for the way he lived. And what could the doctors say? Cut back on the smoking, the drinking, the moonlight trysts. What else? Some other facet of his hard and fast living that he’d have to moderate, making a commitment to change, filing off the edge of his lifestyle until his indulgences were just nubs, that sort of thing, a prescription, a meal plan, a gym membership, some quite palliative functioning for a change. The roughhousing was catching up to him.
“Woof-woof!” The chair hitting the hardwood had more than alerted Gregor, it had sprung him from his convalescence, and he limped to the stairs. The butcher didn’t have a voice to cry out with. Gregor was going to attempt the stairs. The butcher heard him stirring below. One paw after the other, full of trepidation, Gregor lifted himself up the first couple of stairs. He’d taken a mean spill the last time. Slid down the entire flight as he was descending for a patrol of the basement. He lay there for hours before the butcher had found him stewing in his own filth. So humiliating for a dog of his stature, of his exploits, who in his youth had stood up to any alpha, no matter the breed, mounted any virago, hightailing it with the best of them. He still had his balls. Even though he didn’t have much need for them anymore, he still intended to make use of them. He was halfway up the first flight when he decided to cry out to his master once again. He planted his paws and raised his head, barking loud and hearty.
The butcher could hear Gregor clambering over the steps, but he couldn’t muster the strength to halt him. The pain in his chest and back had ossified his lungs. He had to force the tiny little fiery airways open, cranking the bronchioles apart. He tried to breathe deeply but his back flared up like hot coal. There was no use fighting it. The attack had to pass of its own accord. The more he fought it, the worse it flared. He’d learned that lesson over the years. But if Gregor fell down the stairs again he’d probably have to be hospitalized, or so the butcher concluded, as he lay on the hardwood and stared at the infinitesimal paint nibs on the ceiling. He was sweating profusely. He wished the kitchen fan could just turn on with a mental command.
The stairs creaked as Gregor scaled them. The butcher would have chastised the husky if he could breathe. There was no quit in Gregor. No yielding to the cancer that was eating his bones. And this made the butcher proud. He hadn’t abased himself before the disease. That meant he still had a chance. At least the butcher believed as much.
Gregor was panting and nearly out of breath. He conquered the last couple of steps and when he reached the summit he saw the butcher stretched over the hardwood. He carefully avoided the angled legs of the chair and sidled up to the butcher. He lifted a paw and made as if to pat him on the chest. The butcher turned his head with difficulty and looked at Gregor. He lowered himself at the butcher’s side, resting his head against the butcher’s elbow, mouth agape, purple tongue unfurled. Langue de chien, langue de médecin. Gregor’s warm panting breath thronged against the butcher’s ribs, which were moving in-and-out in a slow and pained cadence.
“It’s gonna to be okay, boy,” the butcher reassuringly murmured and they lay on the hardwood, waiting for the butcher’s equilibrium to be returned to him. And the clock struck three.
The butcher and Gregor drove out to Port Dalhousie together. The butcher had packed a few last things before they had departed, the most important being his notes, which he couldn’t believe he’d almost forgotten. He’d thought about it, his chronicle of Loman’s, as he lay helpless on the kitchen floor, the wretched minutes ticking by, and when he’d recovered enough to stand, he immediately retrieved it from the safe in the basement. Inside was the ‘51-52 “Rocket” Richard Parkhurst rookie card his mother had purchased for his twelfth birthday, which was probably his most prized possession in all of creation. There was also the bronze Attic helmet he’d purchased from a dealer of antiquities, which probably wasn’t authentic because the oxidization wasn’t even, and there were seams in the bronze, still he’d paid a hefty sum for it. There were no certification papers, the dealer confessing that it was stolen from a private collection. But that didn’t make it real and the butcher didn’t delude himself. It was still a fine helmet and he valued it. It had a griffin crest and an extended skull with a reddish-green patina. Helmets were usually passed down from father to son in antiquity. Or so the butcher’s father, Etienne, had taught him. It was a meaningful custom for the Hellenes, a point of pride and honor for the father, a right of passage for the son, a distribution of legacy for the bloodline. The butcher wanted to give it to his son when the time was right. He only hoped Aeneas would accept it.
The butcher’s kept his chronicle of Loman’s in the safe just in case he was robbed, it meant that much to him. The safe was hidden too, behind a faux polyurethane panel in the basement that concealed a tiny room between the paneling and the insulation. The space wasn’t much larger than a regular closet, only about three by five, but more than enough to retain some of the butcher’s valuables. Only the owner and him were aware of the vestibule’s existence. The chronicle was the only thing he’d written since McGill, which he attended for two disastrous semesters in ’71 at his father’s behest. After dropping out, he’d decided to leave to occupation of writing to others. “Life is action and not contemplation.” He hadn’t read Goethe, but chose a life of action nonetheless. Faire sans dire.
It wasn’t until the early eighties that he’d decided to pick up writing again. Considering all the crooked things he was seeing at Loman’s, he decided to write a journal, something to keep his mind busy when there was nothing else to do, when he was sick, or injured, or hung-over, or just plain tired. It began as a series of point-form anecdotes concerning the workaday grind. Something to remember his toils by. An afterthought. And then it became something different altogether. A type of journal that collated information about the corporate wrongdoing that he was privy to, like the contaminated meats that were sold during the Listeria recall in ’82, Escherichia coli and Shigella in 85’, Staphylococcus in ’88 and ’91, and then Listeria again in ’93.
Bloody diarrhea was one of the many symptoms of affliction. Fever and sepsis were another. Not all the meats from the cargo were tainted during a recall, so Loman’s sold them anyways, with discretion. They’d cook the books to cover any paper trails or they’d throw out a few token cases, and check off the appropriate boxes on the federal surveys. All the same, it was difficult to trace back the root of illness to Loman’s. There were other merchants on the circuit as well that could just as easily be blamed. None with Loman’s high falutin standards. They just couldn’t afford the fancy banners and outdoor light boxes to ward off suspicion. But you could say the ends justified the means. Loman’s was one of the largest employers in Canada. They even hired mentally disabled people to haul in the buggies from the parking lots. Equal opportunity and a slice of the pie for all. You just had to suffer gut rot once in a while to keep the dream alive. The butcher wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, especially if it meant nailing some part of Loman to the wall.
The butcher parked the Ford in Bugsy’s lot and decided to head in for a quick drink to take off the edge and kill some time before heading over to Crompton’s on Niagara Stone Road. It was only a quarter-to-three and the butcher wasn’t expected at Crompton’s home until six or so. He couldn’t wait that long. He had business to attend to in Toronto, or so he had decided while driving around with Gregor in the Ford, but he also didn’t want to leave Grimsby without seeing Crompton again, just in case it was the last time he’d be in town for a while.
When the husky began to stir after his master, the butcher instructed Gregor to remain in the truck, and rolled down the window a third of the way to keep the air fresh in the Ford. He wouldn’t be more than thirty minutes, directly after they could drive around a little more, perhaps stop by the lighthouse and walk along the pier, which would do the husky good to breathe in the fresh air, and be around the wildlife on the waterfront, the pigeons, the seagulls, perhaps spy some walleye or trout in the murky waters of Lake Ontario.
Bugsy’s was quiet and still and mostly vacant at this early hour. If it wasn’t for the televisions blaring the Blue Jays game and the commercials raising Cain, you could probably hear a pin drop in the place. The butcher headed straight for the juke box dropped some loose change into the slot, six plays for a quarter, and scrolled through a dozen records in a daze, slapped some buttons wearily before making his selections, Skynyrd, Nick Drake, Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Amid a bank of straw bales, white-boy blues, dobros and fiddles and the like, “Sweet Home Alabama” had just enough swing to keep his spirits bright-eyed, a smidgen of memory invested in the lyrics “Lord, I’m coming home to you” to remember past watering holes for no good reason, which is all the reason a man needs to feel nostalgic.