[Originally posted on January 31, 2013. It was read on a podcast, but unfortunately the link to that is dead now.]
“What kind of monster are you?” she asked
And I said, “What kind of monster would you like me to be?”
So, anyway, I had just gotten out of the Duchy lockup—total bullshit rap, the sheriff was looking for some good ink and nabbed a bunch of us on a conspiracy beef. I didn’t even know most of the other guys. The public defender told us to just play cool, and once the papers got done squawking about how safe the good people of Forest Green felt now and how much they loved the sheriff, la la la, we all plead down and got out with time served.
Except one of the guys I did know, Billy the G, decides he’s gonna make a constitutional issue out of it, pleads not guilty, and gets sent up to the Big Rock. Which just goes to show, stupid can strike at any moment.
Me, I know better. I kept my big mouth shut and my big eyes on the floor and let the mouthpiece do the talking. “Yes, Your Honor, my client used to be big and bad, but now he’s repentant and reformed, la, la la.” I can do that innocent act in my sleep.
The only real change in my circumstance was I got me a new PO. Well, it did so happen that some old business got settled while I was in the Duchy, but the fat little bastard had it coming. He burned me in a real estate deal, years back, but I got a long memory.
My new PO, he wasn’t a new kid who thinks he can save me from myself or one of those dried up old geezers who wants to bring back the ax, he was reasonable. Practical, you know.
He got me a square job in a butcher shop. Never been much of a nine-to-fiver, myself, but I do know my way around a good cut of meat and if you’re going to be chasing a paycheck there are worse things to do. Believe me, I’ve done most of them.
My new boss was one of those guys who was raised up in the business, married his childhood sweetheart, junior chamber of commerce, never took a step off the reservation in his life. He came on real sympathetic-like, but I could tell he was just itching for some tough talk, something to let him pretend for a while, relieve the boredom. So in between customers I’d talk about the old days—pure fairy tales, what he wanted to hear. No way I was going to give him anything that might come back and bite me, you know?
I’m starting to think that there might be something to this rehabilitation business. I’m staying in this boarding house and the old lady who runs the place doesn’t keep track of when I come and go or snoop in my room, on account of she’s got a sideline in the chemical trade she’d rather not get talked about. All in all I’m—what’s phrase? “Adjusting to non-institutional life.”
Then one day I’m carving up some stew meat—the secret to good stew meat? You make all the pieces the same size, so they’re all done at the same time—and she walks in.
It had been fifteen years, but I knew her before she was all the way through the door.
She’d filled out a bit, rounded the curves and softened the edges, her fiery hair had streaks of ash, and there were lines on her face that I didn’t remember being there, but, damn, she had grown up from a beautiful girl to a beautiful woman. I’d put on some weight myself, a few pounds here and there, some of it muscle but more of it beer. Ah, well, nothing lasts forever.
I watched her, my hand on the knife going through the motions on pure reflex—I was damned lucky I didn’t take my own thumb off. She walked with her basket through the sundries, picking up some bread fixings and a few spices, walking in that way that made you think about what a woman’s hips are for.
She’d glanced at me when she came in and her eyes just slid over me without sticking—new guy behind the meat counter, so what—I was just furniture in a bloody apron. Then her eyes came back to me, all by themselves, and the rest of her figured out what they were looking at and she stopped in her tracks. Those eyes—still such a bright green—got big.
“Hey, Red,” I grinned at her, “been a while.”
She shook her head, slow, and I saw her start to say something, then start to say something else, then finally settle on, “Yeah. It’s been a while.”
She started walking again, towards me.
“So, how you been?” I asked her. “You still with old what’s his name?”
“Jack,” she said, a little sharply. “Yes. We’re still married.”
I put down the knife, stripped off my gloves. “And kids? You’ve got kids, right?”
She nodded. “Yes, the twins. They’ll be thirteen in September.”
“Thirteen. Time flies, huh?” I didn’t have anything to do with my hands, so I picked up a towel and started wiping down the counter, which didn’t need it.
Another nod. She’d stopped a couple feet from the counter. Outside of arm’s reach.
“So.” I tried to think. “Jack still in the lumber business?”
“He’s a area manager now. He’s got six crews under him.” Her eyes had recovered from the surprise of seeing me, and now they weren’t giving anything away.
“Six crews, huh. Big man.”
She folded her arms. “He’s done very well for himself. And for me. And for our children.”
I raised my hands. “Hey, I mean that. I’m glad you got yourself a good man.”
She relaxed a little. “Look, I know you’ve got good reason not to like him, but …” she trailed off into a sigh. “Let’s just not have that conversation.”
I nodded and smiled. I wasn’t sure what conversation she thought we weren’t having, but I was good with it. Instead I waved to the front of the case. “So what can I get for you.”
She looked down to check out the display. “So you’re cutting meat now?”
“Learned it in Big Rock. Six years in the kitchen, and believe me, you don’t want to run into unhappy customers in the yard.”
She looked sharply back at my face then, and I felt like apologizing for bringing it up. Screw that, it was true.
She looked back down and said, “How are those hens?”
“Sweet,” I told her, “plump as judges, and every one of them died happy. They’ll roast up nice.”
“Give me two.”
I got a fresh pair of gloves and picked out the two plumpest ones, started wrapping them in crisp white paper. Even though they’d been hung to drain the blood I double-wrapped them—paper’s cheap, and it’s the little things that impress the customers.
She was checking out the rest of the case and chewing on her knuckle a little while she thought. It was a gesture I remembered from the old days.
To fill the quiet I tried a little sales talk. “We got some good sausage—we don’t make it here, the boss buys it from some outfit just outside town.”
“Golden’s, yeah, I know,” she said kind of distractedly. I guess it made sense she’d know that. She’d probably been shopping here for years. “I’ll take a pound, and oh, two pounds of ground beef.”
I got busy weighing and wrapping. I wasn’t going to say anything, because there wasn’t anything to say. Maybe make some small talk about shopping, talk her into buying pork chops, but that was all. I wasn’t going to talk about the old days. There was no point to it.
I was folding the paper around the sausages—you make real sharp creases with your fingernail, and it’ll stay closed up tight until it’s time to fry them—and it just slipped out, like the words had a mind of their own and didn’t care what I thought.
“Do you miss it?”
I looked down at my hands, still folding. I couldn’t look at her. I don’t know what she was looking at, but the quiet turned into silence.
She didn’t say, “miss what?”—we’d never been any good at lying to each other. She didn’t say, “let’s not have that conversation,” because it was pretty obvious that we were going to have that conversation, whether or not either one of us wanted to.
“Sometimes,” in a very small voice.
My hands were finished with the sausages, and I watched them building a little wax paper box for the ground beef. “I guess Jack’s… not that type.”
“He’s a good man,” even smaller.
I nodded down at my hands, then glanced over at her, quickly, careful not to see anything I shouldn’t. Her eyes were dry, and her face was serious. She looked young, almost as young as the last time I’d seen her.
“Good.” I let out a breath that I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. Louder, then. “Good, I’m glad. You deserve a good man.”
Meaning, not one like me, but neither of us said that.
Her eyes met mine and held them for a long time before she smiled. I’d spent twelve years of my life, all told, locked up in stone hotels, and I’d dreamed of that smile every night. It was good as I remembered it.
“I don’t blame you,” I said, and regretted it right away. That smiled faded away and her eyes got moist. Cursing myself I turned away to pick up her packages and slap them down on the counter.
“You want this delivered?” I asked, and then to make sure there wasn’t any misunderstanding I added, “The boss’s boy does the deliveries, you know.”
She nodded, puffed out a long breath. “Yes, please. I’m in the delivery book.”
I nodded back and we just looked at each other for a while.
I really didn’t blame her. What happened had happened a long time ago, to a couple of kids who didn’t know what they were doing. What everybody had seen, what had been in the papers, that had been the truth.
It just hadn’t been all of the truth.
I marked her name on the packages in grease pencil and had her sign the book.
She said, “I’ve got to…”
And I said, “Yeah…”
And just like that she left again.
I put her packages in the walk-in for the boss’s kid to deliver when he made the next day’s rounds. I went back to making cubes of stew meat, but the blade didn’t feel right so I took down the steel and worked on the edge for a while. The boss had some good steel, I had to give him that.
I watched my hands working on the blade for a while, the steel sweeping back and forth, and I wished I had a drink. It’d be nice to sit back in a dark room and knock back shots of whiskey, one after another, until I didn’t have to think any more.
Instead I put a good edge on my boss’s knife and went back to work. Life goes on, right?