Sins of the flesh.
I went to the butcher's several times a week as a child. Meat was always in my life. The butcher shop was just down the street from our house, past the old, squat Carnegie Library, the Elks Club, the Groceteria, the bakery, and the big stucco fire department with its long driveway. I loved the Meat Market best; it was orderly, with the hushed front room encased in windows. The floor was golden oak, shiny and Clean, facing a horseshoe of white metal display cases curving away like the fabric of space. The air held the scent of clean skin.
I would lay my hot cheeks against the cool glass and gaze at the meat inside: flaccid steaks, roasts, and sausages in neat rows like tile or shingles laid atop one another in patterns of soft red, pink, and maroon. I knew the textures--they were my textures. I liked to examine the down on my legs, the way the irises of my eyes opened and closed when I turned the light above the bathroom mirror off and on, the intricate maze of my belly button. I pulled scabs off and chewed them, and licked the ooze that followed. The rump roast in the glass case made a delicate curve, the curve of my own pliable buttocks. Me, but not me.
On panting summer days our basement beckoned, crowded and lifeless, the air cool, musty, and dim after the glazed sunlight. No one would find me there, if anyone cared to look for me. Most of the small basement was filled with a freezer, which my mother, one in a long line of carefully organized women, kept filled as a hedge against catastrophe. (Distantly, my mother's voice at the top of the stairs: "Shut the freezer!"--trailing off into words I didn't bother to hear.) Its heavy white lid seemed to lift from the stiff latch with relief and swing up so that a waft of the freezer's queer fog blew in my face. My taut, tanned skin could breathe again in the damp. There was often a whole side of beef and more in the freezer, broken up among the TV dinners and the quarts of bean soup and ice cream. Each cut was wrapped in white freezer paper and labeled with a red wax crayon in strange abbreviations: "FLK STK 4 #" and "P CHOPS - 6." The irregular, heavy packets sat in the cold trough like a haphazard pile of white rocks littered with food.
There was never a meal without meat; every afternoon house filled with the scents of frying oil and roasting flesh. The long dining table leaned toward my father's end, anticipating the heavy cuts on the platter beside him--the pot roast, the round roast beef, the piles of rust-colored chops dripping juice. He carved. At Thanksgiving he leaned over the enormous turkey to get a good purchase, the double blades of the electric carving knife slicing in a noisy blur.
My father was a volunteer fireman, and every few weeks the town alarm would sound during dinner, and he would move so fast, so instinctively, that time seemed to stand still: the knife or fork or bite of food falls to the table, his chair scrapes back along the floor, we children scoot out of his way as he thunders past, "Goddammit!" trails him out the back door, the door slams, and seconds later his pickup roars out of the driveway.
On quiet nights we squabbled for drumsticks, thick hamburger patties, the fatty end of the roast. I always had the chicken's back with its fat, heart-shaped tail, which my grandmother called the pope's nose, and when we were done our plates were littered with the rags of bones.
Buying meat was like this every time: I am with my mother, an efficient, plain woman with the smell of academics around her. She much preferred reading to cooking, but she cooked every day. The butcher, Mr. Bryan, is my father's best friend; like all my father's friends, he is a fireman. He stands behind the counter, a tall, jolly man with a hard, round stomach covered in a white apron streaked with blood. He has saved his best meat for my mother, kept it apart for her inspection: a pot roast, a particular steak, perhaps giblets for her special dressing, the hard nubbins of chicken hearts and kidneys, the tiny livers purple-red like gems in his palm.
Now and then Mr. Bryan went to the back of the store and brought my mother something really special: a whole beef heart, balanced like a waxy pyramid on his hands, or a cow's tongue, one of my favorite things. Sometimes I would come into the kitchen in the morning and find a tongue set out waiting for the pot, an enormous apostrophe of flesh covered in pale papillae. Tongue takes forever to cook, boiling for many hours on the stove, and it filled the kitchen with a tender mist and steamed the windows gray. When it was done, my mother sliced the tongue as soft as angel cake into thin, delicious strips unlike anything else, melting, perfumed. When all the rest of the world wouldn't bend, flesh would bend.
You will think me disingenuous if I tell you now that I didn't know what meat was. I couldn't know; the shift from cow to beef is a shift so monumental and sudden that it's hard to conceive. Perhaps small children cannot know this even when they are witnesses, and I was never a witness. I have never seen an animal slaughtered for meat. And if you had leaned over me when I was four or five or six and suggested I eat an animal, I might have been shocked. I loved animals more, and more easily, than I loved my parents. I held my old dog, a dour mongrel Lab, for hours in my room sometimes, telling him what I couldn't tell anyone else; I was weak with him because he kept my secrets. I loved horses, goats, deer, and the cattle chewing stupidly by the back-road fences; in my bedroom I kept lizards, snakes, chameleons, and a rat, and that was all my mother allowed. And it was my mother who one day told me where meat came from, as though it were the most natural thing.
I was about seven when I asked, that age when one begins to see the depth of betrayal in the world, that one can't really count on things after all. And my mother answered yes, the chicken we ate for dinner was the same as the chickens down the street I would cluck at through the fence, the ones with the thick white feathers that filled the breeze. The peeled skin of the wieners Mr. Bryan gave me were loops of intestine washed Clean, and their pulp a ground mash of bodies and bones. The unbelievable objects had a name, a face, a history; the sweet and salty taste was the taste of blood, the same as my blood. It came all at once, like a blow, that pickled pigs' feet was not a colorful metaphor but the very thing, that I had eaten a pig's foot, and much more.
I lived on bare noodles and peanut-butter sandwiches for a long time after that. I wouldn't allow my mother to spoon the sausage-flavored spaghetti sauce onto my plate. A few years later it seemed less important, the resistance too hard. Perhaps I had had other surprises; it's hard to remember whole sections of those years. I've gone years without eating meat as an adult, and years when I was too tired not to eat whatever was in front of me. And there have been times when I craved flesh, when I broiled and roasted, made scratch gravy and giblet dressing like my mother's, or sat at my long dining table with steamed clams clattering against my fork, times when I longed for the irreducible flavors of meat, to be full of meat. Yet I will even now find myself knocked flat sometimes when I see meat in front of me and realize what I'm doing. It's a heartfelt knowledge; it is visceral, gut-level, organic. I hold the steak with a fork and begin to cut a slice, and my stomach turns upside down; it feels as if I'm cutting my own flesh off and that I'll choke to death upon it, like a prisoner fed his own treacherous, boiled tongue.
One shock after another. Breasts and hips and hair, more of the pleasures and debts of flesh. I began to bleed several days a month, and when I sat to pee the smell rose up yeasty and rich. I found furtive darting touches: I found lips, saliva, tongues, sweat, fingers. My dog decayed from the inside out, and stank and stumbled and licked the mysterious lumps under his fur. I traced his ribs so near the surface the day before he died. Then my mother yellowed and thickened and wept and died, and my father's big arms hung loose and his black hair turned gray. I knelt between the knees of a boy a little older than myself and took his penis in my mouth, and smiled not with pleasure or appetite but with triumph, behind the curtain of my swaying hair. I moved out to the fleshy edges of things, and finally I grew wings like angel wings, and I flew away.
The word "butcher" comes--a long way down the years--from the word "buck." He-goat. They are set aside, butchers, into their own unions, their own neighborhoods, their own bars, set aside. I don't know if it means anything that besides Mr. Bryan, my father's closest friend was the undertaker; it may not be anything more than the limits of a small town. But I think of the Butcher's Mass, their special blessing, and the shehitah of the Jews. The shochet, the slaughterer, who must be pious and above reproach, must be as swift and painless as he can be in the killing, murmuring a benediction near the animal's ear and following with a graceful stroke across the throat. I think of Mr. Bryan's cleaver.
The Meat Market burned down on a hot day under a blank blue sky. It was apocalypse. It was a great fire. I stood at the end of the alley and watched the flames spurt out the back door in gouty bursts. I heard a shriek of metal inside and guessed the white metal cooler had turned red and ignited its own frost. The smoke billowed out the back door in a cottony black cloud, and I clapped my hands. Men in turnouts and boots rushed past and paid me no attention, and I saw my father paying out the hose from the pumper with great speed.
The meat burned; the water washed it clean. I learned later that Mr. Bryan had inherited the Meat Market from his father, and he'd secretly hated it all those years, going home at night with the stink of blood on his hands and hair. He is still jolly and thick-fingered, and he still comes by to visit my father, who is tired and gruff and with out cheer. They have been retired from fires, too old to go into the heat and pull things out. For myself, I know you can't be cleansed until you know how dirty you really are. I still live far away, still seek salvation from my many sins.
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|Title Annotation:||reprinted from The Antioch Review, summer 1994; memoir|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1994|
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