SHORT STORY: The Butcher
Fawning as it may seem, I think the customers are the best part of my job. Now, I can hear your thoughts. Of course I need them to patronize my shop, but that's not the reason. Too many people in retail don't appreciate the social aspect of their work. Look at customers as an irritant. I see it differently.
We're all humans, social creatures. Complex interaction make us unique among animals. Take those who are isolated from society. Exiled or self-banished for any number of reasons. They struggle. Struggle to associate. Struggle to find meaning in life. They get overly anxious, don't trust people. I don't want to be isolated. Times are tough enough, politics and whatnot, people can be so disagreeable. You know? But I don't want that, the vitriol. I want to interact, figure people out. Learn and understand. The banter, the little chats about nothing in particular. The occasion when find yourself neck deep in conversation. Ha! The butcher as therapist, psychologist or maybe just convenient friend. I dunno, people are funny. Nuanced and mercurial. The little chats break the day into satisfying moments of thought, reflection.
And of course a butcher's work isn't glorious. Messy, downright disgusting at times, I'm not too proud to admit. Lugging heavy, cumbersome carcasses around. Sweat and blood mixing on my brow, the floor. Cutting up carcasses, that rich animal stench that permeates every stitch of clothing. How it hangs in your nostrils, hours later at home. Always amusing to hear other butchers talk about their work. Just a job like any other, they say. Bullshit. It's gross. It stinks. And hell, I'm not striking it rich. Neither are they. The sticky blood that stains goddamn everything. Clots to the walls. The floors. Little red rubies in the damnedest of places. The dry, chapped hands from the never ending cycle of lather, rinse, repeat. Obsessive amounts of cleaning - every day, just to pass inspection, avoid shutdown.
Time goes by though, and you develop these funny little relationships. Mrs. Aeigis prefers her ground beef a little striated, something between a mince and chop. I've played around with my grounding technique, honed it perfectly. She loves it! Doubt she'll go to another butcher in this lifetime. And our little chats about her son's progress in second grade. How he woke up last week when she, The Toothfairy, put a few bucks under his pillow... the ridiculously elaborate story she crafted for why she was filling-in for the fairy.
Or Mr. Stahl and his odd preference for the chewiest pieces of beef. Likes to cure his own jerky, gets better results when he uses the toughest meat possible he claims. Oh, I search around for him alright, find the bits of meat in the hidden nooks of the carcass. The highly exercised muscles, taut, grainy and close to the tendons. The sort of meat your dog can't chew, just gulps it down n'stead. But I say, to each his own and Mr. Stahl clearly makes good use of it. But he's a funny type, comedian like. Always ready with his joke-of-the-day - he's actually pretty damn good! He's good with distraction, verbal sleight-of-hand. He leads you down this path, gets your head stuck on some mundane detail, then slips the punch line in, smoothly. Makes you sit back and think. And eventually, the laugh come out, only after you catch up to the point of his joke. He's clever, Mr. Stahl. A very supportive customer.
Ms. Dalianze is the best though. The eccentric cat lady. The self-proclaimed loony old lady who literally sprinkles cat food on her chuck roast. Weird huh? Says its a decent crunch, she says this straight-faced. But that's the beauty of it, that's what most retailers fail to appreciate. The personalities. The oddities. The queer humanness of it all. It bonds us. Ms. D, never failing to impart ambiguous little nuggets of wisdom. Like last week when she conjured up:
I don't know what it was supposed to mean. But she liked it, smiled. Paused to write it down with her oversized, fluffy cat pen, it's tail shaking violently as she scribbled.
It's not usually that busy, especially at certain times of the day. Most people go to the big grocery store, the big chain. We butchers are a dying breed, a throwback to retail from a forgotten, quaint time. I often wonder if we will exist in another ten years. Oh yeah it can get lonely during the lulls. That's when I really miss my customers. But I know they'll be back. In time.
The life of a single man in his fifties can get a little quiet. Evenings and weekends on the couch, watching the tube. I'm just not the outgoing sort, so, odd as it may seem, I do appreciate when they stop by my house. Problem is, it's just not that often. Now I may not share their zeal for The Lord, or have the same metaphysical beliefs as them. But that doesn't matter. They're good folks regardless and we do get into some great chats. The existence of God. The meaning of life. What is reality? The extent of the universe, it's origins even. Heady stuff. The sort of discussions that are rare nowadays what with everyone being so busy, distracted. Everyone's so purpose driven, no banter, no pondering. Nobody wants to relax, ponder the bigger questions looming around us. The important stuff.
Well anyway, I just use my modified cattle prod, knocks 'em out pretty quick, usually in one long shot. Then I finish the job with the regular electrical outlet and a severed extension cord. I always put the hot line in their mouth, the neutral in their eyeball until they stop breathing. It'd be silly to try this without the electrical-insulating gloves on, even if the devotee is unconscious. After that, the process is mundane. I already have all the equipment. Slicers. Mincers. Grinders. Into the van for early morning processing at the shop.
Don't know why but people seem to like the Jehovah's the most. As to be expected, Ms. Dalianze's preferences are not the norm. Every Tuesday morning she's asking for the Mormon assuming I get a shipment of "Utah Angus" in on the weekend. If not, she takes the regular Angus, a desolate look on her face.
But like I was telling Mr. Xian the other day at the shop as I was packing up his chicken cutlets (he likes them sliced really thin for his hot pot). Morality is this strange thing. Full of all sorts of cultural nuance, steeped in tradition. And religion. Religion plays a big role too. This one version of the almighty says one thing. This other version says another. We humans sit in between them, left to our own devices.
We've gotten close over these years, Mr. Xian and I. I think he just felt comfortable, you know, with me. Didn't think I'd judge him too harshly, just consider his request and, regardless of my answer, we would both just move on, no bad feelings either way.
But I told him I just couldn't do it, couldn't risk it. I mean, this is my business, my livelihood. I can certainly understand a desire to eat a comfort food you ate growing up. But this isn't China, I told Xian, and the inspector would shut me down. Cops would arrest me if they knew I sold dog to anyone. He understood. Xian's a good man. I did let him know I could procure coyote from the exotic meat guy in North Carolina. He didn't know what a coyote was, strangely enough. Said he'd get back to me.
But me, I'm a vegetarian. Always have been. Ain't nobody likes to eat what they've been handling all day long. I'm no exception.
- pictures #1 and #3 are taken from pixabay and are free to use under creative commons. pictures #2 and #4 are taken from Google Images and are labeled for reuse.
- original story - content belongs to Daniel Shortell