The Butcher

By Hugh Noes

Come the winter rains and the house not yet snared in evergreen,

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under the sky of loblolly and water oaks wet and swaying,

down the cracks in the sidewalk and around into the parking lot,

Impalas and Fairlanes, lights on bright,

wipers sopping their fogged windshields,

out of school these December days before Christmas,

it is 1960.  I am here with a wet list in my pants’ packet,

a grown-up list, in cursive, with a tin of syrup, aspirin,

two pounds of bacon, and a dozen eggs

I’ll remember as a man for their yellow bladders

sliding across the green kitchen floor

out the bottom of the sack in my grandmother’s outstretched hands.

Behind the steel counter, Mr. Dorty lays out

slice by slice the pink thick bacon across the white butcher paper

like the display by a jeweler of sparkles on velvet,

a package he weighs

then marks on the yellow tape in red crumbling crayon.

That weight, as it does each time, passes from his hand to mine.

Still I stay on, not for a break in the rain

but to pull closer to the rib roasts large as my head,

hams swelled and halved,

the shade of lipstick and the pink leather seats of Thunderbirds,

great snakes of round sun-brown sausages,

mysterious, unapproachable.

I learn each by shape and heft through the leaning glass

the way a brighter boy might memorize melting snow or a fly rod

before looking up.

The butcher has cupped a fly in his hands.

He motions for me to come to his side

where the block of wood half my size stands on four legs,

beaten down and wiped clean.

He asks and I turn the handle at the sink, fill a glass with water,

step back at once until the fly’s struggle in the glass ends

as it began under the butcher’s one great finger.                                                  

It floats upside down,

a tiny black accordion on the water’s tension.

The butcher in my mind now

even after forty-five years is as large as a Philistine.

He picks the fly out.  He places it on the block

to pour through his fist over its upturned legs a little mound of salt.

The two of us wait and nothing happens

and he is telling me to be patient when the salt begins to landslide,

the fly wriggling to upright itself

then standing to one side as though waiting its turn to take off,

rubbing its wings and front leg,

greedy to be alive.           

“Are you going to kill it?” I ask.

“Anything that’s been through all that ought to live,” he laughs.

And I walk back into my life.

Outside the rain is sucking back into the clouds,   

the sack is soaked and before Christmas ends

I overhear Mr. Dorty drowned alone and made the news,

falling over into the river out of his boat and out of his life.

I am filled with the great weight of not being there

to bury him in salt.

I do not remember anyone else in that store.

Like these lists, the days begin to belong

more and more to everyone and no one quite like the butcher

or the boy until even he is older

than the unforgettable performers he holds inside,

wrapping them in such impossibly white paper,

waiting alone for such stirring from within

to put down whatever the dead need to struggle through again.