Rusted iron bars covered the glass pane in the butcher shop door, and little green curtains inside flanked a sign in red letters on white. A bell jingled as his mother entered pulling him after, and he heard the hum of a refrigeration unit. It was cool inside. In the bay to the left of the door, two dressed steer carcasses hung by chains from ceiling hooks. A chalkboard sign was stuck in one of them with prongs like a fork. Sunset from the bay’s three windows shone upon the dark red trunks in their suits of fat. Their legs and heads had been cut off. Heavy shoulders and thighs ended without limbs. The necks had been folded over and sewn shut with string. When the butcher took off his paper cap and stepped forward, a beam lit up the bald spot in his black hair. He locked the door and turned the sign over.
“My last customers,” he said. Muscles rolled beneath his white shirt as he removed a pipe and a leather zip pouch from the pocket of his blue apron. He dipped the pipe into the pouch, and his thumb pressed golden shreds of tobacco into the bowl. “Hello,” he said to the boy. The unlit pipe clenched in his teeth, he laid his heavy hand upon the boy’s shoulder. “Come on, then,” he said to the mother. “I’ll show you the lamb." He lifted his hand from the boy’s shoulder and ushered her behind the counter.
"Wait here,” she told the boy, as though otherwise he might run outside. She and the butcher went into the meat locker and the heavy wood and steel door latched shut behind them. Above it, the refrigeration unit rattled and fell silent.
The two carcasses looked like fat men in brown raincoats. Beneath them, the floorboards were brown, also. The boy looked about the shop. The large glass-sided display case built into the wall had a shelf for red-and-white sausages, another for steaks marbled with fat, and a third for two string-tied roasts next to a lapped row of pink pork chops with bones like spurs. Before the meat locker, a cash register sat on the marble counter that allowed a corridor between itself and the wall to the left, with a high stool between. Knives, a bone saw, and a scarred wooden cutting board with bits of flesh and meat ends lay upon the back counter. The counter facing the front door held one long case containing trays of cold cuts sliced from slabs or tubes of meat sitting behind them. The counter to the left held three cases. One side case contained a raw turkey on a platter with paper frills on its drumsticks, and a glazed ham studded with cloves occupied the other side case. The larger case between was bedded with shaved ice beneath a layer of straw. A lamb lay with its legs bent to simulate running and parsley sprigs in its mouth. The boy tapped on the glass: the lamb’s eyes were open but dull. The shop smelled sweet, not like candy.
He knew the lamb was dead, but he wanted to pet it, so he walked behind the counter and slid open the back of the case just enough to stretch his arm inside. He could feel the cold. He stroked the lamb’s stiff fleece and thought of the song about Mary. It seemed sad that the lamb could not get up and run around. He closed the back of the case. His mother had been gone a long while, and he was chilled. He held out his bare arm and looked at the goosebumps. Then he went over to the locker and pulled at the latch. From behind the register, he drew up the stool. He climbed up carefully and kneeled to look through the small double-paned glass window set in the door.
Inside the tiled locker, he saw his mother and the butcher standing close together beneath a light bulb. On the steel table lay the butcher’s paper cap and a lamb’s skinned leg, its hip bone a white button in a circle of red. From the table, a drainage board led down to a steel basin by his mother’s foot. Her black leather loafer with its dirt-caked heel shifted and went up on end, the square toe almost touching the empty basin. She leaned against the table and closed her eyes as the butcher pulled her to him. His hands descended to her waist, and he lowered his balding head to kiss her neck. He half-crouched to put his face to her breasts, crouched further and slipped his hands under her navy wool skirt. As he raised her skirt, the pleats opened. She frowned as he drew down her underwear, and she lifted her foot so that he could slip one leg hole over her shoe, though she left the underwear about her other ankle. Then the butcher kneeled by the basin, put his head under her skirt, and holding her hips he must have kissed her there as she braced herself against the table.
They were not coming out yet, so the boy climbed down and pushed the stool back to its place by the register. He rubbed his knees and walked out from behind the counter toward the bay window. Careful not to touch them, he slipped between the two heavy carcasses. The space behind them was secret and free, and he pressed his face against the central pane of glass looking out. He squinted and with his hands shadowed his eyes against the hard, low sunlight. On the sidewalk, he saw a woman approach.
“Tac! Tac! Tac! Tac!” came her staccato footsteps. Beneath her loose, filmy mid-calf pink dress, her high heels tracked her as a series of stabbings. Her legs scissored back and forth, and on the sidewalk beneath her alternating blades rayed out beyond the wavering shadow of her hem. The toes rasped upon the pavement; then the stacked heels hammered down, shuddering beneath her as she walked past. “Tac! Tac! Tac! Tac!" The boy liked her red shoes, their foreheads bulging above needle chins.
He tapped her cadence on the glass. When she stopped and turned, he stepped back into the glare that hid him. The shop was filled with light, and his face had left a smudge on the glass with two holes for eyes and a crease for a mouth. His shoulder bumped a carcass, and through his shirtsleeve he felt the rubbery flesh. The carcass started swinging, its chain gently creaking on the ceiling hook, but he put his hands to it. He did not want it to touch the other or to move at all. It settled, and the boy wiped his greasy hands on his pants.
The meat locker opened, and in its doorway his mother looked back. She came out into the aisle behind the register, and wearing his paper cap the butcher followed with the leg. With his shoulder, he shrugged shut the meat locker door. He ripped a sheet of pink paper from a roll on a bar mounted on the wall above the back counter and wrapped the leg in it. With a sponge from a saucer, he moistened a strip of white paper tape and bound the package. "Here you are, son." He handed the boy the leg.
Warily, the boy held the pink oblong by one end angled up. He imagined himself stirring the sunlight. The leg was not too heavy, and there was no blood. Wrapped and bound, it no longer looked like a leg.
"For God’s sake, don’t drop it,” his mother said.
The butcher accepted the bills she gave him and without counting stuffed them in his apron pocket. He removed a match box and his pipe. He lit the pipe, puffing blue clouds that curled through the sunlit air as a vine of smoke flowering from his mouth. He tossed the spent match on the floor.
“I need a roast next Sunday,“ she said. "We’ll come for it Friday, late.”
“That’s fine,” the butcher said with gritted teeth. He took the pipe stem from his mouth. “I should have the roasts Wednesday.”
“Friday,” she repeated, and she raised her chin.
The butcher nodded. “I’ll save you one,” he said. “Goodbye,” he called to the child, but the boy was too too shy to respond. He held up the leg to block one eye and half the man’ face, and he saw the butcher return the pipe to the side of his mouth that the boy could see.
The little bell jingled above as his mother opened the door. She led him out and shut the door behind them. Tugged along the sidewalk toward the setting sun, he looked at the lines and puddles of shade that formed and dissolved beneath his mother as she walked and at the shadow of her outstretched arm linked to his. The shadow of the package he cradled looked like an extra limb. His sneakers trotted to keep up to her loafers, and he listened to their soles’ soft scuff upon the pavement. He wished that his mother wore shoes like that lady was wearing.
– Jeffrey Boyer