Butcher Teacher

I am standing in a long, narrow corridor. There is a giant toothpaste stain down the front of my shirt. I am tired and my eyes are puffy. A man I know comes up to me, says: right this way. Outside, the strange beat of something Turkishly bassfull plays in from the streets.

The hall curves and folds, the walls red and lumpy with peeling paper and water spots. I worry the toothpaste will anger my friend, but he seems not to have noticed. We walk and he tells me his name but I forget soon after, find myself embarrassed, and do not ask again. We go the rest of the way in silence.

When we reach the end of the hallway we take the service elevator up two flights until we come to a steel door closed with a giant lock. He opens the lock and we make our way onto a black gummy rooftop. Below, the city stretches forever, until it stops. Giant cigarette smokestacks puff balls of dirty cotton into the sky, and the gulf, it looks like a wading pool full of children's toys.

Off in the corner is a table and chairs shaded by a giant yellow umbrella. On the table we find three glasses as well as a pitcher of something cold. My friend leads me across the rooftop. The toothpaste stain I can feel glow in the center of my shirt, with every step it gets brighter, burning open my chest.

We sit. He pours me a glass of red juice, tells me it's cherry and I taste and I do believe he is right. He asks would I like strawberry preserves on my toast and I answer yes, I would. So we drink and we eat and I've still not remembered his name, though I've heard it many times before. The more we talk, the less it matters. Church bells ring from across town and I imagine a someone somewhere being blessed.

A group of black and white pigeons join us while we wait. They hobble about on pink stick feet and I throw them crumbs from my bread. They attack the rooftop with great bursts of squab fury and if they're that hungry, I think, I'll just give them the rest of my toast. This turns out to be exactly what I do. My friend says this is not such a good idea. I take a sip of juice and agree as the pigeons move aggressively closer to our table.

When the minister finally arrives, breathing heavily and sweating though his robe, my friend and I are relieved as we have decided we no longer feel like talking to each other. There is waving and silence as the nameless man stands and goes.

The first thing the minister does is take down the bright yellow umbrella. The afternoon sun singes the tips of my ears but he insists on working in natural light. He pulls from his bag the hock of ham I asked that he bring.

The minister comments on my toothpaste stain and says good dental hygiene is very important for a teacher. He is somewhat backhanded, this minister, and I blush about the stain one last time then stop caring altogether.

He does a thing with his fingers, a thing like a blessing or a prayer, then salts and peppers the dried ham and smiles across the table. We are all out of things to drink but he says not to worry, he does not like juice anyway. In the sun both the pig and the minister glow a bright pink my eyes are not used to. They share a single glaring feature—that is, they both wear the soft expressions of a wounded manatee.

We begin. I tell him I like what he's tried to do with the chops. A butterfly is not an easy thing to maneuver and in his first try he's executed a near perfect cut. He mumbles something about a dull blade as I comment on his fillet technique. I go on in a teacherly manner: You've managed to keep with the grain of the meat. That, too, is hard to master. You want to create a cut so it seems the animal has willingly left its bone, gone away to a better place where it can roam free, a beautiful section of a greater whole. Unfortunately, I tell him, he has flubbed the shank. I ask if he used scissors for the cut and he admits he has. What remains is a limpy strip of pink with gauzy bits of dangling fat, and this will never do, I tell him, never, never do.

It seems, because they are moving closer yet, the pigeons have an undeniable interest in eating our meat. They dance around our table, hawking and swearing in some fierce pigeon language. In hopes to rid them from our lesson, I snatch a piece of fat and toss it off the roof into the sky. Like a boomerang, though, the pigeons are back in seconds.

Staring at his pile of pork, the minister looks discouraged and I tell him he's made a great deal of progress since our first few sessions, and really, don't look so down. There's a lot riding on this, he says, a complete career change, and at my age things have to go right, they just have to. I try to pull him out of his mood, I ask did he bring the bacon I requested and he says no, he's not ready for bacon yet.

There is a moment where we say nothing, and then it passes. A wild dog has found his way to the rooftop. He has spots about his tail and a face full of curious eyes, and most likely, I think, what brought him here was his hungry nose. The smell of pork is thick upon the air. We fatten him with bits of homework then shoo him back to where he came from. He is beautiful leaving, all tails and thighs and shanks in motion.

The minister is a fast handed man. My first experience came in church when he was sermonizing and I was falling asleep. He reached over in the middle of his delivery and plucked an eyelash from my face without missing a beat. I sensed a sting from the pop of my lash, but not a finger on my face did I feel. I went to him afterwards and told him what he did was amazing and he said, not really, it wasn't, so we started talking and come to find out he's lost the will to be a minister, wants to spite his vegetarian wife, feels the need to work with meat. So I told him he’d be an excellent butcher.

We are silent around our table full of pork. The pigeons bounce about, splay open their beaks and force into our ears what they think is song. He watches with one eye, the minister, the movement of the animals across the roof. He calculates, re-calculates, then with great precision and five copasetic fingers, nabs one by the neck, mid-hop— twists, cracks and kills it. He is saying something about independent study, today's lesson: squab; he pulls from his bag a finely honed knife, stares into the blade then jokes: my face, it looks like a brick wall.

I clear the dishes from the table and sit them on the warm tar roof while the minister plucks feathers from the pigeon's body. They float and land and form little pockets of puff on the blacktop, bloodless and soft. I roll up the minister's sleeves and wrap around his waist a bleached white apron, in the back I tie a double knot. A look of deep concentration fills to the corners of his face as he says: block, please. I pull the butcher's block from my purse, sit it on the table and feel a zing surge from my ears to my toenails--something fresh and dead, my two favorite things. He strikes the board and a tiny pigeon head rolls to the tar, lands face up, then sinks into the hot black top until nothing but a yellow beak pokes up from the roof.

The minister works fast and with wondrous skill. He has de-boned a tiny breast before I can think to comment on his knife grip (loose but confident) and right away it's obvious he's been studying. The other breast he quarters with finesse. On the thighs he struggles, mostly because they are small and dark and in the sun, difficult to see. The innards he removes in two slimy tries. When he is through I have said very little, have instead watched my pupil find his slice. He has before him a perfectly piled pigeon, skin on, skin off, bone in and bone out, a mini-meal for a soon to be master.

Feeling proud, as I tell him he should be, the minister wipes his hands on his apron and lights a cigarette. The blood under his fingernails is his prize for the day.

I feel like I'm making progress, he says. I feel like you're making progress, I say. Then we smile and notice the tiny nests of dead bird down that litter the tar. All the pigeons have gone.

The minister settles his lesson into a satchel and asks the question: same time next week? And I say that will be fine, dear student, and so we agree, yes, we’ll meet at the dog kennel at noon.

About the author:

Tara Wray is from Kansas. She writes short stories. Some of these stories are forthcoming in the Sycamore Review and the Shattered Wig Review. If you email her she will tell you that she has a collection of fiction she would like you to buy. It is called Mini Tremble Fits and some of it is very good.