Her mother’s dealer had skipped town. Moved elsewhere. To some other state. To another country, even. Jackie had barely come inside and hung up her winter coat, and here was her mother, standing in front of her, four foot eleven, her bony wrists hanging at her sides.
“I called Manuel today and he’s gone. He didn’t even tell me he was going anywhere, the slippery little shit.”
Jackie unwrapped her scarf. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she said.
“It’s annoying, Jackie. I have the right to be annoyed.”
Jackie looked at her mother. “Work was fine, by the way.”
She turned toward the kitchen. Her mother stood at the entryway where the linoleum met the rug, watching her daughter remove a can of cola from the refrigerator. “Jackie, I’m sorry. Hello. I meant to say hello.” Jackie stood at the counter, sipping. Her mother sat at the table and ran her palms over the surface. “How was work?”
“I told you it was fine.”
Her mother tapped her fingernails on the tabletop. Click click, click click, click. “Jackie, do you think you could—I mean, I don’t want to be too much of a hassle, but you know—my insomnia. And I ran out last night. Do you—well, what about that friend of yours? The butcher.”
Jackie pressed two fingers to her temple and reminded herself it wasn’t her mother’s fault that she was so self-centered. Sure, she was more concerned with scoring weed than with Jackie’s father’s death just last week in a circus accident. But that was who her mother was, and Jackie needed to be patient. “I’d rather not,” she said calmly.
“You need to get out of the house anyway. Come on, Jack. Just see if he has anything. Please? It can’t hurt to ask.”
The smell of cold meat. His hands on her back. The bed frame hitting the wall in a steady rhythm—click click, click click—and looking up at him like she was watching him on the television and she had been half-conscious on the couch for days.
Jackie hadn’t spoken to the butcher in months, hadn’t even bothered to go get the few things she’d left there—an old paperback, red lipstick, probably a few other things—and she was all the better for it. She had met the butcher through a mutual friend, and they had gone on a few dates, after which they had returned to his crummy apartment, moved the pile of dirty clothes off his bed, and fucked dispassionately. And then he’d smoke and get sentimental—can I be little spoon?—and he’d want to talk about being abandoned by his mother as a child and all the poetry he wrote but would never let anyone read. It had not been a rewarding relationship.
Her mother stood and went to the desk near the garage door and pulled her purse from the piles of junk mail. She dug through it, found four wrinkled twenties, and dropped them on the table. “Please, Jackie,” she said, her eyes too big for her face.
Jackie had heard somewhere that people tend to gravitate toward romantic partners who look like themselves. But her mother bore no resemblance to Jackie’s now deceased father. Her skinny rectangular face, taut at the corners of her lips, her eyelids drooping down like dying plants—it was a face so unlike her father’s. She thought of the way his face seemed to be made of rubber when he donned his clown makeup and performed. But perhaps this lack of resemblance explained why her parents had never been married, why they had rarely communicated unless they needed to, why her mother hadn’t even attended his funeral last week.
Jackie snatched up the money. “I’ll see what I can do.”
She went to her room to call the butcher. He picked up after one ring.
On the way to the butcher’s apartment she had to pass the funeral home. It was a tiny building with a small patch of curbed-in dirt out front, a single tree and a few dead bushes. And, stuck in the dirt, a sign that read, “Butterfly Garden: Do Not Disturb or Mow.”
Not too many butterflies, though.
A funny thing, how she’d seen the home countless times before, but she had never noticed that sign. She’d never even realized it was a funeral home until last week.
Brenda, her father’s wife, had decided the funeral should be an open casket affair, and that he should be dressed not in a business suit but in his clown costume. Jackie didn’t know this until she arrived and saw the polka-dot outfit and the curly wig and the ridiculous red smile painted onto his face. This is how people knew him, was Brenda’s argument.
His death had happened suddenly. The act had been going as usual when he fell off the back of the fire engine and landed on his neck. Dead, just like that. Jackie had expected to cry at the funeral, but she couldn’t. She knew it was her father lying there in that absurd costume. But it hadn’t seemed like a real person. Just a toy person, a stuffed animal.
Now, driving past the funeral home, she wondered about how the audience had responded that day when it happened, how long it had taken them to figure out that the poor clown falling off the mini fire engine wasn’t just another joke.
He buzzed her into the building. He was waiting one floor up, in the open doorway to his apartment, in sweatpants and a white t-shirt, his feet bare. It had surprised her when she learned he was a butcher. He didn’t look how a butcher should look. So she had asked him how he got into butchering. His response: How did you get into secretary-ing?
He stood in the doorway watching her, and she wasn’t sure what to say, so she reached into her bag and pulled out the money and said, “So, however much this can buy, I guess.”
The butcher hooked his thumbs in the waistband of his sweats. “Won’t you even come in?”
“No one’s out here watching,” she said. He smiled sadly. She dropped the money back in her purse. This was not what she had wanted: a visit. “Fine,” she said.
The meat smell hit her nostrils as soon as she walked in. It didn’t look any cleaner than the last time she’d been here. Empty soda and beer cans were strewn about the tables and countertops. Hardened stains dotted the carpet; the walls were completely bare. He entered the kitchen, but she stood outside it, near the table with only one chair. She made sure not to get too close to the chair. She didn’t want him to suggest sitting down.
“Drink?” he said.
“Just water.” He stood there. She said, “I was planning to just, you know, make the purchase and go.”
He sighed and found a glass in the dishwasher. “I thought you’d at least be interested in talking. Not just showing up and…” he trailed off, watching the glass fill. He brought it to her and watched her while she sipped. “You can at least talk to me a little.”
He didn’t know about her father. He had no reason to know. She had stopped returning his calls before it happened. She considered telling him now to end the conversation, but it didn’t seem right to turn his death into an excuse. Besides, if she told him, it would be a moment of vulnerability. It would give him an opening.
“I’ve been fine,” she said. “How is the deli?”
“It’s still there.” He rested his palm on the table and tilted his head, letting the black bangs droop past his eyes. “I miss you,” he said.
Jackie felt her heart beating. She had only been in the apartment a few minutes and already she’d had enough. But she could feel his presence tugging at her. He looked at her as if she could fix him.
“I need to use the bathroom,” she said. She took her purse in with her.
The light above the mirror flickered a moment before coming on. A crack stretched diagonally along the edge of the mirror like an old tree branch. She traced her finger along the crack, feeling the way the two pieces of glass came together beneath her fingertip. A smooth ridge separating two things that had once been the same.
She didn’t want to sleep with him, but she probably would.
She opened the medicine cabinet. He had his mix of drugs—headache medicine, anti-depressants, some Ritalin with the name Alexander Diaz printed on it. Jackie had no idea who Alexander Diaz was or if he missed his Ritalin. On the bottom shelf stood the tube of red lipstick she’d left behind. He must have found it and placed it here himself. Like he knew she would come get it. She hated that he was right.
He was waiting on the couch in the living room when she opened the door. He stood to face her. “You okay?” he said.
“You just seemed to be taking a while.”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Did you take anything?”
“What, like your medicine? No, I didn’t.”
“You could have, if you wanted to.”
They stood for a moment, and then he came around the couch and embraced her. She knew she shouldn’t let him hug her like this, but she liked the way he felt against her. She dropped her bag on the floor and wrapped her arms around him.
“It’s been lonely without you,” he whispered.
She placed her hands on his chest and pushed herself away, just enough so she could look up at him. He tilted his head, and then he was kissing her and she could smell the cold meat on his skin.
“Sorry,” he said a moment later. “Sorry, I know you said you just wanted to—”
“If you’d rather—”
He began to pull at her clothing, and soon they were undressing in his bedroom. He took a moment to move the dirty clothes off his bed, and then he lowered her to the mattress. A smile crept across his lips. “I’ve still got that lipstick you left here,” he said.
“I really liked it on you.”
“It’s in my bag.”
He went to the living room—she hadn’t realized yet that he was fully nude—and when he returned he was holding her bag in one hand and the lipstick in the other. “Here,” he said, dropping the bag to the floor and kneeling next to the bed. “Sit up. I want to do it.”
She did as she was told. He popped open the lipstick and began applying it clumsily to her lips. It was probably too much, but she didn’t care. She closed her eyes and stayed absolutely still.
He put the cap back on and dropped it into the bag. “You look beautiful,” he said. He went to the window and closed the blinds. She opened the bedside drawer, where she knew he kept his condoms.
In the dim light, the butcher removed her underwear and climbed on top of her. He pushed himself inside her and pressed his chest to hers and pressed his mouth to hers, and when he pulled away, the red lipstick was smeared across his mouth, a slash of red against his pale skin. She tried not to think of her father’s dead clown face, but the image was already there.
She saw herself kneeling in front of his costumed body, her fingers just touching the edge of the casket, and she remembered her father’s un-made-up face. Her lip was quivering, tears welling up behind her eyes. She reminded herself that he was dead. She silently repeated the word to herself—dead, dead, dead, dead—to the rhythm of the butcher’s thrusts. But it was just an empty syllable, a mantra that lulled her into a dreamlike state, barely aware of the room she was in or the butcher inside her.
Afterward, the butcher asked if she wanted to stay the night, but she said she had to get home. She went to the bathroom to wash up and get dressed, and when she came back he was sitting on the bed in his underwear, holding a plastic sandwich bag. He held it up, letting it dangle from his fingers so she could see that it was filled with pot. She retrieved the money and they exchanged. She felt the bag’s thickness. “There’s a lot in here,” she said. “More than eighty bucks’ worth.”
He was still holding the bills in his hand. “Am I going to see you again?” he said.
She didn’t answer.
He held the money out. “I can’t take this.”
“Take it,” she said.
“Consider it a favor.”
“I’m trying to be nice. Please. Let it be a gift.”
“A gift,” she said. “In exchange for what?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
She should have been gone already. She should have been in her car and heading home and putting this all behind her by now.
“Fine,” he said. He opened his hand, and together they watched the wrinkled bills fall to the floor.
All rights reserved to Jeff Moscaritolo.