For this weeks Tuesday Tale, I turn the reins over to Sherrie Marshall of Sherrie’s Always Write. This work is not my own, and may or may not represent my own personal “writing rules.” I hope you enjoy, and remember to check her site out!
“You’re as curious as a cornflake,” mama said.
Her fingers picked at the rick-rack of her calico apron pocket. She leaned on the door frame to my bedroom and swatted at a fly buzzing around her ear. It must like the smell of fried bacon. Mama cooked up a good batch every morning for me and papa. By bedtime, she smelled like Palmolive dish soap and stale cigarette smoke. She was always trying to quit, but said it was too hard, ‘What with everyone on the TV set smoking and all.’
“Mama, I don’t even know what that means. You mad at me?”
“Daniel, you have to snoop out the workings of everything?”
The innards of an old 1950’s Telchron alarm clock were scattered across my bruised wooden desk. The neighbors were selling it in the driveway at their back-to-school garage sale. It was sitting on one of those tables like they store in the basement dining hall at church. I saw that clock and knew as sure as the sun comes up every morning that I had to have it – had to know what made those tiny silver arms tick around the numbers. I bought it with money I’d earned from mowing thirty-four lawns over the summer. I looked down at my mess.
“I’ll get it cleaned up. Can I do it after dinner?”
“You best get all those little metal pieces cleared before papa gets home with Duke. That dog would eat his own tail if he could reach it. Besides that, you got the first day of school tomorrow, and there’s a bath waiting to be took very near in your future young man.” As she began to walk down the stairs, she hollered over her shoulder, “Get on downstairs and set the table for dinner after you’ve cleaned up that mess.”
We had macaroni and cheese with little pieces of meat in it for dinner. I’m not sure if it’s really considered meat when it comes out of a can, but I had two helpings. After I ate, fed Duke, and took my bath, I sat on the porch with papa and watched him blow smoke rings through the humid August air. They hung there like little smoky Hot Wheels race tracks in the moonlight.
“Papa, can we pick Manny up for school in the morning? He’s staying at his grandma’s until his dad comes back from Mexico. He’s going to bring us a salamander.”
“Sure. We’ll swing by his grandma’s. Tell that boy to be ready. You two have to walk home this year though. You’ll be in the fifth grade, and I don’t think you need to be mollycoddled anymore. You’re almost a man now.” Another smoke ring floated through the dark. I ran upstairs, climbed into bed and thinking all the while about being a man this year.
Papa dropped us off at the basketball court behind the school. Manny and I agreed that we’d meet back here and take a shortcut home across the creek. We’d spent a lot of time in the creek that summer, even though my dad would thrash me for going where I wasn’t supposed to. The thistles and weeds were overgrown, but it was perfect to dig crawdads out of their mud holes in the bank.
After school was out, we traipsed through a bunch of backyards and came to Mr. Parker’s place. He worked at the local meat market as the town’s butcher. Papa said he was as big as a refrigerator and cranky as a hungry gator. I didn’t want to get caught in his yard, but we jumped the chain-link fence anyway. Manny found a coke bottle half buried in the butcher’s flower bed. All that was left of his flowers were sticks. Manny and I kicked at the glass until the ground around it crumbled into dirt clods and released the bottle.
Manny stopped kicking the clods around and grabbed me by the shoulders. His eyes bored right into mine. “The Butcher killed his wife. She’s been missing since Christmas. Everyone says he cut her up into T-bone steaks and sold her at the store. Your parents buy meat at the butcher shop?” Manny asked.
“We don’t eat T-bone. That’s stupid. Why would he chop up his wife?”
“Because he was hungry, doofus. Why else?”
We neared the front gate, but had to pass by the side door into the butcher’s garage. I cupped both hands to shield my eyes from the sun and looked into the garage. What I saw on the other side of that door was going to stick in my head forever, and I’d never be able to un-see it. Suddenly, I knew I wasn’t a man yet.
I jumped backwards and crashed into Manny. The fence rattled and clanged all the way down the side of the house as we tumbled into it. Manny shoved me off his legs.
“Hey, goofball. What are you doing?” Manny screamed.
My head swiveled around toward the garage door to see if the Butcher was coming after us.
“I-you-I mean…it’s a leg–”
“Danny boy, I think the sun is shrinking your head. I can’t even understand you. When did you start stuttering?”
Manny stood and brushed red dirt off his new school jeans. He squared his jaw and clenched his teeth at me. I knew his grandma was going to kill him for getting his new school jeans dirty.
“Manny, I mean there’s a leg in a vice on his workbench. Do you think he cut someone’s leg off and put it in his garage?”
“Move. Let me see.” Manny pushed me to the side. He squinted his eyes and peered through the door window. “I don’t see a – holy shit.”
“Told you so. Where do you think it came from?” I asked. Manny stood still staring through the glass. He didn’t seem as disturbed about a leg clamped to a vice as I did. He just kept gawking at that leg until I grabbed his arm and spun him around. His eyes were the size of the rubber super ball I got in my Christmas stocking last year.
I started running for the gate and fumbled with the latch. Manny was on my heels as I swung the gate open. We ran all the way to my wooden porch. We bent over and heaved gulps of air deep into our lungs. Manny dropped onto the porch like a dead weight. Chips of gray porch paint stuck to the side of his jeans. We spit-promised that we’d look in the garage again tomorrow.
The next day creeped by at school. My teacher scolded me for falling asleep after lunch during geography. It was so hot in the school without air conditioning. I couldn’t help it. The only thing that kept me awake until gym was thinking about that leg. It was squeezed tight up on the butcher’s workbench. I dreamed last night that my shirt got stuck in the vice and that Duke licked blood off my face. After I woke up from the nightmare, I didn’t sleep another wink. I kept looking at the window checking if I could see a reflection of light. Maybe the butcher was chopping up his next victim in the middle of the night.
Manny and I met at the basketball court again. On our way home, we hustled with a purpose this time. There was no swinging on low-lying tree branches, no kicking a can, and no crawdad hunting. We went straight to the butcher’s garage door. At the same time, Manny and I peeked through the window.
The leg was gone, but a rusted metal file stood secured in the jaws of the vice. We both craned our necks to scour the garage. Old men’s and women’s clothes hung on a metal rack like the one at J.C. Penney downtown. We saw a small can of paint and epoxy putty like my dad used to fix the baseboards on the back patio of our house.
A shadow crossed in front of us, and we dropped to the cement pad below the garage door. I held my breath and started praying the rosary in my head. Manny rose to his knees and peered over the bottom of the window. I decided that my desire to see what was going on in that garage was stronger than my fear of getting caught.
I crouched next to Manny and we watched with dreaded horror as the butcher removed the file from its resting spot and replaced it with an arm. The hand was turned in an unnatural position. My stomach rolled over and the fish sticks from today’s school lunch threatened to rip loose from my throat. The butcher began to file the raw side of the arm where a shoulder socket should be. He turned his back to us, but we could see him file back and forth over and over.
I tugged on Manny’s shirt and motioned to the gate. We crept over and raised the metal latch with the stealth of a cat. Once we cleared the end of the driveway, we bolted like track stars. I imagined the butcher was chasing me and swinging his metal file at my head. I wasn’t the best runner in gym, but I swear I beat Manny back to my front porch by two minutes.
We made plans for tomorrow at the butcher’s. We decided that we had to see if he had a body in there. Maybe it was his missing wife. Then we’d tackle the butcher, hold him down, and call the police. I had already decided I would wear my Sunday suit to the police station when they gave us medals for catching a creepy killer. Manny left my house, and I dreamed of swinging sides of beef that night. The huge animals hung in the butcher’s garage.
When I woke up the next morning, I prayed there would be no carcasses in my near future. Mom came in and told me breakfast was ready. I could smell the bacon. She turned to leave my room, but stopped.
“Oh, by the way, Manny’s grandma called and he’s sick. He won’t be going to school today. Maybe’s got the flu. She said he threw up most of the night.”
I laid in my bed and stared at the ceiling. “Damn Manny,” I thought. “I’m a man now; papa said. I’ll do this and get the medal for bravery by myself.”
When the bell rang at the end of the day, I shot out the school doors like a first grader headed to recess. I ran all the way to the butcher’s house. When I got to the door and caught my breath, I finally looked through the window. No body parts were displayed on the workbench today. I took off my backpack and rubbed my hands together. Sweat mixed with the dirt and ended up as a dirty kind of paste on my palms. I rubbed them on my jeans and turned the handle as quiet as I knew how. I looked around the corner and didn’t see the butcher. He must be gone today. At least I’d be able to look around for myself and could tell the coppers what I saw.
It was ice cold in the musty, dark room. There was an air conditioner in the wall coming from the house. On the floor, there was a handle attached to a trap door, and it had fresh cement poured around the opening. Maybe his wife was down there just waiting to be rescued. I crept down the wall adjacent to the door. There were wigs of every color for every kind of person, redhead, blonde, and short hair for men and women. It was the creepiest thing I had seen in all of my ten years. Next to each wig was a photo. Some of them were still in a frame, others were stuck on the wall with a tack. All of them were old people like Manny’s grandma. Just then, the door from the house opened.
I screamed and tried to run, but my legs wobbled long enough for the butcher to block my escape. I was stuck and couldn’t imagine what stupidity made Manny and me think we would be able to take down the butcher. He was a tank.
“What are you doing in here?” His voice was loud and bellowed in the garage.
I couldn’t speak. Hell, I couldn’t breathe. The butcher was going to kill me and stick me inside that trap door, probably with his chopped up wife.
“You’re the boy that crosses through my backyard every day after school, aren’t you?” I shook my head yes. Tears stung my eyes and hung on the rims ready to spill down my face like a baby.
“How come you’re in my garage?” He lifted a mason jar to his full mouth and drank what looked like ice tea.
“How come you have someone’s arm and leg in here?” I looked over at the trap door, and a chill clawed its way down my spine. Body parts are probably stacked chest high down there.
His eyes followed my gaze to the trap door in the floor. He walked over and opened the heavy door. I flinched thinking he might swat me like a fat juicy June bug. He walked down the steps into the dark underground room. This was my chance to run for the door and make my escape. I didn’t want to be like that boy on the news that got stolen last year. No one ever found him. He’s probably down there with the butcher’s wife too. But before I could flee, the butcher was already coming out of the hole with a body. I saw the blonde wig first and then the blue dress. Once out of the trap door, he turned toward me and set the woman on the floor. I gaped at her and a creepy dryness like cotton filled my mouth.
“It’s a doll!” I said.
“It’s actually called a mannequin. That’s why you saw arms and legs. I collect the extra body pieces out of the clothing store dumpsters from downtown. I bring them home to file and sandpaper them back into smooth ends. Then I glue them back together,” he said.
“My wife has Alzheimer’s, and I made her one that looks like me. I dressed it in my clothes and took it to her nursing home room in Lattimer City. She talks to it when she has clearer moments. I think it makes her feel less lonely. I go see her every day, but can’t be there at night. They kick me out after dinnertime.”
I craned my neck over the trap door opening. “Why do you have so many of them?”
The butcher walked over to the wig wall and took down a photo. He turned back and faced me. He used his shirt to wipe dust off the photo and handed it to me. “This woman is the mother of a grown boy and girl. Her husband died last year. After the kids saw the mannequin I took to my wife, they asked me to make one for their mother. Now, I make them for anyone who asks.”
I sat down and talked to the butcher for another thirty minutes about his wife. He teared up twice and said he missed her all the time. He even laughed about the dead flowers. He said he planted them in the Spring and tried to care for them. But without his wife, he said they just died. He hasn’t cleaned out the beds yet, but will before Fall comes. I got to see the other three mannequins he was working on, but I’m not stupid. I asked him to bring them up into the garage. Not on any planet was I going into a dark hole with a bunch of dolls.
When I was leaving, he invited me to help deliver the refurbished people to their new owners at the nursing home. I promised to ask my mama if it would be okay. Over that semester of school and before the butcher finished cleaning out the flower beds, we had delivered eight mannequins to three different nursing homes. The butcher even let me sand a couple of torsos down and let Manny file two legs. Just like papa said, that was the year I became “almost a man.”