Jeff Phillips: The Butcher in the Ice Storm

 

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When the power blinked out, I decided to shut myself in for the night. I had been thinking about getting a steak; a thick filet, and maybe even some Italian wedding soup to go with it. But my stove is electric, out of commission at that point, and the way the freezing rain was pelting everything, I knew it’d be awhile for the lights to come back on. I had a big bag of chips and some apples in the crisper, some stuff to hold me over. The heat had gone off too because in my building it is also electric. The apple wasn’t as satisfying as it would be, say, on a warm spring day, because I was putting cold fruit mash into my stomach while I shivered in my kitchen. I ended the night curled under a blanket on a loveseat, with a banged up paperback of Lord of the Flies and a flashlight. Sometimes I’d turn off the flashlight and peek out from beneath the blanket and look at the hardened spray hitting the window, freezing as a sheet, and my view was slowly obliterated into what seemed a textured oil painting. Just dabs of a dark blue.

I awoke the next morning to notice the ice storm had ended. I blew at the frosted window, knowing it would do no good. And I started craving bacon. I paced around my living room, still wrapped in my blanket, and my mood brightened instantly when the lights came back on, the microwave beeped and the digital clock started flashing 12:00. My stove would again be operable, and so would my little dream of breaking the fast with bacon.

I put on thick corduroy pants and zipped up my winter jacket. I spent a few minutes lacing up my old boots as I looked down at the rubber soles, worried about the worn out bumps, the limited traction

I walked down the street toward the butcher shop, my pace slow, staying close to the facades of storefronts to brace myself against slipping. Everything was layered in ice. I arrived at Gabriel’s Meats but it was closed. I cursed the “business hours” sign that indicated it should be open. I punched an icicle that hung from the awning. Fucking ice storm, blocking my insatiable taste for savory slivers of salty meat.

I continued on, confident the Jewel Osco should still be open. It wouldn’t be as good. Gabriel cut his bacon strips thick, akin to pork belly. As I came to the alley, I saw a body on the ground. Using the edge of the dumpster to keep myself from falling, I inched forward to get a closer look. Caked in ice was Gabriel, the owner of the self-titled meat shop. I had interacted with him on a few occasions, he was always quite friendly, even talked me into buying beef liver once when it was on discount, close to expiring, which I was surprised to find I loved and purchased from him again on several occasions. His smile was intact beneath the bumpy surface of the sleet’s remains. The smile was maybe less a representation of his mood as it was a way his face naturally rested. A knife’s blade had pierced his stomach, a little to the right, just above the hip. A pool of blood was preserved as its own thin pad of ice around him. A red pond in miniature. His apron was bunched and crusted like a mini mountain overlooking the bloody body of water, smooth and ready for ice dancers if only they were shrunk down to size.

Off to his left was a bag of trash, which had spilled open when it landed on the pavement. Some bloody gizzards and chunks of animal fat formed a small trail from a tear in the bag. The scene wasn’t quite clear. The clear part was he went into the alley to dispose of some trimmings. Had he come into the alley with a knife in hand and slipped, causing his own end? The trail of guts from the trash bag indicated some animal getting at it, rats maybe. It could be that Gabriel had left a bag outside the door for a brief moment, heard rats biting into it and came charging out with a knife to get them to scram, when he slipped, driving the knife into his own flesh.

It could even be that the knife was thrust by the hands of a thief, mugging Gabriel while he stepped out into miserable weather to finish a chore. Since Gabriel was protected by ice now, I couldn’t confirm to see if a wallet was missing from his pocket.

The meat shop at times was bustling, he probably had a decent amount of cash on hand, some credit cards, most likely an American Express Small Business card. A robber could do well on this man. Gabriel was in his early fifties. I’d never noticed a ring finger on his left hand. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t take it off when he handled raw meat. He was always there though, from open to close, 8 AM until 9 PM. He probably ate dinner alone in the back. On a small portable stove. He maybe sometimes saved himself a USDA prime ribeye, a bone-in center loin pork chop. But most of the time he probably took on the scraps. The slabs that didn’t sell right away, that would go bad if not sauteed and chewed quick. And what wouldn’t fit in his rounded gut made it into the black bag, to take up brief slumber in the dumpster shaped coffin until a metal angel flashed it’s reverse lighting, made room on its back, and led the way to a final resting ground.

I wanted to snap a quick picture of him, maybe to preserve the scene for a detective to later examine. I also found the look of him, a grotesque statue made with combined mediums of wax and ice, to be a fascinating display ready for a museum of modern art.

But I couldn’t snap this picture, because other people started to gather at the mouth to the alley, and I didn’t want to seem morbid. They at first looked at me with caution, like I had just murdered him outright, but as they took in the sight of his frozen layers, they realized that some time must have passed between his death and now.

“Have you already called the police?” One of the gawkers asked.

“Was just about to do that,” I replied as I pulled out my phone and I tried to focus my fingers toward the dialpad, fingers already chilled by the air into stiff knots.

Just before 9-1-1 picked up I thought about how bacon was now out of the question, my taste for meat dissipated by the unseemly sprawl down below me. A flap of the man’s blood soaked shirt had curled in the freeze, and looked just like a piece of bacon, only with hints in its coloration of having spoiled. The white frost speckling the red screamed semblance to maggots hatching and having a run at it. My appetite, not completely snuffed, shifted to a mood for potatoes. Home fries seemed quite innocent and would help warm me up, would raise my body temperature and help thaw this picture from my memory so that by dinner time, I might make it to Jewel Osco after all and bring home some beef liver in Gabriel’s honor.

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