The sun of a butcher, the poet
My father is a beautiful alcoholic in old age. A receding cigarette hanging from his whiskey wet lips. Skin thick from sun, wrinkled, dark and tight. His hands large as watermelons, fingers like tree branches, knuckles like walnuts. He was a man born in the wrong decade, the wrong millennia. A gladiator without a coliseum. That need for blood was inside him. The need to push metal through meet. My father is a beautiful alcoholic in old age. But as a young man my father was just a butcher with wet lips and knuckles like walnuts.
As a kid our house always smelled of lard, whiskey, garlic, and pipe smoke. My mother was a slender women but it was hard to tell because she was always hunched over scrubbing or cooking something or making soap with the lard my dad brought home from work. I cannot remember what it was like to feel my mothers hands. I have for years tried to think of one time she touched me when not wearing rubber gloves. But that is all I can remember. The cold wet slime of soap and rubber gliding down my cheeks.
As a man I have often times tried to recollect what the inside of our house looked like. But I have come to realize that I did not spend enough time their. I remember the large wooden butcher block that took up most of the kitchen. I remember my father bursting through the door and dragging it out of the house the night the lightening struck the roof and almost burnt the house down. I can remember him grabbing me under my arms and lifting me up, sitting me on the edge, and teaching me the different cuts of meet as he worked. His cigarette flapping from his lips but never dropping an ash. He’d show me a rib roast small end, or large end. He’d talk about the difference between a top sirloin steak, or a sirloin steak round bone, or flat bone. He’d show me where the chuck would come from, or the brisket. How to trim enough fat but not too much. Then when he was done he would take a long sip of his drink, throw the meet in a frying pan till the outside just browned. Then pull them sizzling off the stove and place them with a fork and knife back on the butcher block and we would eat them straight off the wood, the cold blood of the middle dripping off our chins.
My father once worked at the Armour packing plant. He didn’t like the job but it was pay, and during the depression pay was often all one could expect. He was a puller. After the steer had been hung, his artery slit, head removed and front and rear feet removed, the cow would come to my father. He would make two slits. One from each rear leg, down to the middle of the belly, then back down to the tip of the front leg. My father then would work with another man pulling the skin down and away from the animal and then sliding him down the line to be deorganed and inspected. The plant was supposed to provide hot water for the workers but during the depression they cut that to. My father worked third shift so before I left for school in the morning it was my job to boil the water and fill the washbasin in front of the fireplace. My father would then come home. My mother waiting outside to hand him a towel and watch him strip off his blood smock, boots, and scrub pants. She would then hand him a towel and a piece of homemade lard soap and he would go into the kitchen and scrub himself raw, or until the water cooled. My mother would then take the bloody soap water and dump it off the side of the back porch. In our backyard there was a small three by five patch of bare ground where grass would never grow, and where the mud was always a dark red.
During the day my father spent most of the day in Schaller’s on Hallstead. There were speakeasies all over the town but few of them weren’t controlled by Capone or doubled as brothels. My father was willing to do almost anything for a beer and whiskey but he was a stubborn man who had rules that never got broken. And so Around two or three my father would return home, sit in his chair in the living room, and smoke his pipe until it was time for dinner.
This is where I would often times find my father. I could tell if it would be a good or a bad night the moment I walked in. If I came in and my mother was cleaning or cooking, then my father would be sleeping, his pipe still smoldering dangling limply from his hand. But there was my other father. The blood thirsted bear handed man who would drink himself angry. It wouldn’t take much. The door slamming to loudly behind me. Or my mother asking a question he didn’t want to answer. I never saw him hit her but I knew he did. I would hear them upstairs or in the kitchen. The yelling. The sound of his hand against her. On these nights my father would sit me up on the butcher block and tell me about the cuts of meat. My mother stairs soaking the bruise off her cheek.
I remember two of these nights clearly even today. The first, after my father and I finished eating, instead of taking his drink and going back to his pipe my father stared at me a long time.. Then quickly he finished his drink and grabbed me and put me back on the floor.
“ Climb under there boy, come on. Climb on under there and tell me what you see. Nothing, ha. Your not looking hard enough, look up. Ya, see it. Yes. What’s there boy. That’s right. D.B.G. Do you know what those are? That’s right, those are your initials, but you didn’t put them there did you. That’s right, you couldn’t have. No that was your great grandfather. Your great grandfather came here from Scotland. He came here with nothing but his pregnant wife and a small bag of money. And when he got here he settled in Virginia. He worked for three months building a house for his wife and child. And on the very day that he put up the very last board his wife went into labor. And she bore him a son, my father. Now that night a rich plantation owner was having a party. And he had asked your great grandfather to come and slaughter the best pig he had for him. So your great grandfather put my father and his wife into bed and got on his horse to travel to the plantation owners house. Now he could not have known that the storm was coming. But that night there was a terrible storm. One that picked entire trees out of the ground and flung them clear halfway across the state. Now the plantation owner had a deep root cellar and begged your great grandfather to stay, but your great grandfather refused and headed out into the storm. But as he rode the horse began to get spooked by the wind until finally it threw your great grandfather and ran off in the opposite direction of the storm. But your grandfather wouldn’t stop he ran as fast as he could, pushing himself against the wind. He promised god that if he protected his wife and child that he would kill a hundred cows and fifty pigs and he would give all the meet from them to the poor. Now your great grandfather made it back to the house just as the storm was clearing. The storm had ripped the house clean off the ground and dropped it in pieces all over the land. But there, this table was, unmoved. Your great grandfather ran over and there underneath the table was his child, unharmed. Now your great grandfather searched for three days but never found his wife. On the third day he went to the plantation owner and asked to borrow a horse and a carriage. And he took his child and that table and headed north. Do you understand what I’m saying to you? Come here, look at me. Come close. Do you see these eyes. Look at them, do you see these eyes. These are they eyes of my father and his before that. These are the eyes of our family and they go back all the way to the very first year, on the very first day, when the very first crack of sun rose over and breathed life into them. And these eyes have seen the world rise, and the world fall. They have seen storm and sun and they have never back downed from anyone. These are the eyes of America, of Chicago. Do you understand? These are your eyes, and with them comes everything from before.”
And with that my father poured himself another whiskey, and went into the living room, and never talked of storms again.
The second night could not have been more than a few weeks later. My father came home, after I had been back from school for over an hour. His face was puffy, his eyes red. The smell of the whiskey over took the room and he stumbled into the kitchen. Years later I will look back on that night and wonder why it was that my mother said what she said. Maybe she was finally tired of it. Maybe it just slipped out. Either way my mother looked my father straight in the eye, put a finger in his chest, and said. “Where the fuck have you been.”
At first my father looked like a dog that had just been hit in the jaw. Tail tucked behind his leg. Eyes wide, pupils swollen. He may have even taken a step backwards. But then the alcohol rushed forward through his arms and into his fists and they squeezed into balls as big as tires. My father had slapped my mother a hundred times but I have never seen him hit her. She flew backwards, sprawled across the floor, blood trickling from her cheek. My father turned towards me, grabbed me, dragged me into the study and shut the door screaming for me not to come out. It was quiet, then I heard my father yell, and my mother run upstairs.
I sat there in the study for what seemed like an eternity. Then, my mother came in. Face now cleaned up, a new dress on and her hair and make up done as if nothing ever happened.
“Your fathers been hurt, I need you go to up to mommy’s closet and get her sewing stuff.”
I came back down to the kitchen to find my father sitting on top of the butcher block, a kitchen knife stuck in his side. He looked like a giant kid there, feet dangling above the floor, head swung low, hands resting in lap.
“Now go back on upstairs honey, mommy will come get you when its time for supper.”
And that night we ate supper together in silence. And I was dismissed to my room straight after without having to do homework. And that night I heard my parents make love for the only time in my life.
The next morning I woke to heat the water for my fathers bath and went downstairs to find a chair tipper over underneath my mothers feat and her neck tied to the rafters. My mother had hung herself.
My father waited fifteen minutes on the front porch waiting for my mother to come collect his clothes and bring him soap before he knew something was wrong. He plowed through the door and came racing into the living room. My father did not cry, or at least he did not in front of me. He instead went to the kitchen and grabbed a knife. Cut her down. And sat in his chair with her curled up like a child in his lap, rocking her, as if he was putting her to sleep.
That night when the policemen came they saw the bruises on my mother and arrested my father. A large fat officer took me to my grandparents house and told them what had happened. They fed me cold meat and sent me to bed and the next day when I asked to go see my dad they said there would be none of that. My father could not read or write and he refused the charity of a public defender. The judge sentenced my father before he could speak a word. Thirty five years.
My father got out in twenty three for good behavior but I haven’t seen him in at least ten. He called last night and told me I had to come to the house. My father is beautiful in old age. A receding cigarette hangs from his whiskey wet lips. His skin dark and tight. Hands like watermelons, fingers like bananas, knuckles like walnuts. He is sitting on the front porch on a small wooden stool tilted back on one leg to that he is resting his head against the side of the house and his feet on the railing in front of him.
We exchange handshakes but now words. He motions over his shoulder for me to come in and then flings his cigarette butt off the side of the porch. The house still smells of whiskey and pipe tobacco but it does not appear that anyone has cooked in here in years. My father takes me back to the kitchen turns around and looks at me.
“I heard you’re a writer now” my father says to me “ for the paper. And that you got a book of poetry coming out.”
“Yes. That’s correct.” I say back not knowing where this is going.
“Well who would of thought. A poet the son of a butcher.”
And I allow the silence to fill the room so that he knows that I am here because he asked me to and not for pleasure. My father puts his hand on the butcher block.
“You remember what I told you about this, don’t you?” he says. And I nod quickly and then feel embarrassed that I refuse to talk to my own father so I quickly lock my eyes on the ground.
“Well then, you take it. I don’t want it here anymore.”
And without saying anything the two of us carry it out to my truck. And my father ties it down with two bungee cords that I had in the glove box. And when this is done he slaps his hands on his hips as if he is washing off some dust and pats me on the back and says he hopes to see me around.
The entire drive home I think about turning around. I keep asking myself why I didn’t turn around to say anything back to the man. Instead I left him there, sucking on dust and fumes from my truck.
When I get home my wife comes out to ask me what he wanted.
“What’s that in the truck.” She says
“It was my great grandfather’s”
“He just let you have it? Well alright, we can make room for it in the kitchen later but tonight put it in the garage.”
And I do. And I sit at dinner with my family. And no one asks about my day. And I go to be and make love to my wife without once thinking if my kids were up listening to us, or if my father was still standing there in the road, his thumbs stuck in his pants, wondering if I am coming back.
And I wake up the next morning before dawn. And I go to the garage and grab the butcher block. I take it into the back yard and then go back into the garage to grab the can of gasoline I use to fill the lawnmower. And the earth is grey with dawns first light. And the backyard fills with the smell of gasoline as I douse the old butcher block until its soaked through and my head is light from the fumes.
I strike twenty five matches and watch them burn themselves down to my fingers. Twenty five matches and I cannot throw one. And there is no wind, there flames all burn bright. It would take one toss and all of it would be gone. The screen porch door opens and my son comes out to ask me what I am doing. Nothing I say, and he tells me breakfast is ready.
I turn around and tell him to come here.
“Climb under there” I say, and he tells me no because it stinks of gasoline.
“Its okay, hold your nose, go climb under there.” I say, and he does, and when he sees what he is supposed to I tell him to come back out. And I wrap my hands underneath his arms. And lift him up. And cradle him against my forearm and shoulder.
“Now look into my eyes” I say. And he does.