Sometimes I wonder what other people think of me.
Not often, but sometimes I do.
I know that there are plenty of people out there who just don’t like me. (Just ask any of my exes.) And that’s just fine.
Sometimes I wonder what the guys at the shop would say about me, if someone asked them: “What’s she like?”
Am I . . .
I think that I am all of these things and more . . . but I realize that the guys at the shop don’t really know me very well.
None of them hit on me, so obviously none of them think of me in “that” way. Or they know I’m too old for them; or they respect the fact that I am unavailable. Maybe I’m just the chick at the meat shop to them.
When I walk into the shop, Darren is here and Tommy is not.
I wonder how their days went.
Darren and Oliver are packaging orders, and I happen to overhear some of their conversation; it contains a few names I recognize from a long time ago.
I interrupt, “How do you guys know those two?”
Darren is a full-time stage hand, so he’s constantly around musicians and performing acts large and small. Oliver is learning guitar from one of the two.
“My ex used to open for them when they played at McGurk’s every weekend. Before there was a band—when they just played under their own names.”
And the world grows smaller again.
“Oh! The bass player?” Darren inquires.
“No,” I say, “the bagpiper.”
A few months ago, I decided to check up on David—just to see how he was doing. I’m not blocked from his Facebook anymore, so snooping was easy.
He moved back to Minnesota.
He started a business.
He got married.
. . . he got married.
We’ve only been broken up for three years—no, four now.
I mean, I have other exes who are married now—with kids, even. This just . . . seems so fast.
It got me wondering . . . what have I done with my life the last three—four years?
I still live in the same apartment.
I still have the same full-time job.
I just started a small business, which I’m still trying to get off the ground.
. . . .
“You traveled the world!” Frank protests when I tell him what I’ve done.
“I’ve traveled the country,” I correct him. David has traveled the world. The last time we talked, he was preparing for a trip to Norway, Scotland, and Ireland.
“You met me,” he adds quietly.
“I met you. And I don’t want to move to Minnesota, and I don’t want to be married to my ex. It just . . . got me thinking, that’s all.” It was the realization that he is now all the things that he couldn’t be with me; the realization that a toxic relationship doesn’t always work one way. He wasn’t just toxic to me; I was toxic for him, too.
But I’ve also become many things that I couldn’t be with him: I bought a motorcycle and learned how to fix and ride it; I learned how to shoot a longbow, how to tango and swing dance; I help put on secret dinners with amazing local chefs; I’m an award-winning Whiskerina; I climbed a mother fucking glacier; and I’ve come far in my goal of learning the valuable art of butchery. You don’t get the lines I’ve got on my face without laughing a lot; you don’t get these grey hairs without seeing a thing or two.
And since I was already down that rabbit hole, I decided to check up on another out-of-state ex while I was at it.
It was good to see that he seems the same; it made me happy to see that he seems to be doing well.
Regardless, I don’t think I’ll be making a habit of revisiting that rabbit hole.
* * *
Darren and I haven’t seen each other since two Christmases ago, so we have a lot of catching up to do.
“How’s your love life?” he inquires.
“Good!” I say. I would’ve given that answer no matter what my love life was actually like.
“That’s too bad,” he responds.
“My youngest son is about your age. He drives the party bike down in Soulard.”
“Oh that’s . . . nice. I’m good though.”
I guess we’re done catching up now.
I trimmed this brisket for John so that he can smoke it overnight; I’m just waiting for him to get it off the board and put it in marinade. Every time he walks by I ask him what time it is, and he looks at the clock and tells me what time it is. Then I say, “Is it time to marinate this brisket yet??”
I know, it’s not a very funny joke.
“Your jokes are bad and you should feel bad for telling them.” That’s what I say to Frank every time he tells a corny joke.
All jokes aside, there are no filet orders for me to fill tonight.
I repeat: THERE ARE NO FILET ORDERS FOR ME TO FILL TONIGHT.
So I trim tenderloin for four hours so the guys can fill fresh and smoked orders.
At 8:30 I pack my things and go. An old friend is in town.
(All the eight-ounce filets for orders.)
(All the six-ounce filets for orders.)
Civil Life is pretty packed for a Wednesday night, but my friends have commandeered the long bench on the ground floor, and Eli is seated right in the middle.
I grab two half pints: one called Burton-on-Holt, the other The Great Hencini. Both are dark brown English ales, and just what I need right now.
I set my beers down, and take my coat off.
I reach for one of the eight-ounce glasses, anticipating my first sip of beer.
My fingers close around the glass—
—and Kensey punches me in the shoulder, spilling brown liquid over my fingers.
I look at my hand, and I look at her, and she stands up expecting me to give her a hug now, and I just can’t. Because she knows that I have an injured shoulder, but she doesn’t know which one, and she very well could have just hit me in that exact shoulder. And spilled my goddamn beer before I’ve even gotten a chance to take one drink of it.
No, she’s not drunk and acting a fool.
I close my eyes. I take a breath.
Next thing I know, Eli is slamming into me, giving me the biggest hug.
And introducing me to his girlfriend!
She’s a native of Jackson Hole, so naturally outdoorsy. But they met at an open mic night, so she’s also creative and musically inclined like Eli. And she’s in med school, so super smart to boot. They’re moving to Seattle next year, where she will complete her residency. Eli will continue working as a tree trimmer. Apparently there’s a lot more travel involved trimming trees in that part of the country—they send him all over the place—not just to different towns, but different states. St. Louis has enough work to keep several tree services in business just around town.
“Please excuse my nastiness,” I say, indicating my meat clothes and shoes.
“You still at that same shop?” Eli inquires.
“Are you doing whole animal, or. . . .”
I roll my eyes.
“Ah; there’s not much opportunity for that around here, huh?”
“They pay you though, right?” he asks.
“Yeah, they gave me a raise actually. Now that they pay me like a specialist, they only want me working specialist hours. I only go in on holidays.”
I remember back when I first started working at Burt’s shop, and I considered it a place was full of magic and mystery. Now what is it to me?
A source of income.
A source of drama.
A source of writing material.
The extra income certainly helps with all my traveling. It’s nice to go somewhere, cash-in-hand, and not have to balance my bank account.
But I have this skill, and I feel obligated to practice it; there’s just nowhere else I can do it. So I keep practicing, even though I don’t really have an immediate or tangible purpose for it—other than the apocalypse, which I hope is far from immediate.
* * *
The guys are all drinking beer and not sharing.
They give the sixteen-year-old a beer, but don’t offer me any.
That’s fine, I don’t need to steal beer from twenty-one-year-olds.
But this gives me part of an answer to my wonderings about what the guys think of me: they don’t see me as a peer. I’m not one of them.
This is not exactly a shocking revelation.
But then where do I fit in?
There’s a half wall that’s covered in a dry erase board; important phone numbers are written all over this wall. Every person who’s ever worked here—however briefly—has written their name and number up on this wall.
A few years back, someone circled all the full-time employees and wrote “Varsity Squad” next to it. Then someone circled a few of the part-time employees and wrote “JV Squad” next to it.
My number is not on this wall.
My number’s not even on the wall; why do I think I fit in here at all?
Do I fit in with Tommy?
Impossible; Tommy is one of a kind. He definitely doesn’t see me as a peer. He always posts pictures of the guys on Facebook; he never takes any pictures of me.
Burt and Grace are the dynamic duo; there’s no room to fit in between those two.
Nicole and Grace are the other dynamic duo.
Leroy is a tornado. Tornadoes work alone.
Phil mans the smokers outside and rarely—if ever—touches a knife.
Darren has been slicing smoked orders for two days straight—like a machine. A machine who’s phone number is on the phone number wall.
Collin stays in back with the other young kids. (It is worth noting that every time he needs a knife, he asks me which ones he’s allowed to touch.)
There is another new guy here as well—Matt. The guy is like a savant with assigning order numbers to all the tickets and keeping track of it all. He goes outside, smokes a bunch of weed, comes back in, and is like fuckin’ Rainman at the casino.
“So how did you start working here; who did you know?” Matt asks me.
“No one. I walked in off the street and asked them if they’d teach me what they do. Burt was like, ‘Fuck yeah, come in on Sunday!’”
That makes him laugh.
Yet another thing that sets me apart; I had no connections to get myself in the door here.
Grace takes off around 6, saying she has to get to the hospital.
I turn to Nicole. “Who’s in the hospital?”
What?? He was just here working last weekend! He made me look up barbecue gloves on Bed Bath & Beyond’s website for him, because he was having trouble with the keyboard.
She explains, “Well, that night he went down fast. His temperature just kept dropping. It turned out he has an infection in his heart, so they got him to the hospital as fast as they could. . . .” she shrugs.
He just got done recovering from a heart attack and heart surgery. This poor guy can’t get a break. Spending Christmas in a hospital . . . that’s terrible.
Darren’s wife stops in for a visit, and he gives her a tour of the shop. All the guys are currently in back taking a smoke break; I am all alone at the cutting board up front.
“We have a female cat at my office, and she’s always off by herself,” she comments.
“Oh!” I explain, “No—well, those guys have been working all day so they’re just taking a break. I just got here, so I’m ready to work.”
Why am I in denial?
Even this stranger can see that I’m simply not part of the squad.
Darren adds, “I already tried to set her up with the youngest; she said she’s good with her guy.”
His wife clarifies, “He has a girlfriend, but it’s always good to have . . . backups, you know.”
. . .
I really hope that Frank’s mom isn’t going around behind his back trying to find my “backup.”
(Eight-ounce filets on the left; six-ouncers on the right.)
For the second night in a row, I finish all the filet orders. I guess putting a cap on the number of orders we took was a really good idea. I leave at 9:30; the guys are hoping to be done by 11. Grace got hotel rooms for Nicole and Kyle so they don’t have to drive to and from Festus; they’re both expected to be here by 7am tomorrow.
All the extra help running around, coupled with hotel rooms and less orders—plus feeding us twice a day on these long days—makes me wonder how this place makes any money at all.
A couple weeks back we ran out of tenderloin twice in one day. Grace ran out to Restaurant Depot both times and bought one new case—at $5.99 a pound. And we sell it for almost three times as much. Take into account that someone has to trim, tie, and package it by hand . . . maybe that is what it’s worth. Maybe they are taking in six—almost seven—figures here, but who knows what they’re putting out?
(I have this waiting at home for me. This is why I don’t need to steal Budweiser from twenty-one-year-olds.)
* * *
It’s not as chaotic as I expect.
There’s a tray of tenderloin tops and tails balancing atop the scrap bucket on my side of the board. Good; I can make filets out of those. Unfortunately, I don’t know how long they’ve been sitting out getting warm and soft and slippery.
As usual, the first thing I do is wash all the dirty trays sitting in the sink; if I’m expected to cut a bunch of meat, I have to have somewhere to put it.
If I’m expected to cut meat, I have to have someplace to work. So the next task is clearing all the random hunks of meat off the board. We’re not messing around with little bowls anymore—we’re not even messing around with big bowls anymore; we’ve graduated to filling entire lugs with our scraps. One is positioned underneath the cutting board right now—raised up off the floor a few inches by a plastic crate. There are already several full lugs in the cooler.
The downside to this is that the full lugs are really heavy, but Kyle and Oliver are diligent about helping empty mine while I’m working.
Poor Kyle has to do everything: any time someone has a question, they go to him. Even though John is our main smoker now, Kyle still has to help him out. Kyle mans the bone saw when Tommy’s not around. He helps customers. Allow me to rephrase: he starts to help customers while Tommy sits smoking in his office; once Kyle has done all the work, Tommy emerges and takes all the credit. Kyle answers the phone. Even if someone else answers the phone, they will most likely be going to Kyle for the answer to whatever question the caller asks anyways. Oliver mans the register, but Kyle has to help him when he messes something up or doesn’t know the price of something. And then there’s me with my bum shoulder; I can’t move anything heavier than a primal. Normally I ask the guys for help when they’re all grouped together, so they can take turns. For some reason, they usually volunteer John for the job. The past three days, though, Kyle has just been making sure I have a case of tenderloins on the board at all times—I don’t even have to ask.
Kyle is quickly becoming my favorite person to work with at the shop.
I ask him how the hotel was. He didn’t get out of here until 1am, and when he got to the hotel, they were running an audit on their computers, so they couldn’t check him in until almost 2am. This morning, while he was eating his continental breakfast, a semi parked in front of his truck and began unloading supplies into the hotel. He spent 20 minutes tracking the driver down, to get him to pull forward 6 feet just so he could get to work late.
This poor kid.
“What about tonight?” I’m wondering if he’s staying at the hotel again.
“Tonight . . .” he sighs, “one of my friends is having her twenty-first birthday party, and I really wanna go. She’s renting a party bus.”
Ah. So, no hotel tonight.
John walks up to Kyle and says, “Dude I gave Oliver half of one; he’s gonna be bouncin’ off the walls this is gonna be fuckin’ hilarious. Are you feelin’ it yet?”
Kyle responds, “I told you, Adderall doesn’t do anything for me.”
Now they’re popping pills, too? Damn. I guess that’s how you stay awake all night at the meat shop when you’re drinking beer. At least it’s not coke, I guess?
Every year for Christmas, Tommy gets a Bailey’s gift set from one of our regular customers.
Tommy doesn’t drink.
“I’m about. To fuckin’ kill somebody. . . .” he mutters as he walks past the board.
He paces back and forth a few more times.
“I think it’s time to start drinking heavily,” he proposes, walking towards the back. He cracks open his gift set, twists the top off the bottle, and takes a slug straight from the bottle as he walks back towards the front of the house.
Tommy doesn’t like cups.
We went over this last weekend, too. Nicole buys half gallon jugs of fruit juice for the shop—for everyone. These Tommy also drinks straight from the bottle. If you don’t pour yourself a cup right away, don’t bother. Once Tommy gets his hands on it, it’s his.
“I don’t like cups, Nicole, they’re too restrictive,” he complains in protest.
I think he’s just trying to find new ways to get a rise out of people, because we’ve all become so indoctrinated to his quirks, they don’t surprise us anymore. And, let’s be honest here: the guy doesn’t have any other hobbies.
(I have no idea what’s in that box, but it’s been sitting out bleeding for 3 days now. Whatever’s in there is thawed and then some by now.)
Tonight I finish the filet orders quickly, so I just trim as much tenderloin as I can for fresh orders until about 9 o’clock. Now I get to drive out to my parents’ place for Christmas one of four.
I pack up my knives and go around giving hugs to all the guys on my way out. I see John first; I tell him Merry Christmas and I’ll see him next week.
“Oh is that a thing now?” he asks. “You’re gonna be comin’ in every weekend?”
“No . . . but, next week is New Years. . . .”
“Oh yeah! Jeez, I forgot.” As I turn away, John asks Oliver if he wants a beer.
“Jeez I didn’t realize I was working with pussies.” John opens the cooler and grabs a beer for himself.
The next person I pull into a hug is Oliver. I put my hand on the back of his neck and put my lips next to his ear. I speak very quietly and very clearly: “The next time John calls you a pussy . . . you tell him: ‘You are what you eat.’”
When I pull away, Oliver is silently laughing in surprise, so I know he heard me.
As I walk to my car alone, I think . . . maybe I’m not on the Varsity Squad . . . or the JV Squad. Maybe I’m on my own squad . . . the Suicide Squad.