Better than Starbucks
Fiction Page (Also check out our new Better than Fiction Non Fiction section!)
Once a Butcher . . .
Frank used to be a butcher in his grandpa’s shop, all the way from high school to putting himself through college, until the worst thing that could possibly happen, happened. No, he didn’t cut off his thumb with a saw. No, his grandpa didn’t have a stroke, forcing him to sell the shop. No, nothing happened but the worst thing you could imagine: Frank fell in love with a vegetarian.
At first Evelyn was fairly quiet in her beliefs. She appreciated the thoughtful gifts Frank gave her, the poetry he wrote to her. She put together all the salads and vegetable dishes for their dinners in — sitting side-by-side in their green faux-leather chairs watching Jeopardy and Survivor. She even did the same on a grander scale when their friends came over; Frank grilling out back, bringing in plates stacked with ribs, or tri-tip, even simple hot dogs and hamburgers for “game night”. Either a game was on for everyone to watch, or they all split up into bridge players and poker players. They ate, they laughed, they yelled, consoled each other, won quarters off each other. Evelyn always appreciated the gorgeous red wines Frank brought home, drinking them instead of beer. It was just the meat that was a problem—not just red meat but chicken and fish as well. Evelyn believed in all or none, and she was having none, not even at Thanksgiving.
But that was before they really lived together, even though Evelyn had a drawer at Frank’s house and a set of keys from almost the beginning. Once it became official, once she had actual closet space, she became more and more outspoken, claiming she could smell the meat on his chest when they slept together, and even though he left his aprons at the shop for cleaning, she said the closet smelled like blood. She said her clothes in the closet also smelled. She began to wear just the beginnings of dissatisfaction on her face every minute of every day.
Frank loved Evelyn. He didn’t want to be the cause of any strain—he’d grown up with it in his own house until the day his mother took him to school and kept going. Frank’s grandpa and grandma were completely different. They were loving and supportive. That’s how Frank thought couples were supposed to be. He even once saw his grandpa swat his grandma on the butt with the dishtowel he was using to dry the dishes. That’s what Frank wanted, so he did the only thing he could do: he quit his grandpa’s shop, went to work at a bookstore (that paid far less money but gave discounts), and became a vegetarian too. At home.
That was completely fine with Evelyn. When he kissed her hello smelling of toothpaste, she knew it wasn’t the scent of another woman he was erasing, but a pastrami sandwich, and she appreciated Frank’s consideration. He still brought home wonderful bottles of red, and she appreciated that too. For Thanksgiving, they had delicious polenta fried in browned butter with sage, roasted root vegetables, and four kinds of cranberry sauce, or they went to Frank’s grandparents, where Evelyn happily made do with everything but turkey. Once you’ve tasted one of grandma’s pies you’d be an idiot to resent being invited.
And so the issue of meat became a non-issue. Until it was again, as hard as they tried to live with it. And that made them both very sad. One breezy Sunday in fall, Evelyn put her keys on the counter, hugged Frank with all the love two friends store up over years of being together, and left for her new job teaching scuba on a ship that cruised between the Hawaiian Islands. It was a vocation in which she’d never shown interest, and a job they had never discussed. Frank gave her a bottle of excellent sunblock and a pareo, tie-dyed with all the colors of the sky so she could remember the seasons. Then he went outside and grilled himself a ribeye.
Now, at the age of 43, the newly single Frank found himself back in the butcher shop. It was like getting back on a bicycle, only slower. The younger butchers were faster than he was, but they were not better. And the best part was that it was his grandfather’s old shop, bought by a very nice man when his grandparents retired, down-sized and moved somewhere warmer. So Frank felt like he was with his grandfather every day; it made him feel less alone.
Each night, Frank finished his shift, threw his bloody apron in the industrial wash container, and grabbed a scotch on his way home, to ease his joints. He figured as long as he could lift the glass, life might be slower, but it was good. Tomorrow would be good too. Part of his salary was anything he wanted but prime rib. He usually saved this for only once a week, and usually Fridays, when the bars were too noisy and he was too tired to go out, or stop on his way home.
Once in a while on a Friday though, he’d stop at Joe’s Joint, with the big communal table down the middle, and listen to the conversations around him. Sometimes he’d join in, but just listening made him feel part of the group, and made him feel younger. Then he’d go home to the shortribs that had been in his crockpot all day, or baby lamb chops with salt, pepper, garlic and rosemary from the pot on his window, sizzled for four minutes a side and served with his beloved polenta, thinking good thoughts of Evelyn, thankful she had finally found her calling, and deliriously happy it was somewhere else.
Tobi Alfier is a multiple Pushcart nominee and a Best of the Net nominee. Current chapbooks are The Coincidence of Castles from Glass Lyre Press, Romance and Rust from Blue Horse Press, and Down Anstruther Way (Scotland poems) from FutureCycle Press. She is co-editor of San Pedro River Review (www.bluehorsepress.com).
Black and White
“Play me,” I said, stepping into Nate’s room.
He was lying on his bed, reading a comic book, and said, “Haven’t you lost enough today?”
“One more game.”
“I’m reading,” Nate said, turning the page.
“Beat me, and I’ll never ask again.”
“How about a bet.”
Nate set his comic book on his bed. “How much?”
“Betting your allowance?”
“It’s all I got.”
“Don’t complain when you lose,” he said, getting up. We walked downstairs to the kitchen, where my old exams were taped to the door. He didn’t look at them, but I flipped through them so he could hear my perfect scores. In the living room, we set the pieces on the table, and Nate’s forces advanced until my pawns blocked them. When I captured some of them, he stared at the board while resting his elbows on the table. Then his knights jumped into the skirmish, and the defeated pawns were lifted off their squares. The pieces were lined up on the sidelines like heads on pikes. He captured my rook, and when his knights surrounded the bishops, I gazed at his king, wondering how I could checkmate it.
Then Nate stood up. “Taking a piss.”
As I heard the bathroom door close, my hand hovered over his queen. A slight push away from victory. He wouldn’t notice. I slid the piece to an adjacent square, and when I touched a pawn, the toilet flushed, and I sat upright as Nate returned. My bishop conquered his queen’s square, and over time he captured more pieces. I moved the survivors backwards, but then he slid his rook across the board, and I was as defenseless as my king.
“Checkmate,” Nate said. He held out his hand. “Pay up cheater.”
“I didn’t cheat.”
“You moved my queen.”
“I never did.”
“So it moved itself?”
“You moved it. Pay attention to your moves.”
“Give me my twenty.”
“Beat me again. Then I’ll pay.”
“If I’d lost, you wouldn’t play again.”
“Hardly. Beating you is like taking a pawn.”
“Play one last game.”
“Hold that loss like your money.” Nate said, staring at me.
Even though he dropped out of high school, he talked as if he was better than me. Chess was the only thing he was good at. My grades were better than his, I had A’s while he failed, but I couldn’t beat him. It made no sense. I was the better brother. I know I was. I needed one win, so I pulled a Jackson from my wallet and handed it to Nate.
He took it, and when he saw me glare at him, he said, “You hungry? I’ll order pizza.” When he picked up the phone receiver, I gazed at the black king. I didn’t know why I couldn’t capture it. What did Nate have over me? How could he outplay me? What made him the better player? Was it because he was older? Age shouldn’t matter here. Sure he played longer than me, but that experience shouldn’t be that important. No matter what strategy I used, the result was the same—defeat. But I still tried so Nate could see he had a weakness. That I was a challenger, not a loser.
The doorbell rang, and Nate carried a cardboard box inside and placed it on the table, moving the pieces aside. He lifted a slice. I stared at him. And decided to ask him the question I was wondering all this time. “Why can’t I win?”
He blew on his slice. “You think too much.”
“Is it? You’re the loser,” he said, chewing his slice.
“I’ll eventually win.”
“Tell me. You afraid I’ll win if I know?”
“You should be.”
“That’s even dumber.”
Nate chuckled and then blew on another slice. “Then give up.”
I didn’t care how long it would take. I would become the victor someday. I picked up a slice and bit into it. The cheese burned my tongue, stinging the roof of my mouth, but I still swallowed.
Ashawn A Hamilton
For those who can't make it to the mecca that is Kelly Writers House, we gather once per month, in a traveling show sort of migration around South Florida to enjoy the companionship, the intellectual stimulation and the pure exhaustion of the mental challenge of a live close read!