|Apr/May 2001 • Fiction|
The kindly gentle man who ran the sweet shop ruined our summer fun by stabbing his mother to death. He cut her up and hid her body in the freezer among the tubs of ice cream. A power failure knocked out the lights and spoiled the contents of the deep freeze, including poor old mama what's her name. It was sad the day they closed the confectionery doors for good. Ice cream for sweaty little, snot-nosed street urchins became a thing of the past.
Stale beer and cigarettes from Nancy’s Bar & Grill replaced the smell of sugar. Her place provided the clientele for the brand new fancy house that moved in across the street. That was what my mother called it. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I had a hunch. My early sex education came from watching the second shift from Bluebird Pie take the detour through the bright red door before they staggered off to work. When my mother got home from work my brother and I shifted our vigil to the windows overlooking the schoolyard and the park. After supper mom would doze to old time country music while we shifted back to catch the second act of our private peepshow. When we got our first television set in 1956 I was torn between Wyatt Earp and the multi-feature erotica going on across Race Street.
One night my eyes were glued to a kama sutra of silhouettes on the window shades when all hell broke open down below. Drunken customers poured out of Nancy's Bar & Grill and soon surrounded a fiery couple squared off in a heated shouting match. I only caught pieces of the argument, but I knew they were serious. This was not some simple everyday fight I could easily ignore. Maybe I couldn't hear everything, but I could "feel" the potential. This could be as big as the day the baby fell out the top most window of the building across the way. The man finally waded in and popped the woman in the face. She went down and, I thought out, but in the moment it took for him to turn and grin she sprang upon his back. I don't know where it came from, but she had a knife. From the size and length, it had to be a butcher knife. She stuck it in his ribs and rode him to his knees. Suddenly blood was everywhere. Bystanders on the crowd's inner circle caught great spurts of blood as his heart pumped out the contents of his arteries.
"I'll kill you!" She shrieked. "I’ll cut off your head!" With that she drew the knife across his throat. He fell forward on his hands crying for help for mercy until the knife cut short his plea. With great effort he gasped out a voiceless prayer for salvation as she rose to circle and slash, first at him, then at the surging crowd. In the end he was face down, not moving, just bleeding and she was frozen over him in a grotesque tableau. The crowd gave way little by little as the sounds of sirens grew and multiplied on their way to the blood spattered killing ground below.
The woman lost her fire as she staggered over to lean on the phone pole just below me for a moment. In a last quick gesture with the knife, she startled the crowd that stayed to gape. The last few left as she raised the butcher knife in a two-fisted grip above her head. Leaning back with the knife fully extended, perhaps as an act of contrition, her eyes came up toward the blade and her gaze met mine. I flinched as if I had felt the razor edge against my throat. I could not look away. I saw her eyes slowly widen and fill with horror. It was as though she was seeing through my eyes what she had done. She mouthed, "Forgive me," then stuck the knife into the pole. My head sank back until it met my brother's chin. Had he seen it too? Suddenly she turned and disappeared around the corner past Christ’s Mission, on down Pleasant to Liberty.
By the time the second shift ended at Bluebird Pie the initial excitement had died off and my dad was on his way home from work. My old man was a preacher, drunk, Bluebird Pie truck driver, and knife collector. He was the self-proclaimed, “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
It would not be long before we'd slice off still warm wedges of pie to eat as bedtime treats. He walked up the alley next to Nancy’s that evening and stopped to light a Camel beside the pole that held the butcher’s knife. His match lit both cigarette and knife. He pulled it from the pole, examined it and wrapped it with his handkerchief. He walked past the body in the gutter, but did not notice as he continued through the tenement entry door. He climbed the stairs to our apartment only moments before the cop cars screamed onto the street. Red bubbles continued to pulse as the sirens died away.
It wasn't long before the cops came knocking to ask if we had seen what went with the knife used in the murder down below. My mother said, "We didn't see nothing,” and closed the door. She gave my old man a sharp look, then dropped the knife into her dishpan to wash the lie away. We glanced and smiled to catch her in a lie then turned back to watch the frantic lights bounce off the lethargic investigation.
The sting of her white plastic belt across our naked backs sent us scrambling to our bed. “I’ll cut the blood out of you the next time I catch you gaping out that window,” were her final words that night. We dared not giggle, but it was hard.
The next morning I woke to the smell of fat back frying in the pan and coffee on the stove. After I crawled out of the blankets and helped my brother close the rollaway I noticed the knife lying beside a mess of fresh-cut salt meat.
It looked new and shiny. My mother offered up a steaming bowl of scrambled eggs and pork-brains. It almost made me sick. We ate the fried meat with biscuits and gravy got dressed and went to school.
After more than forty years my memory of that night has not dimmed. I have maintained a healthy respect for “the butcher’s knife” as it came to be known.
Not only did it take a life; it also nipped the fingers of every family member at one time or another, as if to remind us of just how dangerous it could be.
The last time I was home my mother gave that knife to me, along with a whetstone and a warning. "Make sure you keep it sharp. A dull knife can be dangerous."
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