Butchery and Fatherhood

Mike Keller-Wilson

They met at the meat counter: Ayana leaning against the curved glass while Hank worked the other side. New folks walking into the co-op would see Hank in the deli and smile. He was big—tall and strong through the back and the belly. His forearms, like two slabs of meat themselves, had a thick layer of hair in lighter shades than the sand scruff of his beard or the curls poking out of his hat. All seemed right with the world when butchers looked the way he did, like everything was in its proper place.

He didn’t see Ayana when she first walked in, didn’t notice if she smiled at his back, at the hulking cliché of his silhouette as he gently formed ground chuck into thin patties between massive hands.

He would feel the stare, a prickle like a fingernail trailing along his neck. Usually, it was a woman’s eyes on him, peering toward the carving station. Hank would stop rolling meatballs or slicing ribs—let his muscles go still—and look up to see a woman lingering near the chip display, clutching a forgotten list in one hand. Hank would shrug, uncomfortable. The women would flush and return to their lists, wheel off toward the frozen pizzas to surprise their husbands with a soft hand from behind—a stranger’s touch, familiar only when the men turned.

In those stares, Hank saw his old girlfriends, the ones who eventually soured on a boy “taking it slow.” He didn’t know about the time they spent twisting in front of bedroom mirrors, the fear of being undesired that sharpened their voices to cutting when they asked, “Don’t you want to? What, are you queer or something?” It wasn’t hard to acquire a reputation in a small school. The weight room seemed as good a place to hide as any, certainly better than going home. The coaches were glad to have a boy his size and he wasn’t bothered when his teammates assumed he didn’t have anything to say beyond the clanging of the weight bench.

He didn’t feel Ayana’s stare, didn’t know she was there until he heard a soft clink, metal on glass.

“Excuse me?” A high voice, no edge of demand in the request.

“Yes, ma’am.” Hank finished checking the knife’s freshly-sharpened edge, spent a second too long appreciating its texture—like woodgrain in the folded steel—before turning. The woman was young, no, maybe his age, certainly not over thirty-five. She held a glossy pink clutch in one hand, tapped it absently against the display.

“How can I help you, miss?” he asked, trying to add that extra note of chirpiness into his voice as he did whenever he talked to a woman alone. It was reassuring, he hoped. Those were the things you picked up when you were a foot and a half taller than the next biggest kid in fifth grade. He eventually got tired of the startled yells when his large form was closer than expected. He learned to announce his presence in a room with a cough or a knock. He watched the girls’ nervous eyes and tried to hone his customer service voice early. It was better than being with the boys, where the fear was always laced with anger, where they had to see you on their gym team to let through any joy, even if it was just a taunting smile for the other side, a shout of, “We get the ogre! Na-na.” Hank smiled at the woman, a soft smile that didn’t touch his eyes.

“I just came from a wedding.” She stepped back from the counter, used her clutch to gesture to her bare shoulders, her dress—light blue with blooming flowers trailing toward one knee. She clicked one of her matching blue heels and stepped back again.

“I see,” he said, stripping some of the friendliness out of his voice as she strayed from the safe language of transaction.

“It’s still going on, actually,” she continued. “That’s why I’m here. They sent me.” She smiled an apology and checked over her shoulder to make sure there wasn’t anyone waiting behind her. “There was some issue with the caterer. Anyway, I need to buy like a hundred bratwursts, more if you have them.”

Hank had been nodding with a locked smile, but with this bit of information, he had a task and swung back into his role. “Are all of the display varieties okay? We have jalapeño cheddar, bacon, plain.”

“Oh! Thank you! Will you have a hundred?” She turned, full of delight and surprise.

He shook his head. “Sorry, maybe half that. I could check the back. I doubt I’d be allowed to sell all of them, though.”

She slumped into the counter, rested her forehead on her arm.

“Should I—would you like me to start packing them up?” Hank waited—useless with someone else’s indecision—until the woman nodded without looking up. He moved to grab a few sheets of parchment paper for wrapping.

“I don’t know why I’m even upset,” she said, lifting her head.

Hank looked up, ready to deflect more small talk, but she wasn’t even looking at him. She was staring down the length of stainless steel. He smiled at the side of her face and went back to packing.

“I’m the only bridesmaid without a date, another lovely parting gift from my ex. He’d say I earned it, a fair gift for a date who never puts out.”

Hank’s hands went still over the unweighed meat.

“Sorry,” she said. “My lack of libido is more than you wanted to know, I’m sure.”

“Not at all,” Hank said and smiled at her, a real smile. He weighed in the first package, wrapped it, sealed it with the barcode sticker on the flap. He set it on the stainless steel near the woman’s elbow and started on the next package, finding a rhythm.

“I’m Ayana, by the way.”

“Hank.” He lost his momentum in the reply, started having to bend low and duck a shoulder into the case to grab the last of the brats up near the glass.

Ayana watched him weigh and seal the second package before speaking again. “Could you do me a favor, Hank?”

“A favor?” Hank pushed the next package across the counter, pressed it toward her hand.

“Could you help me take all this out to my car?”

Why did he say yes? He could have walked up to the front of the store and had one of the baggers do it. That’s what he normally would have done. Maybe it was her loneliness, the familiar howl of it beneath everything she said.

Ayana paid and Hank tried to ignore the questioning looks from the girl working the register. He was forming the words the whole time, always just about to tell her to load up a cart. He followed Ayana through the automatic doors, his arms cradling dense packages. He swallowed the words, felt each one slide into his belly and lodge there.

“Thank you, Hank. Y’know, I could still use a plus one, if you’re free.”


After she left, Hank kept to his side of the deli, waited for his favorite time: the off-hours that brought stay-at-home moms, and a few dads, to stroll the aisles while bouncing sleeping infants. He longed for that tiny, trusting warmth, the sweet breath against his neck. No expectation beyond a sleepy need for food, comfort, love. The closeness of skin without the pressure for more. He longed for it even when they howled their way through the store, carted from aisle to aisle by stringy-haired parents with glassy, sleepless eyes. Hank understood those infantile yowls, knew the hunger in them as his own hunger.


Hank didn’t go to the wedding. He had the rest of his shift, and he wasn’t even sure Ayana was serious.

But when she came back, he surprised himself by asking her to a movie, some superhero thing where everything would come out alright in the end. He bought the tickets and so she insisted on paying for snacks—a giant bucket of popcorn and two drinks. When the credits started, he got up to leave. She grabbed his hand, tugged him back into his seat for the post-credits scene, and gave his fingers one unhurried squeeze before letting go.

They began to see each other every day. She visited him at work a few times. He showed her around, let her try the slicer, watched her delight as the meat fell into symmetrical folds beneath the blade.

At his apartment, they had sandwiches delivered after their attempted risotto ended with rice crusted black into the bottom of a pan. They fell asleep watching TV. He woke up when she snaked a hand under his shirt, must have felt him tense because she pulled away.

“I thought you would want to,” she said.

“Of course, I want to,” he said, and the lie was easy, familiar. “Just not now.”

A week later, she pressed against him while he scrubbed at sauce-crusted dishes. He tried, and failed, to find the line between her desire to please him and her desire. She asked if she was pretty and he told her, truthfully, that she was beautiful. They were often happy. She laughed at his rare jokes, once sprayed milkshake out her nose. They watched hours of cooking shows and he fell asleep with his head in her lap, her fingers stroking slow lines through his short curls.

It was enough. For a while.


Hank always took his time with the monthly ritual, wiping the damp cloth along the full length of each swollen leaf until he’d cleared most of the succulent’s dust. He whisper-sang as he went. The words were never quite the same, though it was always the same upbeat tune. After the wiping was done, he swept the soft paintbrush through all the hard-to-reach crevices. When he finished, he cradled the plant between two massive hands, moved it to the nightstand, and settled it among the sunbeams.

Out the window, he saw a young boy holding his mother’s hand. The boy was still in his school tie and slacks while his mother looked dressed for work, clicking a bit ahead in short heels. Hank watched them round the corner and wished he had another plant to clean, wished he didn’t feel the room’s emptiness closing in. A child would be everything. A way to wake up to love, to need without desire.

Before she died, his mother told Hank about the years she and his dad had tried to bring a little sibling into the world. She left out the paper-crinkle of doctor visits, the quiet drives home, the too-soon celebratory toast, water glasses raised high with false hope. When Hank was old enough to walk and started getting into things, he’d make his way to the empty bedroom, the one where they were storing his crib, before they gave up and turned it into a craft room. His mom spent hours on baby quilts decorated with sad little animals. Eventually, Dad made her start selling them at the flea market.


He waited six months to ask, though it wasn’t quite a question. “I want a child, Ayana. More than anything.”

“More than me?” she asked.

That was her answer the first time. She had reasons. She explained about her parents, about work, about how she’d hated dolls as a kid. He said he understood, respected it, even. He sang to his plant, watched the new mothers at the co-op. A month later, he asked again. And a month after that. He couldn’t bring himself to stop.

The last time, she didn’t answer, just shook her head and reached for the front of his jeans, pulled back when he flinched. “I’m not sure what you want, Hank,” she said, sounding sad.


He did it that night, the night she left. He found his knife, eight-inches of high-carbon stainless steel, professionally sharpened only a few weeks ago. A durable German design rather than razor-edged Japanese. Hank held the point an inch from his stomach. It was comfortable in his hand, even at this odd angle. He steadied it with his left palm, then pressed, dimpling the bellyflesh below his navel, resisting the knifepoint, finally giving way.

He expected blood, viscera, the offal of the slaughterhouse floor. Instead, it was like stabbing into a block of wet clay. It swallowed the blade, inch by inch. There was pain—hot bolts of it striking out from the bloodless wound. Ignoring it, he began to carve.

Through the bright sun of his agony, he saw the first hunk of flesh pull free and slap to the floor. The ache blossomed and filled him, swelled up and out.

Hank ground his teeth and tore loose another piece of himself, dumped it atop the first like a sculptor gathering leftover clay.

After ten minutes, he was shaking, sweating so he had to wipe his hand and the knife handle with his stripped-off shirt. After twenty, he looked down at the misshapen cavern of his belly: still no blood or grisly organs. Instead, oddly contoured skin swooped inward below his ribs. On the floor in front of him, a sloppy pile of pink flesh.

Hank set the knife aside, knelt next to this pile of himself. He began to work the flesh like mixing meatballs or burgers. He was no baker, but he kneaded the gelatinous chunks into one mass and began to sculpt.

He didn’t have a clear picture in his head, just let his hands do their work. They formed a ball, pinched in where it was attached to a flat block. Two cylinders stuck out from opposite corners of the top, two more in parallel protruded from the bottom edge. It was the shape of the hole in his life. He gave form to that gap, that empty feeling that pressed his throat in the sleepless dark. The child took shape and, when it was done, Hank lifted it to his chest, the flesh still warm against his, and waited for the first stirrings of breath across his skin.