She’s here again. An upper-crust dreamboat in heels. Her long blond hair like a ribbon flying behind her. Me, I like to slick my hair down and look like Twiggy minus the twigs. As I pull an earbud from my ear, I shut off the slicer and go to greet her. I know what she’ll say. Two pieces of salmon, please. Our sole conversation for the last year. And like always, I’ll leave the grimy, fishy food kitchen and cross over to the front of the counter. There, I’ll open the glass case. She always seems surprised when I do this. Like I’m breaching the sanctity of the space between us for a sliver of salmon.
But then she smiles. Makes eye contact. The big dealio of my life. The one person who makes me feel important. Who trusts me to do my job like an art. A complete three-sixty from ol’ Pops who told me last Thanksgiving I’d never be anything better than the meat market. Around her, I’m Picasso with butcher wrap. An expert wrapping stew beef, filet, flounder. There’s a precise rhythm to the roll. Too loose and the juices leak out. Too tight and it’s a grocery bag bomb ready to explode. The perfect wrap job is done with a firm hand, meat snug in the bottom corner, butcher paper folded corner over corner, rolled tight enough to keep the meat cozy, and secured by a stickered price tag. Less mess that way. Happier customers, too.
Like her. Sure, I don’t need to go to the front of the case to remove the salmon. But it’s the best way to get close to her. To be in her orbit, to just once, be on the right side of her tracks. Truth is, I like her smell. She doesn’t smell like whitefish and ground round. She smells like freesia. Vanilla. Maybe it’s her shampoo. Could be her perfume.
Like always, after I package the salmon in waxy brown butcher paper, I’ll pass it to her over the counter. I’ll say, anything else? and she’ll say, No, thank you. Then she’ll wiggle away. I’ll watch her go. She’s pretty perfect like that.
Anyway. Like I said, like always, I move to greet her. What can I get you?
Only today she says, I need your help.
Sure, with what? I notice the lack of a grocery cart. Maybe she needs directions to aisle 10. Ingredients for baked goods as sweet as she is. Maraschino Cherries. Cake Mixes. Sugar Substitute.
She shimmies close to the counter. Practically hugs it. Her breasts mashed against the glass. Her tan mouth gets wide and round, her lips glossed pink, like a glazed ring donut. A really bad day, she says.
She sits on a packing crate in the back room. I watch as she sobs amid shellfish. Fuck, she says. Why me? Why me?
I hand her a glob of paper towels. Instead of honking out a sneeze, she dabs at her tears, delicately.
Back and forth between my palms, I transfer a shaker of seafood seasoning. What happened? I ask. Maybe I can help. I mean, that’s our relationship, right? Symbiotic, like. She needs something, and I make it happen. I hand it over without small talk.
Her sobs choke off as she leans forward to scrub at a small patch of red on the hem of her flared skirt.
It was an accident, I think. He slipped into a knife. Tripped over a banana peel and ate shit face first.
He broke a plate, she says. One of my mother’s. I mean, they’re irreplaceable. You don’t just find vintage Pyrex anymore. When he picked up the casserole bowl—I just…I snapped. She looks at me, dead-on. I took off my shoe and I stabbed him in the eye with the heel.
I follow her eyes down to the ground. To black leather pumps with red soles. She draws her legs under her as if I’m judging her. And she’s right. I am. I’m judging her ridiculously good sense of fashion with her poor street smarts.
Jesus, you wore—I lower my voice as my co-worker Barney walks in for a roll a twine, walks out. You wore the murder weapon here?
She juts her chin. Well, what else was I supposed to do? It’s a perfectly good Louboutin.
I rub my eyes. The smell of shrimp has me suddenly nauseous. What do you want?
I thought you could help me. She squints at my nametag. Rachel.
Raquel. I shift on my feet. I don’t…I don’t do that sort of thing.
She sniffs. But why not? You deal with dead things all day.
Yeah, but…not like human dead things. Besides. I’m at work.
She stares like she hasn’t heard me. Then, she sits up stick straight. Her lashes lower and so does my jaw. What are you doing after? You could come by.
By, as in like her house? Struck dumb, I drop the seafood seasoning. I’ve imagined her home for so long. To be invited in. A piece of world I’ve never touched. A world that smells better, looks better than myself.
I meet the dead eyes of a rainbow trout. His mouth stuck in a frozen half-pout, left gasping for air. He’s me on ice. Swallowing up every hook, line, and sinker. I shuffle my feet, say, Well, I guess. I’m off at eight tonight, anyway.
An hour after my shift ends, I stand over the body. It’s gone as white, as stiff as the frozen tilapia we keep in our case. Is probably as inedible, too. Because you know what tilapia are? Bottom feeders. The man looks like he’s asleep, minus the hole through his eye socket. I’d probably want to go to sleep after that too. A sucker punch with a six-inch stiletto tends to revoke your man card a bit.
From my pocket, I pull out blue disposable gloves. Snapping them on, I remember my first day of training. Barney handing me a box of one hundred. Keep your fingers clean, he said. It’s your competitive edge.
Inside the parlor, we drag the man onto a tasseled rug, situating him nice and neat at the bottom corner closest to us.
I don’t even know your name. I say it aloud to the man. Like it’s an apology for what I’m about it do. Like it’s my fault. I’ve never apologized to the fish I’ve filleted, so I don’t know why this should be any different. I’m just a butcher wrap messenger without tape and a label.
You don’t know my name either, she says, and we lock eyes. Helena. She nods at the body. Grimaces. That’s Gary.
I nod, taking a quick glance around. Talk about someone’s house shitting opulence. Marble floors just made for roller skates. Crown molding you’d sell your soul for. Here, my thin leggings and stained apron can’t cut it. I’m not sure I’d want them to.
I fold the right corner of rug over Gary, covering him completely. In my world, at my market, he’d be porterhouse. Hefty, taking two people to divide and conquer. I picture the label I’d print out for this bad boy. Grill for best results. Refrigerate leftovers immediately or burst into fiery flame.
You’re the greatest, Helena says, a cigarette pinched between her fingers. She lets the ash fall on the rug. On top of what is probably Gary’s face. The absolute best.
I fold the left corner over, creasing it slightly inwards to ward off drips. I do the same to the right side. I tell myself he’s meat. I tell myself this is fake. Like imitation crab. But it’s a lie. I know it, and so does everybody else. Imitation crab — it’s right there in the name and still people are shocked, disgusted even, when they find out it’s pulverized pollock. I mean, big deal. Meat’s meat, isn’t it? Story of my life.
I roll the rug up forward, and Helena tells me where I can find the shovel.
The ground groans as the rusty shovel dives deep into the earth. I’m breaking a hellish bead as I dig Gary’s grave but Helena’s watching, waiting, so I just plow forward like a mustering mule. I imagine Gary in nine months. Rotting under a tenderly grown bush of lavender. Smelling like rancid meat, getting skullfucked by worms. I mean, it’s not the life I’d be jonesing for, but it’s the life Gary’s gonna get.
Out of the corner of my eye, Helena.
She’s taken off her shoes. The high heels having sunk deep into the muddy ground, causing her to bumble around when we first entered the backyard. We both had a good laugh at that. Now, as I stare, her perfect toes are long and elegant, thin as pale rabbit’s ears, painted a raging shade of red.
I’m glad I can do this for her. Sure, burying a body isn’t exactly in my job description, but I can bend the rules a bit. For Helena. Because she sees me as more than the girl behind the meat counter.
Hell, maybe things will be different now.
Her world. I’ve had a piece.
Later, when I’m finished, I wipe my brow with the back of my hand. The shovel’s heavy as I cross the lawn to stand near Helena.
Well, that’s it, I say, dusting off my hands. Anything else? I joke, and it’s like a blast to our past at the meat counter.
No, thank you.
Helena’s tone’s a tad clipped, if you ask me. Unsugared. So, I tilt my head to stare at her.
What is it?
You. . . She makes an exaggerated face, wrinkles her nose. Kind of smell. She laughs an awkward laugh that’s more for her sake than mine, and edges away from me. Her freesia perfume wafts on a nighttime breeze. A reminder that I don’t smell as good as her and never will.
Oh, I say lamely. I glance down at my dirt-stained apron. Well, what does she expect? Wrapping up Gary’s dead ass and burying him six-feet-under isn’t exactly stench-du-jour. I need a shower.
Yes, you do.
I stand there, wanting to find an appropriate way to keep this night going. Wanting an invite to come in, to shower, to hang out, but instead, Helena, one eyebrow raised, just waits. Waits for me to go.
And I see it’s not surprise on her face at my sudden closeness, it’s disgust.
I disgust her.
I’ve always disgusted her.
I go all hot and sour inside. Like soup. Like angry boiling soup about to scorch.
Then and there, facts are faced. I’ve clocked her all wrong.
Helena doesn’t like me. Never did, never will. To her, I’m just a useful sucker. The lonely fish girl waiting in the wings to do her bidding. Yep. I’m Gary. No appreciation, no respect. All I am is a piece of meat.
And Helena? She’s tilapia. All she is is some bottom-feeding bitch.
Raquel? Helena tilts her head, her faux smile at the ready as she awaits my exit strategy.
My jaw flexes like a fist. Dipping my head, I check the snap of my gloves. Sure, this isn’t the meat market, but here, in Helena’s backyard, with its perfect lawn and her perfect croquet set and her perfect-polished toes, I can show her I am more than just the girl behind the meat counter. I am better. I deserve better.
When I raise the shovel, Helena’s eyes flash wide. No doubt, Gary would approve.
I took this meat thing way too far. And now I’m in Helena’s bedroom, drenched in freesia perfume, lips slick with neon gloss, teetering in her sky-high stilettos. I don’t know what to do with her red nail polish. It looks too much like blood for my taste. But I’m not going to have a fit about it or feel guilty. After all, it’s not like I kill every day.
I sit on the plush bed with my legs crossed.
Helena’s fault. If she had been better at clean up, I would never have seen the real her. We could have had our meat market banter without the side of murder.
But this, maybe this, is better.
Letting out a sigh, I relax back into the pillows. I look at my hands and frown. There’s a speck of blood on my knuckle. I bring it to my glossed lips and suck.