Chunkwall Barkowitz | Neil Carpathios
“Smash its skull, slit its throat, take it apart, then vacuum pack pieces to display—red and beautiful—like artwork in frames of plastic. Grind it, grill it, give thanks as it sizzles over coals, drips down your chin…”
That’s how he talked about beef, old Barkowitz. I swear. He was unlike any butcher I’d ever known. I’d go into his place just to hear him squawk. You never knew what would come out of his mouth a given day. Even his name was odd and meaty, like his body which looked like a huge sack crammed with blubber. Chunkwall Barkowitz, fat philosopher seal of butchers—and his husky voice did bark, his short arms did flap, and he sort of slid across the floor more than walked.
Hacking up pig behind the counter, you could hear him rail off everything you never knew about the animal. “Pigs have orgasms that last thirty minutes. Lucky, lucky pig.” He’d laugh a big—aarf, aarf—seal laugh. “Yes, yes, but without necks they can’t look up at the sky. Physically impossible. Poor, poor pig…I can relate to that!” And he’d laugh again.
One day old Barkowitz closed up shop, skipped town. Suddenly, and no one knew the where or why of it. Just a big sign on the shop door: Out to Lunch, Be Back Maybe Never. Sounded like him.
Of course the speculating started up. Some said he fell in love with the tattoo princess from the carnival that summer passing through. Every inch of her was covered with ink and she said she craved fresh meat every day, which is why she came into the shop so much—you know those carnies, batty as hell. Some said he started to go crazy talking to the dead animals he’d rip apart, haunted by their sad, bloody souls. I’ve seen my share of roadkill and could believe that. They said he turned vegetarian and moved to India and spent his days in diapers in the lotus position meditating. Some even said he was playing butcher all these years hiding out from the FBI. He was a spy, you know, a sort of genius who could memorize things like a camera. Who would ever suspect a butcher? He’s back in Russia, they say.
I think of him now because of this flat tire. I’m by a pasture looking at cows because I don’t have a spare and no cell phone. I watch the lazy beasts lumber here and there, swatting flies with their tails. He comes into my head without warning and I wonder what deep thoughts would pass through old Barkowitz’s mind if he were here. What would he think about the cows this fine day? “Poor, poor things. Their calling in life to be someone’s hamburger…” Who knows?
I lean back on the car’s hood, cross my arms and stare at the cows. It’s sunny and I feel sort of peaceful, in no hurry to get moving again. Maybe the flat is God’s way of saying slow down and smell the manure. Always rushing from point A to point B. Slow the hell down and notice the grass, the clouds, the way the flies orbit the cows’ heads. Look at the big brown eyes of those beasts, the way they roll and study the flies but don’t seem to care. Look at the crows on the phone line who sit and watch, waiting all day for something like this to happen, who love to pass judgment for once feeling superior to the funny looking, smug creatures zooming here and there—in this case, me. Kick the failed tire, let out a damn or shit. Give them what they want. It’s the least I can do…
All this I think, and maybe it’s Barkowitz I’m hearing. Which gets me wondering again what came of him…
I look up at the crows and realize they’re only one letter different from cows. Is this just an odd coincidence? I swear they’re smirking at me. I kick the tire and yell, shitmobile! like I really mean it. Their little black faces are the same though, just smirking. I suppose crows can’t laugh, and if they do we can’t translate. Just sounds like caw, caw to our apparatus.
I decide to climb over the wood fence and join the cows. I walk to the nearest one that lets me stroke his back. I whisper to him and tell him the situation with Barkowitz, the mystery. I ask if he has heard anything among his brothers about the great lost human butcher. I ask if he has ever heard of a Chunkwall Barkowitz.
Soon, other cows lumber over and I am next to three or four of them. I stroke each one and they seem to like it. I repeat the story, each time adding details. The way Barkowitz looked right down to the deep creases in his neck and white smock mapped with blood. The way the sweat would make his shirt stick to his rolls of fat. The way he smelled—like ground up eggs and rotting ham. How he’d deep fry bull balls and put them out with toothpicks for free samples. This, I’m sure, they don’t like—but I feel I owe them the whole truth, and they are oddly serene, like four-legged Buddhas. No wonder, I think, the Hindus worship them.
A state trooper pulls up. I walk over and he arranges for a tow. The truck comes and I am taken to a garage, buy a new tire and am on my way. I am hungry after this adventure, though, so pull into McDonald’s. The drive-through is blocked for repairs so I go in, which I hate. I order two quarter pounders with cheese, start to feed, juice dripping down my chin. A man must eat, I think, despite those big brown eyes.
And that’s when she appears, this mother. She asks her small son if he wants apple pie or ice cream for dessert. He says—of course—he wants both. As when the gods ask us if we choose passion or love as though each were separate; as if holding in the palm of our hand the heart like an egg hatching revealed in slow motion the history of the heart’s throbbing, quivering, cracking; as if embracing we could read pain and joy to come the way a man holds a closed letter to the light without opening it; as if we could strip each other not stopping at skin, down to the plush interior of the self; as if our ancestors didn’t operate us with remote control through our genes. And the boy is screaming. He won’t give in. It’s pie and ice cream, period. His face is red, eyes wild, hands clenched, feet stomping. He is making a scene. Everyone pretends not to watch. What is so wrong, we all wonder, about having both. Pie a la mode? And the mother, in her infinite wisdom, grabs his hand, drags him to the door, and says “Now you can’t have any.” What I would have missed if the drive-through were open. Funny how something triggers a long ago thing you thought was lost somewhere inside you. A flat tire….I think this, as I lie in bed, greasy meat stench still in my nostrils. I almost say, right out of the blue to this woman: “Do you remember that strange fat fella, you know, the butcher, Chunkwall Barkowitz?” but I don’t, which is the right decision, and we get naked and make love, and after, as we lie there in the dark, I think of that mother and her kid in the McDonald’s. What choices do I have here in this bed?
I close my eyes and an image flashes on the screens of my lids—those cows in the field standing now under stars, lifting their heads as they hear with the powerful radar of cows, this woman and I in bed under sheets breathing.
Neil Carpathios is the author of three full-length poetry collections and several chapbooks, and the editor of the newly released anthology, Every River on Earth: Writing from Appalachian Ohio (Ohio University Press, 2015). In 2014 he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for the short story, “Poets and Scholars” in Lime Hawk Quarterly. He is currently an associate professor of English and Coordinator of Creative Writing at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.