When his father finally found him, Mikael was inking lines of poetic verse on a half-frozen side of beef. He’d been sent into the walk-in freezer to weigh and catalogue the week’s cuts, but when faced with the blank canvas of marbled fat before him, he’d become distracted. Simon, Mikael’s father, patient though he was, was a man of business. Customers of Simon’s Catering and Kosher Meats did not pay what they did only to find their prime cuts tattooed with the couplets of a 10-year-old scribe — it was unsavory, and frankly unsanitary.
“I do not need the cow’s life story, Mika,” he teased.
Mikael had been contentedly dreaming of a countryside somewhere, fields of barley, and perhaps, a lone horse-drawn wagon, when his father’s voice cut the frozen air. He started, dropping his marker and setting his bovine easel swinging.
“Seems to me, we already know the ending,” Mikael said, gesturing to the hanging side of beef with a dramatic flourish. Simon ran his hand through Mikael’s fine hair and sighed.
“Scrub out the chafing dishes. And ask Joaquin to replace the fuel for the burners. I’ll take care of your latest masterpiece.”
Mikael scrambled to his feet, wiping bits of ice from the knees of his pants, and bolted from the room. He was good, Simon thought. A fine, upstanding young man. But a butcher he was not. With a groan, Simon sank to his knees and began to trim.
Given the choice, Mikael preferred to do his washing up in the sink below the window. Sure, it was smaller, the water pressure dismal, but the window above provided often the only glimpse of daylight he’d get during his long summer days spent working for his father. As traffic thundered by on La Cienega, Mikael would imagine an irradiated wasteland of road rage; Frankenstein vehicles, all spikes and scrap metal, ramming into each other, fighting for a single pallet of Dasani or the world’s last box of Cheez-Its. In times like these, he often found he’d been scrubbing the same spatula for ten, twenty minutes. To his credit, those were some damn clean spatulas.
Today, he was enjoying the people-watching. Some days that meant an excited bride and her sharply-dressed wedding party parading by. On others, there were artists, or the homeless, and Mikael often had to look at their eyewear to determine which was which. Occasionally, he saw another type: writers. He knew them by their computer bags. He identified them by their name-tags, hung on lanyards about their necks. He recognized their sometimes shuffling gait or the curve of their shoulders from, he imagined, hours spent hunched over typewriters, clacking out heavy tomes of fiction. He longed to be one of them; a man of intellect, of words — above all this filthy business with meat and serving trays. He’d wear a scarf, he thought, and glasses. Maybe he’d wear colored contact lenses — a penetrating, icy blue or a soft green, something glowing with empathy and wisdom; anything would be preferable to his own muddy brown.
As Mikael was thumbing through a mental catalogue of loafers that might sufficiently convey his literary ambitions, there came his father’s deep bellow, from the direction of the cold storage. His blood froze — unlike, he would learn, the entrees for the day’s three o’clock delivery.
The smell was hard to describe. To Mikael’s mind, he thought of some far-off jungle planet; everything wet, everything overgrown to the point of rot; a mossy, moldy fug in the air; things that bubbled, or even, he imagined, gurgled. Unrefrigerated Chicken Picatta, it turns out, does not gurgle.
“Care to explain, Mika?” Simon asked. He seemed to be completely unfazed by the fetid air wafting from the open refrigerator before them.
“I… there was… when I closed the refrigerator last night, I must have…” Mikael trailed off. He knew exactly what he’d done. He’d left it ajar.
The industrial refrigerators used by his father’s business had a most unfortunate quirk, designed to prevent waste on the part of their owners. When the doors were left open, the mechanism that kept the inside of the refrigerator cool would shut down. The intention was to save electricity during long stints of loading and unloading. This was all well and good when it came time to pay the bills, but, in the case of user-errors such as this one, the results often proved disastrous.
“Fourteen trays, Mika. Fourteen trays of chicken. Fourteen trays of lemon-butter sauce. Fourteen trays of, uh… The umm… The little beans…”
“Capers. Fourteen trays of capers,” Mikael supplied. His voice was small, as if it came from a great way away.
There was silence. Mikael hung his head. He could almost feel his father’s glare boring into the top of his skull.
“I’ll… I’ll work weekends during the school year. And I don’t even like tennis. I can give that up too. I’m sorry, father, I’m sorry! Tell me what I can do!” Mikael pleaded, cheeks wet with tears. Simon placed a heavy hand on Mikael’s shoulder.
“You are just a boy. The fault is my own.”
There was a knock. Joaquin stood in the doorway, wiping his hands on his apron.
“Complaint,” Joaquin said. He nodded towards the register, where an older gentleman stood waiting. A paper-wrapped bundle rested on the countertop. Simon gave Mikael a pointed look, and left him there.
They talked for several minutes. Mikael could only watch in horror as the man at the counter unwrapped his parcel. It was, he saw, a leg of lamb. And on that leg of lamb, just below the hip bone, were eight lines of what Mikael knew to be poetry. His poetry. Simon scowled over his shoulder at him. Mikael wasn’t sure he’d ever seen his father’s eyebrows furrow so close together. They almost touched.
Leaning in the doorway of the walk-in freezer, Mikael imagined himself standing on a disk of ice, floating out into an arctic sea, as Simon, and Joaquin, and his mother waved from the shore, parkas cinched up around their ears, tearful faces encircled in fur.
But then, Mikael saw the older man’s expression. He wore a wide smile that seemed to light his face from within. When Simon gestured into the back of the shop, the older man peered around his stocky frame to try to get a look at him; at the author. Simon waved Mikael over, now with a smile of his own.
As it turned out, the man had purchased the lamb just the day before, expecting to use it in a stew that evening for his wife and children and grandchildren. When he’d unwrapped it and found the poem there — a humorous sonnet about the life and accidental death of an unfortunate shepherd — he’d been confused at first, but then delighted. The old man read the poem first for his wife, and then the rest of his family. His granddaughter had been in fits of glee. And, he added, their stew had been perfectly delicious without the lamb. He would remember Simon’s Catering and Kosher Meats, he said. And he would be back. He left that day with a wave and a fresh leg of lamb.
After the old man was gone, Simon’s father wrapped his son in a warm embrace. And then, promptly fired him.
“You are no butcher, my son,” Simon told him. “It would appear you already have someone else to be.”