by Dylan Babb
Staring down into the grave where his father’s casket had just been lowered Frank thought about how he’d never wanted to be a butcher. Frank’s grandfather had been a butcher. His great, great grandfather had been a butcher. Frank’s father was a butcher. Frank had always wanted to be something different.
He tossed a handful of dirt onto the casket and turned back to comfort his mother. She was a small woman, and in her old age she’d rounded out on top like an apple.
“Oh Franky,” she sighed. His mother leaned on his arm, clutching the sleeve of his jacket. “Franky, I just don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Franky knew what they would do. He would drive her back to the house where Danielle, his sister, had set the spread for the reception. He would slice up casserole and pie until everyone was fed twice over. The guests would fawn over the grieving, clucking and hushing. Frank could just picture his mother basking in all the attention, claiming to be at a loss for words yet rattling on.
Frank patted his mother’s hands while the rest of the guests tossed in clumps of dirt and said a few words. He handed her a clean handkerchief. When the final hymn was sung, the family left first. Frank walked his mother back to the car, she leaning on him like a New Year’s Eve drunk, heaving sobs.
“Did you remember to get flowers for the house?” She looked at him while he started the car. The sniffles dried up.
“I had the funeral home send over the arrangements while we were at the graveyard. Danielle told me we should be all set.”
Frank’s mother nodded and flipped down the passenger side visor to check her make up. She carefully reapplied her lipstick and cleaned up the corners of her eyes. He drove them home. Riding down the familiar roads, Frank ran his hand along the side and back of his neck, feeling the ridges that had appeared on his skin this morning.
This morning he’d gotten up before his mother and his sister to shave and get breakfast ready. When he leaned close to the mirror he’d notice the ridges along his neck, they looked like thin raised scars recently healed over, three on each side, running parallel just from the base of his ears down the length of his neck. He’d tried washing them, but the skin felt tender. He shrugged it off as some kind of skin reaction. Maybe the soap he’d used or the laundry detergent was giving him a rash. He’d rubbed a little Neosporin on them and hoped the high collar of his shirt would hide most of it. Now driving, he felt the ridges getting worse, more pronounced. As Frank checked his reflection in the rear view mirror and saw the faint red lines along his neck, his mother yelled at him to keep his eyes on the road.
Danielle stood at the front door of the house, wiping her hands on a dish towel. She’d started to round out like her mother, though she’d made a vow to herself never to let her self go. She went to the gym five days a week to fight with her body. To Frank it seemed like a battle that neither side would ever win. Danielle would attempt to control her body by making ridiculous dietary restrictions and her body would retaliate making adaptations to keep its natural apple shape. Frank was tall and thin, unlike both Danielle and his mother, but like them his middle was mostly soft. Danielle waved at Frank and came down to meet her mother at the car.
“I thought you should know that the Dillinghams are already here.” She took her mother’s elbow and helped her up the walk. Frank followed behind the two women scuttling up the walk in their black dresses, Danielle in a skirt suit she’d been able to fit into 10 years ago but now seemed a little tight at the shoulders and hips and his mother in a long skirt and loose fitting top, made from a bouncy elastic material that gets advertised for travelers because the material doesn’t wrinkle.
“Franky!” His mother called back. “De and I are going to talk to the Dillinghams. Will you make sure the tea is ready and plates are okay? You might call down to the store and get help.” Frank already knew the rest of what his mother would say. That if they weren’t ready, then he needed to get down there right away and do whatever needed to be done. He should make sure to check his tie. He should make a point to be attentive to Mrs. Callahan when she arrived. It was a list that she’d been repeating for days while he and Danielle had been making arrangements. That’s what his mother did; she made lists, sometimes out loud sometimes on the backs of receipts. There were lists of things she needed to remember, “toothpaste, dry cleaning, doctor visit, call Danielle,” lists of objects, “telephone, checkbook, black shoes, lipstick,” or lists that appeared to be half memories, “pink Sunday school dress, Ben H, gardenias, missing photo?, lost earring, love?” She never bothered to keep track of what happened to the lists or if the things were checked off. Cataloging was important.
Danielle opened the door for her mother and leaned back to Frank. “Brace yourself. Mr. Dillingham has already been into the scotch.” Frank sighed. She gave him a look that meant she would not be dealing with him. It was not her responsibility to take care of the drunks. She was no bartender. She could only do so much to make sure things went well.
Inside his mother had settled between Mrs. Dillingham and Mrs. Dillingham’s sister. The women all holding hands heads bowed down together. “I just don’t know what to do with myself,” Frank’s mother choked out the words.
The men stood in dark suits, navy and black and gray. They spoke hushed and nervous, like school boys who’ve been told to be quiet. Frank shook hands and nodded to everyone in the group before retreating back to the kitchen. Danielle had done an excellent job with the plates. Deli sandwiches, fruit, casserole, potato salad, egg salad, a spicy meat and cheese plate. It was all done with care and attention. Frank eyed the slice meat and gagged. He thought about the deli. Frank hated everything about working in the deli. The briny metallic smell of the meat. The slimy film that covered the meat after it sat out too long. The freezer, the wall caked in ice. The chincy decorations of fake bulbs of garlic and peppers. The sound of the slicer. The sound his shoes made when he was rushing to make orders. The sound his shoes made when he was alone in the shop cleaning up, maintaining inventory. He hated cheese. No matter how fresh the mozzarella, it always smelled to Frank like sour milk.
Picking up the plates, Frank carried the trays out to the dining room where Danielle had set up the table. He took a few flowers from a wreath that the funeral home had sent over and arranged a few blooms around the trays of sliced deli meat. Really cold cuts were the last thing that you would want to eat on a day like today. It was rainy and cold, everyone had draped grief around their shoulders like an old scarf. The idea of cold cuts, roast beef, turkey, ham seemed indigent and callous. As if they couldn’t be bothered to turn on the oven. To Frank the slices looked like samples of human skin shaved and boiled.
A small wave of nausea swept up his stomach again. The smell of wet salty meat made Frank feel a little weak. The smell reminded him of his tenth birthday. He’d been dreaming and dreaming of a bike. The week before his birthday party he’d left notes for his mom and dad in the bathroom and on the fridge, “How about a bike for my birthday! Love, Franky.” The Saturday afternoon of his birthday party, Franky and his friends Jack and Sam played all afternoon in the yard and street, with Franky and Jack taking turns riding Sam’s bike. Extended family arrived, other school mates showed up, and with each arrival the stack of gifts grew. There was cake and streamers.
After cake and songs, Franky was told there was one special gift waiting for him. A special gift. His parents made him close his eyes while they brought out the final gift: a honey baked ham. A honey baked ham with a bright yellow bow sat in front of Franky, his best birthday gift. There was a note, “You’re growing up so fast. Time for you to join me at the shop! Love Dad.” Frank’s disappointment was immense. The smell of sweet sloppy meat crept from the wrapping, and forced to unwrap it in front of everyone, Franky held back fat heavy tears. That night, after everyone left, Franky’s parents reasoned, threatened, scolded, negotiated. He would love being a butcher. He would love the deli. He would love saving his money, and then he could spend his own money to get a bike. Wouldn’t that be better?
Out in the living room, Frank could hear more guests arriving, voices clattering and bodies moving. Frank imagined them sitting on the couch that his mother refused to get rid of. An overstuffed brown leather couch, it sat in the middle of the room like a dried out elephant seal. Danielle burst through the door. “God! Steven can talk.” She looked at the plates, “These ready yet? God, you’re slow. Christ Frank.” She sucked a ball of mozzarella cheese through her lips.
“Done.” Frank picked up a plate and walked to the door.
“No, idiot. Just leave it here. We can open the door or whatever, and they can get their own food.” Danielle took the plate he had in his hands and set it back, cleaning off the edges with her sleeve. “Hum. You smell that?”
“What?” Frank held his breath.
“I don’t know. Kind of smells like fish or some kind of salt water tank.”
“Frank took a very small breath. “Maybe the meats’ old?”
“No. I’m sure it’s fine. I got it this morning.” She shrugged and picked up another mozzarella ball. “Right. Okay.” She went to the door and mouthed back: “brace yourself.”
Frank put his hand on his neck and took a deep breath. His stomach felt on edge, his skin felt on edge. He followed Danielle out into the living room and propped open the double doors. It was a party of familiar old faces. These faces he’d seen almost every week of his adult life, now at 44, these faces had grown older with more lines, grey hairs and health complaints. These were the faces that he didn’t have to think about because they were a part of the landscape. Faces like peeled potatoes, root vegetables with thinning hair. Maryanne and Joe, Kathy and Fred, Donald and Josephine, they were all standing around with drinks; his mother in the middle of it all and his sister everywhere at once. Danielle was refilling a glass one moment, filling her own glass the next. She was with Mr. Fellows reminiscing, letting him flirt with her. She moved about the room like the movie version of Florence Nightingale, all artificial generosity and goodness. Frank felt his skin prickle again, but not on his neck: this time a very sharp, dry feeling seemed to be spreading across his belly. He scratched at his chest and the inside of his elbow. Maybe it was shingles. Or were those painful? Maybe he was finally having an allergic reaction to the meat, some kind of adult onset allergy.
He was about to turn back towards the kitchen when Kathy Robinson cornered him and started talking about what a fine man his father had been. She was going on about the time she and his father had both been young and middle school sweethearts. “Obviously,” she went on, “your mother was the light of your father’s life. No one was as pretty as your Mama.” Frank nodded at her and smiled. He imagined her as young woman, her chin would have still have been small and her eyes too close together. But it was a simple face that might have been charming. Instinctively he put his hand to his neck as he looked at her. They both knew she was wrong about his father. Doing a quick head count, Frank guessed that his father had slept with at least six, maybe eight, women in the room. He was sure of five; Kathy Ray, Liz, Mrs. Hollander, Marysarah, and Jane.
He thought of his father at the shop leaving early, taking a long lunch, or staying out late “with the boys.” His father never asked Frank to lie about anything, nonetheless Frank found himself saying things that were not true. The lies were easy and they just happened. He would overhear women at the shop talk about seeing his father out with someone who wasn’t his wife. Their voices overeager and distracted, Frank would put a small finger on the scales when he weighed out the meat, or cut the slices thick when he knew they always ordered thin.
Frank had seen his father out at the movies with someone who wasn’t his mother. Frank had day off from work, and he and his first girlfriend Sarah had gone to a matinée in order to be alone. In the back of the theater, she’d let him reach up her shirt to feel the bottom edge of her bra. But when they’d pulled apart to watch part of the movie, he’d spotted the back of his father’s head a few rows in front of them. In the dim light he didn’t want to recognize the black leather coat draped over the back of the seat. He didn’t want to look too hard at the fuzzy blond head leaning against his father’s shoulder. But it was Sarah who’d whispered to Frank. They left the movie. Later that month Frank dumped Sarah, ashamed of his family.
His father never said anything to him. Instead he relied on Frank to be himself, to stay quiet, to keep the peace. Now his father was dead from a heart attack at the age of 72 and here Frank was sitting around eating cold cuts, staying quiet.
Frank knew the women his father had slept with and he looked around the room. They clung to the edges of the party, onlookers, surveyors. Did they know? He pictured the grief and discomfort just underneath their faces. He kept his eyes on Janet, a tall older blond that his father had seen when Frank was about sixteen or seventeen. She’d aged well, keeping her body with only her face starting to show signs. He realized she must have been absolutely too young for his father.
“Cougar hunting?” Danielle was at his side holding another full glass of wine. She waved the glass, “Finally got my hands on some pino.”
“Doesn’t that have a bunch of carbs?” Frank eyed the glass and scratched his chest.
“I’m with Watchers and this is only a couple points.” She took a sip. “Plus,” she waved the glass again, “death is a special occasion. You only get one father.”
Frank ran his hands along his tie, scratching his belly. He took a deep breath and felt the lines on his neck. The salt water smell was there again, like fresh seaweed and sand.
“Like you care,” Danielle said into her glass. Frank looked around for the smell. He knew there wasn’t any fish on the table.
“What the hell happened to your neck?” Danielle reached up and touched him along his neck. He jerked away.
“Nothing. Cut myself shaving a little.” Frank looked at his shoes. “Get yourself another glass or something. Eat some cheese.”
“Screw you.” She pushed her glass forward, spilling her wine a little. She tried to recover only to spill more on Frank’s shirt. Four years younger than Frank she had been both forgotten and spoiled. When Danielle wanted something new she would get it, but her birthday seemed to pass before anyone remembered to have a party. Frank watched her push through the crowd back to the kitchen. The guests nodded to one another. They made eye contact with Frank thinking they recognized those visible signs of grief. He tried to look remorseful, looking down at the rug between his feet, keeping his hand at the side of his neck. Eyes on the floor, he took a deep breath and felt the lines on his neck flutter against the palm of his hand, like gills. After the honey baked ham birthday, Frank had received nothing but meat for his birthday gifts. Baloney, turkey, bratwurst, park chops, lamb, steak, all straight from the butcher’s shop.
Frank had always done as he was told; he’d done what he’d been expected to do. Frank was sure that after the first few weeks of cutting up meat and handling product, his father would recognize what a terrible butcher he was and he’d be free to join friends as a busboy at the new Mexican restaurant. When he started thinking about the things he could have done he took deeper and deeper breaths, feeling his skin separating under his palm.
Back in the living room, Danielle had finished her glass and refilled, again. She’d cornered one of his father’s mistresses and was starting to punctuate her sentences gesturing with her glass. His mother was nowhere to be found, and Frank assumed that she was in the kitchen. Or at least he hoped that someone had helped her and was keeping her back there. To his knowledge his mother didn’t know anything about the other women and now would not be the time to find out. He started toward the kitchen to make sure, but looking back he could tell Danielle was using her favorite hushed angry voice. Frank knew that meant she was trying to keep a lid on it. Frank watched the women lean towards each other, like the beginning of a basketball game. The skin on his belly felt prickly and tight, squeezing around his middle making it hard to think of anything else. It was getting hard to breath. He took one scan of the room; his mother hopefully hidden in the kitchen and Danielle holding it together. He checked his shirt; the wine Danielle spilled was spreading across his tie and shirt.
In the bathroom, Frank flicked on the light and pulled up his shirt to clean it. He took a look at his stomach where the skin had been itching. A small spot of scales had started to grow around his belly, about the size of a coaster. The scales were clear white with a blue iridescent tint. He could see the skin around his middle starting to dry and flake. He could flick off fingernail size pieces of skin. He took off his shirt and turned to look at his back. There were a few patchy spots about the size of quarters along his spine and rough patches at his shoulders. Freed from the collared shirt, the ridges on his neck opened wide. They were just like gills. Frank craned his neck to look at them. With his fingers he gently pulled at the edge of one of them. Inside the flesh was a deep pink color like the lips of a girl who’d been sucking on a red lollypop. He ran his finger along the outer edge, his skin cool and ticklish. He felt the gills sucking at the air. He put his finger just inside and felt the new red skin. It was partially sensitive, like touching thin scar tissue. But when he took a deep breath he didn’t feel the air rush through his nose, but his gill gently folded around his finger sucking in the air. He stepped back pulling his finger away. He took another deep breath and watched the gills pull and suck.
He wasn’t getting enough air. Frank could feel that. His belly was on fire. He felt the dry air against his skin. His face in the mirror looked flaky, his lips swollen. He kept blinking but didn’t feel like he could get his eyes moist enough. He ran a wash cloth under cool water and pressed it to his belly. His skin cooled and he felt his heart rate slow down. He ran the water again, soaking the wash cloth and pressing it tightly against his skin, extra water running to his belt. All he wanted to do was run a bath and soak.
“Frank?” His mother at the door. Frank continued to hold the cloth to his belly. “Frank? I think you should come talk to your sister.” Frank shook his head and put back on his shirt. He jerked his tie up around his neck and felt dizzy. Seeing the wine stain still on his shirt he splashed water on it to make it look like he’d been trying to clean his shirt. “Frank?” His mother knocked again. One last look at his reflection and he turned out the door. “Are you okay?” His mother tilted her head. “You look a little green.”
“Fine I’m okay. Nicked myself shaving this morning and De’s already spilled some wine on me.” Frank adjusted his tie and started towards the living room.
Danielle had backed the blonde farther into the corner, and was directing her comments as much to the woman as to the wall behind her. The blonde woman was trying to look anywhere but at Danielle, like a smaller dog trying to show submission to an alpha dog. His mother stood at Frank’s elbow. “Bless her. She hasn’t gotten loud yet, but it’s getting distracting.”
Frank navigated through the pools of people, bobbing his head at familiars. As he passed people they pressed their hands on his forearms and elbows and shoulders. Frank didn’t like the sudden nostalgia and sadness he felt in his living room, like when you drive through your old neighborhood to find it all changed.
For years Frank and his father had gone through the motions of a relationship, but Frank had distanced himself. Once the routine was broken, Frank found excuses. Danielle had been around to entertain them. She took them out to dinner or the movies. She kept lists of current medications and current doctors. Danielle was the one who went with him to the doctor’s visits to ask all the questions. She’d been at the hospital when Frank arrived.
He reached up and touched Danielle on her shoulder. De spun around and the wine in her crashed into Frank spilling wine completely down his shirt.
“Fuck” Danielle whispered eyes glazy. Frank took Danielle’s hand and pushed her out of the living room to the bathroom, “Maybe get cleaned up.” Her eye makeup was running down her checks. He pulled out toilet paper and ran it underneath her eyes. “Okay, you’re okay.” He said.
She took a deep breath and hiccupped.
“I’ll get you some water.”
She nodded and took the toilet paper from him and dabbed at her eyes.
The red wine stain was spreading across his chest and he could feel his shirt hanging heavy from his shoulders. He heard his mother telling a story about his childhood, a happy story about them, a happy story to distract everyone.
He took the glass of water to Danielle.
“I’m okay.” She said. She looked better and more composed.
“Sure.” He un-tucked his shirt and started really trying to clean his shirt.
“I hate all this.” Danielle said.
“Come on. You love pulling the plates together and doing all the flowers. That party stuff it totally your thing.”
“Yeah, I’m just good at your job.”
Frank nodded and scrubbed at his shirt.
“You’re going to ruin the shirt that way. Let me help.”
“What the hell is on your stomach?”
Frank pulled his shirt back. “Nothing I just have some kind of rash and I was just trying to cover it.”
“Christ.” Danielle took a long sip of water. “Grief does weird shit to you.”
“Sure.” Frank sighed. “I’ll just get another shirt from Dad’s closet.”
Danielle sighed. “I’ll be good.”
Frank went to his father’s closet and started looking through the decades of clothes. His father had a fondness for suits and shirts, for a man that worked in service he’d worked hard to maintain a stylish wardrobe. The shirts reflected a vain silly man. A man that thought he looked better than he actually did. A man who liked wide collars and western style cuts. A man who wore a series of paisley, plaid, and striped shirts. Frank found a blue one towards the back that was one of the less outrageous colors. He decided to leave the tie off; it had become uncomfortable against his neck. The party was winding down.
As people left in groups of two and three, Frank felt again like he couldn’t get enough air. Each time someone started to talk to him, to say goodbye or offer their condolences, he felt like they were talking from behind glass.
When they’d all left, he put his mother to bed. She clung to his shirt listing all the highlights of the day. It was nice so many people came out. It was nice that Frank’s father had been so well loved. It was nice that people still knew how to conduct themselves at a funeral. The service was nice. The grave marker was nice. Frank nodded and hummed. He sat next to her bed while she fell asleep and then went down to the kitchen.
Danielle stood at the sink cleaning the last of the dishes. She kept her back turned as Frank came in. “You know I should work at the shop and you should have found something else. Dad was a dick. I wasn’t what he wanted and he never had time for me. He didn’t want me.”
“You don’t know that.” Frank leaned against the wall. It had become instinct to put his hand against his neck, and again he felt his gills push against his skin.
“Yeah I did.” She said, “I always kind of thought it was true. But I was driving him back from a doctor’s office and he said, ‘You know I never really wanted a girl, but you’re useful.’ Just like that.” She turned and dried her hands on a dish towel.
“Look I really just want a bath. Can you do this?” Frank wanted to comfort her. He wanted to say the right thing. Sometimes there is no right thing.
Danielle looked at her hands and nodded.
Frank sighed and turned back to the bathroom. He paused at the door, but the words, “I love you and I’m sorry I didn’t help you. I’m sorry Dad made you miserable. I’m sorry how we’ve all turned out,” did not come.
In the bathroom, Frank filled the tub with cool water. When he took off all his clothes, he noticed the scales had spread from his belly to his chest and around to his back. They’d continued to dry out, but also changed in color. The tops of his thighs and the backs of his calves were covered in glistening cool green and blue scales. He felt his heart slam against his chest, throwing itself against his rib cage again and again. His upper arms were covered as were his shoulders. When he slid his body into the water the release was immense. Under the water the scales were beautiful. They changed color from thin pale silver to green and blue. He flexed his feet and noticed webbing between his toes. Pinching it, it was thick and durable.
Frank loved the water. Loved being in the water. He thought of family vacations to the lake, high school trips to rivers, adventures to the ocean. He’d always felt better around water, quiet and safe. The world’s edges were softer. Frank slid all the way under, feeling his gills fill with water. His lungs filling: comfortable, easy. He was breathing underwater. Taking deep, free breaths. He felt his insides unknot. Under the water, Frank felt himself at home.
The next morning Danielle went into the bathroom to find a large trout swimming in the bathtub. At first she just closed the door and used the guest bathroom to shower, thinking she was having grief hallucinations. Clearly she had too much to drink and was not quite awake. She made a cup of coffee and steadied her nerves. Back in the bathroom, she took a seat on the edge of the tub and looked at the fish. It had light blue scales along its fins and a faint pink stripe running along its side. It was covered in dark spots. It circled the tub turning up to look at Danielle. Danielle leaned forward to the fish and whispered, “Frank?” The fish looked back, almost in recognition. She stepped back and called out louder, “Frank!” She went into the guest room, but found the bed un-slept in. She called out his name and looked out the window, his car still in the driveway. She searched the closet, his bag and ruined shirt were there. He was gone and the fish was here. In a moment of impossible thought, Danielle decided that her mother, still asleep, would know nothing. She would wake her up and make breakfast. She would tell her that Frank went out for an early morning walk to get some quiet time. It’s what she would tell the police. She wouldn’t tell either of them anything about the fish.
The weeks and months following Frank’s disappearance, Danielle kept the fish in a large display case at the butcher shop. She took over the day to day running of operations, while her mother moved into an assisted living facility. Danielle kept the fish and talked to it when the store was empty. She talked about hating her father until the last moment. She talked about fighting with her mom. She told the fish about dates she went on and movies she watched. She knew without knowing that she’d found her place and so had Frank.
After a time Danielle didn’t need the fish any more. He’d started to swim anxiously around in his tank. One weekend, Danielle drove out to a place she remembered as a kid. She took the fish with her, his large tank splashing in the back trunk of her station wagon.
Using a hand-lift that they used at the butcher shop to move heavy objects, she pushed the tank towards the river. There would be no way to get the tank into the water as she’d planned. She would need to pick up the fish and move him. She looked down at Frank. “Okay buddy. You have to be still.” She reached down, keeping her hands very still. Frank drifted over to her, easy as you please. Danielle took a deep breath and gently wrapped her fingers around him. Water running down her shirt and jeans, she splashed out to the middle of the river and placed Frank. He circled Danielle’s legs and splashed. She took one look at him and waved goodbye, muttering, “I’m fucking nuts.” In response, the fish blinked back and then swam down the river to unknown adventures. Danielle smiled.
Dylan Babb is a 28 year old writer from North Carolina. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles. She is working on a collection of fairy tales.