Dream of the Butcher’s Daughter
by John E. Keats
Painting by Caspar David Friedrich: Woman at a Window
And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: But let not God speak with us, lest we die. Exodus 20: 19
The custom of eating dogs at Otaheite [Tahiti] being mentioned, Goldsmith observed, that this was also a custom in China; that a dog-butcher is as common there as any other butcher; and that when he walks abroad all the dogs fall on him. JOHNSON: ‘That is not owing to his killing dogs, Sir. I remember a butcher at Lichfield, whom a dog that was in the house where I lived, always attacked. It is the smell of carnage which provokes this, let the animals he has killed be what they may.’ Samuel Johnson in Boswell’s Life of Johnson
Pure logic is the ruin of the spirit. Fortune Cookie
The butcher’s daughter didn’t seem dangerous to strangers. The most stable image I’ve retained of her suggests nothing but decency and order. A long denim skirt constrains her legs. Hearts or diamonds flourish in the white space of a clinging turtleneck. Her dark hair, barely reaching her shoulders, is kinked—a recent experiment to the straight and gleaming cut that I liked. Her smile is subtle but sincere. She is sixteen. It’s 1982. She stands at the top of my apartment building’s interior stairs, behind a wall of glass. Her conservative family waited in the parking lot in an ugly, brown station wagon. I was fifteen, the only child of a widowed mother. Uncle Jim, my father’s brother, was over for the Saturday night ritual of hotdogs, beans, and brown bread. When the buzzer rang I went out to the hall. Never, I’d been taught, let someone in without looking. Jim asked to meet my new girl. He was laughing. I was offended, said no, and surveyed in victory the hurt that filled his face. My mother already knew L, or the side of her that was deferential, shy, and expert at lowered, innocuous glances. I sensed more there, even before the drinking, and the groping. My father died when I was five. Everything comforting made me suspicious. And I was proved right a lot. For example: a little after L and I broke up, the buzzer rang again, Jim was over again, and I ran out to the hall, still weak enough, or faithful enough, to fantasize about the improbable return of L and her warm, controlled smile. A man was there, pounding on the glass, calling my name, his features erased in blood. I ran crying inside my apartment and slammed the door shut, but it was too late. He’d already been fused to my lost girl.
For the few months we dated, L and I usually met at her house, a massive Victorian with a million rooms. I would go over after school, and Ben, her father, would allow us the privacy of a neglected parlor with a sliding wooden door. He trusted us to close it before the sun set, or with the lights on. We abused the privilege and let our fingers open buttons and belts. I called him Big Ben when I was just another kid in the neighborhood and we all sat outside on the weathered wall of splintered, horizontal beams that buttressed their elevated lawn, playing Foreigner and Journey cassettes on my silver Sony boom box, or chased each other in games of desire and pursuit, guided by rules I can’t remember. From the height of the front porch, he’d find his girls among a dozen children and tell them it was time for supper. I’d say: you’re like a clock, Big Ben, and he’d cast a somber, charming glance at his oldest daughter, as if he were pretending to chide her for breaking a pact they’d sworn to keep forever. And then he’d smile. He was far from big. He had a neat, dark mustache and thick forearms that he folded as he observed the people around him. He was quiet without seeming rude, or too detached, or confrontational. He joked with us. After I received a botched haircut at the Yankee Clipper up the street, he asked me if the barber gave me the bowl he used. But he rose in darkness five days a week to cut meat at the Stop and Shop, and I would imagine him and brutal giants wielding heavy cleavers in cold corners, in bloodstained aprons weighty with gore. A father of three girls could benefit from such a menacing affiliation. I found it intriguing.
One night I arrived after the family had eaten dinner. L was washing dishes in the narrow kitchen. I was leaning on the counter, staring out the drafty window over the sink, into the backyard’s darkness, over the doomed whiteness in mounds of filthy snow, at the lighted windows in a row of smaller homes bordering the playground of the elementary school I used to attend. L’s hands cut through splashing water. We weren’t talking. My hip was against hers. This is family life, I thought, when everyone stays alive; this feels real. She was helping me learn algebra. L wanted to be an accountant. Math, she said, had always come easy. She explained expressions and equations, the order of operations, and said the key to identifying variables is to follow the laws without exception. I improved so much I was accused of cheating, until I showed my teacher that I’d mastered the secrets. I studied L’s face, inviting but guarded, familiar but mysterious, as she scrubbed a glass. I felt at home and connected and still too old. I always felt too old. She registered the attention, smiled, and I looked out into the dark again. She confessed earlier that her mother, a bank manager on Main Street, drank too much. She was cold, distant, and hard. The vodka bottle in the cabinet beneath the sink, behind the Comet and SOS pads, was hers. In the early stages of first kisses, we stole from it and poured water back in to an erasable line. When I heard the glass crack, and saw panic illuminate L’s illegible face before she screamed and the wet blood turned her hand and wrist red, I thought: yes, exactly—everything gets torn apart.
My mother was excellent at momentous action. She was pragmatic and realistic and never touched alcohol, even when she was young, and instead of eating hotdogs and beans, dates consisted of waltzing through a reeking breeze rushing in from a dance hall’s balcony along Revere Beach, getting lost in the graceful shapes she made in the arms of moving men, until one stricken, broken, older partner enflamed in her a redemptive love she never doubted. The scent of his dark wounds, unnamed but undeniable, caught her like an undertow and pulled her away from the beautiful chaos of floating, symmetrical couples. Dancing stopped. Marriage began. But love has limits, and when your husband kills himself and you have a five-year-old, you’re supposed to be sober and ready. She was. I supposed, I was lucky enough to have a little of that power rub off on me. I strangled L’s hand with a dry dishrag from the handle of the refrigerator. Big Ben burst into the kitchen and moved me aside. He inspected L’s wound by pushing his finger through the spreading blood. He had her bend her elbow, make a fist, and raise it against her neck. Then he hastened toward my algebra book on the edge of the long dining room table, passed it, and opened a squeaking drawer in the hutch that rattled fancy plates and glasses. He returned with a clean towel and swaddled her knuckles and wrist. She glanced at me and conveyed in silence, through tears, that he had been out there all along, letting us pretend we were alone. You shouldn’t put a rag in an open wound, he said. I nodded, but I could have sworn that’s what heroes did, or had done to them, in war movies.
One stern bellow from Ben was enough to round up into the living room all the scattered kids from their recesses to receive orders. I don’t remember where the mother was. He led us out to the station wagon. I sat in the backseat, centered behind father and daughter, surprised that I had been invited. At the emergency room I stood in a doorway while Ben sat by L’s bed. I felt like an intruder. A doctor told him that he’d be right back to stitch her up. We waited. Ben waved me over and gave me his chair. He removed his hand from on top of L’s healthy one, which was pressing gauze against the wound. He told me to replace it with mine. Then he disappeared. She looked at me. I looked back. I couldn’t interpret her expression, but I didn’t mind. The disturbing thing for me was Ben’s absence, and his apparent faith in me, and my sense of the sacrifice he was making. Was he choosing me for something? Was I meant to be there, with L, forever? The doctor sealed her wound with needle and thread. I felt Ben behind me, but I didn’t feel fate. If anything I felt blasphemous—like I was breaking up something holy. I didn’t know what life was supposed to be for me, but a wary, buried voice whispered that it wasn’t this, that God wasn’t here, in the voice or in the room. God was no place I’d ever been.
That’s more childish hyperbole, like estimating the number of rooms in that intimidating old house at a million, than an expression of atheism. When a good friend had his first child, my mother held the wriggling creature and said something about the wonder of God’s hand in the miracle of birth. He said: “God? Debbie and I made that.” That’s not what I mean. I believed in something, in a force far more awesome than science. “To love purely,” said Simone Weil, “is to consent to distance, it is to adore the distance between ourselves and that which we love.” That sounds so pretty. But it’s monstrous. Real faith is monstrous. “Those who look for their salvation do not truly believe in the reality of the joy within God.” Weil again, from Gravity and Grace, and her point is that every time you expect a reward, from health and happiness to heaven itself, you’re eclipsing the universe with your ego. You’re extricating a petty piece—your identity—from a divine whole, holding it high, and blotting out the remainder. Look at what Ben chose to do: he left his bleeding daughter in the hands of a stupid kid who might be gone before the black snow in his yard melted. He couldn’t believe in Romeo and Juliet. Even I needed vodka or beer to call L Wendy from Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” Ben’s face was scarred by burned-out love. How many bloody ribs did he have to hack to pay his mortgage? Romance couldn’t survive that. If he was endorsing a domestic future for L and me, it was something cooled but stable, something necessary but imposed, imposed upon nothing. I don’t know. He could have been beginning the slow process of escape from his Victorian dungeon, a wild, blade-wielding man, hacking his way back to the freedom that married daughters could bring.
L and I broke up right after the stitches came out, in the spring, in a kind of embarrassing farewell scene under a high ceiling on a bench in her shadowy front hall. She’d prepared me for it on the phone; told me that she and her friends had met some boys—in my imagination, they were men—from Medford at Revere Beach. And then, after a pop quiz on equations from her own algebra text, she rose from the dining room table to turn up the radio for Sammy Hagar’s “I’ll Fall in Love Again.” There’s nothing like a sentimental rock song to sweeten the deathblow to a doomed relationship. But her look, the concerned, sincere gaze of a real friend, already told me everything. When L used to say things like next summer we’ll go here; next year we’ll do this, I grinned, but had little faith. Even this night, hugging on the hall’s hard bench, she made me make the clichéd vow that we’d always stay close. I knew the words were wasted. She used to tell me I was mature. A dead parent just helps you recognize transience. Sentimentality could dull that awareness, maybe more than drinking, so I played the role of a ruined lover; in fact, I overplayed it. As we were kissing goodbye, L laughed and asked what all the heavy breathing was about. I was a bad actor. I couldn’t tell if I was a victim or the perpetrator of a crime. I couldn’t tell how much I felt, whether I was devastated or relieved. I wasn’t sure how to extract sincere meaning from anything.
My mother had recommended L for a part-time job at the local supermarket where she cashiered. L’s math skills got her promoted to supervisor. After the breakup, I started working there as a bagger. If we were scheduled together, we made awkward small talk. She started asking me for rides home. I said no problem. She still felt familiar. She wore a smock with red and white stripes. We asked each other cautious questions. I was waiting for her one afternoon beside automatic doors that hissed open and slammed shut, and I realized that not only did I look forward to her company, but also that this kind of sober, sincere eagerness was being drowned by something strong, artificial, and degraded. What mattered most was finding a buyer for beers and wine coolers with my new girlfriend, or attending weekend keg parties in the woods to the slow-motion, gargled soundtrack that my dying Sony tape player produced. The cash office above the registers and shoppers had low walls, so management could scan the store for thieves. L was up there. I watched her collect her purse, laugh with girlfriends. I saw the owner block her descent down the stairs. He was built like her father, short and stocky. She looked across the store and found me. I felt important, in her gaze, among all the consumers hoarding canned soup and corn flakes. She waved for me to go. I waved back and left. A strange kind of useless intimacy filled the distance between us. I knew that something was wrong. I guess I didn’t care enough to find out what it was.
L had been stealing money from the cash pickups she collected. They’d been watching her for a while. My mother was shocked. I wasn’t. I smiled. The questions started. Was she in trouble? Was the Medford man in debt, on drugs? A criminal record would poison her aspirations to be an accountant. My mother drove her white Ford Escort straight to L’s house. The wide steps cracked as we ascended to the long, open porch. I wandered toward the windows to the room with the sliding door while my mother rang the front bell. The front door opened. I never spent long wishing for things to stay, or to return. Once something was gone, I knew it was gone. But here I was, back in that hall by the hard bench. Ben wasn’t home. L’s mother had welcomed us inside. She seemed smaller than before. Her call to L was a thin, exhausted plea. The bright light outside had been swallowed by that Victorian beast, stolen and tucked away behind sealed doors and heavy curtains. L came from an unexpected direction. I was afraid. I suddenly missed my little apartment. Too many doors here made you too vulnerable. Tall windows urged rash, jagged escapes. Creaking boards whined like the parched voices of haunting forty-niners imprisoned in hellish limbo. So much space oppressed you with the pressure to fill it.
My mother rushed at L and crushed her in a hug. She asked her logical questions about motive, repercussions, and moral obligations. I slouched in faded Levi jeans and high-top Converse sneakers with loosened, untied laces, my thin hair in a new feather cut, staring at the dark boards on the floor. L said the owner of the supermarket was cruel and brutal. He deserved to be hurt. My mother sighed and said her name. L’s hard eyes glistened. Her thin lips went pale with stress. She stood straight, folded her arms, and transformed herself into a beautiful devil, I thought—until she said that he’d agreed to drop the charges and help expunge her record if she paid the money back. Her arms fell. The mother nodded. Her head stayed low from the weight of the extra cost. I imagined stepping back toward the door. I felt like stone. Maybe I wasn’t afraid. Maybe I was hard, too, and detached; or still offended enough at her dismissal of me to deny her compassion and sympathy, or engrossed by my own obligations in a few hours to drink around a glorious fire in a stone pit. Maybe I admired her crime, the traces of her father’s natural, nondomestic force that I’d sensed all along, and wouldn’t stoop to pitying her. I couldn’t decide. That damned hall seemed like a vacuum that stole my will.
My mother grabbed my arm and slung me at L, commanding me to hug my old friend. I did what I was told. And for the few steps I took on my own, I was overwhelmed with embarrassment. I felt like a puppet, and a little boy. I was ashamed. And then, with L in my arms, as rigid and resistant as I was confused and afraid, we both relaxed. The conventional decency that my mother made look so easy, moral judgment merged with grief and compassion, seemed to possess us. We held each other. The flowery, clean scent of her straight, dark hair made me shudder with comfort—for a second. We wanted different kinds of solace, and got something, but what was resurrected was only a brief forgery of what we’d had. We dropped our arms. God wasn’t here, either.
In Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, famous for its political theory, the apparent absence of God in the world is the foundation of his call for a strong, centralized government. Since the Bible, God never appears in visions, never communicates through dreams. This sad abandonment can be blamed, says Hobbes, for the corruption of the concept of conscience to suggest an internalized religious certainty that approximates divine visitation. The word was meant to define “when two, or more men, know of one and the same fact.” Conscience denoted an agreement in perceptions, a contract between humans about reality. The senses give us all we know, and the senses distort. Even the Bible’s truth is so ambiguous as to need definitive interpretation. Humans must always come to consensus to act together. When conscience designates private opinions as absolute truth, the selfish condition of the human race, where “every man has a Right to everything,” erupts from civilized peace. Societies were established to escape a chaos of egos; so, too, were families.
Turns out my mother had uveal melanoma—eye cancer—while she was standing inside L’s Victorian. The Mass Eye and Ear in Boston sent her to the Harvard Cyclotron Laboratory in Cambridge, in 1984, a twenty-minute drive from our apartment. The Cyclotron strips electrons from hydrogen atoms and revs up the protons to half the speed of light. Then magnets focus the beam into a precise and deadly blast that smashes the cancerous mass with a billion protons per second during every three minute treatment. That is, at least, what I get out of the numbers and symbols physicists use to describe the process. Survival rates—the only numbers we really cared about—for the relatively new procedure only went back five years. For five years she waited and prayed. Now the machines are in hospitals in Europe, South Africa, and Japan, treating all kinds of cancers, and my mother, blind in one eye because the tumor detached her retina, is still alive. But Cyclotrons also helped scientists to discover plutonium in 1940, by blasting uranium apart, leading to the deaths of over 150,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Did they all die, by some mad formula or equation, for my mother to live? No. Yes.
I saw L one more time. She pulled over in a car while I was out for a run. We traded hasty, civil greetings, and strove, I think, for warmth. I met her brother Kevin in the Square One Mall not long after that, around 1990, and he told me she had married and divorced the Medford man. He told his skinny fiancé that he wished she’d married me. I shook my head. My drinking had gotten worse. I’d been arrested twice in two states for drunk driving. My punishment, since I didn’t kill anyone, was a court-ordered weekend at Beech Hill Hospital. I attended one AA meeting while there. The counselors determined that I had admirable insight into my problem and prescribed no mandatory follow-up appointments. They weren’t all wrong. I saw what I was. But I couldn’t will a change. Three girlfriends since L had gotten fed up with my behavior. My atheist friend and I were going to hellish places, such as a strip club in Chelsea with a long stage like a church’s nave attached to the bar, where dancers with stunned expressions and high heels staggered around scattered poles. Pits were dug out in the surrounding floor where girls would crawl and toss their hair on lowered heads like flailing animals. We left one night, drunk, swearing again never to return. There was a thick fog, but we decided to go into Boston, drive around the Theater District, and gawk at hookers we would never hire. I drove out of the parking lot and the highway disappeared. It didn’t matter. We crashed into something immoveable. I rose into the fog above my friend and gripped the steering wheel as the car banged down level again. I followed my headlights and guided the hobbling Sunbird beside an apartment building’s dumpster.
My friend and I got out and stared at my flat tire and crushed rim. I noticed my throbbing heart. I looked for body parts. We’d hit an island, ridden over a curb. There were no signs of carnage. I opened the trunk to get the tire jack. My friend lit a cigarette and leaned against the warm hood. There was a twelve pack of Budweiser on the spare. I hurled it against the dumpster. Cans rolled, exploded and oozed. I’m done, I said. I quit. I’m going to kill somebody. My friend smoked and said nothing. I wasn’t really talking to him. I changed the tire and we went to Bickford’s for omelets and he started making plans to see a band next weekend. He didn’t understand. It was over. That was the night of my last drink, March of 1992. I never doubted my claim. On the few occasions that I have abbreviated the events to anyone, if they’re not repulsed by what’s perceived as arrogance, they praise my will power. I don’t deserve praise. I was an irresponsible menace. I willed bad behavior for years. I never felt that I had decided to stop being evil. Unhappiness accumulated for a long time before the fog and the curb; something, that night, just tipped an interior scale. Nothing was there—like years before, in the emergency room. No angels. No truth. I kept saying to myself, inside my head, with my sobering voice: remember; don’t let the certainty delude you. No God.
Alcoholics Anonymous calls what I experienced an epiphany. They stole the Christian term, of course, for analogy and inspiration. It refers to the exposure of the Christ child to the three Magi, old men guided by stars in a black night to recognize the Son of God as a baby in a barn. I cling cowardly to the idea of accumulation, of tipping scales. My atheist friend’s girlfriend at the time was into Stephen King, and for a brief period I read what they were reading. I had just started The Shining, where the main character, Jack Torrance, is a passenger in his friend’s Jaguar. They’re both drunk. Al Shockley is driving. They crash over a bike and think they have killed a child. After a search that produces no body, Jack credits “some queer providence”—not for the blessed absence of a victim, but for the fortunate lack of responding police officers. This fictional event was in my drunken head at the scene of my crime without a corpse. What happened in the fog was like the emptying of a vessel, or the wiping of a slate. But I didn’t feel passive. I definitely didn’t feel dominant. I didn’t even feel that different. One minute I was a drinker; the next I wasn’t.
I tried to fill the emptiness sobriety created with better, harder books—like Gravity and Grace and Leviathan. I got English degrees. I taught some classes and felt wrong leading children anywhere. I sought a living wage. In 2006 I met a garrulous, retired man at a part-time security job who used to treat the ice at an MDC skating rink in Medford. His sister had been Big Ben’s next door neighbor. I said I’d known the family forever. He said: too bad about the mother. I stared at a fading contrail over his head. Cancer, he said, a bad one. I started to shake and to feel important. I asked when she died. He shrugged and turned his palms up as if he were begging for alms. I had to know. I had had a dream on July 26, 1998. I wrote the details down in a journal. I was in a local Shaw’s supermarket, carrying an opened gallon of milk and a Styrofoam container of takeout food. I wanted to stop and eat, but I was afraid to be accused of stealing. I left the store. Kevin Spacey, the actor, was leaning against a wall eating peanuts from a brown paper bag and flicking shells on the sidewalk. L’s sister was beside me, pushing a rattling cart piled high with groceries. At her car, she filled the trunk and stared suspiciously at her passenger seat. I asked: is that L? She nodded. Before I could move, L and I were transported to the back of my own car. I asked questions. I got silence. The distance on the elongated bench seat was immense. She gave me an intimate look. In the dream I regretted that unspoken communication dies with age and distance. I felt a familiar thrill of fear, but it was caused by her heartbreak. I’m so sorry, I said. I know, she answered. Then she wouldn’t stop talking about how love means nothing, how you have to fill your time with duties. I said I didn’t believe her. She smiled. I woke up. I took no action. Feeling very sane, but somehow ashamed, I murmured the usual about God.
After my encounter with the security guard, using the technology that wasn’t available eight years before, I indulged what I still saw as a crazy idea—crazy, and now useless, even if her distress had been real—and discovered on Facebook that L was remarried and had a young son. Parents and child looked happy in her profile pictures, all that was available to strangers. I sent a message. I called myself a stalker, trying to be funny. I apologized for not having heard about her mother’s death. I asked her for the date. She never responded. She was safe now, entrenched in a domestic harbor full of the duties she preached against in my impossible back seat. I don’t blame her for avoiding threats to her shelter. I didn’t mention the dream.
Loose ends bother me. That bloody man at the glass door in my apartment building was no monster or mass murderer. He was Mr. Kelly, our upstairs neighbor, a handsome longshoreman and alcoholic, in his fifties. His skin was thick and red, like rare steak, and his silver, wavy hair made me think of moonlight on an ocean. His sick wife had a bowed back and a bloated belly. Through racking coughs that shook her high, glazed, golden hair, she told my mother that her husband went on binges every winter, because his brother died near a Christmas long ago. Mr. Kelly had been mugged coming out of the Oak Grove train station. He had staggered half a mile, drunk, bleeding, and bruised, when I left him out in the hall. Two different kinds of shame kept us from mentioning that night, and then the sad couple moved out without telling us. I wanted to ask him if he’d ever been in a ship at sea. I wanted to abuse him for staining my fading image of L. I wanted to know if he recognized his illness in me.
The weakest aspect of my personality or my character—or whatever I am—is the traitorous part that needed to be pushed toward L to console her in that dark hallway, and that needed alcohol to feel nuanced, rebellious, and strong. My mother generated action from genuine feeling—as Big Ben did, when he came home every night after washing the blood from his hands, to a family he willed into existence. I dream a dream. If I could verify the date of L’s mother’s death, I could know if I should have listened to Ben and fought for his daughter. I could turn nostalgia into cosmic truth. I could be sure of the absolute value for L. Now she’s defined by her new family. She’s transgressed the criminal. Habit and will, desire and detachment, choice and necessity, strength and weakness, have all blurred—but nothing ever blurs into permanency. Her old Victorian was sold. A new family replaced the pressured wooden wall with stones and mortar. L is probably teaching her son algebraic laws. If I had Big Ben’s skills, maybe I’d cut a bloody slab from something alive and send it, wet and dripping, in a package to L, to try to woo her, to try to wake her. I’m being literary. I’d never go so far. But it’s not God who’s stopping me. I just want to be clear about that.