Marion Zulauf Prize, 2017

Above the Butcher’s Shop 

by Meghann Plunkett
 
“Makes trouble look like a feather bed, 
makes the wrong man’s kisses a healing.” 
-Cornelius Eady
 
It  was  night almost every  day.  City  lights soft  on  street  corners and snow  nearly
killing  all   the  cats  in  the  alley–  huddling   together  into  a   six-tailed  shadow.   My
windows  thrown  open  and  the  radiator  steaming  like  a  pressure  cooker,  hissing
heatwaves  that miraged  the  living room  into a  humid  dream.   The  dial  busted– I
couldn’t  control  it.  I  was   always   leaning   on the  sill,  naked,  fanning   myself  cool,
watching  the snow  fall  and  disappear  onto  my  body  like  I  was  nowhere  to  live.  I
liked  it.  His  hands   pulling  me  back,  thrown  to  the   bed.  It   was  a  game.  My  one
chipped  tooth like  a crumbling  cathedral,  I didn’t care,  I  was  his,  it  was  a  kind  of
worship   I   knew.   As   a  child   kneeling  bloody  on   forty   steps  of   the  chapel,  my
mother  yelling praybabypray.  He told me to crawl on my hands  and  knees,  the ash
of   his  cigarette  falling  on  my  back.  It  was  love.  He   told  me  to  bark  like  a  dog,
stuck my own panties in my  mouth. I  didn’t  need  to  be  told  how  to  shush,  raised
not  to wail,  not even  when  my dog  washed ashore filled  with  fish  eggs.  My  father
cutting   him   empty  of   seawater.  I  was  a  silent  woman   when  he  held  me  to his
cigarette cherry,  my skin singeing in perfect rings.  And  in the dark afternoons,  my
legs  tied,  wishboned  to  each  bedpost.  That year I was all the meat  missing.  And I
would count  the  minutes until  he came  home,  stinking of  someone  else.  He loved
me  like  my father  loved  my mother,  holding  her  own  hand  to  the  stove.  Waiting
without  a  word.  The  passing  traffic  threw  light  across  our ceiling–  some  days  it
was  all I saw. Proof  that others came and went. I had forgotten the embarrassment
of   seeing   someone   else’s  life.    As   a   girl,  catching   my   mother   mid-afternoon
napping  on the  dog’s  bed.  Curled into a perfect circle,  I understood how to be in  a
room  without  being.   To  be  the  space  where  the  air  isn’t.  I  dreamed  each  night
of  the  nails  in  the  floorboards lifting  in  unison. The  glass  of each  window  melting
into  a   puddle.  I  was  a  walking  fever,  extending  my   head  outside  the  window  to
breathe  out  fog as thick as  milk. He told me to touch my toes, told  me to  stay  put.
My skin  as raw as  a cherry pit. It was  my mother’s  ribs that reminded me of a cage
that   kept  growing–  or  she  grew  smaller  around  them.  A  drawbridge  moving  up
and  down  to make way.  That year, I  learned  how to  hear farther  than ever  before.
The  shop  downstairs  and  the  customer’s   hunger  booming  up  the  stairwell.  The
highway  clicking   its  tongue  like  a  girl  who  talks  back.  The  city  closing  in  on  me
like   his  hands   doubled  around   my  throat  and   my  vision  dimming  into  a   small
doorway  of   light.  I  couldn’t   complain.  I’ve   lived   on   no   air   at   all.   A  child  who
couldn’t  get   enough–  wheezing  like   a  broken   door   until  smacked,  shaken–  my
mother’s  wedding  ring  slicing  my  lip  open,  comongirlbreathe!  And  it  was  love. It
was all I knew.