EXCERPT: 'Cleaving' by Julie Powell

I look up from the tray of breasts to see the customer's suddenly stricken face. She brushes a finger fitfully up against up her own cheek. "You have a –"

I remember the bloody streak on my face and realize with a certain savage glee how I must look to her, bloody and wild-haired under a wide-rimmed leather hat. I want to bare my teeth and hiss vampirically at her. Instead I pull off the gloves I've just put on. "Actually, I'm going to let Jesse help you," I say cheerfully, nodding to a tall, bespectacled boy behind me, who's just pulled on his newsboy cap and is washing his hands in preparation to return to the counter after his lunch break. Then I hold up my hands to her, turning them back to front so she gets a good look at the brown gunk under my nails, stains and unidentifiable bits of goo stuck to my skin, the blood-stained leather band around my wrist. "I'm a little messy right now." I grin toothily, just to provoke a shudder, then turn on my heel.

As I throw the gloves into a garbage bin with a snap, the Blackberry in my back jeans pocket buzzes again. I pull it out, not worrying about the grime I just tried to scare a customer off with. (my PDA, like my hat, my sneakers, and my iPod - currently resting in a dock balanced atop the cryovac bags, blaring Modest Mouse – gets coated with meat schmutz as a matter of course. Even the facets of my engagement ring are clotted with bits of flesh and fat.)

An email. Eric, of course. "How's it going?" he writes. The meat I bring back home when I return from Fleisher's, the butcher shop where I've trained and worked, helps, but after more than a year, my husband still doesn't understand what it is I'm trying to do here, what I'm finding that's so important. He gets lonely. So do I. Still, I elect not to answer; not now.

Instead, I take a break. It's 4 o'clock, and there's a fresh pot of coffee, our third of the day. Since I started cutting at Fleisher's I've become a coffee fiend. It's not just that the caffeine keeps me spry during the long hours on my feet. It's also that the heat warms fingers icy from slipping into the freezing crevices between muscles, and the moments spent loosely cupping the mug between my hands seems to soothe my hands and wrists, so often swollen from gripping the knife, working it into joints then twisting to open them up.

I pour myself a mug and clasp it between my palms, leaning up against the table opposite the stove in the kitchen. Something on the stovetop smells wonderful, heady with garlic. The soup of the day. I peer into the pot, then grab a ladle for a taste. Spice and rich pork. Posole. Warms to the core, reaches where even the coffee doesn't, in this place that must of necessity remain nippy all the time. Resting against the counter, thawing my hands, I stare, dreamy with weariness, at the lion's share of liver still sitting on the table a few feet away, smooth as a river stone though of a more vivid color.

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