Because he was shy about his wooden leg, Henry Lee changed in the bathroom. “Honky doctor give me a honky leg,” he joked sometimes to his close friends, but color, though the leg was too light for him, wasn’t the problem. The stump made him shy: some ten inches of rounded thigh instead of tapering into a knee, ended. “Yeah,” he’d say, “honky doctor tripped me up,” and he’d laugh, casting his eyes downward.
But you didn’t know Henry Lee wore a fake limb unless you’d seen it or unless someone you trusted told you. He limped some toward the end of a day, having carted heavy meat trays up and down the stairs, and he massaged himself sometimes, but you didn’t know unless you knew. And if you knew, you understood that when his lips squeezed tight and he winced, more than the stump was ailing him.
He was a crackerjack meat cutter, swift and clean with his strokes, mean sometimes when he had too much to drink. His knife was part of him, an extension gliding through meat like a skate blade on ice. He’d cut a man once and pulled time for it and in that fight his own leg had been slashed. Now the stump ached intolerably on rainy days and in the cold. He blunted the pain with bourbon, often stealing if off the boss’ bar. Since he and Bill had been partners, Bill had done his share of the stealing.
When it ailed him, and sometimes just like that, he wished he’d killed the bastard. Just a good twist would have done it but the knife was in so deep his fingers had slipped into the warm fluids between the parted flesh. He was panicked and scared, and when his free hand grabbed his own leg and felt ice, he knew he was in for it: the wind had chilled his own blood. One hand in the warmth, the other in the cold, his educated fingers could not deceive him. “Motherfucker,” he’d said laying there, wishing he could get up to run.
Mary knew about the leg, and so did Bea and Robert and Tommy, and someone older might have read the signs and guessed. But Bill did not know at first, and at the times he might have noticed, he was busy flirting with a hostess or a waitress. Henry Lee liked it this way. It made it his game.
He and Mary had discussed it.
“Bill’s too busy with the girls,” Mary said.
“I’m hip,” Henry Lee said. “It’s his time for that.”
“He don’t know what it’s his time for.”
“Maybe it’s better that way.”
“Mercy,” Mary had said. “I wouldn’t mind giving him some of this, neither,” she said. She patted between her legs and smiled at Henry Lee. “But that’s for later maybe.”
Meat was coming in this particular day, the day Bill would finally discover Henry Lee had a false leg. They had been drinking heavily, more so than ordinarily. Down in the meat room after the lunch service, Bill could see Henry Lee’s eyes glazed over. He knew his own eyes were glazed too because he was floating, just starting to hear the high-pitched buzz he usually heard before he was drunk. He took himself a cutting knife and a boning knife and set up his station.
Henry Lee was cutting tenderloins. “Cut two strips,” he said to Bill, “and then we’ll bone the short loins.”
Bill said “Okay” and went to the walk-in, returning to his station with a slab of meat. He took up the sharpening steel kept between him and Henry Lee, honed his blade and started to cut.
Mary had been hanging out during the afternoon lull. She sat on the stainless steel counter, her feet crossed at the ankles. She was swinging her legs as she did and stayed to watch him cut and trim a few steaks before she got up. “Mercy,” she said, then, “See you later,” and she left. Upon her exit, Henry Lee took out the bottle of bourbon and passed it to Bill.