By three-thirty enough steaks for the night were cut, so Bill and Henry Lee cleaned and straightened their stations. Then Bill carted six short loins from the icebox and set them between him and Henry Lee. When they were ready to start boning the loins, just before they started, they took another drink.
Henry Lee’s leg was bothering him: this was the second full day on a drunk and exhaustion caused the pain. But because he was on a drunk, because he was used to it and prepared for it, he was steady. Bill was getting sloppy.
Twelve more loins sat waiting in the box. Henry Lee, the master butcher, did four to Bill’s two, and when he was done he examined Bill’s work. “You’re too damn slow,” he said. “You be doing this enough to be faster.” Bill didn’t say anything. He just took a drink. “You got pussy on the brain,” Henry Lee said, “and you drink like a boy, too.” Bill kept silent. He carted six more loins, two at a time, from the walk-in. “You do these,” Henry Lee said, “cause you need the practice. I’m going to take a crap.” But on his way to the bathroom he heard Mary call “Meat’s here,” from the top of the stairs. “Damn,” Henry Lee muttered, and calling back “Okay,” he passed the bathroom and climbed the stairs. At the top of the stairs he unhooked the wood ramp down which the meat was slid. The ramp, set on hinges, crashed into place.
Bill stopped working and grabbed a quick drink before he moseyed over to the bottom of the stairs. Henry Lee came down and set up the scale in the meat room. The invoice called for a regular delivery, about fourteen hundred-fifty pounds of meat. He laid the invoice next to the scale and waited while Bill carried the cases of meat, slid down the ramp by the deliveryman, into the meat room. They dropped them, one by one, on the scale, then slid them over and off.
After the meat was weighed and stacked in the walk-in, after Henry Lee’d initialed the invoice, Bill, Henry Lee and the deliveryman rested a few minutes. Talking jive, they passed the bottle. All the while the short loins lay on the counter, and every so often the deliveryman poked at them with his fingers. This time Suburban was his last stop and his truck was empty. He was talking about after work. Bill and Henry Lee wished after work was as soon for them.
The bottle was two-thirds dead and Bill was drunk-numb. He liked feeling this way. He liked working by habit. His ears buzzed and the top of his head was hot. His apron, stiff in spots from old smears and dried blood, was damp in spots too from fresh blood that had dripped during the delivery. A dishwasher mopped the stairs and the halls over which the meat had been carried.
“Now I’m going to take that crap,” Henry Lee said when the deliveryman left.
“Yeah, see you in awhile,” Bill said.
Henry Lee sat down in the stall and unstrapped his leg to rest the stump. He leaned the leg against the wall, and while he crapped he massaged his thigh. “Feels good,” he said aloud, relaxing, feeling the freed stump begin to throb. He hated it like this, when exhaustion pained it all and even whiskey couldn’t stop the ache. He hated and he remembered and he drank to be numbed and forget. But sometimes it didn’t work. Sometimes you could drink forever and never get outside yourself. “Lord have mercy,” he said, leaning his head against the wall of the stall. The cool metal soothed his temple, and sitting motionless, he cast his eyes downward studying the wood gam, not feeling at all inclined to get up.