Alissa York’s novel, Mercy, was first published by Random House Canada in 2003, and was short-listed for the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. Subsequent editions have appeared in France, The Netherlands and the US.
BEEF: A GOOD BLEED
Six o’clock. Thomas Rose steps out from behind his counter and crosses to the shop window, finding Train Street long with light, deserted for the supper hour. In the opposing storefront, he can see Hy Warner bending to sweep the last feathery mound of hair into his dustpan. Thomas lifts his hand as Hy straightens, anticipating the barber’s evening wave. It’s a small thing. The kind of thing Thomas was dying for when he landed in Mercy, Manitoba, determined to call it home.
He may not have made the best impression that day–a sweetish stench wafting before him down the corridors of the town hall–but he had an honest face, hard-working hands, and most importantly, the down payment in cash. Besides, the purchase seemed meant to be. The butcher shop’s previous owner was called Ross, so Thomas didn’t have to lay out for a whole new sign. Just change the second S to an E and it was Rose’s Fine Meats. To celebrate, he had the sign painter crack a small can of red and add a garish, overblown rose.
Upon finding the place had no killing room, he immediately set about converting the garage. He had a sink plumbed in, sunk a drain in the concrete floor, screwed in hooks, rigged up a couple of block-and-tackle hoists. Two tables, a hog vat, a V-shaped box for lambs. It seemed the late Charlie Ross had taken on only butcher-ready carcasses and wholesale cuts. Thomas didn’t judge him for it either. He knew better than anyone, slaughtering was a whole other thing.
It’s four years now since he built it, and the killing room has long since paid off. It’ll keep on paying too, just so long as there are those who haven’t the stomach to slaughter their own. Take the heifer he’s got tied up in there now, hauled in that morning by Ida Stone. Poor woman–husband long dead, stuck raising her drunk daughter’s kids.
“They’ve gotten attached to the animal,” Ida confided across the cow’s back. “Especially the boy. You know how the city makes them. I’d keep her for a pet if I could, but a woman in my position doesn’t have a whole lot of choice.”
“Never you mind, Mrs. Stone,” Thomas assured her. “She’ll come back to you in brown paper parcels. They’ll never be the wiser.”
He’s a great comfort to the women of the town. They linger gossiping in his shop, find themselves buying finer cuts than they’re used to, asking for cooking tips, how long and how hot, even what side dish to serve. He listens to them, really listens. He doesn’t have to try either–growing up, he was his mother’s only friend.
He’s entertaining too, another skill he honed at home, reaching down into Sarah Rose’s dark. Sometimes he impresses the housewives of Mercy with his hands, surprisingly agile for their size. Without warning, he’ll take the tip of his knife to a steak fillet and carve a snowflake or a butterfly or a bird.
He opens the screen door to pull the glass one shut, flips the sign to read Sorry We’re Closed. So what if he puts on a bit of a show. It’s good for business, and it doesn’t hurt to hear a woman’s laugh now and then, feel the warmth of a female smile. He pauses, grinning to himself. After tomorrow he’ll have all the female warmth he needs.