Bovine and Defenseless Charles Rafferty

Martin loved to hear the electronic chime as he stepped across the threshold of Leather Junction — like one of those little xylophones the ushers tap in the lobby at the opera. He’s seen that in a movie once.

The chime made the girl behind the counter look up to meet his eyes, and it didn’t matter if she immediately went back to pecking at her phone. He was satisfied with the human connection, however coerced or brief.

The store smelled deeply of leather. It was a good smell unless he thought about it. After all, it was the smell of skinned animals — bovine and defenseless. He had heard that, in the slaughterhouse, a giant sledgehammer came down and cracked the skull of each cow, that for many years, no one had thought to shield the cows further back in the line from seeing what was coming.

“What is it you’re looking for?” asked the girl, brushing the blonde hair from her face and rising from her stool.

Martin scanned the boots and bomber jackets, and considered asking if she had any whips. But he was overcome by the iron in her gaze, the fact that her blouse could pass for lingerie. If he stayed, he saw himself destroyed by his own yammering, so he scooted back over the threshold and heard the electronic chime again. He saw how the girl stopped her advance, as if she would be punished for following, as if one of her anklets had the ability to deliver shocks.

Martin allowed himself to be swept up by the human stream pushing along the concourse. He knew that other stores had the same chime — Victoria’s Secret, Barnes & Noble, Zales. He ducked into each of them as he passed — hearing the chime and waiting for a girl to approach him, then stepping backward into the crowded channel of the mall’s upper deck.

Martin did a lap, and when he returned, Leather Junction was still empty save for the girl behind the counter. She was his favorite. He reasoned that, if he could avoid the chime, he could sneak up on her and read her name tag. He could get a sense of what she was really like, without her feeling the need to sell him the hides of cows. He could see the electronic eye about a foot above the tiles. He need only make a small leap over it and he’d be in the store undetected, the twangy country music coming from the sound system just loud enough to cover his landing.

Martin took three quick steps and attempted to vault over the beam by placing his hand on a display table of messenger bags. But the table gave way, and everything toppled. The back of Martin’s head smacked into the floor like a sack of flour. The sudden commotion, in addition to the chime he had failed to avoid, brought the girl instantly from behind her counter. She had not seen his clumsy leap and could only assume he was having some kind of seizure, maybe even a heart attack.

“Should I call an ambulance?” she asked.

She was kind as well. He could see that now. She wasn’t like the other girls who had dismissed him after their first glance. To them, he was practically invisible. He could bound out of an alley in front of them and they’d never break stride.

Martin imagined the weather inside the bell of her lavender skirt. It was leather of course, and he felt dizzy. He imagined the cow being peeled alive, dipped into a vat of lavender dye, and stitched around the waist of the girl beside him now.

The blood was pooling beneath Martin’s head, and for a moment he felt he knew what it was like to be one of her cows before it got turned into handbags. His vision was getting blurry, but he could still see the worry in her face. She was kneeling now, touching his shoulder. He could smell the perfume along her wrist mixed in with the pennies of his own blood.

“Can you hear me?” she said, with urgency.

He could just make out her name tag. Britney. The name of someone from the radio, of someone beyond his reach. Martin had no game, no way of charming her from the throne of his own incompetence. He wasn’t even sure if he could speak. But he believed that if he pretended to pass out — to stop breathing even — she would have to lean in closer, and he was right.

BEFORE THE RAZOR button ver 2

Charles Rafferty’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Oprah Magazine, and Prairie Schooner, and are forthcoming in Ploughshares. His stories have appeared in The Southern Review and Per Contra, and his story collection is called Saturday Night at Magellan’s. Currently, he directs the MFA program at Albertus Magnus College.