The Meat Counter at Kingsley’s Market
We love a story that puts dead bodies in the first sentence. Charlie’s Angels trading cards follow not long after. Do enjoy this Vietnam War-era coming of age tale about a bloody sight at a butcher shop one hot July day.
I saw my first dead bodies the summer I turned twelve. I spent those hot days of July with my neighbors, Adam and Susan, perched in front of Kingsley’s Market, a stoop with steps on two sides, a pole in the middle, so you had to choose left or right as you climbed the steps. From the left side, we had a view down Market Street as far as the railroad tracks; from the right side, a view of the gravel parking lot that ran the length of the store all the way back to the loading dock. We watched this side the most since our aim was the candy truck that came twice a week, delivering, we hoped, a new supply of Charlie’s Angels Trading Cards, the fad and passion of our 1977 hearts. Old Mr. Kingsley, who ran the front of the store, came out regularly to chase us away, a swearing scarecrow of a man, scattering us on the wings of our laughter for as long as it took the dust to settle back into the gravel. If he was threatening enough or the day hot enough, we might jump on our bikes to check Sholette’s Grocery downtown, even though their candy delivery came later, or head off to the town beach to swim, skip rocks, and let the lifeguard yell at us for a while. But mostly, we hung out on Kingsley’s stoop.
Old Kingsley’s son, Robbie, not much older than us and a Vietnam vet, had been running the meat counter at the back of the store since his discharge. When I was young, I had stood in front of the counter, staring through the glass at slabs of cold cuts while my mom ordered chicken or asked to see a particular roast. But that summer, I didn’t go to the store with my mom, and on the hottest days, Robbie whistled to us from the loading dock and slipped us cold Yoo-hoo or Pepsi, smiling while his dog tags bounced gently against his blood-stained butcher’s apron. He winked at me that last July day, passing the sweating bottle of soda into my hand, and I turned away blushing. After he disappeared into the dark of the store, I pictured him slicing bologna and grinding the burger our moms would serve for dinner, then driving his Mustang to my house, honking for me to come out. His smile made him look a little like the men chasing after the Angels on TV and walking them along the beach in the sunset.
Back on the stoop, we drank our sodas, still waiting for the truck that had not shown up, discussing the likelihood of cards that day because Monday had been a bust. I was four short of a full set; when flipped over, these cards made a jigsaw puzzle of the Angels in silhouette, just like the credits on the TV show. I needed three stickers, two of Sabrina and one of Jill. My neighbor, Susan, had two of the stickers I needed but wouldn’t trade, unless I gave her something to get her closer than me to the finish. We had an unspoken race underway, both of us dedicating our allowance and any money we could gather from extra chores or rooting around in the couch cushions. Packs were a quarter each, and I planned to buy twelve if the truck ever arrived. Susan’s brother Adam was not far behind us with his collection, although he didn’t usually put all his money into cards. I don’t know how much Adam cared about the Angels, but Susan and I loved everything about them, their feathery hair, their wide-legged pants, how they could run in high heels and still look beautiful. They were grown up in all the ways we weren’t, all the ways we wanted to be.
When Adam was with us, we threw rocks while we waited, dialing in some pretty fair aim for hitting the stop sign at the top of Flint Avenue, where it came to a T with Park Street and made the border of Kingsley’s parking lot. The noise when we hit the sign was usually what brought Old Kingsley out to holler at us, even though we were smart enough not to throw any when there was traffic. Winslow was the kind of town with mostly empty streets, where you could make a game out of holding your breath between cars and lose most summer afternoons. Since we didn’t want him chasing us away, we held back on the rocks, hoping we could wait in peace. When the time seemed endless and the truck a fading dream, Adam grabbed a handful of stones off the driveway at his feet and began picking out the bits too small to throw.
Just as he tested the first one in his hand and stood up to ready himself, a pick-up screeched around the far end of Flint and fishtailed on the gravel as it twisted to a stop. We knew Gary LaDue’s truck, had seen it parked by the town barn plenty of days when he was off as part of the town crew, cleaning bridges or stopping traffic for the endless potholes they filled all summer, only to have them freeze and buckle again each spring. I had also seen him on the 4th of July, at the block party held each year in the park downtown. He had danced under the lights in a set of spins all his own, then rushed at the drummer and tripped over some cymbals. After the crash and a pause while everyone stared, he stumbled, away from the band, then flanked and held upright by his wife on one side and his father on the other.
But as he jumped from his truck that afternoon, he was alone and not stumbling. We watched him reach above the seat to his gun rack, like the one in almost every truck in town. He slammed the door and moved at a trot away from the stoop toward the back of the building, climbing the cement steps of the loading dock two at a time, a shotgun in his hands. In 1977 it was not unusual to see a man grab his gun as he left his truck. I had watched my own dad carry his Remington into fields, along streams where we fished, into the house after work. So, it took a few seconds for us to realize he was running into the store, fast, with a gun in his hand. Adam jumped up first, nudging me.
“Let’s check it out.” And soon all three of us started toward the steps Gary had just climbed.
The first shot came before we reached the top of the loading dock. Together we ducked and crawled up the last two stairs. I could see in through the open door, only strips of clear plastic in front of me, as I looked into the dark corridor toward the store’s back end. The white metal edge and glass front of the meat counter were in view. Another shot rang, and we heard a loud thump like a bale of hay falling off a truck. For those first moments, it was just an adventure, the tension of a TV show, like I was one of the Angels edging around a parked car or creeping up on the bad guy, ready to karate chop a gun from his hand. Then a voice started screaming, and Adam kept creeping toward the swinging strips of plastic. In the spaces between the loud screams, I heard the whir of the coolers that ran along the back wall of the store, how odd those two noises were together as the familiar sweating glass doors came to mind. Without thinking, I followed Adam inside, more curious than afraid.
We knew the shotgun only held two shots in its dark, chambered heart; we wanted to see what those shots had been about, so we stepped quietly through the plastic and into the light of the dairy aisle. Old Mr. Kingsley stood with his arms in the air near the shelves of canned vegetables, while he screamed at Gary, not words, just long wailing. Gary never looked at him, just stood on some boxes piled in front of the meat counter, gun still raised. And that counter, glass as always, but somehow it looked like meat had been thrown up and against the back surface, a glistening, shiny covering. Beside me, Susan turned away, and I heard her puke, just as I realized it was blood, Robbie’s blood now plastered red and slick on the back glass.
“You can’t squirm away you bastard.” A click and Gary threw the shotgun to the floor. A noise of crawling and then a clatter as something fell to the ground behind the counter. Old Kingsley had stopped screaming when the gun hit the ground. He dove toward it as Gary pulled a pistol from the back pocket of his jeans.
“No dog tags gonna save you. You think you can take my wife? Take anything you want cause of Nam?”
Gary cocked the pistol as he said this, and another shot echoed through the store. Adam jumped and scrambled behind me.
“Come on, Mary.” His voice hissed at me, but I swatted it away. It was my chance to be an Angel, unstoppable, brave. I had to watch whatever was happening. He and Susan ran away down the aisle, but I stayed, watching Mr. Kingsley, his mouth moving and silent, until he too moved out of sight. Gary never took his eyes from his target, cocking another time, his only focus the world behind the counter. Six. I whispered the number; there were six in the heart of this small gun. The blast came again. I could see him, high on his toes as he aimed over the counter. I stayed still, peeking around the corner, my body flat on the floor, my eyes frantic as I waited.
“That’s for Mindy,” he screamed from his perch on the boxes. Not a sound came from the space where Robbie should have been. It was only a second, I may have blinked in the moment when Gary’s rage shifted, and he put the gun to his own head. A third deafening blast and he fell to the dusty floor, his face now level with mine and the rack of potato chips behind him spattered with his blood. It all lay before me, impossible to unsee. Where moments before there had been so much desperation, now on Gary’s face, in Gary’s hand, throughout Gary’s body, emptiness. A siren in the distance, its soft throbbing call grew stronger as I got to my knees and then stood, shaking and still feeling the echo of gunshots, in my ears, but also in my chest, in my head, like a gong struck and still quivering.
It would have been smart then to walk toward the front of the store, to join my friends somewhere outside where the world hadn’t been shot to pieces. But Robbie had just winked at me, a few moments before, two lifetimes ago. I had pictured him pulling into my driveway. Now I stepped toward the horrible scene at the meat counter, couldn’t walk away until I saw what was left of him. I edged carefully around the small ponds of blood spreading across the floor where Gary had fallen. Almost nothing remained of the left side of his head, but I didn’t look for long since it made my stomach lurch. I climbed on the boxes still in place, needing to see Robbie.
I felt the heavy, thick residue of gun powder and death as they latched onto my skin, filled my nose, guided me. I was connected to Robbie, his wink, the cold bottle, his smile like a quick promise. He knew us, thought of us on those summer afternoons when he worked his job and we sat outside in the dust. The nightly news showed the world what Vietnam had looked like, what confusing jungles and atrocities my parents said our country had stumbled into. Robbie had survived, been set free, sent home to restart his life. I had no idea if he had done something to Gary’s wife; I knew what those things might be for sure, but no way of guessing if there was some kind of justice repaid. But still I climbed boxes, looked at the mess on the floor, a roughly human shape, a cavern of red where his back should have been, now linked always to the meat behind the counter.
This was a scene never facing the Angels. Guns fired, cars driving away, the police showed up, the music shifted, and they got their man, handcuffed and safe. Nothing awash in blood, mangled or unmoving when they returned to the office to await Charlie’s call. Hands grabbed me and carried me out the front door. I didn’t resist. Officer Foster placed me on the fender of the fire truck, wrapped a blanket around me; I matched Susan and Adam. It was hot in the sun, but we held them around us anyway and nobody spoke. I looked at the ground, looked at the parking lot filling up with neighbors, tried to stop seeing the back of Kingsley’s store.
“Murder suicide.” The phrase mumbled through the crowd outside, an electric prayer prodding more and more people to show up in the gravel parking lot to watch. For years to come this phrase would stick behind my closed eyes like rugged, blood-soaked letters, a mystery Charlie’s Angels would never solve. Their trading cards, so important that morning, faded away, forgotten in our drawers and empty shoe boxes before the first leaves of fall crisped and fell. The cards actually died for me that day, outside Kingsley’s, watching the town surge toward the store and the shock of such a summer afternoon while Mindy, Gary’s wife, ran toward the store, screaming with a baby in her arms and her long hair flying out behind her. Two officers held her back, their hands pressing her between them, trying to turn her away. Despite all the gossip and small-town whispering of that afternoon and beyond, I never knew for sure which man she screamed for.
Beth Konkoski is a writer and high school English teacher living in Northern Virginia with her husband and two mostly grown kids. Her work has been published in journals such as Story, Mid-American Review, Gargoyle, and The Baltimore Review. She has two chapbooks of poetry, "Noticing the Splash" with BoneWorld Press and "Water Shedding" with Finishing Line Press.