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Knives by Louis Erdrich

FILED UNDER: SHORT STORIES

American poet, author, and novelist Karen Louise Erdrich has been paid to write since she was a young child and her father gave her one nickel for every story she penned. Many years later, her abilities grew to encompass a Pulitzer prize nomination and international praise for blazing the path as the first Native American writer of the U.S. Her contributions to the Native American Renaissance won over even the harshest of critics and earned significant praise with comparisons to literary greats Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, and William Faulkner. Erdrich’s style of realism with hints toward the magical, is solid, original, and brilliant enough to have created and claimed an entire genre all her own.

He is fine boned, slick, agreeable, and dressed to kill in his sharp black suit, winy vest, knotted brown tie. His hair is oiled. His lips are fevered and red as two buds. For a long while he stands there, eyeing me, before he opens his mouth.

“You’re not pretty,” are the first words he speaks.

And I, who have never bit off my words even to a customer, am surprised into a wounded silence, although I don’t even look in the mirror for pleasure, but only to take stock of the night’s damage.

I work for Mary, who learned the butcher’s trade and keeps a run-down shop on the edge of Argus, a town in which I’ve found no hope of marriage. I get along with men. I work right beside them in the cutting room and keep a long tally of the card debts they owe me. But this is not romance. In the novels I read at night, I experience with no satisfaction the veiled look, the guarded approach, the hungers I’ve come to live with in my thirties. I get heavier each year that no one sweeps me off my feet, so that now I outweigh most men. And perhaps I am too much like them, too strong and imposing when I square my shoulders, and used to taking control.

I am standing on a stool, changing the prices I chalk above the counter each week on a piece of slate. Blutwurst. Swedish sausage. Center-cut chops. Steak. I keep writing and do not give him the satisfaction of an answer. He stands below me, waiting. He has the patience of a cat with women. When I finish, there is nothing left for me to do but climb down.

“But pretty’s not the only thing,” the man continues smoothly, as though all my silence has not come between.

I cut him off. “Tell me what you want,” I say. “I’m closing shop.”

“I bet you never thought I’d come back,” he says. He steps close to the glass counter full of meats. I can see, through the false, bright glare inside the case, his dumbbell-lifting chest. His sharp, thick hands. Even above the white pepper and sawdust of the shop, I can smell the wild-root, tobacco, penetrating breath mint.

“I never saw you the first time,” I tell him. “I’m closing.”

“Look here,” he says, “Mary – ”

He goes rigid, puts his hands to the back of his skull, pats the hair in place thoughtfully.

“Who are you then?”

“Celestine,” I say, “as if it is any of your business.”

I have to ring out the register, secure the doors, set the alarm on the safe before I can walk home. Around that time of early evening the light floods through the thick block-glass windows, a golden light that softens the shelves and barrels. Dusk is always my time, that special air of shifting shapes, and it occurs to me that, even though he says I am not pretty, perhaps in the dusk I am impossible to resist. Perhaps there is something about me, like he says.

“Adare. Karl Adare.”

He introduces himself without my asking. He crosses his arms on the counter, leans over, and deliberately smiles at my reaction. His teeth are small, shiny, mother-of-pearl.

“This is something,” I say. “Mary’s brother.”

“She ever talk about me?”

“No,” I have to answer, “and she’s out on a delivery right now. She won’t be back for a couple of hours.”

“But you’re here.”

I guess my mouth drops a little. Me knowing who he is has only slightly diverted what seems like his firm intentions, which are what? I can’t read him. I turn away from him and make myself busy with the till, but I am fumbling. I turn to look at Karl. His eyes are burning holes and he tries to look right through me if he can. This is, indeed, the way men behave in the world of romance. Except that he is slightly smaller than me, and also Mary’s brother. And then there’s his irritating refrain.

“Pretty’s not everything,” he says to me again. “You’re built…” He stops, trying to hide his confusion. But his neck reddens and I think maybe he is no more experienced at this than I.

“If you curled the ends at least,” he says, attempting to recover, “if you cut your hair. Or maybe it’s the apron.”

I always wear a long white butcher’s apron, starched and swaddled around my middle with thick straps. Right now, I take it off, whip it around me, and toss it on the radiator. I decide I will best him at his game, as I have studied it in private, have it thought out.

“All right,” I say, walking around the counter, “Here I am.” Because of the market visit I am wearing a navy blue dress edged in white. I have a bow at my waist, black shoes, and a silver necklace. I have always thought I looked impressive in this outfit, not to be taken lightly. Sure enough, his eyes widen. He looks stricken and suddenly uncertain of the next move, which I see is mind to make.

“Follow me,” I say, “I’ll put a pot of coffee on the stove.”

It is Mary’s stove, of course, but she will not be back for several hours. He does not follow me directly, but lights a cigarette. He smokes the heavy kind, not my brand anymore. The smoke curls from his lips.

“You married?” he asks.

“No,” I say. He drops the cigarette on the floor, crushes it out with his foot, and then picks it up and says, “Where shall I put this?”

I point at an ashtray in the hall, and he drops the butt in. Then, as we walk back to Mary’s kitchen, I see that he is carrying a black case I have not noticed before. We are at the door of the kitchen. It is dark. I have my hand on the light switch and sm going to turn on the fluorescent ring, when he comes up behind me, puts his hands on my shoulders, and kisses the back of my neck.

“Get away from me,” I say, not expecting this so soon. First the glances, the adoration, the many conversations must happen.

“How come?” he asks. “This is what you want.”

His voice shakes. Neither one of us is in control. I shrug his hands off.

“What I want.” I repeat this stupidly. Love stories always end here. I never had a mother to tell me what came next. He steps in front of me and hugs me to himself, draws my face down his lips, but his mouth is as hard as metal.

I lunge from his grip, but he comes right with me. I lose my balance. He is fighting me for the upper hand, straining down with all his might, but I am more than equal to his weight-lifting arms and thrashing legs. I could throw him to the side, I know, but I grow curious. There is the smell of corn mash, something Mary has dropped that morning. That’s what I notice even when it happens and we are together, rolling over, clasped, bumping into the legs of the table. I move by instinct, lurching under him. We’re held in my mind as in a glass, and I see my own face, amused, embarrassed, and relieved. It is not so complicated, not even as painful, as I feared, and it doesn’t last long either. He sighs when it is over, his breath hot and hollow in my ear.

“I don’t believe this happened,” he says to himself.

That is, oddly, when I lash out against his presence. He is so heavy that I think I might scream in his face. I push his chest, a dead weight, and then I heave him over so he sprawls in the dark away from me, so I can breathe. We smooth our clothing and hair back so carefully, in the dark, that when we finally turn the light on and blink at the place where we find ourselves, it is as though nothing has happened.

We are standing up, looking any place but at each other.

“How about that coffee?” he says.

I turn to the stove.

And then, when I turn around again with the coffeepot, I see that his is unlatching a complicated series of brass fittings that unfold his suitcase into a large stand-up display. He is absorbed, one-minded, not too different from the way he was down on the floor. The case is lined in scarlet velvet. Knives gleam in the plush. Each rests in a fitted compartment, the tips capped so as to not pierce the cloth, the bone handles tied with small strips of pigskin leather.

And then, when I turn around again with the coffeepot, I see that his is unlatching a complicated series of brass fittings that unfold his suitcase into a large stand-up display. He is absorbed, one-minded, not too different from the way he was down on the floor. The case is lined in scarlet velvet. Knives gleam in the plush. Each rests in a fitted compartment, the tips capped so as to not pierce the cloth, the bone handles tied with small strips of pigskin leather.

I sit down. I ask what he is doing but he does not answer, only turns and eyes me signifcantly. He holds out a knife and a small rectangle of dark wood.

“You can slice.” he begins, “through wood, even plaster, with our serrated edge. Or – ” he produces a pale dinner roll from his pocket – “the softest bread.” He proceeds to demonstrate, sawing the end off the block of balsa wood with little difficulty, then delicately wiggling the knife through the roll so it falls apart in transparent, perfect ovals.

“You could never butter those, ” I hear myself say, “they’d fall apart.”

“It’s just as good with soft-skinned vegetables,” he says to the air. “Fruits. Fish fillets.”

He is testing the edge of the kife. “Feel,” he says, holding the blade toward me. I ignore him. One thing I know is knives and his are cheap-john, not worth half the price of the fancy case. He keeps on with his demonstration, slicing bits of cloth, a very ripe tomato, and a box of ice cream from Mary’s freezer. He shows each knife, one after the other, explaining its usefulness. He shows me the knife sharpener and sharpens all Mary’s knives on its wheels. The last thing he does is take out a pair of utility shears. He snips the air with them as he speaks.

“Got a penny?” he asks.

Mary keeps her small change in a glass jar on the windowsill. I take out a penny and lay it on the table. And then, in the kitchen glare, Karl takes his scissors and cuts the penny into a spiral.

So, I think, this is what happens after the burning kiss, when the music roars. Imagine. The loveres are trapped together in a deserted mansion. His lips descend. She touches his magnificent thews.

“Cut anything,” he says, putting the spiral beside my hand. He begins another. I watch the tension in his fingers, the slow frown of enjoyment. He puts another perfect spiral beside the first. And then, since he looks though he might keep on going, cutting all the pennies in the jar, I decide that now I have seen what love is about.

“Pack up and go,” I tell him.

But he only smiles and bites his lip, concentrating on the penny that uncoils in his hands. He will not budge. I can sit here watching the man and his knives, or call the police. But neither of these seems like a suitable ending.

“I’ll take it,” I say, pointing to the smallest knife.

In one motion he unlatches a vegetable parer from its velvet niche and sets it between us on the table. I dump a dollar in change from the penny-ante jar. He snaps the case shut. I handle my knife. It is razor sharp, good for cutting the eyes from potatoes. But he is gone by the time I have the next thought.

In my stores, they return as a matter of course. So does Karl. There is something about me he has to follow. He doesn’t know what it is and I can’t tell him either, but not two weeks have gone by before he breezes back into town, still without ever having seen his sister. I see my brother Russell all the time. I live with him. Russell looks outside one morning and sees Adare straddling the chubstone walk to our house.

“It’s a noodle,” says Russell. I glance out the window over his shoulder, and see Karl.

“I’ve got business with him,” I say.

“Answer the door then,” Russell says. “I’ll get lost.” He walks out the back door with his tools.

The bell rings twice. I open the front door and lean out.

“I can’t use any,” I say.

The smile falls off his face. He is confused in a moment, then shocked. I see that he has come to my house by accident. Maybe he thought that he would never see me again. His face is what decides me that he has another thing coming. I am standing there in layers of flimsy clothing with a hammer in my hand. I can tell it makes him nervous when I ask him in, but he thinks so much of himself that he can’t back down. I pull a chair out, still dangling the hammer, and he sits. I go into the kitchen and fetch him a glass of the lemonade I have been smashing the ice for. I half expect him to sneak out, but when I return he is still sitting there, the suitcase humbly at his feet, an oily black fedora on his knees.

“So, so,” I say, taking a chair beside him.

He has no answer to my comment. As he sips on the lemonade, however, he glances around, and seems slowly to recover his salesman’s confidence.

“How’s the paring knife holding out?” he asks.

I just laugh. “The blade snapped off the handle,” I say. “Your knives are duck-bait.”

He keeps his composure somehow, and slowly takes in the living room with his stare. When my ceramics, books, typewriter, pillows, and ashtrays are all added up, he turns to the suitcase with a squint.

“You live here by yourself?” he asks.

“With my brother.”

“Oh.”

I fill his lemonade glass again from my pitcher. It is time, now, for Karl to break down with his confession that I am a slow-burning fuse in his loins. A hair trigger. I am a name he cannot silence. A dream that never burst.

“Oh well…” he says.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask.

“Nothing.”

We sit there for a while collecting dust until the silence and absence of Russell from the house grows very evident.. And then, putting down our glasses, we walk up the stairs. At the door to my room, I take the hat from his hand. I hang it on my doorknob and beckon him in. And this time, I have been there before. I’ve had two weeks to figure out the missing areas of books. He is shocked by what I’ve learned. It is like his mind darkens. Where before there was shuffling and silence, now there are cries. Where before we were hidden, now the shocking glare. I pull the blinds up. What we do is well worth a second look, even if there are only squirrels in the box elders. He falls right off the bed once, shaking the whole house. And when he gets up he is spent, in pain because of an aching back. He just lays there.

“You could stay on for supper,” I finally offer, because he doesn’t seem likely to go.

“I will.” And then he is looking at me with eyes in a different way, as if he cannot figure the sum of me. As if I am too much for him to compass. I get nervous.

“I’ll fix the soup now,” I say.

“Don’t go.” His hand is on my arm, the polished fingernails clutching. I cannot help but look down and compare it with my own. I have the hands of a woman who has handled too many knives, deep-nicked and marked with lines, toughened from spice and brine, gouged, even missing a tip and a nail.

“I’ll go if I want,” I say. “Don’t I live here?”

And I get up, throwing a housecoat and sweater over myself. I go downstairs and start a dinner on the stove. Presently, I hear him come down, feel him behind me in the doorway, those black eyes in a skin white as veal.

“Pull up a chair,” I say. He settles himself heavily and drinks down the highball I give him. When I cook, what goes into my soup is what’s there. Expect the unexpected, Russell always says. Butter beans and barley. A bowl of fried rice. Frozen oxtails. All this goes into my pot.

“God almighty,” says Russell, stepping through the door. “You still here?” There is never any doubt Russell is my brother. We have the same slanting eyes and wide mouth, the same long head and glaring white teeth. We could be twins, but for his scars and that I am a paler version of him.

“Adare,” says the salesman, holding out his perfect hand. “Karl Adare. Representative at large.”

“What’s that?” Russell ignores the hand and rummages beneath the sink for a beer. He makes it himself from a recipe he learned in the army. Whenever he opens the cupboard I stand back, because sometimes the brew explodes on contact with the air. Our cellar is also full of beer. In the deepest of summer, on close, hot nights, we sometimes hear the bottles go smashing to the dirt.

“So,” says Russell, “you’re the one who sold Celestine here the bum knife.”

“That’s right,” Karl says, taking a fast drink.

“You unload many?”

“No.”

“I’m not surprised,” Russell says.

Karl looks at me, trying to gauge what I’ve told. But because he doesn’t understand the first thing about me, he draws a blank. There is nothing to read in my face. I ladle the soup on his plate and sit down across the table. I say to Russell, “He’s got a suitcase full.”

“Let’s see it then.”

Russell always likes to look at tools. So again the case comes out, folding into display. While we eat Russell keeps up a running examination of every detail a knife could own. He tries them out on bits of paper, on his own pants and fingers. And all the while, whenever Karl can manage to catch my eye, he gives a mournful look of pleading, as if I am forcing this performance with the knives. As if the apple in Russell’s fingers is Karl’s own heart getting peeled. It is uncomfortable. In the love magazines, when passion holds sway, men don’t fall down and roll on the floor and lay there like dead. But Karl does that. Right that very evening, in fact, not long after dinner when I tell him he must go, he hits the floor like a toppled statue.

“What’s that?” I jump up, clutching Russell’s arm, for we are still in the kitchen. Having drunk several bottles in the mellow dusk, Russell isn’t clear in the head. Karl has drunk more. We look down. He is slumped beneath the table where he has fallen, passed out, so pale and still I fetch a mirror to his pencil-mustache and am not satisfied until his breath forms a silver cloud.

The next morning, the next morning after that, and still the next morning after that, Karl is here in the house. He pretends to take ill at first, creeping close to me that first night in order to avoid deadly chills. The same night after that, and the night after that, until things begin to get too predictable for my taste.

Sitting at the table in his underwear is something Karl starts doing once he feels at home. He never makes himself useful. Every day when I leave for work the last thing I see is him killing time, talking to himself like the leaves on a tree. Every night when I come home there he is, taking up space like one more piece of furniture. Only now, he’s got himself clothed.

Right way, when I enter the door, he rises like a sleepwalker and comes forward to embrace me and lead me upstairs.

“I don’t like what’s going on here,” says Russell after two weeks of hanging around on the outskirts of this affair. I’ll take off until you get tired of this noodle.”

So Russell goes. Whenever things heat up at home he stays up on the reservation with Eli, his half brother, in an old house that is papered with calenders of naked women. They fish for crappies or trap muskrats, and spend their Saturday nights half drunk, paging through the years on their wall. I don’t like him to have to go up there, but I’m not ready to say good-bye to Karl.

I get into a habit with Karl and I don’t look up for two months. Mary tells me what I do with her brother is my business, but I catch her eyeing me, her gaze a sharp yellow. I do not blame her. Karl has gone to see her only once for dinner. It was supposed to be their grand reunion, but it fell flat. They blamed each other. They argued. Mary hit him with a can of oysters. She threw it from behind and left a goose egg, or so Karl says. Mary never tells me her side, but after that night things change at work. She talks around me, delivers messages through others. I even hear through one of the men that she says I’ve turned against her.

Meanwhile, love wears on me. Mary or no Mary, I am tired of coming home to Karl’s heavy breathing and even his touch has begun to oppress me.

“Maybe we ought to end this while we’re still in love,” I say to him one morning.

He just looks at me. “You want me to pop the question?”

“No.”

“Yes you do,” he says, edging around the table.

I leave the house. The next morning, when i tell him to go away again, he proposes marriage. But this time I have a threat to make.

“I’m calling the state asylum,” I say. “You’re berserk.”

He leans over and spins his finger around his ear.

“Commit me then,” he says. “I’m crazy with love.”

Something in all of this has made me realize that Karl has read as many books as I, that his fantasies always stopped before the woman came home worn out from cutting beef into steaks with an electric saw.

“It’s not just you,” I tell him. “I don’t want to get married. With you around, I get no sleep. I’m tired all the time. All day I’m giving wrong change and I don’t have any dreams. I’m the kind of person that likes having dreams. Now I have to see you every morning when I wake up and I forget if I dreamed anything or evn slept at all, because right away you’re on me with your hot breath.”

He stands up and pushes his chest, hard, against mine, and runs his hands down my back and puts his mouth on my mouth I don’t have a damned thing to defend myself with. I push him down on the chair and sit, eager, in his lap. But all the while, I am aware that I am living on Karl’s borrowed terms.

They might as well cart me off in a wet sheet too, I think.

“I’m like some kind of animal,” I say, when it is over.

“What kind?” he asks, lazy. WE are laying on the kitchen floor.

“A big stupid heifer.”

He doesn’t hear what I say though. I get up. I smooth my clothes down and walk off to the shop. But all day, as I wait on customers and tend fire in the smoke room, as I order from suppliers and slice the headcheese and peg up and down the cribbage board, I am setting my mind hard against the situation.

“I am going home,” I say to Mary, when work is done, “and getting ride of him.”

We are standing in the back entry alone; all the men are gone. I know she is going to say something strange.

“I had an insight,” she says. “If you do, he’ll take his life.”

I look at the furnace in the corner, not at her, and I think that I hear a false note in her voice.

“He’s not going to kill himself,” I tell her. “He’s not the type. And you” – I am angry now – “you don’t know what you want. At the same time you’re jealous of Karl and me, you don’t want us apart. You’re confused.”

She takes her apron off and hangs it on a hook. If she wasn’t so proud, so good at hardening her heart, she might have said what kind of time this had been for her alone.

But she turns and sets her teeth.

“Call me up when it’s over,” she says, “and we’ll drive out to the Brunch Bar.”

This is a restaurant where we go on busy nights when there is no time for cooking. I know her saying this has taken effort, so I feel sorry.

“Give me one hour, then I’ll call you,” I say.

As usual, when I get home, Karl is sitting at the kitchen table. The first thing I do is fetch his sample case from the couch where he parks it, handy for when the customers start pouring in. I carry it into the kitchen, put it down, and kick it across the linoleum. The leather screeches but the knives make no sound inside their velvet.

“What do you think I’m trying to tell you?” I ask.

He is sitting before the day’s dirty dishes, half-full ashtrays, and crumbs of bread. He wears his suit pants, the dark red vest, and a shirt that belongs to Russell. If I have any hesitations, the shirt erases them.

“Get out,” I say.

But he only shrugs and smiles.

“I can’t go yet,” he says, “It’s time for the matinee.”

I step closer, not close enough so he can grab me, just tow here there is no chance he can escape my gaze. He bends down. He lights a match off the sole of his shoe and starts blowing harsh smoke into the air. My mind is shaking from the strain, but my expression is still firm. It isn’t until he smokes his Lucky to the nub, and speaks, that I falter.

“Don’t chuck me. I’m the father,” he says.

I hold my eyes trained on his forehead, not having really heard or understood what he said. He laughs. He puts his hands up like a bank clerk in a holdup and then I give him the once-over, take him in as if he was a stranger. He is better looking than I am, with dark eyes, red lips, and pale complexion of a movie actor. His drinking has not told on him, not his smoking either. His teeth have stayed pearly and white although his fingers are stained rubbery orange from the curling smoke.

“I give up! You’re the stupidest woman I’ve every met.” He puts his arms down, lights another cigarette from the first. “Here you’re knocked up,” he says suddenly, “and you don’t even know it.”

I suppose I look stupid, knowing at that instant what he says is true.

“You’re going to have my baby,” he says ina calmer voice, before I can recover my sense.

“You don’t know.”

I grab his suitcase and heave it past him through the screen door. It tears right through the rotten mesh and thumps hard on the porch. He is silent for a long time, letting this act sink in.

“You don’t love me,” he says.

“I don’t love you,” I answer.

“What about my baby?”

“There’s not a baby.”

And now he starts moving. He backs away from me toward the door, but he cannot go through it.

“Get going,” I say.

“Not yet.” His voice is desperate.

“What now?”

“A souvenir. I don’t have anything to remember you.” If he cries, I know I’ll break down, so I grab the object closest to my hand, a book I’ve had sitting on the top of the refrigerator. I won it somewhere and never opened the cover. I hold it out to him.

“Here,” I say.

He takes the book, and then there is no other excuse. He edges down the steps and finally off at a slow walk through the grass, down the road. I stand there a long time, watching him from the door, before he shrinks into the distance and is gone. And then, once I feel certain he has walked all the way to Argus, maybe hopped a bus, or hitched down Highway 30 South, I put my head down on the table and let my mind go.

The first thing I do once I am better is to dial Mary’s number.

I got rid of him,” I say into the phone.

“Give me ten minutes,” she says, “I’ll come and get you.”

“Just wait,” I say. “I have to have some time off.”

“I went and got myself into the family way.”

She says nothing. I listen to the silence on her end before I finally hear her take the phone from her ear, and put it down.

In the love books a baby never comes out of it all, so again I am not prepared. I do not expect the weakness or the swelling ankles. The tales of burning love never mention how I lie awake, alone in the heat of an August night, and panic. I know the child feels me thinking. It turns over and over, so furiously that I know it must be wound in its own cord. I fear that something has gone wrong with it. The mind is not right, just like the father’s. Or it will look like the sick sheep I had to club. A million probable, terrible things will go wrong. And then, as I am lying there worrying into the dark, bottles start going off under the house. Russell’s brew is exploding and all night, with the baby turning, I keep dreaming and waking to the sound of glass flying through the earth.

From: The Red Convertible Selected and New Stories by Louis Erdrich