The Professor waits at the backdoor of the slaughterhouse. The air is thick with morning fog. That’s the way it is in Vienna. That’s the way it is around slaughterhouses. Always fog. Who has ever seen a slaughterhouse in a gentle breeze and sunshine? No one. He certainly never has. And he has come here every November, since 1998. Schlachthaus, St. Marx, Slaughterhouse St. Marx. The cobblestone-covered alley, the heavy grey metal doors, the tracks under the roof ’s overhang holding hooks that carry cows’ halves into the hollow of delivery trucks, the gut-smeared loading dock, the blood-brown puddles, the opaque seepage between the stones–all of it–it is not his turf. He only comes here for his yearly bag of eyeballs. Bulls’ eyes, including sockets. He stands, awkwardly hunched, by the massive backdoor, his horn-rimmed glasses barely balancing on the tip of his nose, his
well-worn fedora pulled over his thinning hair, and a proper Burberry trenchcoat hiding his expanded middle. He, E. A. Loitzenbauer, is a professor of Biology at an extremely well-respected highschool. He believes in the practical approach to teaching. He has made a point (and a reputation) of providing his students with bulls’ eyes, which they may dissect with razorblades. Under his supervision, of course. Nothing explains the miracle of vision like peeling back the layers of an eyeball, pulling the iris from between cornea and lens, then separating the optic nerve, pointing out the blind-spot. The students love it.
E. A. Loitzenbauer knows how to acquire high-quality eyeballs. He has a connection. Jack, the butcher. Perhaps the man’s name isn’t really Jack. But who has ever heard of a butcher named Sebastian or Humphrey or even Edgar. No one. So, Jack, the butcher. The Professor and Jack traded messages yesterday, and they confirmed the pickup of “a dozen bulls’ and/or cows’ eyes, plenty of muscle and nerve attached, fresh.” It is of
utmost importance to receive eyeballs fresh and use them for same-day dissection. The longer one waits, the tougher the eyeballs get. Once, E.A.L. had to keep the dozen eyeballs in his fridge overnight, because a school-wide unannounced fi re-drill had preempted his class. The eyes sat like dark, faceless pocketwatches in a Tupperware between leftover rice-salad and cold-cuts. The dissection two days later was less joyful than usual.
The Professor pounds on the grey metal slaughterhouse door. Three times. This is how it’s been since 1998. He expects Jack, with bloody apron and bearded smile, to open the heavy door and to pass him the eye-bag in exchange for the usual amount of cash. The eyeballs are a bargain. Three times. The door stays closed. Nothing happens. He pounds again. Jack might be busy? Butchering? Using the WC? He waits a few moments, then he stiffens the collar of his coat. He pounds a third time, with more heft, and suddenly he feels as if he is impersonating Harry Lime on a mission in WWII-ravaged Vienna, which still looks war-ravaged in the 21st century, at least in the back-alley of the slaughterhouse.
Finally, the door opens. It’s not Jack. It’s a small sturdy woman, maybe in her middle 50’s, wearing a thick, properly blood-smeared apron, and holding a large knife. The handles of two smaller knives stick out from a pocket of her apron. Who’s ever seen a lady butcher? No one. Until now.
“Yeah?” She throws it at him. She looks positively bothered. As if all the cow-carcasses behind her were very interesting guests she has been forced to abandon in the midst of a deftly entertaining private soiree.
“Uhh… excuse me, Fraulein?” Says E.A.L. and she huffs immediately, a slicing sort of huff that clarifies her distaste for flattery.
“What,” she goes on. It isn’t a question. “What’s with the pounding!”
“I am here…I have a… this is my…” E.A.L. stammers, he doesn’t do well when things don’t go according to plan in unfamiliar places. He doesn’t do well when facing a butcheress wielding, perhaps not really wielding, but certainly brandishing, a knife.
“Is Jack available?” he finally manages, dry-throated.
“JACK,” she has a cutting tone when she says the name, “JACK, got fired.” With that she wants to leave him and return to her beef-sides. She moves to close the door, but E.A.L., in a surprising display of physical impulse, wedges his leg into the door. He will not disappoint his students!
“Ah Christ…” she sighs as she stops short of amputating his leg. “Whaaaaat!? What else…?” she opens the door again. He pulls his leg back.
“Would you…I came by…the reason…” he doesn’t quite know how to go on.
“Spit it out, Harry Lime!” she says. So it’s not just him making the Third Man connection. There is something Harry Lime-ish about him. Must be the trench coat. If he were Harry Lime, he wouldn’t stutter, if he were Harry Lime, even for a moment, he would…
“I am here for my one dozen eyeballs.” There, he said it.
“Your dozen eyeballs? Did I hear you right? You are at my door asking for YOUR dozen eyeballs?” She juts her face forward. It’s quite a face. Raw-red cheeks. Summer-mountain blue eyes. Good lips, like pork-strips, plump and fleshy… An awful and stunning face. The Butcher Frau from St. Marx.
“I have a longstanding arrangement with Jack. He supplies me with-”
“Jack got fired. Didn’t I already say Jack got fired? Should I say it again?” Nothing sanguine is in her voice. One half of his coat’s collar falls.
“No. That won’t be necessary. But, nonetheless, my one dozen-”
“Yes eyeballs! My dozen. I was promised it. And… frankly, my students count on me. My students have signed up for eyeball-disection!” In a surge of valor he straightens his posture. She moves her hands to her hips, the large knife remains in her left fist, pointing forward, straight outward, toward him.
“You’re di-secting eyeballs with students? What kind of a school is this? It’s no school my children attend.” The second half of his collar falls. The rest of Harry Lime falls with it.
“I…I am Edgar Adam Loitzenbauer. Excuse my impropriety. I should have introduced myself first.” He holds out his hand. “I am a professor of Biology at the Academic Gymnasium of Vienna, First District.” He stretches his hand further toward her knife. After a moment she transfers the knife from the right to the left, pulls off her thick leather glove, tucks it into her apron’s belt, then grabs his hand for a brief shake.
“Aloisia Schober. Butcher. Right here. Tenth district.” What a hand she has. Muscle. Grip. Strength. Awful. An awful and captivating hand. “Academic Gymnasium, First District,” she continues as if the words were a foreign language. “Fan-cay.”
“Yes. Proud to say we have nurtured a good part of the country’s elite.”
“With the help of eyeballs?”
“You could say so. The eyeballs play a part. For example, the eyeball dissection has convinced Dr. George Navratil to pursue medicine. Have you heard of him? A prize-winning optamalo-”
“I have not heard of him.” She looks at E.A.L, her awful arms folded now, the knife-blade sticking from the crook of her elbow.
“In any case, the eyeballs are vital to my educational mission. And since Jack-”
“He was fired.”
“Yes. I gather. But-”
“It’s me now.”
“Of course. You are married. But-”
“I am not married.”
“Oh, well. Good. But perhaps you could find it in your heart to look for these eyeballs. Perhaps Jack had already prepared them. I spoke to him yesterday.” E.A.L.will not give up.
“He got fired this morning,” she says again.
“All the more reason to believe that my eyeballs are perhaps resting in a bag
somewhere….?” They stare at each other. E.A.L. holds her gaze, for the sake of his students. They must have their eyeballs.
She doesn’t move.
“Are you married?” she asks suddenly, moving the big knife as if tapping at a piece of filet. He resolves to give this bewitching awful woman butcher anything she asks for. Means to an end. Means to an end. Eyeballs first.
“I am not. I was almost once, but then we thought better of it.” A pained laugh attaches itself to the end of his sentence. His almost-wife thought better of it, not “we,” but who needs to know that? No one. He takes his sliding horn-rimmed glasses off, he has to wipe sweat from the bridge of his nose.
“Do you teach sex-stuff too?” She is tilting her head sideways, narrowing her eyes.
“Mechanics of sex and such. Biology of the perpetuations of mankind and such.”
“Yes. Yes, that is part of the curriculum, but not in 11th grade. In 11th grade we dissect eyeballs. If you could-” he folds his hands to a prayer position. “Please!?”
She finally detaches herself from the doorframe and turns around. Now he can see her hair beneath the dirty kerchief. An exquisite shade of strawberry blonde. Faint wisps of grey. Stunning. Awful.
“HAS ANYONE SEEN A BAG OF EYEBALLS?” she yells into the cavern of the slaughterhouse and, like mewing, from all corners sounds an ominous “NOOO!” She turns around to face him again.
“Sorry.” The Butcheress shrugs her shoulders. “Jack probably took the eyeballs along with everything else.”
“Do you, do you know where he might have gone?”
“Where they serve something to drink.” While still holding the large knife, she pulls the glove from her apron’s belt then slips her naked hand into the stained leather. Has any woman ever worn a glove so hideously attractive? He shudders.
Eyeballs. Remember the eyeballs. She said Frank could be found where they serve something to drink?… That’s everywhere! Were he to look into all places that serve alcohol, moving outward from the slaughterhouse in concentric circles, it would take him hours, days, years. This is Vienna! There are more dives, cafés, and liquor kiosks than fire hydrants.
Oh, now, now he can feel his spirit flagging. The fog is beginning to lift too. The slaughterhouse brick is turning brighter and the smell of urine is rising from the bloodbrown seepage on the cobblestones. E.A.L. is not a man who wants to give up. But now he deflates, he sinks into his Burberry. His head bends, the fedora falls from his head, leaving his bald-spot in full view. Disgrace. He bends slowly to pick up his hat. He doesn’t look at Frau Schober, the butcheress, who still stands by the grey heavy door, gloved and armed, watching him. He thinks of his students, who are waiting for him, eager to use their razorblades, eager to slit a cornea. His one heroic moment a year, entering the classroom holding up a bag of fresh bulls’ eyes like a trophy, gone, along with Jack. His hat in his hands he turns, he will not look at her again, and he walks away, toward the main street, the streetcar station, toward teaching his class by and with book only.
“Hey! Edgar Adam!” he hears the crude and powerful voice of the butcheress. He stops.
“I can get a dozen bulls’ eyes for you by next Thursday. 6:30 AM. Bang the door three times.”
He hears the metal door shut. He turns around. She’s gone. What an awful and impressive woman. He will only postpone the discovery of vision. Not cancel it. He will return on Thursday Surely he can pacify the students until next Thursday. He will return Thursday for his bulls’ eyes…and to lay eyes on her again, that butcheress. Were he a man prone to skipping, he would skip over the cobblestones leading away from the slaughterhouse.
The moment he turns the corner onto Main Street, the sun breaks through the fog and shines on the slaughterhouse. No one sees it.