Bare-knuckled, itchy-assed, sweating the sweat of twenty-four beers. In bad need of taking a stinky dump and dreading a trip to the stinkier head at the back of your shithole workplace.
The line is running slow, so you gotta grab at the chain to keep the glue-bound danglers from cutting you. At your temples a wicked thump and pound. Your boots skating on the gory slick. Sink your muscle-popping blade, ply open another flange of rib. Sink, loosen, separate. Gloves ripping wider with every plunge, showing more skin, yours, chapped pink, streaked red. Sink, loosen, separate. Before ribber, shackler till your rotator busted from the constant push and reach. One dead hunk of slippery flesh after another. The foreman’s own slippery flesh approaching, bitching about the slack line while nausea rises, calling the ache in your head down to meet it.
Then it’s a hoof upside your face. That’s it: the blow that sends you to ask—you can’t even see for a minute so you gotta ask—for a break, the fifteen you have coming to you after lunch. Who could eat lunch, you used to think, who could stand the idea, but you did, you ate. You went with the rest for a sub at the truck, cup of chili at The Spot. You fucking ate.
Arm paining up as high as it can go, shoulder fires a stab to your fingers as you catch the bar, stop the bleeding bellies long enough to ask Sergio, tell the SOB, you have your fifteen coming and there’s not fuck he can say, even if it is less than an hour since lunch.
A nod, a holler. Roddy steps in. And you’re out the door, sucking air down your pipes. Leaning, bent kneed, a wretch rising, a heave. Your guts are watering the building when the yelling starts.
You can make it out, barely, through your aches and sweats and shallow breath: the yard guys hollering, the slam of gate and door, feet thudding the ground as more guys rush out, more voices call over the yard. “Get her! Get her! Corner that bitch.” Just noise pulsing around your bent-over self as you spew up another rancid mouthful. Then somebody’s coming around the corner and you wipe your face with your sleeve to improve your sorry state even if you can’t hide the vomit at your feet. Not that anyone gives a shit, really.
It’s Brad: “Got a live one!”
Brad is decent, a buddy. He tells you to stay put. “Block her if she comes back here.” Points at the fence.
You nod and when he’s gone, you hinge over with dry heaves. And you feel that shit coming down and you pinch through the burn. If they don’t catch that heifer right quick and let you back inside, you gonna take that dump out here.
Twelve years you’ve been inside this killing factory. Not even thirty-five. Got your butchering know-how from your daddy’s mama. She taught you all else besides when you come to live with her at five, mend clothes too, and pshawed at the coot next door who called it women’s work. Taught you that doing for yourself was the only way, showed you from knee-high the hang of the paring blade; coaxing coarse figures from wood, lining them up till you had a stable of critters that still show up in your dreams. If only she’d learned you how to pay her thieving daughter’s debts, but they broke her, your granny, took what little she had, carried her off to live in a corner. Died with her face to the wall. And you went to work at seventeen on the road crew, then to the packing plant to get out of the sun. Out of the heat and into the blood till your shoulder was so fucked that pouring concrete won’t even possible. Two times you’ve left Horizon Meats, two times returned, nearly begging this last go-round for anything. So they threw you a muck-stick, had you mop the filth for weeks before they set you back on the line. Then it was sticking twitchers fresh from the knock box, roughest spot in the place. Months before you got back to the ribbing station and you’re lucky to have it: eight hours on the tight, rattling line, carcass after carcass rushing along at what the SOB calls compulsory speed. Impossible not to cut or be cut. You don’t wear red for obvious reasons. But you went last week and did like Brad said, you wore the red hat he gave you, you got in line and you voted for the first damn time. You voted against the rigged up bullshit of the system, you voted to send the likes of Sergio back where they belong. And you got to keep the hat.
She comes around the corner startling you into a recollection of your duty—but duty shrinks before her enormous girth coming right at you. Or at the fence behind you. And because there is a fence and because you are sick, sick and tired, and because she is broad—and blooming broader as she nears—you forget how they can be, bounding around, leaping high into the air. You saw that once: spring turnout on your cousin’s place, how they swiveled and flung their big bellies around, all four hooves off the ground. But you forget and you don’t step forward where you might spook her back into the yard. Bleary-eyed, weak-limbed, you step sideways. And the cow, white and grand, rises. Yes, you think grand this once, noting the single patch on her flank, the shape of Florida. Your guts are torqued, but your thoughts unfasten, liquid as a dream. And you watch her clear the fence.
Then Brad’s voice: “Dill, you slack-ass motherfucker. This one’s on you.”