Mountainview MFA Contest Winner: Turkey
by Eddie Dzialo
At the slaughterhouse, Jerry sat behind his desk in the supervisor’s office, staring at a computer screen. The desk looked like it had been hauled up from a junkyard. There was a concrete floor, cinderblocks for walls. The air was a greasy film. On the upper half of his door was a glass window, laced with chicken wire. Someone had written “dickhole” on it in marker. When he entered the slaughterhouse each morning, it took him fifteen minutes to go nose-blind to the smell of pig intestines. In the drawers of his desk were plastic soda bottles that he’d pissed in. If the supervisors from the second or third shifts saw them, they never said anything.
After he emailed the employees’ hours to Payroll, Jerry left to talk to Tony, an Italian dock worker everyone called “Lots-O,” which was short for “Lots of Love.” People caught him masturbating in the showers regularly. Earlier today, the business unit manager had called Jerry, instructing him to talk to Lots-O about how he had been stretching his fifteen minute breaks into several hours. Recite the policy, get a signature.
With his clipboard cradled in his arm, Jerry found Lots-O and read the company’s Oral Warning without inflection or concern. When Jerry handed Lots-O the pen, Lots-O bit the cap, spat it on the floor and said he as going to maul Jerry with a box cutter. As Lots-O laid into him, mostly in Italian, Jerry looked him over. Hands, pockets, waistband, ankles. Nothing. Jerry was disappointed, began imagining slowly pushing his thumbs into Lots-O’s eyes. When the image left, he walked back to his office as Lots-O stood in place, yelling louder.
Jerry had been unable to find his emotions after he’d returned from Afghanistan. He’d been discharged after getting two of his toes blown off in an IED explosion. Glenny, the Marine who’d been in front of him that day, had lost both his legs. Jerry had shoved both his hands into Glenny’s tattered limbs and tried to squeeze Glenny’s arteries. Even when they told him that Glenny was dead, he hadn’t let go.
After getting medically separated from the Marines, he drank for a year, talked to no one. His mother tried to call him twice a week, but he never answered. Once, to get his mother to stop worrying about him, he went to her house for dinner. When she talked, he wasn’t there. Drifting, thinking about nothing, staring at the walls. After that, she kept calling, but Jerry would just listen. Everything was flat, uneventful. When he walked, he was wobbly, uncertain. Sometimes he was unsure of where he was going or why he was even going anywhere at all. Noises had become dull and feelings had lost their shape and urgency.
On his résumé, briefly noted were his year in college, his stint as a machine gunner. Jerry had felt something during his second interview at the slaughterhouse, when they showed him around the plant, feeling him out to see if he had the stomach for the work. Watching the pigs getting processed, bled out, and hacked at inexplicably had made Jerry comfortable, happy. The toxic bile that he had imagined sliding around his head had left, for a moment.
After the incident with Lots-O, Jerry returned to his office, filled out payroll forms. He took intermittent breaks to work at the treads of his boots with his folding knife, picking out pads of dirt and pig parts. Left boot first. He rolled up his left pant leg and dragged the knife’s blade along his calf muscle. Blood dribbled down his leg, pooled up around the rim of his sock. In his drawer was an almost-empty bottle of antiseptic, some soft tissue adhesive, bandages. As he applied all three, he thought about how no one grew up wanting to work at a slaughterhouse.
Bobby McCray was calling Jerry’s phone. Bobby ran East Gate. There were no other gates, and, as Jerry had been told a year ago during training, it wasn’t even on the eastern half of the slaughterhouse, but that was what the gate was called.
When Jerry answered, Bobby explained that there were seven trucks still waiting outside. Part of Jerry’s job was telling Bobby when he could send them up to the docks to offload. Bobby was yelling about how they’d been waiting since the night before.
Jerry asked why the night crew hadn’t taken them. Bobby said he had no idea. One of the drivers was threatening to take his pigs out of the truck and leave them in the parking lot.
Jerry would have told Bobby to stop him, but Bobby would have said that managing deliveries—after they’d gotten through the security checkpoint at East Gate—was Jerry’s job. Other than complaining about his heart condition and calling supervisors to complain about how backed up the delivery trucks were, Bobby didn’t do much.
Because he had to, Jerry left his office. He went out and grabbed the clipboard from the driver who had been threatening to leave the pigs in the parking lot. The driver apologized for getting upset. He explained that he’d been short on time. After he dropped off the stock with Jerry, he had to make a three-day trip to Albuquerque.
The driver backed the truck into the loading docks, got out and lifted the truck’s gate. The smell of festering pig made the driver wretch, but neither Jerry nor the dock workers, Lots-O and Mitchell, covered their noses or looked away.
The driver said that it had been his first time moving pigs, and he hadn’t expected so many of them to die during transport. The pigs had been packed together so tightly that some of them had been crushed or trampled and then eaten. Whatever was left of the dead was frozen to the floor of the truck.
“You know the thing about intestines?” Lots-O asked the driver.
The driver sucked air through the gloved hand that was covering his mouth.
“They really aren’t designed to come out like that,” Lots-O said, pointing to one of the dead pigs. Jerry wondered if that had happened before or after it died.
Poor shipments like these happened three, maybe four times a month. Jerry was irritated about the Form 75-A that he’d have to submit.
“I guess we should just be happy that we weren’t born as pigs,” Mitchell said. He was looking over at one that had been trampled to death. “That dicker is ripe.”
Jerry took a running count of the survivors, pointing his pen at each one. Seventy-six. He had to determine how many of the dead ones the company could salvage. They had quotas. Most of the parts that couldn’t be sold as meat were sent to the smaller part of the slaughterhouse, which made doggy kibble. Before running the numbers, he looked at a pig that was frozen to the floor. Maybe, if he held onto this image, he wouldn’t need to cut himself again later. After watching dead pigs coming in by the truckload for over a year, returns had diminished. He couldn’t increase the dosage. To spur something, Jerry gave the dead pig a name.
Carl. Carl had been someone’s baby, he thought. Maybe a little girl had met Carl at a petting zoo and that little girl had gone home raving about how she’d met the most wonderful pig. And now Carl was being scraped off the floor of the truck with a shovel, being chipped away in pieces.
Jerry waited for happiness. When nothing came, he instructed Lots-O and Mitchell to escort the living pigs into the corrals.
As the truck drove back out toward East Gate, Jerry thought about taking his lighter to the Bill of Lading because the driver had caused such a scene to get in quicker. He put a Parliament in the side of his mouth instead. On his clipboard, he jotted down times and dates, numbers and notes, looking up occasionally to watch the pigs getting processed.
Adrian was at the other end of the corrals, waiting to hit the pigs with an electric prod that would stun them before their throats were cut. Over the last year, Jerry had seen some pigs take four hits from Adrian’s prod without stumbling. Adrian loved his job. He’d once been a knight at Medieval Times and his name there had been Malvo.
Gary ran the next phase of the assembly line. He cut the throats of the recently shocked pigs and led them up the ramp as they bled and died. Gary would guide a leaking pig onto the platform. He’d hit a button, and then the pig would get dumped in a vat of scalding water so that its skin and coarse hair would soften before the butchers hacked at it.
Publicly, the company stated that all the pigs were put down peacfully prior to going in the vat. Privately, a manager told Jerry that an average of 1,000 pigs a day were going in that fucking tank. Most of the pigs that Gary dumped were still on their feet when they went in
At their annual efficiency screening, a consultant had stated that the appearance of humane treatment was important for their survival as a business. Jerry had sat in one of the leather chairs in the back of the room with the rest of the supervisors, and drawn a picture of the consultant getting sodomized with Adrian’s prod.
While Adrian prodded each pig as it came out of the corrals, Jerry tucked some papers into a folder. Adrian was dancing around with the prod like a fencer.
One of the baby pigs came down the ramp toward Adrian. Its knees buckled before it collapsed. A lot of the pigs did stuff like that after being offloaded because they weren’t given enough space in the truck to lie down. Some of them never got back up.
“Ka-poo,” Adrian said, sticking the prod into the baby pig’s neck.
Gary came down the ramp and said, “Adrian, what’re you, soft? I bet your mother never figured you’d grow up to work with tools.” Gary told him not to shock the little one because it would kill him. Then Gary would have to go down and carry him up the ramp on his own. Ideally, an adult pig would still be able to walk up the ramp while the blood drained from its neck. When it got to the plank, Gary would drop a lever like the one on a slot machine, and dump the pig.
Jerry lit another cigarette. Eventually, Gary would get tired of yelling at Adrian and demand that Jerry issue some sort of formal discipline. But Jerry never knew who to discipline or what the right thing to do was, and he suspected that no one else did either.
While Jerry stood there, smoking, Gary bent at the waist, picked up the unconscious baby pig and walked up the ramp towards the scalding water.
“Look at this jackass,” Adrian said, pointing at Gary. “Gimme one of them,” he said, pawing at the pack of Parliaments in Jerry’s hand.
As he exhaled through his nose, Jerry said that they weren’t supposed to smoke on the floor.
Adrian raised his prod and pressed the button so Jerry could see the little blue lightning bolts coming off the tip. It wasn’t a real threat. Jerry tossed the pack at him.
Gary was at the top of the ramp, sweating, holding the baby pig tight to his chest like it was his dead infant.
“Our counts won’t be low today, Adrian,” Gary said. “The Lord sent you here to test me, but I will overcome. There have been other wet-brained fuckers like you on this job, and none of them have slowed me down. You ain’t long for this work, son. You listening, boy?”
Gary’s voice sharpened when he said “boy.” The pig startled awake and began to squeal and kick in Gary’s arms. Adrian laughed and gave Gary the finger. Gary tossed the baby pig into the vat. Jerry picked at the treads of his boots.
On the drive home, Jerry stopped and bought an air freshener, something he did twice a week. The stench of the slaughterhouse followed him around, filled his car. His clothes, his fingernails, his hair, they all smelled like a dead animal rotting in the sun. There were four air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror. At night, when he was drinking, sometimes he’d pause and smell his hands. Despite the constant showers and regular doses of hand sanitizer, the odor would still be there. If he left his apartment, he’d avoid standing near people because he was convinced they could smell him.
Jerry pulled into the lot of his apartment complex. The junkies were standing on their stoops, drinking, fumbling under the weight of their stupor, swaying to the rhythm of the drug. His apartment was surrounded by a protected forest. In the summertime, you could hear crickets. Sometimes a dog would disappear because a coyote had wandered over and ripped it apart. Just because there were trees didn’t make it a nice place to live.
Each house shared a wall with the other house on its left and right—unless you paid extra for one of the houses at the end of the row. Every house was identical. Fake brick exterior on the first floor, white vinyl siding on the second, plastic blue shutters on the windows.
When Jerry got out of his car, he saw a turkey on his stoop, pacing the two-foot slab of concrete in front of the door.
Mrs. Miller, his neighbor, was smoking a joint on her stoop. Her infant was probably sleeping inside. “That thing will peck you with its beak, yeah?”
“You asking or telling me?” She shrugged.
“Nice talking with you,” Jerry said, walking to his door. The turkey advanced on Jerry, as if defending its home. Its feathers had a thick shine. They looked like they were covered in plastic. Jerry took a few steps backward and the turkey resumed standing in front of his door. If he lunged, he could probably snap its neck, but then there would be a large, dead bird on his stoop.
Jerry went over to the only window he had and pushed it open. The window was single-paned, cheap, didn’t keep heat in. And the wood frame was so old and warped that it wiggled around the inside with ease. If you rocked it back and forth, it opened even if it was locked. Only when he was drunk did Jerry fantasize about what he would do to someone if they tried to break in through the window.
As he toweled himself off, he thought about leaving his apartment to watch football at the bar down the street. He didn’t want to hang out with other people, nor did he want to be someplace where people could smell him. But the alternative was drinking by himself, wondering if the things he thought were normal. When he drank, especially when he was alone, he’d get to a place where he couldn’t determine if he should hate himself for how much he had used to enjoy working at the slaughterhouse. With enough drinks, he would decide that he shouldn’t. But this evening he worried that he would reach a different conclusion by night’s end. Being in public was still better than being by himself, thinking, concluding.
He’d go out. But he would start the night by drinking alone. Going out would be easier when he wasn’t sober. He chewed on a half-eaten, cold cheeseburger he’d stashed in his fridge. When he tried to leave his apartment to get a bottle of Jameson, the turkey spread its wings and squawked. He closed the door; he didn’t know anything about turkeys. With his phone, he looked up turkeys charging humans. The search results included several videos. He snuck out the window, half hoping that the turkey would attack. The turkey and Mrs. Miller watched him leave.
When Jerry got back from the liquor store, the turkey was gone. Before sitting down at his table, he got out a Pyrex cup and a stopwatch. During the year he was unemployed, he’d worked out that if he took two shots every twenty minutes, he’d be able to finish the bottle without collapsing.
The first hour was anticipation, waiting for the stopwatch to tell him when it was okay to take another drink. Within two hours, Jerry felt how he assumed other people felt all the time. Thoughts became powerless.
After three hours, Jerry checked the stopwatch, turned on his laptop, and searched for death videos, propaganda films. When watching the pigs getting killed had lost its edge, he’d found these. Tonight, he found a clip of four men wearing dog collars, locked inside a large cage that was hanging above a pool. All four men were wearing orange jumpsuits. Their hands were bound with zip ties. On the side of the pool were two men in ski masks, AK-47’s in their right hands, the butts of the rifles sitting in the crooks of their elbows, muzzles pointing to the sky. As the cage was lowered into the pool, each man closed his eyes.
The stopwatch told him it was time to drink. As he leaned back in his chair he imagined being in the cage and thinking about whether he regretted the choices that had led him there, wondering if his parents were ever going to know what happened to him. What were they going to do to his body after they lifted the cage out of the water?
When Jerry opened his eyes, he saw nothing but his old drywall, felt nothing but thirst. He clicked around and found a video of a man getting his head cut off with a machete. The victim was screaming, and as the blade worked its way into his throat, the sounds came from the opening rather than his mouth. Jerry picked up the bottle of Jameson, drank the rest of it, foregoing his standard drinking increments, gripped the bottle by the neck and brought it down on the stopwatch. He wanted company.
He stumbled down to the bar, throwing both legs forward, pausing only to light Parliaments. Kickoff wasn’t for another twenty minutes. He sat at the bartop, and realized that he was at the level of drunk where words left his mouth before he knew what they were. While he waited for a drink, he sniffed his fingertips. Scents of stale tobacco smoke and the slaughterhouse. When he was drunk, he didn’t worry about people smelling him. He welcomed it. He looked around, imagining each person coming up to him, asking him why he smelled so bad.
He was slapping at a bowl of free peanuts, rocketing back shots of whiskey, thinking about whether he should go over to Frequent Mike, the bookie who always sat at the end of the bar, taking bets, talking about odds. Frequent Mike took bets on anything that had Vegas odds attached. He let people bet on the coin flip at the Super Bowl, but the vig was always ten percent. So even if someone won, Frequent took ten percent of the winnings. He feared that he would ultimately start placing wagers with Frequent Mike, and gamble more money than he had. When he lost, without means to pay, Frequent would do what he had to.
He put back another shot. He sidled up to Frequent Mike, and asked what he was taking bets on.
Frequent slid through some notes on his phone, fired off numbers, ran his fingers through his greasy hair, which hung an inch above his shoulders. The long sleeves of his white shirt were stretched out and worn.
Frequent said, “The over-under is forty-two, and the spread is minus three—bad guys being the favorite. Just make it fast, game’s about to go, kid.”
“Something quicker,” Jerry said.
Jerry shook his head.
“Shit, well, I could go for a first goal scored, but gimme a minute to look up some numbers.”
With his recently deposited paycheck, Jerry had less than $900 in his account. Jerry said, “I’ll put four G’s down, right now...but it’s gotta be something short and quick. Gotta scram soon.”
Frequent flipped through his phone. He said that the Vegas odds had set the over/under for the length of the national anthem at one minute and forty-two seconds, and Jerry took the under. For Jerry to win $3600—ten percent would go to Frequent’s vig regardless of the outcome—the local girl would have to finish singing the word “brave” in less than one minute and forty-two seconds after she’d belted the first “Oh.” As soon as Frequent wrote Jerry’s name in his pocket notebook, Jerry had officially bet four grand on the duration of the national anthem.
When he drank, Jerry’s hands and arms were in constant motion. Even when he crunched on the fingernails of his right hand, his elbows spun in tight circles. Everything was moving slower, fear began to fester. He thought of the dead pigs and wondered where Frequent kept his gun. He envisioned losing the bet and having to tell Frequent that it would be months before he’d be able to come up with the money. Frequent would tell him to meet him out back, and if Jerry refused, Frequent would wait until Jerry left the bar to go home. A gun would be involved.
On the TV, a girl began to sing.
“Don’t you drag out those fucking words,” Jerry said. He leaned over the bar to get closer to the TV. His feet came off the ground.
“AND THE HOME... OF THE—”
“Short and swift! Stop! Stop! Son-of-a-fuck!”
The girl finished singing.
Jerry looked over at Frequent and asked, “What was the time?”
Frequent told him that the Vegas line said 1:39. Jerry was up $3600.
Jerry squeezed both of his fists and tried not to cry as the adrenaline drained. Then he threw up on the floor.
The following morning Jerry was in his office, sipping water and playing computer solitaire. Red seven went under black eight. Double click, drink some water. An hour ago, he’d put an Alka-Seltzer into a bottle of Gatorade, but he was still going to vomit soon. There were other things Jerry should have been doing: checking sick calls for the afternoon shift, calling Bobby at East Gate to see how many deliveries were scheduled to come in that day, ensuring that everyone was working their assigned job, reporting to his boss that everyone was accounted for.
Lots-O opened the door of his office without knocking. “Melinda, she, uh, no work this afternoon. Overtime. You call for the overtime. Check the list.” Jerry took his feet off the desk and pulled up the overtime list off the Shared Drive.
“You sick, no?” Lots-O asked.
After coughing into his elbow, Jerry said that Lots-O was number three on the overtime list. Jerry thought he’d seen Melinda when he came in this morning.
“That’s, uh, not correct,” Lots-O said.
“Mitchell and Adrian are both ahead of you,” Jerry said.
“Bullshit,” he said, slamming his palm into Jerry’s desk. “Adrian worked last night. And Mitchell worked this week. That list has not been updated. You ask me, now, to work this afternoon.”
Per the union’s agreement, as soon as Jerry asked Lots-O to work overtime, Lots-O would have to get paid for it. But, if Mitchell or Adrian were ahead of him on the list, they’d file a grievance against Jerry for lost wages. When that happened, their union president would request that Adrian and Mitchell receive overtime checks as compensation for being skipped over.
Lots-O, Mitchell and Adrian did this all the time. They would get together, and the guy at the bottom of the list would ask Jerry for overtime. Should Jerry authorize it, the other two would file grievances within the hour. Adrian and Mitchell were probably outside his office, waiting for Lots-O to get asked.
Jerry had been running out of ways to make himself feel things. He needed to fight Lots-O.
“Lots-O?” Jerry said. “I wouldn’t offer you overtime if you threatened to shove a pig’s dick in my mouth.”
Lots-O threatened him with other things. He said that Jerry was going to find out, real soon, whether he owned a gun. Jerry pinned him up against the wall.
They’d never physically fought before, and Lots-O looked as surprised as he was frightened when Jerry shoved his forearm into Lots-O’s neck, took his knife from his pocket and flicked it open. He put the blade on Lots-O’s throat, pressed it into his skin but didn’t cut.
“Mitch!” Lots-O squeaked.
Mitchell ran in; he had been waiting outside the office. He grunted for Jerry to drop the knife.
The other shift workers crowded in. Some barked ringside advice while others made calls on their cell phones.
For as a long as he’d worked at the slaughterhouse, Jerry had been a witness to the violence. Never participating, always overseeing. Lots-O’s eyes were wide. His pupils were dilated. Jerry thought of the eyes of the baby pig just before it got tossed in the vat. He dropped the knife.
Lots-O fell to his knees and crawled out of the office, past Mitchell and Adrian and the other employees, who were still trying to get a full view of the action, shouting and shoving each other.
Mitchell shut the door behind him and yelled through the glass that he was going to file a grievance. “Cops going to be here soon for you, boss.”