By Keith Rosson
Always the same night unfolding at Fischer’s, inside and out. Same fug of our work, the constant reek of offal and blood, cow shit in our pores. How we carry it all with us, in the treads of our boots, the tips of our shoelaces bloody from where they drag on the kill floor. Black halfmoons under our nails. All those dead heifers, those once-howling bulls in the plant across the road. And here the same television screens up above the bar, in the corners, dumb and sightless as cataracts. The jukebox playing the same goddamned songs again and again. The same jokes yelled at each other. Same assholes sitting in the same spots, all of us stinking of death so bad we don’t even notice it anymore.
And Vance Deschain got a Rotty tied up out front, named Lucas. Every night he lashes Lucas to the bike rack, Vance gazing up at the TV with his Bud Light and his lady Newports, Lucas slavering out front, pacing. Vance worked the stick pit with me for nine years. Nine years! Me stunning, him a sticker, throat-cutting the cows so they bleed out as they come down the chain, hoisted up by that back leg. New animal every four seconds. I was before him on the line, working the bolt gun. Foreman though, foreman doesn’t want bloodsplash – hemorrhages in the meat – plant loses money that way. So what does he do? He sets the bolt so light I’ve had meaner hard-ons. With a light bolt sometimes you don’t get bloodsplash, and sometimes you get lucky with one shot, but other times you can pull the trigger and hit a screaming cow four, eight, twelve times between the eyes, skull buckled like a piñata, brains everywhere, and she’s still kicking. And a new animal every four seconds. For hours. I didn’t have time to be hitting everything twelve times in the head, not with fifteen animals a minute coming down the chute. No one does.
So you let one go sometimes. Sometimes you have to.
And, well, what happened was that a bull come down the chain one night hooked by that back leg, but still alive, no doubt. My fault. Hole in that thing’s head big enough to put your fist through, but it’s still kicking on the chain. And it kicked Vance’s sticking blade into his other hand, and he lost two fingers. Plant was able to wriggle out of Worker’s Comp because of how long it took Vance to file or some such horseshit. Lost his job, didn’t give him a dime.
I’ve worked the bolt for twenty-two years, you believe that?
You can feel the weight of them, eventually. The weight of their souls on you, on your chest. All of them sitting there. An animal every four seconds? For twenty-two years? That’s millions of animals. I’ve done the math.
It’s a real weight, is what I’m saying, like how they used to press people to death under flat stones.
I work swing, two to ten shift, and normally I go to Fischer’s but I go home first this night because I’ve just got a feeling. Cora and me had fought again before my shift and I called it true, that feeling, because when I get home, her things are gone. Not all of them, but enough – clothes and things, her makeup, her photo albums – to know that she’s left for a good while, if not forever. So I head to Fischer’s where I should have gone in the first place. On the drive, something in me flexes open and closed like a fist.
The fuck out of here, I say to Lucas as he snaps at me on my way in. That big bullet-shaped head, those jaws clacking shut.
It’s a true weight, the souls of those animals.
I never said nothing to Vance about it, about his hand. About the job. Never said sorry.
Cora doesn’t answer when I call. I put my phone away and then in the middle of my second beer I take it out again and send her a text message of something terrible. I feel bad about it, but then in between that beer and the next I take it out and do it again. I feel better about it that time.
One time I remember a heifer lashed out, kicked Vance in the shoulder. Goddamn, he said, and he cut her ears off, stuck her slow in the eyes while she hollered, and then finally stuck the throat. You just get mad sometimes. You feel locked in.
It’s a real weight. It weighs on you.
Her photo albums. Christ, she took her curling iron.
A long while later Fischer gingerly pushes another set of glasses my way – I’ve graduated to whiskey and beer backs and I’ve stopped counting how many – and says, Probably good if this is the last one.
Somebody ought to do something about that fucking dog, I say back.
Fischer just looks at me.
I say it again, louder this time, and then look over. Vance is still there under the TV, but he shakes his head, sucks at his teeth.
Finish up, Fischer says, and moves on down the bar.
I dream about the line most nights. The gun never works well enough. I punch and punch and the black eyes roil up at me, maddened and afraid. Blood froths from the holes but they don’t die, they don’t buckle, the line just gets longer. I wake breathless, gasping, scratching and pounding at my chest, all that heaviness there.
I call Cora and when it goes to voicemail I say through the din of the bar, Shit, I never loved you even a little, and even to my own ears it sounds hollow and weak and contemptuous. Bile rises in my throat and I clap my hand to my mouth and spin on my stool and lurch a ragged line out the door.
The night air’s like a baptism, cool and cleansing, but the heart, something’s wrong with my heart, all that weight, and there’s Lucas tied to the rack, that growl low and deep in his chest.
And I am sorry for it all, the whole mess, and I am a lost man, it’s true, and I take out my jack knife and walk slow and calm towards that dog, murmuring gentle platitudes, the chill air heaving from my mouth in a cloud.
Because why not?
Because when you get down to it, what’s one animal to another?
Keith Rosson's fiction has appeared in PANK, Cream City Review, Gulf Stream, December, and more. His debut novel, The Mercy of the Tide, was published by Meerkat Press in early 2017. He is also a legally blind illustrator and graphic designer - which can be as challenging as it sounds - with clients that include Warner Bros, Green Day, Against Me, the Goo Goo Dolls, and more.