By Michael Credico
Featured Art: Unfinished Study of Sheep by Constant Troyon, 1850
It’s the manipulations that end you. I was told this by Sam Shaw after he learned he’d been promoted to the inside. We were on the outside of the outside in the designated smoking area. I was smoking. Sam Shaw said, “What’s suffering worth?” He broke off the shards of animal blood that had froze to his overalls.
I shook like I was caught in electric wires. The cigarette butt hissed when I let it drop into a snowdrift. I could hardly feel myself living, felt like I was alive as a series of smoke breaks.
Sam Shaw said, “Nothing’s dead-end as it seems.”
“Easy for you to think,” I said. “You’re on the inside now.”
I warmed my hands with the heat of the conveyor’s gear motor, clenched and unclenched until my circulation was good enough that I could reach for my cutter and hand it off to Sam Shaw without either of us losing a precious something. Sam Shaw cut into a plastic clamshell that contained a dress shirt and tie combo. He pulled the tie too tight. I told him he couldn’t breathe. He called himself a real professional. I lined up the next group of animals.
“You ain’t dressed for this no more,” I said.
Sam Shaw looked at me and then the cutter. “Take it easy on me,” he said, taking an animal by its pit, cutting it with no regard for the stainlessness of the shirt.
My discomfort was visible. I was almost thirty and gutless, sitting across from my mother in the kitchen in the home I’d grown up in. I’d just started my second decade of winters shoveling the driveway. I was tired from pulling doubles on account of Sam Shaw’s promotion, smoking double to make up for the lack of sleep.
“I smell it all over you,” my mother said.
“I’m a fine shape,” I said.
“We didn’t raise no smoker. No butcher either.”
“Your father quit.”
My father had smoked Parliaments until the second heart attack. This was last September. I’d asked him what it felt like and he gave me his lighter. I’d told him I guess I’m next. “No. It’ll be me again,” he said. He was right.
I assumed it was snow sliding off the roof when his body slumped onto the floor in the living room. I was outside checking when my mother started screaming. The ambulance pulled up quick. The medics asked whose blood was on my shirt.
“Animals,” I said while they strapped my father to the gurney.
“He’s dead,” my mother said.
“I am?” my father said.
“We don’t think so,” the medics said. “Not yet.”
I sat with my mother in the waiting room in front of the LCD display that lists everyone in surgery like flights incoming, outgoing, and delayed. My mother began to list all the wrong things we’d eaten. I got up to get coffee. The coffee machine was next to the bathrooms. A man in a hospital gown asked how long I had left. “If it’s life threatening,” he said, “the nurses let you drink for free.”
I’d been at the killing square since college. My folks thought I’d graduated. I only had the debt. The killing square was the only place hiring for higher than the minimum. I’d passed a piss test, proved no aversion to blood.
The first shift after my father’s third heart attack, I found my cutter in the pocket of another man’s shirt. He said, “I figured since it was already bloody—”
“You the new Sam Shaw?”
“I don’t know nothing about Sam Shaw. I’m Benjamin. I know your father’s dead and I’m sorry for it.”
“It’s not right.”
“I started on the animals early.”
“When’d you get hired?”
“This morning.” He unwrapped a new cutter for himself and stabbed an animal in its stomach. The screaming was unbearable.
“That’s the wrong cut,” I said, slitting the animal’s throat.
“It would’ve bled out eventually.”
“This isn’t about eventually.”
“I wasn’t told any of that.”
“What were you told?”
“I was told where to find a cutter. Figured the rest out. They ain’t pets.” He dragged the carcass to the dock. “How they get them so heavy?”
“Comfort,” I said. The dock was full of steaming carcasses. “You did all them today?”
“Not much squirming. They always easy like that?”
“I think they already know,” I said, thinking about my father, the way the surgeons cut him at the groin, cathetered a balloon and stent into his heart, impressing my mother, disgusting me because they were using the same cutter I used on the animals.
“Look here,” Benjamin said, throwing the next animal onto the killing square. There were marks around its throat like it’d tried to hang itself. I pulled its neck back until its skin was taut, until I could see an artery that would make this easiest.
My father asked for his electric toothbrush. He was under observation in the ICU indefinitely, by doctors, by my mother. I was inside the house alone for the first time since I’d moved out. I tried my old bed, got startled when the furnace kicked on, was reminded of what I was once able to sleep through. It was comfortable.
My father used the electric toothbrush while the nurse changed his piss bag. My mother tugged at my coat, pointed to the nurse’s hand, whispered, “No ring.” The nurse disposed of the piss bag. My mother whispered, “Beautiful.” My father was working on his gums, smiling like an old dog hanging out a car window. My mother whispered, “Do you think she’d ever date a smoker?” I thought about how we’d never had a dog growing up, how my mother worried I’d get bit. My mother whispered, “Do you think she’d ever date a man with blood all over his clothes?”
I tried to quit.
I showed up to the killing square an hour early, my throat dry, my lungs tight, my heart palpitating. My sweating defied the dead-making cold.
“Finished,” Benjamin said.
The smoke-sick had me thinking I was. I looked over the pallets of steaming carcasses, too many of them dead too soon. “Must be you’re killing different,” I said.
“It’s the way you told me.”
“I’ve never done it that fast.”
“I’ve stopped looking at them.”
“I don’t look at them.”
“You look at them, all of them, in the eyes. I can’t.”
“I couldn’t kill this big in a week.”
“Could be your way’s better. Could be how you got out.”
I found the envelope taped to my locker, the notice of promotion, literature on dress codes and the increase in pay and benefits, a medical exam appointment card, and a voucher for the buffet up the street. I’d been promoted.
It was around this time I had started sleeping in my old bed again, living in the old house because no one else was, my folks being hospital-ridden. It could’ve been that I felt sorry for the house and its newfound unoccupancy, and that I was looking for something. I looked through my old clothes for the right clothes for my new position. The only dress clothes I owned were the shirt and tie I’d worn for my high school graduation. They still fit. I checked myself in the mirror, figuring I should feel like I was setting foot onto a new stage in life. I felt no different. I went outside and felt guilty, smoking, thinking about what Benjamin had said, about how I looked into the eyes of the animals before cutting.
The phone was ringing. I didn’t bother running inside after it. My mother left a message: “If you’re somewhere close, come to the hospital. If you can hear this—”
I went to the buffet instead, showed the host my voucher. He handed me a bib, offered to hold onto my shirt and tie. I got in line for the troughs. I asked the host if meat was all they served. “It’s all you can eat,” he said.
I sat down with my heaping plate of meat. I listened to everyone else eat, watched their faces turn redder and redder.
The manager tapped my shoulder. “You’re not as happy as you should be,” she said.
“It’s just a lot.”
“We get it from up the street.”
“I work there.”
“I am grateful for you,” the manager said, starting to cry over my heaping plate of meat. “So, so grateful.” She took a bite of meat. “I don’t understand. It’s the way it’s supposed to be and you’re still unhappy.”
“It’s not you,” I said. “I’d just rather take it to go, is all.”
The takeout bag overpowered the 409 Envirocide. I set it on my father’s bed. My mother lunged for the takeout, disposed of it like a piss bag. “What’s wrong with you?” she said.
“Is he better?”
“Why do you look so nice?”
“I got promoted.”
The nurse walked in, asked if my father was dead.
“He won’t eat,” my mother said.
The nurse shook my father awake. “You have to eat or else you get the tube,” she said.
“I smell meat,” my father said.
The nurse lifted his blanket, found the grease stain the takeout bag had left on the sheets, asked if he was bleeding.
I repeated, “I’m fine,” over and over in the mirror the night before the exam. I’d lose my job if I wasn’t fine, and I’d considered myself fine mostly until lately. Sam Shaw hadn’t meant anything to me, but he meant something. I was think- ing about how tight that tie was around his neck, the marks it’d left. I was scared of the inside, the trajectory, I began to realize. I was fine, I decided, and I wondered, then, so what if I lost my job, what was I losing? I had not-fine thoughts I had to conceal.
I announced to the nurse, “I’m fine,” plopped onto the examination bed. The doctor came in with the charts. “I think you’re my father’s doctor,” I said.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, forcing my mouth open, looking down my throat with a stethoscope. “Smoker, huh?”
He tapped my knees with a reflex hammer. “You ever think of running?”
“Are you happy?”
“I got promoted.”
“I feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”
“How are you supposed to feel?”
“So I’m healthy?”
“These pills here are healthy. The difference will be sizeable. Take them.”
I took them. I lost my want to smoke, was suddenly feeling very heavy.
I was lost on the inside. The walls were the kind of stainless steel you could see yourself in and I hated it, being heavier. There wasn’t anywhere to go that I could see but to a telephone marked RECEPTIONIST. I lifted the receiver. “Helpless?” the receptionist said.
“I think so,” I said.
“What is the trouble?”
“I work here.”
“Is here all you know? Is the trouble that you only know here?”
“I don’t know here well enough. I’m lost.”
“You are lost?”
“It appears you are also late.” The receptionist put me on hold. I was listening to what sounded like a jazz funeral inside a tin can. “Hello?” the receptionist said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was waiting for you.”
“It seems we have a conflict of expectations: our expectation that you show up for work on time and your expectation that I am here solely to help you through whatever it is you are going through. Yet you are not going through what you are supposed to go through: that door.” The receptionist hung up.
I hadn’t noticed it before, but there it was, a door. The door led to my office. I had a nameplate. It almost hurt seeing myself like that. The door shut when I sat at the desk, in front of the computer. On the left side of the screen in large green numbers was TIME. On the right side in bold red was WEIGHT. Beneath TIME and WEIGHT were three buttons: TARE, RECORD, and EXPORT. I watched WEIGHT increase all morning, trying to feel busy by constantly, wildly moving the cursor. I opened a desk drawer hoping to find direction. Instead, an alarm went off. Shit. The door opened. The man that entered was a stick. The stick man said, “What did you say?”
“Shucks,” I said.
It was the disparity in the quality of our clothes that embarrassed me, his suit appearing very expensive, though also oversized, worn like laundry hanging off a clothesline.
The alarm shut off.
“Did you tare?” the stick man said.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Sorrying is not the thing you do. The thing you do, first thing, is tare.”
So I did—tared—and the numbers sank to zero, then climbed, steadily, higher.
“I just started.”
“Did your father die broke?”
“I believe you can be more than what you are presently. Or you can die broke like your father. Many sons do. It is arrogance, most likely, that leads most sons to die more broke than their fathers. What do you know about arrogance? About what you deserve?”
The stick man held up a Polaroid. “Do you know who this is?”
“Me,” I said. That’s who it was. Me. In my graduation clothes, shortly after graduation. I remember my folks posing me in front of the stage. I’m trying to smile. I tried to smile.
“You don’t look this way anymore, do you?”
“I’ve gained weight of late, I can admit.”
“Are you bloated?”
“Bloating is a symptom. Weight gain is a symptom.”
“You’re symptomatic, you’re saying.”
“I’m fine,” I said to no one. The stick man had already vanished. The door was shut. The WEIGHT climbed until I was tired. For several moments I couldn’t get up.
Same thing in bed. I don’t know what I was trying to relive, touching myself like I was a teenager. Nothing happened. My mother knocked. I saw she was holding a cleaver. I pulled the covers over me. I saw the night in the cleaver.
“I heard something,” she said. “If it wasn’t you, it’d be dead.” “Is Dad dead?” I said.
“He has refused to get better.”
“Has he eaten?”
“You haven’t been around.”
“I got promoted.”
“They give him the tube. He eats good with the tube. There’s no way you can’t swallow with the tube.”
“Do you wonder what it feels like?”
“I guess it’s just like choking.”
“I told him to think of us and he choked. I told him I won’t go back until he makes an effort to live.”
“I can see him tomorrow.”
“There’s hardly anything left of him to see.”
He didn’t look like my father anymore. He was so much less, staring at the television. “What are you watching?” I said.
“The war,” he said.
“I lost track.”
We watched a child run for cover behind a wall of sandbags inside a garage in a neighborhood that could be anywhere. It was a drone strike. The child clutched his chest, it was too much for him.
I’d never seen a child have a panic attack before. I’d also never seen bombs in a neighborhood that looked so close to mine. But it wasn’t mine. The wars were always in a different hemisphere. I told my father that when he asked if I thought we were at war like them.
“Do you believe me?”
I didn’t say that. The commercial did. It was selling the same pills I’d been prescribed.
“I do not know where your yellow bird has gone,” a man said to a woman. “Do you believe me?”
“I do not believe you,” the woman said to the man.
“You do not possess the internal strength to believe. These gifts are strength.”
“I call them gifts. The doctors call them gifts. Nine out of ten doctors, in fact.”
“Where is my yellow bird?” the woman said, swallowing the pills.
And then the yellow bird was in the palm of her hand the entire time! And then she got carried off by the yellow bird, beaming.
My father said, “Horseshit.”
I said, “Mom says you’re not getting any better.”
“They want me to die here. It smells like a latrine.”
“They want to help you.”
“They took my toothbrush. It wasn’t an approved medical device. I may have gangrene.”
“You don’t have gangrene,” I said. It was time for my pill. I took it.
My father winced. “I thought you got promoted.”
“I thought you didn’t want to die in a hospital.”
“What’s your mother think of them pills?”
“She won’t come back until you get better.”
“Your mother is a liar. I will die here because it’s what everyone wants.”
The nurse announced it was time for the tube.
I hugged my father goodbye. He felt the lighter in my jacket. “Do you want to die in a hospital?” he said.
I honestly didn’t know. I gave him the lighter and he held it like it was something he’d go on remembering me by. I noticed my mother in the waiting room, her face hidden behind a newspaper. I didn’t say anything and neither did she until that night at home in the living room. It was obvious she’d been crying.
“It’s just that I don’t want to be doing this the rest of my life,” she said.
“I know,” I said. I meant that.
There wasn’t much to anything except sitting, clicking, and waiting. I was eating more, weighing more—I blamed the pills. I couldn’t remember my last cigarette. I grew jowls, started wearing my father’s clothes. I slept in a bed that was too small, my body sinking in the middle of the mattress, my ass touching the floor. All night I felt like I was falling. The dreams were bad too—again the pills. I met a woman whose skin was roasted. She was wearing a toque. She had poultry leg frills on her hands and feet. “Where are you going and why?” she said.
I was untying a porcelain gravy boat from a pier. “I don’t know what I’m sorry for,” I said. “But I am.”
That was one Anna.
The other Anna was on her second helping of meat. I was trying to figure some things out. “Sam Shaw?” she said. “Was he the fat one?”
I couldn’t say it, but we were all fat on the inside. We made terrible, rolling, grunting sounds at lunch. Our breasts shook. “I have breasts,” I said. “Do you see what I mean?”
Anna blushed, peeked down at her own breasts.
The stick man came by to inspect our portions of meat. Anna tried to say hello, but realizing no one knew his real name she instead lowered her head.
“What’s the difference between us and him?” I said.
“Wait,” Anna said.
The stick man smiled at us both, approved of our portions. I couldn’t stop eating. “Anna,” I said, realizing I was full and sick from being full and I couldn’t stop eating.
“I got promoted,” Anna whispered when the stick man was out of earshot.
“There’s more?” I said.
“So much more,” she said, reaching for a third helping.
I wouldn’t ever see her again.
Same with my folks.
I hit EXPORT on my computer at 253 pounds. The stick man held up that Polaroid again. “What is the difference between you two?” he said. “This you and that you? Are you happier?”
“Yes,” I said. I was going by the label on the bottle. I was scientifically and medically happier. “Are you happy?” I said.
“Does it seem like I am?” the stick man said.
“I’ve never seen you eat.”
“Are you hungry?”
I sheepishly admitted I was. All I had were the pills. I took them when the stick man vanished. My vision blurred. I decided I’d have to walk home. I wasn’t able to make more than a block before needing to stop and rest. I was beneath the dark of the trees, the thicket that lined the road home when suddenly a bright light shined on me like death. The light was so bright I prayed I’d black out. I didn’t black out.
“Hands up,” I heard. I put my hands up. It was a sheriff and his spotlight. I lost my balance. The sheriff stood over me and said, “I thought you was an animal.” He tried to drag me to his cruiser. I was too heavy for him. “Night like this a lot of folks are out for trouble,” he said. “Are you out for trouble?”
“Home,” I said, on my back, looking up through the tops of the trees that looked like teeth, like it was already too late.
“If you ain’t much farther,” the sheriff said. When I went to open the cruiser door, he aimed his shotgun at my gut. “Been looking for a guy your size. Got a match?”
“I don’t smoke.”
“Empty them pockets.” All I had was the pills. “So you’re one of them sad ones,” the sheriff said. He took me home when I showed him my prescription. “Whatever’s in your head, keep it in your head.”
I smelled smoke.
The dinner table was set for three. I called for my folks. I found a crisped roast in the oven. The hospital was on fire. I watched it on the television—firehoses, gurneys, bodies. Some people stood around looking scared or praying while others seemed confused, maybe trying to figure out whether they were patients or survivors or something else. One guy turned to the camera and said, “A lot of us couldn’t believe this was it. We didn’t try to get out until it was too late.”
I ended up passed out on the sofa until the next afternoon. I watched a ponytailed man stick electrodes on his abdominal muscles. He electrocuted himself and called it exercise. The pony-tailed man pumped his fists with each new shock of electricity. “This is the second chance you’ve been asking for,” he said, motioning for an increase in voltage.
I shut the television off. It was almost quitting time when I finally made it to work. The stick man was waiting for me inside the office. He was holding the Polaroid of a different man.
“This isn’t like me,” I said.
We started walking. I hadn’t realized how far it was from the inside to the outside, that I had come so far. I struggled to keep up with the stick man’s wide, easy strides. I was apologetic. I was back in the killing square. The stick man scissored off my clothes. A hand in my hair gently bent my head back. I saw the glint of the scaffold lights off the sharp of the cutter and the silhouette of the man who was holding the cutter. I wanted him to look at me.
Michael Credico is the author of Heartland Calamitous. His fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Hobart, New Ohio Review, NOÖ Journal, Puerto del Sol, Quarterly West, and others. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio and his website is http://www.michaelcredico.com.
Originally appeared in NOR 20.