“Grade A”

Spring 2014 – Vol. 3
by Melissa Reddish

The chickens are coming down the line. Feet bound, neck slit, they head into the Blood Room. Frank, one of the line supervisors, always calls it the Little Hall of Horrors. I chuckle every time, though it’s barely clever, in a desperate desire to bond. His crisp smile’s a signal to get fucked. I get it—my job is bondage: hold him to the line, hold him to the work. His fiesta boys do something dumb, I have to write him up. Merits, demerits, all that horseshit.  

Halfway into the Blood Room stands Tyrone, the only black guy in the place, wearing a yellow rain slicker and gripping a meat cleaver between crossed arms. He waits for any bird that’s made it through the electric bath and spinning blade intact. Alive. He’s supposed to stand with arms at his sides, but even I’m not dumb enough to write him up. He gives me a curt nod, and I tap one two three four five six seven eight nine ten times on the clipboard, enough to reach the end.  

By the end of my shift, my white shoes and my white lab coat are covered in blood. It reminds me of that “Out, damned spot” scene from Macbeth, except for me it’s the opposite. I don’t even notice the blood anymore.

I look down at my checklist, though there’s no need. No gaps between the chickens coming down the line. No chicken parts cluttering the floor. (The rats can grow as big as lap dogs here.) In another twenty minutes, make sure maintenance washes the blood to the grates lining the far wall. In another thirty, pull ten more chickens from the line.   

Next up, the de-feathering machine. I call it the Plucker, though a better name would be the Thrasher. After that, the Dismemberment Room.

* * *

A week after I earned my Bachelor’s in English, Film Studies concentration, I grabbed a Shore Stop paper and spread it on the once-white Formica table. When was the last time I held a real newspaper, complete with ink smears on my thumb and forefinger? I couldn’t recall.

I opened to the Help Wanted section and circled every job requiring a college degree. I used a red Sharpie, thick point, and tried to make my circles the same as those stock image photos—an almost-perfect oval, the end never fully closed. You can tell the circle-drawer is rushed, scouring pages and pages of classifieds, and yet the perfect imprecision also signals a kind of trepidacious excitement. Maybe this job, finally, is the one. 

Making that perfect circle is tough. Try too hard and it winds up shaky, uncertain, more of a question than a statement. Just like my mother’s hands my senior year of high school. When I held out the permission form she had to sign to accept my scholarship to UMES, the paper shook like an accusation. You deserve this? I had no idea why I had gotten any scholarship, let alone a full ride. My grades were okay, mostly Bs and Cs with a couple of As in subjects like history and art. Nothing worthy of notice. Maybe because I was white? I found the paper later that week, crumpled where her hand had gripped it, beneath a pile of magazines, several scratched frames with the stock photos still inside, and a colander with limp pasta still mashed into the holes. I forged her signature, my hand shaking, and it almost looked right.          

One of the jobs I circled was for Quality Assurance at the local chicken plant. No experience required! I wondered what they’d make of my degree. Another Hitchcock-wannabe? Or some spoiled white boy cooking up Daddy’s cash? The truth is even worse.  

* * *

I don’t really talk to the line workers. They’re all Mexican, and they don’t speak much English. Maybe some of them are another nationality, Puerto Rican or something, but I’m no expert. I just call them all Paco. Maybe that sounds racist. I’d be surprised, though, if they could tell the difference between us white guys.    

Today Paco #1 is speaking his tickety-tickety Spanish to Paco #3 as they hang chickens on the line. Who knows what they’re saying? Maybe they’re saying shit behind your back, or maybe they’re complaining about the work, or maybe they’re just reminiscing about the pussy back in Mexico City. Only one of them looks any different from the others, a real Casanova-looking motherfucker with slicked-back hair and high cheekbones. He’s taller than the others too, and quieter. In my head, I call him Fajita Fabio. Sometimes I get the urge to push my finger into his chest and tell him all the ways he’s fucked. I don’t know why. But while the other guys occasionally break code, he never so much as breathes funny.  

And then, as if to illustrate my point, Paco #1 grabs a chicken that’s making a break for the wall and throws it at Paco #3. Paco #2 squeezes the chicken until a geyser of shit erupts from it. Paco #3 grabs the chicken that Paco #1 threw and punts it like a football. It arcs in a glory of beak and feathers before landing on the other side of the room.  

Frank isn’t there, which is another point I’ll have to dock him for later, so it’s up to me to stop this nonsense.  

“Hola!” I yell, and then, “Vámonos!”

They stop what they’re doing, which is going to cause breaks in the line and more docked points. Mouths parted, eyes wild, they stare. For a moment I wonder what would happen if they all charged me at once. How would it feel to succumb to those chicken-rough hands? Then, as though nothing had happened, they begin hanging birds again.  

They wear the same white coat as me, but mine has my name stitched on the pocket and theirs doesn’t. Like that’s the only way we’re different.

* * *

The first time we knew something was wrong was my junior year of high school. Mom had poured an entire pot of boiling water onto the floor. She was still wearing her work shoes, all leather and whorls, instead of the bear-footed slippers, bought at a yard sale last August, that would soon become her feet.

“I don’t know what came over me,” she said when Sam and I came down the stairs. “I could have sworn the sink was right there.” She pointed to the kitchen table. 

Steam rose off of the water with the quiet insistence of a summer storm. I recalled our childhood game where we pretended the floor was hot, lava-slick, so we slid from the couch to the loveseat to our father’s favorite chair. (Even after he left, we still considered it his.)  

We reached across the boiling sheen to grab our mother’s hand. The water seeped across the linoleum and coated the living room carpet. Noodles slipped through the water in gestures both beautiful and obscene.  

Mom’s hand shook as she touched her forehead. She pulled it away as if expecting blood.  

“I need to pay more attention. Someone could have gotten hurt.”  

* * *

If you’re Mexican and want to learn English or you’re white and want to learn Spanish, the company supports your endeavors to better yourself. They do this through a woman named Marigold. She teaches all the language courses and has a studious look about her, though she doesn’t wear glasses. Perhaps it is her long, thin nose or her curly red hair perpetually tied back. Perhaps it is her voice with the soft incandescence of a Bunsen burner.  

I saw her one day in a small white room filled with Mexicans. She pointed to a phrase on the whiteboard that said, “I am very pleased to meet your acquaintance.”  

Is that what we teach every foreigner, I wondered—how to be cold and overly formal? How forever to be outside? It occurred to me then why Felipe, one of the few Mexicans who climbed the corporate ladder to Line Supervisor, who insisted that we call him Philip, always spoke with such formality. “What a beautiful day this is, the second day of October.” Good morning to you too, Philip.

One glassy Fall day, the windows hoar-filmed and sour, I knew it was time. “Speak, muse,” I murmured, though I couldn’t remember where that was from. Shakespeare? As good a muse as any.

“Marigold,” I said, though my voice cracked, so it sounded more like “-anyload.”

She looked up, startled, from a desk full of papers. Did employees who chose these classes still have homework?

“Yes, hello?” She narrowed her eyes, then widened them in faint warmth. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you! You startled me.”

“Mike,” I said, to alleviate her discomfort.  

“Of course. What can I do for you?”

She reminded me of my elementary school librarian, a woman with big tits and a low-cut blouse who would clasp her hands together, lean over the desk, and ask me what I most wanted to see. “It might just be in a book,” she would whisper through just-parted lips. Later, I would understand the whole ‘sexy librarian’ trend. At the time, I just knew I really really really wanted to read more Berenstain Bears.

“I was wondering about the Spanish classes,” I said. “Is there a lot of homework?”

She shuffled her papers, as if caught doing something wrong. “I don’t like to call the assignments homework. It’s such a pejorative term. Instead, I like to think of them as enhanced learning experiences.”

I nodded, though it was bullshit. “I know exactly what you mean.”

She smiled, and it was radiant, like sunflowers in bloom or an atomic bomb. I wanted to know how to say “Your smile holds the heat of a thousand suns burning in my soul” in Spanish. I thought of all the things I would do for her, like listen to an entire Joni Mitchell album or get up early on a Saturday to attend a farmers’ market.

“Sh—Sh—Sh—Sh—Shall we go?” a voice from the doorway asked.  

I turned and saw Scotty, a line supervisor with a moustache and stutter. Just one would be a significant deterrent, but both?  

“Of course,” Marigold said with a blush. She linked her arm in Scotty’s, and he gave me a look halfway to swagger.  

They walked off together, arm in arm. I haven’t spoken to her since.

* * *

Mom’s staying at Sam’s place in Alexandria for two days. It’s actually her boyfriend Trevor’s apartment. He’s a project manager for DC Water and Sewer she met at Fager’s Island. She can do better. He still owns a pager for Christ’s sake.

With the house to myself, Paul and Jeanette come over. Her name isn’t Jeanette anymore, though. Now she wants to be called Anka. Get it? Paul and Anka. Yeah, I didn’t think it was that funny either.

We all met in a Film Noir class our sophomore year of college. We discussed The Big Heat with voices nasally and pretentious. Six months later, both Paul and Jeanette dropped out, and four months after that, they both enrolled at the local community college. Jeanette was going to pursue Nursing until she took her first Anatomy & Physiology course. They both graduated with degrees in General Studies and Jeanette changed her name. Now Paul works as a shift manager at Food Lion and Anka works at the Gap.

Paul brings over some kine bud, and we smoke it in my old college bong. He complains about the women on food stamps and how they can never suss out what products are covered.  

“It’s not that fucking hard, man, but they act like it takes a goddamn rocket scientist. And then they back up my line jabbing fingers at the booklet like I’m the one who can’t fucking read.” He takes a long hit, pauses, then slowly lets it out. “I mean, I try to be patient. Everyone has to eat. But sometimes I wonder if they have to be such cunts about it.” 

Anka gets really high, really fast, and starts walking around and touching things.

“Hey, how much free shit do you get?” She grabs my company jean jacket, wraps the arms around her, and then flops into the company lawn chair.

“A few things.” I don’t mention the company water bottle in the dishwasher or the company duffel bag in the closet. Last Thanksgiving I got a free turkey. Sam spends holidays with Trevor’s family now, so last Thanksgiving was just Mom and me. I bought some boxed stuffing and boxed mashed potatoes and canned cranberry sauce to go with the turkey.  

“Happy Thanksgiving,” I told Mom as I sat her at the table.

“Michael always forgets to lock the front door. I keep telling him and telling him, but he never listens.”

Mom dipped her finger in the mashed potatoes and slid it on her tongue. I realized then I forgot the butter. “It isn’t right,” she said. Her eyes were slanted and wet. “Michael will be so upset.” I cleared off the dishes and made us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She peeled apart the slices of bread and ate them one at a time.

Paul and Anka don’t talk for a while, and it’s nice, having bodies so close without having to speak. Sometimes I think life would be a lot better if everyone was high all the time.

“Hey, I was just wondering.” Anka sticks her hand between the plastic slats. She rolls her fingers right, then left. “Do we only eat girl chickens? Or do we eat boy chickens too?”

“Roosters,” Paul says. “Boy chickens are roosters.”

“Yeah, roosters. Do we eat them?”

“Roosters aren’t fattened with antibiotics the same way hens are. They probably produce more hens when they’re in egg form.”  

“But how do you, like, choose whether you get a boy or a girl?”

“Something to do with light…and heat.” Paul smacks his lips and looks at me. In addition to drying his mouth, kine bud takes away his usual narcissistic faith.

I shrug. “They don’t look much like chickens or roosters by the time they get to me.”

“Eww, gross,” Anka says. “How can you still eat chicken after working there?”

“You get used to it.”  

“Does it smell bad?”

Yes, it smells bad, I tell her, but just like the blood, you get used to it.

Anka gasps, and I lean forward in case the bud is having a bad effect. “Does the cafeteria serve chicken?” 

I sigh. They serve chicken nuggets and burgers and salad. But I don’t usually eat there. Eating there would emphasize just how few friends I have in the plant. How none of the line supervisors want a QA at their table. How not even the other QA in my section, a woman with heavy lines from too much sun or smoking or both, a woman who is overly dull and overly formal at the same time, wants me at her table.  

“Where do you eat, then?”

“McDonalds, usually. But there’s a whole strip of fast food places on Route 1, so I switch it up.”

“Do you get the Chicken McNuggets?”

“Sometimes,” I say, and then, “It’s just meat,” to forestall her next inevitable question.  

But the first time I ordered the nuggets, and this was mainly to prove to myself that I could, I sat at the small plastic table, surrounded by families. I opened the cardboard container, the flaps clicking out of place, and breathed in the scent of grease-fried meat. For a moment I hovered above my body—my vision tilted to the right, click, click, and it was weird and foreign and unnamable, I was myself and not myself, the chicken was food and not food, and even the word chicken sounded strange, and this whole meat eating business was like those monks who self-immolate in protest, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. And then a toddler screamed and I was back, staring at the exact same Value Meal as before. I ate the chicken and the fries and drank the Coke. Then I cleared the remainder into the trash, placed my plastic tray on the trash can, and drove back to work.

* * *

Actually, that part about the smell isn’t true. You never get used to the smell. When I first stepped out of the car, my resume tucked neatly into a folder, it reached into my nose and throat and squeezed.  

Ever since that first day, I’ve tried to think of a way to describe it, but there isn’t a word or phrase that can touch it. It’s not simple, like blood, which is just the smell of rotten pennies. It isn’t the smell of animal fear, either, which is mostly sweat and saliva. It’s not the Mexicans, who shower every other month, as far as I can tell, and leave shit-covered toilet paper in the corner of the stalls. It’s not even the viscera of a newly disemboweled chicken. It’s all of those things forging themselves into something new and terrible, an active presence that ebbs and flows through the plant like the smoke monster from Lost. It makes you feel awful, deep in your still-beating heart. It is knowing that something is deeply, terribly wrong, and there is not a goddamn thing you can do about it.

I began buying more fragrant shampoos and body washes. Before it was just water and Dial soap, but now I use the special Paul Mitchell Tea Tree shampoo and conditioner along with the Nivea for Men Hair and Body wash. I step out of the shower and am bathed in spice and scent. It is both invitation and armor. Musk and mask. Most importantly, though, it is not the smell of the chicken plant.

* * *

When I received the full scholarship, my sister and I sat down at the kitchen table. Mom was getting worse. She was starting to misplace files and write down the wrong appointment times at Dr. Paternawicz’s office. She had a second job cleaning houses, and we both worried about her lugging the heavy vacuum cleaner up and down the stairs. At home, random crap was piling on the couch and table and loveseat. Bills were paid late, if at all.

I knew I had to be the one to say it. “Maybe an assisted living facility?”

“Yeah, great,” Sam said. “Thanks for raising us, Mom, now get lost. She’s not even fifty yet.”

“It’s the most realistic option,” I said. I tried to sound as calm and rational as possible, though the thought of Mom in one of those death factories made me want to tear off my own skin. I wondered, not for the first time, what Dad would have done.  

Sometimes when I thought about him, I pictured Arnold Schwarzenegger with one arm over Jamie Lee Curtis in her little black dress, shooting the Arab terrorists. Then I pictured Jamie Lee Curtis in her strip scene, and that was no good.  I couldn’t get a handle on Dad’s face anymore, so he morphed into Schwarzenegger or Van Damme. When I pictured Dad leaving, he was usually Tom Hanks. He grabbed two large suitcases and told Mom (in this scene, Julia Roberts) that it was for the best. He could never be the father we all deserved. Sometimes, though, he would morph back into himself, a man with thinning hair and a light grey suit. Then I would imagine myself at the top of the stairwell, my hand depressing a lever, and my father exploding in a thousand shards before he could get away.  

“I have an idea,” my sister said. “I’ve been thinking this over, and I think it will work.”

She outlined a plan in which she would forge a letter quitting Mom’s job at the office. Then she would go with Mom to clean houses. All the while she would keep her job as a waitress at Famous Dave’s BBQ. And when Mom got really bad, she would hire in-home help.

“What about school?”

She shrugged. “I’m failing all my classes anyway. I’d have to repeat junior year.”    

“All your classes?”

“Ugh, you sound like Mr. Hemery. ‘You need to buckle down, young lady, or you’ll wind up on the streets.’ Buckle this,” she said, flipping an imaginary guidance counselor the bird. “It’s so fucking tedious. The Battle of Gettysburg, sines and cosines, cellular mitosis. I mean, who fucking cares? There’s so much real shit going on in the world. It’s like, open your eyes. This stuff is useless.”

  She went on with her plan. I would attend school for four years, at which point I’d have a college degree. Then I’d get a full-time job and take over the bills and Mom’s care while Sam pursued her career.

“And what will your career be?”

“I don’t know! I haven’t figured it out yet.”

“Without a high school diploma?”

“I’ll get my GED. It’s not like it’s hard, it’s just boring.”

“And then, what? I take care of Mom for the rest of my life?”

“No, dummy. In four years I’ll be settled, and we’ll trade off or something.”

I knew what I needed to do. I needed to call someone from social services. I needed an adult with experience. I couldn’t leave it in the hands of my kid sister.  

Later that week, I tried to get mom to sign off on my scholarship. Then I forged her signature.

That same week, Sam gathered all the random piles of crap and threw them away. She rolled the trash out on Sunday. She ran the dishwasher and put away the dishes. She ran the vacuum. She cleaned the bathroom, even the shit-stained can.    

I promised I would help out whenever I could.  

Sam flipped her hand, her hair held back in a bandana. “I can handle it. And if I need someone to do the heavy lifting, I’ll call Sean.”

I tried to envision leather-jacket clad Sean fixing a busted water pipe. I couldn’t.  

“Four years,” Sam said. “Study hard, bro.”

* * *

My senior year, I took a Feminism in Film class. I was running out of film classes to take, and I figured this would be a good place to meet chicks. Boy was I wrong. If there were ever a group of women with a chip on their shoulder, Professor included, this was it. Every girl with daddy issues that came out zealot instead of harlot was in that room. We talked about the male gaze, voyeurism, female spectators, and the patriarchy, always the patriarchy. The problem was that I’d already seen most of the movies. Rear Window I’d seen five or six times. I’d even seen Peeping Tom before. I wanted a movie to erode my caked-on armor of scorn, something to make the classroom go blurry and faint.

At night I’d flop on the couch while my sister flipped from one reality show to the next. I’d update her on my classes, and she’d update me on Mom. As the years passed, her body slipped to the corners of the couch with greater necessity and ease. She’d mmm hmm when I told her about my professors or the funny thing Paul did in class last Tuesday.  

“Sounds fun,” she’d say. “Yesterday I pulled a hairball the size of a wiener dog out of some woman’s shower drain.”

“I can quit,” I’d say, feeling guilt squeeze my chest.  

“No, no,” she’d say. “This is your time. Just remember, three more years.”

She started leaving notes tacked to my door: a list of chores, phone calls to make. At the end of each note was a countdown. Twenty-four more months, twenty-three more months, twenty-two, twenty-one…    

Near the end of class, we watched the adaptation of Beloved with Oprah Winfrey. I never read Beloved or any black stories. It wasn’t intentional; I just never thought about it.

We all watched the movie. I wondered what Sam would do if there was a poltergeist haunting our house. I imagined Sam’s thin arms around Mom the same way Sethe holds her children in the tool shed. Sam would feel the weight settle in her arms and neck and chest. She would know what to do.

At the end of the film, Paul D says, “You your best thing, Sethe.”

And then, I burst into tears. Not a single stoic tear rolling down my cheek, either. This was some serious weeping, sticky nose goop and heavy gasping and everything. It was not a pretty sight. And you know what? Not one of those fucking bitches said a damn word. Not “it’s okay,” not “there, there,” not even a goddamn pat on the shoulder. Where’d all their feminism go? Was it all just an excuse to sit around, watch movies, and bullshit, just like the rest of us?

The film ended and the lights stayed off. I stopped crying. The Professor started to ask a question and trailed off. She let us out early.

* * *

The director of Quality Assurance has started cross-training me. Today I’m in the part of the plant where they package the chickens. One machine cuts the chicken into parts: breast, legs, thigh. Another machine strips the skin, removes the bones, and stretches the new, taut plastic over the boneless breasts. In another part of the plant, whole chickens are dipped into a water tank where they are partially frozen and then shoved into a freezer.    

There’s a lot less blood here. The chickens look even less like chickens than before. I look at the nice, neat packaging, so familiar from grocery store trips, and don’t feel a thing.

The director leads me upstairs to a room with a round oak table. Several men in white coats and colored construction helmets (green for the deboning supervisor, blue for evisceration) sit around the table. I take my place at the one empty spot. It reminds me of the Knights of the Round Table, except I guess we’re more like Grim Reapers.

I know what this means. They’re getting me ready for promotion. Perhaps they’ll make me production supervisor. Or perhaps one of the FDA guys who stops by to “randomly” inspect the plant and give me not-so-secret quizzes will offer me a job.  

I have a degree. I have experience now. This could be a career, if I wanted it.

* * *

When I arrive to pick Mom up from Sam’s, Trevor isn’t there. Sam’s wearing a cable-knit sweater, the kind she would have ridiculed in school. “We gotta put her in a home, Michael.”

I can’t remember the last time she used my full first name. 

“We can’t go on like this.” 

We? I want to ask. Who the fuck is ‘we’? But instead I ask her, “What about your plan?” 

Sam looks at me. Her eyes are filmy and wrecked. I wonder how much she actually sees. “I was sixteen when I came up with that. It was a stupid fucking plan.”

Mom sits quietly in the backseat of my car. She waits to be driven wherever we are going by the nice young man with the almost-black hair. 

“Listen, I did some research.” Sam hands me several sheets from assisted living facilities near Mom’s house. Her hand shakes, but she steadies it. “Pick the one you think is best. I’ll contribute what I can.”   

On the ride home Mom does not speak. Some days she tells me stories about myself and Samantha, or about our father. Sometimes her stories make sense, and sometimes the details get mixed up. The last story she told was about when I was six and Samantha was seven, and we rolled around the living room over the last fortune cookie. Samantha, she says, was the winner, but only because I could never wring courage from heartache. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

We stop at a red light. It begins raining. Red smears across the windshield in big, angry strokes.

“Your father never hit me,” Mom says.

I wait.    

“A man shouldn’t hit his wife. He should only do nice, loving things.”

Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck. I want to scream or hit the steering wheel or crash the car into a telephone pole. Instead, I put the blinker on and turn the car around.

* * *

I expected there to be more horror stories when I first started working at the plant. More gruesome accidents and unexplainable events. But there are only a handful, and they’re pretty tame. Several maintenance men have lost fingers while cleaning out the machines. A line worker once cracked his helmet with falling debris. Every so often we see a bird wandering around the building and a small, useless part of us roots for it. And then there was Georgie, a line supervisor in the frozen chicken section. The official story is that it was an accident, carelessness rather than fatigue or drugs or booze. The unofficial story, the one that passes in whispers through the line, is different. He was working late one night, two or three in the morning, all by himself. Most of the regular line workers get to leave around midnight while the back end has to finish up. The story goes that he was shutting down the plant after his workers finished freezing the last of the birds. He thought he saw movement in the water tank. When he leaned over to look, a mammoth green claw reached from the water. It was a mutated bird—half chicken, half crocodile. Georgie tried to run, but the giant claw hooked his neck and pulled him in. Some say it is a guardian that watches over the plant. Others say it is a vigilante fowl seeking revenge, waiting for the next man to wander off. The truth is that Georgie was probably drunk or high or both. The truth is that someone lowered the temperature of the water tank so it froze over. The truth is that they found him the next morning, his arms and legs curled like a child, his body preserved in that final position, one neither death nor men with chisels could sever.