Practical Issues > Factory Farming - Index > Slaughter - Index

A Slaughterhouse
by Michael Lesy

 For two weeks after I got home, I kept asking myself how creatures like Little Eddie and the blond who killed his sex partners managed to do what they did and still remain human. The closest I came to an understanding was a three-hundred-year-old quote from Hobbes about life being "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." That described what I'd seen, but still left the question hanging. I decided I'd have to leave it there unless I was willing to go back to Florida.

In the meantime, I had an appointment in Omaha with a man named Lee McTier, the operations director of a packinghouse. I'd discovered McTier after days of blundering telephone calls to one packing company after another, every conversation eventually reduced to a monologue, where I groped for words while the man on the other end waited until I'd shut up long enough for him to say no. By the time I called McTier, I'd learned to say "beef kill" instead of "slaughterhouse" and "kill floor" instead of "pit." All that, plus the assurance I wasn't a vegetarian or an animal-rights activist, must have helped. "Sure, what the hell," said McTier. "We've got nothing to hide. We've got USDA inspectors up the ass; we've got a company that comes in every day and scrubs the place down with germicides: the floor's so goddamn clean you can eat off it. You want to know what we do, I'll tell you. You want to see, it's no problem. You ought to know, 'cause if we didn't do what we do you wouldn't eat. Come up and we'll talk." I'd been to Omaha once before, to interview the surviving relatives of a lunatic recluse who'd spent the last fifteen years of his life taking sixty thousand pictures of New York City. When I'd been there then, I'd ordered steak and eggs once for breakfast and been served a sizzling three-quarter-pound filet crowned with a pat of melted butter as if it were a stack of wheat cakes. If I was going to find out how and why men routinely killed other large mammals for food, I'd find out in Omaha. McTier said Mondays and Tuesdays were the plant's busiest days. His offices were on the eighth floor of the Livestock Exchange Building in the middle of the stockyards. "You meet me at eight o'clock Monday morning and I'll buy you a cup of coffee," he said.

I flew into town Sunday morning, found a room in a Best Western, and asked the clerk for directions to the stockyards. He looked at me the way a kindhearted New Yorker might look at a Chinaman who'd asked the way to Central Park. When I saw the place from the expressway, I pulled off onto the shoulder of the exit ramp, stopped the car, and looked. From sixty feet in the air, half a mile away, the yards looked like a gigantic honeycomb laid flat on the ground, its grid of corrals forming a huge quadrant, perhaps a mile long and half a mile wide, divided into smaller quadrants by narrow roads closed off by cattle gates, all overlaid by an elevated network of wooden crosswalks connected by stairs to the roads and corrals below. At the outer edge of this plane of rectangles, rose the Livestock Exchange Building, only twelve stories high, but--because it was the only vertical in a shabby landscape of low wooden horizontals--it looked like a massive tower, sharply outlined, made of bricks the color of dried blood ornamented with limestone.

I drove down the exit ramp and turned onto a bridge that ran along the outer edge of the yards, straight to the Exchange. Its doors were of glass and polished bronze, set beneath limestone arches that rose two stories high, carved, ornamented, and columned as if framing the portals of an eleventh-century cathedral. Outdoor loudspeakers, fixed to the facade high above the entrance, broadcast easy-listening music just loud enough to form a cone of melody twenty feet around the doors. The calls and cries of unseen beasts occasionally broke through the music, their squeals and grunts sounding like the cries of gigantic infants lolling in some distant nursery. The air smelled of cow shit, pig shit, and hay.

I walked through an orchestral arrangement of "Rocky Mountain High" into the lobby. The only light came from the screen of a video game that glowed in a corner. The floor was of black marble, worn, pitted, and gouged, inlaid with ceramic tiles that framed large squares of yellow stone the color of buttermilk. To the right, next to a column, was a replica of a covered chuck-wagon bearing the motto: 1884-1984 OMAHA STOCKYARDS. To the left was a coffee-shop that sold canes used as cattle prods, and coin banks shaped like black Angus bulls. To the right, taped to another column, was a color poster of an attractive young family standing, laughing, next to a big plate of lean beef, cooked carrots, and sliced kiwi fruit. "BEEF GETS YOU GOING / Beef Gives You Strength" was the slogan. Underneath was a Xeroxed memo that described how the poster, used "in conjunction with radio and TV spots as a point of purchase theme in 22,000 supermarkets in 12 states," had produced "a i6% increase in beef tonnage (1492 lbs. per store) in an 11 city test." Along a wall was a row of elevators with semicircles of numbers above each door. One of them would carry me to McTier's office the next morning. I stood listening to the video game play like a hurdy-gurdy, then I walked out into the light.

At five o'clock the next morning, I woke up twisted in the sheets from a bad dream. In the dream, I'd arrived at the stockyards late for my appointment. I rushed in and took the elevator to McTier's office. I hurried down the corridor, looking for his number. The hallway was wide, faced with cream-colored marble, lined with dark wooden doors inset with panels of frosted glass. I noticed the doors were ajar. As I walked, some opened behind me and men in bloody smocks came out and looked at me. "Are you the sucker looking for McTier?" they called. "You're late. You're late, sucker." Then, in front of me down the hall, another door opened and a man dragged out a huge bag full of dead dogs. The bag was made of white plastic that had been stuffed so full and stretched so thin that it had become almost transparent, like an amniotic sac. So many dogs had been stuffed into it that I could see not just the outline of their muzzles and haunches but the color of their hair. I made out a black-and-white German shepherd, a black Labrador, and a rust-colored English spaniel. The man dragged the bag after him as if it were a huge sack of cold cooked macaroni. I watched him and thought, "Goddamn it! Why are they killing dogs? They're supposed to be killing cattle. Why do they have to kill dogs?" Then I woke up. I turned on the light and untangled myself. "You went back to the lab where you'd worked where they'd killed the dogs," I thought. "Now you're in a place where they do it on a bigger scale. This time it's worse, but this time you can see through it. Don't look away. Look at the memory. Look at this world. See it for what it is. This is the lowest point of the journey. Begin here, then rise."

McTier's reception room looked like a law firm's. A secretary led me down a gray-carpeted hallway, past a glass-walled room of men wearing shirts and ties sitting in front of video terminals, talking into telephone headsets. "Lee'll be off the phone in a minute. Can I get you some coffee?" She led me into a blue-draped conference room, set out a cup and saucer, a cream pitcher shaped like a cow, and a carafe of fresh coffee, then left me. A half hour later, a blond man with a broken nose stuck his head in the door. "Mike?" he said. "Mr. McTier?" He shook my hand. "Call me 'O.K.' Come on in." I followed him into his office, teak-paneled, gold-carpeted, a leather couch and chairs on one side, a conference table on the other, his desk in between. It was 8:30 in the morning, but he was dressed for golf. He was somewhere between fifty and sixty years old, lean and tanned, a man who would have looked as good dressed in Levi's, riding a horse, as in a golf cardigan. He smiled--white, perfect teeth. "What can I do you for?" "Well, Mr. McTier..." "Call me O.K., inlike." "All right. O.K.," I said and explained things. "No problem," he said. "You can go where you want, see what you want, just don't name the company. Deal?" "Deal," I said. He leaned forward and we shook again. "In this business, a man's hand is good enough; a man breaks his word and he's finished. Now, what can I tell you?" "To start with, I'm curious about that room of guys wearing ties and headsets back there." "That's sales. They're talking to restaurant chains and supermarkets. We deal in 'fat cattle,' known as USDA Choice. We kill one-and-a-half-year-old steers and young heifers who haven't had more than one calf, most often one; they're in the same shape as a nineteen-year-old girl who hasn't been knocked up." He grinned at me. "We don't kill cows. Other companies kill cows; they sell to the big hamburger chains." I looked surprised. "You didn't know that? As soon as old Daisy stops giving milk, she turns into a cheeseburger. Yes, sir. Now, what was I saying?" "You were saying something about young heifers." He nodded. "We kill one-and-a-half-year-old steers and heifers and sell them to places like Kroger and Winn Dixie. That's who those guys were talking to back there." "What kind of money's involved?" He laughed. "A lot for a little," he said. "An animal comes in at eleven hundred pounds. At birth, he weighed a hundred; most everything else is three to six months on the feed lot. You go down to Amarillo, take a plane and look down, you see five to ten million animals in a fifty-mile radius getting fattened up. A single lot'll have a quarter million head. For USDA Choice, we pay $700 a head, about sixty to sixty-one cents a pound. Dressed out, gutted, no head, no legs, no organs, that animal weighs seven hundred to eight hundred pounds. If we're lucky, we make eighty-five cents a head after we pay the help and the government." "That's all?" I said. "That's nothing." He smiled and nodded. "It's a living. The only way to make it in this business is volume and export. The only trouble is, we have tremendous overcapacity. Occidental Petroleum bought Iowa Beef Packing years ago; now Iowa Beef runs two lines, sixteen hours a day; each line kills 380 an hour. We're talking six thousand kills a day. Compared with them, we're very modest. Modest is one line, two shifts, sixteen hours a day, 110 an hour." I must have looked surprised again. "Don't get excited," he said. "The numbers are deceiving. Iowa Beef can run six thousand; we can run 1,760, but it doesn't matter because no one in the U.S. is eating red meat anymore. In ten years, there's been a 14 percent increase in population and only a 7 percent increase in beef consumption." I remember the smiling family with the kiwi fruit in the lobby. "So what do you do?" I asked. "What you do," he said, "is export. You sell the livers to the French and Germans, the tripe to the Italians, and to the Japanese..." McTier leaned forward and smiled as if he'd been waiting for this. "You know what we sell the Japanese?" "No, O.K. I don't." "We sell them assholes. They eat assholes. Rectums. We boil'em, box'em, and ship'em. I got twenty-five guys in the plant, that's all they do. And you know what else?" McTier propped his elbows on his desk and rubbed his hands together. "This Japanese buyer comes to me. He says he's very satisfied with our rectums, very good quality, very consistent. But--he's interested in something else, in addition." "Which is?" I asked. "Uteruses," said McTier. "Uteruses?" I asked back. "Yeah, uteruses. I say, 'How very interesting, Mr. Tagawa. How do you prepare them?' 'We barbecue them,' he says. 'That's strange,' I say. 'In this country, we eat them raw.'" McTier let out a laugh and slapped his desk. "That's great, isn't it, pussies and assholes, but I tell you, without them, we'd be up shit's creek. Everything we can sell, we sell. You ever heard of calf fries?" he asked. "No, I haven't," I said. I wasn't sure I wanted to. "They're very popular in Texas, considered delicacies. They serve 'em as an appetizer, deep-fried, with cocktail sauce. Up North, no one'll eat 'em but the blacks." "What are they?" I asked. I could feel it coming. "Balls," he said. "Testicles." He looked at my face and laughed. "What's the matter? You said you weren't a vegetarian." "That's true. I guess there's no accounting for taste. You mind if I change the subject?" He laughed again. "I want to ask you about the people who work for you. Who are they?" McTier folded his hands on his desk. "Everyone in this office who has any responsibility started on the kill floor. I started there, I took my two sons there when they were five. During high school, that's where they worked, every summer. They used to bring home the eyeballs and prop 'em up on the shelf of the refrigerator to scare their mom. You know what they are now?" he asked. I was about to say brain surgeons but I caught myself. "No, what?" I asked. "Electrical engineers," he said. "The kill floor's the place to start. The work never hurt anyone, but no one wants to do it anymore. We still have a few whites, and we have some blacks, but the blacks aren't worth shit: they think Monday's part of the weekend. Now we have Mexicans and Vietnamese. It's a buyer's market. I have 125 men in that plant, and there're ten applicants for every opening. Pay used to be $12 an hour, unskilled, on the line; now it's $6, and skilled is $8.25. The Mexicans are good with knives; they like knives; the Vietnamese do anything you tell 'em, good steady workers. Alcohol used to be a problem, now it's dope. My guess is 80 percent are high on something, but things take care of themselves: you can't get too high or you'll cut off something that belongs to you."

McTier leaned back and looked over my head. "I've got a conference call in five minutes. You can listen to me talk prices, or I can get Dwight in here, and he'll take you over to the plant. What's your pleasure?" I would have preferred if he'd used another other word, but I chose the plant. "One more question, though," I said. "Save it. When you're done, Dwight'll bring you back and we can talk more." "Fine," I said, "but I wanted to ask you about the music." "What music?" he said. "The music outside the front door." "That? That's for people who come in from the yard. It's a signal they're back in civilization. I used to run a plant in Minnesota; I used to play classical music for the animals before they went up the chute. They'd be all spooked; no one could explain it. Some people said they could smell the blood of the kill; some people said it was because they had no depth perception, to them dark shadows looked like deep holes. They'd be skittish, but the music calmed them down." I wondered if McTier had ever heard of Orpheus. I wondered if he'd ever heard of Auschwitz, I was thinking about asking him, when Dwight walked in and shook my hand. "Hey, all right," he said. He looked down at my trail boots. "Looks like you're going camping. Let's head out." McTier nodded and we left the office.

Dwight was another blond, thick, and beefy, somewhere in his twenties, wearing Western boots and a down vest. In Georgia, he would have qualified as a good old boy; in Omaha, he was probably known to his friends as a shitkicker, I figured we were headed for his pickup, but instead we climbed into his LTD. "What do you do, Dwight?" I asked. "I'm a buyer." He spoke in a flat voice. "I buy maybe forty thousand head a year." We drove out over the bridge. Look at that yard," he said. "How many you guess are out there?" I looked out the window. 'I don't know, Dwight. How many?" "Maybe three thousand, and this is the busiest day of the week. The yard's dying. I hear in Chicago, on a Monday, there used to be forty-five thousand. Now Chicago's gone and Omaha's not long, and you know why?" I nodded, no. "Guys like me. We go out and talk to the farmer, cut out the commission agent; the farmer sells directly to the company. We truck 'em in, fifty bead at a time, right to the plant." What do you buy, Dwight?" "Good-looking Holsteins, black Angus, Baldies, Chardonettes. If they got a nice fat ass and a good size brisket, they're mine." "Dwight, I'm sorry, but all this is new to me. What's a brisket?" He grinned. "Breast meat, from the neck down, between the forelegs, that's brisket." He turned left, swerved to avoid a cattle truck lumbering up the middle of the road; we drove downhill, under a railway bridge, into a long cul-de-sac.

I didn't know what I'd expected, maybe a tall chimney belching black smoke, maybe a gate with a wrought-iron motto arched above it, maybe the sounds of a string quartet or a light opera carried by the wind. What I saw was a low, block-long, narrow building made of cinder blocks that had once been painted white, cars parked along it, pens at one end. Dwight began looking for a place to park. "Dwight, do you mind if I look at the animals first?" "No problem." He pulled up alongside the corrals and I climbed out. There were thirty steers, wedged in a tight circle, up against the fence, standing nose to nose, their breathing loud, moist, and rhythmic, their tails turded to the world, their heads to each other, broad, powerful creatures, their smell rising like heat from a building after sundown. Thirty-five hundred years ago, Egyptians believed cows were incarnations of Isis; three thousand years ago, the priests of Solomon's Temple used the ashes of a red heifer to purify themselves after contact with the dead, Long ago, Cretans danced with bulls; the Minotaur ruled the Labyrinth; and bull effigies stood everywhere in the Aryan city of Mohenjo-Daro. In India even now, Lord Krishna, God of Gods, is said to pass eternity happily tending a herd of sacred cows that graze on his home planet at the center of the universe. In Omaha, though, cows were bought by guys like Dwight and left to stand in the mud. The air smelled like hickory smoke, part shit and sawdust, part hay and blood. Dwight drove around to the other side of the building, still hunting for a parking space. The wind tasted like beef jerky. This was going to be a hard one, I thought, the lowest kind of death, the most common, the most ordinary, the death we give to creatures under our control. This was the base from which all other dyings ascended. Dwight walked by and I followed him up the steps of the building.

There was no reception room, just more steps up to a landing, then dark, narrow corridors to the left and right, and straight ahead a broader one, brightly lit, painted white, that led through a steel door fitted with safety glass into the plant itself. The door slammed open, and a big Mexican with long black hair braided into pigtails decorated with red ribbons, wearing a white bard bat, bloody white boots, and a bloody white smock, flounced in out of a cloud of steam, looked straight at Dwight and me, gave us a coy little wave, and pivoted left out of sight. "Faggot," said Dwight. "Come on in the office and get yourself something to wear." I followed him down the corridor to the right into a room where a sad-faced, middle-aged white man in overalls sat alone at a steel folding table, spooning pinto beans into his mouth from a thermos. He looked up. "Hey, Bradley, gettin' any?" called Dwight. Bradley looked down at his pinto beans and went back to his meal. "Find yourself a coat and a hard hat and meet me outside." The only hard hat I could find perched on my head like an egg; all the coats on the rack were too short. According to the posted regulations, Dwight should have issued me a pair of ear protectors, but since he didn't need them, he decided neither did I. He opened the steel door, and I followed him into the plant.

I took a step and skidded. Steam clouded my glasses. The air was filled with the clatter of chains and hoists; men shouted; animals bellowed; klaxons blew; animate and inanimate, human and inhuman, everything sounded at once, thumping, clanking, grinding, and whining. To the left, I could see carcasses swaying, suspended from chains. Dwight walked in a bent-shouldered crouch; I followed, wiping my glasses, looking up and down, as afraid of slipping as of colliding with something hanging from above. Everywhere, there was steam, hot water, and a bright film of blood. Pockets of air smelled of fresh blood, singed hair, sawed bone, and shit. Off to one side, twenty-five men, standing shoulder to shoulder, dressed in splattered white coats, each holding a small circular electrical saw, were shaving off the animals' hides, each man making a single set of gestures that were added to by the man beside him, until the hides slipped down around the carcasses like heavy, wet blankets. To their right, a single man rode up and down on the platform of a small open elevator, holding a huge electrically driven chain saw that cut straight down the animals' spines, slicing them in half. Lines of men in soiled tunics stood in front of lines of heads stuck on moving armatures or stood beside conveyor belts splayed with organs, each holding a chrome-plated hook or a steel sharpening shank in one band, and a knife in the other, either a broad-bladed, curved skinner, or a straight, sharp, pointed boner, all of them making their cuts and slices, then rapidly sharpening their blades and repeating the gestures, their faces slack, their eyes dull and steady. Any minute, I thought, they'll try their knives on each other. Dwight put his mouth to my ear and shouted, "You want to see the kill?" I nodded. He gestured and I followed, ducking and slipping between a line of swaying carcasses, up a short flight of stairs to a concrete platform where a man stood looking down at an empty concrete chute three feet below him. "This is it," shouted Dwight. "He's the knocker. Stay out of the way. I'll be back." He turned and left; the knocker nodded; I backed up against a side wall and watched. Suddenly a man shouted, "Come on, you son-of-a-bitch, move it, move it!" The knocker lunged to the left, grabbed an overhead lever, and opened the door to the chute as three steers, single file, thundered in, nose to asshole, bellowing, kicking, and rearing. As the first one slammed into the far end of the chute and the last one rose up onto the haunches of the one in the middle, the knocker released the lever, and the door through which the three had been driven closed behind them like a guillotine.

Until twenty years ago, knockers had been called knockers because they swung hammers; heavyweight boxers came out of the packinghouses of Chicago with right hands that could kill. Now the industry had switched to air guns. As the animals kicked and raged, the knocker turned and pulled the gun toward him, the weapon shaped like a caulking gun without a tip, suspended from an overhead pulley, counterweighted, connected to a long yellow air hose. One hand around the weapon's cylinder, one hand around its lever, the knocker leaned down, bent at the waist above the animals' heads. He killed first the last one in line, the one nearest him, so that the two in front, who couldn't turn around, couldn't back up. The gun had a hard rubber ring around its muzzle. He pushed the ring down onto the middle of the animal's forehead and squeezed the lever. A charge of air drove a three-inch-long, solid-steel rod into the animal's brain. The gun pumped, thumped, and recoiled, the animal dropped and shuddered; the rod retracted, and the knocker leaned down toward the middle one as the one behind it collapsed. He knocked the second one as he did the first, but the third, who'd been the leader, was farthest from him and harder to reach. This one he knocked in the back, not the front, of the skull, but one blow wasn't enough. The animal reared back in pain and rage, and the knocker hit him again, this time on his crown. By now the other two had fallen on their knees, panting and trembling, their heads back, their tongues lolling, the broad muscles of their backs in spasm. Finally the last one collapsed and the knocker turned and mashed a red lift button with his thumb. Outside, the herder began yelling again at the next three, "Come on, come on, move it, goddamn it, move it."

The whole left side of the chute, a thirty-foot section of stainless steel, groaned and rose up on chains, and the three animals, still twitching, but more dead than alive, slid sideways three feet down a concrete slope into a pit whose floor and walls were thick with a mash of blood, urine, and mud. There in the pit danced another man called the shackler who hooked a heavy steel chain with a wheel at one end around the left rear leg of each animal. With one hand he held the shackle; with the other, he pushed a button and pulled down a chain with a hook at one end that descended from the ceiling, thirty feet above his head. The knocker on the platform was already in the middle of his next kill; the animals in the pit were still kicking and twitching: the shackler slipped the hook of each chain onto the wheel of each shackle and then pressed a lift button. As the knocker finished off the next three and slid them down the slope toward the shackler, the others rose, one at a time, twirling slowly, nose down to the ceiling, where the wheels of their shackles dropped into the moving links of an overhead trolley track. Thirty seconds before, they'd stood on their feet; now they hung thirty feet in the air, head down, one leg up, stretched eighteen feet from hoof to nose. The one in the middle trembled like a plucked string; the one to the left shivered as if it had a chill; the one to the right swayed back and forth like a pendulum. The shackler looked up, afraid that that third one might slip out of its chain and fall on him. The overhead trolley clanked, jerked, and slammed them, one at a time, into a bloody wall, as the track turned ninety degrees and carried them twelve feet to the first stop of the disassembly line.

Three men in body-length yellow rubber aprons slimed and runneled with blood stood on a raised honeycombed steel platform, waiting for the animals. Each of the men had a narrow, sharp, pointed knife in his hand. As the animals passed in front of them, their heads level with the men's waists, the men reached forward tentatively, knife in hand, afraid the animals still had enough life in them to arch and kick them in the chest or face. As the animals drew in front of them, each man darted forward and made a slit that ran upwards from the softest part of the animal's throat to the beginning of the animal's breastbone. Then, at arm's length, head back, each man reached in and flicked open the animal's jugular. At that very instant, before the man could withdraw his hand, dark blood, black to the light, gushed out of the animal, not in a steady stream like water from a broken hose, but in separate single bursts, as if a big bucket had been filled, then emptied, filled, then emptied, filled, then emptied. The blood looked black as engine oil as it burst out, but as it fell on the men and poured through the holes of the platform where they stood, and spread on the floor beneath them, and ran down a storm drain into a cooling tank in the basement, light bounced off it, and for the first time I saw its true color. It was crimson red, brighter than a candy apple, shinier than the finish on a fast car, much more alluring than the reddest lipstick. I stared at it and stared at it as more animals collapsed under the knocker and more animals slid toward the shackler and more animals rose toward the ceiling like nightmare hippos in a Disney film. I kept looking at the blood, amazed at its color, amazed at its beauty. "Hey!" shouted Dwight. "You seen enough?" I jerked around and looked at him so dazed he yelled at me again. I nodded and followed him out.

"Something the matter?" McTier said when I walked back into his office. I sat down on the couch against the wall. "You all right?" I didn't want to tell him; I didn't know how. "What happened?" "Dwight showed me the kill, O.K. I was"--I didn't know the words --"deeply moved." "Are you upset?" "I don't know if I can say this right, but I want to ask you something." "Shoot," he said. "O.K., when you started out, when you were young, did the kill bother you? Did it ever bother your sons?" McTier stood up, walked around his desk, sat on the edge of it. "I didn't think any more of it than if I went out to the garden and pulled up a carrot. We raised those animals. They were bred, born, and grown to be slaughtered. They were born to die to feed us. Like a crop, like corn or cabbage or wheat. We harvest them." "What about the kill, the steel bolt in the brain? The ones I saw didn't like it, Would you?" McTier stood up and looked down at me. "Who the hell knows? What difference does it make? When you're dead, you're dead. When the rod goes in your brain"--he snapped his fingers --"that's it, lights out, adios, you're gone. You don't feel anything. Even if you do, for a second, how the hell do I know; I've never asked; no steer's ever told me." He sat down on the edge of the desk again. "You don't look so good. Why don't you take it easy, go back to your motel, take the afternoon off; we can talk tomorrow. You're coming back, aren't you?" I stood up. "You bet. I didn't come all the way up to Omaha just to go home. I'll see you tomorrow." We shook hands and I left. I don't remember what they were playing when I walked out the front door. I don't remember much of the drive back to the motel. I didn't notice much of anything, good, bad, or otherwise, until I got back to my room and started to take off my clothes. I noticed my shirt smelled as if it'd hung in a smokehouse, I looked down at my pants: the cuffs were spotted with blood and spackled with little flecks of fat. I looked at my boots: the cleats were clotted with pieces of fat. The boots I couldn't throw away: I'd have to clean them. The clothes I put in the garbage, Then I took a shower. I washed once, climbed out, and dried off. I sniffed my skin. I climbed back in and washed again. Then I turned off the lights, lay down and let the covers settle on me. I woke up three hours later and turned on the TV.

It was the last twenty minutes of A Night to Remember, about the sinking of the Titanic. As I watched, the deck up-ended. Beautiful women in evening gowns, pretty little girls in party dresses, handsome men in dinner jackets, they all skidded screaming down the deck, tumbling over the side, sucked down in a whirlpool as the ship slipped out of sight into the night sea. I watched, and as I watched I realized something: the manner in which a creature meets its death could either degrade its nature or confirm it. Just as the passengers were transformed into terrified creatures, sliding and skittering down a slope, no different than the crockery and furniture that crashed past them, so the animals at the plant were transformed from creatures, once sacred, equivalent to forces of nature, into helpless beasts, driven up a chute, trapped in a narrow defile, and then punched in the skull to meet a production quota by a man they couldn't see. The steers hadn't died; they'd been exterminated, and because they'd been exterminated, they'd been transformed at the moment of their deaths into beasts. The kill had trapped them, reduced them, and made them helpless. Men in tuxedos tumbling down the deck, and steers driven into blind alleys, they were all the same--living creatures, made helpless, their natures denied. The idea was obvious, but the facts weren't. McTier had talked about carrots, but I'd seen cattle; I'd seen them, heard them, and smelled them. I had one more day to understand how men who killed animals could do what they did.

I called McTier the next morning and asked if I could go straight to the plant. "I figured you might want to do that. Ask for Bradley; he's the foreman; he's worked for packinghouses for forty years; he'll take care of you. Call me later if you want. Otherwise, good luck." Bradley I remembered: he was the sad-eyed man sitting eating pinto beans. When I arrived at the plant, I found him in the same room, sitting at the same steel table, keying figures into an adding machine. I told him McTier had sent me and he straightened up. "Weren't you the fella with Dwight?" he asked. "That's me. Dwight ran me through here, but I can't say I understand things." Bradley stood up and gave me a tired smile. He could have been Dwight thirty years later, gray, nearly bald, his body soft, spread-out inside a pair of bib overalls. Come on, then," he said. "Let's get you fixed up." He led me to a supply room and unlocked the door. "Gotta keep things in here; they'll steal anything, scrub pads, sharpening rods, you name it. What's your shoe size?" He handed me a new pair of rubber boots, a clean, full-length white coat, a hard hat that fitted, and a pair of earplugs on a lanyard. Then he took me out to the plant and led me from place to place like a worn-out, kindly tour guide. The earplugs deadened the noise. The confusion of steam, carcasses, and men was patiently explained, step by step. All that remained was the kill. Bradley led me up to it and pointed at the knocker. "That's Zeke," be said. "He's a good boy, has a good hand; he's got some personal problems, but I told him if he can lay off the booze he's looking at eight and a quarter an hour, steady as she goes." Bradley sounded like an old coach talking about a rookie. He gave me a sad little smile and left. Zeke nodded and mouthed a hello. I leaned up against the wall. "This is the place where it happens," I thought. "Not in the plant. Here they die, Zeke's the killer." Bradley had been kinder to me than Dwight. I was better protected than before. I pushed in my earplugs. I'd stay and watch as long as I could. This was the meanest death. If I could bear it, then, wherever I went afterward, I'd know the difference between something evil and something good.

Outside, the herder yelled, and suddenly the steers charged through the door, heads down, ears back; the herder shouting; Zeke shouting, an electric prod in one hand, the door lever in the other. The door slammed down; the animals banged, bellowed, and kicked; Zeke reached for his gun and bent at the waist; the animals twisted and jerked away; the gun went wump-phump and recoiled, wump-phump and recoiled; Zeke swore; the animals dropped. Zeke shouted down to the shackler, the shackler looked up and stepped forward; the side of the chute rose and the animals slid down. Outside, the herder yelled again, as the shackler looped the first animal and sent it straight up in the air, head down, tongue down, like the stem of a divining rod pointed into the earth; the animals rising to the ceiling then, one at a time, slamming into the wall while the gun thumped and the next three fell to their knees, just as the first ones reached the blood-letters, who danced forward and back like fencers. The blood arced out and splashed down; Zeke shouted to the shackler and the shackler shouted to Zeke; the side of the chute rose as the chains descended from the ceiling. The herder yelled and the air filled with the rattle of chains and the whine of the bone-cutters' saws as the time-driven, death-driven ballet of the men and beasts passed in front of me. I looked across at the blood-letters again, mesmerized by the color of the blood as it splashed over them. "Redder than a kiss" I thought, "it's so fucking red..." I would have stared at it longer, but I heard Zeke shout in alarm. I looked and saw him jerk back and his hard hat fly off as one of the steers rose almost straight up on its hind legs, rearing out of the chute, bellowing, outraged, trying to escape, climbing onto the back of the animal in front of it. "You goddamn son-of-a-bitch," Zeke shouted, as his hard hat bounced, clattering past me, and he lunged at the animal and killed it with his air gun. The animal fell backward onto the one behind it. I reached down and picked up the hard bat. Zeke reached for it with one hand while he punched the chute button with the other. The inside of the hat was wet and cold with sweat. I banded it to him and be grinned. The herder started shouting again; the animals galloped up the ramp; Zeke spun to open the door, then he looked back at me, pulled down the air gun on its pulley, and shoved it at me. "Go on," he yelled. The animals slammed against the side of the chute. "Go ahead," he shouted. I didn't hesitate; I didn't give it a thought. Maybe it had been the hard hat as it skittered across the floor, me picking it up and feeling the sweat. Maybe it had been the beauty of the blood or the time/motion dance of the kill. Maybe it had been the earplugs and the new rubber boots or Bradley's explanations and Zeke's grin. Whatever had done it, I grabbed the gun, leaned down, and pressed it against the skull of the steer closest to me. The animal tossed its head to shake it loose. Its skull was as broad as my forearm, brown, muddy, and hard as stone. I leaned down, and as my weight balanced against the strength of the steer's neck, I squeezed the lever. The gun bounced up and back. The steer dropped away as if the ground had opened under it. "Nothing to it," I thought. "As easy as hitting pop flies to the outfield." Zeke grinned and nodded. "Go for it," he whooped. I leaned over to knock the second one. "Sweet-fucking-Jesus," I thought, and straightened up and shoved the gun back at him. "It's all yours," I shouted. Then I turned and found the door and went out into the air. "What the fuck did you just do?? 'Pop flies to the outfield'?? You just killed a steer." I took a breath and leaned up against the wall of the building. I started laughing, but the laugh turned into a tremble. "I'll have to tell McTier," I thought. I felt as if I bad the chills. "All he has to do is charge admission to guys like me. Five days in the office at a desk, getting shafted, then going home and getting ignored, and McTier could charge me $30 for thirty minutes every Saturday morning. I could put on boots and a hard hat and hit a few. Instead of telling my boss to fuck himself and my wife to eat shit, I could go to the plant and knock 'em in the head. McTier could meet his expenses, I could get my rocks off, and nobody but some animals would get hurt. McTier could make up his shortfall; people like me could blow off steam, and someone would have roast beef for dinner. I smiled, then I stopped: I remembered the conversation I'd bad in the Hilton with Schultz, the homicide detective. "We're all murderers," he'd said. And I'd said, "Not me." "Not me," I'd said, and he'd looked at me as if I was crazy. He was right. I'd just done it. They were animals, but if killing them wasn't murder, what was? Unless, of course, it was genocide: dead Jews, dead dogs, dead steers. I'd always assumed I'd be a victim, not a participant. Schultz said I'd be back. He'd smiled. "You like that stuff," he said. I'd always thought killing was something other people did. I was wrong; Schultz was right, I needed to tell him. I'd have to leave town and head south. I stood there until I stopped shaking. Then I turned in my gear and caught a plane.

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