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Nora pulled her cheese sandwich out of the microwave and sat with Andy and a couple of women who worked down the line on carcass trimming. They wore chain mail so their super sharp boning knives wouldn’t gouge them on those pulling cuts. Frankie Jaworski forgot hers one day, and cut right thru her belly into her intestines, which spilled poison into her body. Rafal was still trying to get the company to pay her doctors’ bills, never mind any benefits for their four kids.
They had to talk loudly, even in the break room, to be heard over the constant scream of the circular saws cutting the carcasses in half down the backbone.
Across the table Andy chowed down on his salami sandwich. “Hey Nora, when are you going put a slab of ham on top of that cheese?”
They kidded her because of her meatless choices, but she was ready for them. “Really, we butcher pigs all day and you want a ham sandwich for lunch?” She waved her sandwich around. “At least this comes from a live animal.”
Jim sat down next to her, so close their bottoms bumped. She didn’t move away; he was a decent guy, and reliable. With the help of the restraints, he could make a pig stand still better than anyone she’d ever worked with. And that was what made her job work. She knew just the right spot on the forehead to place her bolt pistol, but it was no good if the head kept thrashing around. Andy was the one who did the actual killing, with his long knife across the neck. Nora just made them unconscious.
Next to Andy, Luisa sat with her cup of tomato basil soup. “If this job doesn’t make a vegetarian out of you, I don’t know what will.” She was on her second baby and looking forward to some maternal time. “And I’ve got to eat for two right now.”
They all concentrated on their food, little enough time to actually enjoy it.
But Andy found another quip for Nora: “Have you told Luisa about your pet pig?”
Jim fake cuffed him across the table. “Knock it off with the teasing why don’t you.”
Melvin insisted on raising one on their farm, the only livestock since they sold their cattle herd two years ago. Last thing she wanted was to come home and look at another pig, but there it was. Melvin wouldn’t have any factory pork. Had to be home grown.
Nora folded her hands around her coffee cup. “Not mine. Melvin’s.”
Andy was on his energy bar now. The kind that are really candy bars with a few oats in them. “I guess he feeds it and takes it to the vet.”
She squeezed the cup for courage. “I have nothing to do with it.”
But he’d expect her to kill it of course, since she was so good at it. She took too big a gulp of her hot coffee, and scalded her tongue. By the time she could manage another sip, their short lunch break was over, and she headed back to the killing floor with Andy and Jim.
Andy put his arm around Nora’s shoulders on the way in. “How do you keep your apron so clean Miss Nora?”
She put her arm around his waist and pulled him close‘ to see what he would do. “Dear Andy you do such a good job of draining the blood and I stay out of your way, like this.” She pushed him away and he stumbled into the lockers, but he bounced back with a grin and said, “OK, let’s do it for real.”
The kills went smoothly after break till about eight PM, when one of the pigs had to be re-stunned, and even then it lay on its back pumping its legs like it was trying to run away. Jim tried to joke about it, but they both knew it was to cover up their real feelings. It took three tries with the bolt pistol before it finally stopped moving and Andy could have at it with his knife. It rattled her so much, and Andy too, that blood spattered far and wide. When she finally took her apron off, she couldn’t get away from the blood stains fast enough. At least she wouldn’t have to wash it.
Blood is so hard to clean. You have to do it right away with cold water. That’s what Mom always did, to get the blood off her blouse where it dripped from her latest beating. Dad’s shirts too, because he’d had some brawl at Barry’s Taphouse.
Since she had the late shift, it was always dark when she got off work. Tonight was still warm though, even in late November. Every warm day someone would say, this is the last one, but they lingered on. The bed was empty, but she was used to that. When Melvin finally came in to snuggle next to her, she tried to ignore the scent of cheap cologne that wasn’t his. She preferred the smell of booze, but it was his choice of course. Everyone should have a choice. She lay sideways as the inside spoon, and took his heat through her back side. Did she have no shame? Too difficult a question.
The sun through the bedroom windows came too soon and entered her eyes through closed eyelids. Melvin’s arm hung heavy over her hips, and she slipped away without disturbing his sleep. The beans were beginning to shatter in the field, and he should be out harvesting, but that’s dangerous if you’ve got a hangover. Out the kitchen window the old barn stood empty since they sold the cattle. A big relief really, to pare down to only row crops, but Melvin had to have Wilbur. She couldn’t understand why he’d name it and name it that.
Nora had made it very clear: she’d do her job, he’d do his, in his own way. That meant she couldn’t tell him it was time to slaughter, or how much they were losing each day the beans kept spilling all over the field.
She was well into her oatmeal and coffee when Melvin stumbled in. “Hi Snuggums, have a good day yesterday?”
“Not as good as yours I’m guessing.”
He poured himself a cup of coffee and stood in the sunny kitchen window. He’d kept trim and she could still melt when he peeled off his T. But now he wore a raggy plaid shirt and sweats.
“Thought I’d ask Julio if he has time to help me fix that hole in the barn roof.”
“While the harvest is waiting?” As soon as she said it she wished she hadn’t.
“Do I tell you how to do your job?” He turned 180 to look at her, clutching his cup.
Nora scraped her chair back and moved to the sink, out of range for now, plus she’d learned not to keep the coffee too hot in the pot. Her didn’t come towards her this time but turned back to the window.
It was so good they’d decided not to have children, who might be sitting at the kitchen table right now. That was one thing she could control at least.
“Come and have some eggs and toast.”
In the mornings, when he was low on blood sugar, that was the time to watch out for him. Food always settled him.
They sat across from each other, Nora with the latest People magazine, he with a Deere catalogue, paging through the combine section. Bank wouldn’t go along that, so she didn’t need to say a thing.
“What the hell do you care about Ben and J. Lo?”
He did know the names.
“I need to think about something else once in a while. They’re getting back together you know.”
Melvin finished his eggs in three bites and stood up.
“Are you trying to make me feel guilty for keeping up the farm? All you do is kill pigs all day. I can’t help it if that brings in more money than soybeans right now.”
Nora closed her magazine. “I need to get ready to go back to my easy job.” She shouldn’t have said anything.
“By the way Mel, Barb and Larry are having a euchre party Saturday, and I said we’d probably come,” she said.
“Why didn’t they ask me?”
“I saw Barb at Fareway, and she mentioned it.”
Those evenings in their basement, four people to a table, all those tables. Out would come his stories, of the Gulf War, of hunting, of skating on thin ice when he was a boy. Everyone loved Melvin.
“So can I say we’re coming?”
He shrugged, which was the best answer she was going to get. But then he came over and hugged her from behind. It startled her so much she lunged forward against his arms, before settling in. “Sure Nora, we need a night out. I love you so much.”
She tried not to stiffen.
Then he said, “I’ve been thinking, we can’t keep Wilbur around forever. Would you be willing to help me out next day you have off?”
Saturday, before the euchre party.
She stroked his arms where they showed under his shirt, downy really, more than hairy. “I could borrow the bolt pistol. But could you do me a favor and not use its name?”
One thing they could still do was snuggle.
Busman’s holiday, that’s what it would be. Just what she needed, but it was only one pig, and she hadn’t consented to do any of the cutting up after the kill. Melvin would bring in Julio to help him with that. Another warm day, in the 50’s even on the second day of December.
Melvin was being extra nice to her, even though he’d come home smelling like cologne again, or maybe because of it. “Can I get you coffee? Do you want pancakes?” Did he even know how to make them? And those lovely hugs from behind.
A kill at the plant was no big deal, but at home it wasn’t easy at all. She didn’t watch while Mel roped the pig’s neck and lured it with bananas to a cleaned-up section of the barn. But she had to come in when he pushed it against the wall and nearly strangled it to make it be still, which of course made it struggle more. Then the worst part, when Melvin started singing to it, the lullaby he used when it came to them as a feeder pig, “All the Pretty Little Horses.” The two of them stood there looking into each other’s eyes like lovers.
The pig, still now, so it was easy to place the pistol at just the right place on the forehead.
Wilbur fell onto the tarp they’d laid out. It was a good stun, no feet clawing the air.
“Give me that knife damn it. She held out her hand like a surgeon demanding a scalpel. He didn’t deliver though, so she had to pick it up herself. At least Melvin had sharpened it. Kneeling against its body, she plunged it into his neck and sliced upward, like she’d seen Andy do so many times, and the blood flowed.
“Mel, where are you? We’ve got to catch this blood.”
He was supposed to be there with a pail, but blood gushed red all over the blue tarp.
She looked down at her hands without recognizing them, so covered with blood.
“How could you leave me with this,” she shouted.
He came back with a clean pail. “Here I am.”
Nora stood up and bloodied her knees with her red hands. She picked up the bolt pistol and walked towards him. There on his forehead was just the right place. It would stun him, that was all; it wouldn’t kill him. But all she could do was wipe her bloody hands across his clean plaid shirt. He didn’t move, but she did. It took a long time to get the blood out of her old pair of jeans, which she could have just thrown away the way they were. No, she had to get the blood out first.
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