I work in a meat processing plant. It’s not quite like the Upton Sinclair book but there’s desperation in the whiteness of it. Fluorescent lights are not good to spend your day under. Whoever decided to install them in nearly every place of work or study clearly was a major asshole. There’s a sort of boredom I associate it with, one that borders on madness. The only stimulation among the burnished steel and white walls is the red of the meat, and that quickly becomes monotonous, too. It’s altogether too clean.
When the health inspector comes, she swabs everything with what looks like Q-Tips. It’s to test for disease, but we’ve always passed. The disease have names like aliens. Cryptosporidium. Salmonella. Orf. Leptospirosis. Campylobacter. Trichinosis.
I think about trichinosis when I slice slabs of pork into manageable cubes. Undercooked pork occasionally carries these white little fiends, sick little tubers that gnaw through the stringy bits of muscle. They’re as disgusting and terrifying as botflies, but the botfly plays with higher stakes: a dramatic exit from the eye with an appropriately red curtain of blood following after. The real reason behind the dietary restrictions of Jews and Muslims has fuck-all to do with morality and everything to do with survival. In those days you could barely get a flame hot enough to kill all the little wriggly monsters.
Avoiding the act of ingesting was a childhood preoccupation of mine. I remember clamping my mouth tightly whenever I’d open the chemical cabinet to explore the multicolored bottles of liquid my mother kept. It seemed like there were hundreds of them, and all seemed lethal. If my mouth opened even the slightest, I’d reconcile with my impending death while flogging my soapy hands against each other. It’s not really a good way to go through childhood. So it is in the processing room: mouth clamped shut and compulsive handwashing.
Concept for a sci-fi story: A health inspector battles vicious superstrains of germs and viruses. I never got far beyond the tagline. “In the grim sterility of the far future, there is only health inspection.” That’s one of my many mantras. The Sufi mystics allege that you can feel the divine yourself, bring yourself closer to incomprehensible perfection. That’s the logic behind whirling, spinning until you’re a simulacrum of cosmic bodies. There are also immediate benefits. Putting yourself into a trance is the safest way to go about slicing things, and it reminds me to wash my hands. The knives we use are perilously sharp. You have to grip the meat a certain way or the ignorant blade confuses your fingers with slabs of pork or beef. They say slicing through a digit is about as easy as biting through a baby carrot. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to bite through a baby carrot. You can’t think about such things when you slice, though. To do so is to become distracted, and invite mutilation.
An amiable man with a perforated smile also packs meat and grinds sausage. It’s difficult to understand what he says most of the time, let alone when I’m sleepy early in the morning. He has a thick mountain accent you rarely hear anymore. However, his laugh is something else. It’s richly expressive and enviably contagious. He’s far more septic than his surroundings. One of his few remaining teeth is rotten and squishy-looking. I wonder what the health inspector does if a person violates code.
There was a girl I used to have a crush on. She lost the tips of her ring and pinky fingers in junior high when she got careless in shop. I didn’t witness it, but I could imagine how it went down: the smooth purr of the sawblades turning into a ragged wheeze, ragged skin instantly separating. Blood everywhere. Tears too. A gaping black hole of a mouth. No one was allowed to touch her without gloves. I don’t think they sanitized the sawblade after that, though. If your fingers are severed, you’ve got more immediate problems than aliens in your blood.
I slipped once, too. I would have missed the show if not for the red curtain. While I gripped the stub, I didn’t mourn the loss of my fingertip. Physical damage used to terrify me, as I expected madness to follow the marring of my body. Instead, I wrapped gauze around my hand to keep life from leaking out.