by Sean Webb
The first few days were spent around a stainless steel table at the end of a stainless steel chute from where regular employees, stationed above, fed us portions of pig—butts, snouts, various cuts—we boxed, strapped, sent down conveyers, and stacked on pallets in multi-layer puzzles. Each box was precisely 60 lbs. Dead weight. That’s not so heavy, but when boxes come fast and you stack them, your arms begin to stiffen, all strength is drained, neural communication becomes garbled. Your arms don’t know how to respond, and there is no slowing down. You begin lifting with your body, feeling your gut exert against the hernia belt, knowing that were it not there, or if its fastener gave, the walls of your abdomen would tear, your organs would spill against the drum of belly skin, and you would collapse to the floor. It is complete panic. You are being tested by men who have proven themselves in deep misery.
The permanent workers were more ghostly than any I had known in other factories. When they ate lunch they spoke quietly and unlike most dire lunchrooms there was little talk of life outside the plant. Their existence seemed preserved by the cold that kept the pork from turning. They worked long hours, living on overtime. Out of necessity, they did not complain. They maintained a veneer that could not release even a portion of their desperation, or their world, such as it was, might fall apart.
Perhaps the endless parade of butchered hogs lent a surreal landscape to the situation, and maybe the spice of hog blood cemented it at the forefront of the mind, but it was the painful frantic work and the cold of sweat and blood soaked clothes that indelibly chilled you as your teeth chattered over your hollow torso. And it was probably because they were already dead when they came through the bay, the pigs, and went out a different way, crammed into some new package, that the pain of work and the indifference were so held.
Somewhere are men and women who must administer the gas of death and start the flow to the concrete riverbed. Perhaps the desperation is even greater there; or maybe there is some primal exaltation as they conquer the slavering horde of pink-fleshed barbarians, hook them, and send them through the gauntlet, all sense drained away. Or maybe they survive on the clinical facade, immaculate facilities, and light, and powerful electric carvers that undress the swine as simply as peeling pants off an unconscious souse. Maybe there is deep camaraderie, or competition, in the spirit of the workers. Or maybe it is just all there is. Maybe there is little difference, other than volume, from a homemaker slicing a stack of raw bacon in half on a seasoned cutting board on a bright Sunday morning.
One day at the meat packing plant, me and another worker, very weak and even more desperate, were led to a staging area where there was a semicircle of plastic-lined cardboard vats filled with freshly cut, unprocessed hams that were to be transferred to plastic-lined pallets, stacked in layers of ten, seven tiers high. By unprocessed I mean that these were whole legs with skin and feet intact. These were fractions of pigs—vats of immobility. We were given simple instructions and steel hooks. Pigskin is very tough. A steel hook won’t penetrate the full layers; you must hunt for a breach in the skin, gig the leg, and pull it from the vat. Each leg is different and balancing the layers requires a penchant for engineering principles, or a harmony with gravity. At the end of the day my right hand was swollen to the capacity of two hands melded in a clap and I could feel pain caged in the spaces between my ribs. My boots were black with blood, and as I rested, the soaking of sweat and sanguine fluid through my clothes chilled me deeply—shrunk my genitals to little boy size.
I am away from the plant now. I have softened through inactivity. My joints and muscles and nerves have degenerated much earlier than natural. My ankles, knees, wrists, and back randomly and routinely manifest pains of overuse. Dendrites and neurons report fires in regions of my body. I have taken to assessing my mass in quadrants, imagining dashed lines penned between distinct districts and portions, wondering various maladies and what they might indicate. Some view me as a weak complainer, a chronic bearer of symptoms. But I do not complain. Sometimes I express pain, or it is manifested in my face, but I don’t complain. I am discovering that I have sacrificed my body for boxes and beauty products, hygiene and deception, electronics and sleep, food and joy, and a thousand ideas that I am still not able to isolate. I thought I would grow stronger.
What can I give? I am growing further and further away from the porcine corpses of my memory. With every thousand moving through the daily digest, I am more nothing, not even a part of the passing. What do I have to give? Can I fall into their mass, obliterate myself in the collective million of swine? Shall I sacrifice my sanity and alienate all others? Shall I set out on some solitary pilgrimage to purge my soul on the filthy industrial streets? Shall I take up a heavy wood pallet on my back and forge my way down Broadway past the bread and dairy factories and ancient brick railyards? No. I have given, and I will carry those offerings with me until I return. I feel it in the tightness of my chest and my pain-filled limbs. I smell it in my nose at the grocery store. I taste it in my mouth in the morning. And I see it on Calvary in drunken nighttime visions. Bring on the pigs. I am ready to begin.
Sean Webb has received numerous honors including fellowships from The Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Utah Arts Council. He received an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and was Poet Laureate of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. in 2005. His work has appeared in many publications including The North American Review, Prairie Schooner, The Seattle Review, Nimrod, The Quarterly, and an anthology titled Poems of Frances and Clare.