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Things were different before they opened up the slaughterhouse in Carlsboro. Before it came to town, you could smell the grass, heated by the sun. You could smell the sweet, earthy bouquet of wet dirt after it rained. These things you don't much think about until they're no longer there.
Once Agri-Con opened its doors, Carlsboro had a new smell: the stench of burning hair and grease. It was everywhere, in our homes, on our clothes and skin. You could try to wash it away with soap and fancy scented shampoos, but it always came back, like a virus.
The slaughterhouse was a mammoth, nondescript gray cement building on Emery Street. If hopelessness had a color, that would be it. There were few windows. Smoke erupted continuously from several steel chimneys on the roof, stifling the air and veiling the sky with an ochre haze. It was as if God had foul breath and was sighing on our town.
My Uncle Millis got a job at Agri-Con the day after it first opened. Mom was proud of her baby brother when he left that first morning. I could tell by the way she smiled with all of her teeth; she hardly ever did that. We needed the money badly; the insurance money we got after Daddy passed on was dwindling, and we were behind on the bills. She and I stood on the front steps that day to watch my uncle go, his thinning red hair still damp and combed flat to his head. He swung his lunch pail back and forth, whistling to himself, and then disappeared around the corner. We waved until we could no longer see him, and then shut the door.
At first, Uncle Millis liked his job at the slaughterhouse. He used to talk about the other guys that worked there, someone nicknamed Speeder and another man, Kent.
"Speeder's the funniest guy I've ever met," my uncle would say most days when he got home. "He's got new jokes every day, and he tells them so lively, it just makes people roar. I laughed so hard today I nearly threw up!" He'd clap his hands together hard and laugh, remembering one of those jokes.
I asked him what he did at Agri-Con.
He rubbed his stubbly face with his fingers as if he was tired. "Well, pretty much, I just cut up the meat for packaging. Chop it." He made an up-and-down motion with his arm to show me. "Whack! Whack! All day long. Stop just to sharpen my blade. Pretty boring stuff."
Lately, though, Uncle Millis had been coming home bad-humored, barely stopping to say hello to Mom or me. He'd head straight to the bathroom, and we'd hear the spray of the shower. He'd be in there for a half an hour or more, emerging later in a cloud of pine-scented steam, in a slightly better mood. I wondered just what it was that he couldn't scrub clean.
Sometimes a truck loaded with cattle would pass us as we walked to school, my friend Jaci and I. We would always hear it coming before it turned the corner; its tires were loud on the dirt road, and you could smell the manure, musky and rich in the damp heat. We might wave as it went by, or Jaci would yell "Moooo!" just to see what the cows would do.
Often though, we said nothing and walked in silence, our loafers making scuffling sounds in the gravel and kicking up dust. We knew where the cows were going and that they weren't coming back. We never said it out loud. We just pretended that we didn't see the fear in those creatures' eyes, like light dancing on a windowpane during a midnight thunderstorm. It was just easier to forget it, somehow.
One afternoon the truck came to a stop on Emery Street, and the driver's side door opened with a grating whine. A short man with a nest of wild gray curls stepped from the vehicle and grinned at us. His face was sun-scorched and reminded me of a waxy apple, and his eyes were so tiny they nearly disappeared beneath his brow. The name tag on his uniform said "Carl" in white-stitched letters.
"Hi girls," he said, and knelt down by the truck's front tire, examining it.
"Hi," we said in unison, in tiny girl-voices. We had both stopped walking; our school bags that had been thudding low and lazy on our backs became still. The bovine scent was ripe and close, and I could see them rearranging themselves in the trailer through air holes in the side of it.
Jaci hunched her knobby shoulders together and looked bashful. "Can we pet the cows?"
Carl shaded his eyes from the sun and regarded us curiously. "Well... they're a little skittish right now. They know what's coming." He chuckled and wiped his hands on a rag that he'd pulled from his pocket. "I suppose, maybe for just a minute. Then I've gotta be off. Got a schedule."
He came around back to where we stood and unlatched the bolt on the top part of the trailer door. It swung open towards us, and three cows slipped their heads out. Jaci and I held our hands out and touched the offering of wet, soft noses.
"They stink," Jaci declared.
"That they do," agreed Carl. "But they sure do taste good, with a little bit of steak sauce, don't they?" He laughed at his own joke, then coughed and spit on the road by his feet.
Jaci giggled, but I didn't join in. The cow that I was petting was gazing at me questioningly with her enormous marble eyes. They were rimmed with thick lashes. I stroked her cocoa-freckled snout and felt her warm, misty breath on my skin. Muscles rippled beneath the creature's gleaming caramel coat, and I thought of the poster at the supermarket, an outline drawing of a segmented cow, each and every part labeled for the cut of meat it represented. A sour, raw sensation bloomed cold in the pit of my stomach and spread upwards, knotting my throat. I looked over at Jaci; I wanted her to feel the same, but she didn't look back.
I swallowed very hard and spoke. "My uncle works at Agri-Con," I said. "He cuts meat up. Then they package it."
The man nodded, and stepped in front of Jaci and me. He closed the trailer gate and latched it again. "Well, he should consider himself lucky then. There are worse jobs there to have, like slicing cow's throats all day. Eight hours a day. Somebody's gotta do it, I guess." He held up his hand to us. "Goodbye girls, have a good one."
The truck rolled away, twigs and stones snapping and cracking underneath its weight.
"Bye cows!" Jaci called after it. "Good luck!" Then she said that she wanted to go get an ice cream cone downtown.
The piece of roast on my plate that night had never looked so rare. Juices and oils and blood ran together and soaked my peas, turning my scoop of instant mashed potatoes pink. I ate bits of the starchy fluff that were still white but avoided the rest.
"Shelby, what's wrong, are you sick?" my mother reached over and touched my head with her palm. "No, cool as a cucumber. Why don't you take a few more bites and then you can be excused."
"I saw the cows today," I announced.
"What cows?" My mother's voice was disinterested.
"The cows in the truck, on their way to Agri-Con." I replied. "The guy let us pet them. They were so calm. They didn't even know where they were going."
Mom wiped her mouth with a napkin. She looked at me, her brown eyes bright and wide. "Shelby, what are you talking to strange men for? What did I tell you? Do you wanna get yourself kidnapped? Raped even? I swear." She sighed heavily.
The three of us sat in silence, except for the low thrum of the refrigerator and the clank of utensils striking ceramic.
"You don't understand." I pushed my plate away, to the middle of the table. "I can't eat this."
Mom scrunched up her mouth the way she does when she's frustrated. "Shelby, you pick up that fork right now. Don't you be telling me you can't eat that meat, it's a lovely roast that I picked up just this afternoon. Groceries aren't free, you know. " Mom helped herself to another piece of bread. "You need your iron; you're a growing girl." She bit into her roll and chewed, watching me. "Your uncle has no problem eating meat and he kills those foolish things himself, for heaven's sake! The sights he sees every day! He does the dirty work so that we can enjoy our beef, all neat and trimmed."
She looked at my uncle for reinforcement, but he averted his eyes and dropped his head.
"What?" I said. "Uncle Millis, you kill the cows? You told me you were a meat cutter."
"I know I did, kiddo."
"Shelby," Mom said. "Don't get your knickers in a twist now. Haven't they talked about the food chain in school? Millis? Talk to your niece. Tell her that if we didn't eat the cows, they'd eat us." She chortled.
"No they wouldn't!" My voice cracked. I stared hard at my uncle, but he wouldn't lift his eyes from the table. He kept pushing his food around his plate. I wanted him to say it was a joke.
"I'm sorry, Shelby," he muttered.
My mother gestured at my plate. "Finish your dinner, it's getting cold. Then you can talk."
I lifted my fork from my plate and poked at the slab of beef. Tattered shreds of fat and gristle clung to the edge of the meat. A tiny white nub poked out; I recognized it as a vein. It was empty now. Was it only yesterday that blood coursed through this vein, pumping organs full of life?
The piece of meat hung there in front of me, suspended on prongs, close to my dry lips. I thought of the cow from that afternoon, her warm breath and gentle lashed eyes. The smell of the cooked beef was suddenly nauseating. I closed my mouth around the morsel, and then lurched forward, vomiting onto my plate.
After I had cleaned myself up, Mom told me to go sit out on the front porch to get some fresh air into my lungs. It was dark; the air had cooled some. A cricket's shrill song serenaded me. I sat on the steps and, beneath the dim bulb, watched an ant haul a crumb of food across the wood with all it could muster.
The door hinges squawked, and I heard my uncle's bootsteps. The odor of Budweiser and cheap cigarettes engulfed me as he sat down. It was the smell that would always remind me of him.
"Shelby, it's just a job for me, just for now," he said. "Until I can save enough money to get out of this place, and..." He trailed off. "You know what I mean, don't you?"
I didn't reply.
"About the cows," he went on. "I know what you're feeling." He lit a cigarette and tossed the spent match onto the walkway. "I've seen their eyes too."
"Right before -" I began.
"Yeah." He stopped me before I could finish. "Right before." He tapped on his cigarette and ashen snow fluttered to the ground.
I nodded, and for a moment we both watched the ant struggle with its precious cargo.
"One day though... one day we'll set them all free. You and me. We'll knock over that truck and undo the latch, let them all out."
My uncle put his hand on my arm and gave it a squeeze. For just a moment I pretended that what he said could be true. I pictured it in my mind: cows bursting free and flooding from that trailer, wandering down Emery Street with the sun warming their backs.
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