Meathead

There’s one job in town for dropouts. Jay’s dad had it, his uncle had it, and his older brother, Tyler. Even his mom was in the next building, slapping hard pork cutlets onto foam trays before shoving them down the line for his sister Samantha to bundle in plastic wrap. His family had a car pool going to the plant, except they didn’t take turns driving. Every day they all piled into Uncle John’s ride. John was the guy who had the most cash and the smarts to save up. The only thing he could get was an old minivan. Tyler and Dad gave him a hard time about the vehicle at the start, but now that John was driving them all to work every day the taunts had lost their edge.

Jay was skinny and small. Even on the line where everyone lived on thin margins he looked slight. The plant manager said he didn’t care if Jay couldn’t lift a side of beef like the rest of them.

“How are you with enclosed spaces?” he asked. Twenty minutes later Jay was scheduled for worker training. Jay’s string-bean body got him his job; the worst job in the plant.

Jay was the grinder cleaner. His job was to carefully apply the chemicals and water that would break up the oil and dirt encrusted into every nook and cranny and onto every blade of the plant’s enormous meat grinder after a day of operation.

Each evening, he pulled on a ragged hazmat suit and maneuvered himself and his cleaning tools along the same steel pathway that turned discards into profit by making the inedible look delicious. This machine was for the pieces that didn’t make the cut for the steakhouse; the stuff judged imperfect and assigned to the hamburger aisle.

There were lots of dangers. When the grinder was operating, frozen bundles of meat and fat tumbled from a conveyor belt down an enormous funnel where augers as thick as Jay’s torso and twice as long rotated slowly, tearing the meat into smaller bits and forcing the mess forward through a series of rotating blades. The machine squeezed it all out in orderly strings through a hopper at the end, like the hair in a play dough barbershop. It tumbled – slick, red, and frying pan-ready – into a giant plastic bin on wheels that would carry it on down the factory line to packaging.

For the mix that fed the midwest, the journey from chunk to hamburger took about 10 minutes. Jay, on the other hand, spent two hours a night in the machine.

“You have to be sure to follow the steps exactly,” said the manager showing Jay the cleaning foam sprayer and the hose for rinsing that foam down a drain lurking at the bottom of the box. Steps one and two were foaming and rinsing. Then natural processes had to take over for an hour or so.

“You don’t have to hang out in the grinder while it’s drying,” said the manager, as though Jay might feel at home in the stainless steel tank. “Everything needs to dry before you disinfect. While that’s happening you can clean the outer conveyor or sweep up.”

“That’s the job you got, eh,” said Tyler, when they were riding home. “That machine is so old. The new ones, you don’t have to get into them at all, they come apart to be cleaned. Watch yourself.”

Before Jay’s first shift, as John pulled the van into the parking lot and the daytime workers headed out of the building for home, Tyler reached across the bench seat and waggled his phone at Jay. On the screen, there was a headline about a ‘Grisly Meat Grinder Accident.’

“It’s true what you said, little brother,” he called. “It’s a deathtrap.”

“Keep it to yourself,” barked Jay.

Tyler grinned, suddenly all big smiles and open arms.

“Naw, man, I’m here to help. Don’t worry, I got you,” he said. “I asked to be your spotter. For safety.”

Tyler’s usual job was herding carcasses along the line, making sure sides of beef didn’t get jammed up with the hooks and chains, and pushing them along when they did. Now, at his request, he was the safety guy. Each night as Jay was finishing his first task – cleaning leftover beef chunks off the conveyer – Tyler would park himself against the front side of the grinder by the safety switch and the power. While Jay climbed down into the machine and cleaned, Tyler would hang out, keeping an absentminded eye on the switches and texting his girl Lauren.

Seeing Lauren on the daily was the only perk of Jay’s new gig. Lauren was friendly and chill, and she and Jay got along great. Most days at lunch, Tyler, Lauren and Jay huddled over Tyler’s phone watching youtube videos: music, smash-up derby, and unlikely animal friendships. After a few weeks Lauren was leaning into Jay a bit more heavily during their huddles, and one day, alone in the break room, things went further. It was full on: shirts off, hands down each others pants. Jay felt both guilt-ridden and wonderful.

“You need some meat on your bones,” she said afterwards, running her hand down his ribs. Then she followed up with a dramatic,“let’s keep this between us.” As if Jay would ever tell. Tyler didn’t like to share. Once, Jay had borrowed a T-shirt without permission, and was served a black eye immediately. A few days later Tyler had delivered an offhand apology. Jay couldn’t imagine the damage he’d suffer for this thing with Lauren.

Jay got to work, thrusting the bits of meat off the conveyor and into the garbage bin below while he waited for his brother. From this vantage point he would be able to see Tyler headed over from the line, phone in hand.

“All good?” asked Jay when Tyler got close enough.

“Yeah yeah, I got you. Just texting Lauren,” said Tyler, without a glance.

At the mention of Lauren the image of her belly against his stomach rose in Jay’s mind. He turned away from Tyler to flick a chunk of fat off the end of his rubber glove as he walked further up the conveyor, stepping off next to the meat chute.

“Ok I’m going in,” called Jay, from the top of the grinder.

Tyler looked up idly from his phone.

Jay did the foaming from end to end of the auger. When he’d reached the other side and it was time to rinse, he’d tap the wall to let Tyler know he was coming back, and Tyler would climb the conveyor to bring Jay the pressure hose. It cut down Jay’s time in the grinder.

“Gotcha. I’ll be up in a bit,” said Tyler, eyes to phone.

Jay stumped down the ladder into the grinder, carefully placing his slippery boot soles on the six rungs that led into the guts of the machine, doing his best to ignore the fluorescent light flickering off the meaty metal sides of the giant food processor. When he reached the bottom, Jay snapped down his plastic face-mask, lifted the spray nozzle, and started foaming.

Lauren had been impressed when Tyler told her he’d traded shifts to spot for Jay. She smacked Ty on the shoulder and crowed “Check you out, big brother.” She took a drag off his cigarette and jumped off the counter, stretching up to grab her plastic apron from the hooks on the break room wall. She always looked hot when she did this, and Jay nodded his agreement with Tyler’s leering smile.

“Tyler, you’re a pig,” she said, as she swept from the room.

Jay reached the hopper end of the bin and tapped the wall. There was no response save for the rumble and grind of the production line, and the hiss of the ventilation system. No Tyler. Jay clanked the spray wand against the wall again, not relishing the thought of struggling up the ladder to retrieve the rinse hose.

Maybe Lauren was on break and met up with Tyler for a quickie, thought Jay – Tyler said it had happened before, and after what happened with Lauren in the break room, Jay believed him.

The silence was broken by what sounded like Lauren and Tyler arguing. They can fight while I clean, thought Jay, and banged the wall of the grinder even harder to get Tyler’s attention; the fight didn’t even pause. Jay wiped a fleck of meat off his cheek and listened.

Tyler’s voice was cracking like it hadn’t since he was 13. Jay couldn’t make out much but he thought he heard the word “brother.” They were fighting about him. Shit.

The argument raged on, but the white noise of the plant muffled the details. Finally, he drowned it all out with the hiss of the sprayer, adding a second, unnecessary, layer of foam.

When he stopped, they were still at it, louder now, and angrier.

“What are you scared about?” Tyler shouted. “He’s fine. He’s in there cleaning.”

Nothing from Lauren, then a thud and a yelp.

Jay froze in place, watching the foam slide toward the drain. Tyler obviously wasn’t going to be delivering the rinse equipment to him any time soon, so Jay made his move, thunking a boot onto the bottom rung of the ladder, hoisting himself and the sprayer hose into the air. He was careful to avoid a fall, looking down to make sure he got his boots gripped well on the ladder rungs. Halfway up he heard clanking; it was Tyler, stomping his way up the conveyor belt, dragging the thick rubber hose with him.

“Where you going, little brother?” Tyler didn’t crack a smile, as he shoved the end of the coil down toward Jay, who struggled to grab it without dropping the foam sprayer into the depths of the grinder, or losing his grip on the ladder.

“Someone else has to finish this,” he said to Tyler from under the facemask. “I feel sick. I’ll spot for whoever they send. It’s disgusting in here.”

“You know what’s disgusting?” Tyler’s clenched jaw shot every word at Jay. “Making out with your brother’s girlfriend. Don’t be a pussy. Get back down there and finish.”

“Tyler,” It was Lauren, calling out from below. “Let him out.”

Tyler ignored her, and pitched the rest of the hose down past Jay. The heavy rubber barely missed him as it fell down into the grinder.

“Hurry the hell up,” he shouted as he disappeared back down the ramp.

Jay looked down. The hose lay in a puddle of greying cleansing foam along with a few floating pieces of gristle. If he pulled it up from the top of the ladder, the hose was bound to get tangled in the machinery. He was going to have to go down there and get it. He adjusted his sweaty mask and headed back for the hose.

While he rolled up the coil, Jay listened carefully. It was dead quiet.

“You still there?” Jay called, wondering whether it would be better or worse if Tyler responded. His own voice, reflected back by the steel walls, sounded thin and pitiful. He thought he heard a click outside, or was that just the hose hitting the machinery as he wound it up.

When he finished, he looped it up over his shoulder, then lurched back toward the ladder, trying to put the image of revolving augers out of his mind.

“Jay, come on out,” Lauren yelled. “I’ll tell the manager you’re sick.”

Lauren didn’t sound too good. Knowing Tyler like he did, Jay was pretty sure that his angry brother was probably scaring the heck out of her, windmilling his beefy arms toward the switches, or her face, with his eyes wide and his teeth bared, his big fists coming within centimetres of impact then jerking to a stop in a last-second reprieve. Jay had seen it a million times. Most of the time there was no harm done. Occasionally though, there was a miscalculation during the angry comedy routine. Jay shook off a memory of a black eye, a broken TV, and a new image of the grinder starting up. There were no do-overs at the meatpackers.

More clanking and there was Tyler at the top of the ladder, haloed in fluorescent light. He leaned his muscled torso over the edge of the grinder.

“Dude, get down there and finish – I can hear you chickening out from here. It’s sickening.”

Jay squared his skinny shoulders and started climbing. Tyler didn’t budge, and Jay decided to push it. He threw himself forward and up, his hands slipping against the slick ladder handles. Tyler backed up in surprise. Jay hauled himself up; he’d never tried to get out of the grinder in a hurry before – the hazmat suit was heavy and so was the hose. His foot was wet from a tear in the suit. He made it to the top, lifted the coiled hose onto a ledge beside the ladder, then pulled himself up beside it.

“I can get this done from up here,” he spat the words at Tyler, who stalked back down to the floor.

Jay pointed the spray nozzle back at the foamed up equipment and pulled the trigger to start the rinse. He hung his legs off the edge and rinsed blood and foam off his boots, the water cooling his feet it shot past, swirling down into the gears and blades.

From here he could finish up and keep an eye on Tyler, who was standing beside the conveyor, glaring off into the distance. Lauren was there too, nursing a ripening bruise over her eye. It looked square; Jay sighed. Tyler probably hadn’t even put down his phone before he went after her.

When the engine turned over and came to life, Jay felt a determined, mechanical tug on his left leg. He screamed and yanked it back, feeling the cold boot dragged off his foot. He stared as the boot broke the stream of water from the hose before it was drawn down into the auger.

Jay drew up his knees, and curled his arms protectively around them before turning his head back to the bigger room. Tyler stood with his hands in the air above the power button and the same panicked expression on his face as a cow in a chute. Lauren’s eyes were teary under her bruise, her hands over her mouth. The conveyor vibrated softly with the grinder engine.

Jay pivoted on the ledge and stormed down toward Tyler, clumsy in one boot and one sock foot.

“What the fuck,” he shouted. “What the actual fuck?”

Shreds of rubber fell from the mouth of the grinder as Jay threw himself at Tyler with every skinny pound of force he could muster. Tyler hardly budged. He was doubled over, whinnying with laugher.

About the author

Meagan Perry lives and works in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her work was most recently published in Carolina Quarterly, and an upcoming publication in Saint Ann's Review. She was selected for honorable mention in the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers in 2016. Her audio work has been featured on BBC, CBC, RTE, and NPR.

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