Given the choice of anywhere for our final project, I picked the local slaughterhouse. A small operation, the next town over, but they processed pork and beef, venison in season. Sometimes special requests. Our assignment was a series. This was before digital, when we still used the upright equipment: knobs and plates and telescoping lenses. Apertures and such. A darkened room with trays of different liquid and things to block the light.
I learned the camera that morning, training it first on the animals as they came through the chute. A torrent at first, then slower. The pause & shocked fall, close up on the instrument used. The assembly line. It was a pig day, so that’s what I saw mostly. I knew I was no photographer, already knew that what I was more interested in was listening to the workers, the way they explained their jobs, the parts of their jobs. They answered every question I asked; I answered every question they asked.
When I needed a break, I’d step out into the vestibule off the main room—where the men (they were all men) took their cigarette breaks, the smoke filtering up and out through the cracks between the cinderblock walls and flimsy fiberglass roof. They were still in their overalls and heavy boots, striped with blood, stocking caps on their heads, red flecks on beards or clean-shaven faces. They’d loaned me something to wear to protect my clothes; I’d tucked my ponytail into the back of my shirt. The floor was a palimpsest of ochres; out there, limbs loosened, attention turned from conveyor belts and sharp edges, they told jokes mostly.
In the last two years, the regular route I drive to visit my parents’ house has been regularized by the town board. I take a quick left, a quick right, and stay to the back roads: around a pond, cut behind the lakes, past the treatment plant and come out by our old church. What used to be slow-curve rolling stops have been replaced with T’s, blunt stop signs. There’s always something, someone, who doesn’t like change. Small protests continue. The grass is flattened in the old road’s configuration, signs and asphalt be damned. It’s more noticeable in the snow. At first I thought the tracks might be part of the snowmobile trails that crisscross the far fields, but these are further set apart, deeper. Intentional. Sometimes, whoever is expressing their disdain also takes down the stop signs.
All that outdated camera equipment must have ended up somewhere, soon after we were done with it. Most of my pictures from that day didn’t turn out. I tried using the overexposed ones as canvases for other things anyway, working on top with colors, mixing a blue that looked like the inspector’s stamp into waxy fat. Or trying to capture the memory of that concrete floor in the flimsy lean-to where the air was blued with cigarettes. I got the biggest laugh when I tried to explain my project, why I was there. Some of those men were only a few years older than me, but I didn’t know them, hadn’t known them, a few towns over anyway, and my town and theirs hadn’t mixed much—not when they were in school. They went right from high school to work. These were the kind of men who called me “Miss”—who called all women “Miss” or “Ma’am,” until they didn’t. I was the kind of girl who stared at their faces and wondered at what point blood doesn’t smell anymore.
I have a clear memory from when I was little of playing in and around the creek that ran between our first house and the elementary school. There was a drainage pipe I was small enough to enter and come out the other end. Enter at the top (near the road), and come out below the little bridge, where the copper-colored water spattered over the sunken rocks. I must have done this – seeing if I could fit, or chasing some bit of something shiny. Maybe someone dared me. Now, the idea fills me with panic; I’ve developed claustrophobia. But it’s mostly through imaginings, or the stories of others—a couple years ago, three colleagues of mine were trapped in an elevator for twenty minutes. Hearing them recount this story makes my breath come quick; but in elevators myself, I’m fine. I’m skilled at inserting myself into the contexts of others, contexts where I don’t belong.
When they locked me in the cold storage near the end of the shift, I knew it was just a joke. They’d let me out soon. It was because I told them I was a vegetarian—I shouldn’t have said that. Their limbs wrung out and tired from helping to hoist the carcass up and onto that gleaming metal hook—the jerk jerk jerk of it down the line, all the fluids mixing in the metal trough formed on the floor, pitched toward the drains. Maybe they could have handled it, the high-school student with her camera, in their way for one morning, asking her questions—so many questions—if it had been just that. But to find out that she didn’t even, wouldn’t even, know what it was and why it was they did what they did, this work. I had been staring at one of the men, the way the blood mark on his face was a perfect imprint of his two fingers when he raised his cigarette to his mouth. I had been thinking that I wanted to take a picture of that: mouth, barely-there beard, whorls and ridges of prints maybe—the way he was a particular he, not like the animals become meat.
In the cold storage, it was all beef. Butchered the day before, the carcasses hung arranged in their stillness, sides of them, trimmed and inspected and stamped. I saw all of that before they shut the door and it went perfectly dark, perfectly quiet. I knew I shouldn’t move, or I’d bump into once-animal, once-cow. I knew I shouldn’t move, or my body and non-regulation clothes and hair would contaminate the careful work of the men, the inspector who had duly checked the samples, the operations, both ante-mortem and post-mortem. I knew it was just a joke and they’d be back soon, open the door, and the outside light would break into the room. It would once again be clean white walls, and meat hung neatly at intervals. Breathe. Don’t move. Don’t panic. Ante-mortem is just another way of saying alive.
C. Kubasta writes poetry, fiction, and hybrid forms; her most recent books are Of Covenants (poetry, Whitepoint Press) and the novel This Business of the Flesh (Apprentice House). She lives, writes and teaches in Wisconsin, where she is active with the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, and serves as Assistant Poetry Editor at Brain Mill Press. Find her at ckubasta.com and follow her @CKubastathePoet