by L. S. Popovich
“Hey, you! Get over here!” Boss calls as the smoke from his cigarette makes a chimney of his grayish face.
My name’s Maximilian. Not Max. Max ain’t a name. It’s a state of being or something. Not like I ever get to correct anyone at the slaughterhouse, though. It’s always “Hey, you.” Names are complications in the case of an errand boy like me.
I trudge over. Slop sticks to my feet. Reminds me of suction cups. I remember the muddy riverbank of my hometown. How many times did I get so stuck my friends had to yank me out? Those friends are gone now, just like the town.
Boss is a thundercloud. Wet, puffy and billowing. Dark and rageful he looms. There’s a storm in his eyes, a hazy anger.
“Yessir?” I whisper.
“Speak up! Get pen thirteen ready! It looks like a pigsty.”
I blink. It is a pigsty. But Boss is already taking his storm across the yard, blustering toward some sorry sack just asking for the axe. Boss loves giving guys the axe.
On my way, I pass the examination line. The pigs are sloshing and oinking. Shoving through stink. Near the front, the hides grow darker, sinking through layers of pitch. Mud cakes off my shoes. “I’m not insubstantial,” one of the pigs calls out to me with panicking eyes. “You’re insubstantial.” I pause over the word, checking the inner dictionary. Somehow it fits me like a glove. Insubstantial. I’ve never been much more than a fart in the breeze around here.
Sometimes I wish I didn’t hear their voices. Squeals are easier to listen to.
Boss is right: the pen is a damned mess. Sighing, I pick out trash. Surprising things end up in the manure. Chewed-up action figures, nail clippers. Once I found a rabbit’s foot. Maybe pigs think they’re lucky. Guess they’re not.
They don’t say a word as I rearrange heaps of muck. Every day’s the same. Whatever a pigsty was invented for, all it’s good for now is ruining a pair of shoes. The pigs ignore me. I’m the poltergeist of the slaughterhouse.
An hour passes before I’m done, and new pigs rush in like water. My stomach turns as I watch their sweltering flesh jostle together. The heat is a flowing blanket that wraps me in memories.
My house disappeared under a river when a levee broke. In the storm, every single thing became a liquid and ran together. No one bothered to rebuild. Just let it all subside as the water sank away. Not a trace left. The flood washed away thirty years of my life. The memory is fuzzy and sticky. Maybe each one of these pigs has a hot memory stuck in his mouth.
Leaning on the fence, I watch the living sea of pork butts wiggle through the pen. The dividers slide them into orderly grooves, guide the nibbled tails in one by one. A daydream rises to my mind, I’m skiing over the pink backs, catching a flabby wave.
Maybe I need to lie down. When you can’t lie down, a smoke is almost as good. Normality slowly returns as I puff.
“Hey, you, got one more of those?” I startle and smack my head against a post. A little hillock forms on my bald spot.
The voice is new and has a strange, flinty undertone. I look around, can’t figure out who spoke. I shake off the tingles. My ears could use a smoke, too, I guess.
“Hey, you, you gonna smoke ’em all yourself?” I turn around. Still can’t find him. You see this many pigs, they all start looking the same. There’s a scrounging mass of them, waiting for the next levee to break so they can rush forward. Then I see him. Plump, staring.
“Do I get one?”
Casually, I let it drop from the corner of my mouth.
“Scavengers can’t be choosers, I suppose,” he says, burying his face in the mud. A second later, smoke slides out of soon-to-be-bacon lips beneath a mud-stache. “Life’s little pleasures,” he smiles. “Hey you, got any Camels? Those taste the best.”
“Why do you keep calling me ‘Hey, You’?” I ask.
“Heard ’em call you that.” There’s no joking in his reedy squeal.
“My name’s Maximilian.”
“A name is just what others call you.”
“Everyone calls you ‘Hey, you’.”
I felt my eyeballs tighten in their sockets, as if my blood was boiling. “Well, what do they call you?”
“Take a guess.”
“Pig.” He grins, chins wiggling like hanging moss poked by a breeze. Belly puckering, hooves sinking deeper into the sludge.
“So your name’s Pig?”
“I’m Pig. You’re Hey, you. You humans don’t catch on fast, do you?”
I don’t respond.
“Say, how come you can talk?” he asks me. This coming from a pig.
“It helps pass the time.”
“Don’t you have anything worth saying?” The pig was really enjoying his cigarette, chewing on the damp cotton end.
“What’s her name?” I asked, pointing to an obese sow wallowing through the filth.
“That one’s Pig,” Pig said. “And the little one’s Piggy.”
“Doesn’t that get confusing?”
“Not really. We’re family. One for all and all for one. If we had different names, we couldn’t be family, could we?”
My family drowned. Dark silent water took them from me.
“You think names are important. But they have no substance, they’re just a distraction. We have substance. We are Pig. We have a way of knowing. Since Day One we learn about each other’s bowel movements, scent and territory. From Day Two we all suckle from rubbery teats and learn life and death.”
I regard him silently.
“And yet, here you are trying to cleave us apart. This place is aggravating.”
“I’m just the janitor.”
“You’re just like the other Hey Yous then. Without realizing it, you have a herd. Every member shits. Every single one has the same expression.”
“But I’m different. I’m Maximilian.”
“From where I’m standing you’re just another ‘Hey, You’.”
I remember the girls and boys who worked the farms. How they danced at night, swigged beer and slept on hay piles. The sun on freckled faces. And that old lazy river. Goddamn, how it betrayed us all.
“Laugh all you want,” I said, “I know how it ends.”
“How does it end?” the pig asked seriously. I saw it glance back at the sow nervously.
“After work I think I’ll go buy a big old rack of ribs. And just drink the barbecue sauce on the side.”
A profound sadness crept into the animal’s face. Its eyes faded a little. “You’re just going to shit us out?” it asked weakly.
“That’s the ultimate goal.”
I felt my nerves sizzle like bacon. “You get flushed down the toilet.”
“And then?” Its high-pitched screech was frantic.
“Little bits of you go floating in the sea.”
Slowly, a manic grin settled over its wrinkled face. “That’s not the end.”
“You might know where some things go. But you don’t know where everything goes. You don’t know where you go, for instance.” The pig’s smile turned into a low chuckle.
In my mind’s eye I watch the levee break again. I watch the streets go under, then the cars get swallowed up, and the people on their roofs, so many they are shoving each other off...
“Hey, you, you don’t have the faintest idea where you’re going to end up.”
The buzzer goes off and the drove of pigs fight to get through the narrow passageway into the slaughterhouse. “Thanks for the smoke,” the pig says as it waddles away.
In a moment I lose its shape in an ocean of pink. Just another cut of meat turning on a spit.
“Hey, you!” Boss calls, “If you’re slacking off, I’ll make you into chopped liver. Go clean out the hog-splitter. Looks like one of ’em got caught!”
I stare at the shimmering heatwaves in the distance before turning back to the hubbub. The mud sucks at my boots, draining me with every step.
Copyright © 2018 by L. S. Popovich