In Defense of Butchery
When he was four years old, I bought Robert a toy cooking set for his birthday. For weeks afterwards, I would find him with his pots and forks spread out across the living room carpet. He would place his favorite stuffed Brontosaurus doll into the canary yellow and sky blue skillet and make a hissing noise as he stabbed at the toy with a blunt, plastic knife. “Look,” he would say. “I’m doing like daddy.” Then he would raise the animal out of the pot and pretend to bite the neck right off.
Now there’s just his face on the security footage, captured in pixilated grayscale in our factory’s security cameras, his half moon scowl poking out from behind that black hoodie, the one with the patches all over it.
“No,” I keep saying to the head of my security team. It must be my eyes. It must be the ungodly hour. “No, its not him. Rewind it.”
When he was nine years old, I pulled Robert from his bed with a whisper of, “happy birthday, buddy.“ His eyes were still heavy as I led him through the factory parking lot, the sun rising above the roof of the plant. He already knew the smells of the killing floor, the waves of ammonia and cleaning fluid that worked twenty four hours a day to cover up what came out of those massive bodies. Those smells clung to me when I came home, and he had asked me countless times to let him see what I did at work. So, even before the cake and off-key singing, I took him to daddy‘s factory, to show him where his dinner came from.
I placed my hand on the back of Robert’s neck as the primary crane pulled a newly skinned carcass out of the flaying room and into the wide vistas of the slaughter floor. I pointed him towards the first puncture of the abdomen, the slow insertion of the nine foot drill, the sound of the rotors pumping up and beginning to purr as the dynamos worked to pulverize the organ while it was still inside the body.
“What are they doing, dad?” he asked me.
“They’re liquefying the primary heart,” I replied.
“Why?” he asked. I noticed his hands were gripping the guard rail. His hard hat was too big for his head, and I kept having to reach over and readjust it for him.
“Its too big to remove all in one piece,” I answered, having to raise my voice over the increasing noise of the pulverizer. “Just like our blender, back home, huh?” I added. “When it gets to be real loud like that you know its almost done.”
Little bits of meat and gristle were falling out of the puncture hole in the bottom of the carcass. They flopped down through the grating below the line, like red bits of fish on an escape route down and into the waste runner pipes underneath the floor.
“It used to be they did just cut it out all at once,” I said as the pulverizer began to power down, the arms slowing to a gradual stop. “But do you know how big some of those hearts can get?”
Robert shook his head no. His hands still clutched the guard rail. A tiny speck of blood had splattered onto his safety glasses.
“Ten tons,” I said. “That’s almost ten percent of the entire animal in the heart alone. Thank god we developed a way to make the removal safer.”
And I told him about the early days, just after the string of biological advances that resurrected that long ago extinct miracle of meat and bones. This was when the processing was still happening in converted beef and hog factories. These were wild west years, before everything was streamlined, when half the resources of feeding went to the fast free range farms needed to raise the meat to maturity.
In those day, I told him, the procedure was just to cut the heart out whole, through a twelve foot lateral slit underneath the chest. And those hearts would just come falling out into the collection drums, like a whale giving birth to a truck made all out of meat and blood. Amazing to see, all that just falling out. But not efficient. The act of cleaning up the heart itself, breaking it down and removing it, slowed the whole process down. Once we realized we could just break it down while it was inside the body, everything sped up beautifully. Of course, even today, there are still factories in Asia where they remove the organ whole and serve it as the centerpiece at weddings.
“I’d once heard of a factory that donated a heart to a medical center in Phoenix,” I said. “The med students had it shipped in on a flatbed truck. They dissected it in a sterilized gymnasium. They leaned ladders against it and had to use hacksaws to cut through the tougher bits.”
I made a hack sawing motion with my arm. “Wow,” Robert said.
I thought I saw wonder in his eyes and in his “wow”s, pride in his family and the life he had been given. But maybe it was really the first hint of all those questions he would ask later, about how many of those animals’ blood it would take to fill the pool in our back yard, or how many car sized racks of ribs it took to pay for my golf clubs.
And maybe that was the first step towards the face I was looking at now, replaying in slow motion on that tiny monitor in our security office. I wanted so badly to remember that little boy who had cut the arms and legs off of his Jurassic Park toys with a pair of garden shears, who had shown me his work and joked, “Look dad, I made lunch.”. But all I had was the dreadlocked stranger on the tapes in front of me, leading a half dozen of his friends through my factory.
When he was twelve, he scoffed at my suggestion of a theme birthday party. “Not even a dinosaur party?” I’d asked him. But all he did was scoff and turn away. All he cared about was that he be able to take his friends to a paintball range. But afterward, when the it was finally just me and him again, I sat him down in the leather booth at the back corner of Marco’s Steak House. Over his menu, he told me, “I think I want to be a lawyer.”
I nodded, considering. “You don’t ever think about going into the family business?”
He shrugged, “I don’t see what’s go great about meat.”
I knew the moment had come. I’d been preparing for it for years. We had to have the talk.
“Meat,” I said, “makes the world turn.”
So I told him about how, this year alone, three hundred establishments had received quality certification form the International Sauropod Meat Council, from the famous Café du Geant Fille in Nantes to the booths at state fairs. I told him how racks of ribs, sometimes weighing up to three hundred pounds, (and eliciting far too many Flinstones jokes) have necessitated the creation of entire new industries for the production of spits and grills large enough to accommodate such large cuts. How, every month, magazines are printing new theories and recipes for everything from jerky to slow roasting methods that last for months at a time. There are some who say it will be decades before we can match the centuries old cooking techniques that we take for granted when preparing pork, beef or chicken. And that’s not even taking into consideration the leaps forward in deep frying, with the creation of fry cookers big enough for the cuts of meat from the legs and thighs. Big enough to deep fry a bear whole, I was once told with a wink by a salesman in a flannel hat at a convention in northern California.
The last half of the tail contains too much gristle to be appetizing, and is most often turned into various other products, such as lard, glue and, most recently, in test trials of prescription sleep aid called Zepotal. But it is becoming standard practice to dock off the tail when the animal is in its adolescence, before the appendage grows long enough to be used as a whip strong enough to cleave trees in half.
“You see,” I told him, “we don’t just grow animals. We grow innovation.”
“How is everything?” the waiter asked us.
I noticed that Robert had begun to neglect his steak. “Robert?” I asked him. “Is your food cold?”
“No,” he said, poking at it with his fork. “Its fine.”
He looked down longingly at the meat on his plate. He ate the potatoes and drank his coke, and avoided the cut until it grew cold.
It was when he was sixteen, right around the time I found all those PETA websites in his computer search history, that he started asking for me to buy him soy burgers from the grocery store. That was when he met that girlfriend of his, who insisted we call her River, who wore those flower print dresses and talked about socialism. When I first noticed the subtle way Robert picked the meat balls out of his spaghetti and left them uneaten on the side of his plate. The way he wore polo shirts less and less, how the holes advanced across the seams of his jeans. Until, finally, the day came when he told me, over some watery, dripping salad, that he wasn’t planning on eating any more meat.
He said he had gone to hear them singing. He and that girl of his had driven to the edge of one of the feed lots. And through the fences he had listened to them calling to each other, in that retarded pidgen screeching of theirs that he found so inexplicably beautiful.
I calmly and rationally told him that, since it was meat that kept him fed, he could buy his own soy burgers from now on.
I waited for his mind to change. Every Saturday morning I would call to him from the kitchen, “Robert, you want bacon?” And at first he would simply call back, “No, just eggs.” But then he began to ignore me. Then one day, as I was scraping the eggs onto his plate, he calmly informed me that he wouldn’t be eating those anymore either, and could I please stop asking him if he wanted bacon, thank you.
“Sir,” someone called to me from behind. I took my eyes off the security tape and turned around in the chair. Dan was standing there, head of my security team, looking panicked and irritated, a phone pressed into his ear. “They found it.”
It, Dan told me, was three miles away. That was how far they had gotten, three miles away from the factory. Not even off company property.
“Goddamn it,” I kept saying to myself as I sat in the passenger seat of Dan’s car, the two of us following the police car out of the factory parking lot and past the fences. “What were they thinking, Danny?”
“Not sure, sir,” he said, sighing. “Seems pretty fucking stupid to me.”
The police had encircled the animal where Robert and his friends had left it. In the dark, the only way to see was by the flashing of the squad car’s emergency lights and the burning of road flares, spread in a half moon around the occupied lane. The only sound that blithering screaming.
If its tail hadn’t been docked years ago, it would have been lashing us all to death with it from where it lay, stranded by the side of the road, all overturned and flailing. Its head was some fifty feet away, perched at the end of that vista of a neck, emitting those howls, those wild stupid howls that poor deluded and misguided people like my son had begun to mistake for intelligence, for wisdom. For something worth stealing from a feed lot in the middle of the night, and trying to escort on foot out of the county.
“I’m the owner,” I announced, making my way towards the line of squad cars.
“Don’t get too much closer,” the nearest officer told me. He pointed, and I saw that the animal’s right front leg had broken into a right angle at the knee cap. The massive, clawed stump of its foot still lay in the pot hole that had caught it and brought it down. And so it was screaming, a whole stadium of ugly tubas, bus loads of half hoarse Pavarottis, that sound everywhere, all that meat wasted.
“Did you catch any of them?” I asked.
Another officer was taking photographs in the steady darkness, and he overheard me and pointed towards a squad car. Through the darkness, I could see some dreadlocked head in haloes of alternating red and blue.
“Bring him out here,” I told him. “Can you bring him out here to talk to me?”
The photographer nodded and said something to the man inside the car, who was fiddling with a dashboard computer.
Pulled out, this boy was marched towards me, still in handcuffs, the top of his dreadlocks barely coming up to my chin. And so quickly had Robert changed in the year since I had seen him last, that I only recognized him when he was inches away from me. And any sense of pride or conviction was gone from him. He stared through me, towards that poor sad creature with the broken leg, unable to cover his own ears with the hands now chained behind his back.
“You happy?” I asked him. “You accomplish what you wanted?”
He whispered back, “We were trying to save it. It went down so fast. I’ve never seen anything fall like that. I heard the bone snap, dad. I heard the bone snap right in half.”
“Of course it did,” I said, teeth gritted. “They’re not supposed to walk further than a few feet.”
I motioned towards the pork barrel belly, bloated and fat with growth hormone. Its bones were too brittle, its lungs underdeveloped. But normally, it would never have to move more than a few feet at a time. Yet here was my son, treating it like it was free range.
Who was he to tell me what right or wrong, that bringing food to people’s tables was something to be ashamed of? I hadn’t raised a stink when he went away, when he stopped calling. I let him eat his granola and hold his protests and I never told him to stop his life. And now the animal was just screaming and howling and it wouldn’t stop, and nothing in my brain could work through it. I wanted to bend the boy over, right in front of the cops, and tell him he wasn’t too old for a spanking.
A hand took my shoulder and I heard my security chief tell me, “We need to do this soon. I just got word that the news is on its way out here.”
“Do it then,” I said. “Is the exsanguinations team here?”
Dan nodded. I could see them emerging from their van, dressed in matching white coveralls, piecing together the chainsaws and bolt guns that they normally used in the factory. With great relief, I saw Neil, the best poll knocker in our factory, who never had to fire a bolt into the same skull twice.
I took the little dreadlocked man of mine into my eyes, took him in with everything I had and I asked him, “You know what exsanguination is, right?”
He nodded, bristling at the policeman pulling on the back of his wrists. “That’s the bleeding out of the animal.”
I nodded, good. “Normally we wouldn’t do this out here, in the middle of the night, on an animal with a goddamn broken leg. But since you decided to set this all up for us, I wanted you to be here to watch this.”
The police line parted to let the three men pass, the stunner and the cutters. I grabbed Robert by the thick part of his forearm. I held him there, though he made no effort to turn away. “Is this what they sounded like?” I asked him. “when you were listening to them singing.”
“No,” he said. “They sounded…”
He trailed off. He watched Neil, who was carefully approaching the far end of the animal’s neck, inching towards the head. From where we were standing, halfway between the head and the feet, we could hear its remaining legs kicking up gravel and tearing slow chunks out of the asphalt.
“Big goddamn things,” I heard one of the police say. “Never seen one up close.”
“Maybe when this is all over we can have some breakfast,” another laughed. “You know, cook some of it up right here.”
They nudged my son. I didn’t try to stop them.
“Jesus,” Neil yelled from the far end of the neck. “They tried to shoot it.”
Robert’s head sank. “What do you mean?” one of the police yelled.
“I mean they took some kind of pistol and tried to put the thing down,” Neil yelled back. “But all they did was blow a chunk right out of its ear flap. Not even close to the brain.”
“For gods sake,” I yelled, “put it out of its misery.”
This was like some sick reminder of those early years, when the stunning of the animals was handled the same way as our bull stock. How we would lead them into the factory, usually drugged with a mild muscle relaxer to limit involuntary contractions, then fire a single 190 milligram cartridge into the space at the back of the skull. But the stunning was too weak, and we had no more idea of where to aim than my son had. So it would take two, three, even four shots. And the whole time the thing would scream just like this one was doing, distracting everyone on the floor, all thrashing and drooling, blood pouring form the top of its head. Everything spraying like out of a blow hole filled with blood and, making a mess of everything. The loss in overhead was just excruciating.
So we developed more careful stunning methods and stronger doses of gun powder, higher velocity shots that burst through the skull and pulverized the brain on a single, productive blow. So now, watching my best shot taking aim, I couldn’t help but wish my son had at least taken that one piece of information with him before he tried to do it himself.
There was a coarse pop and the legs flexed once all in unison, even the broken limb, and then the neck went still. The screaming stopped, and the night seemed suddenly bigger, a room unfilled, a huge space left abandoned. Neil had done it, one shot into the back of the head. Inside, that ten ton heart was still beating, waiting to be pulverized.
The cutting team approached. And as they fired up their saws, I stood beside the thing that had come out of me, the vegetarian in his unwashed clothes, his friends gone from him. He must have stayed, I realized. He must have stayed with the animal as it suffered, even with the police nearing, even with his father coming and the screaming in that cold night.
The main artery in the neck opened clean, the spray issuing in a noiseless fountain of deep amber that all but glowed in the lights of the squad cars. I watched Robert watch the bleed out, that long wait as the neck just bled and bled, and the legs twitched, the police men licking their lips, the stub of the tail shivering, then going still. And even as the roadway became inundated with all that spray, and everyone muttered about not wanting to be the one to have to clean this up, the thing just kept on bleeding.