The smell of blood grabs something inside me. It starts pulling.
by CARL NEISSER
I believe that the place where an animal dies is a sacred one.
–Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism
“Know what this is?” Richard asks. He stuffs his fist into the dead sheep and pulls a round white organ out by a thin chord of flesh. He dangles it in front of me like hypnotist’s pocket watch.
“Sheep balls,” I say.
“Just one ball,” he replies. Richard lobs the testicle at Nick, who yelps and dodges out of the way. It lands in the sterilizer, splashing boiling gray water onto the floor. “You sound like a little bitch!” Richard says, laughing.
“You fucker!” Nick shouts. He starts laughing too.
“I had to do it. I don’t want the day to get boring.” Nick tries to fish out the sinking ball. Richard puts his hand back in the sheep and grabs the other. “You ever been to a fancy restaurant?” He pulls a knife from the sheathe dangling at his waist and peels back the testicle’s white membrane, revealing the spongy matzo ball underneath. “What they do is they slice it, bread it, and fry ’em up. They call it, uh…”
“Fries,” Nick says. “You’re getting a mouthful of balls.” Nick gives up searching for the submerged nut and goes back to work, leaving it to cook in the tub.
It’s a circus of gore and death, and all are welcome.
Royal Larocque, owner of The Royal Butcher in Braintree, Vermont, believes transparency is paramount in his business. Everything works on trust; farmers have to trust they’re getting back what they sent in, trust that the butchers care about making a quality product. But when you’re dropping off a living creature and picking up cardboard boxes, it’s easy to get suspicious.
“I say to them, if you want to go in there with your animal and watch us kill it, put a white coat on,” Royal says. “You can follow right through. You can sleep out in your car and come back here the next morning, OK? Park out there for as long as you like. We’ve got nothing to hide.”
So when I call and ask him for a tour of his facilities, he says, “Sure, how about tomorrow? OK? What are you looking to see?” I give him my spiel about meat––how we lie to ourselves by pretending we aren’t animals, how until I was ten-years-old, I thought chickens had a natural layer of breading underneath their feathers. It’s cute and mostly true. I’m really there to see some hardcore shit. I want to watch a person kill an animal and know what he feels when he does it, understand what it does to him. I want to know if I can handle that truth. Royal laughs. “We can clear that right up for ya,” he says. “No mystery in there.”
The next day, I pull into the parking lot and walk into the small red building. In the foyer, a sheet tacked on the wall offers a cautionary message to newcomers: “NOTICE, THIS PROPERTY IS A FARM. Farms have animals. Animals make: funny sounds, smell bad, cause flies, and have sex outdoors. Unless you can tolerate noise, odors, flies, and outdoor sex, DON’T BUY PROPERTY NEXT TO A FARM.”
Royal hops up from his desk and greets me. He’s short and jolly and has old farmer toughness that makes him seem indestructible, like he could build a barn with his bare hands, or bring one down. He gives me a long, too-strong handshake and looks me over. “Well, let’s get you that lab coat,” he chuckles.
He comes back with the coat and a hairnet. As I put them on, he pulls out another hairnet and starts giggling. “This one’s for your beard,” he says, scratching his own. Oh, I get it. It’s because I can’t grow facial hair. So that’s how it’s going to be. I put on both and we head out to the slaughterhouse.
He tells me he’s going to have his guys shuttle me around the plant from station to station, starting with the finished product and ending with the kill. Packaging room, cooling fridge, kill floor, barn.
“We’ll start you off clean. Then you’ll get dirty,” he says.
Royal steps inside the plant and returns with Jason, his scruffy, fast-talking, Brooklynite second-in-command. He tells Jason his plans for me, shakes my hand again, and disappears into his office.
We dip our shoes in a bleach solution, wash our hands, and emerge into the processing area. A man with a shaved head saws away at a slab hanging from a hook on the ceiling. A twenty-something guy works the meat grinder and stuffs dollops of beef mush in plastic sleeves. A woman takes those sleeves and vacuum seals them with a giant chrome press. She puts the sealed pouches into boxes and carts them into the other room, where they sit awaiting pickup.
“It’s no different than what you might see in the back room of a Price Chopper,” Jason says.
Jason gestures to a carcass at the back of the room. “Every so often, somebody will send us a piece of shit like this. I mean look at this fucking thing.” He grabs the saw from the guy working on it and starts a new cut below the ribcage. He pulls me in and shows the cross section. “You raise a dairy cow for ten years, it stops making milk. And then what? You gonna let it move in the house with you? No, you bring it to us. We grind it up and mix it with a big batch of good stuff, 90/10, and you get some use out of it.”
He leads me into a cold brown room filled with twenty or so cow carcasses hanging from the ceiling. We follow the track of hooks above us and enter into a warmer, gamier room with fifteen more suspended husks. He explains, “We did these yesterday. We put ‘em here overnight so they can steam out. Then they go to the other freezer.”
We’re getting close to the kill and I’m starting to feel nervous. The smell of blood grabs something inside me. It starts pulling.
Jason goes on his lunch break. He strands me in the foyer between the packaging room and the killing floor, where I wait for someone to tell me what to do. I wash my hands and inspect the specks of drying blood on my lab coat. A little dirty already.
Somebody shouts, “Why don’t you fucking show him around then, huh?”
A short, balding man with penguin-like features bursts through the double doors of the kill room. “All right my little pain in the butt,” he bellows. “I’m Richard, the head butcher.” He yanks off his dripping yellow apron and tosses it on a coat hook next to me. He walks back in and gestures for me to follow.
“This is where they trim,” he says. The concrete floor is starred with scraps of fat that Sid, the trimmer, cleaves off a fresh carcass in fast flicking motions. Pinkish white globs adorned with flecks of red: that’s the first thing I notice about the kill floor. The second is the sensation of warm fluid seeping through my porous running shoes and into my socks. Blood. I hide a gag under a cough. Richard and Sid start chatting.
“Sid looks a little pissy. You pissy, Sid?”
“No, no. I’m doing pretty good,” Sid says.
“Yeah, you look it.”
“It’s just one of those fucking enthusiastic days, you know?”
Richard turns to me. “Sid’s gay. That doesn’t bother you, right?” I come back out of myself and look around. Everybody’s staring at the man-boy wearing the beard net. They’re fucking with me. Well, bring it on, assholes; I can play meathead too.
“I’m just here to observe, fellas,” I say back. They start cracking up. Richard gives me a nod that says now the real tour starts.
Screaming, profanity, blood splatter. Two butchers slip hooks in a just-skinned corpse and turn on the hydraulics, hoisting it up in the air. “This right here is where they split it, once they take off the hide,” Richard says, sawing the air with his hand. Another guy works the hose, spraying the floor clean as the blood drains out of fresh dead cow’s neck. It’s hanging from a chain on the ceiling by a hind leg, its swollen udder drooped over its belly, its dirty anus on display. Remembering what Jason had said earlier about dairies, I ask if this is bad meat.
“Yeah, it’s a piece of shit,” he sighs. “You can tell a lot by the head.” He points to an upside-down pyramid of bone and mush on a rack in the corner of the room. The head.
“You like milk?” Richard, giggling, grabs the hanging dairy’s udder and sprays a line of dead milk at another worker. It whizzes over my shoulder and splashes off the guy’s plastic apron. He laughs.
We step outside into the barn. A lone pig oinks loudly in his pen.
“He says he wants water,” Richard shouts to the other room. “You can pet him if you want.” I do––his skin is coarse and harder than I expected. Richard shows me the two remaining Black Angus cows. “They’re getting ready for another one of them now.” We go inside, and, remembering, Richard ducks back out for a moment to fill up a basin for the pig.
While they’re still alive, the animals are treated with care and patience. After they are dropped off in the barn adjacent to the shop, they have time to calm down, drink water, and acclimate to their new surroundings. A butcher then ushers them one by one through a narrow metal walkway. The walls of the path are slightly taller than a cow’s eye line, limiting the animal’s exposure to stressful stimuli and encouraging forward movement. Traumatized animals make bad meat; if distressed or exhausted before the kill, their muscles produce inadequate lactic acid, the meat becoming dark, dry, firm.
The animal enters a small metal chamber called the squeeze chute that holds it tightly, preventing it from thrashing and making it feel like it’s being held. A captive-bolt stunner is then applied to its forehead—a metal rod bores a hole four inches into its brain and retracts—killing it instantly. Big slaughterhouses perform this process, or a version like it, upwards of ten thousand times per day. Royal’s guys can do between seven and twelve cows in a day. For them, it’s intimate every time; they can’t just kill the animal and watch its corpse float down a conveyer belt for someone else to deal with. They have to clean up after themselves.
Richard leads an Angus into the chute. It thrashes as they compress the box, which conforms to the shape of the cow’s body. Then it stops moving. Its breathing slows and becomes steady. It sticks out its big grey tongue and licks one of the butcher’s hands. The room gets quiet. The butcher pats the Angus’s head, pulls out the stunner, and kills it. No flailing or kicking; the cow just raises its head and dies.
After the shot, the butchers turn back to their jokes. Shawn, the one who killed the cow, asks, “If you eat a cow’s tongue, and it licked its own pussy, does that still count as eating box?” He wags his tongue in the air.
Richard turns to me and points at the cow. “Where did he go? Where did he go?” He’s quoting a scene from the Temple Grandin HBO biopic, when Temple witnesses her first cow slaughter.
The milked-on butcher looks up and points at the ceiling. “He went to the big pasture in the sky.”
“No,” Sid the cutter says. “He went down. He went to hell.”
I tell Richard I have to leave as they start taking the hide off the chained dairy cow. I’m completely rattled at this point, and the skin removal machine is too medieval for me to stomach.
“So, you a vegetarian now?” Royal asks as I come back into the office. He looks at me and sees I can’t take much more prodding, so he just shakes my hand again and slips me his business card.
* * *
I lasted 45 minutes on the kill floor during that first visit. I didn’t figure out what those men were, or how they did what they did every day. Two months later, I go back.
I forgot my boots again, but I’m wearing shoes thick enough to keep the blood out. Royal is busy with the phones so he tells me where to get a lab coat for myself: upstairs behind the door marked Employees Only. No beardnet this time, either. A rite of passage, I think. Or, more likely, fucking with me had lost some of its novelty. The kill floor would do that job for him.
It’s all red and white and yellow and grey but it’s starting to look more like a process and less like a crime scene. At 8:15 a.m., Richard and Shawn are the only guys working the kill floor. They remember me from last time. We exchange pleasantries as they pull the second cow of the day out of the chute and hoist it to the ceiling. The new USDA inspector shouts something at Richard about the fresh kill. It’s still kicking, pressing its hooves out and downwards, gently, as if trying to tread water. Richard nods, grabs the stunner, and pops it in the head a second time. I watch a gumdrop of skull fragments and brain matter catapult across the room and splatter on my khakis.
Nausea, as I was learning, hits the head before the stomach. You don’t just barf right away. Details in your peripheral vision fray off first, then the spit covering your tonsils gets tingly and thin. The feeling keeps burrowing inwards, through your sinuses and down the back of your tongue, until finally it grabs your guts. I start to doubt my observational skills. Was the room actually that noisy last time? Did Shawn always have that .357 Magnum tucked in the back of his apron?
“Why do ya keep looking at the ceiling?” Richard asks. “There’s nothing up there, bud. You gotta keep yourself at eye level.”
I try to talk to the USDA guy. “You’re a reporter?" He says. "I can’t, uh, talk to you. I can’t have my picture taken and I can’t be quoted. All you can really say is that the inspector does his job by ensuring the safety of the product. It’s a DC thing, you know? Not trying to be a prick or anything like that.” He points to a line in my notes where I wrote “USDA guy” along with a description. I cross it out to reassure him and he marches out of the room.
The guys on the kill floor have to plan their entire day around the inspector. He needs to be there for every kill and cut. He works from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., no exceptions. If they’re behind schedule and don’t finish what they need to do, everything gets bumped back to the next day. After he leaves, the butchers still have two hours of cleaning up before they can go home. To them, he’s an outsider.
“Nazi,” Richard says. “Fuckin’ Nazi.” Royal warned me about the new inspector when we spoke that morning. Two weeks ago, a cow broke out of the chute and smashed its way to the inspector’s office. “He left the door open and it wanted to get friendly with him,” Richard says, giggling. “It trampled him all over.” Since then, Richard speculates, he’s a bit afraid of the cows. He definitely doesn’t want to spend more time on the kill floor than he has to; before most kills, the inspector dips out of the room, then slinks back in once it’s been knocked. He keeps the door to his office shut.
“Is this cow a good one?” I point to the carcass.
“It’s shit,” Richard said. He saws three-quarters of the way through a hoof, puts his body weight on it, and snaps it off.
“Today: seven cows, one pig, seven lambs,” Shawn grumbles. An impossible workload for two guys in just eight hours. They realize this and wordlessly decide to save the pigs and lambs for tomorrow. Things slow down.
I mention that I’m writing a zombie movie.
“A zombie movie!” Richard says, gleeful.
Shawn jumps in. “They said on the news the other day that if we had a zombie attack, the wild animals would protect us from the zombies. That is the biologist’s theory. Because the carnivores would smell the zombie’s dead flesh.”
“But how strong are they? Could they beat the animals?” Richard asks.
“Well, I don’t know. You might have to burn ’em.” Shawn says.
“How do you kill a zombie?”
They turn to me. “I’m pretty sure you just shoot ’em in the head,” I say. They laugh and continue freeing the beef from its skin. I ask, “Where are the other guys?”
“They’re all on vacation,” Shawn says, not looking up from the cow. “Not actually, though. Brick’s out ‘sick’ today.” I ask about Sid, the trimmer.
“Sid’s no longer with us,” Richard said. “He quit or got fired, we don’t really know which. You can’t just take off for lunch and not come back.”
“Fuckin’ knife,” Shawn snaps, yanking back a fold of skin. Shawn has two tattoos on his neck, one on each side of his Adam’s apple. On the left, an ornate crucifix wrapped in a ribbon; on the right, four black triangles pointed inwards, merging imperfectly in the center, forming a shape that doesn’t have a name. He leads me out into the barn where we meet the farmer whose cows he would slaughter that morning. The carabiners they used to seal the outer barn gate are screwed in too tightly for Shawn to unlatch with his bare hands. He apologizes to the farmer for making him wait.
“There’s no reason to do ’em this tight. Cow wants to get out, he’s gonna get out. Man! Royal probably did this with his farmer fingers.” The farmer says something in almost English and goes to his truck to grab a wrench. Shawn looks at me, still struggling. “Just another one of those fuckin’ days, I guess.”
They eventually get all three bolts loose and lead the two cows into the pen: an old milking cow followed by bull with massive horns. “Hup hup yah! Hup hup hup hup yah! Hup yah!” Shawn tells them.
I ask where he learned to handle animals.
“Farm,” he says. “Grew up with seven siblings. I’m just beyond the middle, on the upper side. We were raised a little differently than they do nowadays. All my sisters actually have families, good careers—one’s a stay-at-home mom, one’s a teacher, two work in mental health. The other one, she’s not sure what she’s doing yet.” He picks up his knife and stuffs it back in his scabbard. “Me, I’m here. I’ve got four kids to worry about, bills to pay. A job is a job. Never know where you’re going to be tomorrow. That’s the way it is nowadays.”
We go back inside. Shawn shoves both arms down the neck of the headless carcass and starts wrestling a slimy white rope out of it. “Throat and stomach,” he says, heaving. “Gotta push it all the way back to the diaphragm. If you knick it too far up, it starts leaking stomach acid. Richard usually has to deal with that shit.”
“I guess once that cow makes it to the trim, I’ll get the next,” Richard chimes in.
“I know how this works,” Shawn shouts back, now standing upright, holding the dangling rope of flesh at shoulder height, the end of it just grazing the floor.
“Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut and not tell you a fuckin’ thing.”
“Maybe you oughta. Might be a good fucking idea, asshole. Better snap out of it, you fucking cock sucker.”
Richard tries to think of a comeback. “Fuckin’ cock sucker,” he says quietly.
I tense up, waiting for something to happen. I’ve never seen two grown men talk to each other like that. But then the anger is gone, like it was never really there to begin with. Just play fighting. They smile at each other. I can’t tell if they’re performing for me or for themselves.
“Guess what we got?” Shawn pauses for effect. “We got a real big fuckin’ bull!”
I ask what happens to the horns.
“They’re gonna take the head, and they’ll dry it out. A lot of people bleach it, but the proper way to get a true European mount is to use hydrogen peroxide, and a fish bubbler, like a fish tank aerator. That’ll clean all that shit off and whiten it nice. People take it for their weekend homes, mount it to the wall, shit like that. People who’ve got more money than God.”
“Problem is,” Richard says, “it’s gonna have a real big fuckin’ hole in it’s head. “Just so you know, you didn’t skin this very good.”
“I know,” Shawn said.
“That one side.”
“I know, Richard. I’m sorry.” He means it.
“It’s hard for me to skin it when it’s already hung in the air. Specially with this fuckin’ knife, can’t cut shit.”
Shawn leads the old dairy into the shoe and seals it in. “Looks like a British White,” Richard says.
“You think so?” Shawn grabs the stunner from its holster on the wall. He positions it on the cow’s forehead and counts to three.
“British White, yep. Ears are black, half her nose is black.” CLACK-CLAP. “Now she’s dead. Where’d she go?” Richard said, no joy in his face. “Where’d she go?”
* * *
Nick, the replacement trimmer, walks onto the kill floor. “Here I am! To save the day!” He sings.
It’s his day off, but he agreed to come in when Brick called in sick. He looks like me––twenty-something, skinny, glasses, thin blond whiskers on his chin and upper lip—he doesn’t need a beard net either. He offers to show me how to trim. Using a knife and his bare fingers, he snips off chunks of fat from the hanging beef side and chucks them at a red bucket ahead of him, missing every third shot.
“You gotta look for poop and hair and dirt and stuff,” he says. “Here’s a perfect example.” He points at the cow and plucks off an invisible hair. “You can either do it or you can’t. That’s the way it is here. It takes a special kind of person.”
On the kill floor, you have to be ready for anything. The order of operations is always the same—shoot it, bleed it, skin it, gut it, split it in half, trim off the shit, get it inspected, spray it with lactic acid, put it in the freezer—but each animal is different. Sometimes a bull has horns too big to fit in the chute. Sometimes they cut an animal open and it has so many abscesses that the insides are completely unrecognizable. Sometimes the stunner gets stuck in a pig’s skull, and Shawn has to wrestle the bolt out. That’s why he brings his Magnum. If he thinks an animal’s head is too thick, he won’t bother with the .25 caliber. He goes for the sure thing.
“That’s the hardest part of the job,” Richard says. “Putting them in the chute, shooting them in the head. You only get one shot.” A misfire discontinues production for three days. The USDA steps in and forces them to write up a prevention plan, ensuring that the incident will not happen again.
“I mean, what are we gonna do? Cow moves its head at the last second and we’re fucked.”
Nick likes the chaos. “It’s the same thing every day, here, but it’s different. It’s interesting. Once you open them up, you never know what you’re gonna find. We had this one pig come in, there was something wrong with the kidneys, and it was filling her chest cavity up with water. So when they started opening her up to gut it, she just fucking poured water out.” He pauses, smiling. “You want a picture to go with your article? I got a cool picture of Richard.” Nick dunks his knife in the sterilizer, washes his hands off in the sink, and brings over his iPhone.
“You showing him your cock?” Richard shouts.
“No, it’s the picture of you from this Friday with that pig. When we busted it’s skull open? Remember? You were making that funny face at it? That’ll scare people.”
I can’t even tell it’s a pig. It’s meat confetti. He helps me identify the pieces.
“We shot it with a .44 Mag, split the head right in half.” That’s Dirty Harry’s gun, I think. And they use it to blow up pig heads.
“So that’s the snout, and that’s the eyeball, and this piece here should be up there. There’s the back of the skull, but it should have been up there.” Nick swipes one image too far, accidentally showing me a picture of two handguns disassembled on a table, their components laid out alongside them.
I ask them if they can still eat meat. Nick says hell, yeah. Richard says he never gets squeamish about his work—like many other butchers, he started cutting when he was a kid, working alongside his father—but he doesn’t have the stomach for red meat anymore. “When you’re a butcher, you try all the parts of the animal. It all turns to shit in the end,” he tells me. “I’m a seafood person now.”
On my way out, I tell Royal what Richard had told me. “He said that?” Royal asks. He laughs. “No, I think Richard will eat anything he can get his hands on.”
The next day, Nick invites me to go on break with him. We—Brick, Nutter, Tyler, Kylie, Richard and I—walk out into the parking lot and make a circle around the bed of Kylie’s white pickup truck. Today is Kylie’s second day on the job. She’s been vacuum sealing bags in the cutting room.
“You like it here?” Kylie asks Nick.
“Me? I love this job.”
“Yeah, I’m having fun, too. I like the--not mindless tasks, but the--not meaningless--you know. Repetitive. That’s the word. Repetitive tasks. I like those.” She takes a long drag. Everyone is smoking except Richard, who gnaws at a cold chicken thigh.
Brick, the slacker, has a blue striped baja hoodie that he wears with four cow tags pinned to its front; they flap against his chest in the breeze. I ask him what they mean. “This one, ‘Daisy,’ is from the cow that first got me over my fear of cows,” he says. “‘339’ is the first cow I ever bled out. The ‘Steak’ one I put on because I like steak. And ‘187’ is because—well obviously it’s murder-death-kill.” It’s a reference to the 1993 Sylvester Stallone movie, Demolition Man.
I tell them about my increasing threshold for gore. “I can do about two and a half hours,” I say. “Then I need to see the sky.”
Tyler nods. “Or just something other than white walls,” he says. Tyler works in the back corner of the cutting room, facing the walls. Apart from his breaks, he sees nothing all day but meat and plastic. Kylie goes back inside. I don’t think she liked us leaning against her truck.
“Or dead animals, too,” Richard says, sighing. “They just keep coming. Even slaves need breaks.” He stares at the slaughterhouse. It seems smaller than it does from inside.
“That’s our job, man,” Tyler tells him.
Richard finishes the thigh and tosses it over his shoulder into the bed of Kylie’s truck.
“Come on!" says Nick. "This is her second day and you’re already throwing shit in her car." He laughs. "I hadn’t even been here a week when he put those piglets in my bumper. I used to have this red Mitsubishi Mirage. Some kid fuckin’ hit me and busted out a corner of my bumper, so there was a hole. Richard takes two fuckin’ piglets that were dead inside of a sow and stuffed them in my bumper. I didn’t even know until I got home and my sister’s dogs started chewing on my bumper. I’m like, what the fuck is going on?” Tyler, Nutter, and Brick finish their cigarettes and walk back inside. “And you put something else in my bumper, too…”
“Maybe sheep balls?”
“No, it was this box of organs that a farmer forgot to pick up. He put it on a shelf in the kitchen and left it there. We didn’t even notice it until all the organs were filling up with gas and shit. There were two bags—a liver and something else—and they were totally puffed up and rotten. We had to take them outside and pop them. And he fucking puts it in my car.”
“I don’t remember that,” Richard says, beaming. “I remember the piglets, though.”
We head back inside, leaving the bone in Kylie’s truck.
* * *
A cow’s internal organs make up roughly one third of its body weight. If the viscera are properly severed, the stomach, spleen, large and small intestines can all be removed at once as one giant dumpling of guts. At The Royal Butcher, Richard does most of the disemboweling work. He slices open the abdominal cavity, pulls the organs out, and drops them in a large, circular wheelbarrow.
The guts, trimmings, and other inedible parts of the animals are kept in a giant dumpster in a room adjacent to the kill floor. Richard calls these “the awfuls.” He tells me that these undesirables are sent to rendering plants where their oils are cooked and extracted for use in cosmetic products.
“That’s the makeup that your girlfriend wears,” he says, cackling.
I can’t go into the room with the awfuls for the same reason that I don’t find Richard funny. I look in his wheelbarrow and I see organs stripped of purpose; I think of loss and death. In my mind, the animal only becomes meat once I see it sealed in plastic sleeves in the cutting room, or wrapped in Saran paper on supermarket shelves. For Richard, it’s meat as soon as Shawn pulls the trigger. He’s not the crazy one—the shoppers are, for pretending Richard’s work doesn’t exist.
It’s all shit meat. That’s the big punch line.
At the end of my first tour, Richard tells me a story. When he worked at a chain store thirty years ago, an elderly woman came up to him and asked if they really had to kill a whole pig just to get one pork chop. He didn’t want to burden her with the truth, so he lied. He told her, “We can just chop one off for you.”
* * *
On my last visit to The Royal Butcher, Shawn stops me as I go upstairs to grab a lab coat.
“Inspector’s gone home,” he says. “You can just walk in, we’re cleaning up for the weekend. Royal’s out back weed wacking.”
We walk onto the kill floor together.
Death metal plays on the overhead speakers. Tyler blankets the last cow half of the day in lactic acid spray to kill the bacteria on it. He opens the tall metal door to the hot cooler, slides the beef side along the track and gives it a dramatic final shove through the archway.
“You have no idea how good it feels to close this door for the last time,” he says, pressing it shut with his shoulder. He’s right.
Richard is in a hurry. “Let’s go!” He shouts, hoarse. “Let’s get the fuck out of here!”
He takes his apron off, hoses it down, and starts scrubbing the stained white walls with a brush. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other, uncomfortably. Brick and Nick pull the grate off of the blood pit and start shoveling its contents into the drain. It’s nearly overflowing—today, they bled out five cows, two pigs, five sheep, and four goats over it. They scoop the coagulated Jell-O chunks into a separate bin for rendering.
I ask Shawn if he can show me how he cleans the captive-bolt.
“It’s pretty space age,” he says separating it into its components. He teaches me how to line up the perfect kill shot. “Make an imaginary X from the bottom of the ears to the top of the eyes.” He draws the lines across his face with his hands. “Dead center and straight in. Royal just bought a new one of these for like two grand.” I guffaw for him. “I know, right? Just to kill some animals.
“Did you hear what happened?” he asks. “There was an escape today. A ram. Guy comes over and tries to drop it off in a Subaru Forester. I opened the hatch and went to grab him like normal, and that fucker was like, boom.”
Tyler joins in. “Sometimes they get away. Sometimes they get lucky. They get to live in the wild for about a week, and eventually they end up on someone’s farm. Then they come back to us.” He takes of his beard net.
“The inspector watches him run right by. He just stands there,” Shawn says.
“That’s what I would do if I was inspector,” Tyler says. “I would stand there rubbin’ my belly all day long.”
I try to think up some poignant, last-visit questions to ask them, like, how does being around death all the time effect your home life, or, what do you think happens when we die, but we get sidetracked and Tyler, Nick and I just end up talking about our favorite video games. They love Battlefield 4, and they invite me to join their online team, also called The Royal Butchers. As I take down their GamerTags, I drop my pen in a puddle of blood on the floor. I pick it up, dunk it in the sterilizer, and keep writing.
Richard is really struggling. He stops scrubbing the wall and hunches over, pain all over his face. Brick shouts at him. “Separate the balls from the legs, Richard!” Richard scratches at his nuts insanely.
“I got the worst case of swamp nuts,” he says.
Nick reaches a long iron hook into the sterilizer and flicks out something round. It soars across the room, hits the ground, and rolls over to Richard. A shriveled up, cooked sheep testicle.
I start laughing.