It’s unthinkable but true that I learned of love and loss from a summer of chopping meat.
A summer job is a rite of passage for many college-bound seniors. A cautionary tale of the hellish, trivial existence you would wake to if you didn’t frequent the library. In actuality, it showed me the disappointment, dashed hopes, and regrets that linger in the bread aisle and behind rows of neatly stacked egg cartons.
I remember the interview, a series of indirect, accusatory questions designed to pinpoint the risk of you stealing gratuitous amounts of inventory or showing up high off your face and obnoxiously late. There were some who did.
A couple of high school burn-outs traded stories of LSD flashbacks in the break room. It sounded mystical and horrifying, as if at any moment an innocuous activity like sorting black-skinned avocados against the backdrop of gleaming, silver fish could trigger a dark showing of Fantasia wherein you would be captured in a shiny Disney Castle enshrouded in darkness.
I later engaged in equally vacuous activity though. I purposely lifted heavy boxes in a foolhardy inefficient manner and took exaggerated full turns just to place a box on a shelf, hoping in vain that the extra half-second of exertion would yield some measurable personal change. I also did push ups on the sly with the lofty goal of making my chest a smidgen broader. It was only fitting that they stuck me behind the stinky, dangerous meat counter.
The $7 an hour rate I was paid seemed lavish, a full dollar above the 2005 minimum wage rate. Plus, the fringe benefits were myriad. Filet mignon cooked late at night on the steamer and a steady diet of preposterous stories.
I wore steel-mesh gloves, chopped meat, and smiled at housewives. At times, I felt vaguely professional and useful.
I came home smelling of rancid fish and tortured pigs. Tiny pieces of red meat dotted my black work pants. One shower rarely felt adequate. My muscles ached from the push ups I’d sneak in once I was left alone for the night shift. I was a meathead in the fullest sense of the word.
I hosed down the giant, room height metallic saw, pounds of fat and sinew exploded off the metal monstrosity. It smelled like a mixture of pencil eraser and decay. I wore huge, clunky rain boots and the floor looked like what I imagined an Indian village looked like after a monsoon, except the drowning goats and floating rickshaws were little pieces of filthy meat. Even after a 30-minute coat of scalding hot water, the place never felt clean.
Periodically, I’d talk to my co-workers. There weren’t many like me, most were serious folks burdened with performance expectations and managerial aspirations.
There were also bitter, burned-out grocery store veterans.
It was unfair that I had it easy and Ray, a grizzled forty something vagabond to my left, had two severed fingers from a life spent slicing carcass and a desecrated subconscious sacrificed somewhere in Vietnam. Oftentimes, his dark past emerged within tales of benders and violent break-ups. He hated women, I think mostly because they represented romance and idealism, and referred to them in various demeaning terms. “Dumb bitch” was his favorite. “Dumb, fucking bitch!” he would exclaim as his teeth clenched and his red eyebrows furrowed, revealing a frightening caricature of a disillusioned madman.
Ray told horrid stories. One particularly sordid story, detailed him kicking a naked prostitute out of a “shit-hole Gulfport hotel in the pouring rain, a plethora of drugs left on the table.” He told me he, “missed that bitch though.” After a heroin binge, he gathered his belongings and hitchhiked to Texas. He spoke of bar managers kicking his ass, the swallowing of his own teeth, and bleeding in assorted parking lots. It was always raining.
Much of it was for shock value, I’m sure, but everything he told seemed real. More real than anything I’d heard at least. The pain he suffered and the pain he inflicted on others was real. I saw how disillusionment snowballed, melted, flooded and drowned this man and those around him.
But Ray had a heart. He took me under one of his disfigured wings and told me about how mystery shoppers tried to fuck you. Mystery shoppers were shoppers paid to spy on grocery story workers and report back to their block-headed henchmen. I never concluded whether they were real or just a base ploy to motivate the peasant rank and file. He also kept me abreast of rival K-Mart’s generous benefit plan, but cautioned me that it did not outweigh the adversarial managerial climate.
I think he missed, or chose to ignore, the fact that I would be going to college, a place far from blockhead grocery store managers and benefit battles.
My other co-workers were interesting in their own ways. Francis, our tightwad manager, told me the story of a DWI arrest, spelling the end of his University of Texas days. He impregnated his girlfriend the same year, creating an insurmountable financial obstacle that he still hadn’t overcome. He unleashed bitterness on me because I possessed a chance he had lost. He nitpicked and left embarrassing notes decrying my work ethic and attention to detail.
Francis had cleaned up his life in all of the exterior ways but his soul was black when compared to Ray’s. Ray was bitter, depressed, and high on drugs but he had moved past hoping others would fail. Maybe he just had a more advanced form of depression and could not muster the ambition to bring me down with him, but I interpreted it as genuine heartbreak that he wouldn’t wish upon others.
Ray intrigued me because he could be so damn good to me while simultaneously violating every sensibility I’d been taught was decent and proper. He never wore gloves. He muttered “stupid, goddamn bitch” as he smiled and handed a splendid housewife a thinly sliced pile of animal harvest. The stunned woman watched in horror and probably bought the meat out of fear, only to throw it out in a fit of hygienic OCD.
The same day that fussbudget Francis lambasted me for an inadequate clean-up job. Ray valiantly defended me shouting, “Lay off him, he’s just a fucking kid.” He wanted to protect me from whatever messed up state of mind had befallen him. I had never met a monster with feelings.
That summer was a whirlwind of change. I would be off to school in the fall and I vacillated between contentment and apathy towards my high school girlfriend. All this was trivial, but to an 18-year-old suburban boy it was cataclysmic.
I remember standing behind the counter amidst one of our brief break-ups, and she “happened” to show up (because we all know high school girls have domestic errands to run at 8 pm on a weeknight). She was wearing an audacious shade of pink. Her shirt tightly gripped her frame and every urge in my body told me I was still a boy. This fleeting onslaught of hormones overtook any deep insight I collected that summer.
Years later, I realized I had learned some of the most profound lessons of my life from a deranged butcher.
I learned the different ways grown men deal with heartbreak on a deeper level than any romantic relationship could approach. I learned that everyone has a story, complex motives, and a heart, however wretched and twisted it becomes. I learned that heartbreak is far-reaching and sometimes manifests itself in anger, violence, and profanity. I learned that heartbreak comes from long-held wounds, usually incurred in times of feeble innocence.
Just because Ray’s gnarls and cuts resurfaced themselves as naked prostitutes scampering off in the rain and the unfurling of profanities behind a butcher shop counter didn’t make them any less real.