This is chuck. See this tube of meat? This is ground round. It’s darker, see? Has less fat. It costs twice as much and isn’t worth a shit on the grill….”
by kurt eisenlohr
The boss didn’t feel it was necessary to look at my application, which was a shame, being that it was a fairly entertaining piece of fiction. He was a balding, weary-looking man, standard issue, late 40s or 50s, grey hair, grey face, large of chest and belly, stout but run down as an old discarded clock, the fatigue showing in both his eyes and in his mind. Yet there was a certain kindness there, a gentleness of soul which was immediately apparent. Maybe this had worked against him, maybe life had clubbed him half to death and he had come here to hide.
Then again, maybe I was reading him wrong and he was just another horse’s ass who believed that the hiring and firing of people was not only of great, universal importance, but also his God-given right.
“I need a job,” I told him.
I handed him my application. We were standing in aisle 3, two men who had once been boys, among the meat and dairy products.
“What’s your name?” he asked. He had my application in his hand, my name printed out in large block letters across the top.
“Lupus Totten,” I told him, hating the sound of it. I always felt like a fool whenever I had to say my name aloud. I felt like a fool even without having to say my name aloud.
“Lupus? Like the disease?”
“Yeah, like the disease. You can call me Lou.”
“Any relation to Chuck Totten up on the lake there?”
“No, no relation.”
“Well, that’s all right. When can you start?”
I was three thousand dollars in debt to a surgeon in Grand Rapids. I had no money. If I wanted a pack of cigarettes I had to dig through the trash for returnable cans. If I wanted a drink, I had to beg them at the bar. My weight had fallen to one hundred twenty-five pounds, fully clothed.
I glanced toward the deli counter. Behind the meats and the cheeses and the chocolate mousse stood three young women, all of them grossly overweight. One appeared to be a half-wit, no evidence of any light behind her eyes, just two dim holes going back into her head, a string of sliced ham dangling from her lips. She saw me staring at her and slowly sucked the meat into her mouth, down her throat and into darkness.
“Next week,” I said.
The boss’s name was Jack Philly. He didn’t own the place, just ran it, and he took no discernible pride in that. It didn’t seem to matter much to him. You got the feeling that if the place went up in flames and the fire trucks were called it wouldn’t have been of great concern to him whether those trucks ever came or not, that either way would have been just fine. So what might have been a small dark corner of working-class hell turned out to be a small but welcome patch of heaven. Which is to say, the job was incredibly dull, but things could have been worse. Jack Philly gave me the fifteen-minute training session.
“See this tube of meat?” he asked. We were in the meat cooler. It was fucking cold in there. We weren’t wearing coats.
“This is chuck. See this tube of meat? This is ground round. It’s darker, see? Has less fat. It costs twice as much and isn’t worth a shit on the grill.”
I nodded. I hadn’t slept in days. My mouth hung agape. I was on my way to becoming a useful member of society.
Jack held up a knife. “Now all you gotta do,” he said, “is cut the tube and get the meat out.” He cut the tube, peeled back the plastic. He walked it over to the grinder. It looked as if he were walking a big red dick of a date to the prom.
I nodded again. I looked around for a clock but there wasn’t any clock in there.
“Now,” he said, “you take the meat and you push it down into the hole. Don’t use your hands. Don’t even fucking think about using your hands. Always use the stick.”
“You working for the Pope?”
“Nothing. Just a joke.”
“I don’t get it.”
“That’s okay,” I said, “neither do I.”
He pulled a club-like orange stick from the wall. He waved it around as he spoke, an inch or so from my nose. I stepped back. His breath was coming at me in frosty little cloudbursts, an admixture of sewer fog and dead fish. But you only noticed this smell when he opened his mouth to speak or breathe.
“A guy lost his arm right up to the goddamned elbow last summer,” he said. “You can’t sell that stuff. But it’s up to you.”
“I’ll use the stick,” I said.
Jack turned the machine on and pushed the meat down into the hole with the stick. The machine made a grotesque wet sucking sound. Blood spurted into the air, and the meat came out the other end, a million red worms. It fell onto a tray. He gathered it up in his arms.
“Now, you take this and put it back into the grinder, you run it through again. Only this time, when the meat comes out you cup it in your hand, gentle, the way you’d cup a woman’s breast. Like this …” He tossed the meat back into the machine, turned it on. The meat began to ooze out. He cupped it in his palm, forming a B-cup. He placed it on a small styrofoam tray –very quickly– and did this again and again until all twenty pounds of meat had been cupped and trayed.
“Now all you gotta do is wrap and weigh them,” he said. “Nothing to it.”
I gave it a whirl. He was right. There was nothing to it.
“I’ll let you do the rest of these,” Jack said. “I’ll be in my office. Give me a holler when you’re finished.”
I worked the grinder, poking the meat down into the hole with the big orange stick, poking, poking, pushing, pushing, pushing, cupping those breasts. Ten pounds, 20 pounds, 30 pounds, 40 pounds, 50 pounds … It was oddly sexual and the closest I’d come to having it in quite some time. But it was damned cold in there.
When I stepped from the cooler I was blue and had a rock hard-on sticking out in front of me. The warm air hit my face and my glasses fogged. I walked into a wall. The new guy.
The Deli Maidens stood there smiling, eyes on the new protrusion. I was a caucasian Isaac Hayes. I was Shaft. The combined weight of the women before me was probably in the neighborhood of 600 pounds. Too much for even Shaft to get his libido around.
My mast fell. The Deli Maidens frowned.
First day on the job, and already I was becoming popular. And unpopular.
It was a Zen thing.
Kurt Eisenlohr is a painter, writer and bartender living in Portland, Oregon. In addition to illustrations contributed to all issues of Smokebox his poetry and fiction has appeared in numerous journals and magazines including Asylum, Verbal Abuse, River Styx, Another Chicago Magazine, Cokefish, Decoy, Way Station, and STOVEPiPER. His chapbook, Under Hand and Over Bone was published by Alpha Beat Press in 1994. His art has been shown in many galleries and is featured on the Future Tense Books web site. More stories and art can be viewed in the Vault of Smoke.