Work at Hylyne
Palpating the stomach of the meter-wide fabric, the seamstress sewed in a peachy, straight line until she'd filled her whole room with rolls and curves. Then it started converting to skin. She pushed down her glasses past the bone saddle in her nose and saw the first graft form a few feet in front of her on the pink ribbon. How stunning--the needle was picking apart skin cells from her fingers and anchoring them in the fabric. Each colony grew (there seemed to be hundreds now, like abstract mold designs you find on cheese after a vacation), spreading to the edges of the fabric and blending with other colonies as they spread into each other. The seamstress looked around and felt proud; all of the weighty skin belonged softly to her. She felt a tear fall down her cheek, and when she wiped it away with the silky masterpiece, she shocked herself with skin-to-skin contact.
Recently, the things that cross my mind as I cull the chicks have started to scare me.
Sometimes I see myself in them: an ochre braid filled with gray streaks hanging down my back shows instead of my comb over, greased to one side on my head. I tolerate the scares for these moments--where I cherish myself, a slim form with a clean complexion, staring out at the yard on a Sunday, or hunting for vodka-filled Easter eggs. Or any chance I get to see Benny hugging me--or just him being Benny, actually. I like the imaginations for that, too. And, often, sinking into a warm chocolate bath, or watching the sand crash against the watery shore, is a nice escape from the white washroom, screaming chicks, the vibrating air conditioner that drips right next to my station.
We used to asphyxiate them, but we've been downsizing. I had a chamber I'd place them carefully in to and turn the gas on. I could look away as they settled their bodies, some clumsily stacked on top of one another. Sometimes I'd watch, just to make sure things were going right. Most of the time, just turn around and wait for the engine to stop running so I could remove the limp bodies. It was faster too. Don't believe anything you hear about how "grinding" is more efficient.
Hylyne sold the chamber, so now it's all cervical dislocation.
I take a single chick in my old hands, and it's soft against the nicks in my fingers.
The afternoon bin today is full with 550 chicks, all male, none of which have a use in the poultry market. It's a simple neck pop; a squeeze between the thumb and the forefinger, like cracking a knuckle, and the chick born today is dead by my hand. I place each body carefully down in the "BIO WASTE" bucket next to me.
On my way to our Hylyne Branch, I point my hands out the creaky windows. It's a large, white warehouse outside of Sioux City, and pine trees line the road leading up to it. Red lasers emanate from my thick fingernails, beaming in straight lines for about a hundred yards. As I pass by, my lasers burn through the bark of the young trees and cut through their bases with seamless ease. Each tree gives the sound of a release--a death, a cry--when I pass by, and it leans on the shoulder of the one still standing next to it. I cut that one down next. When I turn back, my lasers sizzle in the air, and the line of trees cries out, stacked in dead logs on the ground.
It's not until I walk in through Hylyne's doors and peep through the first-floor windows that I recognize the trees still stand, and my lasers have retracted.
"Good morning, Ms. Harrison," Lieutenant Director James Caulfield salutes. He wears a grey suit that fattens his short, skinny physique. Those lines that reach down from your nostrils to the corners of your mouth? What are they called--nasolabial? It's the first thing you see when you look at his face.
"Good morning," I reply.
He pixelates. As I move closer, the small boxes that make up his skin appear to combine and move into splotchy new arrangements. When I pass, his warmth emanates from the single pixel, and he continues away. I move to my station.
For a couple months now, there's a circle of black, fuzzed around the edges in the center of my vision. I believe that it's Glaucoma; my sister has it. I have to avoid the burned out part during the neck breaking. I move the chicks to the corners during the dislocation, and alternate between the left and right sides to avoid pressure on my shoulders.
"What are you doing, Linda?" Daisy asks. Daisy's a younger, plump girl with thin hair pulled back in a ponytail. She works across from me. She likes to check in on me--perhaps it helps her focus on her work if she believes she's simultaneously serving the community.
"It's my vision," I reply, and give a pop to the next chick. "I can't seem to see in the middle anymore."
She gives a startled look, and I turn to look behind me, figuring she'd seen something I haven't. In the wall, a huge hole has been blasted, and green hedge leaves shake like fire around the rough circumference. Outside, all had been matched with different shades of hedge--even the sky glows a delicious granny-smith green, and it rustles under a continuous wind. I watch one pedestrian sit and fall asleep against the extra terrestrial greens.
"Better douse it with some water!" I say, "but then, of course, that fire may only grow."
But then I am back, and the smell of unwashed chicks reinvades. I look down at my old, strong hands, matted with fuzzies.
She smiles sympathetically and I hear an extra crunchy pop under her hands.
* * *
My husband, Benny Harrison, owned the most successful hardware company in all of East Sioux City. I'd run the register, and offer coffee or tea to any long-term customers.
Benny couldn't live without me. Really. He'd dote on me--to excessive awkwardness, often--he'd come home in the middle of the day just to see how I was doing, and Saturdays and Sundays he closed the store so he could stay in bed with me all day. But I can live without Benny; I sure have, at least, for the past four years.
Some vacation scam stole all of our savings. The crazy part was we had actually gone on the vacation--stayed in rain-worn white tents at some ecofriendly place in Hawaii (too much for me, but Benny just loved it. Pull me out of bed in the morning with a coffee he'd gotten at registration so we could enjoy the morning sun on that flat beach.)--but on our trip, they'd drained us. Benny came home; I guess the surprise of it turned his mind all frail. Couldn't take the embarrassment, the frustration. He had a stroke 14 days after we got back. The warmth of the beach drops in the back of the last memories I have of my Benny, and for that I am grateful. But now, I break necks to maintain rent.
Benny's funeral started the hallucinations. It's odd, but I'm aware of them, and their dreamy vividness makes me proud of my imagination. Who knew that a simple mind like mine could come up with towers of babbling squashes, pumpkins filled with liquid adrenaline that truly give me butterflies whenever I carve a jack-o-lantern and eat its pouring contents? I'm happy with where I've come, and it doesn't scare me. If that makes me unhinged in Daisy's mind, who am I to care?
* * *
That night when I was home chopping carrots, eating a few of the peels as I went, I blinked and everything turned a mighty brown. In one frame, a stream of light sparkled with dust particles over my carrot pile, and the next frame filled completely with the same dust--a bacteria that had divided and overpopulated the petri dishes in my eyes.
But it didn't stay like that for long. The edges of the brown burned with a lighter yellow that stung. I felt my ears perk up past their casual alertness.
This is a real death, I thought. I'd experienced death often: my friends, one by one and sometimes in groups, seemed to be dropping into quick and startling deaths; my husband had turned cold with his branching fingers in my palm. Other deaths aren't as real, because we can't experience them firsthand. Or are they? I don't mean to sound rude. I'm being selfish.
But it's true; this was a death. Now the reality that I would never experience my imagination in the same way sent squiggles of fear from my hips up through my breastbone. I'd never see (well, hallucinate. I knew he wasn't truly before me, I did know that. But sometimes he was so vividly there, every scar on his rough arms marked appropriately--but of course they would be, because I remembered them--that it wasn't hard to pretend) my husband sitting behind the bar in their kitchen again, giving himself a tattoo, or dismantling his face with the liquid he kept by his bed (he'd dab a little under his ear and give a hard yank; smear some in the creases below his nose before cracking off his source of smell until all that remained was a fleshy skull, smiling, asking for eggs.)
Even with yellow blearing on the edges, I felt safe in the dark brown. I put the cold knife in the sink. Scooped the carrot peels up off the counter and dropped them in the sink. Everything felt wet--but just seconds ago, there was only a small pool under the cutting board. Had it grown? Was something leaking? Peels still clung to my palms and tickled my skin.
I moved one hand across the counter and let the other follow tentatively behind, wiping off whatever clung to my hands on a rogue washcloth, on the coarse handle of the refrigerator. It was this--feeling drunk, feeling like a pit of everything frothed in waves and inched back to avoid each successful step, until I reached my bed and felt the dangers of a new imagination.
Dreams hit me I would fear for the rest of my life (well, not really these dreams--but I'd see them, or variations of them, fairly often. Repetition will wear you out). Oddly, it wasn't the fears of slipping from a sightless world to an unconscious one that lessened, but the vividness of the dreams themselves. My father came up to me after living on the streets, his body skeletal against the harsh, grainy pavement, hugged me, and whispered "we're dead, hon," before returning to his spot next to his wife, who had frozen overnight. I'd turn around and find myself surrounded by screams of grief, burning under layers of the hottest sand--the new tanning method; a woman on the phone, who refused to hang up, wouldn't believe me. There was an alien in the other room, for God's sake. Was I supposed to nurse it back to health? It kept breaking, whenever I tried to touch it.
* * *
I still had my imagination.
On the bus the next morning, that's what I was thinking. Sure, took me a while to find the sidewalk. Had to crawl across the grass at one point, and my jeans were slippery on the knees now. But I still had things to see.
"Good morning, Ms. Harrison," piped up Mr. Pixelator. The morning had been crisp, and I remembered a wind storm we'd had a few years back that had swept the city in garbage--really! Banana peels draped scrumptiously across buildings, black trash bags swinging through the streets and threatening to hit pedestrians.
"Mr. Caulfield, it seems as though the Glaucoma has taken my eyes."
He didn't know how to respond, clearly, and I felt him breathe out in apology.
"Don't worry," I assured, "I can still maintain my duties at Hylyne. It's not vision-heavy work."
"Linda, I…I don't know what--I mean I'm so sorry. Of course--well actually, do you really think--"
"Yes, it won't be an issue. It's snapping necks."
I'm still scared. I must admit it. It's traumatic, you know, because now my visions are so vivid and colorful that I crave certain portions of reality. I have my memories--I do remember the real world. But it's as if whatever it is I used to know has been damaged, and then mixed with what I knew to be hallucination. I don't know what is the original form anymore.
"Good morning. Daisy?"
"She's not here today."
Mr. Caulfield's suit pants swished against each other as he hurried to my side, squeezed my elbow, and shuffled me to my station.
"Today's haul is in the bin in front of you. The waste is to your left."
"It always is. Thank you."