One of the things I liked about Robbie was that he talked even less than I did.
If the foreman gave him instructions, or somebody asked him to lend a hand, he usually
just nodded and did what he was told. If someone said something funny, he would
grin, but he never joined in the jokes. For lunch, he usually ate by himself, sitting
high on the fence gazing down at the cattle or hogs in the pens, munching on his
sandwich, sipping his Coke, keeping his own counsel, staying apart from the others
in the tiny break room.
Most people are like wolves—I won’t say dogs—and when they get
together, instead of biting at one another’s cheeks and sniffing at one another,
they talk. They have nothing to say, nothing that needs to be said, but they talk
anyway, their way of fitting in, performing the rituals, finding their place in
I heard Doyle, one of the meatcutters, say that he thought the Joker, or so he and
some of the others called Robbie, was a fucking retard who didn’t even know
how to talk, but I kept my mouth shut while a couple of others in the cutting room
—That boy’s a halfwit, I’m telling ya.
Slazak, the head meatcutter, said:
—He ain’t so bad. He does his job. More than I can say for you.
—What, clean-up? You have to be stupid to stand that.
One of the young women said she thought he’d be cute if it weren’t for
the scars and how shy he was. Although I had never asked him, you didn’t need
to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what had happened to cause the scars and toothlessness.
As a kid, Robbie was snowmobiling and had suffered the classic, sometimes killing
accident: he had driven through a barbed-wire fence, the upper strand catching him
across the mouth, ripping out the front teeth top and bottom and slicing and tearing
open his cheeks all the way to the back of the jaw. He’d been lucky not to
be decapitated, and although he had a plate for his uppers, he perhaps couldn’t
afford or didn’t think he needed one on the bottom, and his lower lip sagged
—Watch it, Jodie. I doubt he’s eighteen.
—Show the Joker yer tits and see what he says! Now I think about it, how about
you show me yer tits?
Jodie, barely eighteen herself, was about to reply when Slazak interrupted:
—Knock it off, Doyle.
One of the other things I liked about Robbie was that, just as Slazak said, he did
his job. He kept his head down and worked steadily. Like me, he showed up just before
midday, and we worked on the killfloor, or in the cutting room running the grinder
or silent cutter or patty machine, or wherever they needed us. After everybody left
at four, we divided the clean-up between us, Robbie usually taking the killfloor
and pressure washing the cutting boards and equipment that I would disassemble and
dolly or roll back to the killfloor to be cleaned. In the meantime, I would use
a scrapper and pressure washer to clean the floors and walls in the cutting room
and coolers, and then mop the lunch area and office. Robbie always showed up early,
and he didn’t hang fire when he was supposed to be moving sides out of the
chill cooler and into the cutting room cooler or loading the delivery truck. He
didn’t sneak product out the side door and into his vehicle when the owner,
Mr. Vickers, always too busy working to run the place, wasn’t looking. He
didn’t hassle the women, and if we were working together and it was time for
a break, he always passed me a cigarette as we went out the backdoor by the unloading
When I thanked him, he would just nod.
Far as I know, I was pretty much the only one who bothered with him and after we
finished the clean-up I would sometimes dig a six-pack out of the cooler in the
back of my truck and hand him one and we sat on the tailgate, smoking and drinking
beer, looking across the highway at the trees mostly blocking our view of the river.
Sometimes, we would catch a glimpse of a drift boat or canoe or some kids on inner
tubes lazing away a late summer afternoon.
One time I asked him:
—You ever go fishing?
He shook his head.
—I been a few times. You know, with some friends and some girls.
He shrugged, and most days after a couple he would say thanks for the beers and
climb into his truck, a late-model Chevy which he kept immaculately clean, and head,
I supposed, for his tiny apartment in town. I didn’t know much about him, and as
I only worked summers, I didn’t see him for months at a time and even when I was
around I rarely saw him in town.
Mostly we worked on the killfloor, and since he went back to clean-up fulltime—a
shit job if there ever was one—while I was back in Brunswick, I tried to take
more than my share of the crappy jobs, like emptying the paunches into barrels and
hauling the barrels to the dump to spill off the back of the trailer, the half-digested
contents and muck inevitably splashing back onto your face and arms and hair. Or
like digging the immense blood clots and hair and hog toenails from the collection
pit in the floor at end of the line, just before the big chill cooler door, or hauling
the offal barrels into the hot, super-stinking offal room where they waited to be
picked up by the truck from the rendering plant in Missoula. On beef days, we took
turns running the stock into the knocking box and stunning them or running the splitting
saw and washing and shrouding the sides before pushing them into the chill cooler
to begin setting up and ageing. On hog days, we did the same, sometimes working
the splitting saw or dumping the still twitching carcasses into the scalding tank
and dehairer, blow-torching the areas the metal-toothed paddles couldn’t quite
reach. There’s nothing like the smell of burning jowl- or ass-hair, nothing
like the noise of the dehairer as it spins a carcass, the blow-torch adding a roaring,
blue- and orange-flamed whoosh to the clanking and clanging and stink.
One day, late in the summer, while I washing the bone dust from the spine of a steer
I had just split, I felt a tap on my leg. I looked down from the hydraulic platform,
and saw Robbie, holding the old, greasy, and thoroughly beat-up and duct-taped .22
we used for stunning, looking up at me. He motioned that I should follow him, and
I hooked the hose back on its ring and climbed down. Weaving our way around the
skinner and the gutter, and past Stovall as he was cutting the bung on a heifer
he had stuck and hung by the Achilles on a spreader, I shadowed Robbie out the back
door. He stopped immediately at the head of the knocking box and gestured at the
It was an immense and immensely muscled bull, an old guy, as docile as an old dog,
and he was so thick that his shoulders were pressing on the one side against the
fence of the nearest holding pen and on the other against the knocking box door.
And, he was so long that Robbie hadn’t been able to close the gate behind
him, and his back haunch twisted back into the narrow passageway leading up to the
box. Blood was running down the old bull’s forehead and around his eyes and
down his muzzle and flowed in a stream from either nostril. He was so tall that
he looked us in the eye, and he stared placidly, unalarmed and tranquil, a long
and happy life behind him and no sense of his immediate fate.
Destined for hamburger, he was so large and so muscly that even boned-out and cut
into strips, the meat would bind the grinder and cause it to overheat and smoke,
and we’d be forever taking off the cap, plate, and knife and unclogging the
I looked at Robbie and he half-grinned and shrugged:
—I shot him three times.
I looked back at the bull’s forehead, and sure enough, there were three holes
tightly together, each singed black and running with blood. In order not to introduce
lead into a carcass, we used .22 longs with plastic tips, and evidently the old
boy’s hide was so heavy, and his brainpan so thick, that the bullets wouldn’t
penetrate or at least drive a splinter of bone into the brain. Still, he must have
had a headache, yet it didn’t seem to bother him or he could have walk-pushed
his way through the metal frame at the head of the knocking box and back into the
alley leading to the pens and unloading chutes. He was big enough, if he wanted
to or we pissed him off enough, to break free and go for a walk on 93, north through
town and toward Stevensville or south toward Victor, or to head through the trees
on the other side of the highway and wade across the Bitterroot. Or, he had the
option of heading west, past the big houses on the acreages and up into the mountains.
I reached for the beat-up, stubby rifle, and Robbie dug into the box of bullets
on the small shelf against the cinderblock wall. He passed me a round and I chambered
it and climbed up the metal fence, trying to get high enough to shoot downward into
the bull’s head. Poking the barrel against one of the holes already there—the bull
half-snorting and shaking his head as if to dislodge a fly—I pulled the trigger.
The bullet followed the route of its predecessor and the bull looked up at me, blinking.
More blood ran from the spot and from his nostrils, but he hadn’t dropped. He flicked
his thick white and gray tongue up one nostril and then the other.
I looked at Robbie, and he looked at me.
—That didn’t work.
—Tell you what, Robbie. You climb in there and strangle that bastard.
He grinned wider, but also shook his head.
Just then Stovall banged through the door from the killfloor:
—Joker, what in the hell are you guys doing? Give me something.
Robbie had stepped a little behind me, and I gestured at the bull with the rifle:
—A big ol’ bull. We shot him four times, but he won’t drop.
—Fuckin’ idiots. Get the shotgun, and drop that fucker and let’s
go. Yer wasting time.
Robbie darted past us, heading for the compressor room where we stored the 20-guage
and the round-ball slugs. By the time he returned, Stovall had already gone back
inside, and Robbie looked at me and then handed over the shotgun and a shell.
—Did you bring the earmuffs?
He looked uncertain for a moment and then shook his head.
—Fuck it. Stovall’ll kill us if we don’t drop this guy.
I climbed up high on the fence, high enough to accommodate the long barrel of the
shotgun, opened the break-action and chambered the slug. Closing the gun, I climbed
to the penultimate rail and aimed down at the top of the bull’s forehead,
and pulled the trigger. The big bull dropped instantly, the ball having smashed
through the tough hide and thick bone.
Robbie said something I couldn’t hear due to the ringing in my ears—the
concussion had rebounded off the wall and thereby hit me twice—and rushed
inside and pulled open the gate of the knocking box, but the bull was too immense
to fall through the opening so Stovall could stick it and begin skinning and breaking
it down. I watched Robbie attempt to pull the bull’s massive head in by the
ears, without luck.
I said something to him, but I couldn’t hear myself. I climbed down and set
the shotgun against the wall, and then climbed back up and over the fence and dropped
down onto the back of the bull. Through the opening I could see Stovall, and he
was clearly pissed and yelling something at Robbie that I couldn’t make out.
When he looked up at me, still yelling, I flipped him the bird:
—Can’t hear you, asshole.
I don’t care for people cursing, especially at me. He yelled louder:
—Get that fucking thing in here.
—Good idea. Never thought of that.
Robbie looked alarmed, as well he should have: he needed the job a lot more
than I did, and he had to work with Stovall and the others, who treated him indifferently
if not poorly, and I could pretty much get away with whatever I wanted. For whatever
reason, Mr. Vickers liked me, and I’d been working summers for him since middle
My ears were ringing and my head aching and the hanging smoke from the shot was
burning my eyes. Pressing my back against the fence, I dug the heels of my rubber
boots into the back of the bull and tried to rock the massive bulk down the inclined
floor of the knocking box while Robbie wrestled with the head, trying to get it
unstuck from the outside of the opening. I pushed and Robbie pulled, but we couldn’t
get the ton or more of the old bull to roll into the killfloor.
Stovall, rather than trying to help, stood back with his hands on his hips:
—You guys are useless.
At that, I slid down the side of the bull and ducked under the knocking box door.
I wanted to tell Stovall to stop bellowing at Robbie and me, but I gestured instead
at the second winch hanging on the rail:
—Tie a chain around his neck and use the come-along.
By this point, the others were looking up from their work.
—Let’s see it.
Pulling on the chain for what seemed ten minutes—the second winch was mechanical,
not electric—I at last had enough to wrap around the bull’s neck. I
passed the hook-end to Robbie and after a struggle he managed to lift the head enough
to loop the chain around the massive neck. He snagged the hook around the chain
and even as I started pulling on the reverse loop, I motioned to Robbie:
—Get behind the head and try to force it through. If we don’t clear
the doorframe, he’ll just be jammed there.
Sure enough, the winch lifted the head and shoulders, but almost straight up despite
my pulling on the taut links with what weight I could, the chain rasping against
the cinderblock, the near shoulder jamming against the underside of the opening,
the bull’s dead eyes bulging as the chain bit in, the noose tightening and
tightening. I backed away some of the chain, and Robbie and I grabbed the foreleg,
trying to pull the semi-suspended front end through the opening. No luck. I then
lowered the chain and hook on the power winch and tied it around one of the back
legs, but the bull was so long that the hoof wouldn’t come forward enough
to fit through the doorway. By this point, the line ahead of us was empty, and the
others were standing around, looking at us, offering advice, laughing at our antics.
Even the government inspector had suggestions.
We wrestled unsuccessfully with the huge bull until Mr. Vickers came through the
swinging doors leading from the hallway to the killfloor. With a single glance he
took in the situation, and in less than five minutes, after barking at Stovall and
pushing him and the others into action, the big bull slid onto the floor and Stovall
stuck him—the blood already clotting and reluctant to drain—and used
the largest spreader to hang him from the heels.
Mr. Vickers pulled Robbie and me aside:
—You boys know you’re supposed to save those big fellas until last,
so if it gets stuck it don’t hold up the line? If needs be, one person can
handle it from there, and that way I’m not paying everyone to stand around.
We both nodded our apologies.
Exhausted, we got back to work, and it seemed as if every machine in the place had
been used, from the tenderizer to the sausage machine, and there was a mess at every
station, and we didn’t get done with clean-up until almost 10:00.
The next day, Wednesday, Robbie didn’t show up for work and I was there until
past midnight. When he didn’t show up on Thursday, Mr. Vickers evidently went
to find him, but came back empty-handed. He called me into the office and asked
if I knew what had happened to Robbie? I didn’t, and he asked me if I would
go over to Robbie’s apartment and see if he would come to the door and talk
to me. He gave me the address and directions, and I took off my helmet and apron,
frock coat and boots, slipped on my runners and drove over to a cedar-shake and
peeling green-paint four-plex behind the strip mall and truck stop on 93. Robbie’s
truck wasn’t there, but I knocked on his door, anyway. There was no answer
and I couldn’t hear anyone inside. Walking back to my truck, I moved it to
where I thought he could see it if he looked out the windows overlooking the weedy,
potholed parking lot. I honked, and then went back and knocked on the door again.
I heard from Jodie that when Stovall, who had also missed work on Wednesday, showed
up on Thursday morning driving Robbie’s truck, Mr. Vickers had told him to
get his helmet and knives and any personal belongings and to get out. He would mail
him his last paycheck.
I never saw Robbie again, and I never heard where he had gone when he left town,
yet I managed over the next days to piece together a little of what had happened.
When Robbie and I had finally finished on Tuesday night, he had stopped by Eddie’s,
a place favored by hunters, militia-wannabes, and truckers. Some said he was at
the bar with Stovall and Doyle and their buddies, but I don’t think so. I
think he stopped for a hamburger and a beer, if the barkeep would let him have one.
At some point, while Robbie was minding his own business, not saying a word, Stovall
and Doyle must have gone over to him and then become all mock-friendly and back-slapping,
saying, Thanks for picking up the tab, Joker. That’s a good boy, Joker. There
was no way Robbie would give in to that, and when he shook his head no, as he must
have, they and their crew had crowded around and run him outside. A skinny kid of
sixteen when his little old father had first brought him to the plant to ask if
there was any work, he had bulked up some but was no match for four or five full-grown
men. In a dark pocket of the parking lot, they had beat and stomped him into the
gravel, and a sharp one among them, very likely Doyle, had taken Robbie’s
keys and plucked the title from the glove box. Putting a pen in his hand, they had
then moved it across the place you sign when you’re selling a vehicle, and
that was that. No charges; I doubt anyone even called the cops.
On Friday, I thought to wait at 4:00 by Doyle’s car, one of the heavy s-hooks in
hand, ready to kneecap him for what they had done to Robbie. I thought maybe I would
have to kill him, or he would do for me.
Author of Agent of Empire and editor of All Our Stories
Are Here. He has published stories, essays, and articles in books and
journals in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, France, and Australia.