Into the locker rooms some of the workers make their way to find quiet, comfortable corners where they can sit back and read books, or roll up whites jackets for pillows and stretch out on the benches, or sit legs crossed and smoke a pipe, smoke a cigar, share a joint in wary secrecy, whittle a soap carving, listen to music over earphones, pass around skin mags and brag. Others head for the break room and the payphones are quickly in use—“Yeah, baby, been thinkin’ ‘bout you”—and the card games go back into action, and more corners are found for naps, for reading. Coins clatter into vending machines and the workers whisper—“Come on, come on”—like they would for slot machines. The candy bars come out, or they don’t, and when they don’t, shoulders bang against Plexiglas, big rubber boots kick, strong arms grasp the sides and rock the machines, trying to shake loose the treats.
“Hey, put some money in it, man!”
“Hit it harder, you brute!”
“C’mere, I’ll use your head.”
Still others move into the cafeteria, where the serving line has been caged closed for the night. Padded cafeteria chairs are lined into neat rows for makeshift beds, more card games commence, more talk about sports and sex and beer and politics, sometimes all in one discussion. More vending machine blues. A paid-for Hershey bar fails to fall, so someone lifts the front end of the machine off the floor and lets it drop, and three Hershey bars fall, along with four beef jerky sticks, a bag of chips, a package of donuts, a deck of cards. The workers in the cafeteria applaud, and the hero bows and passes out the loot, keeping one Hershey bar for himself. It’s just another night, like all the other nights, lined up in accordion rows and each one the same.
Except for the ways in which they are not.
Perry arrives in the cafeteria with his gawky trainee in tow, and each worker who sees the New Hire is reminded of his own first day in the plant, whether a year ago or thirty-five, and each, without trying or wanting to, takes a silent assessment. Another year closer to retirement for the old-timers, and how they’ve spent their lives in this place, by intent or by haplessness. And those younger workers, those who entered and bragged of the short time they’d be spending before moving on to better plans, richer schemes, more worthwhile pursuits, they glance up at the fresh face, and some leer with contempt because they are looking at another year that they themselves have spent here, another year longer than they had planned. And, by experience and by memory of their own selves, they know that when the New Hire asks how long they have been here and they answer three or four or six years, a look of barely-concealed superiority will cross the New Hire’s face, and he will think, if not say right out, There’s no way I’ll be here that long. A certain maliciousness will seep in at the haughty ignorance of the greenhorn’s statement, and the workers, young and old, will reply with narrow eyes and flat voices: We’ll see.
“You remember your first day in this shithole?”
“Jesus Christ, the foreman gave me one of them paper hats we used to wear and one of them white paper jackets, and he put me on the Stuff line and said, Go to it.”
“Things’re so different now. Treat these green-gills like babies. Powder ‘em up and rock ‘em to sleep if they start to cry.”
“They sent me to the Kill Room on my first day. My first day. Give me rubber waders and sent me in knee-deep in blood and them goddamn pigs squealin’ everywheres. Guy says, Here’s what ya do. And he slaughters one pig and then hands the tools over to me and says, I’m goin’ on break; it’s all yours. I about shit my pants.”
“I can’t even remember that far back.”
“Hell, I wasn’t even born back then.”
“You shut up.”
The New Hire, this walking flashback-catalyst, is led into the far back corner of the cafeteria. This is territory long held by the Sanitation workers, and when they see Perry, they hail him, saying, “Sky King!” “Hey, what’s shakin’, Sky King?” “Sky King, how’s it hangin’?” And so begins the New Hire’s education on names. Perry—Sky King—settles in at a table with a stretch and a groan, nodding to those around him, calling them by their names: Bulldog. Pipe-Bender. Grr. Bronco Licker. He indicates a chair across from him for the New Hire. All comfort he’d previously felt in his trainer’s care now vanished, nervousness opens up in the New Hire like a spilled ant farm and he fumbles noisily into the chair. He doesn’t know whether to smile cordially at these others who only vaguely glance his way, or to act nonchalant and disaffected, so he attempts both at once, resulting in a countenance of apparently uncontrollable facial tics. Someone called Cyclops remarks, “Looks like you got yourself a barnacle there, Sky King.”
“Indeed I do,” Sky King answers, and he introduces the New Hire by name, but it doesn’t matter, because moments later a worker called Bird-Dog asks, “So, Sky King, have you taught Joe New Hire here all about the verbal form of the word pork yet?” And then, from another one called Schooner: “So, Joe New Hire, you here for the summer or did you sign up for this shit on a permanent basis?” And so Joe New Hire is his name now and for the foreseeable future. Out of politeness, Sky King calls him by his actual name, and the only other one who does is the Night Super. Even the foreman calls him Joe New Hire. At some point, if he is here long enough, he will graduate to a different name, and some other newbie will become Joe New Hire.
Years later, after writing a fictional version of his experiences at the plant, the former New Hire will be criticized for giving all the worker characters nicknames. “It feels,” he will be told, “like one of those cliché-ridden 1950s war movies where every soldier has a name like Pops, Gunny, Preacher, Slim, Tex, or Rabbit.” He will also be told that his workers come across as far more educated than their real-life counterparts would ever be. One critic will say, seeming to hold back some kind of indignant anger, “A meat packer would never utter the word verbal form. He’d be laughed out of the plant!” It will take all of the former New Hire’s restraint not to shoot back, “That’s two words, ya dumbass.”
But for now, the rhythm of the parlance is still alien to him. His bumpcap, among all these others, scratched, scuffed, dented, and cracked—his is so clean and white it shimmers.
Sky King takes out a deck of cards, and soon a game has grown up around them. “Sheepshead,” Sky King says. “You play?”
Joe New Hire shakes his head. “Never heard of it.”
“Settle in, then,” Sky King tells him. “Watch and learn.”
Eric Roe’s work won The Bellingham Review’s 2015 Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction and Honorable Mention in December’s 2016 Curt Johnson Prose Award in Fiction. His stories have appeared in the Best American Fantasy anthology, Redivider, Barrelhouse, and other literary journals.