- Ilya Leybovich
ILYA LEYBOVICH | Appetite
So far she’s learned the three easiest ways to lose a finger: when your mind drifts after thousands of identical motions and you stop noticing your own knife, when you forget your space and move too close to your neighbor, or when you surrender to the inevitable because you know there is no other life waiting for you outside Midland Ranch.
Fortunately, Teresa has yet to lose any digits—she escapes her shifts with only nicks that sometimes don’t even need bandaging. With nearly two years’ experience on the cutting line, her hands have the ugly dough appearance of a prizefighter’s. She considers this luck, relative to her coworkers and the appendages they’ve left amid or within the grinding machinery of the poultry plant, but some of her colleagues see it otherwise.
The other thing she’s learned about losing fingers is that each is replaced with a $2,000 check. An entire hand retails for $13,000 to $15,000, depending on left or right. For some, that’s a suitable trade, but Teresa believes that if you can’t foresee a higher destiny for the parts God gifted you—apart from their cash value—then you probably don’t deserve them in the first place.
And there is a kind of comfort in the work itself, the body endowed with a surety of purpose so opposite to the clattering thoughts Teresa has in the minutes before falling asleep at night. Grip the little blade like a surgeon’s scalpel, slice the wings and sever the breasts and separate the dark from the white from the pink meat quick, then a half moment’s pause before the next bird arrives chilled and smooth like a baby drifting downriver. Repeat and repeat and repeat again more times than anyone can count until somehow it adds up to a day. And yet, Teresa thinks, those half moments between cuts are pauses that permit a dram of feeling, and they too can accumulate into a larger thing.
“The bitch,” Marta says from Teresa’s right. “You wouldn’t believe it this time.”
“So Andres is home from school because of a cold, and she drives to our house to drop off his homework, like that’s even her job. I answer the door and she looks disappointed right away, like she thought I wouldn’t be there and she’d get to see you-know-who instead.”
Marta is convinced her son’s teacher is trying to seduce her husband. Although Marta has a lovely doll’s face and the kind of chest you could balance a board game on, she’s afflicted with a permanent sense of threat regarding the world at large and her marriage in particular. Her greatest fear is being cast aside, though everyone knows Marta’s husband is too stupid to even contemplate such a thing.
“You ever suspect this teacher is after you and not your husband?” Teresa says.
Marta turns the notion over in her head, then laughs. “You hear this, Sofia?” she calls over Teresa’s head. “I might be getting a wife to go along with my husband—one of each, right? That’s the dream.”
Sofia, stationed on Teresa’s left, angles her chin down and mutters something neither of them catches. She is older than the other two, and in matters of romance inhabits an endless gray season. Her husband never made it across, and though these women are intimate as lovers from their time on the line, not a word is ever spoken about Sofia’s loss. Teresa, still single, is seen from either side as a symbol of luck, or perhaps agony deferred.
The knife lanes are a female province at Midland, while the kill rooms where the birds are electrified before razors enter their throats are occupied mostly by men. Whether this division of labor arises from natural logic or corporate design is beside the point—it’s how work is done, how stores are stocked, how families are fed, and the prayers issued around dinner tables across the country are aimed at the divine, not the mortal hands preparing the bounty.
It’s only hour six of their shift, and Marta is making noise. “Fuck this,” she says, but her hands keep moving. Then, louder, she repeats, “Fuck this.”
“Not again,” Sofia says.
“I have to go. I just have to.”
“Don’t act like a baby. Remember what happened last time.”
“Last time, this time, next time,” Marta replies. “I don’t care anymore.” She puts her knife and cutting shears down on the metal table and strips off her plastic gloves. Teresa watches in silence, secretly wishing she could do the same. She can feel the pressure of her own bladder rising into a dull ache that will sharpen with every passing minute.
Marta turns away from her station and dashes down the aisle, shouting over her shoulder, “Just make something up.”
Ten minutes go by, then twenty, then thirty, and still no sign of Marta. The bathrooms aren’t far away, but with only two working stalls, the women’s line can be an hourlong wait. It is a hard, meditative practice to hold it in for an entire shift, but the experts among them can manage. The amateurs cross their fingers and race to the toilets hoping for luck. And the desperate swaddle themselves like infants and relieve themselves where they stand, their shame long ago hacked away and left on the cutting table.
Without warning, Marta’s fate appears at the end of the aisle. Mr. Pilgrim, the floor supervisor, wanders the factory like a man searching for the perfect roach to step on. Every day he wears an ironed white shirt tucked neatly into light blue chinos below a thin red tie. Teresa imagines his closet must look like a disassembled American flag.
Now, as he approaches their section, Sofia issues a low whistle to everyone nearby. Unlike the other supervisors, Mr. Pilgrim doesn’t carry a clipboard and prefers to keep his papers—production schedules, inventory lists, requisition forms, dismissal slips—folded and stuffed into his back pocket. He cultivates the appearance of a friend rather than a reaper, but actions always belie the disguise.
He stops and stares at the empty spot where Marta should be, then closes his eyes and draws in his breath through pursed lips as if absorbing something of enormity, a violation of the natural order he is tasked to preserve.
“Has Ms. Velazquez been dismissed from her position at Midland Ranch?” he says calmly.
“No, sir,” Teresa replies.
“That’s right. I would’ve remembered that. And yet here’s her station, empty, with units backing up the line.”
“She…she’s feeling sick. Had to step away.”
“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” he says, retrieving the life-and-death documents from his back pocket. “So despite her illness, she decides to come to work and risk contaminating food that will be shipped to dozens of cities, that will end up in thousands of homes.” He carefully unfolds his sheaf of papers, looking for the dismissal form, that dreaded scythe. “Adding insult to literal injury, she also decides to shirk her duties and disrupt production. As I’m sure you ladies can agree, this sort of behavior cannot—”
The end-of-shift bell suddenly rings out across the floor, two hours early. The sound reminds Teresa of the bell from her classroom days, but in this case it means someone has been injured. Motion up and down the line putters to a halt, and the women look up at each other. They start to remove their green aprons.
Mr. Pilgrim assumes his crisis-manager stance, Marta’s transgression now forgotten in the face of emergency. He takes a few paces back and spreads his arms wide, as if shielding the workers or blocking their view. They hear shouting in the distance, the sound of running boots.
“Alright everyone,” Mr. Pilgrim says. “Let’s make sure all our tools are placed in the cleaning bins, and not left on the table. And remember to make your way to the side exit, not the front. No one goes out the front today.”
He shuffles along the line, shepherding women through the double doors. When he’s satisfied there are no stragglers, he walks over to an intercom on the wall, presses a button, and speaks into it for a few seconds. Then he rushes off. A great groaning sound moves through the air, as of machinery shutting down or an enormous beast sinking into death.
There’s an exhausted cheerfulness that normally greets the end of a shift, but not today. Not when they know someone has been maimed, or worse, in the simple business of doing what they do. As they pass beyond the sliding metal gate at the rear of the complex, some, like Teresa, look back at the windowless white stump that is Midland Ranch, cased in a miasma of meat and bone, and recognize the place where each has pinioned her life, and its opposite.
Teresa’s mother has shrunk in her old age like a nesting doll containing ever smaller women revealed as the years pass by. Once, though, she’d been tall and possessed an intimidating beauty—not the sort watered by men’s lust but one of dignity. In her small town the other girls had called her Dulcinea as she walked past, and she still speaks of those days with the conviction that memory is what makes the past real.
When Teresa was little, her mother would end every night by combing her long black hair while whispering stories of the mythical past into her ear. Now that symmetry has been reversed. After her shift, Teresa takes the hour-long bus ride home to Gower Road, passing Donahue’s Auto Body and Zigzag Liquors and Tallmadge Discount Dress and the hundred other faded dots marking the entirety of her map. In their two-room apartment, she prepares a plate for her mother who sits waiting on the pullout bed, dressed perpetually for sleep, then cleans up and sits beside her mother to brush her hair, those white wisps frail as hay, while she recounts her day at the plant.
“It’s a shame,” her mother says, after hearing about today’s drama. “The way they treat you there. Like you’re equipment. Like you’re parts that can be replaced.”
“At least we got to leave early.”
“What comfort is that? When you do something you love, you don’t want to stop. You clutch it with both hands. This cutting of yours, what does it ever accomplish?”
Teresa frowns. “We feed people.”
“Fatten them up, more like.”
“I feed you, too.”
Her mother falls quiet. After a long while, she says, “I’m sorry, little bird. I’m only angry at myself. I wanted better things for you, but ended up building you a trap.”
In the final stage of their evening ritual, Teresa asks about the latest troubles and her mother recites a litany of minor failings. Her joints, her back, her swollen wrists, the ache in her chest, the rheum in her eyes, the weight in her soul. The very blood moving in her has silted and slowed. Despite hearing the complaints often enough to have them memorized, Teresa is still moved by these sufferings, still outraged by the countless infidelities of the flesh. She, too, wanted to give her mother better things.
There is one great luck in Teresa’s life, and that’s the day shift. After work, once her mother is fed and consoled and propped against the pillows, the evening is Teresa’s own. She’s free to go to the movies. Horror films, comedies, dramas, action flicks; everything thrown onto the screen is a constellation she has been aching to trace. But above all, there is Kate Munroe. The perfect star, she is California sunlight and New England poise made human. The dark blond hair framing a face smooth as the moon. The delicate stems of her legs lifting her tall and straight-backed to drink the higher air. The grace and simple economy of her every movement. How could she be real and not an invention? Teresa wonders.
A new Kate Munroe movie at the multiplex is like a burst of fireworks and worth the long bus ride down to Canton and back. Teresa settles into her theater seat as if beginning a journey.
Kate plays a young professional at a fashion magazine in New York. She’s tough and ambitious, but hiding a deep vulnerability. She gets passed over for a promotion and her new boss fires her. Devastated, she walks through the rain, wears sweatpants, and eats junk food in her apartment, but even at her lowest she is still breathtaking. On a sudden impulse, she decides to take a trip around the world to find herself. She packs a tiny bag and embarks on a montage of hiking in Nepal, fishing with villagers in Cambodia, taking cooking classes in Paris, and several other places Teresa cannot name. At last, Kate winds up in a Scottish hamlet, where she bonds with quirky locals and meets a handsome furniture-maker. At first she is disdainful of him, but eventually warms to his ways and they begin a romance. In a shocking twist, it’s revealed that the furniture-maker is the brother of the cruel boss who fired Kate at the start of the film. She’s horrified and flees to spend time alone. Once again there are several scenes of her walking forlornly, this time through Scottish moors and idyllic cobblestoned villages. When she returns to her rented cottage, the furniture-maker declares that he’s never gotten along with his brother and that falling in love with Kate was the best thing that’s ever happened to him. They joyously reunite. Shortly afterward, the publisher of the magazine where she used to work calls to offer Kate a senior position that would put her in charge of her former boss. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, but she decides to stay in the sleepy Scottish town with the love of her life. The violin-heavy soundtrack soars as the camera pans around them kissing in a meadow.
After the credits, Teresa stumbles blinking into the bright light of the theater lobby. She makes her way outside, weaving past the couples walking arm-in-arm back to their cars. She sucks in great lungfuls of the cool night air, feels it settle on her still-warm skin. Across the street, she sits down at the bus stop and watches the stars canter overhead. She is happy tonight, drunk on the possibility of lives unlived.
It turns out his name is Rodrigo, and he’s not much more than a boy, really. He was brought across by his cousin three months ago, and lied about his age to get the job at Midland Ranch. He was supposed to clear out the organs clogging the chiller machine, but couldn’t find a ladder that day, so he climbed to the top and shimmied the edge. Before he could reach the shutoff valve, his foot dangled too close to the sweeper paddle. The machine fed on him, gnawing through his left leg as if it were another giblet to be frozen and packed and passed through a drive-thru window. Now the boy is crippled and gone from the plant, likely sent back to whatever town he’d struggled to escape.
The company provides none of this information, but Teresa hears it transmitted person-to-person down the line. There’s a solemn mood in the plant. Who’s next? That’s the unvoiced question asked with every gaze held a moment too long across the cutting table. Teresa and her friends try to keep their fears at bay.
“When he first sees you, my little nephew starts running,” Sofia says. “And it looks like he’s running toward you, so you get ready for a hug. But he just keeps going right past you, and then suddenly he grabs you from behind. It’s strange.”
“That’s the lesson of the day, ladies,” Marta says. “You can’t trust kids. They’re always trying to maneuver around you. Hope you’re taking notes.”
“I think it’s adorable,” Teresa says.
“I’m always telling his mother not to let him roam around like that. The boy sprints everywhere—someday he’s going to fall in a ditch.”
“Boys love to run.”
Marta says, “Until they lose a leg, of course.” Seeing the expressions on her friends’ faces, she preempts their disapproval. “I know, I know. I’m sorry.”
They work in silence for a few minutes, until Marta pipes up again. “It’s not all bad, though. The kid got a check, at least.”
“How much?” Sofia asks.
“A lot, is what I heard. As much as a hand. I don’t know about his family, but there’s supposed to be—” Marta pauses, as if choking on her words. Teresa and Sofia both look at her. Marta’s eyes widen and without warning she vomits onto the floor between cutting rows. The other workers shuffle nervously away from her.
Covering her mouth, she sputters, “I can’t…”
As if summoned by turmoil, Mr. Pilgrim comes jogging up. He places his hand on Marta’s back and leads her quickly away while she wipes at her lips with a sleeve.
“Okay, okay,” he says. “Let’s just get you somewhere more comfortable.”
Teresa lowers her shears. “What did I just see?”
“Pregnant. Told me last week,” Sofia says flatly, before turning to her work.
A sleepy looking kid in a gray jumper arrives to clean the mess on the floor, and Teresa watches the circular movement of his mop for a long while. This stain of half-digested breakfast is why everything will change. Something so small, so bodily and normal, will mark the border between before and after in Marta’s life. It’s almost like a Kate Munroe scene, where a single hapless moment dismantles the future.
Marta never returns to the line. After establishing that Midland is in no way responsible for her potential contamination of product, Mr. Pilgrim fires her and she’s escorted off the premises. At the end of their shift, Teresa and Sofia find their friend sitting on a bench across the street. It’s plain to see she’s been crying, but whether about the firing or the pregnancy or both, they choose not to ask.
Instead they wind up at a bar with several other women from the line. Marta is beloved by those who fall within range of her voice. In the sweaty, smoke-misted confines of the Pillagro, she shoots down the men—three in a row—who stumble up to flirt. With a margarita in hand and her throat tossing jokes into the air, Marta could be at a bachelorette party rather than a woman who’d been shedding tears a few hours prior.
“Should you be drinking right now?” Teresa asks.
She looks down at her glass of ginger ale. “That’s not what I meant. It’s just with your condition—”
“I know, I know,” Marta says. “I’m about to have one more kid and one less job. At least let me have a night.”
She hears a new kind of weariness in Marta’s voice and in that moment knows her friend is not different from any of them, is not impervious to the unknown years stretching ahead.
“Yes,” she says. “Have your night. Keep it.” They clink their glasses together and Teresa lets Marta spin away into the crowd vibrating around them. Marta dances with other women from the plant, tells dirty stories into the ears of married friends, wraps her hands around the curled bicep of a man in a tight shirt before turning away grinning. Just before midnight, she returns to Teresa and takes her gently by both wrists.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you,” Marta says.
Marta looks around conspiratorially, then leans in and whispers, “I wish I’d thrown up in the sorter instead.” Teresa throws back her head in laughter, imagining the sorter, that fearsome steel jaw that clamps and collects the meat at the end of the cutting line, flecked with vomit—little pieces of her friend ending up on dinner plates and fast-food orders, countless people unknowingly taking her communion.
“That would’ve made me happier than anything,” she says.
“Let’s go outside.” Marta leads her through the door and into the cool air of early fall. At this hour, the trip home will be agonizingly long, but Teresa pushes the thought away. They collapse side by side onto a tiny wooden bench bookended by ashtrays. Their giggling fades and Marta clears her throat.
“You’re lucky,” she says. “You don’t have so many burdens to carry, so much weight on your back. When it’s just you, that’s when you’re really free.”
Years later, when she is more alone than she ever thought a person could be, Teresa will remember these words. She will remember the night and Marta’s shining eyes. She will remember how it felt leaving her friend behind and boarding the bus for the long ride home. She will remember finding her mother asleep, as expected, on the foldout couch, and she will remember how her mother didn’t wake up the next morning or the next.
Once again she crosses into a new country with its own language to learn. Transverse-Sigmoid sinus dural fistula, arteriovenous malformation, sterotactic radiosurgery—these are the arcane terms the doctors lob at her and she writes them down again and again as if doing so will make their meanings clear. They repeat to her that there is a tight window during which treatment will have to begin and that this window is swiftly closing. Teresa pictures a house that gets smaller day by day until the windows are too tiny to see through, the door too narrow to leave.
On the other hand, she has no difficulty interpreting the hospital administrator’s words. This woman in round glasses explains that, in the absence of medical coverage, she will have to pay in cash. The emergency care, diagnosis, and hospital stay alone will drain all the money Teresa has saved from her time at Midland. The operation, which is necessary but not guaranteed to yield results, will cost her more than she has ever contemplated.
Teresa sits by her mother’s bed in Mercy Medical. The little room is doused in fluorescent light, the smell of disinfectant, and the smell of whatever the disinfectant is meant to hide. She takes her mother’s hand, feeling the sliced-meat thinness of the skin through her own callused palm, and ventures a squeeze. She prays for a reaction, some wrinkling in the eyelids, a parting of the lips, however slight, but there is nothing. The blinking, whirring, beeping machinery announces her mother is alive, but Teresa is tired of trusting equipment.
“Come back,” she says to her mother’s unmoving face. “We’re not finished yet.”
It feels as if weeks pass by every time she closes her eyes. The days melt together, exhausting Teresa with tedium, bludgeoning her with fear. She arrives on the line before anyone else and sets to work in the pre-dawn haze, and she leaves long after her shift is over, taking care to meticulously clean her tools. Marta has already been replaced with a gruff, middle-aged woman who shows no interest in sharing a word with the people around her. Sofia is also quiet, mourning their absent friend, and so Teresa labors in silence, hypnotized by the unbroken momentum of cutting, separating, cleaning. She begins to see herself as another mechanism of the plant, an engine made of muscle and sinew, powered by desperation.
Mr. Pilgrim notices her newfound commitment. One day he pauses during his stroll and watches her cut for a full five minutes.
“I admire your work ethic, Teresa,” he says. “And I’m not the only one who’s impressed.”
“Thank you.” She doesn’t turn around.
“Keep this up, and there might be a bonus for you at the end of the year. Maybe even a raise, come next quarter.”
“It won’t be soon enough,” she mumbles.
“What was that?”
As Mr. Pilgrim walks away, she feels Sofia staring at her. Her friend makes a worried noise in her throat.
“Be careful.” It’s the first time Sofia has spoken in a long while. “I know something is wrong. But this is how people start to lose themselves. I’ve seen it happen before.”
“Or maybe you have no fucking clue what you’re looking at.”
Wounded, Sofia resumes her silence for the rest of the shift.
The equation is simple: money will buy her mother more time, but she doesn’t have enough time to earn more money. The doctors repeat the same warning with mounting urgency: the longer they wait to operate, the lower the odds of survival. Every night spent sitting in the stale air of her mother’s hospital room is another tick on the clock drawing them closer to the end. And every visit is the same. Teresa prays for some sign of revival in her mother’s withered frame, and the quiet that greets her is like a sudden deafness.
She feels a dread living inside her, an ink-black creature with its fangs sunk into the slick muscle of her heart. It is alien to her, this enemy of hope, and she is frightened of birthing it into the world because she knows it will consume everything that once brought her joy. She can’t suffer mutely and alone. She needs her mother to wake up, she needs Marta to come back, she needs Sofia to understand. Above all, she needs cash.
On her last day at Midland Ranch, Teresa arrives in the dead hour between the night and day shifts, when the plant is still and empty like a beast sleeping off a meal. She takes her green plastic apron off the hook and fastens it around her neck. She pulls the latex gloves onto her hands, and then stretches the hairnet over her head. She retrieves her bin from the loading station and carries it to the cutting line. She places her tools on the board—one long serrated knife, one short serrated, one smooth, three pairs of shears of varying thickness, and a tiny pair of scissors for delicate maneuvers. All of them sharp and ready.
Teresa stands at her station and waits until the overhead lights flicker on, when the mighty hum at the center of the factory spreads outward, awakening the machines. The conveyor in front of her starts to move, and though there’s nothing to feed it yet, the sorter resumes its relentless gnawing. Teresa watches its glistening metal teeth move up and down, up and down, the jaws of a mindless thing that knows only hunger.
She walks down the line, toward the sorter. She thinks of her heroine, Kate Munroe, and how in the face of crisis she disembarks from her life and assumes a new one, her perfect features marred with sadness but not forever—the afflictions never permanent, the flesh never scarring. She imagines Marta pacing in her home, watching her ever-growing belly, terrified of how she will accommodate another person without a job in sight. She pictures people she has never met: a husband in a suit and tie coming home to eat dinner with his family. She can see their smiling faces as they share stories of their day and plan vacations and make fun of their neighbors, and she can see their straight white teeth gnashing the flesh she’s prepared, all of them unknowing and uncaring about where their good fortune comes from. She remembers the evenings she’s spent eating alone in her now-empty home. She thinks of money and her mother and the truth of always needing more and she plunges her right hand into the open mouth of the machine.
Ilya Leybovich's fiction has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, The Normal School, Fiction International, Los Angeles Review, and other publications. He was born in Belarus and lives in Brooklyn, NY.