King said nothing should have that look of sadness in its eyes, not a person nor an animal nor even knots in a pine board, but Billgo had it. He was staring straight ahead when we found him the next morning. He'd been standing at the freezer door, staring into the small rectangular window his breath had fogged over and covered in a jack-frost pattern of ice. It was a look that pleaded for an answer yet at the same time faced the truth of the situation. King said things should never look that sad, but I'd seen the look before when Billgo had me pull the noose around the necks of the cows we slaughtered in back before cutting them up and hanging them in the freezer. And it was my fault that Billgo was dead. I was the one who'd shut him in the cold, thinking he'd already gone home.
It was an accident and all, but I probably shouldn't have been working there. I was only fourteen and there are laws that say a fourteen-year-old shouldn't be working in an abattoir, home of the fresh-killed cutlet, but Billgo owed my father a favour or two and my old man decided he didn't want me sitting around the house all summer or getting up to no good behind other people's stores. I was brought into Barley's because Billgo told my dad I could learn a thing or two about life by being there. I had strong shoulders. I didn't have a strong spirit.
The first morning on the job, Billgo took me into the slaughter room, as he called it. There was a brown heifer there. Billgo said it had stopped milking and the best it could do for its owner was a quick turn-around to the table. The animal stood docile. It stank of barn and urine even after I washed it down. I wanted to speak to it, but when the first words left my lips, Billgo looked up from the grindstone where he was sharpening his knife and said: 'No, no! It's all business here.'
It was my job to hold the heifer's head still so Billgo could apply the bolt to kill the animal instantly. It was supposed to be humane for the animal. King was out front dealing with a restaurant owner who'd come by to hand-pick his steaks from the freezer and to dicker about the prices. King was good at dickering. I hadn't learned how to do that yet.
Billgo looped the noose around the heifer's neck and, after it was tightened, he told me on the count of three to pull hard. I made the mistake of looking in the cow's eyes. They were brown and round and trusting, yet they were sad. The creature knew that something was not right. Animals read people's feelings. My dog knows when I am sad, and since the morning when we did the heifer I haven't been able to play with Sandy, not like before, when I would throw her a stick and she'd retrieve it and we'd roll together on the grass and she'd look at me with her big round eyes that told me she loved me.
The heifer's eyes didn't say they loved me. They looked at me with a 'what now?' expression, as if it wanted to know what would come next, as if I held the answer to what it would see or know or learn. And I wasn't strong enough. The rope noose merely irritated the creature and she bellowed a disgruntled groan, not a moo, but a moan and shook her head as the cold steel of the bolt machine touched the top of her head and snapped into work.
I wanted to cry. Billgo saw the look in my eyes and said: "Hey kid, this'll learn you life and make a man out of you." The cow's eyes stared in disbelief for an instant. I wanted to turn away, but I kept looking, kept wanting to give the beast an atom of love or reassurance or hope—and all hope fails in an abattoir—that the world was not a cold, indifferent place, that its life had been a life spent among all the things a beast might love: the suck of a calf at its teat, a new trough of fodder, the blinding sunlight of the yard and the pasture beyond as it stepped from the barn after a long cold night on the threshold of spring. Then its eyeballs rolled, and its whites appeared like sunrise as it knelt before me, its front legs buckling, then its hind legs, and the lids fluttered as if it could not see and wanted to see as the sadness left it to look through the veil of a glassy stare.
I ran to the concrete sink and threw up. Billgo laughed. King stood in the door.
"Hey kid, it's like that," King said, slapping his hand on the doorframe. "This is what puts food on the table." Cold, indifferent, but true: This is what puts food on the table.
The chickens and turkeys I got used to. Billgo ordered me to come into the slaughterhouse every time he had a new arrival. And after the deed had been done, after King had raised the animal up on a hook and cut its length so the purple and pink and bloody entrails poured out, and after I had shovelled the unwanted parts into the steel hamper and hosed down the floor, I kept thinking of what I had just done and I felt a shame before the world that hung around me like a shadow.
By the end of the summer, I was praying every night that something might be different, that I might find a way out of the job that would not shame my father or tell Billgo and King I was afraid, or that I suffered a death inside me with every animal they brought down.
The last week in August came and I was thinking about going back to school, though I was uncertain if I could stay in school, if I could cut open a splayed frog on a wax-bedded tray or dissect an earthworm, let alone sit through conjugations of verbs, each one expanding its subjects until everyone was culpable of the action at its root. I probably wasn't paying attention when I thought I heard Billgo saying he was leaving early because it was his kid's birthday or that King said he'd lock up and told me to go to the back and shut down the freezer.
I wasn't aware that there was anyone in there when I turned off the light. I hadn't thought, as I usually did when asked to shut down the freezer, of bending down and looking under the sides or between the shelves where we kept the steaks and cutlets in boxes. It just didn't occur to me. I flipped the switch, closed the door behind me, and pushing the chrome lock handle into place, told King that the freezer was secured and followed him out the door as he turned to lock it.
Around midnight my father woke me and asked if Billgo had been down the day before. Usually when Billgo was feeling "under-the-weather," as he put it, he would go to the local bar, the Milepost, and put back a few. It wasn't like him to miss his kid's party, especially when he was bringing home the best steaks for the adults' barbecue. No one thought to look back at the shop. My old man and I drove up and down the streets, slowly, peering in every alley and doorway in case Billgo had fallen down drunk.
The next morning, I met King at the door of the shop. We stood for a couple of minutes, looked up and down the street, as if expecting Billgo to show up. Instead, King got out his key and went to turn the light on in the slaughterhouse while I was sent to open the freezer, and there was Billgo.
He was still wearing the chain mail glove on his left hand, the holding hand, and in his cutting hand were five large T-bones. He was staring straight at the window, patiently, as if he was certain someone was coming, as if he thought it was all a joke or a mistake—which it was—and that when the door opened he would fire whoever was standing on the other side. But as the hours passed, he must have realized that his patience was not going to be answered, and that his eyes were brown, and round, and sad, with crystals of ice around them, his cheeks pale, his mouth slightly open, and a look of realization on him for which I have never found an answer.