Blood, Sweat, and Supper

One week on the evisceration line

"We are a pretty quiet community. We will not cry. We will not make a fuss about things. We will take what we have--jobs, housing. We're like the invisible race."

I'm on the three-point station. Birds come down the line hanging by the neck, but their guts come out of holes cut around their anuses. Three-pointers hook their legs into the shackles so that they appear to be on their backs, looking out between their legs. This gives gutters down the line a better shot at the turkeys' asses. Further down, a pinwheel knocks each turkey under the chin and flips their heads out of the shackles so they hang by their feet only.

As the rookie on the line, everyone assures me that I'll get used to the labor. In the meantime, I wake up mornings and my left arm is numb, without sensation. Ice it at night, one of the workers suggests, and in the morning run it under warm water. Stretch frequently. My hands develop a tremor and won't stop shaking. One day I cut my thumb--I don't even notice how--and that night it swells up throbbing and infected. I douse it with hydrogen peroxide, and it foams at the bacteria.

Bill Cook

Louis shows me how to three-point. He is a burly Mexican American from Texas, a defensive tackle on his football team in high school. His arms are thick, and he wears a mustache. He laughs frequently and shows off a gap in his front teeth. He's been here two months.

Reach for the left leg. Pull the turkey toward you. Grab the right leg. Holding the legs evenly, eye the narrow strips on the shackle where they belong. Then with a heave, slap them in place with open hands. "It helps," Louis hollers, "to think of it as the face of someone you don't like." When I pull the bird toward me, it sometimes shits on my apron.

Sometimes I miss altogether and the bird swings back on its neck. Sometimes the neck snaps, and the carcass falls on the floor. Then it must go back to the beginning of the line. Louis makes me take frequent breaks, waving me back with his hand. He offers me friendly encouragement and praises my work. As the shift wears on he sweats, but shows no signs of flagging. In fact, he works harder. Instead of hanging every third bird, leaving the other two for men working behind him on the line, he hits every one with a shout.

The feather machine shuts off, signaling the end of the shift. In the relative quiet, I realize that every time I slam the legs of a bird into place, it lets out a posthumous squawk.

Louis looks my way with a grin. "It's like a game," he shouts, "but you get your exercise."

Right then I decide I would like to get to know Louis better. But the turkey factory's revolving door makes that unlikely. Even if I stuck around a while, he might not. And with the constant job rotation, you find yourself working next to strangers. There are always more turkeys; the people come and go.

News Intern James Bryant MacTavish contributed to this story.

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