The Great Unwashed

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I sat cringing at the clinking ice cubes and clanking plates. The sounds seemingly growing louder the longer I sat there. Jennifer sat in front of me at the table for four, but I was looking past her at the wait staff, watching as they scurried throughout the Cracker Barrel, banging together dirty dishes and splashing ice cubes and liquid into half empty glasses. The murmur of voices was too low to drown out the tinkling of forks and spoons, the jostling of chairs. I rubbed the palms of my hands on my jeans and then leaned forward to set my elbows on top of the table.

“Joe.”

“Yeah.” I refocused on her big brown eyes.

“Are you ready?”

“Not really.”

“It’s ok,” she said, reaching out and rubbing the top of my hand.

I tried to smile, but it came out as something else. Her eyes welled with tears and I rubbed mine on the sleeve of my shirt. I looked up just as the waitress walked up to the table. She refused to make eye contact with me. I couldn’t bring myself to look at her twice. For a few moments the restaurant sounds were silent. A knot grew in my stomach until finally the waitress said,

“Can I talk to you outside?” I stared straight at Jennifer, who looked at me and nodded her head towards the door as she stood up. I took a deep breath and followed her and her mother outside.

“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe you did this to my baby,” she said as soon as we were far enough away from the door that the customers couldn’t hear what she was saying.

She angrily pressed a lit cigarette between her lips, inhaling halfway before starting in on me again. “Not her. She is near the top of her class. You won’t ruin her life.” Her voice cracked as she spun towards Jennifer.

“Pregnant? By a carpet kisser? I won’t have it. Whatever this is, it won’t stand. I already lost your sister to a teenage pregnancy, I won’t lose you to.”

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The house was dark and silent. Long after Tam had fallen asleep, I lay on the floor of his room and stared into the darkness. As the minutes turned to hours, I played the events of the day through my mind over and over again. When I became thirsty, I fumbled through the darkness, carefully edging around a large pile of clothes on the floor, down a path cleared in the hall, and into the smell of old meat and spices from the kitchen. I ran my hand along the wall until I found the light switch, crumbs and moisture sticking to my bare feet. I flipped on the kitchen light and watched as roaches scurried across the piles of dishes, their antenna bending and twisting through the maze of food and crusty debris. I waited for the movement to stop and then I turned out the light and made my way to the bathroom, my eyes struggling to readjust to the darkness. I cupped my hand and drank from the sink.

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Sliding on my coveralls, I put on my hard hat and walked through the shower room, the break room, and into the main part of the plant. I ducked below an auger spitting chicken heads into a large basket and stepped between two pipes that ran the length of the plant. The smell was pungent and foul, a sign that a tanker of chicken blood had been delivered to the plant that day. Pipes and augers crisscrossed the room and once I had navigated it, I climbed the stairs to a platform just above the screens that sifted out the large parts from the powder. I took the scrubbing brush from the swing shift worker and he yelled something I couldn’t make out over the screaming and churning of pipes. I shook my head up and down and then set the goggles up from my neck over my eyes. Then I began the arduous process of scrubbing the screens. Chicken heads, feet, feathers, and blood were cooked and then ground down to a fine powder, before being reconstituted as dry dog food. My job was to make sure the sifter was kept clean from buildup. The powder floated up from the screens, coating me in a thin layer that grew thicker as the 12-hour night shift wore on. Sweat and powder would mix and itch, and I assumed that was the reason for the special soap they had for us to use in the shower room.

At lunch, I saw a guy in the break room that I chatted with some nights.

“How’s your wife?”

“She was my girlfriend.”

“Oh yeah, she was? What happened? Y’all break up?”

“Yeah.”

“Y’all got kids, right?”

“Nah.”

“I thought you said y’all was having a kid?”

“Her mom took her on a trip to Louisiana.”

“Oh shit. You got big money then,” he said as he laughed, “All my money goes to my ex.”

I answered in a way that I thought an adult would.

“You just graduated high school, right?” He continued.

“Yeah, last year.” I said.

“Shit, you young. Plenty time for kids.”

I studied the creased lines in his face and the gray in his beard. His head was covered by a hoodie cinched tight. He was covered with powder.

After I finished my bologna sandwich, I didn’t follow the rest of my shift back to work inside the plant. Instead, I walked back through the shower room to my locker, where I unzipped my coveralls and stuffed them into a plastic trash bag. The cold night air felt nice as I walked across the parking lot. I drove the two-mile-long road from the plant to the highway in silence, rolling the windows down to drown out the smell and ease the itchiness that was spreading across my body. I scurried past the dilapidated businesses and government housing complexes of my neighborhood, and as the first rays of light began to shine on the horizon, I hid in the shadows of my apartment.

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