Skiatook, Oklahoma
Greta Greenberry sat in the dark at Poultry Xtra Corporate in a room full of Quality Control heavy hitters and twice as many lawyers. They were staring at DVD images of a bejeweled acrylic nail attached to what the plaintiffs’ attorney was assuring them was the desiccated tip of a human thumb eaten and regurgitated by his client. The nail and tissue lay next to what was supposed to be a thumb bone that the young woman claimed she had gnawed along with an order of Right Wings Buffalo Blasters flats and drummies.
     Greta had seen a lot in her 10 years with Poultry Xtra, and some stuff back at the Purdue University food science lab that would have turned a weaker stomach, but looking at the phone stills of the alleged thumb tip floating in a toilet bowl of unflushed vomit was more than she wanted to see in full HD color.
     Usually in product contamination incidents, they got to see the real thing. Eventually they would have access to the severed digit. But the lawyer for the woman who’d apparently mistaken a human thumb for part of a chicken wing wasn’t going to let go of his evidence this early in the negotiations.
     “Well, that’s the lot of them,” said Greta’s boss, Andy McCutcheon. “Somebody hit the lights.” When the recessed, energy-inefficient incandescent glow shone again on the heavy silk waterfall drapes, exotic woods and illuminated law books in ceiling high, etched-glass cases,Greta was impressed as always that this lavish room was the control center of, it must be said, a chicken plucking chicken pusher, albeit a big plucker in the poultry universe.
     Staring at a paneled wall bearing a Bev Doolittle print of Pinto ponies turning into aspens, or some kind of high country tree, Greta half heard Andy explain, “It’s no movie prop, it’s human. But the docs won’t swear conclusively. Assuming someone didn’t lose a thumb at the restaurant, it was in a batch of wings we tracked by Julian date and plant number. It looks like they entered the product stream in Mississippi, at Malapee.”
     HR Operations VP Sol Collins groaned and pounded once on the conference table, forgetting its sacred origins as the flatbed bottom of their founder’s first egg truck, veneered now with burl and brought to a mirrored shine, probably in some sweatshop in Mindanao.
     “You’ve got to be shitting me! Malapee? They’re in discovery on the Title VII nightmare down there because some yahoo supervisor is masturbating with chicken necks. You believe it? Flogging giblets out their flies? And now they’re grilling up human thumbs? My God, the plaintiffs’ bar will wet themselves over this, not to mention the freakin’ food Nazis. Jesus Horatio Christ!”
     “It shouldn’t come to that if we can shut this down soon” said Corporate Attorney Cletus B. Field, unfolding slowly to his full 6 feet 6 inches, using his Tenth Circuit baritone, making sure everyone in the room knew that Legal Was On The Job. “We’re very familiar with these attorneys, Hector & Chase. We’ve been on their deep-pockets list since that race case in North Alabama, so there’s a relationship we can leverage. That blonde Chase cookie will listen to me. Right now they aren’t filing anything, just trying this little pictorial salvo to see what we’ll lob back.”
     “You mean zeros, don’t you? How many zeros we’ll lob?” Sol felt like weeping, but he shot his cuffs instead. Being able to see his monogrammed initials in the proper place always improved his sense of control, even though any payoffs would come out of his cost centers. Well, a few more settlements this year and they’d hit stop-loss and the reinsurer would get stuck with the tab. But his annual review could go directly down the toilet.
     “In the meantime, folks, we need to nail down what happened at Malapee,” Andy said, pulling at his nose, a holdover from a minor undergrad coke habit, along with a flashback tendency to go manic in a crisis.
     “If it is a human thumb, and Right Wings isn’t behind it, how did it get in the wings? Who the hell does it belong to, I’d like to know. We need to get on the horn with Truly Lovett and his crew and get some answers. Greta, I want you to take the lead on this,” Andy said. “We need a whole lot more information before we can respond. Cletus, we need that thumb so we can make sure it’s the real deal.”
     Greta nodded her assent, but remained silent. She felt a trip to Mississippi in her future over this thumb screw-up. She loathed Mississippi. She spent a couple of years at Chamber Maid Foods in Vicksburg right after getting her Master’s in Food Science. She had her fill of the state whose only saving grace was the ratio of great writers and musicians to assholes. One Welty, Williams or Faulkner, Sam Cooke or Tammy Wynette for every 100,000 peckerheads pulled Mississippi from its slough of crackerness and political jobbery but just barely.
     If people asked her about Mississippi, she told them to watch the film “Mississippi Burning.” Mississippi then wasn’t exactly Mississippi today, but it was damn close in too many ways to overlook and with an added veneer of “New South” pseudo-penance and self-congratulation. In her experience, it was still a racist, sexist, homophobic backwater and she had no particular desire to make a return visit.
     The state’s ol’ boy poultry brotherhood didn’t give a flip about her credentials and job history. What they did like was Greta’s honey brown hair and Indiana farm-fed body, which her husband, Toby, compared to “R. Crumb’s most pneumatic of teen babes.” The guys wanted her at the dance, just not in the game. Who needed that kind of crap in this day and age?
     When the thumb turned up, Greta had felt relatively safe because her territory as senior QC auditor was the U.S. Southwest Division. But if they needed her in Mississippi, she’d have to go. In major contamination cases, you didn’t get to pick the place. So she kept her mouth shut and hoped that the well-manicured thumb-whatsitstill might end up some lamebrain’s idea of a rubberized joke.
     “Let’s meet back here tomorrow at 10 sharp to update. I don’t need to impress on you that, so far, this situation is off radar and needs to stay that way,” Andy said. “Cletus, get me that thumb.”


Lowndes Henderson swung his legs out of bed and sat up, bracing his hands on the mattress either side of his bare thighs. He coughed and ran one hand over his short cropped hair and across his face. It was 4:00 a.m. and still raining. Four days of rain was good for some crops but not so good for the disposition. But he had to feed the chickens, slop the hog, get his grandson Danny’s lunch ready and get to work.
     Lowndes had been heading to work at the chicken plant in Malapee, Mississippi six days a week for 32 years. He’d worked at every job in the place from back-up killer to a-hole checker, a job he thought they must have made up on the spot when the man from personnel told him what he’d be doing. It was exactly what the name described: Using a finger to make sure the gut end was still attached to the butthole on hundreds of thousands of freshly killed birds.
      As soon as he was allowed, he’d transferred to the live-hang dock, a nightmare of noise, dust and flailing, shit-covered chickens under murky blue light. They said blue calmed the birds, but you couldn’t have proved it by Lowndes. The chickens crammed into the hang trough to be grabbed, upended and hung in metal shackles by their paws never impressed him as the least bit relaxed.
      If a man could hang 25 birds a minute, it was a good job pay-wise.Of course, Lowndes wouldn’t have expressed it right out, but he understood that good was relative.
      For the last two years, Lowndes had been in charge of the offal trailers. The smell of rot would strip shellac, but he got used to it after a couple of months. It was fairly easy as jobs went. He dumped barrels, moved containers by fork lift and occasionally had to shovel the bloody, gaggingslurry of condemned, rotting chicken fat, bones, skin and innards. But nobody messed with him. That was the best part, being allowed to work alone, put in his hours, clock out and go home to Danny. 
      Lowndes didn’t pay much attention to what the years of toil had done to his body – tricky shoulders from live hang, lousy knees and back from endlessly twisting to dump 70-pound tubs of chicken; hands arthritic from cutting shoulders in debone, thick skinned from operating fiery ovens and fryers twice the size of flat cars and permanently numb from working in water chillers just as big. His hearing was lousy from constant noise, but he considered it something of a blessing when Danny played his rap music, or worse, Barney tapes. 
      Lowndes wore his ailments like his Dickies work clothes, everyday without too much thought except that lots of people had it worse. He only felt down about it when he saw some young tally whacker with his pants slung below his under drawers heading off to the nurse’s station the first night on the job because of some puny-assed complaint about his hands being sore. Sore, my foot, Lowndes would tell his friends. That sorry little so-and-so won’t last a week. 
      Lowndes didn’t think a whole lot of most of the younger generation, especially the ones who worked a little bit here and there to get some playin’ around money but still mostly lived off their mamas – or their daddies. Lowndes had to admit it. He let his youngest girl Sharay move back with her baby Danny in between bouts of true love with some freeloader playing dodge‘em with two or three other baby mamas. The last time Sharay disappeared with a man, she up and left Danny behind. Lowndes was fine with that. He loved having his grandson around. Though hehad been giving some thought to retirement, with the boy to see after, that wouldn’t be happening anytime soon.
      By 5:30, morning chores done, the old man bundled Danny next door to Miss Patricia’s to have his cereal and wait for the school bus. Lowndes rubbed the boy’s head then ducked back through the downpour to his ’72 Datsun pickup for the 20-mile trip to the plant along narrow blacktop corridors bunched with trees cloaked and bent under kudzu.
      The rain fell hard and steady, making the windshield wipers whomp without much effect. Lowndes strained to see. He swiped the windshield over the steering wheel with the side of one large hand to clear the fog. Lights flickered ahead. Lowndes slowed and rolled to a stop behind several cars.
      He saw a couple of folks huddled under umbrellas. One headed toward the Datsun, and Lowndes cracked his window. It was one of the men from the plant who worked upstairs in the management offices. Lowndes had seen him over the years, but honestly couldn’t say he’d ever heard his name. “Hatchery bus slid into a tree, chicks slung all over” he hollered, “We called live haul and MDOT.” 
      Not surprising thought Lowndes, what with so much rain. The way those hatchery boys drove, like hell hounds, it was no wonder when they come a cropper. He imagined the dark, wild growth around this stretch of the Trace.      
      Heavy rain and loamy soil always made him a little nervous in the thick woods. He thought about trying to back out and go around by Tickfaw Road, but then decided just to light up and relax. Like the office guy, most of the people held up by the wreck were headed to the plant. They’d all be late for work, but maybe with so many, they wouldn’t be docked for missing.
      Lowndes had perfect attendance and he would hate to blemish that record. He’d not missed a day in 32 years unless it was vacation. He had been given a special jacket like high-school quarterbacks wore for working more than 50,000 hours without an unexcused absence. Perfect attendance: It was something to be proud of in a life of plain old hard down work. An achievement that showed a person’s true character. Not showy, but steady, every day.
      He settled back and thought about his mess of a daughter. He knew Sharay would be back. She always turned up, worse for wear, weepy, with her hand out. He’d always given in before, but next time, he’d insist that she straighten up and go to work. She skated from responsibility because he let her. She could easily get hired on at the chicken plant, if she could just stop with her weed jags long enough to pass the drug test. He would put his foot down.
      Lowndes blew out rills of smoke. He considered asking the office guy to borrow his phone so he could call in, but he couldn’t see how they’d hold this trouble on the road, an act of God and a sorry bus driver, against his attendance record. 
      Lowndes turned off the engine to save gas and listened to the rain dance across the truck. Over the tattoo of drops, he heard a slow grind and figured MDOT must have arrived with a chain saw crew. The grinding noise grew louder, and just when Lowndes realized it wasn’t coming from chain saws after all, the Datsun roof began to shriek and buckle under the weight of a massive, toppling pine. Its skimpy roots, loosened by four days of rain,had lost their grip on the gruel of soil in the bar ditch. The Datsun cab crumpled like paper, slamming Lowndes forward, crushing his neck against the steering wheel, severing his head, once and for all sealing his perfect attendance record.

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