You'll start seeing things that aren't really there, son, and that'll be the first sign.
Sometimes if you stare at something long enough it becomes something else. Like when you look at the whorl of wood grain within a wall, or the symmetric shapes on a linoleum floor. If you just relax your eyes long enough, you’ll start to see all kinds of things.
That’s how it was for Harley Beechum.
Whack. Whack. Whack.
Harley found himself staring at dead cows as they chased each other down a conveyor belt; but sometimes he'd imagine they were something else, like human parts, skinned and bloodied, forming a never-ending line that rushed toward sectioning.
Whack. Whack. Whack.
His stainless steel knives gleamed blue beneath the static haze of fluorescent lights, and with each cut, he transformed dead stinking meat into Family Packs for somebody’s backyard barbecue.
Whack. Whack. Whack.
He saw this, and at the same time, he didn't: the way a deeply preoccupied man might see and obey traffic signals without really noticing them. His mother had called it, looking within.
“You'll know when you start going mad, Harley," she had affectionately told him. "You'll start seeing things that aren't really there, son, and that'll be the first sign."
Of course, his mother was mad—and his grandfather had gone mad too; Harley only figured it was just a matter of time for him.
His psychiatrists had told him insanity was one of those things that just happens to people, like the complexion of their skin, or the color of their eyes. He read that there were no explanations for mental illness, only excuses, and most of Harley’s mind was already occupied with a terrible sense of being pushed and crowded—a claustrophobia of sorts—that crushed him like the unused fallow, bone and gristle that ended up in the hot dogs and preformed patties at work. Behind his thick, horn-rimmed glasses, Harley’s brown eyes floated like strange fish in a world all their own, and in this dreamy-eyed stupor, they looked like the eyes of a man who could see signs in the sky and perhaps hear voices whispered from the depths of a dark closet. Harley hated to be crowded, and his world was quickly evolving into a volatile force of nature: a hurricane, a lightning storm, a planet-smashing asteroid hurtling through the void. It was just a matter of time before something set him off . . . just a matter of time.
Harley worked in a slaughterhouse.
Whack. Whack. Whack.
There, he cut and sectioned beef as fast as he could swing a knife. His chest, shoulders, and neck were massive, with titanic limbs that dangled like branches from a tree that stood over six feet tall. In another life, he could have been a professional football player; not because he was black, but because anywhere else he seemed so out of place--anywhere but on the 'killing floor'.
His boss had told him he was the best damn cutter on the line, and that he had never seen anyone like him. "Harley, you're like a machine, a regular goddamn John Henry of the slaughterhouse floor."
But there were no cheering crowds for Harley. He was fast and wild, and required plenty of room to swing his arms and blades. There had already been several incidents reported where he had severely cut several of his fellow employees and severed three fingers off the hand of a man who had accidentally stood too close.
Every morning, he made his way from the employee parking lot, and listened to the storm of sound from the bellowing cattle trapped within the large holding pens that wrapped around the facility. Harley sometimes felt like one of those cows, crowded and packed-in. He watched as they lifted their heads and flared their nostrils, their large brown eyes rolling inside their skulls until you could see the whites. It was the smell of blood that they feared, their bodies literally shuddered as the scent washed over them. They were jammed-in so tight they couldn't even turn around, or lift their tails to take a crap. So they ended up crapping on themselves, or any other cows that were squeezed in behind. To make matters worse, several men with electric cattle prods stabbed at them, and kept them moving forward, heading toward their doom.
He would follow them as they entered the chute in single file. They'd pass over a bar that their legs would straddle on both sides. Then slowly, the floor would drop away, and at that point they were carried along on a conveyor belt. They passed through a station where a Mexican man stood above them on a catwalk. Harley watched as the man bent over each cow with an object that looked like a nail gun, a pneumatic device called a stunner. The man pressed the gun to the cow’s forehead, right between the eyes, and pulled the trigger. There was a loud ‘pop’, like the closing of a steel door, as a metal bolt, about the size of a thick pencil fired into the cow’s brain supposedly rendering the animal brain dead. The cow then sagged heavily upon the bar, its legs kicking wildly one last time as if it could flee the nightmare. But the real nightmare was yet to come.
There were chains hanging from an overhead trolley that were then attached to the animal's rear legs. The cow was lifted off the bar upside down. Another man then moved in toward the beast. He wore a clear plastic apron, dripping with blood that flowed down into his black rubber boots. He had a long knife clutched in his right hand that he used to cut the cow’s throat. Piercing the animals neck with the fine pointed blade, he then cut the aorta. The splattered blood ran freely through a steel grate in the floor, and even though the cow was still twitching, it was now finally dead.
What he saw next on the kill floor no longer unfolded in a logical manner. There was one strange image after another: a worker with a power saw slicing cattle into halves, another man reaching inside the cow and pulling out their guts and kidneys with his bare hands, and then dropping them down a metal chute, over and over, as each animal passed by. There was also a stainless steel rack of tongues running by, and people peeling meat off decapitated heads--picking them almost as clean as the white skulls painted by Georgia O'Keefe. The employees all waded through blood that was ankle deep and that slowly poured down drains into huge vats below. The kill floor was hot and humid, and stank of manure and blood, because cattle have a body temperature of about 101 degrees, and there were a lot of them in the room, with more to come. Harley watched as their hides were ripped from their bloodied carcasses that sounded like strapping tape pulled from a carpet. The cows, halved and decapitated, were then swung toward the cooler where it really began to feel like a slaughterhouse.
Now it was Harley's turn. He would punch-in at the time-clock, slip on his plastic apron, and prepare to go to work. Others would eye him cautiously, and whisper to each other as he passed. Harley didn't like people staring at him; didn't like people getting too close; in fact, he didn't like people at all. He vented his anger on the meat, slashing and cutting with razor-sharp knives.
At the end of the day, Harley noticed a breeze had sprung up, and with the coming of the night, it had grown into a gusty wind. The air was turbulent and chilly; it hissed and moaned.
It was Halloween.
He stopped at the local bar for a drink. He sat alone in a corner booth with a beer growing warm in front of him. He didn't come for the company, or even for the drinks, he came to listen to the jukebox. The best he had ever heard. He'd fill it with quarters, and then punch the same song over and over again: 'Beast of Burden' by the Rolling Stones.
I'll never be your beast of burden
My back is broad but it's a hurting
All I want is for you to make love to me
I'll never be your beast of burden
I've walked for miles my feet are hurting
All I want is you to make love to me
Harley hummed the tune in his head, never tiring of the refrain.
Am I hard enough
Am I rough enough
Am I rich enough
I'm not too blind to see
When he finally arrived at home that night he made sure he brought in his cutting knives. He knew a dull blade could cause trigger-finger, so he always made sure to perform the 'sharpening ritual' for the following day. Tonight was no different, except that it was Halloween, and every time he'd start to hone his blades someone would ring the damn doorbell.
Setting his knives down, he'd stomped to the front door and threw it open.
"Trick-or-treat," the children screamed.
Harley slammed the door in their faces and went back to work. By the fourth interruption, he began to snap, opened the door, growled at the kids, and stepped out onto the front porch. "Go away!" he yelled, and lifting his huge arms, chased after them across the front lawn.
"Hey, what the hell's the matter with you? They're just kids!" someone yelled.
Just then, the sprinklers kicked on, and Harley's anger swelled. He walked back and forth through the mist pounding his fist into his open hand, unaware of the small group of people watching him as they moved up and down the street.
Harley turned to face several parents standing on the sidewalk. He rushed to them, grabbed the nearest man and pushed him to the ground. "Get away from my house!" he shouted. "Get away from me!"
A small child started to cry in the background, as the father quickly stood and brushed himself off. "Jesus, man, you're fucking crazy!" he yelled, and then the whole group moved quickly across the street. "Asshole!" another parent yelled, "I'm gonna call the cops!" But none were willing to take Harley on, and instead walked away muttering threats and obscenities.
It was then that Harley became lost within his mind. As he stared up and down the street, all he saw was an endless row of human debris waiting to be sectioned. He rushed into the house and pulled his knives from their sheath.
Holding a twelve-inch blade in each hand, he returned to the street and stalked the 'Trick-or-Treaters'.
When the police arrived, Harley was already beyond seeing things.
He heard rustling sounds in the dark, as something slithered up his leg, under his trousers.
It's not really there, he told himself.
"Drop the weapon!" a policeman yelled.
Something crept under one sleeve and started up his arm, something awful but unidentifiable. Then it ran across his shoulder and up his neck, onto his face, something small and deadly. It went for his mouth. He pressed his lips together. It went for his eyes. He squeezed his eyes shut. He brushed frantically at his face, but he couldn't find it, couldn't knock it off as he staggered toward the police.
There was a loud explosion, and Harley felt like he'd been hit by a truck.
Blood ran down his pants, and now it was dribbling onto the pavement. His muscle-packed arms, his big shoulders, his gigantic chest, all failed him.
He shuddered, stepped forward.
There was another explosion and he collapsed onto the street.
He heard whispers.
The whispers swelled into a raging chorus of 'Beast Of Burden'.
I'll tell ya
You can put me out
On the street
Put me out
With no shoes on my feet
But, put me out, put me out
Put me out of misery
His bowels loosened.
Then the street, like a great dark conveyor belt of dead things, swept him away.