When I clock in, ten minutes before my shift, Boss is already in the shop polishing his bullhorn. I slip my apron from its hook and head to my station. Above the shop, ceiling fans squeak and ventilation ducts thud doing nothing to suck away the sawdust-and-formaldehyde funk from the air. Like most skinners, I don’t bother with the complimentary surgical masks. After five years on the line at Stan’s Taxidermy Express, I’m used to the smell, but the masks—in a box next to the timecard puncher and federally mandated OSHA posters—keep health inspectors off Stan’s back.
I perch myself on the steel stool beside the worktable—needles, pliers, penknife, and thread spools all laid in a row on its chrome surface. When I press my boot on the foot pedal, the conveyor belt cranks and whirrs, and the morning’s first load of assorted critters rumbles toward me. I start in on a ratty-looking jackrabbit, hoping to keep a steady pace and clock out a little early. It’s Taco Tuesday, and the girls are expecting chimichanga kids meals for dinner.
The timecard puncher clinks and clangs. About the time I finish the jackrabbit, Marcy walks into the shop behind a couple other late Day Shifters. They grab aprons and take their stations. From his polishing corner, Boss barks something about Tardiness Demerits. As Marcy passes, she smiles at me, the skin around her mouth peeling like paint off an old house. Flakes of skin crust her cheeks and forehead, some kind of disease, I guess. A wicked case of Rosacea or something. My gaze shifts to her breasts, gigantic things that threaten to burst through her apron. I pet the neck of a twisted-up raccoon pelt and imagine Marcy coming into work one morning after a mysterious week of absences, smiling at me with skin so smooth she looks airbrushed, maybe with a tropical tan and that tag mole on her neck removed, too. I would tell her, “Marcy, you look beautiful, and also, while you were away, I made Employee of the Week for the fifth nonconsecutive week,” that last part said with a shrug, like it’s no big deal, and Marcy would say, “Andy, that’s amazing! You deserve a big, big reward.” She would push her breasts together with her arms as she says this and then she would say, “Want to play Hide the Love Salami tonight?” to which I would reply, “Let me call my wife and tell her I have to work late.” Except Alma would never believe I’m working late. She’d want to know exactly how much overtime that would add to my paycheck, how much extra we could pay this month on the electric bill. And anyway, Marcy is a great girl, but I couldn’t get past that skin. Kissing her would be like kissing a bowl of unmilked corn flakes. Screwing her would be like screwing stucco.
Sam at station 7 says the disease is probably only on her face, says he had a cousin with that once, but who knows? Now I’m staring again, and Marcy’s smiling again, and I know dermatologists aren’t covered by the health insurance, so I snatch a fistful of raccoon from the skins on my station and offer an embarrassed shrug to say “Sorry, got to get back to work.”
Boss always says “Stitch them good or eat them,” so I do. I practice at home, sewing pieces of Alma’s old faux-fox coat to the plastic bodies of my daughters’ dolls. Best stitching gets an Employee of the Week certificate and a fifty-dollar bonus in the next paycheck. Earn a certain number of Employee of the Week certificates (this number is secret—it is not posted beside the Workplace Safety Laws) and Stan might bump you up to Fish and Amphibians, which is one step away from Domestic Pets. Though I try to give her tips, Marcy has zero chance at Employee of the Week. She started almost two months ago, but she doesn’t practice, and her squirrels always have crooked faces or stitching across their backs like furry Frankensteins. Across the aisle, she tugs on a bushy tail that hangs where a face should be. Boss sidles up and tells her, “Honey, you best get good at those or you’re gonna eat them.” And after he’s stomped off, she sniffs back tears and whispers to me, “Would he really make us eat them?”
“I don’t think so,” I say. I sneak over to her, place a hand on her trembling shoulder, feeling the warmth of her skin through her denim work shirt. “All the meat is scraped off at the pelt plant, and the skin is brushed with chemicals. It’d be poison. You could sue.”
She looks up, and little streams trickle through the flakes of her cheeks. She hugs my neck quickly, and for a second I feel her breath under my collar. “Thanks, Andy.”
“No problem, Marce.” I step back, praying the heavy apron hides my erection, and give her an awkward thumbs-up. “You’ll be an ace in no time. Just practice.”
Across the room, under the vinyl banner that reads Stitch Them Good or Eat Them, Boss shouts into his bullhorn, “Morsley, get back to those furs or I’ll make you eat them.” Everybody stops stitching and glares at me: twenty-five pairs of eyes, half of them magnified by plastic goggles. The lifers, gray-hairs who have been working Rodents since Stan opened shop, their eyes are shot from eyeballing a billion tiny stitches. Another twenty years of this and I’ll be fitted for a pair of goggles. By the time I retire on my nearly nonexistent pension, I’ll have to wear goggles to see my own hands.
I give Boss a half-assed salute and walk back to my station. Another load rolls down the belt to my table, though I haven’t finished the last one. I would have to compromise my stitching standards to finish early, and then what? No Employee of the Week, no A+ customer satisfaction ratings, no pride in my own workmanship. I resign myself to coming home late with the girls’ chimis. My next invoice says two-dozen bunnies are due to the Tristate Easter Museum by Friday and might mean time-and-a-half, which I could use for a million things, namely Jessica’s glasses and Angela’s scoliosis brace, which also aren’t covered by the company health insurance. In my mind, I can see Angela, eleven years old, slouching at the dinner table with her S-shaped spine, frowning over another bowl of generic mac-and-cheese, eight-year-old Jessica next to her re-reading a picture book she’s too old for through those thick plastic-rimmed glasses. I see them both slumping disappointedly when I walk in just before bedtime with their chimichanga meals. I’ll tell them I’m sorry, but Mom and Dad need the money.
The seams on the rabbit in my hands are perfect, invisible. Part of me wants to take it home to show Alma and the kids, ask them, “Aren’t you proud of your pop? He’s a go-getter, right? See those stitches? Isn’t his practice paying off? But it’s only a rabbit, one of two dozen in this batch. It won’t impress anyone, especially after a late kids meal. Plus, stealing means immediate termination, without severance, so I drop the rabbit into the Ready bin, fingers crossed for overtime, and hope Boss notices the stitch job. I sneak a glance at Marcy. She’s dangling an animal by its skinny tail, studying it at arm’s length. It’s unrecognizable. She sees me watching and laughs. “I put a possum on a chinchilla!” she says. Her hand jerks the Stitch Ripper up the seam at its belly, and she shuffles through the bin for another frame. She holds one up.
“Yeah,” I say. “That’s possum.”
She flashes her scaly smile, and I drop my eyes. Stucco, I tell myself. But I’m not convinced.
Boss calls through the bullhorn, “No talking or Stan will be notified—he’ll make you eat them, then write you up a Talking Demerit.” I already have two Talking Demerits. Get five and Stan docks your pay twenty bucks. A Demerit is the opposite of an Employee of the Week certificate.
I finish three more rabbits for the Easter Museum, plus two miscellaneous raccoons, then go for a cigarette break. When I pass Marcy, she is still wrestling the possum pelt onto its skeleton, skin flaps frayed where she Stitch-Ripped. Marcy won’t last long, and I wonder what I’ll do when she leaves.
The break room is upstairs, four floors. Rodents does not have its own break room. I open the door to the little kitchen-slash-lounge, and Dave Kiss-Ass Mitchell is sitting on the corduroy couch reading the latest issue of Taxidermist Illustrated, his apron neatly pressed, with an embroidered Stan’s Taxidermy Express! logo on the front, not the plain blue-and-white silk-screen we wear down in Rodents. Dave Mitchell used to work Marcy’s station. Then he started screwing Stan’s daughter, and she put in a good word. Now he’s way upstairs in Exotic Mammals. Lions, tigers, bears. Even done hippopotamuses up there. Watching Dave flip the glossy pages of the magazine, his fingernails pink and clean, I know I could stitch a hundred hippos better than he could. I’ll sew the best damned hippo any of Stan’s customers has ever seen, they’ll have to add an A++ on the customer satisfaction surveys. Soon as Boss sees those rabbits—their flawless hidden seams, precise skin placement, lifelike facial expressions—I’ll be right up there with Dave Kiss-Ass Mitchell. Another zero will be added to the figure on my paycheck, and Angela will sit straight on the couch and Jess will see straight when she watches TV.
Dave looks up and scratches his beard. “How’s the rats, Andy? Boss working you hard enough?” He says this like he and Boss are old friends, which irritates the hell out of me.
I light a Camel and shrug. The door creaks open, and a woman I recognize from Domestic Pets sags in. Seeing Mitchell, she makes a show of remembering something she has to do and leaves. Two weeks ago, Dave’s wife flew to Acapulco with their accountant, leaving a note on the fridge saying she wanted a divorce after finding out from a neighbor that Dave was screwing Stan’s daughter. Ever since, he’s been lurking in the break room, cornering people from downstairs and yakking about his problems for the whole fifteen-minute smoke break.
“My wife, she left all my pants on the bed with the crotches cut out with scissors,” Dave says. He closes the magazine, looks at me with eyes glossier than the glass ones they use in Woodland Creatures. He really knows how to ham it up. “She broke my lava lamp on the driveway and wrote Frick You in the goop with a stick. What kind of person does that?”
Then he lets loose the waterworks. The embroidered front of his apron gets all soggy. I’ve heard all this already, from Sam down in Rodents. We had a good laugh about it. My cigarette is half-burned. I tap the end into the ashtray. For all I know, he’s making this up about the lava lamp. Sounds like a sob story to me, something he came up with while laughing at us chumps in Rodents over a bottle of expensive bourbon, which, I imagine, Stan sent him as a consolation gift with a little card saying, We heard about your wife but it’s not the end of the world because we at Stan’s are more than a company, we’re family, so it’s like you have thirty other wives so what’s the loss of one? Enjoy this drink on me, Love, Stan. And that got Dave thinking he can squeeze sympathy out of anybody if he can squeeze it out of old Stan.
Dave is still talking about when he met his wife in college, getting puppy-eyed over some roller skate soda-shop milkshake with about a hundred cherries in it. I tell him I can relate. Met my wife in college, too. Alma, the disco gymnast. Fell in love with her when she took the stage in the auditorium of our junior college, the homecoming talent show. She flipped and leapt and whirly-whirled to The Commodores’ “Brick House,” those huge melons of hers flopping beneath her red-sequined leotard. She won the gold, and I asked her backstage if she wanted to get a beer since it was late-night happy hour at this place that didn’t card. It was the fourth time I had seen her perform—she’d done recitals at the state fair two years running and a girl I knew from drama club told me she had even auditioned for The Gong Show. The night she won the talent show, she laughed at me and went to the soccer field to neck with Keith Mueller who had been Hamlet that year. She’d been a knockout then. All those gymnastics kept her body tight. The next year, when she only won bronze, her thighs a little thicker inside the leotard, I told her she was amazing and that I had a bottle of spiced rum under my bed. She said what the hell and let me feel her up over the spandex while she took pulls straight from the bottle. I woke up to her leotard draped around my bedpost and my toilet clogged with a bronze medal. I fell in love anyway, imagining cheering crowds and diamond-studded disco costumes and all those state fair blue ribbons pinned to her mammoth breasts
That was before the kids, before every part of her got huge.
Dave says he wanted to be a Ground Control operator for the astronauts, the “Houston” they mean when they say, “Houston, we have a problem.” He was even going to name his first son Houston. Had this collection of space shuttle models, he says, which he was saving for Houston’s nursery. He found the shards of black and white plastic in the driveway beside the lava lamp. “Good thing we didn’t have kids, huh, Andy? Good thing it’s just her and me who have to suffer.”
“Yeah,” I say, and I mean it. Before Alma took off her leotard for me and three months later told me she was pregnant with the baby who would be Angela, I was going to teach high school wood shop. I was going to make spice racks and bookshelves and heart-shaped coat hooks with eager, jigsaw-loving teenagers and teach them the value of hard work and perseverance and creation-v.-destruction. Except Alma needed prenatal vitamins and then Angela needed diapers and binkies and a cupboard full of jarred baby food, and I got a succession of low-level factory jobs to make ends meet. Except, to my knowledge, the ends have never met. Not once.
The woman from Pets comes back. This time ignoring Mitchell and me, she lights up an unfiltered and starts rooting through the refrigerator. I take a deep drag, let my cigarette burn to the filter, then smash it among the other butts heaped in the ashtray. Dave says something about how lucky I am, how I should go home and make love to my wife and thank Lord Jesus that she didn’t leave me for some bean counter. I tell him to shut his Exotic Mammal face and kick open the door and leave. Fucking Mitchell. Why does he have all the luck? I wish my accountant would haul my wife off to some other country, all three hundred pounds of her. I’d even put the plane tickets on my credit card, except it’s almost maxed out and I don’t even have an accountant because who could afford one on a Rodents salary?
Break’s over, and I’m back on the floor with Marcy’s face and a new conveyor-belt load of rabbits and skunks. Everyone around me is stitching, heads down, needles clutched in crooked fingers—all of us hunched over our stainless-steel stations, pulling thread through skunk furs. We stitch and stitch, sew and sew, so on and so on, waiting for the Shift Change horn to blow. When our Ready bins are full, Larry Mulligan carts them out to the trucks then brings them back to fill again. Larry’s apron is blank, no silk-screen, because Larry is nobody. Even Rodents is higher than Larry Mulligan, who doesn’t even get invited to company picnics.
I eat lunch at my station, trying to save time to fill the Easter Museum order. Lunch is bologna and yellow mustard on a single slice of folded-over white bread. Rest of the day, I don’t even look up at Marcy. My third bin is half-full fifteen minutes before Shift Change. Boss twitches his mustache and says, “You best finish that third bin, Morsley,” to which I say nothing because Boss is in charge. From his tone, I figure there’s no overtime. I’ll still be late with the chimichanga meals. When Boss turns his back, I flip him the bird secretly, but Marcy sees and laughs, and I smile at her like we’re conspiring something. If I were stitching hippos upstairs, I could foot the bill for the dermatology clinic and we could meet in Acapulco and make love on the beach and sunbathe naked and sweat out the formaldehyde smell that’s stuck in our skins. I could leave a note to Alma on the refrigerator and marry Marcy at sunset by the sea and we could raise a son in a driftwood shack, which Marcy would decorate with starfish and seashells. Jess and Angela could visit in summers, except I would miss them too much; maybe they could have their own driftwood shack next door and swim every day, Jess in prescription goggles and Angela straight-backed in a pink bikini, but I also wonder whether Marcy’s face is genetic, whether she’d breed flaky-faced sons. And I could never leave Alma anyway. We share too much debt.
Shift horn blows, my bin still only half full. The rabbit in my hands has a smashed-in face, pulled too tightly over the frame. I have to Stitch Rip it and start over. Boss comes over and says, “Stan expects better, Morsley. Quit your lollygagging or pissing around or what have you and keep an eye on the ball, i.e. that skunk.” He says, “There’s gonna be an opening soon in Beasts of Burden, someone retiring upstairs. Stan’s promoting from within, and he says maybe it’s you.” Boss points the bullhorn at me like a pistol. “But he expects better.” He trots toward the timecard puncher, and I slide the Stitch Ripper into the threads of the rabbit’s belly. I can already see my next paycheck missing the Employee of the Week bonus and some other Dave Mitchell snagging that promotion. Beasts of Burden—even after the chemicals, the hides still reek of ox piss and bull shit. In my mind, I’ve already lost the job, so I scoff at it under my breath, even as I envision the raise in salary it would offer and Jessica’s moon eyes behind her ancient, taped-together glasses. The unused workbench in my garage. The credit card bills Alma stacks on top of the microwave.
“Boss can be really mean sometimes,” Marcy says. She’s leaning against my work table, her incredible bazongas a foot from my face.
“He’s the boss,” I say. “He’s paid to be an asshole.”
Marcy leans lower, tits practically spilling onto my station. I have to pinch my leg to keep myself from burying my face in them. They seem to promise everything. “You’re really good at this, Andy,” Marcy says. “I watch you sometimes to try and figure out your secret. Your rabbits look so real—so alive—and your chinchillas are amazing.”
I feel myself blushing. “Thanks.”
“If you get that promotion, you’ll leave me all alone down here.” Her lip juts into an exaggerated pout. “Won’t you miss me?
“Of course I will, Marce. You’re like my protégé or something.”
Marcy looks around the shop. Everyone is gone, though I can hear the boots of Night Shift shuffling in the hallway. The timecard puncher clangs. “Listen,” she says. She touches my hand. “Exotics closes down for the night, right? I heard they’re doing a rhino up there. I’ve never seen one up close.” Flakes of skin shake from her face and salt my apron. “Maybe you can show me your secret up there?”
I start to say something about Taco Tuesday and the Señor Gringo action figures that come in every kids meal. Night Shift filters in. Conveyor belts begin to whir. No one looks at Marcy and me. It’s a skeleton crew, and nobody needs our stations.
“I’ve never seen a rhino either,” I say. Marcy smiles. As she walks toward the elevator, I wonder what lie I’ll tell my wife. Flat tire. Traffic on the parkway. Taco Hut was out of kids meals. Not overtime—I don’t want to have to explain the missing time-and-a-half.
When we step out of the elevator onto the Exotic Mammals floor, our boots scuff tile—glossy white linoleum, not the bare concrete we have in Rodents. We turn a corner and enter the shop. Same chrome stations as downstairs, but work tables twice the size. It looks like two rows of operating tables. No conveyor belts, no bins of prefab wooden skeletons. On one table, a wooden tiger frame stands mid-pounce, its fur only sewn to the hips so that it drags the rest of its skin like a cape. On another, some kind of antelope bends its head flirtatiously, flaps of fur hanging loose from its belly. This is not an assembly line; it’s an art studio, a place requiring the finesse of a sculptor or surgeon. I look around for a hippopotamus.
“There it is,” Marcy says. The gray bulk of a rhinoceros hunkers in the far corner of the shop, bathed in the red glow of a vending machine.
“Coke machine in the shop?” I say. “What is this, the Hilton?”
Marcy laughs, probably too much. “Somebody jealous?”
“No,” I say. “Pop gives you gas. The smells here are already bad enough.”
Marcy drags her hand over the rhino’s thick dinosaur skin. She fingers the wisps of coarse hair around its ears. I poke its glass eye, half expecting it to gore me with its horn. Marcy inches closer to me. Her breast brushes my elbow.
“I hate this job,” she says.
“Just practice,” I say. “Don’t let Boss get under your skin. You’ll do fine.”
“I was gonna be a Social Studies teacher,” she says. “I did a semester at State. I had to come home for a while, though. Now I’m here.”
I’m about to tell her that’s funny, us both wanting to be teachers and ending up in the Rodents department of the same taxidermy plant. Instead, I ask, “Why Stan’s? Why not go back to school?”
Her flaked face goes blank, and she says, “I don’t know.”
We stand beside the rhinoceros and look around at all the half-finished animals. I want to promise Marcy that practice will get her a spot in Domestic Pets, or at least Fish and Amphibians, that she can climb the corporate ladder and the job doesn’t have to be so meaningless. But who am I kidding? I’m about to offer her a Coke when she leans up on her tiptoes and kisses the stubble on my chin. Her lips are flat and smooth. Her chin touches mine, and it feels papery, delicate. Nothing like a bowl of corn flakes. My lips grope for hers. She pushes me against the rhino, plunging her tongue into my mouth like she’s lacing thread between my teeth. I pull her apron over her head and rip the buttons from her work shirt. She reaches under my apron for the zipper of my coveralls.
“I’ve seen you looking at me, Andy. Most guys, they don’t even look at me. ‘Cause of my face.”
“Your face?” I say. As if it isn’t staring right at me with that dumb, hopeful look.
“You don’t have to pretend. It’s okay.” She shakes her work shirt from her arms, lets it drop to the floor, then reaches behind her back, arms akimbo like they were sewn on wrong. I dig my fingertips into the leathery hide of the rhino to keep my hands from shaking. My breath sticks in my chest. I know what’s next. I would sell my house and my wife and build not a driftwood shack but a driftwood palace on the Acapulco shore, so big that Dave Mitchell’s wife would see it and send a jealous photo of it to Dave himself so he could envy it, too. I’d find Marcy the biggest diamond in the Mexican mountains, and for our honeymoon, already in Mexico, we’d just drink champagne from hollow coconuts and make love for hours and hours and hours, never touching another skunk or raccoon as long as we live.
My whole body throbs. The bra falls limp, and Marcy’s breasts droop to either side. She shrugs the bra from her arms. I can’t blink. I study every detail—the pink squiggly stretch marks where her chest meets her ribs, the wide brown diameter of each areola, the network of blue veins barely visible beneath the skin. No flakes at all. Marcy pulls my hands from the rhino, toward her chest. Round and still pointing upward despite their size, they’re nothing like Alma’s, nothing like the flattened, tapered slabs my wife’s spectacular breasts have become, with their own collection of stretch marks, like lure scars on an old fish—some from too-fast puberty growth, some from the kids, some from late-night snacking on peanut-butter-and-jelly donuts. When I touch her anymore, which only happens on anniversaries or when I come home stone-drunk, I try to remember the way her leotard peeled off her body, and I hate myself for telling her she was beautiful just the way she was and for being secretly happy when she skipped gymnastic practice to lie in bed with me. The medals and ribbons and costumes are still in a box in the attic, waterlogged and dusty and covered in mouse shit. If they were worth anything, I would have sold them years ago.
Marcy’s hand moves inside my coveralls and I’m cupping her tits like they’re water balloons. Her tongue is still in my teeth. I catch a glimpse of myself in one of the wide, chrome-topped tables: my ass against the rhino, my mouth on Marcy’s sad, peeling face. I see what could be a hippopotamus across the room, maybe Dave Mitchell’s, and wish I could sew myself inside his skin, be anyone but me, hide myself in some exotic elsewhere where even Marcy could be beautiful. Except I’m only Andy Morsley. Staff Skinner. Rodents Division. I think of Jessica and Angela, five years ago, before the layoff at GloveCo where I was on track for assistant manager and things were looking good, when Jess’s glasses were new and Angela’s spine was straight and we drove three hours to the coast to see the elephant seals. In Alma’s photos of the three of us, I’ve got my arms around them in front of the gray ocean, both girls smiling patchwork smiles, gums empty here and there where baby teeth had been.
It’s Taco Tuesday. They’re expecting kids meals for dinner.
I pull away. Marcy looks at me, puzzled, her hand awkwardly caught between my apron and coveralls. “What’s the matter?”
“Marcy, I can’t,” I say. “I have to go home.”
She slides her hand away and fumbles to collect her breasts and clothes. She sits with her back against a rhino leg, apron covering her face. I take one last look around Exotic Mammals, memorize the chrome tables and half-skinned jungle creatures. Downstairs, Night Shift fingers their needles through a dozen tiny furs, all of them wearing goggles and surgical masks. They drop stiff, finished rodents into bins. As I lumber toward the hallway, zipper still open, the goggled faces stay trained on skin placement, on the loops and pinches of industrial-strength thread. True professionals. When I pass my station, I pull a squirrel from the half-empty bin. Its glass eyes stare at me, full of questions. Its stitching, invisible. I’ll show it to the girls. Maybe they’ll be proud.