All my life I’d escaped, with a mix of effort and luck, from learning anything at all about what it was to work, but one day someone called me on my landline and told me my parents’ helicopter had had a critical error just at the border between Brazil and Argentina and crashed straight into the Iguazu falls. A final, extreme vacation experience, I thought, with a bittersweet melancholy. My parents had truly been crazy.
They held a closed-coffin wake. What actually had happened to my parents bodies was impossible for the human brain to imagine. Things like that you don’t even see in films. After the funeral, everyone mingled, eating bitter little biscuits and drinking coffe and speaking in quiet voices. My uncle, a pragmatic man who ran a little tourist buss operation, came over with a grim look on his face. He’d always had a kind of reserved distaste for me, since I didn’t work, but spent my time like this:
In the morning I woke up on my own, and left the curtains closed. Then I spent a good long time thinking about what I actually wanted to do with my day, because each day was like a jewel which someone had dropped into the palm of my hand without telling me anything about what they wanted from me in return.
Often I went onto the streets and walked without any particular goal until I found an old-fashioned, shitty bakery where you could buy a coffee and a croissant for less than two euros. I didn’t eat a lot, because I wasn’t missing anything, and I didn’t shop a lot either, so don’t think I was living in some sort of material luxury. I didn’t want anything I didn’t already have. I hadn’t developed the habit of craving.
My parents paid the rent for my little room like a gym membership they’d forgotten to cancel but never used. I really had no reason to complain, and every time a postcard from faraway countries turned up I felt wrapped up in a down duvet of their distracted, unconditional love. The closest I came to actually working was spending a few hours a week filling out and sending back the forms that various authorities sent to me, in exchange for them sending me money for croissants and coffee, besides which I was completely busy writing my dream memoirs.
I never looked at the clock.
I spent many, many years like this. If I wanted a vacation I just walked as far as I could without stopping in any direction. I had a lot of friends, and sometimes I ran into them on the street, drank beer with them and played pool with the neighbourhood. We found a lot of things on the street, furniture, books, porcelain, and sometimes we even found unlabeled VHS tapes, smoked weed and went home to the one who had a tape player and watched blurry figures move across the screen, guessing together what the film might be about. We helped each other with all sorts of things. Those who’d left the country sent me letters, and I wrote them letters back, long and descriptive, with illustrations, and sometimes they called me and told me about their lives through my white landline phone which had given me almost nothing but joy until the day it rang and ruined my life.
“I’m very sorry,” is what the person at the other end had said, “but I have to inform you that your parents passed away in an accident on the border between Brazil and Argentina, two weeks ago.”
“I forgive you,” I said. “I knew this day would come. Nothing’s for certain when your parents spend their time on extreme travel experiences, and besides they were both over 85.”
There I was – standing there at their funeral, when my uncle, the tour bus operator, came up to me with a little cup of black coffee in one hand and a bitter little almond biscuit in a napkin in the other one. “Terribly tragic, all of this,” he said, though his tone made it sound like it was my parents fault that they’d died, which in a way it was. “I can’t imagine they left much of an inheritance, either.”
“No,” I said.
“Then of course there’s the trouble between you and your half-brother, the lawyer costs…”
“Sure seems like you’re all alone in the world now,” he said, and I sensed a certain hint of schadenfreude in his voice, which he’d had the opportunity to develop and perfect during his 40 years in the tour bus industry and which now had its chance to shine. “Oh well, I’m afraid you can’t have fun forever, not in this world. Party’s over! Time to learn how the sausage gets made, isn’t it? Nothing to do about it!”
How the sausage gets made… already as a child I’d suspected from the intimations of adults that sausage, something very tasty, on another level was very, very nasty.
It was something to do with the way they made it. Nobody wants to know how the sausage gets made. Later I heard it was made from the parts of the animal you wouldn’t have wanted to eat if you’d known what they were, assholes and things like that, ground down and pressed into intestine tubes. But there must be something more to it than that, something in the sausage’s very creation that people really shut their eyes to.
“Yes,” I said meekly. “Now it’s time for me to learn how the sausage gets made.”
I’d been orphaned, only 43 years old. My uncle was right – it was time for me to learn how the sausage gets made. But how? I didn’t have any work experience, and I didn’t have a real education either. Of course I had a close communication with the Job Center, but the Job Center felt pretty far away from everything to do with work, and besides I found that their letters to me had developed a sort of demanding, threatening tone lately which I didn’t appreciate in the least.
One day, during my anxious evening walk, I happened to come to a stop in front of the lit up window of a butcher shop. What had caught my attention was the cheerful and plump little porcelain piggies standing in the window and who, wearing chef hats and aprons, offered passers-by kassler and ham on silver plates. I contemplated them for a long time, raised my gaze and saw a piece of paper where someone had written:
THE SAUSAGE FACTORY IS RECRUITING
NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY
and a phone number, which I wrote down on my hand and called as soon as I got home. Even at night they picked up. Perhaps they took calls 24 hours.
“Good evening,” they said, “how may I help you?”
“I’m looking for a job,” I said. “Are you the ones who make the sausage?”
“That’s us! Actually, we’re famed for our sausages. We have some of the biggest factories in the country. We make everything from cocktail wieners to chorizo, sucuk to kielbasa, blood sausage and bratwurst, halal and haram, kosher and kashrut, pork sausage, chicken sausage, soy sausage, christmas sausage, breakfast sausage, wedding sausage… well, not all in the same facility, of course.”
“No, of course not,” said I, who didn’t know much about the sausage industry.
Even before you reached the factory, you could feel the smell of smoked meat in the air. In a little concrete building by the entrance a man in overalls smoked cigarettes and read a porn rag. He opened a squeaking gate for me, and I walked onto an enormous space where grim-faced workers loaded dozens of trucks with sausage deliveries. The factory was as wide and solid as a romanesque church, with high, narrow windows and three chimneys spewing smoke.
“We had a lot of applicants, of course, but when we heard about your education we felt you would have potential in the role of project consultant. Well, it’s a junior role, of course, but it’s nothing to sneeze at. You can get far in a career like that. Not a lot of people with a family background like yours look for a job at the sausage factory.”
“Oh, really,” I said. My education had only covered post-colonial South American literature. Would I have to prove that I knew something about sausage manufacture? I examined my memories for information. A pale childhood memory came back – how my parents maid, Marisol, ground meat in great grinder and used another machine where she put pale white intenstines over some sort of metallic mouth and filled them with meat slop. How could I demonstrate this knowledge, which was really only a picture in my mind?
“How did your parents make their money?”
“Doing what to oil?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Of course background’s not the only thing that counts,” the interviewer said. “We’re looking for somebody who’s team-oriented but simultaneously explosive. Solution oriented. Good at thinking quickly under pressure. Creative. Passionate. Are you someone with a great passion who’s on fire for managing projects and solving communication problems?”
“Oh, yes,” I said, “I burn with a great passion.”
“That’s wonderful to hear,” the interviewer said. “It’s all about one thing – to take passion and turn it into sausage.”
He explained to me several times the function of my position, something about group-oriented problem-solving, but I was distracted by the heavy, grinding noises coming from the factory equipment, grinding away in in a room I hadn’t been allowed to see. As soon as I came home, the phone rang. Could I start the next day?
“The thing is…” I said, looking for an excuse and not finding it.
“Or have you got other plans?” said the voice on the other end of the line, through so much static that I couldn’t tell if they were male or female.
“I… no,” I said, and had a sad vision of croissants, wine glasses, and pool tables fading away in the distance.
“We’re pleased that you’re so flexible. Could you be there at eight in the morning?”
From that day on I had to get up early in the morning. I didn’t remember my dreams anymore, but turned into one of those people with dark rings under their eyes on the underground. It was like travelling between two fish bowls, office and bedroom, where I fell into a shallow sleep, dreamless besides the deep grinding pulsations of the factory and a vague sense that…
Those who actually made the sausage apparently tended towards laziness, because someone had developed a system to analyze how productively they worked, how many sausages were made in how much time, when so-and-so was sick or home with a sick child, who took toilets breaks the most often and how long the toilet breaks lasted.
I hadn’t seen the production yet. I sat alone in an office with frosted glass windows and saw the silhouettes of the big machines like dark ghosts on the other side and I heard them grinding. I looked at a screen with different numbers and tried to interpret the numbers and how they related to the people who worked on the other side. Some numbers meant something good and some meant something bad; I noted all of the ones which stood out.
I basically never met my colleagues, so I was surprised when my manager gave me a Lidl gift card and said, “Great work- we’ve managed to make this factory a lot more efficient, thanks to you. You’ve really picked up your education. Are you ready to take this to the next level?”
“The next level?”
The next level was for me to not only point out the people who would be fired but to actually fire them myself. Now I saw the sausage makers. They came into my office like nervous chickens. I’d have liked to crack open a beer with them, but that wasn’t my job. And I said, “According to our productivity data this would be a more efficient factory if we optimized away your job,” and so on; sometimes they looked hateful, sometimes they cried on the way out of my office.
“I don’t understand why you have to fire me,” one said. “I’m here on time every day and I work as hard as I can. The sausage does get made. Why does the work have to be optimized?”
“I don’t understand why I have to fire you either,” I said. Regardless of how many people got fired, work on the whole didn’t seem to go any faster. The longer people were there, the slower they began to work; sooner or later they made a mistake, fell ill or were late, except for when someone had just been fired and fear whipped everyone to work as hard as they could until they couldn’t anymore. Then a new person would be hired, and with time the new would become just like the old, and then they were replaced too.
“Then why are you firing me?”
“I’m not firing you, it’s the computer,” I said.
I could only agree. The machine stood on my desk and sometimes bleeped angrily. What could a machine really do to me? I was a human and mightier than it.
Sometimes I took a wrong turn in the subway and ended up in filthy tunnels which smelled like human feces where rags littered the ground and where people lived in filth and garbage, people who were superfluous. How could I be happy about anything when people were just about the same as old clothes which were left on the street and pissed on by dogs until there were nothing left but rags? Croissants and wine all turned to dust in my mouth, it was hard to look people in the eyes, I kept the radio on while I was falling asleep.
I started ignoring the numbers on the screen and for a while my life was full of a sort of peace. I drank machine coffee “with white” and peered through the break room window, onto the parking lot covered with rime where an anxious sinking sun slipped beneath the houses. Perhaps nobody would have to be fired again. In which case it was lucky that they hired me, instead of someone more dedicated, who could have effectivized away dozens of people in the time it took me to go to the coffee machine, put in a coin, and press the button.
My manager called me to him.
“How come the effectivization process has fallen behind?” he said.
“People have become a lot more efficient,” I said, “everyone works as hard as they can.”
“I just can’t believe that,” he said. A thumping sound came from the great room behind him. “We haven’t raised our productivity at all in the last week.”
“But we’re already productive.”
I might as well not have said anything. He said, “We’ve looked into your numbers and unfortunately we can tell you haven’t been efficient enough in the effectivization process to justify your position.”
“I thought perhaps we were done effectivizing.”
“Of course we’re not done effectivizing,” he said testily. “Not only that, but your inefficiency has already slowed us down massively; now we’re a whole week behind. We do, of course, take that seriously. But don’t worry, we found a replacement for you already. I’m sorry, but we have to ask you to go.”
“You don’t at all have to ask me to go,” I said, “you’re the one who decides.”
“Don’t be naïve,” he said. “It’d look terrible for my own stats if I let you keep on like this. You think nobody’s got their eyes on me? No, it’s not an alternative.”
“So what’s the alternative? I do need a job.”
“There is no alternative,” he said. “Well, besides…”
“I have a wish,” I said. “Let me know how the sausage gets made.”
They let me into the thundering heart of the sausage factory. The smell of smoked meat made my eyes tear up and my cheeks itch; the smell of sewage and menstruation; rails in the ceiling where lumps were moved from one side to another; an inside with a ceiling as high as a train station, where metal beams disappeared in a rust red fog and yellow lamps blinked like malicious stars; no sky visible outside the window.
I thought I heard a woman singing, in Spanish as it’s spoken in El Salvador, nothing is more beautiful than the eyes of my true love, his arms are like… but then I couldn’t hear anymore, not over the noise.
“As the farmer slaughters his pigs, one must slaughter ones desires,” a voice said. Who? Who said that? Who whispered into my ear? Nobody led me anymore; the hand on my shoulder was gone, but I went forward anyway. Everything around me moved; the workers at their stations, with lowered heads and plastic covering their faces; they didn’t see me, and before I could recognize a single face they’d gone; in the other direction, high above, lumps of meat were jerked back and forth, pigs and cows and horses and other animals I didn’t recognize, meat juice dripping from the ceiling and rising again like steam, sticking to my hair. The grinder excreted an unrecognizable pink mass from its enormous holes.
Everything in my life had led to this, the rail and grinder and assembly line, behind the line another line, above the manager another manager, behind the grinder another grinder, and above the grinder a platform where a pig sat, larger than a human, with four legs and four arms, a bloody apron and a chef’s hat in gold. It sliced off its own legs with an electric knife, but immediately the spurting stumps grew back, and the severed limbs ended up in the grinder. The pig held plates with fat, swollen sausages in two of its other hands, and with the fourth arm it constantly stuffed its mouth, chewed and swallowed, crying and laughing on a throne of pigs and humans.
Now I knew all about the world.
Text: Zola Gorgon
Image: Pieter Aertsen, A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms