June 2011

JC Hallman

features

The Chicken Vault

When I was nineteen, I wrote a short story whose central image was a large pile of dead chickens. Eight years later, after short stories proved a dead end career-wise, I hit the books -- poultry science, poultry keeping, genetics, infectious diseases, and a number of famous court cases involving chickens -- and set to work turning my chicken story into a novel. It was exciting work; my muse was nine pounds of noxious flesh. The book that emerged predicted animal cloning, anticipated pandemics, and culminated in a scene of two gas-masked men wandering into a vast meat-processing plant to view a mountain of genetically-engineered chicken corpses melted together to a lump of fetid gel.

“Outlandish,” claimed the rejection letters that accompanied my returned manuscripts. That, or some synonym of it. Unlikely, improbable. One editor used the term “magic realism,” apparently thinking it meant the same thing. The scientists who fashioned Dolly the Sheep a short time later, and the chicken-borne illness that ravaged China in the years to come, did nothing to sway those who found my work implausible. Discouraged, I stuck the book in the proverbial drawer.

A year later I went to a park with my dog and a newspaper. The headline smacked me as if it had been waiting for a vulnerable moment: Foul Play Leaves Fowl Mess At Local Processing Plant. 100,000 lbs. of chicken meat had been left un-refrigerated and unattended for most of a New Jersey summer. I experienced a weird, double sensation: shame, that my book had gone unpublished, and thrill that what I had first imagined a decade before had come to pass. Outlandish! I felt like a prophet.

I drove the forty-five minutes to the processing plant the next day. More than anything else I wanted to smell the chickens. But even this could have proven dangerous. Jim and Frank, the two earnest Department of Environmental Protection officials who had been put in charge of the half-million dollar cleanup, and who described the site as worse than nuclear spills, told me that just a wrinkle in the seal of the suits they had first worn to go inside the plant could result in sensory overload -- fainting. I had used the pretense of journalism to approach them, and in our initial conversation Jim and Frank concentrated on the particular malfeasance that had resulted in the plant being abandoned. It must have seemed suspicious that I didn’t really care about that. I just kept pestering them for a tour. As well, I fixated on the strange details that seemed to have leapt from my imagination: the weeds that had descended on the plant from all sides, the charcoal-filter respirators hanging all over, and the faint sweet smell that confirmed civilization had here lost its grip. I was caught in an extended moment of déjà vu. When I fessed up and admitted that I had written a book about a nearly identical incident, Jim and Frank shared a glance: improbable, outlandish. But they were good men and could tap into the honesty of my excitement. After an awkward moment, Jim shrugged and said, “Well, I don’t know if we can let you in. But we have a tape.”

*

They put me in one of their trailers. The tape ran fifteen minutes, but I stayed for an hour, rewinding and pausing, scribbling down everything I could.

The tape documented the extent of the mess before the cleanup had begun. It was only roughly edited and ran chronologically, beginning as Jim and Frank set themselves up with enviro-suits and oxygen tanks. They weren’t entirely comfortable in front of cameras and copped a slightly nervous air.

“We’re ready to go in again,” Jim said. “We’ve got our cameras, and all our good stuff. For another trip into Hell.”

They started out documenting the outside of the dilapidated complex: the ecolization vat was a rectangle of hard primal slime, the wet well looked not to have been touched for decades, rows of corrosives and oxidizers sat in their packaging, and an anonymous pond of gore, the “blood pool,” attracted swarms of happy flies. The two men sneaked up on a 50-gallon drum that in the camera’s low resolution looked to be filled with bleached mulch.

“Beaks, feet, and bones,” Jim narrated.

Throughout the tape, I could hear the men’s breathing, heavy labored respiration like astronauts pondering mortal options. This was another detail I had anticipated, the basic set up I’d spent years imagining, this disgusting Wonderland. But the tape was exciting even without the coincidence. It had the thrill of raw footage, and the plant soon began to feel like the lair of a serial killer, this show a haunting exposé. I expected to see bodies lying around.

The men went inside. It was dark in there and the twitch of their flashlight beams betrayed anxiety. The plant was a labyrinth of passages and plumbing, heavy rusted doors separating chambers, and the whole place was just a bit out of alignment, like a ship rotting cockeyed at the bottom of the sea. The men trudged forward, pausing here and there for close-ups of maggots or discarded equipment, and the scene began to recall the initial sequence from John Carpenter’s Aliens, when the Marines first venture in the alien lair and Ripley monitors their progress on screens from the vehicle. All she can do is watch.

The first chickens appeared innocently, a mound of head-sized bodies piled up like cannonballs from that long-sunk ship. The flashlight beams shot toward them.

“Uh! What is that?” Jim said.

“Chickens,” Frank said. “Dead chickens.”

The chickens lay all about, small blackened hard bodies. The heat generated by their decomposition had raised the temperature inside the plant to more than 150 degrees. Over time the birds mummified themselves, the bodies stretched out like rubber chickens in a joke shop.

Jim and Frank continued on, gaps in their conversation suggesting they occasionally had to stop themselves from retching. They moved through the killing room, the scalding room, the plucking room. At one point, Jim focused down on a thick liquid running underneath grates in the floor -- it was this material, slurping its way outside and creeping off the property, that had given the tragedy away to neighbors. Jim and Frank entered a storage room with metal containers along the walls. The floor was stained with something shiny and vile.

Jim trained his light beam on Frank as Frank tiptoed up to one of the boxes. He peered over the edge.

“What is it?” Jim said.

The pressure of the camera made Frank answer quickly, but there wasn’t a word in his vocabulary for what he saw. “Uh… it’s a yellow… mung. About eight inches deep.”

“A yellow mung?”

“Yeah.”

The camera wobbled forward and looked inside. Deep in the basin was something like a lemon pudding filled with raisins. Jim was getting used to it now.

“Well, that’s peculiar.”

They made for the main cooler, where the bulk of the 100,000 lbs. of processed meat had been stored. The cooler was like a huge vault: its hydraulic door stood eight feet high. Jim and Frank set up a battery of floods to illuminate the chamber, and then cracked the door. Something like steam puffed out from the vacuum suck of the room and rose up heavy and thick, like a plague from God. It fogged the lens on the camera until Jim figured a way to clear it. The vault stretched back forty feet and stood half as high. Racks for boxed meat rose on opposing walls. Most of the product had come down by then, rotting through the cardboard containers, an opaque matter the consistency of jelly that had flooded the floor of the room and hardened there. The meat and the fat of the chicken didn’t mix; there were marbled streaks of color. The racks continued to drip even as the men watched, like trees after a heavy rain. After a moment, Jim moved in for a close-up: maggots digging into the muck to escape the light, and a collection of chicken bones like the skeleton of a dinosaur caught in a tar pit.

*

The tape went on for a while longer, but ultimately it was unsatisfying: like a mediocre film made from my book. I left, but I was soon back at the plant, hanging around, hoping for the trust that comes from familiarity, angling for a first hand look at the mess.

Jim and Frank asked me to prove who I was. I showed them my original chicken story from college, the paper yellowed and crimped. I dog-eared pages of my novel manuscript for them to read. It took only a few lines for them to see the uncanniness of it, to recognize the roles they had accidentally reproduced.

“You got yourself a strange obsession,” Frank said. “If anyone deserves to see it, it’s you.”

We scheduled a tour for a day when they were unlikely to have other visitors. A lot of the plant was cleaned up by then, the liquid chicken suctioned away with high-powered vacuums. But many of the corpses were still lying around. Frank helped me on with my rubber slip-on booties and led me through.

We encountered our first dead bird outside the plant, before slipping on our gas masks. It had decomposed like the shocking rotted corpses of Hollywood, some flesh and feathers left, but whitish bone material sticking out all over and a swarm of vermin hard at work. An outline of spray paint surrounded the bird, like a murder victim’s chalk silhouette, and Frank admitted the joke was his. I felt twinge of shame for laughing.

We headed into the near-pitch of the dungeony inner rooms. I wandered among the conveyors and automatic gutting devices and the occasional drum full of black bald rank birds, marked “inedible” in case you forgot. Twice I mistook the small hard pebbles crunching beneath our feet for rat droppings: first it was flies, tens of thousands of them, and next it was the tiny rice-sized cartridges of maggots. Industrial fans imbedded in the walls turned in a breeze for a kind of noir effect. Down a corridor, I spotted another kind of movement darting through the beam of my flashlight. “What was that?” I said. Frank hadn’t seen it, but he said that some of the cleanup crew had reported seeing stray chickens walking around. He scoffed -- he had been through at least a dozen times without seeing any himself, and he doubted they were real.

I recognized the room to our right.

“Is this the yellow mung?” I said.

“Yeah.”

I stepped forward to the container, confident that on seeing the mung some more proper word would come to me. I peered inside, but what I saw was different from what had come through on the video. It was yellow, but it wasn’t like pudding. The texture was thicker, with frozen ripples, and the black spots inside were more flies.

“Oh, boy,” I said.

We came to the main cooler. Most of the gel was gone -- the suction device and a thick layer of lime had been at work for a week. Frank was surprised to find two live chickens hiding inside. They were way in the back, but we spotted them at once, half-hidden behind sodden boxes, each watching us with a single eye. They had small combs -- young roosters. They appeared well fed, but frightened. Then again, an animal high in protein, low in fat, and secure at the bottom of food chain is likely to look frightened most of the time.

I was half way into the vault before I realized Frank wasn’t following me -- he wasn’t coming in. I continued alone, looking up at large containers, like pizza boxes, high on the racks. They were still full of chicken. I crunched something beneath my feet; bones and crud stuck to my booties. It wouldn’t have been much different to step in a picnic’s garbage, but still I panicked and kicked it away. The two roosters darted around behind me, clucking and poking their heads out to monitor my progress. I looked back and saw Frank silhouetted in the door to the vault. He was monitoring me as well, waiting for me to make whatever peace I’d come to make.

The floor at the rear of the vault was wet and slippery, and I twinged at the thought of falling in it. I shined my flashlight into a broken box, but it was difficult to distinguish what was chicken from what was cardboard: it was all a vague sludge. The room felt like a great oven and had served as one. I took an astronaut’s breath. It had been almost eleven years since I had first written my chicken story. The chickens spanned the breadth of my thinking of myself as a serious person with important things to say. The vault was the source of my pride and my humiliation. Life had improbably imitated art. I felt outlandish.

The chickens swung around to the rear of the vault as I made my way out. I wanted to help them, the sole survivors of the place. Industrial fowl usually live only six or seven weeks, even though chickens naturally last as long as nine or ten years. I suggested some plan of action to Frank, but he only laughed and made a crack about it, and of course there wasn’t really anything we could do. They were just chickens.

I didn’t catch the full scent of the birds until we made it back to the decon tent, a small cleanup area near the vacuum generators. Frank helped me off with my booties and gloves, and finally my mask. The odor filled my mouth. It was familiar and heady, unhealthy but not really nasty. It did not come from the plant, but from me, my clothes and hair. I didn’t return to the chicken plant for a week after that, and then only to collect a copy of Jim and Frank’s videotape. I took them a gift: a set of carved wooden chickens to remember their adventure by. I asked after the birds Frank and I had seen. Jim looked off and thought about it, then said that no one had seen any live birds since that day.