By Matthew Walsh
Even though the facility sat in the middle of a field, no vegetation grew around it at all. It was surrounded by a bald halo of ground. That was the first thing I noticed.
The day before, I’d got a call back to come in for a trial shift at this dog-food testing facility just outside of town. I had passed out a lot of resumes, but these guys were the only ones who got back to me. And I had a car so it was no big deal to make the forty-minute drive out to Palma. Dale, the guy said, we’d love to have you.
I would have loved to have a paycheck. I’d just moved back to Ontario after eight months in Alberta. I’d picked the wrong time to go move out west. January to August when it was mostly snow, people plugging in their cars overnight so their batteries didn’t freeze. When I moved, people told me to be careful walking in the cold at night. At least one person would die walking in the snow, and be found frozen the next morning. Or after a few days. I’d made a few mistakes out there, was glad to leave it behind. August was pretty, but by then I was leaving.
The outside of the facility looked like anyone’s house. They had that smoky, crystal glass in the door. I buzzed like I was told to and the door buzzed back; I let myself in. There was a shoe rack and a place to hang coats, and two doors marked MEN and WOMEN. There was also a doorway with no door that led to the kitchen, where I was supposed to wait for the dog guy.
In the kitchen, there were two fold-away tables and a regular kitchen table, a water cooler and a yellow fridge. I looked inside; it was filled with food that had names on it. Shellie. Crystal Angel. I sat at the table with the new rubber boots I’d had to buy. A few people came in and out for cigarettes or to drive away, but no one said hello. On the wall were some drawings of My Little Pony. Some were part-cat, part-pony.
After about fifteen minutes, this man with huge dark eyes came in, walking with a slouch. White T-shirt and black pants. “Hi, I’m Pete. I talked to you on the phone. Last night. Dale?”
“Yes. Dale.” I said, standing to shake his hand. It was warm and wet. I followed Pete into an office that had a western-style cowboy theme. Pete said this was not his office but we could use it for doing the paperwork. It was Darlene’s office, the new owner. I’d heard about her from someone at the hotel bar last night, when I brought up the dog-food place. She owned a vet clinic in town and had a glass eye from the time she was kicked in the head by a horse. She made a shitload of money, the man at the bar had said. Out here, you either worked for Maple Leaf Foods or ODL if you had no school. I couldn’t work for Maple Leaf Foods because I liked animals too much.
I signed a confidentiality agreement and then Pete said to follow him, and we went into the door marked MEN. Behind it was a little blue room with a row of six lockers, a bench and in the corner, a wash sink with flies cruising above the drain. The animal smell had hung in the air since I walked in the building, but now it was in my mouth. Pete looked at me, like he was sizing me up. “So this is our changing room. All the outside clothes have to come off and you have to wear scrubs that we provide for you.”
Pete left while I took my outside clothes off, and came back with a pair of headphones and blue coveralls. I felt weird sitting there in my underwear so I put the coveralls on right away. They were too small for me, tight on my shoulders, but I wanted to be right for the job. “So we did the phone interview,” Pete said. “Now I’m going to take you through a typical day. We have a partner for you—Crystal Angel—but I’m going to train you for the next couple days and next week, you two will be together.”
“Okay, sounds good.”
“Today we’re going to clean three dog rooms, which is what you will be hired to do. It means you will be in charge of seventy-five dogs.” Pete said, watching me.
I had the feeling that he was seeing how I would react to the job. I was trying hard not to say anything about the smell of animals, which was rich and thick in the air. We’d walked into the corridor,which was painted a robin’s egg blue. Someone walked a beagle down the hallway on a leash. They were dressed the same as us. Pete patted the dog. “And this is Dharma, she is one of our oldest dogs.”
Dharma had big black eyes and was grey and white. She stared up at me through her cataracts. The dog cleaner smiled, and watched Pete pet the dog and then moved along the corridor.
We walked up to a kitchen facility and laboratory. In the kitchen, people were weighing out food onto colour-coded dog dishes and in the laboratory, beakers boiled with brown liquid. A lady with long blonde rocker hair was on the phone; she waved to me and Dave. “That’s Sheila, she’s the main laboratory person. She takes care of all the samples that are collected.” Pete said. “She’s pretty cool.”
There were thousands of bags of different dog food off the kitchen area in this big warehouse. Thousands, and to the ceiling. Dave took me to the Left Dog Wing, where I would be working. At the end were three carts that Dave said were loaded with everything I needed. A pair of nail cutters, leashes, a muzzle, gloves, cloths and this vial of powder that was used to stop the bleeding in a dog’s nail if you cut too deep. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell just by looking, so it’s best to err on the side of caution. And it’s something you don’t need to do all the time.”
I nodded, wondering how you would wrestle a ninety-pound dog you didn’t know into your lap to do something so delicate. On one of the carts were some Tim Hortons coffees with some paper over the top of the cup. This didn’t make sense to me until the end of my first day. The paper over coffee thing.
Pete wasted no time getting through the day. Outside each of the rooms was a colour-coded list of the dogs. Names like Rocky, Bullwinkle, Natasha. This room had three groups. Neutered males, females and Rocky.
Rocky was an intact male. I put him out first, in a paddock outside all to himself. When I let the female dogs out, Rocky started to pace the side of the paddock he shared with them. He was too heavy to jump over, Pete had told me. The neutered males, I put on the other side of the female dogs, all of whom just stood and sniffed. One stood in the middle of a kiddie pool. Pete said it had been put there to cool them off in the summer, but it was September and the water was dark, like Pepsi.
I tried not to mention the smell. The smell of dogs having been inside their smaller indoor paddocks all night. There was shit, scattered coffee, mucus. First, we had to collect the old food dishes and send them back to the kitchen. I asked, “Do you have gloves?”
“There are gloves,” Pete said, but he had already taken some of the dishes off and set them on a kitchen cart. He was using his thumb and index finger to remove them only, so I did the same thing, and when I was done I pushed the cart back to the kitchen so the data could be collected.
Pete was standing in the middle of the room waiting for me, next to a giant power washer. It was almost as tall as him. He said he was going to show me how to point the washer so the shit didn’t fly up in my face. I had a little stone in my stomach, thinking maybe I just couldn’t do this.
“If you point it directly at the shit, it will fly up in your face. You have to approach it on an angle.” Pete said, turning on the hose and demonstrating. “Or point it at the floor and gently make your way over to what you want to spray. Do what seems right, until you get the feel for it.”
I took the washer from him and mimicked what he had done. He stood and watched me as I sprayed the paddocks down, and sprayed the shit down into the drains that ran along the wall. “Okay, great.” Pete said, “I will let you do your thing and I’ll come back when you’re done.”
On my break I sat outside and smoked a cigarette, leaning on my truck. The clothes under my coveralls were soaked and I smelled like dog. It was a repetitive job. You had to get a rhythm and shut the fact out that you were just power-washing shit. I was going to go home early, Pete said, because it was just a trial shift. Before I went outside for a smoke, he asked if I was coming back.
“Yeah, I’m just going for a smoke.”
I tossed my smoke into the parking lot and went back inside, changing back into my rubber boots. Pete was talking to one of the kitchen people and when I came over to see what was left to do, he said, “Okay, Dale. So all the rooms are clean, and there’s not much more to do. You can spend time socializing the dogs or you can go home.”
“Socialize the dogs?”
“Yeah, like walk them or, you know, take them outside into the back field.”
“We can do that?”
“Yeah, just check with the vet techs first.”
I went down the corridor and peered into the window. Immediately ten dog heads filled it and they started barking. They leapt up on their gates, jumping. I had the leash from one of the carts and ran in and grabbed the closest dog to the door and ran back out. Behind me, with the door closed, the dogs went insane.
The dog I made it out with was Buckwheat, an old girl beagle who was longer than the other beagles. Beagles came in so many sizes.
Buckwheat and I walked up the north hallway, where the cat rooms were. We walked up a corridor that opened onto a wall of internal windows for offices, and the vet clinic where the vet tech sat with her back to us. This is where all the dogs went for treatment. Dental cleanings, check-ups, getting put to sleep. Old dogs that no longer ate.
We passed another corridor of cat rooms, but Buckwheat just kept walking without looking around. She was probably tired of the paint. The cats all lived together in colonies. They stared out from their perches. The cats had swimming pools full of pillows and Easy Bake Ovens. One even sat inside a farmhouse with its head out the window. I was more a cat person than anything else, but for some reason only women cleaned the cat rooms, it seemed like.
Buckwheat walked me to the back door that led to the field in the back. Of course she knew where that door went. “Do you want to go outside?” I asked her, and she stared up at me with her long nose.
It was overcast but still warm. I had to leave Buckwheat on the leash outside in case another cleaner was going to socialize another dog. We walked over to a dried-up pond, and Buckwheat sniffed the edge. Around us was a tall white fence, much taller than it needed to be, I would have said. We did two laps together, and then I took her inside.
When I returned her to the room, someone had turned the main lights off, so the room seemed quiet, and no one barked when I stuck my head in the window to see. I knew that the cage was on the left side, so I quickly went in and returned Buckwheat to her cage, and no one cried. I slipped back out and went to find Pete.
He was in the owner’s office. His rubber boots were outside the door and he sat with his socked feet pulled underneath him. “So, how was your first day?” Pete asked. He had some papers in front of him. One was my resume.
“I think good.”
“Me too, I think it went okay.”
I looked around the room. The owner had some weird tastes but then rich people generally did. There were photos by someone named Ansel Adams on the walls in big black frames nearly as tall as me. All desert landscapes. There was a skull on top of the bookshelf in the corner that had 1992 encyclopaedias on it. To fit the room, it would have been a cow skull but it looked too small. Pete saw what I was looking at. “That’s Darlene for you. She’s got an eclectic taste.” Pete said, clicking his pen.
I nodded. It was true. Pete looked so thin behind the desk, and tired. Like he never slept. He asked me if I wanted to come back on Wednesday for another shift. I told him yes, and he gave me a little handbook that was stapled in the corner. “Great, take that home tonight and read it over. Let me know if you have any questions.”
When I got back into town I stopped at the grocery store and got some deli meat and strawberries.For dinner, I reheated pasta casserole. I took it out of the microwave and looked down at my hands.
I set the plate down on the table and went to the bathroom and stripped off all my clothes. I turned the shower on and stepped under the hot water, letting it pour over my head, neck, back, butt and legs. I soaped everything up, and used tweezers under my nails.
I dried off and put on a pair of track pants, cracked a beer and ate in front of the TV. Out west all I did was work at the hotel and there wasn’t much to do at night because it was too cold. No one went out. Slave Lake was such a tiny place to begin with, and everyone just wanted to make as much money as they could. Some people had three jobs. The woman whose basement I rented owned her own car-parts business that she inherited from her father, but she also waitressed at this fancy restaurant downtown.
At the hotel I was the desk clerk at night, and sometimes in the mornings I would work in the restaurant there, but it ended up being too much. There were nights where I would do the front desk and have to do the restaurant the morning after because someone couldn’t show up. Their car was frozen or their husband was too drunk to watch the kids.
I would go to movies at night. They had a little movie theatre next to the stationary store downtown. I didn’t know many people. There was a guy that I worked front desk with, Jace, who was my age but I didn’t get a good feeling from him. He was religious, wore suits that were too big for him. Thought he was smarter than me, I could tell.
I didn’t mind the alone time. I thought maybe being with animals could be good. You could talk to animals. They responded to you when your body moved. They understood body language. They looked you in the eyes.
Wednesday morning I pulled into the parking lot of the facility and had a smoke in the car before going inside. The forty-minute drive was peaceful, the radio was good. I got changed and walked out to the kitchen where people seemed to be hustling to get the dishes weighed out for the dogs. I waited around the water cooler for Pete, who showed up a few minutes later with a guy named Stewart who was all bones. Never saw a skinnier guy in my life. I shook his hand, and said, “So you must be my partner.”
“Okay,” Pete said, “You and Stewart are in charge of rooms 1, 3 and 7.”
So we went through the rooms. I would clean one, he would walk dogs, and then he would clean one. When we had the rooms cleaned, we left and grabbed coffee at a Tim Hortons. While we waited in the drive-thru line, I turned the radio up. “So, what did you used to do before this?”
“Oh,” Stewart said. “Well, I worked for Maple Leaf Foods for ten years and got laid off.”
“I heard horror stories about that place.”
“The chicken room.” Stewart said, shaking his head. “Jesus. That chicken room.”
I pulled up to the drive-thru window and paid for two XL coffees. “If you’re drinking them inside, make sure you cover them.” I said. “Someone said flies drown in them.”
“Oh, all kinds of shit gets into them. All kinds of shit. The woman in the lab drinks out of a regular coffee cup. No thanks, Janine!” Stewart said, going through many voices and inflections.
“That her name, Janine?” I asked, passing him his four cream, four sugar. “Janine.”
“She’s married, dude. Married to a Hungarian guy.”
“Oh, no. I’m just committing her name to memory.”
“Well, you plan on staying there forever, then sure. Janine has been there forever, even before the new owner took over.”
“I’m not in here forever.” I said, taking a sip of the coffee.
“How long are you here for?” Stewart asked. “I been here a year.”
“Do you like anything about it?”
“No, it’s terrible. It’s not as bad as the last place. All I can say.”
We drove back to the facility drinking our coffees and smoked a cigarette outside. Under his coveralls he wore a faded Guns and Roses T-shirt, and blue jeans with pen drawings on the knees.
We went inside and changed into our rubbers. “Gotta wear your rubbers,” Stewart said, squeezing into one of his boots.
“I thought I was supposed to get another partner. Crystal Angel or something.”
“Crystal? Crystal’s in jail.” Stewart said, “Crystal’s in fucking jail.”
Stewart left as soon as the work was done, but I took Buckwheat out again for a walk. When I came back from outside, I found Pete looking for me. “Dale, has Stewart left?”
“Yeah, our rooms were done and he left.” I said, wrapping Buckwheat’s leash around my hand for some reason. Control.
“Rocky was still out in his paddock. It’s not a big deal—you’re still here—just make sure that you bring all the animals in before you leave.”
“I will, Pete.”
“It’s just last winter someone left a dog out overnight and it was frozen solid by the morning.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said, looking down at Buckwheat. “That’s fucking awful.”
Pete reached down and patted Buckwheat and she pushed her head hard into his hand. We walked back to room 7 together and I put the dog back in her cage, blocking out the sound of the barking and the dog in the next paddock to Buckwheat’s jumping into my face with its tongue out. “Do you not wear the ear protectors?” Pete asked. “You should.”
“Hey, what happened to Crystal Angel?”
“Oh, she isn’t working here anymore.” Pete said, “She was going to be your partner, but Stewart is now. How was it today?”
“Good. He used to work at Maple Leaf Foods.” I said, “In Guelph.”
“We get a lot of staff from there coming here.”
“I guess it’s similar, working with animals.”
“Yeah,” Pete said, nodding. “Yeah.”
The next day was Thursday and Pete went around asking everyone who wanted Indian food or not. I guess it was a thing they did every now and then. Getting Indian food together. Pete had a list going. I wrote that I wanted something with chicken and went to find Stewart. “I can’t eat when I’m here.” Stewart said, shaking his head. “Especially that.”
I didn’t ask. I just started cleaning and Stewart put the dogs out. I had it cleaned quick, and turned the drains on. The room was misty, and I hoped I wasn’t breathing a shit mist into my lungs. Or chemical mist. I opened the back door first, to let the girls in. They ran in back and forth up the aisle. I tried matching them with the names on the cages. The only one I knew was Buckwheat. When all twelve were put away I went looking for Stewart to help me bring in the boys. I needed him to hold the door while I leashed the first couple, or they would rush the door and get loose in the facility.
I noticed that Rocky was out with the neutered males. This wasn’t good, I knew. I didn’t say anything. Nothing had happened yet but I went to find Stewart, who was outside sitting on the back of his truck smoking a cigarette. “I need you to come help with the boys.” I said, a bit annoyed.
“Yeah, I’m coming. Just finishing this smoke.” Stewart said, tossing it into the air. “Fuck this day.”
“You put Rocky out with the boys.”
“Well, then let’s bring him in.” Stewart said, kicking his sneakers off.
Rocky had cornered one of the older dogs, but as soon as Stewart pulled the door open they all ran for the tiny gap he gave me to leash them through. I got one, and put him in, and then another. They knew the routine. Rocky hung back and I had to go retrieve him. I leashed him, but he was strong. I looked down at him and noticed tiny red beads on his whiskers.
I checked the ground around but I did not see a lot of blood, maybe just a drop or two. I brought Rocky in and got him in his cage. I didn’t want to mention the blood to Stewart either, because I would make sure this didn’t happen again. I would put the dogs out myself if the groups were too complicated for Stewart.
It was almost lunch and I wanted my chicken thing. I went outside for a cigarette. I liked to smoke in my car if other people were outside, but I just sat at the picnic table outside. Along the dirt road I saw a car coming. It was Janine with the Indian food. I smoked and looked down at the names carved into the top. Lots of names. I spotted a few people who I knew still worked in the facility. I saw Crystal Angel’s name. Stewart’s was there. Janine’s car pulled into the parking lot and her car door flew open. She had a cigarette hanging from her mouth, and yelled. “Can I borrow those muscles?”
We all ate at the kitchen table in the break room. I went to the sink and poured myself a glass of water from the tap. Pete came and took it out of my hand. “You can’t drink the water from the tap.”
“Yeah! Have you been drinking water from the tap?”
“Yeah. Why? What will happen?”
“Nothing.” Pete said, pouring the water down the sink. “Just don’t drink the water anymore.”
“It’s chemicals.” Janine said, deep into her saag paneer. “The chemicals we use seep into the ground.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” Janine said, stirring her curry around with a plastic fork. “They don’t tell you, but it’s a known secret.”
“Your piss is going to come out all weird now, man.” Stewart said.
After lunch Pete pulled me aside outside. “I think I am going to have to fire Stewart,” he said, squinting at me. “He’s not careful with the power washers.You can break a dog’s skin if you aren’t careful and I found some blood in one of the rooms.”
“Blood?” I asked.
“So if you could do all the cleaning until I find you a new partner. I just would feel better because this has happened a few times already.” Pete said, looking at me. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I can do the cleaning.” I said.
“Okay.” Pete said. “Have your smoke, and I’ll see you inside.”
“And no tap water!” Pete said, turning and laughing before he went into the facility.
With the list in his hand Stewart checked the dog groups before putting them out. We had just got back from a Tim Hortons run. I had the pressure washer in my hand so Stewart couldn’t get to it. Pete had wheeled over the new dog food dishes that we were supposed to put in once the room was clean.
When Stewart had the dogs out, I started cleaning. I sprayed all the shit into the gutters, and the heated flooring filled the room with a thin fog. There was definitely shit in this mist. I had looked it up on the internet. I wondered if they had masks I could wear over my mouth. I always remembered to ask, then forgot.
I opened the back door where Stewart had let the boys out. One of the dogs looked pink. And another. They ran through the shit mist. I wondered what had they spilled. Maybe something from the pool. I put the first few dogs, and went out to get the rest when I saw Rocky again.
He was covered in blood around his mouth, but nowhere else. One of the older dogs stood in the corner completely soaked in blood. I grabbed Rocky quick;he jumped at me. Keeping his leash short I led him back to his cage and ran out to get the other dog, Mike.
Mike, he wouldn’t move. I couldn’t look at him. He had no skin on the top of his head. His ear looked like it was hanging off.
Pete came and scooped the dog up, and he carried the skinned dog down to the vet clinic, the dog’s body just inches from his own mouth.
People were still weighing out dog food on the conveyer belts. Stewart had finished bringing in the dogs, but Mike was still missing. Mike was on the operating table. I walked by the vet place and someone I hadn’t seen before was sewing up what she could.
Pete was there too, his chest covered in blood. When he saw me he came out and asked me where Stewart was. “I’m sorry,” I said, looking behind him. “I didn’t know that he had put Rocky out again with the neutered males.”
“It’s okay. I fired Stewart.”
“I didn’t put those dogs out together. I feel so awful.”
“It’s fine,” Pete said, very tense. “It’s fine. Don’t let it happen again.”
I went back to the room and started giving the dogs their food dishes. The new dishes had to go in and the old dishes, they had to come out.