INTRODUCTION BY BRANDON TAYLOR
Leah Hampton’s story “Meat” opens with the funeral for a beloved community institution, Miss Florence, but we swiftly discover that the protagonist, Alison, is there via a somewhat nebulous connection. The story then daringly steps backward to chart Alison’s recent academic, professional, and spiritual unmooring.
Alison finds herself working on a hog farm, where she observes with discomfort that crystallizes into something akin to horror the ways that the commercial food industry robs pigs and people alike of dignity. There is a subtle twinning at work, and Hampton is an astute, compassionate documentarian, writing of Alison’s relative position at the farm: “She was the only student intern. For everyone else, the place was a job. So they gave Alison the worst duties: scraping muck and sludge, culling dead, filthy piglets from cages where they’d starved or been trampled.” I found myself underlining many of the passages in this tight, thrilling story. Every sentence seemed to pulse with urgency.
Alison is kind of an everywoman protagonist of the moment: disaffected, disabused of trust in institutions, and facing an increasingly precarious outlook. In her, one finds shades of early Lorrie Moore or Ann Beattie, whose downbeat, vaguely neurasthenic protagonists defined a generation.
Hampton’s milieu is distinctly different however. She writes of Appalachia with an easy but concrete lyricism. The church in the opening scene comes to life by virtue of Hampton’s precise, particular observations of custom and country. Here, describing the subtle, almost molecular degree to which people differentiate themselves from even their nearest regional neighbors, Hampton shines: “People here did not think of the Blue Ridge Mountains as the South, or of Alison as anything but a stranger. She came from a wet, unknowable labyrinth of hollers, and she had been confused by the order of hymns during the service. The mourners peered at her as if they were thinking of snow, or of wildcats slinking low to the ground.”
This is a crackling story, full of ambient dread but piercing insight about people, about systems, about the ways we’re willing and unwilling to live or make a living. It feels timeless, but also very much of this moment. I urge you to read it.
Senior Editor, Recommended Reading
Always Plenty More Hogs Going In, Coming Out
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by Leah Hampton
The receiving line snaked through the chapel, its center aisle a corpus of grief, clutched purses, dark jackets. Miss Florence had insisted on cremation and a rented casket, had made her nieces promise only minimal fuss, because why spend good money on old bones? But then everyone showed up to pay respect, because they or their children had all spent time under Miss Florence’s care at the early childhood center. After forty years of wiping noses, Miss Florence always liked to say, everyone in town was her baby. Even the pastor had been one of her babies, a long time ago.
The service had been packed, and now hundreds pressed together in the best of gluts, waiting to offer condolences to Miss Florence’s family. It was early autumn, that hushed, forthright season, and the chapel hummed with good, clean, true grief.
Samuel Ammons brought his eldest granddaughter Alison, who had not been one of Miss Florence’s babies. Alison was only visiting, and she was not a churchgoer. She wore a borrowed dress, collared and polka dotted, which aged her. The dress clung to her back, and sweat dampened the dark curls on her neck. Alison looked feeble compared to everyone else—a mountain girl startled and shied by the flatland’s October heat, the only unsmiling mourner.
“No, this is my grand daughter. This is Bryce’s girl,” Samuel said to the small knot of people around him in the receiving line. “Down from the hills.” He touched his fingers to Alison’s narrow shoulders. “We sure like having her visit with us. She’s all grown now.”
Everyone nearby in line nodded.
Well now, young lady, the mourners said, I expect you’re in school.
“She’s studying agriculture,” said her grandfather.
Everyone approved. There were still farms in this town.
“Alison works in the university dairy,” Samuel said. “Bet you didn’t know App State owns that outfit over in Statesville? Milks a-hundred-sixty cows every morning, don’t you, Alison?”
Alison kept her lips shut and nodded. Everyone approved again.
The front of the church was cluttered with lilies, ribbon-bright bouquets, an ornate easel with a photograph of Miss Florence, mementos, the sleek casket. Someone had parked a rusty tricycle under the easel.
“They switched her out from the hog farm this summer,” Samuel said. “She had to go back home a while to rest.”
Oh, was it the heat? the mourners asked. You won’t be used to that, they said. Poor thing.
People here did not think of the Blue Ridge Mountains as the South, or of Alison as anything but a stranger. She came from a wet, unknowable labyrinth of hollers, and she had been confused by the order of hymns during the service. The mourners peered at her as if they were thinking of snow, or of wildcats slinking low to the ground.
Samuel shook his head, lowered his voice. “She didn’t like the slaughterhouse.”
Everyone sighed. Ah. They wrinkled their noses compassionately. They knew the industrial hog facility just a few miles from here. They knew its smells, its lagoons of dung and chemical runoff that festered in the sun. They knew the cages, the livestock trucks rattling down the cracked county highway every day, each one packed with terrified, pink bodies.
Alison crossed her arms and dipped one hip towards the casket, which loomed nearer as the receiving line inched forward.
For a whole month, she had worked in the main hog barn. The barn was the largest of five metal tubes at the end of the facility. Its ceilings were thirty feet high, rounded. Metal. Metal walls, metal roof, metal gestation cages. Metal fans whirred constantly above, but the barn stayed hot. The air was thick with sweat and shit and the tang of aluminum and scalding summer humidity. Everything echoed and reeked.
She was the only student intern. For everyone else, the place was a job. So they gave Alison the worst duties: scraping muck and sludge, culling dead, filthy piglets from cages where they’d starved or been trampled.
The noise. The smell. Alison was small, and the workers joked she was so skinny she would slip through the gratings in the floor if she wasn’t careful. The animals bit her. They screamed. Her skin cracked open in the heat. The hogs’ skin cracked open in the heat. Sows clamored and writhed, sometimes six to a cage. Nothing was clean. Even the ceiling was coated in grime.
She had been glad, at first, when the place was destroyed.
“It’s tough work,” said Samuel. “Wasn’t for her.” He patted his belly. “So she went back up the mountain a while, finished her credits. Tested out of a bunch of classes, didn’t you?”
Alison nodded again, moved her tongue around to loosen the thick spittle in her mouth.
“Then they switched her to the dairy. Inspections, monitoring.” He chucked his chin towards her. “She knows all about milk and eggs now, don’t you honey?”
Is that right? said the people in line.
“She’ll do all right for herself,” said Samuel. “She could work for Jimmy Dean. She could work for Dairy Maid.”
The air in the church was dense with flesh. So many people, good country people, a line of them ambling past the body, the pulpit, to Miss Florence’s family, then out the church’s side door, to the parking lot, to home, to their hot suppers elsewhere.
They moved like sows. Like animals. Alison had seen it. She had seen this same slow movement in milk cows on their way to be pumped, in heifers corralled for tagging, and ewes heavy with mud-caked wool.
Her grandfather was wrong. Alison had not switched to dairy studies, but to crop science. Her dairy internship was only temporary, a two-week stint to make up the required hours she lost over the summer. And it had not been the slaughterhouse that made her change majors. Her sows had burned.
The morning of the fire, she had arrived for work at seven thirty. She wore thrift store clothes—all her own t-shirts had acquired an eye-watering, unwashable funk after just one shift in the barn, or been badly torn, so at the end of each day, she trashed whatever she was wearing. Soon her suitcase, which sat in her grandparents’ spare room, was empty. Her closet at home, full of white skirts and thick sweaters, felt far away, and she often wondered if she’d ever be clean enough to wear them again.
She turned in to the hog facility’s long gravel drive that morning and found the whole compound strewn with fire engines. First responder trucks were parked haphazardly in the grass. The smell of charred filth seeped through the vents of her tiny car. She pulled over and parked by the maintenance trailer where workers went to collect their weekly paychecks. When she got out, the burned air stuck to her like some unseen tar. The roof of her mouth itched.
Someone called to her. “Hey runt!”
Alison ran up to a group of coworkers. They were walking towards the barns, the largest of which was gone. In its place was a black, smoking ruin. She asked what happened.
“Fire,” they said. “Main barn caught fire last night.”
How did it start?
“Electrical, is what they told me,” someone else said. “All them old wires caught light, then the timber framing, I guess. And the supply lofts. Would have been fast.”
“It’s almost out,” said a woman who had laughed at Alison on her first day when she learned she was a college student. “They better let us help with the cleanup. I need my check.”
It was hot. The morning sun was already a knife. Alison asked about the animals.
“Cooked,” someone said, nodding at the barn. “They cooked in there.”
“It’s a mess,” said the woman who had laughed at her. “I saw it happen one time when I worked for this big outfit down east. All that metal. Once a spark gets going, the whole thing’s an oven.”
As they walked towards the massive black hull, Alison almost went back to her car and drove home. Not home to her grandparents, but back home to the mountains, all the way up the interstate, through that channel of hills, to her parents’ house, or better still to her dorm room on her hilly campus, to white skirts and thinner air. She wanted to quit, run away, but she still needed two hundred more internship hours to graduate.
Alison asked if they would be laid off.
A few people laughed. “There’s four other barns,” they told her. “Always plenty more hogs coming in, going out. Plenty of work, always.”
Her supervisor approached the group and told them the fire was mostly extinguished, and that they should come back that afternoon to start the cleanup effort. His face looked grey.
Alison asked him, is it bad?
“Come back after lunch,” he said.
In the afternoon, the workers walked to the main barn together. All that metal, so much heat. Flesh. Hogs are just flesh, and they had indeed cooked, alive in the fire, through the night. As they approached, the scent of smoke and carnage made a wall Alison could almost lean into.
Someone handed her a dull pick axe and walked into the barn. The great curved roof above them was warped and black, and parts of it had collapsed. The floor was lifeless chaos: ash, charred beams, mounds of black tissue, bloodied bone. Stillness. She closed her eyes and pictured the living barn, before the fire. A thousand pink ears twitching under those giant fans, the hogs’ grunts and screams, her own body alive among them. She gripped the pick axe and backed away.
It took six days to clean out the main barn. The workers shoveled and scraped, mostly without safety equipment. Rotating shifts gutted the place so a construction crew could later rebuild the timber framing, rewire everything. Alison did what she could, but after a few minutes’ effort, even with a respirator, she would retch and have to go outside. Her supervisor finally put her on hosing duty.
“Just wash it down,” he said, pointing to the concrete drive behind the barn and some machinery scattered around. “Wash everything down.” There was a river nearby that could carry away almost anything.
They found the sow on the second day. No one knew what to do about her.
She was huge, alive, rustling under the grate. No one could figure out how she got there, how she’d survived the flames. Alison dropped her hose and followed the crowd to investigate. She peered down into the underfloor, the only part of the main barn that hadn’t burned or been left in tatters. The underfloor was a crawl space below the grates, where all the piss and muck and death from above dropped down.
The sow was huge. The biggest Alison had ever seen. Her back was badly burned and cut open. The deep wounds looked like gashes from a whip.
They called her supervisor, who stared down at her and nodded.
“It happens,” he said with a shrug. “She probably fell between some grates when she was a little piglet.”
Alison asked how the sow had lived.
“There’s plenty to eat down there,” he said. “Just catch what falls. No one to bother you. We only muck it out every couple of months.” He cocked his head, sizing her up. “She’s mature,” he said, impressed. “Bet she’s been down there a year.”
Her supervisor continued staring at the sow. They all did.
“It’s a good place to hide.” He pointed vaguely east. “We’ll have to open that side fence, over by the drainage pipe. Try to coax her out.”
The sow grunted, sloshed a hoof in the black muck. Alison knelt down. Its eyes, she noted, looked like a child’s. Round and aware.
“I guess she heard it all,” he said. “Just stayed hid; found someplace wet and waited it out. She was smart.”
It took six workers to extract the sow. After she was caught, her supervisor let them eat her.
One of the older workers, someone who knew how, slaughtered her so they could have a barbecue. Alison did not watch the slaughter. She knew it would be swift if not merciful, and she was grateful for his expertise. After the sow was butchered and bled out, two men loaded her carcass into the back of his truck, then drove her to a meat locker on the other end of the facility, where she would hang for a few days to tenderize.
The barbecue was held to celebrate finishing the cleanup. They pit roasted the sow under a heavy black drum. The wafting smells brought every last worker out for the meal. All the supervisors came, plus the administrative assistants in the payroll trailer, and even a few of the first responders and firemen who had helped put out the blaze.
They ate her off Styrofoam plates, down by the river on the seventh day.
Alison ate only a cob of corn, nothing else. Gristle and marrow churned inside her. The next day she quit. She emailed her advisor, filled out the change-of-major forms online, and told her grandparents she wouldn’t be back until the fall.
She carried it all summer, carried it still. The cleanup, the smells and screams, the whole experience of the hogs weighed on her, silenced her. Before this, she had had no idea.
“I’m so sorry,” said Alison as she approached Miss Florence’s family.
She moved down the funeral receiving line, where no one recognized her. Her grandfather kept a gentle hand in the middle of her back, piloting her towards the nieces of Miss Florence, who were huddled together against a white wall. People leaned over them, sighing, embracing, blocking their view. The nieces looked dazed and trapped.
Ahead, beyond the murmuring bodies, people took their leave and passed, one or two at a time, to the side door of the church, which led out to the parking lot. The exit flapped open, pierced Alison with hot afternoon light, then closed again. Flapped open, pierced with light, then closed.
“For your loss,” Alison said, nodding at one of the nieces. “I’m sorry.”
She moved along, nodded again.
“I didn’t know her,” she said. “Nice to meet you. I’m so sorry.”