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Sunday's Meat Market

Updated: May 15, 2023

By Mason Martinez

Mami tells me when I look at her, she’s looking into the eyes of a dead man. It’s been a month since I found Papi resting on his side for his mid-day Sunday nap. He called it a meditation, a cleansing of sorts to get his head right with God before we clambered up the hill to the Chapel. Papi didn’t believe Sunday best just meant a suit and tie. “You have to be your best up here too, mijo.” He’d tell me, pointing at his temple.

Mami rolled her eyes, but there was a smile tugging at her wrinkly lips, the pink lipstick already rubbing off. “I think God knows lazy when he sees it!”

“Lazy?” Papi shouted, hands on his hip as he looked down the small hall into the bathroom where she unraveled plastic rollers from her hair. “I work six days a week to support this family! You call that lazy?”

Their playful banter would go on until Mami walked out the house, waiting with her head tilted towards the sun, taking in God’s affection from the freckles that blossomed along her skin. This Sunday, there was no banter when Mami called him lazy. We waited outside long enough for her cheeks to burn red and a puddle of sweat to stain beneath my arms.

“Manolito,” Mami called to me as she fiddled around in her purse for her cosmetic mirror. “Tell your father we’re going to be late.”

I tried to keep my huffs low as I heaved myself off the front steps down the hall to the bathroom where I’d last seen him. The soft yellow light flickered to an empty room. I glossed over the signs then—the medicine cabinet just slightly opened, a bottle of pills tucked next to the mug of toothbrushes.

“Papi!” I called, shutting the light off before I tracked down the hall to the bedroom where Papi laid with his plaid shirt tucked into his only pair of unstained jeans. His brown dress shoes freshly polished, pairing well with a matching buckle. “Papi,” I said again, shaking his shoulders once I approached, thinking of how Mami was likely scolding him outside for meditations that grew more and more frequent. “Papi, we’re going to be late.”

I’d seen death recapped in news reports every morning, chattering like music to a preoccupied crowd. Or in television shows where actors feigned stillness by holding their breath, thinking of something peaceful, so their eyes looked to a place beyond. Papi didn’t look like that so I kept shaking him.

His body was stiff to the touch, his arm flailed to the side, his head bobbed with every movement. His eyes—dark enough that they bled into the irises—were closed like it was just another nap. Another Sunday with bickering and heat and God.

It’s funny, I think, how life stops for one, but continues on for the rest of us. It keeps going until the mail tray on the kitchen table piles up, one bill after the other, until the envelopes change color and there’s alarming bolded letters stamped across the front to invoke the fear of God in you. But how do you know his wraith if you no longer fear Him?

Mami’s hair falls out in clumps in the shower now. I find them every morning and kick them off to the side instead of throwing them in the trash. She sits in the rocking chair everyday, unmoving except for the forward and backwards, cradling a bottle of whiskey aged thirty-six years.

We don’t talk anymore. She doesn’t pinch my cheeks, leave lunch on the kitchen counter, or force besitos on me as I rush out the door. She just sits and rocks with her eyes closed until I leave. Every morning I think to do the same, but every morning I find my way to her, leaving one gentle kiss atop her head because she is all I have.

Slipping on my bookbag, I notice a white letter stapled to the front door. I rip it off, taking nearly half of the letters off so it only reads, EVI. Richie waits for me at the foot of the steps, his hands tugging at the straps of his bag as he balances from foot to foot.

“We’ve all been there.” He says and I appreciate his attempt at comfort, but his pain is unlike mine. He has two mothers—one who leaves on benders for months at a time while the other maintains the house, but at least they both still breathe. I shove the eviction notice into my back pocket and take my place next to him for our three-mile hike to the high school. “We could skip?” He suggests, leading us towards our slow descent in the direction of the school beyond the horizon.

We skipped school the week after Papi passed, spending our days by the creek where the water got lower each year, smoking cigarettes that Richie stole from his Ma, sending rocks hurtling towards the other side of the creek. An unspoken competition that I was winning by a long shot. His Ma made it back just in time for the funeral and has been home since. She spends her days sleeping on the couch while his Mama curses her all the same.

“We need jobs.” I say.

“We already tried getting jobs, Mano. No one’s gonna take in a couple of kids, especially us,” Richie pauses to kick a rock down the side of the dirt road where grass unfurls out of the ground. “Unless,” Another pause. “We go down to the factory.”

I stop. Richie walks a few more steps ahead of me before he notices and turns on his heels. I don’t know a lot about the factory other than it being the place Papi devoted his life to. Fifteen years in that Godless place, he’d say.

When I first started getting mixed in with Richie and the other boys, Papi threatened me with stories about the factory, the place where you go to get ripped apart. A place where the rules of the law don’t apply and what you did there meant you could survive for another day just to do it all over again. But he never understood, no matter how much I explained, I did things to survive too. I had to keep up or get beaten down. Papi laughed at me and told me I didn't know what it takes to really survive.

“So then tell me!” I snapped at him after being scolded for stealing, pulling up to the house in the back of a cop car.

I never paid mind to the details—the way he smelled like copper, the blood caked up under his nails or the distant look in his dark eyes when he pushed me up against the wall, screaming in my face with so much rage there was more to it, more than being a kid who got into trouble for stupid shit.

“I mean at least we know they have at least one open position,” Richie grimaces, quickly adding, “No offense.”

I nod slowly, not paying mind to Richie’s comment. I still don’t know what Papi did there, but I do know the factory will take anyone. “Let’s go.”

There’s a hesitancy in the way he moves, but he quickly recovers, repeating the words, “Alright, alright,” as we begin our trek in the opposite direction, leaving school in the past with the rest of the things that don’t really shape us, make us, and break us into the people we are, the people we become. I wish I could be one of those people who can make school something better, something out of the movies and tv shows, like Papi wanted me to be. He wanted me to be better, but why does that have to be the only way? He’d tell me I was naive. I can hear the scorn of his voice in the back of my head with every step we make towards the factory.

You think you know so much that you can do whatever you want!

If I have to tell you one more fucking time—

You’ll end up exactly like your tio, is that what you want?

Is it really that hard for you to behave and do what I tell you?

Can’t you see, Mano? I just want you to have a better life than me.

I grip the straps of my bag until my knuckles are white, my hands cold and numb. When we arrive atop the hill that overlooks the factory, we stand and watch the way the sky reflects against its metallic surface—clouds stretch out against a blue sky as wind whips by, the air turning ever so slightly to remind us fall is coming to free us from the suffocation of summer.

We marvel at the factory for a moment, at how much empty land it occupies, and how it looks like a place where God could rest with its evenly cut grass, the plot of brown soil that has just been plowed. I listen closely to the sounds in the air, the melody of dragonflies zipping by and the crunch of gravel beneath our boots. Ahead, there are four long rectangular buildings side by side, each connected by a short covered hall. On the left, there’s another building, shorter and darker, fenced in about six feet high with a flat metal top.

“What is that?” I ask Richie.

“It doesn’t look like there’s anything in there,” He squints against the sun, raising a hand beneath his brows. “Could be horses? They use ‘em to plow, plus their shit fertilizes crops.”

“Oh.” I say with an uptick in my voice and with my shoulder I gesture to Richie to keep going. From here, I can see a small steady stream of workers making their way in through the front door of the middle building. We trickle in at the end of the line behind two brawly men. One—his muscles large and flexed against a too-tight black t-shirt—looks over and down at us. His caterpillar brows scrunch, but he lets out an airy laugh as he shakes his head. We move further into the building where the sun can’t reach us and the light overhead is too bright.

Once we’re inside, there are four lines to a clock-box, the man who laughed gives me one more look before getting on a line to the most left.

Richie nudges me with his shoulder. “Over here.”

He leads me up a flight of stairs where a plaque on the wall reads, MANAGEMENT, an arrow points up to a glass box overlooking the room we’re in. I see a man standing with his arms crossed over his shoulders, wire framed glasses hanging on the tip of his nose as he nods to the petite woman next to him. His eyes scan the lines, up and down, up and down, before turning abruptly. We’re halfway up the stairs, in his peripheral vision I imagine, when he looks at us inquisitively. A hand towards the woman. Her mouth no longer moves and he leaves her for the door Richie and I approach. It swings open as soon as our feet land on the platform.

“Hello.” He says with narrow beady eyes. He looks at the bags on our backs before he looks at us. “I’m afraid I don’t recall arranging any school meet and greets.”

“We’re not—” I stammer.

“We need jobs,” Richie says sternly. “We hear you hire anyone.”

The man’s brows raise, amusement sparkling in his green eyes. “Apparently I do,” He laughs and steps aside. “Come on in then.”

Scrawny arms give way to a spacious room of beige, brown, red, and gold. We step onto plush carpet that feels like clouds beneath our feet. Richie leans his heels into it and I can see the tension in his shoulder let out as he eyes the sectional suede couch in the middle of the room that faces a flat-screen television. The room is lit with warm lights, freshly brewed coffee wafts in the air making my mouth water.

“Monica,” the man calls to the woman standing by the window. She looks up from her clipboard right at us, frowns, her red mouth agape. “I’m conducting interviews now, so perhaps we can discuss this matter at a later time.”

Monica turns to him quickly. “Sir—?”

“Thank you for your time, sweetheart.” His hand goes up again.

Monica’s lips pursued, she dips her head. “Sir.”

“I apologize for that,” The man says when we’re alone, letting out a rush of air, rolling his shoulders in small semi-circles. He walks to the coffee pot, pours a fresh cup. “Take a seat, take a seat!” He gestures to the two empty leather chairs in front of his desk. Richie and I exchange a glance before slipping off our packs and settling in.

“Office politics, you always have to please everyone,” He raises the cup to his lips as he sits, the steam fogging his glasses. “Oh,” A slurp, a wince. “How rude of me, I’m Management. Everything runs through me, the hiring, firing, disciplinary actions, yadda yadda ya, all that boring stuff. But I am curious!” Setting the mug atop the desk, he leans back into his own seat, eyes widening as pristine fingertips thrum against the armrests. “What brings you here?”

I think not to hesitate again so I follow up quickly, “My father recommended this job. He used to work here.”

Management raises his finger, I learn quickly to let him speak. He jolts up, leaning forward enthusiastically as he peers into my eyes, humming little nothings to himself as his attention darts from eye to eye. My fingers curl into the palms of my hands. “Yes,” He says, nodding to himself before leaning back. “You’re Eduardo’s son, aren’t you?”

There’s something about hearing my father’s name that startles me, like speaking his name gives him life again. I nod slowly. “Yes. I’m Mano—”

“Good man, your father. Sad to see him go. Heartbreaking really. He had good numbers. One of my best workers. We’re really taking a hit now that he’s gone. Unfortunate.” Management nods again, knocking his knuckles against the desk. “Yes, very unfortunate.”

A silence lingers over us as Management’s attention fades away to the television that plays to an empty room. We sit like that for a moment and I think to cough to get his attention. “Look,” Management returns to us. “Because your father was such a great worker, I’ll do you a favor. I’ll hire you both. How’s that sound?”

Richie’s eyes widened. “Just like that?”

“Just like that!” Management swivels in his chair to the desk drawer and pulls out two stacks of stapled documents. “Just a couple of signatures and I can get you boys started straight away, I’ve got a couple of open spots on the floor for you.”

I can tell Richie wants to slap my arm, he looks between me and Management who licks his way through the document, scribbling messy X’s beside the dotted lines. Things like this aren’t supposed to be that easy.

But I keep my mouth shut, sending a little prayer of thanks up to the Heavens. With our names signed, our bags shoved into narrow lockers, Management herds us down the hall, into another before swiping a white ID card. A soft beep and a loud clank unlocks the first industrial farm door revealing a large room with conveyor belts turning and turning from a place above that I cannot see. There are people everywhere in white aprons and plastic wraps around their heads, moving their arms in quick motions, wrapping, sealing, stamping, over and over again with the same speed as the conveyor belts themselves.

I am so caught up in the noise and the motions that I don’t notice the smell of copper that lingers lightly in the air.

But Richie does, “Sir, I thought—”

“Hernando!” Management calls out with a wave towards a short, stocky man with a grim face. He looks up, but doesn’t say anything, nor does he give either of us a smile. “Take a load off and show little Richie how it’s done, huh?” He turns to us with the nod of a proud father, “Hernando’s our best guy.”

“Sir, I thought this was a farm—” Richie inserts.

“Oh it is!” Management holds his arm out to an approaching Hernando, quickly turning his body towards him. The words exchanged are fast and low over the noise of hums and belts. Richie tries to interject again, “But where are the fruits, the vegetables—”

“Don’t worry Richie,” Management says. “It’s all very simple. Hernando will show you, you just wrap, seal, stamp. See!”

He gestures towards the room. Wrap, seal, stamp. Wrap, seal, stamp. Wrap, seal, stamp. I notice buckets beneath the conveyors that catch pale pink droppings.

“What about Mano?” Richie stammers. “We’re not working together?”

“Oh, of course you are! We all work together here, it’s a one team mindset here. When you struggle, we all do. When you succeed, we all do.” Richie doesn’t look convinced, and I guess I don’t either so Management places his hands on both of our shoulders, leaning down so I only hear his words and not the whirling, the liquid droppings, the rip of plastic. “Think about it like this, if your Ma needs your help, you’d help her right?”

Richie and I lock eyes.

“I’ll meet you out front when the day’s done.” I say after another round of wrap, seal, stamp.

“Yeah,” Management agrees. “Plus, Mano here, he’ll just be up those stairs in the next room. He’ll send the work down for you.”

Richie is reluctant, but he nods, falling under Hernando’s wing as the two walk away towards the conveyor belt. Management’s arm finds its way around my shoulders and he leads me up a long flight of stairs, through another locked door, into a room where large bodies hang from hooks.

I halt. The stench fills my nostril and I try hard to not do too many things at once. Not to throw up. Not to ask too many questions. There are hundreds of bodies—cattle I decide—but I don’t look too long before I tear my eyes away.

Management turns, smiling at me. “Oh, don’t worry about that! You need a lot of training to get the cuts just right. You’re gonna be taking over your old man’s job. I figure, if he was the best at what he did, well, his son can’t be any different, right?”

My body curls and I try to shield my eyes away from fleshy bodies, but the further back in the room we get, the more the bodies still have skin on them. Inside, my muscles are tightening and I feel something sour making its way up my throat but my attention catches on to the corner of the room where two men are huddled between freshly peeled carcasses, watching me.

The man who laughed earlier isn’t laughing now. When our eyes lock, he breaks it immediately, looking down at the butchering knife he slides down the cattle’s spine.

Management’s fingers curl into my shoulder and I feel muscle squishing beneath his touch. He leads me through another door, into a room that’s darker, lit only by the light between the wooden fences. It happens quickly. I hurl all over my boots as the stench of hay, shit, piss, and copper hit my nostrils. I brace myself against my knees and I think words are leaving my mouth as I try to plead with him—God?—Papi?

“Sir,” and it’s only now that I realize I don’t know his name, I don’t know anything to make him more human. “I really think—”

“I don’t pay you to think,” His words turn cold in the dark room. “I pay you to work. Now I don’t care how you do it, just get it done. I won’t tell you again.”

I shiver at the words, I won’t tell you again. Papi stands at the threshold of my bedroom door, scolding me for coming home with another note stapled onto my shirt for whatever wrongdoing I committed this time.

I think to move again but sickness explodes out of me immediately, another small puddle between my legs. Management stands over me with Papi’s slitted eyes.

“Are you done?”

There has to be a way out.

But he’s walking away and I think of what Papi said when he called this a Godless place, a place where you get ripped apart. Here, there is no meaning. Here, there is no order other than the three by three stalls that cram the animals in, the men towering above them as they stand with their feet shoved between the space in the wooden walls, one hand against a pole for stabilization, the other aiming a silver rounded captive bolt piston. The room is filled with the hiss of a release, the thud of a bullet breaking skin, ripping through muscle, cracking into skull.

“Julie!” Management calls, he doesn’t have that same pride he had earlier. He doesn’t take another step forward. He stands near me, near the door, and raises his head past the violence to look at an older woman who smokes a cigarette against a short wall. “Tell Mano here how it’s done.” Her eyes are blank when she looks at me.

“Quota’s 74.” He leaves without another word.

I don’t remember walking to the pen, but I stand four feet above Julie who nestles herself into the side of the pen, holding a metal release for the gate.

“Julie,” I say, hoping addressing her by name will mean something to her, that it will bring us closer. “Do you think—”

But she won’t look at me because she knows what I’ll ask and in that moment we have the same wants and she will not give that away, not for me, not for anyone. “Piston’s already loaded. Just aim in the space between its eyes and pull.”

The gun rests atop a barrel.

I look around the room and there’s the same repetition. Hiss, crack, thud. Hiss, crack, thud. Hiss, crack, thud.

“You’re Eduardo’s son, aren’t you?” She asks after I’ve listened to the sounds over and over and over again. I turn to her slowly and she’s studying me and I try to notice the features on her face in the darkness—the way she traces me, if her eyes still glimmer—but she turns, adjusting her footing. “Before you pull, watch the exit sign.”

“The sign?” The words trail off my tongue so low I don’t know if she hears me as I look to the place I’d come from.

“It’s what he used to do. Said it helped.”

Between the hiss, thud, crack, we both know that’s not true.

Julie tugs at the gate and the cow stumbles in, whacking its head from side to side, the left side of its ear pierced with a yellow tag and number.

“If it helps,” Julie tries. “It just stuns them.”

I shake as I reach slowly for the piston. I didn’t hesitate when I shook Papi, and I didn’t stop even after Mami came in, her body draped over his as she wailed. I look into the cow’s wide glistening eyes and I hold her gaze. I kept waiting—waiting for Papi to open his eyes so I could see them one last time, even as his body was heaved into the casket, even as my knees pressed into the hardwood floor of the Chapel, I waited.

The piston is ice cold against my damp hands.

So were his.

I look into her dead eyes and I know now as soon as the clicking starts, the hiss releases, and the thud sounds, so are mine.


Mason Martinez (they/them) is a Latin, queer writer and traveler from nyc. When they’re not writing, they’re spending time getting lost in the woods and spending countless hours on the road. Their words have been awarded the Ginny Wray Senior Prize for Fiction and featured in Gandy Dancer, The Institutionalized Review, Yuzu Press, and more. You can read more of their work at:

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